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Updated: 1 hour 5 min ago

Tropical Storm Fay Moves Toward Mid-Atlantic, New England

1 hour 36 min ago

Tropical Storm Fay slightly picked up speed and strength as it moved closer to land Friday, and forecasters decreased projections for rain totals and flooding.

Fay was expected to bring 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) of rain, with the possibility of flash flooding in parts of the mid-Atlantic and southern New England, The U.S. National Hurricane Center said in its 5 a.m. advisory. That's down from earlier forecasts of about 3 to 5 inches (8 to 13 centimeters) of rain.

The storm picked up speed Friday morning, moving north around 10 mph (17 kph) and producing top sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph), forecasters said. Earlier observations showed it moving at 8 mph (13 kph) with top sustained winds of 45 mph (75 kph).

A tropical storm warning remained in effect from Cape May, New Jersey, to Watch Hill, Rhode Island. The warning area includes Long Island and the Long Island Sound in New York, forecasters said.

Fay is the earliest sixth-named storm on record, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach. The previous record was Franklin on July 22, 2005, Klotzbach tweeted.

Two named storms formed before the official June 1 start of the hurricane season. None of this season's previous five named storms strengthened into hurricanes.

Oxygen Already Runs Low as COVID-19 Surges in South Africa

1 hour 56 min ago

The coronavirus storm has arrived in South Africa, but in the overflowing COVID-19 wards the sound is less of a roar than a rasp.

Oxygen is already low in hospitals at the new epicenter of the country's outbreak, Gauteng province, home to the power centers of Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, visiting a hospital Friday, said authorities are working with industry to address the strained oxygen supply and divert more to health facilities.  

South Africa Takes Part in Human Trial for Potential COVID-19 Vaccine  South Africa takes part in Africa's first human trial for coronavirus vaccine 

Some of the hospital's patients spilled into heated tents in the parking lot. They lay under thick blankets in the middle of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, with a cold front arriving this weekend and temperatures expected to dip below freezing.

South Africa overnight posted another record daily high of confirmed cases, 13,674, as Africa's most developed country is a new global hot spot with 238,339 cases overall. More than a third are in Gauteng.

"The storm that we have consistently warned South Africans about is now arriving," Mkhize said this week.

A nurse at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital — the third largest hospital in the world with more than 3,000 beds — painted a bleak picture, saying new patients with the virus are now being admitted into ordinary wards as the COVID-19 ones are full.

"Our hospital is overloaded already. There has been an influx of patients over the last two weeks," the nurse said, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give interviews.

More and more colleagues at the hospital are testing positive daily for the virus, the nurse said, "even people who are not working in COVID wards."  

Africa Seeks Equitable Access to Any COVID-19 Vaccine  African leaders rally calling for investment to manufacture a serum at an affordable price as number of infections on continent surpasses 321,000 cases

Already more than 8,000 health workers across Africa have been infected — half of them in South Africa.

Any struggles in how the country manages the pandemic will be amplified in other nations across Africa, which has the world's lowest levels of health funding and health staffing.  

The continent  as of Friday had 541,381 confirmed cases, but shortages in testing materials means the real number is unknown.

South Africa's surge in cases comes as the country loosens what had been one of the world's strictest lockdowns, with even alcohol sales banned until June 1. Now restaurants have sit-down service and religious gatherings have resumed. The economy was hurting and needed reopening, authorities said.

But nervous officials in Gauteng province have called for stricter lockdown measures to return. On Friday, Gauteng Premier David Makhura announced he had tested positive with mild symptoms.

"We must double our efforts," he said in a statement, urging people to wear face masks, wash their hands and distance themselves.

Warning signs keep flashing. Hospital beds in all provinces could be full within the month, the health minister said this week. On Friday he said a team is looking at 2,000 additional beds for field hospitals in Gauteng.

In addition to the shortage of beds, many hospitals are grappling with limited oxygen supplies to treat patients with the respiratory disease.

Guy Richards, director of clinical care at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg, told the AP they are extremely worried about potential shortages.

"Even a big hospital like ours has difficulty supplying sufficient amounts of oxygenation for our patients. The same thing is happening at Helen Joseph (Hospital), and this is a major problem," he said.

Tshwane District Hospital, which the health minister visited Friday, has been devoted completely to COVID-19 patients, said Veronica Ueckermann, head of the COVID-19 response team at Steve Biko Academic Hospital, which includes Tshwane District Hospital.

"Currently we are stretched but we are still coping in terms of our wards, our sisters and doctors are working extremely hard," she said. 

Notre Dame Cathedral to be Rebuilt Without Modern Touches

2 hours 2 min ago

Notre Dame Cathedral will be rebuilt just the way it stood before last year's devastating fire.

No swimming pool or organic garden on the roof of the medieval Paris monument, or contemporary glass spire, or other modern twists. And to stay historically accurate, it will again be built with potentially toxic lead.

That's the verdict reached by French President Emmanuel Macron, the cathedral's present-day architects and the general in charge of the colossal reconstruction project for one of the world's most treasured landmarks.

Macron, who wants Notre Dame reopened in time for the 2024 Olympics, had initially pushed for a contemporary touch atop the cathedral, prompting eye-catching proposals from architects around the world.

Rebuilding of Paris' Notre Dame Stalled as Pandemic RagesCOVID measures stop reconstruction plans, and one year after it was heavily damaged in a fire, no one knows when the iconic cathedral will be repaired

But Macron came around to the traditionalists' argument, and approved reconstruction plans for the 12th century monument that were presented Thursday, according to a statement from the state agency overseeing the project.

The plan includes recreating the 19th century spire designed by architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc that collapsed in the fire and "favors fidelity to the monument's form and a restoration of the cathedral in its latest state," the statement said.

That means how Notre Dame was on the afternoon of April 15, 2019, before the fire broke out, consumed the roof and threatened the rose-windowed twin towers that keep the cathedral upright.

More than a year later, the structure remains unstable. It took nearly a year to clear out dangerous lead residue released in the fire and to get to the point where workers could start removing scaffolding that had been in place for a previous renovation effort. Actual reconstruction won't start until next year.

The reconstruction plan presented Thursday says the project will replicate original materials "to guarantee the authenticity, harmony and coherence of this masterpiece of Gothic art."  

Those materials included tons of lead, which is raising concerns among health and environmental groups. Lead particles released during the fire forced schools in the area to close and prompted a lengthy, painstaking cleanup effort of the cathedral's historic neighborhood on an island in the center of Paris.

 

Ousted NY Prosecutor Tells Panel Barr 'Urged' Him to Resign

2 hours 15 min ago

The ousted U.S. attorney who was leading investigations into President Donald Trump's allies told the House Judiciary panel on Thursday that Attorney General William Barr "repeatedly urged" him to resign during a hastily arranged meeting that sheds light on the extraordinary standoff  surrounding his departure.

Geoffrey Berman, the former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, provided the committee with a detailed account behind closed doors of three days in June as he was pushed out, according to his opening statement, which was obtained by The Associated Press.

Top Manhattan Prosecutor Leaves Job After Standoff With BarrUS Attorney Geoffrey Berman says he was assured that investigations by the prosecutor’s office into the president’s allies would not be disturbed

Berman said Barr, over a 45-minute session at the Pierre Hotel in New York, "pressed" him to step aside and take on a new job heading up the Justice Department's Civil Division so the administration could install Jay Clayton, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, to the top prosecutor post in Manhattan.

"I told the attorney general that I was not interested," Berman told the panel.

Berman explained, "There were important investigations in the office that I wanted to see through to completion." He told Barr that, while he liked Clayton, he viewed the SEC commissioner as "an unqualified choice" for the job.

"He had had no criminal experience," Berman said.

When Barr warned that if he didn't go, he would be fired, "I told him that while I did not want to get fired, I would not resign," Berman said.

The Judiciary Committee interview, which is being transcribed for public release later, comes as the panel deepens its probe of politicization at the Justice Department.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has called Berman's dismissal "part of a clear and dangerous pattern" of behavior by Barr. The panel's Democratic majority is pursuing its investigation of the attorney general, who they say operates more like Trump's personal lawyer than the nation's top law enforcement official. Barr is set to testify  before the committee later this month.

The Southern District, known for its high-profile prosecutions, is where Berman oversaw several ongoing investigations of Trump associates, including some who figured prominently in the House impeachment inquiry of the president.

Berman's office is looking into the business dealings of Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer and a former New York mayor. It has also prosecuted Trump's former personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who went to prison for lying to Congress and campaign finance crimes.

The closed-door interview with Berman spanned three hours. He was not expected to disclose information about the investigations into Trump's circle, but rather to discuss only his removal, according to a person familiar with the proceeding who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss it. He arrived without a lawyer.

The session comes as the Capitol remains partially shut down during the COVID-19 crisis. A handful of lawmakers, but not all those on the panel, attended.

Berman, a Republican lawyer and donor to Trump, was tapped by the administration in 2018 as the U.S. attorney for SDNY.  

He ultimately agreed to step down from his post, but only after being assured his office's probes of Trump's circle would continue.

As he sat alone before the committee, Berman told the panel of the series of events that started with a Thursday email from Barr's office requesting the meeting. He said he was not told what it was about.

When he arrived at Barr's hotel suite the next day, there "were sandwiches on the table, but nobody ate."  

Barr told him he wanted to make changes at the office. Berman resisted, saying he "loved" his job and asked if Barr was "dissatisfied" with his performance.

Barr assured him the move was solely because Clayton wanted to relocate to New York and the administration wanted to "keep him on the team."  

Back and forth it went, with Barr saying the move would be good for Berman's resume and eventual return to the private sector, Berman said. Berman would "only have to sit there" for five months until the presidential election determined next steps, Barr said. He told Berman it would be an opportunity to accumulate a "book of business" — clients — to bring to a private firm.

As Berman remain unmoved, Barr told him "he was trying to think of other jobs in the administration" that might be of interest. "I said that there was no job offer that would entice me to resign from my position," Berman recalled.  

Late that Friday the Justice Department issued a statement saying Berman was stepping down, launching the standoff. Berman issued his own statement saying he had "no intention of resigning." He showed up for work Saturday.

On Saturday night, Barr publicly released a letter saying Berman had been fired by the president.  

At the time, Trump told reporters it was "all up to the attorney general," adding, "I wasn't involved."

Berman told the panel the letter also contained a "critical concession" from Barr. In it, Barr stated that Berman's hand-picked deputy would take over as acting U.S. attorney until the permanent successor was in place. Berman said that with "full confidence" the work of the office would continue, "I decided to step down and not litigate my removal."

It's not the first ouster of a U.S. attorney from the SDNY. Preet Bharara, a former federal prosecutor appointed by President Barack Obama, announced that he was fired in March 2017, shortly after Trump took office.

Berman had worked from 1987 to 1990 for the independent counsel who investigated the administration of President Ronald Reagan in the Iran-Contra affair.  

He previously served in the SDNY  office as an assistant U.S. attorney from 1990 to 1994 before joining private practice, including time at the same firm as Giuliani. He reportedly met with Trump before being assigned the top federal prosecutor job in Manhattan.

SDNY has probed Trump's inaugural fundraising and overseen the prosecution of two Florida businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were associates of Giuliani and tied to the Ukraine impeachment investigation. The men were charged in October with federal campaign finance violations.

Indian Crime Suspect Shot Dead by Police

2 hours 22 min ago

Police in India say they have shot and killed notorious criminal Vikas Dubey, wanted in connection with at least 60 crimes, including the killing of eight police officers.   

Officials say Dubey had given himself up in the central town of Ujjain on Thursday after a week-long search. They say police were driving him Friday to Kanpur, in northern Uttar Pradesh state, when the vehicle crashed, prompting Dubey to steal a policeman's pistol and attempt to flee, before being shot by other officers.

Some political leaders and rights activists have questioned the police version of events and accused them of an extra-judicial killing. Dubey was believed to have had many connections with state politicians and the police, and the activists believe he was killed so he would not reveal those links.

From his Twitter account Friday, Indian Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan said the fact that media vehicles following the police convoy were stopped before the suspect was killed “leaves no room for doubt that the encounter was staged.” He called for all police officers involved to be arrested.

The Associated Press reports two officers were arrested this week for allegedly tipping off Dubey about a police raid on his home July 3.

Deaths in police custody are not isolated incidents in India.

A report last month by a New Delhi rights group, the National Campaign Against Torture, said at least 1,731 people died in custody during 2019, which means five custodial deaths a day.

Trump Looks for Political Edge in Latest High Court Rulings

2 hours 31 min ago

President Donald Trump won the White House on the promise of bringing a conservative shift to the Supreme Court. But this year and last, even with two justices Trump hand-picked, the court has shown it is no rubber stamp for him or his administration's policies. That's drawn the president's ire and teed up a renewed battle over the court as Trump seeks political advantage ahead of November's election.

In the last few weeks, as the court has handed down its biggest decisions of the term, Trump found himself with mounting losses and just a few wins. Trump's high-profile defeats began in mid-June. First, the court ruled that a landmark civil rights law protects gay, lesbian and transgender people from discrimination in employment. Then, it said the Trump administration hadn't acted properly in ending the 8-year-old Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects some 650,000 young immigrants from deportation.  

Finally, on Thursday, in two cases about access to Trump's financial records, the justices rejected broad arguments by Trump's lawyers and the Justice Department  that the president is absolutely immune from investigation while he holds office or that a prosecutor must show a greater need than normal to obtain the records.  

Despite White House's claims of victory in the Thursday cases, Trump was livid -– lashing out on Twitter about the high court and painting its ruling as part of a pattern of "political prosecution" against him.

The rejection of Trump's assertions of executive power was tempered by the practical impact of the Supreme Court's decision to remand the cases to lower courts -– all but assuring that the potentially embarrassing disclosures won't be required before his political fate is decided on Nov. 3.  

Trump did notch two wins in important religious liberty cases  on Wednesday, but he wasn't in a celebratory mood after Thursday's decisions.

"Courts in the past have given 'broad deference'. BUT NOT ME!" he tweeted. And: "Now the Supreme Court gives a delay ruling that they would never have given...for another President."

Last month, after the administration lost the DACA case, Trump tweeted: "Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn't like me?"  

He followed with an appeal to his base supporters, perhaps hinting at a future campaign theme: "These horrible & politically charged decisions coming out of the Supreme Court are shotgun blasts into the face of people that are proud to call themselves Republicans or Conservatives. We need more Justices or we will lose our 2nd. Amendment & everything else. Vote Trump 2020!"  

The attacks on the court marked a return for Trump to a key issue in his 2016 campaign.  

Four years ago, it was clear the incoming president would fill a Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia and the Republican-held Senate's refusal to hold hearings on President Barack Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland. To reassure wary conservatives, Trump took the unprecedented step of releasing lists of judges he said he'd likely select from if elected president.

"If you really like Donald Trump, that's great, but if you don't, you have to vote for me anyway. You know why? Supreme Court judges," he said at a July 2016 rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Once elected, Trump delivered.

He selected conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to fill the seats of Scalia and Anthony Kennedy, who retired in 2018. Their selection, however, hasn't meant automatic wins for Trump at the court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority. The DACA ruling was 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the court's liberals. In the LGBT ruling, Gorsuch joined with Roberts and the court's liberals in ruling 6-3 against the administration.

On Thursday, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh joined the majority in both cases along with Roberts and the four liberal justices. Roberts wrote both opinions.

"The justices did not rule against him, in fact it was a unanimous opinion saying that this needs to go back to the district court, and they even recognized that the president has an ample arsenal of arguments that he can make," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany claimed. Still, she acknowledged, Trump "takes issue with the point that the majority made on absolute immunity."

Trump has seen mixed results in past terms too. In 2018, the court's conservatives upheld the president's travel ban. Last year, Roberts' vote with the court's liberals kept the administration from putting a controversial citizenship question on the 2020 census.

Those losses were at least in part due to legal strategies that lawyers for Trump and his administration embraced in pursuing rapid changes and using what experts called weak legal arguments.  

But Trump, in an effort to draw a contrast with presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and stoke enthusiasm among social conservatives who played a pivotal role in elected the president four years ago, is using his defeats to argue that work in reshaping the court is only just getting started.

After the stinging losses in the DACA and LGBT cases, Trump last month promised to release a new list of "conservative" judges he would choose from should a new vacancy arise.  

Elizabeth Wydra, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center, said that presidential candidates of both parties should make judicial nominations and the courts part of their campaigns, particularly because while a presidency lasts four or eight years, judges sit for decades. And she noted judicial nominations took on singular importance in Trump's 2016 campaign because Republican voters were uncomfortable with some other aspects of his candidacy.

"Republican voters have focused on the courts probably more than Democratic voters have. I think that might be starting to change," she said, adding that she believes "progressives have been a little late to the game" in focusing on judicial nominations.

"With abortion rights so clearly in the balance I think progressives are really waking up to the crucial importance of the courts," she said.  

Biden months ago made something of a promise related to the Supreme Court, saying he'd be "honored to appoint the first African American woman" to the court.

Homeland Security Gets New Role Under Trump Monument Order

2 hours 33 min ago

Protesters who have clashed with authorities in the Pacific Northwest are not just confronting local police. Some are also facing off against federal officers whose presence reflects President Donald Trump's decision to make cracking down on "violent mayhem" a federal priority.

The Department of Homeland Security has deployed officers in tactical gear from around the country, and from more than a half-dozen federal law enforcement agencies and departments, to Portland, Oregon, as part of a surge aimed at what a senior official said were people taking advantage of demonstrations over the police killing of George Floyd to commit violence and vandalism.

"Once we surged federal law enforcement officers to Portland, the agitators quickly got the message," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing operation.

The deployment represents somewhat of a departure for DHS, which was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and is primarily focused on threats from abroad and border security. During the Trump presidency, its focus has been largely on carrying out the president's tough immigration agenda. Now it is in the role of supporting Trump's law-and-order campaign, raising questions about overstepping the duties of local law enforcement.

Portland Deputy Police Chief Chris Davis said his department did not request the assistance and did not coordinate efforts with the federal government amid often chaotic clashes that have ranged across several downtown blocks after midnight for weeks.

"I don't have authority to order federal officers to do things," Davis said. "It does complicate things for us." 

The DHS officers' presence comes at an incredibly tense moment for Portland. After Floyd's death, the city for days saw marches and rallies that attracted more than 10,000 generally peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters to the downtown area. The police took a "mostly hands-off approach" to those events because they were orderly, Davis said.

Civil liberties advocates and activists have accused federal authorities of overstepping their jurisdiction and excessive use of crowd-control measures, including using tear gas and patrolling beyond the boundaries of federal property. Portland police are prohibited from using tear gas under a recent temporary court order unless they declare a riot.  

"DHS should go back to investigating the rise of white supremacist activity and actors who are seeking to cause violence against these peaceful protests, that is under the purview of the agency's mission," said Andrea Flores, the deputy director of immigration policy at the American Civil Liberties Union who was a DHS official during the Obama administration.  

Trump issued an executive order on June 26 to protect monuments after protesters tried to remove or destroy statues of people considered racist, including a failed attempt to pull down one of Andrew Jackson near the White House.

Workers remove the statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson from it's pedestal on Monument Avenue, July 1, 2020, in Richmond, Virginia.

The president has denounced the Black Lives Matter movement and protests calling for the removal of statues honoring racist figures, associating peaceful protests with the sporadic outbursts of vandalism and looting at some demonstrations. He referred to "the violent mayhem we have seen in the streets of cities that are run by liberal Democrats," as well as the "merciless campaign to wipe out our history," in his July 3 Mount Rushmore speech.

Following the executive order, DHS created the Protecting American Communities Task Force and sent officers from Customs and Border Protection and other agencies to Washington, D.C., Seattle and Portland. Others were ready to deploy elsewhere if needed.

Improving coordination among law enforcement agencies is part of DHS's mission. It also oversees the Federal Protective Service, which guards federal government buildings around the nation.

But the FPS doesn't have the resources to respond to the kind of sustained attacks that have taken place in Portland and elsewhere on the margins of protests over the May 25 killing of Floyd in Minneapolis.

Federal Protective Service Officer David Underwood was shot and killed outside a federal building in Oakland during a protest in May. Authorities charged an Air Force staff sergeant affiliated with the far-right, anti-government "boogaloo" movement with his murder.

As local governments in Washington, D.C., and Portland have stepped back to allow space for peaceful demonstrations, the Trump administration has stepped up its effort against what the senior official called "opportunistic criminals."

Attorney General William Barr says there have been more than 150 arrests on federal charges around the country, with about 500 investigations pending related to recent protests. There were at least seven in Portland in recent days.

Portland police officials say the cycle of nightly attacks, which have shut down much of the downtown, has been unprecedented. Early Thursday, a man in a SUV fired several times into the air as he drove away from protesters who had surrounded his car. "We've never seen this intensity of violence and focused criminal activity over this long period of time," Davis said.  

Among the federal forces deployed in Portland are members of an elite Border Patrol tactical team, a special operations unit that is based on the U.S.-Mexico border and has been deployed overseas, including to Iraq and Afghanistan.

BORTAC members, identifiable by patches on their camouflage sleeves, are mixed in with Federal Protective Service outside the courthouse. Others in the unit, which includes snipers, have been stationed in "overlook" positions on the courthouse's ninth floor, where a protester in a black hoodie shined a green laser into the eyes of one of the officers on Monday, according to court documents.

The night before, a BORTAC agent tackled and arrested a demonstrator suspected of pointing a laser at him and others from a park across the street from the courthouse.  

A former DHS official said BORTAC agents were viewed as "highly trained, valuable, scarce resources" and would typically be used for domestic law enforcement in extraordinary circumstances. "These units don't normally sit around idle," said the official, who spoke on condition anonymity because he no longer works at the agency, after serving under Trump and President Barack Obama, and is not authorized to discuss operations.

"What did they get pulled off of in order to watch over statues?"

Syria's Idlib Records First Coronavirus Case

3 hours 13 min ago

Coronavirus has been found for the first time in Syria’s northwestern, rebel-held territory that is home to overcrowded camps for displaced people.

The infected person is a doctor in Idlib who isolated himself as soon as he displayed symptoms.  Officials say anyone who came in contact with him will be tested.

The UOSSM (Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations) medical charity said in a statement the virus could "spread through refugee camps like wildfire.”   

Hong Kong closes schools

Elsewhere, all Hong Kong schools will be closed Monday, beginning the system’s summer vacation period a week sooner than planned. Schools had been closed earlier in the year because of the coronavirus outbreak, but were gradually reopened in May.   

The new closing follows a spike in new COVID-19 cases, 34 on Thursday and 38 on Friday.

28 Georgian Soldiers in Afghanistan Infected with Coronavirus

3 hours 39 min ago

The novel coronavirus has reportedly infected 28 Georgian soldiers in the NATO Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.  
 
The infected soldiers have been transported back to their country and are undergoing treatment in a military hospital, local media quoted Georgia’s Ministry of Defense as saying. It described the health condition of the soldiers as “satisfactory.”
 
A spokesman for the non-combatant military alliance in Afghanistan, when contacted for comments Friday, referred VOA to Georgian defense officials to talk about the status of their forces.  
 
“Resolute Support does not confirm individual case numbers. Protection of the force from all threats, to include COVID-19, remains our top priority,” said the spokesman.
 
Georgia is said to be the largest non-NATO contributor to the 38-nation military mission in Afghanistan with around 900 soldiers.   
 
The military alliance has reported several cases of infections since the pandemic reached Afghanistan four months ago without disclosing the nationalities of those suffering from the virus.
 
As of Friday, the official tally of coronavirus cases in Afghanistan stood at about 34,000, with nearly 1,000 deaths.
 
Afghan public health officials, however, have warned that the actual numbers are much higher, citing limited testing capacity, among other challenges facing the war-hit health care system. They anticipate that more than half of the country’s estimated 37 million population could become infected in the coming months.
 
NATO has lately stepped up cooperation with Afghan national security forces to help them fight the pandemic by providing supplies of personal protective medical equipment, including 1.4 million masks, 500,000 gloves and 460,000 gowns.
 
The virus is reportedly sweeping through Afghan military and police forces. The Afghan defense ministry, however, denies any large scale infections among security forces.  
 

Seoul Mayor Found Dead Friday; Suicide Suspected

5 hours 30 min ago

South Korean police say Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon was found dead early Friday, a suspected suicide.

The body of 64-year-old Park was found near an entrance at the mountain Bugaksan in Seoul after just midnight, several hours after he had been reported missing Thursday.

The day before, Park's former secretary filed a sexual harassment claim.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government said Friday a five-day funeral service will be held at Seoul National University Hospital.

The Korea Herald said Park apologized to everyone, mainly his family, in a note found at his home.

It is unclear whether an autopsy will be performed on Park, the first Seoul mayor to die in office.

Seo Jung-hyup, first vice mayor for administrative affairs, will serve as mayor until an election is held next April.

Park, who was serving his third and final term, was considered a potential presidential candidate.

He is survived by his wife, as well as a son and daughter. 

Iranian Kurdish Sufis’ Dash into Iraq Exposes Coronavirus Border Control Deficiency

6 hours 21 min ago

Hundreds of Iranian Kurdish members of a Muslim sect seeking to attend the funeral of their leader in neighboring Iraq have forced their way through a crossing into Iraqi territory, exposing a weakness in Iranian and Iraqi border controls aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

Video clips widely shared on social media showed the Iranian followers of the Sufi Muslim Qadiriyya sect dashing across the Bashmakh crossing from Iran’s Kurdistan province into northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region Thursday. The clips were sent to VOA’s Kurdish service and published online by prominent Iraqi Kurdish news outlets Rudaw and Kurdistan24. VOA could not verify them independently.

ساتی تەقەکردنی ھێزەکانی ئێران لە دەروێشانی تەریقەتی قادری لە خاڵی سنووری #باشماخ لەو دیوی رۆژھەڵاتەوە pic.twitter.com/YECybLjrjP

— Kurdistan24 Kurdish (@kurdistan24tv) July 9, 2020

In some of the clips, gunshots could be heard as the mostly male Sufis, some dressed in traditional robes and carrying swords and daggers used in Sufi rituals, ran through the crossing.

#BREAKING: More than 200 sufi dervish followers of the Qadiriyya Religious order's late Sheikh Mohammadi Kasnazani from Iran have attacked and passed through a Kurdistan Region border crossing Thursday afternoon, brandishing swords, knives and daggers to cross. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/uM0VxIdNju

— Rudaw English (@RudawEnglish) July 9, 2020

Other clips showed groups of Sufis walking briskly over the border, some stopping briefly to kiss the ground as they reached the Iraqi side.

Iraqi Kurdish and Iranian officials each accused the other’s security forces of firing the gunshots that appeared to be aimed at stemming or stopping the flow of people through the crossing. They said several people had been injured and taken to hospitals on both sides of the border.

Iraqi Kurdish authorities previously had ordered the Bashmakh crossing to be closed to regular traffic to try to prevent an influx of potential coronavirus carriers from Iran, which has seen the region’s worst outbreak. An exception had been made for businesspeople to use the crossing.

In a phone call with VOA Kurdish, an Iraqi Kurdish official in charge of security at Bashmakh said he could not stop the entry of Iranian Kurdish Sufis because of his limited numbers of border guards and the lack of advanced warning of the influx from Iranian authorities.

“We let in the Sufis to avoid escalating the situation,” said Maj. Gen. Mariwan Sheikh Kamal.

The Iraqi Kurdish commander accused agents of Iran’s top military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, of firing the warning shots during the border incident.

Iranian Kurdish Sufi Muslims participate in a ritual at the Bashmakh border crossing between Iran and Iraq on July 9, 2020, as hundreds of them dash into Iraqi territory to attend the funeral of their spiritual leader. (VOA Kurdish)

Disputing that contention, the deputy governor of Iran’s Kurdistan province, Hussein Khoshghaqal, told Iranian state news agency IRNA that Iraqi border guards fired the shots. However, he made no mention of Iranian security forces doing anything to try to stop the Iranian Sufis from breaching the border. Khoshghaqal only appealed to other members of the sect not to attempt similar crossings.

Rudaw quoted another Iraqi Kurdish official at the Bashmakh crossing, Mukhtar Haji Ali, as saying the Kurdistan Regional Government deputy prime minister, Qubad Talabani, had ordered the crossing’s complete closure for 24 hours in response to the incident.

The Iranian Sufis who crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan were heading to the city of Sulaymaniyah to participate in funeral rituals for their spiritual leader Sheikh Mohammad al-Kasnazani who had a home there. He died at the age of 82 July 4 while receiving medical treatment in the United States.

A relative of Kasnazani told VOA Kurdish that the spiritual leader’s body would arrive by private jet at Sulaymaniyah’s airport Friday before being taken to the family's residence in the city for the funeral. Buses were bringing the Iranian Sufis to the residence from the border, about a two-hour drive.

A spokesperson for the KRG’s health ministry, Mohammed Qadir, told Rudaw that the arrival of the Iranian Sufis in Sulaymaniyah without having first undergone medical and administrative checks at the border could cause a “catastrophe” in the coming months.

In a Thursday report, Kurdistan24 said the KRG has confirmed 8,726 coronavirus cases and 294 virus-related deaths in the autonomous region since February. It said the vast majority of the confirmed cases, numbering more than 6,100, were in Sulaymaniyah province.

A website affiliated with the late Sufi spiritual leader had encouraged his followers to join the funeral in Sulaymaniyah in the days after his death.

However, Kasnazani’s aides changed course Thursday, issuing a statement through Iraqi Kurdish news sites calling on his followers to respect health guidelines by conducting mourning rituals at home rather than traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Kasnazani’s Qadiriyya order of Sufism draws most of its members from Kurdish regions of Iraq and Iran. It also has followers in Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Central Asia and Morocco.

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service and was produced in collaboration with VOA Kurdish and VOA’s Extremism Watch Desk. Lipin and Jedinia reported from Washington and Majeed from Sulaymaniyah. Dishad Anwar contributed from Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Click here for the original Kurdish version of the story. 

Venezuela's Leader of Ruling Socialist Party Tests Positive for Coronavirus

7 hours 49 min ago

The leader of Venezuela's ruling Socialist party, Diosdado Cabello, is self-quarantining after testing positive for the coronavirus, making him the highest-ranking official in the South American nation to contract the virus.

Cabello announced his infection in a tweet Thursday. He vowed to overcome the disease, writing, “We will win!"

President Nicolas Maduro said Cabello is fine but added he will need several days of treatment and recovery.

Cabello's diagnosis comes a few days after the governor of Venezuela's Zulia state, Omar Prieto, tested positive for the coronavirus after being treated for a respiratory illness.

Venezuela has confirmed more than 8,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 75 deaths. 

Nitrocotton Blamed for Fireworks Factory Explosion in China

8 hours 17 min ago

Local authorities say an explosion at a fireworks factory in the Guanghan city area of China’s Sichuan province Wednesday night was caused by nitrocotton catching fire.

The city government is reported as saying that high temperatures caused the nitrocotton used in explosives to accumulate heat, causing it to catch fire, triggering an explosion.

Six people were hurt, including at least two with serious injuries.

The China News Service said several hundred people living the factory were evacuated as firefighters spent several hours battling the blaze, which was extinguished early Thursday.  

Latin America, Caribbean ‘Hot Spot’ for Pandemic, UN Chief Says

9 hours 41 min ago

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Latin America and the Caribbean have become "a hot spot" for the coronavirus pandemic, with several countries tallying the highest per capita infection rates in the world.

During his video briefing report Thursday, Guterres said COVID-19's impact on countries in Latin America and the Caribbean is expected to result in the deepest recession in living memory.

Guterres said in the short-term response governments should consider providing people living in poverty with emergency basic incomes and anti-hunger grants.

He said the novel coronavirus is having an especially hard impact on Latin America and the Caribbean's most vulnerable groups, who lag in access to health care services and stable employment.

Guterres said indigenous people of African descent, migrants and refugees are also suffering disproportionately.

In his report, Guterres said some unnamed countries in the region are not prepared to address the health and human crises created by the pandemic.

The U.N. chief said the international community must provide financial help and debt relief for Latin America and the Caribbean. 

Bolivia Interim President Self-Quarantines After Testing Positive for Coronavirus

9 hours 50 min ago

Interim Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez says she is self -quarantining and feels fine after testing positive for the cororonavirus.

Áñez said Thursday she was tested for the virus last week after members of her staff became infected.

She said she will remain in quarantine for 14 days before taking a new test to monitor her condition.

The Bolivian leader said she feels strong and will continue working from isolation.

Áñez became president in November after her predecessor, Evo Morales, left the country amid weeks of protests over his controversial reelection to an unconstitutional fourth term.

Voters will decide on September 6 if Áñez will become the permanent president.

Áñez’s infection comes as hospitals treating coronavirus patients in Bolivia's two largest cities, La Paz and El Alto, are overwhelmed by the demand.

So far, Bolivia has confirmed more than 42,000 coronavirus cases and more than 1,500 deaths.  

US Reports Record Number of Daily Coronavirus Cases

10 hours 9 min ago

The U.S. reported more than 64,000 cases of the coronavirus Thursday, a record high number, overwhelming intensive care units in hospitals in the country’s hard-hit West and South, including Arizona, California, Florida and Texas.

Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease official, has urged governors to delay their re-opening plans in order to bring a halt to the surges in the virus.

The World Health Organization is launching an independent investigation into the global response to the coronavirus pandemic after some countries appear to have done a better job at tackling the outbreak than others.

“This is a time for self-reflection, to look at the world we live in and to find ways to strengthen our collaboration as we work together to save lives and bring this pandemic under control,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Thursday. “The magnitude of this pandemic, which has touched virtually everyone in the world, clearly deserves a commensurate evaluation.”

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson will lead the panel. Other members will be added later.

“I cannot imagine two more strong-minded, independent leaders to help guide us through this critical learning process,” Tedros said.

The WHO chief has said numerous times that global coordination is key to battling the pandemic, including work on developing a vaccine that he says must be made available to all and not just those who can afford to pay for it.

Airborne spread, asymptomatic transmission

Also Thursday, the World Health Organization formally recognized what more than 200 scientists have been telling it to acknowledge – that COVID-19 could be spread through the air.

Australian and U.S. scientists – backed by more than 200 others – wrote this week that studies show “beyond any reasonable doubt that viruses are released during exhalation, talking and coughing in microdroplets small enough to remain aloft in the air.”

The WHO had dismissed that possibility, but now says “airborne spread, particularly in specific indoor locations such as crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces over a prolonged period of time with infected persons, cannot be ruled out.”

It also added that it agrees with some researchers who say that even people who show no symptoms are capable of spreading the coronavirus through the air.

More lockdowns

Meanwhile, officials around the world are reimposing lockdowns and other restrictions as the global number of COVID-19 cases appears to grow – more than 12 million cases and 553,000 deaths as of late Thursday. In the United States, records for the number of new cases are being set every day.

Health experts say people got complacent as restaurants, bars and tourist attractions began to reopen in the past several weeks, believing that the worst was over, and did not wear masks or practice social distancing.

California lawsuit

The state of California is suing the Trump administration over its policy requiring international students to attend college classes in person or face possible deportation.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra says not allowing international students to take classes remotely threatens to further spread the coronavirus and would deprive financially struggling schools of talent and tuition dollars.

"Shame on the Trump Administration for risking not only the education opportunities for students who earned the chance to go to college, but now their health and well-being as well,” Becerra said. “President Trump appears set to do just that amidst a global pandemic of historic proportions. Not on our watch.”

There has been no response so far from the White House. About 21,000 international students attend California colleges and universities.

At the White House

A White House reporter who attends briefings has tested positive for COVID-19, the correspondents’ association said Thursday.

It did not name the reporter, who showed no symptoms before testing positive.

Other White House correspondents who were in the briefings with the affected reporter will be tested.

Elsewhere

Bolivia’s interim president Jeanine Áñez says she has tested positive for COVID-19.

“I feel good, I feel strong, I will continue to work virtually from my isolation," she tweeted Thursday.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has also come down with COVID-19 after months of dismissing the disease as nothing to worry about.

Rio de Janeiro Mayor Marcelo Crivella says the city’s world-famous beaches will not officially open until there is a coronavirus vaccine.  

US Supreme Court Deems Half of Oklahoma a Native American Reservation

10 hours 39 min ago

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday recognized about half of Oklahoma as Native American reservation land and overturned a tribe member's rape conviction because the location where the crime was committed should have been considered outside the reach of state criminal law. VOA’s Julie Taboh has more.
Produced by: Julie Taboh

Congressional Democrats Push for Answers on Russian Bounties

11 hours 46 min ago

Congressional Democrats continued to push for answers this week on media reports that Russia paid bounties to Taliban-linked militants for the death of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Those reports -- that President Donald Trump and some Republicans have said are unverified -- have highlighted the difficulty of confronting Russia in an election year. VOA's Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson has more.
Produced by: Katherine Gypson

Independent WHO Panel to Investigate Global COVID-19 Response

12 hours 57 min ago

The World Health Organization is launching an independent investigation into the global response to the coronavirus pandemic after some countries appear to have done a better job at tackling the outbreak than others. 

"This is a time for self-reflection, to look at the world we live in and to find ways to strengthen our collaboration as we work together to save lives and bring this pandemic under control," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Thursday. "The magnitude of this pandemic, which has touched virtually everyone in the world, clearly deserves a commensurate evaluation."    

FILE - WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends the 147th session of the WHO Executive Board held virtually by videoconference, May 22, 2020, in this image provided by the World Health Organization in Geneva.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson will lead the panel. Other members will be added later. 

"I cannot imagine two more strong-minded, independent leaders to help guide us through this critical learning process," Tedros said. 

The WHO chief has said numerous times that global coordination is key to battling the pandemic, including work on developing a vaccine that he says must be made available to all and not just those who can afford to pay for it. 

Airborne spread, asymptomatic transmission 

Also Thursday, the WHO formally recognized what more than 200 scientists have been telling it to acknowledge – that COVID-19 could be spread through the air. 

Australian and U.S. scientists – backed by more than 200 others – wrote this week that studies show "beyond any reasonable doubt that viruses are released during exhalation, talking and coughing in microdroplets small enough to remain aloft in the air." 

A woman, partially wearing a face mask, sits in a terrace bar in Barcelona, Spain, July 9, 2020.

The WHO had dismissed that possibility, but now says "airborne spread, particularly in specific indoor locations such as crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces over a prolonged period of time with infected persons, cannot be ruled out." 

It also added that it agrees with some researchers who say that even people who show no symptoms are capable of spreading the coronavirus through the air. 

More lockdowns 

Meanwhile, officials around the world are reimposing lockdowns and other restrictions as the global number of COVID-19 cases appears to grow – more than 12 million cases and 553,000 deaths as of late Thursday. In the United States, records for the number of new cases are being set every day. 

Health experts say people got complacent as restaurants, bars and tourist attractions began to reopen in the past several weeks, believing that the worst was over, and did not wear masks or practice social distancing. 

California lawsuit 

The state of California is suing the Trump administration over its policy requiring international students to attend college classes in person or face possible deportation. 

FILE - California Attorney General Xavier Becerra speaks during a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., Dec. 4, 2019.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra says not allowing international students to take classes remotely threatens to further spread the coronavirus and would deprive financially struggling schools of talent and tuition dollars. 

"Shame on the Trump administration for risking not only the education opportunities for students who earned the chance to go to college, but now their health and well-being as well," Becerra said. "President Trump appears set to do just that amidst a global pandemic of historic proportions. Not on our watch." 

There has been no response from the White House. About 21,000 international students attend California colleges and universities.  

At the White House 

A White House reporter who attends briefings has tested positive for COVID-19, the correspondents' association said Thursday.  

It did not name the reporter, who showed no symptoms before testing positive.  

Other White House correspondents who were in the briefings with the affected reporter will be tested. 

Elsewhere 

Bolivia's interim president Jeanine Áñez says she has tested positive for COVID-19.

"I feel good, I feel strong, I will continue to work virtually from my isolation," she tweeted Thursday. 

FILE - Health care workers conduct a blood test on Bolivia's Interim President Jeanine Anez at the presidential palace in La Paz, Bolivia, June 12, 2020.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has also come down with COVID-19 after months of dismissing the disease as nothing to worry about. 

Rio de Janeiro Mayor Marcelo Crivella says the city's world-famous beaches will not officially open until there is a coronavirus vaccine.  
 

North Korea Says It's Not Interested in Another Trump-Kim Summit

13 hours 57 min ago

North Korea says the chances are low for another summit with the United States, after President Donald Trump this week said he is open to meeting again with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.  

Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un, said another summit would "not be useful to us" unless the U.S. changes its approach to stalled nuclear talks, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Friday.

"It is my personal opinion, but a summit between the U.S. and North Korea will not take place this year," she said.

FILE - Kim Yo Jong attends a ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam, March 2, 2019.

However, she said the relationship between Trump and Kim Jong Un remains strong and has likely prevented "extreme provocations."  

Earlier this week, Trump said he was open to meeting again with Kim Jong Un. 

"I understand they want to meet, and we would certainly do that," Trump said Tuesday in an interview with Gray TV. 

The comments were puzzling, because North Korea has said for months that it has no interest in resuming dialogue with the United States.  

North Korea is upset at the U.S. refusal to relax sanctions and provide security guarantees in exchange for limited steps to dismantle its nuclear program.  

"We are not saying we are not going to denuclearize, but we cannot denuclearize now," Kim Yo Jong said, stressing any North Korean steps must be matched by corresponding U.S. ones.

FILE - North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, right, walks with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore, in this picture taken June 12, 2018, and released from North Korea's Korean Central News Agency.

Trump and Kim have met three times, including in June 2018 in Singapore, where they signed a short statement agreeing to "work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."  

But the talks began to break down in February 2019 after the two sides failed to reach an agreement at a second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.  

FILE - This photo, taken Dec. 18, 2007, and released June 27, 2008, by the official Chinese news agency Xinhua, shows the cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear complex near Pyongyang, North Korea.

At the Hanoi summit, Trump rejected North Korea's offer to dismantle its prominent Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for the lifting of sanctions imposed on North Korea since 2016.  

In June 2019, Trump and Kim met briefly at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. The two sides also held working-level talks in Stockholm in 2019, but those negotiations quickly broke down.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. continues "to work to establish dialogue and have substantive conversations" with North Korea.

"We're very hopeful that we can continue to have this conversation, whether that's at the levels beneath the summit, or if it's appropriate and there is a useful activity to take place, to have senior leaders get back together as well," Pompeo said. 

"As for who and how and timing, I just don't want to talk about that today," he added.  

FILE - South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks in Gwangju, South Korea, May 18, 2020.

Earlier this month, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said he would like to see Trump and Kim hold another meeting before the U.S. presidential election in November. 

Some analysts have questioned whether Trump has other priorities; with just four months to go until the election, Trump is trailing Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in the polls. North Korea is not seen as a major issue in the U.S. election. 

However, if Trump could revive the North Korea talks, it could help highlight what White House officials had once heralded as a signature Trump foreign policy achievement.

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