Michel to run for EP election, triggering top job scramble

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Sunday, 7th January 2024

European Council President Charles Michel will run as a candidate for the European parliamentary election in June, he told three Belgian media outlets and a spokesperson for Michel confirmed the announcement to Politico.

If he’s elected, Michel will take up his seat in the European Parliament in mid-July, meaning EU leaders will have to agree quickly on a successor for his vacated Council post. If they don’t, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose country will take over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU in July, would lead the meetings – a broker-role normally undertaken by the European Council President. That scenario – an unchecked Orbán ruling the Council roost for the six months directly after the 2024 European election – is one most of the other 26 leaders of EU Member States would be desperate to avoid, given escalating tensions between them and Orbán, for example over the Union’s support for Ukraine and Hungary’s rule of law infractions.

After the parliamentary election is held, between 6th and 9th June in all 27 EU countries, European leaders are scheduled to meet on the 17th June and again on 27-28 June. It will be at these meetings that they are likely to seek to come to an agreement on a replacement for Michel – though the role of Council chief would normally be one that’s part of the protracted horse-trading among political groupings after the election results become clear, and as they seek to divide among themselves the various top EU jobs.

FAA grounds some Boeing 737 Max 9 planes after mid-air scare

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has ordered US airline operators to temporarily ground some Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft for inspections. The order came after an Alaska Airlines flight had to make an emergency landing when a window and a piece of the fuselage blew out in midair on Friday. The hole in the aircraft was ripped open some 20 minutes after takeoff, causing the cabin to depressurise. Oxygen masks were released and the plane safely landed soon after, with over 170 passengers and six crew members unharmed.

The FAA said it was requiring immediate inspections of Max 9 planes operated by US airlines or flown in the country by foreign carriers, affecting about 171 planes worldwide. Alaska Airlines cancelled around 140 flights on Sunday and United is expected to cancel 60. Alaska Airlines grounded its whole fleet of Boeing 737 Max 9 after Friday’s incident, but had returned some of its grounded planes to service. The Association of Flight Attendants hailed the grounding, while Republican lawmaker Ted Cruz, who heads the congressional committee overseeing the FAA, called for a thorough investigation.

Boeing said it was gathering more information and had a technical team ready to support the investigation. Alaska Airlines said the carrier was “working with Boeing and regulators to understand what occurred”. The Boeing 737-9 MAX just received its certification last October. It has been on 145 flights since going into commercial service on 11th November. Two Max 8 aircraft crashed in 2018 and 2019, killing 346 people and prompting a worldwide grounding of all Max 8 and Max 9 planes that lasted nearly two years.

Trump has 28 states and 272 votes on his side, 2 over victory

For the 2024 US elections, Donald Trump can count on 28 states (and one district of Maine) solidly on his side or leaning towards him, for a total of 272 electoral college votes, two above the magic threshold of victory (270). A CNN analysis shows Joe Biden, on the other hand, has 19 states on his side, in addition to the District of Columbia (the capital), totaling 225 votes, 45 less than the quorum for success.

CNN has drawn up a first electoral “road to 270” and considers three states uncertain (Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and a congressional district of Nebraska) for a total of 41 electoral votes. If Biden wins them, he would still have to recover at least one of the three states won in 2020 (Georgia, Michigan, and Nevada) which are currently tilting slightly towards Trump.

Photo: AP/John Locher

Turkey is committed to a “positive” role in post-war Gaza – Blinken

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Saturday that Turkey is committed to playing “a positive, productive” role for post-war Gaza and prepared to use its influence in the region to prevent the Israel-Hamas conflict from broadening even more. The latest Mideast mission by America’s top diplomat opened with talks in Turkey and Greece before shifting to the region for “not necessarily easy conversations” with allies and partners about what they are willing to do “to build durable peace and security.” With the risk of regional escalation, Blinken kicked off an urgent Middle East diplomatic tour, his fourth since the Israel-Hamas war erupted three months ago.

“It is absolutely necessary to avoid Lebanon being dragged into a regional conflict,” the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said in Beirut during his own Middle East tour.

Photo: Mustafa Kamaci/Anadolu via Getty Images

Hezbollah, Israel trade heavy cross-border fire

Israel and Lebanon-based Hezbollah traded fire on Saturday in one of the heaviest days of cross-border fighting in recent weeks – a day after the militia’s leader urged retaliation for the targeted killing, presumably by Israel, of a top Hamas leader in the sithern suburbs of Lebanon’s capital. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said that, if his group didn’t strike back for the killing on Tuesday of Saleh Arouri, Hamas’ deputy political leader, all of Lebanon would be vulnerable to Israeli attacks.

Hezbollah said it launched 62 rockets toward an Israeli air surveillance base on Mount Meron and scored direct hits in its “initial response” to Arouri’s killing. It said rockets also struck two army posts near the border. The Israeli military said about 40 rockets were fired toward Meron and that a base was targeted. The army’s chief spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said the rockets caused no casualties in Israel. Hezbollah said six of its fighters were killed on Saturday, raising the toll since the fighting began to 150.

Photo: AFP

16 dead, 50 injured in new Israeli raids

At least 16 people died last night in Israeli bombings in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian news agency Wafa announced. According to local sources, 12 civilians were killed and 50 others injured in an attack on an apartment in the southern city of Khan Yunis. The Palestinian news agency says that four other people died from bombs falling on a school run by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the Maghazi refugee camp in the central city of Deir. al-Balah. The Palestinian Health Ministry has announced that Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip have caused the deaths of 22,722 people since the start of the war, including 122 people killed in the last 24 hours. The ministry statement said 58,166 were injured since 7th October.

Photo: REUTERS/Arafat Barbakh

Hamas’ military framework in northern Gaza dismantled – Israel

The Israeli army announced on Saturday evening that it has dismantled the military framework of Hamas in the northern Gaza Strip. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman Daniel Hagari said that in the north of the Strip, Hamas had two military brigades with 12 battalions, “which had about 14,000 terrorists”. He added that “Hamas does not function in this region in an organised manner, and we have revoked the main terrorist capabilities in the area.”

Hagari detailed the methods in which the Israeli army operated, including the elimination of commanders, ground combat, intelligence gathering, locating rockets and other means of warfare, and destroying the underground infrastructure. He noted that the IDF located about 70 million intelligence files, including information on senior Hamas members in Gaza and beyond, along with computers, maps, and radios. The IDF spokesman affirmed that the fighting would take time and continue during 2024, adding that the army is now focusing on dismantling Hamas’ operations in the centre and south of the enclave. “We will do it with a different method, in a comprehensive way and based on the lessons we have learned from the fighting so far,” he noted. 

Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/DPA

Medical staff evacuated from Al-Aqsa hospital in Gaza

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was forced to evacuate its staff and their families from the area of the Al-Aqsa hospital, after days of fighting in the central area of Gaza and following the evacuation order issued by Israeli forces late in the morning with flyers in the neighborhoods around the hospital where the organisation works. In a note, Carolina Lopez, MSF emergency coordinator at the hospital, said: “With a heavy burden on our hearts we are forced to evacuate while patients, hospital staff, and many people looking for a safe place remain in the hospital premises”.

Yesterday, a bullet heavily pierced a wall of the intensive care unit of Al-Aqsa hospital. Over the past two days, drone attacks and sniper fire were within a few hundred metres of the hospital, the statement said. “The situation has become so dangerous that some staff members living in the surrounding areas have not been able to leave their homes due to the ongoing risk of drones and snipers,” Lopez explained, underlining that “the resulting reduction in staff in the hospital has had an impact on patient care”.

“We reiterate that Israel has an obligation under international humanitarian law to protect the patients and staff still working in the only functioning hospital in central Gaza,” Lopez added.

Biden wasn’t aware Austin was hospitalised

US President Joe Biden was not aware for days that Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin was hospitalised, a source familiar with the matter told CNN. National security adviser Jake Sullivan ultimately informed Biden late Thursday afternoon, soon after Sullivan himself learned Austin had been hospitalised, the source said.

Austin was admitted to the hospital on New Year’s Day due to complications from an elective surgery. The Pentagon announced the hospitalisation on Friday. Austin issued his first statement on Saturday, five days after being admitted to the hospital, saying he could have done a “better job” of notifying the public. He offered no details about his condition, nor did he say exactly why he was hospitalised. As of Saturday evening, he remained in hospital, saying he is “on the mend” and looking forward to returning to the Pentagon. He acknowledged “media concerns about transparency” and said “I commit to doing better”.

Photo: REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

6th January fugitives arrested 3 years after Capitol attack

Three 6th January suspects were arrested at a ranch in Florida on Saturday, including one who has been sought ever since the 2021 attack on the US Capitol, and two who never showed up for trial, court records show.

The FBI’s Tampa field office said three fugitives – Jonathan Daniel Pollock, Olivia Michele Pollock, and Joseph Daniel Hutchinson III – were taken into custody early Saturday morning, three years after the assault on the US Capitol. The FBI executed three federal arrest warrants at a ranch in Groveland, it said. No further details on their capture were available. The arrests cap a yearslong search for Pollock, 24, who was considered armed and dangerous. The FBI was offering a reward of up to $30,000 for information leading to his arrest and conviction. Pollock, along with Olivia Michele Pollock, 33, Hutchinson, 27, and two other defendants, were charged by complaint in June 2021 on a slew of counts in connection with the Capitol attack and subsequently indicted by a grand jury. More than 1,200 have been charged, and more than 460 imprisoned for their role in the Capitol attack.

Air raid warnings in the night in 5 regions in Ukraine

Air raid warnings went off in five regions of Ukraine during the night, according to local media. Warning sirens are sounding in Kiev, Vinnytsia, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, and Khmelnytskyi oblasts. At least 11 people have been killed, including five children, and eight injured in Russian attacks on the Pokrovsk district of Ukraine’s Donetsk region. The head of the regional military administration, Vadym Filashkin, reported on Telegram, that “the Russians hit the area with S-300 missiles, killing 11 people and wounding 8 others,” adding that “the enemy is cynically hitting civilians, trying to bring as much misery as possible to our land”.  

Meanwhile, religious services for the eve of the Orthodox Christmas (celebrated on 7th January) have been cancelled in the Russian city of Belgorod “due to the operational situation”, Mayor Valentin Demidov announced yesterday evening. On 30th December, Belgorod, which is located about 40 kilometres from the Ukrainian border, suffered an attack that left 25 dead and over 100 injured.

Photo: Press service of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in Donetsk region/Handout via REUTERS

Iran punishes young woman with 74 lashes for a photo without hijab

Roya Heshmati, 33, an Iranian activist who opposes the use of the compulsory veil, was punished with 74 lashes for spreading a photo of herself without her veil, the hijab, taken on Keshavarz Boulevard in Tehran. She was sentenced to one year of suspended prison, 74 lashes, and a ban on leaving the country for three years, reports Hengaw, a Kurdish human rights organisation based in Norway.

The sentence, carried out on 3rd January, risked being even worse because the activist took off her veil again before carrying out the sentence. Roya compared the place of the whippings to a “medieval torture chamber”. The man who whipped her threatened to intensify the flogging and open a new case against her, Roya said on her Facebook page with the hashtag “Jin, Jiayn, Azadi”, explaining that a veiled woman, probably an employee of the court, forcibly placed a hijab on her head and that she was whipped on the shoulders, back, one buttock, and one leg.

Main photo: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

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