China unveils ambitious 'roadmap of human Mars exploration'


(NEW YORK) -- China unveiled ambitious plans to send humans to Mars and build a base on the red planet at a recent space exploration conference.

Wang Xiaojun, the head of the state-run China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, shared a "roadmap of human Mars exploration" during a virtual lecture at the Global Space Exploration Conference held in Russia this week. The conference was organized by Russia's Roscosmos space agency and the International Astronautical Federation to mark the 60th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight. Wang's talk was posted online.

The new plans for human exploration of Mars come shortly after China's success with its Tianwen-1 mission, which reached Mars earlier this year and landed its rover last month, making China one of only three nations to successfully land a spacecraft on Mars.

Like other nations, China "regards Mars exploration as the preferred destination for deep space exploration," Wang said.

Wang's three-step plan for human Mars exploration includes robotic exploration, initial human exploration and finally "routine human explorations."

As part of the plan, Wang unveiled that China hopes to build a base on Mars and the development of a "large-scale Earth to Mars transportation fleet."

He concluded his remarks by calling for global cooperation in the field of deep space exploration.

"We are willing to join hands with our counterparts and partners all over the world, to realize the dream of mankind going to deep space and walking on Mars," he said.

China has recently ramped up its efforts to explore deep space, launching its ambitious Tianwen-1 Mars mission last July just days before the U.S. launched its Perseverance rover to the red planet. China's successful landing on Mars was no easy feat given that only about 50% of all previous Mars landing attempts have succeeded.

Moreover, China launched three astronauts to the country’s new space station just last week as it emerges as a major player in the new space race. Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday spoke with the astronauts, who are slated to stay aboard for three months, calling the construction of China's own space station a "milestone" for the nation's space industry.

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US planning to evacuate Afghan interpreters, contractors ahead of withdrawal


(WASHINGTON) -- The Biden administration is planning to move interpreters and other Afghans who have worked for the U.S., along with their families, to a safe location amid growing fears of a Taliban takeover after the U.S. military withdrawal, a U.S. official and a senior U.S. administration official confirmed to ABC News Thursday.

The destination is not yet clear, nor is the scale of the project. But the plan is to move a group of these Afghans to a safe location as they wait for their U.S. visa applications to be processed, the officials said.

The plans should be underway "in a few days -- at the most, a week," according to the U.S. official, but the U.S. is not yet executing it.

There are approximately 18,000 Afghans who have applied for a Special Immigrant Visa -- an enormous backlog that will take months to sort through, with U.S. lawmakers and advocates saying it puts their lives at risk.

It's unclear how many of those would be relocated under this new plan. A senior administration official declined to provide details on numbers or timing, but told ABC News, "We have identified a group of SIV applicants who have served as interpreters and translators to be relocated to another location outside of Afghanistan before we complete our military drawdown by September, in order to complete the visa application process."

At least 300 Afghan interpreters have been killed since 2014 because they worked for the U.S., according to the advocacy group No One Left Behind, although the Taliban have said in recent weeks that they will not harm them as they pursue power.

In April, President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of all remaining U.S. forces from Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks that brought them there.

More than half of U.S. military equipment has already been withdrawn, according to the Pentagon, with withdrawal on track to be completed in July.

That has heightened fears for Afghans like "Abdul," who worked as an interpreter for U.S. Marines in Helmand province and has been seeking a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV. ABC News is not using his real name to protect him and his family -- a wife and three children.

"If you work a single day for a coalition force, or you support a single day for the coalition forces, they will kill you," he said of the Taliban, the militant group that the Trump administration signed an agreement with last year to end America's involvement in Afghanistan.

While the Taliban have yet to meet its commitments under that deal, like deny safe haven to terror groups or negotiate toward a permanent ceasefire, the Pentagon said this week nothing will change Biden's decision as commander-in-chief to exit the country.

For those Afghans, however, U.S. officials have repeatedly said they is considering all options, but the senior administration official again emphasized the SIV program, for which the State Department has surged resources to work through the backlog.

"To be clear, our embassy in Kabul will continue to operate after our forces draw down. SIV processing will continue, including for those individuals who remain in Afghanistan, and we will continue to surge resources to process applications to the fullest extent possible," said the senior administration official.

Critics like GOP Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, say that's not enough.

"The Taliban is on the offensive, and no one is off limits," said the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. McCaul added that the State Department has told him it will take until next year to work through the backlog of SIV applications, but, he added, "We don't have a year."

During a news conference Wednesday with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., a U.S. veteran, joined McCaul and urged Biden to take action: "Our word must be our bond. We believe that we have a moral imperative to do this. We believe that we have a national security imperative to do this," he said.

The State Department and Pentagon have had a plan to carry out the relocation of Afghans who assisted the U.S. diplomatic and military missions, but it was waiting on Biden's approval, according to McCaul.

In the meantime, the years-long backlog of visa applications has faced another setback -- a deadly outbreak of COVID-19 at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, effectively shutting the mission down. All consular services have been suspended since June 13, meaning Afghans who need to sit for an in-person interview have been left waiting again.

"Khan," a computer scientist who worked with U.S. forces as an engineer, has been waiting for years on his visa application, facing increasingly more aggressive threats from the Taliban for his and his brother's service. Just this month, a grenade was left at the gate of his house, according to his lawyer.

He had an interview with the U.S. embassy scheduled when it was canceled because of COVID-19, and in recent days, his home district fell into Taliban hands. He remains desperate to escape, especially for his wife and their three-year old son.

Khan, whose real name ABC News is not using as well, knows the price that can be paid for working with the U.S. In December, his brother "Mohammad" was granted approval for a U.S. visa after a 10-year long process. One month later, riding to work in the morning with his 10-year old son, he was gunned down by Taliban gunmen.

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Afghan girls, women fear Taliban's return to power as US troops withdraw

ABC News

(KABUL, Afghanistan) -- What Seddiqa Mahmoodi remembers most from that day were the screams.

When a girls' school outside of Kabul was attacked last month in a triple bombing, the 17-year-old student sustained serious injuries to her leg and hand, only recently released from the hospital.

More than 85 people, dozens of them girls and young women, were killed in the attack against the persecuted Hazara ethnic minority -- one that seized headlines around the world for being so especially appalling amid a spike in violence in Afghanistan as the U.S. withdraws its last troops.

"All I remember was the scream I was hearing from the fellow girls and the bodies scattered around the street," Mahmoodi told ABC News. "It's really, really bad. I can't say. ... When I remember this happens for me, I'm very scared about it. I'm very scared again it's happened."

With U.S. forces exiting the country after nearly two decades of fighting, the Taliban is on the offensive again, gaining control of more than 50 districts across the country since President Joe Biden's announcement, according to the war monitor the Long War Journal.

As the group appears poised to take power again by force, Afghan officials, women's rights activists and U.S. lawmakers have warned that women and girls face a return to the country's grim past, notorious for its harsh treatment of women.

"Women are deeply concerned that women's rights do not become the price to be paid for peace," Mary Akrami, a prominent women's rights activists in Kabul, told the United Nations Security Council session Tuesday. "We want a dignified and just peace, not a surrender to the Taliban or other violent extremist groups."

Akrami and other women have urged the Trump and now Biden administrations to include more women in the peace process, which excluded the Afghan government in negotiations between Taliban leadership in Doha, Qatar, and U.S. special envoy, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

Women have been part of the Afghan national delegation that has met on and off again with the Taliban in peace negotiations since last September, although those talks have been deadlocked since the sides set an agenda.

The militant group has said that they will accept women in certain spaces, which Khalilzad has touted as well.

Sayed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban leader from when the group was in power prior to the 2001 U.S. invasion, told ABC News Tuesday he was "in favor of an inclusive government ... where every tribe and every population of Afghanistan seated represents in that government, so that kind of government, even the female will be part of it."

In recent months and years, however, a long string of deadly attacks targeting women, assassinating prominent female leaders and closing girls' schools have belied public assurances like Agha's.

The Taliban denied responsibility for the attack on Mahmoodi's school, with U.S. officials saying instead it had the hallmarks of the Islamic State terror group, which has a strong footing in Afghanistan and one that U.S. officials fear will grow after an American exit.

But regardless of who was responsible, Mahmoodi told ABC News that she fears for her life, even as she hopes to finish her education and pursue a career in journalism.

"I just want to continue my lessons, and I want to finish my lessons. I want to be the future, go (as a) journalist," she said, in order to "say the facts for people."

Asked whether she worries about her future and any chances for an education with American troops gone, she said yes.

"Maybe the Taliban attack," she said. "The security camp can't help me."

That fear is born out of real experience for Kamila Sidiqi, a prominent entrepreneur who has promoted female economic empowerment even during the Taliban's previous rule.

"It was very difficult for a woman to work from there and to go to university or school or do some business, it was very difficult for a woman," she told ABC News Tuesday, detailing how she worked during Taliban rule as a dressmaker to support her family and dozens of others.

After 20 years of international influence, Afghan women are more active, educated and empowered, she said, and they will not give back those rights so easily. But the rapidly deteriorating security situation has her and many others on edge and asking for U.S. support.

"It is unbelievable after 21 years and after all this achievement and support from the international community -- especially America -- it is unbelievable now the situation that I, we experience these days," she said.

"We need support of America to be here for some time, for the situation, for peace come this country, and for people feel safe, we need America to be here," she added.

The State Department has said it will provide additional financial support for women and girls' empowerment and vocally stand up for their rights, including as it backs the Taliban and Afghan government's peace negotiations.

But the administration has made clear this week that U.S. troops will not be there, and nothing will reverse Biden's decision to withdraw.

"Nothing has changed about two things. One, we will complete the withdrawal of all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, with the exception of those that will be left to protect the diplomatic presence, and two, that it will be done before early September," Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Monday.

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Elephant killed in zoo enclosure by another bull elephant who attacked him while he slept

Noah's Ark Zoo Farm

(LONDON) -- A young elephant has been killed after it sustained injuries in an attack by another elephant while it slept in a zoo enclosure.

The tragic incident occurred on Friday, June 18, at the Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm in Wraxhall, near Bristol on England’s West Coast, when a bull elephant went into the area where 12-year-old elephant, M’Changa, was sleeping and launched a brutal attack on the sleeping animal that left him with fatal injuries, according to a statement published by Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm.

The zoo was not yet open to the public when the attack happened and the zoo’s other two bull elephants who were not involved in the incident, Shaka and Janu, were unharmed.

The zoo said that the bull elephant group have 24-hour access to the outside and inside areas of their enclosure and that they are typically very social animals that need the option of being together when they want to be.

“Our dedicated team of Elephant keepers are understandably distraught over this recent event, and we are doing all that we can to support them during this difficult time,” said Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm. “A full review is now in progress, including an investigation into events surrounding the incident and looking at future plans to establish the best way forward for the elephant programme at Noah’s Ark.”

M’Changa had been at Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm since 2014 after arriving from Boras Zoo in Sweden and the zoo said that he had become an integral part of the male bachelor group of elephants until his untimely death. All three elephants had lived successfully together for three years up until that point, according to the zoo.

“Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm has one of the largest elephant facilities in the UK and Europe,” said a senior spokesperson from BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums). “The bachelor elephant group at Noah’s Ark plays a key supporting role serving wider African Elephant conservation efforts as an important part of the European Endangered Species Programme. Our thoughts are with the dedicated elephant care staff at Noah’s Ark.”

The zoo says the elephants play a critical role in breeding and growing the elephant population since they can be transferred to other facilities as breeding bulls to contribute to those breeding programs.

“Male elephants will naturally leave their family herd in adolescence and will often then group together with other solitary males, forming a bachelor group,” Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm said in their statement announcing M’Changa’s death. “These bachelor groupings are important for young bulls to learn social skills and new behaviours from the older males. There will typically be one large dominant bull who will guide the younger bulls, sort out any disputes amongst the group and can often show displays of dominance. Bull elephants are large and powerful animals. Their behaviour in the wild and in zoos, can often typically be active, boisterous and can at times be aggressive.”

The zoo said that a full review into the incident is now in progress, including an investigation into the events surrounding the attack, and that Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm will be evaluating their plans about how they will go forward with the elephant program at the zoo.

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UK denies Russia fired warning shots at British warship near Crimea


(NEW YORK) -- Britain has denied claims from Russia’s military that a Russian patrol ship and fighter jet fired warning shots at a British navy warship as it sailed through waters near Crimea on Wednesday.

The unusual dispute began when Russia’s defense ministry accused the British destroyer HMS Defender of crossing into Russian waters in the Black Sea close to the occupied peninsula on Wednesday morning. The ministry asserted that after the British ship ignored calls to turn around, a Russian coast guard vessel fired warning shots and a Su-24m jet dropped four bombs in the waters ahead of the British warship.

But Britain’s Ministry of Defense has denied that any warning shots were fired and instead suggested Russia was misrepresenting the incident.

"No shots were directed at HMS Defender and we do not recognize the claim that bombs were dropped in her path," the ministry wrote on Twitter.

The ministry said Russia was conducting a pre-planned naval exercise in the same area at the time and suggested the "warning shots" Russia allegedly fired might have been part of the exercise.

Britain’s Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said HMS Defender had been making a “routine transit” through an internationally recognized traffic corridor.

"As is routine, Russian vessels shadowed her passage and she was made aware of training exercises in her wider vicinity," Wallace said in a statement quoted by the BBC.

But a BBC correspondent on board the HMS Defender said it had been a "deliberate move" to send the warship through Crimean waters, which Russia claims it controls following its 2014 seizure of Crimea. Britain and most of the international community view Crimea as occupied Ukrainian territory.

"We have just completed a transit through Russian occupied Crimea's territorial waters. This was a deliberate move by the Royal Navy warship," the defense correspondent, Jonathan Beale, said on the BBC, speaking by phone from the destroyer, which he said was now continuing on to Georgia.

Beale said at times there had been more than 20 Russian aircraft above the ship, including fighter jets, and that a Russian coast guard vessel had maneuvered to try to force the destroyer to change course. Shots were heard, he said.

He did not say if he had seen bombs dropped in the path of the British ship.

The waters around Crimea are a flashpoint in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels and their crews in 2018 and has partially blockaded access to the neighboring Sea of Azov for Ukrainian vessels. Tensions around the sea again ratcheted up when Russia amassed tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine as part of military buildup in April that triggered a war scare.

Beale's account suggested the British ship's sailing through the Crimean waters was meant as a freedom of navigation gesture intended to signal that the U.K. does not recognize Russian control.

The BBC correspondent said the British crew had been on high alert as they made the passage through the Russian occupied waters.

“At one stage they did put on anti-flash masks to protect their faces, just in case there was going to be an exchange of fire,” he said.

"They didn't think that would happen and it did not happen. But the Russian jets have taken an interest in this and they had warned the ship not to go into Crimean territorial waters, claiming that they are Russian waters,” Beale said.

Russia’s foreign ministry accused the British ship of a “crude provocation” and of violating international law, adding that it planned to summon the British ambassador over the incident.

“The professional assessment of the dangerous actions of the British navy destroyer in the Black Sea has already been given by our side’s defense ministry. I would like to add that we qualify it as a crude British provocation, that goes against international law and Russian legislation,” Maria Zakharova said in a briefing, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.

Russia’s defense ministry said the incident had occurred near Cape Florient on the coast of Crimea and said the HMS Defender had entered three kilometers into Russian territorial waters just before midday local time. It said the destroyer left the area shortly after shots were fired.

The ministry said it considered the U.K. warship to have violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and urged Britain to investigate, saying that the British defense attaché in Moscow had already been notified of Russia’s position.

Britain’s Royal Navy said earlier in June that HMS Defender had temporarily “peeled away” from a strike group conducting NATO defense exercises in the Mediterranean in order to “carry out her own set of missions in the Black Sea.”

Last week the destroyer docked in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa, according to Britain’s embassy in Kyiv. The ship’s presence there would likely be seen by Russia as a show of solidarity with Ukraine amid the tensions.

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said the incident was a “clear proof” of Ukraine’s position that Russia’s actions in the Black Sea are dangerous.

“Russia’s aggressive and provocative actions in the Black and Azov seas, its occupation & militarization of Crimea pose a lasting threat to Ukraine and allies. We need a new quality of cooperation between Ukraine & NATO allies in the Black Sea,” Kuleba wrote on Twitter.

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Heat wave in Russia brings record-breaking temperatures north of Arctic Circle


(ST. PETERSBURG, Russia) -- You may think of Russia -- especially the northern areas from St. Petersburg to Moscow and into Siberia -- as one of the coldest places on Earth, but that was certainly not the case the past few days.

Daily temperatures in St. Petersburg rose to a record-breaking 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit) on Tuesday as the city faced the hottest temperatures it's seen since 1998.

In Siberia on Sunday, the land surface temperature, which measures how hot the surface feels when you touch it, exceeded 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), with peaks of 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit) near Verkhoyansk, and 37 degrees Celsius (nearly 99 degrees Fahrenheit) in Saskylah, both of which are north of the Arctic Circle.

In Saskylah, an air temperature, which is what people actually feel when they walk outside, of 31.9 degrees Celsius (almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit) was recorded, the highest value since 1936.

Russia is warming 2.5 times faster than the rest of the world.

"The long-term trend is clear in the month of June: Temperatures are rising across Siberia due to the influence of human-caused climate change," Dr. Zachary Michael Labe, a postdoctoral researcher climate scientist at Colorado State University, said. "This will continue to dramatically have far-reaching impacts to marine and terrestrial ecosystems of the Arctic."

"The persistence of the warmth is what is particularly striking to me -- both for this summer and in nearly all of 2020," Labe added. "This is also related to the record-low sea ice ongoing along the coastline of Siberia."

Temperature anomalies in the Arctic part of Siberia over the last two months show that some areas have gotten warmer by 8 degrees Celsius (16 degrees Fahrenheit).

“Unfortunately, last year also observed record-breaking heat across Siberia of a similar or greater magnitude,” Labe said.

Celia Darrough and Daniel Manzo contributed to this report.

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Afghan translators, contractors fear for their lives amid Taliban offensives, US withdrawal


(KABUL, Afghanistan) -- "Abdul" says he fears for his life, his wife's and his three children's, but that is exactly why he is speaking out.

"I am fighting for my family and for others who are left behind," said the Afghan interpreter, who worked for years with U.S. troops in some of the country's most dangerous territory.

Abdul, whose real name ABC News is not using to protect him and his family, is just one of approximately 18,000 Afghans who worked for the U.S. military and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan and are now seeking a U.S. visa.

As President Joe Biden pulls out the last U.S. forces there, those translators, guides and other contractors who were promised U.S. visas for their service are left wondering if they and their families will survive an American withdrawal.

"If you work a single day for a coalition force, or you support a single day for the coalition forces, they will kill you," he said of the Taliban, the militant group that the Trump administration signed an agreement with last year to end America's involvement in Afghanistan.

While the Taliban have yet to meet its commitments under that deal, like deny safe haven to terror groups or negotiate toward a permanent ceasefire, Biden still ordered troops out, nearly 20 years after Taliban support for the al Qaeda terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11th attacks brought American forces to the country in the first place.

The Biden administration has repeatedly said it is considering all options to help Afghans like Abdul, but as that withdrawal accelerates, there is a growing chorus of U.S. lawmakers in both parties who say the current visa program is not enough.

Since 2006, Congress has made available a set number of special immigrant visas, or SIVs, for Afghan and Iraqi translators or for contractors who face an "ongoing serious threat as a consequence of such employment," as well as their immediate family members.

But the application process, which by law should take nine months, on average takes four years, with many applicants waiting far longer.

In the last year, those delays were further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. For much of 2020, in-person interviews at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, a key part of the visa process, were canceled, and again on June 13, the embassy shut its doors because of a devastating COVID outbreak in its community.

"It will take many years, like two years, five years, seven years," said Abdul, who worked as an interpreter with the U.S. Marines in Helmand province.

He added that he and his brother, a U.S. contractor for a decade, are both essentially in hiding after receiving threatening phone calls and letters from Taliban militants.

"If they take over Kabul, they will come and behead us all. They will kill us," he told ABC News Tuesday.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week that the administration hasn't "ruled anything out," including a possible evacuation of Afghans to a third country or U.S. territory like Guam to have their applications processed from there.

But he suggested that despite its years-long backlogs, the administration is focused on making the Special Immigrant Visa program work better instead.

"We continue to look at every possible contingency to make sure that one way or another we can accommodate the demand. We haven't ruled anything out, and right now we're focused on making sure that we actually can make good on the folks who are in the system," Blinken said Monday.

In the face of pressure from Democratic and Republican lawmakers, he conceded, "We've got challenges," but he defended his department by saying it has "surged" resources to deal with the backlogs, including by adding 50 staffers in Washington. Earlier this month, he told Congress he expects they will clear the backlog "over the next few months, at about the pace of 1,000 a month."

In the face of the warnings in Washington, the Taliban itself has said Afghans who worked with the U.S. have nothing to fear, even as the militants have taken control of dozens of districts since Biden's withdrawal announcement.

"When they abandon enemy ranks and opt to live as ordinary Afghans in their homeland, they will not face any issues," the group said in a statement on June 7.

Sayed Akbar Agha, a senior leader when the Taliban ruled prior to the U.S. invasion in 2001, echoed that, saying Tuesday, "Some of those people who are claiming they will be harmed, they are maybe just wanting to get out of here or get somewhere else, that is why they are saying that, but the Taliban will not harm them."

That hasn't been the case for years, however. At least 300 Afghans who worked for the U.S. have been killed in targeted assassinations since 2014, according to No One Left Behind, an advocacy organization dedicated to assisting SIV applicants.

That's particularly true for interpreters, according to "Suhail," who worked with U.S. special forces as one and whose real name ABC News is also concealing.

"The interpreters, the linguists, you know, were the eyes, the ears, everything of the Americans. They were the bridge, you know? So, if (the Taliban) take over Kabul, and they show up, they catch anybody, any linguist, they're gonna kill them," he said Monday.

While he doesn't feel betrayed by the U.S. withdrawal -- noting it's been a two-decade investment by America's military, diplomats, and development teams -- he said he was promised a U.S. visa for his service and is still desperate for one.

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Blinken meeting European allies to brief on Putin summit, rally to counter China

Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- Fresh from accompanying President Joe Biden on his first overseas trip, Secretary of State Antony Blinken returns to Europe for his first visits to Germany, France, Italy and the Vatican, in what a senior U.S. diplomat called another key trip focused on "rebuilding our relationships with allies."

But even after Biden rallied U.S. allies at the Group of Seven and NATO, there are still several speed bumps that may rock Blinken's latest trip, especially over how to approach China and Russia.

During the week-long trip, Blinken will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, along with his foreign minister counterparts. Serving only the second Catholic American president, Blinken will also visit the Vatican to meet "senior Holy See officials," according to the State Department, which could include Pope Francis.

He'll also attend critical summits to back Libya's new interim government ahead of elections in December; to convene the coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria, Iraq and increasingly elsewhere around the globe; and to organize the world's largest economies, known as the Group of 20, especially to combat COVID-19 and boost the global economic recovery.

It's all part of Biden's effort to restore U.S. leadership in multilateral forums that his predecessor Donald Trump largely dismissed in his "America First" approach.

For U.S. allies, Biden's meetings last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where Blinken joined him for the initial two-on-two session, will be of particular importance.

Biden has said he hopes to create a united front against Moscow to encourage better behavior on the world stage. It's an approach that critics in the U.S. have dismissed as naïve, amid Russia's ongoing occupations and conflicts in Ukraine and Georgia, two European countries -- but one where allies like Germany may be less than cooperative.

The top U.S. diplomat will similarly encounter diverging views on China despite the united front Biden projected from his meetings at the G-7 summit, NATO and with European leaders.

"This trip is a continuation of the priority that President Biden has made of rebuilding our relationships with allies," acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Philip Reeker said Monday.

Those ties, he added, are critical for the administration's "foreign policy priorities, including economic recovery as we emerge from the COVID pandemic and pushing back on the People's Republic of China and authoritarianism generally around the world."

After a summit of NATO allies' leaders, the military alliance declared China a global security challenge, agreeing in their joint statement, "China's stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security."

But within hours, French President Emmanuel Macron downplayed the tone, telling reporters, "It is very important not to disperse ourselves and not to bias the relationship with China."

At the G-7, the leaders of the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, France, Germany and Italy agreed to "a new infrastructure initiative, Build Back Better World -- B3W -- that will be a high-standards, transparent, climate-friendly alternative to the Belt Road Initiative," according to Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan, that is a cornerstone of Chinese leader Xi Jinping's foreign policy.

But there was marked tension among the G-7 allies about China, according to a senior U.S. administration official, over "how hard to push and to call out some of the actions that China is taking."

While Blinken papered over that in an interview with ABC News, those divisions were on display just before his trip. On Monday, Italy's Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio spoke to China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and reportedly recommitted to working with Beijing on the "Belt and Road" initiative.

"Italy hopes to work with China to promote the 'Belt and Road' construction (and) strengthen cooperation in energy, industry, and third-party markets," Di Maio told Wang, according to Xinhua, a Chinese state-run media outlet.

The Italian readout said only, "The agenda focused on bilateral relations between Italy and China, respect for human rights and cooperation within the G-20."

In an interview this week, Armin Laschet, the front-runner to replace Merkel as German chancellor, also voiced skepticism about the strong U.S. push to counter China, which started under the Trump administration but has found continuity under Biden.

"Do we need a new adversary?" the center-right party leader told the Financial Times. "Yes, China is a competitor and a systemic rival. It has a different model of society. But it's also a partner, particularly in things like fighting climate change.”

Blinken may have the chance to meet Wang himself on the sidelines of the G-20 foreign ministerial next week, which would be their first meeting since a very public spat during a high-stakes meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, in March. Reeker declined to comment on who Blinken would meet during the summit.

But one relationship the new administration hopes to improve is with Germany, where Blinken will make his first stop. To that end, the administration decided to waive sanctions on a German firm and its German CEO constructing the Russian pipeline known as Nord Stream 2.

While the U.S. has called it a "Russian geopolitical project that threatens Europe’s energy security," it pulled its punches on the company constructing it -- unleashing a wave of criticism from Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

Biden has said the pipeline is essentially complete, and Blinken has argued sanctioning Germans would only exacerbate the relationship with Berlin, already tender after Trump's four years of taunts and tumult, without stopping construction.

"Rather than risk damaging relations with European allies through further sanctions, we're going to use this space provided by these waivers to engage Germany diplomatically and take steps to reduce the risks that Nord Stream 2 poses to Ukraine and to European energy security more broadly," Reeker said Monday.

He declined to provide any details on what Germany can or is willing to do to that end.

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US fighter jets called to flight as precaution against Russian bombers near Hawaii


(NEW YORK) -- American fighter jets were twice in flight over Hawaii earlier this month as a precaution against Russian bombers training in the region, ABC News has learned.

A U.S. defense official told ABC News that F-22 Raptors were sent out on patrol from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam near Honolulu on June 13 and 18 due to a large-scale Russian military exercise taking place off the coast of Hawaii.

While several media reports have said that the American jets "scrambled" to respond to the threat of Russian warplanes as they flew close to U.S. territorial airspace, the reality appears to have been less urgent than the headlines suggested. The U.S. defense official told ABC News that the Russian aircraft came no closer than about 150 miles from Hawaii's coast.

A second U.S. defense official told ABC News that the Russian bombers never even entered the air defense identification zone (ADIZ), an area in international airspace that serves as a buffer outside a country's territorial airspace to give it time to intercept and vet any aircraft before it might reach sovereign territory. Therefore, the F-22s never intercepted the Russian warplanes but rather were sent airborne mainly as a precaution in case they crossed into the ADIZ, which itself would have been a backstop against them entering U.S. territorial airspace.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Armed Forces' Indo-Pacific Command provided ABC News with identical statements in response to separate queries about the air patrols earlier this month.

"Pacific Air Forces regularly perform air operations in airspace surrounding Hawaii. As a matter of policy, we don’t discuss tactics, techniques or procedures used by U.S. Air Force aircraft due to operational security requirements," the spokesperson said. "The U.S. Air Force is dedicated to ensuring the homeland is defended and a free and open Indo-Pacific region for all nations. We will continue to fly in international airspace with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft under international law."

The United States has intercepted many Russian aircraft flying inside the ADIZ in recent years, particularly off the coast of Alaska. Just over a year ago, F-22s from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) intercepted two sets of Russian bombers entering Alaska's ADIZ, with the first formation flying within 20 nautical miles of Alaskan shores -- a mere 8 nautical miles from U.S. territorial airspace.

The incidents earlier this month came as U.S. President Joe Biden held a high-stakes summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva amid what the leaders agree is a "low point" in the relationship between their two countries. After a chaotic photo op and about three-and-a-half hours of tense talks, both leaders called their June 16 meeting positive. But while Biden said he raised serious concerns and warned of consequences, he did not claim he got Putin to commit to changing his behavior and the Russian president accepted no responsibility for cyberattacks on the United States or for anything else.

"I did what I came to do," Biden told reporters at his solo press conference following the summit.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

In Ethiopian civil war, famine and sexual violence shatter Tigray region


(ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia) -- Voting was underway in Ethiopia Monday as Tigray, the northernmost regional state of the country, is torn apart by civil war and famine.

Eritrean troops from across the border and Ethiopian national forces are being accused of war crimes, rape and ethnic cleansing in the region.

Eritrea, a neighboring country, reportedly sent troops because they were concerned that they would be attacked by forces from the Tigray's People's Liberation Front, or TPLF.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military operation in Tigray last November to oust the the TPLF as the regional ruling party.

The TPLF refused to accept Abiy as the country's legitimate ruler. In September 2020, they went ahead with its regional elections in Tigray, in defiance of the Ethiopian government.

"Hope and optimism, support and hope," TPLF Chairman Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael said on Sept. 16 in a Facebook post, translated to English. "The people of Tigray have confirmed the political ideology of the people of Tigray."

The Ethiopian military began attacking after TPLF forces had attacked military bases belonging to Ethiopian soldiers in November 2020. The ongoing civil conflict is being blamed for the deep food insecurities within the region.

Over 1.7 million people displaced due to conflict are in need of urgent assistance across 265 accessible locations in Ethiopia's Tigray region and neighboring Afar and Amhara, according to data collected by the International Organization for Migration's Displacement Tracking Matrix.

"Women say they have been raped by armed actors; they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence," Wafaa Saeed, deputy U.N. aid coordinator in Ethiopia, said in a briefing to U.N. member states in New York.

Saeed said that at least 516 rape cases have been reported by five medical facilities in Mekelle, Adigrat, Wikro, Shire and Axum.

"Given the fact that most health facilities are not functioning and also the stigma associated with rape, it is projected that actual numbers are much higher," she added.

A dozen top U.N. officials called Monday for a stop to indiscriminate and targeted attacks against civilians in Tigray, particularly calling out reports of rape and "other horrific forms of sexual violence."

Eritrean and Ethiopian troops are also accused of destroying crops and killing livestock, presumably in an effort to weaken the regional opposition.

Famine has affected at least 350,000 people in Tigay, according to the U.N. World Food Programme.

Over 60% of the population -- more than 5.5 million people -- grapple with high levels of acute food insecurity. Of these, 2 million people are in an emergency level of acute food insecurity and without urgent action could quickly slide into starvation, the U.N. reported on June 10.

Tadesse Aregawi said that his 14-year-old nephew weighed only 32 pounds after the family spent months hiding in a cave.

"We were only eating roasted barley. Six people died and we had to bury them during the evening as it was not possible to do it during the day," said Aregawi, translated into to English.

Church watchman Maru Gebremariam said the dead have been buried in mass graves and have not been given a proper burial.

"They were destroyed, there was nothing there. Dogs have eaten them, some of the remains were just bones. There was no flesh -- no flesh, bones. Their bodies [were] destroyed," said Gebremariam.

"The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and UNICEF call for urgent action to address the dramatic acute food insecurity in northern Ethiopia," the U.N. said in a statement. "The three agencies are particularly concerned about the situation in Tigray region where the risk of famine is imminent, unless food, livelihood assistance and other life-saving interventions continue to be scaled-up, unimpeded access is guaranteed, and hostilities cease."

"People in Tigray continue to suffer human rights violations, abuses and atrocities, and urgently needed humanitarian relief is being blocked by the Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries as well as other armed actors," U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in a statement last month.

Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a decadeslong war with Eritrea, has been in power since 2018 and is likely to win reelection this week. On Monday, Abiy denied the country was in a hunger crisis.

"There is no hunger in Tigray. There is a problem in Tigray and the government is capable of fixing that," Abiy told the BBC on Monday.

Since the conflict began, nine aid workers have died, according to The Associated Press. On May 23, the U.S. placed sanctions on Ethiopian government officials for human rights violations.

This month, UNICEF projected that about 56,000 Tigaryian children will need treatment for "severe wasting" in 2021 due to lack of food.

"We rang alarm bells and here we are now. We now have the largest number of people classified as food insecure in a decade," said UNICEF spokesman James Elder.

New mother Abeba Gebru walked for 12 days with her 20-day-old baby to receive medical care for her child.

"She survived because I held her close to my womb and because I hid in various places during the exhausting journey," said Gebru.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Australia pushes back against U.N committee's draft recommendation to label Great Barrier Reef as 'in danger'


(SYDNEY) -- Australian plans to challenge a draft recommendation from the United Nations World Heritage Committee that the Great Barrier Reef be identified as "in danger."

The U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) draft report says the reef should be added to its "in danger" list due to the ongoing effects of climate change. Australian Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley says her country would oppose such a label, however.

"The Great Barrier Reef is the best managed reef in the world," she explained, "and this draft recommendation has been made without examining the Reef first hand, and without the latest information."

Ley also said she had spoke with the Director General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, and "made it clear that we will contest this flawed approach, one that has been taken without adequate consulation."

UNSESCO calls the Great Barrier Reef a "site of remarkable variety and beauty," which contains "the world's largest collection of coral reefs," and "holds great scientific interest."

There are currently 53 world heritage sites around the world on UNESCO's "in danger" list. The reasons behind those determinations include armed conflict and war, natural disasters, pollution, poaching, and unchecked urbanization or tourism, among others.

According to its website, inscribing a site on the "in danger" list "allows the World Heritage Committee to allocate immediate assistance from the World Heritage Fund to the endangered property."

It also says the identification is used to alter the international community to the situation, "in the hope that i can join efforts to save these endangered sites."

Still, Ley says that making this determination would "[send] a poor signal to those nations who are not making the investments in reef protection that we are making."

"If it is being proposed on the basis of the very real threat of global climate change, then there are any number of international World Heritage Sites that should be subject to the same process."

She also cited what she called a "$3 billion investment in reef protection" made by Australia.

Environmentalists, though, are in favor of UNESCO's draft recommendation, noting that there have been three mass bleaching events among the Reef's coral since 2015.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

UN report finds increasing violence and need for humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan as US troops withdraw


(KABUL, Afghanistan) -- The United Nations paints a grim portrait of life in Afghanistan in a new situation report, highlighting increased violence and the spread of COVID-19 as the Taliban has taken control of dozens of districts in recent weeks.

According to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' report, while the United States and NATO withdraw forces from the country, the situation on the ground continues to get worse.

"Afghanistan is entering a new and uncertain phase of its decades-long conflict," Guterres said. "Progress in the peace talks that began in September 2020...has slowed, and fighting continues around the country. Fears of military escalation increasingly threaten the atmosphere for genuine negotiations."

In the six months that followed those peace talks, the report found that civilian casualties "increased substantially" compared to the same time period in 2019.

Afghan women's rights activist Mary Akrami is one of many demanding a ceasefire. She says that the agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban has brought "nothing but more violence."

Haneef Atmar, Afghanistan's Foreign Minister, told the U.N. Security Council that the Taliban has not honored its obligations under the deal with the U.S., which included cutting ties with terror groups, reducing violence, and working towards a permanent ceasefire.

"Our people have witnessed only the worst violence of the last two decades since the signing of the Doha agreement," he said.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield agreed with the report, calling the levels of violence "unacceptable." Still, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Monday that there is no plan to reverse the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by September.

Beyond the violence, the U.N report also found that 18.4 million Afghans need humanitarian assistance immediately, up from 9.4 million at the start of 2020. The report points much of the blame for that increase at the spread of COVID-19 and the deep risk of a third consecutive year of drought.

Perhaps most notably, 14 million Afghans are currently at "crisis" or "emergency" levels of food insecurity. That figure includes an increase in malnutrition among children under the age of five. The report urges greater humanitarian donations, among other solutions.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Princes William, Harry had 'explosive argument' over Meghan bullying allegations, new book claims


(LONDON) -- An "explosive argument" between Princes William and Harry led to William initiating the split of their households and the ultimate breakup of the so-called "Fab 4," a new book claims.

When it was announced two years ago that Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, were departing from Kensington Palace -- the household of Prince William and his wife, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge -- to form their our own household, it was assumed the Sussexes were looking to start fresh as they launched their own initiatives and prepared for the birth of their first child.

But historian and royal expert Robert Lacey, author of the new book "Battle of Brothers, claims it was William, not Harry, who initiated the split.

Citing palace insiders, Lacey writes the two brothers, the only children of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, had an "explosive argument" about the way Meghan was reportedly treating palace staff.

Harry reportedly hung up the phone on his older brother, leading William to address him in-person.

After the argument, William reportedly instructed a royal aide to "start the process of dividing their two households immediately," according to the book.

"William wished to be separated from Meghan on a day-to-day basis and that meant being separated from his brother as well," Lacy writes, also quoting a friend as saying that William "threw Harry out" of Kensington Palace.

Prince Harry and Meghan, who wed in 2018, stepped down from their roles as senior working members of the royal family in 2020, one year after their split from the Kensington Palace household.

Earlier this year, the bullying allegations made against Duchess Meghan spilled into public view. Buckingham Palace, which represents Harry's grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, announced plans to open an investigation into the allegations of bullying made against Meghan, a move that one royal expert called "incredibly unprecedented."

Harry and Meghan have strongly denied the bullying allegations, calling a media report of the allegations a "defamatory portrayal of The Duchess of Sussex."

The bullying allegations were made public just before the Sussexes sat down for a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Prince Harry implied to Winfrey in the interview that jealousy over his and Meghan's successful trip to Australia and the South Pacific in 2018 could have been the reason for the shift in relations between his family and the Cambridges.

Harry implied the trip was similar to a trip his mother Princess Diana took abroad with then-husband Prince Charles. Diana died in 1997, shortly after her divorce from Charles, following a car crash in Paris in which she was chased by paparazzi.

"My father and my brother, Kate and all the rest of the family, they were really welcoming," he said. "But it really changed after the Australia tour, after our South Pacific tour."

When asked by Winfrey if he was saying there were hints of jealousy, Harry replied, "I just wish that we would all learn from the past."

Neither Kensington Palace nor representatives for the Sussexes, who now live in California, have commented on the allegations made in Lacey's book.

It is not known what, if any, steps toward reconciliation the two couples have made since the Sussexes' departure from royal life one year ago.

Harry and Meghan welcomed their second child, a daughter named Lilibet "Lili" Diana Mountbatten-Windsor, this month.

When Duchess Kate was asked nearly a week later if she had met Lili yet via FaceTime, Kate replied no.

The two wives, Kate and Meghan, have not seen each other in-person in over a year. William and Harry's first in-person meeting in over a year happened in April, when the royal family came together for the funeral of the brothers' grandfather, Prince Philip.

William and Harry are set to be reunited again next week at the unveiling of a statue for their mother at Kensington Palace. The unveiling will take place on July 1, what would have been Diana's 60th birthday.

It is not yet known whether Meghan plans to join Harry for the trip from California to the United Kingdom.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Hong Kong pro-democracy paper Apple Daily could close by the weekend, staff are told

iStock/Kim Vermaat

(HONG KONG) -- Hong Kong’s last remaining opposition paper Apple Daily may be forced to shutter its operations and publish its last edition as soon as this Friday if it is unable to get the approval of the government to unfreeze its assets to pay staff.

An internal memo sent to employees on Monday, seen by ABC News, said that if management still doesn’t get access to the funds, no articles will be uploaded to the media outlet's digital platforms after 11.59 p.m. on Friday, meaning that the last newspaper could be published on Saturday morning.

The government froze $2.3 million worth of assets owned by three companies linked to Apple Daily after arresting five executives under the Beijing-imposed national security law last Thursday.

Editor-in-chief Ryan Law and four directors were detained on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces under the controversial national security law, which was imposed by Beijing last summer following the mass pro-democracy protests of 2019.

Apple Daily is owned by pro-democracy activist and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who is already in jail for a string of other protest-related charges while awaiting trial in a national security case. Lai and the paper are openly critical of China.

Lai's longtime advisor, Mark Simon, told Reuters that it had now become impossible for the company to conduct banking operations in Hong Kong because authorities had "criminalized" any activities with the company's accounts. Simon said that even when vendors tried to pay the company, it was rejected. "We can't bank," he said.

One journalist at the paper, who spoke to ABC News on the condition of anonymity, said that he is “not optimistic” the paper will still be running after Friday.

“I will be reluctantly unemployed soon, and I don't think there will be any other media that would support democracy like Apple Daily,” he said, "I’ve decided to stay until the end because I want to witness the end of the era, which is the death of press freedom. I'm furious because of the blatant actions by the authority. I'm sad because I'm going to leave the best journalists and coworkers in town. Seeing them farewell one another today was rough.”

Police have cited several articles printed in the tabloid and its online edition that they have claimed called for foreign sanctions on Hong Kong and China, warning that the public could face prosecution for sharing the reports in question on social media.

However, Apple Daily supporters and democracy activists say this is a blatant attack on press freedom.

In a statement following Thursday’s arrests and police raid, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, “We are deeply concerned by Hong Kong authorities' selective use of the national security law to arbitrarily target independent media organizations."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Afghanistan's president will visit Biden at the White House on Friday


(WASHINGTON) — As the U.S. military drawdown from Afghanistan continues, the White House announced that the Afghan president and chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation will visit with President Joe Biden on Friday in Washington.

President Ashraf Ghani and Chairman Abdullah Abdullah's visit will "highlight the enduring partnership between the United States and Afghanistan as the military drawdown continues," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Sunday.

While Biden set the goal to have all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, a U.S. official said the reality is the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan could be completed as early as July.

The latest release from U.S. Central Command this past week showed that more than 50% of the withdrawal has taken place already.

Despite the speed of the withdrawal, the White House highlighted its commitment to continuing to support Afghanistan.

"The United States is committed to supporting the Afghan people by providing diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian assistance to support the Afghan people, including Afghan women, girls and minorities," according to the White House statement.

However, the accelerated exit is raising concerns for the family of civil engineer Mark Frerichs, a U.S. Navy veteran who has been held hostage by the Taliban since January 2020, and for those who worked on behalf of the Pentagon in Afghanistan and were promised a special immigrant visa from the U.S. The special visa program has long faced delays, leaving many feeling abandoned amid growing threats from the Taliban.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during an unannounced visit to Kabul in April that he is "committed" to the SIV program, but he has not committed to any reforms to make the process quicker or address the enormous backlog.

"The decisions to withdraw and leave those who served and helped the U.S. government will be judged in bad words, and no one will trust in USA in the future. It's going to be a catastrophe and mass killing tragedy by the Taliban, who believe those who worked with USA are no longer Muslim," said "Abdul," an Afghan contractor who has long waited for a U.S. visa and whose real name ABC News agreed not to use for his safety.

After being granted conditional approval, he was told in December that his application was rejected because the U.S. embassy could not verify his employment. But his American employer was Frerichs, who had been kidnapped.

"We understand that the Taliban wants one of their guys released from U.S. custody in exchange for Mark. This guy has been in prison for 16 years and the war is coming to an end. We think people on both sides should be able to go home when it ends," Frerichs' sister Charlene told ABC News.

Psaki, in the White House statement on Sunday, went on to say, "The United States will remain deeply engaged with the Government of Afghanistan to ensure the country never again becomes a safe haven for terrorist groups who pose a threat to the U.S. homeland. The United States continues to fully support the ongoing peace process and encourages all Afghan parties to participate meaningfully in negotiations to bring an end to the conflict."

ABC News' Luis Martinez, Matt Seyler, Conor Finnegan and James Gordon Meek contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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