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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

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.



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Google loosens its search engine grip on Android devices in Europe


Google (GOOGL.O) has bowed to pressure from rivals and will let them compete for free to be the default search engines on Android devices in Europe, widening a pledge to EU antitrust regulators two years ago.

The move by the world’s most popular internet search engine comes as the 27-country bloc considers rules that could be introduced next year to force Google, Amazon (AMZN.O), Apple (AAPL.O) and Facebook (FB.O) to ensure a level playing field for competitors.

Google’s Android mobile operating system runs on about four-fifths of the world’s smartphones. The U.S. tech giant said in 2019 that rivals would have to pay via an auction for appearing on a choice screen on new Android devices in Europe from which users select their preferred search engine.

Google’s change of heart followed a 4.24 billion euro ($5.16 billion) fine handed out by the European Commission, the EU antitrust authority, in 2018 for unfairly using Android to cement the dominance of its search engine.

“We are now making some final changes to the Choice Screen including making participation free for eligible search providers. We will also be increasing the number of search providers shown on the screen,” Google director Oliver Bethell wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.

The changes will come into effect in September, the blog added.

The Commission said it had discussed possible changes with Google following concerns raised by a number of its rivals, adding that those announced were positive developments.

Google said the five most popular eligible search engines in each EU country according to StatCounter, including Google, would be displayed in random order at the top of the screen while up to seven will be shown at the bottom.

The logo of Google is seen on a building at La Defense business and financial district in Courbevoie near Paris, France, September 1, 2020. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

It had previously only allowed four competitors, chosen in separate auctions for each EU country, to be displayed on Android screens.

However DuckDuckGo, a rival search engine that has long complained about the auction process, said Google should go further.

“Google is now doing what it should have done three years ago: a free search preference menu on Android in the EU,” CEO Gabriel Weinberg tweeted.

“However, it should be on all platforms, eg also desktop Chrome, accessible at all times, ie not just on factory reset, and in all countries.”

Search engine Ecosia, which together with four other rivals complained about Google’s initial proposal to the Commission last year, welcomed the changes.

“With this, we have something that resembles a level playing field in the market,” its CEO Christian Kroll said in a statement.

“Search providers now have a chance to compete more fairly in the Android market, based on the appeal of their product, rather than being shut out by monopolistic behaviour.”

($1 = 0.8211 euros)

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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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