Israeli spyware used to target journalists, activists: Report
Pegasus spyware affair ‘completely unacceptable’ if true: EU chief
A major Israeli cyber-surveillance company, NSO Group, came under heightened scrutiny Sunday after an international alliance of news outlets reported that governments used its software to target journalists, dissidents and opposition politicians.
The Israeli regime also faced renewed international pressure for allowing the company to do business with authoritarian regimes that use the spyware for purposes that go far afield of the company’s stated aim: targeting terrorists and criminals, according to The New York Times.
NSO strongly denied the claims.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said Monday the spyware scandal was “completely unacceptable” if true.
“This has to be verified, but if it is the case, it is completely unacceptable,” she told reporters in Prague, according to AFP.
NSO has attracted scrutiny since 2016, when the company’s software was said to be used against a rights activist in the United Arab Emirates and a journalist in Mexico. Since then, The New York Times has reported that the software was deployed against journalists, rights campaigners and policymakers in Mexico and Saudi Arabia. The new reports that appeared Sunday suggest that the firm’s software has been used against more people in more countries than had previously been reported.
Among other actions, the company is said to have sold a sophisticated surveillance application known as Pegasus that the journalism consortium said appears to have been used to attempt to hack at least 37 smartphones owned by journalists from countries that include Azerbaijan, France, Hungary, India and Morocco. Separately, a person familiar with NSO contracts told The Times that NSO systems were sold to the governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, India, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.
The accounts, published by The Washington Post and an alliance of 16 other international news outlets, follow recent reporting by The Times that Israel permitted NSO to do business with Saudi Arabia, and encouraged it to keep doing so even after the Saudi government was implicated in the 2018 assassination of a Saudi journalist and dissident, Jamal Khashoggi.
In a statement, NSO said: “We firmly deny the false allegations made in their report. Their sources have supplied them with information which has no factual basis, as evident by the lack of supporting documentation for many of their claims. In fact, these allegations are so outrageous and far from reality, that NSO is considering a defamation lawsuit.”
The Israeli prime minister’s office declined to comment, and the Israeli Defense Ministry said it had not been given enough to time to respond to a request for comment. The ministry has previously said it would revoke export licenses granted to any Israeli company that sold software that contravened the terms of the license, “especially after any violation of human rights.”
The new accusations heightened concerns among privacy activists that no smartphone user — even those using software like WhatsApp or Signal — is safe from governments and anyone else with the right cyber-surveillance tech.
Activists say that without access to surveillance-free communications, journalists will no longer be able to contact sources without fear of exposing them to government retaliation. And rights campaigners will be unable to freely communicate with victims of state-led abuses.
The journalist consortium linked NSO to a leaked list of more than 50,000 mobile numbers from more than 50 countries that it said appeared to be proposed surveillance targets for the company’s clients. The alliance said the list contained the numbers of hundreds of journalists, media proprietors, government leaders, opposition politicians, political dissidents, academics and rights campaigners.
England’s ‘freedom day’ marred by soaring cases and isolation chaos
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ‘freedom day’ ending over a year of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in England was marred on Monday by surging infections, warnings of supermarket shortages and his own forced self-isolation.
Johnson’s bet that he can get one of Europe’s largest economies firing again because so many people are now vaccinated marks a new chapter in the global response to the coronavirus, Reuters reported.
If the vaccines prove effective in reducing severe illness and deaths even while infections reach record levels, Johnson’s decision could offer a path out of the worst public health crisis in decades. If not, more lockdowns could loom.
But Johnson’s big day was marred by “pingdemic chaos” as a National Health Service app ordered hundreds of thousands of people to self-isolate – prompting warnings supermarket shelves could soon be emptied.
“If we don’t do it now we’ve got to ask ourselves, when will we ever do it?” Johnson said just hours after he was forced to abandon a plan to dodge the 10-day quarantine requirement for himself and Finance Minister Rishi Sunak.
“This is the right moment but we’ve got to do it cautiously. We’ve got to remember that this virus is sadly still out there.”
Britain has the seventh highest death toll in the world, 128,708, and is forecast to soon have more new infections each day than it did at the height of a second wave of the virus earlier this year. On Sunday there were 48,161 new cases.
But, outstripping European peers, 87% of Britain’s adult population has had one vaccination dose, and more than 68% have had the two doses which provide fuller protection. Daily deaths, currently at around 40 per day, are just a fraction of a peak of above 1,800 seen in January.
The FTSE 100 share index fell to a two-month low on Monday on concerns that economic recovery could be in danger. UK-listed shares of cruise operator Carnival Plc (CCL.L), and airlines easyJet (EZJ.L) and British Airways-owner IAG (ICAG.L) fell between 4% and 6.7%. The pound fell to a three-month low.
From Monday midnight, laws in England requiring masks to be worn in shops and other indoor settings lapsed, along with capacity limits in bars and restaurants, and rules limiting the number of people who can socialise together.
Johnson sets COVID-19 restrictions for England, with devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland making their own policy.
As businesses across England faced a shortage of workers due to the NHS app pinging people and telling them to isolate, supermarkets warned they faced strain.
British society appears split on the restrictions: some want tough rules to continue as they fear the virus will keep killing people and overwhelm hospitals, but others have chafed at the most onerous restrictions in peacetime history.
Johnson faced an outcry on Sunday when he and finance minister tried to dodge quarantine with a special scheme for senior ministers and civil servants. He will now isolate at his country residence at Chequers after Health Minister Sajid Javid tested positive.
Afghanistan withdraws diplomats from Islamabad following kidnapping of ambassador’s daughter
Pakistan’s PM orders immediate arrest of culprits
Afghanistan withdrew its ambassador and diplomats from Pakistan’s capital following the kidnapping of the ambassador’s daughter, the Afghan Foreign Ministry said on Sunday, a new blow to relations at a sensitive time for the Afghan peace process.
The daughter of Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan was seized on Friday and held for several hours by unknown assailants who left her with injuries and rope marks and Pakistan authorities have said they are investigating, according to Reuters.
“The Afghan government recalled the ambassador and senior diplomats to Kabul until the complete elimination of the security threats, including the arrest and punishment of the perpetrators,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry in a statement called the decision “regrettable” and said it hoped the Afghan government would reconsider.
“The foreign secretary met the ambassador of Afghanistan today, highlighted all the steps taken by the government in this context, and re-assured him of full cooperation,” it said.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has assigned the matter top priority and said he wants the culprits caught within 48 hours, the Interior Minister said on Saturday.
Pakistan is considered a key player in the peace process in Afghanistan, where Taliban militants have taken over territory in recent weeks
Kabul accuses Pakistan of allowing safe havens for the Taliban, while Islamabad accuses Kabul of allowing militants to use their territory to carry out attacks in Pakistan.
Pakistan has been acknowledged for helping bring the Taliban to the negotiating table for peace talks that began in Qatar last year, but negotiations have failed to make substantive progress and the Taliban have ramped up offensives.
Palestinians, EU condemn raiding of Al-Aqsa by Israeli forces
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Hamas, the group that governs the Gaza Strip, called on the Palestinians to make their way to Al-Quds, and to remain in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound until Eid al-Adha prayers.
Jordan’s Islamic Waqf, which administers the holy sites in the compound, condemned the “violations and attacks” carried out by Jewish fanatic groups, with the support and political cover of the Israeli regime, it said in a statement carried by official Palestinian website Wafa, saying Israel was “aiming for a religious war”.
“The Israeli actions against the mosque are rejected and condemned, and represent a violation of the historical and legal status quo, international law and Israel’s obligations as an occupying power in East Jerusalem [Al-Quds],” spokesman for Jordan’s Foreign Ministry Daifallah Al-Fayez, said in a statement on Sunday.
On its part, the EU delegation to the Palestinian territories in a tweet said it was “concerned over ongoing tensions” and urged that there be no “acts of incitement”.
It also called for respect for the site’s status quo and urged Israeli, religious and community leaders to urgently “calm down this explosive situation”.
But Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett directed that Jewish visits there “continue, while maintaining order at the site”, he said in an official statement after the incident.
Israel annexed East Al-Quds in 1980, in a step that was never recognised by the international community.
In May, Israel launched an 11-day assault on the Gaza Strip after Israeli forces stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, attacking Muslim worshippers during the final days of Ramadan.
The Israeli air raids on Gaza killed at least 250 Palestinians, including 66 children, while rockets launched by Palestinian groups killed at least 12 people. The escalation ended with an internationally brokered cease-fire.
US, allies are leaving ...
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Call for cease-fire
Fifteen diplomatic missions and the NATO representative in Afghanistan urged the Taliban on Monday to halt their military offensives just hours after the Afghan sides failed to agree on a cease-fire at a peace meeting in Doha.
A delegation of Afghan leaders met the Taliban’s political leadership in the Qatari capital over the weekend but the Taliban, said in a statement late on Sunday, made no mention of a halt to Afghanistan’s escalating violence, Reuters wrote.
“This Eid al-Adha, the Taliban should lay down their weapons for good and show the world their commitment to the peace process,” the missions said, referring to Tuesday’s Muslim holiday in Afghanistan.
Over recent Eid holidays, the Taliban have called short cease-fires, saying they wanted to let Afghans spend them in peace.
This time there has been no such announcement as the Taliban make swift territorial gains in near-unprecedented levels of fighting nationwide.
Russia successfully tests hypersonic missile: Defense Ministry
The Russian military reported another successful test launch of a new Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile on Monday.
Russia’s Defense Ministry in a statement said the missile was launched from an Admiral Groshkov frigate located in the White Sea, in the north of Russia, according to AP.
The ministry said the missile successfully hit a target more than 350 kilometers (217 miles) away on the coast of the Barents Sea.
“The tactical and technical characteristics of the Tsirkon missile were confirmed during the tests,” the ministry said.
According to the ministry, there are plans to equip submarines and surface vessels of the Russian Navy with the Tsirkon system.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the Tsirkon missile would be capable of flying at nine times the speed of sound and have a range of 1,000 kilometers (620 miles).
An earlier test launch took place in October, on Putin’s birthday. Russia’s leader hailed it as a “big event” for the country.
“Equipping our armed forces — the army and the navy — with the latest, truly unparalleled weapon systems will certainly ensure the defense capability of our country in the long term,” Putin said at the time.
A Tokyo court sentenced US Army Special Forces veteran Michael Taylor to two years in prison and his son to one year and eight months for helping former Nissan Motor chairman Carlos Ghosn flee Japan, AFP reported.