By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Robert Muller
MOSCOW/PRAGUE (Reuters) -Moscow expelled 20 Czech diplomats on Sunday in a confrontation over Czech allegations that two Russian spies accused of a nerve agent poisoning in Britain in 2018 were behind an earlier explosion at a Czech ammunition depot that killed two people.
Prague had on Saturday ordered out 18 Russian diplomats, prompting Russia to vow on Sunday to “force the authors of this provocation to fully understand their responsibility for destroying the foundation of normal ties between our countries”.
Moscow gave the Czech diplomats just a day to leave, while Prague had given the Russians 72 hours.
The Czech Republic said it had informed NATO and European Union allies that it suspected Russia of causing the 2014 blast, and European Union foreign ministers were set to discuss the matter at their meeting on Monday.
The U.S. State Department commended Prague’s firm response to “Russia’s subversive actions on Czech soil”.
The row is the biggest between Prague and Moscow since the end of decades of Soviet domination of eastern Europe in 1989.
It also adds to growing tensions between Russia and the West in general, raised in part by Russia’s military build-up on its Western borders and in Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014, after a surge in fighting between government and pro-Russian forces in Ukraine’s east.
Russia said Prague’s accusations were absurd as it had previously blamed the blast at Vrbetice, 300 km (210 miles) east of the capital, on the depot’s owners.
It called the expulsions “the continuation of a series of anti-Russian actions undertaken by the Czech Republic in recent years”, accusing Prague of “striving to please the United States against the backdrop of recent U.S. sanctions against Russia”.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said the attack had been aimed at a shipment to a Bulgarian arms trader.
“This was an attack on ammunition that had already been paid for and was being stored for a Bulgarian arms trader,” he said on Czech Television.
He said the arms trader, whom he did not name, had later been the target of an attempted murder.
Bulgarian prosecutors charged three Russian men in 2020 with an attempt to kill arms trader Emilian Gebrev, who was identified by Czech media as the same individual. Reuters was unable to reach Gebrev for comment.
Czech police said two men using the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov had travelled to the Czech Republic days before the arms depot blast.
Those names were the aliases used by the two Russian GRU military intelligence officers wanted by Britain for the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok in the English city of Salisbury in 2018. The Skripals survived, but a member of the public died.
The Kremlin denied involvement in that incident, and the attackers remain at large.
Czech interior and acting foreign minister Jan Hamacek said police knew about the two people from the beginning, “but only found out when the Salisbury attack happened that they are members of the GRU, that Unit 29155”.
Hamacek said Prague would ask Moscow for assistance in questioning them, but did not expect it to cooperate.
“DANGEROUS AND MALIGN”
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted that the Czechs “have exposed the lengths that the GRU will go to in their attempts to conduct dangerous and malign operations”.
A NATO official said the alliance would support the Czech Republic as it investigated Russia’s “malign activities”, which were part of a pattern of “dangerous behaviour”.
“Those responsible must be brought to justice,” added the official, who declined to be named.
The United States imposed sanctions against Russia on Thursday for interfering in last year’s U.S. election, cyber hacking, bullying Ukraine and other actions, prompting Moscow to retaliate.
On Sunday, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington had told Moscow “there will be consequences” if Alexei Navalny, the opposition figurehead who almost died last year after being given a toxin that Western experts say was Novichok, dies in prison, where he is on hunger strike.
The 2014 incident has resurfaced at an awkward time for Prague and Moscow.
The Czech Republic is planning to put the construction of a new nuclear power plant at its Dukovany complex out to tender.
Security services have demanded that Russia’s Rosatom be excluded as a security risk, while President Milos Zeman and other senior officials have been putting Russia’s case.
In a text message, Industry Minister Karel Havlicek, who was previously in favour of including Russia, told Reuters: “The probability that Rosatom will participate in the expansion of Dukovany is very low.”
(Additional reporting by Jan Lopatka in Prague, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Elizabeth Piper in London, Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Phil Stewart in WashingtonEditing by Kevin Liffey, Mark Heinrich, Alexandra Hudson)
How the COVID-19 microchip shortage has brought Canada's car industry to a halt — again – CBC.ca
Even before the pandemic, 2020 was always going to be an uncertain year for Canada’s automotive industry.
The Big 3 automakers — General Motors, Ford and Chrysler (now known as Stellantis) — were set to negotiate multi-year work agreements with their main unions, after the previous agreements with their workers had expired.
Then COVID-19 hit, and everything changed. Buyers weren’t coming to showrooms for fear of getting sick, so sales slowed to a crawl. Factories shut down to keep workers safe.
By the time consumers felt safe enough to take their first tentative steps back into dealerships this year, they were confronted by a new problem: There were no cars to buy.
That’s because when things slowed down in 2020, car companies slashed their orders from their suppliers for the components that go into them. When demand came roaring back, those same suppliers could not ramp up fast enough, especially the makers of the cheap little semiconductor microchips that are in just about everything these days.
“Automakers in Canada initially thought that demand would be very slow recovery over the course of the pandemic, so they cut their chip orders,” said Rebekah Young, an economist with Scotiabank.
It’s not just the car companies, either. Makers of everything from iPhones, to gaming consoles and even refrigerators can’t find microchips right now, which is a global supply crunch for just about everything.
A typical car rolling off the line today likely contains dozens of semiconductor microchips that control everything from the headlights to the entertainment system to GPS navigation.
They’re relatively inexpensive, adding a few dollars apiece to the cost of a typical car. But they’re also highly customized, which means it’s next to impossible to find alternatives on short notice. But without that custom-made $1 microchip, a car company can’t finish a car that might sell for $40,000 — and the industry is scrambling to get its hands on what’s available.
“Do you remember the toilet paper shortage in March and April of 2020?” automotive journalist Stephanie Wallcraft said in an interview. “That’s pretty much what we’re going through right now in terms of semiconductors.”
“Everybody’s trying to get semiconductors all at once and there’s just not the supply to get that inventory out,” she said.
Car companies aren’t necessarily at the front of the line, so they’re waiting their turn same as everyone else. That’s causing them to idle factories in Canada until they can get the components to start building again.
GM’s facility in Ingersoll has been down for most of the year, and Ford’s main Oakville plant has been idled at times, too. The Stellantis facility in Windsor was offline for two months up until May before it reopened at limited capacity.
As recently as last year Stellantis was floating the idea of expanding production there but this week the company waylaid staff with news that it would be closing one line entirely and laying off 1,800 workers.
In the labour deals they hammered out late last year, Canada’s big car makers made it clear that the future of the automotive industry in Canada will be in making electric vehicles, but most of those won’t be rolling off the lines until some time in 2024 at the earliest.
Until then, Canadian car plants don’t have a lot to do, and a big part of the problem is that the vehicles Canadian plants are set up to make aren’t the ones that are selling.
“What they’re doing is they’re allocating the minimum chips to their most profitable vehicles,” Unifor president Jerry Dias said in an interview with CBC News.
“If you’re looking at the industry in North America that would be predominantly pickup trucks and SUVs.”
Young, the economist, says Canada is on track to produce about 1.2 million vehicles this year. That would be the lowest annual total since 1982 — below the 1.4 million the country made in pandemic-stricken 2020, and well off the 2.2 million annual pace that the country had been cranking out for the decade leading up to 2019.
Chip makers, mostly in Asia had been ramping up production through the first part of 2021, before the delta variant put a chill on everything again. Malaysia makes about one seventh of the world’s semiconductors, and factories there have been idled for September and October. Vietnam is another major supplier, and they too are about three months behind because of COVID lockdowns.
For both car buyers and the people who make them, the good news is that the experts think things will get back to normal at some point. But the bad news is it could take a while.
“Demand for vehicles is very strong this year, and that could have easily closed pre-pandemic gaps this year if there were enough vehicles to buy,” Young said.
But without enough chips to go around “we see that being pushed out not only to 2022, but in fact 2023.”
At least 34 dead after floods in north India
At least 34 people have died following days of heavy rains in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand, the state’s chief minister said, as rescuers continued work to free those stranded on Wednesday.
Aerial footage of the affected areas showed engorged rivers and villages partially submerged by floodwaters.
“There is huge loss due to the floods … the crops have been destroyed,” Pushkar Singh Dhami told Reuters partner ANI after surveying the damage late on Tuesday.
“The locals are facing a lot of problems, the roads are waterlogged, bridges have been washed away. So far 34 people have died and we are trying to normalise the situation as soon as possible.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet he was “anguished” by the loss of life.
The Himalayan state of Uttarakhand is especially prone to flooding. More than 200 were feared killed in February after flash floods swept away a hydroelectric dam.
Unseasonally heavy rains across India have led to deadly floods in several areas of the country in recent days. Authorities in the southern state of Kerala said on Monday more than 20 people had died there following landslides. (This story corrects typographic error in the last paragraph)
(Reporting by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Jane Wardell)
Japanese volcano spews plumes of ash, people warned away
A volcano erupted in Japan on Wednesday, blasting ash several miles into the sky and prompting officials to warn against the threat of lava flows and falling rocks, but there were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.
Mount Aso, a tourist destination on the main southern island of Kyushu, sent plumes of ash 3.5 km (2.2 miles) high when it erupted at about 11:43 a.m. (0243 GMT), the Japan Meteorological Agency said.
It raised the alert level for the volcano to 3 on a scale of 5, telling people not to approach, and warned of a risk of large falling rocks and pyroclastic flows within a radius of about 1 km (0.6 mile) around the mountain’s Nakadake crater.
The government is checking to determine the status of a number of climbers on the mountain at the time, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters, but added that there were no reports of casualties.
Television networks broadcast images of a dark cloud of ash looming over the volcano that swiftly obscured large swathes of the mountain.
Ash falls from the 1,592-metre (5,222-foot) mountain in the prefecture of Kumamoto are expected to shower nearby towns until late afternoon, the weather agency added.
Mount Aso had a small eruption in 2019, while Japan’s worst volcanic disaster in nearly 90 years killed 63 people on Mount Ontake in September 2014.
(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)
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