BBC 2024-02-14 18:01:37


Ukraine claims sinking of Russian ship off Crimea

A big Russian amphibious ship, the Caesar Kunikov, has been sunk off the coast of Russian-occupied Crimea, according to Ukraine’s armed forces.

Powerful explosions were heard early on Wednesday, according to local social media, which suggested the landing ship was hit south of the town of Yalta.

Ukraine’s intelligence directorate released video of what it said were Magura V5 sea drones striking the ship.

Ukraine has repeatedly hit Russia’s Black Sea fleet in occupied Crimea.

Satellite images last year showed much of the fleet had left the peninsula for the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.

Ahead of a Nato ministerial meeting in Brussels, the secretary general of the Western defensive alliance, Jens Stoltenberg, said Ukrainian forces had won a “great victory” in recent months, inflicting “heavy losses” on the Black Sea fleet that had opened a corridor for Ukrainian grain exports.

Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine is due to enter its third year next week and Ukraine’s armed forces chief has admitted the situation is “extremely complex and tense”.

Col Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi, who was appointed commander-in-chief last week, visited the front line on Wednesday and promised that units trying to prevent Russian troops from capturing the flashpoint town of Avdiivka would be reinforced. Avdiivka is almost empty and all but surrounded by Russian forces and one of the soldiers defending it said earlier that the situation there was critical.

“We are doing everything possible to prevent the enemy from advancing deep into our territory,” he wrote on social media.

Overnight, a Russian missile attack claimed three lives including a child in the mining town of Selydove, 40km (25 miles) west of Avdiivka. Officials said four missiles had hit the local hospital and maternity ward, as well as nine blocks of flats.

Several other residents were wounded, including a baby.

There was no confirmation from Russia’s navy that the Caesar Kunikov had been sunk in the Black Sea, merely that six Ukrainian drones had been destroyed. The Kremlin has also refused to comment on the incident.

Video appearing to show the aftermath of the Ukrainian attack was uploaded only recently, BBC Verify confirmed.

“The Caesar Kunikov suffered critical holes in its port side and began to sink,” Ukraine’s main intelligence directorate said on the Telegram messaging site, adding that it had been destroyed off the Crimean coastal town of Alupka in Ukrainian territorial waters by a unit called Group 13.

It said an operation to rescue up to 87 crew members had been “unsuccessful” and “according to available information, most were killed”.

The Magura V5 unmanned drones the directorate said were used in the attack are made in Ukraine and travel just above the sea surface at a speed up to 42 nautical miles an hour, their manufacturer says.

Amphibious ships are used to move assault troops to land quickly, especially in enemy territory, but the chances of them being used for this purpose in Ukraine are almost zero.

Instead they are being used to ferry military supplies, in effect as heavily armed transport ships.

But several recent incidents have shown that Russian naval vessels can be vulnerable to attacks by numerous low-flying targets, which can go undetected by radar. They also lack the small-calibre artillery, machine guns and electronic warfare systems needed to take out these drones.

Russian military bloggers did not deny the Caesar Kunikov had been hit, saying only that the crew had survived. Russia’s military rarely reports major losses and Russians rely on a handful of popular bloggers for information.

Also, a former sailor who served on board the Caesar Kunikov told BBC Russian that all the crew, of which there were 89 members, had succeeded in leaving the sinking ship in time.

One blogger noted that the ship had met its fate on the same day of the year (14th February) as the man it was named after – a Soviet commando officer and World War Two hero who died of his wounds after a mine explosion in 1943.

The Caesar Kunikov dates back to the end of the Soviet era. If its sinking is confirmed, it would be the second successful strike in the Black Sea this month. A small warship, the Ivanovets, was sunk by drones in a special operation almost two weeks ago.

Another Russian landing ship, the Novocherkassk, was hit while in port in Feodosiya in December.

Russia seized and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine almost 10 years ago and its forces based there played a big role in the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The Caesar Kunikov has already been targeted since the war began. It was damaged along with the Novocherkassk in a Ukrainian strike on the occupied port of Berdyansk in March 2022, when a third landing ship, the Saratov, was sunk.

Additional reporting by BBC Russian military analyst Pavel Aksyonov

Moment Russian ship struck by Ukrainian drones

BBC Verify looks at moment Russian ship hit by Ukrainian drones

Ukrainian Military Intelligence has released a video that claims to show the moment the Russian Caesar Kunikov landing ship was sunk off the coast of occupied Crimea.

BBC Verify’s Olga Robinson analyses the footage and explains why it is significant.

Video journalist: Soraya Auer

Additional reporting: Thomas Spencer and Adam Robinson

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Israel launches ‘extensive’ strikes on Lebanon

Israel has launched an “extensive wave of attacks” on Lebanon after a woman was killed and others injured in a rocket attack on northern Israel.

Lebanese media reported that villages had been hit and buildings were on fire.

Hezbollah, which is thought to have carried out the attack on Israel, has not claimed responsibility.

The two sides have traded regular fire across Israel’s northern border since the 7 October attacks by Hamas.

“Fighter jets began an extensive wave of attacks in Lebanese territory,” the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman, Daniel Hagari, wrote on X (formerly Twitter) on Wednesday.

Mr Hagari said the IDF would give more detail on its latest air strikes in the coming hours.

The attack from Lebanon on northern Israel hit the Safed area, and was targeted at the Israeli military’s northern command centre, the IDF said.

A video shows one of the rockets landing near the gate of a hospital.

Hezbollah – a Shia Muslim organisation – is one of the most heavily-armed, non-state military forces in the world.

It was established in the early 1980s by the region’s most dominant Shia power, Iran, to oppose Israel.

The greatest medieval map in the world

From a small island in the Venetian lagoon, a 15th-Century monk somehow designed an astonishingly accurate planisphere of the world.
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On the second floor of the Library of Saint Mark in Venice, a map of the world occupies an entire room – and rightfully so, considering its historical significance and imposing size (2.4m x 2.4m, bigger than a king size bed). Completed in 1459, the Mappa Mundi is the compendium of all the geographical knowledge of the time and is arguably is the greatest medieval map of the world.

Almost twice as large as the famous English Hereford Mappa Mundi (ca 1300), this exquisitely decorated planisphere showcasing Europe, Africa and Asia was the masterpiece of Fra Mauro, a monk of the Camaldolese order who lived on the small Venetian island of San Michele.

Although the monk never set foot outside Venice, his Mappa Mundi is amazingly accurate in its depiction of cities, provinces, continents, rivers and mountains. America isn’t on the map, since Christopher Columbus would take his trip across the ocean 33 years later; and nor is Australia. But Japan (or in Fra Mauro’s words, “Cipango”) is there, making its first appearance on a Western chart. Even more surprisingly, Africa is correctly drawn as circumnavigable, long before the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488.

“It’s the oldest surviving medieval map,” said Meredith Francesca Small, author of the book Here Begins the Dark Sea, also describing it as the most complete medieval map to survive into modernity. “It’s the first map to be based on science more than religion. The Hereford map is all propaganda, religious propaganda.”

WATCH: See the world’s greatest map up close (video by Anna Bressanin, images by Davide Pompejano and Morgan Maugeri/Pomona Pictures, edited by Davide Pompejano/Pomona Pictures)

While the Hereford map depicted Heaven and Hell and was designed to serve as a compendium of the world’s knowledge from a spiritual perspective, Fra Mauro took a scientific approach to his cartography. He declared in his inscriptions that he would “verify the text by practical experience, investigating for many years and frequenting personas worthy of faith who have seen with their own eyes what I faithfully report here”.

There’s more than scientific and historical relevance to it, though. The most striking aspect of the map, which immediately catches your eye after ascending the white marble stairs of the Library of Saint Mark, where some of the world’s most precious and ancient manuscripts are kept, is its sheer splendour.

“It’s huge, beautiful, fantastically crafted,” said historian Pieralvise Zorzi. Beyond the outlines of countries and continents, Fra Mauro’s Mappa Mundi is a magnificent golden and blue painting composed of minute drawings of gorgeous palaces, bridges, sailing ships, rolling blue waves and outsized sea creatures, plus a total of 3,000 cartigli – red and blue annotations written in ancient Venetian that tell stories, anecdotes and legends.

In Norway, for instance, a cartiglio indicates the location where the Venetian merchant Pietro Querini came ashore after a shipwreck. As the tale goes, he not only survived the accident, but he brought stockfish back home, thus starting the Venetian passion for baccalà (the creamy fish spread you can find in every osteria).

The exquisitely decorated Mappa Mundi measures an impressive 2.4m x 2.4m (Credit: Bildagentur-online/Getty Images)

Another cartiglioindicates Tharse, the “kingdom where the Magi came from”, then thought to be located somewhere between China and Mongolia.

All these annotations are legible on the map, and are relatively easy to decipher for Venetian speakers since the current dialect is not dramatically different from the idiom of the 15th Century. However, the inscriptions are also translated into English on an interactive map created by the Galileo Institute and Museum in Florence. Displayed on a flat screen in the same exhibition space as the Mappa Mundi, it provides the somewhat peculiar experience of entering the mind of a savant monk and reading the world through his medieval eyes.

It was not a small world. Although Fra Mauro lived his entire life in his island monastery in the lagoon backwaters, he tapped into the knowledge of travellers and merchants who crossed paths in the flourishing trading city of Venice that was “the capital of cartography at the time”, explained Saint Marks librarian Margherita Venturelli.

Maps were fundamental for trade because if you have a good map, you can go everywhere

“Maps were fundamental for trade because if you have a good map, you can go everywhere,” added Zorzi. “Every innovation in terms of cartography was welcome in Venice, and well-paid.”

The Library of Saint Mark is home to one of the world’s most significant collections of classical texts (Credit: Mo Peerbacus/Alamy)

Fra Mauro’s main source for Asia was merchant and fellow Venetian Marco Polo, who had published his travel accounts more than 150 years earlier. On the map, 150 locations are directly traceable to Marco Polo’s Travels; for instance, the Mount of Adam was placed in the island of Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka), where, according to legends recounted by Polo, the first man’s body was believed to be buried, together with his teeth and even his bowl, which was supposed to have the magical property of multiplying food.

Besides Polo, Fra Mauro had numerous sources around the globe. The fact that the chart looks upside down to contemporary Western eyes, with the south on top, might indicate that he was inspired by Arab cartography, like a 12th-Century map by North African geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi. The numbers that Fra Mauro lists as “the Distance of Heavens” are from mathematician and astronomer Campanus de Novara. “From the centre of the world to the surface of the Earth there are 3,245 miles. From the centre of the world to the lower surface of the heavens of the Moon there are 107,936 miles,” and so on, he writes in the top left corner of the Mappa Mundi.

Fra Mauro also displayed a healthy scepticism and wasn’t shy of criticising – as well as sometimes using –the revered Ptolemy’s Geography, a treaty written in Alexandria, Egypt, by Claudius Ptolemy in 150 CE and lost for centuries to the Western world until it was rediscovered and translated in Latin again in the 1400s.

Fra Mauro’s main source for Asia was merchant and fellow Venetian Marco Polo (Credit: The History Collection/Alamy)

This Renaissance rationalist attitude also showed in the way he placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden outside of the planisphere, making it clear that Heaven is not a place on Earth; a statement that separated religion and geography and was forward thinking for any medieval man, let alone a monk.

These novelties, and the fact that the map was completed few decades before Christopher Columbus sailed to America, contribute to Fra Mauro’s Mappa Mundi being considered the geographical link between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. To contemporary visitors, his map is a reminder of the fact that maps were once not only practical tools, but also a matter of beauty – and a way to tell the most extraordinary stories.

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How sewers are helping to track Covid-19

Studying the pathogens in sewage is helping scientists to track outbreaks of infectious diseases – and intervene before they escalate.
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When he began his career as a microbiologist, Warish Ahmed never imagined that one of the most critical roles of his career would have involved sifting through litres of raw sewage collected from pipes and manholes across the state of Queensland in Australia.

“Dealing with wastewater might not be everyone’s favourite job,” says Ahmed, a principal research scientist at The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Environment in the city of Brisbane. “But I see it as a valuable way to learn about community health. It’s like finding liquid gold,” he says.

So-called wastewater surveillance has long been used as a crucial way of tracking a small collection of deadly pathogens such as poliovirus, Vibrio cholerae, the bacteria which causes cholera, and Salmonella typhi, the bacteria which causes typhoid fever, all of which are spread through poor sanitation practices.

But more recently, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, public health authorities around the world have begun to realise that studying the material present in sewage can utilised to keep an eye on a much wider variety of infectious diseases, in real time.

The project carried out by Ahmed and his team, in collaboration with the University of Queensland, examined the levels of various respiratory pathogens such as influenza, SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, and RSV. All these microorganisms are excreted via the guts of infected individuals, and end up in wastewater collected from across the state. RSV is of particular interest due to the high mortality rates it causes among the elderly, especially those with pre-existing heart and lung conditions.

It is not merely the presence of a particular pathogen which interests researchers, but the concentration. “Concentration is highly valuable for tracking the rise or decline of diseases,” says Ahmed. “Elevated concentrations of a viral particle may suggest increased viral shedding in the community,” he says.

When it is fed back to public health units in the region, this information acts as a key early warning mechanism that a particular infectious disease is spiking in prevalence. And now new technology platforms are making the data ever more efficient to collect.

In 2022, poliovirus was detected in sewage in several cities, including London and New York (Credit: Getty Images)

Traditionally, wastewater surveillance has involved the unpleasant and dangerous job of manually collecting samples. But in Queensland, each sewer is now equipped with an autosampler which gathers samples hourly over a 24-hour period. These are then blended together to produce a mixture which can be analysed in special facilities using PCR tests – a molecular technique that can be used to identify fragments of genetic material. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now runs a national wastewater surveillance system to regularly test for a variety of pathogens, including monkeypox, using technology provided by Alphabet-owned Verily.

Other start-ups like the MIT-spinoff Biobot are looking to expand wastewater surveillance across the world through their platform which can not only detect respiratory viruses in sewage, but foodborne illnesses like norovirus, as well as the metabolised byproducts of drugs such as cocaine, fentanyl, methamphetamine, and nicotine.

“With wastewater you can provide surveillance of cities of millions of people using samples from no more than a few sites,” says Joshua Levy, of Scripps Research, a non-profit biomedical institute in San Diego. “You need way fewer samples to meaningfully characterise local pathogen dynamics, compared to costly and high-volume nasal swabs or blood draws which are often quite biased by disease severity. Instead, asymptomatic infections are still detected by wastewater.”

Boosting health security of low-income nations

While wastewater surveillance is being used extensively in the US, Australia and also the UK, where an ongoing programme is using sewage sampling to identify areas of the country at higher risk of polio, its biggest impact of all is likely to be in managing disease outbreaks in low-income nations. 

Representatives of PolioPlus, Rotary International’s global initiative to eradicate polio, point out that while polio incidence has been reduced by 99.9% over the past 35 years, it remains a major public health problem in Pakistan and Afghanistan where poliovirus is endemic. 

“In Pakistan there are 114 wastewater surveillance sites and in Afghanistan there are 33,” says Carol Pandak, director of PolioPlus. “Without surveillance it would be impossible to pinpoint where and how poliovirus is still circulating.”

Analysing the pathogens in sewage can help scientists to identify outbreaks before they spiral out of control (Credit: Getty Images)

On the other side of the globe, monitoring sewage is proving to be a vital tool for the São Paulo municipal government in its ongoing battle against the hepatitis A virus (HAV), an infection which causes inflammation of the liver and sometimes requires a liver transplant.

In recent years, São Paulo has had two large HAV outbreaks with 1,872 confirmed cases between 2016 and 2023. According to Tatiana Prado, a virologist at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a research institute in Rio de Janeiro, the city has implemented a continuous sewage surveillance program at some airports and risk areas to monitor for new emergences of HAV as well as other viruses and bacteria. She predicts that new technologies will only continue to enhance the information which these programmes can provide.

“New diagnostic tools are emerging which will be able to generate millions of data points about the different types of microorganisms circulating in a given environment,” says Prado. “But the biggest bottleneck will be the investments needed to maintain the surveillance systems and interpret all the data generated, so it is useful to policymakers.”

Early warnings

With similar programs having been trialled in parts of sub-Saharan Africa for tuberculosis and even parasites such as Cryptosporidium, a cause of diarrhoeal disease, wastewater surveillance will undoubtedly play a growing role in providing intelligence to global health systems on all manner of worrisome pathogens.

In the coming years, researchers hope that real-time surveillance will begin to yield new information on the evolution of many common viruses, enabling them to predict whether they might be in danger of escaping existing vaccine-derived immunity. Such information could then be swiftly fed back to vaccine manufacturers, enabling them to update their jabs before the newly evolved pathogen is more widespread in the community.

“Some researchers have shown that undetected circulation and evolution of common viruses is much more common than previously believed,” says Levy. “Work is ongoing to understand the significance of this to major questions in virology such as the emergence of variants of concern. 

“It has been shown that we can detect the presence of new viral variants in wastewater 10 or more days earlier than other forms of surveillance, [providing] essential lead time for public health officials and stakeholders to provide guidance, and for members of the public to modify their behaviour if needed,” he says.

Similar information could also be used to preserve and protect antibiotics so that they continue working for future generations, by examining sewage samples for the presence of resistance genes – segments of DNA which give a bacteria the capability to survive treatment with certain antibiotics.

Amy Pruden, a professor at Virginia Tech, says that this kind of surveillance could help pinpoint communities which have more of a resistance problem, alerting doctors to potential infections which are spreading among the population and providing them with more information to be able to prescribe the most effective antibiotic.

Though poliovirus is considered extinct in the wild, except in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there are rare cases of vaccine-derived polio (Credit: Getty Images)

“An idea that is catching on is the possibility of using metagenomic DNA sequencing,” says Pruden. “The beauty of this approach is that it allows you to sequence the DNA from all the bacteria in the sewage at once, then compare it to databases and see what kinds of pathogens likely present, and what kinds of resistance genes they likely carry. There is a lot of potential here, but it is still in the nascent stages of application,” she says.

The ultimate hope is that such surveillance efforts could also catch future epidemic outbreaks or even pandemics in the very earliest stages, providing governments with the ability to respond and direct efforts towards vaccines and drug development far faster than before. 

Going forwards, Ahmed’s team and others around the world are exploring the possibility of analysing the viral content from aircraft wastewater, to track potential new variants of influenza and Covid and possibly even new viruses, which are being transmitted from elsewhere in the world.

“It’s crucial to have the necessary tools ready before the next serious virus emerges so that we can effectively combat it,” says Ahmed.

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