In Tigray, food is often a weapon of war as famine looms

In Tigray, food is often a weapon of war as famine looms

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An Ethiopian woman argues with others over the allocation of yellow split peas after it was distributed by the Relief Society of Tigray in the town of Agula, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, on Saturday, May 8, 2021. … more >

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By Rodney Muhumuza

Associated Press

Friday, June 11, 2021

ABI ADI, Ethiopia (AP) — First the Eritrean soldiers stole the pregnant woman’s food as she hid in the bush. Then they turned her away from a checkpoint when she was on the verge of labor.

So she had the baby at home and walked 12 days to get the famished child to a clinic in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray. At 20 days old, baby Tigsti still had shriveled legs and a lifeless gaze — signs of what the United Nations’ top humanitarian official calls the world’s worst famine conditions in a decade.

“She survived because I held her close to my womb and kept hiding during the exhausting journey,” said Abeba Gebru, 37, a quiet woman from Getskimilesley with an amulet usually worn for luck around her left wrist.

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Here, in war-torn Tigray, more than 350,000 people already face famine, according to the U.N. and other humanitarian groups. It is not just that people are starving; it is that many are being starved, The Associated Press found. In farming areas in Tigray to which the AP got rare access, farmers, aid workers and local officials confirmed that food had been turned into a weapon of war.

Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers are blocking food aid and even stealing it, they said, and an AP team saw convoys with food and medical aid turned back by Ethiopian military officials as fighting resumed in the town of Hawzen. The soldiers also are accused of stopping farmers from harvesting or plowing, stealing the seeds for planting, killing livestock and looting farm equipment.

More than 2 million of Tigray’s 6 million people have already fled, unable to harvest their crops. And those who stayed often cannot plant new crops or till the land because they fear for their lives.

“If things don’t change soon, mass starvation is inevitable,” said a humanitarian worker in the region, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to escape retaliation from armed groups. “This is a man-made disaster.”

The full extent of the hunger is hard to pin down because officials – and food aid – still cannot get into the remotest parts of a region known for its rugged inaccessibility even in the best of times. The U.N. World Food Program on Thursday said it had gotten aid to 1.4 million people in Tigray, “barely half of the number we should be reaching,” in part because armed groups were blocking the way.

For every mother like Abeba who makes it out, hundreds, possibly thousands, are trapped behind the front lines or military roadblocks in rural areas.

“Most of the malnourished children, they die there,” said Dr. Kibrom Gebreselassie, chief medical director of Ayder Hospital in Mekele. “This is a tip of the iceberg.”

The grinding war in Tigray started in early November, shortly before the harvest season, as an attempt by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to disarm the region’s rebellious leaders.

On one side are guerrillas loyal to the ousted and now-fugitive leaders of Tigray. On the other are Ethiopian government troops, allied troops from neighboring Eritrea and militias from the Amhara ethnic group. Trapped in the middle are the civilians of Tigray.

The war has spawned massacres, gang rapes and the widespread expulsion of people from their homes, and the United States has declared “ethnic cleansing” in western Tigray. Now, on top of those atrocities, Tigrayans face another urgent problem: hunger and starvation.

The deputy CEO of the region, Abebe Gebrehiwot, echoed the assessment of “ethnic cleansing” and said combatants are blocking food aid from reaching those who need it. He said the region’s interim administration, appointed by Abiy, is desperately trying to forestall a famine, including in the areas where Eritrean forces remain in charge.

“There are some players who don’t want us to…plow the land,” he said in a recent interview. “There are some players who (prevent) us from distributing the seeds.”

Ethiopia’s government strongly disputes that starvation is being used as a weapon of war. Mitiku Kassa, an official with the National Disaster Risk Management Commission, said Wednesday that the U.N. and nonprofit groups have “unfettered access” to Tigray, and that food aid worth about $135 million has been distributed.

“We don’t have any food shortage,” he declared.

That’s not what the AP found out on the ground.

Teklemariam Gebremichael and his neighbors said he and his neighbors were no longer allowed to farm. When Eritrean soldiers came upon him looking after his cattle and harvesting crops, they shot both him and his cows, he said.

He survived. The cows didn’t. With food in short supply, his wound is slow to heal.

“I call on the world has to take immediate action to help Tigray, because we can’t live on our own land anymore,” he pleaded.

Another farmer, Gebremariam Hadush, and his five children said they were taking their chances anyway, racing against time as the wet season approached.

“We should be tilling this land for the second or third time,” he said. “But we couldn’t till at all until now because we haven’t had peace. So now all we can do is just scrape the surface.”

Hunger is particularly sensitive for Ethiopia, where images of starving children with wasting limbs and glassy eyes in the 1980s led to a global outcry. Drought, conflict and government denial all played a part in that famine, which killed an estimated 1 million people.

The situation now is also drawing concern from the world – although not enough of it, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said Thursday. She called for the U.N. Security Council to hold a meeting on Tigray.

“Famine may already be happening in certain areas. … It’s unconscionable especially in the very place that woke the world up to the scourge of hunger,” she said. “I ask those who refuse to address this issue publicly, do African lives not matter?”

In Hawzen, where artillery shelling sporadically sends people running for the hills, teacher Gebremichael Welay said he still has memories of the bombing raids that destroyed food silos when he was a little boy.

“(The Ethiopian military) bombed us,” he said. “They are doing it again.”

Farming has not stopped entirely in Tigray, but it has become a dangerous act of resistance. On the road to Abi Adi, a town about 100 kilometers west of Mekele, the AP saw a few farmers out plowing or taking their cattle to pasture in the distant hills. Craters from recent fighting were visible, and bombed military trucks languished by the roadside.

“If they (Eritrean soldiers) see us plowing, they beat us,” said 20-year-old farmer from Melbe, southwest of Mekele, who gave only his first name of Kibrom. “We only plow when we are sure they are not around.”

Besides preventing plowing, the soldiers took other measures to destroy food, witnesses said. Eritrean soldiers are known to contaminate food silos, sometimes mixing grain with sand and soil, according to an official with an aid group based in Mekele. And the looting by both Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers included farm equipment, farmers said.

“All our farm tools, including plows, were looted and taken away on trucks,” said Birhanu Tsegay, 24-year-old farmer from Neksege town. “They left nothing there.”

An AP team saw a honey processing plant in the town of Agula stripped bare, allegedly by Eritrean soldiers. Aid worker Tekeste Gebrekidan picked up a soiled flyer of the farmers’ union that once exported the region’s prized honey and noted ruefully that its leaders are missing, presumed dead or displaced.

“Demand for food in the villages is very high,” said Tekeste, who serves as the coordinator of the Relief Society of Tigray in the Tsirae Womberta district. The level of need, he said, is “beyond our capacity.”

Sometimes food aid makes it through despite all the challenges, but it still falls short. Early in May a large crowd gathered under a scorching sun in Agula to share food bought with U.S. money.

The food they gave out that afternoon – 15 kilograms of wheat, half a kilogram of peas and some cooking oil per person, to last a month – was earmarked only for the most vulnerable. That included pregnant mothers and elderly people such as 60-year-old Letebrhan Belay, who walked for four hours to get there.

Her family had 10 members, she said. She had received food for only five. But she insisted that she was still faring better than others.

“There will be people dying of hunger,” she said, feeling the little sack that held her meager rations.

Some of the more fortunate, like nursing mother Abeba, make it past the many roadblocks to reach medical help in Abi Adi and Mekele, but they are few. Four women and their babies were admitted in the makeshift ward for malnourished babies in Abi Adi when the AP was there.

At least two children brought to the center since February did not live, said Birhanu Gebremedhin, health coordinator for the district of Abi Adi. He said many malnourished children in the villages could not make it out.

“This malnutrition is caused by the conflict,” Birhanu said. “They’ve stolen their food, their equipment, and some were killed by the troops even. So they are not able to feed their children.”

Birhan Etsana, a 27-year-old mother from Dengelat, was still hanging onto the lone survivor of her triplets, a baby admitted with complications stemming from severe acute malnutrition, including heart failure. The baby, Mebrhit, was 17 months old but weighed just 5.2 kilograms (11lbs 7oz). And that’s after a week in intensive care, where she squeaked out of danger with a tube carrying formula through her nostrils.

“Even when we were in the field and I gave her the breast, she couldn’t drink anything,” Birhan said. “It’s because of lack of food.”

Another baby admitted to Ayder Hospital with severe acute malnutrition died, said head nurse Tkleab Gebremariam. The mother fled during fighting, leaving the child with his helpless grandmother for seven days. They were reunited after 10 days, but they got to the hospital too late.

As he spoke, Tkleab gingerly felt the bed sores on the scalp of one who had beaten the odds, Amanuel Mulu.

Mulu’s mother had spent too much time hiding from soldiers and scavenging for food to look after her child. As the soldiers got closer, she had to escape into the bush. Her baby suffered.

The child was unconscious when he was first admitted in April, severely malnourished and anemic after losing half his body weight. Two weeks in intensive care saved his life. At almost two years old, he still weighed only 6.7kg (14lbs 12oz).

“This baby is very lucky to get well after coming here,” Tkleab said. “There are many who didn’t get this opportunity.”

____

Associated Press journalists in Mekele, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.

____

This story was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

WHO chief concedes ‘slow’ response to Congo sex abuse claims

WHO chief concedes ‘slow’ response to Congo sex abuse claims

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In this Thursday, March 14, 2019, file photo, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, about the update on WHO Ebola operations in the Democratic … more >

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By Maria Cheng

Associated Press

Friday, May 28, 2021

LONDON (AP) — The head of the World Health Organization acknowledged the U.N. health agency’s response to sexual abuse allegations involving employees who worked in Congo during an Ebola outbreak was “slow,” following an Associated Press investigation that found senior WHO management knew of multiple cases of misconduct.

As WHO’s highest decision-making body meets this week, countries were tackling subjects like how to reform the U.N. health agency’s emergencies program after its missteps in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. The World Health Assembly hasn’t devoted a specific agenda item to the alleged misconduct in Congo, but a roundtable talk on preventing “sexual exploitation and abuse” is scheduled for Friday.

Diplomats, however, have already pressed WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on the issue behind closed doors. At least six countries raised concerns last week about how the agency was handling sexual abuse and exploitation, citing recent press reports. Tedros tried to allay their worries.

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“I can understand the frustration,” he told a committee meeting of WHO’s Executive Board on May 19. According to a recording of the meeting obtained by the AP, the director-general said it took time to deal with security problems in Congo, to install a commission to investigate sex abuse claims and to get the group up and running.

“The way this thing was run until now, although it was slow … I hope it will satisfy,” Tedros said.

WHO‘s press office declined to comment on Tedros’ description of a slow response but said the commission was “committed to conducting a comprehensive investigation into all recent allegations, including those relating to management actions.” The group’s co-chairs were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement with WHO.

The panel commissioned by WHO does not include any law enforcement agencies to investigate if any of the reported sexual exploitation was criminal and its reports will be submitted only to WHO.

Tedros created the panel in October, after news reports surfaced about sex abuse during WHO’s efforts to contain the Ebola epidemic in Congo from 2018 to 2020. At the time, Tedros said he was “outraged” and would move quickly to punish those responsible.

But more than seven months later, the panel has yet to publicly release any details about its work or findings. The commission began its work in Congo on May 3 and expects to publish a report at the end of August, the group said.

Many countries said they expected more action, citing the AP’s recent story.

“We have discussed the allegations in meetings with WHO leadership,” said Dag-Inge Ulstein, Norway’s foreign minister, in an email. “We have reiterated the imperative need to handle such allegations swiftly and thoroughly.”

An AP investigation published earlier this month found members of WHO‘s senior management were told of sexual abuse concerns in 2019 involving at least two doctors employed by the agency during the Ebola epidemic in Congo.

The AP obtained a notarized contract showing two WHO staff members signed off on an agreement by Dr. Jean-Paul Ngandu to pay off a young woman he reportedly impregnated. Another doctor, Boubacar Diallo, bragged of his relationship with WHO chief Tedros and offered women jobs in exchange for sex, three women told the AP.

Even some WHO staffers appear unsatisfied at how the agency has handled the claims.

“We cannot afford to ignore signs of repeated, systemic failure of our Organization to prevent such alleged behaviors and to address them in a just and timely manner,” the WHO staff committee wrote in an email to staff and senior management last week. The committee urged WHO directors to take immediate action over the allegations, including reports that “senior management may have suppressed concerns.”

Some countries told WHO’s top leadership during last week’s closed meetings they expected more details quickly.

“Now that WHO is considered a beacon to help us find our way out of this pandemic, it is so disheartening to learn about allegations of structural mishandling of cases of misconduct,” a representative of the Dutch government said, according to a meeting recording. “Reading the (press) articles made us doubt whether the many statements and discussions we have had (at WHO about sex abuse) have been truly heard.”

The representative from the Netherlands called for more transparency to address “the gap in trust that is starting to emerge in this area.”

Dr. Catherine Boehme, Tedros’ Cabinet chief, responded that “some issues are still a work in progress.” She said WHO officials would soon meet with the commission investigating the Congo sex abuse allegations to discuss “the investigation around failure to report or active suppression, including the allegation of a cover-up.”

“We know there are weaknesses in the system, whether it’s the WHO or the U.N. system,” added Dr. Ibrahima Soce Fall, WHO‘s assistant director-general for emergency response.

The United States also has called for “a full and transparent investigation” and is “in close communication with the WHO related to the allegations,” USAID Acting Spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala said.

Some experts said WHO’s failure to quickly punish those involved in sexual misconduct was disappointing, but not surprising.

“Aid organizations are operating in an accountability vacuum, in contexts where law and order has broken down and where there are no external systems able to hold them to account,” said Asmita Naik, an international human rights consultant who co-authored a report on sexual exploitation involving U.N. personnel.

“Things will not change until those who perpetrate abuse or turn a blind eye are disciplined and conversely, those who speak up are rewarded,” Naik said.

___

Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.

Afghan forces demoralized, rife with corruption

Afghan forces demoralized, rife with corruption

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An Afghan man lies at a hospital after clashes between Taliban and Afghan security forces in the province of Laghman, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, May 24, 2021. This week some of the heaviest fighting since President Biden announced the … more >

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By Kathy Gannon

Associated Press

Thursday, May 27, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Abdullah Mohammadi lost his two legs and an arm below the elbow in a ferocious battle with the Taliban. As a young soldier, he had been eager to fight for his country, but now he’s furious at a government he says ignores him and hasn’t paid his veteran’s pension in almost one year.

Afghanistan’s National Defense and Security Forces, meant to be the bulwark against advancing Taliban insurgents, are rife with corruption, demoralized and struggling to keep territory. The government says the army can hold its own, but military experts warn of a tough fight ahead for poorly trained, ill-equipped troops whose loyalties waver between their country and local warlords.

By Sept. 11 at the latest, the remaining 2,300-3,500 U.S. troops and roughly 7,000 allied NATO forces will have left Afghanistan, ending nearly 20 years of military engagement. Also leaving is the American air support that the Afghan military has relied on to stave off potentially game-changing Taliban assaults, ever since it took command of the war from the U.S. and NATO in 2014.

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“Without U.S. military support, it is a matter of time before the Taliban consolidates its gains, particularly in the south, east and west,” said Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the American Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and editor of its Long War Journal, which tracks militant movements.

This week, some of the heaviest fighting since President Joe Biden announced the end to America’s ‘forever war’ took place in eastern Laghman province with the Taliban threatening the provincial capital of Mehtar Lam. Particularly worrisome going forward, police and army deserted several posts protecting the city, allowing Taliban to walk in and keep abandoned military equipment as their own.

At least half the country is believed to be contested ground, often with the government holding only the main towns and cities in local districts and the Taliban dominating the countryside.

Within the Afghan army, soldiers complain of substandard equipment, even shoddy basic items like army boots that fall apart within weeks because corrupt contractors used inferior material. The Associated Press witnessed boots with gaping holes being worn, insufficient helmets available and weapons that often jammed.

At a police outpost seen by the AP earlier this month, eight men lived in a partially built bunker that looked big enough for only half that number. They had only a few rifles as they watched sentry from two turret-style posts on the outpost’s high brick walls. They overlook a busy road where the Taliban frequently attack security convoys.

The commander, who wore sandals, said the outpost is occasionally hit by rocket or gunfire and would have a hard time fending off a full-fledged attack.

“There’s no other option but peace,” he said, asking not to be identified because he did not have permission to allow the media into his compound.

Mohammadi, the veteran, was wounded six years ago in Zhari district in southern Kandahar province, once the spiritual heartland of the Taliban until their ouster in 2001 by U.S.-led coalition forces.

He led a company of 18 men airlifted into battle in a grape field, about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from their nearest base. The fight went on all day and night until eventually the Taliban surrounded them.

For a year he recovered in hospital. He received two wooden legs and an artificial plastic hand. The legs are painful to wear and he can manage them only for 15 minutes at a time. It takes two people to help him get them on, and he sometimes pays a neighbor to help.

“I am proud of what I have sacrificed for this country. What I gave for my country I gave with pride,” he said.

But Mohammadi is fuming at the government. For years, his veteran’s pension, around 16,000 Afghanis ($200) a month, has been erratic, and for the past 11 months he hasn’t received it at all. “They tell me to wait,” he said.

Mohammadi says has had to borrow from family and friends. It wounds his pride, but it’s better than begging, he said.

Speaking to the AP, Defense Ministry’ Deputy Spokesman Fawad Aman promised to look into the complaint. He said that corruption, while it exists, is not widespread and efforts are being made to tackle it and that the spirit of the fighting force was high.

“With the withdrawal of United States forces there will be no security vacuum or gap in Afghanistan because our forces can defend Afghanistan independently,” he said.

Washington’s chief watchdog overseeing U.S. spending in Afghanistan, John Sopko, told a Congressional hearing in March that corruption is one of the biggest threats to Afghanistan’s security force and is fueling the insurgency.

The U.S is committed to pay $4 billion annually until 2024 to finance Afghanistan’s security forces. As of Dec. 31, 2020, Sopko said the U.S. has spent $88.3 billion to help the Afghan government provide security in Afghanistan – roughly 62% of all U.S. reconstruction funding.

Yet, according to Attiqullah Amarkhiel, the Afghan army of today is half as good as the army left by the former Soviet Union when it withdrew in 1989, ending its 10-year occupation of Afghanistan.

Amarkhiel was major general in the 1989 Moscow-allied Afghan army and served in the post-Taliban government of President Hamid Karzai. He helped build the security forces following the Taliban’s fall in 2001.

The army of 1989 were professional educated soldiers, unlike the mostly uneducated post-Taliban force. Then the army numbered 150,000 troops, compared to the 300,000 today. “But then we had quality. Today we have quantity.”

Mooski, Chris Brown & A Boogie wit da Hoodie – Track Star Lyrics

[Intro: Mooski]
Ah, ah, ha-ha
(She’s a runner, runner, runner, runner, runner)
This the remix, yeah-yeah
(Oh, oh, oh, oh)

[Verse 1: Mooski]
Shawty gon’ run when she in a bind
A track star, we never seen the finish line
Can’t confide or commit, she scared to trust somebody
On your mark, go, set, go, she ’bout to dust somebody
Do what it take, do what’s gon’ make it last
She can’t take the pain that come with that
Hit the brakes ‘fore it’s too late, she fast
Once she set her pace, she don’t look back
Now I know I looked ovеr the signs
Girl, do you ever gеt tired (You know) of runnin’, runnin’?
Oh, why?

[Chorus: Mooski & Chris Brown]
She’s a runner, she’s a track star
She gon’ run away when it gets hard
She can’t take the pain, she can’t get scarred
She hurt anyone that gets involved
Don’t wanna commit, why take it this far (Oh, why?)
She gon’ do the race, just not this one (Oh, why?)
Love is a game, you used to cheer for (No, oh-oh, woah)
When I was down to talk, you weren’t here for it (Ooh, woah, oh, oh)

[Verse 2: Chris Brown]
She’s a liar, she a capper
She’d do anything for the Black Card
She give you her pain with a black heart (No)
Should of never let that shit get that far (Woah, woah)
It’s always been games with you (Oh)
Keepin’ score and changin’ moods (Oh)
I was all for it, but lately you (Oh)
Showed me that side, that crazy you (Oh, crazy you)
And you can get to packin’ all of your bags
You can leave the racks with all of them tags
Gon’ do your thing and don’t look back
Damn, girl, you fast (Woah, woah)

[Chorus: Mooski & Chris Brown]
She’s a runner, she’s a track star (Oh, she, she)
She gon’ run away when it gets hard (Away, yeah)
She can’t take the pain, she can’t get scarred (No, oh-oh, woah)
She hurt anyone that gets involved (Ah, yeah, oh-oh, babe)
Don’t wanna commit, why take it this far (Oh, why? Oh, why?)
She gon’ do the race, just not this one (Oh, why? Oh, why?)
Love is a game, you used to cheer for (Woah)
When I was down to talk, you weren’t here for it

[Verse 3: Yung Bleu]
I said don’t you run from me (Don’t you run)
Don’t take my love for granted ’cause you know it can get ugly
She’s a runner, she’s a track star (Oh-oh)
Don’t run away when it get hard, love
I can tell that, you ain’t ever had a gangster
I’m aware of that, he ain’t never tell you, “Thank ya”
How you wear that, you should get a new Wraith, oh-oh (Skrrt)
I’m slidin’ when you tell me it’s convenient (‘Venient)
You know I got the Glock up in ‘Ghini
Grant a couple wishes like a genie
She gon’ keep up runnin’ back if she got access
Got my dick hard like it’s hard to be a Black man
I cut her off and put my feelings in the trash can (Ooh-ooh-ooh)
I guess all this love was just too much love for you

[Chorus: Mooski & A Boogie wit da Hoodie]
She’s a runner, she’s a track star
She gon’ run away when it gets hard
She can’t take the pain, she can’t get scarred
She hurt anyone that gets involved
Don’t wanna commit, why take it this far (Oh, why?)
She gon’ do the race, just not this one (Oh, why?)
Love is a game, you used to cheer for (Na-na)
When I was down to talk, you weren’t here for it (Na-na, na-na)
You-ouu-ouu-ouu-ouu (Ooh, ooh, ooh)

[Verse 4: A Boogie wit da Hoodie]
Baby, stop frontin’ (Stop)
Grab on your waist, that’s gon’ make you stop runnin’ (Stop runnin’)
Diamonds on my chain and watch bustin’
You look at me like you want somethin’
Don’t keep it low, keep it one-hundred
Speakin’ of numbers, I
Here, I gave you the wrong one on purpose, but this one is workin’ fine
Hit my line, call me whenever you want some me
646-992-7453
I’m from the jungle, but I’m not a cheater
Bitch, I’m in my bag now, it’s Hoodie SZN
I’ma set it off if a nigga creep up
And she gon’ take the charge like it’s a misdemeanor
I was mad high, you was off a Xan’, I know
I was tryna fuck you and your friends like (Oh)
Even though that wasn’t in the plans right (No)
Drum with a stick, like a band, I know (Woo)
AP on my wrist, that’s a bustdown, oh-woah
King of this fly shit, yeah, I know
You can hold me down and be more than my ho
Stop actin’ like you love me when you really don’t know
She’s a runner, she’s a track star

Israel says Gaza tunnels destroyed in heavy airstrikes

Israel says Gaza tunnels destroyed in heavy airstrikes

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An Israeli artillery unit fires toward targets in the Gaza Strip, at the Israeli-Gaza border, Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Heidi Levine) more >

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By Fares Akram and Joseph Krauss

Associated Press

Monday, May 17, 2021

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The Israeli military unleashed a wave of heavy airstrikes on the Gaza Strip early Monday, saying it destroyed 15 kilometers (nine miles) of militant tunnels and the homes of nine alleged Hamas commanders.

Residents of Gaza awakened by the overnight barrage described it as the heaviest since the war began a week ago, and even more powerful than a wave of airstrikes in Gaza City the day before that left 42 dead and flattened three buildings.

There was no immediate word on the casualties from the latest strikes. A three-story building in Gaza City was heavily damaged, but residents said the military warned them 10 minutes before the strike and everyone cleared out. They said many of the airstrikes hit nearby farmland.

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Gaza’s mayor Yahya Sarraj told Al-Jazeera TV that the airstrikes had caused extensive damage to roads and other infrastructure. “If the aggression continues we expect conditions to become worse,” he said.

He also warned that the territory was running low on fuel and other spare parts. The U.N. has warned that Gaza‘s sole power station is at risk of running out of fuel. The territory already experiences daily power outages of 8-12 hours and tap water is undrinkable.

The war broke out last Monday, when Hamas fired long-range rockets at Jerusalem after weeks of clashes in the Holy City between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police. The protests were focused on the heavy-handed policing of a flashpoint holy site during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers.

Since then, the Israeli military has launched hundreds of airstrikes that it says are targeting Hamas‘ militant infrastructure. Palestinian militants in Gaza have fired more than 3,100 rockets into Israel.

At least 188 Palestinians have been killed in hundreds of airstrikes in Gaza, including 55 children and 33 women, with 1,230 people wounded. Eight people in Israel have been killed in rocket attacks launched from Gaza, including a 5-year-old boy and a soldier.

“I have not seen this level of destruction through my 14 years of work,” said Samir al-Khatib, an emergency rescue official in Gaza. “Not even in the 2014 war,” he added, referring to the most destructive of the four wars fought between Israel and Hamas.

The military said it struck nine houses in different parts of northern Gaza that belonged to “high ranking commanders” in Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has controlled the territory since seizing power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.

In recent days, Israel has targeted the homes of a number of senior Hamas leaders, including Yehiyeh Sinwar, the top leader inside Gaza. The group’s leadership goes underground when the fighting begins and it’s unlikely any were at home at the time of the strikes.

Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group say at least 20 of their fighters have been killed, while Israel says the number is much higher and has released the names of and photos of more than two dozen militant commanders it says were “eliminated.”

The military said it struck 35 “terror targets” as well as the tunnels, which it says are part of an elaborate system it refers to as the “Metro,” used by fighters to elude aircraft. The military says 54 aircraft took part in the operation.

In a televised address Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s attacks were continuing at “full-force” and would “take time.“ Israel “wants to levy a heavy price” on the Hamas militant group.

Israel’s airstrikes have leveled a number of Gaza City’s tallest buildings, which Israel alleges contained Hamas military infrastructure. Among them was the building housing The Associated Press Gaza office and those of other media outlets.

Sally Buzbee, the AP’s executive editor, has called for an independent investigation into the airstrike that destroyed the AP office on Saturday. The Israeli military alerted staff and residents before the strike and all were able to evacuate the building safely.

Netanyahu alleged that Hamas military intelligence was operating inside the building and said Sunday any evidence would be shared through intelligence channels. Neither the White House nor the State Department would say if any had been seen.

The AP had operated from the building for 15 years, including through three previous wars between Israel and Hamas. The news agency’s cameras, operating from its top floor office and roof terrace, offered 24-hour live shots as militant rockets arched toward Israel and Israeli airstrikes hammered the city and its surroundings.

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt released a statement after Saturday’s attack saying he was “shocked and horrified” that Israel targeted the building. He said the AP had “no indication Hamas was in the building or active in the building.”

“This is something we actively check to the best of our ability. We would never knowingly put our journalists at risk.”

___

Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed.

Netanyahu defends destroying Gaza building as AP calls for investigation

Netanyahu defends destroying Gaza building as AP calls for investigation

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An Israeli airstrike hits the high-rise building housing The Associated Press’ offices in Gaza City, Saturday, May 15, 2021. The airstrike Saturday came roughly an hour after the Israeli military ordered people to evacuate the building. There was no immediate … more >

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By Valerie Richardson

The Washington Times

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended Sunday the Gaza airstrike that destroyed a building that was home to international press offices, saying it also housed Palestinian terrorists, while The Associated Press called for an investigation.

Mr. Netanyahu said that Israeli intelligence services shared with the Biden administration before the Saturday strike information that showed the high-rise included “an intelligence office for the Palestinian terrorist organization.”

“We shared with our American friends all that intelligence,” Mr. Netanyahu said on CBS’ “Face The Nation.” “Here’s the intelligence we had: It’s about Palestinian terrorists, an intelligence office for the Palestinian terrorist organization, housed in that building, that plots and organizes the terror attacks against Israeli civilians. So it’s a perfectly legitimate target.”

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Netanyahu says Israelis possessed intelligence that Gaza City building that housed international press also housed Hamas offices, without offering specific proof when asked: “It is a perfectly legitimate target.” pic.twitter.com/Dg9rQ7Tkwh

— Face The Nation (@FaceTheNation) May 16, 2021

AP executive editor Sally Buzbee said she wanted an independent investigation into the airstrike that leveled the al-Jalaa tower, which was evacuated beforehand after the Israel Defense Forces warned that the offices would be hit.

“We think it’s appropriate at this point for there to be an independent look at what happened yesterday — an independent investigation,” Ms. Buzbee said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

She said that the wire service had worked for 15 years out of the building, which also housed Al Jazeera offices, and that the AP had no indication that Hamas was operating out of the tower.

“We are in a conflict situation,” Ms. Buzbee said. “We do not take sides in that conflict. We heard Israelis say they have evidence; we don’t know what that evidence is.”

Al Jazeera, which said that the Israeli military provided “no evidence to back up its claims,” demanded “immediate international action to hold Israel accountable for its deliberate targeting of journalists and the media institutions.”

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said the media company was “shocked and horrified that the Israeli military would target and destroy the building housing AP’s bureau and other news organizations in Gaza.”

“We have had no indication Hamas was in the building or active in the building,” Mr. Pruitt said Saturday in a statement. “This is something we actively check to the best of our ability. We would never knowingly put our journalists at risk.”

He also said that the company “narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life,” given that a dozen journalists and freelancers were inside the building, and that “thankfully we were able to evacuate them in time.”

Mr. Netanyahu said that there were no deaths because the Israeli military warned the building’s occupants first, which he described as standard practice for Israel, unlike Hamas.

“One of the I think AP journalists said, we were lucky to get out. No, you weren’t lucky to get out,” said Mr. Netanyahu. “It wasn’t luck. It’s because we took special pains to call people in those buildings, to make sure the premises were vacated.”

The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that the building “housed the offices of civilian media, which the terrorist organization Hamas hides behind and uses as human shields.”

“The terror organization Hamas deliberately places its military assets in the heart of the civilian population in the Gaza Strip,” said the statement in the Jerusalem Post. “Prior to the attack, the IDF warned the civilians who were in the building and gave them sufficient time to evacuate.”

The IDF also tweeted that “Hamas & Islamic Jihad used this time to take items out of the building. We were willing to pay that price to not harm any civilians.”

Gaza medics: Israeli strikes kill 23 in Gaza City

Gaza medics: Israeli strikes kill 23 in Gaza City

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Israeli soldiers run for cover under armored vehicles as a siren sounds warning of incoming rockets fired from Gaza strip in a staging area near the Israeli-Gaza border southern Israel, Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)a more >

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By FARES AKRAM and JOSEPH KRAUSS

Associated Press

Sunday, May 16, 2021

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – The Gaza Health Ministry says Israeli airstrikes in the heart of Gaza City have killed at least 23 people and wounded 50.

It was the deadliest single attack since the start of heavy fighting between Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers nearly a week ago.

Rescuers were racing to pull survivors and bodies from the rubble. Earlier, Israel said it bombed the home of Gaza’s top Hamas leader in a separate strike. It was the third such strike targeting the homes of Hamas leaders in the last two days.

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THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

The Israeli military said Sunday it destroyed the home of Gaza’s top Hamas leader, the third such attack in as many days, after nearly a week of heavy Israeli airstrikes on the territory. The Palestinian militant group ruling Gaza has fired hundreds of rockets into Israel.

Israel appears to have stepped up strikes in recent days to inflict as much damage as possible on Hamas as efforts to broker a cease-fire accelerate. A U.S. diplomat is in the region to try to de-escalate tensions, and the U.N. Security Council is set to meet Sunday.

The military said it struck the homes of Yehiyeh Sinwar, the most senior Hamas leader inside the territory, and his brother Muhammad, another senior Hamas member. On Saturday it destroyed the home of Khalil al-Hayeh, a senior figure in Hamas’ political branch.

Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman confirmed the strike on Sinwar’s house in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis to army radio. The army spokesman said the home of Sinwar’s brother, who is in charge of Hamas‘ “logistics and personnel,” was also destroyed.

Hamas‘ upper echelon has gone into hiding in Gaza, and it is unlikely any were at home at the time of the strikes. Hamas‘ top leader, Ismail Haniyeh, divides his time between Turkey and Qatar, both of which provide political support to the group.

Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group have acknowledged 20 fighters killed since the fighting broke out Monday, while Israel says the real number is far higher.

The latest round of fighting – the worst since the 2014 Gaza war – has killed at least 145 Palestinians in Gaza, including 41 children and 23 women. Eight Israelis have been killed, including a 5-year-old boy and a soldier.

Hamas and other militant groups have fired some 2,900 rockets into Israel since Monday, when tensions over a flashpoint holy site in Jerusalem and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families boiled over.

About half of those projectiles have fallen short or been intercepted, according to the Israeli military, but rockets have reached major cities and sown widespread panic.

Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes across the impoverished and blockaded territory, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians, and brought down a number of high-rise buildings, including one that housed The Associated Press’ Gaza office.

Early on Sunday, Israeli warplanes struck several buildings and roads in central Gaza City. Photos circulated by residents and journalists showed the airstrikes punched a crater that blocked one of the main roads leading to Shifa hospital, the largest medical center in the strip.

The Health Ministry said the latest airstrikes left at least two dead and 25 wounded, including children and women. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.

Since the conflict began, Israel has leveled a number of Gaza City’s tallest office and residential buildings, alleging they house Hamas military infrastructure. On Saturday, it turned to the 12-story al-Jalaa Building, where the offices of the AP, the TV network Al-Jazeera and other media outlets are located, along with several floors of apartments.

“The campaign will continue as long as it is required,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised speech Saturday. He alleged that Hamas military intelligence was operating inside the building.

Israel routinely cites a Hamas presence as a reason for targeting certain locations in airstrikes, including residential buildings. The military also has accused the militant group of using journalists as human shields, but provided no evidence to back up the claims.

The AP has operated from the building for 15 years, including through three previous wars between Israel and Hamas. During those conflicts as well as the current one, the news agency’s cameras from its top floor office and roof terrace offered 24-hour live shots as militants’ rockets arched toward Israel and Israeli airstrikes hammered the city and its surroundings.

“We have had no indication Hamas was in the building or active in the building,” AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said in a statement. “This is something we actively check to the best of our ability. We would never knowingly put our journalists at risk.”

In the afternoon, the military called the building’s owner and warned a strike would come within an hour. AP staffers and other occupants evacuated safely. Soon after, three missiles hit the building and destroyed it, bringing it crashing down in a giant cloud of dust.

“The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today,” Pruitt said. “We are shocked and horrified that the Israeli military would target and destroy the building housing AP’s bureau and other news organizations in Gaza.”

“This is an incredibly disturbing development. We narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life,” he said, adding that the AP was seeking information from the Israeli government and was engaged with the U.S. State Department to learn more.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken later spoke by phone with Pruitt, offering his support for independent journalists and media organizations, and the White House said it had communicated directly with Israel to urge safety for journalists.

President Joe Biden spoke with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose authority is confined to parts of the occupied West Bank, on Saturday. The Biden administration has affirmed its support for Israel while working to de-escalate the crisis. U.S. diplomat Hady Amr has been dispatched to the region as part of efforts to broker a truce.

The tensions began in east Jerusalem earlier this month, when Palestinians protested attempts by settlers to forcibly evict a number of Palestinian families from their homes and Israeli police measures at Al-Aqsa Mosque, a frequent flashpoint located on a mount in the Old City revered by Muslims and Jews.

Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem late Monday, triggering the Israeli assault on Gaza.

The turmoil has also spilled over elsewhere, fueling protests in the occupied West Bank and stoking violence within Israel between its Jewish and Arab citizens, with clashes and vigilante attacks on people and property.

___

Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Isaac Scharf in Jerusalem contributed.

Israeli airstrike destroys high-rise building housing AP office in Gaza City

Israeli airstrike destroys high-rise building housing AP office in Gaza City

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An Israeli artillery unit fires toward targets in the Gaza Strip, at the Israel-Gaza border, Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit) more >

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By Fares Akram and Joseph Krauss

Associated Press

Saturday, May 15, 2021

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — An Israeli airstrike destroyed a high-rise building in Gaza City that housed offices of The Associated Press and other media outlets on Saturday, the latest step by the military to silence reporting from the territory amid its battle with the militant group Hamas

The strike came nearly an hour after the military ordered people to evacuate the building, which also housed Al-Jazeera, other offices and residential apartments. The strike brought the entire 12-story building down, collapsing with a gigantic cloud of dust. There was no immediate explanation for why it was attacked.

The strike came hours after another Israeli air raid on a densely populated refugee camp in Gaza City killed at least 10 Palestinians from an extended family, mostly children, in the deadliest single strike of the current conflict. Both sides pressed for an advantage as cease-fire efforts gathered strength. 

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The latest outburst of violence began in Jerusalem and has spread across the region, with Jewish-Arab clashes and rioting in mixed cities of Israel. There were also widespread Palestinian protests Friday in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli forces shot and killed 11 people.

The spiraling violence has raised fears of a new Palestinian “intifada,” or uprising at a time when there have been no peace talks in years. Palestinians on Saturday were marking Nakba (Catastrophe) Day, when they commemorate the estimated 700,000 people who were expelled from or fled their homes in what was now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding its creation. That raised the possibility of even more unrest.

U.S. diplomat Hady Amr arrived Friday as part of Washington’s efforts to de-escalate the conflict, and the U.N. Security Council was set to meet Sunday. But Israel turned down an Egyptian proposal for a one-year truce that Hamas rulers had accepted, an Egyptian official said Friday on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations.

Since Monday night, Hamas has fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, which has pounded the Gaza Strip with strikes. In Gaza, at least 139 people have been killed, including 39 children and 22 women; in Israel, eight people have been killed, including the death Saturday of a man killed by a rocket that hit in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv

The strike on the building housing media offices came in the afternoon, after the building’s owner received a call from the Israeli military warning that it would be hit. AP’s staff and others in the building evacuated immediately. 

Al-Jazeera, the news network funded by Qatar’s government, broadcast the airstrikes live as the building collapsed.

“This channel will not be silence. Al-Jazeera will not be silenced,” an on-air anchorwoman said, her voice thick with emotion. “We can guarantee you that right now.”

Earlier Saturday, an airstrike hit a three-story house in Gaza City’s Shati refugee camp, killing eight children and two women from an extended family.

Mohammed Hadidi told reporters his wife and five children had gone to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday with relatives. She and three of the children, aged 6 to 14, were killed, while an 11-year-old is missing. Only his 5-month-old son Omar is known to have survived. 

Children’s toys and a Monopoly board game could be seen among the rubble, as well as plates of uneaten food from the holiday gathering.

“There was no warning,” said Jamal Al-Naji, a neighbor living in the same building. “You filmed people eating and then you bombed them?” he said, addressing Israel. “Why are you confronting us? Go and confront the strong people!”

The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Hamas said it fired a salvo of rockets at southern Israel in response to the airstrike.

A furious Israeli barrage early Friday killed a family of six in their house and sent thousands fleeing to U.N.-run shelters. The military said the operation involved 160 warplanes dropping some 80 tons of explosives over the course of 40 minutes and succeeded in destroying a vast tunnel network used by Hamas.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said the military aims to minimize collateral damage in striking military targets. But measures it takes in other strikes, such as warning shots to get civilians to leave, were not “feasible this time.”

Israeli media said the military believed dozens of militants were killed inside the tunnels. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, but the military said the real number is far higher.

Gaza‘s infrastructure, already in widespread disrepair because of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after Hamas seized power in 2007, showed signs of breaking down further, compounding residents’ misery. The territory’s sole power plant is at risk of running out of fuel in the coming days.

The U.N. said Gazans are already enduring daily power cuts of 8-12 hours and at least 230,000 have limited access to tap water. The impoverished and densely populated territory is home to 2 million Palestinians, most of them the descendants of refugees from what is now Israel.

The conflict has reverberated widely. Israeli cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations have seen nightly violence, with mobs from each community fighting in the streets and trashing each other’s property. 

Late on Friday, someone threw a firebomb at an Arab family’s home in the Ajami neighborhood of Tel Aviv, striking two children. A 12-year-old boy was in moderate condition with burns on his upper body and a 10-year-old girl was treated for a head injury, according to the Magen David Adom rescue service. 

In the occupied West Bank, on the outskirts of Ramallah, Nablus and other towns and cities, hundreds of Palestinians protested the Gaza campaign and Israeli actions in Jerusalem. Waving Palestinian flags, they trucked in tires that they set up in burning barricades and hurled stones at Israeli soldiers. At least 10 protesters were shot and killed by soldiers. An 11th Palestinian was killed when he tried to stab a soldier at a military position.

In east Jerusalem, online video showed young Jewish nationalists firing pistols as they traded volleys of stones with Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, which became a flashpoint for tensions over attempts by settlers to forcibly evict a number of Palestinian families from their homes.

On Israel‘s northern border, troops opened fire when a group of Lebanese and Palestinian protesters on the other side cut through the border fence and briefly crossed. One Lebanese was killed. Three rockets were fired toward Israel from neighboring Syria without causing any casualties or damage. It was not immediately known who fired them.

The tensions began in east Jerusalem earlier this month, with Palestinian protests against the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and Israeli police measures at Al-Aqsa Mosque, a frequent flashpoint located on a mount in the Old City revered by Muslims and Jews.

Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem late Monday, in an apparent attempt to present itself as the champion of the protesters.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that Hamas will “pay a very heavy price” for its rocket attacks as Israel has massed troops at the frontier. U.S. President Joe Biden has expressed support for Israel while saying he hopes to bring the violence under control.

Hamas has fired some 2,000 rockets toward Israel since Monday, according to the Israeli military. Most have been intercepted by anti-missile defenses, but they have brought life to a standstill in southern Israeli cities, caused disruptions at airports and have set off air raid sirens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

___

Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed.

Formal start of final phase of Afghan pullout by U.S., NATO

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In this Sept. 11, 2011, file photo, a U.S. Army soldier walks past an American flag hanging in preparation for a ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, at Forward Operating Base Bostick in Kunar province, Afghanistan. The … more >

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By Kathy Gannon

Associated Press

Saturday, May 1, 2021

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The final phase of ending America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan after 20 years formally began Saturday, with the withdrawal of the last U.S. and NATO troops by the end of summer.

President Joe Biden had set May 1 as the official start of the withdrawal of the remaining forces – about 2,500-3,500 U.S. troops and about 7,000 NATO soldiers.

Even before Saturday, the herculean task of packing up had begun.

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The military has been taking inventory, deciding what is shipped back to the U.S., what is handed to the Afghan security forces and what is sold as junk in Afghanistan‘s markets. In recent weeks, the military has been flying out equipment on massive C-17 cargo planes.

The U.S. is estimated to have spent more than $2 trillion in Afghanistan in the past two decades, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University, which documents the hidden costs of the U.S. military engagement.

Defense department officials and diplomats told The Associated Press the withdrawal has involved closing smaller bases over the last year. They said that since Biden announced the end-of-summer withdrawal date in mid-April, only roughly 60 military personnel had left the country.

The U.S. and its NATO allies went into Afghanistan together on Oct. 7, 2001 to hunt the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks who lived under the protection of the country’s Taliban rulers. Two months later, the Taliban had been defeated and al-Qaida fighters and their leader, Osama bin Laden, were on the run.

In his withdrawal announcement last month, Biden said the initial mission was accomplished a decade ago when U.S. Navy SEALS killed bin Laden in his hideout in neighboring Pakistan. Since then, al-Qaida has been degraded, while the terrorist threat has “metastasized” into a global phenomenon that is not contained by keeping thousands of troops in one country, he said.

Until now the U.S. and NATO have received no promises from the Taliban that they won’t attack troops during the pullout. In a response to AP questions, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said the Taliban leadership was still mulling over its strategy.

The insurgent group continues to accuse Washington of breaching the deal it signed with Biden‘s predecessor more than a year ago. In that agreement, the U.S. said it would have all troops out by May 1.

In a statement Saturday, Taliban military spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the passing of the May 1 deadline for a complete withdrawal “opened the way for (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) mujahidin to take every counteraction it deems appropriate against the occupying forces.”

However, he said fighters on the battlefield will wait for a decision from the leadership before launching any attacks and that decision will be based on “the sovereignty, values and higher interests of the country.”

Violence has spiked in Afghanistan since the February 2020 deal was signed. Peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government, which were part of the agreement, quickly bogged down. On Friday, a truck bomb in eastern Logar province killed 21 people, many of them police and students.

Afghans have paid the highest price since 2001, with 47,245 civilians killed, according to the Costs of War project. Millions more have been displaced inside Afghanistan or have fled to Pakistan, Iran and Europe.

Afghanistan‘s security forces are expected to come under increasing pressure from the Taliban after the withdrawal if no peace agreement is reached in the interim, according to Afghan watchers.

Since the start of the war they have taken heavy losses, with estimates ranging from 66,000 to 69,000 Afghan troops killed. The Afghan military has been battered by corruption. The U.S. and NATO pay $4 billion a year to sustain the force.

Some 300,000 Afghan troops are on the books, although the actual number is believed to be lower. Commanders have been found to inflate the numbers to collect paychecks of so-called “ghost soldiers,” according to the U.S. watchdog monitoring Washington’s spending in Afghanistan.

Last year was the only year U.S. and NATO troops did not suffer a loss. The Defense Department says 2,442 U.S. troops have been killed and 20,666 wounded since 2001. It is estimated that over 3,800 U.S. private security contractors have been killed. The Pentagon does not track their deaths.

The conflict also has killed 1,144 personnel from NATO countries.

The Taliban, meanwhile, are at their strongest since being ousted in 2001. While mapping their gains and territorial holds is difficult, they are believed to hold sway or outright control over nearly half of Afghanistan.

“We are telling the departing Americans … you fought a meaningless war and paid a cost for that and we also offered huge sacrifices for our liberation,” Shaheen told the AP on Friday.

Striking a more conciliatory tone, he added: “If you … open a new chapter of helping Afghans in reconstruction and rehabilitation of the country, the Afghans will appreciate that.”

In announcing the departure, Biden said waiting for ideal conditions to leave would consign America to an indefinite stay.

In the Afghan capital and throughout the country, there is a growing fear that chaos will follow the departure of the last foreign troops. After billions of dollars and decades of war, many Afghans wonder at whether it was worth it.

Albania heads to polls after a bitter political fight

Albania heads to polls after a bitter political fight

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Albania’s Socialist Party Leader Edi Rama reacts as he delivers his speech during a political rally in Albania’s capital Tirana on Thursday, April 22, 2021. Albania holds parliamentary elections on upcoming Sunday amid the virus pandemic and a bitter political … more >

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By LLAZAR SEMINI

Associated Press

Friday, April 23, 2021

TIRANA, Albania (AP) – Albania holds parliamentary elections on Sunday amid the virus pandemic and a bitter political rivalry between the country’s two largest political parties.

Albania, with its population of 2.8 million, has been a NATO member since 2009 and is looking forward to launching full membership negotiations with the European Union later this year. The voting is considered as a key milestone in that path.

But the political confrontation is severe.

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___

A REFORMED ELECTORAL LAW

Last year, Albania’s main political parties approved electoral reforms following two days of meetings at the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Tirana.

The new laws follow recommendations from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has monitored the country’s post-communist elections – always marred by irregularities.

It guarantees free and fair elections, focusing on voters’ electronic identification, partly depoliticizing the electoral commission and a pilot project on full digitalization of the voting and counting process.

Some 3.6 million eligible voters, who include many Albanian residents in other countries, will elect 140 lawmakers among some 1,800 candidates from 12 political parties or coalitions and independent candidates.

No early or postal voting is allowed in Albania.

It’s unclear whether voters with COVID-19 will venture out to cast their ballot. By law they are obliged to stay isolated at home, but election commissioners won’t test voters before they enter the polling station.

The opposition has complained, too, because Albanians living in neighboring Greece and North Macedonia are practically excluded from voting as they would need to be quarantined for two weeks upon entering the country.

___

CAMPAIGNING AMID A PANDEMIC

Albania has seen a significant fall in new daily virus cases in the past week, despite political rallies around the country.

Also more than 380,000 people have been vaccinated and the government is hoping to reach half a million during May, creating better conditions ahead of the summer tourist season.

The governing left-wing Socialist Party is stressing its work to improve health care, making political capital from ceremonies to mark the opening of a new hospital or the renovation of others.

Rallies of the main opposition center-right Democratic Party have openly defied rules on gatherings. The Socialists have tried to respect them better, gathering supporters sitting apart in soccer stadiums, but nevertheless has not been able to keep them apart all the time.

Albania has enforced an overnight curfew, no group gatherings and mandatory mask wearing.

___

POLITICAL PLEDGES

Prime Minister Edi Rama of the governing Socialists, who are seeking their third consecutive mandate, aims to turn Albania into a “champion” in various sectors.

“We want to be the champions in tourism. We want to be the champions in energy and we can, in agribusiness for sure,” Rama said in an interview with The Associated Press. ”We need to go further. And these are the goals.”

“Leaving behind the pandemic and the consequences of the earthquake and bringing Albania up” will be his main issues of the post-election efforts. Albania saw a 3.31% drop in GDP in 2020 due to the pandemic, while an earthquake in northwestern Albania in November 2019 killed more than 50 people and caused substantial economic damage.

Lulzim Basha of the Democratic Party is repeating accusations of government corruption and links to organized crime. He is pledging lower taxes, higher salaries and more social financial support.

“Change is necessary, vital (after) eight years of stalemate,” he said at a meeting with a farmers association on Thursday.

Basha declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press.

Confrontations between government and opposition supporters have been a problem, culminating on Wednesday with the killing of a governing Socialist Party supporter, which police say occurred during an argument between supporters from opposing political parties.

___

THE MAIN PLAYERS

Incumbent Prime Minister Edi Rama claims his Socialists will win 74-78 seats, allowing them to continue governing on their own. He says he will not form a coalition with others if they don’t win the required 71 seats and he will “leave the burden on others,” hinting he will resign from the party leadership.

The Democrats’ Basha has resisted answering questions about whether he would resign if fails to win in Sunday’s polls.

President Ilir Meta has turned into a firebrand government opponent, accusing Rama of running a “kleptocratic regime,” bungling its pandemic response and delaying the country’s integration into the European Union, as well as concentrating all legislative, administrative and judiciary powers in his hands.

“I see ahead a democratic turnover,” Meta told the AP. “On April 25, the Albanian people re-take sovereignty and control of the political class.”

Meta said he would resign if Rama’s Socialists win “in a democratic way” a majority in the 140-seat parliament.

___

ALBANIA’S EUROPEAN UNION PROSPECTS

The European Union has made holding an election in line with international standards a condition of starting full negotiations to admit the small Balkan nation as a member.

Brussels gave the green light to Albania and North Macedonia last year for the launch of full membership negotiations, but no date has been set for the first meeting.

EU Ambassador to Albania Luigi Soreca told the AP it is up to member states to decide, likely in June, whether to hold the first inter-governmental meeting with Albania.

“The conduct of this election is crucial for the next step of the Albanian path on integration into the European Union,” said Soreca.

OSCE observers and staff of the Western countries’ embassies will closely watch Sunday’s polls.

___

Follow Semini at http://twitter.com/lsemini

Aj Tracey – Anxious Lyrics

[Intro]
Let's go, yeah

[Chorus]
If you get my number, then don't hit me on no dumb shit
We on demon time, my little hitters make the pump click
I been anxious lately, let me hit two on my blunt quick
I leave Novikov and all these yatties wanna come with

[Post-Chorus]
I run this London town, got smoke, we double down
And we ain't runnin' into trouble, we bring trouble 'round
I smash the radio, my ragers underground
I keep my shooters cool and hold my mother down

[Verse 1]
Yeah, I just heard Drake spit this flow like yesterday, it's crazy (Drizzy)
Taxman on my back, he see my figures gettin' hazy
When I go Selfridges the gyaldem treat me, I'm Swayze
I walk in, tape my off shore, AP rosé goin' brazy (Bling, bow)
My drink is super strong, I'm blessed, I can't be wrong (I can't)
And now my niggas rap, I'm learning all their songs (That's true)
We got glizzy close, you think I'm lyin' too (I'm not)
When I'm outside, approach, my broski flying too
AJ Tracey's such a dickhead, all he do is boast (Why's that?)
He been getting drunk like everyday, he raise a toast (Facts)
I just wanted selfies, but I couldn't get in close (Why?)
When his niggas pull up, I swear them boys do the most
[Chorus]
If you get my number, then don't hit me on no dumb shit
We on demon time, my little hitters make the pump click
I been anxious lately, let me hit two on my blunt quick
I leave Novikov and all these yatties wanna come with

[Post-Chorus]
I run this London town, got smoke, we double down
And we ain't runnin' into trouble, we bring trouble 'round
I smash the radio, my ragers underground
I keep my shooters cool and hold my mother down

[Verse 2]
The way I flex is different, I got so much confidence
I shot 1942 and f*ck the consequence (Woo)
When I reach levels that I want, they'll build me monuments
And don't ask me what licks I hit, 'cause there's no documents
This Balenciaga all over my cotton knit ('Lenci)
I don't panic, when we hit the club we got the stick (We got it)
Five top tens ago my people asked me "Where's the hit?"
Now every quarter I drop songs that could've won a BRIT
I smell like oud, babe, you know this one's Saudi
I'm in 1OAK gangin', locals know I'm clouty (Yeah)
I'm recession proof, I'll run it up, so please don't doubt me
Rolex said they're getting new gems set in, so they'll shout me
[Chorus]
If you get my number, then don't hit me on no dumb shit
We on demon time, my little hitters make the pump click
I been anxious lately, let me hit two on my blunt quick
I leave Novikov and all these yatties wanna come with

[Post-Chorus]
I run this London town, got smoke, we double down
And we ain't runnin' into trouble, we bring trouble 'round
I smash the radio, my ragers underground
I keep my shooters cool and hold my mother down

Nigerian governor says 279 kidnapped schoolgirls are freed

Nigerian governor says 279 kidnapped schoolgirls are freed

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Student Amtallahi Lawal, 11, who hid under her bed and managed to escape when gunmen abducted more than 300 girls from her boarding school on Friday, recounts her ordeal at her house in Jangebe town, Zamfara state, northern Nigeria, Monday, … more >

Print

By Lekan Oyekanmi and Sam Olukoya

Associated Press

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

GUSAU, Nigeria (AP) — Hundreds of Nigerian girls abducted last week from a boarding school in the country’s northwest have been released, a state governor said Tuesday, ending the latest in a spate of such kidnappings in the West African nation.

The girls, ages 10 and up, dressed in light blue hijabs and barefoot, packed into Zamfara state’s Government House conference room. They appeared calm, chatting to one another as they sat in long rows while journalists photographed them. They will receive a medical checkup before being returned to their parents.

Zamfara Gov. Bello Matawalle said that 279 girls had been freed after being abducted from the Government Girls Junior Secondary School in Jangebe town on Friday. The government last week said 317 had been kidnapped. It was not clear if the higher number was an error or if some girls were still missing.

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“Alhamdulillah! (God be praised!) It gladdens my heart to announce the release of the abducted students,” Matawalle said in a post on Twitter early Tuesday. “I enjoin all well-meaning Nigerians to rejoice with us as our daughters are now safe.”

Officials said “bandits” were behind the abduction, referring to the groups of armed men who operate in Zamfara state and kidnap for money or to push for the release of their members from jail.

At the time of the attack, one resident told The Associated Press that the gunmen also attacked a nearby military camp and checkpoint, preventing soldiers from responding to the school.

One of the girls recounted the night of their abduction to the AP.

“We were sleeping at night when suddenly we started hearing gunshots. They were shooting endlessly. We got out of our beds and people said we should run, that they are thieves,” she said. Officials ended the interview before the girl could give her name.

The attackers eventually found her and some classmates and held guns to their heads, she said.

“I was really afraid of being shot,” she said, adding that they asked for directions to the staff quarters and the principal. “We said we don’t know who she is.”

Nigeria has seen several such attacks and kidnappings in recent years, the most notorious in 2014, when 276 girls were abducted by the jihadist rebels of Boko Haram from the secondary school in Chibok in Borno state. More than 100 of those girls are still missing.

Boko Haram is opposed to western education and its fighters often target schools. But most attacks in the northwest are perpetrated by armed criminal groups with no such ideology.

Police and the military have been trying to rescue the girls from the Zamfara abduction, which caused international outrage. Officials did not say if a ransom had been paid for their release.

“We have been in discussion since Friday with the abductors and reached agreement on Monday,” the governor said, adding that he would ensure additional security at all schools in the state.

President Muhammadu Buhari expressed “overwhelming joy” over the release of the girls.

“I join the families and people of Zamfara state in welcoming and celebrating the release of these traumatized female students,” he said in a statement. “Being held in captivity is an agonizing experience not only for the victims, but also their families and all of us.”

The president called for greater vigilance to prevent bandits from carrying out such attacks – but warned that paying money for the release of victims would only result in more assaults.

Ernest Ereke, of the University of Abuja, agreed that ransoms are allowing criminal groups to buy more arms and expand their power.

And the Nigerian state increasingly looks too weak to respond, he said.

“It is a lucrative venture in a country where a lot of young people are impoverished, jobless and hungry,” he said. “The state, which should confront these criminals, is enabling them by always pandering to their dictates. It should be the other way round, that is, the criminals should be scared of the state, but, in this case, it is the state that is scared of criminals.”

“If the state is not able to crush them,” he added, “it means something is wrong with the Nigerian state.”

On Saturday, 24 students, six staff and eight relatives were released after being abducted on February 17 from the Government Science College Kagara in Niger state. In December, more than 300 schoolboys from a secondary school in Kankara, in northwestern Nigeria, were taken and later released. The government has said no ransom was paid for the students’ release.

___

Olukoya reported from Lagos, Nigeria. AP writer Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal contributed

Chinese vaccines sweep much of the world, despite concerns

Chinese vaccines sweep much of the world, despite concerns

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FILE – In this Dec. 23, 2020, file photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a Sinovac worker checks the labeling on vials of COVID-19 vaccines on a packaging line in Beijing. With just four of China’s many vaccine makers … more >

Print

By HUIZHONG WU and KRISTEN GELINEAU

Associated Press

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) – The plane laden with vaccines had just rolled to a stop at Santiago’s airport in late January, and Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera, was beaming. “Today,” he said, “is a day of joy, emotion and hope.”

The source of that hope: China – a country that Chile and dozens of other nations are depending on to help rescue them from the COVID-19 pandemic.

China’s vaccine diplomacy campaign has been a surprising success: It has pledged roughly half a billion doses of its vaccine to more than 45 countries, according to a country-by-country tally by The Associated Press. With just four of China’s many vaccine makers able to produce at least 2.6 billion doses this year, a large part of the world’s population will end up inoculated not with the fancy Western vaccines boasting headline-grabbing efficacy rates, but with China’s humble, traditionally made shots.

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Amid a dearth of public data on China’s vaccines, fears over their efficacy and safety are still pervasive in the countries depending on them, along with concerns about what China might want in return for deliveries. Nonetheless, inoculations with Chinese vaccines have begun in more than 25 countries, and the shots have been delivered to another 11, according to AP’s tally, based on independent reporting in those countries along with government and company announcements.

It’s a potential face-saving coup for China, which has been determined to transform itself from an object of mistrust over its initial mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak to a savior.

“We’re seeing certainly real-time vaccine diplomacy start to play out, with China in the lead in terms of being able to manufacture vaccines within China and make them available to others,” said Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University.

China has said it is supplying “vaccine aid” to 53 countries and exports to 27, but it rejected a request by the AP for the list. Beijing has denied vaccine diplomacy, and a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said China considered the vaccine a “global public good.” Chinese experts reject any connection between the export of its vaccines and the revamping of its image.

China has targeted the low- and middle-income countries largely left behind as rich nations scooped up most of the pricey vaccines produced by the likes of Pfizer and Moderna. And despite a few delays of its own, China has largely capitalized on slower-than-hoped-for deliveries by U.S. and European vaccine makers.

Like many other countries, Chile received far fewer doses of the Pfizer vaccine than first promised. Chinese company Sinovac acted quickly, sending in 4 million doses.

The choices are limited for Chile and many other low- and middle-income countries. Vaccine deployment globally has been dominated by rich nations, which have snapped up 5.4 billion of the 7.8 billion doses purchased worldwide, according to Duke University.

China’s vaccines, which can be stored in standard refrigerators, are attractive to many countries that may struggle to accommodate the ultracold storage needs of vaccines like Pfizer’s.

Sinovac and Sinopharm rely on a traditional technology in which a live virus is killed and then purified, triggering an immune response. Some countries view it as safer than the newer, less-proven technology used by some Western competitors that targets the coronavirus’ spike protein, despite the lack of publicly available safety data on the Chinese vaccines.

In Europe, China is providing the vaccine to countries such as Serbia and Hungary — a significant geopolitical victory in Central Europe and the Balkans, where the West, China and Russia are competing for political and economic influence. Hungary is the first EU country to use a Chinese vaccine.

But China’s vaccine diplomacy will be only as good as the vaccines it is offering, and it still faces hurdles.

“The Chinese vaccine, in particular, there was insufficient data available compared to other vaccines,” said Ahmed Hamdan Zayed, a nurse in Egypt who overcame his initial reluctance and got Sinopharm’s vaccine.

Sinopharm, which said its vaccine was 79% effective based on interim data from clinical trials, did not respond to interview requests.

Chinese vaccine companies have been “slow and spotty” in releasing their trial data, compared to companies like Pfizer and Moderna, said Yanzhong Huang, a global health expert at the U.S. think tank Council for Foreign Relations. None of China’s three vaccine candidates used globally have publicly released their late-stage clinical trial data. CanSino, another Chinese company with a one-shot vaccine that it says is 65% effective, declined to be interviewed.

There is also confusion around Sinovac’s efficacy. In Turkey, where Sinovac conducted part of its efficacy trials, officials have said the vaccine was 91% effective. However, in Brazil, officials revised the efficacy rate in late-stage clinical trials from 78% to just over 50% after including mild infections.

An expert panel in Hong Kong published data submitted by Sinovac to health regulators that showed the vaccine was just over 50% effective.

Globally, public health officials have said any vaccine that is at least 50% effective is useful.

Receiving countries are also worried that China’s vaccine diplomacy may come at a cost. In the Philippines, where Beijing is donating 600,000 vaccines, a senior diplomat said China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, gave a subtle message to tone down public criticism of growing Chinese assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea.

The senior diplomat said Wang didn’t ask for anything in exchange for vaccines, but it was clear he wanted “friendly exchanges in public, like control your megaphone diplomacy a little.” The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue publicly.

Still, the pandemic’s urgency has largely superseded hesitations over China’s vaccines.

“Vaccines, particularly those made in the West, are reserved for rich countries,” said one Egyptian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter. “We had to guarantee a vaccine. Any vaccine.”

___

Associated Press researcher Chen Si in Shanghai, and AP reporters Patricia Luna in Santiago, Chile; Sam Magdy in Cairo; Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines; Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia; Justin Spike in Budapest, Hungary; Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia; and Allen G. Breed in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

Defying deadly crackdown, crowds again protest Myanmar coup

Defying deadly crackdown, crowds again protest Myanmar coup

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Anti-coup protesters run away from tear gas launched by security forces in Yangon, Myanmar, Monday, March 1, 2021. Defiant crowds returned to the streets of Myanmar’s biggest city on Monday, determined to continue their protests against the military’s seizure of … more >

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By

Associated Press

Monday, March 1, 2021

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Police in Myanmar’s biggest city fired tear gas Monday at defiant crowds who returned to the streets to protest last month’s coup, despite reports that security forces had killed at least 18 people a day earlier.

The protesters in Yangon were chased as they tried to gather at their usual meeting spot at the Hledan Center intersection. Demonstrators scattered and sought in vain to rinse the irritating gas from their eyes, but later regrouped.

The coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy in Myanmar after five decades of military rule. It came Feb. 1, the same day a newly elected Parliament was supposed to take office. Ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party would have led that government, but instead she was detained along with President Win Myint and other senior officials.

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The army has leveled several charges against Suu Kyi – an apparent effort by the military to provide a legal veneer for her detention and potentially to bar her from running in the election the junta has promised to hold in one year. On Monday, Suu Kyi made a court appearance via videoconference and was charged with two more offenses, her lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told reporters.

Accused of inciting unrest, she was charged under a law that dates from British colonial days and has long been criticized as a vaguely defined catch-all law that inhibits freedom of expression. That charge carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison. The other charge from Monday carries a one-year sentence.

Following her detention on the day of the coup, the 75-year-old Suu Kyi was initially held at her residence in the capital of Naypyitaw, but members of her National League for Democracy party now say they don’t know where she is.

Since the takeover, a movement of protests in cities across the country has been growing – and the junta’s response has become increasingly violent.

The U.N. said it had “credible information” that at least 18 people were killed and 30 were wounded across Myanmar on Sunday. Counts from other sources, such the Democratic Voice of Burma, an independent television and online news outlet, put the death toll in the 20s.

Any of the reports would make it the highest single-day death toll since the military takeover. The junta has also made mass arrests, and the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reported that as many as 1,000 people were detained Sunday, though it has only confirmed 270 of those. Several journalists have been among those detained, including one for The Associated Press.

At least five people are believed to have been killed Sunday in Yangon when police shot at protesters, who have remained non-violent despite provocation from the security forces and pro-military counter-demonstrators.

People erected makeshift sidewalk shrines Monday at the spots where several of the victims were shot and also paid their respects by standing outside the hospitals where the bodies were being released to families.

In Dawei, a small city in southeastern Myanmar where an estimated five people were killed Sunday, the number of protesters on the streets Monday was lower than usual. Marchers there split into smaller groups, parading through the city to the applause of bystanders who also made the three-finger salutes adopted by the resistance movement to show their support.

Confirming the deaths of protesters has been difficult amid the chaos and general lack of news from official sources, especially in areas outside Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyitaw. But in many cases, there was evidence posted online such as videos of shootings, photos of bullet casings collected afterwards and gruesome pictures of bodies.

In a statement published Monday in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper, Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry declared that the junta “is exercising utmost restraint to avoid the use of force in managing the violent protests systematically, in accordance with domestic and international laws in order to keep minimum casualties.”

But U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the crackdown, calling the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters and arbitrary arrests “unacceptable,” and expressed serious concern at the increase in deaths and serious injuries, said U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.

“What the world is watching in Myanmar is outrageous and unacceptable,” the U.N.’s independent expert on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said in a separate statement. “Words of condemnation are necessary and welcome but insufficient. The world must act. We must all act.”

He proposed that countries could institute a global embargo on the sale of arms to Myanmar, “tough targeted and coordinated sanctions” against those responsible for the coup, the crackdown and other rights abuses, and sanctions against the business interests of the military.

Social media posts from Myanmar have increasingly urged the international community to invoke the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” to intervene directly to restrain the junta.

Any kind of coordinated measures, however, would be difficult to implement as two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, China and Russia, would almost certainly veto them on the basis of being opposed to interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

In Washington, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan issued a statement saying the U.S. is “alarmed” by the violence and stands in solidarity with Myanmar‘s people, “who continue to bravely voice their aspirations for democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights.”

Washington has imposed sanctions on Myanmar because of the coup, and Sullivan said it would “impose further costs on those responsible,” promising details “in the coming days.”

Security forces began employing rougher tactics on Saturday, taking preemptive action to break up protests and make mass arrests. Many of those detained were taken to Insein Prison in Yangon’s northern outskirts, historically notorious for holding political prisoners.

Among the arrests made Sunday, the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners was able to identify about 270 people, bringing to 1,132 the total number of people the group has confirmed being arrested, charged or sentenced since the coup.

An AP journalist was taken into police custody on Saturday morning while providing news coverage of the protests. The journalist, Thein Zaw, remains in police custody.

The AP called for his immediate release.

“Independent journalists must be allowed to freely and safely report the news without fear of retribution. AP decries in the strongest terms the arbitrary detention of Thein Zaw,” said Ian Phillips, the AP’s vice president for international news. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Myanmar also condemned the arrest.

Secretive Israeli nuclear facility undergoes major project

Secretive Israeli nuclear facility undergoes major project

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This Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near the city of Dimona, Israel. A long-secretive Israeli nuclear facility that gave birth to its undeclared atomic weapons … more >

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By JON GAMBRELL

Associated Press

Thursday, February 25, 2021

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – A secretive Israeli nuclear facility at the center of the nation’s undeclared atomic weapons program is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades, satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press show.

A dig about the size of a soccer field and likely several stories deep now sits just meters (yards) from the aging reactor at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near the city of Dimona. The facility is already home to decades-old underground laboratories that reprocess the reactor’s spent rods to obtain weapons-grade plutonium for Israel‘s nuclear bomb program.

What the construction is for, however, remains unclear. The Israeli government did not respond to detailed questions from the AP about the work. Under its policy of nuclear ambiguity, Israel neither confirms nor denies having atomic weapons. It is among just four countries that have never joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a landmark international accord meant to stop the spread of nuclear arms.

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The construction comes as Israel – under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – maintains its scathing criticism of Iran‘s nuclear program, which remains under the watch of United Nations inspectors unlike its own. That has renewed calls among experts for Israel to publicly declare details of its program.

What “the Israeli government is doing at this secret nuclear weapons plant is something for the Israeli government to come clean about,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.

With French assistance, Israel began secretly building the nuclear site in the late 1950s in empty desert near Dimona, a city some 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of Jerusalem. It hid the military purpose of the site for years from America, now Israel‘s chief ally, even referring to it as a textile factory.

With plutonium from Dimona, Israel is widely believed to have become one of only nine nuclear-armed countries in the world. Given the secrecy surrounding its program, it remains unclear how many weapons it possesses. Analysts estimate Israel has material for at least 80 bombs. Those weapons likely could be delivered by land-based ballistic missiles, fighter jets or submarines.

For decades, the Dimona facility’s layout has remained the same. However, last week, the International Panel on Fissile Materials at Princeton University noted it had seen “significant new construction” at the site via commercially available satellite photos, though few details could be made out.

Satellite images captured Monday by Planet Labs Inc. after a request from the AP provide the clearest view yet of the activity. Just southwest of the reactor, workers have dug a hole some 150 meters (165 yards) long and 60 meters (65 yards) wide. Tailings from the dig can be seen next to the site. A trench some 330 meters (360 yards) runs near the dig.

Some 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) west of the reactor, boxes are stacked in two rectangular holes that appear to have concrete bases. Tailings from the dig can be seen nearby. Similar concrete pads are often used to entomb nuclear waste.

Other images from Planet Labs suggest the dig near the reactor began in early 2019 and has progressed slowly since then.

Analysts who spoke to the AP offered several suggestions about what could be happening there.

The center’s heavy-water reactor has been operational since the 1960s, far longer than most reactors of the same era. That raises both effectiveness and safety questions. In 2004, Israeli soldiers even began handing out iodine pills in Dimona in case of a radioactive leak from the facility. Iodine helps block the body from absorbing radiation.

Those safety concerns could see authorities decommission or otherwise retrofit the reactor, analysts say.

“I believe that the Israeli government is concerned to preserve and maintain the nation’s current nuclear capabilities,” said Avner Cohen, a professor of nonproliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, who has written extensively on Dimona.

“If indeed the Dimona reactor is getting closer to decommissioned, as I believe it is, one would expect Israel to make sure that certain functions of the reactor, which are still indispensable, will be fully replaced.”

Kimball, of the Arms Control Association, suggested Israel may want to produce more tritium, a relatively faster-decaying radioactive byproduct used to boost the explosive yield of some nuclear warheads. It also could want fresh plutonium “to replace or extend the life of warheads already in the Israeli nuclear arsenal,” he added.

Israel built its nuclear weapons as it faced several wars with its Arab neighbors since its founding in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust. An atomic weapons program, even undeclared, provided it an edge to deter enemies.

As Peres, who led the nuclear program and later served as prime minister and president of Israel, said in 1998: “We have built a nuclear option, not in order to have a Hiroshima, but to have an Oslo,” referring both to the first U.S. nuclear bomb drop in World War II and Israel‘s efforts to reach a peace deal with Palestinians.

But Israel‘s strategy of opacity also draws criticism from opponents. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seized on the work at Dimona this week as his country prepared to limit access by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency amid tensions with the West over its collapsing 2015 nuclear deal.

“Any talk about concern about Iran‘s nuclear program is absolute nonsense,” Zarif told Iranian state television’s English-language arm Press TV. “Let’s be clear on that: It’s hypocrisy.”

The timing of the Dimona construction surprised Valerie Lincy, executive director of the Washington-based Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.

“I think the most puzzling thing is … you have a country that is very aware of the power of satellite imagery and particularly the way proliferation targets are monitored using that imagery,” Lincy said. “In Israel, you have one known nuclear target for monitoring, which is the Dimona reactor. So you would think that anything that they wanted to keep under the radar would be kept under the radar.”

In the 1960s, Israel used its claims about adversary Egypt’s missile and nuclear efforts to divert attention from its work at Dimona – and may choose to do the same with Iran now.

“If you’re Israel and you are going to have to undertake a major construction project at Dimona that will draw attention, that’s probably the time that you would scream the most about the Iranians,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a professor also teaching nonproliferation issues at Middlebury.

___

Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

Maduro lodges new allegation of US spying on Venezuela firm

Maduro lodges new allegation of US spying on Venezuela firm

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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro points to supporters during an event marking Youth Day at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The annual holiday commemorates young people who accompanied heroes in the battle … more >

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By SCOTT SMITH

Associated Press

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

CARACAS, Venezuerla (AP) – Venezuela’s president said Wednesday he is open to dialogue with the new U.S. administration on calming tensions between the two governments and easing his nation’s economic crisis, even while doubling down with fresh accusations that six American oil executives jailed in Caracas spied for the CIA, a claim rejected by relatives and a defense lawyer in the case.

Nicolás Maduro, who spoke at a news conference with international reporters at the Miraflores presidential palace, refused to say whether he has had any direct contacts with the Biden administration, which took office nearly a month ago.

Maduro repeated a phrase he commonly uses, saying he is ready for a dialogue with the U.S. at any moment. The two nations broke ties two years ago when the Trump administration and dozens of other governments backed Maduro‘s leading adversary, Juan Guaidó, arguing that Maduro’s presidency was illegitimate because his reelection was fraudulent.

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The Trump administration heavily sanctioned Maduro and the Venezuelan oil sector as well as brought an indictment levying narcotrafficking charges against Maduro that carry a $15 million reward for his arrest.

Maduro is leading a campaign to resurrect his once-wealthy oil nation’s decimated economy after more than two decades of socialist rule. Maduro seeks relief from sanctions, blaming them for Venezuela‘s problems.

“Is there room for dialogue?” Maduro said in response to a question from The Associated Press on whether he has started conversation with of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration. “There’s always room for dialogue.”

But the new accusations of spying against Citgo, a U.S.-based subsidiary of Venezuela‘s state oil company, will likely complicate efforts to win sympathy in Washington, where officials in Biden’s State Department have already branded him a “dictator” who should not be engaged with in direct talks.

While Venezuela‘s economic and political crisis deepened, the six Citgo executives were lured back to Caracas from the firm’s headquarters in Houston and jailed on financial charges. Their trial ended in November, with a judge finding them all guilty and sentencing them to prison.

Maduro‘s allegation of spying came in response to a question from AP on whether he could consider releasing U.S. citizens jailed in the U.S., including the so-called Citgo 6, as a goodwill gesture to the new U.S. administration.

He said that while diplomatic efforts are always available, he wouldn’t get involved with criminal cases that had been tried in a Venezuelan court.

“I’m not a judge or prosecutor, and I shouldn’t get involved in this subject,” Maduro said, but he then accused the CIA of infiltrating Citgo. “They started to work as agents of the Central Intelligence Agency. … This is the truth.”

Maduro did not offer proof of his claim, which drew immediate pushback from Venezuelan attorney Jesus Loreto, who represented one of the six Citgo executives.

Loreto told AP that Venezuelan state officials presented no allegations of spying at trial of the six men.

“They were never tried for any spying related offenses. They were not convicted on any charge in any way related to spying,” Loreto said. “That’s the very first time I heard about spying, regarding my client.”

The U.S-based family of Tomeu Vadell, one of the six jailed men, also rejected Maduro’s claims that he spied on his native Venezuela.

The family urged U.S. leaders to do all they can to help bring an end to Vadell’s imprisonment so he can return home to them.

“We ask the Biden administration to expedite the release of our loved one, Tomeu, and other Americans unjustly held in Venezuela,” said one of Vadell’s daughters, Veronica Vadell Weggeman.

___

Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP

Italy’s Draghi urges unity, courage ahead of confidence vote

Italy’s Draghi urges unity, courage ahead of confidence vote

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Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi addresses the Senatein Rome Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, before submitting his government to a vote of confidence. (Alberto Pizzoli/POOL photo via AP) more >

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By NICOLE WINFIELD

Associated Press

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

ROME (AP) – Premier Mario Draghi urged Italy’s polarized politicians Wednesday to unite behind his new government to help the country confront the coronavirus pandemic and the economic devastation it has wrought, saying Italy has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to create a more sustainable, equitable and healthy nation for future generations.

Draghi vowed to lead an environmentally conscious, pro-European and digitally reformed government during a speech to the Senate that marked the debut of his program. His Cabinet is expected to win mandatory votes of confidence in both the Senate and lower Chamber of Deputies after Draghi secured broad-based support for a technical-political government that Italy‘s president asked him to form as an emergency response to the COVID-19 crisis.

“Today, unity isn’t an option, it’s an obligation,“ Draghi said to applause. “An obligation guided by what unites us all: love of Italy.”

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Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief who is widely credited with having saved the euro, pledged a similar all-out effort to bring the country out of the pandemic. Since the virus first erupted in Italy at this time last year, the country has reported over 94,000 deaths related to COVID-19, more than any other European country except Britain.

He said the principal aim of his administration was to confront the pandemic and save Italian lives “with all means,” including reinforcing the public health care system, bringing the civil protection and armed forces into the nation’s vaccination campaign and ensuring that families can weather the economic fallout from lockdowns.

“The virus is the enemy of all of us,” said Draghi, 73, as he urged politicians to put aside their personal and political interests and assume the same spirit of sacrifice that their parents and grandparents took on after World War II.

The premier said Italy had an opportunity not seen since then to rebuild the country from the ground up using the more than 200 billion euros ($241.2 billion) in European Union recovery funds. Draghi said his government would be “convincingly” pro-EU and pro-U.S., and that he envisaged reinforcing bilateral relations with France and Germany, in particular.

Draghi’s government was sworn in over the weekend, capping a remarkable few weeks that saw Giuseppe Conte, Italy‘s popular premier since June 2018, resign after a key ally yanked his support over Conte’s pandemic response. After efforts to forge a third Conte government failed, President Sergio Mattarella asked Draghi to form a high-profile, non-political government.

Draghi’s 23-member Cabinet includes politicians in most ministries but puts technical experts in key roles, especially those responsible for ensuring that the funds Italy expects to receive are spent according to EU criteria. Some 37% of the allocated recovery funds must go toward environmental goals, while 20% must he devoted to digital transformation.

Italy has one of the EU’s worst records on making use of designated EU funds, a trend Draghi seems intent on ending.

“Everything wasted is a crime that we commit against future generations,” he said.

Draghi made clear that Italians who have lost their livelihoods as a result of virus-related closures would be a top priority, citing women, young people and other precariously employed workers who have borne the brunt of lockdown measures. But he said some activities would be protected more than others, in a sign that the government would prioritize industries and jobs that fit its environmental and technology-driven focus.

He said a focus on training workers for sustainable, high-tech jobs, particularly in Italy’s underdeveloped south, would combat the dual problems of unemployment and the need to transform Italy’s economy, which contracted 8.8% last year.

Draghi quoted Pope Francis in calling for a new approach to preserving the environment and Italy‘s cultural and natural treasures. He said Italy’s tourism sector, which is responsible for some 13% of GDP, must be helped to recover, but sustainably.

He laid out a host of planned reforms, including a wholescale overhaul of the income tax system, greater investments in education and research, and making public administration more digitally friendly to ordinary citizens.

His speech to senators won plaudits politicians both left and right. Democratic Party leader Nicola Zingaretti assured Italians their country was “in good hands.” Right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini pledged his support, praising Draghi’s call for greater health care spending, tax cuts and public works projects.

“A great starting point,” Salvini tweeted. “The League is on board.”

One of Salvini’s right-wing allies, however, doubled down on her opposition. Georgia Melloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy party, said her lawmakers would vote “no” in the confidence vote, citing in particular Draghi’s emphatic comments about ceding national sovereignty for European cohesion.

“We will evaluate individual measures that come up for votes, without ceding sovereignty, which we don’t recognize,” Melloni said.

Draghi’s government also enjoys the backing of most of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, the biggest party in the Italian Parliament. The drama of the confidence votes is expected to focus on how many 5-Star lawmakers abstain or vote against Draghi, given that his appointment as premier badly split the movement.

___

Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.

Takeaways: AP investigation of China COVID-19 disinformation

Takeaways: AP investigation of China COVID-19 disinformation

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By ERIKA KINETZ

Associated Press

Monday, February 15, 2021

BRUSSELS (AP) – As the coronavirus spread last year, former President Donald Trump and leading U.S. conservatives floated the idea that the virus may have escaped from a Chinese lab or was created by China as a bioweapon. China pushed back. A nine-month AP investigation, conducted in collaboration with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, found China launched what may be its first global digital disinformation campaign, using its growing presence on Western social media to seed and spread stories suggesting the U.S. created COVID-19 as a bioweapon.

Here are 6 key takeaways from AP’s investigation:

1. Since 2016, Russia has been widely seen as the leading foreign actor spreading disinformation. With COVID-19, China took the lead, continuing to spread conspiracies about the origins of the virus long after Moscow stopped.

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2. China has landed with a bang on Western social media. The number of Chinese diplomatic accounts on Twitter has more than tripled since mid-2019, while on Facebook they’ve more than doubled. Both platforms are banned in China. With COVID-19, these accounts helped set and amplify messaging across platforms, languages and geographies.

3. A series of 11 tweets by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian in March, which broadcast speculation that the U.S. Army engineered COVID-19, was cited over 99,000 times, in at least 54 languages, by accounts with hundreds of millions of followers. Then Chinese state media picked up and syndicated his ideas.

4. China leaned on Russian disinformation strategy and infrastructure. Conspiracies were seeded and spread through established Kremlin proxies in the West. China, Russia and Iran also reinforced each other’s messaging, cross-referencing reports and sources, deepening their echo chamber of authenticity.

5. During the first half of 2020, there were millions of coronavirus-related interactions on Twitter with 829 accounts linked to the Chinese, Russian and Iranian governments. Chinese state media and Foreign Ministry accounts were among the most retweeted.

6. China’s foreign ministry says it resolutely rejects disinformation, but will defend itself against the aggression of hostile forces seeking to politicize the epidemic. “All parties should firmly say ‘no’ to the dissemination of disinformation,” the ministry said in a statement to AP, but added, “In the face of trumped-up charges, it is justified and proper to bust lies and clarify rumors by setting out the facts.”

China clamps down in hidden hunt for coronavirus origins

China clamps down in hidden hunt for coronavirus origins

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Huanan market vendor Jiang Dafa tends to his pigeons at home in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province on Oct. 22, 2020. China’s search for the COVID-19 virus started in the Huanan Seafood market in Wuhan, a sprawling, low-slung complex … more >

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By Dake Kang, Maria Cheng and Sam McNeil

Associated Press

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

MOJIANG, China (AP) — Deep in the lush valleys of southern China lies the entrance to a mine shaft that once harbored bats with the closest known relative to COVID-19.

The area is of intense interest because it may hold clues to the origins of the coronavirus that has killed more than 1.7 million people worldwide, but has become a black hole of no information because of political sensitivity. A bat research team that visited recently had their samples confiscated, two people familiar with the matter said. And a team of Associated Press journalists was tailed by plainclothes police in multiple cars who blocked access to sites in late November.

More than a year since the first known person was infected with the coronavirus, an AP investigation shows the Chinese government is strictly controlling all research into its origins while promoting fringe theories that the pandemic originated elsewhere.

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The government is monitoring scientists’ findings and mandating that the publication of any research first be approved by a new task force managed by China’s cabinet under direct orders from President Xi Jinping, according to internal documents obtained by The AP. A rare leak from within the government, the dozens of pages of unpublished documents confirm what many have long suspected: The clampdown comes from the top.

The AP’s investigation was based on interviews with Chinese and foreign scientists and officials, along with public notices, leaked emails and the unpublished documents from China’s State Council and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It reveals a pattern of government secrecy and top-down control that has been evident throughout the pandemic.

“They only select people they can trust, those that they can control,” said an expert who works with the China CDC, declining to be identified out of a fear of retribution.

China’s foreign ministry said in a fax that “the novel coronavirus has been discovered in many parts of the world” and research should be carried out “on a global scale.”

China’s leaders aren’t alone in politicizing research into how the pandemic started. In April, President Donald Trump shelved a U.S. funded project to identify dangerous animal diseases across Asia. Research into COVID-19’s origins is critical to preventing future epidemics, and the move severed ties between Chinese and U.S. scientists. Although the World Health Organization says it will send a team to China in January to investigate, its members and agenda had to be approved by China.

The probe into how the coronavirus first emerged started in the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, a sprawling complex where many of the first human cases were detected.

In mid-December last year, Huanan vendor Jiang Dafa noticed people were falling ill, including a worker who helped clean carcasses at a stall who later died.

At first, the China CDC moved swiftly.

On Jan. 1, the market was ordered shut, barring vendors from fetching their belongings, Jiang said. Internal China CDC data shows that by Jan. 10, researchers were sequencing environmental samples.

In late January and early February, as the virus spread rapidly, Chinese scientists published a burst of research papers on COVID-19. Then one paper proposed without concrete evidence that the virus could have leaked from a Wuhan laboratory near the market. It was later retracted, but it raised the need for image control.

An internal notice from a China CDC lab issued on February 24 put in new approval processes to standardize publication under “important instructions” from Chinese President Xi Jinping. Other notices ordered CDC staff not to share any data, specimens or other information related to the coronavirus with outside institutions or individuals.

In early March, China’s cabinet, the State Council, centralized all COVID-19 publication under a special task force. The notice, obtained by the AP and marked “not to be made public,” was sweeping in scope, applying to all universities, companies and medical and research institutions. It said communication and publication of research had to be orchestrated like “a game of chess” under instructions from Xi and guided by propaganda and public opinion teams.

The order went on to warn that those who publish without permission, “causing serious adverse social impact, shall be held accountable.”

After the secret orders, the tide of research papers slowed to a trickle. Though the China CDC returned to collect some 2,000 samples from the market over the following months, nothing was published.

On May 25, China CDC chief George Gao said no animal samples from the market had tested positive, ruling it out as the source.

With the market proving a dead end, scientist turned their attention to hunting for the virus at its likely source: bats.

Nearly a thousand miles away from Wuhan, bats inhabit a maze of underground limestone caves in Yunnan province. The coronavirus’ genetic code is strikingly similar to bat coronaviruses, and scientists suspect COVID-19 jumped into humans from a bat or an intermediary animal.

Chinese scientists quickly started testing animals suspected of carrying the coronavirus. Records show scientist Xia Xueshan received a 1.4 million RMB ($214,000) grant to screen animals in Yunnan for COVID-19. In February, his team took samples from animals including bats, snakes, bamboo rats and porcupines.

But the government restrictions soon kicked in; data on the samples has not been released.

Today, the caves in Yunnan home to the closest viral relative of the coronavirus are under close watch. Security agents tailed the AP team in three locations and stopped journalists from visiting the cave where researchers identified the bats responsible for SARS.

Chinese state media has instead aggressively promoted theories suggesting the virus originated elsewhere, such as via frozen seafood, a hypothesis WHO and others have dismissed.

The government is also limiting and controlling the search for the first human cases through the re-testing of flu samples.

Hundreds of Chinese hospitals collect samples from patients with flu-like symptoms, storing them for years. The samples could easily be tested again for COVID-19, although politics could determine whether the results are made public, said Ray Yip, the founding director of the China CDC.

Researchers in the U.S., Italy, France and elsewhere have already combed through some of their archived samples to identify the earliest cases of COVID-19 in late 2019. But in China, scientists have only published retrospective data from two Wuhan flu surveillance hospitals, out of at least 18 in Hubei province and more than 500 across the country.

The little information that has trickled out suggests COVID-19 was circulating beyond Wuhan in 2019, a finding that could raise awkward questions for Chinese officials about their early handling of the outbreak.

Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance said identifying the pandemic’s source should not be used to assign guilt.

“We’re all part of this together,” he said. “Until we realize that, we’re never going to get rid of this problem.”

_______

Kang reported from Beijing and Cheng reported from London. Associated Press journalists Han Guan Ng and Emily Wang in Wuhan, China, Haven Daley in Stinson Beach, California, and Tassanee Vejpongsa in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, contributed to this report.

Satellite photos obtained by the AP show Iran building at its underground Fordo nuclear site amid te

Satellite photos obtained by the AP show Iran building at its underground Fordo nuclear site amid te

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Satellite photos obtained by the AP show Iran building at its underground Fordo nuclear site amid tensions with the US.

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President-elect Joe Biden speaks during an event to announce his choice of retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin to be secretary of defense, at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) more >

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By ZEKE MILLER and PAUL WISEMAN

Associated Press

Thursday, December 10, 2020

WASHINGTON (AP) – President-elect Joe Biden is set to nominate Katherine Tai to be the top U.S. trade envoy, according to two people familiar with his plans.

Tai, who is chief trade counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee, will be tapped as the U.S. Trade Representative, according to the two people, who spoke Wednesday on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about it.

The role is a Cabinet position, and the Senate will vote on whether to confirm Tai for the position. Biden’s selection of Tai, who is Asian American, reflects his promise to choose a diverse Cabinet that reflects the makeup of the country.

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Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Tai earlier oversaw China trade enforcement for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, setting U.S. strategy in trade disputes with China. Biden’s trade representative will inherit a trade war with China, put on pause by an interim trade pact in January that left many of the hardest issues unresolved and U.S. taxes remaining on $360 billion in Chinese imports.

As the top trade staffer at Ways and Means, Tai handled negotiations last year with the Trump administration over a revamped North American trade deal. Under pressure from congressional Democrats, Trump’s trade team agreed to strengthen the pact to make it easier for Mexican workers to form independent unions and demand better pay and benefits — decreasing the incentives for U.S. firms to move south of the border to take advantage of cheap and compliant labor.

The administration also dropped from the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement what Democrats considered a giveaway to pharmaceutical companies that could have kept drug prices high.

Tai is considered a problem-solving pragmatist on trade policy, which often breaks down into an ideological divide between free traders and protectionists. In a letter to Biden on Nov. 24, California Democratic Rep. Judy Chu, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and nine other female House members praised Tai’s “experience and diplomatic abilities’’ and said she is “uniquely qualified’’ to deal with Canada and Mexico on the USMCA and with U.S.-China trade tensions.

“Katherine would be the first Asian American and the first woman of color to serve in this role, breaking barriers and clearing the way for others to follow,” Chu added in a statement Wednesday.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., ranking member on the finance committee, called Tai “an inspired choice” for the position.

“Ms. Tai has the experience she needs to succeed as USTR, and her record of getting wins for American workers demonstrates she knows how to champion the values that matter to U.S. families,” Wyden said. “She worked closely with me and my staff to craft the strongest ever protections for American workers in a trade agreement, and pass them into law with bipartisan support.”

He urged Senate Republicans to quickly confirm her.

Ethiopia declares victory as military takes Tigray capital

Ethiopia declares victory as military takes Tigray capital

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Filippo Grandi, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, visits Umm Rakouba refugee camp sheltering people who fled the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty) more >

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By CARA ANNA

Associated Press

Saturday, November 28, 2020

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – Ethiopia’s military has gained “full control” of the capital of the defiant Tigray region, the army announced Saturday, and the prime minister said the taking of Mekele marked the “completion” of an offensive that started nearly four weeks ago. The regional government said the city of a half-million people was “heavily bombarded” in the final push to arrest its leaders.

“God bless Ethiopia and its people!” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said in a statement. “We have entered Mekele without innocent civilians being targets.”

Now, he said, police will pursue the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, who run the region and dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition before Abiy came to power in 2018 and sidelined them among the sweeping reforms that won him the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Abiy’s government has accused the TPLF of inciting unrest and seeking to reclaim power, and each government now regards the other as illegal. The prime minister has rejected dialogue with TPLF leaders, including during a Friday meeting with three African Union special envoys.

As Abiy spoke of “returning normalcy” to the Tigray region, one of his ministers told The Associated Press in a phone interview “there is no way” the search for the TPLF leaders will take weeks.

The minister in charge of democratization, Zadig Abraha, also said the Ethiopian government doesn’t yet know the number of people killed in the conflict.

“We have kept the civilian casualty very low,” he asserted. Humanitarians and human rights groups have reported several hundred dead, including combatants.

Some Ethiopians at home and in the diaspora rejoiced at the news that Mekele was under the military’s control. “Thanks to the Almighty God our creator. Amen. Let peace prevail in Ethiopia!!!” former Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn tweeted.

The fighting has threatened to destabilize Ethiopia, which has been described as the linchpin of the strategic Horn of Africa, and its neighbors.

As international alarm has grown since the conflict began on Nov. 4, so has a massive humanitarian crisis. The Tigray region of 6 million people has been cut off from the world as the military pursued what Abiy called a “law enforcement operation” with airstrikes and tanks.

Food, fuel, cash and medical supplies have run desperately low. Nearly 1 million people have been displaced, including more than 40,000 who fled into Sudan. Camps home to 96,000 Eritrean refugees in northern Tigray have been in the line of fire.

With communications severed, it is difficult to verify claims by the warring sides. The Tigray leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, could not be reached Saturday. The heavily armed TPLF has long experience fighting in the region’s rugged terrain, and some experts had warned of a drawn-out conflict.

The TPLF turned churches, schools and densely populated neighborhoods in Mekele “into armament stores and launching pads,” senior Ethiopian official Redwan Hussein asserted in a Facebook post. He said “scattered remnants” of the TPLF fighters were carrying out “sporadic shootings.”

The shelling in Mekele, a densely populated city, immediately raised concerns about civilian casualties. Ethiopia’s government had warned residents there would be “no mercy” if they didn’t move away from the TPLF leaders in time. The United Nations said some fled as tanks closed in and Abiy’s 72-hour ultimatum for TPLF leaders to surrender expired.

“I invite everyone to pray for Ethiopia where armed clashes have intensified and are causing a serious humanitarian situation,” Pope Francis tweeted Saturday.

“Fighting and shelling in the Mekele area are a very grave concern. We urge an immediate end to conflict and restoration of peace in Tigray,” the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Tibor Nagy, tweeted.

As Ethiopian forces moved in, Maj. Gen. Hassan Ibrahim warned that “it is possible that some of the wanted people may go to their families or neighboring areas and try to hide for few days. But our armed forces … will be tasked to hunt down and capture these criminals one by one.”

The United Nations continues to seek immediate and unimpeded access to deliver aid.

Zadig, the democratization minister, told the AP that “once we’ve made sure there’s no security threat,” a humanitarian corridor for that purpose will be allowed within days. As for restoring communications to Tigray, “it depends on the kind of damage sustained,” he said.

Asked about allowing independent investigations into alleged abuses during the fighting, Zadig replied, “We have nothing to hide.”

“One of the reforms we introduced was transparency. But it depends on the situation,” he said.

The minister dismissed the idea that Ethiopia has been left with “any, like, severe wound” from the conflict, and he expressed confidence in the prime minister’s ability to restore normalcy.

“He’s quite an effective leader when it comes to making peace,” Zadig said.

But the conflict has further inflamed tensions in a country that the former TPLF-dominated government structured along ethnic lines during more than a quarter-century in power. Massacres reported in a single community, Mai-Kadra, during the recent fighting have led to concerns about what else will be revealed.

Among Abiy’s goals is welcoming back the refugees who fled, though many have reported being attacked by Ethiopian forces and now struggle to find food, shelter and care in a remote part of Sudan.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on Saturday visited Sudan’s Umm Rakouba camp, which houses some 10,000 refugees. He said about $150 million is needed over the next six months.

Worryingly, refugees have told the AP that Ethiopian forces near the border are impeding people from leaving. AP reporters saw crossings slow to a trickle in recent days. Ethiopia’s government has not commented.

“We have seen the figure of people decline but continuing. Five to 600 per day is not a small figure, let’s make no mistake. It is true there were days in which they were in their thousands, but it depends also on the difficulty of moving around their country and on the border,” Grandi said.

Access to Tigray is “the main obstacle at the moment,” he said, urging Abiy’s government to “grant us corridors, or whatever they call it, to provide assistance.”

Renowned world correspondent Seymour Topping dead at 98

Renowned world correspondent Seymour Topping dead at 98

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FILE – Seymour Topping, Pulitzer board administrator, speaks at the Graduate School of Journalism of Columbia University in New York, in this March 4, 2002, file photo. Topping, among the most accomplished foreign correspondents of his generation for The Associated … more >

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By JOHN DANISZEWSKI

Associated Press

Sunday, November 8, 2020

NEW YORK (AP) – Seymour Topping, among the most accomplished foreign correspondents of his generation for The Associated Press and the New York Times and later a top editor at the Times and administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, died on Sunday. He was 98.

Topping passed away peacefully at White Plains Hospital, his daughter Rebecca said in an emailed statement.

As a correspondent for the AP in 1949, he was eyewitness to the fall of Nanking, then the capital of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government, to Mao Zedong’s Red Army. It was the key victory in the Communist conquest of China, and Topping was first to report it to the world.

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After the Communists consolidated their hold and publicly aligned with Soviet leader Josef Stalin, Topping and other American correspondents were ousted from the mainland, with Topping arriving in Hong Kong in late 1949. From there, after a home leave visit to the United States and an urgent detour to Canada to visit and marry his future wife, Audrey, he returned to the AP bureau in Hong Kong.

He was hoping that the Chinese Communist authorities would agree to his request to go back to China. While awaiting their answer, Topping accepted an assignment in French Indochina.

As he recounted it in a 1972 memoir of his reporting career in Asia, “Journey Between Two Chinas,” the AP wanted him to “go to a funny little country whose name was sometimes mixed up by our editors in New York with Indonesia. It was Indochina. There was some kind of trouble in Vietnam, and would I go there for a month?” He and Audrey had just checked into the Continental Hotel in Saigon in February 1950 when a plastic bomb thrown by a cycle driver ripped through a café across the square, shaking the hotel. He rushed out to a scene of chaos.

“French soldiers and sailors, dead and wounded, lay amid overturned tables and shattered glass inside the café and outside on the sidewalk terrace where they had been sipping drinks,” he wrote. “The war was on in the South in full fury.”

Over the next two years, Topping wrote presciently about the strength of the insurgency against the French colonial occupiers of Indochina and the long and bloody struggle that would continue almost without interruption until the final U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975.

After postings to London as diplomatic correspondent and West Berlin as bureau chief for the AP, Topping in 1959 joined the Times, where he was to work for the next 34 years.

Known as “Top,” he was chief correspondent in Moscow and Southeast Asia, foreign editor, assistant managing editor, deputy managing editor and finally managing editor under Times Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal for 10 years from 1977 to 1987. He became director of editorial development for the New York Times newspaper group until his retirement in 1993 from the company.

For the next decade, he served as administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes at Columbia University and simultaneously held the San Paolo Professor of International Journalism Chair at Columbia Journalism School.

“As the longstanding dean of the Pulitzer Prizes, Seymour Topping set the highest standard of excellence and integrity for judging and awarding the prizes in journalism and arts and letters,” said Dana R. Canedy, who recently stepped down as the prize’s administrator. “His vision and leadership as Pulitzer administrator have withstood the test of time and continue to influence the prize awarding process.”

He stopped teaching in 2002. He remained engaged in writing and in international affairs and journalism as a member of the International Press Institute and the Council of Foreign Relations, among other organizations, and was a frequent attendee at events at the AP and the Overseas Press Club well into his 90s.

Born Dec. 11, 1921, in Harlem, New York, Topping was the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. He wrote that he developed a fascination with China at a young age and decided at 16 as a high school editor that he wanted to become a newspaper correspondent there.

That led him to enroll at the University of Missouri, whose journalism school had connections to China and the Far East, and he graduated in 1943. After serving as a U.S. infantry soldier in the Pacific in World War II, Topping demobilized in the Philippines and began to put his journalist training to work in 1946, first as a part-time stringer and then as a staff reporter in Asia for the International News Service.

From there, he was sent to China and landed a better-paying job with the AP in Shanghai in 1948. Topping covered the pivotal battle of Huai-Hai and then remained in Nanking as diplomats and Nationalist government officials and troops fled the oncoming Red Army.

Topping was there when Mao’s forces swept in the night of April 24 and clandestine Communists emerged in the open to seize control of the city. An Agence France-Presse reporter with Topping won a coin toss to telegraph word to his editors first, Topping recalled, but Paris editors held onto his colleague’s three-word flash, awaiting details.

Instead, Topping’s longer dispatch went out immediately on the AP’s wires, after which lines from the city were cut. He had achieved a world beat on the story.

Topping met Audrey Ronning, who became his wife and collaborator of 69 years, in 1948 while she was an 18-year-old student at the University of Nanking. She was the daughter of Canadian diplomat Chester A. Ronning and was from a family of Lutheran missionaries in China.

While a reporter and then an editor at the Times, Topping was frustrated that he had never been able to return to China. The United States had never recognized the People’s Republic of China, which in turn would not admit journalists from the United States throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Topping’s chance finally came in 1971 in the wake of the “pingpong diplomacy” between the United States and China.

Topping had met Chou En-lai during the Chinese civil war. In 1971, Audrey, then working as a freelance photographer and writer while accompanying her father on a diplomatic mission to China, sent word that Chou had agreed to invite Topping back.

“How I had longed these many years to see again the panorama of villages, the tile-roof dwellings … and the cities surging with the torrential energies of a people unlike any other,” he wrote in the prologue of “Journey Between Two Chinas.”

Besides “Journey Between Two Chinas,” published in 1972, Topping authored “On the Front Lines of the Cold War: An American Correspondent’s Journal from the Chinese Civil War to the Cuban Missile Christ and Vietnam,” published in 2010. He also wrote two historical novels, one based on the Chinese civil war and one on Vietnam in 1945 entitled “Fatal Crossroads.”

After their move back to the United States from Berlin in 1966 when Topping was appointed the Times’ foreign editor, the Toppings settled in Scarsdale, New York.

Survivors include his wife, Audrey, and four of their five daughters: Karen Cone, Rebecca (Robin) Topping, Lesley Topping and Joanna Topping. A fifth daughter, Susan Topping, died in 2015.

__

This story has been corrected to show that Seymour Topping passed away at age 98, not 99. It also corrects the maiden name of his wife. It is Ronning, not Rodding.

UK-EU trade talks back on after bloc offers olive branch

UK-EU trade talks back on after bloc offers olive branch

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European Council President Charles Michel addresses the chamber on a report of last weeks EU summit during a plenary session at the European Parliament in Brussels, Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool via AP) more >

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By RAF CASERT and JILL LAWLESS

Associated Press

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) – Britain and the European Union will resume their stalled trade negotiations at an “intensified” pace, the British government said Wednesday, in hope of striking a deal within weeks to avoid a messy economic breakup at the end of he year.

The announcement came five days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that the talks were over unless the bloc made a “fundamental” change of policy,

There is little sign that has happened. But Britain seized on conciliatory comments by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, saying they offered the chance of a breakthrough.

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Barnier has already agreed to “intensify” talks – a key U.K. demand – and to discuss the legal text of an agreement. On Wednesday he said compromise would be needed from both sides to get a deal.

That turned out to be the key. Britain has long complained that the EU expects it to make all the concessions.

Johnson’s office said that on the basis of Barnier’s words it was “ready to welcome the EU team to London to resume negotiations later this week” for “intensified” talks.

“It is clear that significant gaps remain between our positions in the most difficult areas, but we are ready, with the EU, to see if it is possible to bridge them in intensive talks,” Downing St. said in a statement.

Barnier spokesman Daniel Ferrie said EU negotiators would travel to London on Thursday. The first chunk of negotiations is due to run through the weekend.

Barnier told the European Parliament that “despite the difficulties we’ve faced, an agreement is within reach if both sides are willing to work constructively, if they are willing to compromise.”

He also said that “the European Union’s attitude in this negotiation has in no way shifted and it will not shift.”

But Downing Street focused on Barnier’s words about compromise and his acknowledgement that a deal would have to respect the U.K.’s “sovereignty,” a key term for British Brexit supporters.

The two sides have been trying to strike a trade deal since the U.K. left the EU on Jan. 31. They must do so within weeks if an agreement is to be ratified by the end of the year, when a post-Brexit transition period ends.

Johnson’s about-face will reinforce suspicions that his walkout was a gesture designed to inject momentum into the sluggish talks.

The two sides have come close to agreement in many areas during months of fraught negotiations, though big gaps remain over fishing rights – highly symbolic for maritime nations on both sides – and rules to ensure common regulatory standards and fair competition.

The EU fears the U.K. will gain an unfair advantage by slashing food, workplace and environmental standards and pumping state money into businesses once it is free of the bloc’s rules.

The bloc also accuses Britain of seeking the kind of unfettered access to its markets usually reserved for EU members.

“The U.K. wants access to a single market while at the same time being able to diverge from our standards and regulations when it suits them,” European Council President Charles Michel told the European Parliament on Wednesday. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Britain accuses the bloc of seeking to impose demands that it has not placed on other countries it has free trade deals with, such as Canada.

If there is no deal, businesses on both sides of the English Channel face tariffs and other obstacles to trade starting Jan. 1. British business groups warn that could mean border delays, soaring prices and shortages of some goods.

Barnier’s emollient tone contrasted with the combative stance of Michel, who said that if Britain wants vast access to the 27-member bloc’s markets, it will have to keep its waters open to EU fishermen, something the U.K. is refusing to do.

“Yes, we want to keep access to U.K. waters for our fishermen,” Michel said. “Exactly like the U.K., too, (wants) to keep access to our huge and diversified markets for its companies.”

EU leaders also remain angry over the U.K.’s plans to disregard some parts of the legally binding withdrawal agreement it signed with the bloc.

If passed, the Internal Market Bill will allow the British government to override parts agreement relating to trade with Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. to share a border with the EU.

Johnson’s government says it needs the legislation as an insurance policy in case the EU behaves unreasonably after a post-Brexit transition period ends on Dec. 31 and tries to impede the flow of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.

The bloc sees it as a flagrant breach of an international treaty that could undermine the delicate foundations of Northern Ireland’s peace settlement, created by the 1998 Good Friday accord.

___

Jill Lawless reported from London.

___

Follow all AP stories about Brexit at https://apnews.com/hub/brexit

France, Italy search for missing victims after deadly floods

France, Italy search for missing victims after deadly floods

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In this image made available Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, a firefighters’ helicopter flies over flooding in the town of Ornavasso, in the northern Italian region of Piedmont. (Firefighter Vigili del Fuoco via AP) more >

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By SYLVIE CORBET

Associated Press

Sunday, October 4, 2020

PARIS (AP) – French authorities deployed about 1,000 firefighters, four military helicopters and troops to search for at least eight people who were missing after devastating floods hit a mountainous border region with Italy, where at least four people were killed.

Emergency workers in Italy recovered two corpses Sunday in northern Liguria that they feared may have been washed away as a result of the storms that killed two other people on Saturday.

Floods washed away houses and destroyed roads and bridges surrounding the city of Nice on the French Riviera after almost a year’s average rainfall fell in less than 12 hours. Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi said over 100 homes were destroyed or severely damaged.

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Rescuers on Sunday were also providing emergency assistance, including food and water, to residents living in isolated villages.

The missing include two French firefighters whose vehicle was carried away by a torrent when a road collapsed south of the village of Saint-Martin-Vesubie. Authorities fear more victims as many families couldn’t reach out to relatives due to cellphone service being down.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex, who flew over the area in a helicopter, expressed “grave concern” over the toll of the flooding.

About 10,500 homes were left without electricity on Sunday, French energy company Enedis said.

In Italy, the body of one person reported missing on Saturday – a French citizen of Italian origin – was found in the Roia River, the ANSA and LaPresse news agencies reported. The second one washed up closer to where the Roia empties into the Mediterranean along Italy’s border with France.

An Italian firefighter was killed on Saturday during a rescue operation in the mountainous northern region of Val d’Aosta. A search team also found a body in the Piedmont region’s Vercelli province, where a man had been swept away by floodwaters.

Italian firefighters also rescued 25 people trapped on the French side of a high mountain pass due to the flooding.

___

Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to the story

___

Follow all AP stories on extreme weather and climate change at https://apnews.com/hub/Climate.

Ethiopian migrants held in Saudi Arabia call it ‘hellish’

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FILE – In this Friday, Dec. 22, 2017 file photo, Ethiopian Zeynu Abebe, 19, sits in between two others upon his arrival after being deported from Saudi Arabia, at the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A new report released Friday, … more >

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By ELIAS MESERET

Associated Press

Friday, October 2, 2020

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) – From a filthy cell in Saudi Arabia, the Ethiopian migrant spoke on a smuggled phone, fearing to give his name. Some 300 countrymen are detained with him, he said. And no one knows when Ethiopia’s government might bring them home.

“We are detained in a very inhumane condition, sleeping on waste overflowing from a nearby toilet. We really want to go back home but no one is assisting us, including Ethiopian officials,” he told The Associated Press from a detention center outside the Saudi capital, Riyadh. “We are beaten every day, and our only crime was seeking a better life in a foreign land.”

New details are emerging of the squalid detention conditions facing thousands of migrants from Ethiopia – men, women and children – some who were chased across the border from Yemen into Saudi Arabia this year amid gunfire because of coronavirus fears.

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A new report released Friday by Amnesty International describes widespread abuses in Saudi detention facilities, including beatings and electrocutions. Detainees described being chained together in pairs and being forced to use cell floors as toilets.

“Surrounded by death and disease, the situation is so dire that at least two people have attempted to take their own lives,” Amnesty researcher Marie Forestier says in the report. “Pregnant women, babies and small children are held in these same appalling conditions, and three detainees said they knew of children who had died.”

The abuses highlight one of the most popular, and most dangerous, migrant routes in the world. The Saudi government did not immediately comment.

Thousands of Ethiopians cross into Saudi Arabia every year after a journey across the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden from Somalia or Djibouti and through conflict-torn Yemen, looking for better lives.

Amnesty International said thousands of Ethiopian migrants had been working in northern Yemen, earning money to pay for their passage to Saudi Arabia. “When the COVID-19 pandemic escalated, Houthi authorities began ordering migrant workers to go to the border, where they reportedly became caught in crossfire between Saudi and Houthi forces,” the new report says.

The International Organization for Migration says some 2,000 Ethiopians are stranded on the Yemeni side of the border without food, water or health care.

Now migrants say they are held in life-threatening conditions.

“I wouldn’t have left my country had I known this hellish condition would await me,” another detained migrant told the AP. “I had some suicidal thoughts in the past. It is just unbearable, especially during those very hot days, since we don’t have an air conditioner. And they beat us with electric cords whenever we complain. And they took all our money and cell phones.”

He said he was detained nine months ago because his Saudi residence card had expired. “The only thing I want now is to return to Ethiopia, but that’s just a dream for now,” he said. The detainees spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety.

The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated their repatriation, with Ethiopian authorities saying they don’t have the quarantine capacity to handle the return of so many people at once, which could overwhelm the health system.

Ethiopia’s state minister at the foreign ministry, Tsion Teklu, told the AP that up to 16,000 Ethiopians are estimated to be held in Saudi prisons. She said some 4,000 have been repatriated since April.

“We are now working to repatriate 2,000 more migrants by bringing around 300 of them every week,” she said, adding that Ethiopia has repatriated some 400,000 in recent years. “The problem is compounded with the fact that some of our citizens that are repatriated are re-trafficked.”

In a separate statement Friday, the foreign ministry noted reported abuses in Saudi detention and said authorities are working together to confirm them and improve conditions.

The ministry also said migrants suffer sexual abuse, torture, dehydration and hunger on their monthslong journey to Saudi Arabia, and “this makes the repatriation process even more complicated as the psychosocial support is intense. The reintegration process also needs enormous resources as returnees come back home empty-handed.”

Amnesty International urged more and speedier efforts, with outside help.

“If quarantine spaces remain a significant obstacle, other governments and donors must support Ethiopia to increase the number of spaces to ensure migrants can leave these hellish conditions as soon as possible,” Forestier said. “Nothing, not even a pandemic, can justify the continued arbitrary detention and abuse of thousands of people.”

AP Exclusive: Aid from top donors drops even as need soars

AP Exclusive: Aid from top donors drops even as need soars

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FILE – In this March 30, 2020, file photo, Venezuelan workers wearing protective face masks and suits as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus unload boxes of humanitarian aid as medical supplies and specialists from China arrive … more >

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By CARA ANNA

Associated Press

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

JOHANNESBURG (AP) – A new snapshot of the frantic global response to the coronavirus pandemic shows some of the world’s largest government donors of humanitarian aid are buckling under the strain: Funding commitments, for the virus and otherwise, have dropped by a third from the same period last year.

The analysis by the U.K.-based Development Initiatives, obtained in advance by The Associated Press, offers a rare real-time look at the notoriously difficult to track world of aid.

At a time when billions of people are struggling with the pandemic and the ensuing economic collapse – on top of long-running disasters like famine, drought or unrest – more, not less, money is urgently needed. New virus protection equipment must be bought for almost everything, from maternity wards in African villages to women’s shelters in Syrian refugee camps.

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“We have not seen substantial funding for COVID, yet the situation is going to get worse,” Rosalind Crowther, South Sudan country director for the aid group CARE, told the AP in May, saying “some donors have backtracked on earlier commitments.” The group runs two dozen health centers, more than 40 feeding centers and a safe house in one of the world’s most fragile countries following civil war.

In Somalia, a mother of twin baby boys told Amnesty International she had to give birth in her makeshift home in a camp for displaced people because no local health clinic was open. Aid workers told Amnesty researcher Abdullahi Hassan the newly reduced services were due to lack of funding.

“You can imagine how risky this is,” he told the AP.

During the first five months of this year, overall aid commitments from the largest government donors were $16.9 billion, down from $23.9 billion in the same period last year, according to the new analysis, which drew on data from the United States, the United Kingdom, European Union institutions, Germany, France, Canada and others.

Many of these donors – notably the U.K., whose aid commitments have dropped by nearly 50% from last year, according to the analysis – are struggling as their economies contract. The sheer magnitude of the crisis is another challenge as every part of the world needs help – and now.

The U.K. on Wednesday signaled more trouble, announcing it had identified $3.6 billion in cuts to planned overseas aid spending “so that we can react to the potential shrinkage in our economy.”

The reality on the ground could be even worse than the new analysis indicates: Crucially, it only shows promises of aid. Just how much of the billions of dollars pledged have reached those in need is not yet clear.

In some cases, the response to the pandemic has been alarmingly slow. In June, more than two dozen international aid groups wrote to the U.S. about its pledged coronavirus aid, saying that “little to no U.S. humanitarian assistance has reached those on the front lines” and calling the uncharacteristic delays “devastating.”

Their letter came as the U.S. promoted global leadership on the COVID-19 response with more than $1 billion committed. Aid groups are now waiting to see whether the U.S. will deliver millions of dollars this month as indicated.

This new analysis, like any measure of aid, is imperfect – it looks at data published to the International Aid Transparency Initiative, which is voluntary but widely used. It is also more current than other measures: The data was downloaded on July 10.

The drop in funding is keenly felt by aid groups on the ground.

A survey in May of 92 members of Bond, the U.K. network for nongovernmental organizations working in international development, found just 16% had received any new funding from the U.K.’s Department for International Development while fighting the pandemic in developing countries, and 41% were responding without any extra funding at all.

Some aid groups are warning the window to prevent the pandemic’s worst effects is narrowing while the global humanitarian response “remains woefully underfunded,” as Refugees International said last week.

Meanwhile, “we are concerned that we are seeing a repurposing of existing funds … rather than a release of new funding,” Selena Victor, Mercy Corps’ senior director for policy and advocacy, has said of the EU’s response.

An U.N.-run emergency delivery service that has kept tons of humanitarian aid flowing to scores of countries hurt by travel restrictions could shut down in the coming weeks because “there has been no significant funding” from donor countries, the World Food Program said. Just 19% of the $965 million request has come in.

While individual governments struggle, the largest so-called multilateral organizations including the World Bank and the Global Fund have stepped up, perhaps not yet affected by budget constraints.

Their commitments this year are $48.8 billion, or 70% greater than the same period last year, according to the analysis. That’s a positive sign but “must be sustainable to tackle the whole crisis,” according to the analysis.

The challenges remain vast as various streams of assistance, including remittances, falter. “All resources … are set to fall,” according to a separate new Development Initiatives report.

That drop could continue for months. Official development assistance – government aid for developing countries’ economic development and welfare – could shrink by almost $20 billion worldwide between last year and 2021 under a worst-case scenario that envisages an extended pandemic. The cuts could continue “as government assess domestic priorities,” that report says.

COVID-19 arrived in a world already facing a growing number of humanitarian crises, from Yemen to Myanmar to West Africa’s Sahel. Now the pandemic “threatens to create a funding vacuum,” the report says.

As of the end of June, it says, U.N.-coordinated calls for aid for this year were up 25% from last year because of additional needs created by the pandemic, reaching more than $37 billion.

Last week, the United Nations again increased its request for the pandemic response alone to $10.3 billion – the largest appeal in its history.

Only $1.7 billion has been received. Up to $40 billion might be needed.

“The response of wealthy nations so far has been grossly inadequate and dangerously short-sighted,” U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said. “Failure to act now will leave the virus free to circle ‘round the globe.”

___

Follow AP pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

EU leaders extend summit as they haggle over budget, virus

EU leaders extend summit as they haggle over budget, virus

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Saturday, July 18, 2020. Leaders from 27 European Union nations meet face-to-face for a second day of an EU summit to assess an overall … more >

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By RAF CASERT and MIKE CORDER

Associated Press

Saturday, July 18, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) – European Union leaders on Saturday extended their summit by an extra day in the hope they were finally closing in on a deal for an unprecedented 1.85 trillion euro ($2.1 trillion) EU budget and coronavirus recovery fund.

A deal was still far off, but several key nations said negotiations were at least heading in the right direction despite anxieties that were running high after months of battling the pandemic.

Heading into a balmy summer night, those tensions were showing when German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron got up and walked out of a meeting with the so-called Frugal Four group of wealthy northern nations that want to limit grants and impose strict conditions on mostly southern nations that have suffered most from the pandemic.

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“A few people ran off,” acknowledged Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is considered the leader of the Frugals. When asked if it was Merkel and Macron, he said: “Yes, precisely. So we didn’t get a breakthrough tonight.”

The Franco-German alliance is seen as key to any major deal within the 27-nation EU.

When asked what he thought, Rutte said: “They run off in a bad mood. We will continue tomorrow.”

It was typical of two full days and almost two full nights of discussions by EU leaders, oscillating between raw irritation over how the huge sums should be spent and what strings should be attached and a glimmer of hope that somehow a deal could materialize – if not this weekend, then at least within a few weeks.

“Things are moving in the right direction,” said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. “It it is of course, as you would expect, a tough struggle, a tough negotiation, but we’re moving in the right direction, and that is the most important thing.”

Rutte showed some hope, too. “The fact that we continue talking shows we all have optimism. But if we will succeed, we have to wait and see.”

The leaders are dealing with their toughest crisis in years, one that has burdened the bloc with its worst recession ever. The pandemic has sent the EU into a tailspin and around 135,000 of its citizens have died from COVID-19.

The EU executive has proposed a 750 billion-euro fund, partly based on common borrowing, to be sent as loans and grants to the most needy countries. That comes on top of the seven-year 1 trillion-euro EU budget that leaders were fighting over even before the virus slammed their continent.

Despite the urgency and seriousness of the crisis, there were deep rifts between some richer nations in the north, led by the Netherlands, which want strict controls on spending, and struggling southern nations like Spain and Italy, which have been especially hit hard by the pandemic and are looking for as much help as they can get.

Michel’s latest proposals reduced the proportion of grants in the rescue package and raise the proportion of loans that would have to be paid back, in an apparent enticement for the Frugals.

But the issue of how to track the rescue money remained the key sticking point, Rutte said. Michel proposed a measure that would stop short of allowing any country a veto on how governments spend the money and Rutte said that was still up for discussions Sunday.

Kurz said major issues still under discussion include linking rule of law guarantees in EU nations to the allocation of funds to member states. Hungary has threatened to veto any such move.

____

Associated Press writer Raf Casert reported this story in Brussels and AP writer Michael Corder reported from The Hague, Netherlands. AP writer Angelas Charlton in Paris and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

___

Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

White House aware of Russian bounties in 2019: AP sources

White House aware of Russian bounties in 2019: AP sources

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In this Nov. 30, 2017, file photo, American soldiers wait on the tarmac in Logar province, Afghanistan. Top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban … more >

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By James LaPorta

Associated Press

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans, a full year earlier than has been previously reported, according to U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the intelligence.

The assessment was included in at least one of President Donald Trump’s written daily intelligence briefings at the time, according to the officials. Then-National Security Adviser John Bolton also told colleagues at the time that he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019.

The White House didn’t respond to questions about Trump or other officials’ awareness of Russia’s provocations in 2019. The White House has said Trump wasn’t — and still hasn’t been — briefed on the intelligence assessments because they haven’t been fully verified. However, it’s rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of a doubt before it is presented to top officials.

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Bolton declined to comment Monday when asked by the AP if he’d briefed Trump about the matter in 2019. On Sunday, he suggested to NBC that Trump was claiming ignorance of Russia’s provocations to justify his administration’s lack of response.

“He can disown everything if nobody ever told him about it,” Bolton said.

The revelations cast new doubt on the White House’s efforts to distance Trump from the Russian intelligence assessments. The AP reported Sunday that concerns about Russian bounties also were in a second written presidential daily briefing this year and that current national security adviser Robert O’Brien had discussed the matter with Trump. O’Brien denies doing that.

On Monday, O’Brien said that while the intelligence assessments regarding Russian bounties “have not been verified,” the administration has “been preparing should the situation warrant action.”

The administration’s earlier awareness of the Russian efforts raises additional questions about why Trump didn’t take punitive action against Moscow for efforts that put the lives of American service members at risk. Trump has sought throughout his time in office to improve relations with Russia and President Vladimir Putin, moving this year to try to reinstate Russia as part of a group of world leaders it had been kicked out of.

Officials said they didn’t consider the intelligence assessments in 2019 to be particularly urgent, given Russian meddling in Afghanistan isn’t a new occurrence. The officials with knowledge of Bolton’s apparent briefing for Trump said it contained no “actionable intelligence,” meaning the intelligence community didn’t have enough information to form a strategic plan or response. However, the classified assessment of Russian bounties was the sole purpose of the meeting.

The officials insisted on anonymity because they weren’t authorized to disclose the highly sensitive information.

The intelligence that surfaced in early 2019 indicated Russian operatives had become more aggressive in their desire to contract with the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2012 during the Obama administration.

The National Security Council and the undersecretary of defense for intelligence held meetings regarding the intelligence. The NSC didn’t respond to questions about the meetings.

Late Monday, the Pentagon issued a statement saying it was evaluating the intelligence but so far had “no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations.”

“Regardless, we always take the safety and security of our forces in Afghanistan — and around the world — most seriously and therefore continuously adopt measures to prevent harm from potential threats,” said Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman.

Concerns about Russian bounties flared anew this year after members of the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known to the public as SEAL Team Six, raided a Taliban outpost and recovered roughly $500,000 in U.S. currency. The funds bolstered the suspicions of the American intelligence community that Russians had offered money to Taliban militants and linked associations.

The White House contends the president was unaware of this development, too.
The officials told the AP that career government officials developed potential options for the White House to respond to the Russian aggression in Afghanistan, which was first reported by The New York Times. However, the Trump administration has yet to authorize any action.

The intelligence in 2019 and 2020 surrounding Russian bounties was derived in part from debriefings of captured Taliban militants. Officials with knowledge of the matter told the AP that Taliban operatives from opposite ends of the country and from separate tribes offered similar accounts.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied Russian intelligence officers had offered payments to the Taliban in exchange for targeting U.S. and coalition forces.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Taliban’s chief negotiator, a spokesman for the insurgents said Tuesday, but it was unknown whether there was any mention during their conversation of allegations about Russian bounties. Pompeo pressed the insurgents to reduce violence in Afghanistan and discussed ways of advancing a U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed in February, the Taliban spokesman tweeted.

The U.S. is investigating whether Americans died because of the Russian bounties. Officials are focused on an April 2019 attack on an American convoy. Three U.S. Marines were killed after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armored vehicles as they returned to Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan.

The Defense Department identified them as Marine Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman, 43, of Newark, Delaware; Sgt. Benjamin Hines, 31, of York, Pennsylvania; and Cpl. Robert Hendriks, 25, of Locust Valley, New York. They were infantrymen assigned to 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, a reserve infantry unit headquartered out of Garden City, New York.

Hendriks’ father told the AP that even a rumor of Russian bounties should have been immediately addressed.

“If this was kind of swept under the carpet as to not make it a bigger issue with Russia, and one ounce of blood was spilled when they knew this, I lost all respect for this administration and everything,” Erik Hendriks said.

Three other service members and an Afghan contractor were wounded in the attack. As of April 2019, the attack was under a separate investigation, unrelated to the Russian bounties.

The officials who spoke to the AP also said they were looking closely at insider attacks from 2019 to determine if they were linked to Russian bounties.

___

Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Deb Riechmann in Washington, Deepti Hajela in New York and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

Yemen asks for help as seawater seeps into abandoned tanker

Yemen asks for help as seawater seeps into abandoned tanker

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This satellite image provided by Manar Technologies taken June 17, 2020, shows the FSO Safer tanker moored off Ras Issa port, in Yemen. Houthi rebels are blocking the United Nations from inspecting the abandoned oil tanker loaded with more than … more >

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By MAGGIE MICHAEL

Associated Press

Friday, June 26, 2020

CAIRO (AP) – The United Nations said an abandoned oil tanker moored off the coast of Yemen loaded with more than 1 million barrels of crude oil is at risk of rupture or exploding, causing massive environmental damage to Red Sea marine life, desalination factories and international shipping routes.

Internal documents obtained by The Associated Press show that seawater has entered the engine compartment of the tanker, which hasn’t been maintained for over five years, causing damage to the pipelines and increasing the risk of sinking. Rust has covered parts of the tanker and the inert gas that prevents the tanks from gathering inflammable gases, has leaked out. Experts say repairs are no longer possible because the damage to the ship is irreversible.

For years, the U.N. has been trying to send inspectors to assess the damage aboard the vessel known as the FSO Safer and look for ways to secure the tanker by unloading the oil and pulling the ship to safety.

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But a European diplomat, a Yemeni government official and the tanker’s company owner said that Houthi rebels have resisted. The diplomat said the rebels are treating the vessel as a “deterrent like having a nuclear weapon.” All three individuals spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the subject with a reporter.

“They do say that openly to the U.N., ‘We like to have this as something to hold against the international community if attacked,’” the diplomat said. “Houthis are definitely responsible for failure of the U.N. to look at the ship.”

Money is also an issue, the diplomat said, adding that the Houthis initially were demanding millions of dollars in return for the oil stored in the tanker. The U.N. is trying to reach an arrangement where money could be used to pay workers and employees at the Red Sea ports where the ship is moored, the diplomat added.

Some experts, however, criticize both the Houthis and the U.N. for failing to fully understand the magnitude of the crisis with the abandoned ship.

Ian Ralby, founder of I.R. Consilium, who specializes in maritime and resource security, told the AP that the U.N.’s efforts to send a team to assess the ship are “futile.” What the vessel needs is a salvage team, he said

“It’s a real shame that they wasted so much money and time in this futile operation,” said Ralby. “If you are taking these years to get a simple team to assess, we will not have a second chance to salvage,” he added.

Ralby, who has written extensively about the tanker, told the AP that amid declining oil prices the cost spent on cleaning up the environmental damage from an explosion or leakage will be much more than the millions worth of oil on the ship.

But the Houthis have refused to back down from their demands.

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the rebel leader, blamed the U.S. and Saudis for not letting the rebels sell the oil, saying in a June 18 Twitter post that any “disastrous consequences … God forbid,” that could result from the collapse of the vessel, will be the responsibility of these two countries.

Houthi rebels are in control of the western Red Sea ports, including Ras Issa, 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from where the FSO Safer tanker has been moored since 1980s. They are at war with the internationally recognized government in exile, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition and the United States.

The floating tanker is a Japanese-made vessel built in the 1970s and sold to the Yemeni government in 1980s to store for export up to 3 million barrels pumped from oil fields in Marib, a province in eastern Yemen. The ship is 360 meters (1,181 feet) long, with 34 storage tanks.

A senior official at the state-owned company in charge of the tanker, said because of a shrinking operational budget, which used to be around 20 million dollars a year before the war, the company could no longer afford to purchase a special fuel needed to run the boilers on the ship. The boilers are needed to power generators that, among other things, keep an inert gas that prevents explosions flowing. The tanker needs 11,000 tons of the fuel, which cost about 8 million dollars each year.

“After the stoppage of the boilers the strong majority of the equipment and the machines of the tanker stopped because they all depend on steam power,” the company official said. That includes the machines that power the ventilation system which reduces humidity and prevents corrosion, he said.

Since 2015, annual maintenance on the ship has come to a complete halt and most crew members, except for 10 people, were pulled off the vessel after the Saudi-led coalition imposed a land, sea, and air embargo before waging an extensive air campaign to dislodge the Houthi rebels from areas they seized including the capital Sanaa.

The U.N. has repeatedly warned that delays in taking action to fix the FSO Safer could lead to a man-made environmental disaster in the Red Sea four times greater than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The senior official at the state-owned company in charge of the tanker said that a similar oil spill off the coast of Yemen could accelerate the country’s worsening humanitarian disaster.

“The disaster could happen at any second,” he said, “Rescue Yemen from a terrible, imminent disaster that will add to Yemen’s burdens for tens of years and deprive thousands from their source of living and kill marine life in the Red Sea.”