Long stories short
- Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo erupted for the first time in two decades, leaving thousands of people homeless.
- A cable car fell on a mountain near Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, killing thirteen adults and a child.
- Animal Rebellion protestors demanded McDonaldâ€™s stop selling meat by 2025 and disrupted supplies to its 1,300 UK restaurants by blocking its food depots with bamboo scaffolding.
Off the deep end
You couldnâ€™t make it up. Ryanair flight FR4978 was about to enter Lithuaniaâ€™s airspace when Belarus air traffic control notified its crew of a potential bomb on board. Aleksandr Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator, ordered a MiG-29 fighter to escort the plane to Minsk airport. No bomb and seven hours later, Minsk cleared the plane for departure together with crew and all passengers, except one.Â
- Roman Protasevich, a journalist, was arrested by Belarusian authorities and taken into custody. The 26-year-old had edited Nexta, a Warsaw-based media group that covered and directed the unprecedented protests against Lukashenko last year after the dictator claimed victory in a corrupt election.
- The countryâ€™s security service, still called the KGB, had put Protasevich on a terrorist list. He stands accused of inciting hatred and mass disorder and faces more than 12 years in prison if convicted. â€śIt looked like if the window had been open,â€ť one fellow Ryanair passenger told AFP, â€śhe would have jumped out of it.â€ť
- Protasevich lived in Lithuania in exile. He was flying back from Greece after attending a conference there with the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, also exiled from Belarus like many opposition figures. Those who stayed have suffered. Some 32,000 protestors have been arrested in Belarus. Four have died. Hundreds have been brutally beaten by the police.
But yesterdayâ€™s events show Lukashenkoâ€™s contempt for international norms is more extreme than anyone expected. This was not a ratcheting up of domestic oppression. It was a whole new level of crazy and the world has struggled to put that into diplomatic language.
Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, called the planeâ€™s diversion â€śutterly unacceptableâ€ť. NATO said the incident was â€śserious and dangerousâ€ť. The Greek foreign ministry called it a state hijacking. Polandâ€™s prime minister called it an an act of state terrorism. Lithuaniaâ€™s president described it as abhorrent. Germanyâ€™s foreign minister wants â€śclear consequencesâ€ť, and Franceâ€™s wants a â€śfirm and unified responseâ€ť from the EU.
The EU already imposed sanctions last year on leading Minsk officials, including Lukashenko, for â€śviolent repression and intimidation of peaceful demonstrators, opposition members and journalistsâ€ť. So did the UK. The US has also sanctioned a number of a Belarusian entities and has now called for an international investigation.
But these are all words. Absent a military response, which is inconceivable, Lukashenko can weather the storm and brush off the sanctions because he has Vladimir Putinâ€™s support. In Russia, whose state media described last yearâ€™s protests against Lukashenko as a Western plot, Protasevichâ€™s arrest was met with approval by Putinâ€™s fans. The editor of the pro-Kremlin RT television network said Lukashenko â€śplayed it beautifullyâ€ť. A member of the Duma allied with Putin called it a â€śbrilliant special operationâ€ť.
As EU leaders meet today to discuss â€śpossible sanctionsâ€ť in response to Protasevichâ€™s arrest, they should look farther east than Minsk, and start a radical rethink on how to deal with the criminal regime on Europeâ€™s eastern border.
BelongingÂ identity, society, beliefs, countries
The ceasefire between Hamas and Israel continues to hold. As the dust settles, winners and losers are emerging. Israelâ€™s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, got some relief from his electoral loss and impending corruption trial. Hamas got to advance its claims to Palestinian leadership. The two million people of Gaza, whose situation was already desperate before the conflict, lost. Around 200 people were killed, including 58 children. Survivors lost their limbs and homes. Key infrastructure was destroyed. The blockade of Gaza, which Israel and Egypt began in 2007 when Hamas claimed control of the area, also holds and as long as it does it will heighten the risk of another conflict.
WealthÂ investment, fairness, prosperity
The Sunday Times Rich List identified a record 171 UK billionaires â€“ 24 more than in 2020. Itâ€™s the biggest increase in the 33 years the paper has been tracking Britainâ€™s wealthiest individuals and families. Theyâ€™re also richer billionaires: their combined fortune grew by nearly 22 per cent to ÂŁ597.3 billion. Internet fashion retailers, computer game tycoons, and other technology entrepreneurs led the rise, able to deliver their services and products to populations locked-down during the pandemic. The same pandemic restrictions led to a sharp rise in unemployment while Covid itself claimed about 128,000 lives so far, and stretched many public services to their limit. The chancellor has committed to a higher rate of corporate income tax, in part to finance his policy response to the pandemic. He might want to consider a wealth tax.
New thingsÂ technology, science, engineering
The courtroom fight between Epic Games, the $28 billion games developer that made Fortnite, and Apple is expected to end today. Epic sued Apple, claiming it improperly blocks third-party app stores on its mobile devices to force developers to use an in-app payment system that allows it to collect a commission as high as 30 per cent. Appleâ€™s response was that there are many other ways for users to access Epicâ€™s Fortnite and that its commission is in line with other platformsâ€™. Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, a US district judge, will, effectively, be ruling on Appleâ€™s monopoly in the coming months. When Appleâ€™s chief executive, Tim Cook, was on the stand, she asked him what problem Apple had with allowing users more choice. â€śThey have a choice between many different Android models of a smartphone, or an iPhone,â€ť Cook replied, â€śand that iPhone has a certain set of principles behind it in safety, security and privacy.â€ť
Our planetÂ environment, natural resources, geopolitics
IEA push back
The International Energy Agencyâ€™s latest major report outlined a route to net zero carbon emissions by 2050: reduce coal demand by 90 per cent, gas demand by 55 per cent, and oil demand by 75 per cent. It was bold, optimistic and â€“ according to fossil fuel consumers and producers â€“ wrong. Japan and Australia say theyâ€™ll ignore the IEAâ€™s advice. Japan committed to net zero emissions by 2050 but, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, its main alternative â€“ nuclear power â€“ remains unpopular. Australia thinks the IEA hasnâ€™t sufficiently accounted for carbon capture technology. The global nuclear, gas, and coal producer associations have all objected to the reportâ€™s findings. BPâ€™s chief executive, Bernard Looney, said the reportâ€™s â€śa scenario on a piece of paperâ€ť and that the world needed fewer scenarios and â€śmore actionâ€ť. The IEAâ€™s head, Fatih Birol, said the criticism â€śmisses what the IEA is aboutâ€ť, which is â€śshaping a secure and sustainable energy future for allâ€ť. One thing the criticism makes clear is that Birol is becoming a significant figure in the climate debate.
The 100-year lifeÂ health, education, living, public poliCY
Boris Johnsonâ€™s former aide Dominic Cummings said in tweets that the UKâ€™s original plan was to let Covid spread through the population to achieve herd immunity, a point when most people become immune to a particular disease but which â€“ without mass vaccination â€“ comes with high loss of life. Priti Patel, the home secretary, denied the claim. The Health Security Agency chief, Jenny Harries, also denied it, but added that the term herd immunity has been â€śmisinterpretedâ€ť. She claimed the plan was to achieve widespread immunity through vaccination. Cummings then denied Patel and Harriesâ€™s denials, saying he had the â€śofficial plan in all the documents, graphs and meetingsâ€ť to achieve â€śherd immunityâ€ť by September 2020. Expect more on Wednesday when he appears in front of a parliamentary committee investigating the governmentâ€™s pandemic response.
Separately, keep an eye on stories likeÂ this oneÂ ($) about researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology fallingÂ sick with Covid-like symptoms before their cityâ€™s Covid outbreak was confirmed in December 2019. They will run and run.
The week ahead
24/05 â€“ Northern Ireland eases lockdown restrictions, with people allowed to gather indoors, 25/05 â€“Â ONS publishes analysis of impact of Covid-19 and end of Brexit transition on UK trade, 26/05 â€“ Dominic Cummings gives evidence at select committee inquiry on governmentâ€™s pandemic response; Hay Festival begins, 27/05 â€“ Rishi Sunak appears before Treasury committee session on Greensill Capital, 28/05 â€“ Ofcom publishes annual report on UK news consumption
24/05 â€“ Aung San Suu Kyi appears in court in Myanmar; WHOâ€™s 74th World Health Assembly starts; Bob Dylan celebrates 80th birthday, 25/05 â€“Â first anniversary of death of George Floyd, 26/05 â€“ Syrian presidential election, 27/05 â€“ Friends reunion broadcast on HBO Max, 28/05 â€“ woman charged with stealing a laptop from Nancy Pelosiâ€™s office during Januaryâ€™s Capitol riots appears in court
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Paul Caruana Galizia
@pcaruanagaliziaÂ Â Â
Photographs by AP/Shutterstock, Getty Images
The Sword of Domocles
The cross-examination of Cummings this week will be that rarest of things: authentic political box office. He wonâ€™t bring the prime minister down. But he can certainly make his life miserable