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Blinken warns of 'deeply, deeply troubling' reports of atrocities in Afghanistan amid US withdrawal

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(WASHINGTON) -- Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged Wednesday during a joint press conference in India that the situation in Afghanistan is headed in the wrong direction -- noting the Taliban is "making advances" and calling reports that the group has committed atrocities "deeply, deeply troubling."

They "certainly do not speak well of the Taliban's intentions for the country as a whole," he told ABC News.

Blinken made a quick visit to New Delhi, where he and senior Indian officials focused on deepening U.S.-Indian cooperation on key challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, China, and climate change. But with the security situation in nearby Afghanistan deteriorating quickly, their meetings also focused on the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the Taliban's swift efforts to control more territory.

As he and other Biden officials have argued, however, he said that the international community would make a "pariah state" of an Afghan government that "does not respect the rights of its people, an Afghanistan that commits atrocities against its own people."

"The Taliban says that it seeks international recognition, that it wants international support for Afghanistan," and that it wants sanctions and travel bans on its leaders lifted, he added, saying there's "only one path" to achieving those aims, "and that's at the negotiating table."

But it doesn't seem that the Taliban -- which now control nearly half of the country's districts since launching their offensive in May, according to the Pentagon -- agrees.

The group's leadership has also denied responsibility for the atrocities Blinken mentioned, including extrajudicial killings, forced displacements and attacking civilian infrastructure -- a sign that their promises remain empty and they do believe they can take power by force or that they don't have full control of their fractured forces across the country.

President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops before the 20th anniversary, this fall, of the Sept. 11th attacks that brought American forces to Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaida's operations there and topple the Taliban government that gave them sanctuary.

In the weeks since then, the Taliban have won control of dozens of districts by force or through surrenders, as they dawdle at negotiations with the Afghan government meant to secure a ceasefire and decide on the country's future government.

Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, agreed with Blinken that, despite the deadlock in those talks, they were the only solution to Afghanistan's fighting. But he declined to say how concerned India's government is now about the deteriorating security situation, instead calling it "natural" and "inevitable" that "there will be consequences" to the U.S. military withdrawal.

"What is done is done. It is a policy taken, and I think in diplomacy, you deal with what you have," he told ABC News - agreeing with Blinken that negotiations are the only solution.

But he subtly took issue with Pakistan, India's neighbor and long-time adversary, adding that "not everyone who agrees ... does what they say they will do." Without a direct mention, he called its support for the Taliban a "reality of the last 20 years."

A senior State Department official said after the day's meetings that the two sides made no specific asks of one another, but committed to deepening cooperation and information-sharing on the situation.

"It's a chance for us to talk about, sort of, the way forward and really where we can find points of leverage to try to bring the Taliban along and get toward a negotiated settlement," they said.

The two foreign ministers were chummy after their day of meetings -- cracking jokes and praising U.S.-Indian cooperation. Jaishankar said the two powers had "entered a new era," with cooperation on COVID-19, defense, trade and investment, climate change, and regional issues.

In particular, Blinken said the two countries "will be leaders in bringing the pandemic to an end," as India ramps up vaccine production and exports, and the U.S. launches the first of the 500 million doses next month that Biden promised during the G-7 summit.

The Biden administration had hoped to share three million of those doses with India, but they remain held up by Indian bureaucracy, which must first approve their import, according to the senior State Department official, who added they hoped for "some movement soon."

While the increasing U.S.-India partnership has irked the Chinese government, which has accused both countries of trying to "contain" it, Jaishankar shot back Wednesday -- saying, "People need to get over the idea that somehow other countries doing things is directed at them."

"For groups of countries to work together is not strange. It's the history of international relations," he added, earning a laugh from Blinken.

But much of this visit has been focused on China -- including Blinken's meeting Wednesday morning with the Dalai Lama's representative, Central Tibetan Administration Representative Ngodup Dongchung. It's the first high-level engagement from the Biden administration with the Tibetan leader and his team -- one that is sure to anger Chinese officials who have long opposed U.S. support for the spiritual figure.

The senior State Department official tried to downplay the meeting, saying they met "very briefly" so that Dongchung could present Blinken with a scarf as a "gesture of good will and friendship."

Blinken also tried to send a message with another meeting Wednesday morning, starting his day before the cameras with a group of Indian civil society leaders. Before the press, he talked about how both countries' democracies "are works in progress. ... Sometimes that process is painful, sometimes it's ugly, but the strength of democracy is to embrace it."

That process in India has been particularly ugly in recent years. Earlier this year, Freedom House, the U.S. think tank, rated India as "partly free" for the first time in its annual global survey, as the government of Narendra Modi has been accused of curtailing minorities' rights, especially Muslims; attacking political opponents and the free press; and restricting human rights groups and NGOs.

With his morning meetings, Blinken tried to send a message about that, talking up the importance of "a vibrant civil society" and talking openly about American democracy's struggles and faults -- including the events of Jan. 6.

But during their presser, Blinken was more conciliatory than critical of Modi and Jaishankar's administration, saying Americans "admire" India's "steadfast commitment to democracy, pluralism, human rights, fundamental freedoms."

"As friends, we talk about these issues. We talk about the challenges that we're both facing in renewing and strengthening our democracies, and I think humbly, we can learn from each other," he added, clearly highlighting the common ground, rather than risk alienating this critical new partner.

Jaishankar had a sharper edge in response to the question -- telling the reporter who asked that Modi's changes are an effort to "really right wrongs when they have been done" -- the kind of 'don't question' attitude that critics say is at the heart of Modi's democratic back-sliding.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Tokyo reports record number of COVID-19 cases as Olympic games continue

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(TOKYO) -- Tokyo reported a record number of 3,177 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday as the Olympic games remain underway.

It's the second day in a row in which Japan's capital reported record-breaking cases. On Tuesday, the city reported 2,484 COVID-19 cases, which exceeded its previous record of 2,520 cases set on Jan. 7, 2021, according to Kyodo News.

Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Disease (NIID) has estimated that the highly contagious delta variant is responsible for nearly 80% of infections in Tokyo.

Patients who make up the new cases mainly involve people ranging in age from their 20s to 40s, according to the NIID, which reported an increase in hospitalization in people under the age of 50.

As of Wednesday, at least 27% of the country has had at least one dose of the vaccine, according to a government report at the beginning of the month. Tokyo remains under its fourth coronavirus state of emergency.

Last week, the International Olympic Committee reported that nearly 80 people accredited to the games had tested positive for the virus, including more than two dozen athletes.

Although Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga urged people during a press conference Tuesday to avoid non-essential travel, he said there is no reason to consider suspending the Games at this time, saying, “Please watch the Olympic Games on TV at home."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Iceland hotel seeks photographer to capture northern lights

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(HELLA, Iceland) -- Hotel Rangá in Iceland is looking for a photographer to chase the northern lights, also known as aurora borealis.

This dream job consists of three weeks chasing the lights from September to October.

The hotel is located in the Icelandic countryside, where temperatures typically average 40 to 50 degrees during the fall season.

The photographer chosen for the job will be required to provide high-quality photos and videos in order to receive travel to and from Iceland.

The requirements also include giving the hotel “unlimited license to mutually agreed-upon photographs and videos.”

"In exchange for providing content of the northern lights at the hotel, this seasonal employee will receive free room and board along with access to the hotel‘s stargazing observatory and hot tubs, not to mention the opportunity to explore the photogenic land of fire and ice on their days off," the hotel wrote on its website.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Hotel Rangá (@hotelranga)

In Iceland, aurora borealis can be seen between September and March.

The lights can appear at any time of the night and the hotel even has a so-called “aurora wake-up service” so guests don’t miss the lights.

Interested photographers can apply for this dream job now at hotelranga.is/lights-catchers-wanted.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Experts warn of prolonged COVID-19 pandemic due to vaccine inequality

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(LONDON, HONG KONG and JAKARTA) -- A perfect storm with the coronavirus appears to be brewing across the Asia-Pacific region: surges in the highly contagious delta variant combined with slow vaccination uptake.

Tight vaccine supplies are a major factor and experts caution that unless most of the global population is vaccinated, and richer countries share more of their vaccines, the world will face a far longer bout with the coronavirus than anticipated.

The issue extends from countries at the center of the current surge, like Indonesia, to those that fared relatively well with the disease early on in the pandemic, like South Korea.

Even as countries like the U.S. and U.K. face rising cases despite their largely vaccinated populations, hospitalizations and deaths have not yet risen to the same levels as 2020 due to the success of vaccination efforts, public health experts say. Yet the vast majority of the global population remains unvaccinated (just 3.7 billion out of 10-12 billion recommended doses have been distributed).

More people have died of COVID-19 since Jan. 4, 2021 than the whole of last year, according to an ABC analysis of WHO data.

The pandemic is not just far from over -- it is in a “critical moment where we are all under threat,” due to rising new variants and vaccine inequality, according to WHO spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris. The course of the virus, she said, is that it is likely to become “endemic” -- meaning it will not disappear, but eventually could become manageable like the other coronaviruses in circulation.

But a true end to the pandemic will likely only happen with the artificial immunity conferred by mass vaccination, according to Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“You have countries that are making good progress toward building an immunity shield,” he told ABC News. “When you look at the rest of the world, a very small percentage of the population [is] being vaccinated."

The stark vaccine disparity is far from lost on people in Indonesia, who in the last few months have seen the delta variant rip through their communities, overrunning hospitals, filling graveyards and leaving family and friends who’ve lost loved ones in anguish.

In scenes reminiscent of when India was at its devastating peak earlier this year, there is a clamor for oxygen canisters in Indonesia -- now the coronavirus epicenter of the region. Afflicted families, turned away from hospital wards, are taking treatment into their own hands. For two weeks, Defitio Pratama, 27, a marketing salesman based just outside Jakarta, took care of his sick mother at home.

“We had no idea what to do at that time since we did not have oxygen tank at hand,” he told ABC News in Jakarta, where there are long lines for scarce oxygen cylinders. “I started contacting friends and families for oxygen tank, I even went all the way to other city when I found my mother’s friend offering to lend theirs. We could not take my mother to hospital because they kept rejecting us, we had no choice but to treat her at home.”

While Pratama has received one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, his mother, who is asthmatic, remains unvaccinated. In the week ending July 19, 9,696 deaths were recorded, an increase of 36% from the week before, according to the WHO. Just under 16% of the population has received at least one dose of vaccine.

In Indonesia, a combination of a lack of supply, vaccine hesitancy and concerns over the Chinese manufactured Sinovac have contributed to the slow rollout, but the country is by no means alone in the region.

Thailand, Australia, Vietnam and South Korea -- all countries that were praised last year for their swift containment strategies -- have reintroduced restrictions to deal with outbreaks of the Delta variant, which is estimated to be 60% more transmissible than the alpha variant, in recent months. According to Harris, the world’s richest countries are “basically holding the rest of the world hostage by not insisting that their manufacturers share.”

“This is why you've got massive outbreaks going on around the world,” she told ABC News. “But people don't seem to hear it. What they're hearing is possibly what they want to hear is 'I'm vaccinated, now, I can go back to normal.' You can't. Not until you sort it out in the rest of the world.”

The Biden administration has pledged to donate more than 80 million doses to countries in need, with 23 million going to Asia. Some 3 million doses of Moderna arrived in Indonesia from the U.S. on July 11 -- but the rollout needs to significantly increase in order to meet the WHO’s target to vaccinate at least 10% of every country in the world by the end of September.

For the pandemic to end and the virus to become manageable on a global level and COVID-19 to become manageable as with other coronaviruses, between 10 and 12 billion doses need to be administered around the world, Huang said, ideally with high effectiveness. That number currently stands at around 3.7 billion, according to the WHO.

“The best case scenario is that through these vaccination efforts that by the end of next year we have produced enough vaccines that can vaccinate a majority of the population worldwide, and that vaccination is effective in terms of preventing severe cases of death,” Huang said. “Previously I was more optimistic about how and when the pandemic is going to end. “But now, with that divide in terms of vaccine access, in terms of the strategies adopted by countries, in terms of the continued emergence of the new variants, I'm not that optimistic anymore.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


U.K. to allow fully vaccinated travelers from U.S, E.U., without quarantine

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(LONDON) -- Beginning next month, the United Kingdom will allow fully vaccinated U.S. citizens to enter the country without quarantining.

In a statement, the U.K. Department for Transport says the policy will apply to travelers from countries on their "green" and "amber" lists, but not for those from several dozen nations on the "red list." It will go into effect on August 2, and will cover vaccines that have been approved by the European Medicines Agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or the Swiss vaccination program.

Those arriving in the U.K. will still be required to complete a pre-departure test before landing in England, as well as a PCR test for COVID-19 within their first two days there. Separate rules apply for those entering the U.K. from France.

The plan is expected to help the British economy, as well as enable fully vaccinated people from other nations to reunite with family and friends.

"We've taken great strides on our journey to reopen international travel," said U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. "Whether you are a family reuniting for the first time since the start of the pandemic or a business benefiting from increased trade - this is progress we can all enjoy."

More than 70 percent of adults in the U.K. have received both shots of a COVID-19 vaccine. Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid credited that fact with helping to build "a wall of defence against this virus so we can safely enjoy our freedoms again."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


At least one killed, over a dozen injured in explosion at German chemicals site

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(BERLIN) -- At least one person was killed and more than a dozen others were injured in an explosion at an industrial park for chemical companies in western Germany on Tuesday morning, officials said.

The powerful blast at Chempark's site in Leverkusen reverberated through the surrounding city and sent dark plumes of smoke billowing into the air just before 10 a.m. local time. Germany's Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance classified the explosion as "an extreme threat" and urged residents in the area to stay inside and keep all windows and doors closed.

Currenta, the operator of Chempark, which is home to dozens of chemical companies including Bayer, confirmed the death of one employee and said four others were still unaccounted for. City officials said at least 16 people have been injured.

The deadly explosion occurred at a waste disposal center within Chempark Leverkusen, where more than 5,000 types of chemicals are manufactured, and sparked a fire at a tank storage site. Firefighters have since extinguished the blaze, according to Currenta.

Pollution detection vehicles were also deployed to the scene to assess what threat the smoke could have on the surrounding air quality. Police in the nearby city of Cologne, about 12 miles south of Leverkusen, took to Twitter to advise people to avoid the area of the explosion, saying the situation was still unclear. Several highways in the surrounding area have been blocked off due to the incident.

The cause of the explosion was unknown, according to Currenta.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Blinken makes first trip to India amid heightened tensions with China

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(NEW DELHI) -- If this week is the Biden administration’s full-court press in Asia, then Secretary of State Antony Blinken is playing point guard with his first trip to India.

President Joe Biden has made it a top foreign policy priority to rally against the rising authoritarianism of China, Russia.

That makes Blinken’s visit to the world’s largest democracy critical, amid global challenges like COVID-19 and climate change that Blinken has stressed require global cooperation and as ties with China harden.

That relationship took another nasty turn this past weekend. Beijing issued a strident warning to Washington as Blinken’s deputy Wendy Sherman met her Chinese counterparts in China on Sunday – again accusing the U.S. of bullying and scapegoating.

In addition to Blinken’s high-profile visit, Biden has deployed his Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Southeast Asia to meet key partners, while Sherman consulted top allies Japan and South Korea before her meetings in China.

India, with a population larger than China’s and an economy third only to the U.S. and China, is seen as critical in Washington to pushing back on Beijing. But after a decadeslong bipartisan push to pull India closer to the United States’ orbit, there is a concern in some circles over India’s democratic backsliding, especially on minorities’ rights, political dissent and freedom of the press.

Those are issues that Blinken has said will be at the forefront of Biden's foreign policy, but they may take a back seat to pressing geopolitical priorities, like boosting India’s production and export of COVID vaccines or decreasing carbon emissions and seeking other solutions to climate change.

Dean Thompson, the top U.S. diplomat for South and Central Asia, said India’s record on human rights will be addressed during Blinken’s meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

“We will raise it, and we will continue that conversation because we firmly believe that we have more values in common on those fronts than we don’t,” he said -- a collaborative, not critical tone.

Thompson also made clear that the meetings in New Delhi “will focus on expanding our security, defense, cyber, and counterterrorism cooperation” and boosting their “increased convergence on regional and global issues.” In particular, Blinken himself emphasized ending the pandemic as swiftly as possible by unleashing India’s vaccines overseas again after its own horrific outbreak led to restrictions on exports.

“When that production engine gets fully going and can distribute again to the rest of the world, that’s going to make a big difference, too, so I’ll be talking to our Indian friends about that,” he said in an interview with MSNBC Friday.

That pause in India’s distribution of vaccines has delayed efforts to combat the pandemic, although Thompson said that a billion-dose initiative by the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia is still aiming to roll out in 2022. But as cases rise around the world again, including in the U.S., there’s a new urgency to speed up global distribution and stave off any new variants.

Beyond vaccines and climate, it’s clear Biden officials hope to pick up where predecessors left off and boost ties with India to counter what they consider China’s aggressive behavior.

Wendy Sherman, the No. 2 at the State Department, met her Chinese counterparts in the northern port city Tianjin on Sunday, urging open lines of communication and saying the U.S. “do[es] not seek conflict,” according to the State Department.

But she also carried a laundry list of Chinese behaviors that the U.S. opposes, including economic espionage and cyber theft, territorial claims like in the South China Sea, and human rights violations in Hong Kong and against Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang province.

The U.S. says many of these issues are evidence of China undermining the world’s rules. But China has dismissed that in increasingly vocal and dramatic tones, including during a very public spat between Blinken and Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and their Chinese counterparts in March.

“U.S. policy seems to be demanding cooperation when it wants something from China; decoupling, cutting off supplies, blockading or sanctioning China when it believes it has an advantage; and resorting to conflict and confrontation at all costs,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng said during the meetings, according to China’s Foreign Ministry. All of these issues the U.S. raised are China’s business as a sovereign country, it added, accusing the U.S. of bullying.

Not long ago, India was largely neutral on these issues. But it has also now borne the brunt of Chinese action and waded into its own hostilities with Beijing. Last year high in the Himalayas, security forces from the two countries even sparred in hand-to-hand combat over their disputed border.

In the year since then, Modi’s government has taken steps to penalize China, including banning dozens of Chinese apps like WeChat and TikTok.

That’s helped to push India closer to the so-called “Quad,” with Japan, Australia and the U.S.

Biden held the first leader-level summit of the group as one of his first foreign meetings of his administration, with Blinken’s trip this week expected to help lay the groundwork for another – and the first in-person – in the months to come.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Socialist school teacher to be sworn in as Peru’s president on 200th independence anniversary

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(NEW YORK) -- A rural schoolteacher and son of illiterate campesinos from the Andean highlands is poised to be sworn in as Peru's president Wednesday, the same day the country will commemorate its 200th anniversary of independence from Spain. His inauguration comes after a fiercely contested presidential runoff last month.

The moonshot candidacy and ultimate victory of leftist Pedro Castillo, whose ascension from political oblivion as a fiery union leader, was announced last week after one of the most protracted political battles in Peru's history. His far-right challenger, Keiko Fujimori, daughter of jailed former President Alberto Fujimori, refused to concede for over a month, alleging widespread voter fraud with sparse evidence.

Castillo's win has rattled Peru's coastal elites and electrified its marginalized peasant and Indigenous classes hailing from the Andes and Amazon regions, hundreds of whom have descended on the capital, Lima, to serve as ronderos, or peasant patrollers in support of the president-elect.

"Those with power in this country treat us like second-class citizens. We're here to reclaim what is ours," said Maruja Inquilla Sucasaca, a Quechua environmentalist from Puno in southeastern Peru.

The final tally hinged on just 44,000 votes. Castillo's Marxist Leninist party, Peru Libre, clinched 50.1% of votes to Fujimori's conservative Fuerza Popular party, which took 49.9%.

Backed by a battalion of lawyers, Fujimori delayed certification of Castillo's victory for over 40 days, seeking to disqualify 200,000 votes in Indigenous and rural enclaves in which he drew overwhelming support.

In a speech last week, Fujimori maintained that thousands of votes were stolen from her. She decried the electoral commission's results as "illegitimate" and encouraged supporters to continue to mobilize, while also signaling she would honor the results.

International observers, including the Organization of American States, have called the elections free and fair. In a statement last week, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the Biden Administration is "eager to work with President-Elect Castillo's administration."

"She undertook a Trump-like effort to delegitimize the election," said Brian Winter, vice president of policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas. "But under extreme pressure, the electoral authority managed to appear sober, even-handed and calm."

Keiko Fujimori is heiress to a political dynasty forged by her father, Alberto Fujimori, a towering and deeply polarizing figure who ruled the Andean nation with an authoritarian grip from 1990-2000.

Despite suspending the constitution and sanctioning death-squads to suppress Maoist guerrilla insurgencies in the 1990s, many credit him for laying the foundation of Peru's modern economy. Fujimori, 82, is currently serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations.

"It's almost impossible to separate her identity from the nostalgia a part of Peruvian society feels toward her father," said Winter. "She has now twice come within a very close distance of the presidency. It's premature to declare her career over."

For weeks, Fujimori's supporters have camped in front of Peru's supreme court demanding an international audit of votes.

"In this election fraud and the scourge of communism won. We're here to fight for our democracy," said one supporter, Fredy Gonzales, 60.

Four blocks away, in front of the national electoral commision headquarters, rural supporters of Castillo said they were camped out to "defend" the electoral authority and safeguard their votes. Some carried traditional Andean whips known as chicotes in case of unrest.

"We'll stay until his inauguration, but if the president of the people calls on us, we'll return as many times as he needs us," said Jaime Diaz, 49, another Quechua supporter.

The cornerstone of 51-year-old Pedro Castillo's campaign, a slogan as well-worn as his straw hat: "No more poor people in a rich country." The president-elect, who hails from Cajamarca in Peru's rugged north, has promised to rewrite the country's constitution and redistribute mineral wealth. Peru is the world's second-largest copper producer.

Castillo's victory comes amid ever-deepening political turmoil. Peru has endured four presidents and two congresses in the past five years.

Castillo's rise from a cow and chicken-raising provincial school teacher came in 2017 when he gained national recognition as leader of a prolonged teachers strike. His victory has served as a blunt rebuke of Peru's political and business class in Lima, many of whom fear the proposed economic policies of his Marxist party will plunge the country into a crisis the likes of neighboring Venezuela.

On Wednesday Castillo will take the helm of a nation reeling from economic and public health crises. Over 195,000 Peruvians have died from COVID-19, the highest per capita death rate in the world.

Addressing hundreds of supporters from a balcony in central Lima Friday, Castillo vowed to vaccinate all Peruvians and recharge a stagnant economy. He also sought to allay concern he will transform Peru into a socialist Venezuela or Cuba.

"I categorically reject the notion that we're going to bring in models from other countries. We are not Chavistas, we are not communists or extremists, much less terrorists."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


US concludes combat mission in Iraq as Biden meets with Iraqi prime minister

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(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden said the U.S. is "not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission" in Iraq.

The president, while meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi Monday afternoon, said the U.S. role there will be focused on training and assisting to combat the Islamic State group.

"Our shared fight against ISIS is critical for the stability of our region and our counterterrorism cooperation will continue, even as we shift to this new phase we're going to be talking about," Biden said.

A U.S. official told ABC News Thursday the change in mission is more of a semantic one and the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will not dramatically differ as they shift their emphasis to training and assisting.

As with anywhere around the world, the official added, U.S. troops reserve the right to defend themselves too.

Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Fareed Yasseen told ABC News last week that Iraqi forces will continue to request direct U.S. assistance for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and training.

Several U.S. officials have said the 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq are already largely in that kind of advise-and-assist role.

Both sides have repeatedly committed to U.S. troops exiting once the coalition to defeat ISIS completes its work, essentially kicking the can down a long road now to appease political pressure in Iraq, fueled by Iranian-backed factions and militias and U.S. air strikes against them.

During the Trump administration, a tit-for-tat series of attacks between Iraqi militias and U.S. forces in Iraq to fight ISIS precipitated an assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in January 2020. While the Shiite militias were able to breach an outer perimeter, no one was injured in the attack.

Days later, President Donald Trump ordered the airstrike that killed Iran's most powerful general Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force. The strike outside Baghdad International Airport further inflamed anti-American sentiment among Shiite militias and Iraq's government responded by denouncing it as another U.S. violation of its sovereignty.

With a majority in parliament, Shiite lawmakers voted to expel U.S. troops that month. While the resolution was non-binding, there's been strong political pressure on the Iraqi government since then to see an end to the U.S. military presence, especially after the two governments and the defeat ISIS coalition declared the end of the terror group's so-called caliphate.

In a series of "strategic dialogues" since then, they have negotiated ways to strengthen U.S.-Iraqi cooperation on other issues, including trade, energy and diplomacy with Iraq's Arab neighbors, while repeatedly committing to pulling American forces out one day.

Biden on Monday also noted that the U.S. is sending Iraq 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines, which the president said should be arriving "in a couple of weeks."

With Monday's announcement, that day could be closer -- but it's still not here yet.

That much was clear to those Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, also known as Popular Mobilization Forces. The spokesperson for one group, the Nujaba Movement, said in a statement that the change in mission was a "cheap trick."

They "will not differentiate between advisers of the occupation or soldiers of the occupation, for all of them are important targets for the weapons of the resistance, until the last occupying soldier leaves the land of Iraq," said the spokesperson, Nasser al Shammari.

ABC News' Libby Cathey contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Discontent over Fukushima nuclear disaster response casts shadow over Tokyo Olympics

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(NEW YORK) -- Some 150 miles from Tokyo's Olympic venues, calendars that line the walls of empty classrooms remain frozen on a date more than a decade in the past: March 11, 2011.

Images from an abandoned elementary school in Futaba, Japan, are an eerie reminder of the uneven recovery efforts 10 years after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered a catastrophic tsunami and caused the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

About 164,000 people were forced to evacuate in the aftermath of the meltdown at the now-infamous Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Many never returned home.

As the Japanese government doggedly forges ahead with the delayed and beleaguered Olympic Games this year, some advocates say initial promises that the situation in Fukushima is "under control" are false. Some also say the "Recovery Olympics" branding exploits residents who feel forgotten, and cleanup of the Dai-ichi power plant will take decades longer than government estimates.

Japanese officials insist radiation levels in reopened parts of Fukushima prefecture -- which is set to host baseball and softball for the Summer Games -- are safe for visitors, and many independent monitors agree. But what many say is a lack of transparency has eroded public trust, and a new debate rages over the what to do with the more than 1 million tons of "treated" radioactive wastewater piling up in storage tanks at the damaged nuclear power plant.

Here is how the legacy of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe looms large over the Tokyo Olympics.

A 'Made in Japan' disaster

Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the chairman of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (a group mandated by Japanese legislators to examine what went wrong and make recommendations), told ABC News that recovery efforts are far from complete and a permanent plan for how to dispose of contaminated waste is not in place.

"It has a long way to go," Kurokawa told ABC News of Fukushima's recovery. "It's a very tragic thing -- and there are just certain people that cannot go back."

"The issue is, what is the long-term prospectus of how to contain Fukushima Dai-ichi, and I'm not so sure TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Company] has a clear long-term plan of what to do," Kurokawa added. "They're doing at least their best effort, but I think cleaning up radioactivity is a mess, and particularly with Fukushima Dai-ichi's issues."

While the quasi-state-owned power firm that runs the embattled nuclear power plant has suggested a 30- to 40-year timeline for decommissioning, Kurokawa said conflicting research estimates it could take at least "100 years."

In his team's scathing report on what went wrong, delivered to Japanese lawmakers in the aftermath of the event, Kurokawa calls the nuclear catastrophe a "profoundly manmade disaster -- that could and should have been foreseen and prevented."

Kurokawa blasted cultural factors in the nation with the world's third-largest gross domestic product that he says ultimately resulted in more suffering.

"What must be admitted -- very painfully -- is that this was a disaster 'Made in Japan,'" Kurokawa wrote in the English version of the executive summary. "Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the program'; our groupism; and our insularity."

While they are separate issues, similar criticisms have been leveled at Japanese officials still insistent upon hosting the Olympics despite a global pandemic.

"The biggest issue from our point of view has been this historical lack of adequate transparency on the part of TEPCO and also the Japanese government," Azby Brown, a researcher for the nuclear monitoring nonprofit organization Safecast, told ABC News, "and this is from the beginning and may actually predate the accident."

"We see some similar things happening regarding the coronavirus response and even among the negotiations or the discussions regarding the Olympics and what measures will be taken to protect the safety of people who come here for that," Brown added. "So, it's all part of a similar phenomenon within Japanese institutions and bureaucracies and government."

'Recovery is far from reality' ahead of so-called 'Recovery Olympics'

Before the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the world, the Japanese government originally painted the 2020 Olympic Games as the "Recovery Olympics," meant to showcase how the nation rebuilt in the decade following the cataclysmic triple disaster of 2011.

The global health crisis and mounting costs associated with hosting the international event during a once-in-a-century pandemic has led to dwindling public support for holding the games, but these concerns appear to have largely fallen on deaf ears. Many locals have expressed fears that it could lead to a surge in coronavirus cases as vaccination rates in Japan lag far behind its peers in the developed world.

For some residents or evacuees of Fukushima, however, hosting the Olympics at a cost of some $12.6 billion is a painful reminder of government-spending priorities.

"Some people feel abandoned not only by the government but also by the nation," Kazuya Hirano, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told ABC News. "They also feel used for the promotion of the government slogan, the 'Recovery Olympics.'"

Hirano -- whose research has focused on the continued social, political and health effects of the disaster -- said that the government terminated financial support for evacuees in 2017, but most have not returned home.

"Reconstruction does not make much sense as most former Fukushima residents who were affected by the disaster have not returned or have no intention to return because they are worried about the radiation for their families as well as themselves," Hirano said. "Most people have already settled in new places."

Safecast's Brown said that he feels some people in the region take pride in hosting Olympic events, as it provides something to be optimistic about.

"But for them to try to use this as a way to showcase recovery, it was a sketchy idea from the beginning and I think now it's probably certainly backfired," he said. "Instead, it will only highlight the problems and the lack of recovery."

"We spend a lot of time with people in communities we help," Brown said. "They're all totally skeptical of these big-picture things, like to spend millions and millions on Olympics. They are saying we need more support for concrete things -- actual support for small businesses, actual support for single parents."

With "real, concrete things" still not adequately taken care of in Fukushima, Brown said many residents view the billions of dollars pumped into the Olympics as "just misspent funds."

In his 2013 speech pitching Tokyo as a host city, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told members of the International Olympic Committee that the situation in Fukushima is "under control" and "has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo."

His words have drawn ire from Fukushima residents for years.

In July 2020, Katsunobu Sakurai -- who was mayor of Minamiosama, Fukushima, at the time of the catastrophe -- blasted the "Recovery Olympics" branding in an interview with the one of the country's biggest newspapers.

"No matter how much you tout the games as a sign of recovery, the overall picture of only Tokyo prospering while the recovery of the disaster-hit areas in the Tohoku region remains undone will not change," he told the Mainichi newspaper, referring to the region that is home to Fukushima. "I've been to Tokyo many times, and saw that there were more crane trucks at the construction site of the athletes' village than in the disaster-hit areas."

"It was obvious at a glance where the national government was placing its resources," he added.

How safe is the area now?

The Japanese government has been slowly lifting evacuation orders and "restricted areas" over the years, removing top soil and declaring new swaths of land safe for residents to return to in the lead up to the Summer Games. Currently, a vast majority of Fukushima is considered safe to visit -- only about 230 square miles remain in designated evacuation zones, or 2.7% of the total area of Fukushima prefecture.

Fukushima's Azuma Baseball stadium, about 42 miles from the Dai-ichi power plant, is set to host baseball and softball competitions for the Tokyo Olympics.

In a symbolic move, the Olympic torch relay kicked off at the J-Village National Training Center, a sports complex just 12 miles south of the Dai-ichi plant. The complex served as a front-line base for first responders in the aftermath of the meltdown.

"That place, the base of operations dealing with the nuclear accident, has now been reborn into Japan's largest holy site of soccer, filled with children's smiling faces," Abe said of J-Village in a January 2020 speech. The former prime minister and fierce champion of hosting the games also reminisced how a man born in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb was dropped carried the Olympic flame in Tokyo's 1964 Olympics, sending a message to the world that "Japan had achieved reconstruction" following World War II.

While the government has assured visitors the designated areas in Fukushima are safe, some independent monitoring organizations, including Greenpeace Japan, have reported finding radioactive hotspots with readings that don't align with figures released by the officials.

Kurokawa and Brown agreed that the risk of dangerous levels of radiation exposure in reopened areas of Fukushima is low, but residents' trust in official statements also remains low.

"More or less, I think it's very clean and if there's any sort of radioactivity, there are some warnings around there, so I think local people know where it is safe and where may not be as safe," Kurokawa told ABC News. He added that he believes people can "reasonably trust" municipal radiation data even if they have doubts about TEPCO-released figures.

Brown added that barring intentionally scaling a fence and entering a prohibited zone, radiation in most areas welcoming Olympic guests is relatively low.

"Before coronavirus there was a question if it was safe to have Olympic events in Fukushima. We were involved in that and had people involved who measured at the stadium, talked to people," Brown said. "Our opinion was that ... the risk of an overseas visitor going to Fukushima was similar to the radiation risk they got on their flight over."

"That is not an exaggeration and is not trying to minimize risk in general," he added. "You get a very hefty dose on an overseas flight."

'Transparency is the foundation of trust'

Earlier this year, Japan's government announced plans to start releasing "treated" radioactive wastewater from the Dai-ichi plant into the Pacific Ocean in approximately two years. The move had already been delayed due to protests, drawing ire from local fisherman as well as Japan's neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said this decision is "unavoidable" in order to "make progress in the decommissioning of Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant and achieve the reconstruction of Fukushima."

The wastewater has been stored in tanks at the wrecked power plant for years, and space is reaching full capacity, the prime minister added. As of January 2021, there were approximately 1,061 tanks on the site of the power plant, carrying 1.24 million tons of treated water. Suga said he doesn't think the plan reflects a "contradiction" to Abe's former pledge to Olympic officials that the Fukushima situation was "under control."

The water has been treated, but still contains minute amounts of the harder-to-remove radioactive isotope tritium. In a failed bid to gain public support for the plan, the Japanese government created a rosy-cheeked so-called "Little Mr. Tritium" mascot. The cute character that looked like something out of a children's book was scrapped from government websites in a single day after community backlash.

"The gap between the gravity of the problems we face and the levity of the character is huge," a local fisherman told Japan's Kyodo News Agency.

Suga promised they would reduce the tritium concentration to "one-fortieth or less of the domestic regulatory standard value," or levels small enough to be largely considered safe by the nuclear energy community.

While nuclear operators around the world release small amounts of tritium into the ocean as part of standard operating procedures, Brown told ABC News that it's a "false comparison to say that Fukushima Dai-ichi is the same."

"What we're dealing with is a stopgap emergency response to a horrific nuclear disaster," he said, noting that the release is not being done as part of the designed operation of the plant.

"Another criticism of ours is that there should be a process, a full environmental impact assessment before the decision is made," Brown said. While a limited assessment was carried out, he added, "It has not been done transparently."

"We think that if it is done the way they said they are going to do it, then the impact on health and the environment can be very low," he added. "But the point is there has been such bad faith all along that none of us should take it on their word. We believe it needs to be independently verified."

Kurokawa added that while the tritium debate has dominated discussion, there's evidence that there could be trace amounts of other radioactive elements in the wastewater destined for the Pacific.

"I just testified in the parliament, there are other sort of radioactivities in addition to tritium," he said. "But nobody talks much about this."

While he said he genuinely believes the levels are within accepted norms, it sill must be disclosed.

"It's safe, but you have to say it," he said.

Kurokawa is advocating for TEPCO and the Japanese government to invest in a highly transparent, bilingual website that is constantly being updated with the latest data and plans for Fukushima.

"I think all the data has to be available because in this connected world, transparency is a foundation of trust," he said. "You just cannot hide it."

The city of Minamiosama, where Sakurai was mayor, was among the hardest-hit by the disaster. Kurokawa and his team's report found that 44% of evacuees from Fukushima were residents of this city. Data indicates that even after it was declared safe, it still suffered a mass exodus of its young people.

"The Japanese government has prepared for the Olympics while upholding the 'disaster recovery' label, even though a recovery is far from reality," Sakurai said to the Mainichi newspaper in July 2020. "It is superficial to declare a recovery with no actual progress."

"The government is now talking of an Olympics that could be a sign of humanity's triumph over the pandemic, but vaccines have not yet been put into practical use, and the world has not yet been freed from the risk of infection," he added. "There is no chance of success by trying to box in reality to meet the labels the government upholds. The idea of a 'coronavirus Olympics' may also likely end as a mere fantasy."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


What to know about PHA biodegradable plastic and how it could help Southeast Asia

ABC News

(SUWON, South Korea) -- South Korean conglomerate CJ Cheiljedang is jumping into the global market to begin mass production of PHA biodegradable plastic, or polyhydroxyalkanoates.

PHA is considered a viable alternative to petroleum-based plastic because the new technology allows its plastic waste to decompose completely in the ocean and soil in a significantly shorter period of time.

“Plastics made from crude oil are said to take over 500 years to completely decompose, while biodegradable plastics take decades at most,” SungYeon Hwang, Head of Bio-based Chemistry Research Center at the Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology, told ABC News. “Biodegradable plastic does not pollute the sea even if it accidentally flows into the shore.”

This next generation of plastic, PHA -- made from microorganism fermentation -- is currently manufactured by U.S. company Danimer, based in Bainbridge Georgia, and Japanese company, Kaneka.

CJ Cheiljedang aims to construct a 5,000 tons worth PHA manufacturing line in Indonesia by the end of this year. The global bioplastic production market is anticipated to reach up to 2.8 million tons by 2025, according to the European Bioplastics’ market analysis in 2020.

The inevitable move from petroleum-based plastic to an eco-friendly substitute has been exacerbated by Europe’s sales ban of the 10 most commonly found plastic waste items at the bottom of the ocean such as straws, takeout containers and water bottles made of polystyrene.

“With PHA, CJ Cheiljedang hopes to play a leading role in changing the paradigm of the global materials market,” CJ Cheiljedang’s communications team told ABC News. “'Going green' is an inevitable trend in all industries.”

CJ Cheiljedang’s PHA has been certified biodegradable in industry use, household compost, soil and water by TUV Austria, an institution for biodegradability testing and certification.

From microorganism to eco-friendly plastic

Making solid PHA material begins by engineering and creating microorganisms. At CJ Cheiljedang lab in Suwon, just south of Seoul, researchers grow and nurture microorganisms and select the strongest strain through automated machines.

“These selected strains are optimally grown in a controlled environment where we tightly regulate the shaking speed and temperature,” Researcher Park Yae-seul told ABC news.

The chosen strains go through a fermentation process during which the cells are grown in bioreactors and subsequently fed with sugar made from feedstock for better production of PHA.

After a certain period of fermentation, the materials go through a refinery process where PHA are dehydrated and aggregated before being made into long strands of liquid plastic, which later dries up into solid biodegradable plastic materials.

Shortfalls of PHA

While a number of biodegradable materials have been proposed as a solution to the global plastic pollution problem, there is still much controversy over how the biodegradable plastic waste is disposed of.

“Ideally, it is best to collect used PHA-based plastic waste and process them in an industrial compost in order to meet its biodegradable characteristics,” In-Joo Chin, president of the Korean Bioplastics Association, told ABC News.

Bioplastics like PHA are, theoretically, compostable if collected and buried separately but, for now, consumers are advised to throw them away together along with general waste.

The amount of commercial waste at this point is not enough to design a separate collecting system, experts say. PHA will only become an effective eco-friendly alternative for plastic when its manufacturing reaches an adequately sized economy of scale in the future.

CJ Cheiljedang, as a starter to its next generation makeover, has recently begun wrapping their tofu bundle with vinyl packaging containing their own PHA as a test use in consumer goods. But reaching economies of scale is still a long way off.

“The cost of replacing the original vinyl packaging made out of petroleum based plastic PP with a biodegradable alternative was more expensive, but we consider the biodegradable plastic market as an economy of scale,” Technology Strategy professional Young Min Lee told ABC News. “As more and more plastics are replaced with biodegradable plastic, the production cost will naturally go down.”

“It will make a big step for a better environment if the plastic waste that has no choice but to go to general waste-straws, such as agricultural munching films, and small containers-are replaced with biodegradable plastic like the PHA,” Hong Soo-yeol, chief researcher at Seoul-based Resource Recycle Consulting, told ABC News.

ABC News’ Hyun Soo Kim contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


How colonial-era debt helped shape Haiti's poverty and political unrest

Pawel Gaul/iStock

(NEW YORK) -- When Haiti won its independence nearly 200 years ago, it came at a hefty price -- an estimated $21 billion today.

The country spent the next century paying off the debt to its former slave owners, France.

It's a financial conundrum that those experts and historians say have helped keep some formerly colonized countries impoverished: the demand by former slave owners and colonizers for pay in exchange for independence.

The French recognized Haiti's independence in 1825 but in return demanded a hefty indemnity of 100 million francs, approximately $21 billion (USD) today. It took Haitians more than a century to pay off the debt to its former slave owners and lenders including the City Bank of New York, experts who spoke with ABC News said.

"By forcing Haiti to pay for its freedom, France essentially ensured that the Haitian people would continue to suffer the economic effects of slavery for generations to come," said Marlene Daut, a professor at University of Virginia specializing in pre-20th century French colonial literary and historical studies.

Money that could have gone toward erecting a country was channeled to France, Daut said. And France had already profited immensely from slaves producing sugar and coffee, said Alyssa Sepinwall, a history professor at California State University San Marcos.

Since 2004, the bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution, Haiti has unsuccessfully sought compensation from France. After Haiti was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2010 that left approximately 250,000 people dead, international activists urged the French president to reimburse Haiti's "independence debt" in the form of disaster relief -- an amount totaling $20 billion. The government has yet to respond to these requests.

The Elysee, the official residence of the President of the French Republic, told ABC News in a request for comment: "there’ll be no reaction from Elysee on that matter."

The country's GDP remains extremely low at $1,149.50 per capita and nearly 60% of Haitians currently live in poverty. Even though the country has finished paying off its debt and interest by 1947, its economy has not advanced significantly because it is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and corruption.

Ralph Emmanuel Francois, a Haitian and CEO of a social enterprise in Haiti, said the debt left a gaping hole in Haiti's economy and believes France should pay reparations to Haiti. "I'm saying that they also have a responsibility about what they did to us and how they, you know, stole our economy that we could use for our benefit," Francois said.

A similar tale: Jamaica asking to zero out the balance

Jamaica, another Caribbean island that was a British colony from 1707 until it gained independence in 1962, is also preparing a petition asking Britain to compensate an estimate of 7.6 billion pounds to descendants of former indentured African slaves who were forced to work on sugar plantations, according to Mike Henry, a member of Jamaican Parliament.

Henry, whose private motion served as the basis for the petition, said his motion is about addressing the human rights abuse former slaves had to endure and added that the motion is first to pursue a political approach in asking reparations for chattel slavery.

The motion has since been approved by the National Commission on Reparations which examines cases for reparations for descendants of slaves in Jamaica.

Jamaica was considered the richest British colony of the time and slavery was regarded as the key to wealth. A Cambridge report on legacies of British slave ownership found that 15 to 20% of wealthy British directly benefited from slavery. After the abolition of slavery in 1835, the British government compensated its slave owners with 20 million pounds, which is worth 2 billion pounds today.

An international push to address legacies of slavery

The death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement reverberated on a global scale, prompting the U.N. human rights chief to inspect the issue of racism across nations.

A report published by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet in June, stated that there is a "long-overdue need to confront the legacies of enslavement, the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and colonialism and to seek reparatory justice." Discussing the report further, the human rights chief called on all countries to "stop denying racism…. confront past legacies and deliver redress."

France has "amnesia" when it comes to dealing with its past about slavery, history professor Sepinwall said.

"This is so long ago and I think that's one reason why there's not been a push among French citizens to say we need to be accountable for this," said Sepinwall. "The political will is not there in France for this to happen sadly because not enough people recognize what happened."

Former French president Jacques Chirac said in 2000: "Haiti was not, strictly speaking, a French colony."

There is reason to be skeptical about the U.N.'s efforts, Sepinwall said, because there were often gaps between its rhetoric and action.

"It is also about accountability. It is also about responsibility. Not only saying that I'm sorry, but also saying that I am fully responsible for that," said Francois.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Nigeria's men's team aims for Africa's 1st Olympic basketball medal

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

(TOKYO) -- It was one of the most lopsided losses in Olympic basketball history: Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Team USA thrashed the Nigerian men’s basketball team by 83 points in London in 2012, with a final score of 156-73.

“I remember that game,” said 21-year-old Precious Achiuwa, who was born in Nigeria and immigrated to the United States in eighth grade. “It wasn’t good.”

Fast forward nine years, and Achiuwa, now a forward for the Miami Heat and Nigeria’s national team, helped pull off a surprising upset against Team USA, 90-87, in an Olympic exhibition game two weeks ago -- playing highlight-reel defense against American superstar Kevin Durant.

It was the first time an African team has ever defeated Team USA. It was a coming-out party of sorts for the Nigerian team, called D’Tigers, who are hunting for Africa’s first basketball medal in the upcoming Olympics.

“Hopefully it brings a lot of attention to us from younger athletes that are Nigerian, that may be interested in being a part of Nigerian basketball now,” said Gabe Nnamdi Vincent, a Nigerian American guard who, like Achiuwa, plays for the NBA’s Heat and the Nigerian national team.

Stephen Bardo, a former NBA player and college basketball analyst who has run basketball clinics across Africa, told ABC News he wasn’t surprised by Nigeria’s victory.

“Over half that team has NCAA or NBA experience,” he said. Eight players on the team’s 12-man Olympic roster are currently playing in the NBA.

The team also has a top-flight coach in Mike Brown -- a former NBA coach of the year who helmed teams with some of the world’s top stars, including LeBron James and Bryant.

“I've been a head coach in the NBA Finals. I've been an assistant coach in multiple finals with multiple different teams. And I've won a couple,” he told ABC News. “Being a coach in the Olympics, I've never done that. So why not experience that now?”

While he doesn’t have any personal ties to Nigeria, Brown sees the role as an opportunity to build something bigger than a strong national team -- and is working for the Nigerian Basketball Federation without pay.

“I got 10 toes in. I got both arms in. I got my big ole head in, every part of my body is in -- to uplift Nigeria as a country through the game of basketball,” he said.

With a team of stars, the USA men’s team is still the favorite for the gold medal in Japan. But after dropping consecutive exhibition games to Nigeria and a powerhouse Australian team, the Americans are entering their first game in their shakiest position since 2004, when a team of NBA stars struggled to play together and wound up with the bronze medal at the Athens Olympics.

Brown said “the rest of the world is catching up” to Team USA.

That shrinking skills gap has been on full display this summer, as Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks superstar born in Greece to Nigerian parents, led his team to victory in the NBA Finals, through the playoffs filled with teams anchored by stars from Cameroon, Slovenia, Serbia, France and the Bahamas.

“We all fought so hard to make sure that we opened the door for the next generation to come and compete in this game,” said Dikembe Mutombo, the Congolese American Hall of Fame basketball player-turned-philanthropist.

He was one of three African-born players in the NBA when he was drafted in 1991. Last year, the NBA season began with 107 international players from 41 countries -- including 14 from Africa.

Now, he’s excited to watch the Nigerian team perform in Tokyo, and said they have a good shot at ending up on that medal stand.

“This will be a great celebration for everyone on the continent of Africa. We can say that we did it -- not just Nigeria,” he said. “They are representing a big flag, not just the green flag of Nigeria.”

Ekpe Udoh, a veteran on Team Nigeria who played in the NBA for eight years, expressed optimism for the future of the national team.

“The core of our team [is] pretty young,” he told ABC News. “So if we can start now and continue to build a culture, I know we'll be successful for years to come.”

“I don't think there's any one or two countries that would dominate something like the Olympics forever,” Vincent told ABC News. “I think it's only a matter of time that Africa itself will step up.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


US sanctions Cuba over crackdown on protests in 1st steps toward new policy

-Panya-/iStock

(WASHINGTON) — In his first steps toward his own Cuba policy, President Joe Biden is sanctioning the Cuban defense minister and its special forces for the aggressive crackdowns on protests across the island nation earlier this month, the White House announced Thursday.

Those protests were some of the largest and most widespread in decades as Cuba reels from a new wave of the coronavirus, the economic pain of COVID-19, and shortages of food and medicine.

They also short-circuited Biden's administration into a response. Six months into his term, Biden has yet to formulate a policy toward America's close neighbor after his former boss Barack Obama warmed relations with Cuba's communist government and his immediate predecessor Donald Trump all but cut contact and implemented the toughest sanctions and restrictions."This is just the beginning - the United States will continue to sanction individuals responsible for oppression of the Cuban people," Biden said in a statement Thursday, demanding the government "immediately release wrongfully detained political prisoners, restore internet access, and allow the Cuban people to enjoy their fundamental rights."

The Treasury Department announced that it sanctioned Defense Minister Alvaro Lopez Miera and the Brigada Especial Nacional, the government's special forces unit within the Interior Ministry that was deployed "to suppress and attack protesters," according to the agency.

The new sanctions are not likely to inflict any new pain in Havana beyond the decades-old embargo, but they send a clearer message about where Biden will stand after Obama's rapprochement and Trump's heavy penalties. The Cuban Foreign Ministry has not yet responded, but government leaders including President Miguel Díaz-Canel repeatedly blamed the U.S. government or the Cuban diaspora in Miami for stirring up the protests.

"Treasury will continue to enforce its Cuba-related sanctions, including those imposed today, to support the people of Cuba in their quest for democracy and relief from the Cuban regime," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement.

While he helped Obama's efforts to ease tensions with Cuba and reopen trade and travel, Biden has kept most of Trump's sanctions and restrictions in place so far as his administration completes his review.

Beyond Thursday's sanctions, the administration announced other baby steps in staking out its own Cuba policy earlier this week, including creating a working group to study the issue of remittances -- the money that Americans, especially Cuban Americans, send back to the island.

Remittances were severely restricted by the Trump administration, which said they were largely lining the pockets of the Cuban government as it charged large fees for their transmission. The limits imposed by Trump led Western Union, the financial services company, to close its operations in Cuba.

Biden's new working group will look for ways to allow money to flow to the Cuban people without enriching the Cuban government, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday.

Biden had said last week that he would not ease those Trump-era restrictions, but administration officials denied they were backing away from that pledge, noting that the president said during a press conference that it was "highly likely that the regime would confiscate those remittances or a big chunk of it."

"That’s certainly something that we're mindful of and we're looking at. That will be a point of discussion in these working groups," Psaki said Tuesday.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price added that there's no amount of Cuban government collection on remittances that would be "acceptable to us" but declined to get ahead of what the working group may decide.

He also announced that the State Department will launch its own review about adding staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana. Only a skeleton crew works there now after Trump's first Secretary of State Rex Tillerson drew down embassy staff after the first reports of medical incidents sometimes known as "Havana syndrome" emerged publicly.

"The staffing at our embassy will serve to enhance our diplomatic, our engagement – our diplomatic activity, our engagement with civil society, our consular service engagement, all of which will be in service of helping the Cuban people to secure greater degrees of human rights, of freedom, of the universal rights that have been denied to them for far too long," Price said Tuesday.

He declined to provide any timeline on when staffing changes could be made or speak to any changes in security after those "unexplained health incidents," as the department calls them, that cause "Havana syndrome" -- except to say safety will be a top consideration in this review.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Russia battered by deadly COVID 3rd wave

iStock/Eugene Nekrasov

(RUSSIA) -- Russia is enduring a devastating third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, registering record numbers of daily virus deaths many days for the past month as the virus rages in the country where there are few quarantine restrictions in place and much of the population is reluctant to get vaccinated.

In many parts of the country doctors have said hospitals have been overflowing for almost a month, placing huge strain on medical workers already battered by a year and a half of the pandemic.

Despite surging death tolls, authorities have declined to introduce tough restrictions or even strictly enforce ones in place like mask wearing.

In the late spring, authorities had hailed a supposed end to the worst of the pandemic, following a grim winter that saw Russia reach the highest death toll per capita among developing nations. The few restrictions in place were almost all lifted. President Vladimir Putin at an economic forum in St. Petersburg at the start of June told a large crowd that "life is gradually returning to its normal course."

But by mid-June, the virus came roaring back, fuelled by the virus' delta variant, and Russia's health system is struggling under a wave that many experts estimate is as bad and potentially even worse than this winter's deadly one. Although there are signs now the wave is now easing in Moscow, it is continuing to batter much of the rest of the country where it arrived later.

"Compared with the second wave, it's much tougher," said Viktoria, an ambulance work in the Leningrad region, who asked to withhold her last name because she did not have permission to speak publicly. "The first wave was tough because no one knew anything what to do. And now it's just on account of a very high infection rate."

Since the start of July, Russia's official coronavirus statistics have shown over 700 people dying most days, on many days breaking previous daily records from the winter.

That may be a significant undercount, many experts said. Throughout the pandemic Russia's official COVID-19 statistics have been criticized for drastically underplaying its real virus numbers.

Calculations of so-called "excess deaths" from publicly available mortality data -- considered internationally as the best way of assessing the pandemic's true toll -- show that Russia has recorded nearly 550,000 more deaths than in an average year between June 2021 and the start of the pandemic.

That is nearly four times higher than the official toll of 150,000, provided by Russia's government coronavirus task force. It also does not take into account June and July, which have been the deadliest months of the third wave for the country.

[We] "are in the heart of a storm, which no one even tried to prevent," Alexander Dragan, a data analyst who has tracked Russia's pandemic statistics, wrote in a Medium post this month.

The wave of infections and deaths has hit as Russia had erected few defences to stem it. By June, authorities had lifted most of the limited restrictions that had been in place and spoke of an end to the pandemic in sight. Restaurants, bars and shops were working as usual, most workers had returned to offices, people were packing out events.

As the numbers surged in June, authorities in some regions scrambled to reimpose measures. In Moscow, where the mayor's office has taken a more pro-active approach, companies were told to make some staff work from home and bars made to shut at 11 p.m. A small number of badly hit regions reimposed lockdowns.

But in most places restrictions have remained light and life is largely unaltered. In St. Petersburg, authorities in June allowed mass events, permitting thousands to throng during a city-wide graduation celebration and to attend Euros 2020 soccer matches. And in most regions, events involving hundreds of people are still permitted.

The result has been the virus -- accelerated by the delta variant -- has burned through Russia almost unrestricted.

The wave flooded hospitals in many regions from the start of June. In cities across Russia, local authorities warned they had run out of beds and were forced to open emergency reserve hospitals.

In St. Petersburg, medics told ABC News hospitals were packed with COVID patients since mid-June. Dmitry, a doctor at a hospital in the city said its 450 beds had been filled for the last month and that patients had to be kept in corridors, although the situation had improved in the last week.

The numbers were putting a huge strain on medical workers, he said, saying one medic was often having to look after 30 patients.

"It's really a lot," he said, also requesting anonymity because he was not permitted to comment publicly.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg the wave appears to be finally easing, with space appearing at last in hospitals. But in other regions where the wave arrived later, cases continue to climb. And the peak of deaths, which lag two to three weeks behind infections, in most places has still not arrived.

Alexey Raksha, a demographer who formerly worked at Russia's state statistics agency Rostat, told ABC News he estimated Russia might see between 70,000-90,000 deaths for July alone.

"We're yet to see the peak of deaths. And I predict that July could be the worst month" so far, Raksha said.

Some doctors and experts blamed the scale of the third wave on the messaging from authorities that the pandemic was essentially over and abandoning restrictions.

"At the end of the second wave they were telling us that everything is going down, down, down, everything is super. They loosened everything up and basically people cut loose," said Viktoria.

"Russia is the country where COVID dissidents actually won," Raksha said. "The result is hundreds of thousands (at least 200-300k) deaths above what could have happened otherwise," he wrote in a message.

Russian officials had said they hoped to end the pandemic with vaccines developed by the country.

But the level of vaccination in Russia has stalled in mid-spring at around 14%, despite Russia having one of the world's first COVID-19 vaccines, amid widespread reluctance among Russians to get the jab. Polls have showed around two-thirds of Russians do not intend to get vaccinated.

Experts have in part blamed that reluctance on authorities' refusal to enforce tough restrictions and mixed messages suggesting that the situation in Russia was not so bad and underplaying the real number of deaths.

"Naturally, if people don't believe that COVID is serious they have no motivation to get vaccinated," Irina Yakutenko, a science journalist told the Russian news site, Bumaga."Crudely speaking, the government did a lot so that so many people haven't got the jab."

As the third wave hit, authorities have launched a drive to try to overcome the vaccine hesitancy.

Moscow's mayor made vaccination mandatory for people working in public-facing roles including restaurant workers, teachers, hairdressers and public transport staff -- amounting to around 2 million people. A growing number of other regions followed suit, making Russia one of the few countries in the world to introduce large-scale mandatory vaccination.

In Moscow, authorities also announced unvaccinated people would not be able to access routine medical treatments at hospitals. For three weeks, a new rule required people to get a QR-code showing proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test to dine inside restaurants.

The push appears to have had an effect; the number of those vaccinated has climbed in the few weeks, according to official statistics and independent experts.

However, it's not clear that pace will be kept up. Moscow has now backtracked over the rule requiring vaccination for indoor dining and the Kremlin has indicated it opposes broadening mandatory vaccination to the population at large. That puts in doubt whether Russia will reach a sufficient level of vaccination by the autumn to head off a deadly fourth wave.

Dmitry, the doctor in St. Petersburg said he did not have much hope a new wave would be avoided, even as the current wave eased.

"I think it's a sort of calm before the storm," he told ABC News.

He said both authorities and citizens needed to accept more restrictions to do so, alongside vaccination.

"In my view it's better to cancel concerts for half a year than over the course of two years bury a large number of people," he said.

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