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EU deploys assistance for Cyprus as huge forest fire rages


NICOSIA, July 3 (Reuters) – The European Union on Saturday deployed aerial assistance to help Cyprus contain a huge forest fire raging north of the cities of Limassol and Larnaca, a blaze one official called the worst on record.

The blaze, fanned by strong winds, affected at least six communities in the foothills of the Troodos mountain range, an area of pine forest and densely vegetated shrubland.

The EU’s executive, the European Commission, said fire-fighting planes had departed from Greece to battle the fire and Italy was also planning to deploy aerial fire-fighters.

The EU’s emergency Copernicus satellite was also activated to provide damage assessment maps of the affected areas, the Commission said in a statement.

“It is the worst forest fire in the history of Cyprus,” Forestries Department Director Charalambos Alexandrou told Cyprus’s Omega TV.

Attempts were being made to prevent the blaze from crossing the mountains and stop it before reaching Machairas, a pine forestland and one of the highest peaks in Cyprus.

Alexandrou said the perimeter of the fire was “at least 40 kilometres”.

Dozens of properties were damaged, but no injuries were reported. There were widespread power cuts in the area. Plumes of smoke were visible in the capital Nicosia, some 75 km (45 miles) away.

Officials said that in addition to Greece’s assistance with two aircraft, help was also expected from Israel.

“This is a very difficult day for Cyprus. All of the state’s mechanisms are in gear, and the priority is for no loss of life,” Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades tweeted.

Israel accepted Nicosia’s plea for help, a statement from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said, and will send firefighting aircraft to Cyprus on Sunday.

The cause of the fire, which started around midday, was unclear. Cyprus has experienced a heatwave this week, with temperatures exceeding 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). Police said they were questioning a 67 year old person in connection with the blaze.

“It passed through like a whirlwind, it destroyed everything,” said Vassos Vassiliou, the community leader of Arakapas, one of the communities affected.

Reporting by Michele Kambas, additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and by John Chalmers in Brussels
Editing by Ros Russell, David Gregorio and Diane Craft

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U.S. downgrades Mexico air safety rating, offers assistance


Screens show flight information at the almost empty Benito Juarez international airport, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Mexico City, Mexico, June 11, 2020. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

The United States on Tuesday downgraded Mexico’s aviation safety rating, an action that bars Mexican carriers from adding new U.S. flights and limits the ability of airlines to carry out marketing agreements with one another.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, in announcing the action, said it is “fully committed to helping the Mexican aviation authority improve its safety oversight system to a level that meets” international standards. The agency also said it is “ready to provide expertise and resources” to resolve issues raised in the safety assessment process.

The FAA downgraded Mexico – the most common destination for U.S. air travelers last month – from a level called Category 1, which signifies compliance with international standards, to Category 2, the lowest level.

That rating, according to the FAA, means Mexico lacks “necessary requirements to oversee the country’s air carriers in accordance with minimum international safety standards, or the civil aviation authority is lacking in one or more areas such as technical expertise, trained personnel, record keeping, inspection procedures or resolution of safety concerns.”

The FAA action sent shares in Mexican airlines down.

A similar FAA downgrade of Mexico in 2010 over suspected shortcomings within its civil aviation authority lasted about four months. Only a few countries currently are rated Category 2 by the FAA, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand and Malaysia.

Plans for the FAA downgrade were first reported on Friday by Reuters. read more

The FAA said its reassessment of the Agencia Federal de Aviacion Civil from October 2020 through February identified several areas of non-compliance with minimum international safety standards.

The Mexican government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Monday had urged U.S. authorities not to downgrade Mexico, arguing that his country was complying with all relevant norms.

The downgrade means current U.S. service by Mexican carriers is unaffected, but they cannot begin new flights. U.S. airlines also will no longer be able to market and sell tickets with their names and designator codes on Mexican-operated flights and the FAA will increase scrutiny of Mexican airline flights to the United States.

Mexico has been a top vacation spot for U.S. travelers during the COVID-19 pandemic, spurring U.S. airlines to redirect capacity they had previously flown to Europe before transatlantic travel restrictions were imposed last year.

Mexico was the by far the busiest foreign air destination in April – with nearly 2.3 million passengers on U.S.-Mexico flights – more than three times that of the Dominican Republic, the next most-popular country destination, according to industry data.

Delta Air Lines said on Tuesday an FAA downgrade was not about (DAL.N) its partner Aeromexico (AEROMEX.MX) and that the action will have little impact on customers. read more

Delta said it will need to reissue reservations for some Aeromexico operated flights that were booked through Delta.

“This is not about Aeromexico. This is about the Mexican version of the FAA not having some of the right protocols in place,” Delta president Glen Hauenstein said at a Wolfe Research conference.

Delta has a codeshare arrangement with Aeromexico enabling the two air carriers to sell seats on each other’s flights. Delta will be forced to remove its codes on Aeromexico flights following the downgrade, though Aeromexico could continue to code on Delta flights and members of Delta’s loyalty program could still receive SkyMiles on Aeromexico flights that would normally carry the code, Hauenstein added.

Pablo Casas, general director of the National Institute of Legal-Aeronautical Research think tank, said the downgrade could impact the Mexican economy and carriers trying to recover from the business effects of the pandemic.

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U.S. imposes restrictions on Ethiopia assistance over Tigray


Ethiopians fleeing from the Tigray region walk towards a river to cross from Ethiopia to Sudan, near the Hamdeyat refugee transit camp, which houses refugees fleeing the fighting in the Tigray region, on the border in Sudan, December 1, 2020. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo

The U.S. government said it was imposing wide-ranging restrictions on economic and security assistance to Ethiopia over the atrocities in Tigray, as well as barring current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials it deems responsible for the crisis.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Sunday the new actions by the United States are to press for a resolution of the crisis: “The time for action from the international community is now.”

Thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands more forced from their homes in the Tigray region since November after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) launched attacks on Ethiopian forces. Ethiopian troops and soldiers from neighboring Eritrea have been accused of massacres and killings in their fight against the rebel group.

The Ethiopian government’s efforts to crush the TPLF rebellion have unleashed an ethnic witch hunt across the country, according to a Reuters investigation this month, which found Tigrayans have been arrested, harassed, sacked or suspended from their jobs, or had their bank accounts temporarily frozen.

Blinken said the United States would continue humanitarian assistance and certain other critical aid to Ethiopia and would continue its existing broad restrictions on assistance to Eritrea.

Blinken said the United States may withhold visas as well for “members of the security forces, or other individuals—to include Amhara regional and irregular forces and members” of the TPLF it deems “responsible for, or complicit in, undermining resolution of the crisis in Tigray.”

He also warned that should those responsible for undermining a resolution of the crisis in Tigray fail to reverse course, they should anticipate further actions from the United States and the international community.

Blinken said the parties “have taken no meaningful steps to end hostilities or pursue a peaceful resolution of the political crisis.”

The U.S. called on the Ethiopian government to meet public commitments to hold accountable all those responsible for human rights violations and abuses, to protect civilians, and to ensure unhindered humanitarian access, Blinken said. He also urged the “Eritrean government to live up to its public commitment and immediately return its troops to internationally recognized Eritrean territory.”

Ethiopia’s government has come under increasing pressure from the international community to demonstrate accountability as reports of atrocities in Tigray mount. The European Union has suspended budget support payments amid reports of brutal gang rapes, mass killings of civilians and widespread looting in the northern region. read more

Ethiopia says it is committed to investigating human rights violations and both Ethiopia and Eritrea have promised a withdrawal of Eritrean troops.

The United Nations has said that war crimes may have been committed by all parties involved in the conflict.

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