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IAEA: Iran enriching uranium to 60% at above-ground Natanz facility

UN watchdog confirms Iranian claim to enrich to near weapons-grade level; underground enrichment at plant was hit by bomb last week; Tehran says progress at Vienna talks on JCPOA

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

File: Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)
File: Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Saturday’s events as they unfolded.

Prince Philip interred at St George’s Chapel

Prince Philip has been interred in the Royal Vault at St. George’s Chapel alongside the remains of 24 other royals, including three kings of England. But it will likely not be his permanent resting place.

The biggest of seven interment sites inside the chapel, the vault houses the remains of King George III, whose almost six-decade reign included the years of the American Revolution. His sons King George IV and King William IV are also buried there.

The vault has also been the temporary resting place for almost 30 royals, including Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Greece. Her remains were transferred to the convent on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where they now lie near her aunt, Grand Duchess Serge of Russia.

King George VI, the father of Queen Elizabeth II, was interred in the Royal Vault for 17 years before his remains were moved to the King George VI Memorial Chapel at St. George’s in 1969. His wife, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and daughter Princess Margaret were interred alongside him after they died in 2002.

When Queen Elizabeth II dies, she and Philip are expected to be buried in the Royal Burial Ground on the Frogmore Estate close to Windsor Castle. Philip died on April 9 at age 99.

Republican lawmaker said to tell AIPAC Trump’s goal had been to marginalize Palestinians

A senior Republican lawmaker told AIPAC members in a closed door meeting last month that the Trump administration’s goal in its Middle East policy was to “marginalize” Palestinians, according to a recording retrieved by the Huffington Post.

“I think the goal here is to marginalize the Palestinians,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (TX-10), who until January served as the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

McCaul spoke of the former administration’s efforts to broker normalization agreements between Israel and Muslim-majority countries.

Iran, EU report ‘progress’ in Vienna nuclear talks

Talks on Iran’s nuclear program aimed at salvaging a 2015 deal made “progress” Saturday, a day after Tehran says it had started producing uranium at 60 percent purity.

Iran has warned it would sharply ramp up its enrichment of uranium earlier this week, after an attack on its Natanz nuclear facility that it blamed on arch-foe Israel. Earlier today, Iranian state television named a suspect – 43-year-old Reza Karimi – in the attack that damaged centrifuges at Natanz and said he fled the country.

European Union envoy Enrique Mora says that “progress has been made in a far from easy task. We need now more detailed work.”

Russian ambassador to Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov adds that “participants took note with satisfaction of the progress made so far and expressed determination to continue negotiations with a view to complete the process successfully as soon as possible.”

Speaking to reporters, China’s envoy to the talks, Wang Qun, says that “all parties have agreed to further pick up their pace in subsequent days by engaging (in) more extensive, substantive work on sanctions-lifting as well as other relevant issues,” Reuters reported.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister and head of the delegation to Vienna, Abbas Araghchi, says that there were “good discussions” in the session and that “a new understanding is being formed.”

“There’s an agreement on a final target between all. The path is now more clear. But the path will not be an easy path. There are some serious differences,” he adds.

The ongoing discussions involved EU officials and representatives from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and Iran. The talks are aimed at determining which sanctions the United States should lift and the measures Iran has to take in order to rein in Tehran’s nuclear program.

After China, US envoy Kerry in S. Korea for climate talks

US climate envoy John Kerry has met with South Korea’s foreign minister in Seoul for talks ahead of a virtual climate summit of world leaders called by President Joe Biden for next week.

Kerry arrived in South Korea after a four-day visit to China where he held closed-door meetings with senior Chinese officials in Shanghai.

While Kerry’s discussions with South Korea’s Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong were focused on Biden’s climate meeting and another video summit on environmental issues that South Korea will host in May, Chung also conveyed Seoul’s “serious concerns” over Japanese government plans to start releasing treated radioactive water from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea in two years.

Chung also requested US help for South Korea’s efforts to secure more coronavirus vaccines as it wrestles with a slow vaccine rollout and a steady rise in infections, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said. The ministry didn’t release any specific comments made by Kerry during the meeting.

Chung and Kerry have agreed that the countries should cooperate to create “mutual synergy” between the virtual summits hosted by each country in the coming weeks, which would help set up the UN Climate Change Conference scheduled to be held in Scotland in November, the ministry said in a statement.

Arriving for a dinner meeting at Chung’s official residence in Seoul, a mask-wearing Kerry bumped forearms with Chung and wrote in a guestbook saying: “Thank you so much for Korea’s leadership on the climate crisis.”

Kerry’s visit to South Korea comes at a time when the Biden administration is also stepping up efforts to coordinate action with South Korea and Japan to cope with China’s growing influence and North Korea’s nuclear threat.

Three-way cooperation between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo had declined during the Trump administration, as the Asian US allies feuded over wartime history, trade and military issues that sank their relations to post-war lows.

Putin critic Navalny said in life-threatening condition as he hunger strikes in Russian jail

Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny risks cardiac arrest “any minute” as his health has rapidly deteriorated, doctors warn, urging immediate access to Russia’s most famous prisoner.

On March 31, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent — who was imprisoned in February — went on hunger strike to demand proper medical treatment for back pain and numbness in his legs and hands.

Navalny is serving two and a half years on old embezzlement charges in a penal colony in the town of Pokrov around 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Moscow.

Navalny’s personal doctor Anastasia Vasilyeva and three more doctors, including a cardiologist, have asked prison officials to grant them immediate access.

Their letter to the head of Russia’s Federal Prison Service has been posted on Vasilyeva’s Twitter account.

In the letter to the prisons chief, the doctors said Navalny, who was critically ill after a poisoning with the Novichok nerve agent, could suffer “cardiac arrest.”

They said he had to be examined immediately “taking into account the blood tests and his recent poisoning.”

Israeli analyst urges taking with grain of salt Iranian report on suspect identified in Natanz attack

Raz Zimmt, an expert on Iran at the Institute for National Security Studies urges taking reports from Iran state TV that Tehran named a suspect in last week’s attack at its Natanz nuclear site.

“There is no doubt that some of the reason behind the report is to address internal criticism regarding security malfunctions that enabled the sabotage of Natanz,” Zimmt tells Army Radio.

State television named the suspect as 43-year-old Reza Karimi. It showed a passport-style photograph of a man it identified as Karimi, saying he was born in the nearby city of Kashan, Iran.

The report did not elaborate how Karimi would have gotten access to one of the most secure facilities in the Islamic Republic. According to unsourced reports in US and Israeli media, Natanz’s main and backup power lines were blown up by a 150-kilogram bomb early on April 11, hours after Iran publicly began using advanced IR-5 and IR-6 centrifuges at the site, in open breach of the 2015 international nuclear deal.

Italy’s Salvini to face trial over blocking migrant ship

An Italian court rules that far-right leader Matteo Salvini will face charges of kidnapping and abuse of office for blocking a migrant ship from disembarking in August 2019.

His trial was scheduled for September 15, a tribunal in the Sicilian city of Palermo says.

Salvini, head of the League party and interior minister at the time, is charged with barring migrants from landing on the island of Lampedusa after they were rescued at sea by the Spanish NGO Open Arms.

For six days, he refused to allow a ship carrying 147 mainly African migrants to land, as conditions worsened on board.

All minors and some suffering health problems were allowed to disembark.

Typically combative, Salvini tweets that “defending the country is every citizen’s sacred duty”.

“That is what I will be judged for, for having defended my country? I will appear with my head held high,” he says.

Salvini, who was in the court Saturday and who risks up to 15 years in prison, calls it “more of a political than a judicial decision.”

Israel identifies several cases of ‘Indian variant’ among arrivals from abroad

Israel has identified a number cases of an “Indian variant” of the coronavirus among arrivals from abroad, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash tells Channel 12.

The majority of cases were identified through tests conducted at Ben Gurion Airport while the remainder were identified while the arrivals were still quarantining, Ash says.

He says not very much is known about the new variant but that it appears to spread rapidly.

However, Ash clarifies that the vaccines being distributed to Israelis are still the most effective tool to use against the virus.

Ash adds that while over five million Israelis have received at least one dose of a vaccine, the country does not yet have herd immunity.

Lapid, Gantz to meet as Yesh Atid leader hopes for chance to form coalition

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid will meet with Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz later this evening, the former’s office says.

Gantz recommended that Lapid be tapped with forming the next government, but the Yesh Atid leader received fewer nods than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was given the first stab.

Vaccine giant tweets at Biden to end US raw materials ’embargo’

The head of the world’s largest vaccine maker has directly tweeted US President Joe Biden urging him to lift an export ban on raw materials desperately needed to make more coronavirus shots.

The unusual step by Serum Institute (SII) chief Adar Poonawalla underlined the crisis in providing vaccines to developing nations, many of which rely heavily on the firm for supplies.

“Respected @POTUS, if we are to truly unite in beating this virus, on behalf of the vaccine industry outside the US, I humbly request you to lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the U.S. so that vaccine production can ramp up,” he tweets.

There was no immediate response from the US leader on Twitter.

The world’s biggest vaccine producer by volume, SII has struggled to meet demand for the AstraZeneca jab, which it manufactures, after India put the brakes on allowing exports of the shots as it battles a ferocious second wave.

Poonawalla said last week that production was “very stressed” and called on the Indian government to provide it with financial assistance.

The company’s production of a jab developed by US firm Novavax has also hit roadblocks due to the US restrictions, with Poonawalla telling an Indian newspaper last week that the embargo was “as good as banning vaccines”.

Smotrich said to prefer Arab-backed Bennett-Lapid coalition over Ra’am-backed right-wing gov’t

Religious Zionism party chairman Bezalel Smotrich has come out adamantly against the prospect of a narrow right-wing government propped up by the Islamist Ra’am party.

According to Channel 12, Smotrich would even prefer that a coalition led by Yesh Atid and Yamina and backed by either the majority-Arab Joint List or Ra’am parties as opposed to a right-wing government that includes Religious Zionism, is led by Netanyahu and is backed by Ra’am.

Hundreds protest against Netanyahu outside PM’s residence in Jerusalem

Hundreds of people have gathered outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official Jerusalem residence on Balfour street to protest against the premier on trial for corruption charges.

Police have closed several adjacent roads to traffic as protesters try to block traffic.

Russia, Ukraine expel diplomats as tensions soar

Russia says it will expel a Ukrainian diplomat, prompting an immediate pledge of retaliation from Kiev, further escalating tensions over Moscow’s troop build-up on Ukraine’s eastern flank.

The detention of a Ukrainian consul in the second city Saint Petersburg comes at a time of global concern of a repeat of Moscow’s 2014 aggression, when Russia annexed the peninsula of Crimea and backed separatists in Ukraine’s east.

Moscow claims the Ukrainian diplomat had been caught “red-handed” trying to obtain sensitive information.

In response, the Ukrainian foreign ministry protested “the illegal” detention of its diplomat and said Kiev would expel a senior Russian diplomat.

Kiev has been battling Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and clashes intensified early this year, effectively shredding a ceasefire agreed to last July.

Around 30 Ukrainian troops have been killed since the start of the year, compared to 50 last year. Most of them were victims of sniper fire.

Russia has detained a number of Ukrainian nationals on suspicion of spying in recent years but the arrest of a diplomat is rare.

Iran state TV airs footage of what it claims are normal operations at Natanz site

Iranian state TV airs footage from what it says are regular operations at the Natanz nuclear facility, following an April 11 explosion that is said to have caused considerable damage to the plant, including its various kinds of uranium-enriching centrifuges.

The TV spot airs a short interview with an unnamed worker at the site who says that the staff is working around the clock to resume uranium enrichment.

“What you hear is the noise of the machines working normally. We are fixing all the centrifuges that have been affected, and with the help of our dedicated, excellent staff, we are working to fix all the damaged parts,” says the worker, according to a translation by Israel’s Channel 12 which also aired the clip.

Channel 13 says it is unclear if the footage is from today.

Israeli and American media have reported that a 150-kilogram bomb early Sunday morning took out Natanz’s main and backup power supplies and caused damage setting back the enrichment process by months.

A senior Iranian official said Tuesday that the blast destroyed or damaged thousands of centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Alireza Zakani, the hard-line head of the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in a state TV interview. However, no other official has offered that figure and no images of the aftermath have been released.

Iran said Friday it was enriching uranium to 60% — a short step from weapons-grade — at Natanz.

Lapid to hold presser tomorrow, revealing efforts to form a government

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid will hold a press conference tomorrow, during which he will further detail his strategy for forming a government, Hebrew media reports.

Earlier this month, he revealed that he had offered Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett to serve first as premier in a rotational agreement but that the latter had declined.

Czech govt expels 18 Russian diplomats labelled as agents

The Czech Republic will expel 18 Russian diplomats identified by local intelligence as secret agents of the Russian SVR and GRU services, the foreign minister says.

“Eighteen employees of the Russian embassy must leave our republic within 48 hours,” Minister Jan Hamacek tells reporters.

Worldwide COVID-19 death toll tops a staggering 3 million

The global death toll from the coronavirus topped a staggering 3 million people amid repeated setbacks in the worldwide vaccination campaign and a deepening crisis in places such as Brazil, India and France.

The number of lives lost, as compiled by Johns Hopkins University, is about equal to the population of Kyiv, Ukraine; Caracas, Venezuela; or metropolitan Lisbon, Portugal. It is bigger than Chicago (2.7 million) and equivalent to Philadelphia and Dallas combined.

And the true number is believed to be significantly higher because of possible government concealment and the many cases overlooked in the early stages of the outbreak that began in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019.

When the world back in January passed the bleak threshold of 2 million deaths, immunization drives had just started in Europe and the United States. Today, they are underway in more than 190 countries, though progress in bringing the virus under control varies widely.

While the campaigns in the U.S. and Britain have hit their stride and people and businesses there are beginning to contemplate life after the pandemic, other places, mostly poorer countries but some rich ones as well, are lagging behind in putting shots in arms and have imposed new lockdowns and other restrictions as virus cases soar.

Worldwide, deaths are on the rise again, running at around 12,000 per day on average, and new cases are climbing too, eclipsing 700,000 a day.

“This is not the situation we want to be in 16 months into a pandemic, where we have proven control measures,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, one of the World Health Organization’s leaders on COVID-19.

Israeli judoka Tohar Butbol takes home silver at European Championship

Israeli Judoka Tohar Butbul has won the silver medal at the European Championships in Portugal.

Butbul defeated Turkey’s Bilal Chologlo in the contest, and later lost to Kosovo’s Akil Jakuba, who won the gold, in the finals.

Israel’s Sagi Muki, who won gold medals at the same tournament in 2015 and 2018, took the bronze medal this time around

IAEA confirms Iran is enriching uranium to 60% at above-ground facility at Natanz

Iran has started the process of enriching uranium to 60% fissile purity at an “above-ground facility” at its Natanz Enrichment Plant in Natanz, the UN nuclear watchdog says in a statement to Reuters, confirming earlier announcements made by Iranian officials.

“The Agency today verified that Iran had begun the production of UF6 enriched up to 60% U-235 by feeding UF6 enriched up to 5% U-235 simultaneously into two cascades of IR-4 centrifuges and IR-6 centrifuges at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant,” the International Atomic Energy Agency says.

A bomb early on April 11 blew up the main and backup power supply to the underground enrichment facility. It caused damage to various kinds of the 6,000 centrifuges there and set back enrichment for 6-9 months, according to Israeli and American reports. However, Iran on Saturday released video purporting to show the underground facility resuming activity.

Coronavirus: Latest global developments

Here are the latest developments in the coronavirus crisis:

Global deaths pass three million

The number of people who have died from COVID-19 around the world passes three million on Saturday, according to an AFP tally, despite vaccination campaigns.

After a slight lull in March, daily death tolls have been increasing, with an average of 12,000 deaths a day last week.

Surge in India cases

New Delhi reports a record 24,000 coronavirus cases in one day and its leader warns of a “grim” battle ahead, as major cities go into a weekend lockdown across the country.

India now leads the world in the number of new cases and the international Red Cross says the speed at which cases are rising across South Asia is “truly frightening.”

Thailand acts as cases soar

Thailand experiences a fourth consecutive day of more than 1,000 new cases, with the capital Bangkok apparently at the epicenter of a third wave

In the past 10 days, the national infection total has jumped from 29,900 to more than 40,500.

Brazil to reopen businesses

Sao Paulo will allow businesses and places of worship to reopen from Sunday, the government of Brazil’s most populous state announced, even as the coronavirus infection rate remains high.

Tunisia closes schools

Tunisia announces the closure of primary and secondary schools as well as universities from Sunday, as well as banning cars and public transport, because of rising case numbers.

Italy’s entertainment workers march

Protesters march through the streets of Rome calling for the country’s theatres and concert halls to be reopened and for more support for workers in the sector.

China says US-Japan actions are stoking division

China hits back at the US-Japan show of alliance during talks between President Joe Biden and Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, calling it an “ironic attempt of stoking division.”

China said Suga and Biden’s news conference Friday, in which they issued a joint statement on shared values in democracy and human rights and aired concerns about China’s activities in the Indo-Pacific region, had gone “far beyond the scope of normal development of bilateral relations.”

“It cannot be more ironic that such attempt of stoking division and building blocs against other countries is put under the banner of ‘free and open,'” the spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington says.

The statement by the Japanese and U.S. leaders also mentioned the importance of “peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait, marking the first time a Japanese prime minister had spoken out in a communique with the United States on Taiwan since 1969 talks between Richard Nixon and Eisaku Sato.

Japan, long cautious in managing relations with its neighbor, has become more outspoken with Suga.

The US and China have clashed over a wide range of issues in the last few years, including human rights in Tibet and the Xinjiang region, a crackdown on protests and political freedom in Hong Kong, China’s assertion of its territorial claims to Taiwan and most of the South China Sea and accusations Beijing was slow to inform the world about the COVID-19 outbreak.

China claims self-governing Taiwan as its territory and says, like Hong Kong, it should be under Beijing’s control.

Palestinians accuse Israel of threatening elections with detention of Jerusalem candidates

Israel has briefly detained three Jerusalem-based candidates for Palestinian legislative elections, deepening a dispute over whether banning Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem from voting in next month’s polls could derail them.

The three candidates represent factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization who planned a press conference in a Jerusalem hotel to call for the need to press Israel into allowing political activities in the eastern part of the city, reported the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.

In briefly detaining the candidates, Israel appears to be signaling it will not tolerate Palestinian political activity in East Jerusalem. It has not said whether it will or will not allow Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to vote in the election.

The Palestinians want East Jerusalem part of their future state, but Israel, which captured the city and annexed it in 1967, considers the whole city as its indivisible capital.

Witnesses said Israeli police blocked off roads leading to the St. George hotel, where the candidates from the PLO factions — including PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement — wanted to hold the conference. They were released after three hours.

Israel Police did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the incident.

Abbas has decreed what would be the first Palestinian legislative elections in 15 years to take place on May 22, followed by presidential polls in July.

But the disputes over east Jerusalem residents’ voting rights could provide a pretext to call off the poll, especially as Fatah is suffering threats to its unity while its main rival, the Hamas terror group that controls Gaza, appears unified. Some Palestinian voices, including from inside Fatah, stress that there should be “no elections without Jerusalem.”

The Palestinians have urged the European Union to exert pressure on Israel to allow residents of east Jerusalem to vote. Israel has not responded.

Hamas, which routed pro-Abbas forces and seized full control of Gaza a year after winning a landslide victory in 2006 elections, condemned the detention of the candidates and described it as “a flagrant meddling in the elections.”

Fatah also decried the banning of the press conference, the second time it happened in two weeks.

With Iran on the agenda, security cabinet to convene for first time in 2 months

The top-level security cabinet is scheduled to meet later today for the first time in over two months as tensions escalate with Iran.

At the top of the agenda was expected to be the confrontation with Iran amid claims that Israel was behind an explosion last week that knocked out power to a major Iranian nuclear site, reportedly damaging a large portion of uranium enrichment centrifuges inside.

Iran has blamed Israel for the incident at its Natanz nuclear facility and on Saturday published a picture of what it said was a key suspect who has fled the country.

Since the explosion, Iran announced that it was raising aboveground enrichment levels to 60%, a short technical step from the purity needed to make nuclear weapons, and a significant violation of its 2015 nuclear pact with world power. At the same time, Iran is engaged in indirect talks with the US, mediated by Europe in Vienna, aimed at reviving the nuclear pact.

The Biden administration is working to coax Tehran back into the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which aimed to curb the weapon’s capable aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

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