PRE-CEASEFIRE, SYRIA FIGHTING ESCALATES
Fighting has intensified in Syria just days after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov announced that an agreed ceasefire would begin by the end of this week. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital 70 kilometers south of Aleppo killed at least nine people, including one child. The group said it believed the strike had been executed by a Russian warplane, Middle East Eye reports.
- Turkey is also blaming Russia for a hospital attack in the Syrian town of Azaz, close to the Turkish border, which reportedly killed 14 people and wounded 30 this morning. But because of continued hostility between Turkey and Russia over the downing of a Russian warplane in November, the claim is being regarded as suspicious. It is even more so because the Turkish military shelled the same area over the weekend to prevent Kurdish militias from gaining ground so close to its borders, provoking criticism from the EU.
- Saudi Arabia and Turkey are considering sending a ground force to Syria, a move that would further complicate a potential end to hostilities, Turkish newspaper Todayâ€™s Zaman writes. Speaking to CNN Saturday, Saudi Arabiaâ€™s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said, â€œBashar al-Assad will leave â€" have no doubt about it. He will either leave by a political process or he will be removed by force.â€ Saudi Arabia has launched the largest military drill in the regionâ€™s history and has already sent aircraft to Turkey, officially to fight ISIS, though it hasnâ€™t been participating in the U.S.-led coalition for months.
- The Syrian army, backed by Russian planes, and the Kurdish YPG militia continue to gain ground around Aleppo, and Assadâ€™s forces are now turning their sights eastwards to the so-called ISIS capital, Raqqa, â€œapparently to pre-empt any move by Saudi Arabia to send ground forces into Syria,â€ Reuters reports.
POPE SLAMS MEXICOâ€™S â€œMERCHANTS OF DEATHâ€
Speaking to more than 300,000 people gathered for an open-air mass just outside Mexico City, Pope Francis tackled the topic of drug violence, urging Mexicans to turn their country into a â€œland of opportunity,â€ where â€œthere will be no need to emigrate in order to dream,â€ and where they will â€œnot have to mourn men and women, young people and children who are destroyed at the hands of the merchants of death.â€ Read more from Telesur.
JOHN PAUL II HAD CLOSE FEMALE FRIEND
The BBC has accessed hundreds of letters and photographs that tell the story of Pope John Paull IIâ€™s â€œclose relationship with a married woman,â€ revealing what it characterizes as â€œa rarely seen side of the pontiff.â€ Though one expert suggests the woman may have fallen in love with the pope at one point, there is nothing to suggest he ever broke his vow of celibacy or that the relationship was anything more than a very special friendship.
NIKKEI UP DESPITE ECONOMIC CONTRACTION
Japanâ€™s Nikkei jumped by more than 7%, the indexâ€™s biggest surge since 2008, despite data released today showing that the Japanese economy contracted by 1.4% in the last quarter of 2015, compared to the same period for 2014. According to The Guardian, this apparently contradictory reaction from the market is probably based on the belief that the Bank of Japan will once again boost its money-printing policy, another suggestion that stock markets are addicted to stimulus. European stocks rallied in morning trading.
Australian police have seized 720 liters of liquid methamphetamine, worth $900 million, one of the biggest busts ever â€œdown under,â€ ABC reports. The drugs were found in a shipment from Asia, hidden inside bras and painting sets. Four people have been charged.
ISRAEL FOILS ATTACKS, KILLS FIVE PALESTINIANS
Israeli security forces shot dead five Palestinians, three of them teenagers, as they attempted to attack Israelis, Al Jazeera reports. According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, at least 176 Palestinians have been killed in similar circumstances since a wave of attacks that started in October 2015, killing 27 Israelis.
On the eve of its 500th anniversary, La Stampa visits the Venice neighborhood where Jews were forced to live, the place that gave the world the culture, confinement and the indignity of the ghetto. â€œThere are only a few traces left of the Jewish population that made the quarter their home for hundreds of years,â€ Maurizio Assalto writes. â€œThere are some street signs here and there; the odd menorah jutting out from a facade; a kosher restaurant; a bakery selling traditional breads and sweets; an art gallery with paintings depicting the daily life of a bygone era. You may see the rare traditionally dressed Hasidic Jew passing by, but today there are only around 40 Jewish residents left in the quarter, out of about 500 in the entire city of 260,000.â€
Read the full article, The First Ghetto, Lost Beauty In Veniceâ€™s Jewish Quarter.
MY GRAND-PERE'S WORLD
RUSSIAâ€™S EX ANTI-DOPING CHIEF DIES
Nikita Kamaev, the former executive director of Russiaâ€™s anti-doping agency, has died two months after a doping and corruption scandal involving Russian athletes forced him to resign, news agency Tass reports. The official cause of death is a heart attack.
ON THIS DAY
Socrates, FDR and the menâ€™s world pole vault record. Check out that and more in todayâ€™s 57-second shot of history.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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