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Iran admits extensive fire damage at nuclear site

A fire that broke out on Thursday at a key Iranian nuclear facility has caused “significant damage”, a spokesman for Iran’s nuclear energy body has said.

He said the cause of the blaze at the Natanz enrichment site had been determined, but gave no details.

The spokesman added that the destroyed machinery would eventually be replaced by more advanced equipment.

The fire hit a centrifuge assembly workshop. Some Iranian officials have blamed possible cyber-sabotage.

Centrifuges are needed to produce enriched uranium, which can be used to make reactor fuel but also nuclear weapons.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, a spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, said on Sunday that security officials were not talking about what caused the Natanz fire “because of security reasons”.

The incident, he said, had “caused significant damage, but there were no casualties”.

Other fires and explosions have also occurred in the past week in Iran.

Mr Kamalvandi added: “The incident could slow down the development and production of advanced centrifuges in the medium term… Iran will replace the damaged building with a bigger one that has more advanced equipment.”

What happened on Thursday?

The fire occurred at “one of the industrial sheds under construction” at Natanz, Mr Kamalvandi said at the time.

The AEOI later published a photo showing a partly burned building, which US-based analysts identified as a new centrifuge assembly workshop.

Reuters news agency quoted unnamed Iranian officials as saying they believed the fire was the result of a cyber attack, but did not cite any evidence.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors Iran’s compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal struck with world powers, said it anticipated no impact on its verification activities.

What other incidents have occurred?

The Natanz fire comes six days after an explosion near the Parchin military complex.

Iranian authorities said the blast was caused by “leaking gas tanks” at the site, but analysts said satellite photographs showed it happened at a nearby missile production facility.

Parchin, near Tehran, is where Western powers suspect Iran carried out tests related to nuclear warhead detonations more than a decade ago.

Iran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful and denies that it sought to develop nuclear weapons.

On Sunday officials said there had been a fire at a power plant near the south-western city of Ahvaz. They said the blaze had been put out and electricity restored.

Why is Natanz significant?

Natanz, about 250km (150 miles) south of the capital Tehran, is Iran’s largest uranium enrichment facility.

The 2015 nuclear deal saw Iran agree only to produce low-enriched uranium, which has a 3-4% concentration of U-235 and can be used to produce fuel for nuclear power plants. Weapons-grade uranium is 90% enriched or more.

Iran also agreed to install no more than 5,060 of the oldest and least efficient centrifuges at Natanz until 2026, and not to carry out any enrichment at its other underground facility, Fordo, until 2031.

Last year, Iran began rolling back these commitments in retaliation for US President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear accord and reinstate crippling economic sanctions.

In November, Iran said it had doubled the number of advanced centrifuges being operated at Natanz and had begun injecting uranium hexafluoride gas into centrifuges at Fordo.

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Fire at Iran's Natanz nuclear facility caused significant damage

Iranian officials say incident could slow down the country’s development and production of advanced centrifuges.

A fire that broke out at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility last week caused significant damage that could slow the development of advanced centrifuges, an Iranian nuclear official said on Sunday.

No one was hurt in the mysterious blaze last Thursday at the site, said Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation. 

Iran’s top security body said on Friday the cause of the fire at the facility had been determined and would be announced later, however, specific details have yet to be released.

Some Iranian officials reportedly said it may have been caused by cyber-sabotage and one warned Tehran would retaliate against any country carrying out such attacks.

“The incident could slow down the development and production of advanced centrifuges in the medium term,” Kamalvandi was quoted as saying by Iran’s state news agency IRNA.

“Iran will replace the damaged building with a bigger one that has more advanced equipment. The incident has caused significant damage, but there were no casualties.”


An article by IRNA last week addressed what it called the possibility of sabotage by enemies such as Israel and the United States, although it stopped short of accusing either directly.

In 2010, the Stuxnet computer virus, widely believed to have been developed by the US and Israel, was discovered after it was used to attack Natanz.

Israel’s defence minister said on Sunday it was not “necessarily” behind every mysterious incident in Iran.

The Natanz uranium-enrichment site, much of which is underground, is one of several Iranian facilities monitored by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog. 

The IAEA said on Friday the location of the fire did not contain nuclear materials and none of its inspectors was present at the time.

Intensified sanctions

Natanz is the centrepiece of Iran’s enrichment programme, which Tehran says is only for peaceful purposes. Western intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe it had a coordinated, clandestine nuclear arms programme that it halted in 2003.

Tehran denies ever seeking nuclear weapons.

Iran agreed to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for the removal of most international sanctions in a deal reached between Tehran and six world powers in 2015.

But Tehran has gradually reduced its commitments to the accord since US President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed and intensified sanctions that have battered Iran’s economy.

The deal only allows Iran to enrich uranium at Natanz facility with more than 5,000 of first-generation IR-1 centrifuges.


Inside Story

Is the 2015 Iran nuclear deal worth saving?

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France will not ban Huawei, but encouraging 5G telcos to avoid it

PARIS (REUTERS) – The head of the French cybersecurity agency ANSSI said there would not be a total ban on using equipment from Huawei in the rollout of the French 5G telecoms network, but that it was pushing French telcos to avoid switching to the Chinese company.

“What I can say is that there won’t be a total ban,” Guillaume Poupard told Les Echos newspaper in an interview. “(But) for operators that are not currently using Huawei, we are inciting them not to go for it.”

The US government has urged its allies to exclude the Chinese telecoms giant from the West’s next-generation communications, saying Beijing could use it for spying.

Huawei has denied the charges.

Sources told Reuters in March France would not ban Huawei but would seek to keep it out of the core mobile network, which carries higher surveillance risks because it processes sensitive information such as customers’ personal data.

France’s decision over Huawei’s equipment is crucial for two of the country’s four telecoms operators, Bouygues Telecom and SFR, as about half of their current mobile network is made by the Chinese group.

“For those that are already using Huawei, we are delivering authorisations for durations that vary between three and eight years,” Poupard said in the interview.

State-controlled Orange has already chosen Huawei’s European rivals Nokia and Ericsson.

Poupard said that from next week, operators which have not received an explicit authorisation to use Huawei equipment for the 5G network can consider a non-response after the legal deadline as a rejection of their requests.

Poupard said the choice was made to protect French independence, and not as an act of hostility towards China. “This is not Huawei bashing or anti-Chinese racism,” Poupard said.

“All we’re saying is that the risk is not the same with European suppliers as with non-Europeans.”

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Royal fury: Why Kate and Prince William’s NHS birthday celebration sparked OUTRAGE

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The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge paid a visit to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn today to pay their thanks to the staff as the NHS celebrated its 72nd birthday. They met and spoke with staff at the site, and later posted pictures of the event on Twitter, thanking them once again for “the resilience, perseverance and hope you’ve shown our nation”. However, their celebratory post inspired outrage from social media users, many of whom levelled harsh criticism at the couple.

Twitter users immediately drew attention to the couple’s lack of PPE and social distancing during the trip as they hailed the success of health workers in fighting COVID-19.

Pictures showed the couple closely interacting with hospital workers, and sitting around a table with less than the one metre of required separation.

One incensed user immediately responded: “WHERE ARE THEIR MASKS????????????????”

Another added: “I expected more of you. Masks would have sent a strong message.”

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One user even suggested the royals had signalled the pandemic was “officially over”.

They said: “No face masks and no social distancing. I guess the royals are declaring #COVID19 is officially over, huh?”

The Government has not made wearing a mask compulsory in all settings, only on public transport.

However, they have asked people to keep at least one metre apart where possible, as this helps to contain COVID-19.

While many people derided the couple for their choice, others sprung to their side, saying they were abiding by Government rules.

One said: “1m distance & their bubbles. No facemasks required unless on public transport. Risk assessments are carried out by NHS trusts.”

Another user, who claimed to be an NHS worker, said: “A mask is NOT required if you’re able to keep a 1-metre distance. They are keeping to UK guidelines.”

Many people also gave their thanks to the couple for their visit.

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One said: “Happy birthday to the NHS! Thank you for the lovely pictures!

“It’s always a delight to see our handsome Duke and beautiful Duchess.”

Another said: “What a lovely visit from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Happy Birthday, NHS.”

The NHS is celebrating its 72nd birthday today, and several royals have paid their respect to the British household name.

Queen Elizabeth II made a stunning tribute to the health service yesterday by projecting a blue light on Windsor Castle.

Prince Charles followed earlier today with a video statement posted to the Clarence House Twitter account.

The heir to the throne paid his respects to the “remarkably selfless nurses, doctors, paramedics and countless other staff have made costly sacrifices to provide treatment for more than a hundred thousand patients with Coronavirus and thousands more who needed other care”.

He also spoke of his appreciation for hospitality workers, many of whom returned to work yesterday as pubs and restaurants reopened.

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How ‘Sleepy Joe’ Biden could still EASILY lose the US election

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They really don’t like the man. The bad news for Biden, according to the Democracy Institute’s latest poll of US voters, is most voters think Trump’s been too soft, and Biden largely AWOL, on the protests and riots still raging in towns and cities. Yet, the really bad news for Biden is a majority of voters think he’s literally losing his mind. Literally. 

When voters think you’re experiencing early stages of dementia, they may still like you, they may increasingly feel sorry for you, but they also threaten to derail your apparent (according to most American media polling) stroll to an autumnal victory.

Between now and Election Day, the factor that will most influence the final outcome will be the debates between President Trump and his Democratic opponent. 

Should Biden regain some of his past skill at coasting through such encounters with moderate, platitudinous comments delivered with a smile, a little humour, and an Everyman demeanour, he will retain a good chance of enjoying a very competitive election.

But, should Biden have even one “senior moment,” during which he forgets what he’s saying, or where he is, or the question posed to him, his chances of beating Trump will be somewhere between slim and none. 

The Biden-supporting mainstream American media won’t play the alarming clip in a seemingly endless loop, as they would should Trump similarly mess up. 

Yet, Fox News will do just that, and Fox News’s audience dwarfs that of its competitors. 

Plus, the Trump campaign is so loaded with cash it will spend a $100 million across television, radio, online, and digital platforms to drown Americans in Biden’s alleged cognitive decline. 

Should Biden perform in each one of the debates as he has in most of his scripted, gentle media encounters to date, Trump could win in a landslide.

Barring a Biden debate meltdown, our poll brings elements of good news for the Democratic candidate. 

He remains generally well-liked and is viewed as genuinely wanting everyone to get along with each other the way they did in the good (now, considered by many Democrats as quite bad) ol’ days before Barack Obama became president.

The Biden campaign can continue to exploit Trump’s political vulnerability on his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In cold-blooded political terms, the greater the perceived danger arising from any increase in coronavirus cases, the more likely it will be that voters view the election as a referendum on the incumbent president, which will neutralise some, perhaps many, of Trump’s advantages. 

It will also reinforce Biden’s image as a calm pair of hands to place the keys to the White House and, most importantly, the keys to the presidential nuclear codes.

In this vein, most of the media is doing Biden’s heavy-lifting for him. 

After dropping wall-to-wall pandemic coverage for a fortnight, while cheering on the national protest movement, the media has returned to pandemic coverage with renewed gusto. 

No voter is unaware that coronavirus cases are rising, although many will be unaware that, in most affected states, fewer Americans are dying. 

A more widespread virus with, critically, less deadly consequences would be comparatively good news for the Trump reelection effort. 

It’s a narrative the Biden campaign and its media allies will challenge each and every day until November.

The other referendum question sought by Biden will be about Trump’s economic stewardship. 

The Democrats won’t talk about the pre-pandemic economic recovery because that superb economy almost guaranteed Trump’s reelection. 

Biden needs most voters to be very anxious, if not actually hurting, economically for another 16 weeks, at least. 

If they are, which a return to lockdown status in many states would likely ensure, it will be hard for Trump to prove he has repaired the American economy for a second time in a single term.

While potential new lockdowns are a political cloud on Trump’s electoral horizon, the darkening cloud hovering over Biden’s candidacy is the manner in which the American economy already is rebounding from its deep dive earlier this year. 

Not only are jobs, housing, restaurants, bars, shops, and the stock market on the way up, but the growing economy is occurring much sooner than the experts predicted. 

And voters have noticed and are growing in optimism on this issue.

Economic historians may debate President John F. Kennedy’s famous claim that “a rising tide lifts all the boats.” 

What’s undebatable is that a high economic tide over the next four months would surely lift Donald Trump to a second term.

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Spain holidays latest: Beaches forced to SHUT this weekend after huge coronavirus spike

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Nearly 30 beaches along the Costa del Sol, a popular tourist hotspot, were closed temporarily this weekend as holidaymakers flocked to the coast. The Spanish beaches were forced to close during peak times in order to ensure social distancing rules were maintained. It comes after parts of the country went back into lockdown this weekend, due to a spike in coronavirus infections.

Beaches closed along the Spanish coast this weekend, including those in popular resorts such as Benalmadena, Malaga and Anadalucian.

Malaga was most affected by the temporary closures, followed by Cadiz and Huelva, according to regional government figures published by respected Malaga-based paper Sur.

Beachgoers in Cadiz were turned away from the popular Zahora beach near the Cape of Trafalgar, which was shut just after 1.30pm, as well as several small coves in nearby Conil de la Frontera.

Town halls posted the closure information on mobile phone apps or council websites.

Other Spanish areas posted real time information to warn sun seekers of imminent closures.

Officials in Chipiona, near the US naval base of Rota, posted information showing two of its beaches – Cruz del Mar and Tres Piedras – had reached maximum or near capacity.

The beaches were closed in order to prevent overcrowding and similar measures are expected to be implemented throughout the summer months.

Beaches in southern Spain are expected to draw large numbers of holidaymakers in the coming weeks and months, as they are normally busiest between mid-July and mid-August.

None of the Costa del Sol beaches have opted for pre-booking systems like the one Benidorm on the Costa Blanca is due to start operating when more people are in the resort.

Additional reporting by Natalia Penza

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BBC Weather: Thunderstorm and flood warnings across Europe as heavy rain forecast

BBC Weather forecaster Helen Willetts said temperatures will feel more like autumn for some areas in Europe. She claimed the warm weather in the east will begin to cool as a wall of rain brings storms through the new week. This band of rain will also threaten floods for parts of Scandinavia.

Through central Europe temperatures are forecast to fall slightly to the low and mid-20s with more rain and wind expected.

Ms Willetts said: “It feels as if autumn has arrived in the north-west of Europe.

“This weekend they have seen heavy rain, strong winds and the area of low pressure responsible will still be with us on Monday across Scandinavia.

“A real tight squeeze between those isobars so strong winds through the Baltic.”

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The BBC Weather forecaster said chillier air behind this weather front will cause temperatures to drop.

She continued: “There is little chance we will be seeing higher temperatures after how it has been in Scandinavia.

“The rain will be adding to the risk of flooding because of the snowmelt continuing.”

This wall of rain from Scandinavia is forecast to spread southeastwards throughout Europe in the new week.

Ms Willetts continued: “That weather front will push into the hot air which we have further east.

“This will trigger some intense storms so there will be warnings out for the likes of Greece and the Balkans.

“This weather will continue as we go further east through the week.”

South eastern parts of Europe will still see hot temperatures at the beginning of the week, most notably Turkey.

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However, the storms are expected to eventually hit Turkey and the surrounding islands as we head through the week.

On the eastern side of Europe, Spain can expect more warm and dry weather with temperatures just shy of 40 degrees Celsius.

Ms Willetts said: “The heat is rebuilding further west, we have had it already into the 40s last week and we will see similar temperatures.

“Further north and west of Europe the weather continues on a cooler and cloudier note.

“There will be further outbreaks of rain, not necessarily as windy but more rain to come.”

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Fire at Iran's Natanz nuclear facility caused significant damage – spokesman

DUBAI (Reuters) – A fire that broke out at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility on Thursday has caused significant damage that could slow the development of advanced centrifuges, an Iranian nuclear official said on Sunday.

Iran’s top security body said on Friday that the cause of an incident and fire at Natanz had been determined and would be announced later. Some Iranian officials have said it may have been caused by cyber sabotage and one warned that Tehran would retaliate against any country carrying out such attacks.

“The incident could slow down the development and production of advanced centrifuges in the medium term … Iran will replace the damaged building with a bigger one that has more advanced equipment,” state news agency IRNA quoted the spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, Behrouz Kamalvandi, as saying.

“The incident has caused significant damage but there were no casualties.”

Three Iranian officials who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity on Friday said they believed the fire was the result of a cyber attack but did not cite any evidence.

On Thursday, an article by Iran’s state news agency IRNA addressed what it called the possibility of sabotage by enemies such as Israel and the United States, although it stopped short of accusing either directly.

Israel’s defence minister said on Sunday it was not “necessarily” behind every mysterious incident in Iran.

In 2010, the Stuxnet computer virus, widely believed to have been developed by the United States and Israel, was discovered after it was used to attack Natanz.

The Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP), Iran’s main uranium enrichment site which is mostly underground, is one of several Iranian facilities monitored by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

The IAEA said on Friday the location of the fire did not contain nuclear materials and that none of its inspectors was present at the time.

Natanz is the centrepiece of Iran’s enrichment programme, which Tehran says is only for peaceful purposes. Western intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe it had a coordinated, clandestine nuclear arms programme that it halted in 2003.

Tehran denies ever seeking nuclear weapons.

Iran agreed to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for the removal of most international sanctions in a deal reached between Tehran and six world powers in 2015.

But Iran has gradually reduced its commitments to the accord since U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew from the deal in 2018 and reimposed and intensified sanctions that have battered Iran’s economy.

The deal only allows Iran to enrich uranium at its Natanz facility with just over 5,000 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges, but Iran has installed new cascades of advanced centrifuges.

Israel has backed Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy on Tehran aimed at forcing it to agree a new deal that puts stricter limits on its nuclear work, curbs its ballistic missile programme and ends its regional proxy wars.

Iran says it will not negotiate as long as sanctions remain in place.

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Algeria buries remains of anti-colonial fighters after 150 years

The skulls of 24 combatants laid to rest after being repatriated from France where they were kept in a Parisian museum.

Algeria buried the remains of 24 resistance fighters returned from Paris after more than a century and a half as it marked the 58th anniversary of its independence from France.

The skulls of the fighters – shot and decapitated in the early years of the French occupation – were laid to rest on Sunday during an emotional ceremony at El Alia cemetery.

Coffins draped with the national flag were lowered into freshly dug graves in the Martyr’s Square of Algeria’s largest burial ground, alongside national heroes such as top revolt leader Emir Abdelkader.

An elite unit of the Republican Guard presented arms while a funeral march played in the background, an AFP news agency correspondent reported.

The skulls, once viewed as war trophies by French colonial officers, were flown into Algiers international airport on Friday and then moved to the Palace of Culture where they were placed on display.

The return of the skulls was the result of years of efforts by Algerian historians, and comes amid a growing global reckoning with the legacy of colonialism.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who took part in the ceremony, on Saturday said it was time to turn a page on years of frosty relations with France, calling on Paris to apologise for its colonial past.

“We have already had half-apologies. The next step is needed … we await it,” he told news channel France 24 in an interview.

An apology was necessary to “face the problem of memory that jeopardises many things in the relations between the two countries”, Tebboune said.

It would “make it possible to cool tensions and create a calmer atmosphere for economic and cultural relations”, especially for the more than six million Algerians who live in France, he added.

Long process

Despite stifling heat, a long queue formed outside the palace and some men and women, waiting to pay their respects, wept, according to footage broadcast by several television stations.

“I came as a fighter, as an invalid from the war of liberation, as a citizen who loves his country,” said Ali Zemlat.

The 85-year-old fought in the brutal 1954-1962 war that ended France’s 132 years of colonial rule in Algeria.

The 24 fought French colonial forces who occupied Algeria in 1830 and took part in an 1849 revolt. After they were decapitated, their skulls were taken to France as trophies.

In 2011, Algerian historian and researcher Ali Farid Belkadi discovered the skulls at the Museum of Man in Paris, across from the Eiffel Tower, and alerted Algerian authorities.

The researcher lobbied for years for their return and Algerias then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, eventually launched the formal repatriation request.

French President Emmanuel Macron agreed to the repatriation in 2018 but bureaucratic obstacles resulted in the delay of their return.

“We have recovered part of our memory,historian Mohamed el-Korso told The Associated Press news agency. But the fight must continue until the recovery of all the remains of the resistance fighters, which number in the hundreds, and the archives of our revolution.

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Chile announces new $1.5 billion stimulus for middle class as pandemic rages

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chilean President Sebastian Pinera announced on Sunday a new $1.5 billion package of measures to help keep the country´s ailing middle class afloat as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the economy of the world´s top copper producer.

The measures include access to zero-interest loans, subsidized rent and the ability to defer mortgage loan payments for up to six months, Pinera said in a televised speech.

“The coronavirus pandemic…is hitting our middle class hard,” Pinera said, touting the fresh round of stimulus as a bailout at least 1 million families.

Pinera’s center-right administration has already announced two sprawling stimulus packages worth nearly 12% of gross domestic product, aimed primarily at protecting small business, the poor and the unemployed.

The coronavirus pandemic, which struck just as Chile was beginning to recover from months of unrest over inequality, has hammered the country’s economy. Chile’s middle class – long the envy of the region- has been especially hard hit.

Unemployment crested 11% between March and May and is expected to continue to rise as lockdown measures in the capital Santiago take their toll. The central bank has predicted GDP will plunge by as much as 7.5% in 2020, the worst in 35 years.

The new plan will help subsidize university payments for middle-class families and partially underwrite the home or apartment rental fees for those who pay less than 400,000 pesos, or $500 per month.

Chile has reported more than 295,000 cases of coronavirus, surpassing the tally in crisis-racked Italy, and 6,308 deaths from the disease.

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