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

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(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.


North Korea attempted to hack South Korea's nuclear think tank, lawmaker says

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(SEOUL, South Korea) -- A North Korean hacker group allegedly broke into South Korea's nuclear research center last month, marking the latest in a series of cyberattack attempts, a South Korean lawmaker said in a press briefing Friday.

The Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute noticed unidentified user access, penetrating its VPN system on May 14, according to Ha Tae-keung, a member of the parliamentary intelligence committee. The think tank blocked the attackers' IP address and upgraded its system security as countermeasure when it found out on May 31.

Authorities are still investigating the scale of the hack, according to KAERI.

Seoul-based cybersecurity firm IssueMakersLab ran an analysis on the attackers' IP addresses on Thursday and discovered that one of the three addresses traced back to the infamous hacking group Kimsuky, known for its affiliation with North Korea's Reconnaissance General Bureau spy agency. The analysis identified that it was the same address that targeted COVID-19 vaccine developers in South Korea last year.

"Kimsuky is a hacking group that was identified in 2011. We have been watching their consistent hacking attempts on South Korean government related agencies and several companies," Simon Choi, head of IssueMakersLab, told ABC News.

Analysts in South Korea carefully speculated that the hacking may have to do with the North Korean leader's vision for nuclear power plant generation. Previously, in 2014, Kimsuky succeeded in its hacking attack on South Korea's Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. Ltd.

"It's reasonable to think that North Korea may be involved in hacking the nuclear think tank, considering the electric power shortage situation and strong interest in energy self-reliance," Park Jiyoung, a nuclear physics expert at Asan Institute in Seoul, told ABC News.

Cyber defense expert Lim Jong-in at South Korea's Graduate school of Information Technologies also saw enough reason for North Korea to discreetly reach out for nuclear power plant data accumulated by the South Korean think tank.

"North Korea may have a wide range of data and technology on developing nuclear weapons, but very weak on energy power plants," Lim told ABC News. "KAERI has data on the small modular reactor as well as other power generating nuclear plants which the energy-short North Korea would be very much interested in."

The KAERI is a national research institute which played a pivotal role in building South Korea's own nuclear power plant, transferring nuclear technologies to local industries for practical applications.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had mentioned the communist nation's plan to develop nuclear power generation capabilities in a speech in 2019. International intelligence has been monitoring the country's development of nuclear weapons using plutonium from the spent reactor fuel.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Young princess fights for her claim to the (abolished) throne of Italy

ABC News


Ines De La Cuetara, ABC News

(ROME) -- Italy may have abolished its monarchy 75 years ago, but having no real power hasn't stopped its royal family from feuding.

Direct descendants of Italy's last king are divided over who should lead the family. For thousands of years, only men in the family could rule. All that changed when the current head of the royal House of Savoy, Vittorio Emanuele di Savoia, issued a decree on his granddaughter's 16th birthday granting her the power to eventually lead the family.

Princess Vittoria di Savoia -- who is also a rising star on Instagram -- is now the first woman in 1,000 years to become the family figurehead.

"I think it's a very important act, especially now in 2021 where women are standing so much for their rights," she told ABC News in her first ever on-camera interview.

Vittoria's father, Emanuele Filiberto, prince of Venice, said the move is a sign of the times.

Surely enough, Vittoria's rise in royal ranks comes as more and more royal women across Europe are taking over their countries' thrones.

"I think the next generation of royalties in Europe will mainly be women because if you look at Spain, if you look at Sweden, if you look at Norway, if you look at Belgium, England, well, we have a fantastic example with the Queen," he said.

But, of course, there are those who oppose the young princess.

In Russia, a separate branch of the family refuses to accept the new rules. Prince Aimone di Aosta, Vittoria's distant cousin, declined ABC News' request for comment, but told the New York Times Vittoria's claim is "totally illegitimate."

Vittoria's father disagrees. He said the reason some don't support Vittoria is because they wish they had her power.

"They were thinking without me having a male heir that finally it would come to them, but I think today times have changed, and we must stand with times and with modern times. So it's normal that they're not happy, and it's very sad for them," Emanuele said.

The Aostas are now contesting Vittoria's claim through an age-old institution known as the Consulta dei Senatori del Regno, which Emanuele said was dissolved when the monarchy was abolished.

"Once my grandfather left Italy the Consulta died, so they recreated a fake Consulta with the same name to make believe," Emanuele said.

The infighting between the Savoias and Aostas has gone on for decades, with Emanuele's father even reportedly punching one of his cousins over the feud at the future king of Spain's wedding.

"No, he did not punch him, he just gave him a nice, perhaps a bit too violent cuddle," Emanuele joked.

The irony, amid the royal drama, is that there's no actual throne to fight over; Italy abolished its monarchy in 1946, with the last royals deemed too close to infamous dictator Benito Mussolini.

The Savoy family was eventually forced to go into exile, leaving behind their kingdom and numerous palaces built over the years by their ancestors. They were allowed to return to Italy in 2002, but Emanuele said the initial exile is further proof his side of the family is next in line to the (defunct) throne.

"We were in exile by the Italian Republic. We were the ones to go into exile because if monarchy were to come back, my father would have been king," he said.

The family argues this fight is about much more than an imaginary crown, it's about the family's dynastic orders. Emanuele compared his royal family to a charitable organization and said they serve to promote Italy's interests around the world.

"Everything I do, I do it for Italy," he said.

"The role of the monarchy is to have someone above politics. It's like a flag. The queen or the king is a person that represents all the people of this country," he said.

It's why he thinks it's a shame the duke and duchess of Sussex decided to step back from their duties as members of the British royal family.

"It's not a red carpet, it's not a movie scene, it's real life, but another side I think she was prepared. She knew where she was going, so I personally think it's sad to spit in the plate where you eat," he said.

Speaking of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's exit from the monarchy, the prince of Venice said he believes the royal platform is too important to give up.

"Perhaps it's difficult to understand in America, but when you come from a royal family you grow up with those titles, with those values, with those duties, and it's part of you and to lose the titles, to lose what he (Prince Harry) was born to be -- it's extremely difficult. It's a pity to give up," said Emanuele. "They had so much to give to England, so much to do in England."

Emanuele is now working on several documentaries on the House of Savoy, and is franchising his Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, "The Prince of Venice."

As for Vittoria, she is now preparing to become the family figurehead. No princess lessons are involved, but she is spending time learning about her family history and getting to know Italy.

"I feel and I know that I have big responsibilities and I'm preparing myself for it," she said. "We still have so much more to do and I'm very, very grateful and I will fight for this."

Her father has pushed her to develop a good work ethic, which is why she recently interned at the Hotel Alfred Sommier, "cleaning the rooms and serving dinner at the restaurant," according to Emanuele.

"It's very important. It's important to work. It's important to realize that gaining money is difficult and you must be respectful," he said.

Despite the controversy surrounding her position as a royal, Vittoria has no plans to relinquish her claim to the Aostas.

And while it currently doesn't look like monarchy will make a true comeback in Italy, Emanuele said, "Never say never."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


US woman who was former Marine found dead in Russia; suspect arrested on murder charges

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(MOSCOW) -- An American woman studying in Russia, who went missing four days ago, has been found dead and a man has been arrested on suspicion of her murder, Russian police said Saturday.

A search had been underway for Catherine Serou, a 34 year-old graduate student and former Marine, after she disappeared on Tuesday in Nizhny Novgorod, a city about 250 miles from Moscow and where she was studying at a university.

Serou went missing after leaving her house in Bor, a suburb of the city, Tuesday evening and getting into an unknown vehicle, Russia's Investigative Committee, which handles serious crimes, said in a statement on its website.

Serou's body was found on Saturday, police said following a large-scale search.

A local man born in 1977 and previously convicted of multiple serious crimes has been arrested on suspicion of abducting and murdering her, according to police.

He is cooperating with the investigation, they said.

Serou had enrolled in a law masters at Nizhny Novgorod's Lobachevsky University in the fall of 2019, her mother Beccy Serou told NPR in an interview this week from Mississippi where the elder Serou lives.

She told NPR her daughter had sent her a text message on Tuesday evening just before she disappeared, saying she was in a car with a stranger.

"It says: 'In a car with a stranger. I hope I'm not being abducted.' And that's the last thing she wrote," Beccy Serou said in the interview with NPR. "

She said her daughter had been in a hurry to get to a clinic where a payment had not gone through and so had perhaps jumped into a passing car without waiting for an Uber to arrive.

"I think that when she saw that the person wasn't driving to the clinic, but instead was driving into a forest, she panicked," said Beccy Serou. "Her telephone last pinged off a cell tower in that forest."

Local volunteer groups had posted missing persons notices appealing for sightings of Serou.

Around 80 police officers and 20 volunteers from one group, 'Lynx', had taken part in the search for her, Marina Mokeyeva, one of the volunteers told the Russian newspaper RBC.

Serou moved to Russia from California after selling her condominium there, her mother told NPR.

The suspect is being investigated on charges of abduction and murder that carry a maximum sentence of 15 years prison, according to police. A decision on charges and pre-trial detention will be made in the near future, the Investigative Committee said in the statement.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


'A soldier': New Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi comes to power with clear hard-line agenda

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(TEHRAN) -- The conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, the 61-year old new president-elect of Iran, heralds from a remote village in the northeast of the country, and after Friday's election victory, will take up residence in the presidential palace. He has taken on a number of influential roles in the Islamic Republic, most notably as Chief of the Judiciary, and his track record comes with a long list of alleged human rights violations.

As predicted, Raisi won the Islamic Republic's presidential election with a landslide margin, on Friday with 61.9%, around 17.9 million votes. By contrast, the main rival, reformist Abdolnaser Hemmati, could only obtain just under 2.5 million votes.

Crucially, however, the vote was marred by a low turnout -- which the regime considers a key factor in justifying its legitimacy -- with a turnout of 48.8%, the lowest turnout of all presidential elections since the 1979 revolution. In the run-up to the election, many Iranians had already decided to give up on the election, saying they felt no representation on either side of the political spectrum.

Early life and career

For many observers, Raisi is not a particularly complex figure. His career, ideology and political ambitions have been well-charted over the decades.

"Raisi is just a soldier. A good one actually. Someone who exactly executes what he is asked with all his might," Roya Boroumand, Washington-based historian, and executive director of Abdorrahman Boroumand Center, an NGO dedicated to the promotion of human rights and democracy in Iran, told ABC News. "It is why he constantly got promoted since he joined the judiciary and became prosecutor of Karaj -- a city close to Tehran -- without proper qualification."

He was appointed to the role in Karaj at just 20 years old, according to his official website. Only five years later he was promoted as the deputy prosecutor of the revolutionary court of Tehran which he served until 1989, a far more influential role in the judiciary.

At the time, the judiciary was a particularly important tool for the regime to clamp down on political opponents and those whose activities were criminalized under new laws on public morality.

"It is why people like Raisi were brought into the judiciary, so they could quickly settle the cases, mostly by issuing execution sentences," Boroumand said.

1988 mass executions

According to an Amnesty International report in 2018, Raisi was a member of a four-member board known as the "Death Committee." Along with three other judiciary officials of the time, he presided over the execution of thousands of prisoners -- mostly affiliated with the left and communist political groups and parties. The majority of these prisoners had already finished their prison sentences, and were executed on the grounds that they did not "express repentance for their past political beliefs and activities and denounce their political groups in writing," Amnesty said.

"In many cases, reactions to crimes related to human rights when they have happened inside a country's territory does not go beyond [issuing] statements," said Ankara-based Mousa Barzin, law researcher and former lawyer, to ABC News. "Any legal reaction is affected by so many political considerations."

The Iranian regime has consistently denied reports of human rights abuses by international organizations.

In 2019, 31 years after the mass execution of prisoners in Iran, Raisi, along with several other members of Ayatollah Khamenei's inner circle, was placed under sanctions by former U.S. President Donald Trump's administration. Among the reasons given by U.S. Treasury Department was Raisi's "administrative oversight over the executions of individuals who were juveniles at the time of their crime and the torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners in Iran, including amputations."

The European Union also froze Raisi's assets and issued a travel ban for his role in human rights violations, but restrictions on his movement will not necessarily apply now that he is president and enjoys "diplomatic privileges," according to Barzin.

Raisi continued to serve in major roles in the judiciary until 2015, when he was catapulted into the influential position of Custodian of Astan Qods, a joint political and religious role that carries with it enormous wealth.

He used that position to establish a strong base in rural areas. However, he lost the 2017 presidential election to the now outgoing Hassan Rouhani. For many Iranians, it was the first time they heard Raisi's name, and started to understand his hard-line approach to domestic and international policies.

At the time he criticized President Rouhani for taking a wrong path in solving economic problems of the country by relying on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and negotiating with the West from an inferior position. In 2015, Rouhani signed the JCPOA with the U.S. and western powers, which saw them promise to limit Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. In 2018, however, President Trump unilaterally pulled out of the deal and applied a policy of "maximum pressure" on the regime.

After losing the election, Ayatollah Kahmenei appointed Raisi to head of the judiciary in 2018. His avowed goal has been to root out corruption, but for observers such promises ring hollow.

"It is a sheer lie. He would only go after minor culprits, because all in power know they should never target those in the main power circle," Borouman said.

Iran-US relations and hard-line policies

To Raisi, however, there is little difference between President Joe Biden's administration and that of Trump's. Americans can expect more fiery rhetoric even as the outgoing presidency hopes to revive the nuclear deal.

"Americans have always pursued arrogant plans towards the Iranian people, and every government that came to power followed this policy," Raisi said in April before he ran for president, according to ISNA, the Iranian Students News Agency.

Raisi's approach to domestic issues centers on concerns about free access to the Internet and the mandatory imposition of the hijab, which are in line with other hard-liners in Iran.

"The preservation of moral values in society is a requirement of Sharia, a requirement of law and civil rights… [Refusing to wear appropriate hijab] does not comply with our national law and culture in any way," Raisi said in a speech in July 2020.

In his failed 2017 presidential campaign, Raisi also emphasized the necessity of providing a national intranet along the global internet. That stance has been a cause for concern for many Iranian people and human rights activists, who fear that would restrict the public free access to information.

While he is a familiar face for Iran's observers and his policy agenda is well-publicized, civil unrest -- sparked by economic hardship brought on by the devastating impact of U.S. sanctions, political corruption and COVID-19 -- continues to threaten the regime, and a revival of the nuclear deal will reposition the country on the international scene. Raisi comes to power at a crucial time in Iran's history.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


North Korea to keep doors open for dialogue with Biden

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(SEOUL, South Korea) -- In his first official reaction to the Biden administration, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told his government to get ready for "both dialogue and confrontation" with the United States, "especially to get fully prepared for confrontation," the Korean Central News Agency reported.

But despite the implied warning, analysts in Seoul say this is a sign that Kim is leaving doors open for talks with the U.S., given the deepening economic difficulties and food shortages in North Korea.

Kim's comment also comes as U.S. President Joe Biden's new nuclear envoy, Sung Kim, prepares to travel to Seoul this weekend to meet with top Korean and Japanese officials and discuss relations with North Korea amid the country's expanding nuclear arsenal.

"It looks like North Korea chose to take a very flexible and practical approach to nuclear negotiations," Cheong Seong-Chang, the director of the Center for North Korean Studies of The Sejong Institute, told ABC News.

Kim said during a meeting of the Central Committee of his ruling Worker's' Party on Thursday that he has "made a detailed analysis" of Biden's North Korea policy and "clarified appropriate strategic and tactical counteraction." The state media reported that a unanimous resolution was adopted, but details have not been disclosed. The meeting will continue Friday.

"Biden's policy toward Pyongyang is somewhat in between Trump's once-for-all settlement and Obama's strategically patient style of diplomacy. For North Korea, all possibilities are open, whether it be confrontation or dialogue. But compared to the past, Kim does have more options with the new Biden administration," Bong Young-shik, a research fellow at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies, told ABC News.

After a months-long review, the White House said in April that Biden would take "a calibrated practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy" with North Korea.

North Korea "is waiting for the U.S. to suggest an option, but if they are not satisfied, there's always a chance they will engage in provocations around Tokyo Olympics in July or ROK-US military exercises planned in August," Shin Beom-chul, the director at the Center of Diplomacy and National Security at the Research Institute for Economy and Society in Seoul, told ABC News.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Campaign in Iran aims to suppress presidential election voter turnout to send message to regime

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(NEW YORK) -- Iran is holding its 13th presidential election on Friday, but many people in the country have said they will stay at home and refrain from voting as part of a no voting campaign.

"This election is a sham. They always have been, but I wasn't aware of it even four years ago that I voted for Rouhani," Amir, a 34-year old small business owner in Tehran, told ABC News. "This time, all I want to do on election day is stay at home with my family."

Polls have predicted voter turnout between 37 to 47%, officials of the interior ministry said, according to the Iranian Students News Agency. This forecast is dramatically below the 2017 election, when turnout was over 73%.

This is not a coincidence but is part of a passive protest by the opposition movement calling for no voting. The online campaign has been going viral the hashtags #رای-بی-رای and #No2IR over the past few weeks as different voices expressed their reasons why they are not going to participate in the election, from economic problems, to the systematic oppression of any protest, etc.

"They say voting is the optimum outcome of democracy. But what we have here is not democracy. Here, voting is like giving you a jar of the best quality honey, saying you can only lick the jar from outside," Amir, who didn't want to reveal his full name due to security concerns, said. "Real democracy" is not reachable in the current situation of the country.

The two front runners are Abdolnaser Hemmati, former head of the Central Bank, who represents the moderates, and Ebrahim Raisi, current Chief Justice of the country, who has been endorsed by conservatives.

A high turnout matters to the top officials of the system as the Islamic Republic is going through one of the most troublesome periods both domestically and internationally. The people's vote can, as the government sees it, help reinforce the credibility of the system and its representatives in the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna with Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and the United States. Iranian top nuclear negotiators have repeatedly referred to Rouhani's 23 million votes as the public support of the system.

In his latest speech before the election, Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, explicitly said that the system needs a high turnout in the election to boost its public support at any talks with its enemies.

"If we want to reduce and eliminate the economic pressures of the enemies, i.e., sanctions and other pressures, we must increase the turnout in the election and show public support of the regime to the enemies," Khamenei said.

President Hassan Rouhani signed a multilateral nuclear deal with the six world powers in 2015 to restrain its nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions on the country. This ushered in a thaw in relations with the U.S., but in 2018, former President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the agreement and subsequent re-imposition of sanctions meant that Iran suffered very significant economic fallout and Rouhani's administration failed to fulfill its economic promises and there was a crippling economic downturn in the country.

However, many of the critics of the system believe that the major problem of the regime is not international sanctions, but rather its totalitarian dictatorship and widespread corruption that have left many people in poverty and crushes any objection with brutality.

"The main problem of the country is its totalitarian dictatorship identity that does not tolerate any criticism," Hosein Ronaghi, a former political prisoner and current activist in the no voting campaign, told ABC News.

"By not casting a vote, we want to send this message to the international community that the Islamic Republic, which has shed the blood of our fellow men and women, is not our representative," he added.

The brutal crackdown on nationwide protests in November 2019, when hundreds were killed and thousands arrested, is still an open wound to many Iranians.

Many are exacerbated after how few consequences there were after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot two missiles at a Ukrainian plane last January, killing all passengers and crew members on board. Critics of the Iranian regime argue that this is symptomatic of the regime's indifference to the consequences of actions taken in their name, whilst punishing those who challenge the politically conservative orthodoxy.

"Why should I vote when no one was held responsible for the bloodshed in Nov. 2019? Or no one felt responsible enough to at least resign after it was proved that IRGC itself had shot the passenger plane down," Mahnaz, 45, a single mother who works as a nurse in Tehran and didn't reveal her full name due to security concerns, told ABC News.

Ronaghi believes one of the messages that the NoVoting campaign has for the international community is to consider issues beyond politics and the Islamic Republic's regional activities.

"We want the international community to pay more attention to other major issues of the country, including the human rights situation," Ronaghi said

While considering human rights issues by the international community seems "essential" to Mahnaz, for any possible change in a system like the Islamic Republic, she believes for the changes to be "sustainable," Iranians need structural changes from within and this election, many fear, will not do that.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Israel bombs Gaza City in 2nd day of strikes since breaking cease-fire

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(GAZA) -- Israel bombed Gaza for the second straight day Thursday as a cease-fire signed last month appeared to be falling apart between the two sides.

The Israeli government said it targeted Hamas sites in Gaza City and Khan Younis late Thursday. Explosions could be seen in the night sky from the jet strikes.

"Over the past day, arson balloons were launched from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory," the IDF said in a statement. "In response, a short while ago, IDF fighter jets struck military compounds and a rocket launch site belonging to the Hamas terror organization in Gaza city and Khan Yunis."

The IDF went on to say it was ready for a "resumption of hostilities" if the attacks from Gaza continued.

"Earlier this evening, the IDF Chief of the General Staff held a situational assessment in which he instructed to increase the IDF's readiness and preparedness for a variety of scenarios including a resumption of hostilities, in the face of continuing terror activities from the Gaza Strip," the IDF said in the statement.

Sirens were also reported to have sounded in Kfar Aza, a kibbutz in southern Israel, just 3 miles from the Gaza border. The IDF said the sirens were triggered by "incoming fire, not rockets, from the Gaza Strip towards Israeli territory."

Israel said it struck Hamas sites in Khan Younis and the Gaza Brigades on Wednesday.

Open hostilities boiled over into airstrikes and rocket attacks between Israel and Hamas last month, killing at least 232 people -- including 65 children -- in the Gaza Strip, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Ten people, including one soldier and a 6-year-old child, were killed in Israel by Hamas rockets, according to Magen David Adom, Israel's national emergency service.

After nearly two weeks of fighting, Israel’s security cabinet approved a cease-fire with Hamas on May 20 without any conditions.

"The chief of staff, the military echelon and the head of the Shin Bet reviewed with the ministers Israel's great achievements in the campaign, some of which were unprecedented," a statement from the office of then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu read. "The political echelon emphasizes that the reality on the ground will determine the continuation of the campaign."

Netanyahu was ousted as prime minister on Sunday after a vote by the Knesset, Israel's legislature. Naftali Bennett took over as the country's new prime minister.

ABC News' Morgan Winsor and Nasser Atta contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


US embassy in Afghanistan on strict lockdown amid 'surging COVID cases, full ICU

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(KABUL) -- The U.S. embassy in Afghanistan is suffering from a COVID-19 crisis as the virus sweeps across Afghanistan in a devastating third wave destabilizing the already fractured country.

Staff have been placed on a severe lockdown as dozens of employees have been hospitalized, filling the U.S. military hospital's intensive care unit to capacity and requiring medical evacuations of several staffers, according to an internal notice to staff obtained by ABC News.

American diplomats and Afghan and other foreign staff are already stretched thin by departures from the embassy in April and already on edge as the U.S. military withdraws from the country after two decades of fighting.

Amid new spikes in violence ahead of that withdrawal, the coronavirus has wreaked havoc across Afghanistan, with infection rates skyrocketing by around 2,400% in the past month, according to the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC). The country's already fragile health care system is on the verge of collapse with a shortage of beds and oxygen.

But what's particularly shocking about the outbreak at the U.S. embassy is that its staff have had access to vaccines for over six months now, meaning the spike there is largely because of staff who refused to get vaccinated or aren't yet fully vaccinated.

According to the notice, 114 employees are hospitalized at the U.S. military's hospital. With the ICU at capacity, the embassy was forced to create temporary COVID-19 wards on its grounds, while "several" employees were also medevaced out of the country.

One embassy employee has died in recent days, according to the notice, although it's not clear whether they were American, Afghan or another nationality.

The embassy was one of the first overseas U.S. posts to receive vaccines back in December, prioritized because of the fragility of Afghanistan's health care system and the high risk to staff.

That makes this outbreak more shocking because, according to the June 17 notice, 95% of those hospitalized were unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.

In total, over 90% of Afghans and other foreigners on staff are vaccinated, too, meaning a sizable portion of those in dire condition now are American staffers. The notice doesn't include how many Americans are vaccinated, but it all but demands that any new American diplomat, security contractor or other official coming to the embassy be vaccinated.

"Incoming personnel should be vaccinated before arriving at Post. Failure to do this puts everyone in the community at risk," it said.

There are still vaccine doses available, per the notice, which urged staff, "Please avail yourselves of the vaccines available in the Embassy."

"We must break the chain of transmission to protect one another and ensure the Mission's ability to carry out the nation's business," it added.

To that end, all personnel are being confined to their quarters except to get food and exercise or relax alone outside. All indoor meetings are prohibited "unless absolutely mission-critical" and only then with prior approval. And even outdoor meetings are allowed only if they're "mission-critical and time-sensitive" -- and also with prior approval only.

Those severe restrictions are effective immediately, and the punishment could be strict and swift.

"Failure to abide by the Mission's COVID policies will result in consequences up to and including removal from Post on the next available flight," it said.

The COVID-19 crisis in Afghanistan has also placed the lives of Afghan translators and other contractors at risk, too. Last Friday, the embassy announced it would suspend all visa operations effective on Sunday, including for those Afghans who worked for the U.S. military or diplomatic presence and now, facing threats of retaliation by the Taliban, are seeking U.S. visas.

"We acknowledge and regret the inconvenience to applicants as we seek to protect the health of our staff and applicants to ensure we can fully support visa and other consular services going forward," the embassy said in a statement.

There are approximately 18,000 Afghans who, along with their families, are seeking those Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs -- a program long beset by years-long delays. This indefinite suspension threatens to only deepen that problem, although the State Department has said it is increasing staff in Washington to help process applications in their initial phases before an in-person interview is required.

That's not enough for several U.S. lawmakers from both parties, many of whom are urging the Biden administration to find new ways to continue interviewing Afghans "desperately trying to get their visas processed before the U.S. fully withdraws from the country," as the office of Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, said in a statement last week.

With that military withdrawal now more than halfway complete, according to the Pentagon, McCaul is among those urging Biden to "explore" offering humanitarian parole to Afghans in "the final stages of visa processing." Humanitarian parole is a temporary legal status that allows a foreigner to enter the U.S.

"The health and safety of our diplomatic personnel is a high priority for me. But suspending visa operations at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul at this critical juncture only further exacerbates the situation for those awaiting their Special Immigrant Visas," McCaul added.

In the meantime, the rest of Afghanistan is desperate for vaccines. The White House said the country is one of the dozens of countries that will receive vaccines from its first tranche of 25 million donated doses that the administration said will be shared overseas by the end of the month.

But it's not clear when those will arrive in Afghanistan yet or how many it will receive. Last Friday, 700,000 doses arrived from China, but Afghanistan has otherwise received very few vaccines.

"COVID-19 is another cruel blow for millions of Afghans already dealing with the constant threat of violence, displacement, food insecurity and poverty. We're seeing large numbers of people having to make terrible choices between finding a way to feed their families and growing risks of getting sick," said Necephor Mghendi, head of IFRC's Afghanistan delegation.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Hong Kong police raid pro-democracy paper Apple Daily and arrest 5, magnifying concerns over erosion of press freedom

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(HONG KONG) -- Hong Kong's national security police arrested five executives at the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily on Thursday morning and raided its offices for the second time in a year as pressure on the city's media freedom intensifies. This time the raid targeted the news operation itself.

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.

In a "letter to readers" posted on the Apple Daily website Thursday afternoon, the paper said every one of its journalists has reported the truth, legally and reasonably.

"This is the worst of times in Hong Kong," the letter read. "Today's Hong Kong feels unfamiliar and leaves us speechless. It feels as though we are powerless to stop the regime from exercising its power as it pleases."

Apple Daily is owned by 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.

There has been a wave of arrests and prosecutions since the security law came into effect, but this is the first time police have used a warrant to seize journalistic materials.

Police cited several articles printed in the tabloid and its online edition that they 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.

Jimmy Lai's longtime advisor, Mark Simon, told ABC News, "Today the Hong Kong government started arresting journalists, three of the five are purely editorial, including Apple Daily's chief editor. Their violation of the security law is doing stories the Chinese Communist Party doesn't want written."

The U.S. State Department condemned Wednesday's arrests and asked for the journalists' immediate release.

"We are deeply concerned by Hong Kong authorities' selective use of the national security law to arbitrarily target independent media organizations," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement Wednesday.

Apple Daily journalists, initially barred from their own newsroom, livestreamed the raid from the roof of their headquarters as hundreds of police swept through their desks. The livestream reporters eventually returned to the newsroom to find their colleagues' computers, including monitors, confiscated by the police.

Simon said staff at the paper remain determined to do their job, despite the risks.

"Reporters are still putting out stories as CCP-instructed Hong Kong police stand behind their desks," he said.

One journalist at the paper, who asked to remain anonymous, told ABC News he was "prepared for this day to come."

"I just didn't expect it to come in such a barbaric and uncivilized way in terms of pushing all journalists out of the newsroom and accessing our computers," the journalist said. "Those are sacred to us as journalists."

Authorities also froze $2.3 million worth of assets owned by three companies linked to Apply Daily, leaving it unclear how staff will be paid.

Speculation has been growing that Apple Daily's days are numbered as Hong Kong's political climate grows more uncertain.

In April, the pro-government paper Ta Kung Pao, owned by Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong, published an op-ed calling for Apple Daily to be banned outright under the security law for publishing an article on a outdoor ad in London featuring slogans deemed subversive by Hong Kong government.

Hong Kong's secretary for security, John Lee, said Thursday's arrests and raid are "not related to normal journalistic work."

Lee went on to say that "normal journalistic work takes place lawfully and freely in Hong Kong," adding that the suspects used journalism to "further their criminal activities."

Veteran democrat Emily Lau called the arrests "very alarming and disturbing."

"The huge operation today has again sent out a chilling signal about the threat to press freedom and freedom of expression," Lau said.

Media freedom in Hong Kong has deteriorated in recent years, with increased censorship at the city's once outspoken public broadcaster RTHK.

Once ranked 18th in the world's press freedom index, Hong Kong is now 80th.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


"Cruella" movie sunglasses stolen from London eyewear store

Disney

(LONDON) -- Sunglasses used in the movie Cruella were stolen in a late-night raid on a luxury eyewear store in London earlier this month, with CCTV footage showing the daring smash and grab.

The burglary was caught on camera at the Tom Davies eyewear store in London's Sloane Square. Among the pairs stolen were sunglasses used in the Disney movie Cruella, which were due to be auctioned off for charity.

Local media reports say the hundreds of frames stolen had a total estimated value of almost $700,000.

However, the Cruella frames were expected to fetch a larger value at the charity auction.

The store owners have put up a series of posters across London appealing for information that will lead to the whereabouts of the stolen sunglasses.

"If you have the glasses in your possession, we will swap them for a pair of Tom Davies sunglasses," reads the message on the posters. "Unless you're one of the thieves, in which case we will happily hand you over to the authorities."

Police have made no arrest in connection with the theft earlier this month. CCTV footage shared with ABC News shows two people smashing in the store's front windows before filling up boxes and bags with the frames snatched from the walls.

"Police were called at 02:13hrs on Wednesday, 9 June to reports of a burglary at a commercial property in Sloane Square, SW1," a Metropolitan Police spokesperson said in a statement to ABC News. "Officers attended and it was reported that a quantity of sunglasses had been stolen by a group of men who had left before police arrived. Enquiries are ongoing; there have been no arrests."

The Walt Disney Company is the parent company of ABC News.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Biden-Putin summit: Key takeaways from their high-stakes meeting

Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

(GENEVA) — After tight smiles and a firm handshake that made for an image both men wanted the world to see, followed by a chaotic photo op and about three-and-a-half hours of tense talks, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged to spin their summit at dueling news conferences Wednesday.

Both men called their 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 leader accepted no responsibility for cyberattacks on the U.S. or for anything else.

Biden had called for the meeting with Putin two months ago, alarmed about Russian aggression toward Ukraine.

Since then, the issue of cyberattacks, including a ransomware strike on an American oil pipeline company that disrupted the nation's gasoline supply -- which the U.S. says was carried out by Russian hackers -- has become a key point of contention.

Biden said he made clear that "certain critical infrastructure" is off-limits to attack "period," saying he gave the Russians a list of 16 American entities and told Putin if the attacks continue, the U.S. was ready to hit back.

"I pointed out to him that we have significant cyber capability, and he knows it," he said.

Overall, while Putin gained a fresh presence on the world stage, Biden was under pressure to produce what's being called "deliverables" -- concrete results from how he said he would confront Putin -- and whether he made met his goal of restoring "stability" and "predictability" to the post-Trump superpower relationship, which both Biden and Putin agreed had reached a "low point."

Leading up to the meeting, at the G-7 summit, Biden said the world's democracies were "in a contest with autocrats" while also calling Putin "a worthy adversary."

Here are some key takeaways:

1) What can be learned from the leaders' body language?

Both men will likely seize on photos of them looking confident -- to project an image of cooling tensions between the two countries.

ABC News Chief Global Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz highlighted what she called the "incredible" body language in both the handshake outside the Swiss villa then and inside as they sat down for a photo op. The Russian government was quick to release photos of the two men smiling at each other, appearing to frame the leaders as equals.

"I think President Putin, you saw those pictures of president Putin with President Biden. That's essentially what he wants right there," Raddatz said. "The relaxed President Putin sitting back in his chair, Joe Biden looking relaxed as well. All of this is so rehearsed."

While the photo op of the pair sitting down was chaotic -- with Russian security pushing out American press at one point -- both leaders appeared relaxed. Biden, who was the first to extend his hand for a handshake inside, sat with his legs crossed, hands in his lap and was seen smiling at several points. Putin leaned back in his chair, as he often does, and looked stoic, yet at ease.

"They know the world is looking at those pictures, especially Vladimir Putin. He wants to be on the world stage," Raddatz added.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


What to know about two former US Marines held by Russia ahead of Putin-Biden summit

ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden are meeting today in Geneva – and among the high-stakes topics expected to be discussed, the world awaits an answer on whether two Americans will come home in exchange for the return of Russians jailed in the U.S.

Putin indicated on Friday that he’d be willing to talk about a potential ‘prisoner swap’ for the two former U.S. Marines, Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan.

Here's what know about both men:

Trevor Reed

Reed, a 29-year-old from Texas, fell into the hands of Russian police after a party in Moscow in the summer of 2019 while visiting his girlfriend. He was initially taken to a police station to sober up but after agents from Russia’s FSB intelligence service arrived to question him, he was abruptly charged with assaulting two police officers, his family said. He was sentenced to nine years in prison last July in a trial that was denounced as absurd by the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

"In any real court system in the world, there’s no way he would have been convicted,” said his father, Joey Reed.

During the court hearings, the two police officers struggled to recall the alleged incident and contradicted themselves so much that at one stage in a session, attended by ABC News, even the judge began to laugh at them.

The U.S. has called for Reed to be released, saying his conviction was patently ridiculous.

"This conviction, and a sentence of nine years, for an alleged crime that so obviously did not occur, is ridiculous. I cannot even say 'miscarriage of justice,' because clearly 'justice' was not even considered. This was theater of the absurd," Ambassador John J. Sullivan said in a July 2020 statement.

In the military Reed had served as a Marine presidential guard, whose assignments include providing security at Camp David when President Barack Obama was there.

After his son’s arrest, Joey Reed took matters into his own hands and spent over a year in Russia trying to free him, staying alone in Moscow through most of the coronavirus pandemic. Paula Reed told “World News Tonight” on Monday that her husband’s work has been tireless.

“There's so many nights that you don't sleep and you're just thinking constantly,” she said. “Joey has just been, almost 24-hours a day, working on Trevor's case ... because of the time difference, he has to communicate with the attorneys at weird night hours.”

“It's just been really, really hard taxing for our family, for Joey, myself, his sister ... But obviously, it's roughest on Trevor,” she added.

The U.S. embassy accused Russia last week of blocking access to Reed and failing in its obligations to inform it of Reed’s health after he fell sick with COVID-19 nearly three weeks ago. The embassy and Reed’s family said they don’t know his condition and that they are concerned for him.

Paul Whelan

U.S. officials believe Paul Whelan, who was detained several months before Reed, was also taken as a possible bargaining chip.

Whelan was arrested by the FSB in December 2018 at his hotel in Moscow while visiting for a friend’s wedding. He was charged with espionage and sentenced to 16 years in a prison camp in a case that his family and U.S. officials was also fabricated.

Whelan, 51, a native of Michigan, left the Marines in 2008 after being convicted in a court martial on larceny charges and given a bad conduct discharge.

When he was arrested in Moscow he was a global security director for the auto parts company BorgWarner. A self-described Russophile, Whelan had travelled several times on holiday to Russia and had tried to teach himself the language.

Current and former U.S. officials have said they believe Whelan was the victim of a KGB-style sting. He has said a Russian friend collaborating with the FSB planted a memory card on him while visiting him in his hotel room during the wedding trip. Five minutes after the friend called on Whelan unannounced FSB agents burst into the room and detained him, Whelan said.

Whelan is now held in a prison camp a few hundred miles from Moscow.

Russia has repeatedly floated the idea of trading the two Americans for Russians jailed in the U.S. on criminal convictions.

Putin spoke about Reed, calling him a “drunken troublemaker” during an interview with NBC on Friday.

But he suggested that he was ready to discuss a possible prisoner swap for the men, replying “yes, yes” when asked if he would consider talking about it with Biden.

Russian officials have indicated they would like to trade Reed and Whelan for two Russians held in the U.S.: Viktor Bout -- one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers and dubbed ‘the Merchant of Death’— and also Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot currently serving a lengthy jail sentence for a drug smuggling conviction.

Whelan’s family released an audio message from him on Monday, recorded from the prison camp in central Russia where he is being held. In it, he appealed to Biden to help free him.

“Please bring me home to my family and my dog Flora where I belong. Thank you, Mr. President, for your commitment to returning me home and bringing this deplorable hostage situation to an expedient conclusion,” Whelan said in the recording that his family said was made on May 30.

He said he was innocent and noted that he had now been in detention longer than the Americans taken during the Iran hostage crisis during the Iranian revolution.

The Biden Administration said that freeing Whelan and Reed is a priority. President Joe Biden is scheduled to meet with Putin on Wednesday following a NATO summit.

“What I’ll convey to President Putin is that I’m not looking for conflict with Russia, but that we will respond if Russia continues its harmful activities,” said Biden on Monday.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


What Putin wants when he meets Biden this week

SERGEI ILYIN/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

(MOSCOW) -- When Russian President Vladimir Putin meets President Joe Biden on Wednesday in Switzerland, experts in Moscow say for all their differences, the two leaders want something similar from their first summit: to cool things down.

The U.S. and Russia's relations are the worst they have been since the Cold War and since 2016 in particular seem locked in almost permanent crises.

Biden has said he wants a more stable and predictable relationship with Russia, one that would allow it to focus on other foreign policy priorities that are more important to it, like taking a harder line with China. The Kremlin for its part has faced a continuous and intensifying barrage of sanctions-- the latest in April-- and with its crackdown on opposition at home and aggressive actions abroad is increasingly becoming a pariah with western countries.

Since coming to office, Russia has appeared to want to get Biden's attention. The president offered Putin the summit after Russia massed thousands of troops on Ukraine’s border in April.

But now, having got Biden to the table, analysts said Putin has a clear proposal to deliver in Geneva: stay out of Russian domestic politics and Russia might act less troublesome abroad.

“The Kremlin wants to transition to a respectful adversarial relationship from a disrespectful one we have today,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former diplomat at Russia’s embassy in Washington and now a commentator on foreign affairs.

“That is, it wants to be treated the same way the Soviet Politburo was treated by the US in 1970-80s,” Frolov told ABC News. “Meaning no name-calling” (such as Biden calling Putin a “killer”), “no personal sanctions on the leadership, no democracy lectures, regular personal summit meetings; respectful tone of discussions, no tangible support for Russian opposition.”

It will not be an invitation for détente but instead to return to the later years of the Cold War when Putin was a KGB agent and the Soviet Union and the U.S. saw each other as enemies but tried to maintain a predictable relationship. And, crucially, where Russia was treated as an equal.

“For this, the Kremlin is prepared to promise to behave more responsibly,” Frolov said.

“This seems to be in line with what the White House sees as a desirable deliverable," he continued. "So unless one of the leaders stormed out of the meeting shouting expletives, the summit would be a major success.”

A successful summit might be followed by a period of greater calm, analysts said, with Russia reining in aggressive operations abroad, such as its assassinations with chemical weapons, and less overt attempts at election meddling. Like in the Cold War, it would also mean focusing the relationship on discussions of strategic stability and arms control -- also a priority for the Biden administration.

Russia's seizure of two American former Marines, Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan, as hostages -- and its signalling that it might trade them in a prisoner swap if the summit goes well -- could be seen as more leverage to persuade the U.S. of the benefits of having Russia play nicer, and the costs of having it not.

But the problem is events and the Kremlin's own core interests may get in the way.

The Kremlin is currently waging a crackdown on political opposition unprecedented under Putin’s rule. It has jailed its most prominent critic Alexey Navalny -- after he survived a nerve agent poisoning -- and last week outlawed his movement. Most leading figures of the anti-Kremlin opposition are now under arrest or living in exile in a sign, rights groups and analysts have said, Putin no longer appears willing to tolerate any political opposition at all.

“The question is how, to what extent Biden will accept this new situation,” Fyodor Lukyanov, a member of the Russian International Affairs Council, that sometimes advises Russia's government, told ABC News.

Biden has already condemned the crackdown and sanctioned Russia over Navalny’s jailing and poisoning and Lyukanov said it was clear Biden would continue to speak out on human rights.

“But at the same time, will it be a priority for Biden or not? That remains to be seen," Lukyanov said.

But if Biden does so, it will make any improvement in relations impossible, he said.

At the summit, that puts Biden in a complicated position: how to deliver a firm warning to Putin without antagonising him.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the tycoon who spent a decade in prison after challenging Putin politically and whose own pro-democracy organization Open Russia was forced to close this month under pressure from authorities, said Biden must set boundaries with Putin "clearly and publicly."

"Biden must categorically impress upon him that this time severe consequences will follow," Khodorkovsky wrote on Twitter. "Failing to do so would maintain the status quo of handshake politics, serving just to soothe Putin's ego. While this may briefly relieve tensions, in the long term it seeds further conflicts."

But confronting Putin aggressively, publicly in Geneva will also achieve little for Biden, said Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Service Institute.

Doing so would likely provoke another dangerous bout of troublemaking from Russia with few gains for the U.S, Galeotti wrote in an article for The Moscow Times Monday.

“Taking a firm line publicly can all too easily look like a challenge, a demand that Russia bend the knee,” Galeotti wrote. “Putin will not, cannot allow that to pass unchallenged. If threats are to be made, let them be out of public gaze and earshot.”

There are signs Biden is already trying to thread that needle. On Monday, he told reporters Putin was a "worthy adversary."

"He’s bright. He’s tough,” Biden said in Brussels. “And I have found that he is a, as they used to say when I used to play ball, a worthy adversary."

A successful summit for both sides then, analysts said, might not look dramatic.

“I can describe how I see the success of this summit," Lukyanov said.

It would end with Putin and Biden making statements saying basically the same thing, he said.

“’We discussed a range of issues. We agreed about our common responsibility in the field of strategic stability'” and then pledging a working group to discuss how to improve it, taking into account cyberattacks and new types of nuclear weapons, Lukyanov said.

“And that will be a great success,” he added.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Was attempting Mount Everest worth the risk amid the COVID-19 pandemic?

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(NEW YORK) -- Rumblings earlier this spring that COVID-19 had made it to base camp at Mount Everest prompted fears of the worst: an outbreak of the deadly respiratory virus among people already impacted by the high altitude.

But as the dust settles from the climbing season on the world's tallest mountain, it appears disaster was avoided.

Four people died this spring on Everest -- markedly lower than the deadly, pre-COVID 2019 season -- and many expeditions reported successful summits.

Still, interviews with several mountaineers suggest a chaotic, stressful and costly time above 18,000 feet and unanswered questions about the extent of the COVID outbreak there as the virus raged in Nepal.

With Everest a major local economic driver, many expeditions decided to forge ahead, but others asked if it was worth the risk.

The situation on Everest

The Everest climbing season stretches from April, when preparations begin on the mountain, to early June, when final summit attempts are made. In a typical season, there's an approximate 66% success rate in reaching the summit from the south, Nepal-controlled side.

This year, with permits at a record-high, that dropped to under 50%, according to Everest documenter Alan Arnette's count.

"The only explanation is that already many people left before the summit push started because they were sick, they were evacuated with COVID," Lukas Furtenbach of Furtenbach Adventures posited based on what he witnessed, "and others canceled their climb in Camp 3 or Camp 4 because they got sick."

The four deaths included two Sherpa and two foreign climbers. Pemba Tashi Sherpa died due to a fall, outlets reported. The other deaths were attributed by operators to exhaustion and altitude.

Walking around base camp, Furtenbach said, you could hear people coughing in tents. Helicopters came in regularly to make evacuations, including riskier evacuations from Camps 2 and 3, which are at higher altitudes. Furtenbach, who's been on Everest eight times, said this was notably different from other seasons.

Despite requirements from the Nepalese government for testing and quarantines and assurances the region would be COVID-free, the coronavirus reached Everest.

Furtenbach was responsible for 20 clients, 28 Sherpa, 12 kitchen staff and four guides. They were acclimatized and ready to make a summit push when he decided to turn the group around after one client and three Sherpa tested positive.

The safety -- not to mention legal -- risk was simply too much, in his perspective. Some clients disagreed.

"We said, 'OK, that's good for you, but you need a Sherpa to climb, and you can't take the risk for your Sherpa, and I am not going to send a Sherpa up with you and risk their life just because you want to risk your life,'" he told ABC News, adding that some clients chose to continue on with other operators.

Risk to the Sherpa

Furtenbach said he had another reason to be especially concerned about the risk to the local Sherpa people who play an instrumental role on Everest: "They are the ones who get sick, because they are not vaccinated," he said, while most foreign clients were.

Kunga Sherpa was working with Furtenbach when he tested positive. He was evacuated from base camp to Kathmandu, where he stayed at a hospital for one night before being sent home to isolate, which was, he said, the norm for those who tested positive without serious symptoms.

"I was really scared because I heard most of the people died from the COVID cases in India or somewhere else," he told ABC News, "and I was really scared and really sad."

He recovered, but, he said, "some people are still in the hospital in Kathmandu." An unanswered question now is if the COVID cases from Everest will have reverberations as local guides and Sherpa return home.

As India, Nepal's neighbor, faced a COVID crisis, so, too, did Nepal, with cases exploding in early May. This created another moral conundrum: was it ethical to try Everest, which could end up with people taking up hospital beds, when the rest of the country was already in crisis?

Mountaineer Adrian Ballinger, ​whose Alpenglow Expeditions canceled their Everest trip this year as they couldn't climb from his preferred north, China-controlled side and because of lingering questions like that, wasn't so sure.

"What is the justification for utilizing medical facilities in Nepal during this outbreak? It just doesn't match for me," he told ABC News.

Nepal's management of Everest

Furtenbach said he was waiting for other expedition leaders to make the decision to cancel before he did. He didn't want to be the first to cancel but found himself in that position.

Afterwards, a few others followed suit, but not as many as he had expected. Meanwhile, talk was spreading that the Nepalese government was trying to keep word of COVID on Everest quiet.

In mid-May, Director General of the Department of Tourism Rudra Singh Tamang told Outside magazine "we don't believe" media reports of COVID at base camp. Tamang told Time, "Everything is fine."

Everest plays a significant role in Nepal's economy -- as well as for individual Sherpa. The country had closed the mountain last year, as the pandemic was in its early stages, so had already missed out on a year of the sums that come in from it.

"I think the intention was good to protect the Nepali tourist industry. That's what a government has to do," Furtenbach said. "And you can of course say we are the bad ones, because we came in the first place, we decided to run an expedition during a pandemic. So we are the ones to blame."

As has become a theme during the pandemic, the onus came down on individuals to assess the risk and act accordingly. But, Ballinger argued, that's always an expedition leader's responsibility.

"I don't think companies held up their side of the bargain of what mountain guiding is, which is managing and mitigating risk," he said.

Nevertheless, success stories

Nirmal "Nims" Purja, a Nepalese mountaineer, has had a remarkable 2021. To kick off the year, he was with a group that made the first successful summit of K2 in the winter. Purja did it without supplemental oxygen.

At the tail-end of the Everest season in early June, Purja led clients with his Elite Exped operation to the summit. Of those who left for the summit push, he told ABC News, 100% successfully summited.

He credits the success in part to "amazing protocols" the Nepalese government had to try to keep COVID off Mount Everest, and, he said, his team managed to "deal with it appropriately" on the mountain.

"It's an amazing result despite the COVID and with the current circumstance around the world," he said.

A few days after arriving back at Kathmandu, Purja wrote on Instagram he canceled planned expeditions to K2 and Broad Peak due to uncertainty from "the ongoing Covid situation" and visa and travel restrictions (in mid-May, the U.S. put Nepal on its "do not travel" list).

Two days later, he posted for his 403,000 Instagram followers a call to the U.K. government "to help our communities by sending vaccines urgently to help their Nepalese friends," referencing his own service for the British Special Forces.

"I was just wondering if, through my platforms, social media at least, if I can plead the U.K. government to support Nepal, who has obviously been loyal for more than 210 years, and now the people here need support," he told ABC News.

Purja spoke with ABC News shortly after making that public appeal and had not heard major responses yet, although U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the U.K. would be donating 100 million vaccine doses to poorer countries in the next year.

"It's a bit of work, but I'm still positive," Purja said. "And I hope good things will happen to good people."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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