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Museum or mosque? Top Turkey court to rule on Hagia Sophia

ISTANBUL (AFP) – Turkey’s top court convened on Thursday (July 2) to consider whether Istanbul’s emblematic landmark and former church Hagia Sophia can be redesignated as a mosque, a ruling which could inflame tensions with the West.

The Council of State evaluated a case brought by several associations during a short hearing and will announce its decision on the fate of the Unesco World Heritage site within 15 days, state broadcaster TRT reported.

The sixth-century edifice – a magnet for tourists worldwide with its stunning architecture – has been a museum since 1935, open to believers of all faiths.

Despite occasional protests outside the site by Islamic groups, often shouting, “Let the chains break and open Hagia Sophia” for Muslim prayers, authorities have so far kept the building a museum.

Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a church in the Christian Byzantine Empire in the sixth century but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

Transforming it into a museum was a key reform of the post-Ottoman authorities under the modern republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

But calls for it to serve again as a mosque have sparked anger among Christians and tensions between historic foes and uneasy Nato allies Turkey and Greece.

‘HIGH-PROFILE SYMBOL’

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last month the decision was for the highest administrative court – known as the Danistay – adding: “The necessary steps will be taken following the verdict.”

But Mr Erdogan also said last year it was time for Hagia Sophia to become a mosque as it had been a “very big mistake” to convert it into a museum.

“The Danistay decision will likely be a political one. Whatever the outcome, it will be a result of the government’s deliberation,” said Ms Asli Aydintasbas, fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But she said the government will weigh several issues, including relations with Greece, Europe and with the US, where “religion is an important matter”.

Mr Anthony Skinner of the risk assessment firm Verisk Maplecroft said converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque would “kill at least two birds with one stone” for Mr Erdogan: He could cater to his Islamic and nationalist base, and sustain if not exacerbate tensions with Greece, while seeking to cast Turkey as a formidable power.

“Erdogan could not find a more high-profile and potent symbol than Hagia Sophia to achieve all these goals at once,” he told AFP.

The Turkish leader has in recent years placed great emphasis on the battles which resulted in the defeat of Byzantium by the Ottomans, with lavish celebrations held every year to mark the conquest.

Muslim clerics have occasionally recited prayers in the museum on key anniversaries or religious holidays.

TURKS DIVIDED

Greece closely follows the future of Byzantine heritage in Turkey and is sensitive to the issue as it sees itself as the modern successor to Orthodox Christian Byzantium.

Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni, who sent a letter of protest to Unesco last week, said the move “rekindles national and religious fanaticism” and is an attempt to “diminish the monument’s global radiance”.

She accused Turkey of using the monument “to serve internal political interests”, arguing that only Unesco had the authority to change Hagia Sophia’s status.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday urged Turkey to keep Hagia Sophia as a museum, and to ensure it remains accessible to all.

“The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability… to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures.”

Turks are divided over its status.

Istanbul shoemaker Mahmut Karagoz, 55, said he dreams he can one day pray under the dome of Hagia Sophia.

“It is a legacy by our Ottoman ancestors. I hope our prayers will be heard. This nostalgia must come to an end,” he told AFP.

However, economics student Sena Yildiz said she believes Hagia Sophia should stay as a museum.

“It is an important place for Muslims, but also for Christians and for all those who love history,” she said.

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Coronavirus: Hungary rejects EU request to add non-members to safe travel list

BUDAPEST (REUTERS) – Hungary will not comply with a European Union request to add non-EU countries to a “safe” travel list, except for Serbia, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said.

The 27-member bloc gave majority approval on Tuesday (June 30) to leisure or business travel from 14 countries beyond its borders in a move aimed at supporting the EU travel industry and tourist destinations.

The countries are Algeria, Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Rwanda, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia and Uruguay.

“For the time being, we cannot support the EU’s request… because this would go against the healthcare interests of the Hungarian people,” he said in a video posted on his Facebook page on Thursday.

Serbia, Hungary’s only southern neighbour which is outside the EU, is home to a large ethnic Hungarian minority.

Italy, which has one of the highest Covid-19 death tolls in the world, has also said it would opt out and keep quarantine restrictions in place for all nations that were not part of the free-travel Schengen area.

For people transiting through Hungary to other countries, Hungary would reinstate a “humanitarian corridor” that was in place at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in Europe, Mr Orban said.

“Anyone travelling through Hungary will have to use this (corridor),” Mr Orban said. “They will not be allowed to leave this path and we will keep strict border controls in place.”

As of Wednesday, Hungary has reported 4,157 coronavirus cases with 586 deaths.

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The singer whose murder sparked Ethiopia protests

More than 80 people have been killed in two days of unrest in Ethiopia following the killing of prominent singer Hachalu Hundessa.

The 34-year-old had emerged as a powerful political voice of the Oromo ethnic group, and had made many enemies during his musical career.

Two suspects were arrested after he was shot dead while driving in the capital, Addis Ababa on Monday evening. However, police have not yet revealed a motive for the killing and no charges have been brought against the suspects.

Hachalu is due to be buried later on Thursday.

BBC Afaan Oromoo’s Bekele Atoma writes about the musician who was a thorn in the flesh of successive governments.

A former political prisoner who grew up looking after cattle, Hachalu rose to become one of Ethiopia’s biggest music stars, mesmerising fans with his songs about romance and political freedom – topics that he easily blended into his lyrics.

Hachalu’s father, who used to work in the electricity department in the city of Ambo, aspired for his son to become a doctor, but he showed little interest in medicine.

However, from an infant, Hachalu showed a passion for music and singing, with the encouragement of his mother, while he looked after cows on the family’s farmland on the outskirts of Ambo in the Oromia region, the heartland of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo.

“I used to sing whatever came to my head,” he recalled in a BBC Afaan Oromoo interview in 2017.

Jailed for five years

One of eight children, Hachalu was born in 1986 in Ambo – a city about 100km (60 miles) west of the capital, Addis Ababa.

It was at the forefront of the campaign by Oromos for self-rule in a nation where they felt repressed under a government that had banned opposition groups and jailed critics.

Hachalu went to school in Ambo, and joined student groups campaigning for freedom.

At the age of 17 in 2003, Hachalu was imprisoned for five years for his political activities.

His father kept his morale high in prison, telling him during visits that “prison makes a man stronger”.

Hachalu became increasingly politicised in prison, as he increased his knowledge about Ethiopia’s history, including its rule by emperors and autocrats.


Whilst incarcerated in Ambo prison he also developed his music skills.

“I did not know how to write lyrics and melodies until I was put behind bars. It is there that I learned,” he said in the 2017 interview.

During his time in jail, he wrote nine songs and released his first album Sanyii Mootii (Race of the King) in 2009, a year after walking free.

Refused to go into exile

The album turned him into a music star, and a political symbol of the Oromo people’s aspirations.

However, he played down his political role, saying: “I am not a politician, I am an artist. Singing about what my people are going through doesn’t make me a politician.”

Many other musicians and activists fled into exile fearing persecution under the rule of then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his successor Hailemariam Desalegn but Hachalu remained in Ethiopia and encouraged the youth to stand up for their rights.

One of his songs was about how he fell in love with a girl who was proud of her identity and was willing to die for it.

‘Gallant warriors and horsemen’

His second album Waa’ee Keenya (Our Plight) was released in 2013 while he was on a tour in the US. It became the best-selling African album on Amazon at the time.

Two years later, he released a powerful single, Maalan Jira? (What existence is mine?), referring to the eviction of Oromos from Addis Ababa and its surrounding areas, after the government decided to expand the boundaries of the city.

For Hachalu, the 2015 displacements showed that history was repeating itself.

He shared the view of Oromo historians that what is currently known as Addis Ababa was once the home of the Tulama clans of the Oromo, and they were forced out by Emperor Menelik II.

In June, Hachalu angered the emperor’s supporters after he accused Menelik II of stealing the horses of Oromos – who see themselves as gallant warriors and horsemen – when he established Addis Ababa as his seat of power, and Ethiopia’s capital in 1886.

Hachalu’s songs became the anthem of the protest movement which emerged in 2015 to demand an end to the displacement of Oromos.

At a time of heightened protests at the end of 2017, Hachalu released another song.

“Do not wait for help to come from outside, a dream that doesn’t come true. Rise, make your horse ready and fight, you are the one close to the palace,” he sang, often to cheers from his fans.

‘Singer was fearless’

The protests snowballed into a campaign for greater political freedom, culminating with Ahmed Abiy becoming the first Oromo to take the post of prime minister in 2018 with a promise to release all political prisoners, unban opposition groups and hold democratic elections.

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Two months after Mr Abiy took office, Hachalu was invited by the government to perform at a concert held in honour of Eritrea’s President Isaias Afeworki, who was visiting Ethiopia for the first time since the end of a border war between the two neighbouring states.

Hachalu proved to be as independent and fearless as ever, singing about the need to achieve justice for people who had been killed in conflict in eastern Ethiopia between the Oromo and Somali ethnic groups, and questioning how a concert could be held when families were grieving.

Government officials later criticised him for singing “inappropriate” songs for the occasion, but it increased his popularity.


Although he sang only in Afaan Oromoo, his songs – especially those which called for greater political freedom in Ethiopia – saw him build a fan base across all ethnic groups.

Hachalu lived in Addis Ababa, where he was shot dead on Monday evening.

While the motive for the killing is unclear, he often spoke of receiving death threats from people who disagreed with him politically.

“Music is my life. It got me friends and foes. But it remains a tool that I use to speak for my people, a tool that I use to express my deepest feelings,” he said three years ago.

Following his death, his supporters took to the streets in several cities and towns to pay tribute to him, resulting in clashes with the security forces that left at least 50 people dead and the arrest of more than 30, including the prominent Oromo politician, Jawar Mohammed.

Carrying Oromia flags, some of his supporters chanted: “One day we will be free. Hachalu, the blood you shed won’t be in vain.”

He is survived by his wife of 10 years, Fantu Demissie, and their two daughters.

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Coronavirus: In change of tone, Trump says he's 'all for masks'

After long opposing wearing a face mask, US president says he has no problem with it but federal mandate not needed.

After long resisting wearing a face mask in public during the coronavirus pandemic, US President Donald Trump has now struck a different tone, saying he is in favour of the protective covering. 

“I’m all for masks. I think masks are good,” Trump told Fox Business in an interview on Wednesday.

The Republican president’s comments came a day after politicians from his party suggested he wear a mask in public to set a good example as the number of daily coronavirus cases in the United States exceeded 50,000 for the first time on Wednesday

“If I were in a tight situation with people, I would absolutely,” Trump said in the interview, adding that people have seen him wearing a mask before.

Yet, Trump has faced criticism for refusing to wear a mask, whether at the White House where officials and aides are tested regularly, or in public settings. 

The president did not wear a mask when he visited a medical swab manufacturing plant in Maine on June 5 to tout increased production of testing supplies. In May, he was briefly required to wear a mask while visiting a Ford manufacturing plant in Michigan but took it off before he appeared in front of media cameras.

“I don’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it,” Trump said at the time.

In early April, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other physical distancing measures were difficult to maintain.

Trump immediately undercut the CDC guidance by flatly stating that he would not be following it, suggesting it would be unseemly for the commander-in-chief to wear a mask as he meets with heads of state.

But on Wednesday, he sounded a different tone, saying he liked the way he looked wearing it.

“It looked like the Lone Ranger,” he said, a reference to the fictional law-and-order character who wore a black eye mask. “I have no problem with that, and if people feel good about it, they should do it.”

Spikes in Texas, California

Cases have been spiking again in the US, which leads the world both in confirmed coronavirus cases and related deaths, at more than 2.6 million and 128,000, respectively.

In recent days, many Republicans and members of the White House coronavirus task force have been more outspoken in advocating for people in the US to wear face masks in public settings as infections have surged in the country’s south and west including in the states of Texas and California.

Last month, the World Health Organization updated its guidance on face masks, recommending they should be worn in public areas where there is a risk of transmission and physical distancing is not possible.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, said last week he would pursue a federal mask mandate if elected. In the Fox interview, Trump suggested a federal mandate was unnecessary and continued to frame mask-wearing as a matter of choice.

Even so, Trump criticised Biden for wearing a mask while being some distance away from his audience and for speaking through the covering at times.

“When there’s nobody around, I don’t see any reason to be wearing it,” Trump said in a separate interview on Wednesday on “America This Week”.


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Donald Trump calls COVID-19 ‘kung flu’ at rally

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Politics

Singapore GE2020: Ong Ye Kung takes down video showing young boy as it violates election rules

SINGAPORE – Education Minister Ong Ye Kung has removed a three-minute video from his Facebook page, featuring a young boy living in Sembawang, after he was informed the video violates election rules.

“I had a nice conversation with a boy Jony who lives in Sembawang about how it is a good place to grow up. Jony is a great sport, we had a good chat, and we put up a short (video),” said Mr Ong in a Facebook post on Thursday (July 2).

“However, we have been informed by authorities that this is not in line with electoral rules. We have therefore taken down the video. We are sorry for any inconvenience caused.”

The Parliamentary Elections Act prohibits primary and secondary school students from taking part in election activities between Nomination Day and Polling Day.

This means they are not allowed to appear in a video or take part in activities to promote a political party during this period.

“While this prohibition does not apply outside of this period, political parties should refrain from inappropriate use of young children who will not fully understand what they may be promoting or subjecting themselves to,” the Elections Department website says.

Mr Ong is running for re-election in Sembawang GRC, where he has been overseeing the Gambas ward.

The video shows Mr Ong in conversation with Jony, a boy in school uniform who lives in Sembawang Crescent.

“What are the places in Sembawang that you like?” Mr Ong asks him in the video.

He replies he likes Canberra Park, the beach and the hot springs park. And Mr Ong responds that “there was nothing” in that area before Sembawang GRC MP Lim Wee Kiak decided to “make this into a nice park”.

The minister also explains the concept of Build-to-Order (BTO) Housing Board flats to Jony.

“Sembawang is growing, with more and more people moving into Sembawang, because it is a happening place, it is a fun place,” Mr Ong says.

“I’m explaining all this to you so that you know, if you support us, these are all the things we will deliver and make life better for you.”

Jony then asks Mr Ong: “But what if you guys don’t get elected?”

This prompts Mr Ong to reply: “Good point.”

The video ends with the phrase “Sayang Sembawang” and “Make Sembawang Special” before the People’s Action Party (PAP) logo is shown.

Singapore GE2020: Get full election coverage on our dedicated site here.

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Business

European stocks surge as cyclicals rally, U.S. jobs data awaited

(Reuters) – European shares climbed on Thursday as encouraging economic data from across the globe and hopes of a COVID-19 vaccine lifted sentiment ahead of the crucial U.S. jobs data.

The pan-European STOXX 600 rose 1.2% to mark its fourth consecutive day of gains. Banks .SX7P, automakers .SXAP and travel & leisure .SXTP firms were the top gainers, jumping between 2.7% and 3.4%.

Financial markets entered the second half of the year on a cheerful note earlier this week, as business surveys showed a coronavirus-induced slump in global manufacturing eased in June.

Adding to optimism, a COVID-19 vaccine developed by German biotech firm BioNTech (BNTX.O) and U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer (PFE.N) was found to be well-tolerated in early stage human trials.

All eyes are on the U.S. payrolls data, due at 1230 pm GMT. Economists have estimated that job numbers rose by 3 million in June, rebounding further after a historic 20.69 million plunge in April.

However, a spike in U.S. infections fuelled uncertainty.

New U.S. cases of COVID-19 jumped nearly 50,000 on Wednesday, according to a Reuters tally, marking the biggest one-day rise since the start of the pandemic.

“Given the ongoing threat from stubbornly rising infection numbers in key U.S. states, there seems to be little potential for the labour market report to produce a distinct upward push to the general market sentiment, as it did four weeks ago,” UniCredit analysts wrote in a note.

The end of the lockdown failed to bring a surge in employment in Spain as data showed that the 900,000 jobs lost at the peak of the pandemic had not been regained.

Among individual movers, Associated British Foods (ABF.L) jumped 7.3% after saying trading in its Primark fashion stores that reopened after the lockdown has been “reassuring and encouraging”.

German fashion house Hugo Boss (BOSSn.DE) rose 2.6% after it appointed Tommy Hilfiger executive Oliver Timm as its chief sales officer.

Scandal-hit Wirecard (WDIG.DE) slumped 27.1% after police and public prosecutors raided its headquarters in Munich and four properties in Germany and Austria.

Cardboard maker DS Smith (SMDS.L) fell 7.3% after saying it was too early to resume dividends in the short-term due to market uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

Dutch construction company BAM Groep (BAMN.AS) dropped 11.6% as it warned of a “significant” loss in the first half of the year.

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Economy

Ukraine dollar bonds fall after cbank chief resigns, bond sale cancelled

LONDON, July 2 (Reuters) – Ukraine’s dollar-denominated bonds fell as much as 2.5 cents on Thursday after the government cancelled its Eurobond sale and the central bank governor resigned.

The September 2026 issue was down 1.5 cents, paring earlier larger losses, to 104.3 cents in the dollar, its biggest daily loss since mid-May. The September 2032 issue shed 1.6 cents to 100.1 cents in the dollar, its lowest point in a month.

Ukraine’s Central Bank Governor Yakiv Smoliy unexpectedly resigned on Wednesday, citing “systematic political pressure” that was preventing him from fulfilling his duties as governor.

The Finance Ministry said on Thursday it would not proceed with a planned offering of dollar-denominated Eurobonds. (Reporting by Tom Arnold and Marc Jones; Editing by Dhara Ranasinghe)

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Film-maker Bong Joon-ho's interpreter gets award for improving South Korea's national image

Academy-award winning director Bong Joon-ho’s interpreter is getting her own share of accolades, Korea Herald reported.

Bong’s trusted interpreter, Choi Sung-jae, received an annual diplomacy award in Seoul on Wednesday (July 1) for her role in enhancing South Korea’s national image, Foreign Ministry officials said.

Choi won this year’s YoungSan Diplomat Award, given by the non-profit Seoul Forum for International Affairs to a civilian each year for their contribution to improving the country’s image and diplomatic interests.

One of Bong’s best known-quotes, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” was a particularly good translation by Choi.

In an interview with Jimmy Fallon on his Tonight Show, she translated Bong’s answer with an apt metaphor. When Fallon asked Bong to describe the film, Choi’s translation of Bong’s answer was “I’d like to say as little as possible here, because the film is best when you go into it cold.”

The 25-year-old Korean-American is also a film-maker with no professional experience in interpretation.

The YoungSan Diplomat Award was also given to Kang Hyung-sik, head of the Foreign Ministry’s international safety management bureau. He played an important role in helping South Korean citizens from severely virus-hit countries return home safely.

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Indian city ravaged by coronavirus sees deaths due to other causes spike

AHMEDABAD, INDIA (REUTERS) – A large Indian city badly hit by the coronavirus has recorded a sharp rise in deaths not attributed to the outbreak, according to official data and burial records, highlighting how the pandemic has affected general healthcare.

The spike in deaths in Ahmedabad, the most populous city in western Gujarat state, is due to patients with serious illnesses either not being able to go to hospitals or being afraid to visit them because of the virus, doctors said.

The numbers contain “ominous signals” for the rest of the country, said Dr Rajib Dasgupta, a professor of community health at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

India has the world’s fourth-biggest outbreak of the Covid-19 disease caused by the virus, with over 600,000 confirmed cases and 17,800 deaths, and some of its largest cities are still reeling from rising infections.

Authorities say over 1,400 people have died because of the coronavirus so far in Ahmedabad, one of India’s worst-hit cities with more than 20,000 confirmed cases.

But the indirect death toll may be even higher.

Twenty-four Hindu crematoriums and four of the largest Muslim graveyards in the city have reported 3,558 deaths in April and 7,150 deaths in May – a spike compared to 2,784 and 2,706 deaths reported by them in April and May last year, respectively.

State government data for Ahmedabad district, which includes the city limits, shows 839 deaths because of Covid-19 during April and May this year.

Ms Jayanti Ravi, the health secretary of Gujarat state, however said she wasn’t aware of any significant rise in deaths in the city of more than 5.6 million people.

“We have collected the data related to actual births and deaths registered across the state and it is not showing such a big deviation,” she told Reuters when asked about the spike.

India’s federal health ministry and Ahmedabad’s municipal commissioner did not respond to questions from Reuters.

Dr Mona Desai, president of the Ahmedabad Medical Association that represents over 9,000 doctors, said some of those who died may have been Covid-19 positive.

But more fatalities were likely to have occurred because patients did not seek timely treatment, fearing they might become infected by the virus, she said.

“Many patients went to hospital only when their condition deteriorated, but then it was too late to do anything,” Dr Desai said.

LOCKDOWN CLOSES PRIVATE CLINICS

Doctors also said that a closure of some private health facilities during a weeks-long lockdown that began in late March made it difficult for many patients to seek treatment.

Dr Dasgupta, from Jawaharlal Nehru University, said: “Excess deaths during the Covid surge phase has been in evidence in other countries too on account of the inability to access medical care for other time-sensitive emergencies.”

There was growing evidence that routine healthcare had been disrupted in India also, he said, adding that mortality data from high-incidence areas would provide more details.

Data from the Hindu crematoriums in Ahmedabad shows that the number of bodies cremated rose by 19 per cent in April and 145 per cent in May compared to the same months last year, with the first half of June also registering a marked increase.

The data was provided by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation under a right to information application.

Ahmedabad’s Muslim graveyards have seen an even sharper rise – data from four of the largest graveyards shows that the number of bodies buried increased by 131 per cent in April and 396 per cent in May, compared to the same months last year.

“People are scared of getting hospitalised because of the coronavirus outbreak,” said Mr Rizwan Kadri, chairman of Ahmedabad Sunni Muslim Wakf Committee, which oversees five burial grounds.

Read the latest on the Covid-19 situation in Singapore and beyond on our dedicated site here.

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Wembley sister killings: Man charged with park murders

An 18-year-old has been charged with murdering two sisters who were stabbed to death in a park in Wembley, north London.

Danyal Hussein is accused of killing Bibaa Henry, 46, and Nicole Smallman, 27, in the early hours of 6 June.

The women were in Fryent Country Park with others on 5 June to celebrate Bibaa’s birthday.

Their bodies were discovered in the park two days later.

A post-mortem revealed the siblings both died from stab wounds.

The Metropolitan Police said Hussein, from Blackheath in southeast London, had been charged with two counts of murder, and a further count of possession of an offensive weapon.

He is due to appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Thursday.

Commander Roy Smith said: “I would like to thank the local community for their support, both with the investigation and the police activity at and around the scene.

“I know that colleagues from across the Met have been working tirelessly on this investigation.

“My officers will remain on patrol in the local area, providing continued reassurance – please do stop and speak with them if you have any questions or concerns.”

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