Fire kills one in Lebanon refugee camp: Red Cross

Lebanon is home to more than one million refugees fleeing the conflict in neighbouring Syria, many of whom live in informal tented settlements in the arid Bekaa Valley.

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Sunday’s fire broke out in a refugee camp near the village of Qab Elias.

“One person died and six were wounded. About 700 refugees were evacuated from the camp,” George Kettaneh of the Lebanese Red Cross told AFP. 

Residents said the victim was a child but the Red Cross did not confirm the report.

An AFP correspondent said Red Cross volunteers and firefighters were still helping wounded refugees out of the camp to receive treatment. 

Residents of nearby villages could be seen using their own trucks and tractors to bring tanks of water to help extinguish the blaze. 

Zafer al-Nakhlawi, a Lebanese who lives in Qab Elias, said he came to the camp to help firefighters put out the blaze. 

“There are only three tents left standing out of the camp’s 93 tents. Part of a nearby wheat field was also burned,” Nakhlawi said.

It was unclear what caused the fire, but Nakhlawi said he suspected that scorching temperatures of 36 degrees Celsius (96.8 Fahrenheit) and the valley’s whipping winds may have been a factor. 

The blaze came two days after clashes in two refugee camps in Lebanon’s northeast left a young girl dead and seven Lebanese soldiers wounded. 

Four suicide bombers detonated explosives as the Lebanese army raided the Al-Nur camp near the border town of Arsal on Friday, the armed forces said. 

The girl, whose parents are both refugees, was killed and three soldiers wounded.  

A second raid on the nearby Al-Qariya camp wounded three Lebanese soldiers, the army said. 

Aztec tower of skulls found in Mexico City

A tower of human skulls unearthed beneath the heart of Mexico City has raised new questions about the culture of sacrifice in the Aztec Empire after crania of women and children surfaced among the hundreds embedded in the forbidding structure.

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Archaeologists have found more than 650 skulls caked in lime and thousands of fragments in the cylindrical edifice near the site of the Templo Mayor, one of the main temples in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, which later became Mexico City.

The tower is believed to form part of the Huey Tzompantli, a massive array of skulls that struck fear into the Spanish conquistadores when they captured the city under Hernan Cortes, and mentioned the structure in contemporary accounts.

Historians relate how the severed heads of captured warriors adorned tzompantli, or skull racks, found in a number of Mesoamerican cultures before the Spanish conquest.

But the archaeological dig in the bowels of old Mexico City that began in 2015 suggests that picture was not complete.

“We were expecting just men, obviously young men, as warriors would be, and the thing about the women and children is that you’d think they wouldn’t be going to war,” said Rodrigo Bolanos, a biological anthropologist investigating the find.

“Something is happening that we have no record of, and this is really new, a first in the Huey Tzompantli,” he added.

 Over 650 skulls were dicovered near the site of the Templo Mayor, one of the main temples in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan.Reuters

Raul Barrera, one of the archaeologists working at the site alongside the huge Metropolitan Cathedral built over the Templo Mayor, said the skulls would have been set in the tower after they had stood on public display on the tzompantli.

Roughly six meters in diameter, the tower stood on the corner of the chapel of Huitzilopochtli, Aztec god of the sun, war and human sacrifice. Its base has yet to be unearthed.

There was no doubt that the tower was one of the skull edifices mentioned by Andres de Tapia, a Spanish soldier who accompanied Cortes in the 1521 conquest of Mexico, Barrera said.

In his account of the campaign, de Tapia said he counted tens of thousands of skulls at what became known as the Huey Tzompantli. Barrera said 676 skulls had so far been found, and that the number would rise as excavations went on.

The Aztecs and other Mesoamerican peoples performed ritualistic human sacrifices as offerings to the sun.

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China says US warship near South China Sea island ‘serious provocation’

The destroyer, the USS Stethem, sailed less than 12 nautical miles from tiny Triton Island in the Paracel Islands archipelago, which is claimed by China as well as Taiwan and Vietnam, a US official told AFP.

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The distance is commonly accepted as consituting the territorial waters of a landmass.

The operation, meant to demonstrate freedom of navigation in disputed waters, came just hours before a scheduled phone call between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

China had dispatched military vessels and fighter planes in response, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement late Sunday, according to state news agency Xinhua.

“The Chinese side strongly urges the US side to immediately stop such kind of provocative operations that violate China’s sovereignty and threaten China’s security,” the spokesman said. 

The statement added that Beijing would continue to take all necessary means to defend national sovereignty and security.

It was the second operation of its kind carried out by the United States since Trump took office and comes days after his administration took a number of steps that seemed sure to strain US-Chinese relations.

Trump on Thursday authorised a $1.3 billion arms sale to Taiwan, which China considers a rebel province. The same day, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on a Chinese bank accused of laundering North Korean cash.

Also Thursday, the State Department expressed concern about Beijing’s respect for freedom in Hong Kong, on the 20th anniversary of Britain ceding the territory back to China.

And two days earlier, the State Department placed China on a list of the world’s worst human trafficking offenders.

Related readingA sharp cooling 

All those steps added up to a sharp reversal in tone from April, when Xi travelled to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for a first face-to-face meeting that Trump later said had helped build an “outstanding” relationship.

Further positive signs had followed, including an agreement in May on exporting US beef and natural gas to China.

Trump had praised China’s efforts to bring pressure on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs. 

But when those efforts failed to produce results — Pyongyang conducted new missile tests in violation of UN Security Council resolutions — the American president made his frustration known. 

Those efforts had “not worked out,” Trump tweeted on June 20, adding, “At least I know China tried!”

Trump is scheduled to speak with Xi on Sunday at 8:45 pm (00h45 GMT Monday), 45 minutes after speaking with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Related readingA growing Chinese presence 

The latest US “freedom of navigation” exercise comes as Beijing continues muscular efforts to cement its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Taiwan and Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The United Nations says countries can establish the reach of their territorial waters up to a limit of 12 nautical miles.

China has rapidly built reefs in the area into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.

Freedom of navigation operations are designed to challenge the sovereignty of countries with claims to disputed territory. Washington has challenged annexations of South China Sea islets while advocating for a diplomatic settlement.

On May 25, the USS Dewey guided-missile destroyer sailed less than 12 nautical miles from Mischief Reef — part of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, south of the Paracel Islands.

Australian surgeon seen in hostage video from Al-Qaeda linked group

Al-Qaeda’s Mali branch has released a proof-of-life video of six foreign hostages, including elderly Australian surgeon Arthur Kenneth Elliott and Frenchwoman Sophie Petronin, US-based monitoring group SITE said.

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The 16 minute, 50 second video by Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, also known as the Group to Support Islam and Muslims, was released on Telegram on Saturday, SITE said.

The other four hostages shown are South African Stephen McGown, Romanian Iulian Ghergut, Swiss missionary Beatrice Stockly and Colombian nun Gloria Cecilia Narvaez Argoti.

No group had previously claimed responsibility for kidnapping Frenchwoman Petronin, who was abducted in late 2016 by armed men in the northern Malian town of Gao, where she ran an organisation for malnourished children.

After a video clip showing Petronin, the narrator said she was hoping the French president would help return her to her family, according to SITE.

The video was released just before President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Mali on Sunday to consolidate Western backing for a regional anti-jihadist force.

In the video, the hostages are separately introduced by a narrator, who says that so far there have been no negotiations for their release.

The first shown is McGown, who was abducted in Timbuktu, northern Mali, in November 2011.

“It’s a long time to be away … Until when do you think this will come to an end? Now we’re making a new video, but I don’t know what to say. It’s all been said in the past. It’s all been said in previous videos I’ve made,” McGown says, according to a transcription by SITE.

He is followed by Australian Elliott, in his 80s, who, along with his wife Jocelyn, was abducted in January 2015 in Djibo, Burkina Faso, where the couple had run the sole medical clinic since 1972.

Jocelyn was released in February 2016.

Next in the video is Romanian mineworker Ghergut, who says he was captured in Burkina Faso on April 4, 2015.

The women are then shown, including Swiss missionary Stockly, who was kidnapped in Mali in January 2016.

Colombian nun Argoti was seized by armed men in the Mali village of Karangasso close to the Burkina Faso border in February 2017.

At the end of the undated video, while not spelling out any demands the narrator tells the hostages’ families “no genuine negotiations have begun” for their release but then adds that negotiations are “still active”.

In 2012, Mali’s north fell under the control of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda who exploited an ethnic Tuareg-led rebel uprising, though the Islamists were largely ousted by a French-led military operation in January 2013.

Since then, jihadists have continued to mount numerous attacks on civilians and the army, as well as on French and UN forces stationed there.

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Flushed chemicals create transgenic fish

Chemicals flushed down household drains have caused around 20 per cent of male river fish to have female characteristics, according to research.

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Males are displaying feminised traits and even producing eggs, a study by Professor Charles Tyler of the University of Exeter has found.

Some have reduced sperm quality and display less aggressive and competitive behaviour, which makes them less likely to breed successfully.

The chemicals causing these effects include ingredients in the contraceptive pill, by-products of cleaning agents, plastics and cosmetics, according to the findings.

Professor Tyler said: “We are showing that some of these chemicals can have much wider health effects on fish that we expected.

“Using specially created transgenic fish that allow us to see responses to these chemicals in the bodies of fish in real time, for example, we have shown that oestrogens found in some plastics affect the valves in the heart.”

Tests showed 20 per cent of male freshwater fish, such as roach, at 50 sites had feminine characteristics.

More than 200 chemicals from sewage plants have been identified with oestrogen-like effects and drugs such as antidepressants are also altering fish’s natural behaviour, his study found.

“Other research has shown that many other chemicals that are discharged through sewage treatment works can affect fish, including antidepressant drugs that reduce the natural shyness of some fish species, including the way they react to predators,” Professor Tyler said.

Professor Tyler also found that the offspring and grandchildren of affected fish can be more sensitised to the chemicals in subsequent exposures.

He will present his findings in the opening lecture of the 50th Anniversary Symposium of the Fisheries Society in the British Isles at Exeter University from July 3 to 7.