Adam Schiff: Declassify report on Jamal Khashoggi killing as promised

Adam Schiff: Declassify report on Jamal Khashoggi killing as promised

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In this Dec. 15, 2014, file photo, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a press conference in Manama, Bahrain. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File) more >

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By Andrew Blake

The Washington Times

Friday, January 22, 2021

House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, asked the Biden administration Friday to release details about the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Mr. Schiff wrote Avril Haines, President Biden’s director of national intelligence, requesting that she fulfill her pledge to release an unclassified report on Khashoggi’s killing if confirmed.

Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, entered a Saudi consulate in Turkey in 2018 and was never seen again. He was reportedly butchered inside, and Saudi Arabia has been widely held to blame.

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Congress subsequently passed a law requiring the U.S. Officer of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, to release an unclassified report making details about Khashoggi’s killing available.

That report was never released under former President Trump. Ms. Haines was asked Tuesday if she would reverse course if confirmed to lead the ODNI and she agreed. She was confirmed the following night.

In the letter, released by Mr. Schiff‘s office, he specifically asked Ms. Haines to declassify the “classified annex” the ODNI provided to Congress in 2020 about Khashoggi’s killing with redactions as needed.

“The importance of speaking the truth and confronting the powerful over their misconduct is at the heart of bipartisan concerns over the year-long delay in ODNI’s production of an unclassified report to Congress regarding Saudi Arabia’s culpability,” Mr. Schiff wrote to Ms. Haines, who previously served as a national security official under former President Obama.

“I greatly appreciated the commitment you made during your confirmation hearing that you will ensure that ODNI releases the unclassified report, and hope that you will do so without delay,” he said.

The ODNI did not immediately respond to a message requesting comment.

Boris Johnson: U.K. variant of coronavirus likely more deadly

Boris Johnson: U.K. variant of coronavirus likely more deadly

Scientists say data on alarming finding is limited; vaccines still appear to work against the mutation

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Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a coronavirus press conference at 10 Downing Street in London, Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. Johnson announced that the new variant of COVID-19, which was first discovered in the south of England, may be … more >

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By Tom Howell Jr.

The Washington Times

Friday, January 22, 2021

The fast-spreading “U.K. variant” of the coronavirus might also be more deadly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Friday, an alarming development that will burden the British health system and reverberate around the world.

British scientists believe the variant is 30% to 70% more transmissible than the original version.

“In additional to spreading more quickly, it also now appears there is some evidence that the new variant — the variant that was first identified in London and the southeast — may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” Mr. Johnson said in a Downing Street press conference.

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However, “all evidence” suggests that available vaccines remain effective against the variant.

Reported cases of the coronavirus have decreased over the past two weeks, but U.S. scientists are worried about the fast-moving U.K. strain and another one detected in South Africa.

Until now, scientists felt confident the strain didn’t pose a more serious disease. 

Mr. Johnson’s team said their conclusions are preliminary and based on limited evidence.
England’s chief scientific adviser, Dr. Patrick Vallance, offered an example: He said out of every 1,000 men over age 60 who test positive, roughly 10 would be expected to die under the original strain. They believe 13 to 14 would die under the new strain.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty around these numbers and we need more work to get a precise handle on it,” Dr. Vallance said. “But it obviously is a concern that this has an increase in mortality as well as an increase in transmissibility, as it appears of today.”

Wisconsin DNR board refuses to set early wolf hunt

Wisconsin DNR board refuses to set early wolf hunt

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FILE – This July 16, 2004, file photo, shows a gray wolf at the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minn. Wisconsin State Department of Natural Resources officials pushed back Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, against Republican legislators seeking to implement … more >

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By TODD RICHMOND

Associated Press

Friday, January 22, 2021

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The state Department of Natural Resources policy board narrowly refused Republican legislators’ request Friday to implement a wolf hunt immediately, citing concerns that the department can’t move that fast and Wisconsin’s Native American tribes haven’t been consulted as per treaty rights.

The decision marks a setback for farmers who say they’ve been struggling with wolves preying on their livestock for years. Ryan Klussendorf, a Medford dairy farmer, told the board before it made its decision that wolves have been preying on his livestock for a decade and have started stalking children at bus stops. He said he’s tired of listening to people from urban settings like Madison and Milwaukee talk about wolves’ beauty and the harmony of nature while he’s living a “daily nightmare.”

“The natural world is brutal and less than picturesque,” he said. “It’s time to set this hunt now.”

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Then-President Barack Obama’s administration delisted Great Lake wolves in late 2011. Republican legislators passed a law the next spring requiring the DNR to hold a hunt every fall. The department ran three hunts from 2012 to 2014 before a federal judge put the animals back on the endangered species list.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration removed them from the list earlier this month. DNR officials had said in December they planned to resume a hunt in November. That wasn’t soon enough for a group of GOP lawmakers led by Sen. Rob Stafsholt and Trieg Pronschinske; they sent the DNR board a letter on Jan. 15 d emanding the department launch a hunt right now.

According to department estimates, the number of wolves in the state has grown from 815 in 2012 to 1,034 last year. The DNR estimates 256 packs roamed the state in 2020. The agency paid out $2.7 million in wolf depredation payments between 1985 and 2020, with $1.8 million of that paid out from 2011 through last year.

The Republican request tore the scab off one of the most contentious environmental conflicts Wisconsin has raced in the last 25 years. Nearly 50 people spoke at Friday’s board meeting. Another 1,400 submitted written comments.

Supporters of an early hunt argued that the wolf population now stands at about 1,000 animals, three times the DNR‘s goal of 350 wolves statewide, and they’re wreaking havoc on livestock and pets. Wildlife enthusiasts renewed arguments that the wolf is simply too beautiful to kill. Representatives from Native American tribes with reservations in Wisconsin said they consider the wolf sacred.

DNR Deputy Administrator Todd Ambs told the board that a hunt has already been scheduled for November and the department needs time to gather input, collect scientific data and set quotas.

“We do not believe this is an emergency nor does it require (board) action today,” Ambs said.

At first it appeared a majority of the board was determined to move ahead with an early hunt. Several members brushed aside the department‘s arguments, saying the science hasn’t changed in six years and the agency knew the Trump administration was going to delist wolves and should have been preparing to start a hunt immediately.

“The department has had three years to work on this, most recently this past year, and elected not to,” board member Terry Hilgenberg said. “That’s on the department. Our board has a responsibility to represent our constituents. The wolf issue in northern Wisconsin has been devastating … I think we’ve got to move forward here.”

Greg Kazmierski authored a motion that called for starting the hunt by Feb. 10 and using quotas from the 2014 hunt. But he lost momentum after DNR attorney Cheryl Heilman pointed out that he was setting quotas without consulting the state’s tribes as required by a 1983 federal court ruling. The ruling clarified treaties Ojibwe tribes signed in the 1800s ceding a huge swath of northern Wisconsin to the state.

“It is what it is,” said board Chairman Frederick Prehn. “We are in a situation on the 22nd of January where apparently the tribes have not been consulted properly.”

The board voted 4-3 to reject Kazmierski’s motion and then adjourned without any further remarks about the hunt.

Messages left for Stafsholt and Pronschinske at their Capitol offices weren’t immediately returned. A message left with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which represents 11 Ojibwe tribes that signed the treaties in the 1800s, also wasn’t immediately returned.

___

Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

Russia welcomes Biden missile treaty offer — with reservations

Russia welcomes Biden missile treaty offer — with reservations

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In this file photo taken from a video distributed by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, a rocket launches from missile system as part of the drills, a ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile was launched from … more >

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By David R. Sands

The Washington Times

Friday, January 22, 2021

The top spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday welcomed — with reservations — the new Biden administration’s offer to extend the expiring New START arms control deal for another five years.

The treaty, one of the last major arms control deals still in force between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers, was set to expire early next month after talks with the Kremlin deadlocked in the final months of the Trump administration.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow Friday that Russia welcomed the U.S. announcement, but cautioned that critical details of the U.S. proposal still had to be clarified.

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“Russia is for preserving New START and for extending this treaty in order to gain time for talks and contacts,” Mr. Peskovsaid, according to a report in the TASS news agency. “We can only welcome the political will to extend this document, but everything will depend on the details of this proposal, which are yet to be studied.”

Mr. Peskov did not clarify whether Russia had received a formal offer from Washington outlining the five-year extension, which by treaty can be done unilaterally by Mr. Biden without congressional approval.

The Trump administration in its final year pushed for significant revisions in New START, citing a Russian build-up in shorter-range nuclear weapons not covered under the deal and the need to bring China and its rapidly growing nuclear arsenal into the talks.

China, saying its nuclear programs are much smaller than those of the U.S. and Russia, repeatedly refused to join the talks.

Marshall Billingslea, the Trump administration’s top negotiator in the arms control talks, has already criticized the new administration’s offer of a lengthy extension of the current deal. Mr. Biden also had the option of extending New START for just a year to gain more time to negotiate a better deal.

“Took just 24 hours for Biden team to squander most significant leverage we have over Russia,” Mr. Billingslea tweeted this week.

Denmark suspends Dubai flights amid doubts over virus tests

Denmark suspends Dubai flights amid doubts over virus tests

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Tourists party on a yacht in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Since becoming one of the world’s first destinations to open up for tourism, Dubai has promoted itself as the ideal pandemic vacation spot. With peak tourism … more >

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By JAN M. OLSEN

Associated Press

Friday, January 22, 2021

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) – Denmark has temporarily suspended all flights from the United Arab Emirates for five days after suspicion arose that the coronavirus tests that can be obtained before leaving Dubai are not reliable, authorities announced Friday.

The development, which comes amid a surge of infections in the UAE, poses a direct challenge to the mass testing regime that had been the pillar of the country’s coronavirus response and economic reopening. Dubai was one of the world’s first destinations to open up to tourists, welcoming visitors from anywhere with only a coronavirus test.

Danish Transport Minister Benny Engelbrecht said the decision was made to allow the matter to be thoroughly investigated and ensure that the testing are being carried out properly.

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“We can’t ignore such a suspicion,” Engelbrecht said, adding that the ban entered into force on Thursday night.

Danish authorities faced a “concrete and serious citizen inquiry into” how the tests are carried out at Dubai entry and exit points, he said, and “therefore we need to be absolutely sure that there are no problems.”

Engelbrecht said at least “one citizen” brought the South African variant of the virus “back from Dubai.” He did not identify further that person. Dubai has seen an increase in the number of South African residents as the country’s economy deteriorated in recent years.

Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet said Friday there has been a second report of allegedly sloppy virus testing in Dubai, and cited Engelbrecht as saying “the information seem precise and valid.”

Since Jan. 9, Denmark has required that all passengers arriving in the Scandinavian country have a negative coronavirus test or proof that they have recently had COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, to limit the spread of the virus.

In response to the move, UAE’s state-run WAM news agency carried a statement from a Foreign Ministry official stressing “that all accredited UAE testing centers are regularly subject to strict quality checks.”

Emirati authorities were currently communicating with their Danish counterparts to clarify the reasons behind suspicions surrounding the virus testing, the statement added, noting the government imposed tough penalties for violations of international testing standards.

On Jan. 8, Denmark’s Foreign Ministry advised against all travel abroad, including business travel. On Tuesday, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told local media that “there is a reason why we really ask everyone not to travel. It’s really important that everyone listens.”

“There is a risk of bringing (virus) mutations to Denmark,” she said. “It can undermine our epidemic control and thus infect others and what is worse.”

In recent days, several Danish celebrities, socialites and influencers – such as former boxer Mikkel Kessler, former football international Nicklas Bendtner and table tennis ace Michael Maze – have traveled to Dubai and posted photos of themselves on social media.

Lea Hvidt Kessler, the wife of the former super-middleweight world champion, wrote on Instagram that no one in their family that traveled to Dubai before Christmas was infected. According to media in Denmark, there are currently 85 Danish nationals there and about 800 permanent Danish residents in Dubai.

On Friday, as the UAE shattered its 11th consecutive daily infection record with 3,552 new cases, Dubai‘s state-run media office announced strict new limits on weddings, social events and private parties beginning next Wednesday, restricting all gatherings to 10 immediate family members. Wedding parties at hotels and other venues previously had been capped at 200.

The same day, Dubai ordered all gyms and restaurants to increase the physical space between trainees and diners. The city also put an immediate halt to all “entertainment activities” on boats and floating restaurants – a popular pastime in the city. Tourists and celebrities often flaunt their vacations on social media, posting photos of raucous, Champagne-soaked yacht parties that have splashed across tabloids in recent weeks. A day earlier, Dubai suspended all live bands and performances at nightclubs and bars in the city after hospitals were forced to pause non-urgent surgeries to deal with an influx of new COVID-19 patients.

Tourists have flocked to Dubai in recent weeks despite the raging pandemic, escaping lockdowns back home. The glimmering city-state, with an economy largely built on tourism, aviation and retail, has promoted itself as an ideal pandemic vacation spot. Aside from the ubiquitous masks and hand sanitizer dispensers, a sense of pre-pandemic normalcy prevails in the crowded bars, massive malls and luxury hotels.

Skyrocketing daily infections, which nearly tripled since November, failed to dent the normalcy even as more contagious variants of the coronavirus raced around the globe. The United Kingdom, which like Denmark sent droves of reality TV and sports stars to Dubai, closed its travel corridor with the UAE earlier this month.

Since the start of the pandemic, the UAE has built its coronavirus response on an “early detection strategy,” using Chinese-made coronavirus test kits to embark on one of the world’s best testing campaigns at a time when other countries were struggling to obtain and administer PCR tests. As of Friday, the country of roughly 9 million had conducted some 24.2 million coronavirus tests.

The U.S. State Department previously raised concerns that Chinese testing material was not accurate, without providing evidence about the allegation.

___

Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

Turkey’s Erdogan says extra 10M doses of Chinese vaccine due

Turkey’s Erdogan says extra 10M doses of Chinese vaccine due

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In this photo provided by Turkey’s Health Ministry, a vaccination team member administers a dose of the CoronaVac vaccine, produced by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd., to Sati Kayiran, 88, in Ayas, in Ankara province, Turkey, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Turkey … more >

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Associated Press

Friday, January 22, 2021

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that a further 10 million doses of the Chinese CoronaVac vaccine could arrive in Turkey by this weekend.

Speaking after prayers in Istanbul, Erdogan said delivery of a second batch of the vaccine had been approved by China.

Turkey has so far received 3 million doses and has vaccinated nearly 2 million people, prioritizing health workers and the elderly, since its program started a week ago. Erdogan has said he expects a Turkish-developed vaccine to be available in May.

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Nissan commits to UK car plant after post-Brexit trade deal

Nissan commits to UK car plant after post-Brexit trade deal

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By PAN PYLAS

Associated Press

Friday, January 22, 2021

LONDON (AP) – Japanese carmaker Nissan confirmed Friday that it will maintain its operations in Britain in the wake of the post-Brexit trade deal between the country and the European Union.

The news was greeted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a “great vote of confidence.”

The future of Nissan‘s car plant in the northeast England city of Sunderland was thrown into doubt in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the EU in June 2016, a decision that could have led to tariffs and quotas on trade between the two sides.

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However, after months of tortuous negotiations, the U.K. and EU struck a post-Brexit trade deal at the end of 2020 that means there won’t be any tariffs or quotas. There will be other barriers to trade though, such as customs checks and more form-filling that will inevitably raise costs.

Nissan‘s chief operating officer, Ashwani Gupta, said the deal ensured the company’s future in Sunderland, where it employs around 6,000 people.

“Sunderland is one of the top three plants in the world for competitiveness for Nissan,” he said from Japan.

Johnson welcomed the commitment, saying it is “fantastic news” for the workforce and the future of electric vehicle manufacturing in the country.

By the end of 2023 all Nissan cars sold in Europe will have an electrified version, Gupta said, adding that it will then be up to customers to decide how quickly they switch from traditional combustion engines.

Though committing to the Sunderland plant, Nissan said one of its two lines there will pause production on Friday as shipping routes and ports come under pressure because of the coronavirus crisis. It said this will affect the line which produces the Qashqai and Leaf vehicles but that production will be back to normal next week.

Unions greeted the Nissan commitment with relief, as it brings an end to nearly five years of uncertainty.

“Through continued economic and public health uncertainty they have battled to maintain this plant as one of the most productive in the autos sector and to put it in the best place to transition to the next generation of vehicles,” said Steve Bush, an official at the Unite union.

Russia welcomes US proposal to extend nuclear treaty

Russia welcomes U.S. proposal to extend nuclear treaty

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In this file photo taken from a video distributed by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, a rocket launches from missile system as part of the drills, a ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile was launched from … more >

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By Vladimir Isachenkov

Associated Press

Friday, January 22, 2021

MOSCOW (AP) — The Kremlin on Friday welcomed U.S. President Joe Biden’s proposal to extend the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between the two countries, which is set to expire in less than two weeks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Russia stands for extending the pact and is waiting to see the details of the U.S. proposal.

The White House said Thursday that Biden has proposed to Russia a five-year extension of the New START treaty.

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“We can only welcome political will to extend the document,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters. “But all will depend on the details of the proposal.”

The treaty, signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance. It expires on Feb. 5.

Russia has long proposed to prolong the pact without any conditions or changes, but President Donald Trump’s administration waited until last year to start talks and made the extension contingent on a set of demands. The talks stalled, and months of bargaining have failed to narrow differences.

“Certain conditions for the extension have been put forward, and some of them have been absolutely unacceptable for us, so let’s see first what the U.S. is offering,” Peskov said.

Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian ambassador at the international organizations in Vienna, also hailed Biden’s proposal as an “encouraging step.”

“The extension will give the two sides more time to consider possible additional measures aimed at strengthening strategic stability and global security,” he tweeted.

Biden indicated during the campaign that he favored the preservation of the New START treaty, which was negotiated during his tenure as U.S. vice president.

The talks on the treaty’s extension also were clouded by tensions between Russia and the United States, which have been fueled by the Ukrainian crisis, Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other irritants.

Despite the extension proposal, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden remains committed to holding Russia “to account for its reckless and adversarial actions,” such as its alleged involvement in the Solar Winds hacking event, 2020 election interference, the chemical poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and the widely reported allegations that Russia may have offered bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.

Asked to comment on Psaki’s statement, Peskov has reaffirmed Russia’s denial of involvement in any such activities.

After both Moscow and Washington withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, New START is the only remaining nuclear arms control deal between the two countries.

Arms control advocates have strongly called for New START’s preservation, warning that its lapse would remove any checks on U.S. and Russian nuclear forces.

Last week, Russia also declared that it would follow the U.S. to pull out of the Open Skies Treaty allowing surveillance flights over military facilities to help build trust and transparency between Russia and the West.

While Russia always offered to extend New START for five years – a possibility envisaged by the pact – Trump asserted that it put the U.S. at a disadvantage and initially insisted that China be added to the treaty, an idea that Beijing flatly rejected. Trump’s administration then proposed to extend New START for just one year and also sought to expand it to include limits on battlefield nuclear weapons.

Moscow has said it remains open for new nuclear arms talks with the U.S. to negotiate future limits on prospective weapons, but emphasized that preserving New START is essential for global stability.

Russian diplomats have said that Russia’s prospective Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missile and the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle could be counted along with other Russian nuclear weapons under the treaty.

The Sarmat is still under development, while the first missile unit armed with the Avangard became operational in December 2019.

The Russian military has said the Avangard is capable of flying 27 times faster than the speed of sound and could make sharp maneuvers on its way to a target to bypass missile defense systems. It has been fitted to the existing Soviet-built intercontinental ballistic missiles instead of older type warheads, and in the future could be fitted to the more powerful Sarmat.

Bosniak wartime officer gets 10 years for war crimes

Bosniak wartime officer gets 10 years for war crimes

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Friday, January 22, 2021

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) – A Bosnian court on Friday convicted a former senior officer whose troops included Islamic volunteer fighters during the 1992-95 conflict of war crimes and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

The Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina on Friday ruled that wartime Bosnian Army Third Corps commander Sakib Mahmuljin did nothing to prevent crimes against Serb prisoners by the El Mujahedin unit.

Mahmuljin had pleaded not guilty, with his lawyers insisting he had no real command over the unit that consisted of volunteers from the Middle East.

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The indictment said members of the El Mujahedin unit killed at least 55 imprisoned Bosnian Serb soldiers between July and September 1995 in the areas of Zavidovici and Vozuca, in central Bosnia.

More than 100,000 people died during the war in Bosnia, which started when the Bosniak-led government declared independence from Serb-led Yugoslavia, triggering a rebellion by Bosnian Serbs who wanted to unite with neighboring Serbia.

The war ended in a U.S.-brokered peace agreement in 1995 which created two entities with a loose central government – Serb-dominated one and a Bosniak-Croat one. Bosnia remains ethnically divided and impoverished despite international efforts at reconciliation.

Kremlin welcomes US proposal to extend the last remaining nuclear arms treaty between the two countr

Kremlin welcomes US proposal to extend the last remaining nuclear arms treaty between the two countr

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MOSCOW (AP) – Kremlin welcomes US proposal to extend the last remaining nuclear arms treaty between the two countries.

German virus death toll tops 50,000 even as infections sink

German virus death toll tops 50,000 even as infections sink

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In this April 24, 2020, file photo, a man with a face mask watches empty chairs with names of bars and restaurants on the Roemerberg square in Frankfurt, Germany. More than 50,000 people have died after contracting COVID-19 in Germany, … more >

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By Geir Moulson

Associated Press

Friday, January 22, 2021

BERLIN (AP) — The death toll from the coronavirus in Germany has passed 50,000, a number that has risen swiftly over recent weeks even as infection figures are finally declining.

The country’s disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, said Friday that another 859 deaths were reported over the past 24 hours, taking the total so far to 50,642.

Germany had a comparatively small number of deaths in the pandemic’s first phase and was able to lift many restrictions quickly.

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But it has seen much higher levels of infections in the fall and winter. Hundreds of deaths, sometimes more than 1,000, have been reported daily in the country of 83 million people over recent weeks. Germany hit the 40,000 mark on Jan. 10.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will leave a light shining in a window at his Bellevue palace in Berlin every evening starting Friday in memory of the dead and those fighting for their lives, his office said. He encouraged other Germans to do the same.

Steinmeier plans to lead a central memorial event for the dead after Easter.

The lights are meant as a sign that “the dead in the corona pandemic are not just statistics for us,” Steinmeier said. “Even if we don’t know their names and families, we know that every figure stands for a loved one whom we miss infinitely.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed those comments this week, describing the recent death figures as “terrible.” Still, she said that daily infections are dropping and somewhat fewer people are receiving intensive care than over Christmas.

In Europe, the U.K., Italy, France and Spain, all of which have smaller populations, still have higher death tolls.

The head of the Robert Koch Institute, Lothar Wieler, said this week the explanation for the high death figures is “relatively simple but relatively depressing.”

“The increase is simply linked to the fact that the case numbers went up so much,” he said.

Wieler said there are still a lot of outbreaks at nursing homes – over 900 at present. Some homes are better-prepared than others to combat the pandemic, he said. There are also large numbers of cases among the over-80s.

Overall, new infections peaked in December. On Friday, the Robert Koch Institute reported 17,862 new cases, down from 22,368 a week ago. Germany’s total so far is a bit over 2.1 million. The number of new cases per 100,000 residents over seven days stood at 115.3, after reaching nearly 200 a month ago. It’s still well above the government’s target of a maximum 50.

There are currently 4,787 COVID-19 patients in intensive care, said Gernot Marx, the head of Germany‘s intensive care association, DIVI.

That is down from a peak of nearly 5,800 on Jan. 3, he said – “that was the most critical situation, in my opinion, since there has been intensive care in Germany.” He added that there has been no sign of a Christmas or new year peak.

Germany‘s current lockdown was extended this week until Feb. 14 amid concern about the possible impact of virus mutations such as the one first detected in England.

Authorities are trying to encourage more people to work from home, thus reducing the numbers who use public transport. Restaurants, bars, sports and leisure facilities have been closed since early November. Schools and nonessential shops followed in mid-December, and professional sports events are taking place without spectators.

Merkel says everyone in Germany will be offered a vaccination by late September. There has been frustration with the slow start to vaccinations. By Thursday, nearly 1.39 million people had received a first dose and over 115,000 a second dose.

Britain has delayed giving second doses for up to three months so it can give the first dose to as many as possible. But Health Minister Jens Spahn signaled that Germany won’t follow suit, pointing to concerns over a lack of study data and the need for the most vulnerable and elderly to get “comprehensive” protection.

“We will, according to all the scientific groundwork we have at the moment, stick to the … recommended rhythm for the second dose,” Spahn said Friday.

___

Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

First-ever treaty to ban nuclear weapons enters into force

First-ever treaty to ban nuclear weapons enters into force

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Participants deflate balloons in hope of neutralizing and demolishing nuclear warheads, during a memorial gathering at Peace Park in Nagasaki, southern Japan Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. The first-ever treaty to ban nuclear weapons entered into force on Friday, hailed as … more >

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Friday, January 22, 2021

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The first-ever treaty to ban nuclear weapons entered into force on Friday, hailed as a historic step to rid the world of its deadliest weapons but strongly opposed by the world’s nuclear-armed nations.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is now part of international law, culminating a decades-long campaign aimed at preventing a repetition of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. But getting all nations to ratify the treaty requiring them to never own such weapons seems daunting, if not impossible, in the current global climate.

When the treaty was approved by the U.N. General Assembly in July 2017, more than 120 approved it. But none of the nine countries known or believed to possess nuclear weapons – the United States, Russia, Britain, China, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel – supported it and neither did the 30-nation NATO alliance.

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Japan, the world’s only country to suffer nuclear attacks, also does not support the treaty, even though the aged survivors of the bombings in 1945 strongly push for it to do so. Japan on its own renounces use and possession of nuclear weapons, but the government has said pursuing a treaty ban is not realistic with nuclear and non-nuclear states so sharply divided over it.

Nonetheless, Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize-winning coalition whose work helped spearhead the treaty, called it “a really big day for international law, for the United Nations and for survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

The treaty received its 50th ratification on Oct. 24, triggering a 90-day period before its entry into force on Jan. 22.

As of Thursday, Fihn told The Associated Press that 61 countries had ratified the treaty, with another ratification possible on Friday, and “from Friday, nuclear weapons will be banned by international law” in all those countries.

The treaty requires that all ratifying countries “never under any circumstances … develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” It also bans any transfer or use of nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices – and the threat to use such weapons – and requires parties to promote the treaty to other countries.

Fihn said the treaty is “really, really significant” because it will now be a key legal instrument, along with the Geneva Conventions on conduct toward civilians and soldiers during war and the conventions banning chemical and biological weapons and land mines.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the treaty demonstrated support for multilateral approaches to nuclear disarmament.

“Nuclear weapons pose growing dangers and the world needs urgent action to ensure their elimination and prevent the catastrophic human and environmental consequences any use would cause,” he said in a video message. “The elimination of nuclear weapons remains the highest disarmament priority of the United Nations.”

But not for the nuclear powers.

As the treaty was approaching the 50 ratifications needed to trigger its entry into force, the Trump administration wrote a letter to countries that signed it saying they made “a strategic error” and urging them to rescind their ratification.

The letter said the treaty “turns back the clock on verification and disarmament” and would endanger the half-century-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, considered the cornerstone of nonproliferation efforts.

Fihn countered at the time that a ban could not undermine nonproliferation since it was “the end goal of the Nonproliferation Treaty.”

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the treaty’s arrival was a historic step forward in efforts to free the world of nuclear weapons and “hopefully will compel renewed action by nuclear-weapon states to fulfill their commitment to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.”

Fihn said in an interview that the campaign sees strong public support for the treaty in NATO countries and growing political pressure, citing Belgium and Spain. “We will not stop until we get everyone on board,” she said.

It will also be campaigning for divestment – pressuring financial institutions to stop giving capital to between 30 and 40 companies involved in nuclear weapons and missile production including Airbus, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Iran, pressured by blackouts and pollution, targets Bitcoin

Iran, pressured by blackouts and pollution, targets Bitcoin

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Cars drive on an unlit street during a blackout in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan 20, 2021. Speculation has gripped social media in Iran that Bitcoin is to blame for a series of recent power blackouts across the country. The government … more >

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By NASSER KARIMI and ISABEL DEBRE

Associated Press

Friday, January 22, 2021

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Iran‘s capital and major cities plunged into darkness in recent weeks as rolling outages left millions without electricity for hours. Traffic lights died. Offices went dark. Online classes stopped.

With toxic smog blanketing Tehran skies and the country buckling under the pandemic and other mounting crises, social media has been rife with speculation. Soon, fingers pointed at an unlikely culprit: Bitcoin.

Within days, as frustration spread among residents, the government launched a wide-ranging crackdown on Bitcoin processing centers, which require immense amounts of electricity to power their specialized computers and to keep them cool – a burden on Iran‘s power grid.

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Authorities shuttered 1,600 centers across the country, including, for the first time, those legally authorized to operate. As the latest in a series of conflicting government moves, the clampdown stirred confusion in the crypto industry – and suspicion that Bitcoin had become a useful scapegoat for the nation’s deeper-rooted problems.

Since former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 from Tehran’s nuclear accord with world powers and re-imposed sanctions on Iran, cryptocurrency has surged in popularity in the Islamic Republic.

For Iran, anonymous online transactions made in cryptocurrencies allow individuals and companies to bypass banking sanctions that have crippled the economy. Bitcoin offers an alternative to cash printed by sovereign governments and central banks – and in the case of Iran and other countries under sanctions like Venezuela, a more stable place to park money than the local currency.

“Iranians understand the value of such a borderless network much more than others because we can’t access any kind of global payment networks,” said Ziya Sadr, a Tehran-based Bitcoin expert. “Bitcoin shines here.”

Iran’s generously subsidized electricity has put the country on the crypto-mining map, given the operation’s enormous electricity consumption. Electricity goes for around 4 cents per kilowatt-hour in Iran, compared to an average of 13 cents in the United States.

Iran is among the top 10 countries with the most Bitcoin mining capacity in the world – 450 megawatts a day. The U.S. network has a daily capacity of more than 1,100 megawatts.

On Tehran‘s outskirts and across Iran‘s south and northwest, windowless warehouses hum with heavy industrial machinery and rows of computers that crunch highly complex algorithms to verify transactions. The transactions, called blocks, are then added to a public record, known as the blockchain.

“Miners” adding a new block to the blockchain collect fees in bitcoins, a key advantage amid the country’s currency collapse. Iran‘s rial, which had been trading at 32,000 to the dollar at the time of the 2015 nuclear deal, has tumbled to around 240,000 to the dollar these days.

Iran‘s government has sent mixed messages about Bitcoin. On one hand, it wants to capitalize on the soaring popularity of digital currency and sees value in legitimizing transactions that fly under Washington’s radar. It authorized 24 Bitcoin processing centers that consume an estimated 300 megawatts of energy a day, attracted tech-savvy Chinese entrepreneurs to tax-free zones in the country’s south and permitted imports of computers for mining.

Amir Nazemi, deputy minister of telecommunications and information, declared last week that cryptocurrency “can be helpful” as Iran struggles to cope with sanctions on its oil sector.

On the other hand, the government worries about limiting how much money is sent abroad and controlling money laundering, drug sales and internet criminal groups.

Iranian cryptocurrency miners have been known to use ransomware in sophisticated cyber attacks, such as in 2018 when two Iranian men were indicted in connection with a vast cyber assault on the city of Atlanta. On Thursday, British cybersecurity firm Sophos reported it found evidence tying crypto-miners in Iran‘s southern city of Shiraz to malware that was secretly seizing control of thousands of Microsoft servers.

Iran is now going after unauthorized Bitcoin farms with frequent police raids. Those who gain authorization to process cryptocurrency are subject to electricity tariffs, which miners complain discourage investment.

“Activities in the field are not feasible because of electricity tariffs,” said Mohammad Reza Sharafi, head of the country’s Cryptocurrency Farms Association. Despite the government giving permits to 1,000 investors, only a couple dozen server farms are active, he added, because tariffs mean Bitcoin farms pay five times as much for electricity as steel mills and other industries that consume far more power.

Now, miners say, the government’s decision to close down major Bitcoin farms operating legally seems designed to deflect concerns about the country’s repeated blackouts.

As Tehran went dark last week, a video showing industrial computers whirring away at a massive Chinese cryptocurrency farm spread online like wildfire, prompting outrage about Bitcoin’s outsized thirst for electricity. Within days, the government closed that plant despite its authorization to operate.

“The priority is with households, commercial, hospitals and sensitive places,” said Mostfa Rajabi Mashhadi, spokesman of Iran‘s electricity supply department, noting that illegal farms sucked up daily some 260 megawatts of electricity.

Although Bitcoin mining strains the power grid, experts say it’s not the real reason behind Iran‘s electricity outages and dangerous air pollution. The telecommunications ministry estimates that Bitcoin consumes less than 2% of Iran‘s total energy production.

“Bitcoin was an easy victim here,” said Kaveh Madani, a former deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment, adding that “decades of mismanagement” have left a growing gap between Iran‘s energy supply and demand.

Bitcoin “mining’s energy footprint is not insignificant but these problems are not created overnight,” he said. “They simply need one trigger to spiral out of control.”

A sharp drop in supply or spike in demand, like this winter when more people are staying home because of the coronavirus pandemic, can upset the balance of a grid that draws mostly from natural gas. Authorities reported that households have increased their heating gas usage by 8% this year, which Tehran‘s electric supply company said led to “limitations in feeding the country’s power plants and a lack of electricity.”

Sanctions targeting Iran’s aging oil and gas industry have compounded the challenges, leaving Iran unable to sell its products abroad, including its low-quality, high-sulfur fuel oil known as mazut. If the hazardous oil isn’t sold or shipped it must be swiftly burned – and it is, in 20% of the country’s power plants, according to environmental official Mohammad Mehdi Mirzai. The smoldering fuel blackens the skies, particularly when the weather cools and wind carries emissions from nearby refineries and industrial sites into Tehran.

During the power blackouts, thick layers of pollution coated mountain peaks and hovered over cities, with readings of dangerous fine particulate pollution spiking to over 200 micrograms per cubic meter, a level considered “dangerously” unhealthy.

As the government publicized its clampdown on Bitcoin farms, miners balked at all the blame over their energy guzzling. Many warned that despite its potential to become a cryptocurrency utopia, Iran would continue to fall behind.

“These moves harm the country,” said Omid Alavi, a cryptocurrency consultant. “Many neighboring nations are attracting foreign investors.”

___

DeBre reported from Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.

After Trump setbacks, Kim Jong Un starts over with Biden

After Trump setbacks, Kim Jong Un starts over with Biden

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FILE – This Jan. 14, 2021, file photo provided by the North Korean government shows missiles during a military parade marking the ruling party congress, at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea. Last year was a disaster for … more >

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By KIM TONG-HYUNG

Associated Press

Friday, January 22, 2021

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – Last year was a disaster for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

He helplessly watched his country’s already battered economy decay further amid pandemic border closures while brooding over the collapse of made-for-TV summits with former President Donald Trump that failed to lift crippling sanctions from his country.

Now he must start all over again with President Joe Biden, who has previously called Kim a “thug” and accused Trump of chasing spectacles instead of meaningful reductions of Kim’s nuclear arsenal.

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While Kim has vowed to strengthen his nuclear weapons program in recent political speeches, he also tried to give Biden an opening by saying that the fate of their relations depends on whether Washington discards what he calls hostile U.S. policies.

It’s unclear how patient Kim will be. North Korea has a history of testing new U.S. administrations with missile launches and other provocations aimed at forcing the Americans back to the negotiating table.

In recent military parades in Pyongyang, Kim showcased new weapons he may test, including solid-fuel ballistic systems designed to be fired from vehicles and submarines, and the North’s biggest intercontinental ballistic missile.

A revival of tensions would force the U.S. and South Korea to reckon more deeply with the possibility that Kim may never voluntarily deal away the weapons he sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.

Kim’s arsenal emerged as a major threat to the United States and its Asian allies following tests in 2017 that included a detonation of a purported thermonuclear warhead and flight tests of ICBMs that demonstrated the potential to reach deep into the American homeland.

A year later, Kim initiated diplomacy with South Korea and the U.S., but it derailed in 2019 when the Americans rejected North Korea’s demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a piecemeal deal partially surrendering its nuclear capabilities.

North Korea won’t likely be the top priority for Biden, who while facing mounting domestic issues is also gearing up for a push to get back into a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that Trump blew up in favor of what he called maximum pressure against Iran.

The Biden administration’s “sequence of policy attention will likely be: Get America’s own house in order, strengthen U.S. alliances and align strategies toward China and Russia, and then address Iran and North Korea,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

But North Korea never likes to be ignored.

Although Biden served as vice president under Barack Obama, whose policy was to wait out North Korea while gradually increasing sanctions, that method might not work because the North’s weapons capabilities have grown significantly in the years since.

While sanctions, border closures and crop-killing natural disasters have created the toughest challenges of Kim’s nine-year rule, he won’t be in a hurry to offer concessions, Easley said. Kim’s government has a high tolerance for domestic suffering and could expect extensive help from China, its only major ally.

North Korea’s first provocation under the Biden administration could possibly be related to submarine-launched ballistic systems, which Kim showcased in recent parades.

Kim’s ambitions for longer-range ICBMs and reconnaissance satellites that he expressed during the ruling party congress this month could lead to a space launch that would double as a test of long-range missile technology. That would be reminiscent of a 2009 launch that took place weeks into Obama’s first term.

″(The North) is capable of conducting tests that the U.S. and its allies cannot ignore,” Easley said. “Kim is likely to exploit this.”

The North Korean leader is trying to move the diplomacy toward an arms reduction negotiation between nuclear states, rather than talks that would culminate in a full surrender of his weapons, according to Shin Beomchul, an analyst with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

But North Korea probably won’t test weapons until after Biden’s State of the Union address in February, where he could set the tone of his policy toward the North, Shin said. Kim may also want to see whether the United States and South Korea proceed with a major joint military exercise expected in March.

Although the allies have described their annual exercises as defensive in nature and downsized much of their combined training activity under Trump to make space for diplomacy, North Korea has called for a full stoppage of the drills, describing them as invasion rehearsals and proof of U.S. hostility.

“The North during the party congress has made clear it has no intentions of budging first, but it is also interested in hearing what the United States has to say,” said Shin, who served as a South Korean diplomat during the Obama years.

Biden will not inherit Trump’s top-down diplomacy, but you could expect him to be more flexible about working-level negotiations, offering to talk with the North Koreans at any time and place and about anything,” he said.

Shin expects Biden to eventually pursue a deal with North Korea that resembles the agreement with Iran that Trump pulled out of in 2018. It could provide North Korea some level of compensation for freezing its nuclear and missile capabilities at their current level.

While the United States won’t likely give up its long-term commitment to denuclearizing North Korea, rolling back the country’s nuclear capabilities to zero is not a realistic near-term diplomatic goal, he said.

But an Iran-style deal might not work with North Korea, which has much more advanced weapons and is unlikely to accept the monitoring steps baked into the Iran deal, said Park Won-gon, a professor at South Korea’s Handong University.

One thing is clear, though, Park said: If North Korea tests its weapons, Biden will dial up sanctions that will continue to push Kim’s economy to the brink.

Brazil awaits vaccine cargo from India amid supply concerns

Brazil awaits vaccine cargo from India amid supply concerns

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Health workers prepare doses of the COVID-19 vaccine produced by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd., during the start of the vaccination plan on indigenous lands at the Ticuna de Umariacu village health post in Tabatinga, Amazonas state, Brazil, Tuesday, Jan. 19, … more >

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By DIANE JEANTET and DAVID BILLER

Associated Press

Friday, January 22, 2021

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) – Brazil‘s government on Friday awaited the arrival of 2 million doses of coronavirus vaccine from India, but experts warned the shipment will do little to shore up an insufficient supply in South America’s biggest nation.

Brazil’s Health Ministry on Thursday announced that the vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, was being flown to Rio de Janeiro, where Brazil’s state-run Fiocruz Institute is based. Fiocruz has an agreement to produce and distribute the vaccine.

The 2 million doses from India only scratch the surface of the shortfall, Brazilian public health experts told The Associated Press, as far more doses will be needed to cover priority groups in the nation of 210 million people, and shipments of raw materials from Asia have been delayed.

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“Counting doses from Butantan (a Sao Paulo state research institute) and those from India, there isn’t enough vaccine and there is no certainty about when Brazil will have more, or how much,” said Mário Scheffer, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Sao Paulo. That shortage “will interfere with our capacity in the near-term to reach collective immunity.”

A flight from India planned for last week was postponed, derailing the federal government’s plan to begin immunization with the AstraZeneca shot. Instead, vaccination began using the CoronaVac shot in Sao Paulo, where Butantan has a deal with its producer, Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac.

Countries around the world, particularly developing nations, are struggling to source sufficient vaccines for their populations. Neither Fiocruz nor Butantan has yet received the technology from their partners to produce vaccines domestically, and instead must import the active ingredients.

India’s foreign ministry said Friday evening at a press briefing in New Delhi that vaccines had been dispatched to Brazil and Morocco.

“As you can see, the supply of Indian-made vaccines is underway, both as gifts as well as on commercial basis,” ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said.

Fiocruz said in a statement Thursday the Health Ministry could begin distribution of the imported AstraZeneca shots Saturday afternoon, following a quality control inspection.

Butantan made available 6 million CoronaVac doses it imported from China in order to kick off Brazil’s immunization, and it used materials imported from China to bottle an additional 4.8 million shots. The health regulator on Friday approved use of the latter batch for distribution to states and municipalities across Brazil.

Scheffer estimated in a report he published Monday that the government will need 10 million doses just to cover front-line health workers, leaving the elderly and other at-risk Brazilians without any vaccines. The government’s own immunization plan doesn’t specify how many Brazilians are included in priority groups.

“We are doing what is possible to get the vaccine,” President Jair Bolsonaro said Thursday night in his weekly Facebook live broadcast, adding that his government will make free, non-mandatory vaccination available to all Brazilians.

Brazil has recorded 214,000 deaths related to COVID-19, the second-highest total in the world after the United States, and infections and deaths surging again.

While Brazil has a proud history of decades of immunization campaigns, in this pandemic it has struggled to cobble together a complete plan and suffered multiple logistical pitfalls.

“The vaccination plan is badly done in general,” said Domingos Alves, adjunct professor of social medicine at the University of Sao Paulo. “It’s important that the information be transparent and clear for the population to know how this vaccination process will be done.”

There has been some speculation on social media that diplomatic snafus – stemming from allies of Bolsonaro who criticized the Chinese government – might explain the delay in getting the required inputs.

Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university, told AP that such a reading is overly simplistic amid heightened global demand.

“Of course, since Bolsonaro isn’t on good terms with the Chinese government, he doesn’t really have the direct access,” Stuenkel said from Sao Paulo. “There is a chance that the bad relationship does wind up putting Brazil further down the line of recipients, but not because the Chinese are saying actively, ‘Let’s punish Brazil,’ but perhaps because other presidents have a better relationship.”

The newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported Wednesday that Brazilian Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello met with China’s ambassador in Brasilia and that Bolsonaro had requested a call with China’s leader Xi Jinping. Filipe Martins, an adviser to Bolsonaro on international relations, said in a television interview the same day that Brazil is seeking suppliers from other countries.

“Negotiations are well advanced,” Martins told RedeTV!. He added that there is “a big fuss over nothing.”

Lawmakers including House Speaker Rodrigo Maia and the president of the Brazil-China parliamentary group, Sen. Roberto Rocha, also met with the Chinese ambassador.

Butantan had planned to supply Brazil‘s Health Ministry with 46 million doses by April. It is awaiting the import of 5,400 liters of the active ingredient before the end of the month to make about 5.5 million doses, and new shipments from China depend on authorization from the Chinese government, according to a statement from its press office.

Fiocruz had initially scheduled the delivery of 100 million doses to begin in February and 110 million more in the second half of the year. As of Dec. 30, its plan was down to delivering 30 million doses by the end of February, but the first delivery has been postponed to March, the institute said.

Brazil doesn’t have vaccines available for its population,” Margareth Dalcolmo, a prominent pulmonologist at Fiocruz who has treated COVID-19 patients, said this week. “That’s absolutely unjustifiable.” ___ AP journalist Ashok Sharma contributed from New Delhi

Latest Louisiana COVID-19 emergency elections plan approved

Latest Louisiana COVID-19 emergency elections plan approved

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In this file photo, the sun sets as people arrive to vote at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Ironton, Louisiana for Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Early voting for runoff elections in Louisiana ends on Saturday, Nov. … more >

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By MELINDA DESLATTE

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Louisiana will continue to use an expanded version of absentee-by-mail voting for the upcoming spring elections that will fill two U.S. House seats, under a coronavirus emergency plan that won bipartisan approval from lawmakers Thursday.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, already had announced his support of the plan submitted by Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican. Ballots submitted by lawmakers and released by each chamber showed 80 of 105 House members agreed to the proposal, along with 35 of 39 senators.

With that final legislative decision, voters for the March 20 and April 24 elections – which include competitions for the vacant 2nd District and 5th District congressional seats – will have five COVID-19-related reasons to request an absentee ballot rather than vote in person.

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Louisiana’s absentee balloting procedure is usually limited to people 65 or older, members of the military, overseas voters, people who are hospitalized, people who are physically disabled and people who won’t be in their parish for the election.

The emergency rules will allow people to seek an absentee ballot if they are at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 because of medical conditions; are subject to a quarantine order; are advised by a health provider to self-quarantine; are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and seeking medical confirmation; or are caring for someone who is isolated because of the disease.

Those are the same expanded absentee-by-mail voting rules that were in place for the summer and fall elections, including the November presidential competition.

But Ardoin won’t be increasing the number of days of early voting as he did in the previous elections.

While absentee-by-mail voting increased in recent elections, most mail-in votes were cast by people legally able to do it without the emergency rules. Only small percentages of voters used the COVID-19 rules in submitting absentee ballots for the 2020 elections, according to the secretary of state’s data.

___

Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak. Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.

Outging US ambassador says world must end Taiwan’s exclusion

Outging US ambassador says world must end Taiwan’s exclusion

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In this image made from a video screen shows and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft meeting virtually with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (unseen) on Wednesday night, Jan. 13, 2021. Craft’s trip to Taiwan was canceled but Craft … more >

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – In a final swipe at China, the Trump administration’s outgoing U.N. ambassador tweeted that it’s time for the world to oppose China’s efforts to exclude and isolate Taiwan, drawing sharp criticism from Beijing.

To make the point even more graphic, Ambassador Kelly Craft accompanied the tweet with a photo of herself in the U.N. General Assembly Hall where the island is banned. And she carried a handbag with a stuffed Taiwan bear sticking out of the top, a gift from Taiwan’s representative in New York, Ambassador James Lee.

Taiwan left the United Nations in 1971 when China joined. Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province and has been using its diplomatic clout to stop its 23 million people from joining any organizations that require statehood for membership including the U.N. World Health Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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American relations with Taiwan warmed under president Donald Trump, largely due to strong bipartisan support in Congress, but also because his administration was willing to defy Beijing’s threats and promote Taiwan as an alternative to Chinese Communist Party authoritarianism.

Craft met in September with Taiwan‘s New York representative and had been scheduled to visit Taipei last week, but her trip was canceled after then secretary of state Mike Pompeo banned all travel.

Undeterred, she held a virtual meeting with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on the evening of Jan. 13, telling her: “The United States will always stand with Taiwan.”

Earlier that day, she went into the General Assembly Hall, stood at the speaker’s podium, and recorded a virtual address to Model U.N. students in Taiwan.

Craft followed up those events with a statement Tuesday – her last full day as ambassador – stressing that the United States “is determined to end” Taiwan‘s exclusion and isolation, and predicting this will continue with the administration of newly inaugurated President Joe Biden.

“The U.S. position on this matter enjoys universal bipartisan support,” she said, “and so, even as the United States is preparing for a transition, I can speak with great confidence that the U.S.-Taiwan relationship will continue to grow and strengthen.”

She called Taiwan “a force for good on the global stage — a vibrant democracy, a generous humanitarian actor, a responsible actor in the global health community, and a vigorous promoter and defender of human rights.”

In a final salvo during Trump’s final hours in office on Wednesday, Craft tweeted her appeal for an end to Taiwan’s isolation and exclusion, saying: “All @UN member states should recognize the benefits of Taiwan’s meaningful participation in int’l organizations & the damage done by its continued exclusion.”

The spokesperson for China’s U.N. Mission, referring to Craft’s photo in the General Assembly Hall, tweeted back: “Without prior notice to the UN, you sneaked into the GA Hall to record the video. You have not only violated the guidelines for the use of UN premises but also broken the rules for prevention of COVID-19. You’re spreading virus literally. Time to stop!”

A spokesman for Craft responded Thursday saying: “Ambassador Craft was proud to speak with the youth of Taiwan from the floor of the U.N. General Assembly, to underscore the outrageous fact that Taiwan’s voice remains unwelcome in that Hall.”

In her speech to Taiwan’s Model UN, Craft told the students: “Stay firm, say the words of democracy even in the wake of this moment. Because one day, you, too, will be standing here.”

To reinforce her personal commitment, she ended her statement on Tuesday saying: “As my posting at the U.N. comes to a close, my mission will not be complete until the people of Taiwan have a voice.”

New START five-year extension in U.S. interests, John Kirby says

Five-year extension of arms treaty with Russia in U.S. interests, Pentagon official says

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Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby declined to comment on a review to be released by the Pentagon that cites serious problems of U.S. nuclear capabilities. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) ** FILE ** more >

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By Mike Glenn

The Washington Times

Thursday, January 21, 2021

President Biden’s decision to seek a five-year extension of the New START arms reduction treaty with Russia serves the nation’s security interests because it allows for intrusive inspection of Moscow’s nuclear stockpile, Defense Department officials said Thursday.

John Kirby, chief Pentagon spokesman, said Americans are safer with New START intact and extended. The 10-year treaty is set to expire in about two weeks.

“Failing to swiftly extend New START would weaken America’s understanding of Russia‘s long-range nuclear forces,” Mr. Kirby said. “Extending the treaty’s limitations on stockpiles of strategic nuclear weapons until 2026 allows time and space for our two nations to explore new verifiable arms-control arrangements that could further reduce risks to Americans.”

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The Pentagon “stands ready” to support the State Department as the nation’s diplomats explore the new arrangements and seek the extension, he said.

“We in the (Department of Defense) will remain clear-eyed about the challenges Russia poses and committed to defending the nation against their reckless and adversarial actions,” Mr. Kirby said.

Congress sees fresh faces heading key foreign policy posts

Congress sees fresh faces heading key foreign policy posts

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With the U.S. Capitol Building in view, members of the military stand on the steps of the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, in response to supporters of President Donald Trump who stormed the … more >

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By Lauren Toms

The Washington Times

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The White House isn’t the only place seeing a changing of the guard these days.

With Democratic Senate gains and results from a few key House races, the congressional committees overseeing defense, foreign policy and intelligence will have a new look in 2021, giving the Biden administration a leg up on its foreign policy agenda.

Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, is poised to retake control of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, replacing Republican Sen. James Risch of Idaho, who chaired the panel since 2019. Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, is getting the gavel for the Senate Armed Services Committee, with former Chairman James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican now the ranking minority member.

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In the House, Rep. Eliot Engel’s New York Democratic primary loss last year led to a scramble for chairmanship of the House Foreign Relations Committee, won by another New York Democrat, Rep. Gregory Meeks — the first Black member to hold the prestigious post. And with the retirement of Rep. Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican, the House Armed Services Committee has lost a former chairman and one of the Hill’s most respected and influential voices on military matters.

For some, the new posts marks a return to the old days.

Mr. Menendez headed the Senate Foreign Relations panel from 2013 to 2015, and has an active relationship with another previous chair of the committee — President Biden.

Mr. Biden’s deep familiarity with the ways of Capitol Hill will be tested as he tries to implement his foreign policy and defense priorities.

“There were a lot of tensions between Trump at the Congress on the defense side,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser for the Center for Strategic and International Security’s international security program.

Under the Trump administration, for example, Republican lawmakers narrowly defeated efforts led by Mr. Menendez to block major arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

As returning chairman of a closely divided panel, Mr. Menendez will also have to weigh whether to reverse a slew of eleventh-hour moves under the Trump administration, including sanctions on Turkey, a NATO ally, for its acquisition of a Russian-made missile defense system; the withdrawal of thousands of American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq; restoring American alliances; and confirming dozens of State Department nominees.

Mr. Menendez has pushed to swiftly confirm Mr. Biden’s national security cabinet selections, including his pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, which oversees military confirmations and budget allocations, is also about to get very different leadership under Mr. Reed.

The West Point grad and former Army officer has a generally productive relationship with his Republican colleagues and the former chairman, as seen in Mr. Inhofe’s recent gesture to allow Mr. Reed to informally chair a committee hearing. But Mr. Reed faces a tumultuous time at the helm with expected defense budget cuts sought by the president that are opposed by his GOP members.

“Reed and Smith both say, ‘The budget needs to get cut,’ but then when they start looking at the [details], they’re going to have some pushback,” Mr. Cancian said, noting House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat, will be under pressure to produce bigger cuts.

Mr. Cancian predicted in an interview with The Washington Times that both defense policy and the military budget will present tension for the incoming Democratic leadership, “but the budget will be probably the clearest early on.”

Democrats are unlikely to waver on early defense policy priorities, including reversing Mr. Trump’s ban on transgender service members and blocking Pentagon money for border wall construction.

On the House side, Mr. Meeks will likely offer a very different agenda compared to Mr. Engel.

In an interview with Agence France-Presse earlier this month, Mr. Meeks vowed to be an ally for the new president and sharply criticized foreign policy under the Trump administration.

“If you look at what President Trump has done in his maximum pressure campaign, the big question you ask yourself is has it made America safer. The answer is a big capital ‘no,’” he said, citing in particular Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal. He also hit back at the Trump administration’s approach to the political crisis in Venezuela, and called for a more serious look at human rights abuses that he claims were ignored the last four years.

The House Armed Services Committee under Mr. Smith has already delivered one victory for Mr. Biden, approving on Thursday a waiver to allow former Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as secretary of defense despite his recent service in the military, a waiver many Democrats had previously said they would not support.

Brazil announces incoming vaccine cargo amid supply concerns

Brazil announces incoming vaccine cargo amid supply concerns

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An Tenonde Pora Indigenous woman gets a shot of China’s Sinovac CoronaVac vaccine for COVID-19 in Tenonde Pora village, on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Marcelo Chello) more >

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By DIANE JEANTET and DAVID BILLER

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) – Brazil’s health ministry announced Thursday that a shipment of 2 million doses of coronavirus vaccine is coming from India, a report coming as public health experts sound the alarm over insufficient supply in South America’s biggest nation.

The vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, will clear customs in Sao Paulo on Friday before being flown to Rio de Janeiro, where Brazil’s state-run Fiocruz Institute is based, the ministry said. Fiocruz has a partnership with AstraZeneca and Oxford for the vaccine’s distribution and production.

A flight from India planned for last week was delayed, derailing the federal government’s plan to begin immunization with the AstraZeneca shot. Instead, vaccination began using the CoronaVac shot in Sao Paulo, where the state’s Butantan Institute has a deal with Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac.

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Neither Fiocruz nor Butantan have received the technology from their partners to produce vaccines domestically, and instead must import the active ingredient.

The announcement of the 2 million doses from India comes as increasingly vocal Brazilian experts express concern about the influx of raw materials from Asia needed to produce vaccines for the nation of 210 million people.

“Counting doses from Butantan and those from India, there isn’t enough vaccine and there is no certainty about when Brazil will have more, or how much,” Mário Scheffer, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Sao Paulo, told The Associated Press. “It will interfere with our capacity in the near-term to reach collective immunity.”

The Indian Embassy in Brasilia didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the announced shipment nor the cause for last week’s delay.

Butantan made available 6 million CoronaVac doses it imported from China in order to kick off Brazil’s immunization, and it used materials imported from China to bottle an additional 4.8 million shots. The health regulator must approve use of the latter batch before it can be distributed to states and municipalities across Brazil.

Scheffer estimated in a report he published Jan. 18 that the government will need 10 million doses just to cover front-line health workers, leaving the elderly and other at-risk Brazilians included in priority groups without any vaccines. The government’s own immunization plan doesn’t specify how many Brazilians are included in priority groups.

Brazil has recorded 212,000 deaths related to COVID-19, the second-highest total in the world after the United States, and infections and deaths surging again.

While Brazil has a proud history of decades of immunization campaigns, in this pandemic it has struggled to cobble together a complete plan and suffered multiple logistical pitfalls.

“The vaccination plan is badly done, in general,” said Domingos Alves, adjunct professor of social medicine at the University of Sao Paulo. “It’s important that the information be transparent and clear for the population to know how this vaccination process will be done.”

There has been some speculation on social media that diplomatic snafus – namely those stemming from allies of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro who criticized the Chinese government – might explain the delay behind getting the required inputs.

Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university, told AP that such a reading is overly simplistic amid heightened global demand.

“Of course, since Bolsonaro isn’t on good terms with the Chinese government, he doesn’t really have the direct access,” Stuenkel said from Sao Paulo. “There is a chance that the bad relationship does wind up putting Brazil further down the line of recipients, but not because the Chinese are saying actively, ‘Let’s punish Brazil,’ but perhaps because other presidents have a better relationship.”

The newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported Wednesday that Brazilian Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello met with China’s ambassador in Brasilia and that Bolsonaro had requested a call with China’s Xi Jinping. Filipe Martins, an adviser to Bolsonaro on international relations, said in a television interview the same day that Brazil is seeking suppliers from other countries.

“Negotiations are well advanced,” Martins told RedeTV!. He added that there is “a big fuss over nothing.”

Lawmakers including House Speaker Rodrigo Maia and the president of the Brazil-China parliamentary group, Sen. Roberto Rocha, also met with the Chinese ambassador.

Butantan had planned to supply Brazil‘s Health Ministry with 46 million doses by April. It is awaiting the import of 5,400 liters of the active ingredient before the end of the month to make about 5.5 million doses, and new shipments from China depend on authorization from the Chinese government, according to a statement from its press office.

Fiocruz had initially scheduled the delivery of 100 million doses to begin in February and 110 million more in the second half of the year. As of Dec. 30, its plan was down to delivering 30 million doses by the end of February, but the first delivery has been postponed to March, the institute told AP.

Brazil doesn’t have vaccines available for its population,” Margareth Dalcolmo, a prominent pulmonologist who has treated COVID-19 patients throughout the pandemic, said at an event in Rio this week while receiving an award. “That’s absolutely unjustifiable. There nothing, no explanation that could justify that.”

UK backs Sudan economic reforms with over $50 million

UK backs Sudan economic reforms with over $50 million

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Sudanese Prime MInister Abdullah Hamdok, right, bumps elbows with British Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab in the Cabinet Building, in Khartoum, Sudan, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Raab was in the Sudanese capital Thursday to discuss bilateral relations and tensions along the … more >

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By NOHA ELHENNAWY

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

CAIRO (AP) – Britain’s foreign secretary announced Thursday that his government would offer more than $50 million to help poor Sudanese families as their government embarks upon major austerity measures to revive its battered economy, Sudan‘s state news agency reported.

On a visit to Khartoum, Dominic Raab and Sudanese Minister of Finance and Economic Planning Heba Mohamed Ali Ahmed signed a memorandum of understanding under which Britain commits to disbursing economic aid worth 40 million British pounds, or about $54.8 million, to the African country, SUNA reported.

Sudan is on a fragile path to democratic rule after a popular uprising led the military to overthrow longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, after nearly three decades of rule. A military-civilian government is now in power but struggles with a wide range of economic challenges, including crippling debt, widespread shortages of essential goods such as fuel, bread and medicine, and a three-digit inflation rate.

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“This is the first visit by a British foreign secretary to Sudan in more than ten years,” said Rosie Diyas, Britain’s spokesperson for the Mideast and North Africa. “The visit aims at supporting Sudan’s transition to democracy and civilian rule.”

The British aid will finance cash handouts to 1.6 million poor Sudanese, said Diyas. Aid recipients are expected to be those most hit by the economic reforms, slashing of subsidies and the reduction of public spending that the Sudanese government is expected to implement in order to reduce its huge public deficit.

Sudan‘s transitional government has been racing against the clock to garner economic and political support of Western powers in order to end decades of its pariah status and secure reliefs of its crippling debt.

In the weeks before leaving office, former President Donald Trump removed Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move that allows Khartoum to get international loans. Sudan’s economy has suffered from decades of U.S. sanctions and mismanagement under al-Bashir, who had ruled the country since a 1989 Islamist-backed military coup. The removal of the terror designation came after Sudan followed in the footsteps of other key Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, by normalizing relations with Israel.

Last year, Western and Arab countries pledged a total of $1.8 billion in aid to back Sudan at a donor meeting in Berlin. At the time, Britain pledged 66 million euros, more than $186 million.

According to Diyas, the U.K. has also offered another $6.87 million in aid to address Sudan‘s urgent needs emanating from the influx of more than 50,000 Ethiopian refugees, who have recently fled their country following the eruption of war in Ethiopia’s Tigray province.

Shortly before boarding his Ethiopia-bound plane, Raab told reporters at Khartoum’s airport that his government hopes Ethiopia and Sudan can resolve the ongoing border dispute in “a sensible way”.

In recent weeks, the Sudanese army has deployed thousands of troops along the Ethiopian border and reclaimed territories controlled by Ethiopian militias. The Sudanese advances came on the heels of cross-border attacks that killed and wounded many Sudanese troops. The border tension raised concerns over a potential military conflict between the neighboring countries.

“We have a longstanding friendship with Sudan and likewise a strong partnership with Ethiopia. Our message is, let’s not at this precarious moment for the region see an escalation of tension,” said Raab, adding that he would reiterate the same message to the Ethiopians during his visit there.

SUNA reported that Raab had met with Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, head of Sudan’s ruling sovereign council, Sudan‘s prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, and acting Foreign Minister Omar Qamar al-Din.

Raab had also meant to discuss with Sudanese officials the ongoing water dispute between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, SUNA reported earlier. The news agency did not later say if anything came out of those discussions. The dispute is about Ethiopia’s construction of a controversial dam on the Blue Nile River, the main tributary of the Nile, which Egypt says endangers its critical share of the Nile waters.

Twin suicide bombings rock central Baghdad, at least 28 dead

Twin suicide bombings rock central Baghdad, at least 28 dead

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Security forces work at the site of a deadly bomb attack in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Iraq’s military said twin suicide bombings at the Bab al-Sharqi commercial area in central Baghdad Thursday ripped through the busy market killing … more >

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By Samya Kullab and Qassim Abdul-Zahra

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

BAGHDAD (AP) — Twin suicide bombings ripped through a busy market in the Iraqi capital Thursday, killing at least 28 people and wounding 73 others, officials said. 

The rare suicide bombing attack hit the Bab al-Sharqi commercial area in central Baghdad amid heightened political tensions over planned early elections and a severe economic crisis.

Blood smeared the floors of the busy market amid piles of clothes and shoes as survivors took stock of the disarray in the aftermath. 

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No one immediately took responsibility for the attack, but Iraqi military officials said it was the work of the Islamic State group. 

Iraq‘s military said at least 28 people were killed and 73 wounded in the attack and said some of the injured were in serious condition. Several health and police officials said the toll might be higher. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. 

The Health Ministry announced all of its hospitals in the capital were mobilized to treat the wounded.

Maj. Gen. Tahsin al-Khafaji, spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, which includes an array of Iraqi forces, said the first suicide bomber cried out loudly that he was ill in the middle of the bustling market, prompting a crowd to gather around him — and that’s when he detonated his explosive belt. The second detonated his belt shortly after, he said. 

“This is a terrorist act perpetrated by a sleeper cell of the Islamic State,” al-Khafaji said. He said IS “wanted to prove its existence” after suffering many blows in military operations to root out the militants. 

The suicide bombings marked the first in three years to target Baghdad’s bustling commercial area. A suicide bomb attack took place in the same area in 2018 shortly after then-Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State group. 

No one immediately took responsibility for Thursday’s attack, but Iraq has seen assaults perpetrated by both the Islamic State group and militia groups in recent months. 

Militias have routinely targeted the American presence in Iraq with rocket and mortar attacks, especially the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone. The pace of those attacks, however, has decreased since an informal truce was declared by Iran-backed armed groups in October. 

The style of Thursday’s assault was similar to those IS has conducted in the past. But the group has rarely been able to penetrate the capital since being dislodged by Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition in 2017. 

IS has shown an ability to stage increasingly sophisticated attacks across northern Iraq, where it still maintains a presence three years after Iraq declared victory over the group. 
Iraqi security forces are frequently ambushed and targeted with IEDs in rural areas of Kirkuk and Diyala. An increase in attacks was seen last summer as militants took advantage of the government’s focus on tackling the coronavirus pandemic. 

The twin bombings Thursday came days after Iraq‘s government unanimously agreed to hold early elections in October. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi had announced in July that early polls would be held to meet the demands of anti-government protesters.

Demonstrators took to the streets in the tens of thousands last year to demand political change, and an end to rampant corruption and poor services. More than 500 people were killed in mass demonstrations as security forces used live rounds and tear gas to disperse crowds.

Iraq is also grappling with a severe economic crisis brought on by low oil prices that has led the government to borrow internally and risk depleting its foreign currency reserves. The Central Bank of Iraq devalued Iraq‘s dinar by nearly 20% last year to meet spending obligations. 

___

Associated Press writer Murtada Faraj contributed. 

EU summit assesses virus restrictions amid worrying reports

EU summit assesses virus restrictions amid worrying reports

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives wearing a protective mask for a press conference on the current situation in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Topics include the decisions taken by the federal and state governments to combat the Corona pandemic, … more >

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By SAMUEL PETREQUIN and RAF CASERT

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

BRUSSELS (AP) – European Union leaders assessed more measures to counter the spread of coronavirus variants during a video summit Thursday as the bloc’s top disease control official said urgent action was needed to stave off a new wave of hospitalizations and deaths.

The 27 leaders were looking at further border restrictions like limits on all non-essential travel, better tracking of mutations and improving coordination of lockdowns, worried that another surge of deaths across the EU was imminent.

The head of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Andrea Ammon, said that “an increasing number of infections will lead to higher hospitalization and death rates across all age groups, particularly for those in older age groups.”

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Some 400,000 EU citizens have died from COVID-19-related causes since the start of the pandemic.

In a study published just before the summit, the ECDC warned of the high dangers of the new variants, like those initiating in Britain, Brazil and South Africa, and Ammon said that “member states are also encouraged to accelerate vaccination of high-risk groups, and prepare the health care system for high demand.”

Some EU countries have already strengthened restrictions by imposing stricter curfews and more stringent mask requirements on public transport and in shops. Among the measures the ECDC recommends is a ban on nonessential travel and a speeding up of vaccinations.

“We must do everything in order to prevent the introduction of further mutations like the Brazilian one,” said Austria’s Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz. “We need clear and uniform standards at the borders and regarding the entire travel sector.”

He also called for the European Medicines Agency to speed up work so the candidate vaccine of AstraZeneca can be quickly approved and distributed. Kurz said many other leaders agreed with him that EMA “needs to work night and day.”

“A quick and unbureaucratic decision is needed,” he said, adding that “there’s nothing standing in the way of an approval.”

The EU‘s executive Commission believes that the health situation is at a critical point and has urged member states to step up the pace of vaccination, to ensure that at least 80% of those over age 80 are vaccinated by March, and that 70% of the adult population across the bloc is protected by the end of the summer.

But since the EU doesn’t expect vaccines to be ready for mass distribution before April, leaders should in the meantime find efficient ways to contain the new variants. The commission believes that better tracking the virus’ mutations with genomic sequencing, coupled with an increased use of rapid antigen tests, will be crucial.

The EU Commission said several EU nations are testing under 1% of samples. It has proposed to “urgently” increase genome sequencing to at least 5% of positive test results and would ideally see that figure reach 10% to detect the variants.

Member states unanimously agreed Thursday on a common framework for the use of rapid antigen tests and the mutual recognition of PCR test results across the bloc of 450 million inhabitants, in a bid to facilitate cross-border movement, tracing of the virus and treatment.

“This is a central tool to help mitigate the spread of the virus and contribute to the smooth functioning of the internal market,” the EU Council said in a statement.

The coordination of lockdown measures seems trickier, with a myriad of initiatives coming from members states. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that new border checks might be needed if they don’t coordinate.

“Extensive border controls would be a last resort for us too and (…) we will do a lot to try to prevent that,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin. “But they also can’t be ruled out completely, if someone has completely different ideas.”

Echoing the ECDC advice, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has proposed a temporary ban on nonessential travel during the February school break and will make a proposal to his counterparts to adopt it across the bloc.

“It is important to be clear that this does not mean that we close the borders,” De Croo said. “Non-essential travel, which we can do without now, such as tourism, clearly we can no longer take that risk.” The issue quickly became a hot debating point at the summit.

Discussions will also focus on the disruption of vaccine deliveries after Pfizer last week announced a temporary reduction that has affected all EU countries. The EU has sealed six vaccine contracts for more than 2 billion doses, but only the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been approved for use so far.

The EU now expects Pfizer to keep the drop in deliveries limited to this week, while resuming full distribution again next week, with the resulting backlog made up during February.

Leaders will also weigh a Greek proposal to issue vaccination certificates to ease travel. But with doubts about whether the people vaccinated could still be contagious, and only a small fraction of the EU population already vaccinated, several member states have expressed reservations.

At this stage, vaccination proof certificates should only be considered for medical purposes and not as travel document, an EU official said.

___

Geir Moulson from Berlin contributed to this report .

___

Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at:

https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine

https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

Fire hits building at Indian producer of COVID-19 vaccines

Fire hits building at Indian producer of COVID-19 vaccines

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Smoke rises from the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker that is manufacturing the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine for the coronavirus, in Pune, India, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool) more >

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By Rafiq Maqbool

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

PUNE, India (AP) — A fire broke out Thursday at a building under construction at Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, possibly affecting its future expansion of COVID-19 vaccine production.

Firefighters were extinguishing the flames, the fire office in Pune city in southern Maharashtra state said. The cause of the fire and extent of damage were not immediately clear.

“We have rescued three people and there are no casualties,” said fire official Prashant Ranpise, who was supervising rescue operations.

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The company said the fire was restricted to a new facility it is constructing to increase production of COVID-19 vaccines and ensure it is better prepared for future pandemics.

It said the fire did not affect existing facilities making COVID-19 vaccines or a stockpile of around 50 million doses.

“So far the most important thing is that there have been no lives lost or major injuries due to the fire, despite a few floors being destroyed,” company CEO Adar Poonawalla said.

Images showed huge plumes of smoke billowing from the building as firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze. Dozens of company workers in lab suits left the compound.

Serum Institute of India is the world’s largest maker of vaccines and has been contracted to manufacture a billion doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine.

Poonawalla said in an interview with The Associated Press last month that it hopes to increase production capacity from 1.5 billion doses to 2.5 billion doses per year by the end of 2021. The new facility is key to the expansion.

Of the more than 12 billion coronavirus vaccine doses expected to be produced this year, rich countries have already bought about 9 billion, and many have options to buy even more. As a result, Serum Institute is likely to make most of the vaccines that will be used by developing nations.

India gives 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to Nepal

India gives 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to Nepal

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A van stands parked waiting to transport AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccines, manufactured under license by Serum Institute of India, at Tribhuwan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. India sent 1 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine to Nepal … more >

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By BINAJ GURUBACHARYA

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

KATHMANDU, Nepal (AP) – India sent 1 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine to Nepal on Thursday, a gift that is likely to help repair strained ties between the two neighbors.

Nepal health minister Hridayesh Tripathi said the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine, manufactured under license by Serum Institute of India, will be given to health workers and other front-line personnel within a week to 10 days.

Tripathi said Nepal would like to purchase 4 million more doses, and asked for the Indian government’s help. There was no immediate response from Indian officials who were the airport when the vaccine arrived.

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Nepal foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali flew to India last week to formally request the vaccine.

India, the world’s largest vaccine producer, began supplying coronavirus vaccine to its neighbors this week as it attempts to strike a balance between maintaining enough doses to inoculate its own people and helping developing countries without the capacity to produce their own vaccine.

India’s foreign ministry said it sent 150,000 doses to Bhutan and 100,000 doses to the Maldives on Wednesday, and would send more to Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Seychelles in coming weeks.

Relations between India and Nepal have been strained by a territorial dispute which led to an exchange of strong-worded statements by the two sides.

India has also accused Nepal‘s Communist government of becoming closer to other giant neighbor, China.

Officials: Suicide bombs rock central Baghdad, 6 dead

Officials: Suicide bombs rock central Baghdad, 6 dead

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People and security forces gather at the site of a deadly bomb attack in Baghdad’s bustling commercial area, Iraq, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Twin suicide bombings hit Iraq’s capital Thursday killing and wounding civilians, police and state TV said. (AP … more >

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By Murtada Faraj

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

BAGHDAD (AP) — Twin suicide bombings hit Iraq’s capital Thursday killing at least six people and wounding at least 25 others, police and state TV said.

Three police officials said two explosions hit a commercial center in central Baghdad. Iraqi state television reported they were suicide bombings. Many of the wounded were in serious condition and there was property damage.

The police officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

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The bombings are the first in years to target Baghdad’s bustling commercial area. They come amid heightened political tensions as Iraq looks to have early elections in October.

The perpetrators were not immediately known. Iraq has seen attacks perpetrated by both the Islamic State group and militia groups in recent months.

Militias have routinely targeted the American presence with rocket and mortar attacks, especially the U.S. Embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone. The pace of the attacks has decreased since an informal truce was declared by Iran-backed armed groups in October.

The Islamic State group has perpetrated similar attacks in the past but has rarely been able to target the capital since being dislodged by Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition in 2017 battles.

Amid crippling sanctions, Iran traders seek lifeline in Iraq

Amid crippling sanctions, Iran traders seek lifeline in Iraq

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Piles of plush Iranian- made carpets line the floors of a shopping center in northern Iraq, hosting traders from neighbouring Iran, in the city of Dohuk, in the Kurdish-run northern region of Iraq, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. At least 24 … more >

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By RASHID YAHYA and SAMYA KULLAB

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

DOHUK, Iraq (AP) – Piles of plush carpets line the floors of a northern Iraq shopping center hosting traders from neighboring Iran who hope the spangle of their ornate handicrafts might offer a lifeline out of poverty.

In their own country, the economy is in tatters amid crippling U.S. sanctions.

“Our money is so devalued, so when we come to this side – apart from the cultural exchange that we share – from a financial perspective it’s more profitable for us,” said Iranian Ramiyar Parwiz, the organizer of the exhibition who is originally from Sanandaj. “The money we receive … whether in dollars or dinars has a higher value on our side and it’s worth a lot.”

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At least 24 businesses from 15 Iranian cities set up shop this week in the city of Dohuk in the Kurdish-run northern region of Iraq. From Sanandaj to Bijar, they brought luxurious carpets. From Isfahan, Yazd and Hamadan, precious gems, copper and pottery.

Iran is among Iraq’s largest trading partners and this cooperation has deepened since 2018 amid the Trump administration’s maximalist policy on Iran that has seen the U.S. pull out of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and levy punishing sanctions on the country.

Tens of thousands of Iranian pilgrims visit holy sites in Najaf and Karbala every year, boosting Iraq’s fledgling tourism sector. Over 100 trucks ferry construction materials, food, medicine and appliances into Iraq every day.

The dependence on Iraqi markets has only deepened as economic conditions worsen in Iran. U.S. sanctions bar American companies and foreign firms from dealing with Iran affecting Iran‘s energy, shipping and financial sectors, causing foreign investment to dry up.

Oil exports have been hardest hit and Iran’s economy contracted with dreary forecasts for the future. Unemployment rose and rural populations were disproportionately affected.

The exhibition of Iranian businesses is typically held every year in the city of Sulimaniyah, which borders Iran. This is the first year the traders have ventured to Dohuk, which shares closer economic ties to neighboring Turkey, in hopes of enticing new customers and creating greater demand for Iranian goods.

Parwiz said the Dohuk venture was the result of desperation.

“There is huge pressure on people (in Iran), and the cost of living is unimaginably high,” he said. “We can’t afford to buy anything, we cannot even afford to buy medicine.”

For Iranian businessmen experiencing difficult times, Iraq has always offered hope for respite.

Haji Tousi, a businessman from Mashhad, sells his fine carpets at a lower price than local Iraqi traders. He knows the dollars he takes back home to Iran will keep him afloat.

“The type of carpet we are selling here is $200, whereas the same carpet in the market here is sold for $300-350,” he said.

But, to the dismay of many Iranian traders, the impact of Iraq’s own economic troubles was in plain sight: The exhibition attracts crowds of visitors but many can’t afford the marked-down items.

“There are many visitors who have warmly welcomed this expo but economic problems have kept them from (purchasing) ,” said Maryam Mradi, a businesswoman from Sanadaj.

Iraq is grappling with an unprecedented liquidity crisis brought on by low oil prices. That has slashed state coffers in half and led the government to borrow from the central bank’s foreign currency reserves to make salary payments.

Some of the Iranian vendors were skeptical their goods would be well received in Dohuk and other areas of Iraq, where Turkish brands dominate shopping isles.

“The people’s demand is mainly for Turkish goods,” said Shireen Mohammed, a local resident.

___

Kullab reported from Baghdad.

World hopes for renewed cooperation with US under Biden

World hopes for renewed cooperation with US under Biden

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Joe Biden’s cousin Joe Blewitt speaks to the media underneath his mural painted on a wall in Ballina, Ireland, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Joe Biden’s great-great grandfather Patrick Blewitt was born in Ballina, County Mayo, in 1832. He left for … more >

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By LORNE COOK and CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN

Associated Press

Thursday, January 21, 2021

MEXICO CITY (AP) – World leaders welcomed into their ranks the new U.S. President Joe Biden, noting their most pressing problems, including the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, require multilateral cooperation, an approach his predecessor Donald Trump ridiculed.

Many expressed hope Biden would right U.S. democracy two weeks after rioters stormed the Capitol, shaking the faith of those fighting for democracy in their own countries.

Governments targeted and sanctioned under Trump embraced the chance for a fresh start with Biden, while some heads of state who lauded Trump’s blend of nationalism and populism were more restrained in their expectations.

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But the chance to repair frayed alliances and work together on global problems carried the day.

China, whose U.S. relations nosedived due to widespread frustration in Washington over its human rights record and accusations of technology theft, expressed cautious hope about the change in the White House.

“China looks forward to working with the new administration to promote sound & steady development of China-U.S. relations and jointly address global challenges in public health, climate change & growth,” China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, tweeted.

Biden “understands the importance of cooperation among nations,” said former Colombian president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos, who left office in 2018. “As a matter of fact, if we don’t cooperate – all nations – to fight climate change, then we will all perish. It’s as simple as that.”

French President Emmanuel Macron and Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama were among those welcoming U.S. attention to climate change. After Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, Biden reversed the move in the first hours of his presidency Wednesday.

With Biden, “we will be stronger to face the challenges of our time. Stronger to build our future. Stronger to protect our planet,” Macron wrote on Twitter. “Welcome back to the Paris Agreement!”

Other European allies saw a chance to come in out of the cold after strained relationships with the Trump administration.

European Council President Charles Michel said trans-Atlantic relations have “greatly suffered in the last four years” while the world has become less stable and less predictable.

“We have our differences and they will not magically disappear. America seems to have changed, and how it’s perceived in Europe and the rest of the world has also changed,” added Michel, whose open criticism of the Trump era contrasted with the silence that mostly reigned in Europe while the Republican leader was in the White House.

In Ballina, Ireland, where Biden’s great-great-grandfather was born in 1832, a mural of a smiling Biden adorned a wall in the town, where some of the president’s relatives still live.

“As he takes the oath of office, I know that President Biden will feel the weight of history – the presence of his Irish ancestors who left Mayo and Louth in famine times in search of life and hope,” Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who formed close ties with Trump, noted a personal friendship with Biden and said he looked forward to working together to further strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has accused Trump of unfair bias toward Israel with policies like moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, expressed hope for a more even-handed approach from Biden. He urged “a comprehensive and just peace process that fulfills the aspirations of the Palestinian people for freedom and independence.”

In Latin America, Biden faces immediate challenges on immigration, and the leaders of the two most populous countries – Brazil and Mexico – were chummy with Trump. The Trump administration also expanded painful sanctions against governments in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro’s government urged dialogue with the Biden administration, while hoping the new president abandons the avalanche of damaging sanctions Trump imposed to attempt a regime change.

Some Venezuelans, however, like retired accountant Jesús Sánchez, 79, said he was disappointed to see Trump leave power. Trump backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó, giving Venezuelans like him hope that Maduro’s days in power were numbered.

Carlos Vecchio, Guaido’s envoy in Washington who the U.S. recognizes as Venezuela’s ambassador, tweeted photos of himself at Biden‘s inauguration. The invitation to attend was touted by Venezuela’s opposition as evidence the Biden administration will continue its strong support and resist entreaties by Maduro for dialogue that the U.S. has strenuously rejected until now.

Cuba’s leaders perhaps have a more realistic hope for improved relations: Biden was in the White House for the historic thaw in relations in 2014, and various officials expressed willingness to reopen a dialogue with Washington if there was respect for Cuba’s sovereignty.

President Miguel Díaz-Canel railed against Trump via Twitter, citing “more than 200 measures that tightened the financial, commercial and economic blockade, the expression of a despicable and inhuman policy.”

In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who cultivated an unexpectedly friendly relationship with Trump and was one of the last world leaders to recognize Biden’s victory, read from a letter he sent to Biden in 2012, calling for reorienting the bilateral relationship away from security and military aid and toward development.

He urged Biden to implement immigration reform, and added: “We need to maintain a very good relationship with the United States government and I don’t have any doubt that it’s going to be that way.”

U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region expressed anticipation of strengthening those alliances under a Biden administration. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and others highlighted their shared values as leaders of democracies.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said: “America’s new beginning will make democracy even greater.”

Former Australian diplomat Rory Medcalf said Biden would likely find diplomatic partners across the Indo-Pacific region ready not for American leadership but partnership in “collective action” against Chinese “strategic assertiveness.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Biden was a good friend to New Zealand and highlighted in particular the words given in his inaugural address. “President Biden’s message of unity as he takes office is one that resonates with New Zealanders,” Ardern said.

World leaders also acknowledged the history of Vice President Kamala Harris taking office. She is the first woman, the first Black woman and the first South Asian to hold that office in the U.S.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Twitter congratulated both Biden and Harris, whose maternal grandfather was Indian.

“That is an historic moment and one that, I think as a father of daughters, you can only celebrate,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

__

Cook reported from Brussels. AP journalists around the world contributed to this report.

___

This version has been corrected by removing the reference to the U.S. as the world’s largest democracy.

Analysis: Biden faces a more confident China after US chaos

Analysis: Biden faces a more confident China after US chaos

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A newsstand vendor looks through his display near a magazine with a cover depicting U.S. President Joe Biden near U.S. and Chinese flags in Beijing on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. As a new U.S. president takes office, he faces a … more >

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By KEN MORITSUGU

Associated Press

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

BEIJING (AP) – As a new U.S. president takes office, he faces a determined Chinese leadership that could be further emboldened by America’s troubles at home.

The disarray in America, from the rampant COVID-19 pandemic to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, gives China’s ruling Communist Party a boost as it pursues its long-running quest for national “rejuvenation” – a bid to return the country to what it sees as its rightful place as a major nation.

For Joe Biden, sworn in Wednesday as the 46th president, that could make one of his major foreign policy challenges even more difficult as he tries to manage an increasingly contentious relationship between the world’s rising power and its established one.

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The stakes are high for both countries and the rest of the world. A misstep could spark an accidental conflict in the Western Pacific, where China‘s growing naval presence is bumping up against America’s. The trade war under President Donald Trump hurt workers and farmers in both countries, though some in Vietnam and elsewhere benefited as companies moved production outside China. On global issues such as climate, it is difficult to make progress if the world’s two largest economies aren’t talking.

The Chinese government expressed hope Thursday that Biden would return to dialogue and cooperation after the divisiveness under Trump.

“It is normal for China and the United States to have some differences,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said. “Countries with different social systems, cultural backgrounds and ideologies should and can coexist … and work together to achieve peace and stability and development in the world.”

But Kurt Tong, a former U.S. diplomat in Asia, sees a stalemate in the coming few years in which China keeps doing what it has been doing and the U.S. is not happy about it.

“I think it’s going to be a tough patch, it’s just going to be more disagreements than agreements and not a lot of breakthroughs,” said Tong, now a partner with The Asia Group consultancy in Washington, D.C.

A more confident China may push back harder on issues such as technology, territory and human rights. Analysts draw parallels to the 2008 global financial crisis, from which China emerged relatively unscathed. The country’s foreign policy has grown increasingly assertive since then, from staking out territory in disputed waters in the South China Sea to its more recent use of Twitter to hit back at critics. China‘s relative success in controlling the pandemic could fuel that trend.

The U.S. has also shifted, with wide support among both Republicans and Democrats for treating China as a competitor, and embracing the need for a tougher approach to China, if not always agreeing with how Trump carried it out. Biden needs to be wary of opening himself up to attacks that he is soft on China if he rolls back import tariffs and other steps taken by his predecessor.

His pressing need to prioritize domestic challenges could give China breathing room to push forward its agenda, whether it be technological advancement or territorial issues from Taiwan to its border with India.

Biden has pointed to potential areas of cooperation, from climate change to curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, but even in those areas, the two countries don’t always agree.

The pandemic, first viewed as a potential threat to President Xi Jinping’s leadership as it spiraled out of control in the city of Wuhan in early 2020, has been transformed into a story of hardship followed by triumph.

The Communist Party has sought to use the pandemic to justify its continued control of the one-party, authoritarian state it has led for more than 70 years, while rounding up citizen-journalists and others to quash any criticism of its handling of the outbreak.

That effort has been aided by the failure of many other nations to stop the spread of COVID-19. Biden takes over a country where deaths continue to mount and virus-related restrictions keep it in recession. China is battling small outbreaks, but life has largely returned to normal and economic growth is accelerating.

“It would have been more difficult for them to push that narrative around the world if the United States had not done such a poor job,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C. “That’s a theme that runs through many issues, that China’s just able to point to the United States and democracy in general as not delivering good governance.”

It’s impossible to gauge support for the Communist Party in a country where many would be unwilling to criticize it publicly, for fear of repercussions. But Niu Jun, an international relations professor at Peking University, said that objectively, public trust should rise given China‘s faster recovery from the outbreak.

“To ordinary people, the logic is very simple,” he said, predicting the pandemic would spark public thinking and discussion about which system of governance is more effective.

“The party’s policies are good, our policies are not like the ones in foreign countries, ours are good,” said Liu Shixiu, strolling with her daughter in Wuhan, the city that bore the brunt of the pandemic in China. “We listen to the party.”

It is unclear whether the Communist Party foresees exporting its way of governance as an alternative to the democratic model. For now, Chinese officials note that countries choose different systems and stress the need for others to respect those differences.

“As China becomes more and more confident, maybe they’ll try to shape the internal operations or ways of thinking of other countries,” Tong said. “But to me, it feels more like they don’t want anyone to be able to say that China is bad and get away with it.”

The leadership wants China to be seen and treated as an equal and has shown a willingness to use its growing economic and military might to try to get its way.

___

Associated Press video journalist Emily Wang Fujiyama contributed to this report.

___

Moritsugu, The Associated Press’ news director for Greater China, has reported in Asia for more than 15 years.

Jen Psaki: Justin Trudeau to be Joe Biden first foreign call

White House: Justin Trudeau to be Joe Biden’s first foreign call

Will discuss decision to nix Keystone XL pipeline

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White House press secretary Jen Psaki listens during a press briefing at the White House, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) more >

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By Tom Howell Jr.

The Washington Times

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be the first foreign leader to receive a call from President Biden, his spokeswoman said.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the call will likely take place on Friday to establish a rapport and discuss the Biden administration’s plans to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would transport fuel from Canada’s oil sands to Nebraska. 

Mr. Trudeau, like Mr. Biden, supports strong action on climate change but supports the pipeline as a way to bolster the energy industry in his western provinces.

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Ms. Psaki said she did not know when Mr. Biden might place a call to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a U.S. rival who President Trump was reluctant to criticize during his presidency.

“His early calls will be with partners and allies,” Ms. Psaki said of Mr. Biden.