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scyther5/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. military confirmed late Thursday that some American troops were evacuated for blast injuries sustained in Iran's ballistic missile attacks on bases in Iraq last week.

Ten service members injured at Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq were flown out of the country on Wednesday, and another service member was flown out on Jan. 10. Eight were taken to Landstuhl, Germany, while the three others were taken to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, according to a statement from U.S. Central Command.

"While no U.S. service members were killed in the Jan. 8 Iranian attack on Al Asad Air base, several were treated for concussion symptoms from the blast and are still being assessed," said Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, in the statement released Thursday night. "As a standard procedure, all personnel in the vicinity of a blast are screened for traumatic brain injury, and if deemed appropriate are transported to a higher level of care."

"When deemed fit for duty, the service members are expected to return to Iraq following screening," Urban said. "The health and welfare of our personnel is a top priority and we will not discuss any individual's medical status."

Pentagon officials told reporters on Friday that some of the individuals did not report symptoms until several days after the attack.

"The symptoms of suspected TBI often do not fully materialize themselves until days after an injury and thus often require continued monitoring and follow on care," said Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah.

Because Al Asad does not have a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan on base, it was determined the service members should receive treatment at other medical facilities, the officials said.

It was first disclosed that some Americans suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the Al Asad attack earlier this week when journalists were allowed to tour the damage to the base on Monday. The Pentagon and Defense Secretary Mark Esper were only notified on Thursday, less than 24 hours after the bulk of the troops were evacuated, the officials said.

Esper then told the department to release the information publicly, said Chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman. Staff at the White House were also informed of the evacuations, Farah said.

In the wake of the attack, which was done in retaliation for the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, President Donald Trump said no one was injured.

"I'm pleased to inform you the American people should be extremely grateful and happy," Trump said Jan. 8 in an address to the nation. "No Americans were harmed in last night's attack by the Iranian regime."

But the officials said the president was likely not aware of the service members with TBI symptoms. Injuries reported up the chain of command are those deemed life-threatening or if an individual loses a limb or eyesight. Given those reporting requirements, TBI would not meet the threshold for the Pentagon to be notified of the injuries, and that's why the department was only told on Thursday, officials said.

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Iranian Supreme Leader Press Office / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images(TEHRAN, Iran) -- Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Friday that Iran's attack against a U.S. military base was "a blow to the U.S. image as a superpower."

Iran's supreme leader, who was leading prayers in Tehran for the first time in eight years, used the occasion to praise the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force and its former commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a close ally who was killed earlier this month in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad airport.

“[A] Day of Allah means when you witness the hand of God in incidents, the day that tens of millions in Iran and hundreds of thousands in Iraq and other countries came to the streets to honor the blood of the Quds Force commander, shaping the biggest farewell of the world,” Khamenei said. “Nothing can do that except of the powerful hand of God.”

“These are the turning points of the history,” he added. "The IRGC's reaction was a military blow, but even beyond, it was a blow to the U.S. image as a superpower."

Iran attacked two U.S. military bases in Iraq in the early hours of Jan. 8, five days after the killing of Soleimani. No one was killed in the attack.

Eleven American service members, however, were recently flown out of Iraq after sustaining head injuries in the strikes, the U.S. military announced.

As public sentiment in Iran turned against the U.S., with millions taking to the streets to mourn Soleimani’s death, the news was soon sidelined when a Ukrainian passenger airplane crashed in Tehran just hours after the missile attacks, killing all 176 passengers and crew members on board.

Despite the initial denial by Iranian aviation officials, officials in Tehran later admitted its air defense “unintentionally” fired missiles at the airplane..

But at Friday Prayers, Khamenei said that the plane crash and subsequent protests were being used by Iran’s enemies to distract from the IRGC victory in striking against the U.S. bases in Iraq.

“The plane crash made our enemy happy as much as it saddened us,” he said. “They used it as means of questioning the IRGC and the Islamic Republic system. But they made a mistake.”

Khamenei also criticized the U.K., France and Germany’s attempt to apply pressure on the regime to adhere to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal as another means to distract from Tehran’s perceived victory in its strike against the U.S. The three counties jointly announced this week that they “trigger the dispute mechanism” of the nuclear deal, which amounts to a formal accusation of Iran violating the terms of the agreement.

In response, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned during a televised cabinet meeting Wednesday that soldiers from the three European countries “may be in danger.”

Unless a resolution can be reached between the parties within a period 60 days, the three countries, who are still signatories to the deal despite the U.S. pulling out, could end up returning all of the pre-deal sanctions on Iran.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump moved to de-escalate the crisis in the aftermath of the Iranian missile attacks, saying that “Iran appears to be standing down” and the “American people should be extremely grateful.”

However, Tehran still blames Washington for withdrawing from the nuclear deal unilaterally in May 2018, and the government has denied any possibility of a new round of negotiations unless all of the nuclear-related sanctions on the country are lifted.

“The enemy’s negotiation is contaminated with fraud and deception,” Khamenei said. “The gentlemen behind the negotiation table are the same as the terrorists in the Baghdad airport. This is the same iron hand, but in [a] velvet glove.”

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MivPiv/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- A Pentagon decision that could lead to a reduction in the number of U.S. troops in West Africa could come within four to eight weeks, according to Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The possible troop cut has drawn concerns that it could come at a time when the threat in the region from violent extremist groups is growing.

For months, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has been reassessing the mission priorities of the 5,200 troops currently stationed in Africa, part of a worldwide review by U.S. military commands to determine whether some missions should be cut in scope to realign their forces, resources and capabilities with the military's strategic focus on China and Russia.

The main focus of AFRICOM's review has been on the hundreds of American troops operating in West Africa who are providing logistical, intelligence and special operations support to the French military mission against Islamic extremist groups operating in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

Once AFRICOM's review is concluded Defense Secretary Mark Esper is expected to decide whether to accept the command's recommendations that may or may not include a possible troop cut in western Africa.

"I'd expect realistically that the AFRICOM review will be over and we'll probably get secretary-level decisions -- hard decisions, my guess is -- in a month or two maybe, maximum, maybe six weeks," Milley told reporters with him as he flew back to the United States from Europe, where he held meetings with his NATO counterparts.

News reports earlier this week that a U.S. troop withdrawal could occur sparked concerns from French officials.

A French presidential source told Agence France-Presse that the U.S. made "irreplaceable" contributions to its operations in west Africa, particularly with intelligence gathering and mid-air refueling.

"We would not be able to get these from other partners, especially when it comes to intelligence," said the official, who added that France would be sharing its concerns with the U.S. "at all levels."

Milley said the U.S. is working with the French to determine whether the level of support the U.S. is providing France is "too much, too little, is it about right, and is it the right capabilities."

But the nation's top military officer pushed back on the notion that "we are pulling out of Africa."

"I think that's a mischaracterization and an overstatement," said Milley.

"The proper term would be economy of force, which doesn't mean zero," he added. "It just means you've got to right-size it to the tasks and the threats at a level of effort that's appropriate to achieve your objectives."

As the National Defense Strategy prioritizes the U.S. military's focus on China and Russia, other geographic areas where the U.S. has operated in are becoming "economy of force" areas.

"Economy of force means you are going to use the least amount of force to achieve the minimum amount of objectives that you can achieve in support of the broader main effort," said Milley.

Milley said one question being asked by military officials conducting the review is whether the U.S. should be the one providing all the military support in the region.

"We certainly have capabilities, but the question is should they be applied or not," said Milley. "Maybe there are other countries that have the same types of capabilities that are not contributing that could contribute."

The majority of AFRICOM's 5,200 military personnel are serving at a base in the east African country of Djibouti where the U.S. supports Somalia's fight against the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab terror group.

The U.S. military presence in western Africa had historically involved the rotation of small numbers of U.S. troops helping to train local militaries.

But that all changed when France intervened in Mali in 2013 to push back Islamic extremists who seemed poised to overthrow that country's government.

The United States quickly provided intelligence and logistical support to the original French mission. Since then, Africa Command has regularly deployed small teams of U.S. special operations forces to the region, primarily advising and assisting the Nigerien military.

The number of American troops in western Africa peaked at 800 as the U.S. expanded a remote desert airstrip in Niger and turned it into a hub for drones used in intelligence-gathering missions around the region.

But America's growing military role remained little-known until October 2017, when four U.S. Army special operations soldiers were killed in an ambush. As a result of that incident, U.S. Africa Command increased the force protection and the resourcing of American military teams operating in western Africa.

U.S. Africa Command is the first of the U.S. military's regional commands to undertake the worldwide review of missions. Those responsible for South America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia will soon be undertaking their own reviews.

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Metropolitan Police(LONDON) -- A man in London has been sentenced to 10 years in jail for his part in a daring a smash-and-grab raid at a jewelry store, with the police sharing dramatic footage of the robbery.

The video shows the moment a black Range Rover plows through the front of the jewelry store in Shepherds Bush, London, on Oct. 25, 2019.

With the store's front windows smashed, three masked individuals exit the vehicle then proceed to break the casings with what appear to be large sledgehammers. The robbers ransack the store, putting jewelry into bags as onlookers are left stunned.

But as the suspects attempt to flee the scene of the crime, members of the public are seen gathering outside, and one of them prevents the robbers from leaving the store by waving what appears to be a large pole. The robbers are then forced to smash through another door using a hammer, leaving the Range Rover at the scene.

Although the trio is seen on the video escaping the store, one of them, Ben Wegener, was collared outside by members of the public and was arrested at the scene.

The other two suspects managed to escape and are still at large.

Wegener, 34, pleaded guilty to robbery, possession of an offensive weapon, dangerous driving, criminal damage and receiving stolen goods in November, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Jan. 16.

Detective Constable Sam Weller, who led the investigation into the robbery, said that it was "sheer luck" nobody was hurt in the incident.

“This was a reckless robbery committed in front of shoppers on a busy high street," Weller said in a statement. "It was sheer luck that no one was seriously injured when the vehicle smashed through the shop front, and the shop owner and customers were threatened with serious violence when the robbers where inside."

"The raid was thwarted by members of the public who chased down and held Wegener as he tried to escape. This was a terrifying incident for the victims and everyone who witnessed it unfold," he added.

The Metropolitan Police are now urging anyone with information about the other two individuals involved to come forward as they seek to identify them.

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Oleksii Liskonih/iStock(LONDON) -- Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen called for China to respect Taiwan's sovereignty and its commitment to democracy, just days after she won reelection in a landslide victory.

Tsai -- who is the first female president of the Republic of China -- said Taiwan's election results sent a strong message to the world.

"We are a successful democracy, we have a decent economy [and] we deserve respect from China," she said earlier this week in an interview with BBC.

With a high voter turnout, Tsai garnered more than 8 million votes, a record high, handily winning her second term.

Tsai focused her campaign primarily on mainland China's increasingly aggressive encroachment on the island state and the Democratic Progressive Party's commitment to democracy. She even rallied support from districts that traditionally vote for opposition candidates -- in large part due to the backing of the younger generation, who are more likely to identify themselves as Taiwanese, a people separate from China.

Citing the intensifying threats, increasing military exercises and continuing efforts to cut Taiwan off from its international allies, Tsai said she believes more people in Taiwan are getting a sense that "the threat is real."

With the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, Tsai said it is only a warning of what "one party, two systems" really looks like.

Her predecessor, Ma Ying-Jeou, was able to build strong economic ties with China by maintaining the ambiguous status of Taiwan's sovereignty.

But Tsai has faced a different situation in recent years and renounced the previously agreed upon ambiguity, saying it "can no longer serve the purposes it was intended to serve."

Given Taiwan's reliance on its economic relationship with China, part of the Tsai administration's priorities center on diversifying and expanding the island's economy -- including convincing Taiwanese investors to relocate their factories back from China.

China has long claimed sovereignty over Taiwan, starting first when nationalists escaped to the island after losing the Chinese Civil War in 1949.

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the attitude toward Taiwan has only gotten more aggressive. After Taiwan's election, Xi issued a warning saying "unification" is his condition if there were to be any talks or advances between the two governments.

For Tsai and many others, Taiwan has developed its own identity, government, military and laws and functions as a sovereign country.

"We don't have a need to declare ourselves an independent state," Tsai told the BBC. "We are an independent country already and we call ourselves the Republic of China."

Tsai emphasized her desire to deepen relations with the United States throughout her first term during her campaign. The U.S. has not formally recognized Taiwan as independent, but has maintained a strong, unofficial relationship with the island.

Since last week's election, many U.S. political leaders have issued statements congratulating Tsai on her victory, despite possible anger from the Chinese government.

Leaders including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who called this a "momentous election" where millions of Taiwanese reaffirmed their commitment to a free and open democracy, adding the "U.S. looks forward to further strengthening our firm partnership and friendship with Taiwan."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thanked Tsai for her leadership and praised Taiwan as a model and a force for good.

When asked about her next steps with regards to China, Tsai said it's time for China to "face reality."

"If they are not prepared to face reality, whatever we offer won't be satisfying to them," she told the BBC.

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Oleksii Liskonih/iStock(KIEV, Ukraine) -- Ukrainian police are now investigating two major cases related to the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, one around possible illegal surveillance of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and the other around a suspected attack by Russian military hackers targeting a company where the son of former Vice President Joe Biden sat on the board.

On the Yovanovitch case, the interior ministry said in a statement Thursday that police had opened a criminal investigation in light of text messages released by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee this week between two associates of Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

On the alleged hacking case, Ukrainian police said Thursday they were now investigating a suspected attack by Russian military hackers that targeted Burisma, the Ukraine-based energy company that employed Hunter Biden.

Earlier this week, cyber-security firm Area 1 said it had discovered that hackers who appeared to be from Russia's military agency, the GRU, had mounted a concerted phishing campaign against Burisma employees, trying to break into their emails and collect data.

The attacks occurred at the height of the impeachment hearings in November, and Area 1 speculated that the Russian hackers were searching for material that could be damaging to the Bidens that could then be leaked, following a model they had used in the 2016 election against the Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton.

Ukraine's cyber police said it believed the attack -- which also targeted Kvartal 95, the production company that produced Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's TV show before the former actor was elected -- was "probably committed by the Russian special services" and they were in the process of identifying the people involved. It said Ukraine had also asked the FBI to join the investigation.

Meanwhile, in the text messages released by the House committee this week, Republican congressional candidate Robert Hyde appeared to suggest to Lev Parnas, a Florida businessman now at the center of the impeachment controversy, that he had people following Ambassador Yovanovitch's movements in Ukraine.

Ukrainian police are now looking to see if there was surveillance and, if so, whether it had violated Ukrainian law or international conventions obliging host countries to protect foreign diplomats there, the ministry said.

"Ukraine's position is not to interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States of America. However, the published records contain the fact of possible violation of the legislation of Ukraine and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which protects the rights of a diplomat in the territory of another country," the ministry's statement said.

"After analyzing these materials, the National Police of Ukraine upon their publication started criminal proceedings under part 2 of Art. 163 (Violation of the secrecy of correspondence, telephone conversations, telegraph or other correspondence) and part 1 of Art. 182 (Unlawful collection, storage, use of confidential information about a person, violation of privacy) of the Criminal Code of Ukraine," the statement continues.

The ministry said investigators were examining whether any laws had been broken or if the messages had simply been "bravado and fake in an informal conversation between two US citizens." Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has requested the U.S.' assistance in the investigation, it said.

The allegations that the Giuliani associates may have been spying on a U.S. diplomat are potentially explosive for Trump, coming as the trial for his impeachment begins in the Senate.

Parnas, a Soviet-born businessperson based in Florida, took part in Giuliani's campaign to press the Ukrainian government to open investigations into Biden.

Parnas has said he and Giuliani were seeking to have Yovanovitch removed as ambassador at the same time, having deemed her an obstacle to their effort. Yovanovitch was recalled abruptly by Trump before the end of her term last year and has testified in the impeachment inquiry that she believed she was the victim of a deliberate smear campaign.

In the messages from March and April released by the House Committee, Hyde, a supporter of Trump, and Parnas also discuss their desire to have Trump fire Yovanovitch, lamenting that she had not yet been removed. In the course of those messages, Hyde then gave a series of updates on Yovanovitch that suggested he or others were watching her in Kyiv and perhaps monitoring her communications.

"She's talked to three people. Her phone is off. Her computer is off," Hyde wrote in one message.

In others, Hyde, who referred to Yovanovitch as a "b----," noted Yovanovitch's heavy security, and in another said, "We have a person inside."

Several of Hyde's messages suggested he had other people in Kyiv tracking the ambassador.

"My contacts are asking what are the next steps because they cannot keep going to check people will start to ask questions," he wrote.

Hyde repeatedly asked Parnas what "next steps" were, saying that the unidentified people were "willing to help if we/you would like a price," and "guess you can do anything in Ukraine with money ... is what I was told."

Parnas texted back: "lol."

Since the messages' release, Hyde has dismissed them as joking around with Parnas.

"I was never in Kiev," he wrote on Twitter Wednesday. "For them to take some texts my buddy's [sic] and I wrote back to some dweeb we were playing with that we met a few times while we had a few drinks is definitely laughable."

Yovanovitch through her lawyer has called the text messages between Parnas and Hyde "disturbing" and called for them to be investigated.

"We trust that the appropriate authorities will conduct an investigation to determine what happened," Lawrence S. Robbins, Yovanovitch's attorney, said in a statement.

In an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on Wednesday, Parnas apologized to Yovanovitch for the smear and disinformation campaign against her. In the explosive interview, he also claimed that Trump had been aware of all he and Giuliani's efforts.

"He was aware of all of my movements," Parnas said. "I wouldn't do anything without the help of Rudy Giuliani or the president."

Parnas has suggested he would be willing to be called as a witness in the Senate impeachment trial. He and his fellow Soviet-born business partner, Igor Fruman, last year were indicted on charges of conspiracy, making false statements and falsification of records, in a case where prosecutors allege they made large campaign donations to Republican candidates after receiving millions of dollars originating from Russia. Both men have denied the charges.

Democrats have condemned the possibility that Yovanovitch was being spied on and promised to investigate.

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Wednesday called the situation "outrageous."

"This must be fully investigated as the Senate conducts the impeachment trial," he tweeted. "We have a responsibility to hold this lawless administration to account."

The developments once again thrust Ukraine into U.S. politics, a place its leadership under Zelenskiy, has been at pains to try to avoid.

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NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment(SYDNEY) -- Firefighters in Australia successfully embarked on a secret mission to save the prehistoric -- and extremely rare -- Wollemi pine trees from the bushfires ravaging the country, officials said.

The country's Minister of Energy and Environment said that thanks to the mission, the trees that "survived the dinosaurs ... look like they'll survive these bushfires."

"Wollemi National Park is the only place in the world where these trees are found in the wild and, with less than 200 left, we knew we needed to do everything we could to save them," Matt Kean, the country's minister of Energy and Environment, said in a statement.

The exact location of the trees is kept secret from the public to prevent contamination, but four firefighters were asked to visit the site for the mission.

The operation involved air tankers spraying fire retardant and firefighters setting up an irrigation system in the gorge where the trees are located to increase moisture content on the ground, according to a press release from Kean's office.

As the fire approached the trees, helicopters dumped buckets of water on the fire edge to reduce its impact on the grove of trees.

Until 1994, Wollemi trees were believed to have been extinct. Once officials realized some hundred still existed, they have worked to protect them. Because the trees are considered a "critical habitat," according to a spokesman for Kean, it is illegal for the public to go anywhere near them.

Wollemi National Park is located in New South Wales, a state that has been particularly devastated by the fires that began in September 2019.

As of Friday local time, 85 bush and grass fires were still burning, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. Thirty of those fires were still not contained.

Yet heavy rain in the area offered reprieve and hope to many residents.

In just 24 hours, more than 10 communities in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales recorded their best rainfall in years, according to the local network Nine News, citing the Bureau of Meteorology.

The rainfall wasn't all good news, though. Severe thunderstorms have caused power outages across New South Wales, according to Ausgrid, an electricity company.

This season's bushfires began about two months before the usual start date of December and are expected to continue for at least another few weeks, possibly months.

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Circle Creative Studio/iStock(LONDON) -- As his family continues to negotiate his future, Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, stepped out Thursday for an official royal engagement.

Harry, 35, hosted the Rugby League World Cup 2021 draw at Buckingham Palace in his role as royal patron of the Rugby Football League, a patronage he's held since 2016, when he took it over from his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth.

The Duke of Sussex also on Thursday announced with the Rugby Football League a new initiative focused on mental health, a key focus of Harry's charitable work.

Today, The Rugby League World Cup 2021 launched a Mental Fitness Charter, supported by The Duke of Sussex. @RLWC2021 #RLWC2021Draw

— The Royal Family (@RoyalFamily) January 16, 2020

The event was the first time Harry has made an official royal appearance since delivering the bombshell news last week with his wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, concerning their future roles with the royal family.

The parents of 8-month-old Archie announced in a statement shared via Instagram that they planned to "step back" from their roles as senior members of the royal family, become financially independent, split their time between the U.K. and North America, and launch a charitable entity.

Harry has been involved in discussions with his family since that Jan. 8 announcement about what exactly his and Meghan's futures will look like.

Meghan flew from the U.K. to Canada last week to reunite with Archie -- who stayed in Canada after the family's holiday vacation there -- while Harry stayed in the U.K. and participated in a family summit Monday with Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles and Prince William.

It is expected that Harry will fly to Canada in the next week or so to reunite with Meghan and Archie.

Meghan was spotted for the first time since the announcement on Tuesday when she was photographed boarding a seaplane from Vancouver Island to Vancouver.

In Vancouver, she visited a women's shelter, the Downtown Eastside Women's Center, and Justice for GIrls, an organization focused on ending violence against girls and young women, according to its website.

Queen Elizabeth confirmed on Monday, after the family summit, that Harry and Meghan would begin a "period of transition" during which they will spend time in Canada and the U.K.

No further details have been released so far about the couple's future roles with the royal family.

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iStock(WASHINGTON) -- A bipartisan group of lawmakers mourned the death of U.S. citizen Mustafa Kassem -- who died in Egyptian prison after being imprisoned for over six years on trumped up charges -- and they demanded the Trump administration impose sanctions on Egyptian officials as punishment.

The Trump administration was accused by some members for abandoning Kassem, who made multiple pleas for President Donald Trump to secure his freedom from Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi.

"The White House refused to use its leverage to obtain his release. Instead, Trump has called President el-Sisi a 'great friend' and his 'favorite dictator.' That is as appalling as it is insulting to the families of President Sisi's victims," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

There is no excuse for what happened in this situation. ... It's an absolute disgrace," said Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., who was Kassem's representative and advocated for his release.

"Egypt needs us more than we need them," said King, calling for a review of U.S. aid and the implementation of sanctions.

A New York City taxi driver and father of two young children, Kassem was detained by security forces in August 2013, accused of participating in protests against the military's takeover of the Egyptian government. But during his mass trial with more than 700 co-defendants, the Egyptian authorities never presented individual evidence against Kassem, whose lawyers told ABC News that, at the time, he was out to exchange money and shop the night before returning to the U.S.

The night of Kassem's arrest, then-Gen. el-Sisi crushed a sit-in protest in support of the former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. He was ousted by el-Sisi and the military one month earlier after mass protests against his rule. The crackdown by el-Sisi's security forces killed more than 800 people, according to human rights groups, with hundreds detained.

In the mass trial, Kassem was convicted of trying to overthrow the government and sentenced to 15 years in jail. The day of his sentencing in September 2018 -- already imprisoned for over five years -- he began a hunger strike and wrote letters to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence begging for help.

"I am losing my will and don't know how else to get your attention," he wrote in those letters, adding that while he knows "full well that I may not survive," he had no choice.

He died Monday, reportedly of heart failure, according to his lawyers at Pretrial Rights International.

The top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker called Kassem's death "needless, tragic and avoidable" on Monday. But the White House, which has touted its ability to secure Americans' freedom overseas, including Aya Hijazi from el-Sisi's Egypt, has been silent.

Instead, Trump hosted Egypt's foreign minister in the Oval Office Tuesday, as part of negotiations with Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over a dam. A National Security Council spokesperson declined to say whether Trump raised Kassem's case with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.

"We have leverage. We have influence. We are not using it today," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., speaking alongside Leahy, King and others at a press conference organized by the Project on Middle East Democracy, a nonpartisan advocacy group. "We have to put the unfortunate death of Mustafa Kassem in the context of an administration that has frankly abdicated its responsibility to lead globally on the issue of civil rights and human rights."

Leahy and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., wrote to Trump Wednesday, demanding that he sanction those Egyptian officials responsible for Kassem's death under the Global Magnitsky Act.

A senior State Department official said Monday it was "premature" to talk about repercussions for el-Sisi's government. But several speakers at Wednesday's presser said there must be accountability for the death of a U.S. citizen.

"Mustafa trusted that his U.S. citizenship would save him. He knew he was innocent. He begged the president. ... But we failed him. He was abandoned," said Diane Foley, the mother of U.S. journalist James Foley who was detained and ultimately executed by ISIS. She's since become an advocate for Americans detained abroad.

Egypt receives about $1.5 billion in U.S. assistance each year -- the second-most after Israel. But there are at least six other U.S. citizens currently detained in Egyptian prisons-- although that's a tiny fraction of the estimated 60,000 political prisoners el-Sisi has jailed, according to Human Rights Watch.

"Egypt needs us more than we need them," said King.

There are at least seven Americans still detained in Egypt, according to Van Hollen.

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dicus63/iStock(MOSCOW) -- Russia’s president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday launched a major political shake-up, replacing his prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and proposing a series of changes to Russia’s constitution in what experts said were attempts to create options for retaining power should he step down in 2024.

Putin used his annual state of the nation address in Moscow to announce several proposed amendments to the constitution, which would transfer greater power to Russia’s parliament and which he said would be put to a national vote.

A few hours after the speech, Medvedev then announced he and the entire cabinet were stepping down at Putin’s request.

Sitting alongside Putin at a meeting broadcast on state television, Medvedev said Putin would now appoint a new government to help carry through the constitutional reforms.

"In this context it’s obvious that we as the government of the Russian Federation must give the president of our country the opportunity to do everything necessary for this decision," Medvedev said.

Putin said Medvedev, a long-time ally who held the presidency for him between 2008 and 2012, will now become deputy chairman of Russia’s national security council.

Shortly afterwards, Putin named Medvedev’s successor as prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, the relatively little-known head of the Federal Tax Service, saying his candidacy had been sent to parliament for approval. Mishustin, 53, is not thought of as a major power broker or a member of Putin's inner circle, although as head of the tax agency he has been praised for overhauling Russia's backward tax collection system, introducing data technologies that have made it one of the most advanced in the world.

The moves were immediately interpreted by observers as part of efforts by Putin to prepare for his looming transition in 2024, when constitutional term limits will force him to leave the presidency.

The changes to the constitution that Putin suggested in his speech would transfer powers away from the presidency and strengthen the parliament, known as the Duma, as well as the Federation Council -- Russia’s equivalent of the Senate -- and the Supreme Court.

One key change would take the power of selecting a cabinet from the presidency and pass it to the parliament. Currently, the prime minister and ministers are appointed by the president. But under Putin’s proposal, parliament would now select the prime minister who would then nominate his own ministers for approval by members of parliament.

Another change would grant the Federation Council the authority to confirm the appointments of the head of Russia’s key security agencies.

The parliament’s deputy speaker, Alexander Zhukov told reporters after the speech that the national vote on the amendments would likely take place this year, perhaps in September.

In his speech, Putin said the changes would help Russia’s parliament take more responsibility in policymaking.

But most experts said the changes were opening moves to lay the ground for Putin to retain power after 2024, even if he is no longer in the presidency.

Russia’s constitution currently sets a two consecutive term limit on presidencies, and Putin, who has ruled the country since 2000, is now in his fourth. In 2008, he sidestepped the limit on consecutive terms by temporarily passing the presidency to Medvedev while he became prime minister before returning to office in 2012.

But Putin, 67, has suggested this time he will not repeat the trick and on Wednesday suggested that the word "consecutive" be removed from the constitutional article on term limits.

Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, said Putin’s proposals showed he had decided not to stay on as president but was clearly preparing to maintain his power in another position. That meant, Putin was also not planning on replacing himself with a successor, he said.

"And so, they need to remove the question itself -- of selecting a successor," Makarkin told ABC News. The proposed changes to the constitution were intended to ensure any successor to Putin would be weaker, Makarkin said.

"Putin himself would not like there to be a second Putin," he said.

Many noted Putin’s suggestion to strengthen the role of the State Council in the constitution. One widely speculated option is that Putin could become head of a reformed council as a way for him to remain a supreme leader figure, following a model employed by China’s Deng Xiaoping.

Medvedev's stepping down as prime minister was also seen by some as a sign he is now out of consideration as a candidate for Putin's successor. Valued for his loyalty by Putin for returning the presidency after his enforced break, in recent years Medvedev has become a liability, widely mocked among Russians and viewed as corrupt.

The proposed changes would not mean a major transfer of power while Putin remains president as the presidential administration currently dominates Russia’s parliament, which acts as a rubber stamp for the Kremlin's actions. Putin’s party United Russia holds a large majority and the parliament is stocked with faux opposition parties that actually support Putin.

Putin also emphasised that Russia "must remain a presidential republic," and said that such a huge and diverse country cannot survive without a strong presidency. The president would also retain the key power to fire a prime minister and other ministers, the Russian president said.

As he has before, Putin focused his speech heavily on the need to improve living standards and fight poverty levels. At times he has used his national address to deliver menacing diatribes against the West and in 2018 he unveiled a series of super weapons that he claimed placed Russia ahead in any new arms race.

But in this year's address, he avoided speaking about international affairs and instead promised a series of measures to aid families, including providing free school meals to all children for the first four years of their education. One of the other constitutional changes he proposed was a stipulation that the minimum wage in Russia not be lower than the poverty line.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Marilyn Nieves/iStock(LONDON) -- An American man accused of killing a hotel employee who he claims attacked his family in Anguilla is suing the resort company that operates the hotel for negligence.

Scott Hapgood, 44, and his family, who all reside in Darien, Connecticut, filed the lawsuit against Auberge Resorts on Monday in the superior court of California's Marin County, where the company is based. The complaint alleges negligence in the hiring and supervision of Kenny Mitchel, 27, a former maintenance worker at the upscale Malliouhana Resort in Anguilla, a British Caribbean territory. The Hapgood family is seeking undisclosed damages.

"Auberge Resorts failed to ensure the safety and protection of its hotel guests, the Hapgood family," their attorney Juliya Arbisman said in a statement. "As a result, Auberge Resorts should be held responsible for the harm that the Hapgood family has suffered."

Auberge Resorts, which operates the Malliouhana Resort in Anguilla, did not respond to ABC News' request for comment Wednesday.

The lawsuit alleges that Hapgood was with his two daughters in a room at the Malliouhana Resort in Anguilla on April 13 during a family vacation when a man dressed in a hotel uniform knocked on the door "just a few minutes" after the girls walked back to the hotel room on their own. The man, later identified by Anguilla police as Mitchel, allegedly stated that he was there to fix a broken sink.

"In fact, there was no broken sink, and no one had called about one," the complaint states, "but since Mitchel was wearing the uniform of the luxury resort, Scott allowed him to go in to check on the sink."

After pretending to inspect the sink, Mitchel allegedly brandished a utility knife and demanded money from Hapgood, who "feared for his life and the lives of his daughters," according to the complaint. A "violent" scuffle ensued between the two men as Mitchel allegedly stabbed Hapgood with the knife and bit him repeatedly. Hapgood told his daughters to get help, so they ran to the resort's front desk screaming and crying, according to the complaint.

Hapgood managed to knock the knife out of Mitchel's hands and pin him down, according to the lawsuit. Other hotel employees eventually arrived, responding to the girls' calls for help.

"These hotel employees did not respond with any urgency or act particularly surprised at the event," the complaint states. "They even referred to the attacker by his first name, causing Scott to fear that these other hotel employees were in league with Mitchel as part of an orchestrated robbery. Scott told them that the attacker needed to be put into handcuffs."

Hapgood's wife had also returned to the room by this point and she, too, allegedly urged the hotel staff to place Mitchell in handcuffs and call police.

"Inexplicably, the hotel staff did not want to call the police or an ambulance and delayed in doing so," the complaint states.

Ultimately, the hotel security guard got there and restrained Mitchel until an ambulance arrived. Mitchel died in medical custody about an hour later, according to the complaint.

Hapgood was taken to a local hospital for his injuries and later escorted to the local police station. He was "shocked and surprised" to learn of Mitchel's death as he was giving his witness statement, according to the complaint.

Hapgood was arrested by Anguillan police and charged with manslaughter. He was ultimately released on $74,000 bond.

Hapgood, who works as a banker in New York City and was put on leave due to the criminal charge, has since returned home to Connecticut. The lawsuit states that Hapgood has gone back to Anguilla three times but decided against returning for additional court proceedings, due to concerns for his safety and doubts of the fairness of the island's judicial process. He is now considered a fugitive there. Anguilla's governor and attorney general have both called Hapgood's reasons for not returning "groundless."

An autopsy report showed Mitchel died of positional asphyxia and received blunt force injuries to his torso and other areas, according to The Associated Press. However, the Hapgood family's attorneys claim that a toxicology report showed Mitchel had alcohol and drugs in his system, and that he died from a cocaine overdose. ABC News has reached out to the Attorney General's Chambers of Anguilla to request a copy of the autopsy and toxicology reports.

Mitchel’s estate has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hapgood in the U.S. federal district court in Connecticut. They are seeking monetary damages of more than $75,000.

The lawsuit against Auberge Resorts alleges that Mitchel, a native of the neighboring island nation of Dominica, had been arrested and charged with rape less than three weeks before the alleged attack on Hapgood. Mitchel had also violated his bail conditions and spent additional time in police custody, according to the complaint. The lawsuit alleges that the pending criminal charge should have rendered Mitchel ineligible to work in Anguilla, and thus would have prevented the "nightmare" that the Hapgood family endured.

"Yet Auberge continued to allow him to work for the hotel and have access to its guests, including children," the complaint states. "The attack and harm to Scott and his family were foreseeable."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

RapidEye/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- Last year was the second warmest year on record around the globe, making the last decade the warmest in recorded history, according to a new government report released Wednesday.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Aeronautics and Space Administration said the higher average temperatures are the result of human activities that release greenhouse gases and that the trends of warming show that the effects of global warming and climate change are continuing beyond year-to-year fluctuations in temperature and weather.

Experts from NASA found that average global surface temperature has consistently increased since the 1880s, which their analysis found has been driven by emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases produced by human activity such as energy production and transportation.

“We crossed over into more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit warming territory in 2015 and we are unlikely to go back. This shows that what’s happening is persistent, not a fluke due to some weather phenomenon: we know that the long-term trends are being driven by the increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

In 2019 temperatures around the world were higher -- about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit or 0.98 degrees Celsius -- than the historical average, according to data from NASA and NOAA. It's the 43rd year in a row that temperatures were above average, the agencies said.

While the rise in temperature may seem small in terms of day-to-day weather, climate experts say even a small amount of warmer average temperatures can change weather patterns and trigger more serious consequences that may not be possible to reverse as the trend continues.

The amount of heat in the ocean was also the highest ever recorded in 2019. The oceans absorb heat and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which both raises the temperature and makes the water more acidic, threatening marine life in many areas.

Deke Arndt, chief of the global monitoring branch of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, said ocean temperature is an important measure of overall trends because roughly 90% of warming from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is transferred to the ocean.

Melting Sea ice continued last year, creating a major decline. Numbers in 2019 show the second-smallest coverage recorded in history in both the Arctic and Antarctic oceans.

Several parts of the world saw record-high average land temperatures including Australia, where high temperatures and drought made more severe by climate change are believed to have worsened the devastating wildfires. Parts of central Europe, Asia, southern Africa including the island of Madagascar, New Zealand, Alaska, Mexico and eastern South America also saw record high land temperatures.

"We are experiencing the impacts of global warming unfolding literally in real time,” Noah Diffenbaugh, senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment said ahead of the release, adding “the last decade in addition to being the warmest decade on record is a decade in which our understanding of climate change has grown in many ways.”

Diffenbaugh said that while a decade is more of a human measurement of time and is somewhat arbitrary in climate science, the long term trend confirms that despite fluctuations from year to year or in previous decades.

"Global warming is continuing and is very clearly distinguishable from the noise of the global climate system," he said.

Of the last decade, 2014-2018 ranked as the five warmest years on record. In the U.S., Alaska, Georgia and North Carolina felt the highest average temperatures on record with overall above-average temperatures in most of the country.

A separate analysis from the nonprofit Berkeley Earth found that 2019 was the second warmest year on Earth since 1850. That report found the global long-term average temperature will increase an average of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit -- or 1.5 degrees Celsius -- by 2035 at the current rate of warming.

That report says, "The increasing abundance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to human activities is the direct cause of this recent global warming."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Stephen Barnes/iStock(LONDON) -- A murder investigation has been launched after a bag of human remains has been found by the Irish police force.

An alarm was raised just after 10 p.m. local time on Monday when what appeared to be a bag of severed limbs were found outside a houses at the junction of Moatview Gardens and Drive, a quiet suburban housing project just outside of Dublin.

Officers arrived on the scene and sealed off the area.

The police service of the Republic of Ireland, also known as the Gardai, are currently asking for any information from local residents, in particular dash camera footage of drivers on the road between 9:30 and 10 p.m. in the area where the remains were found.

The authorities are working with Forensic Science Ireland, an associated office of the Department of Justice and Equality, to identify the remains found.

"I wish to express my shock and horror at the discovery of dismembered human remains in Dublin yesterday," Charlie Flanagan, the government minister for Justice and Equality, stated in a press release on Tuesday. "This was a depraved act of violence. I wish to extend my sincere sympathy to the family of the victim."

The minister announced a "full investigation" into what he described as a "dreadful crime."

"I also want to reassure people living in the locality that their concerns and the issue of violent crime in their area is being taken seriously at the highest levels," Flanagan added.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

GraceHenley/iStock(LONDON) -- Following the shocking news of Prince Harry and Meghan's decision to exist as senior royals, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were spotted making their first public appearance together amid the family's recent shakeup.

Many couldn't help but notice Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, dressed up in a green Alexander McQueen coat as she arrived in Bradford to visit a number of projects that support community and promote cohesion within it on Wednesday morning.

She also wore a midi-length black and white dress that included a bow from Zara.

Today The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are in Bradford — one of the UK’s most diverse cities — to visit projects which support and promote community cohesion #RoyalVisitBradford

— Kensington Palace (@KensingtonRoyal) January 15, 2020

Her chic ensemble was accessorized with Zeen earrings, a black Aspinal London handbag, and black shoes.

Kate in @ZARA

— Rebecca English (@RE_DailyMail) January 15, 2020

This won't be the last of us seeing Prince William and Kate carrying on their royal duties. The couple is slated to host a reception honoring the U.K.-Africa Investment Summit at Buckingham Palace next Monday.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

FILE photo - Каркоцкая Татьяна/iStock(NEW YORK) -- The devastation of the Australia bushfires has been nothing short of catastrophic: over 15 million acres of land burned, at least 25 dead, and one billion animals feared dead, according to an estimate from ecologists at The University of Sydney.

The intensity of the blazes has also paved the way for a common but dangerous weather event, known as a pyrocumulus cloud, that could cause even more destruction.

What exactly is it?

Pyrocumulus clouds, more colloquially known as "fire clouds," are formed when wildfires burn hot enough and the hot air and smoke released into the sky generates a strong upward motion, called updrafts.

The clouds are often gray, brown or black because of the smoke in the air, and can tower up to 5 miles (8 kilometers) high.

NASA has called them the "fire-breathing dragon of clouds," according to their website.

Ominous in form, the clouds can also develop dangerous weather systems of their own and potentially lead to more harder-to-tame wildfires.

Creating its own weather system

The heat and speed of the rising air within pyrocumulus clouds tend to create a highly turbulent atmosphere. Such an atmosphere can then create its own weather effects, including a fire-fueled thunderstorm cloud that make it more difficult to put out fires in certain climates.

In humid conditions, the effects of fire-fueled thunderstorm clouds can actually produce rainstorms that put out the fires.

However, in dry conditions, like in Australia and Southern California, rainfall is more likely to evaporate within the cloud itself and never reach the ground.

Even without the rain, the so-called "dry" lightning bolts of the thunderstorm cloud can rip through it and plunge to the surface, potentially sparking new fires.

Pyrocumulus clouds can also increase wildfire spotting, which is when a fire produces sparks or embers that are carried by the wind and start new blazes beyond the zone of the main one.

If one of the clouds becomes so large it is unstable, it could collapse on itself and lead to strong and erratic winds at the surface, which also increase spotting.

How common are pyrocumulus clouds?

More common than some may think, but it's hard to say exactly how often they occur.

Though researchers initially thought the clouds were caused by volcanic particles in the stratosphere, they are now more understood and, in turn, better tracked.

"Our paper also shows that pyroCbs happen more often than people realize," Dr. Glenn K. Yue, an atmospheric scientist at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., said back in 2010 after co-authoring a paper on pyrocumulonimbus.

In 2002, various sensing instruments detected 17 distinct pyrocumulonimbus events in North America alone, according to NASA.

More recent numbers were not immediately available, but the clouds have already been seen in Australia as a result of the wildfires that began in September 2019.

A time lapse of the pyrocumulous clouds forming above the Currowan fire this evening. It was recorded at around 7pm January 4 from Suttons Forest looking toward Bowral.
Thanks to Christopher Mortimer.#nswfires #nswrfs

— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) January 4, 2020

NASA has also been tracking the smoke from pyrocumulonimbus events and studying its affect on the atmosphere.

"Whether the smoke provides a net atmospheric cooling or warming, what happens to underlying clouds, etc., is currently the subject of intense study," according to NASA.

With the fires in Australia expected to last for at least a couple more weeks, possibly months, more pyrocumulus clouds -- and the aftermath they could leave -- should be expected.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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