World News

Drone strike kills top ISIS leader wanted for 2017 ambush of Green Berets

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(LONDON) -- French officials announced overnight that their military forces had killed the top ISIS leader in Africa, a terrorist for whom the United States had offered a $5 million reward due to his connection to the deadly attack on a team of Green Berets in Niger four years ago.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Twitter that Adnan Abou Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, was "neutralized by French forces."

"This is another major success in our fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel," Macron said of the region in northwest Africa.

The drone strike occurred in late August but al-Sahrawi's death was confirmed this month, French and U.S. counterterrorism officials told ABC News.

Al-Sahrawi was wanted by the U.S. for leading the group of more than 100 militants responsible for attacking Operational Detachment-Alpha 3212, a team of soldiers from 3rd Special Forces Group on Oct. 4, 2017, leaving four Americans and at least six Nigerien soldiers dead outside the tiny village of Tongo Tongo.

The 2017 ambush is the subject of a four-year ABC News investigation and an ABC Documentaries film set for release on Hulu in November, "3212 UN-REDACTED: An Ambush In Africa. The Pentagon’s Betrayal."

Macron did not explicitly say that France's anti-insurgent Task Force Barkhane in Mali had been assisted by U.S. intelligence, but sources in Paris and in Africa confirmed that was the case. American intelligence had previously assisted in numerous raids carried out by French Special Forces in 2018 that killed many of the Tongo Tongo attackers and recovered American weapons and one vehicle from the Green Beret team attacked in 2017.

The parents of U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Johnson, who was killed in action in the 2017 attack and decorated with the Bronze Star Medal with "V" for Valor, praised the French but said the U.S. should have taken the lead on al-Sahrawi's capture or killing.

"We are profoundly grateful to the French Armed Forces for removing this threat to West Africa. At the same time, we are disappointed that the United States did not exert the effort to bring this individual to justice," Johnson's mother and stepfather, Debbie and Ray Gannon, told ABC News in a statement. "We should have made the effort to either kill or capture the individuals who were responsible for the ambush of ODA 3212 ourselves, instead of relying on other countries."

Also killed in the 2017 attack were Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright of Lyons, Georgia, Sgt. LaDavid Johnson of Miami, and Staff Sgt. Bryan Black of Puyallup, Washington.

"More death does not make losing Bryan any better. But knowing there is one less evil man in this world brings me peace," said Michelle Black, who authored the book "Sacrifice: A Gold Star Widow's Fight For The Truth," about her husband and the Tongo Tongo gunfight. "Perhaps it will prevent other families from suffering terror at his hands and for me that is enough."

Bryan Black's parents, Henry and Karen Black, also were grateful for the French operation, she said.

In a ceremony for all four families of the fallen soldiers in July, LaDavid Johnson and Jeremiah Johnson, both support soldiers who were killed with the Green Beret team, were posthumously inducted into the Green Berets.

"Although nothing can take away the pain of losing our four fallen heroes, there is comfort in knowing that justice has been served," said former Green Beret Maj. Alan Van Saun, who was company commander of the ambushed detachment ODA 3212, and who appears in the ABC documentary film.

"I am grateful for our French and African partners who worked tirelessly to bring this chapter to an end, but I know there is still a lot of work to be done to bring stability to the Sahel," Van Saun told ABC News.

The French Defense Ministry said that the operation was conducted between Aug. 17-22, in partnership with the Malian armed forces, against ISIS fighters in the dangerous forest area south of the village of In Delimane in Mali's Liptako region.

A senior French commander told ABC News that al-Sahrawi was "weakened after the loss of two of his logistics commanders in the same period," after the French neutralized Rhissa al-Sarhaoui and the commander known as Ikarey.

The French commander told ABC News that, based on U.S. intelligence, "we understood al-Sahrawi left Menaka on a motorbike and was about to cross the Nigerien border."

Al-Sahrawi was then targeted by a drone airstrike that killed the ISIS leader and resulted in the captured of ten of his men, French and U.S. officials said.

"This zone is a red one. Almost a stateless area. This is a huge get and could rebalance the power at least for the Malian Liptako," said the French commander, who added that confirming al-Sahrawi's death "took several weeks."

"The killing of al-Sahrawi follows a series of tactical successes by the French, who recently killed or captured several senior ISGS [Islamic State in the Greater Sahara] commanders," said Sahel expert Heni Nsaibia of the risk consultancy firm Menastream. "It appears that these events and the question of who will succeed al-Sahrawi have created serious tensions within ISGS. We are talking about numerous No. 1- and 2-ranking commanders eliminated in just months. This means that it will be difficult for the group to effectively restructure and reorganize at this point."

In a statement, Macron paid tribute to France's fallen troops in northwest Africa.

"The Nation is thinking this evening of all its heroes who died for France in the Sahel ... of the bereaved families, of all of its wounded," Macron said. "Their sacrifice is not in vain. With our African, European and American partners, we will continue this fight."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Prince Andrew becomes 1 target of anti-monarchy campaign in UK

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(LONDON) -- The anti-monarchy campaign group Republic has launched giant billboards across the U.K. with slogans questioning the British monarchy.

"Secretive. Divisive. Undemocratic. Abolish the monarchy," read some, while others have pictures of Prince Andrew, captioned: "Wanted: a democratic alternative to the monarchy," and "No one is above the law," referring to the lawsuit filed against the prince in New York.

Virginia Giuffre is suing the prince for alleged sexual assault and Wednesday the U.K.'s High Court confirmed that it will assist Giuffre's lawyers in serving the prince his papers.

Prince Andrew has long denied Giuffre’s allegations which first surfaced in 2014, telling the BBC in a 2019 interview "I've said consistently and frequently that we never had any sort of sexual contact."

"The lawyers acting for Ms. Giuffre have now provided further information to the High Court, and the High Court has accepted the request for service under the Hague Service Convention," a representative for the High Court told ABC News in a statement.

The scandal surrounding Prince Andrew's court case and other recent unrest in royal circles have boosted the anti-monarchist group, according to ABC News royal contributor Robert Jobson.

"To put ads up like this isn't a cheap exercise and it shows that Prince Andrew's scandal, the disquiet caused by Meghan and Harry and the cash-for-honours controversy involving Prince Charles means that the anti-monarchist groups are gaining traction in this country as well as financial backing," said Jobson.

The cash-for-honors controversy which Jobson refers to emerged this month after two British papers, The Sunday Times and The Mail uncovered evidence they claim shows a close aide of Prince Charles' agreed to arrange an honor and faster access to British citizenship for a Saudi businessman after he donated generously to the prince’s charities.

Prince Charles denies any involvement in this matter. Clarence House released a statement saying: “The Prince of Wales has no knowledge of the alleged offer of honours or British citizenship on the basis of donation to his charities and fully supports the investigation now under way by The Prince’s Foundation.”

"I don't think it's a danger to the monarchy but this is a sign that this is damaging their public image. After all, the monarchy is an unelected institution that requires public support for its very existence," Jobson added.

"These billboards are expensive so Republic's backers have had to put their hands in their pocket," Jobson said.

Republic has set up a crowdfunding page which has so far made £25,000 (approximately $34,000 USD) to pay for the billboards which are now posted throughout the U.K. including in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and other cities.

The group says its launching this campaign in advance of Charles' accession to the throne. "With polls showing young people wanting an elected head of state, the succession of King Charles will be a major turning point in the monarchy's history and in the growth of Britain's republican movement," Graham Smith, Republic's chief executive, is quoted as saying on the group's website.

"We have been campaigning for the abolition of the monarchy for a long time but now we are at a crossroads. As the Queen's reign draws to an end, it is time to demand a say in who should be our head of state," Smith added.

"The royals are on a collision course with British values. The 2020s should be the decade when we finally get to decide who we have as our elected head of state," Smith's statement also reads.

The monarchy remains popular in the U.K., however. A recent Ipsos poll taken after the March interview involving Oprah Winfrey, Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan, showed 41% of British people polled said that Britain's future would be worse with the monarchy abolished. Thirty-one percent said its abolishment would make no difference, and only 19% said ending the monarchy would be better for Britain's future.

The poll also showed that Queen Elizabeth remains the most popular royal with 40% choosing the queen as one of their favorite members of the royal family. Prince Charles ranked at 11% favorability, and Prince Andrew, at 2%.

"The Queen regularly tops the polls as the most popular member of the family" Jobson said, "and at this moment of transition between her and Charles obviously the anti-monarchy groups are trying to exploit the Prince of Wales' comparative unpopularity and the uncertainty that the end of her reign will bring."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Prince Harry and Meghan Markle featured in TIME100 Most Influential People issue

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(NEW YORK) -- Prince Harry and Meghan have made this year's TIME100 Most Influential People in the World list.

The TIME cover portrait featuring the Duke and Duchess of Sussex marks the first time the couple has formally posed together for a magazine cover shoot.

Photographed by Pari Dukovic, Prince Harry is seen wearing an all-black ensemble while Meghan rocks a white blouse and trousers.

The publication selected surprise pairings of its list members as well as guest contributors. Also, founder of World Central Kitchen José Andrés was selected to write about the royal couple.

"Springing into action is not the easy choice for a young duke and duchess who have been blessed through birth and talent, and burned by fame," wrote Andrés on Prince Harry and Meghan. "It would be much safer to enjoy their good fortune and stay silent. That’s not what Harry and Meghan do, or who they are... In a world where everyone has an opinion about people they don't know, the duke and duchess have compassion for the people they don't know. They don't just opine. They run toward the struggle."

Throughout the series of photos featured in Time Magazine, Prince Harry and Meghan are seen wearing forest green looks while posing in front of picturesque outdoor backdrops.

TIME editor-in-chief and CEO Edward Felsenthal in his letter to readers, said the royal couple has "catalyzed essential conversations on topics from mental health to misinformation."

In addition to the duke and duchess of Sussex cover, there are six others including Simone Biles, Billie Eilish, Kate Winslet, Cathy Park Hong, Jensen Huang and Ngozi Okonjo Oweala.

The list also includes features of rapper Lil Nas X, tennis star Naomi Osaka, Vice President Kamala Harris and a host of diverse notables.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


British court indicates it will serve lawsuit on Prince Andrew

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(NEW YORK) -- A British court on Wednesday indicated that it intends to formally provide notice to Prince Andrew of a sexual assault lawsuit filed against him in New York, according to a court statement and documents obtained by ABC News.

The court's decision came over the objections of the prince's legal team, who have argued that lawyers for the prince's accuser, Virginia Giuffre, are not authorized to receive assistance from the U.K. courts to serve a summons on the prince.

Giuffre, 38, sued the prince in a U.S. federal court last month, accusing the prince of sexually assaulting her in 2001 at the Manhattan home of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and at other locations. The prince has denied her allegations.

In an email sent and obtained Wednesday by ABC News, Gary Bloxsome -- lawyer for the prince -- insisted that the request for service from Giuffre's lawyers was "contrary" to British law. Bloxsome contended that granting the request amounted to "an infringement of UK sovereignty," according to the email Bloxsome sent to special master Barbara Fontaine, a British judicial official.

In response, Fontaine told Bloxsome that if the prince's team wished to contest her determination, they should do so by requesting a formal hearing.

"I do not consider that it is appropriate for me to determine this disputed issue by email," Fontaine wrote in an email to Bloxsome.

The British court's decision comes just two days after a lawyer for Prince Andrew appeared in a New York court to argue that the 61-year-old son of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II had not been legally served with notice of Giuffre's lawsuit. The attorney, Andrew Brettler, assailed the case as "baseless, non-viable and potentially unlawful."

Brettler has not responded to an email request for comment from ABC News.

A lawyer for Giuffre said Wednesday that he regards the myriad objections of Prince Andrew's legal team as an effort to delay or avoid the prince having to face the allegations in court.

"I think that their continued intransigence here is something that ultimately goes to their credibility; I think ultimately makes clear that they don't have any confidence in their defense on the merits," said David Boies, chairman of the New York-based law firm Boies Schiller Flexner, which represents Giuffre.

U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who is overseeing Giuffre's case against the prince, has set a hearing for next month to determine if the prince has been legally and lawfully served with notice of the lawsuit.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


New World Bank report highlights growing risks of climate change in poorest regions

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(NEW YORK) -- A new report from the World Bank highlights the growing risks of climate change across the world.

The new Groundswell report finds up to 216 million people across six regions from Sub-Sahara Africa to East Asia to Latin America could be forced to migrate within their countries by 2050, with the poorest and most climate-vulnerable affected.

In North Africa up to 9 percent of the population could be forced to move, Sub-Sarahan Africa up to 4 percent, and Latin America 2.6 percent.

“The Groundswell report is a stark reminder of the human toll of climate change, particularly on the world’s poorest—those who are contributing the least to its causes. It also clearly lays out a path for countries to address some of the key factors that are causing climate-driven migration,” said Juergen Voegele, Vice President of Sustainable Development, World Bank.

The first report was released in 2018 and covered sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America.

That report projected climate change could force up to 143 million people in those regions to migrate.

The updated report now includes East Asia and the Pacific, North Africa, and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

According to the report, countries in Sub-Sahara Africa are the most at risk to see climate impacts with its fragile drylands, exposed coastlines, and dependence on rain-fed agriculture. North African countries will see the greatest percentage of migrants because of severe water shortages and rising sea levels.

The first migrant hotspots could start emerging by 2030 and will continue to grow by 2050. Water availability, sea-level rise, and crop productivity are some of the reasons people will have to migrate. 

The report does find that early action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions could slow climate-based migration up to 80 percent.

Similar to the first Groundswell report, the updated version provides a series of policy recommendations, including cutting greenhouse gases immediately; planning for internal climate migration in developmental planning; investing in better understanding the drivers behind internal climate migration.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Afghanistan updates: Blinken faces 2nd day of grilling on Capitol Hill

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(NEW YORK) -- With the U.S. military and diplomatic withdrawal now complete after 20 years in Afghanistan, the Taliban has taken over the country, including the Kabul airport, the site of an often-desperate evacuation effort in past weeks.

But even as the last American troops were flown out to meet President Joe Biden's Aug. 31 deadline, other Americans who wanted to flee the country were left behind. The Biden administration is now focused on a "diplomatic mission" to help them leave but some hoping to evacuate are still stuck in the country. Meanwhile, the Taliban has announced its new "caretaker" government which includes men with U.S. bounties on their heads -- and no women.

Here are the latest developments. All times Eastern:

Sep 15, 5:34 pm
More overland evacuations of Americans from Afghanistan: State Department

One more U.S. citizen and two more lawful permanent residents evacuated Afghanistan via overland routes Tuesday, according to State Dept. spokesperson Ned Price.

The State Department provided guidance to them, engaged the Taliban on their safe passage, and had consular officials on the other side of the border to greet them, he said.

Price declined to say which country they transited to, but said these overland evacuations have taken different routes.

To date, at least 36 U.S. citizens and 24 Green Card holders have been evacuated since the U.S. military completed its withdrawal -- including seven U.S. citizens and 13 Green Card holders via overland routes in total.

Yet, the agency still said the number of American citizens who want to leave is still 100. Despite growing skepticism about that number, Price -- just as Blinken did Tuesday and Monday -- said the number is “dynamic” because the situation is so fluid, with some Americans changing their minds about seeking U.S. help, especially as they see that “we are living up to our commitment ... in safe and effective ways.”

He also implied that the lists of other Americans that aid groups, lawmakers and others have often don’t end up including folks who aren’t U.S. citizens, but the “distant relatives” and friends of Americans who come asking for help.

The U.S. continues to talk to the Taliban, but those discussions are largely about Americans’ safe passage, according to Price, calling them “pragmatic,” “technical” and “focused on practical issues.”

There’s still been no evacuations from Mazar-e-Sharif, the northern city where chartered planes had been organized but barred from taking off. Price said they’re not aware of any flights departing there, but again admitted the limits of U.S. power here saying the U.S. had pulled “every lever” available to get these flights out.

Sep 14, 2:05 pm
Blinken's Senate hearing adjourned

After nearly five hours, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee adjourned its hearing with Secretary of State Antony Blinken -- the Senate's first on Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrawal from the country.

Following Blinken's first hearing with House lawmakers on Monday, Tuesday's hearing provoked a more thoughtful and less partisan discussion about the limits of American power in Afghanistan and what could have been done better -- with Democrats joining Republicans in taking a tough tone with Blinken.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., echoed Republican Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida in pressing why the U.S. kept an Aug. 31 withdrawal date as it became clear more evacuations were needed and on how officials could not have foreseen the Afghan government collapsing in 11 days.

"I do not think that is true. I know it was not the consensus opinion or the most likely possibility -- but the possibility of a collapse was not 0%. And it was not 1%. It probably wasn't 10%. It was probably, based on what we have been hearing in this committee, that was always a fairly -- it was a possibility that had to be grappled with," he said.

More congressional hearings with Blinken and other top officials, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, are expected in the coming weeks and months.

Sep 14, 1:11 pm
US coordinating cross-border travel of Americans 

The U.S. has coordinated with Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan about facilitating cross-border travel for U.S. citizens -- including having U.S. consular officials on those countries' side of the border with Afghanistan to receive evacuees, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told senators on Tuesday.

At a prior hearing with House lawmakers on Monday, Blinken confirmed one American family crossed into Uzbekistan, but before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he acknowledged for the first time they've coordinated with all three countries.

While some $80 billion of U.S. equipment over the last 15 years that was provided to the Afghan government has fallen into Taliban hands, Blinken claimed much of it is inoperable or will become inoperable because it requires maintenance, adding, "None of it possesses a strategic threat to us or Afghanistan's neighbors."

Sep 14, 12:13 pm
Blinken addresses Americans, SIV applicants left behind

Secretary of State Antony Blinken could not provide an exact number of Americans or Special Immigrant Visa holders left in Afghanistan in a heated Senate hearing on Tuesday.

He said the number of Americans that still want to evacuate is "about 100," as he had in testimony on Monday before House lawmakers.

"It is hard to give a real-time number at any given moment because it is very fluid," Blinken said.

Pressed by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, on SIV applicants left behind, and whether that number was in the "tens of thousands," Blinken said the State Department is "still tabulating" it as some applicants are in transit and others are still being processed. The State Department has previously acknowledged that at least thousands are still in the country.

Blinken continued to blame the Trump administration for giving Biden a May 1 deadline to withdraw, but not a plan to do so, and said that under the Trump administration’s State Department "not a single" SIV application had been processed in nine months from March 2020.

Noting that Biden did push the withdrawal date to Aug. 31, Romney asked Blinken why not move the withdrawal date to accommodate the "moral commitment" the U.S. made to Americans, permanent residents and vulnerable Afghans who worked with Defense and State officials.

"The military told us that in order to do its retrograde, it's drawdown from Afghanistan, in a safe and ordinarily way, it needed three to four months. That's why we pushed to move beyond May 1 and to get to the end of August, early September," Blinken said.

"Our expectation was that beyond August 31, beyond the military drawdown, the government, the security forces, were going to remain in control of Kabul," Blinken continued. "What we did not anticipate was that 11-day collapse of the government security forces. That's what changed everything."

Sep 14, 10:50 am
Blinken faces bipartisan criticism in Senate hearing

Secretary of State Antony Blinken's second day of tough questions on Capitol Hill has begun -- and already the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has been highly critical.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., called Biden's execution of the U.S. withdrawal "clearly fatally flawed" and said information from State, the Pentagon, and the White House during the operations was "vague or contradictory."

"Doing the right thing in the wrong way can end up being the wrong thing," Menendez added. "There has to be accountability."

Menendez also went after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin -- saying he declined to appear before the committee with Blinken. Menendez said he was "very disappointed" and may use the committee's subpoena power to have him and others responsible over the last 20 years appear for testimony. Austin is scheduled to appear on Capitol Hill next week.

But like Democrats on Monday, Menendez laid the blame on several people -- "successive administrations" making the "same mistakes repeatedly" and lying to Congress about the staying power of Afghan government institutions. He cited the "surrender deal negotiated" by former President Donald Trump, adding it was "built on a bed of lies."

Sep 14, 10:07 am
Senate lawmakers to grill Blinken on evacuation mission

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in the hot seat again on Tuesday to defend the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan before angry lawmakers from both parties.

Blinken appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the morning following testimony on Monday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in which Blinken used the same defenses the administration has used for weeks now.

"There's no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining," he said.

Blinken blamed the Trump administration’s deal with Taliban to withdraw by May 1, said NATO allies were on board, cited the travel warnings for American citizens to leave, defended their efforts to revive the Special Immigrant Visa Program, and said no one saw the Afghan government's collapse coming so swiftly.

Sep 13, 3:06 pm
Blinken delivers opening testimony in 1st Afghanistan hearing

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, representing the Biden administration, defended the U.S. evacuations from Afghanistan to House lawmakers on Monday in the first hearing on Afghanistan on Capitol Hill.

"There is no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining," Blinken said. "If 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in support, equipment, and training did not suffice, why would another year, or five, or ten, make a difference?"

He blamed the Trump administration’s deal with Taliban to withdraw by May 1, said NATO allies were on board, cited the travel warnings for American citizens to leave, defended their efforts to revive the Special Immigrant Visa program, and said no one saw the Afghan government's collapse coming so swiftly.

"Nonetheless, we planned and exercised a wide range of contingencies," he will say -- praising the evacuations as "an extraordinary effort under the most difficult conditions imaginable" and reminding lawmakers that previous administrations shuttered embassies and withdrew from countries while leaving some U.S. citizens behind.

Blinken confirmed there are still roughly 100 U.S. citizens left in the country that are trying to evacuate and the State Department is in constant touch with them, he said.

Sep 13, 2:49 pm
GOP congressman blasts Blinken on 'failed' US evacuation mission

Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, came out swinging in his opening statement before Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified at the first Capitol Hill hearing on Afghanistan since the chaotic U.S. evacuation mission ended.

"Mr. Secretary, the American people don't like to lose, especially not to the terrorists. But that is exactly what has happened," McCaul said.

Painting a picture of Taliban flags flying in Kabul, recalling the 13 service members killed in August and reminding that Americans and Afghan allies are still stuck in the country, McCaul said he could summarize the U.S. evacuation mission in one word: "Betrayal."

"The America I know keeps its promises. The most important promise for our military is no man left behind. No one left behind. But you broke this promise," he said.

"Our standing on the world stage has been greatly diminished. Our enemies no longer fear us. And our allies no longer trust us," McCaul said, going on to directly address veterans and say their service was "not in vain."

The committee chairman, Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., criticized Republicans for expressing outrage at Blinken but not at the Trump administration for making a deal with the Taliban to withdraw troops in May.

Sep 13, 1:30 pm
Funeral service held in Ohio Navy corpsman killed in Kabul airport bombing

A funeral service was held Monday morning in Milan, Ohio, for Navy Corpsman Maxton Soviak, 22, who was killed in the Kabul airport suicide bombing. The service was held at the Edison High School Stadium -- Soviak's alma mater.

He played football and wrestled before graduating in 2017. School leaders remembered him as "full of life in everything he did."

"Max was a good student who was active in sports and other activities throughout his school career," Superintendent Thomas Roth said in a statement to ABC News. "He was well respected and liked by everyone who knew him."

Soviak enlisted in September 2017 and was assigned to the 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, and based in Camp Pendleton, California. He served as a hospital corpsman, or medic.

"He was very passionate about helping his fellow Americans and trying to get them home safely," Rachel Soviak, his mother, said in a statement. "There are no words to describe the pain our family is feeling. There will forever be a hole in our hearts."

Soviak is survived by his mother, father and 12 brothers and sisters.

Sep 13, 1:03 pm
Blinken to defend Biden's Afghanistan withdrawal

Secretary of State Blinken will be in the hot seat on Capitol Hill this week as the Biden administration's point person to defend the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan to angry lawmakers from both parties.

In testimony on Monday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Blinken will use the same defenses the administration has used for weeks now, according to his opening statement obtained by ABC News.

"There's no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining. If 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in support, equipment, and training did not suffice, why would another year, or five, or ten, make a difference?" read his prepared remarks.

His opening statement blames the Trump administration’s deal with Taliban to withdraw by May 1 deadline, says NATO allies were on board, cites the travel warnings for American citizens to leave, defends their efforts to revive the Special Immigrant Visa Program, and says no one saw the Afghan government's collapse coming so swiftly.

"Nonetheless, we planned and exercised a wide range of contingencies," he is expected to say -- praising the evacuations as "an extraordinary effort under the most difficult conditions imaginable" and reminding lawmakers that previous administrations shuttered embassies and withdrew from countries while leaving some U.S. citizens behind -- "for example, in Libya, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen, and Somalia."

Sep 13, 1:06 pm
Funeral procession in Indiana hometown for Marine killed in Kabul

On Sunday, residents of Logansport, Indiana, watched the funeral procession for Marine Corps Cpl. Humberto Sanchez, one of the 13 U.S. service members killed in the Aug. 26 ISIS-K suicide bombing at the Kabul airport.

Sanchez, 22, was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, I Marine Expeditionary Force, and based in Camp Pendleton, California. He was a graduate of Logansport High School.

Sep 13, 10:28 am
Blinken to testify in 1st Capitol Hill hearing since US withdrawal 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will likely face tough questions from House lawmakers at 2 p.m. when he testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee -- the first Capitol Hill hearing on Afghanistan since the chaotic U.S. evacuation mission ended.

Frustrated Republicans are expected to press Blinken on Americans still stranded in the country as well as vetting for Afghan refugees in the U.S., and Democrats to defend the Biden administration for ending America's longest war.

Biden administration officials, including Blinken, have blamed the now-failed Afghan government for collapsing so quickly to the Taliban as the U.S. continues its "diplomatic" mission in the country, without State of Defense Department officials on the ground.

Following Monday's expected grilling, Blinken is scheduled to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.

Sep 11, 2:16 pm
NATO secretary general says thorough assessment launched into Taliban takeover of Afghanistan

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote in an op-ed published Saturday that a "thorough assessment" has been launched into the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

"Indeed, there are many hard questions we need to ask honestly about our engagement. There are lessons that we must all learn," he wrote in the article, which published in the German newspaper Die Welt.

Stoltenberg also emphasized the "essential" role military force plays in combating terrorism and the importance of cross continental collaboration.

Sep 11, 10:43 am
44 US citizens invited on flight leaving Afghanistan, some decline

The second passenger flight to leave Kabul since the U.S. military withdrawal landed in Doha Friday, with 19 U.S. citizens on board despite 44 being invited on the flight, a State Department official said.

The official cited "various reasons" for U.S. citizens declining to get on the flight.

The department will continue its efforts to ensure safe passage for any Afghan partners who want to leave Afghanistan, the official said, but didn’t say that included inviting Afghans on Thursday's or Friday's chartered flights.

"We made every effort on short notice to utilize all available seats. We invited U.S. citizens and LPRs [lawful permanent residents] who indicated their willingness to depart on short notice," the official said.

While there are so many Afghans still desperate to leave, the official said, "Our first priority continues to be assisting U.S. citizens and LPRs who wish to depart Afghanistan."

-ABC News' Conor Finnegan.

Sep 11, 10:29 am
3 Afghan refugees diagnosed with measles in northern Virginia

After the U.S. temporarily halted all U.S.-bound flights of Afghan evacuees from overseas bases Friday in response to four evacuees testing positive for measles, the Virginia Department of Health announced that three Afghan refugees were diagnosed with measles in northern Virginia.

"Out of an abundance of caution, health districts in northern Virginia are informing people who were at various locations listed below during the specified time frames, that they may have been exposed to one of three people diagnosed with measles," the announcement said. "These individuals recently traveled from Afghanistan as part of the United States government’s emergency evacuation efforts"

The department of health listed possible exposure at Dulles Airport on Sept. 3, 4 and 8, at StoneSprings Hospital Center on Sept. 6 , Inova L.J. Murphy Children’s Hospital on Sept. 7 and 8, the Dulles Expo Center from Sept. 4-8, and at the Crowne Plaza Dulles Airport from Sept. 4-9.

The health department is coordinating efforts to reach those who were possibly exposed, according to the statement.

ABC News' Michelle Stoddart

Sep 10, 3:19 pm
Afghan evacuee flights to US halted after measles cases

The U.S. has temporarily halted all U.S.-bound flights of Afghan evacuees from bases overseas after four evacuees tested positive for measles, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing on Friday.

"Operation Allies' welcome flights into the United States have been temporarily paused at the request of the CDC, and out of an abundance of caution because of four diagnosed cases of measles among Afghans who recently arrived in the United States," Psaki said. "These individuals are being quarantined in accordance with public health guidelines, and the CDC has begun full contact tracing."

Psaki said all Afghans are required to be vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella as a condition of entry into the U.S. and that those immunizations are being administered as refugees are received at domestic military bases. The White House is also exploring measures to vaccinate people while they are still overseas, she said.

"But it was again a step recommended by the CDC out of an abundance of caution given for measles cases," Psaki added.

Sep 10, 3:00 pm
White House confirms 'overland' passage, 2nd flight with Americans landing in Doha

National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne has confirmed that U.S. citizens and permanent residents were among those on the second passenger flight to leave Kabul since the U.S. military withdrawal. There were also Americans and lawful permanent residents taken out of  Afghanistan on Friday "via overland passage," she said.

"Today the United States government facilitated the additional departures of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents both on a chartered Qatar Airways flight from Kabul and via overland passage to a neighboring country. The Qatar Airways flight held 19 U.S. citizens and the party traveling overland included two U.S. citizens and 11 lawful permanent residents," she said.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price previously confirmed that Thursday's flight had 10 U.S. citizens and 11 lawful permanent residents, or green card holders, on board.

-ABC News' Ben Siegel

Sep 10, 12:46 pm
2nd Qatari flight lands in Doha with foreigners on board

A second Qatar Airways flight from Kabul landed in Doha at 7:29 p.m. local time, according to flight data, with an unknown number of foreign nationals on board.

The flight number for the Boeing 777 -- QR7277 -- was the same as Thursday's, the first flight out of Kabul since all U.S. personnel withdrew.

Sep 10, 12:23 pm
Kinzinger blasts US evacuation mission as 'strategic failure'

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., criticized the Biden administration's handling of evacuations from Kabul as a "strategic failure" on ABC's "The View" on Friday and expressed deep concern for what will happen in the coming weeks as the Taliban exercises complete control of the country.

"Afghanistan has a constitution. That constitution and that government was overthrown by force by a military coup of the Taliban. I don't think at any other time we'd look at a military coup by an enemy, in a country of an ally and say, we're looking forward to finding opportunities to work with them," Kinzinger said, as the U.S. cooperates with the Taliban to get some 100 remaining Americans out.

.@RepKinzinger to @TheView on the end of the Afghanistan war: "On the micro-level, we've changed a lot of lives... but on a geopolitical level, it's hard to look at this as anything but a strategic failure." https://t.co/w3c681Prf2 pic.twitter.com/hXHkhc7i4k

— The View (@TheView) September 10, 2021

"There will be a moment, I fear, when the cell towers come down or the information is locked down, and we see the acceleration of the brutalization of women, of gays, of people that are different than what the Taliban wants them to be," he added.

Kinzinger argued there is "so much hypocrisy" in the debate on whom to blame for the war ending as it began, under Taliban rule, including on all four presidents preceding Biden, but said the execution of the withdrawal is "what's broken so many hearts."

-ABC News' Joanne Rosa contributed to this report

Sep 10, 11:33 am
2nd passenger plane takes off from Kabul

A second Qatar Airways flight has taken off from the airport in Kabul with an unknown number of Americans on board, a day after the more than 100 foreign nationals left Afghanistan on the first flight out since the U.S. military's withdrawal.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price confirmed that 39 Americans had been invited on Thursday's chartered Qatar Airways flight from Kabul and from that group, 10 U.S. citizens and 11 lawful permanent residents, or green card holders, flew out.

Another 43 Canadian citizens, 13 British citizens and others were also aboard.

The Biden administration offered some praise for the Taliban on Thursday for their cooperation as officials try to fly out some 100 Americans without U.S. troops or a State Department presence on the ground.

Sep 10, 8:00 am
US has 'many means' to get intelligence in Afghanistan, Mayorkas says

The United States has "many means" of gathering intelligence in Afghanistan despite not having boots on the ground, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Friday.

"We no longer have troops in Afghanistan, but we have other resources to learn information on the ground and we certainly use those resources to the best of our abilities," Mayorkas told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos in an interview on "Good Morning America."

"We are quite creative and quite capable of learning information from coast-to-coast and all over the world," he added.

Mayorkas noted that the U.S. government is watching the potentially re-emerging terrorist threat in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan "very closely."

"We watch the threat landscape all over the world," he added. "We have built an entire architect to protect, to safeguard the American people."

But the greatest threat to the U.S. homeland is currently domestic terrorism, according to Mayorkas.

"Individuals who are prone to violence by reason of an ideology of hate or false narratives that we see on social media or other online platforms," he said. "I think it's a sad thing to see hate emerge, as we have observed it emerge over the last several years."

With the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks approaching, Mayorkas said the government is not aware of any "specific credible threats targeting the United States" on the somber date.

"But we are vigilant," he added. "We watch the information, we learn information; but at this point in time, we don't know of any threat on the anniversary."

Sep 09, 3:57 pm
More than 30 Americans invited as passengers on flight from Kabul, some declined

More than 30 U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents were invited by the U.S. to be passengers on the first chartered flight out of Kabul since the American evacuation mission ended, but not all said yes. Some said no because of medical reasons, extended family members or their desire for more time, among other reasons, according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price.

Price said he could not give an exact number of those who did make Thursday's flight to Qatar.

Echoing an earlier statement from the National Security Council, Price said he welcomed the Qatari Airways departure from Kabul. He said he hopes and expects more flights will be allowed to continue in the days to come.

Sep 09, 2:16 pm
White House confirms flight with Americans landed in Qatar, calls Taliban cooperation 'professional'

National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne has confirmed that U.S. citizens and permanent residents were among the passengers on the first charter flight to leave the airport in Kabul since Qatar took over operations at the airport and that they have safely landed in Qatar.

The statement offered no passenger numbers, so it's unclear how many U.S. citizens were on board, but it did provide some praise for the Taliban's cooperation.

"The Taliban have been cooperative in facilitating the departure of American citizens and lawful permanent residents on charter flights from HKIA. They have shown flexibility, and they have been businesslike and professional in our dealings with them in this effort. This is a positive first step," the statement said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Duchess Kate visits teams who assisted in Afghanistan evacuation

Steve Parsons - WPA Pool/Getty Images

(LONDON) — Duchess Kate made her first public appearance in more than two months on Wednesday.

The Duchess of Cambridge, 39, visited RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, England, to meet with those involved in the United Kingdom's evacuation of thousands of people from Afghanistan.

In the wake of the Taliban's takeover of the country, the Royal Air Force undertook the largest humanitarian aid operation in more than 70 years as the UK ended its 20-year military campaign in Afghanistan.

Operation PITTING saw the RAF fly out more than 15,000 people from Kabul between Aug. 14 to Aug. 28. More than 850 people arrived in the country via RAF Brize Norton.

During her visit, the duchess met with everyone from military personnel, including RAF aircrew and medics, to civilians and volunteers who helped evacuees in Operation PITTING through a repatriation center at the base. In addition to the RAF, the Royal Navy, the British Army and aid organizations assisted in the mission.

This is the first time Kate has been photographed in public since appearing at two major sporting events on July 11.

The duchess attended the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship with her husband, Prince William, and their oldest child, Prince George, and attended the 2021 Wimbledon Championship finals.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


North Korea fires ballistic missiles in second test in a week

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(SEOUL, South Korea) -- North Korea fired two ballistic missiles toward the East Sea on Wednesday, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The missiles were launched from central North Korea and soared nearly 500 miles before landing in the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. It's the second time this week that the reclusive country has test-launched missiles.

"North Korea fired two unidentified ballistic missiles off its East Coast," the Joint Chiefs of Staff of South Korea told ABC News in a statement Wednesday. "South Korea and the U.S. intelligence are analyzing for details."

The United States Indo-Pacific Command described the North Korean missile launch as "destabilizing" but said there was no "immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to our allies."

"We are aware of the missile launch and are consulting closely with our allies and partners," the command said in a statement Wednesday. "While we have assessed that this event does not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to our allies, the missile launch highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK’s illicit weapons program. The U.S. commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad."

Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called the launch "simply outrageous," condemning it as a "threat to the peace and security" of the region and a clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban North Korea from engaging in any ballistic missile activities.

“We will work closely with the U.S., South Korea and other concerned nations to resolutely protect the lives of our citizens and their peaceful lives," Suga told reporters Wednesday.

The missile launch came just two days after Pyongyang announced that it had fired a newly developed cruise missile twice over the weekend, marking the country's first weapons test in six months. North Korean state media on Monday described the long-range missile as a "strategic weapon of great significance."

Analysts in Seoul saw the consecutive ballistic tests as a provocation on the heels of a strongly-worded statement released last month by Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. She criticized South Korea for taking part in an annual joint military drill with the United States and warned that "a dear price will be paid."

Nevertheless, Koh Yu-hwan, president of the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government-funded think tank in Seoul, said the recent missile tests posed "no real threat to the U.S. mainland."

"North Korea is walking a tightrope of crossing the promise Kim Jong Un made with former [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump at the Singapore summit to refrain from firing long-range missiles or conducting nuclear experiments," Koh told ABC News on Wednesday.

Cha Du Hyeogn, a visiting research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, an independent, non-profit think tank in Seoul, said the provocative launches were "not surprising."

"We could see this as a low-intensity provocation in a short interval to call for the U.S. attention," Cha told ABC News on Wednesday. "The communist state is trying to show the world that they are keen on developing a weapons system, but at the same time is being careful not to break the nuclear moratorium."

North Korea has maintained a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests since 2017, but the country's leader said in 2020 that he will no longer be bound by such restrictions.

Pyongyang's latest missile launch -- the fifth this year -- coincided with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's visit to Seoul, where he met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and other senior officials to discuss the stalled nuclear talks with the North. When asked by reporters for comment on the ballistic test, Wang emphasized the importance of resuming dialogue and bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula.

China is North Korea's last major ally and biggest source of aid and trade.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


South Korean President appoints BTS as special envoys before their visit to the UN

Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Dick Clark Productions

(SEOUL, South Korea) -- K-pop group BTS was appointed as "special presidential envoy for future generations and culture" by South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday.

After the ceremony, Moon presented each member of the group with diplomatic passports and fountain pens.

Moon thanked BTS for its participation in the Permission to Dance challenge for the hearing impaired and congratulated the group on winning three awards at the MTV Music Awards.

As part of their first official duties as special envoys, BTS will be accompanying Moon in his visit to the United States from Sept. 19 to 23. Moon and BTS will attend the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly session in New York for the second meeting of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG Moment). The SDG Moment aims to reinforce the international community’s efforts to resolve global challenges, including poverty, hunger and climate issues.

The theme of the 76th General Assembly is "building resilience through hope to recover from COVID-19, rebuild sustainability, respond to the needs of the planet, respect the rights of people, and revitalize the United Nations."

At the upcoming session, BTS will give a speech and a video clip of their performance will be played. BTS is also expected to deliver a message of consolation and hope to youth all over the world.

According to the Korean government, BTS’ attendance is expected to "serve as a meaningful opportunity to expand communication with future generations around the world and draw their sympathy on major international issues."

BTS member RM said in a statement, “It is an honor to be able to do something with a title special presidential envoy for future generations and culture. We were always contemplating on ways to give back the love we received, and we are honored to have the opportunity given by the president to be special envoys.”

This is not the first time that Moon and BTS visited the United Nations together. In 2018, RM delivered a speech titled "Speak Yourself," sharing a message about self-empowerment and love, while Moon discussed denuclearization efforts.

In 2020, BTS delivered a speech online for the 75th session of the UN General Assembly to encourage people amid the pandemic.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Prince Andrew's attorney denies duke's been served with Virginia Giuffre's sex assault lawsuit

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(NEW YORK) -- Nobody said suing a prince would be easy.

The question of whether Britain's Prince Andrew has been officially and lawfully served with notice of Virginia Giuffre's sexual assault lawsuit against him remains unresolved, following a 30-minute telephonic conference in front of U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the Southern District of New York.

Giuffre's attorney, David Boies, told the court: "We have properly served him."

Citing his firm's efforts to deliver a summons to the prince in person, through the mail and with the assistance of British judicial officials, Boies said, "It is clear that Prince Andrew has actual notice of this complaint and proceeding."

Appearing for the first time as counsel for Prince Andrew, Los Angeles-based attorney Andrew Brettler disagreed.

"We do contest the validity of service to date. The duke has not been properly served under either U.K. law or pursuant to The Hague Convention," Brettler said.

The Court has given the parties a few weeks to hash out arguments about whether proper service has been achieved and scheduled a hearing on the subject for Oct. 13.

But Kaplan made it abundantly clear that he's likely to eventually order an alternative method of service on the prince, if he decides that what has happened so far isn't enough.

"I'll tell you right now that there is going to be ... service authorized appropriately, because I have a foreign national who has been sued in the United States court, and he's taking the position that he hasn't been served," Kaplan said in response to Brettler's arguments.

"You have a pretty high degree of certainty that he can be served sooner or later," Kaplan added. "Let's cut out all the technicalities and get to the substance."

An alleged victim of deceased sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, Giuffre, 38, filed the lawsuit against Prince Andrew last month, accusing the embattled 61-year-old royal of sexually abusing her at Epstein's Manhattan mansion and elsewhere in 2001, when she was under the age of 18, according to the complaint.

Prince Andrew has denied her allegations, telling the BBC in a 2019 interview that he had no recollection of ever meeting her and that he never had any sexual contact with her.

Just hours before the scheduled hearing Monday afternoon, it was unclear if any lawyer would show up to argue for the prince, but Brettler filed a notice of appearance with the court just before noon.

Brettler used some of his time during the hearing to assail Giuffre's case as a "baseless, non-viable and potentially unlawful lawsuit that the plaintiff has filed against the duke."

Brettler brought up a 2009 settlement agreement Giuffre signed with Epstein that the prince's team contends "releases the duke and others from any and all potential liability."

Kaplan abruptly cut Brettler off and said he wanted to confine the discussion at the hearing to the issue of serving notice of the lawsuit.

"This is not an occasion for a different kind of discussion," Kaplan said.

But as the hearing neared its conclusion, the duke's new counsel raised the issue again, asking that Boies provide the prince's lawyers with a copy of the agreement, which has been filed under seal in parallel litigation involving Giuffre and famed criminal defense attorney Alan Dershowitz.

"We're asking for a copy of the document that we believe absolves our client from any and all liability. Mr. Boies is aware of this. His client is aware of this," Brettler said.

Boies disputed Brettler's characterization of the settlement agreement and argued that a request for pre-trial discovery at this stage of the proceedings is premature.

Three days after Giuffre filed the suit against Prince Andrew, she agreed to drop a battery claim from her long-running defamation lawsuit against Dershowitz, who formerly represented Epstein. The agreement came after Dershowitz asserted that Giuffre's confidential settlement with Epstein barred her from suing him for alleged battery.

Giuffre has alleged in court filings that she was sexually abused on multiple occasions by Dershowitz, who was among a group of high-profile lawyers who -- years later, in 2008 -- represented Epstein during the negotiations that led to his so-called "sweetheart" deal with U.S. federal prosecutors.

Giuffre's withdrawal of the battery claim was described in a joint court filing last month by lawyers for Giuffre and Dershowitz as "a compromise" that should not be viewed as an admission by either party of the validity or invalidity of the claims about the settlement agreement.

Dershowitz has vigorously denied Giuffre's allegations and counter-sued her for defamation, vowing to prove in court that she lied about him and other prominent men. Last week, Dershowitz's attorney sought permission from the judge overseeing his case to allow him to provide Prince Andrew's lawyers with a copy of Giuffre's confidential settlement agreement with Epstein.

"There is no legitimate justification for blocking the disclosure of the release to Prince Andrew," wrote a lawyer for Dershowitz in a letter to the court last week.

Giuffre is represented by a separate law firm, Cooper and Kirk, in her case involving Dershowitz, which continues on the competing defamation claims.

In a heavily redacted court filing late Monday in the Dershowitz litigation, Giuffre's attorney, Charles Cooper, objected to a potential unsealing of the confidential document and noted that attorneys for Epstein's estate had also refused to consent to its disclosure.

Boies told ABC News last week that there "is no evidence there that Prince Andrew was intended to be covered by the release. And, indeed, Prince Andrew has never himself asserted that he was intended to be covered by the release," he said.

Kaplan said the decision about whether to unseal the settlement agreement belongs to another judge and suggested that attorneys for Giuffre and Prince Andrew can avoid unnecessary delay by trying to work that issue out privately.

"There is a very swift way of getting to the substance promptly," Kaplan said. "But you two need to talk about that, because I can see a lot of legal fees being spent and time being expended and delay, which ultimately may not be terribly productive for anyone."

The court in the defamation case has not yet ruled on Dershowitz's request.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


US military investigating Kabul drone strike

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(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. military continues to review the Aug. 29 drone strike in Kabul that it said prevented a car bomb attack on U.S. troops and Afghan civilians at the airport in Kabul, but new questions continue to be raised about the strike in the wake of New York Times interviews with residents and relatives that indicate the driver targeted in the missile strike may have been a worker for an American aid agency.

On Monday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby would not address specific questions about the drone strike but confirmed that U.S. Central Command is conducting an assessment of that drone strike.

However, it appeared that the CENTCOM assessment might not include sending American investigators into Kabul to get first-hand accounts from neighbors and families.

"I'm not going to get ahead of what CENTCOM is doing with their assessment of that strike," Kirby said at a Pentagon news briefing. "I am not aware of any option that would put investigators on the ground in Kabul to complete their assessment."

Kirby said the air strike had prevented an imminent attack at the airport "and nothing's changed about that view."

"I have nothing to speak today that alters the view, CENTCOM is conducting our assessment, and I think we need to let them finish that work," said Kirby. "We'll be as transparent as we can at the end of it, but I have no additional context to offer today."

The drone strike occurred days after the deadly suicide bombing at the airport, blamed on ISIS-Khorasan. Thirteen American service members and 170 Afghan civilians were killed.

It came at a time when U.S. officials were on high alert that another ISIS-K attack at the airport was imminent.

Accordingly, on Aug. 29, the movements of a white sedan were tracked for hours by U.S. military drones after it left a known ISIS-K safe house and it made its way through various Kabul neighborhoods, according to the New York Times.

The car's movements raised suspicions that it was the vehicle intended to be used in a car bomb attack, as described in ISIS communications intercepted by U.S. intelligence.

After the car's driver parked the vehicle in a residential courtyard, he and another man were spotted loading what appeared to be explosives into the vehicle a U.S. official told ABC News.

That action led military commanders to order that the drone fire a Hellfire missile at the vehicle to prevent what appeared to be the last steps before a car bomb attack on the airport.

U.S. Central Command later said in a statement that it was aware of reports that as many as 10 civilians may have been killed in the strike that it said had "disrupted an imminent ISIS-K threat to the airport."

"We know that there were substantial and powerful subsequent explosions resulting from the destruction of the vehicle, indicating a large amount of explosive material inside that may have caused additional casualties," said the statement. "It is unclear what may have happened, and we are investigating further."

The New York Times reported on Friday that interviews with neighbors and relatives indicated that the driver of the vehicle was not affiliated with ISIS but worked for Nutrition and Education International, a California-based NGO.

Additional information suggested the driver had been transporting colleagues to and from work and that an analysis of a security feed showed what the U.S. military interpreted as the loading of explosives may have in fact been the loading of canisters of water to bring home to his family, according to the newspaper.

Asked about the driver's potential links to the NGO, Kirby said he was "not going to get ahead of Central Command's assessment of this airstrike. "

"I think I need to let them complete their work," he added. "As I said earlier, the strike was taken to prevent an imminent threat to the airport."

Days after the drone strike Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had labeled the strike as "righteous" because it had followed protocols intended to prevent civilian casualties.

"We had very good intelligence that ISIS-K was preparing a specific-type vehicle at a specific-type location," Milley said at a Pentagon briefing on Sept. 1.

"We monitored that through various means, and all of the engagement criteria were being met," said Milley. "We went through the same level of rigor that we've done for years, and we took a strike."

"Because there were secondary explosions, there's a reasonable conclusion to be made that there was explosives in that vehicle," said Milley.

"We know from a variety of other means that at least one of those people that were killed was an ISIS facilitator," said Milley. "So were there others killed? Yes, there are others killed. Who they are we don't know. We'll try to sort through all that. But we believe that the procedures at this point -- I don't want to influence the outcome of an investigation -- but at this point, we think that the procedures were correctly followed, and it was a righteous strike."

At a hearing on Monday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that no other country comes close to matching the precautions the United States does to minimize civilian casualties.

Blinken said the drone strike "is being looked at very, very carefully by others in the administration so we understand exactly what happened or didn't happen."

"We know that in the past, civilians have been hurt and killed in these strikes," said Blinken. "And we have to make sure we have in place every possible measure to allow us to continue to use the tool to defend ourselves while avoiding anyone on the civilian side from being hit.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Putin watches huge display of firepower during Zapad war games

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MULINO FIRING RANGE, Russia -- Russian President Vladimir Putin watched a huge display of firepower put on by his military Monday when he attended the finale of what is believed to be the largest Russian war games held in Europe since the Cold War.

The joint exercises with Belarus -- called Zapad -- take place every four years and their main phase began last week, involving tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks, aircrafts and warships at sites across western Russia and in Belarus.

Zapad -- which means "West" in Russian -- is intended to test the country's ability to fight a major war with NATO on its western border. The exercise has its origins in the Cold War, but in recent years as relations have worsened with the West, Putin has increased their scale, using them to illustrate restored Russian power.

Russia has claimed this year's exercises involve 200,000 troops, but most military analysts believe that is a significant exaggeration, and the real figure is likely something closer to 50,000 to 100,000.

Putin on Monday attended what amounted to a heavily scripted, grand finale to the drills which took place at a firing range near Nizhny Novgorod, a city about 300 miles from Moscow.

From a grandstand overlooking the Mulino range, Putin watched the event through a pair of binoculars, while heavily armed snipers kept guard.

For 45 minutes, Russian troops unleashed a colossal barrage, involving howitzers, multiple rocket launchers and dozens of tanks and armored vehicles, while warplanes and helicopters flew in waves overhead.

In the exercise, the Russian-led force was defending against a military belonging to a notional enemy, named "the westerners." Besides Russian and Belarusian troops, small contingents from India, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Armenia also participated.

The display watched by Putin appeared notably larger than that put on in 2017, at the last Zapad exercises -- and those drills rattled nerves in eastern Europe, amid overheated speculation that they might be used to cover an imminent Russian invasion.

This year's exercises attracted much less media attention, despite a more tense political atmosphere in Belarus following the mass protests against authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko's crushing of the peaceful protests, with Russia's support, has placed him and Moscow in confrontation with European countries and the United States.

Since Lukashenko sought rescue from the Kremlin, there have been concerns that Putin will use that leverage to demand he fulfill a long-time Russian goal of integrating Belarus with Russia. Last week, as the exercises began, Putin and Lukashenko announced plans for significantly deeper economic integration, under the slogan "Two countries, one economy."

With Lukashenko now dependent on Russian support to remain in power, both sides are using the drills to emphasize Moscow's strong backing of the Belarusian leader.

"It is in Minsk's interest to invite a much larger Russian footprint as a show of support for the regime," Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, wrote in an article for the website War on the Rocks last week.

"Judging from early deployments and training range selection, a more sizable Russian contingent will be in Belarus and Russian troops will be much closer to the borders with Poland than they were during previous Zapad exercises," said Kofman.

The exercise's imagined scenario simulated Russia helping Belarus to defend against an attack by three fictional states, "Nyaris," "Pomoria" and the "Polar Republic" -- thinly disguised versions of Lithuania, Poland and a Scandinavian country.

Lukashenko has claimed the protests against him are part of a planned invasion of Belarus by NATO countries, repeatedly making wild claims last year that western forces were massed on the border.

This year's Zapad drills appeared partly to incorporate that scenario, including scripts where western-backed "terrorists" provoked instability, as a pretext for invasion.

Belarus' neighbors Poland and Lithuania have expressed unease about the exercises again this year. Both countries are already struggling with a migration crisis engineered by Lukashenko in relation to their support for pro-democracy opposition. In recent months, European officials have accused Lukashenko of flying in thousands of migrants, mostly from Iraq, and pushing them across the border.

The exercises, though important for training, are also in many ways also a campaign tool for Putin. Stephen Ganyard, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and ABC News contributor said the shows of force are "mostly for domestic consumption."

The dramatic show on Monday came just four days before Russia's parliamentary elections.

Military experts have cautioned against accepting Russia's claims about the size of the exercises, which they warn are partly intended to give an exaggerated impression of Russian military power.

"Russian military leaders likely hope Western media will report exaggerated figures, which help validate the scale and success of the exercise," Kofman wrote.

NATO has also accused Russia of failing to formally declare the real number of troops involved. A 1990 agreement, the Vienna Document, obliges Russia to invite observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for exercises involving more than 13,000 troops. But despite its public statements that 200,000 are taking part, Russia has circumvented the rule by claiming fewer than 13,000 troops are participating in each individual drill.

Russia has insisted the exercises are entirely defensive and at firing ranges last week Russian commanders were careful to repeat the drills were not intended to be threatening.

"We didn't want to worry anyone," said Col. Alexander Zavasky, the commander of an airborne unit drilling in Kaliningrad, told ABC News on Saturday. "It's a pre-planned exercise, and so, don't worry."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Chinese government cracking down on K-pop fandom

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(SEOUL, South Korea) -- Fourteen content providers in China including Tencent and Weibo are promising a “healthy” cyberspace environment as Chinese authorities expand control over the entertainment industry.

The China Association of Performing Arts, an organization affiliated with the Chinese government, summoned representatives from content providers last Friday to discuss ways to promote contents with positive values in order to “clear” the cyberspace.

“The platforms would strengthen their management of accounts and restrict those that spread baseless star gossip or stir up conflicts between fan groups,” the association said on its WeChat statement Saturday, just a week after China’s major microblogging platform, Sina Weibo, restricted the use of 21 fan club accounts.

Weibo’s crackdown on fan accounts took place shortly after an extravagant birthday celebration event for a K-pop star went viral on Twitter on Sept. 5. Fans following the Weibo account "JiMIN JMC," a fan community for BTS member Jimin, raised money to plaster an airplane with his photo. Weibo blocked the fan page from writing new posts for 60 days, explaining that the procedure for collecting money was not legitimate.

“Irrational star-chasing behavior, when found, should be dealt with seriously,” Weibo said on its official website, referring to the fundraising activities of fandoms. “The company promptly banned 21 accounts for 30 days, and erased related inappropriate posts.”

The statement also said that stricter oversight of the fan groups would “purify” the online atmosphere and fulfill the platform’s responsibilities to society.

“Since China is a one-party state under a strict communist ideology, other social media companies will follow suit without any resistance once the authorities take control of one large company,” Kim Hern-sik, a commentator who studies and analyzes K-pop, told ABC News. “[For] Weibo, being the most influential social media in China, there will be setbacks in selling K-pop goods and keeping up online fan communities within the country.”

The Chinese government has been clear that it intends to have pop culture under control this year. Last month, the Cyberspace Administration of China posted a guideline to take care of "disorderly fandom management." The guidelines include restricting minors from spending money on fan club activities and giving entertainment agencies the responsibility of managing fan clubs. There is strong solidarity among fan-made communities on Weibo and Twitter that raise funds for birthday events and gifts for celebrities, but the Chinese government depicted the particular fan culture as “chaotic.”

“Do not induce fans to consume. One should not organize contests to encourage or stimulate consumption,” the Cyberspace Administration of China clearly states in its guidelines published on Aug. 27. China’s National Radio and Television Administration went on to ban broadcasters and internet platforms from organizing “marketing activities to stimulate fan consumption” in a notice on Sept. 2.

Following the announcements, QQ Music and Tencent's music streaming service in China decided to restrict customers from purchasing more than one copy of an album online.

Album sales are considered an index of popularity for pop stars. According to the South Korean music chart Hanteo, China had the third largest share of K-pop album sales verified on the Hanteo website in the first half of 2021 among 96 countries, following the U.S. and Malaysia.

The largest Twitter fan community of BLACK PINK member Lisa informed followers it would not be able to order as many copies of Lisa's new album as planned.

“As we are writing this, we are sorry to inform you that we may not be able to order as many copies as we had expected. We have run into unexpected obstacles with tightened restrictions on fan clubs,” the account said in a tweet Aug. 31.

Last Thursday, China’s National Radio and Television Administration announced that Chinese media should stop effeminate male celebrities as well as celebrities who are not politically vocal from appearing on television.

“Tackling down people’s fan community participation cannot be finished at one stroke, but it seems the Chinese authorities will continue expanding its influence step by step,” Kweon Sang Hee, a professor at Sungkyunkwan University, told ABC News.

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North Korea test-fires long-range missiles, officials say

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(NEW YORK) -- North Korean officials announced they test-fired long-range missiles this weekend.

The "long-range cruise missiles" were launched on Saturday and Sunday and allegedly hit a target 1,500 kilometers away, officials said on North Korea's state-run media.

The missiles flew for over two hours, according to the report.

The officials claimed the test was successful, and said the missile is "a strategic weapon of great significance," to North Korea's defense plans.

Although the report said several top North Korean leaders and scientists were in attendance for the launches, there was no mention of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un being present.

South Korean officials have not yet commented on the test launch.

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'Fortress Australia' cautiously moving away from COVID Zero, but there's still a long path to freedom

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(SYDNEY) -- Australia's approach to the pandemic -- strict border policies, snap lockdowns and aggressive contact tracing -- saw the country, along with neighboring New Zealand, praised throughout 2020 for taking a no-tolerance approach to public health. It paid off. While other countries faced overwhelmed hospital systems and devastating death tolls, Australia enjoyed large public gatherings, and life went on as normal for most people within its sealed-off borders.

But confronted with rising cases of the delta variant, the Australian government has announced a dramatic shift, planning now to "live with the virus" rather than stamp it out entirely.

In short, "Fortress Australia" has been breached.

During a televised briefing last month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that lockdowns, which in some parts of the country have endured for more than six months, were "not a sustainable way to live."

"This Groundhog Day has to end, and it will end when we start getting to 70% and 80%," he said, referring to vaccination rates.

Much of the country remains largely COVID-free. But the states of New South Wales and Victoria, home to metropolises Sydney and Melbourne, have posted record numbers of daily infections in recent weeks. Between Sept. 1, 2020, and July 1 of this year, the country recorded fewer than 5,000 coronavirus cases. But since then, total cumulative cases have more than doubled in under three months, from 30,684 to more than 66,000 as the delta variant took hold, according to Our World in Data.

"The reality is that delta is too infectious to be able to eliminate it with the amount of restriction that can be sustained by a population that is already really, really tired of restrictions after having gone through more than 200 days of restriction previously," Professor Ivo Mueller, an epidemiologist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, told ABC News. "So that, in a sense, forced the hand of the government to accept that we have to go from 'COVID Zero' to 'living with COVID.'"

But internal restrictions in New South Wales and Victoria, as well as heavy restrictions the government has placed on intrastate travel, may endure for some time. The 80% target set by Morrison for vaccinations is unlikely to be achieved by mid-October, according to current trends.

As it stands, fewer than 35% of Australians are fully vaccinated, putting the nation among the lowest of OECD countries.

Australia is now administering doses at higher rates than peaks seen in the United States, but supply remains an issue.

"Vaccine hesitancy is rare," Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales, told ABC News. "Anti-vaxxers exist here but are rare in Australia. The real problem has been lack of supply. Our authorities have been too slow to acquire sufficient vaccine doses for the young, who were supposed to get Pfizer and then confusion occurred when Pfizer deliveries were stalled."

This led to intense criticism of the government that it failed to chase vaccines with urgency, as Morrison repeatedly told the public, "It's not a race."

Now the Australian government has struck deals with other countries, including Britain and Singapore, to secure Pfizer doses earlier and help end the lockdown sooner.

While the government's exit strategy marks a change in approach, some states are showing more eagerness to loosen restrictions.

Aside from domestic border closures between states, citizens in the majority of Australian states are living virtually COVID-free lives, and the idea of opening up their gates may prove unpopular.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian previously has warned that other states can't continue to live "in their bubbles" forever.

Berejiklian announced on Thursday that New South Wales, home to Australia's biggest city, Sydney, will ease lockdown restrictions from mid-October, when authorities expect 70% of adults in her state to be vaccinated. At that point, she said, Sydney's restaurants, cafes and pubs can reopen.

That's despite infections there lingering at record levels. On Saturday, New South Wales recorded 1,599 cases of COVID-19 -- the highest daily tally since the pandemic began.

"I want to stress that whilst today the New South Wales government is outlining our plan, our roadmap for the way forward in New South Wales, that we're definitely not out of the woods," Berejiklian said during a daily briefing. "We know that case numbers are likely to peak in the next week or so, and we also know that our hospital system will be under the greatest stress in October."

In Melbourne, residents have tired of over 220 cumulative days of lockdown. Yasmin Vachha, a primary school teacher in the Victorian capital, has been teaching from home for 30 weeks altogether, as the state has gone in and out of lockdowns. She said the experience shows the country is "not a united front" and it is increasingly "hard to see the light."

"The kids are flat, motivation is low and you can see it all taking its toll," she told ABC News. "We all have our own lockdown despair happening and it is getting harder by the day. I hate that this is now normal and that we have to be OK with it. How are we still in this position?"

The criticism is not restricted to Australians currently in the country. In March 2020, the government shuttered its international borders, barring most foreigners and putting caps on total arrivals to help keep the virus at bay.

As a result, tens of thousands of Australians remain trapped overseas -- around 34,000 registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as being stranded abroad. The actual number who want to return home is likely far higher.

Some are deterred at the prospect of returning home by restrictive and expensive quarantine measures, while others can't secure a plane ticket home at all.

The policies have separated thousands of families, and led to heartbreaking stories of Australians unable to get home to see terminally ill relatives. Many have been forced to miss weddings, births and funerals.

To make matters worse, Australia in July slashed the number of international arrivals by half -- to about 3,000 passengers a week.

But in another sign that the Australian government is shifting gears, for the first time since the pandemic started, Morrison on Wednesday acknowledged the frustration that Australian expatriates were going through, and opened up the prospect of families being able to reunite at home for Christmas: "You have saved lives by enduring and going through those difficulties, so thank you -- I do appreciate it, and your fellow Australians do also."

Morrison said his government was hard at work to enforce a home quarantine system, to reconnect Australia with the world.

There are now also indications that the government will drop a travel ban on Australians leaving the country. The Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, an association of legal professionals, has been pressuring the government to stop its "bullying" of Australians living overseas.

The internal border restrictions also have led to heartbreak and frustration. According to The Guardian, a New South Wales resident this month has been unable to cross the border for vital cancer treatment in neighboring Queensland due to a compulsory hotel quarantine, and on Father's Day, families separated by border closures hugged across a state boundary which fell through the suburb of Coolangatta in Sydney.

MORE: Iran facing its deadliest coronavirus surge after banning import on US vaccines
A new app is being tested in South Australia that deploys facial recognition technology and cell phone alerts to replace the hotel system. It was described in the Atlantic as "Orwellian" in an article that said people would be "forced to download it," but an Australian government source said that terminology was misleading.

"The home quarantine app is for a selected cohort of returning South Australians who have applied to be a part of the trial," a government spokesperson said. "If successful, it will help safely ease the burden of travel restrictions associated with the pandemic."

The issue of civil liberties under threat has been overblown, according to McLaws.

"While restrictions are tough and we are tired of them, Australians are less obsessed with individual rights during this time," she said. "Australians like their freedom, but they aren't willing to have it at the price of many deaths."

While the new timeline for opening up society will come as welcome news for those living under some of the world's longest lockdowns, an instantaneous reopening or "freedom day" is not on the cards, according to Mueller. The government has observed the high rates of transmission in highly vaccinated countries like the U.S. and U.K., and will continue to adopt a tough approach, he said.

"Eventually, people will come to the point that they want those freedoms back again," he said. "And I think all political leaders and all state leaders do recognize that, and I think also the population in Australia does recognize that they eventually will have to open up and that will mean that the virus will circulate in the population."

"Australia," he added, "cannot remain forever an island."

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