Serbia, Jan 6 (AP/UNB) — Thousands of people have braved snow and freezing temperatures in Serbia's capital to turn up for the fifth week of street protests against populist President Aleksandar Vucic.
The demonstrators marched through downtown Belgrade blowing whistles and booing and jeering loudly as they passed the Serbian presidency building on Saturday. Some carried Serbian flags and banners reading "We are the people" or "Down with the thieves."
The demonstrations started after thugs beat up an opposition leader in November, putting pressure on Vucic.
Critics accuse the president of imposing an autocracy through strict control over the media and promoting hate speech against opponents.
Vucic rejects being labeled as domineering and has suggested he might call an early election this year. A former extreme nationalist, he has held office saying he favors Serbia joining the European Union.
Poland, Jan 6(AP/UNB) — A faulty heating system appeared to have caused a fire at a house in northern Poland where five teenage girls died while locked inside a recreational escape room that was installed in the rented dwelling, investigators said Saturday.
Firefighters in the city of Koszalin found the bodies of the 15-year-old victims Friday after they extinguished a fire in a room adjacent to the one the girls had entered while celebrating a birthday.
Autopsies showed the girls died of carbon monoxide asphyxiation, prosecutors said, using a technical term for smoke inhalation.
A 26-year-old man employed at the location was hospitalized with burns.
Players in escape room games are locked inside a room or building and must solve puzzles and find clues that lead them to the key that will unlock the door. Regarded as an intellectual challenge, the games are highly popular among teenagers in Poland.
Koszalin prosecutor Ryszard Gasiorowski said a leak in a bottled gas heating system was a probable cause of the fire. Earlier, firefighters blamed faulty electric wiring and substandard security procedures.
"Preliminary findings suggest that the fire was caused by an unsealed gas container inside a heater," Gasiorowski said.
The fire broke out in a part of the detached house that was being used as a reception room for the entertainment venue and blocked the employee's way to the girls, he said.
Firefighters and other witnesses were questioned, but the injured employee's condition prevented investigators from interviewing him immediately, Gasiorowski said.
Earlier Saturday, national firefighters' chief Leszek Suski said there was evidence of "a lot of negligence" at the venue, including makeshift electrical wiring too close to flammable materials and the absence of a proper evacuation route.
"Security was not ensured, and that led to the tragedy," Suski said.
A spokesman for local firefighters, Tomasz Kubiak, said the units responding to the blaze had to use specialized equipment and force their way into the locked escape room of some 7 square meters (75 square feet.)
Poland's interior minister has ordered fire safety inspections at more than 1,000 escape room locations across the country. The first inspections were being held Saturday, the Interior Ministry said. Previously, there was no official requirement for fire safety certificates at such locations.
Teachers, psychologists and local education authorities met Saturday to discuss ways of helping students at the school the five girls attended deal with the trauma.
Students, teachers, city authorities and residents attended a memorial Catholic Mass at noon at the local church. Local residents placed flowers and lights in front of the location, a two-story house with a huge "Escape Room" sign in front.
Koszalin Mayor Piotr Jedlinski declared Sunday a day of mourning and appealed to residents to hold no entertainment gatherings or parties. The annual Epiphany procession was canceled.
"The families want peace and quiet as they face their great tragedy," Jedlinski said.
Rome, Jan 6 (AP/UNB) — The leaders of the populist parties that formed Italy's government sparred Saturday over more migrants stranded on private rescue vessels in the Mediterranean Sea, exposing cracks in their coalition's position on immigration.
German humanitarian groups Sea-Watch and Sea Eye are seeking a port where two ships can disembark passengers who were picked up from unseaworthy smugglers' boats, 32 of them on Dec. 22 and 17 more in recent days.
Malta allowed the aid boats to shelter from bad weather near its coast and to take on fresh crew, food and water. But the tiny island nation has refused to let any of those migrants step onto Maltese land, saying the rescues took place outside the country's search-and-rescue area.
Italian Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio, who heads the 5-Star Movement, insisted Saturday that Malta had to allow the 49 people off the ships. De Maio said Italy was willing to take the 10 mothers on the aid vessels and their children.
Since the coalition government came to power in mid-2018, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the right-wing, anti-migrant League party, has made it strict policy that no private aid group receive authorization to transfer rescued migrants to land in Italian ports.
Both he and Di Maio have likened private aid vessels to "taxi services" for Libya-based human traffickers. Amid criticism of the Italian government's new hard-line stand, they also have reminded other European Union nation's that Italy has taken in hundreds of thousands of rescued migrants as asylum-seekers in recent years.
Di Maio stressed Saturday that Italy was offering to accept the limited number of women and children from the rescue ships to keep families together. Such as gesture, he said, would also give "a good moral slap" to EU nations that have ignored Italy's insistence that the burden of caring for rescued asylum-seekers be shared.
"We're not going backward on migration policy, which has allowed us to reduce disembarking considerably," Di Maio said.
But Salvini contradicted his governing partner, telling journalists Italy intended to stick with its private rescue vessel ban and wouldn't be taking the 10 mothers and their children.
"We opened our hearts and our wallets. Now, it's someone else's turn," Salvini said.
As for any possible softening of Italy's immigration policy, Salvini also tweeted "I'm not changing my mind."
Both politicians slammed Malta for refusing to let the 49 disembark, but the EU nation retorted that it had rescued and permitted onto on its shores some 250 migrants between Christmas and New Year's.
The recent rescues "are putting a strain on our services," Maltese Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia said, adding that Italian authorities had not articulated a clear position about the migrants on the aid boats due to the contradictory statements by Italy's leaders.
Farrugia has said the EU's executive branch, the European Commission, was working on an ad hoc plan to find countries where the 250 migrants in Malta and the 49 on the aid boats could have asylum applications processed.
While politicians squabbled, Sea-Watch appealed on Twitter for a rapid, "reasonable solution that guarantees a port, medical care and food to women, children and men at the mercy of the waves."
Di Maio's opening to taking some of the migrants appeared calculated to placate a faction of his party uncomfortable with the government's rejection of rescued migrants.
Championing that 5-Star faction is Roberto Fico, the speaker of the Italian Parliament's lower chamber.
"We can't allow human beings, who are fleeing from pain, death and suffering to be left in unacceptable conditions," he wrote on Facebook.
Lima, Jan 5 (AP/UNB) — A dozen Latin American governments and Canada delivered a blistering rebuke to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Friday, questioning the legitimacy of his soon-to-begin second term and urging him to hand over power as the only path to restoring democracy in his crisis-wracked South American country.
The sharp criticism came at a meeting in Peru's capital of foreign ministers from countries including Argentina, Brazil and Colombia, all of which have been weighing how to confront the increasingly authoritarian Maduro while absorbing a growing exodus of Venezuelans fleeing economic chaos.
In a statement, the Lima Group urged Maduro to refrain from taking the presidential oath next Thursday and instead cede power to the opposition-controlled congress until new, fairer elections can be held.
"Only through the full restoration, as soon as possible, of democracy and a respect for human rights is it possible to resolve the country's political, economic, social and humanitarian crisis," the diplomats said.
Even before announcing the resolution, the group's meeting with the participation of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo drew a sharp response from Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza. He accused the coalition of taking orders directly from President Donald Trump, who Caracas frequently accuses of spearheading an economic war against the country.
"What a display of humiliating subordination!" Arreaza said on Twitter.
A once-wealthy oil nation, Venezuela is in the throes of crisis after two decades of socialist rule, marked by hyperinflation that makes it difficult for people to afford scarce food and medicine. An estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans have migrated from the country since 2015, according to the United Nations.
The Lima Group was formed more than a year ago by mostly conservative-run regional governments seeking to defuse a crisis in Venezuela that is increasingly threatening regional stability. The group had joined the U.S. and others in condemning Maduro's re-election in May as a sham after popular opponents were banned from running and the largest anti-government parties boycotted the race.
While the group previously denounced Maduro as a "dictator" and urged dialogue, its hard-edged resolution Friday calling on Maduro to step down suggests its members are losing patience and likely to join the U.S. in trying to ostracize and further punish the embattled leader.
Among other steps, the group vowed to block top Venezuelan officials from entering their countries and freeze assets they hold abroad. The resolution also expressed support for an effort to prosecute Maduro at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
But beyond the heated rhetoric, the anti-Maduro coalition showed signs of fraying along ideological lines.
Regional powerbroker Mexico was one of the early and biggest promoters of the Lima Group. But it sent a lower-level representative to Friday's meeting who refused to sign the resolution, reflecting the policy of non-intervention favored by that nation's new leftist president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Maduro traveled to Lopez Obrador's inauguration, meeting privately with the Mexican leader.
Maximiliano Reyes, Mexico's undersecretary for Latin America and the Caribbean, said he didn't back the resolution because it runs contrary to promoting dialogue, the spirit in which the international coalition was formed.
"Mexico is convinced that this type of action, far from resolving the situation in the country, would further deteriorate living conditions of Venezuelans," he said.
The United States is not formally a member of the Lima Group but has been a vocal supporter and Pompeo participated in the meeting via video conference.
Pompeo this month made a visit to Latin America during which he attended the inauguration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and then stopped in Colombia to meet with President Ivan Duque. Both Bolsonaro and Duque have declared a united stance against Maduro's government aligned with the United States.
The Trump administration considers Maduro's government a "dictatorship." It has sanctioned roughly 70 top officials and blocked U.S. banks from doing business with Venezuela, putting a financial stranglehold on the cash-strapped country.
Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America, questioned Pompeo's participation in Friday's meeting.
He said the Lima Group was created to showcase concerns of Latin American nations about Venezuela's crisis and Pompeo's involvement furthers a perception that the U.S. has been quietly directing its moves.
The coalition should push for neutral actors to open dialogue between Maduro's government and opposition leaders, finding ways to reduce mounting tensions and reach a peaceful resolution in Venezuela, Ramsey said.
"I'm worried that this paints the region into a corner, with no clear path forward," Ramsey said of the resolution. "The truth is that Maduro isn't just going to hand over the keys."
Berlin, Jan 5 (AP/UNB) — Twitter suspended on Friday an account that posted links to sensitive personal data and documents stolen by hackers from hundreds of German public figures and politicians — from every political party but the far-right Alternative for Germany.
The exposed material included addresses, cellphone numbers and chat records, along with banking, credit card and other financial information, German news media said.
The breach, discovered by journalists on Thursday, affected politicians at all levels, including the European, German and state parliaments as well as municipal officials, said Martina Fietz, a spokeswoman for Chancellor Angela Merkel. She said the country's cyber-defense agency was investigating.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said an initial analysis suggests that the material was obtained from cloud services, email accounts or social networks. He said there was no indication that federal government or parliament computer systems were compromised.
Fietz told reporters that "it appears, at first sight, that no sensitive information and data are included in what was published, including regarding the chancellor."
The German news agency dpa reported that the information included a fax number and email address belonging to Merkel and several letters to and from the chancellor.
Cybersecurity analysts compared the hack in scale and affected population to that of prominent U.S. Democrats including Hillary Clinton presidential campaign workers and other Americans targeted by state-backed Russian hackers in 2015-2016.
"This hack clearly isn't about extortion or financially-motivated. This is about attempting to destabilise Germany society," British security expert Graham Cluley blogged.
Some experts cautioned journalists not to link to or publish the exposed information, saying it would serve the interests of hackers and hurt the victims.
Public broadcaster RBB said there appeared to be no method to what was posted via a Twitter account. However, security experts and journalists who examined the documents said multiple copies were posted on mirror sites, indicating a serious investment of energy and time.
Although the data reportedly include information such as internal party communications and in some cases personal financial records and credit card details — some of the data years old — RBB said there appeared to be no politically sensitive documents.
The Twitter account listed as located in Hamburg was taken offline at midday Friday after gaining about 17,000 followers. It had been active since mid-2017. A related blog was also suspended by Google.
A Twitter spokesperson would not comment other than to say the incident was under investigation. The spokesperson said the company recently updated its rules to prohibit the posting of "hacked material that contains private information, trade secrets or could put people in harm's way."
The links it posted led to information on politicians from all parties in parliament except Alternative for Germany that had been shared in daily batches before Christmas along with data on YouTubers and other public figures that media reports said included journalists, comedians and artists. The last post was on Dec. 28.
The head of Germany's IT security agency, Arne Schoenbohm, said authorities had been aware of individual cases in December but material was posted online on a large scale Thursday evening. He said the agency believes data on about 1,000 people were involved, and confirmed that one party in parliament wasn't affected — though he wouldn't name it.
Schoenbohm said "a high two-digit number of attacks" were very successful, with accounts infiltrated and data and documents extracted. His agency was still working to figure out how the attack started and who was behind it. He said authorities couldn't rule out fake data having been mixed in with genuine information in the leaked data.
Germany has seen mounting cyberattacks on government and parliament computer systems since 2014 in which Kremlin-backed hackers were suspected. Berlin has been a leading backer of sanctions against Russia over its aggression in Ukraine.
German officials didn't comment Friday on whether there were any indications foreign intelligence services were involved, citing the ongoing investigation.
Tom Kellermann, the chief cybersecurity officer of Carbon Black, was among analysts saying the hack had all the hallmarks of Russian state-backed hackers.
He said it made perfect sense that none of the targets in this hacking campaign was from Germany's far right, and that it appeared aimed at "undermining the German political process and essentially stoking fires of the mob."
"It's in Russia's best interests for the far-right politicians to be successful," Kellermann added.