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In Channel, major resources track small boats

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In Channel, major resources track small boats

Fifteen months after 27 migrants drowned in the Channel, the efforts to prevent another tragedy are visible from the bridge of the French navy boat BSAM Rhone as it patrols on a cold February night.

The 70-metre warship is one of two extra vessels ordered late last year by the French government to join monitoring and rescue operations in the busy waters off the port of Calais from where most migrants leave for England.

On the night of February 9, it spent more than three hours shadowing a packed inflatable dinghy as it weaved between container ships and ferries in the inky blackness, heading for the lights of England on the horizon.

“Our job is to make sure it doesn’t get hit,” says Gaspard, the officer on watch, as he keeps an eye on the radar and makes sure his ship is a steady one kilometre (0.6 miles) behind the inflatable and its dozens of passengers.

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A look-out checks regularly on its progress with infra-red binoculars.

Overhead, a surveillance plane from the European Union border force Frontex can be seen doing loops. A grey Belgian navy vessel stands on alert nearby.

Shortly after midnight, after a bone-chilling journey of around five hours in total, the dinghy crosses the international boundary and enters British waters.

Following the instructions passed on to them by people smugglers, someone on board makes an SOS call.

The powerful BSAM Rhone is being used to shadow tiny inflatables

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The Volunteer, a UK Border Force vessel positioned nearby, then swoops in to pick them up, its powerful lights illuminating the gently rolling waves.

It’s a familiar routine for the onlooking French.

“Once they’re in British waters, they’ve reached their target,” says captain Enoal Gabriel. “If they need saving while they’re in French waters, then we’re there and we take them back to France.”

– ‘Stop the boats’ –

Around 46,000 asylum seekers crossed the Channel last year in this way — mostly Afghans, Iranians and Albanians.

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This compared with almost none in 2017, before the seaborne route to Britain became the favoured option for migrants.

Around 8,000 were rescued in French waters.

The surge in numbers has left the British government vowing to stem the flow and the French determined not to see a repeat of the November 2021 tragedy that left 27 dead and a deep well of distrust between the neighbouring countries.

The number of migrants crossing the Channel has soared over the last five years

On that night, a dingy deflated near the international maritime boundary. Overwhelmed coastguard services on both sides passed the buck as people drowned.

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The incident and four more deaths in late 2022 were the backdrop to the deployment of the 3,000-tonne BSAM Rhone, which is big and powerful enough to tow an aircraft carrier but is now being used to shadow tiny inflatables.

One of the 28 crewman on board grumbles privately that he can’t wait until the French state follows through on plans to charter two private vessels to replace the sophisticated navy assets.

“We have lots of other missions we could be getting on with,” he says, asking not to be named.

The monitoring and rescue operations have also drawn crossfire in Britain, where Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is weighing up radical new plans to “stop the boats”.

He reportedly favours mass deportations as a deterrent but has not revived an idea of pushing migrant dinghies back into French waters which was once floated by former interior minister Priti Patel.

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Some right-wing media have accused the French of “guiding” migrants to British waters.

Anti-immigration politicians also regularly describe UK Border Force vessels as acting like “a taxi service” by bringing them ashore.

– Policing –

France presently has six vessels in the Channel around Calais to monitor the dinghies, up from four at the end of last year.

Despite the wishes of hardliners in Britain, their role is not to intercept migrant boats — a task seen as too dangerous because of the risk of accidents.

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French police patrol the rugged coastline around Calais day and night

All the efforts to stop the departures take place on the wide sandy beaches and rugged dunes of the French coast, where hundreds of police equipped with drones and night-vision binoculars run round-the-clock operations.

Improving UK-French relations after years of tensions meant Britain secured a deal in November to send British “observers” to join the French patrols.

London also agreed to pay another 72.2 million euros ($78 million) to cover some of the cost of French security operations and deploy an additional 350 people.

But Pierre Roques, coordinator at Calais migrant support charity Auberge des Migrants, says extra police won’t make a difference to the number of boats.

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“The coast is so huge. It won’t stop people from leaving,” he says. 

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White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

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White-led DA party joins ANC in South African unity government

 The African National Congress and its largest rival, the white-led, pro-business Democratic Alliance, agreed on Friday to work together in South Africa’s new government of national unity, a step change after 30 years of ANC majority rule.

Once unthinkable, the deal between two sharply antagonistic parties is the most momentous political shift in South Africa since Nelson Mandela led the ANC to victory in the 1994 elections that marked the end of apartheid.

“Today, South Africa is a better country than it was yesterday. For the first time since 1994, we’ve embarked on a peaceful and democratic transfer of power to a new government that will be different from the previous one,” DA leader John Steenhuisen said in a televised address.

“From today, the DA will co-govern the Republic of South Africa in a spirit of unity and collaboration,” he said, adding that multi-party government was the “new normal”.

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The ANC lost its majority for the first time in an election on May 29 and has spent two weeks locked in intensive behind-the-scenes talks with other parties, which came down to the wire on Friday morning as the new parliament was convening.

The DA’s entry into national government is a big moment for a country still processing the legacy of the racist colonial and apartheid regimes. The party has struggled to shake off its image as a defender of rich white people and convince a broad spectrum of South Africans that it reflects their aspirations.

Two smaller parties, the socially conservative Inkatha Freedom Party and the right-wing Patriotic Alliance, will also take part in the unity government, they said. 

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Hamas’ armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

Hamas’ armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

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Hamas' armed wing says Israeli airstrike killed two hostages in Rafah

Hamas’ armed wing al-Qassam Brigades said on Friday that two Israeli hostages held in Gaza were killed in an Israeli airstrike on Rafah a few days ago.

The group, in a video posted on its Telegram channel, did not release the names of those said to have been killed or provide any evidence.

The Israeli government “does not want your hostages to return, except in coffins,” the al-Qassam Brigades statement said.

Israel rescued four hostages held by Hamas in a hostage-freeing operation in central Gaza’s al-Nuseirat on June 8. The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said more than 250 Palestinians were killed in the raid.

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The war in Gaza erupted when Hamas militants stormed southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. 

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US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

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US attack sub, Canada navy patrol ship arrive in Cuba on heels of Russian warships

A Canadian navy patrol ship sailed into Havana early on Friday, just hours after the United States announced a fast-attack submarine had docked at its Guantanamo naval base on Cuba, both vessels on the heels of Russian warships that arrived on the island earlier this week.

The confluence of Russian, Canadian and U.S. vessels in Cuba – a Communist-ruled island nation just 160 km (100 miles) from Florida – served up a reminder of old Cold War tensions and of current fraught ties between Russia and Western nations over the Ukraine war.

However, both the U.S. and Cuba have said the Russian warships pose no threat to the region. Russia has also characterized the arrival of its warships in allied Cuba as routine.

The Admiral Gorshkov frigate and the nuclear-powered submarine Kazan, half submerged with its crew on deck, sailed into Havana harbor on Wednesday after conducting “high-precision missile weapons” training in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Canada`s Margaret Brooke patrol vessel began maneuvers early on Friday to enter Havana harbor, part of what the Canadian Joint Operations Command called “a port visit…in recognition of the long-standing bilateral relationship between Canada and Cuba.”

A Canadian diplomat characterized the Margaret Brooke`s arrival as “routine and part of long-standing cooperation between our two countries”, adding it was “unrelated to the presence of the Russian ships.”

Russia and Cuba were close allies under the former Soviet Union and tensions with Washington over Communism in its “backyard” peaked with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Moscow, which has maintained ties with Havana, has questioned the apparent nervousness of the West over the warships this week. 

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