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Extreme weather kills 21 runners in ultramarathon in China

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Twenty-one people were killed when extremely cold weather struck during an ultramarathon in rugged Gansu province in northwestern China, sparking public outrage on Sunday over the lack of contingency planning.

The 100km race began on Saturday from a scenic area at a bend in the Yellow River known for its sheer cliffs and rock columns. The route would take runners through canyons and hills on an arid plateau at an elevation of over 1,000 metres .

The race kicked off 9am (0100 GMT) with runners clad in t-shirts and shorts under overcast skies, according to photographs posted on the social media account of the Yellow River Stone Forest area in Jingtai, a county under the jurisdiction of Baiyin city.

Around noon on Saturday, a mountainous section of the race was hit by hail, freezing rain and gales that caused temperatures to plummet, officials from Baiyin told a news briefing on Sunday.

“The rain was getting heavier and heavier,” said Mao Shuzhi, who was about 24km into the race at the time.

Shivering in the cold, she turned back before the high-altitude section, due to previous bad experiences with hypothermia.

“At first I was a bit regretful, thinking it might have just been a passing shower, but when I saw the strong winds and rains later through my hotel room window, I felt so lucky that I made the decision,” Mao told Reuters.

A massive rescue effort was initiated, with over 1,200 rescuers dispatched, assisted by thermal-imaging drones, radar detectors and demolition equipment, according to state media.

A landslide following the severe weather also hampered the rescue work, said officials from Baiyin, about 1,000 km (620 miles) west of the Chinese capital Beijing.

A total of 172 people took part in the race. By Sunday, 151 participants had been confirmed safe. A last missing runner was found dead at 9.30am on Sunday, bringing the death toll to 21, state media reported.

Jingtai county saw a low of 6 degrees Celsius on Saturday excluding wind chill.

‘Foaming at the mouth’

Baiyin – including Jingtai – was expected to see moderate to strong winds from Friday night through Saturday, according to the China Meteorological Administration in Beijing late on Friday.

A separate report on the website of provincial weather services on Thursday predicted a “significant” drop in temperature in most parts of Gansu – including Baiyin – through Sunday.

“It was very hot one day before the race, and although the weather forecast said there would be wind and moderate rain in Baiyin on Saturday, everybody believed it would be mild,” Mao said. “It’s dry in northwestern China.”

The deaths sparked public outrage on Chinese social media, with anger mainly directed at the Baiyin government and unhappiness over the lack of contingency planning.

“Why didn’t the government read the weather forecast and do a risk assessment?” one commentator wrote. “This is totally a manmade calamity. Even if the weather is unexpected, where were the contingency plans?”

At the news briefing, Baiyin officials bowed and apologised, saying they were saddened by the tragic deaths of the runners and that they were to be blamed.

“The wind is too strong, our thermal blankets have been torn to bits,” a runner wrote in a WeChat chatroom to which Mao belonged.

Many of the runners had suffered from hypothermia and had lost their way in the strong winds and heavy rain, according to screenshots taken by Mao of the messages in the chatroom.

“A few are unconscious and are foaming at the mouth,” another runner wrote.

The Gansu provincial government has set up an investigation team to further look into the cause of the deaths, the People’s Daily reported. – Reuters

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‘Deviance and morality’: The history of the same-sex marriage movement in Switzerland

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The 56-year-old historian still recalls his run-ins with “suspicious” real estate agents in Switzerland, where police in some places were still keeping registers of homosexuals.

Three decades later, in a referendum on Sunday, the wealthy Alpine nation looks set to allow same-sex couples to marry, and grant them the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts.

“It is a huge step forward,” said Delessert, an expert on the history of homosexuality in Switzerland at Lausanne University.

READ MORE: Broad support for same-sex marriage ahead of referendum

The country decriminalised homosexuality in 1942, but numerous local and regional police forces continued to keep “gay registers”, some into the early 1990s.

These registers were aimed at “controlling deviance and morality”, Delessert explained, adding that they had dire impacts on the lives of those listed.

“If a supposed homosexual was convicted of theft, his homosexuality was submitted as additional proof of his immorality,” he said.

“If a homosexual applied to rent an apartment, he would not get it. If a homosexual wanted a job in the public sector, he would not get it.”

But the causes of the discrimination remained unsaid: the registers were never made public, and those listed there were never informed. 

‘Difficult to comprehend’ 

Only Zurich and Basel publicly announced that they were scrapping the registers, in 1979 and 1980, Delessert said, voicing frustration that all the other registers had simply vanished.

He said he had managed to find handwritten notes on police documents where officers requested the creation of “files” on homosexuals arrested after committing an offence.

Delessert said he had also found testimony from a commissioner mentioning that around 200 homosexuals were registered in Zurich each year.

Zurich’s official records division told AFP that these registers had been kept for internal police use, and had been destroyed.

An account by a whistleblower published in the Swiss media in April 1990 first alerted the public to the existence of one of these registers, in Bern, with the outcry pushing authorities to halt the practice.

When contacted by AFP, Bern cantonal police said they had searched internally, but “were unable to find information about this register, which apparently existed.”

“At an ethical level, it is difficult to comprehend today.” While such statements are welcome, Delessert highlighted that “the political authorities have never apologised” for the practice.

Zombies and crying babies

But he hailed the political turnaround in recent years. A referendum early last year opted to criminalise acts of homophobia, and towards the end of the year, parliament voted to legalise same-sex marriage.

That law aimed to finally bring Switzerland in line with much of Europe on gay rights.

But opponents of the law demanded a referendum within the country’s direct democratic system, in a bid to block it.

READ MORE: Switzerland to hold same-sex marriage referendum

Recent polls however show that a large majority of Swiss voters back changing the law.

Same-sex couples can already register a civil partnership in Switzerland, but that status does not provide the same rights as marriage.

Allowing same-sex marriage would fix that, enabling foreign spouses in same-sex relationships to apply for citizenship through a simplified procedure, and allowing same-sex couples to jointly adopt children.

And it would controversially give lesbian couples access to sperm donation.

The opponents, mainly drawn from the populist right-wing Swiss People’s Party, have plastered Swiss cities with stark posters decrying the commodification of children and warning the law will “kill the father”.

One of their posters shows a crying baby with its ear tagged like cattle, and the question: “Babies on demand?”

Another featuring a huge zombie-like head, meant to represent a dead father, was covered over by a nearby primary school in Wallis canton out of fear it would frighten the children.



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Simon Harris and wife welcome new baby boy

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Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has announced the birth of a baby son.

Posting on Instagram, the Minister said he and his wife Caoimhe had on Wednesday “welcomed Baby Cillian into the world”. Cillian is the couple’s second child, they also have a daughter Saoirse.

“Caoimhe and baby doing great and Saoirse delighted to be a big sister and looking forward to meeting him soon.”

Mr Harris thanked all of the staff at the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street, Dublin.

The Fine Gael TD said he will be taking paternity leave for a few weeks to “get to know this new little man”.

In a previous post he said Tánaiste Leo Varadkar would be taking any of his department’s business to Government during the time while Minister of State Niall Collins would be carrying out his day-to-day work in the department and Labour leader Alan Kelly would be providing a pair for Dáil votes.

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Macron presses Biden for ‘clarifications’ over submarine snub

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Macron was left furious by Australia’s decision last week to ditch a 2016 deal to buy diesel submarines from France in favour of nuclear-powered ones from the United States and Britain.

After a cabinet meeting, government spokesman Gabriel Attal made clear French anger had not abated with an unusually frank statement of Macron’s expectations from the scheduled conversation with 78-year-old Biden.

The exchange would be an opportunity to “clarify both the way in which this announcement was made and the way for an American re-engagement in its relationship with an ally,” Attal said.

Paris was particularly outraged that Australia negotiated with Washington and London in secret, which French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced as “treachery” and a “stab in the back”.

French officials were notified about the loss of the contract just hours before Biden unveiled the new AUKUS security and defence partnership between the three English-speaking countries.

READ ALSO OPINION: France’s Australian submarine row shows that Macron was right about NATO

Macron was expecting “clarifications about the American decision to keep a European ally outside of fundamental talks about cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” Attal added, without giving the schedule time for the exchange.

“We expect our allies to acknowledge that the exchanges and consultations that should have taken place did not, and that this poses a question about confidence, which all of us need to draw conclusions about now.”

Showdown

The submarine row has plunged Franco-US ties into what some analysts view as the most acute crisis since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Paris opposed.

After four years of tumultuous relations with ex-president Donald Trump, the spat has also dashed hopes of a complete reset under Biden, who took office in January aiming to rebuild frazzled ties with Europe.

As the row drags on, observers and some of France’s European partners are wondering how and when the French leader will call an end to the face-off, which is playing out just seven months ahead of presidential elections.

British Prime Minister Johnson said it was “time for some of our dearest friends around the world to ‘prenez un grip’ (get a grip)” in comments in Washington that mixed French and English.

“‘Donnez-moi un break’ because this is fundamentally a great step forward for global security,” he told Sky News.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, whose country is staunchly pro-American, defended Biden as “very loyal” and warned against turning “challenges which will always exist between allies into something they should not be.”

Conditions

Attal said that France and the US needed to begin a process “to create the conditions for confidence to be restored”.

As well as an acknowledgement of French interests in the Pacific region, the process should include “full recognition by our American allies of the need to boost European sovereignty as well as the importance of the growing commitment by the Europeans to their own defence and security.”

This latter point is a source of tension between Biden and Macron, who has pushed hard during his four-and-a-half years in office for Europeans to invest more in defence and pool resources in order to increase their joint military capabilities.

The US, and some EU members including Denmark and Baltic countries, see this as a potential challenge to NATO, the US-led transatlantic military alliance that has been the cornerstone of European defence since World War II.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly argued against the idea of France withdrawing from NATO command structures, which some politicians in France have suggested in the wake of the submarines snub.

“Is it worth slamming the door on NATO? I don’t think so,” she said, while adding that “political dialogue is non-existent in NATO.”

Australia’s decision to order nuclear-powered submarines was driven by concern about China’s commercial and military assertiveness in the Pacific region, where Biden is seeking to build an alliance of democratic states to help contain Beijing.



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