The Latest: Deadly Police Raid In Rio, Scottish Elections, Pizza Vending Machines

Pope Francis at the swearing-in ceremony for the Vatican's Swiss Guard
Pope Francis at the swearing-in ceremony for the Vatican's Swiss Guard

Welcome to Friday, where a shooting at a favela in Rio kills 25, the Pfizer jab shows promising results against COVID variants, and pizza vending machines arrive in Rome. We also look at how central banks are finally starting to take an interest in cryptocurrencies.

• COVID-19: Pfizer vs. variants, pandemic Olympics: Two different studies show that Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine is highly effective in preventing death and serious illness from the English and South African variants. Meanwhile, with less than three months to go before the summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan has decided to extend its COVID-19 state of emergency until May 31st.

• 25 killed in Brazilian police raid: A police raid against suspected drug traffickers in the favela of Jacarezinho in Rio de Janeiro has left 25 dead, among the bloodiest assaults ever by Brazilian authorities long accused of excessive violence.

• Poland and Hungary block "gender equality" phrase: Lobbying by the two central European countries has resulted in the removal of the phrase "gender equality" in a draft declaration on social cohesion that the European Union is due to publish, according to documents seen by Reuters.

• Scotland election could lead to vote on independence: Results from the Scottish election are expected later today. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, slated to lead the Scottish National Party (SNP), has vowed to push for another referendum on Scottish independence if her party wins a majority of seats.

• Chinese rocket debris to land this weekend: China's Long March 5B rocket, currently in the upper atmosphere, is set to make an uncontrolled landing this weekend. There are still no clear predictions regarding whether it will land on inhabited land. The U.S. has called on China to engage in more "responsible space behaviors," but has not announced any plans to shoot down the debris.

• European leaders urge Israel to stop settlement expansion: European countries including France and Germany have urged Israel to stop settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.

• Fresh pizza vending machines are coming to Italy: Rome has inaugurated a pizza vending machine that provides cooked pizzas in only three minutes.

"Children of the Crisis': German weekly Der Spiegel reports on new findings about pandemic-induced depression, anxiety, eating disorders and learning gaps, wondering "will it ever go away?"

Crypto tipping point: Are digital currencies too big to fail?

Central banks are opening to the idea of digital currencies. From a sovereignty perspective, that's a good thing. But there are also risks, especially with regards to steps being taken in China, reports Marie Charrel in French daily Le Monde.

In recent months, most central banks have intensified their work on digital currencies, drawing inspiration from the blockchain, the technology that allows transactions to be encrypted, recorded and secured, and that's behind the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, which was launched in 2008. Spurring this interest is the decline of cash payments, a trend that's been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This shift is in line with the rise of Bitcoin and its little brothers (Ether, Ripple, Litecoin...), and the proliferation of private e-currency projects, such as Facebook's Diem, still in the works.

At first glance, these central bank digital currencies — known as "MNBCs' — will not change much in the daily life of individuals and companies, since the majority of payments are already dematerialized. And yet, the difference is fundamental: Most of the euros we hold today in our accounts and savings books are created by commercial banks through credit. MNBCs, on the other hand, would be the equivalent of banknotes printed directly by monetary institutions. Moreover, they could be held directly by the latter, without going through the banks. And that would make a big difference.

Easier to trace than banknotes, MNBCs could also simplify the fight against fraud and money laundering. But this is the crux of the matter: the question of anonymity and respect for private data. The Central Bank of China (PBOC) dreams of generalizing its digital yuan during 2022. As it is designed, the system will allow users to pay via a mobile application, through which the communist regime hopes to regain control over Alipay and WeChat Pay, the two private behemoths of Chinese mobile payments. But that, in turn, will also strengthen China's surveillance of citizens, as the PBOC will know who pays what, where and when.

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Virtual pétanque: COVID forces French communal pastime online

There's croissants and cheese, bérets and Brigitte Bardot — and then there's pétanque.

On the list of the Frenchest things, this national pastime ranks pretty high, conjuring up scenes of convivial apéros where old and young gather together, a boule in one hand and a glass of pastis or rosé in the other.

What shock it must have been then to pétanque players upon learning that this highly communal sport — akin to Italy's bocce or Britain's lawn bowling — was to be moved online because of the pandemic... With large gatherings still banned in France, local daily Ouest France reports that a number of pétanque pros have decided to give the game a COVID-compliant virtual twist by competing through a Facebook group, starting on May 8.

While pétanque fans are already used to watching the sports on television, with channel L'Equipe TV regularly broadcasting competitions, this time players will also be interacting from a safe distance. Launched by world-renowned pétanque stars Philippe Quintais and Jean-Luc Robert, the Club Maboule initiative aims to keep the spirit and rules of the game: Players score points by throwing their heavy metal boules as close as possible to the smaller, target boule — a.k.a. the cochonnet.

But this virtual version will see pairs of players compete by filming their throws, with referees then checking and comparing the footage behind their screens. The online competition is open to all — pétanque beginners will just have to make sure they don't place their computers too close ...

➡️ Keep up with all the planet's police reports and plot twists on


Between January 1998 and March 2021, 20,957 residents from Rio de Janeiro have been killed during confrontations with the police — the equivalent of one death every 10 hours. On Thursday, a police raid in a favela in the Brazilian city resulted in the death of 25 people, the deadliest police operation in Rio's history.

The third wave appears to be broken.

Speaking at a weekly briefing on pandemic handling, Germany's Health Minister Jens Spahn praised physical distancing measures as well as the country's vaccination campaign for the recent drop in COVID-19 cases, although he still advised for caution.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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