Spain Observes Minute of Silence for Attack Victims

Thousands observed a minute of silence Friday in Barcelona’s main square for the victims of two vehicular attacks that left at least 14 people dead and more than 100 injured.  

Spain’s king and prime minister attended the observance at Barcelona’s Placa de Catalunya. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy also declared three days of national mourning.

The mayhem began Thursday when a van ran down people in Barcelona, where the deaths and most of the injuries occurred on Las Ramblas boulevard.

Catalonia’s regional president says that there’s at least one “terrorist still out there” after the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils. It wasn’t immediately clear if that person is the driver of the van in the Barcelona attack, who escaped on foot. 

 

Carles Puigdemont also told Onda Cero radio “we don’t have information regarding the capacity to do more harm.’’

Police arrested two people — a Moroccan and a Spaniard — but it was not immediately clear how they are connected with the attacks. A third person has been arrested in the northern Catalan town of Ripoll, Catalonia Interior Minister Joaquim Forn said.

The second attack took place hours later in Cambrils, a resort south of Barcelona, when an automobile careened into pedestrians and a police vehicle. Police killed the five attackers, who they said also carried explosive belts, which were later found to be fake. Six civilians were injured in the Cambrils attack.

Forn said Friday the Cambrils attack “follows the same trail” as the attack in Barcelona, he added, “There is a connection,” without giving further details.

“They are assassins, criminals who won’t terrorize us.  All of Spain is Barcelona,” Spain’s royal family said in statement.

Police believe the attacks are also connected to an explosion in a house in Catalonia Wednesday that killed one person. Authorities suspect the people in the house were building an explosive device to be used in a terrorist attack.

Van Runs Over People in Barcelona

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the deadly Barcelona rampage.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Friday 26 French citizens were among those injured in Barcelona. He said 11 are in serious condition. French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, however, said in a radio interview that “the number of those who have been seriously injured may perhaps be even higher at around 17.”

Le Drian said in a statement that he will be in Barcelona Friday “to visit the French victims of this cowardly act and affirm France’s support to the Spanish people and authorities.”

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called the van attack “jihadist terrorism.”

“Today, the fight against terrorism is the principal priority for free and open societies like ours. It is a global threat and the response has to be global,” Rajoy told reporters.

Barcelona’s Ramblas quietly reopened to the public Friday. Residents and tourists were allowed past police lines and slowly trickled back to their homes and hotels. The city center remained under heavy surveillance.

A demonstration that will include a minute of silence honoring the victims was announced by public officials for Friday noon at the Plaza Catalunya, next to the top of the Ramblas, where the deadly attack began.

World leaders pledge unity, resolve

U.S. President Donald Trump said via Twitter the U.S. “will do whatever is necessary to help” Spain, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned, “Terrorists around the world should know, the United States and our allies are resolved to find you and bring you to justice.”

US Officials Condemn Barcelona Van Attack, Offer Assistance to Spain

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking in Berlin, said “These murderous attacks have once again showed us the total hatred of humanity with which Islamist terrorism acts.”  She said, “We will not allow these murderers to make us depart from our path, from our way of life.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said his thoughts were with the victims of the attack, and said France remains “united and determined.” In Paris, the Eiffel Tower was dark Thursday night to pay tribute to the victims.

Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said he was “horrified by reports from Barcelona.”

Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen said Europe has “again been attacked by terror.”

“So long as the terrorists underestimate the spirit of the societies they seek to undermine, they will lose,” Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said about Barcelona.

The yellow and red colors of the Spanish flag lit up Tel Aviv’s City Hall Thursday night while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the civilized world must fight terrorism together and defeat it.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama tweeted that “ Americans will always stand with our Spanish friends.”

US Officials Condemn Barcelona Van Attack, Offer Assistance to Spain

The United States has condemned what it calls a “terror attack” in Barcelona Thursday and is offering assistance to Spain. At least 13 people have died and about 100 others were left injured after a van ploughed into pedestrians in Barcelona’s popular Las Ramblas area. Two people have been arrested in the case but the driver has fled. Terrorist group Islamic State has claimed the attack was performed by one of its “soldiers”, without offering any proof. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

Wildfire-plagued Portugal Declares Public Calamity as Braces for More

Parts of Portugal, beset by its deadliest summer of wildfires in living memory, were declared in a state of public calamity on Thursday as the government put emergency services on alert for further outbreaks.

It has borne the brunt of a heatwave that has settled over much of southern Europe, and more than three times as much forest has burned down in the country this summer as in an average year.

Since a single blaze killed 64 people in June, the government has been under pressure to come up with a strategic plan to limit the damage.

It said on Thursday the state of calamity would trigger “preventative effects” in the central and northern interior and parts of the southern Algarve region, while the meteorological office forecast temperatures would top 40 degrees centigrade in some places by Sunday.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa would also meet with military, police and rescue service commanders “for the maximum mobilization and pre-positioning of personnel in the areas of greatest risk,” the government said in a statement.

Since June’s tragedy, emergency services have made far greater efforts to evacuate villages and shut roads early in affected areas.

Still, nearly 80 people have been hurt in wildfires in the past week alone, according to the civil protection service.

Last Saturday, when a record 268 fires blazed countrywide, the government requested water planes and firemen from other European countries.

On Thursday, over 130 people were evacuated from villages in the Santarem district around 170 km (110 miles) northeast of Lisbon, where over 1,000 firefighters were battling flames.

With just over 2 percent of the EU landmass, Portugal accounts for almost a third of burnt areas in the union this year.

More than 163,000 hectares of forest have been lost there, more than three times higher than the average of the last 10 years, according to EU data.

Report: Egypt Blocks German-backed Arabic Website

German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle said Thursday that an Arabic-language news and culture website it operates had been blocked in Egypt.

A spokesman for Deutsche Welle said the broadcaster received initial reports earlier in the week that the site, qantara.de, was unavailable to Egyptian internet users.

Christoph Jumpelt told The Associated Press that after conducting tests, Deutsche Welle concluded that the problem wasn’t just a technical glitch.

Qantara, which is also available in English and German, is intended as a platform for dialogue with the Islamic world.

Deutsche Welle said it was informed by the chairman of the media committee of Egypt’s parliament that the government is in the process of registering and verifying sites that deal with Egyptian issues.

Qantara has received funding from Germany’s Foreign Ministry.

Gunmen Barricaded in Barcelona Bar After ‘Terrorist’ Van Attack Kills 13, Injures 50

Two armed men barricaded themselves in a bar in Barcelona’s city center Thursday after a van hopped a curb on a busy street and crashed into dozens of people, leaving at least 13 dead and 50 injured.

Catalonia Interior Minister Joaquim Forn tweeted that at least 13 people were killed and more than 50 injured Thursday when a driver plowed a van into pedestrians on a busy street in Barcelona.

The Spanish publication El Periodico reported gunfire in the area of La Boqueria Market, although it did not cite the source of the information.

Police confirmed in a statement on Twitter there had been fatalities from the “huge collision” in the Las Ramblas tourist district of Barcelona’s city center, but did not specify how many.

El Pais newspaper reports that the driver of the vehicle fled on foot after running over the pedestrians, though it was not immediately clear that the gunmen were the drivers of the van.

Police on the scene told people by megaphone to leave the area, as they were dealing with a “terrorist attack.” The “terrorist” nature of the attack was later officially confirmed by Catalonia Police on Twitter.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on Twitter he’d been in contact with local authorities after the attack and right now the government’s priority is tending to those wounded.

Police have cordoned off the area and emergency services also are on the scene.

The White House has said President Donald Trump is being briefed on the ongoing situation. Trump is on a working vacation at his private golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. His wife, first lady Melania Trump, sent her “thoughts and prayers” to Barcelona via Twitter.

Las Ramblas Boulevard is one of Barcelona’s busiest streets and is generally filled with tourists and street vendors.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

Education Activist Malala Yousafzai to Study at Oxford

Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by a Taliban gunman at age 15 for speaking out for the right to an education, has been accepted to the University of Oxford.

The 20-year-old activist shared word of her acceptance to the school on Twitter and included the screenshot of her “Congratulations” notice. She plans to major in philosophy, politics and economics, the favored degree of many of Britain’s top leaders.

Yousafzai will study at Lady Margaret Hall, an Oxford college whose notable alumni include the late Benazir Bhutto, the one-time leader of Pakistan and a hero of Yousafzai’s, and Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Yousafzai won international renown in 2012 after she was shot by a Taliban gunman in Pakistan as a teenager for speaking out for the right of girls to go to school, a topic she started raising publicly as an 11 year old.

After being treated at a hospital in Birmingham, England, she continued her education in the city and went on to win the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.

“As far as I know, I am just a committed and even stubborn person who wants to see every child getting quality education, who wants to see women having equal rights and who wants peace in every corner of the world,” she said on the day she collected the Nobel. “Education is one of the blessings of life, and one of its necessities.”

Her acceptance to a university marks a milestone in Malala’s steady progression to achieve her dreams. Social media erupted into the technological equivalent of rounds of applause.

Among those offering accolades were author JK Rowling and Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of the Guardian newspaper who is now principal of Lady Margaret Hall.

He tweeted: “Welcome to [at]lmhoxford, Malala!

Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, all but burst with pride.

“My heart is full of gratitude,” he tweeted. “We are grateful to Allah & thank u 2 al those who support [at]Malala 4 the grand cause of education.”

Ukraine Scrambles to Quash Fallout From North Korea Allegations

Ukrainian officials and analysts were quick to deny allegations that the Soviet-era Yuzhmash arms factory was a likely source of engine technology used in North Korea’s missiles and to redirect suspicions to Russia.  

“It is a complex and bulky piece of equipment. It is simply not possible to supply it by bypassing export procedures,” said Mykola Sunhurovskyi, director of military programs at the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv think tank, to VOA’s Ukrainian Service. “What is possible, is for North Korea to obtain engines left behind after rocket dismantling in Russia. That could be possible. Meaning Russia could have kept the engines after it had taken apart the rockets, which had been slated for dismantling. Those could have been supplied.”

Michael Elleman, the author of a research report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says Pyongyang probably got illicit help from inside Ukraine. But Elleman acknowledges that help also could have come from Russia.  

“There’s a lot of uncertainty as exactly how it could have been transferred. But, I think the likelihood is that the source is either in Russia or Ukraine,” Elleman told VOA’s Ukrainian Service.  

Elleman says he first became aware of the possibility of Ukrainian technology when he noticed similarities in photos of North Korea’s September 2016 ground test.

“Well, according to two sources that I’ve spoken with, the modifications that we’ve seen in North Korea – that modified engine has actually been seen in Ukraine. That doesn’t mean it was done by Yuzhnoye [Yuzhmash’s design bureau], it could have been done by others or simultaneously. This was a product that was made long ago and it’s just been leveraged by unsavory types who were able to extract it from either Ukraine or Russia.”

‘Completely untrue’

Yuzhmash, the Ukrainian factory, called the claims “completely untrue” and said it had not produced military-grade ballistic missiles since Ukraine’s 1991 independence from the Soviet Union.  

“There is such a high level of confidentiality at the factory and in general it is ensured by a multi-level system of security, which includes not only Yuzhmash services, but also municipal and state services,” Yuzhmash Deputy Director Oleh Lebedev told Reuters TV.

Elleman was first quoted in The New York Times, which cited its own intelligence sources, saying that Ukraine was a likely source. 

But Elleman says that even if Ukraine was a source, he sees no indication Ukrainian authorities would have been involved.

“I don’t believe the Ukrainian government was responsible in any way,” he said. “And I suspect if it did occur in Ukraine, they may not have known. It’s likely they would not have known.”

Other analysts argue that North Korea can build its own engines and would not need help. But all agree it would be a good idea for Ukraine to allow an investigation.  

“I believe in this situation, the MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] of Ukraine needs to invite the international community, with the first invitation to be extended to the USA, to conduct an investigation here in Ukraine, as well as globally to study exactly how North Korea was able to develop its missile program, whether there is a Chinese connection or a Russian connection,” said the director of Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies and former head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Volodymyr Horbulin.  

“These are the two countries which maintain close relations with the DPRK [North Korea]. The proposal from Ukraine for such an investigation should put an end to constant attacks on our country by those who suggest that it is constantly trading in something banned by international accords or agreements,” said Horbulin.  

Possible implications for U.S.-Ukraine cooperation

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday ordered an official inquiry into whether any missile engine technology could have been supplied to North Korea. Some experts in Ukraine worry that the allegations could affect any U.S. decision on whether to provide Ukraine with defensive weapons to fend off Russia-backed separatists.

“There’s ongoing discussion about the possibility to transfer lethal weapons to Ukraine,” noted the Ukrainian Center for Army’s Ihor Fedyk. “This story may have a negative impact on the process,” he told VOA’s Ukrainian Service.  

There are concerns that other areas of bilateral cooperation, such as space programs, could be affected.  

“America is our strategic partner, a very serious strategic partner, in space programs,” said the acting head of Ukraine’s State Space Agency, Yurii Radchenko. “It is not in our interests to harm relations with U.S. official agencies.”

U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert commented Tuesday, saying “We’re certainly aware of those reports that have come out. That’s an issue that we would take very seriously if that were to be the case.”  

“As a general matter, we don’t comment on intelligence reports. Ukraine, though, we have to say, has a very strong nonproliferation record. And that includes specifically with respect to the DPRK,” Nauert added.

The allegations surfaced as North Korea threatens to send missiles near the U.S. island territory of Guam.  

While Elleman’s allegations are investigated, the North Korean government appears to have stepped back from its threat to Guam, saying it will wait to see what further actions the United States takes.

UK Vows Brexit Won’t Mean the Return of Irish Border Posts

The British government has vowed repeatedly to end the free movement of people from the European Union when the U.K. leaves the bloc in 2019. But on Wednesday it acknowledged that, in one area of the country, it won’t.

Britain said there must be no border posts or electronic checks between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic after Brexit, and it committed itself to maintaining the longstanding, border-free Common Travel Area covering the U.K. and Ireland.

“There should be no physical border infrastructure of any kind on either side of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland,” Conservative British Prime Minister Theresa May said.

That means free movement across the border for British, Irish — and EU —  citizens. After Britain leaves the bloc, EU nationals will be able to move without checks from Ireland to Northern Ireland, and onto other parts of the U.K.

Free movement among member states is a key EU principle, and has seen hundreds of thousands of people move to Britain and get jobs there since the bloc expanded into eastern Europe more than a decade ago.

Many Britons who voted last year to leave the EU cited a desire to regain control of immigration as a key reason.

In a paper outlining proposals for the Northern Ireland-Ireland border after Brexit, the British government insisted it will be able to control who can settle in the U.K. through work permits and other measures.

It said “immigration controls are not, and never have been, solely about the ability to prevent and control entry at the U.K.’s physical border.” Control of access to the labor market and social welfare are also “an integral part” of the immigration system, the paper added.

Northern Ireland is an especially thorny issue in Brexit talks, because it has the U.K.’s only land border with the EU — and because an open border has helped build the economic prosperity that underpins the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Since the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, British military checkpoints along the Ireland-Northern Ireland border have been dismantled, rendering it all but invisible. Thousands of people cross the 300-mile (500-kilometer) border every day.

Britain said it was determined that “nothing agreed as part of the U.K.’s exit in any way undermines” the Northern Ireland peace agreement.

The government’s Department for Exiting the European Union acknowledged that “unprecedented” solutions would be needed to preserve the peace process and maintain the benefits of an open border after Britain leaves the EU, its single market in goods and services and its tariff-free customs union.

It suggested a future “customs partnership” between Britain and the EU could eliminate the need for checks on goods crossing the border.

For agricultural and food products, Britain said one option could be “regulatory equivalence,” where the U.K. and EU agree to maintain the same standards. But it’s unclear what that would mean for Britain’s ability to trade with countries that do not always meet EU standards, such as the United States.

The Northern Ireland proposals came in a series of papers covering aspects of Brexit negotiations, which are due to resume in Brussels at the end of this month.

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said the document “brings some clarity and is certainly helpful to move this process forward.” But, he said, “there are still significant questions that are unanswered.”

European Commission spokeswoman Annika Breidthardt said Britain’s position papers — which come after allegations from EU officials that the U.K. is underprepared for the EU divorce negotiations — are “a positive step.”

 

“The clock is ticking and this will allow us to make progress,” she said.

 

Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this story.

Plan to Silence Big Ben’s Beloved Bell Under Review

British Parliament officials said Wednesday they will review plans to silence Big Ben during four years of repairs after senior politicians criticized the lengthy muting of the beloved bell.

When the repairs were announced last year, officials said the massive bell in Parliament’s clock tower would be silenced for several months. But this week they said the ringing pause would last until 2021.

Prime Minister Theresa May said “it can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years.”

The 13.5 British ton (15.1 U.S. ton, 13.7 metric ton) bell has sounded the time almost uninterrupted since 1859, but it’s due to fall silent on Monday so repairs can be carried out on the Victorian clock and the Elizabeth Tower.

Officials say the silencing is needed to ensure the safety of workers.

Adam Watrobski, principal architect at the Houses of Parliament, rejected claims that the great bell that survived German bombing raids was the victim of overcautious health and safety regulations.

“It is quite simply that we can’t have the bells working with those people adjacent to it. It simply isn’t practical to do that,” he said.

In a statement Wednesday headlined “update on Big Ben’s bongs,” Parliament officials said that in light of the concerns expressed by lawmakers, authorities “will consider the length of time” Big Ben is stifled.

But they rejected calls to allow the bell to strike at night once workers have gone home. “Starting and stopping Big Ben is a complex and lengthy process,” they said.

The sound of Big Ben’s bongs became associated with Britain around the world during wartime BBC news broadcasts. It’s still heard live each day on BBC radio through a microphone in the belfry.

The BBC says it will use a recording during the renovation works.

Britain Seeks Brexit Without Borders for Northern Ireland

There should be no border posts between Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland after Brexit, Britain said in an early attempt to resolve one of the most complex aspects of its European Union exit.

Some 30,000 people cross the 500-kilometer border every day without customs or immigration checks, testing negotiators who have to work out how to tighten controls without inflaming tensions in a region where around 3,600 people were killed before a peace agreement in 1998.

The British government said in a paper due to be published on Wednesday that it wanted a seamless and frictionless frontier without “physical border infrastructure and border posts,” arguing that new customs arrangements it proposed on Tuesday would allow the free flow of goods.

The issue of how the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will fare is particularly sensitive given the decades of violence over whether it should be part of Britain or Ireland.

“Both sides need to show flexibility and imagination when it comes to the border issue in Northern Ireland,” a British government source said.

Britain put forward two options for future customs arrangements with the EU on Tuesday — the first would involve no customs border at all, while a second detailed “highly-streamlined” customs checks.

However, the idea met with skepticism among some of Britain’s soon-to-be former EU partners, with one EU official describing the idea of an invisible border as “fantasy.”

“We have some very clear principles. Top of our list is to agree upfront no physical border infrastructure — that would mean a return to the border posts of the past and is completely unacceptable to the U.K.,” the British source said.

Frictionless trade?

The EU has repeatedly warned that Britain cannot expect to maintain the benefits of the European single market after Brexit, with chief negotiator Michel Barnier saying in July that “frictionless trade” with the EU was not possible.

However, the British government also said it wants to maintain a Common Travel Area, a pact that allows free movement between the United Kingdom and Ireland for British and Irish citizens.

And it rejected the idea of a customs border in the Irish Sea that separates England, Wales and Scotland from Ireland and Northern Ireland as “not constitutionally or economically viable.”

Northern Ireland sold 2.7 billion pounds ($3.47 billion) of goods into Ireland in 2015, according to official figures, and many businesses have complex supply chains that involve crossing the border multiple times during the production process.

Commenting on the advance briefing of the position paper, the Irish government said it was “timely and helpful” and that it hoped enough progress could be made to move talks forward.

“Protecting the Peace Process is crucial and it must not become a bargaining chip in the negotiations,” the Irish government said in a statement, in reference to the Good Friday Agreement which was signed on April 10, 1998, after multiparty talks and led to the creation of an elected assembly in Belfast.

The border is one of three priority issues that the EU is insisting must be dealt with during the opening rounds of talks before moving on to Britain’s future relationship with the bloc.

The first two rounds of divorce talks in Brussels have made limited progress, prompting the EU to warn the next phase — which Britain is keen to get to — could be delayed unless Prime Minister Theresa May’s team comes armed with more detail.

But pro-EU campaign group Open Britain said the government’s proposal lacked specifics.

“They don’t outline how a frictionless or seamless border can be achieved when the U.K. leaves the EU and won’t reassure anybody about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland,” Labor Party lawmaker Conor McGinn said.