The world at a glance ...
Deadly earthquakes: A series of some 40 strong earthquakes rocked central Italy this week, flattening mountain towns and trapping scores of people under debris. At least 120 people were killed in three regions: Umbria, Lazio, and Marche. “Half the town no longer exists,” said Sergio Pirozzi, mayor of Amatrice, which saw its historic town center—including buildings that date to the Middle Ages—reduced to rubble. Residents described using bedsheets to climb down from the upper stories of damaged houses. The government called out the army to assist with the rescue as people tried to dig out their friends and family members, many of whom were sleeping when the first quake struck in the early hours. That initial magnitude-6.2 quake was felt as far away as Rome, 100 miles to the southwest.
Sarko returns: Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has announced that he’s running for president in the 2017 election, tacking hard to the right to try to win over supporters of the anti-immigrant National Front. In a new book called Everything for France, he promises to “drastically reduce” immigration and limit the right to French nationality of children born to immigrants. But Sarkozy is being beaten in approval polls—48 percent to 28 percent—by former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, his more moderate rival for the Republican Party’s nomination. Only 18 percent of voters approve of incumbent François Hollande, a Socialist who is deeply unpopular after multiple terrorist attacks on his watch; National Front leader Marine Le Pen is at 25 percent.
Catfish in the sewers: Huge, invasive catfish are taking over the sewers in the Cuban city of Cienfuegos. Clarias gariepinus, an African walking catfish that can survive up to three days out of water, has been a pest in Cuban rivers and lakes for years, ever since it escaped from the fish farms where it was being raised as food. While it doesn’t get very large, the aggressive fish can eat rodents, chickens, and even puppies. Specialists from the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment warned locals that it was unsafe to eat any fish caught in the sewers.
Did the president cheat? A group of professors say that more than a quarter of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s 1991 law school thesis was plagiarized. In a report published on the website of crusading journalist Carmen Aristegui, the scholars said 197 paragraphs of the 682 in Peña Nieto’s thesis are extremely similar to passages in the works of 10 authors. One chunk of 20 paragraphs appears to have been copied word for word from a book written by former President Miguel de la Madrid, who is not mentioned in the bibliography. The revelation is a huge embarrassment to Peña Nieto, who has championed education reform in part to stop students from bribing teachers for good grades.
Here come the Venezuelans: Colombia says many of the 300,000 Venezuelans who crossed its border to buy food and other basic supplies in the past few weeks appear to have stayed illegally. This week, it deported 33 people and said more will be sent back. Venezuela’s economy has collapsed amid hyperinflation and chronic shortages of food and medicine, and its people are now beginning to flee abroad. One Venezuelan died trying to reach Aruba in a raft. Guyana, Venezuela’s extremely poor neighbor to the east, says so many Venezuelans are crossing its border seeking food that it has begun a deportation program. The United Nations said the number of Venezuelans asking for refugee status jumped from 127 in 2000 to 10,300 last year.
Rio de Janeiro
Homeless Olympian: An Ethiopian marathon runner who made an antigovernment arm gesture as he crossed the finish line at the Rio Olympics is refusing to return to Ethiopia, fearing that authorities will kill him for his display of defiance. Silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa, 26, raised his arms in an X in front of his face, a sign of solidarity with his Oromo ethnic group, which has suffered brutal repression. The Oromo people say the Ethiopian government has been seizing their land, and since the group started demonstrating last fall, at least 400 have been killed by security forces and tens of thousands jailed. Although the Ethiopian government says it will not punish Lilesa, he is expected to claim asylum in another country.
Fake ISIS attack: Tourists ran screaming from Prague’s Old Town Square this week when a Czech far-right politician staged a mock takeover by ISIS. Dressed as an imam, Martin Konvicka rode a Humvee into the packed tourist district, as supporters wearing military uniforms and fake beards waved ISIS flags and shot BB guns in the air. Standing by a camel he’d brought along, Konvicka said, “We are bringing you the light of true faith!” Tourists, including a group from Israel, fled in a panic, knocking over chairs and tables at outdoor cafés and sheltering in restaurants. City officials said they had been misled about the nature of the stunt when they gave permission. Konvicka is running for Senate for the Alternative for Czech Republic party, formerly the Bloc Against Islam.
Turkish offensive: Turkey has launched an all-out offensive in Syria aiming to push ISIS militants away from its southern border. Turkish artillery and warplanes rained bombs down on the ISIS-held city of Jarablus for hours before Turkish tanks and ground troops crossed the border. The assault came just days after rockets from Syria hit the Turkish city of Karkamis and a suicide bomber killed at least 54 people, half of them children, at a Kurdish wedding in Turkey near the Syrian border. The government blamed ISIS for both attacks. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the Turkish assault was also aimed at driving back Syrian Kurdish forces, who are themselves fighting ISIS. He said the operation’s main goal was to preserve Syria’s “territorial integrity”—a jab at Kurdish separatists there.
Russians can’t use base: Iran has revoked permission for Russia to use an Iranian air base for strikes on Syria after the Russians went public with the agreement. Moscow’s use of the Hamadan base—the first time any foreign military has operated from Iranian territory since World War II—came as an alarming surprise to the U.S. and other Western countries involved in Syria when Russian media publicized it last week. But Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan said this week that the Kremlin’s bragging about the privilege was “ungentlemanly” and a “betrayal of trust.” Over the last year, Russia and Iran have grown closer, as Russia has agreed to build Iran a new nuclear reactor and sell it surface-to-air missiles.
More U.S. support: The U.S. will step up its assistance to allied forces in Iraq and Syria so they can retake ISIS strongholds within months, the new U.S. commander in the region announced this week. Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend said the U.S. would “pick up our pace of operations”—including more air and artillery strikes and increased training of local forces—to help its allies take the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa. He warned Russia and Syria that they will be fired on if they bomb areas where American troops are embedded with U.S.-backed Syrian rebels. Last week, American fighter jets patrolled over eastern Syria after Syrian government warplanes attacked rebels sited close to U.S. special operations forces.
Kerry pledges aid: Secretary of State John Kerry promised military assistance to Nigeria while meeting this week with the country’s president, Muhammadu Buhari. Kerry said the U.S. would help the government fight against Boko Haram—the terrorist group that controls much of the north and has pledged allegiance to ISIS. But he also encouraged restraint by the armed forces, which have been accused of human-rights abuses. “It is understandable that, in the wake of terrorist activity, some are tempted to crack down on anyone and everyone who could theoretically pose some sort of threat,” Kerry said. “But extremism can’t be defeated through repression or fear.” Nigeria said it killed senior leaders of Boko Haram in an airstrike this week and may have mortally wounded the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau.
America pulls back: After a series of widely criticized Saudi attacks on civilian targets, including hospitals and schools, the U.S. has withdrawn much of its support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is assisting the Yemeni government in battling Houthi rebels allied with Iran. The U.S. had provided significant aid to the coalition, including intelligence sharing, weapons deliveries, and air-to-air refueling of jets. But Reuters revealed last week that the U.S. has withdrawn a military team from Saudi Arabia that helps coordinate that aid and relocated it to Bahrain. Additionally, the Pentagon has slashed the number of staff on the team from a high of 45 to fewer than five. U.S. officials said the changes were unrelated to growing criticism of the Saudi campaign.