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Belarus scrambles fighter to force airliner to land

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Belarusian authorities scrambled a fighter jet and flagged what turned out to be a false bomb alert to force a Ryanair plane to land on Sunday and then detained an opposition-minded journalist who was on board, drawing condemnation from across Europe.

In the incident, described by some EU leaders as a hijacking, a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet escorted a Ryanair-operated passenger plane flying from Athens to Lithuania. The plane was suddenly diverted to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where authorities detained journalist Roman Protasevich.

Protasevich had his head in his hands and was shaking when he realised the flight was headed for Minsk, Lithuania’s Delfi news outlet said, quoting a passenger. Later, as he was led away, according to the report, he remarked: “I’ll get the death penalty here.” Reuters could not verify the report.

The 26-year-old journalist worked for Poland-based online news service NEXTA, which broadcast footage of mass protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko last year via the Telegram messenger app at a time when it was hard for foreign media to do so.

Protasevich who now works for a different Telegram channel called Belamova, is wanted in Belarus on extremism charges and stands accused of organising mass riots and of inciting social hatred, allegations he denies.

Data from the flightradar24.com website showed the plane was diverted just two minutes before it was due to cross into Lithuanian airspace. After seven hours on the ground in Minsk, the plane took off and finally landed in Vilnius where Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte was waiting to meet the passengers.

EU member state Lithuania, where Protasevich is based, urged the European Union and NATO to respond.

Ursula von der Leyen, head of the EU’s executive European Commission, said Protasevich must be released immediately and that those responsible for “the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned,” adding EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Monday would discuss what action to take.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a tweet that the incident was serious and dangerous and required an international investigation.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the incident a “reprehensible act of state terrorism.”

Simon Coveney, foreign minister of Ireland, where Ryanair is based, said on Twitter: “A strong and united response from EU needed. EU inaction or indecision will be taken as weakness by Belarus.”

Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said in a statement that he discussed the Ryanair plane diversion with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker, urging a strong response from the West.

Adam Schiff, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, wrote on Twitter: “The lengths that autocrats will go to destroy the free press are clear … The international condemnation must be swift and strong. This cannot stand.”

There was no immediate comment from U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who like Protasevich now operates from Lithuania, called on the U.N. aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), to kick Belarus out.

ICAO said it was “strongly concerned” over the incident, which might have breached the Chicago Convention, underpinning civil aviation. Global airline industry body IATA also called for a full investigation.

The incident is certain to worsen already dire relations between the West and Belarus, which has been tightly controlled since 1994 by Lukashenko.

Opponents accuse him of rigging a presidential election in his own favour last year and of then cracking down violently on the opposition. He denies electoral fraud.

APPEAL TO NATO

Ryanair said in a statement that the plane’s crew was notified by Belarus of a potential security threat on board and was instructed to divert to the nearest airport, Minsk.

The plane landed safely, passengers were offloaded and security checks were made by local authorities and the aircraft later resumed its journey and landed safely in Vilnius, Ryanair said.

One of the passengers, speaking to Reuters after arriving at Vilnius airport, said neither the pilot nor the crew gave a full explanation for the sudden diversion to Minsk, but Protasevich reacted quickly to the news, standing up from his seat.

The Lithuanian passenger, who gave his name only as Mantas, said Protasevich opened an overhead locker, pulled out a laptop computer and a phone and gave them to a female companion. On landing, Protasevich was immediately separated, Mantas said, adding that the companion might also have been detained.

Belarusian officials with sniffer dogs searched the luggage of each passenger, including Protasevich, but appeared to find nothing. “It looked fake,” Mantas said of the bomb-detection operation.

Belarusian news agency BelTA reported that Lukashenko had personally ordered the warplane to escort the Ryanair plane to Minsk. No explosives were found, it said.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda called for an international response.

“I call on NATO and EU allies to immediately react to the threat posed to international civil aviation by the Belarus regime. The international community must take immediate steps that this does not repeat,” Nauseda said.

Lithuanian presidential adviser Asta Skaisgiryte said the operation to force the plane carrying around 170 people from 12 countries to land seemed to be pre-planned.

The Belarusian department for organised crime control reported that Protasevich had been detained before deleting the statement from its Telegram channel.

Around 35,000 people have been detained in Belarus since August, human rights groups say. Dozens have received jail terms. Authorities say that more than 1,000 criminal cases have been launched.

(Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh and Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Writing by Andrew Osborn and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Nick Macfie, Timothy Heritage and Peter Cooney)

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Hundreds more unmarked graves found at erstwhile Saskatchewan residential school

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An indigenous group in Saskatchewan on Thursday said it had found the unmarked graves of an estimated 751 people at a now-defunct Catholic residential school, just weeks after a similar, smaller discovery rocked the country.

The latest discovery, the biggest to date, is a grim reminder of the years of abuse and discrimination indigenous communities have suffered in Canada even as they continue to fight for justice and better living conditions.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “terribly saddened” by the discovery at Marieval Indian Residential School about 87 miles (140 km) from the provincial capital Regina. He told indigenous people that “the hurt and the trauma that you feel is Canada’s responsibility to bear.”

It is not clear how many of the remains detected belong to children, Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme told reporters, adding that oral stories mentioned adults being buried at the site.

Delorme later told Reuters some of the graves belong to non-indigenous people who may have belonged to the church. He said the First Nation hopes to find the gravestones that once marked these graves, after which they may involve police.

Delorme said the church that ran the school removed the headstones.

“We didn’t remove the headstones. Removing headstones is a crime in this country. We are treating this like a crime scene,” he said.

The residential school system, which operated between 1831 and 1996, removed about 150,000 indigenous children from their families and brought them to Christian residential schools, mostly Catholic, run on behalf of the federal government.

“Canada will be known as a nation who tried to exterminate the First Nations,” said Bobby Cameron, Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan. “This is just the beginning.”

OLD WOUNDS

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which published a report that found the residential school system amounted to cultural genocide, has said a cemetery was left on the Marieval site after the school building was demolished.

The local Catholic archdiocese gave Cowessess First Nation C$70,000 ($56,813) in 2019 to help restore the site and identify unmarked graves, said spokesperson Eric Gurash. He said the archdiocese gave Cowessess all its death records for the period Catholic parties were running the school.

In a letter to Delorme on Thursday, Archbishop Don Bolen reiterated an earlier apology for the “failures and sins of Church leaders and staff” and pledged to help identify the remains.

Heather Bear, who went to Marieval as a day student in the 1970s and is also vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, recalled a small cemetery at the school but not of the size revealed on Thursday.

“You just didn’t want to be walking around alone in (the school),” she recalled. There was a “sadness that moves. And I think every residential school has that sadness looming.”

The Cowessess First Nation began a ground-penetrating radar search on June 2, after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia outraged the country. Radar at Marieval found 751 “hits” as of Wednesday with a 10% margin of error, meaning at least 600 graves on the site.

The Kamloops discovery reopened old wounds in Canada about the lack of information and accountability around the residential school system, which forcibly separated indigenous children from their families and subjected them to malnutrition and physical and sexual abuse.

Pope Francis said in early June that he was pained by the Kamloops revelation and called for respect for the rights and cultures of native peoples. But he stopped short of the direct apology some Canadians had demanded.

Thursday was a difficult day, Delorme told Reuters. But he wants his young children to know “we will get the reconciliation one day with action like today.”

($1 = 1.2321 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto and Moira Warburton in Vancouver; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Alistair Bell, Grant McCool and Daniel Wallis)

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Teamsters votes to fund and support Amazon workers

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The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a labor union in the United States and Canada, said on Thursday it has voted to formalize a resolution to support and fund employees of Amazon.com Inc in their unionization efforts.

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Eva Mathews in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur)

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Citigroup names new sales head for Treasury and Trade Solutions unit

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Citigroup Inc has named Steve Elms as the new sales head for the bank’s Treasury and Trade Solutions (TTS) unit effective immediately, according to an internal memo shared by a company spokesperson.

Elms, who will oversee the management of the global sales teams, has been involved with the bank’s TTS division for over 10 years, according to his LinkedIn profile.

TTS is a division of the bank’s Institutional Clients group. The segment offers cash management and trade services and finance to multinational corporations, financial institutions and public sector organizations around the world.

(Reporting by Niket Nishant in Bengaluru and David Henry in New York; Editing by Krishna Chandra Eluri)

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