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Biden virtual ‘Summit for Democracy’ to rally nations against rising authoritarianism

US President Joe Biden will gather 111 world leaders in a virtual meeting dubbed the Summit for Democracy, in what Washington hopes will be a boost for global democracy threatened by an increase in authoritarian rulers.

US officials promise a year of action will follow the two-day conference but preparations have been overshadowed by questions over some invitees’ democratic credentials, and complaints from uninvited countries.

Biden will deliver opening remarks on Thursday at 8:00 a.m.

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The State Department’s top official for civilian security, democracy, and human rights Uzra Zeya said the event would bring together both established and emerging democracies and help them deliver for their people at “a moment of democratic reckoning.”

The conference is a test of Biden’s assertion, announced in his first foreign policy address in February, that he would return the United States to global leadership to face down authoritarian forces led by China and Russia.

Both countries were not invited to this week’s event, which coincides with questions about the strength of America’s democracy. Biden is struggling to pass his agenda through a polarized Congress and after former President Donald Trump disputed the 2020 election result, leading to an assault on the US Capitol, the legislative seat, by his supporters on Jan. 6.

An invitation list published last month included countries whose leaders are accused by human rights groups of harboring authoritarian tendencies, like the Philippines, Poland and Brazil.

It also included Taiwan, stoking anger from China, which considers the democratically governed island part of its territory.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the invitation of Taiwan showed the United States was only using democracy as “cover and a tool for it to advance its geopolitical objectives, oppress other countries, divide the world and serve its own interests.”

‘Lip service’

Washington has used the run-up to the summit to announce sanctions against officials in Iran, Syria and Uganda it accuses of oppressing their populations, and against people it accused of being tied to corruption and criminal gangs in Kosovo and Central America.

US officials hope to win support during the meetings for global initiatives such as use of technology to enhance privacy or circumvent censorship and for countries to make specific public commitments to improve their democracies before an in-person summit planned for late 2022.

Annie Boyajian, director of advocacy at non-profit Freedom House, said the event had the potential to push struggling democracies to do better and to spur coordination between democratic governments.

“But, a full assessment won’t be possible until we know what commitments there are and how they are implemented in the year ahead,” Boyajian said.

Zeya at the State Department said civil society would help hold the countries, including the United States, accountable. Zeya declined to say whether Washington would disinvite leaders who do not fulfill their pledges.

Human Rights Watch’s Washington director Sarah Holewinski said making the invitation to the 2022 summit dependent on delivering on commitments was the only way to get nations to step up.

Otherwise, Holewinski said, some “will only pay lip service to human rights and make commitments they never intend to keep.”

“They shouldn’t get invited back,” she said.

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US: Bodies of two of three missing kids found in Minnesota lake

The bodies of two young children have been recovered from a Minnesota lake, and searchers are still looking for a third they fear may have been intentionally drowned.

Meanwhile, the father of the children died at a different location hours earlier, and their mother is missing. Names have not been released.

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The chain of events began Friday morning when the father was found dead at a mobile home park in the town of Maplewood, near Minneapolis. Police determined that the woman had left with the children, and a search began.

Maplewood Police Lt. Joe Steiner said the woman’s car was found near Vadnais Lake around 4 p.m. Friday. The shoes of the children were found on the shore.

A search of the lake found one child’s body Friday evening. A second body was found overnight. Searchers from several organizations were busy Saturday looking for the third, as well as the mother.

Authorities believe all three children were under the age of 5.

“There’s nothing more tragic than the loss of young children,” Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said at a news conference on Friday. He called the deaths a “likely triple homicide.”

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Foreign firefighters arrive in Greece for summer wildfire season

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Foreign firefighters arrive in Greece for summer wildfire season

Several dozen Romanian and Bulgarian firefighters took up their posts in Greece on Saturday, the first members of a European force being deployed to the country to provide backup in case of major wildfires during the summer.

More than 200 firefighters and equipment from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Romania, Norway and Finland will be on standby during the hottest months of July and August in Greece, where a spate of wildfires caused devastation last summer.

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A group of 28 Romanian firefighters with eight vehicles, and 16 firefighters from Bulgaria with four vehicles, were the first to arrive for the two-month mission, financed and coordinated under the European Union’s civil protection mechanism.

“We thank you very much for coming to help us during a difficult summer for our country, and for proving that European solidarity is not just theoretical, it’s real,” Greek Civil Protection Minister Christos Stylianides said on Saturday as he welcomed the members of the Romanian mission in Athens.

“When things get tough, you will be side by side with our Greek firefighters so we can save lives and property.”

The Bulgarian firefighters have been stationed in Larissa, in central Greece.

Last summer’s wildfires ravaged about 300,000 acres (121,000 hectares) of forest and bushland in different parts of Greece as the country experienced its worst heatwave in 30 years.

Following sharp criticism of its response to the fires, the Greek government set up a new civil protection ministry and promised to boost firefighting capacities.

In Greece’s worst wildfire disaster, 102 people were killed when a blaze tore through the seaside town of Mati and nearby areas close to Athens during the summer of 2018.

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One killed, six injured in shootout between migrant groups in Serbia

One migrant was killed and at least six others, including a teenage girl, were injured Saturday in a shootout between migrant groups in Serbia near the Hungarian border, the state-run RTS television reported.

The 16-year-old girl sustained life threatening injuries in the incident that occurred in a forest in the outskirts of Subotica, some 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Belgrade, where the injured were hospitalized, RTS reported.

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Police, who made no immediate comment, blocked access to the forest where the incident took place, only around a kilometer from the Hungarian border.

Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin rushed to the scene.

The injured, aged between 20 and 30, have no documents, Subotica mayor Stevan Bakic told local media.

It is not known what triggered the incident, he added.

Local media reported that the shootout occurred between Afghan and Pakistani migrants most likely over human trafficking from the area to European Union member Hungary.

Serbia lies on the so-called Balkans route used by migrants heading towards Western Europe as they flee war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Although the route is nowhere as busy as it was during Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, tens of thousands of illegal migrants still cross the region annually.

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