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Iran calls Natanz atomic site blackout ‘nuclear terrorism’

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While there was no immediate claim of responsibility, suspicion fell immediately on Israel, where its media nearly uniformly reported a devastating cyberattack orchestrated by the country caused the blackout.
If Israel was responsible, it further heightens tensions between the two nations, already engaged in a shadow conflict across the wider Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met Sunday with U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, has vowed to do everything in his power to stop the nuclear deal.

Details remained few about what happened early Sunday morning at the facility, which initially was described as a blackout caused by the electrical grid feeding its above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the American-educated head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, who once served as the country’s foreign minister, offered what appeared to be the harshest comments of his long career, which included the assassination of nuclear scientists a decade ago. Iran blames Israel for those killings as well.

He pledged to “seriously improve” his nation’s nuclear technology while working to lift international sanctions.

Salehi’s comments to state TV did not explain what happened at the facility, but his words suggested a serious disruption.

“While condemning this desperate move, the Islamic Republic of Iran emphasizes the need for a confrontation by the international bodies and the (International Atomic Energy Agency) against this nuclear terrorism,” Salehi said.

The IAEA, the United Nations’ body that monitors Tehran’s atomic program, earlier said it was aware of media reports about the incident at Natanz and had spoken with Iranian officials about it. The agency did not elaborate.

However, Natanz has been targeted by sabotage in the past. The Stuxnet computer virus, discovered in 2010 and widely believed to be a joint U.S.-Israeli creation, once disrupted and destroyed Iranian centrifuges at Natanz amid an earlier period of Western fears about Tehran’s program.

Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion at its advanced centrifuge assembly plant in July that authorities later described as sabotage. Iran now is rebuilding that facility deep inside a nearby mountain. Iran also blamed Israel for the November killing of a scientist who began the country’s military nuclear program decades earlier.

Multiple Israeli media outlets reported Sunday that an Israeli cyberattack caused the blackout in Natanz. Public broadcaster Kan said the Mossad was behind the attack. Channel 12 TV cited “experts” as estimating the attack shut down entire sections of the facility.

While the reports offered no sourcing for their information, Israeli media maintains a close relationship with the country’s military and intelligence agencies.

“It’s hard for me to believe it’s a coincidence,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said of Sunday’s blackout. “If it’s not a coincidence, and that’s a big if, someone is trying to send a message that ‘we can limit Iran’s advance and we have red lines.’”

It also sends a message that Iran’s most sensitive nuclear site is “penetrable,” he added.

Netanyahu later Sunday night toasted his security chiefs, with the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, at his side on the eve of his country’s Independence Day.

“It is very difficult to explain what we have accomplished,” Netanyahu said of Israel’s history, saying the country had been transformed from a position of weakness into a “world power.”

Israel typically doesn’t discuss operations carried out by its Mossad intelligence agency or specialized military units. In recent weeks, Netanyahu repeatedly has described Iran as the major threat to his country as he struggles to hold onto power after multiple elections and while facing corruption charges.

Speaking at the event Sunday night, Netanyahu urged his security chiefs to “continue in this direction, and to continue to keep the sword of David in your hands,” using an expression referring to Jewish strength.

Meeting with Austin on Sunday, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said Israel viewed America as an ally against all threats, including Iran.

“The Tehran of today poses a strategic threat to international security, to the entire Middle East and to the state of Israel,” Gantz said. “And we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world, of the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region, and protect the state of Israel.”

The Israeli army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, also appeared to reference Iran.

The Israeli military’s “operations in the Middle East are not hidden from the eyes of the enemy,” Kochavi said. “They are watching us, seeing (our) abilities and weighing their steps with caution.”

On Saturday, Iran announced it had launched a chain of 164 IR-6 centrifuges at the plant. Officials also began testing the IR-9 centrifuge, which they say will enrich uranium 50 times faster than Iran’s first-generation centrifuges, the IR-1. The nuclear deal limited Iran to using only IR-1s for enrichment.

Since then-President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Tehran has abandoned all the limits of its uranium stockpile. It now enriches up to 20% purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran maintains its atomic program is for peaceful purposes.

The nuclear deal had granted Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for ensuring its stockpile never swelled to the point of allowing Iran to obtain an atomic bomb if it chose.

On Tuesday, an Iranian cargo ship said to serve as a floating base for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces off the coast of Yemen was struck by an explosion, likely from a limpet mine. Iran has blamed Israel for the blast. That attack escalated a long-running shadow war in Mideast waterways targeting shipping in the region.

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Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Josef Federman and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press

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Feds face growing calls for answers after general overseeing vaccine effort sidelined

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OTTAWA — The federal government faced growing calls for answers from experts and political opponents alike on Sunday amid lingering questions about the abrupt reassignment of the military general who was overseeing Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, as well as who may be stepping into his critical role.

The Defence Department announced in a terse three-line statement on Friday evening that Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin was stepping aside from his role overseeing the delivery and distribution of COVID-19 vaccine doses across the country.

The reasons for his departure were not revealed, aside from a brief mention of a “military investigation.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office and the Defence Department, including Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s office, have since refused to provide further information, including on the nature of the investigation.

The government has also declined to say when officials became aware of the probe and whether Fortin was vetted before being appointed to lead the vaccination campaign in November. Nor has it yet indicated who will be taking over from Fortin as government across the country to ramp up their immunization efforts.

Experts say the lack of information underscores existing frustration over a lack of transparency within the military and Defence Department, as well as raising concerns about Canada’s vaccination effort.

“There is a lot of speculation about what’s going on,” said Charlotte Duval-Lantoine, an expert on sexual misconduct in the military at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

“Dany Fortin had an impact on everyday Canadians because he was responsible for the vaccine rollout. So I think the Department of National Defense, at least in my opinion, has an additional duty to kind of tell us what’s going on.”

Nobody is expecting the Defence Department and government to reveal the specifics of any allegation, Duval-Lantoine added. But she argued a lack of transparency now undercuts already-shaky confidence that the military will hold top officers to account.

“There’s no question that type of secrecy is going to be an additional blow to the legitimacy of the military justice system and how the military regulates itself,” she said.

University of Ottawa law professor Penny Collenette, who previously served in prime minister Jean Chretien’s office while her husband David Collenette was Canada’s defence minister, echoed some of those concerns.

“This is a huge operation we’re doing, probably one of the most important ever,” she said of the vaccination campaign.

“And we don’t know what the allegation is. … We’re all at a loss. So that’s a vacuum of information, which is inexplicable to me.”

The Defence Department has taken a mixed approach to the release of information about investigations into several other senior officers, revealing details for some cases but remaining tight-lipped about others.

It has also approved media interviews by two female officers who are at the centre of allegations into the conduct of former defence chief general Jonathan Vance and his successor, Adm. Art McDonald despite ongoing police investigations.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan called on the government on Sunday to start answering questions.

“As the sexual misconduct crisis continues to rock the Canadian Armed Forces and now our vaccine rollout, the Liberals’ lack of leadership is making the situation worse,” he said in a statement.

“Justin Trudeau must be transparent with Canadians. Canadians need to have confidence in our military, and that starts with the government providing information.”

Collenette also questioned the government’s continued silence over who will replace Fortin, with the Prime Minister’s Office, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada refusing to say who will now oversee the vaccine effort.

The government has insisted the vaccination campaign will not be negatively affected by Fortin’s departure, but Collenette worried about the impact on Ottawa’s work with the provinces to get vaccines into the arms of Canadians.

“It seemed very odd that there wasn’t something that said: ‘No problem, we have an interim person,’ or ‘No problem, his second-in-command will take over,’” she said. “Just something that lets voters, that lets citizens have some security and some certainty.”

Fortin joins a growing list of generals and admirals who have been suspended or forced to step aside in recent weeks, many of them because of inappropriate conduct.

Those include Vance and McDonald as well as Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson, who until last week commanded the military’s human resources section.

Maj.-Gen. Peter Dawe was also forced to step aside as commander of Canada’s special forces after writing a letter in support of a soldier found guilty of sexually assaulting a comrade’s wife.

And Lt.-Gen. Christopher Coates retired after concerns were raised about an affair that he had with an American civilian while serving as deputy commander of NORAD.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 16, 2021.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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Masks off, Poles cheer reopening of bars and restaurants

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WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poles pulled off their masks, hugged their friends and made toasts to their regained freedom as restaurants, bars and pubs reopened for the first time in seven months and the government dropped a requirement for people to cover their faces outdoors.

The reopening, for now limited now to the outdoor consumption of food and drinks, officially took place on Saturday. Yet many could not wait for midnight to strike and were out on the streets of Warsaw and other cities hours earlier on Friday evening to celebrate, gathering outside popular watering holes. Some brought their own beer to hold them over until they could buy drinks at midnight — though some bars were also seen serving up beers and cocktails early.

“Now they are opening and I feel so awesome. You know, you feel like your freedom is back,” said Gabriel Nikilovski, a 38-year-old from Sweden who was having beer at an outdoor table at the Pavilions, a popular courtyard filled with pubs in central Warsaw. “It’s like you’ve been in prison, but you’ve been in prison at home.”

DJs were finally back at work and waiters and waitresses were rushing to fill orders once again. Meanwhile, the end of a requirement to wear masks outdoors added to the sense of liberation. Masks will still be required in settings like public transport and stores.

Bar owners were also happy, thanks to the prospect of being able to finally start earning money, and many said they had been bombarded with reservation requests leading up to the opening.

“Today we feel as if it was New Year’s Eve because we are counting down to midnight,” said Kasia Szczepanska, co-owner of a bar, CAVA, on Warsaw’s trendy Nowy Swiat street. “It’s like New Year’s in May.”

Pandemic restrictions have meant that restaurants, cafes and other establishments have been limited to offering only takeout food and drinks since last fall.

“Everyone says they’re fed up with takeout food, food served on plastic,” Szczepanska said.

The easing of the country’s lockdown is coming in stages but the reopening of bars with outdoor gardens or dining areas was clearly a key psychological step on the road back to normality. From May 29, indoor dining will again be allowed.

Not all businesses survived the long months of forced closure, however, even with some government assistance, and others will be working at first simply to recoup their losses.

The loosening of restrictions comes as vaccinations have finally picked up speed across the European Union, of which Poland is a member, and the numbers of new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have plunged in Poland in recent weeks.

Yet many people don’t feel like they can fully relax yet.

Aleksandra Konopka, who manages a bar along a popular promenade on the Vistula River where people were lounging in deck chairs and sipping drinks in the sandy garden with a beach-like vibe, said she was thrilled that things were coming back. But she is also nervous there could be more lockdowns as new virus variants circulate. And she said there are new challenges coming from the difficulty of finding workers.

“Not everyone is willing to work in the gastronomy or hotel industry because they expect that they will lose their job,” Konopka said. “They changed professions and it’s hard to get service.”

One of the customers lounging at her bar, Monika Rzezutka, said she had badly missed contact with people during the many months of lockdown and welcomed the resumption of normal life.

“What used to be the norm suddenly becomes something unbelievable,” said Rzezutka, a 23-year-old psychology student. “It’s a nice feeling.”

Vanessa Gera And Rafal Niedzielski, The Associated Press

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