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U.S. condemns militant attack in Mali that killed 31

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The United States “strongly condemns” a militant attack on a bus in central Mali that killed at least 31 people and wounded 17, the State Department said on Sunday.

Unidentified gunmen on Friday opened fire on the bus as it traveled from the village of Songho to a market in Bandiagara, 6 miles (10 km) away.

The villages sit in the heart of the Mopti region, an epicenter of violence in Mali fueled by insurgents linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.

“The United States strongly condemns the attack on civilians on Saturday near Bandiagara, Mali, which left 31 dead and 17 injured,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a written statement.

“We extend our deepest condolences to the Malian people and will continue to partner with them in their pursuit of a safe, prosperous, and democratic future,” Price said.

Jihadist attacks have surged across Africa’s Sahel region, killing thousands and displacing millions across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

 

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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First part of $200 million U.S. defence aid arrives in Ukraine

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The first shipment of the United States’ $200 million security support package for Ukraine arrived in Kyiv, the U.S. Embassy said on Saturday.

The delivery followed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Kyiv this week amid concerns from Kyiv and its Western allies over tens of thousands of Russian troops amassed at the border with Ukraine. Russia denies planning a new military offensive.

Washington approved the $200 million package in December.

“The United States will continue providing such assistance to support Ukraine’s Armed Forces in their ongoing effort to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity against Russian aggression,” it said on Facebook.

Ukraine’s defence minister thanked the United States for the aid.

 

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets, Editing by Louise Heavens)

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Vatican fraud trial to resume with boost for prosecution

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The Vatican‘s landmark fraud and embezzlement trial resumes after a long break on Tuesday with the beleaguered prosecution buoyed by two favourable decisions in related cases by Swiss and Italian courts.

The trial, in which defendants are accused of fraud and other crimes around the Vatican’s 350 million euro ($400 million) purchase of a luxury building in London, is still mired in procedural wrangling.

Tuesday’s hearing, only the sixth since the trial started amid much fanfare in July, will likely do little more than settle several more preliminary issues, meaning the trial won’t get going in earnest until February.

At the last hearing on Dec. 14 – which lasted only 10 minutes – a frustrated court president Giuseppe Pignatone said he hoped the preliminary phase could end soon so the hearings could be held more frequently.

Four of original 10 defendants were temporarily removed from the indictment in October after Pignatone found fault with the original investigation. He ordered the prosecution to go back and repeat questioning of the four because procedural steps designed to protect the defendants was not followed the first time around.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the prosecution is expected to announce which charges it intends to either keep or drop against each of the four.

All 10 defendants, including a once-powerful Vatican cardinal, have denied wrongdoing.

Lawyers for two Italian brokers for the Vatican’s investment in the London building – Raffaele Mincione and Gianluigi Torzi – have insisted that their clients cannot get a fair trial in the Vatican.

Mincione helped the Vatican make the original investment in 2014. In 2018, when the Vatican felt it was allegedly being fleeced by Mincione, it turned to Torzi to try to take total control of the building.

The Vatican has charged Mincione with fraud, embezzlement and money laundering. Torzi is charged with fraud, extortion and money laundering.

This month, the prosecution got a much-needed boost from two foreign courts, which, while ruling on related cases, effectively rejected defence assertions about alleged lack of fairness for their clients in the Vatican judicial system.

Torzi is in London fighting extradition requests by both Italy and the Vatican for alleged financial crimes. In a decision published this month, Italy’s supreme court rejected assertions by Torzi’s lawyers attacking the credibility of the Vatican court.

Earlier in January, a Swiss court rejected a request by Mincione to unblock funds that the Vatican prosecutors had asked be frozen while the trial continues. Mincione’s lawyers had also cited what they said were defects in the Vatican judicial system.

The Vatican’s Secretariat of State sank more than 350 million euros into the London investment. The Vatican is now in the final stages of selling the building at a reported loss of 100 million euros.

The most prominent defendant is Cardinal Angelo Becciu, a former deputy secretary of state who was sacked by Pope Francis for alleged nepotism before the trial began. Becciu was deputy secretary of state in the early phases of the deal.

($1 = 0.8818 euros)

 

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern cancels her wedding amid new Omicron restrictions

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has cancelled her wedding as the nation imposes new restrictions to slow the community spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, she told reporters on Sunday.

New Zealand will impose mask rules and limit gathering from midnight on Sunday after a cluster of nine COVID-19 Omicron cases showed community spread from the North to South islands after a wedding.

A family returned to Nelson in the South Island by plane after attending a wedding and other events in Auckland in the North Island. The family and a flight attendant tested positive.

New Zealand will move to a red setting under its COVID-19 protection framework, with more mask wearing. Indoor hospitality settings such as bars and restaurants and events like weddings will be capped at 100 people. The limit is lowered to 25 people if venues are not using vaccine passes, Arden said.

“My wedding will not be going ahead,” she told reporters, adding she was sorry for anyone caught up in a similar scenario. Ardern had not disclosed her wedding date, but it was rumored to be imminent.

Asked by reporters how she felt about the cancellation of her wedding to longtime partner and fishing-show host Clarke Gayford, Ardern replied: “Such is life.”

She added, “I am no different to, dare I say it, thousands of other New Zealanders who have had much more devastating impacts felt by the pandemic, the most gutting of which is the inability to be with a loved one sometimes when they are gravely ill. That will far, far outstrip any sadness I experience.”

New Zealand’s borders have been shut to foreigners since March 2020. The government pushed back plans for a phased reopening from mid-January to the end of February out of concern about a potential Omicron outbreak as in neighbouring Australia.

People able to travel to New Zealand under narrow exceptions must apply to stay at state-managed quarantine facilities. The government last week stopped issuing any new slots amid a surge in the number of people arriving with Omicron.

About 94% of New Zealand’s population over the age of 12 is fully vaccinated and about 56% of those eligible have had booster shots.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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