BBC 2024-02-20 16:31:36


Alexei Navalny: Mother demands Putin return son’s body

The mother of Alexei Navalny, the Putin critic who died in a Russian prison, has called on President Vladimir Putin to release his body.

In a video filmed outside the colony where he died on Friday, she said she had been trying to see him for five days but didn’t even know where he was.

And Navalny’s wife Yulia urged the authorities not to stop his loved ones from saying goodbye to him.

The family have been told his body will not be released for two weeks.

His mother was informed it was being held for “chemical analysis”, a representative for Navalny said.

There has been no confirmation of the whereabouts of the body from Russian authorities, while efforts to locate it have been repeatedly shut down.

Yulia Navalnaya has alleged her husband’s body was being kept until traces of poisoning by the nerve agent Novichok had disappeared. Navalny survived an attempt to kill him using the poison in 2020.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the accusations “unfounded and vulgar”, but added that since Ms Navalnaya was widowed just days ago he wouldn’t comment further.

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Navalny’s mother made a direct appeal to President Putin outside the Siberian penal colony known as Polar Wolf, where his death was announced on 16 February.

“I’ve not been able to see him for five days, they’re refusing to give his body to me, and they’re not even saying where he is,” she says.

“I’m asking you, Vladimir Putin – it all depends on you alone. Let me finally see my son. I demand that Alexei’s body is released immediately so I can give him a decent burial.”

Her words were echoed in a strongly worded post on X (formerly known as Twitter) by her daughter-in-law.

“I couldn’t care less about how the murderer’s press secretary comments on my words,” she said, referring to Mr Peskov. She has directly accused Mr Putin of killing her husband.

“Give back Alexei’s body and let him be buried with dignity, don’t get in the way of people saying goodbye to him,” she said.

Her remarks follow speeches to the European Union and the Munich Security Conference, and an emotional video released on Monday where she vowed to continue her husband’s work to fight for a “free Russia”.

She also told EU leaders on Monday not to recognise Russia’s presidential elections on 16 March and to pursue members of Mr Putin’s inner circle who were still trying to dodge sanctions.

Navalny’s death in prison was announced on Friday. The authorities at the Siberian penal colony where he was being held said he had never regained consciousness after he collapsed following a walk.

Officials later said that Navalny had suffered “sudden death syndrome”.

His mother and lawyer travelled to the remote colony as soon as news of his death broke.

Attempts to locate the body have repeatedly been shut down by the prison mortuary and local authorities.

On Monday, the Kremlin said an investigation into Navalny’s death was ongoing and that there were “no results” as of yet.

Later, Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said that investigators had told Navalny’s mother Lyudmila they would not hand over the body for two weeks while they conducted a “chemical analysis”.

Navalny, who was the Russian opposition’s most significant leader for the last decade, had been serving a 19-year sentence on politically motivated charges.

Western leaders have put the blame for Navalny’s death squarely on President Putin. Both the EU and the US have said they are considering new sanctions on Russia.

The UK Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, has also said he expects Britain and the rest of the G7 group of rich nations to impose fresh sanctions on any Russians involved in the death.

World Food Programme stops deliveries to northern Gaza

The World Food Programme has paused “live-saving” food deliveries to northern Gaza, saying aid convoys had endured “complete chaos and violence due to the collapse of civil order”.

The agency says the decision has not been taken lightly and crews had faced crowds, gunfire and looting.

The UN has been warning of looming famine in the north since December.

The WFP says these latest reports are proof of a “precipitous slide into hunger and disease”.

The Israeli military ordered 1.1 million Palestinian civilians to evacuate all areas north of Wadi Gaza and seek shelter in the south at the start of its ground offensive in October. The evacuation area included Gaza City – which before the war was the most densely populated area of the territory.

Most residents followed the Israeli order, but several hundred thousand chose to stay or were unable to flee as Israeli troops encircled the region and then largely took control of Hamas strongholds there.

Last month the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Unrwa, said at least 300,000 people who had remained in northern Gaza depended on its assistance for their survival.

Aid deliveries to the north have been scarce and dependent on security clearances from the Israeli military.

This weekend the WFP had hoped to begin a week-long delivery, sending 10 lorries each day to help “stem the tide of hunger and desperation”.

But on Sunday, as a convoy neared the Wadi Gaza checkpoint on its way north, it was “surrounded by crowds of hungry people” with “multiple attempts by people to climb aboard” and then on entering Gaza City faced gunfire, “high tension and explosive anger”.

Additionally, several lorries driving between the southern city of Khan Younis and the central town of Deir al-Balah had been looted and a driver beaten.

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The WFP said over the past two days its teams had “witnessed unprecedented levels of desperation” in the Gaza Strip.

“Food and safe water have become incredibly scarce and diseases are rife, compromising women and children’s nutrition and immunity and resulting in a surge of acute malnutrition,” it said.

“People are already dying from hunger-related causes,” it added.

A joint report issued by the WFP and the UN’s children’s agency UNICEF on Monday found that the the situation was “particularly extreme” in the north of Gaza.

Nutrition screenings conducted at shelters and health centres in the north found that more than 15% of children under two years of age were “acutely malnourished”, the WFP said.

The agency said it would seek ways to resume deliveries in a “responsible manner” as soon as possible and urged a major expansion of aid to northern Gaza. It said this would require significantly higher volumes of food entering Gaza from multiple routes and called for crossing points between Israel and northern Gaza to be opened.

It also called for a functioning humanitarian notification system, a stable communication network and security for its staff and partners as well as for Gazans themselves.

“Gaza is hanging by a thread and WFP must be enabled to reverse the path towards famine for thousands of desperately hungry people,” it says.

Israel launched its operations in Gaza following an attack by Hamas gunmen on southern Israel on 7 October, during which about 1,200 people were killed and more than 240 others taken hostage.

The Israeli military campaign against Hamas has killed 29,000 people in the Palestinian territory, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there.

PSG striker Mbappe agrees to join Real Madrid

Paris St-Germain striker Kylian Mbappe has agreed to join Real Madrid this summer.

The France captain, 25, has told PSG he intends to leave the club with his contract expiring in June.

Mbappe has not signed a contract with Real yet, but the deal could be announced once it is no longer possible for the clubs to meet in this season’s Champions League.

The World Cup winner is PSG’s record goalscorer with 244 goals.

Mbappe wanted his future sorted before March, so on 13 February, before training, he met PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi and told him he was leaving and joining Real.

After reports emerged last Thursday that he would leave, Mbappe was left out of the starting line-up for Saturday’s match against Nantes, but came off the bench to score a penalty as PSG went 14 points clear at the top of Ligue 1.

He is set to sign a five-year deal with Real, earning 15m euros (£12.8m) a season, plus a 150m euro (£128m) signing-on bonus to be paid over five years, and he will keep a percentage of his image rights.

Real manager Carlo Ancelotti has already thought how he will use Mbappe in his team, with England midfielder Jude Bellingham playing a deeper role, Brazilian Vinicius Jr playing on the left and Mbappe playing left of centre.

If Croatia midfielder Luka Modric leaves this summer, then Mbappe would inherit the number 10 shirt he wears for France.

PSG are 2-0 up against Real Sociedad after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie, while Real lead RB Leipzig 1-0.

How have we got here?

Mbappe won the French title with Monaco before joining PSG as an 18-year-old in 2017, initially on loan before a 180m euro (£165.7m) move.

Overall, he has 244 goals and 93 assists in 291 games for PSG and has helped the club to five Ligue 1 title wins.

Mbappe was set to leave PSG on a free transfer at the end of the 2021-22 season but ultimately signed a two-year contract extension, with the option of a further year.

However, after Mbappe told PSG he would not agree to the additional 12 months of the deal, he was not selected for their pre-season tour to Japan last July.

He subsequently refused to meet with representatives of Saudi Pro League side Al-Hilal, who made a world record £259m offer for him.

He later returned to first-team training following what PSG said were “very constructive and positive” talks.

Mbappe turned down a move to Real when he agreed to his current deal with PSG in May 2022.

He has a one-year extension clause, so it is expected his departure will involve either a sale with a transfer fee or financial sacrifices on the player’s part.

“He is no doubt one of the players anyone would love to have on his side. He is an amazing player,” former Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon told the BBC’s Football News Show.

“We have very young players – he will join Vinicius, Rodrygo, Bellingham – and I think we have a very strong team. That’s why we are leading La Liga and also we’ve won all our matches in the Champions League.

“So, for him it would be fantastic. Every fan of Real Madrid would like to see him playing in the Bernabeu.

“He will leave a mark. If he continues to play as he has up until now, for sure he will be one of the important players we have had in our history.”

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What Oppenheimer did for Robert Downey Jr

Robert Downey Jr is the favourite to win a best supporting actor Oscar – but back in 2020, his career had dipped to a low with Dolittle. Oppenheimer hasn’t just reminded the world that Robert Downey Jr is a gifted dramatic actor, it’s reminded him, too.
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When someone wins an award for acting in a film, they usually thank the film’s director. But on Sunday, when Robert Downey Jr picked up a Bafta for best supporting actor in Oppenheimer, his thanks to Christopher Nolan were especially effusive. In particular, he paid tribute to “that dude Chris Nolan” for encouraging him to take “an understated approach, perhaps as a last-ditch effort to resurrect my dwindling credibility”.

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This remark raised an obvious question: why did Downey Jr think his credibility was dwindling? Thanks to his long stint as Iron Man / Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he was one of the highest-paid paid A-listers in Hollywood, and he was credited for bringing a mature and relaxed sensibility to the superhero genre – not least by Nolan himself. “He has such charisma as Tony Stark,” the director said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “Him playing Iron Man is one of the most consequential casting decisions that’s ever been made in the history of the movie business.”

Nolan and Downey Jr have been full of praise for each other during awards season (Credit: Getty Images)

So why did Downey Jr feel that his credibility needed a boost? The answer can be found on his CV, which shows that in the four years between the release of his Marvel swan song, Avengers: Endgame, in 2019, and Oppenheimer in 2023, he had acted in just one film – and that film was Dolittle, a disastrous pile-up of bad jokes, gaping plot holes, painful accents, CGI animals, and obvious reshoots.

The film, which was co-produced by his wife, Susan Downey, was a flop, much to the horror of someone who had come to see big-budget family adventure films as his comfort zone. “At that point I was bulletproof. I was the guru of all genre movies,” Downey Jr said in The New York Times Magazine last July. Dolittle was, he continued, “a two-and-a-half-year wound of squandered opportunity”.

This wasn’t the first time that Nolan had persuaded a mainstream superstar to stretch the acting muscles they hadn’t used in a while

It was also a wake-up call – or as he put it, a “reset of priorities”. Downey Jr was in his mid-50s, coming to the end of his action hero years. But since 2008, he had been in 10 Marvel films, two Sherlock Holmes films, and not much else. If he couldn’t launch a new blockbuster franchise, then what could he do? “I was at a place in my life, in my career, where I needed someone to have a vision of what was possible for me that I couldn’t see for myself,” he said at a Q&A in February. That someone was Nolan.

When the director was casting Oppenheimer, Downey Jr’s box-office appeal might well have been a factor, but this wasn’t the first time that he had persuaded a mainstream superstar to stretch the acting muscles they hadn’t used in a while: he’d cast Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar just as the “McConaissance” was beginning. “You’re always looking to work with great actors,” he said in the New York Times in February, “but you’re also looking to catch them in a moment in their lives and careers where you’ve got something to offer them that they haven’t done before, or haven’t done in a long time.”

And so he coaxed Downey Jr to shrug off the armour of wisecracking, swaggering Tony Stark and to immerse himself in Lewis Strauss, the bitter chairman of the Atomic Enemy Commission who opposes J Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy). “I just really wanted to see this incredible movie star put down all of that baggage, that charisma, and just lose himself in a dramatic portrayal of a very complicated man.”

A spartan approach

The timing was perfect. Nolan wanted Downey Jr to bring some restraint and complexity to his portrayal of Strauss, and Downey Jr was ready to venture into uncharted territory. Emily Blunt recalled warning Downey Jr that the reserved and cerebral British director’s methods would be quite a contrast with what he had been used to at Marvel. “I said, ‘You’re going to just love it so much and the screws are going to get tightened on you so much and it’s just the most focused, wonderful, unchaotic set. But you’re going to get some very British compliments. There will be no smoke blown up your ass, and you’re going to have to be all right with it.'”

Downey Jr was more than all right with it. “Getting to see the spartan, almost monastic way he approaches this art form,” he said, “it was like going to the other side of the Moon.” At the Baftas, he said that he owed his award in part to Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan’s “British sensibility”.

The smart money is on the revitalised Downey Jr following his Bafta win with a victory at the Oscars. But even if that doesn’t happen, Oppenheimer has brought about a new phase of his career. The film hasn’t just reminded the world that he is a gifted dramatic actor, it’s reminded him, too. There’s a good chance that he’ll appear in more of Nolan’s films in the future. There’s an even better chance that he won’t appear in anything as excruciating as Dolittle ever again.

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The giant tortoises rebuilding a Galápagos island

An army of reptilian bulldozers is helping a Galápagos island make an ecological comeback.
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Española’s burgeoning tortoise population – made up of the children and grandchildren of Diego, one of the archipelago’s most beloved tortoise residents – is helping to restore the island’s lost ecosystem.

Before the arrival of humans, Española had as many as 8,000 resident tortoises. However, in the 1800s, pirates and whalers nearly stripped Española and neighbouring islands of their tortoises for their meat. These sailors also left behind goats, which went wild, multiplied, and devoured native vegetation.

By the 1970s much of the pristine habitat was wrecked. Española was down to its last 14 tortoises; 12 females, and two males. These were brought back to the Darwin Research Station’s breeding programme on Santa Cruz between 1964 and 1974, and were later joined by Diego who was discovered in the San Diego zoo. Diego since fathered hundreds of tortoises, playing a key role in saving this critically endangered species, before returning to the place of his birth to live out his retirement in 2020.

“Tortoises have an important ecosystem shaping behaviour,” says Elizabeth Hunter, a conservation biologist for the US Geological Survey and Virginia Tech. She has studied tortoise ecology in the Galápagos Islands for over a decade. “[When they are gone], much more is lost than just the animals themselves. If there’s no large herbivore present, then there’s nothing to stop those woody plants [proliferating which] has cascading effects on other species and the habitat itself.”

Giant tortoises clear trails as they travel across the island (Credit: Iniciativa Galápagos)

When Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos islands in 1835 he noticed a network of trails up and down the side of a volcano on San Cristóbal, caused by tortoises migrating from the highlands to the lowlands. On Española, tortoises have historically maintained clearings needed for nesting grounds by the critically endangered waved albatross which breeds almost exclusively here.

The albatross have huge wingspans, [up to 2m (6.6ft) across], Hunter says. “To take off, they have to get a running start. They need an open area that’s sufficiently wide and long. The tortoises are what allowed those landing strips to be present. And when the tortoises were gone, the vegetation really closed in.”

Just living their daily lives, says Hunter, tortoises spur the island’s natural cycles. A single tortoise can eat hundreds of kilograms of vegetation every year and thin out the undergrowth in the process. What it doesn’t eat, it tramples. A giant tortoise in motion is essentially a bulldozer, knocking everything out of its way, and in the process boosting biodiversity.

Now, driven by a 50-year breeding programme, Espanola’s tortoise population – 3,000 and growing – is bringing back the native grasses and cacti. A 2023 study showed that woody plants are slowly declining and open savannas are returning – brought back by tortoise power.

Albatross “landing strips” are maintained by giant tortoises allowing them to take off and land (Credit: Alamy)

And, despite being a land animal, a Galápagos tortoise’s love of water is extraordinary. Two dozen or more of them may soak together in one of their muddy ponds, with a duck or two paddling around nearby, only their heads and the tops of their shells visible above the algae.

When a tortoise dips into a pond to cool off, it drags along nutrients from the land into the water. It also defecates in the water, enriching it with fertiliser and changing the oxygen level, creating a nutrient-rich aquatic environment for plants and insects. And it’s a two-way street. When a Galápagos tortoise crawls out of its pond it is covered with mud – as much as 1lb (0.5kg) of dirt when dry. Multiply this by thousands of tortoises moving in and out of dozens of ponds every week, and tonnes of soil are displaced in a year.

Tortoises are also “prodigious seed dispersers“, according to one study. The animals can walk as far as 10km (6.2 miles) in two weeks, dispersing thousands of seeds in their faeces along the way. Seeds can take up to a month to pass through the tortoise’s gut so the seeds are carried away from the parent plant. This is thought to improve germination chances for endemic plants, such as the Galápagos tomato.

Tortoises are found in many parts of the world, and function as ecosystem engineers in different ways in different places. In North America, gopher tortoises dig burrows up to 12m (39ft) long which are also used by as many as 350 other species including burrowing owls, the Florida mouse, and eastern indigo snake. 

They eat the fruit in the forest, then they need to bask. So, they move between the different habitat types, and help spread the forest – Christine Griffiths

On Indian Ocean islands, too, tortoises are reforestation partners. On the main island of Mauritius, giant tortoises from Aldabra atoll have been brought to the Ebony Forest reserve to do the work of two extinct endemic tortoise species, eating invasive grass and help boost native plants.

“We’re missing a grazing function in the forests,” says Christine Griffiths, a conservation biologist who manages the reserve. “The tortoises naturally create open areas, and we want them to keep the [non-native] weeds low but let the planted natives grow up.” By creating short grass areas, she says, it forces the grass to change its form. It starts to grow laterally, creating short-cropped tortoise turf.

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On two islets off the coast of Mauritius, tortoises are also helping to expand forests. Gravity and wind tend to move seeds to lower elevations, says Griffiths, but tortoises carry seeds uphill. “On Round Island, where they create disturbances, you start to get lots of nice regeneration of more than wind-dispersed seeds, which we never saw before. They really are engineering that environment,” she says.

Meanwhile, on the neighbouring Ile aux Aigrettes, giant tortoises feast on fallen ebony fruits which are loaded with seeds. “They eat the fruit in the forest, and then they need to bask. They need sun,” says Griffiths. “So, they move between the different habitat types, and help spread the forest. Suddenly, you get these very dense patches of ebony seedlings germinated from the poo. It’s quite impressive.”

Ebony seedlings sprouting from tortoise droppings on Ile aux Aigrettes (Credit: Kevin Gepford)

As giant tortoises regain a foothold on these fragile islands, landscapes and plant communities are already beginning to reap the rewards. However, success for projects like these is measured in decades, if not centuries. For studies on vegetation changes – like the one on Española – a decade can pass before researchers start to see the changes wrought by tortoises. Galápagos tortoises can take 20 years or more to reach reproductive age, which presents challenges to scaling up similar projects – and it will be a future generation of conservationists who will see how it all plays out.

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