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DHS to ramp up security assistance in Qatar for World Cup

David Ramos/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- Attending the World Cup in November? The Department of Homeland Security will be on hand to help make sure the soccer tournament is safe and secure, according to a senior department official.

"We are committed to working closely with Qatar to make sure the world can enjoy a safe and secure World Cup," Rob Silvers, the under secretary for strategy, police and plans at DHS, told ABC News in an interview. "We're are going to be providing security support to our partner and we're going to be doing that in a range of ways."

Silvers said he is headed to Qatar this week to shore up those security partnerships.

One of the ways is by providing Transportation Security Agency (TSA) personnel to provide baggage screening support for people attending the matches.

"We're going to host a delegation from Qatar at a U.S. airport to show them our airport security practices here because obviously they are expecting a large number of visitors and we want to help them on that front," Silvers explained.

The department has experience with large scale sporting events domestically, with the U.S. Secret Service taking the lead on security every February at the Super Bowl.

The Secret Service will be on sight helping out the Qataris at the World Cup.

"We're going to have our Secret Service providing support on protective details and on major event security coordination," Silvers said.

Silvers also explained they are providing cyber resources through the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA)

The DHS official told ABC News there is no credible threat to the World Cup but "it's a large and prominent gathering, and we should always be prepared from a security perspective."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Russia-Ukraine live updates: Russian strikes near Odesa after Snake Island withdrawal

GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's "special military operation" into neighboring Ukraine began on Feb. 24, with Russian forces invading from Belarus, to the north, and Russia, to the east. Ukrainian troops have offered "stiff resistance," according to U.S. officials.

The Russian military has since launched a full-scale ground offensive in eastern Ukraine's disputed Donbas region, capturing the strategic port city of Mariupol and securing a coastal corridor to the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

Here's how the news is developing. All times Eastern:

Jul 01, 4:25 pm
21 dead, 39 injured in missile strike near Odesa

Russian missiles struck residential areas near the key port city of Odesa in southern Ukraine early Friday, killing at least 21 people and wounding 39 others, Ukrainian authorities said.

Russian bombers fired a trio of X-22 missiles that hit a nine-story apartment building and two recreational areas in the small coastal town of Serhiivka, located about 31 miles southwest of Odesa, according to a statement from the Security Service of Ukraine, which noted that rescue operations were underway.

Many victims were in the apartment building, where the entire entrance was "completely destroyed," authorities said.

One of the wounded children was a baby who was in a coma after being pulled from the charred rubble, according to authorities.

"This was a targeted Russian missile attack -- Russian terror against our cities, villages, our people," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.

The pre-dawn attacks followed the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine's Snake Island on Thursday, a move that was expected to potentially ease the threat to nearby Odesa, home to Ukraine's biggest seaport and one of the largest ports in the Black Sea basin.

"Occupants can't win on the battlefield, so resort to the vile murder of civilians," Ivan Bakanov, chairman of the Security Service of Ukraine, said in a statement Friday. "After the enemy was kicked out of Snake Island, he decided to respond with a cynical shelling of civilian objects."

Jul 01, 12:50 pm
Ukraine submits memo to International Court of Justice on Russian aggression

Ukraine on Friday submitted a memorandum to the International Court of Justice on Russian aggression.

"We prove that Russia violated the Genocide Convention by justifying its aggression with a false pretext of a 'genocide' that never was," tweeted Dmytro Kuleba, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs.

He called it a "critical step to hold Russia accountable and make Russia pay for the harm it has inflicted."

Jul 01, 11:27 am
Most Ukrainians want to return home

Close to 90% of refugees who fled Ukraine since the start of Russia's invasion plan to return home at some point, according to a recent poll by the Rating group.

Only 8% of refugees said they would never return to Ukraine, while 15% are prepared to go back as soon as possible, the poll showed.

Around half of those displaced only plan on returning when the war is over. Close to a third of people who lost their jobs because of the war are still not able to find new employment, the data revealed.

Jul 01, 9:42 am
Moscow denies targeting civilians in Odesa

Russia has dismissed reports from Ukrainian officials that Russian missiles struck residential areas in the southern town of Odesa early on Friday morning and reiterated its claim that Moscow does not target civilians.

“I would like to remind you of president [Vladimir Putin's] words that the Russian Armed Forces do not engage with civilian targets,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call with reporters on Friday.

Ukrainian authorities had earlier said Russian missiles hit an apartment building and two holiday camps in the region, killing at least 20 people and wounding dozens of others, including children.

To counter the threat of indiscriminate Russian strikes, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pledged more supplies of advanced weapons and equipment to Ukraine on Thursday.

Speaking at a press conference in Madrid, Stoltenberg said NATO has a list of requested equipment and nothing would be ruled out or excluded from that list. Several NATO countries expressed reservations about the transfer of some weapons -- including tanks and other heavy weapons -- to Ukraine in the first months of the war.

-ABC News' Edward Szekeres, Max Uzol, Fidel Pavlenko and Yuriy Zaliznyak

Jul 01, 8:59 am
Will Russia become a pariah state?

In response to the invasion of Ukraine, the West has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia, nearly crippling its economy and isolating it from all but a few allies.

U.S. President Joe Biden and other government officials have said sanctions from the United States and its allies will make Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, pariahs on the world stage.

However, one expert who spoke with ABC News says that casting Russia out of the international community, making it a pariah state, may not be so easy.

"Russia is a member of the UN security council, it has veto power there. It is just a major actor on the world stage in so many ways. So isolating Russia, shaming it, making it a pariah is a huge challenge," said Daniel Hamilton, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Yet, "Russia has not done too well with allies," Hamilton also said.

"Today, it's real allies are ... sort of also pariah states. It's Assad's Syria, it's Venezuela, it's Cuba and that's about it. Others tolerate Russia. They figure out ways to deal with it, in the former Soviet space. But they're not really allies," Hamilton said.

Russia and Belarus are yet to mirror NATO's recent military activity, Belarusian President Oleksandr Lukashenko said in a speech on Thursday. Lukashenko also called on Russia to “be ready” for the use of nuclear weapons.

While a frontal attack on Ukraine from Belarusian territory is not perceived as an imminent threat by Ukrainian officials, roadblocks were reinforced in the capital of Kyiv due to the risk of diversionary and intelligence groups from Belarus roaming around the city, a National Guard spokesperson said Friday as reported by local media.

Belarus extended a large-scale military exercise near the Ukrainian border until at least July 9, a local monitoring group reported on Friday.

Lukashenko's administration ordered conscripts en masse to report to military commissariats without disclosing the reason for the call-up, local media reported on Thursday.

Military officials threatened conscripts with criminal prosecution in case they failed to show up to their respective commissariats, according to local reports.

Belarusian officials maintain that the call-up is “simply training” that is part of “mobilization exercises.” “No one is taking anyone to any war,” military officials claimed as quoted by local media.

-ABC News' Edward Szekeres, Max Uzol, Fidel Pavlenko and Yuriy Zaliznyak

Jul 01, 7:03 am
Russian missiles kill at least 19 in residential areas near Odesa

Russian missiles struck residential areas near the key port city of Odesa in southern Ukraine early Friday, killing at least 19 people, Ukrainian authorities said.

Russian bombers fired a trio of X-22 missiles that hit a nine-story apartment building and two recreational areas in the small coastal town of Serhiivka, located about 31 miles southwest of Odesa, according to a statement from the Security Service of Ukraine, which noted that rescue operations were underway.

Two children were among the 19 confirmed deaths. Another 38 people, including six children and a pregnant woman, were hospitalized with injuries. Most of the victims were in the apartment building, where the entire entrance was "completely destroyed," authorities said.

One of the wounded children was a baby who was in a coma after being pulled from the charred rubble, according to authorities.

The pre-dawn attacks followed the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine's Snake Island on Thursday, a move that was expected to potentially ease the threat to nearby Odesa, home to Ukraine's biggest seaport and one of the largest ports in the Black Sea basin.

"Occupants can't win on the battlefield, so resort to the vile murder of civilians," Ivan Bakanov, chairman of the Security Service of Ukraine, said in a statement Friday. "After the enemy was kicked out of Snake Island, he decided to respond with a cynical shelling of civilian objects."

Jun 30, 7:09 pm
Snake Island 'significantly changes' situation in Black Sea, Zelenskyy says

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the situation on Snake Island, which was freed of Russian forces Thursday, "significantly changes the situation in the Black Sea."

"It does not guarantee safety yet, it does not yet guarantee that the enemy will not return. But it already limits the actions of the occupiers significantly," he said in his latest national address.

The rocky Ukrainian island, located in the Black Sea, has been the target of Russia since day one of the invasion.

Ukrainian military officials claimed Thursday to have taken back control of Snake Island overnight following a successful military operation. Meanwhile, the Russian defense ministry said Thursday that it withdrew all its forces from Snake Island as a "gesture of goodwill."

Jun 30, 2:24 pm
Fierce fighting ongoing near last Luhansk Oblast city under Ukraine’s control

Fierce fighting is ongoing southwest of Lysychansk -- the last city in Ukraine’s Luhansk Oblast that remains under Ukrainian control, Ukraine’s General Staff said. If Lysychansk falls, one of the two Donbas regions would effectively be seized by Russia.

Russian forces have secured positions in the northwestern and southeastern parts of the Lysychansk Oil Refinery and are firing artillery on Ukrainian forces around the refinery and in nearby settlements, Ukraine’s General Staff said.

Serhii Haidai, the head of the Luhansk RMA, said Russian forces are shelling the city from several directions, but there’s no street fighting in Lysychansk and the city is not yet encircled.
 

Jun 30, 10:09 am
Biden announces $800M more in aid, 'going to support Ukraine as long as it takes'

President Joe Biden at his press conference in Madrid Thursday announced $800 million more in aid for Ukraine, including air defense systems and offensive weapons.

A reporter asked how to explain to the American people a joint statement from Biden and other G-7 leaders Monday that read: "We will continue to provide financial, humanitarian, military and diplomatic support and stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes."

Asked if that meant indefinite support from the U.S., or whether there would be a time support from the U.S. would stop, Biden replied: "We are going to support Ukraine as long as it takes."

"I don't know what -- how it's going to end," Biden added, "But it will not end with a Russian defeat of Ukraine in Ukraine."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said recently that the war needs to end by the winter. But Biden said that, "no," that assessment hadn’t changed his calculation in terms of the pace and kind of assistance the U.S. is sending Ukraine.

Biden was also pressed on record high gas prices that he has attributed to the war in Ukraine. "How long is it fair to expect American drivers and drivers around the world to pay that premium for this war?" he was asked by a reporter.

"As long as it takes," he replied. "Russia cannot, in fact, defeat Ukraine and move beyond Ukraine. This is a critical, critical position for the world."

Biden highlighted his domestic efforts to bring down the price at the pump, like releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and asking Congress and states to approve a gas tax holiday to help save consumers money at the pump.

"So I think there's a lot of things we can do, and we will do, but the bottom line is ultimately the reason why gas prices are up is because of Russia," he said. "Russia, Russia, Russia. The reason why the food crisis exists is because of Russia. Russia not allowing grain to get out of Ukraine."

-ABC News' Ben Gittleson and Molly Nagle

Jun 30, 8:10 am
Nearly all released Azov defenders return wounded

Almost all soldiers of the Ukrainian Azov Regiment who were released from Russian captivity return home wounded, a representative of the Association of Families of Azovstal Defenders told local media on Wednesday.

"Almost everyone – 99% – were left without arms, without legs. Some do not hear, some do not see, but their eyes are happy,” Tetiana Kharko said.

According to Kharko, the sister of a captured Marine commander, some troops “talk with tears in their eyes, some can't [speak].” The representative added that the soldiers from the latest exchange of prisoners need urgent medical care and an examination.

In his Wednesday evening address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said 95 Azovstal defenders returned home from Ukrainian captivity, along with dozens of other troops.

-ABC News' Edward Szekeres, Max Uzol, Natalya Kushnir and Yuriy Zaliznyak

Jun 30, 7:07 am
Mariupol theater airstrike was 'a clear war crime' by Russian military: Amnesty International

The Russian military committed "a clear war crime" when its forces bombed a packed drama theater in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in March, Amnesty International said Thursday.

The London-based international human rights group published a new report documenting how the deadly blitz on the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater unfolded, citing interviews with numerous survivors and witnesses as well as "extensive digital evidence," which included photographs, videos, radio intercepts, satellite imagery and radar data. The report concluded that the evidence indicates the attack "was almost certainly an airstrike carried out by the Russian military," with the theater as "the intended target."

"After months of rigorous investigation, analysis of satellite imagery and interviews with dozens of witnesses, we concluded that the strike was a clear war crime committed by Russian forces," Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnes Callamard said in a statement Thursday.

Jun 30, 7:01 am
War outlook remains 'grim,' top US intelligence officer says

Russian President Vladimir Putin still wants to seize most of Ukraine, and the outlook for the war remains grim, Avril Haines, the top U.S. intelligence officer, said Wednesday as reported by Reuters.

“In short, the picture remains pretty grim and Russia's attitude toward the West is hardening," Haines said at a Commerce Department conference.

The intelligence officer added that U.S. spy agencies expect the war to grind on “for an extended period of time.” But the Russian forces are so degraded by combat, Haines said, that they likely can only achieve incremental gains in the near term.

Haines also said it will take years for Russia to rebuild its forces. Still, U.S. intelligence agencies foresee three possible scenarios in the war, according to Haines, the most likely being a grinding conflict in which Russian forces "make incremental gains, with no breakthrough."

The other scenarios include a major Russian breakthrough and Ukraine succeeding in stabilizing the frontlines while achieving small gains, perhaps near the Russian-held city of Kherson and other areas of southern Ukraine.

Ukraine is likely to rely on more NATO support as the conflict drags on, with Ihor Zhovkva, the Deputy Head of the Ukrainian Presidential Office, stating Wednesday that Ukraine believes it already meets NATO standards and maintains a course to continue integration.

"No one removes Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic integration from the agenda," Zhovkva said at the NATO summit in Madrid.

Zhovka, who headed the Ukrainian delegation in Madrid, said he was satisfied with the results of the summit. The official also stressed that Ukraine maintains its course to join NATO.

Russia warned Tuesday that Ukraine joining NATO could lead to World War III should Kyiv then attempt to encroach on the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

-ABC News' Edward Szekeres, Max Uzol, Natalya Kushnir and Yuriy Zaliznyak

Jun 29, 3:20 pm
Zelenskyy addresses NATO summit

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the NATO summit Wednesday, commending the decision to invite Finland and Sweden to join NATO.

Zelenskyy told the NATO leaders, "The goals of Ukraine are exactly the same as yours: We are interested in security and stability on the European continent and in the world."

“This is not a war of Russia only against Ukraine, this is a war for the right to dictate conditions in Europe,” he said.

-ABC News' Christine Theodorou

Jun 29, 1:37 pm
Biden, Erdogan meet after Turkey drops opposition to Finland, Sweden joining NATO

President Joe Biden met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the NATO summit in Madrid Wednesday, where he thanked Erdoğan for dropping his objections to Finland and Sweden becoming NATO members.

“I want to particularly thank you for what you did putting together the situation with regard to Finland and Sweden and all the incredible work you're doing to try to get the grain out of Ukraine and Russia,” Biden said.

“We think your pioneering in this regard is going to be crucial in terms of strengthening NATO for the future,” Erdoğan said. “And it's going to have a very positive contribution to the process between Ukraine and Russia.”

Senior administration officials told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. made no formal offer in exchange for Erdoğan dropping Turkey’s resistance to Finland and Sweden becoming NATO members.

The U.S. Department of Defense earlier came out in support of Turkey’s plans to modernize its aircraft fleet with American-made F-16s.

-ABC News' Gabe Ferris

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


WNBA star Brittney Griner's trial begins in Russia as US works to secure her release

Mike Mattina/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) - Brittney Griner appeared in a courtroom in Khimki, a suburb of Moscow, on Friday morning for the first day of the WNBA star's trial in Russia, where she has been in custody for 134 days.

Griner was detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Russia on Feb. 17 after she was accused of carrying vape cartridges containing hashish oil, which is illegal in Russia.

The first witness at Griner's trial was a customs officer who was at the airport when she was arrested.

According to a Russian reporter inside the courtroom, who spoke with ABC News, Griner said through a translator that she understood the accusation but declined to comment on the charge, saying she will share her thoughts at a later time.

The judge began the examination of evidence with the interrogation of witnesses. Representatives of the U.S. Embassy, as well as two representatives from Russian and foreign media were allowed into the courtroom.

An American reporter inside the courtroom, who spoke with Griner, told ABC News on Monday that Griner said she is fine, but she misses her ability to work out like she used to. She also said that since she doesn't speak Russian, the court appearances are difficult for her, but she has been provided an interpreter.

As Griner left the courtroom, she did not respond to ABC News' question when asked how she's doing. The Phoenix Mercury player is expected to appear in court again for the second day of the trial on July 7.

Griner's detention in Russia was extended repeatedly, most recently through Dec. 20, which is the expected length of her trial. If convicted, Griner, 31, faces up to 10 years in prison.

Ahead of the trial, friends and family members of Griner gathered for a vigil in New York City in honor of the detained athlete on Wednesday.

"Feb 17th was the last time I talked to my sister," said Janell Roy, Griner's childhood friend. "I haven't been in communication with her, I haven't been able to talk to her and it hurts."

"... The fact remains that the U.S. Government has determined that Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained and being used as a political pawn," Griner's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, wrote in a series of tweets on Monday . "The negotiation for her immediate release regardless of the legal proceedings should remain a top priority and we expect [President Joe Biden] and [Vice President Kamala Harris] to do everything in their power, right now, to get a deal done to bring her home."

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday that Griner is "unjustly detained" and called on the Russian government to release the American basketball star.

Sullivan further stressed that the U.S. is "actively engaged" in working to secure Griner's release, but added that the diplomatic efforts are "sensitive matters."

"But I will tell you it has the fullest attention of the President and every senior member of his national security and diplomatic team, and we are actively working to find a resolution to this case, and will continue to do so without rest until we get Brittney safely home," he said. "We also are trying to work actively to return all unjustly detained Americans and hostages being held overseas, whether that be in Iran or Afghanistan or Russia or Venezuela, or China or elsewhere."

Russia's invasion of Ukraine began one week after Griner was detained. Some officials are concerned that Americans jailed in Russia could be used as leverage in the ongoing conflict.

Calls to free Griner escalated following the release of U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed in April, who was freed from a Russian prison as part of a prisoner exchange. Former Marine Paul Whelan has also been detained in Russia since 2019.

Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, told "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts in May that she would like to speak with President Joe Biden.

"I just keep hearing that, you know, he has the power. She's a political pawn," she said. "So if they're holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it."

Asked about a potential meeting between Cherelle Griner and President Biden last week, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, "We don't have anything to share about a potential phone conversation or meeting."

ABC News' Shannon Crawford and Molly Nagle contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Xi hails Hong Kong's autonomy but with a major caveat: Beijing has final say

Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

(HONG KONG) -- In a speech celebrating the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, Chinese President Xi Jinping strongly reaffirmed the territory’s autonomy under the promise of “One Country, Two Systems” but with one very strong caveat: Beijing has full jurisdiction and Hong Kong must respect that.

“One Country, Two Systems is an unprecedented great initiative of historical significance,” Xi declared in a victory lap of a speech now that the opposition in the city has either been silenced or behind bars. “There is no reason to change such a good system, and it must be maintained for a long time.”

Xi’s words run counter to the view of many in the city who supported the now-silenced pro-democracy activists and Western politicians around the world who view Beijing’s increasing direct influence in the city as reneging on the agreement made between the United Kingdom and China that led to the handover on July 1, 1997.

Also marking the occasion, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued a video statement on Twitter saying, "We made a promise to the territory and its people and we intend to keep it, doing all we can to hold China to its commitment”

"We simply cannot avoid the fact that for some time now, Beijing has been failing to comply with its obligations. It's a state of affairs that threatens both the rights and freedoms of Hong Kongers and the continued progress and prosperity of their home.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken added, “it is now evident that Hong Kong and Beijing authorities no longer view democratic participation, fundamental freedoms, and an independent media” as a part of its promise.

In Xi’s view, the Chinese government is fulfilling its obligations in allowing the former British colony to choose its path and thrive economically, if not politically, over the past quarter century.

“Hong Kong will maintain the original capitalist system unchanged for a long time and enjoy a high degree of autonomy” Xi, who is on a two-day visit to the city, told a 1,300-strong gathering of Hong Kong’s political and business elite at the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Center. But he warned that residents must “consciously respect” the rule of Chinese Communist Party and its socialist system in the mainland.

Having implemented a far-reaching security law two years ago to silence dissent, Xi mostly sidestepped security and political concerns and focused on Hong Kong’s economic development, signaling an intention to turn the page on the turmoil of the last decade.

The Chinese government has long believed that the vast chasm of economic inequality in the city, exacerbated by unaffordable housing costs, was the chief reason for popular discontent which, in Beijing's telling of events, were then exploited by “foreign forces” to foment anti-government protests.

“Hong Kong cannot afford more chaos,” Xi told the newly inaugurated administration led by Hong Kong’s former security official John Lee.

“The public has good expectations to have better livelihoods, that they can live in a wider and bigger home, with more job opportunities, better education for the children, and can be better taken care of when they are old,” Xi continued.

“The new government should not disappoint them and should place these expectations as top priorities," stressed the Chinese leader.

“The major issue for John Lee is to deliver better housing and relieve economic inequality and poverty and if possible, find new engines for economic growth,” David Zweig, Professor Emeritus at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told ABC News.

“Economic problems that Hong Kong has faced for past 20 years were due largely to the [real estate] tycoons who would not allow [the Hong Kong leader and legislature] to resolve these core issues,” Zweig explained, which led to the younger generation insisting on a more representative system which, in Beijing’s eyes, threatened to shift the power in the legislature.

In the wake of the 2019 protests, Zweig believed that when the popular opposition was positioned to take over the legislature and replace Beijing’s "executive-led government" with a de-facto parliamentary one, the Chinese government was unwilling to take that risk.

In response, Beijing reformed the electoral system to ensure “only patriots can govern Hong Kong.”

“Our mistake as observers was not to realize that, while China could support a more open system, under ‘One country, Two systems’ it would never let the opposition take over,” said Zweig.

At an event earlier this week, the last British governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten recalled a pro-Beijing businessman explaining this dynamic to him as the two governments were hashing out the final details before the handover. “You don't understand the Chinese,” Patten remembered the individual telling him, “they don't want to rig the elections, they just want to know the result in advance. Well, yes, I see that, but it's not what's called democracy.”

“John Lee and Beijing, having established an authoritarian regime, must deliver on the core economic issues,” Zweig told ABC News.

After spending less than 10 hours in the city over two days, Xi and his wife left Hong Kong via the high speed rail link that physically ties the center of Hong Kong to the mainland.

The new Hong Kong chief executive has his work cut for him. Hong Kong’s strict COVID measures and sealed borders over the past two years has endangered Hong Kong’s status as an aviation hub and international financial center. Its economy contracted 4% in the first quarter of this year -- one of the worst performances in 30 years.

Coupled with the security crackdown, Hong Kong residents have been voting with their feet. Since the beginning the year there has been 154,000 net departures from the city, the highest rate since Hong Kong returned to China.

“We won’t let President Xi down,” Lee told the press after the Chinese president’s departure. “We won’t let the people down.”

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


North Korea claims 'alien things' at the border caused COVID-19

KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images

(SEOUL, South Korea) -- Authorities in North Korea have instructed its people to avoid “alien things” falling near its border with South Korea.

North Korea’s state newspaper Rodong Sinmun published a news report on where the COVID-19 virus came from and pointed the finger at materials that flew in from South Korea. The paper said that two local townspeople showed COVID-19 symptoms after touching "alien things" at the border.

“State Emergency Epidemic Prevention Headquarters saw to it that an emergency instruction was issued stressing the need to vigilantly deal with alien things coming by wind and other climate phenomena and balloons in the areas along the demarcation line and borders,” Rodong Sinmun said Friday.

The influx of non-native objects, especially from the southern half of the Korean peninsula, has put North Korea’s border at the highest level of alert for the longest amount of time since the two Koreas separated in 1953. Sending propaganda leaflets and materials in air balloons has been common practice from both sides but Seoul has made it illegal in 2020.

“It appears to be an attempt to raise suspicion among North Korean citizens about the propaganda leaflets, an attempt to spread the false idea that the leaflets are carrying COVID-19,” Hyung Joong Park, head researcher at the Korea Institute of National Unification, told ABC News.

Park also explained that they are forming the narrative that COVID was caused not by failures by the Party but by a premeditated move from the outside.

North Korea has reported over 4,750 cases of "fever" on Friday and claims that, as of Thursday evening, since the pandemic began more than 99.827% of the people who had "fever" have recovered. There is an extremely limited number of COVID test kits in North Korea as the regime has refused to accept foreign assistance to help identify patients.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry responded to North Korea’s accusation and that they see zero possibility of viruses entering North Korea through leaflets from the South, explaining that the timing of the North’s claim of contact with "alien materials" at the beginning of April does not match the timing of leaflet-sending that activists in South Korea say took place in late April.

“South Korea’s Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization is on the same page that it is impossible to be infected with COVID-19 through the virus remaining on the surface of an object, not to mention there isn’t any officially confirmed case of COVID-19 infection through mail or other supply,” Cha Duck Chul, the deputy spokesperson of South’s Unification Ministry told reporters Friday.

On Tuesday, the defector group Fighters For North Korea based in Seoul claim to have flown 20 unauthorized balloons carrying masks, pain relief pills, and doses of Vitamin C in order to send support to pandemic-hit North Korea.

“Accusing the balloon and leaflets from South Korea of spreading virus lays a foundation for North Korea taking extreme measures against balloon launches on the grounds that it is a national security threat,” John Delury, professor at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies, told ABC News.

ABC News' Eunseo Nam and Hyerim Lee contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Tear gas or pepper spray used at South African nightclub when teenagers died, eyewitness says

STR/AFP via Getty Images

(EAST LONDON, South Africa) -- Tear gas or pepper spray was used on patrons at a popular nightclub in South Africa when more than a dozen teenagers mysteriously died there, an eyewitness told ABC News.

Sibongile Mtsewu, 22, said he was ordering drinks at the crowded Enyobeni Tavern near the South African city of East London over the weekend, when suddenly the doors were closed and some type of chemical agent was released into the air.

"There was no way out," Mtsewu, who lives nearby, told ABC News in a telephone interview Thursday. "There was no chance to breathe."

Mtsewu said he passed out after inhaling the substance. He recalled being surrounded by bodies when his brother woke him up some time later.

"The tear gas suffocated many people," he told ABC News. "That's why people died."

Mtsewu said one of his legs was injured and he has pains in his body from the incident.

The South African Police Service has declined to comment on possible causes of deaths, citing the ongoing probe.

Officers were called to the Enyobeni Tavern in Scenery Park, a suburb on the edge of East London in Eastern Cape province, on Sunday morning at around 4 a.m. local time, according to police. Upon arrival, they discovered 17 teens dead inside the club. Four more died when they were hospitalized or being transported to hospitals. The youngest victim was 13, police said.

The incident remains under investigation. The circumstances surrounding the tragedy were unclear, and the causes of deaths have yet to be established. No arrests have been made, according to police.

"We do not want to make any speculation at this stage as our investigations are continuing," Brig. Tembinkosi Kinana, a spokesperson for the South African Police Service, told ABC News on Sunday.

As of Thursday, all 21 victims had been identified and the autopsies were completed, but toxicology reports were still pending, according to Siyanda Manana, a spokesperson for the Eastern Cape Department of Health. A mass funeral will be held next week.

The South African Police Service's commissioner for Eastern Cape province, Lt. Gen. Nomthetheleli Mene, released a statement on Wednesday expressing concern "about circulating rumours and media reports speculating on the cause of death."

"As indicated earlier, at an appropriate time and when an official report has been made available by the experts, the family and members of the public will be informed by the relevant authority," Mene said. "We urge people to refrain from making risky assumptions which do not assist our investigations."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


China's president returns to Hong Kong for 25th anniversary of British handover

Feng Li/Getty Images

(HONG KONG) -- When Chinese President Xi Jinping stepped off a high speed train into Hong Kong on Thursday to throngs of flag waving residents and a traditional lion dance performance, it marked his first trip outside the borders of Mainland China in nearly 900 days, since the very beginning of the pandemic and also the first time the Chinese leader has set foot in the Chinese territory since the 2019 anti-government protests paralyzed the city.

“Hong Kong has withstood severe tests time and time again,” Xi said in brief remarks upon his arrival. “After ups and downs, Hong Kong has risen from the ashes and showed vigorous vitality.”

Amidst an incoming typhoon warning, a tight security blanket and a COVID-19 bubble, Xi returned to the city for a two-day visit to inaugurate the new Beijing-approved administration and celebrate the 25th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to China, marking the halfway point of the 50 year ‘One Country, Two Systems’ promise to Hong Kong that it could maintain its autonomy and capitalist system.

Everyone attending and interacting with Xi and his delegation over the next two days has had to isolate beforehand because COVID-19 infections in Hong Kong are much higher than on the zero-COVID-adhering mainland. Local media reports say Xi is not expected to overnight in Hong Kong, instead choosing to head back over the border before returning Friday morning. His total time in the city will only add a few hours over the two day span.

Nevertheless, Xi was bullish in his praise.

“One country, two systems has strong vitality,” Xi declared. “It can ensure Hong Kong's long-term prosperity and stability.”

For many, the foundation of that “One Country, Two Systems” promise has crumbled since Xi was last in Hong Kong in 2017 for what was then the 20th anniversary of the handover.

In a speech five years ago, Xi issued a terse warning that “any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government” or to “use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible.”

Hours after that speech, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents were still able to take to the streets that year for an annual pro-democracy protest march that coursed its way through the vibrant Asian financial center. Newsstands still sold pro-democracy papers and magazines and a boisterous contingent of opposition politicians locked heads with pro-Beijing counterparts.

Five years later Xi arrived in a very different city, one that has been silenced of outward dissent.

The at-times violent street protests that captured the world’s attention in 2019 had -- in Xi’s view -- crossed the "red line” he warned about.

Amid the pandemic, Beijing imposed a security crackdown that has not only quietened the streets but remade the fabric of the city. The National Security Law that was seeded into Hong Kong two years ago has either locked up, chased out or silenced nearly the entire once-vocal opposition.

Though its supporters deny it, speech has also been curtailed in the name of national security. Protest marches disappeared and all remembrances of the Tiananmen Square crackdown erased. Media outlets were either brought in line or forced to shutter like pro-democracy tycoon Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily did last year. Lai, himself, now sits behind bars on multiple counts including national security charges that may keep him in prison for the rest of his life.

The electoral system for all officials and lawmakers was rewritten last year to ensure “only patriots governed Hong Kong,” tipping the scale in Beijing’s favor for the foreseeable future and closing the door on further democratic reforms. Hong Kong’s mini-constitution “The Basic Law” had aimed to work towards eventual universal suffrage but that is now on hold indefinitely.

School curriculums have been overhauled to ensure Beijing approved “patriotism” is instilled at a young age including new textbooks waiting in the wings that deny Hong Kong was ever a British Colony -- apparently because, they argue, China never recognized British rule over their sovereign territory.

On top of it all, Hong Kong’s strict COVID measures and sealed borders have cut off the city not only from mainland China but from the rest of the world, which has seen Hong Kong’s status as an aviation hub and international financial center squeezed away by local government policies as its economy contracted by 4% in the first quarter of this year -- one of the worst performances in 30 years.

A combination of some or all these factors have contributed to Hong Kong residents voting with their feet. Since the beginning of the year there has been 154,000 net departures from the city, the highest rate since Hong Kong returned to China.

Chinese state media has played the developments differently with the People’s Daily declaring on Thursday, “the Hong Kong National Security Law has become the "patron saint" for safeguarding Hong Kong's prosperity and stability.”

Hong Kong’s future is at a trepidatious crossroad and Beijing knows it. Earlier this month, the Hong Kong & Macau Affairs Office in Beijing which oversees the city took the unprecedented steps -- despite the city’s supposed autonomy -- to publish targets for the incoming administration led by John Lee, the former security official who implemented Beijing’s crackdown against the pro-democracy movement and press.

On the top of the list is affordable housing concerns, which Beijing blames for discontent in the city and “to improve Hong Kong’s international competitiveness.”

At the anniversary ceremony on Friday morning, Xi is expected again to give a speech outlining his vision for Hong Kong over the next five years. Unlike the speech he gave in 2017, he will no longer have to worry about issuing red lines because the government claims they've already dealt with those who he viewed to have violated them.

Xi, who is solidifying his case to be given an unprecedented third term as president later this year, will likely take a victory lap as the leader who finally brought this once rebellious city firmly back in the fold.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Verdict in France's 'trial of the century': Between relief and the years ahead

BENOIT PEYRUCQ/AFP via Getty Images

(PARIS) -- Wednesday marked the epilogue of a nearly 10-month-long and emotional trial for the Paris terror attacks of Nov. 13, 2015, with Salah Abdeslam -- the only person directly involved in the planning who's still alive -- receiving the heaviest sentence under French law.

Families of victims and journalists were amassed either in the cafés or under the shades afforded by the trees circling Place Dauphine, in front of the 1st Arrondissement Tribunal, on Wednesday afternoon, waiting for the verdict in the "trial of the century."

They waited all afternoon for the court, which had retired to deliberate Monday, to finally learn the fate of the 20 defendants, among whom is 32-year-old Abdelsam, the only survivor of the death commando and key suspect in the landmark trial for the 2015 terror attacks that claimed 130 lives, and more than 400 others were wounded.

Nine suicide bombers committed simultaneous attacks outside the Stade de France in Saint-Denis during a soccer match, on a number of Parisian cafés and restaurants and inside the Bataclan concert hall during a packed performance, where the American rock band Eagles of Death Metal was playing. The attacks were later claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. At the Bataclan alone, 90 people were killed by terrorists with machine guns after being taken hostage.

The trial for the deadliest attacks ever committed in France opened on Sept. 8, 2021. There were 1,800 plaintiffs and 330 lawyers, and the trial took place in front of a specially composed panel of professional judges, instead of a jury of peers.

The 149 days of the trial that followed, often interrupted by cases of COVID-19 among the accused, were punctuated by the emotional and graphic testimonies of 415 people -- out of the thousands of victims -- along with testimony from first responders, former President François Hollande, the defendants and Belgian investigators.

Stéphane Sarrade, a member of the victims' association 13Onze15 -- a name that refers to the date of the attack, lost his then-23-year-old son Hugo at the Bataclan.

"It's going to start. It smells of beer," was the last text he received from Hugo at 8:00 p.m. that night, the father of two told ABC News.

Stéphane Sarrade, who "had almost no expectations at the start of this trial," was happy to end the trial with "some details on the chronology of events," which allowed him to imagine his son's last moments.

On May 17, some of Hugo's heroes -- Eagles of Death Metal's singer Jesse Hughes and former guitarist Eden Gavino -- joined the victims' families on l'Île de la Cité to testify before the court.

"I felt like broken," Gavino said, while Hughes said he "forgive[s] them [the terrorists]" and "hope[s] that they find the peace of God themselves."

Alexis Lebrun, 33, a Bataclan survivor and a member of the victims' association Life for Paris, hesitated "a lot," like many, but ultimately did not testify, he told ABC News near the tribunal on Wednesday.

Awaiting the verdict, Lebrun, who vehemently refuses to be seen as only "a victim of November 13 and nothing else," told ABC News he now "aspire[s] to a form of banality."

When Périès announced the verdict -- ranging from two years to life in prison, with Abdeslam receiving life without the possibility of parole -- before a very packed court, 39-year-old Thibault Morgant, who escaped the Bataclan attack with his wife, felt "nothing," he said

However, as one of the administrators of 13Onze15, he told ABC News he felt pride "seeing that my country has been able to carry out such a procedure to its conclusion without renouncing its values."

"The ordeal is over," Stéphane Sarrade told ABC News.

Talking with French media France Info after the verdict, Arthur Dénouveaux, who was at the Bataclan and presides over Life For Paris, had words for the other silent victims of terrorism, the 200 children of French jihadists who still live in detention camps in Syria with their mothers.

This landmark trial will give way to another in September, as France isn't done reckoning with terror on its soil. This time, the special Paris court will house the trial for the 2016 Nice terror attack that left 86 dead on the Promenade des Anglais.

In October, five of the 20 defendants from the Nov. 13 trial -- including Abdeslam and his childhood friend Mohammed Abrini, who was filmed by CCTV cameras during the attacks in Brussels pushing a cart with two other suicide bombers -- will be among the 10 defendants on trial before the Brussels Court of Appeal for the March 2016 attacks in Belgium.

In 2027, the Terrorism Memorial Museum, which aims to pay tribute to the victims of terrorism across France and around the world, is expected to open its doors.

ABC News' Ibtissem Guenfoud contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Why it may be hard to isolate Russia, experts say

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(NEW YORK) -- In response to the invasion of Ukraine, the West has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia, nearly crippling its economy and isolating it from all but a few allies.

President Joe Biden and other government officials have said sanctions from the U.S. and its allies will make Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, pariahs on the world stage.

However, one expert who spoke with ABC News says that casting Russia out of the international community, making it a pariah state, may not be so easy.

"Russia is a member of the UN security council, it has veto power there. It is just a major actor on the world stage in so many ways. So isolating Russia, shaming it, making it a pariah is a huge challenge," said Daniel Hamilton, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Yet, "Russia has not done too well with allies," Hamilton also said.

"Today, it's real allies are ... sort of also pariah states. It's Assad's Syria, it's Venezuela, it's Cuba and that's about it. Others tolerate Russia. They figure out ways to deal with it, in the former Soviet space. But they're not really allies," Hamilton said.

China has also kept a relationship with Russia, which Hamilton called "pro-Russian neutrality," with China falling short of giving Russia its full support, he said

An analysis of American policymakers found that the U.S. punishes pariah states committing one of five acts: the development of weapons of mass destruction, involvement in terrorism, posing a military threat, challenging international norms and, most recently, cyberthreats.

The U.S. currently designates Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism, according to the Department of State.

Russia's gross domestic product, a metric used to gauge the size of an economy by quantifying all the goods and services it produced, will be hard hit, according to Andrew Lohsen, a fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Russian GDP, by their own estimates, is expected to to fall by between eight and 12%. This is the sharpest contraction since 1994," said Lohsen.

"Other former finance officials in Russia put that number close to 30%," Lohsen said.

Lohsen also told ABC News the way Russia has conducted its war warrants a strong response from the international community.

"I think the images of civilians with their hands tied behind their back or shot execution style is an indication that Russia simply cannot be treated the way it has before, that this is a war crime," Lohsen said.

"The way that Russia has fought this war in a way that is so obviously meant to terrorize and inflict pain and suffering on civilian noncombatants," Lohsen added.

Putin considers Ukraine not as a sovereign country, but rather, a lost tribe of Russia, Hamilton said.

"He really is determined to either cripple it or to absorb it, if possible. He's having some trouble doing that," Hamilton said.

As it moves to isolate Russia, the U.S. is softening relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia, despite Biden's campaign promise to make Saudi Arabia a pariah for its killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

While the U.S. has been able to cut out Russian oil, the European Union still relies on Russia for 25% of it's oil and 40% of its natural gas.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Mariupol theater airstrike was 'a clear war crime' by Russian military, Amnesty International says

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(LONDON) -- The Russian military committed "a clear war crime" when its forces bombed a packed drama theater in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in March, Amnesty International said Thursday.

The London-based international human rights group published a new report documenting how the deadly blitz on the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater unfolded, citing interviews with numerous survivors and witnesses as well as "extensive digital evidence," which included photographs, videos, radio intercepts, satellite imagery and radar data. The report concluded that the evidence indicates the attack "was almost certainly an airstrike carried out by the Russian military," with the theater as "the intended target."

"After months of rigorous investigation, analysis of satellite imagery and interviews with dozens of witnesses, we concluded that the strike was a clear war crime committed by Russian forces," Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnes Callamard said in a statement Thursday.

As many as 1,500 civilians had been taking refuge in the grand, columned Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater in central Mariupol when it was struck on March 16, according to the Ukrainian government. Russian forces had been relentlessly bombarding the strategic port city in southeastern Ukraine since launching an invasion on Feb. 24. Satellite images taken prior to the attack showed huge, white Cyrillic letters written on the pavement in front of and behind the building, spelling out the Russian word for "children" -- "deti" -- to alert warplanes to those inside.

According to Amnesty International's report, Russian fighter aircraft most likely attacked the theater-turned-shelter using two 500-kilogram bombs that struck close to each other and detonated simultaneously. The strike took place on a clear morning and landed inside the main structure of the theater, which the report noted was a cultural landmark and the only big building in the middle of a large park in Mariupol. The theater's civilian character and the presence of numerous civilians "were evident," according to the report.

About a week after the attack, the Mariupol City Council said the death toll was around 300, citing eyewitnesses.

It remains unclear exactly how many people were killed, but Amnesty International said the death toll is likely much smaller than previously reported. Based on a review of witness accounts and other sources, the organization believes "at least a dozen people died in the attack, but also that it is likely that many additional fatalities remain unreported," according to the report.

"Many people were injured and killed in this merciless attack. Their deaths were likely caused by Russian forces deliberately targeting Ukrainian civilians," Callamard said. "The International Criminal Court, and all others with jurisdiction over crimes committed during this conflict, must investigate this attack as a war crime. All those responsible must be held accountable for causing such death and destruction."

The Russian military claimed to have fully captured Mariupol in late May, after a nearly three month siege that reduced the city of 430,000 people to smoldering ruin. The victory secured a coastal corridor between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow forcibly annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

"Through the air and on the ground, Russian forces have been on a well-documented and deliberate killing spree of civilians in Ukraine," Callamard added. "Thorough investigations are urgently needed in order to hold perpetrators accountable for the serious injury and loss of civilian life they caused, as well as for the extensive damage to civilian infrastructure."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Mystery remains over deaths of 21 teenagers at South African nightclub

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(LONDON and PRETORIA) -- The mysterious deaths of 21 teenagers at a popular nightclub in South Africa has swirled speculation and left many unanswered questions.

The incident remains under investigation by South African authorities. Here's what we know so far.

A grim scene

The South African Police Service said its officers were called to the Enyobeni Tavern in Scenery Park, a suburb on the edge of East London in Eastern Cape province, on Sunday morning at around 4 a.m. local time. Upon arrival, they discovered 17 teens dead inside the club. Four more died when they were hospitalized or being transported to hospitals.

Initial reports stated the death toll was 22.

The youngest victim was 13, according to police.

The local government, the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality, has offered burial assistance to the victims' families. A mass funeral will be held next Wednesday.

Unclear circumstances

The circumstances surrounding the incident were unclear but are being investigated.

"We do not want to make any speculation at this stage as our investigations are continuing," Brig. Tembinkosi Kinana, a spokesperson for the South African Police Service, told ABC News on Sunday.

The Daily Dispatch, a South African newspaper published in East London, reported that the teens were attending a party at the Enyobeni Tavern to celebrate the end of June school exams. Their bodies were reportedly found strewn across tables, chairs and the dance floor with no visible signs of injuries.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa released a statement on Sunday expressing concern "about the reported circumstances under which such young people were gathered at a venue which, on the face of it, should be off limits to persons under the age of 18."

Unknown causes

The causes of deaths have yet to be established.

Siyanda Manana, a spokesperson for the Eastern Cape Department of Health, told ABC News on Tuesday that the autopsies were completed and toxicology reports were pending. Of the 21 bodies, 19 have been identified while the other two -- both boys -- were still unidentified in the local mortuary, according to Manana.

The Daily Dispatch reported that there were rumors the teens died in a stampede after security guards at the Enyobeni Tavern discharged tear gas or pepper spray in an attempt to disperse patrons. But that theory has reportedly been ruled out.

News24, a South African online news publication, reported that carbon monoxide poisoning has emerged as a possible cause of death, citing "sources close to the probe." Kinana, the police spokesperson, would not confirm the claim, telling ABC News on Wednesday: "The investigation into the incident is still ongoing. No report has been given out in this regard."

Meanwhile, the South African Police Service's commissioner for Eastern Cape province, Lt. Gen. Nomthetheleli Mene, released a statement on Wednesday expressing concern "about circulating rumours and media reports speculating on the cause of death."

"As indicated earlier, at an appropriate time and when an official report has been made available by the experts, the family and members of the public will be informed by the relevant authority," Mene said. "We urge people to refrain from making risky assumptions which do not assist our investigations."

No suspects or arrests

No suspects have been named in connection with the investigation.

Kinana told ABC News on Tuesday that no arrests have been made.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Europe adds visitor fee for US travel next year

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(WASHINGTON) -- As Americans head to crowded airports for a revival of European summer vacations, it looks like next year will be more expensive for those headed to the European Union.

A 7 euro fee, translating to $7.42, is expected to go into effect in May 2023 for foreign visitors aged 18 to 70 years old as part of a new European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS), according to the European Commission.

As part of the system, travelers will have to apply for authorization through the official website or app before their trip abroad.

ETIAS is intended to increase revenue for the EU and to create a central data repository on non-Europeans who visit the area.

“EU Member States’ border management authorities currently have little information about travellers exempt from visa requirements entering the EU,” Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency who will have a key role in the new system, said in a statement.

“ETIAS will therefore be an important means of addressing this information gap by supporting security screening and risk assessment of travellers, reinforcing the internal security of the Schengen Area,” the agency added.

The European Commission said that ETIAS will be a largely automated system used to identify security, irregular migration or high epidemic risks posed by visa-exempt visitors traveling to the Schengen States, which refers to 26 European countries including France, Italy, Germany and Greece.

ETIAS will also facilitate the crossing of borders for the vast majority of travelers who do not pose the aforementioned risks.

The European Commission said that most travelers who apply for the ETIAS authorization will be approved within minutes. The estimated 5% of travelers who aren’t, the commission said, could receive the travel authorization in up to 30 days.

Once granted, the authorization will be valid for three years or until the expiration date of an individual’s travel document, such as a passport.

The authorization will be checked by border guards along with other travel documents.

ETIAS was first proposed by the European Commission in 2016, and has since faced negotiations within the commission’s legislation. Now, the system will become enacted by mid-2023, the commission said.

"Our police officers and border guards need to have the right tools to do their jobs – keeping our citizens safe and our borders secure. ETIAS will pre-screen visa-free visitors for potential security problems, while the reinforced eu-LISA will allow us to continue to modernise EU-wide information systems for law enforcement and border management," Commissioner for the Security Union Julian King said following the 2018 agreement by the commission to establish ETIAS.

ETIAS adds to the preexisting Schengen visa system, which did not require such authorization from visitors from at least fifty countries around the world, including the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The European Commission began discussing the new system after it was found that an estimated 30 million visitors came to the EU without being required to have a Schengen visa.

ETIAS has similar characteristics to the United States’ Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which is available to travelers from countries granted a Visa Waiver Program.

In May, the fee for ESTA increased from $14 to $21, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Russia-Ukraine live updates: Finland, Sweden invited to join NATO

Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's "special military operation" into neighboring Ukraine began on Feb. 24, with Russian forces invading from Belarus, to the north, and Russia, to the east. Ukrainian troops have offered "stiff resistance," according to U.S. officials.

The Russian military has since launched a full-scale ground offensive in eastern Ukraine's disputed Donbas region, capturing the strategic port city of Mariupol and securing a coastal corridor to the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

Here's how the news is developing. All times Eastern:

Jun 29, 3:20 pm
Zelenskyy addresses NATO summit

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the NATO summit Wednesday, commending the decision to invite Finland and Sweden to join NATO.

Zelenskyy told the NATO leaders, "The goals of Ukraine are exactly the same as yours: We are interested in security and stability on the European continent and in the world."

“This is not a war of Russia only against Ukraine, this is a war for the right to dictate conditions in Europe,” he said.

-ABC News' Christine Theodorou

Jun 29, 1:37 pm
Biden, Erdogan meet after Turkey drops opposition to Finland, Sweden joining NATO

President Joe Biden met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the NATO summit in Madrid Wednesday, where he thanked Erdoğan for dropping his objections to Finland and Sweden becoming NATO members.

“I want to particularly thank you for what you did putting together the situation with regard to Finland and Sweden and all the incredible work you're doing to try to get the grain out of Ukraine and Russia,” Biden said.

“We think your pioneering in this regard is going to be crucial in terms of strengthening NATO for the future,” Erdoğan said. “And it's going to have a very positive contribution to the process between Ukraine and Russia.”

Senior administration officials told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. made no formal offer in exchange for Erdoğan dropping Turkey’s resistance to Finland and Sweden becoming NATO members.

The U.S. Department of Defense earlier came out in support of Turkey’s plans to modernize its aircraft fleet with American-made F-16s.

-ABC News' Gabe Ferris

Jun 29, 10:43 am
Finland, Sweden invited to join NATO

The leaders of NATO countries have invited Sweden and Finland to join NATO, they announced at the Madrid summit.

NATO leaders in their declaration called Russia "the most significant and direct threat to Allies' security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area."

President Joe Biden offered a smile and fist pump when NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke about the newest invitees to the alliance.

Jun 29, 9:15 am
Finland, Sweden invited to join NATO

The leaders of NATO countries have invited Sweden and Finland to join NATO, they announced at the Madrid summit.

NATO leaders in their declaration called Russia "the most significant and direct threat to Allies' security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area."

Jun 29, 8:28 am
NATO to identify Russia as its 'main threat,' Spanish PM says

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who is hosting a NATO summit in Madrid, said Russia will be identified as the alliance's "main threat" in its new strategic concept unveiled during the summit.

“The strategic concept of Madrid will be naming Russia as the main threat of the allies,” Sánchez told Spanish media on Wednesday. NATO previously considered Russia a strategic partner.

Sánchez stressed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was the only person “responsible for this substantive change.”

During a speech at the NATO summit on Wednesday, the Spanish Prime Minister said the summit carried a clear signal for Putin.

“We are sending a strong message to Putin: 'You will not win,'” Sánchez said.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said on Facebook on Tuesday that thousands of Ukrainian soldiers had mastered the use of weapons supplied by Western countries, while other troops are in ongoing training.

Reznikov said Ukrainian specialists were training on aviation and other types of high-tech weaponry, including artillery systems and means of reconnaissance.

“We are learning at a fast pace,” the defense minister added. “Any weapon in the hands of the [Ukrainian] Armed Forces becomes even more effective."

In his speech at the NATO summit on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy repeated his plea for more weapons supplies, highlighting Ukraine's need for more modern artillery systems.

To break Russia's artillery advantage, Ukraine needs “much more modern systems, modern artillery," Zelenskyy said.

-ABC News' Edward Szekeres, Max Uzol and Yuriy Zaliznyak

Jun 29, 7:39 am
Missile strike on mall may have been mistake

Russia's recent missile strike on a shopping mall in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk, which killed at least 20 people, may have been "intended to hit a nearby infrastructure target," the U.K. Ministry of Defense said Wednesday in an intelligence update.

The ministry called it "a realistic possibility" and noted that "Russia's inaccuracy in conducting long range strikes has previously resulted in mass civilian casualty incidents, including at Kramatorsk railway station" on April 9.

"Russian planners highly likely remain willing to accept a high level of collateral damage when they perceive military necessity in striking a target," the ministry said. "It is almost certain that Russia will continue to conduct strikes in an effort to interdict the resupplying of Ukrainian frontline forces."

"Russia's shortage of more modern precision strike weapons and the professional shortcomings of their targeting planners will highly likely result in further civilian casualties," the ministry warned.

Jun 28, 4:51 pm
20 dead, 40 still missing from mall strike

Twenty people are dead and 59 are wounded from Russia's missile strike on Monday at a mall in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk, according to Kyrilo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of the Office of the President of Ukraine.

Forty people remain missing, Tymoshenko said.

"Several fragments of bodies have been found ripped off limbs and feet of the people," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the United Nations Security Council.

He said if Russia denies the devastation was wrought by one of its missiles, he asked the U.N. send an independent representative to the site of the attack to verify for itself.

First Deputy Permanent Representative of Russia to the U.N., Dmitry Polyanskiy, flatly denied carrying out strikes against any civilian target.

-ABC News' Shannon Crawford, Oleksii Pshemysko and Fidel Pavlenko

Jun 28, 12:58 pm
Sean Penn meets with Zelenskyy

Sean Penn met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Tuesday after the actor arrived in Ukraine to shoot a documentary, according to Zelenskyy’s office.

Penn, who first came to Ukraine on the day Russia invaded in February, wants to "visit settlements in Ukraine affected by Russian aggression," according to Zelenskyy’s office.

Jun 28, 4:13 pm
Biden: Ukraine 'standing up' to Putin 'in ways that I don't think anyone anticipated'

President Joe Biden and Spanish President Pedro Sanchez delivered remarks Tuesday on new areas of cooperation between the two countries and efforts to keep supporting Ukraine against Russia's invasion.

Biden did not mention Monday’s strike on the Ukraine mall that killed 18, but said the invasion has "shattered peace in Europe and every norm since WWII."

Biden said he and Sanchez discussed the need to continue to provide weapons to Ukraine.

The Ukrainians "are standing up in ways that I don't think anyone anticipated, showing enormous bravery, enormous resolve," Biden said.

He said he believes Putin's objective is to "wipe out the culture of Ukraine."

Biden said NATO allies will be "standing as one" to support Ukraine and teased more military posture commitments in Europe. Biden said the U.S. and Spain are working on an agreement to increase the number of Navy destroyers stationed at Rota Naval Base in Spain.

-ABC News' Justin Ryan Gomez

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Defectors in Seoul send balloons carrying medicine to COVID-19-struck North Korea, defying law in South

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(SEOUL, South Korea) -- A North Korean defector group in Seoul claimed on Tuesday to have launched air balloons carrying medical supplies near the inter-Korean border.

The Fighters for Free North Korea, an activist group of North Korean defectors who send anti-propaganda leaflets across the border, said they flew 20 air balloons carrying 50,000 pain relief pills, 30,000 vitamin C and 20,000 N-95 masks. Dispatching unauthorized materials at the border is against the law in South Korea.

“In order to help the miserable mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters in North Korea who are dying without any medicine, the Fighters for Free North Korea is temporarily halting the anti-Pyongyang leaflet sending, and will send medical supplies to help with COVID situation in the North,” Park Sang Hak, a North Korean defector who leads the activist group, told ABC News.

The South Korean government since 2020 has banned sending leaflets across the border. Sending them carries a maximum prison term of three years or fines up to $27,400.

The non-government organization has been gathering help from human rights support groups based in Seoul and the U.S. to send medical supplies to the North since the Kim Jong Un regime acknowledged the outbreak on May 13.

North Korea remains one of the only two nations without COVID vaccines. Ever since admitting that it had its first COVID patient, the isolated regime has been announcing the number of ‘fever patients’ and COVID-related deaths through its state media daily. Lacking medical supplies to treat the pandemic, Pyongyang’s main newspaper, Roding Sinmun, advised people to use traditional remedies such as drinking willow or honeysuckle leaf tea.

“In South Korea, even animals are given medicine to treat diseases, the North Korean regime is uncivilized at the worst level,” Park told ABC News. “All we want for the families and friends in North Korea is for them to be treated with real medicine to fight COVID-19.”

An official from the Unification Ministry told ABC News that police and other authorities were working to confirm Tuesday's balloon launch.

"The ministry understands the intent of the distribution, but believe in the need [for the group] to restrain its activities considering the sensitive inter-Korean relationship and the government’s effort for cooperation in the inter-Korean disinfection, and whether [the activities] could actually help the North Korean people,” the official said.

The group claims that it’s the second time this month they have sent air balloons with medical supplies to the North, and will continue to do so.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


109 live animals found in women's luggage in massive airport wildlife trafficking bust

Danielle Kiemel/Getty Images - FILE

(LONDON) -- Two women have been arrested in Thailand for allegedly attempting to smuggle at least 109 live animals in their luggage -- including porcupines, armadillos, turtles, chameleons and snakes -- as they tried to board a flight to India.

The incident occurred on Monday at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport as two Indian women tried to make their way through airport security when officials spotted a couple of suspicious items in their suitcases following a routine x-ray inspection, according to a statement released by Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.

Upon further investigation, authorities discovered a total of at least 109 animals including “two white porcupines, two armadillos, 35 turtles, 50 chameleons and 20 snakes,” read the statement.

The two women were arrested, taken into custody and charged under Thailand’s Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act, The Animal Epidemic Act of 2015, and the Customs Act.

In March 2022, TRAFFIC -- a wildlife and plant trafficking watchdog group -- released a report on wildlife trafficking through India’s airports and said the issue is the “fourth largest illegal trade worldwide after arms, drugs and human trafficking, and frequently links with other forms of serious crime such as fraud, money laundering, and corruption.”

In fact, from 2011 to 2020, the report says that there were 141 wildlife seizure incidents involving 146 different wildlife species at 18 of India’s major airports.

“Over 70,000 wild animals including their body parts or derivatives, were found during the study period,” the report says. “Wildlife derivatives weighing over 4000 kg (approximately four-and-a-half tons) were also seized at airports in India.”

India passed the Wildlife (Protection) Act 50 years ago in 1972 but, according to TRAFFIC, wildlife trafficking is still a big issue in India.

“Despite the restrictions, wildlife trafficking continues. TRAFFIC’s study highlights the increasing misuse of airports for smuggling wildlife and its contrabands within India and across the regions,” the report continued. “The study’s findings reflect the ongoing trafficking and not an actual representation as most of the illegal wildlife trade goes unchecked and unreported.”

An earlier statement from Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation said that the surviving animals would be sent to wildlife rescue centers or breeding stations around the country.

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