World

Biden confronts Putin over Ukraine in high-stakes meeting

Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden told Russian President Vladimir Putin during a video meeting on Tuesday that the United States "would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation," as Russia builds up its forces on its border with Ukraine.

"President Biden voiced the deep concerns of the United States and our European Allies about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine and made clear that the U.S. and our Allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation," the White House said in a statement following the call, which the White House said lasted two hours and one minute.

Biden, the White House said, "reiterated his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and called for de-escalation and a return to diplomacy."

The call started at 10:07 a.m., according to the White House, and Russian TV showed Putin sitting at a long, wooden table looking at Biden on a TV monitor and the two men waving at each other.

"Welcome, Mr. President," Putin said.

"Hello. Good to see you again," Biden replied. "Unfortunately, last time we did not get to see each other at the G-20. I hope next time we meet we do it in person."

Putin spoke from his residence in the Russian resort city Sochi. Biden was in the White House Situation Room; the White House released a photograph showing him seated with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and other advisors.

During the meeting, the first conversation between the leaders since July, Biden planned to threaten "substantial economic countermeasures" if Russia prepared to proceed with a military invasion, a senior Biden administration official said Monday.

"What I am doing is putting together what I believe to be–will be the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do," Biden told ABC News White House correspondent MaryAlice Parks on Friday.

After his call with Putin, the White House said, Biden planned to speak with France's President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

The leaders had spoken the day before, after which the White House said they "called on Russia to de-escalate tensions"; agreed that diplomacy" was "the only way forward"; and "underscored their support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

The senior administration official said the U.S. was watching a series of events unfold similar to the lead-up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2014, when it annexed the Crimean Peninsula. That included moving troops to its border with Ukraine coupled with a "significant spike" in anti-Ukrainian propaganda on social media, the official said.

But, according to the official, the U.S. had not determined whether Putin had decided yet if he would attack.

"We do not know or have a clear indication that President Putin has actually made an–given an affirmative order here," the official said in a call with reporters. "It is more about planning intentions and then the kinds of movements that we have seen."

Ahead of the call, both the White House and Kremlin sought to lower expectations.

"It is very important not to have some overexcited, emotional expectations here," Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russia's Channel One on Monday.

Asked by ABC News White House correspondent Karen Travers if the White House's message was also to not have high expectations, White House press secretary Jen Psaki replied, "I think it is."

"The president is not going to hold back in conveying his concern," Psaki told another reporter.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday that Russia's "escalation" was "an immediate threat."

"The stakes for the president's call couldn't be clearer," McConnell said during remarks on the Senate floor.

In addition to Ukraine, Biden also spoken about strategic stability, ransomware and "joint work on regional issues such as Iran," the White House said.

The White House has made clear the U.S. is ready to support allies in the region if Russia decides to move forward with a military invasion in Ukraine.

"I think you could anticipate that in the event of an invasion, the need to reinforce the confidence and reassurance of our NATO allies and our eastern flank allies would be real, and the United States would be prepared to provide that kind of reassurance," the senior official said Monday. "That's just sort of applying the lessons of 2014 to 2021."

Notably, the official wouldn't specify whether that "reassurance" would come in the form of sanctions, U.S. forces, capabilities, or all of the above, nor what the hair trigger is for the support.

The official wouldn't go so far as to say outright that Biden would warn Putin the U.S. military could be used if the Russian military moves into Ukraine.

After Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the U.S. and the European Union leveled economic sanctions against Russia, and Russia was kicked out of the "Group of Eight" industrialized nations.

The United States also sent 600 troops to eastern Europe in a show of solidarity with Baltic nations on Russia's border. That deployment has morphed into a rotating set of relatively small U.S. deployments to eastern European nations.

"I don't want to use a public press call to talk about the particular sensitive challenges that President Biden will lay out for President Putin," the official said of Tuesday's call. "But I would say that the United States is not seeking to end up in a circumstance in which the focus of our countermeasures is the direct use of American military force, as opposed to a combination of support for the Ukrainian military, strong economic countermeasures, and substantial increase in support and capability to our NATO allies to ensure they remain safe."

In short: Biden will "make clear that there will be very real cost should Russia choose to proceed, but he will also make clear that there is an effective way forward with respect to diplomacy," the official said.

The administration's preferred option for response to any Russian aggression would be a series of economic sanctions in concert with European partners, and the official warned those would be "severe."

"We believe that we have a path forward that would involve substantial economic countermeasures by both the Europeans and the United States that would impose significant and severe economic harm on the Russian economy, should they choose to proceed. I'm not going to get into the specific details of that, but we believe that there is a way forward here that will allow us to send a clear message to Russia, that there will be genuine and meaningful and enduring costs to choosing to go forward should they choose to go forward with a military escalation in Ukraine," the official warned.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday ahead of Biden's call with Putin, and Zelensky tweeted that he had "agreed positions" with Blinken.

"Grateful to strategic partners & allies for the continued support of our sovereignty & territorial integrity," Zelensky wrote.

Biden himself will call Zelenskyy to provide a readout of his conversation with Putin afterward, the official said.

ABC News' Benjamin Siegel, Tanya Stukalova, Patrick Reevell and Trish Turner contributed to this report.

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US announces diplomatic boycott of Winter Olympics in China over human rights

Hou Yu/China News Service via Getty Images

 (WASHINGTON) -- The United States will not send an official delegation to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, the White House announced Monday, citing China's human rights record.

The diplomatic boycott means that U.S. athletes will still compete in the Games, which will start in February.

The Chinese government responded with swift condemnation of President Joe Biden's decision -- saying the Olympics shouldn't be "a stage for political shows" and warning of "resolute countermeasures."

But the Biden administration said it would not send senior U.S. government officials because of China's mass detention camps and forced sterilization campaign against Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in the country's western province -- policies that the U.S. government has determined constitute genocide and crimes against humanity.

Biden has been under growing pressure domestically to take some kind of action against the Beijing Games because of China's increasingly authoritarian policies at home and aggressive actions across the region. The decision to not send a delegation stops short of an outright boycott of the Games, as U.S. athletes will be participating.

"The athletes on Team USA have our full support. We will be behind them 100 percent, as we cheer them on from home," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, but the administration didn't think "it was the right step to penalize athletes who have been training, preparing for this moment."

"We will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games," Psaki added.

Sending prominent officials or public figures to the Olympics is a long tradition, with first lady Jill Biden leading a delegation to the Tokyo Games this past summer.

The Biden administration has said it is consulting U.S. allies on a path forward, but so far, no other country has announced a similar diplomatic boycott. Psaki said the U.S. informed allies of the decision before announcing it. Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and others are said to be weighing boycotts as well.

Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., took to Twitter to respond to the announcement, saying that "politicians calling for [a] boycott ... are doing so for their own political interests and posturing."

"In fact, no one would care about whether these people come or not, and it has no impact whatsoever on the #Beijing2022 to be successfully held," Liu tweeted Monday.

Beijing has repeatedly blasted any talk of a boycott, denouncing it as an affront to the "Olympic spirit" while denying any wrongdoing in its human rights record.

"U.S. politicians continue to hype diplomatic boycotts of the Beijing Winter Olympics. They are completely wishful-thinking, grandstanding and politically manipulative," Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a press conference Monday, ahead of the Biden administration's announcement.

It's also unclear if any U.S. officials were formally invited to the Games, where they usually attend the opening or closing ceremonies. Zhao said Monday that "American politicians" were not invited, without specifying who exactly or whether foreign delegations in general were.

Biden has tried to stabilize U.S.-Chinese relations, which have nosedived in recent years as Washington has grown increasingly concerned about Chinese aggression. He and Chinese leader Xi Jinping held a meeting last month via video teleconference, marking small progress on issues like China's travel bans on dual citizens and journalists visas.

But tensions have remained high over China's development of hypersonic and nuclear weapons, its menacing of Taiwan, and its human rights record, from the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, religious practice across the country, and especially the Uighurs in Xinjiang province. The detention of over one million Uighurs, the sterilization of Uighur women, and their forced labor in these camps has drawn U.S. sanctions and international condemnation.

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New York billionaire surrenders stolen antiquities worth $70M

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(NEW YORK) -- Billionaire investor and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt was forced to surrender $70 million worth of stolen antiquities and comply with a lifetime ban on collecting antiquities on Monday, the Manhattan District Attorney's office said.

Steinhardt had to give up 180 stolen antiquities, which court records said were looted and illegally smuggled out of 11 countries, trafficked by 12 criminal smuggling networks, and lacked verifiable provenance prior to appearing on the international art market.

The Larnax, a small coffin from the islands of Crete, Greece, dating back to 1400 BCE, was among the surrendered pieces.

The Larnax is valued at $1 million and was bought by Steinhardt for $575,000 in October 2016 from known antiquities trafficker Eugene Alexander, the DA said.

Payments for the piece were made using Seychelles-headquartered FAM Services and Satabank, a Malta-based financial institution that was suspended for money laundering, according to the DA's office.

While complaining about a subpoena requesting provenance documentation for another stolen antiquity, Steinhardt pointed to the Larnax and said to an Antiquities Trafficking Unit investigator, "You see this piece? There's no provenance for it. If I see a piece and I like it, then I buy it."

The 180 pieces will now be returned expeditiously to their rightful owners in 11 countries: Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Turkey.

The Manhattan District Attorney's office conducted a multi-year, multi-national investigation into Steinhardt's criminal conduct beginning in February 2017.

"For decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts without concern for the legality of his actions, the legitimacy of the pieces he bought and sold, or the grievous cultural damage he wrought across the globe," Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance said Monday.

"His pursuit of 'new' additions to showcase and sell knew no geographic or moral boundaries, as reflected in the sprawling underworld of antiquities traffickers, crime bosses, money launderers, and tomb raiders he relied upon to expand his collection," Vance added.

Investigators from the DA's Antiquities Trafficking Unit learned that Steinhardt possessed looted antiquities at his apartment and office.

They initiated a grand jury criminal investigation into his acquisition, possession and sale of more than 1,000 antiquities since at least 1987.

There were 17 judicially-ordered search warrants and they conducted joint investigations with law enforcement authorities in the 11 countries mentioned above.

Vance said the investigation developed compelling evidence that 180 were stolen from their country of origin and "exhibited numerous other evidentiary indicators of looting."

"Mr. Steinhardt is pleased that the District Attorney’s years-long investigation has concluded without any charges, and that items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries," Steinhardt's lawyers said in a statement Monday. "Many of the dealers from whom Mr. Steinhardt bought these items made specific representations as to the dealers’ lawful title to the items, and to their alleged provenance. To the extent these representations were false, Mr. Steinhardt has reserved his rights to seek recompense from the dealers involved."

Most of the 180 seized antiquities first surfaced in the possession of individuals who law-enforcement authorities later determined to be antiquities traffickers -- some of whom have been convicted of antiquities trafficking, and many of the seized antiquities were trafficked following civil unrest or looting.

Other items that were surrendered included the Stag's Head Rhyton, valued currently at $3.5 million and the Ercolano Fresco, valued at $1 million.

 

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Hundreds of migrants living in squalor in warehouse in Belarus amid ongoing border crisis

ABC News

(BRUZGI, Belarus) -- Parsa Akram now lives with her mother, father and brother under a warehouse shelf. The space is about 2 meters wide. The 18-year-old and her mother sleep in a tent, her brother and father on the ground.

They are among hundreds of people -- mostly from Iraqi Kurdistan -- now living in a warehouse about a mile from Belarus' border with Poland, caught up in the migration crisis that, although eased, has not ended.

The warehouse in Bruzgi is not a refugee center; it is just a packing warehouse, the kind Amazon or FedEx would use to store goods. People are now living on the stacks of shelves that would normally hold packages. Whole families like the Akrams are packed into the spaces under the shelving; others have clambered up to make nest-like beds in the higher levels.

"It's not a camp," Parsa said. "[It's] a chicken house!"

For months, thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, have found themselves trapped between Belarus and Poland amid a crisis allegedly engineered by Belarus' authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, who is accused of luring them to Europe's border in an effort to retaliate against the European Union for its support for Belarus' pro-democracy movement.

The migrants, mainly trying to reach western Europe, have been blocked by Poland and neighboring Lithuania, stranding them in forests along the border often for weeks, without food or shelter.

The crisis came to a head three weeks ago, when Belarus marched hundreds of migrants to a crossing point with Poland. Scenes of migrants sleeping in the open air in freezing temperatures and then violent clashes with Polish border guards, that Belarus was accused of inciting, attracted global attention.

Following the clashes, Belarus moved about 2,000 of the migrants to the warehouse, raising hopes the crisis might be easing.

Although better than the forest, the warehouse is not set up to house hundreds of people and after two weeks, conditions inside have rapidly deteriorated. When ABC News reporters visited this weekend, people were sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags and sometimes thin tents, huddled together in dirty clothes. There is almost no sanitation, just a few chemical toilets. People wash themselves from two portable water tanks set up in a yard slick with mud and slush.

There are dozens of children, including some a few months old, and pregnant women.

This week, Belarus' military brought a mobile sauna in a tent to allow people to wash, for many, the first time in a month. Belarus is also feeding people, giving them portions of buckwheat porridge twice a day. Food trucks, selling bread and snacks, are also set up.

Many people in the camp said they were sick. Several told ABC News they were suffering from food poisoning that they blamed on expired tinned food they said Belarusian authorities had given them.

There are also fears COVID-19 is in the camp. Belarusian authorities -- who have been accused of undercounting COVID cases more generally -- claim only two cases have been recorded in the warehouse. But the sound of coughing there is constant and ABC News reporters met a man being hospitalized with pneumonia on Sunday.

"People cannot wait any longer because the weather is getting really really cold. And all the people in here, they're all sick, they're getting sick so bad," said Zanyar Dishad, an 18-year-old from Kurdistan who was with his family.

Lukashenko visited the camp last Friday, accompanied by state television cameras. In a speech, he told the migrants he would not force them to go home and would do everything to help them reach Europe. He also demanded Poland and Germany take them in.

Belarusian authorities told the migrants European countries will soon take them, though there is no indication when or if this will happen. Several migrants said they believed Lukashenko was holding talks with the EU to get them across the border and many were unaware of the reasons behind his conflict with Europe.

"He's a very good man," said Karwan Jamal, 26, who is living now in a tent with his wife and 7-year-old son.

"He's very kind," his wife Narin added. "Because Belarus all the time helps all people in here."

In reality, Belarusian authorities refused to allow migrants out of the forests for weeks. Migrants in recent weeks have told ABC News that Belarusian border guards beat and robbed them, forcing them to cross back into Poland after being pushed back.

But EU efforts to cut off the flow of migrants to Belarus seem to be having an effect. The number of new arrivals has sharply and visibly dropped off. Belarus also appears to now be allowing people to leave the border area.

Hundreds of Iraqi citizens have also returned home in the last week on voluntary repatriation flights organized by Iraq's government, which said 1,800 people have returned already.

Among them was Balsam Khalaf, 51, who said he had given up after five months of being pushed back and forth across the border, saying he had been roughed up by Belarusian, Polish and Lithuanian guards.

"We turned to a bouncing ball between both sides," he said in an interview in Baghdad this week.

It is unclear how many migrants are still in Belarus, but it estimated to be at least a few thousand, including in the forests. Polish authorities accuse Belarus' security forces of continuing to try to push dozens of people across the border each night.

Iraq's government said it would hold a final repatriation flight this week because it said no one else wished to return. It said 3,000 people in total had expressed a desire to return.

At the camp, most people said they would not go back, despite the wretched conditions.

"Never ever," said Narin.

ABC News' Bader Katy contributed to this report from Baghdad and Tanya Stukalova contributed from Bruzgi, Belarus.

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Global health authorities warn against 'blanket' travel bans

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(WASHINGTON) -- Global health authorities are urging against the use of "blanket" travel bans in response to the threat of new coronavirus variants, as some nations have rushed to shutter incoming travel from southern African countries where the omicron variant has been detected.

The same health officials also warn that travel bans could have a negative effect on global efforts to respond to the pandemic, as nations may not wish to report new data and variants if they worry they could be seemingly punished for it by other countries barring their nationals from travel.

"Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods," the World Health Organization said in a statement Tuesday. "In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivizing countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data."

Rather than blanket travel bans, the United Nations' public health body urges countries to apply an "evidence-informed and risk-based approach" when implementing new travel restrictions.

The WHO's advice comes after it said some 56 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures aimed at potentially delaying the importation of the omicron variant.

In the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House's chief medical adviser, told ABC News' "This Week" anchor George Stephanopoulos this past Sunday that travel bans could "slow things down," but they won't prevent a new variant from coming into the country.

"What you can do is you can delay it enough to get us better prepared," Fauci said. "And that's the thing that people need to understand. If you're going to do the travel ban the way we've done now and that we're implementing right now, utilize the time that you're buying to fill in the gaps."

Fauci's remarks notably came before the U.S. confirmed the first case of the omicron variant in California on Wednesday.

"Travel bans are a very weak measure at best, but they're most valuable very, very early on in the emergence of a new variant," said Dr. John Brownstein, a professor at Harvard Medical School, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News contributor.

Travel bans can "buy you a little time," he said, but only if they are implemented quickly and uniformly.

"The problem that we have here is that detection doesn't mean being the epicenter of where the outbreak is," Brownstein said. "Just because South Africa had incredible capacity to detect sequence doesn't mean that necessarily this is where the most amount of cases occur."

Some South African officials and scientists are calling the travel bans aimed at their country discriminatory and punitive.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa echoed the WHO's sentiments in remarks to reporters while traveling to Nigeria on Tuesday, saying South Africa should not be "punished" for travel bans after being transparent with its omicron detection and research.

"These bans must be removed, they must be lifted," Ramaphosa said. "And in fact, we have advanced in the world to a point where we now know when people travel, they should be tested like I was tested last night, and I'm happy to be tested when I arrive again. We've got the tools we've got the means to be able to deal with this."

Ramaphosa added that the open travel is critical for the tourism industry around the world, which he said has been "really devastated."

"And for us, the tourism industry is one of the key industries for southern Africa as well," he said. "So, this is unfair, this is discriminatory against us, and they are imposing a very unfair punishment."

One of the South African scientists who helped identify the omicron variant similarly blasted the travel bans imposed on southern African countries as a result of their discovery.

Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in Stellenbosch, South Africa, tweeted Monday night that he had "spent a big part" of his day speaking with genomic and biotech companies because "soon" his team "will run out of reagents as airplanes are not flying to South Africa."

In a series of tweets last week, de Oliveira urged the world to "provide support to South Africa and Africa and not discriminate or isolate it."

"We have been very transparent with scientific information. We identified, made data public, and raised the alarm as the infections are just increasing. We did this to protect our country and the world in spite of potentially suffering massive discrimination," he tweeted.

In an interview with the New Yorker, de Oliveira added that he was "very upset" with the events that took place after the discovery, specifically related to travel bans.

"The U.K., after praising us for discovering the variant, then put out this absolutely stupid travel ban, and it has hoarded vaccines for the last year," he told the outlet. "It’s trying to put the blame on vaccine hesitancy. It’s looking for a reason to fault Africa."

Brownstein, who also noted that countries would feel penalized, rather than incentivized, for reporting new variants, suggested that testing pre- and post-travel and "intense surveillance" would be "incredibly helpful and probably more valuable than the travel restrictions." Travel bans, he said, are "not the best tool."

"We have really robust testing, we have other tools at our disposal," he said. "We should be in a position where we don't need to implement these things."

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said in remarks Tuesday that it was "deeply concerning" that countries "are now being penalized by others for doing the right thing."

"I well understand the concern of all countries to protect their citizens against a variant that we don’t yet fully understand," he said. "But I am equally concerned that several Member States are introducing blunt, blanket measures that are not evidence-based or effective on their own, and which will only worsen inequities."

Ultimately, Ghebreyesus called on nations to take "rational, proportional risk-reduction measures, in keeping with the International Health Regulations."

"The global response must be calm, coordinated and coherent," he added.

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Russia planning 'significant aggressive moves against Ukraine,' Blinken warns

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(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. is "deeply concerned by evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.

In the most urgent warning yet, Blinken said the U.S. and its NATO allies would impose a steep cost on Moscow if it attacked its neighbor.

But that cost would be economic and political, with the top U.S. diplomat threatening "a range of high-impact economic measures that we've refrained from using in the past." But he and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stopped short of mentioning the use of force to defend Ukraine, which is not a member of the military alliance.

"We don't know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade. We do know he's putting in place the capacity to do so in short order," Blinken said -- the clearest statement to date of Western worries of an invasion, as Russia masses approximately 100,000 troops, along with heavy equipment, near Ukraine's border.

Blinken will meet his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of a summit on European security Thursday, as well as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

It will be the latest high-level engagement between the U.S. and Russia amid heightened concern about Russia threatening Ukraine. President Joe Biden deployed his CIA Director Bill Burns to Moscow last month to convey U.S. concerns in person, Blinken said, declining to specify whether he would lay out precisely what those "high-impact" sanctions would be with Lavrov.

Russia has denied it is mounting any attack on Ukraine and instead accused Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO of menacing forces near its borders. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday his government is seeking guarantees from the West that it not move troops or weapons systems "in close vicinity to the Russian territory," while Lavrov called the presence of Ukrainian troops "alarming."

Blinken literally laughed off that latter comment, telling reporters after a two-day NATO summit in Latvia that it was "perplexing," "profoundly wrong" and "misguided."

"The idea that Ukraine represents a threat to Russia would be a bad joke if things weren't so serious," he added, warning that Russia may "claim provocation for something that they were planning to do all along."

To that end, Blinken said, Russia has not only massed combat forces, it's also "intensified disinformation to paint Ukraine as the aggressor" -- increasing anti-Ukrainian propaganda by more than tenfold to levels not seen since its 2014 invasion.

Russia's "plans include efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within, as well as large-scale military operations," he added -- the former, a possible reference to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's claim that Russia is behind a potential coup attempt to overthrow his government. The top U.S. diplomat for Europe said last Friday that the U.S. was in touch with Ukrainian authorities "to obtain additional information" and verify Zelenskiy's statement.

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Climate change is affecting when grey seals give birth, scientists say

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(NEW YORK) -- Scientists are continuing to discover ways in which climate change is already affecting animal species around the world -- including how it's changing the phenology, or timing of biological events.

Grey seals are the latest species to see phenological shifts due to warming ocean waters, a new study published Tuesday in the Royal Society Journals has found.

Researchers who monitored grey seals in the U.K.'s Skomer Marine Conservation Zone for three decades found that climate change has caused older seal mothers to give birth to pups earlier, an observation that favors the hypothesis that climate affects phenology by altering the age profile of the population.

When the researchers first began surveying grey seals in 1992, the midpoint of the pupping season was the first week of October. By 2004, the pupping season had advanced three weeks earlier, to mid-September, according to the study.

Warmer years were also associated with an older average age of mothers, the scientists found. Grey seals typically start breeding around 5 years old and can continue for several decades after. But the older the seals got, the earlier they gave birth, the researchers said.

The changes were not isolated to the U.K. There have been observable changes in the timing of seal life throughout the Atlantic and the world, according to the study.

Climate change has also recently been linked to a rising divorce rate in albatross couples, which mate for life, and to the shrinking of dozens of species of Amazonian birds, which are evolving to have smaller bodies and longer wing spans.

The causes and consequences of phenological shifts across ecosystems and geographical regions as a result of climate change have become a major area of interest in recent years, according to the study.

These changes can have a domino effect. Since species do not live in isolation, phenological changes can cascade through biological communities through trophic, competitive and mutualistic interactions, according to the study. This can be especially apparent in "mismatches in seasonal events," such as those between predator and prey populations or flowering plants and their pollinators.

Eventually, phenological shifts in life-history events, such as breeding and pupping, can decouple biological communities and lead to critical transitions in population structure and even the collapse of ecosystems, the scientists said.

 

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Iran returns to negotiations, with a nuclear crisis still looming large for Biden

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(WASHINGTON) -- Iran returned to negotiations over its nuclear program on Monday -- meeting for the first time in over five months, with the country's new hard-line government now in control.

Its chief negotiator emerged from closed doors bullish, as Tehran demands its concerns about continued U.S. sanctions be addressed first after former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal.

But the U.S. and the deal's European signatories are warning that after months of stalling, Iran is facing its last opportunity to revive the 2015 deal that placed constraints on its nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions relief.

A top European Union diplomat who is coordinating the indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran expressed some guarded optimism afterward -- and much urgency.

"There is clearly a will on all the delegations to listen to the Iranian positions brought by the new team, and there is clearly a will of the Iranian delegation to engage in serious work to bring JCPOA back to life," said Enrique Mora, the senior EU diplomat, using an acronym for the nuclear deal's formal name -- the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

"I feel positive that we can be doing important things for the next weeks to come," Mora added after delegations from Iran, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany met in Vienna, Austria.

Whether or not the U.S. and its European allies are willing to wait weeks is an open question -- especially since Ebrahim Raisi, Iran's new president who is a conservative cleric close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has delayed the resumption of talks since he won election in June.

"These talks are the last opportunity for the Iranians to come to the table and agree the JCPOA," British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Monday. "We will look at all options if that doesn't happen."

Patience is all but out in Israel, whose defense minister warned Monday that Iran is "dashing towards a nuclear weapon."

Israeli officials shared intelligence with the U.S. and other allies showing that Iran is nearing a nuclear weapon, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said.

Since Trump's exit, Iran has increasingly taken steps in violation of the deal, including by enriching more uranium, enriching uranium to higher levels, using more advanced centrifuges and more of them, and enriching uranium metal. The United Nation's nuclear watchdog -- the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA -- reported this month that Iran has enriched 39 pounds of uranium to 60%, which is a short technical step from weapons-grade 90%.

Under the nuclear deal, Iran's enrichment was capped at 3.67% for 15 years.

The State Department declined to comment on reports that Iran may be moving toward 90% enrichment levels, but deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter told reporters that "obviously would be a provocative act, and I'll just underscore that we've made clear that Iran's continued nuclear escalations are unconstructive and they're also inconsistent with what's stated in the goal of returning to a mutual compliance with the JCPOA."

But ahead of talks resuming, Iran has used sharper language rejecting the idea of "mutual compliance" -- increasingly arguing that the U.S. must act first because it was Trump that first exited the deal back in 2018.

"The principle of 'mutual compliance' cannot form a proper base for negotiations since it was the U.S. government which unilaterally left the deal," Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, wrote in an editorial Sunday, calling for a "clear and transparent mechanism to ensure that sanctions will be removed" and U.S. "compensation for the violation of the deal, which includes the removal of all post-JCPOA sanctions."

The Biden administration has said it will not lift sanctions first, and the idea of compensating Iran for U.S. sanctions is politically toxic in Washington.

It's unclear if those demands are just Iran posturing before sitting down, or if those are red lines. Out of Monday's meetings, Bagheri claimed a "considerable achievement" by saying the remaining parties to the deal agreed to address U.S. sanctions first. But that doesn't mean they agreed those sanctions need to be lifted before Iran's own non-compliance is addressed. The working-level discussions will address U.S. sanctions on Tuesday and Iran's nuclear program Wednesday, according to Mora.

The State Department has not yet provided a readout from special envoy for Iran Rob Malley's meetings in Vienna, where the previous six rounds of talks were held as well.

Beyond Mora's optimism, Russia's envoy Mikhail Ulyanov said the talks "started quite successfully" and reached agreement on "further immediate steps," without specifying what they were.

Any optimism has run face first into dire warnings from Israel, whose Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has vocally opposed the restoration of the nuclear deal.

"Iran deserves no rewards, no bargain deals, and no sanctions relief in return for their brutality. I call upon our allies around the world: Do not give in to Iran's nuclear blackmail," Bennett said Monday.

Malley told NPR last week the U.S. and Israel don't agree on the deal, but do agree on the need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon: "We're not going to wait and see them get so close," he said, but the U.S. hopes "that this could be resolved diplomatically, and it should be."

Amid warnings that Iran could stall by prolonging these talks, Malley added the U.S. will not "sit idly by" if the country moves toward a nuclear bomb.

But the U.S. and European allies have pulled their punches at the IAEA, declining again last week to censure Iran for not just its violations of the deal but its growing obstruction of the IAEA's work.

Iran has barred inspectors from accessing certain sites, harassed inspectors with invasive security searches and failed to explain still the detected presence of uranium at three undeclared locations, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi told the U.N. body last Wednesday.

Grossi visited Tehran last week -- his first trip under the Raisi government -- but he did not reach a deal to address these issues, he told reporters Wednesday. A previous ad-hoc arrangement with Iran to keep international eyes at its declared nuclear sites is coming apart, he warned. Iran agreed to keep IAEA cameras and other monitoring equipment in place and turn the tapes over to the agency when a deal was reached. That equipment needs servicing to "guarantee continuity of knowledge," Grossi said, but Iran has blocked IAEA inspectors so far.

"Such a long period of time without us getting access, knowing whether there are operational activities ongoing, is something in itself that would prevent me from continuing to say I have an idea of what's going on," he said at a press conference. "We must reach an agreement. We must do it."

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61 people snowed in at English pub are now back home

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(LONDON) -- A British inn and pub officially bid “fond farewell” to 61 guests Monday after a blizzard stranded them for days inside.

Located 270 miles north of London, Tan Hill Inn in Yorkshire, England, had arranged an event for an Oasis tribute band on Friday. Later that night, however, the region was hit hard by a late autumn storm which blocked local roads with heavy snow.

“The last time we had our costumers locked in was four or five years ago, but that was just for one night. This time it was a very different experience with four days,” Nicola Townsend, the pub manager, told ABC News.

The staff and guests came up with spontaneous ideas “to kill the boredom,” Townsend said. They organized a movie event, a quiz night and karaoke.

“Customers started to develop bonds from the second day on by hanging out, making friends and exchanging numbers. And they were so cooperative in running the affairs. Like they felt home indeed,” she said, adding, “Our staff are exhausted, but very happy that our guests had fun. Some of them said they had so much fun that they did not want to go back home when the roads were cleared.”

Now the group has agreed to a reunion next year.

The storm, named “Arwen,” also left thousands in Scotland without power for several nights.

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At least 19 dead, 32 injured after bus crash in Mexico

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(JOQUICINGO, Mexico) -- At least 19 people are dead and dozens more injured after a bus crash in central Mexico Friday.

The accident occurred on a highway in Joquicingo, a township in the State of Mexico that's approximately 45 miles southwest of Mexico City.

A tour bus heading to a religious site in the State of Mexico crashed into a building after the brakes went out, the State of Mexico's Ministry of Health said in a statement.

Officials said 19 people were reported dead and 32 injured following the crash.

Six people, including two minors, were flown to a hospital in Toluca, while others were transported to several hospitals in the region, officials said. Those injured included multiple women and children, with injuries ranging from broken bones to head trauma, according to the Ministry of Health.

Multiple agencies responded to the site of the crash, including the Red Cross and the Emergency Service of the State of Mexico.

Alfredo Del Mazo, the governor of the State of Mexico, said in a statement on Twitter that he has instructed the heads of the Civil Protection, Security, Rescue and Health agencies to support the impacted families.

Officials said the bus was with the tourism company Turismo Tejeda and was heading from the municipality of Sahuayo, Michoacán, and bound for the Santuario del Señor de Chalma, a place of worship that is a Christian pilgrimage site.

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Germany and Austria seeing COVID cases rise among unvaccinated population

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(BERLIN) -- Germany passed a grim milestone on Thursday: 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. In recent weeks, the situation has spiraled out of control as cases have spiked and intensive care beds have become scarce in some regions.

The country has one of the lowest rates vaccination rates in western Europe -- only 68% of the population has been vaccinated, according to recent health statistics.

"Sadly, the coronavirus still hasn’t been beaten. Every day we see new records as far as the number of infections are concerned,” newly elected German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said at a press conference on Wednesday.

As of Friday morning, the country’s disease control agency, the RKI, said a record 76,414 cases had been reported in the past 24 hours.

With winter around the corner, Europe has once again become the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis. Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported deaths due to COVID-19 had reached 4,200 a day, double the death rate at the end of September. The organization warned that a further 700,000 people in the European region could die by March given the current trend.

The rise in cases is mainly do to the more contagious Delta variant and the fact that more people are staying indoors as winter begins. The number of people who remain unvaccinated is around 54%, according to WHO Executive Director Robb Butler.

“Let me be absolutely clear, the majority of people in ICU, in intensive care units and ICU today, are the unvaccinated" Butler said in an interview with Sky News.

Germany, like many countries around Europe, has moved ahead with stricter measures to cope, some of which apply to the entire country. Most blanket rules affect the unvaccinated population, which now need to show proof of vaccination, recent recovery or a negative COVID-19 test to enter public transport. Germany already had rules in place requiring similar proof when entering indoor spaces like bars, restaurants and entertainment facilities.

Yet each of Germany’s 16 states can also choose to implement their own measures. In Bavaria and Saxony where vaccination rates are low and hospitalization rates are rising to worrying levels, stricter lockdowns have been put in place. The seasonally popular Christmas markets were canceled for the second year in a row.

In Bavaria, a region with 13 million residents, politicians face grave crises in dealing with the growing number of cases.

“The situation is overwhelming and just keeps escalating,” the region’s leader, Markus Söder, told reporters. News agency DPA reported that a military plane will fly seriously ill patients from the Bavarian town of Memmingen to the state of North Rhine-Westphalia on Friday afternoon.

Söder is a proponent of making vaccinations mandatory.

“Compulsory vaccination does not violate the right to freedom -- far more, it is a precondition for us to win back our freedom," he wrote in an op-ed with politician Winfried Kretschmann of German region Baden-Württemberg in Tuesday's newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Germany is mulling compulsory vaccination after Austria became the first European country to announce a vaccine mandate. It will go into effect February 2022. The announcement brought tens of thousands of people out to protest on the streets of Vienna last weekend.

On Monday, the country went into its fourth national lockdown, set to last for 10 days and likely to be extended to 20 days. Although less strict than previous lockdowns of 2020, citizens may only leave their houses for specific purposes, such as buying groceries, exercising or going to the doctor. Only 66% of the country of 8.9 million people have been vaccinated.

With the rise in COVID cases, particularly in northern Europe, and the introduction of new measures restricting access of unvaccinated people from public life, tensions seem to be flaring up in certain populations. Belgium and the Netherlands saw violent protests against lockdown measures last weekend.

Complicating matters is a worrying new virus variant B.1.1.529 which been discovered in southern Africa. As of Friday morning, a number of countries have implemented travel bans, including Germany, Italy and the U.K.

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Honduras votes in elections critical to country's future and Biden's agenda

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(NEW YORK) -- Honduras teeters on the edge of democracy.

In one of the most consequential elections in the Western Hemisphere, in one of Central America's poorest countries, Hondurans head to the polls Sunday to choose a new president, new lawmakers, new mayors and new city council members.

"The elections this Sunday, November 28th, definitely present our golden opportunity, the only one, to rescue democracy in this country," Clara López, a voter in the country's capital Tegucigalpa, told ABC News. "It's now or never."

Honduras' recent history of election-related violence has many on edge. Among them, President Joe Biden's administration will be watching for a peaceful election outcome, a possible new partner to work with, and any effect on migration issues to the southern U.S. border.

The State Department also deployed a top U.S. diplomat to Honduras this week, who told ABC News the U.S. is prepared to act if there are any irregularities in the election.

There are 11 candidates in total for the presidency, but the race has really come down to two: Tegucigalpa's mayor Nasry Asfura, who would extend the right-wing party's hold on power, but faces allegations of corruption; and Xiomara Castro, a popular former first lady who has united a left-wing coalition and could become Honduras's first female leader and Latin America's only current female head of state.

But tensions have risen across Honduras, with a recent spate of election-related violence, including assassinations of candidates. Looming large over the elections, too, are last year's back-to-back hurricanes and history's shadow -- a 2009 coup that forced Castro's husband from power and the 2017 elections, riddled with irregularities, according to the Organization of American States, the region's bloc.

Despite the OAS' call for a new vote in 2017, presidential incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández was declared the winner, sparking protests that led to days of violent, deadly clashes.

Amid apparent concerns over the potential for more violence, the U.S. deployed the top diplomat for the Western Hemisphere, Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols, to Honduras for a three-day trip. But after his meetings, including with both Castro and Asfura, Nichols expressed optimism that the country can hold free and fair elections.

"We will call things as we see them. We believe this is going to be a free and fair process that reflects the will of the Honduran people. If we see something that deviates from that -- well, then we'll take the appropriate steps, but I'm confident that this is going to be a peaceful, free, fair election," Nichols told ABC News in an exclusive interview.

To many Hondurans, however, recent years have chased away any confidence. Just 30% of Hondurans believe democracy is preferable to all other forms of government, according to Latinobarometro's 2021 report -- the lowest in all of Latin America -- while four-fifths of Hondurans believe the country is on the wrong path.

"The people are in a critical state," Salvador Nasralla, Castro's running mate and Hernández's opponent in 2017, told ABC News. "I do not dismiss the possibility of a civil war in the country."

In the 2017 elections, Nasralla was ahead in the polls and largely expected to win, making the Supreme Electoral Tribunal's declaration that Hernández won after a delayed count that much more suspicious to many Hondurans. But the Trump administration backed Hernández's claim to victory, dismissing concerns from the OAS and other international election observers about irregularities.

This time around, Nasralla, a popular former sportscaster, said he felt compelled to join Castro's ticket to try to ensure a left-wing victory.

"It wouldn't be winning if I subtracted votes from the opposition, and that would've made me a bad Honduran," he told ABC News in his only interview with an English-language outlet.

Castro herself has become a force in Honduran politics, leading the movement against the 2009 coup where the military deposed her husband Manuel Zelaya after he pushed a referendum to change the constitution and abolish its one-term limit.

Backed by her new liberal party, she has been ahead in the polls in recent weeks, especially after Nasralla's surprising endorsement.

But Asfura remains a potent opponent, boosted by his own party's hold on government and promises "to create jobs and opportunities so that people can bring food to their homes, health, and education," as he said in a recent rally.

Asfura's popularity comes despite allegations against him in the recent Pandora Papers which revealed he used offshore tax loopholes, and local officials accused him of embezzling funds from the capital city's municipal government.

They're not the first charges against the ruling National Party's leaders. Hernández was named by a U.S. federal court as a co-conspirator in a huge narcotics trafficking case that saw his brother, former congressman Tony Hernández, sentenced to life in prison. The president has denied wrongdoing and has not faced criminal charges.

Despite those allegations, the Biden administration has tried to work with Hernández and other Central American governments to stem migration from the region, which has surged during his presidency. Nearly 1.7 million migrants reached the southern U.S. border in fiscal year 2021, which covers October 2020 through September 2021, and one-fifth of them -- 308,931 in total -- were Honduran.

"Honduras doesn't guarantee its citizens a dignified life within its territory, and it forces them to flee," said López, the Tegucigalpa voter who is backing Castro's campaign.

During his own 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, Biden pledged to invest $4 billion in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala -- sometimes called the Northern Triangle countries -- to improve the quality of life, including the rule of law and countering corruption, and give their citizens reasons to stay in their communities.
PHOTO: The president of the National Electoral Council of Honduras, Kevin Izaguirre (R), and the Chief of the Armed Forces of that country, Tito Livio Moreno, carry a box with electoral material for the elections in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Nov. 23, 2021.
Gustavo Amador/EPA via ShutterstockGustavo Amador/EPA via Shutterstock
The president of the National Electoral Council of Honduras, Kevin Izaguirre (R), and the...

While that money has started to flow, corrupt and increasingly power-grabbing political leaders in all three countries have made it difficult for the U.S. to find partners to work with.

Free and fair elections, a peaceful transfer of power and a new leadership partner in Honduras are important to Biden's agenda, particularly because if the situation deteriorates, even more Hondurans could flee in search of a better life to the north.

"Everything is at stake here. For the first time, you have a very clearly differentiated path that is being put forward by the proposals of both parties," said Sergio Bahr, a Honduran sociologist. "This election will define the direction in which the country goes in the next 10 to 20 years."

That's why the State Department deployed its top diplomat for the region to Honduras. Nichols, the assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, met with Honduras' national electoral council, its chief of defense, and its attorney general, among others, saying he was assured they're taking "all measures necessary" to secure the election and prevent violence like 2017.

"We certainly will be looking to Honduran electoral authorities to carry out their responsibilities professionally and transparently, and they've assured their own people as well as the international community of the same," he told ABC News.

For voters like Ela Rubio, that's all that they want, she said.

"We want democracy. We want transparent elections," said Rubio, an Asfura supporter." We don't want to regress. We want to move forward. We want to keep going, and to show the world that not everything in Honduras is bad."

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Egypt opens Luxor's ancient 'Avenue of Sphinxes' to great fanfare

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(LUXOR, Egypt) -- Egypt on Thursday opened to the public a 3,000-year-old sphinx-filled avenue in the Southern city of Luxor to great fanfare, having wrapped up restoration works that took over seven decades to complete.

In an attempt to wow tourists and lure them back after Egypt's vital tourism industry took a fresh battering because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the country held a lavish ceremony to celebrate the opening of the Avenue of Sphinx, an ancient 1.7-mile-long walkway connecting Karnak Temple with Luxor Temple.

It's the second such event in six months following a "royal procession" that Egypt had held in April to parade 22 mummies through the streets of Cairo as they were conveyed to a newly inaugurated museum.

With President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and his wife in attendance, officials said the event intended to showcase Luxor, a monument-rich city that once served as Egypt's capital, then called Thebes, as the "biggest open museum in the world."

The first trace of the Avenue of Sphinxes was found in 1949 when Egyptian archeologist Mohammed Zakaria Ghoneim discovered eight statues near the Luxor Temple. Further statues flanking the road were uncovered in subsequent decades, with excavation works interrupted for long intervals as Egypt fought several wars.

The path originally had 1,057 statues, a third of which already had been unearthed with the rest still pedestals, said antiquities minister Khaled el-Anani.

"We are not done yet -- we are still working to uncover more rams," he added.

The statues are divided into three shapes, the first being a body of a lion with a ram's head that was erected over a nearly 1,000-foot area between the Karnak Temple and the Precinct of Mut during the reign of New Kingdom ruler Tutankhamen, famously known as King Tut.

The second shape is a full ram statue, built in a remote area during the reign of the 18th dynasty's Amenhotep III before being later moved to the Temple of Khonsu in the Karnak complex.

The third and most populous shape is one of a sphinx (a lion's body and a human's head), with the statues stretching over a mile from the Precinct of Mut to the Luxor Temple. They were erected during the tenure of 30th Dynasty ruler Nectanebo I (380-362 B.C.).

Opet festival

The highlight of Thursday's ceremony was a modern reenactment of the ancient Opet festival, which dates back 3,400 years.

The festival primarily involved a procession in which shrines of the "triad of deities" -- supreme god Amun-Re, his consort Mut and their son Khonsu -- were paraded by priests on wooden barques from Karnak to Luxor in a symbolic recreation of their marriage.

The 27-day feast also marked the Nile River's annual flooding. The parade would set off from the Karnak Temple and head southward to the Luxor Temple at the other end of the avenue.

With bright yellow lights illuminating temples and fireworks lighting up the night sky, a similar procession was held, with ancient hymns playing in the background.

The festive atmosphere stood in stark contrast to an eerily quiet morning in Luxor. Most shops were shuttered and streets seemed to empty only a few hours before the event began.

However, a flock of visitors to the city was evident as flights from Cairo to Luxor were fully booked and the city's luxurious hotels filled up fast.

Luxor was given a facelift ahead of the opening, with roads paved, dirt swept away (even in the most ramshackle areas) and colorful letters of Luxor displayed on walls.

Residents seemed happy that Luxor was given a new lease of life after the ancient city, like many of the nation's tourist sites, was hit hard by the pandemic.

"This day reminds me of the past, when we were very busy transporting tourists," a Taxi driver, who said he preferred to be simply called Eweis, told ABC News. "This opening is a blessing to the whole city. Can they just open ancient sites every day? We have a lot to offer here."

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US, others warn citizens in Ethiopia to leave as prime minister heads to front lines

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(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. government is warning American citizens in Ethiopia even more starkly to leave the country now, as the conflict there continues to deteriorate.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is heading to the front lines to lead the federal government's forces, he announced, urging his fellow citizens to join him and "lead the country with a sacrifice."

On the other side, forces from Ethiopia's Tigray region, now aligned with other ethnic-based groups, are marching toward the capital Addis Ababa, pledging to end Abiy's blockade of their region one year after fighting there burst open decades-old wounds.

Now the conflict in Africa's second-most populous nation is increasingly existential for both sides, potentially "ripping the country apart and spilling over into other countries in the region," as Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned in recent days.

The U.S. special envoy for the region said he still had hope for a ceasefire and a negotiated resolution after some "nascent progress," but he warned the fast-moving conflict threatened to swiftly sweep away international diplomatic efforts and cause "a bloodbath situation or chaos."

That fear has driven fresh warnings from foreign countries, including France and Turkey, urging their citizens to depart the country immediately while commercial flights remain. The United Nations announced it was evacuating its staff's dependents on Tuesday, too.

Since Nov. 5, the U.S. embassy in Addis has been on ordered departure, evacuating non-emergency staff and diplomats' families and leaving a smaller team behind. While the mission remains open and continues to provide services like passports and repatriation loans, the U.S. military is maintaining a "state of readiness," according to U.S. Africa Command, in case there are issues "related to the safety of our diplomats where the security environment has deteriorated."

But after the unprecedented, chaotic evacuation effort from Afghanistan, the State Department has gone to extraordinary lengths to make sure U.S. citizens in Ethiopia know military flights like those out of Kabul will not be coming to rescue them.

"There should be absolutely no expectation of the military becoming involved," a senior State Department official said Monday. For months now, the agency has issued travel warnings, urging Americans to leave now while Addis's international airport continues commercial flights.

This week, their warnings have employed even stronger language: "We just want to make sure that we don't get into a situation where U.S. citizens are waiting for something that's never going to happen," the senior State Department official added. "We need them to remember what the norm is, and the norm is leaving via commercial while that's available."

The official and others have declined to speak to any plans to close the embassy or evacuate American diplomats, except to say that they're "engaged in contingency planning for hypotheticals" with the Pentagon.

The Pentagon declined to comment on any troop movements to ABC News after a report that the U.S. had put Navy ships in the region on "standby" and deployed a small number of Army Rangers to the neighboring country Djibouti. The Pentagon's East African Response Force -- a team trained to move within 24 hours to assist U.S. embassies in the region with additional security or an evacuation -- is based in the small African country.

Despite the increasingly grim developments on the battlefield, the State Department made clear it has not yet given up on a diplomatic resolution.

"There is some nascent progress in trying to get the parties to move from a military confrontation to a negotiating process, but what concerns us is this fragile progress risks being outpaced by the alarming developments on the ground... by the military escalation on the two sides," Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, special envoy for the Horn of Africa, told reporters Tuesday.

In particular, Tigrayan forces said this week they are now some 130 miles northeast of Addis, while Abiy declared Monday that he would go to the front lines to lead troops directly.

"Unfortunately, each side is trying to achieve its goals by military force and believe they are on the cusp of winning," Feltman said Tuesday, back in Washington after days of meetings in Addis. He met not just Abiy and Tigrayan leaders, but also the African Union's special envoy for the conflict, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

From those meetings, Feltman said he sensed a "greater willingness to brainstorm with us about how you could put together the pieces of a deescalation and negotiated ceasefire process" -- instead of an outright refusal to even consider any other means but force.

What the two sides say they want can be achieved at the same time, too, Feltman added: Abiy wants to return Tigrayan forces to Tigray region, and Tigrayan forces want Abiy's de facto blockade of the region to end.

"The tragedy is, the sadness is that both sides have in mind the same type of elements. ... They just need to muster the political will in order to pivot from the military to the negotiations, and we're not the only ones encouraging them to do so, but we can't force them to the table," Feltman said.

As of now, U.S. and international pressure, Obasanjo's mediation and the humanitarian suffering of the Ethiopian people have not yet been enough for leaders to come to the table. Feltman said Abiy also told him in their meeting Sunday that he had "confidence" he could achieve his goals militarily -- and the seasoned U.S. diplomat warned the incitement of ethnic-based violence is spiraling out of control.

That means there's "no sign" that direct negotiations are "on the horizon," but perhaps some back-channel diplomacy is possible -- and Feltman and Obasanjo will continue to pursue that, according to the U.S. diplomat.

"Right now, both sides are still pursuing military options, but they are also engaged on other ways to pursue their objectives... And that's what I find marginally encouraging, but again, I don't want to overstate the case," Feltman said.

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Now that countries have made their climate pledges, how will they pay for them?

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(NEW YORK) -- When the world's leaders arrived in Glasgow for COP26 earlier this month, they knew what needed to be done: keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius at all costs.

The climate pledges were made, many more ambitious than ever before. But now that the dust has settled and the private jets have left Scotland, what comes next?

Determining where the money to pay for all of these new climate initiatives will come from will now be instrumental in the fight against climate change, experts told ABC News.

Funding initiatives to combat climate change is expected to cost about $50 trillion by 2050, according to a report published in 2019 by Morgan Stanely.

But trillions of dollars over the coming decades is a "drop in the bucket" compared to the challenges and potential damage the world faces when addressing climate change, and the money to pay for some of the necessary changes certainly exists, Kathy Baughman McLeod, former Bank of America global executive for environmental and social risk, told ABC News. McLeod attended COP26 through her current role as director of the Adrienne Arsht Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.

"The array of climate finance mechanisms, strategies and pathways is stunning," McLeod said.

This is where the experts say the money to fund the climate initiatives will come from:

The private sector

While government and philanthropy will have significant roles to play in funding, the majority will need to come from the finance sector, according to the experts.

There are already trillions of dollars in the private sector just "looking for a place for investments," McLeod said. The question is not whether the money exists, but which projects to invest in.

The energy sector presents one of the largest opportunities for investment because putting money into clean energy, such as solar and wind, "makes perfect sense," McLeod said, given that there is a major demand for sustainable energy infrastructure.

"Someone's going to pay for the power," she said.

Players in the finance industry are also paying attention as the as the industry focus shifts from extracting fossil fuels to clean energy and other ways to decarbonize every major economic sector, Jennifer Pryce, CEO of Calvert Impact Capital, a global nonprofit investment firm, told ABC News. According to the Mckinsey Institute, decarbonizing the four major sectors will cost $21 trillion by 2050 -- an opportunity to cash in on change.

"We look at transportation, and agriculture, and shipping and building materials, concrete, steel, and all of those have plans," she said. "That helps us figure out what is the best way to decarbonize those sectors."

The next step is figuring out how to decarbonize those sectors -- whether the technology exists and whether the technology is scalable, McLeod said. Once the return on investment is determined and interested investors are located, the process of adapting to more sustainable practices begins, she added.

One example is electric cars, where governments and companies are now tasked with scaling up existing technologies, presenting an opportunity to build the infrastructure of the future.

If private capital is invested effectively, it can create economic opportunities, more jobs and better quality of life, Pryce said, comparing the investment in climate infrastructure to the sudden emergence of modern communication.

"How we went from landline to cellular and digital...how we have all benefitted from that change," she said. "But, you know, it was not apparent at the time we were going from a landline to a digital backbone for communication, for technology."

The leaders of finance are now acting with urgency to tackle the climate challenge, because majority of the money is going to come from finance, Pryce said. The world will rely on finance experts, more so than slow-moving governments, to provide the capital for all of these climate initiatives.

"I think people are starting to understand to that carbon, like money, has a time value," she said, comparing the compounding effects of carbon to funds to investment interest. "It's not linear, taking the carbon out and reducing the impacts of climate change. We've got to do things now."

Government

Private capital will not succeed without government regulation to steer the capital "so that we can get to outcomes that really work for a better planet for important better outcomes for people," Pryce said.

The U.S. federal government is already spending trillions of dollars annually due to the effects climate change has on intensifying natural disasters, McLeod said.

Worsening extreme heat alone is expected to cost the U.S. $500 billion annually by 2050, according to a report published in August by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

"The trillion dollars, we're spending it on hurricanes, fires, floods, melting infrastructure, supply chain disruption," McLeod said. "It's a reference point that we have to get past, because what we're spending to protect ourselves or repair from the shocks and stressed of climate change is way beyond a trillion dollars."

President Joe Biden's $1.7 trillion infrastructure package contains $555 billion for climate and clean energy investments, and according to Democrats, measures have been put into place to ensure the legislation pays for itself without raising taxes.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has assessed that for every dollar spent to protect from future climate disasters, about $10 is saved in rebuilding efforts, McLeod said.

"So it is the smartest investment we could contemplate," she said.

The federal government could also help to come up with significant funding to help developing countries to be able to transition to a decarbonized world, Jim Harmon, chairman of the World Resources Institute and chairman of the Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund, a firm that invests in private enterprises in Egypt that contribute to long-term, sustainable economic growth, told ABC News.

Enterprise funds, not for-profit, privately managed investment funds authorized by the U.S. Congress to promote private sector development in developing countries, could be the answer to funding climate initiatives in the U.S. without putting too much of a burden on American taxpayers, Harmon said.

An estimated $10 billion new enterprise funds authorized by the government to invest in low-carbon projects in developing countries, accompanied by a $10 billion match from the private sector, could help close the gap in U.S. climate financing, potentially generating trillions of dollars if enterprise funds were invested in a region such as Central America, Harmon said. A similar program implemented in the 1990s to invest capital in Egypt was successful and could prove successful again, Harmon added.

"If every one of the major countries created enterprise funds and brought the private sector along with them, you could get to the goal," of enough funds for climate initiatives, Harmon said.

Philanthropy

"It'll take trillions of dollars to make a dent in climate change," Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said when asked by ABC News' Maggie Rulli about his own $10 billion pledge for climate change.

Bezos is not the only billionaire to donate significant sums to the climate fight. Elon Musk announced earlier this year that he would donate a $100 million prize for a competition to remove carbon from air and water. Bill Gates pledged $1.5 billion for climate change as long as long as the sweeping infrastructure bill was passed. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has promised $500 million, Stewart and Lynda Resnick $750 million and Laurene Powell Jobs $3.5 billion.

The United Nations Environment Programme 2020 Emissions Gap Report found that the richest 1% of the world's population is responsible for 15% of emissions due to their extensive investments fossil fuels and high-carbon life, so the ultra-wealthy bears the "greatest responsibility" in climate change initiatives, according to the report.

Historically, philanthropies have allocated "relatively small sums" to address climate change, but it is now time for philanthropy to "step up" in the fight against climate change, according to McKinsey and Company's Sustainability Practice and Philanthropy service line.

In 2020, U.S.-based grant makers disbursed nearly $64 billion, but just $320 million of those funds went directly toward mitigating global warming, according to the report.

In addition, just 1.4% of U.S. philanthropic grant funding went to climate change in 2020, compared to 21.4% to health, 15.6% to public safety and 11.6% to community and economic development, according to the report.

While much of the capital to fight climate change will come from companies, governments and investors, philanthropies can also play a "vital role" by targeting the locations, industries and solutions that need the most support, according to the report.

"Simply putting more money into climate solutions won’t be enough," the report states.

It will be important to invest funds equitably, experts say

World leaders and those in the finance and philanthropy industries need to ensure the funds are distributed as equitably as possible, Pryce said.

As climate change is addressed, it is imperative that no one is left behind, "whether that's people in our own country...or developing and emerging markets around the globe," she said.

G20 countries will also have to consider practices such as blended finance and social safety nets when it comes to rebuilding efforts for the escalated natural disasters that are already impacting developing regions, McLeod said.

"Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, lots of parts of Latin America, when communities are obliterated by storms, floods, heatwaves, who pays for that?" McLeod asked. "And society pays for that."

However, more and more, solutions will need to be localized, McLeod said. Not every solution will work for every community, and it's not enough to wait on the federal government to pass sweeping legislations, she added.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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