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Update January, 2020


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Iran strikes back at US with missile attack at bases in Iraq

In this Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019 file photo taken from a helicopter shows Ain al-Asad air base in the western Anbar desert, Iraq.(AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, File)

By NASSER KARIMI, AMIR VAHDAT and JON GAMBRELL

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran struck back at the United States early Wednesday for killing a top Revolutionary Guard commander, firing a series of ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq that house American troops in a major escalation between the two longtime foes.

It was Iran's most direct assault on America since the 1979 seizing of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and Iranian state TV said it was in revenge for the U.S. killing of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, whose death last week in an American drone strike near Baghdad prompted angry calls to avenge his slaying. A U.S. and Iraqi officials said there were no immediate reports of casualties, though buildings were still being searched. The Iraqi government later confirmed there were no casualties among Iraqi forces.

A presenter on Iranian state television later claimed, without offering evidence, that the strikes killed "at least 80 terrorist U.S soldiers" and also damaged helicopters, drones and other equipment at the Ain al-Asad air base.

The strikes, which came as Iran buried Soleimani, raised fears that the two longtime foes were closer to war. But there were some indications that there would not be further retaliation on either side, at least in the short term.

'All is well!' President Donald Trump tweeted shortly after the missile attacks, adding, 'So far, so good' regarding casualties. Moments earlier, Iran's foreign minister tweeted that Tehran had taken "& concluded proportionate measures in self-defense," adding that Tehran did "not seek escalation" but would defend itself against further aggression.

In Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the missile strike on the U.S. bases in Iraq a "slap in the face" of the Americans, adding that military retaliation is not sufficient. "The corrupt presence of the U.S. in the region should come to end," he said.

The killing of Soleimani — a national hero to many in Iran — and strikes by Tehran came as tensions have been rising steadily across the Mideast after Trump's decision to unilaterally withdraw America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers. They also marked the first time in recent years that Washington and Tehran have attacked each other directly rather than through proxies in the region. It raised the chances of open conflict erupting between the two enemies, who have been at odds since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent U.S. Embassy takeover and hostage crisis.

Adding to the chaos and overall jitters, a Ukrainian airplane with at least 170 people crashed after takeoff just outside Tehran on Wednesday morning, killing all on board, state TV reported. The plane had taken off from Imam Khomeini International Airport and mechanical issues were suspected, the report said.

Iran initially announced only one missile strike, but U.S. officials confirmed both. U.S. defense officials were at the White House, likely to discuss options with Trump, who launched the attack on Soleimani while facing an upcoming impeachment trial in the Senate.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard warned the U.S. and its regional allies against retaliating over the missile attack on the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq's western Anbar province. The Guard issued the warning via a statement carried by Iran's state-run IRNA news agency.

"We are warning all American allies, who gave their bases to its terrorist army, that any territory that is the starting point of aggressive acts against Iran will be targeted," the Guard said. It also threatened Israel.

After the strikes, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator posted a picture of the Islamic Republic's flag on Twitter, appearing to mimic Trump who posted an American flag following the killing of Soleimani and others Friday.

Ain al-Asad air base was first used by American forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, and later saw American troops stationed there amid the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. It houses about 1,500 U.S. and coalition forces. The U.S. also acknowledged another missile attack targeting a base in Irbil in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

The Iranians fired a total of 15 missiles, two U.S. officials said. Ten hit Ain al-Asad and one the base in Irbil. Four failed, said the officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly about a military operation.

Two Iraqi security officials said at least one of the missiles appeared to have struck a plane at the Ain al-Asad base, igniting a fire. There were no immediate reports of casualties from the attacks, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they had no permission to talk to journalists.

About 70 Norwegian troops also were on the air base but no injuries were reported, BrynjarStordal, a spokesperson for the Norwegian Armed Forces told The Associated Press.

Trump visited the sprawling Ain al-Asad air base, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Baghdad, in December 2018, making his first presidential visit to troops in the region. Vice President Mike Pence also has visited the base.

"As we evaluate the situation and our response, we will take all necessary measures to protect and defend U.S. personnel, partners and allies in the region," said Jonathan Hoffman, an assistant to the U.S. defense secretary.

Wednesday's missile strikes happened a few hours after crowds in Iran mourned Soleimani at his funeral. It also came the U.S. continued to reinforce its own positions in the region and warned of an unspecified threat to shipping from Iran in the Mideast waterways, crucial routes for global energy supplies. U.S. embassies and consulates from Asia to Africa and Europe issued security alerts for Americans. The FAA also warned of a "potential for miscalculation or mis-identification" for civilian aircraft in the Persian Gulf amid in an emergency flight restriction.

A stampede broke out Tuesday at Soleimani's funeral, and at least 56 people were killed and more than 200 were injured as thousands thronged the procession, Iranian news reports said. Shortly after Wednesday's missile attack, Soleimani's shroud-wrapped remains were lowered into the ground as mourners wailed at the grave site.

Tuesday's deadly stampede took place in Soleimani's hometown of Kerman as his coffin was being borne through the city in southeastern Iran, said PirhosseinKoulivand, head of Iran's emergency medical services.

There was no information about what set off the crush in the packed streets, and online videos showed only its aftermath: people lying apparently lifeless, their faces covered by clothing, emergency crews performing CPR on the fallen, and onlookers wailing and crying out to God.

Hossein Salami, Soleimani's successor as leader of the Revolutionary Guard, earlier addressed a crowd of supporters in Kernan and vowed to avenge Soleimani.

"We tell our enemies that we will retaliate but if they take another action we will set ablaze the places that they like and are passionate about," Salami said.

Soleimani was laid to rest between the graves of EnayatollahTalebizadeh and Mohammad Hossein Yousef Elahi, two former Guard comrades killed in Iran's 1980s war with Iraq. They died in Operation Dawn 8, in which Soleimani also took part. It was a 1986 amphibious assault that cut Iraq off from the Persian Gulf and led to the end of the war that killed 1 million.

The funeral processions in major cities over three days have been an unprecedented honor for Soleimani, seen by Iranians as a national hero for his work leading the Guard's expeditionary Quds Force.

The U.S. blames him for killing U.S. troops in Iraq and accused him of plotting new attacks just before he was killed. Soleimani also led forces supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad in that country's civil war. Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Assad in Syria on Tuesday amid the tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Soleimani's slaying has also led Tehran to abandon the remaining limits of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers while in Iraq, pro-Iranian factions in parliament have pushed to oust American troops from Iraqi soil.

The FAA warning issued barred U.S. pilots and carriers from flying over areas of Iraqi, Iranian and some Persian Gulf airspace. The region is a major East-West travel hub and home to Emirates airline and Dubai International Airport, the world's busiest for international travel. It earlier issued warnings after Iran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone last year that saw airlines plan new routes to avoid the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. Maritime Administration warned ships across the Mideast, citing the rising threats. Oil tankers were targeted in mine attacks last year that the U.S. blamed on Iran. Tehran denied responsibility, although it did seize oil tankers around the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of the world's crude oil travels.

The U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said it would work with shippers in the region to minimize any possible threat.


Ukrainian airplane crashes near Iran's capital, killing 176

A rescue worker searches the scene where an Ukrainian plane crashed in Shahedshahr, southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.(AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

By MOHAMMAD NASIRI, NASSER KARIMI and JON GAMBRELL

SHAHEDSHAHR, Iran (AP) — A Ukrainian passenger jet carrying 176 people crashed on Wednesday, just minutes after taking off from the Iranian capital's main airport, turning farmland on the outskirts of Tehran into fields of flaming debris and killing all on board.

The crash of Ukraine International Airlines came hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on Iraqi bases housing U.S. soldiers, but both Ukrainian and Iranian officials said they suspected a mechanical issue brought down the Boeing 737-800 aircraft.

The plane carried 167 passengers and nine crew members from different nations. Ukraine's foreign minister, VadymPrystaiko, said that there were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians on board — the Ukrainian nationals included two passengers and the nine crew. There were also 10 Swedish, four Afghan, three German and three British nationals.

Airline officials said most of the passengers were en route to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, transiting through there to other destinations.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy extended his condolences to the families of the victims. His office said he had cut his visit to Oman short and was returning to Kyiv because of the crash. The country's Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk confirmed the casualty toll.

"Our task is to establish the cause of the crash of the Boeing and provide all necessary help to the families of the victims," said parliament speaker, Dmytro Razumkov, in a Facebook statement.

Ukraine International Airlines said it had indefinitely suspended flights to Tehran after the crash. "It was one of the best planes we had, with an amazing, reliable crew," YevhenDykhne, president of the Ukraine International Airlines, said at a briefing following the crash.

Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian president, ordered a sweeping inspection of all civil airplanes in the country, "no matter the conclusions about the crash in Iran."

The plane had been delayed from taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport by almost an hour. It took off to the west, but never made it above 8,000 feet in the air, according to data from the flight-tracking website FlightRadar24.

It remains unclear what happened. Qassem Biniaz, a spokesman for Iran's Road and Transportation Ministry, said it appeared a fire struck one of its engines. The pilot of the aircraft then lost control of the plane, sending it crashing into the ground, Biniaz said, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.

Hassan Razaeifar, the head of air crash investigation committee, said it appeared the pilot couldn't communicate with air-traffic controllers in Tehran in the last moments of the flight. He did not elaborate.

Ukrainian authorities have offered to help with the investigation of the plane crash. "We're preparing a group of specialists in order to help with the search operation and the investigation of the cause of the crash," Honcharuk said.

The plane, fully loaded with fuel for its 2,300-kilometer (1,430-mile) flight, slammed into farmland near the town of Shahedshahr on the outskirts of Tehran. Videos taken immediately after the crash show blazes lighting up the darkened fields before dawn.

Resident Din Mohammad Qassemi said he had been watching the news about the Iranian ballistic missile attack on U.S. forces in Iraq in revenge for the killing of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani when he heard the crash.

"I heard a massive explosion and all the houses started to shake. There was fire everywhere," he told The Associated Press. "At first I thought (the Americans) have hit here with missiles and went in the basement as a shelter. After a while, I went out and saw a plane has crashed over there. Body parts were lying around everywhere."

The majority of the passengers were Iranian nationals, Russia's RIA Novosti agency reported, citing Iranian authorities. Staff at the Boryspil airport in Kyiv, told the AP that passengers on this flight are usually Iranian students coming back to Ukraine after winter holidays

AP journalists who reached the crash site saw a wide field of field of debris scattered across farmland, the dead laying among shattered pieces of the aircraft. Their possessions, a child's cartoon-covered electric toothbrush, a stuffed animal, luggage and electronics, stretched everywhere.

Rescuers in masks shouted over the noise of hovering helicopters as they worked. They quickly realized there would be no survivors.

"The only thing that the pilot managed to do was steer the plane towards a soccer field near here instead of a residential area back there," witness ArefGeravand said. "It crashed near the field and in a water canal."

The Boeing 737-800 is a very common single-aisle, twin-engine jetliner used for short to medium-range flights. Thousands of the planes are used by airlines around the world.

Introduced in the late 1990s, it is an older model than the Boeing 737 MAX, which has been grounded for nearly 10 months following two deadly crashes. Boeing built the aircraft that crashed Wednesday in 2016 and it last underwent routine maintenance on Monday, Ukraine International Airlines said.

A number of 737-800 aircraft have been involved in deadly accidents over the years.

In March 2016, a FlyDubai 737-800 from Dubai crashed while trying to land at Rostov-on-Don airport in Russia, killing 62 onboard. Another 737-800 flight from Dubai, operated by Air India Express, crashed in May 2010 while trying to land in Mangalore, India, killing more than 150 onboard.

Chicago-based Boeing Co. was "aware of the media reports out of Iran and we are gathering more information," spokesman Michael Friedman told the AP.

Boeing, like other airline manufacturers, typically assists in crash investigations. However, that effort in this case could be affected by the U.S. sanctions campaign in place on Iran since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018.

Both Airbus and Boeing had been in line to sell billions of dollars of aircraft to Iran over the deal, which saw Tehran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. But Trump's decision halted the sales.

Under decades of international sanctions, Iran's commercial passenger aircraft fleet has aged, with air accidents occurring regularly for domestic carriers in recent years, resulting in hundreds of casualties.


Commercial airlines reroute flights amid U.S.-Iran tensions

In this Aug. 20, 2015 file photo, two Qantas planes taxi on the runway at Sydney Airport in Sydney, Australia. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, File)

By EMILY SCHMALL

NEW DELHI (AP) — Commercial airlines on Wednesday rerouted flights crossing the Middle East to avoid possible danger amid escalating tensions between the United States and Iran.

The flight restrictions reflected fears that the conflict between the longtime foes could ratchet up following Iranian ballistic missile strikes Tuesday on two Iraqi bases that house U.S. troops. Those strikes were retaliation for the U.S. killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike near Baghdad last week.

Paris-based Air France said it had suspended all flights over Iran and Iraq airspace indefinitely.

Australian carrier Qantas said it was altering its London to Perth, Australia, route to avoid Iran and Iraq airspace until further notice. The longer route meant that Qantas would have to carry fewer passengers and more fuel to remain in the air for an extra 40 to 50 minutes.

Malaysia Airlines said that "due to recent events," its planes would avoid Iranian airspace.

Singapore Airlines also said that its flights to Europe would be re-routed to avoid Iran.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said it was barring American pilots and carriers from flying in areas of Iraqi, Iranian and some Persian Gulf airspace. The agency warned of the "potential for miscalculation or mis-identification" for civilian aircraft amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

Such restrictions are often precautionary in nature to prevent civilian aircraft from being confused for ones engaged in armed conflict. The FAA said the restrictions were being issued due to "heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the Middle East, which present an inadvertent risk to U.S. civil aviation operations."

Following the FAA, India's Directorate General of Civil Aviation advised Indian commercial carriers to avoid Iranian, Iraqi and Persian Gulf airspace.

German airline Lufthansa said it had canceled its flight from Frankfurt to Tehran on Wednesday and another flight Saturday in Erbil in light of the current situation. Lufthansa subsidiary Austrian Airlines had also canceled service to Erbil.

The Russian aviation agency, Rosaviatsia, also issued an official recommendation for all Russian airlines to avoid flying over Iran, Iraq, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman "due to existing risks for the safety of international civil flights."

Russia's biggest private airline, S7, said it would reroute its twice-a-week flight from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk to Dubai.

Russian carrier Ural Airlines was working up alternative routes for their flights to Bahrain, Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah to avoid flying over Iran's airspace, the carrier's spokeswoman said Wednesday.

At least two Kazakh airlines — Air Astana and SCAT — were considering rerouting or canceling their flights over Iran following the crash of a Ukrainian plane that killed 176 people.

The plane had taken off from Imam Khomeini International Airport in the Iranian capital when a fire struck one of its engines, said Qassem Biniaz, a spokesman for Iran's Road and Transportation Ministry.

Kazakhstan's officials said that Air Astana, the country's flagship carrier, "is currently holding a meeting on whether to reroute or ban" flights. SCAT, one of the largest airlines in Kazakhstan, told Russia's Interfax news agency that they were also considering rerouting flights.

United Arab Emirates-owned budget airline flydubai said it had canceled a scheduled flight Wednesday from Dubai to Baghdad, but was continuing flights to Basra and Najaf.

Emirates airline flights between Dubai and Baghdad were canceled.

"The safety of our passengers, crew and aircraft is our number one priority and will not be compromised," Emirates said in a statement.

Qatar Airways, however, said its flights to Iraq were operating normally.

"The safety of our passengers and employees is of the highest importance, and we continue to closely monitor developments in Iraq," the airline said in a statement.

And Buta Airways, an Azerbaijani low-cost carrier, said Wednesday it was not planning to suspend or reroute daily flights between Baku, the country's capital, and Tehran.


Boeing now saying pilots need simulator training for 737 Max

In this Dec. 11, 2019, file photo, an United Airlines Boeing 737 Max airplane takes off in the rain at Renton Municipal Airport in Renton, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

By DAVID KOENIG

Boeing said Tuesday it is recommending that pilots receive training in a flight simulator before the grounded 737 Max returns to flying, a reversal of the company's long-held position that computer-based training alone was adequate.

The recommendation is based on changes to the plane, results from tests involving a small number of pilots, and a commitment to the safe return of the Max, Boeing said.

The final decision on the nature of training will be up to the Federal Aviation Administration and regulators in other countries. The FAA said it will consider Boeing's recommendation but also rely on upcoming further tests using pilots from U.S. and foreign airlines.

Those tests are designed to help regulators determine flight training and emergency procedures, said FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford.

"The FAA is following a thorough process, not a set timeline, to ensure that any design modifications to the 737 Max are integrated with appropriate training and procedures," Lunsford said.

The 737 Max has been grounded worldwide since last March after two crashes killed 346 people. Boeing is making changes to flight-control software and other systems in a bid to get the plane back in the air.

Boeing long held that pilots who can fly older 737s only needed a computer course — roughly an hour-long course on a tablet — to fly the Max. That helped airlines avoid timely and costly training in simulators.

Boeing even offered to pay Southwest Airlines a rebate of $1 million per plane if pilots needed simulator training before flying the Max.

Last year, an FAA technical advisory board sided with Boeing and recommended that only computer-based training was needed. However, families of victims of the two crashes lobbied for simulator training, arguing that pilots need to experience how the Max differs from previous versions of the 737.

"Of course this should be required," Nadia Milleron, a Massachusetts woman whose daughter, Samya Stumo, died in the March 2019 Max crash in Ethiopia, said after Boeing's announcement. "Passengers should not have to push for basic safety standards."

Similarly, the chairman of a congressional panel investigating Boeing said the company's endorsement of simulator training was welcome but overdue.

"It's remarkable that it took two deadly crashes, numerous investigations and untold public pressure before Boeing arrived at this decision," said Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transportation Committee. He said Boeing "put production and profits ahead of the public's safety" by assuring airlines that its 737 pilots could fly the Max without going through simulator training.

Boeing's interim CEO, Greg Smith, said in a statement that Boeing decided to recommend simulator training because of the importance to Boeing of gaining public and airline confidence in the Max.

U.S. pilot unions stood by Boeing and vouched for the Max's safety after the first crash, in Indonesia in October 2018. The American Airlines union said last April that pilots should practice certain emergencies in a simulator — but only as part of regular training and not necessarily before the Max returned.

Dennis Tajer, a 737 pilot and spokesman for the union, said Tuesday that as more revelations emerged about the design of key systems, the union grew skeptical. He said Boeing's endorsement of simulator training now "sounds like a step in the positive direction."

The U.S. airlines that own Max jets — Southwest, American and United — issued muted statements, saying they would wait for a final decision by FAA.

It is not clear whether a requirement for simulator training would further delay the return of the Max, which is costing Boeing billions and forcing airlines to cancel thousands of flights. About 800 Max jets have been built, and they were expected to become a bigger part of the fleets at many airlines.

There are only 34 MAX flight simulators worldwide — Boeing owns eight of them, and more are being made. But U.S. airlines alone have thousands of 737 pilots -- Southwest has nearly 10,000, and American and United have more than 4,000 each.

The FAA could decide that pilots can practice Max-related emergency procedures on simulators meant for older 737s called NG or next generation. Or airlines could split their Max and NG fleets and train just a small fraction of 737 pilots for the Max. However, airlines want to avoid that extra complexity, according to industry officials.

Shares of Chicago-based Boeing Co. rose $3.54, or 1.1%, to close at $337.28. They had gained 3.1% before Boeing announced its reversal on pilot-training requirements.


VP says Philippine president's drug campaign is a failure

Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo delivers her statement in suburban Quezon city, northeast of Manila, PhilippinesMonday, Jan. 6, 2020. (Office of the Vice President via AP)

By JIM GOMEZ

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's campaign against illegal drugs has failed to substantially eradicate the menace and ensnare major drug lords and should be reformed to prevent further bloodshed, the country's vice president said Monday.

Vice President Leni Robredo, who leads the opposition, also called for a stop to the dreaded police practice of home inspections that have led only to the killings of petty drug suspects.

It's the latest criticism of Duterte's notorious crackdown by the vice president and is likely to deepen the political divide between the two leaders.

Presidents and vice presidents are elected separately in the Philippines, resulting in candidates from rival parties like Duterte and Robredo ending up in the country's top leadership and often colliding on policies.

Robredo said only about 1% of the estimated supply of methamphetamine, a powerful banned stimulant locally known as shabu, has been seized in the last three years, since the crackdown was launched by Duterte when he took office in mid-2016.

"Very clearly, based on official data, despite the killings of Filipinos and all the money spent, the amount of shabu and drug money we've seized has not gone beyond 1% of those in circulation," Robredo said at a news conference.

"If we really want to end the scourge of illegal drugs, we need to run after the big suppliers and not just the small-time pushers," Robredo said, adding the campaign would not succeed unless it's reformed to be more strategic, better organized and closely supervised in all aspects by the president.

Her remarks were largely based on information gathered during a brief stint in a government anti-drugs committee, which Duterte asked her to help lead last year after being piqued by her constant criticisms of his bloody crackdown. Robredo surprisingly accepted the offer, but Duterte fired her after 18 days after she started seeking confidential information about the campaign.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo dismissed Robredo's statements, saying Duterte's campaign has succeeded in closing many drug laboratories and forcing the surrender of a large number of drug suspects. Big-time drug lords have also been neutralized, Panelo said, although he failed to immediately provide a list of those key drug personalities.

"If you noticed, when she was threatening to release this report, she implied that there were some irregularities discovered, a bomb that would explode on your face. It's a dud," Panelo told reporters.

Robredo, a 54-year-old former human rights lawyer and political newcomer, has openly criticized the campaign against illegal drugs launched by Duterte, a longtime city mayor and state prosecutor known for his extra tough approach against criminality and brash speaking style.

Robredo has said she accepted Duterte's offer last year to help oversee the crackdown despite warnings by her advisers and allies, so she may be able to save lives under the campaign.

One of her first moves was to request confidential documents from law enforcers, including a list of key drug suspects targeted under Duterte's campaign. Duterte warned Robredo about sharing confidential information about the anti-drug campaign with his foreign critics, including human rights advocates.

It's the latest twist in the unprecedentedly massive crackdown Duterte launched after he took office in June 2016. He promised to end illegal drugs and corruption in six months during the campaign but failed and later acknowledged that he was overwhelmed when he found out the immensity of the problems after becoming president.

More than 6,000 mostly petty drug suspects have been killed in the crackdown after allegedly resisting arrests and more than a million others have surrendered, officials say. But human rights groups have cited a higher death toll and accused some policemen of killing unarmed suspects based on flimsy evidence and altering crime scenes to make it look like the suspects violently fought back.

At least two complaints for mass murder have been filed before the International Criminal Court over the large-scale deaths, but Duterte and the police have denied condoning extrajudicial killings under the crackdown.

Duterte has warned that his bloody campaign will continue up to the last day of his presidency in June 2022.


Stampede kills 32 at funeral for Gen. Qassem Soleimani

Mourners attend a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades, who were killed in Iraq in a U.S. drone attack on Friday, Jan. 3 as Azadi (freedom) tower is seen in the foreground, in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

By NASSER KARIMI, AMIR VAHDAT and JON GAMBRELL

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A stampede erupted on Tuesday at a funeral procession for a top Iranian general killed in a U.S. airstrike last week, killing 32 people and injuring 190 others, Iran's state television reported.

According to the report, the stampede took place in Kerman, the hometown of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, as the procession got underway. Initial videos posted online showed people lying lifeless on a road and others shouting and trying to help them. His funeral was later delayed but no new timing was given.

Iranian state TV gave the casualty toll in its online report, citing PirhosseinKoulivand, the head of Iran's emergency medical services.

"Unfortunately as a result of the stampede, some of our compatriots have been injured and some have been killed during the funeral processions," he earlier said. In delaying Soleimani's burial, authorities cited concerns about the massive crowd that had gathered, the semi-official ISNA news agency said.

A procession in Tehran on Monday drew over 1 million people in the Iranian capital, crowding both main thoroughfares and side streets in Tehran.

Soleimani's death has sparked calls across Iran for revenge against America for a slaying that's drastically raised tensions across the Middle East. The U.S. government warned ships of an unspecified threat from Iran across all the Mideast's waterways, crucial routes for global energy supplies. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force launched a drill with 52 stealth bombers in Utah, just days after President Donald Trump threatened to hit 52 sites in Iran.

Early Tuesday, the leader of Iran's Revolutionary Guard threatened to "set ablaze" places supported by the United States over the killing of a top Iranian general in a U.S. airstrike last week, sparking cries from the crowd of supporters of "Death to Israel!" Hossein Salami made the pledge before a crowd of thousands gathered in a central square in Kerman before a casket carrying Soleimani's remains.

The outpouring of grief was an unprecedented honor for a man viewed by Iranians as a national hero for his work leading the Guard's expeditionary Quds Force. The U.S. blames him for the killing of American troops in Iraq and accused him of plotting new attacks just before his death Friday in a drone strike near Baghdad's airport. Soleimani also led forces in Syria backing President Bashar Assad in a long war, and he also served as the point man for Iranian proxies in countries like Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

His slaying already has pushed Tehran to abandon the remaining limits of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers as his successor and others vow to take revenge. In Baghdad, the parliament has called for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraqi soil, something analysts fear could allow Islamic State militants to mount a comeback.

Speaking in Kerman, Salami praised Soleimani's exploits, describing him as essential to backing Palestinian groups, Yemen's Houthi rebels and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria. As a martyr, Soleimani represented an even greater threat to Iran's enemies, Salami said.

"We will take revenge. We will set ablaze where they like," Salami said, drawing the cries of "Death to Israel!"

Israel is a longtime regional foe of Iran.

According to a report on Tuesday by the semi-official Tasnim news agency, Iran has worked up 13 sets of plans for revenge for Soleimani's killing. The report quoted Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, as saying that even the weakest among them would be a "historic nightmare" for the U.S. He declined to give any details,

"If the U.S. troops do not leave our region voluntarily and upright, we will do something to carry their bodies horizontally out," Shamkhani said.

The U.S. Maritime Administration warned Tuesday ships across the Mideast, citing the rising threats after the U.S. killed Soleimani. "The Iranian response to this action, if any, is unknown, but there remains the possibility of Iranian action against U.S. maritime interests in the region," it said.

Oil tankers were targeted in mine attacks last year the U.S. blamed on Iran. Tehran denied being responsible though it did seize oil tankers around the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of the world's crude oil travels.

The U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said it would work with shippers in the region to minimize any possible threat.

The 5th Fleet "has and will continue to provide advice to merchant shipping as appropriate regarding recommended security precautions in light of the heightened tensions and threats in the region," 5th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Joshua Frey told The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, Iranian Gen. Alireza Tabgsiri, the chief of the Guard's navy, issued his own warning.

"Our message to the enemies is to leave the region," Tabgsiri said, according to ISNA. The Guard routinely has tense encounters with the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf.

Iran's parliament, meanwhile, has passed an urgent bill declaring the U.S. military's command at the Pentagon and those acting on its behalf in Soleimani's killing as "terrorists," subject to Iranian sanctions. The measure appears to be an attempt to mirror a decision by Trump in April to declare the Revolutionary Guard a "terrorist organization."

The U.S. Defense Department used the Guard's designation as a terror organization in the U.S. to support the strike that killed Soleimani. The decision by Iran's parliament, done by a special procedure to speed the bill to law, comes as officials across the country threaten to retaliate for Soleimani's killing.

The vote also saw lawmakers approve funding for the Quds Force with an additional 200 million euros, or about $224 million.

Also Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the U.S. had declined to issue him a visa to travel to New York for upcoming meetings at the United Nations. The U.S. as the host of the U.N. headquarters is supposed to allow foreign officials to attend such meetings.

"This is because they fear someone will go there and tell the truth to the American people," Zarif said. "But they are mistaken. The world is not limited to New York. You can speak with American people from Tehran too and we will do that."

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Solemani will ultimately be laid to rest between the graves of EnayatollahTalebizadeh and Mohammad Hossein Yousef Elahi, two former Guard comrades. The two died in Operation Dawn 8 in Iran's 1980s war with Iraq in which Soleimani also took part, a 1986 amphibious assault that cut Iraq off from the Persian Gulf and led to the end of the bloody war that killed 1 million people.


6.4 quake strikes Puerto Rico amid heavy seismic activity

Cars are crushed under a home that collapsed after an earthquake hit Guanica, Puerto Rico, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020.(AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

By DANICA COTO

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck Puerto Rico before dawn on Tuesday, and was followed three hours later by an aftershock measuring 6.0. They are the largest in a series of quakes that have struck the U.S. territory in recent days and caused heavy damage in some areas.

Eight people were injured in the city of Ponce, near the epicenter of the quake, Mayor Mayita Meléndez told WAPA television.

Puerto Rico's power authority said on Twitter that one of the country's main power plants, which sits near the epicenter, had been damaged, but officials expect to restore power to the island later Tuesday.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake hit at 4:24 a.m. just south of the island at a shallow depth of 10 kilometers. It initially gave the magnitude as 6.6 but later adjusted it. At 7:18 a.m. the magnitude-6.0 aftershock hit the same area. People reported strong shaking and staff at a local radio station said live on air that they were leaving their building

A tsunami alert was issued for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after the initial quake, but was later canceled.

Albert Rodríguez, who is from the southwest town of Guánica, said the tsunami sirens went off before officials canceled the alert. He said there is widespread damage in his neighborhood.

"The road is cracked in the middle and it lifted up," he said.

The mayor of Guayanilla, Nelson Torres, told NotiUno radio station that the church in the public plaza of his town collapsed.

Víctor Huérfano, director of Puerto Rico's Seismic Network, told The Associated Press that it is hard to obtain reports of damage or injuries because communications are down for much of the island. He said officials in Ponce told him there was widespread damage.

"We expect that this will be the largest quake for now," he said. "The aftershocks will continue for some time."

Puerto Rico's governor, Wanda Vasquez, told station Radioisla just before 6 a.m. that there had been no immediate reports of deaths. She ordered government offices closed for the day and urged citizens to remain calm and not check damage to their homes until daylight.

A 5.8-magnitude quake that struck early Monday morning collapsed five homes in the southwest coastal town of Guánica and heavily damaged dozens of others. It also caused small landslides and power outages. The quake was followed by a string of smaller temblors.

The shake collapsed a coastal rock formation that had formed a sort of rounded window, Punta Ventana, that was a popular tourist draw in the southwest town of Guayanilla.

Residents in the south of the island have been terrified to go into their homes for fear that another quake will bring buildings down.

The flurry of quakes in Puerto Rico's southern region began the night of Dec. 28. Huérfano told the AP that shallow quakes were occurring along three faults in Puerto Rico's southwest region: Lajas Valley, Montalva Point and the Guayanilla Canyon.

He said the quakes overall come as the North American plate and the Caribbean plate squeeze Puerto Rico.

One of the largest and most damaging earthquakes to hit Puerto Rico occurred in October 1918, when a magnitude 7.3 quake struck near the island's northwest coast, unleashing a tsunami and killing 116 people.


Kurz sworn in as chancellor of Austria, completing comeback

New Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler, left, and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, right, attend the swearing-in ceremony of the new Austrian government of the conservative Austrian People's Party, OEVP, and the Austrian Green party in Vienna, Austria, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

VIENNA (AP) — Conservative Sebastian Kurz was sworn in Tuesday as Austria's chancellor, completing a comeback from the collapse of his previous government as the leader of a new and very different coalition, with the Greens.

Kurz, 33, returned to the top job after a seven-month absence. The Cabinet sworn in by President Alexander Van der Bellen is Austria's first with a female majority and marks the first time that the environmentalist Greens have entered the country's national government.

The combination of Kurz'scenter-right People's Party and the Greens, traditional adversaries, could set an example for other countries — in particular neighboring Germany, where polls suggest a similar combination could emerge from the next election.

Kurz reclaims the title of the world's youngest serving head of government from Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, 34, who took office last month.

Kurz first became chancellor at 31 in late 2017, leading a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party. In May, a video showing then-Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache offering favors to a purported Russian investor prompted Kurz to pull the plug.

Parliament then ousted Kurz in a no-confidence vote. Austria has been run over recent months by a non-partisan interim government under Chancellor Brigitte Bierlein.

The People's Party and the Greens were the big winners of an election held in September.


Weeping, Iran supreme leader prays over general slain by US

In this image taken from video, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, openly weeps as he leads a prayer over the coffin of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in Iraq in a U.S. drone strike on Friday, at the Tehran University campus, in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. (Iran Press TV via AP)

Coffins of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and others who were killed in Iraq by a U.S. drone strike, are carried on a truck surrounded by mourners during a funeral procession, in the city of Mashhad, Iran, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. (Mohammad Hossein Thaghi/Tasnim News Agency via AP)

Mourners burn mock flags of the U.S. and Israel during a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades, who were killed in Iraq in a U.S. drone strike on Friday, at the Enqelab-e-Eslami (Islamic Revolution) square in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

By NASSER KARIMI and JON GAMBRELL

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Weeping amid wails from a crowd of hundreds of thousands of mourners, Iran's supreme leader on Monday prayed over the remains of a top Iranian general killed in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad, an attack that's drastically raised tensions between Tehran and Washington.

The targeted killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani already has seen his replacement vow to take revenge. Additionally, Tehran has abandoned the remaining limits of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers in response to the slaying while in Iraq, the parliament has called for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraqi soil.

The developments could bring Iran closer to building an atomic bomb, set off a proxy or military attack launched by Tehran against America and enable the Islamic State group to stage a comeback in Iraq, making the Middle East a far more dangerous and unstable place..

Adding to the tensions, President Donald Trump threatened to demand billions of dollars in compensation from Iraq or impose "sanctions like they've never seen before" if it goes through with expelling U.S. troops.

Soleimani's daughter, Zeinab, directly threatened an attack on the U.S. military in the Mideast while speaking to a crowd of hundreds of thousands in Tehran that stretched as far as the eye could see. Iranian state TV put the crowd size at "millions," though that number could not be verified.

"The families of the American soldiers in western Asia ... will spend their days waiting for the death of their children," she said to cheers. Iranian state television and others online shared a video that showed Trump's American flag tweet following Soleimani's killing turn into a coffin, the "likes" of the tweet replaced by over 143,000 "killed" with the hashtag #severerevenge.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself prayed over the caskets of Soleimani and others slain in the attack. Khamenei, who had a close relationship with Soleimani, wept at one point during the traditional Muslim prayers for the dead. The crowd wailed.

Soleimani's successor, EsmailGhaani stood near Khamenei's side, as did Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and other top leaders in the Islamic Republic. While Iran recently faced nationwide protests over government-set gasoline prices that reportedly killed over 300 people, Soleimani's mass processionals has seen politicians and leaders across the Islamic Republic's political spectrum take part, temporarily silencing that anger.

Demonstrators burned Israeli and U.S. flags, carried a flag-draped U.S. coffin or effigies of Trump. Some described Trump himself as a legitimate target for Iran's revenge.

Mohammad Milad Rashidi, a 26-year-old university graduate, predicted more tension ahead.

"Trump demolished the chance for any sort of possible agreement between Tehran and Washington," Rashidi said. "There will be more conflict in the future for sure."

Ghaani made his own threat in an interview with Iranian state television aired Monday. "God the Almighty has promised to get his revenge, and God is the main avenger. Certainly actions will be taken," he said.

Markets reacted Monday to the tensions, sending international benchmark Brent crude above $70 a barrel. The Middle East remains a crucial source of oil and Iran in the past has threatened the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of all the world's oil traded passes.

Ghaani, a longtime Soleimani deputy, has now taken over as the head of the Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, an expeditionary arm of the paramilitary organization answerable only to Khamenei. Ghaani has been sanctioned by the U.S. since 2012 for his work funding its operations around the world, including its work with proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

Those proxies likely will be involved in any operation targeting U.S. interests in the Mideast or elsewhere in the world.

Already, the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia warned Americans "of the heightened risk of missile and drone attacks." In Lebanon, the leader of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah said Soleimani's killing made U.S. military bases, warships and service members across the region fair game for attacks. A former Iranian Revolutionary Guard leader suggested the Israeli city of Haifa and others could be targeted should the U.S. attack Iran.

"We promise to continue down martyr Soleimani's path as firmly as before with help of God, and in return for his martyrdom we aim to get rid of America from the region," Ghaani said.

The head of the Guard's aerospace program, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, suggested Iran's response wouldn't stop with a single attack.

"Firing a couple of missiles, hitting a base or even killing Trump is not valuable enough to compensate for martyr Soleimani's blood," Hajizadeh said on state TV. "The only thing that can compensate for his blood is the complete removal of America from the region and taking away their evil from the oppressed people of the region."

On the nuclear deal, Iranian state television cited Sunday a statement by Rouhani's administration saying the country would not observe the nuclear deal's restrictions on fuel enrichment, on the size of its enriched uranium stockpile and on its research and development activities.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson specifically urged Iran to "withdraw all measures" not in line with the 2015 agreement that was intended to stop Tehran from pursuing its atomic weapons program.

Iran insisted that it remains open to negotiations with European partners over its nuclear program. And it did not back off from earlier promises that it wouldn't seek a nuclear weapon.

However, the announcement represents the clearest nuclear proliferation threat yet made by Iran since Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions last year. It further raises regional tensions, as Iran's longtime foe Israel has promised never to allow Iran to produce an atomic bomb.

Iran did not elaborate on what levels it would immediately reach in its program. Tehran has already broken some of the deal's limits as part of a step-by-step pressure campaign to get sanctions relief. It already has increased its production, begun enriching uranium to 5% and restarted enrichment at an underground facility.

While it does not possess uranium enriched to weapons-grade levels of 90%, any push forward narrows the estimated one-year "breakout time" needed for it to have enough material to build a nuclear weapon if it chose to do so.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations watchdog observing Iran's program, did not respond to a request for comment. However, Iran said that its cooperation with the IAEA "will continue as before."

Soleimani's killing has escalated the crisis between Tehran and Washington after months of back-and-forth attacks and threats that have put the wider Middle East on edge. Iran has promised "harsh revenge" while Trump has vowed on Twitter that the U.S. will strike back at 52 targets "VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. "

He doubled down on that threat Sunday, dismissing warnings that targeting cultural sites could be a war crime under international law.

"They're allowed to kill our people. They're allowed to torture and maim our people. They're allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we're not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn't work that way," Trump told reporters.

The processions for Soleimani mark the first time Iran honored a single man with a multi-city ceremony. Not even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic, received such a processional with his death in 1989.

Soleimani will be buried in his hometown of Kerman.


Australia commits billions of dollars to wildfire recovery

A child is helped onto a helicopter as the fire ravaged community of Mallacoota is evacuated, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. The wildfires have so far scorched an area twice the size of the U.S. state of Maryland. (Corporal Nicole Dorrett/ADF via AP)

People walk to board a helicopter as the fire ravaged community of Mallacoota is evacuated, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. The wildfires have so far scorched an area twice the size of the U.S. state of Maryland. (Corporal Nicole Dorrett/ADF via AP)

In this Jan. 4, 2020 photo provided by the Australian Department of Defence, a woman and three children prepare to board an Australian Army Blackhawk helicopter in Omeo, Victoria, Australia, for evacuation from the wildfire effected area. The wildfires have so far scorched an area twice the size of the U.S. state of Maryland. (Corporal Nicole Dorrett/ADF via AP)

By NICK PERRY and KRISTEN GELINEAU

SYDNEY (AP) — Australia's government on Monday said it was willing to pay "whatever it takes" to help communities recover from deadly wildfires that have ravaged the country.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government was committing an extra 2 billion Australian dollars ($1.4 billion) toward the recovery effort in addition to the tens of millions of dollars that have  already been promised.

"The fires are still burning. And they'll be burning for months to come," Morrison said. "And so that's why I outlined today that this is an initial, an additional, investment of $2 billion. If more is needed and the cost is higher, then more will be provided."

Morrison's announcement of the funds, which will go toward rebuilding towns and infrastructure destroyed by the fires, came as authorities said two more people were missing in remote parts of New South Wales. Nationwide, at least 24 people have been killed and 2,000 homes destroyed by the blazes, which have so far scorched an area twice the size of the U.S. state of Maryland.

Rain and cooler temperatures on Monday were bringing some relief to communities battling the fires. But the rain was also making it challenging for fire crews to complete strategic burns as they tried to prepare for higher temperatures that have been forecast for later in the week.

"With the more benign weather conditions it presents some wonderful relief for everybody, the firefighters, the emergency services personnel, but also the communities affected by these fires," Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, told reporters. "But it also presents some real challenges when it comes to implementing tactical and strategic back-burns and other techniques to try and bring these fires under control."

More than 135 fires were still burning across New South Wales, including almost 70 that were not contained. Officials have warned that the rain won't put out the largest and most dangerous blazes before conditions deteriorate again.

Victoria state Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said at least 200 millimeters (8 inches) of rain would need to fall over a short period of time in order to snuff out the fires — around 20 times what has fallen across the region in the past day. And officials warned that the country's wildfire season — which generally lasts through March — was nowhere near its end.

"No one can be complacent. We've got big fire danger coming our way toward the end of this week," Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters in Melbourne. "We are by no means out of this. And the next few days, and indeed the next few months, are going to be challenging."

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian also urged Australians  not to let their guards down.

"Unfortunately, overnight, it's become apparent that we have two people unaccounted for in New South Wales," she said at a news conference, adding she still held out hope for some good news to emerge about them.

Australia's capital, Canberra, had the worst air quality of any major city in the world on Monday. The Department of Home Affairs, which is responsible for coordinating the country's response to disasters, told all non-critical staff to stay home because of thick smoke choking the city.

The prime minister said the military was attempting to get food, fuel and water to burned-out communities, and engineers were working to reopen roads and resupply evacuation centers. On Kangaroo Island, a refuge off the coast of South Australia for some of the country's most endangered creatures, teams had arrived to help euthanize livestock and wild animals injured in the blazes. Hundreds of millions of animals are believed to have died already in the fires across the country.

Heavy smoke, meanwhile, was hampering the navy's efforts to airlift people out of Mallacoota, a coastal town in Victoria cut off for days by fires that forced as many as 4,000 residents and tourists to shelter on beaches over the weekend. Around 300 people were still waiting to be evacuated on Monday.

The prime minister's announcement of relief funds comes as he finds himself under siege for what many Australians have viewed as his lax response to the crisis.  On Saturday, he announced he would dispatch 3,000 army, navy and air force reservists to help battle the fires and committed 20 million Australian dollars ($14 million) to lease firefighting aircraft from overseas.

But the moves did little to tamp down the criticism that he had been slow to act, even as he has downplayed the need for his government to address climate change, which experts say helps supercharge the blazes.

Wildfires are common during the southern hemisphere summer, and Australians generally take a pragmatic view of them.  But this year's fires arrived unusually early, fed by drought and the country's hottest and driest year on record.

Scientists say there's no doubt man-made global warming has played a major role in feeding the fires, along with factors like very dry brush and trees and strong winds.

Environmental group Greenpeace said the relief funds announced by Morrison were "a drop in the ocean," given the widespread devastation from the fires.

"Every single cent of that money should be contributed by the coal, gas and oil companies whose carbon pollution has caused the climate crisis that has created these extreme fire conditions, right across the country," Greenpeace Australia Pacific Head of Campaigns Jamie Hanson said in a statement. "Slugging everyday taxpayers with the bill for this just adds insult to injury. These big polluters have become rich by trashing our climate and it's time that they started coughing up for the repair bill."


Trump returns to Washington to face a pair of challenges

President Donald Trump's motorcade returns from the Trump International Golf Club located in West Palm Beach, to Mar-a-Lago, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020 (AP Photo/Jim Rassol)

By JONATHAN LEMIRE

WASHINGTON (AP) — His 17-day holiday stay at his Florida resort over, President Donald Trump has returned to the White House facing twin challenges: the fallout from the strike he ordered to kill an Iranian general and his looming impeachment trial in the Senate.

The dueling images — one of potential chaos in the Middle East, the other a politicized ritual occurring for only the third time in the nation's history — will shape a defining month of Trump's presidency, one that comes just before the first votes of the 2020 campaign are cast.

Even before Air Force One touched down outside the divided nation's capital Sunday night, Trump faced growing questions from Democrats fearful that the killing of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani endangered Americans in the region and may have been an effort to distract from the president's political crisis back home.

"Next week, the president of the United States could be facing an impeachment trial in the Senate. We know he's deeply upset about that. And I think people are reasonably asking, 'Why this moment?'" Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat running for president, said on CNN's "State of the Union."

"Why does he pick now to take this highly inflammatory, highly dangerous action that moves us closer to war?" the Massachusetts senator said.

In the hours before Trump's return, tensions simmered half a world away as hundreds of thousands flooded streets Sunday in Iran to walk alongside a casket carrying the remains of Soleimani while Iraq's parliament voted in favor of a resolution calling for an end of the foreign military presence in their nation, an effort aimed at expelling the 5,000 U.S. troops stationed there over the war against the Islamic State group.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who appeared on the full gamut of Washington Sunday morning news shows, defended the strike, which killed Soleimani at the Baghdad airport, as part of a deterrence "strategy to convince the Iranian regime to behave like a normal nation."

"The American people should know that we will not waver. We will be bold in protecting American interests and we will do so in a way that is consistent with the rule of law," Pompeo told CNN.

The conflict is rooted in Trump pulling out of Iran's atomic accord and imposing sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy. But it was not at the forefront of Trump's agenda when his vacation began.

Trump departed for Mar-a-Lago, nestled against the Atlantic Ocean in tony Palm Beach on Dec. 20, just two days after the House of Representatives voted largely on party lines to approve two articles of impeachment against him over his pressure of Ukraine to investigate a potential political foe, former vice president Joe Biden.

During his stay, the president visited his nearby golf course nearly every day and kept his public appearances to a minimum. But behind the scenes, he held a series of meetings and phone calls to prepare for what lies ahead.

Trump spoke to some of his closest Republican allies in the Senate, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, about the upcoming trial. Though the details of the trial remain unclear, including when it will begin, the outcome seems all but certain, as the Republican-led Senate will almost surely not remove Trump from office.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has delayed transmitting the articles of impeachment to the upper chamber, a necessary step before the trial can begin, because she has demanded assurances from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that the proceedings be fair.

McConnell, who has been dismissive of the request, has begun negotiations with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York over the contours of the trial, including whether witnesses would be called. The president had pushed to call witnesses to make it a showy trial — including Biden's son and the whistleblower who first reported the pressure to Ukraine — believing he can convince the American public of his innocence. But Graham and others have implored him to let the Senate handle the matter as expeditiously as possible.

Trump has fumed that impeachment will be a permanent stain on his legacy but he has listened to advisers who believe it could be a political opportunity, pointing to polling that shows it playing poorly with independents in a trio of vital Rust Belt battleground states. The president has also mused about holding a series of rallies after the likely Senate acquittal.

But even as Trump held meetings at Mar-a-Lago about the trial and his upcoming re-election campaign, which will move into a new phase when the Iowa caucus is held in less than a month, the Iran matter moved to the forefront.

Tensions between the nations erupted after an attack killed an American contractor at a joint U.S.-Iraqi base. And after days of deliberations with his inner circle of national security advisers, Trump opted for the most dramatic response, the drone strike that killed Soleimani.

Despite Tehran's call for vengeance, Trump did not back away from his trademark bellicose bluster.

"The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment," Trump tweeted early Sunday. "We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way...and without hesitation!"

But linking the two crises shadowing the White House, Democrats said the heightening tensions with Iran would not dissuade them from Trump's impeachment.

"I think our system is strong enough that we can do both," Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., told Fox News Sunday. "I very much worry about what the president is doing right now to escalate tensions and the likelihood of war in Iran, but our country will have to deal with both these issues at the same time."


Attackers beat protesting students at Indian university

A dog rests next to shattered glass of a student hostel building after Sunday's assault by masked assailants at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Emily Schmall)

In this late Sunday, Jan.5, 2020 photo, police arrive at the Jawaharlal Nehru University after masked assailants beat students and teachers with sticks in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo)

By EMILY SCHMALL and SHEIKH SAALIQ

NEW DELHI (AP) — Masked assailants beat students and teachers with sticks on the campus of a prestigious university in India's capital, injuring more than 20 people in an attack opposition lawmakers are trying to link to the government.

Videos that emerged after the assault late Sunday showed people in masks roaming inside the corridors of Jawaharlal Nehru University and beating students who were protesting against a fee hike.

Most of the injured were treated at a hospital for cuts and bruises, said Aarti Vij, a spokeswoman at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

New Delhi Police Commissioner Amulya Patnaik said the incident was a clash between rival student groups.

Opposition parties and injured students blamed the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student organization linked to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.

"The fascists in control of our nation are afraid of the voices of our brave students. Today's violence in JNU is a reflection of that fear," tweeted Rahul Gandhi, a leading politician from the main opposition Congress party.

Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, which includes students at Jawaharlal Nehru University, released a statement saying they didn't start Sunday's violence and insisted their members were attacked first by students with links to communist groups.

Communist-linked student organizations at the university have led recurring protests against the fee increase, which went into effect in November. Opponents say the fee hike makes education too expensive for many.

The government was quick to condemn the violence.

"Horrifying images from JNU — the place I know & remember was one for fierce debates & opinions but never violence. I unequivocally condemn the events of today," Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, a member of the prime minister's party, said on Twitter.

Surya Prakash, a 25-year-old research scholar at the university's Sanskrit school, said that he had been brutally beaten in his dorm room despite crying out that he is blind.

"They first broke the door and windows of the room and barged inside and hit my head with a rod," Prakash said.

One floor up from Prakash, above the dorm warden's residence, students said two Kashmiri Muslim students living in adjacent rooms were targeted. While the attackers used a fire extinguisher to ram one door open, one student climbed over his balcony into the room next door while another jumped onto the ground below, sustaining an injury, according to Mukesh Kumar, a research scholar who lives across the hall.

An ambulance carrying injured people off campus was attacked by a group of men with sticks while police stood by, several bystanders told The Associated Press.

Students said the masked attackers also entered women's wings in the dorms.

The AP accessed an audio clip recorded by a student during the attack in which the apparent assailants could be heard shouting while they smashed windows and asking students to open the doors of their rooms.

Expressing fear, Geeta Thatra, a 32-year-old history student accused the administration of giving "free rein" to the attackers.

"We saw the brutal vandalizing at the Jamia university. There they used police to do it and here they have used other forces, the so-called mobs, to do it," she said, referring to December violence in which police barged inside Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi, tear-gassing protesting students and beating them up.

Hours after the attack, students across the country took to the streets to protest the incident. Some gathered outside police headquarters in New Delhi and accused police of inaction.

In Mumbai, students from several educational institutions gathered at the Gateway of India and demanded that the government act against the assailants.

Students at a university in Uttar Pradesh state held a candlelight march to protest the incident.

Amnesty International said the attack is "not an isolated incident and must be seen amidst the larger pattern of pushback as massive protests continue unabated across the country."

The violence comes amid simmering anger over the government's new citizenship law, which has resulted in a series of violent protests and clashes around the country that have left at least two dozen people dead.


With hours' notice, US fast-response force flies to Mideast

This photo provided by the U.S. Army, paratroopers assigned to 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division walk as they prepare equipment and load aircraft bound for the U.S. Central Command area of operations from Fort Bragg, N.C., Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020. (Spc. Hubert Delany III/U.S. Army via AP)

By SARAH BLAKE MORGAN and JONATHAN DREW

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — Hundreds of U.S. soldiers deployed Saturday from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Kuwait to serve as reinforcements in the Middle East amid rising tensions following the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general.

Lt. Col. Mike Burns, a spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division, told The Associated Press 3,500 members of the division's quick-deployment brigade, known officially as its Immediate Response Force, will have deployed within a few days. The most recent group of service members to deploy will join about 700 who left earlier in the week, Burns said.

A loading ramp at Fort Bragg was filled Saturday morning with combat gear and restless soldiers. Some tried to grab a last-minute nap on wooden benches. Reporters saw others filing onto buses.

The additional troop deployments reflect concerns about potential Iranian retaliatory action in the volatile aftermath of Friday's drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force who has been blamed for attacks on U.S. troops and American allies going back decades.

President Donald Trump ordered the airstrike near Baghdad's international airport. Iran has vowed retribution, raising fears of an all-out war, but it's unclear how or when a response might come.

Reporters weren't able to interview the soldiers leaving Fort Bragg on Saturday, but an airman loading one of the cargo planes told an Army cameraman he was making New Year's plans when he got a call to help load up the soldiers, according to video footage released by the military.

"We're responsible for loading the cargo. Almost our whole squadron got alerted. Like a bunch of planes are coming over here," the unnamed airman said. "I was getting ready to go out for New Year's when they called me."

In the gray early morning light Saturday, Army video showed soldiers dressed in camouflage fatigues filing into planes, carrying rucksacks and rifles. Humvees were rolled onto another cargo plane and chained in place for the flight to the Middle East.

Burns said the soldiers within the Immediate Response Force train constantly to be ready to respond quickly to crises abroad. When called by their superiors, they have two hours to get to base with their gear and must maintain a state of readiness so that they can be in the air headed to their next location within 18 hours.

"So whether they were on leave, whether they were home drinking a beer, whether they were, you know, hanging out, throwing the kids up in the yard, you get the call and it's time to go," he said.

He said that soldiers typically keep individual "go-bags" of their personal gear with them at their living quarters.

The wife of a member of the 82nd Airborne who deployed earlier this week said his departure was so abrupt she didn't have the chance to say goodbye in person or by phone.

April Shumard said she was at work on New Year's Eve and he was watching their five children when he texted her that he had to rush to base. He wasn't sure if it was a drill or a deployment. She said her husband has been in the military since 2010 and has already deployed twice to Afghanistan. But with those prior deployments, the family had much more time to prepare and say goodbye. This time, she got a second message confirming he was leaving, and he departed in a plane on the afternoon of New Year's Day.

"The kids kept going, 'When's Dad going to be home?'" said Shumard, 42. "It's literally thrown me for a loop. And him as well. He's still in disbelief of where he's gone. Our heads are spun."

She said that Fayetteville is a tight-knit community, and she expects people to work together to support families who are suddenly missing a parent.

"This was so last-minute," she said, urging people to reach out to 82nd Airborne families. "Just try to help out whoever you know who might need some babysitting or help or just get some groceries and bring it to their house."

Similarly, Bri'anna Ferry's husband got the call on New Year's Eve, and she said he was on a plane to the Middle East within hours. She fears he could miss milestones with their young daughter but also wants him to focus on his mission.

"I told him, don't worry about us. We'll be fine," she said. "Focus on your mission."


Wildfires threaten unique critters on Australian 'Galapagos'

In this undated photo taken and provided by Mike Barth, Daniella Teixeira, who is working on a doctoral degree about the birds at The University of Queensland, holds the shiny black-cockatoo in Kangaroo Island, Australia.(Mike Barth via AP)

 This image made from video shows dead kangaroos and sheep after wildfires hit the Kangaroo Island, South Australia Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP)

By NICK PERRY

SYDNEY (AP) — It has been described as Australia's Galapagos Islands and has long been a refuge for some of the country's most endangered creatures. But devastating wildfires over recent days have undone decades of careful conservation work on Kangaroo Island and have threatened to wipe out some of the island's unique fauna altogether.

Experts working on the island say the fires have killed thousands of koalas and kangaroos, and also have raised questions about whether any members of a mouse-like marsupial species that carries its young in a pouch have survived. Similarly, it remains unclear how many from a unique flock of glossy black-cockatoos got away from the flames and whether they have a future on an island where much of their habitat has gone up in smoke.

Located off the coast of South Australia state, Kangaroo Island is about 50% larger than Rhode Island and home to 4,500 people and what was a thriving ecotourism industry. But the wildfires that have been ravaging swaths of Australia have burned through one-third of the island, killing a father and his son and leaving behind a scorched wasteland and a devastated community.

They also have left people scrambling to help the critters that have survived.

"Caring for all these animals is quite amazing," said Sam Mitchell, co-owner of the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park. "However, we are seeing a lot that are too far gone. We are seeing kangaroos and koalas with their hands burned off — they stand no chance. It's been quite emotional."

Inspired in part by the late Australian wildlife expert Steve Irwin, Mitchell and his wife, Dana, bought the commercial park seven years ago in their early 20s, and have been renovating the place and taking in rescue animals since.

On Friday night with the fire approaching, Dana fled with their 18-month-old son, Connor, while Sam stayed behind to defend the park and their dream. A wind change spared the park from the wildfire's path.

Mitchell said the fires have killed thousands of koalas on the island, a particularly devastating loss because the creatures have remained largely disease-free there, while many koalas on mainland Australia suffer from chlamydia.

The couple are currently caring for about 18 burned koalas, and they've had to euthanize many more.

Meanwhile, Heidi Groffen could do nothing, as all eight monitoring stations she and her partner had set up to keep track of the mysterious Kangaroo Island dunnart, the mouse-like marsupial, melted in the flames.

An ecologist and coordinator for the nonprofit Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, Groffen said the population of 300 or so dunnarts may have been wiped out altogether because they are too small to outrun wildfires, although she remains hopeful that some may have sheltered in rock crevices.

"Even if there are survivors, there is no food for them now," she said. "We're hoping to bring some into captivity before they are completely gone."

She said the creatures have long fascinated her because so little is known about them.

Also uncertain is the future for the 400 or so Kangaroo Island glossy black-cockatoos. Once prevalent on the South Australia mainland, the birds retreated to the island after humans destroyed much of their traditional habitat.

"Unlike some of the other animals, the birds are in the best position to escape. They can get away from the fires a bit more," said Daniella Teixeira, who is working on a doctoral degree about the birds at The University of Queensland.

But much like the dunnarts, the cockatoos could find they don't have enough food left on the island, particularly because they eat only from a single type of tree known as a drooping she-oak. And many hot spots on the island continue to burn.

Teixeira said careful conservation work over the past 25 years has seen the glossy black-cockatoo population increase from 150, but those gains have been wiped out in the space of a week.

She said she is currently writing the final chapter of the thesis she began in 2016, but that suddenly everything has changed.

"It's pretty hard to sit here and write a paper on them when I don't know their status today," she said.


Death toll surges as Cambodian building collapse search ends

Emergency workers carry a survivor from the debris after a building collapsed in Kep province, Cambodia, Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. At least two construction workers were killed when a seven-floor building collapsed in the southern Cambodian town of Kep on Friday, according to the police. (Kep province Authority Police via AP)

By SOPHENG CHEANG

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The death toll from the collapse of a building under construction in Cambodia has surged to 36, even as an additional survivor was pulled from the rubble, officials said Sunday.

At least a dozen bodies were found in overnight operations at the site in the coastal province of Kep, where the building toppled on Friday.

Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the end of the rescue operation, confirming that 23 injured survivors were found.

A statement from Kep provincial authorities said that at least 13 women and six children were among the dead.

Women are often employed as construction workers in Cambodia and neighboring Thailand, and families of workers also often live at the construction sites.

At a news conference at the site, Hun Sen said the couple who owned the building and hired the construction crew had been detained and sent to court to face charges. He did not specify the charges. A committee was being set up to determine the cause of the collapse.

Hun Sen said that according to preliminary findings, the building collapsed because the construction work failed to adhere to safety standards.

He said that plywood that is normally put underneath the concrete separating each floor is supposed to remain in place for about one month to allow proper setting, but instead was removed after roughly 10 days. He also indicated that the rebar — the steel rods assembled in a mesh to reinforce the concrete — were not of a strong enough gauge.

A senior provincial police officer had said Friday that the accident occurred after concrete had been poured on the top level of the building.

Hun Sen called the incident a tragedy, but added that building collapses take place all over the world, including the United States,

"This is a grievous event for our nation, that it met with this unfortunate incident," Hun Sen said.

The survivor found Sunday morning was a young woman pulled from the rubble by members of Rapid Rescue Company 711, a military unit that is the country's elite specialized emergency rescue team. "RRC 711," as it is generally known, is attached to Hun Sen's military bodyguard unit.

Hun Sen posted a video of the rescue on his Facebook page. He traveled to the site Friday "to lead the rescue team," he announced on Facebook. He also visited the provincial hospital where the injured were being treated.

Last June, a seven-story building collapsed in Sihanoukville, another coastal area in Cambodia, leaving at least 28 people dead and 26 injured.

Such accidents underline concerns about the area's rapid development to cater to a booming tourism industry and inattention to safety.

In December, a Buddhist temple collapsed while under construction in Siem Reap, home of Cambodia's famed Angkor temples, killing at least three people and injuring 13, including two monks.


60 dead in landslides, flash floods in Indonesia's capital

 

A woman rides a tricycle on a flooded street in Jakarta, Indonesia, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/DitaAlangkara)

By NINIEK KARMINI

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Landslides and floods triggered by torrential downpours have left at least 60 people dead in and around Indonesia's capital, as rescuers struggled to search for people apparently buried under tons of mud, officials said Saturday.

Monsoon rains and rising rivers submerged a dozen districts in the greater Jakarta area and caused landslides that buried at least a dozen people.

National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman Agus Wibowo said most of the fatalities included those who had drowned or been electrocuted since rivers broke their banks early Wednesday after extreme torrential rains hit on New Year's Eve. Three elderly people died of hypothermia.

It's the worst flooding in the area since 2007, when 80 people were killed over 10 days.

Rescuers recovered more bodies as flash floods and mudslides destroyed several villages in Lebak, a district in neighboring Banten province, Wibowo said. Rescuers were still searching for two villagers reportedly missing in the landslide, he said.

The number of fatalities was expected to increase, with rescuers and villagers also searching for at least three people believed to be buried in another landslide in Cigudeg village in Bogor district, said Ridwan, the village's secretary, who goes by a single name.

Ridwan said bad weather, blackouts and mudslides were hampering rescue efforts. He said rescuers on Saturday managed to reach eight hamlets that had been isolated for days by cut-off roads and mudslides and rescued more than 1,700 villagers in weak condition.

Four days after the region of 30 million people was struck by flash floods, waters have receded in many middle-class districts, but conditions remain grim in narrow riverside alleys where the city's poor live.

Government data showed that some 92,200 people were still unable to return home and were crammed at damp emergency shelters, mostly in the hardest-hit area of Bekasi. The number was sharply reduced from 173,000 as the muddy waters which submerged much of the city up to 2 meters (6.5 feet) high were receded.

Indonesia's Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency said that more downpours were forecast for the capital in the coming days, and that the potential for extreme rainfall will continue until next month across the vast archipelago nation. The government on Friday started cloud seeding in an attempt to divert rain clouds from reaching greater Jakarta to prevent possible flooding, the agency said.

Indonesia is hit by deadly floods each year, and Jakarta, the capital of Southeast Asia's largest economy, is not immune. But this year's floods have been particulary bad, with about 397,000 people seeking refuge in shelters across the greater metropolitan area as floodwaters reached up to 6 meters (19 feet) in some places.


Some flee, others restock before Australian wildfires worsen

In this image released Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020, from the DELWP Gippland, shows massive smoke rising from wildfires burning in East Gippsland, Victoria. (DELWP Gippland via AP)

By TRISTAN LAVALETTE

PERTH, Australia (AP) — Thousands of tourists fled Australia's wildfire-ravaged eastern coast Thursday ahead of worsening conditions as the military started to evacuate people trapped on the shore further south.

Cooler weather since Tuesday has aided firefighting and allowed people to replenish supplies. Vehicles formed long lines at gas stations and supermarkets, and traffic was gridlocked as highways reopened. But fire conditions were expected to deteriorate Saturday as high temperatures and strong winds return.

"There is every potential that the conditions on Saturday will be as bad or worse than we saw (on Tuesday)," New South Wales Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said.

Authorities said 381 homes had been destroyed on the New South Wales southern coast this week and at least eight people have died this week in the state and neighboring Victoria, Australia's two most-populous states, where more than 200 fires are currently burning.

New South Wales authorities in the morning ordered tourists to leave a 250-kilometer (155-mile) zone along the picturesque south coast. State Transport Minister Andrew Constance said it is the "largest mass relocation of people out of the region that we've ever seen."

In Victoria, where 68 homes have burned this week, the military was helping thousands of people who fled to the shore as a wildfire threatened their homes Tuesday in the coastal town of Mallacoota. Food, water, fuel and medical expertise were being delivered and about 500 people were going to be evacuated from the town by a naval ship.

"We think around 3,000 tourists and 1,000 locals are there. Not all of those will want to leave, not all can get on the vessel at one time," Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The early and devastating start to Australia's summer wildfires has led authorities to rate this season the worst on record. About 5 million hectares (12.35 million acres) of land have burned, with at least 17 people dead and more than 1,300 homes destroyed.

Prime Minster Scott Morrison said the crisis was likely to last for months. "It (fires) will continue to go on until we can get some decent rain that can deal with some of the fires that have been burning for many, many months," Morrison told reporters on Thursday.

Smoke from the wildfires made the air quality in the national capital, Canberra, the world's worst in a ranking index Thursday and was blowing into New Zealand.


Copter crash kills Taiwan's top military officer, 7 others

In this March 7, 2019, file photo, Taiwanese top military official Shen Yi-ming salutes as he is introduced to journalists during a press conference in Taipei, Taiwan. (AP Photo/Johnson Lai, File)

In this image made from video, emergency teams work at the crash site of a military helicopter in the mountains of Yilan, north eastern Taiwan, Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. (Yilan Fire Bureau via AP)

By RALPH JENNINGS

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwan's top military official was killed in an air force helicopter crash Thursday morning that killed seven other people, the defense ministry said. Five people survived the crash in mountains outside the capital.

As chief of the general staff, Gen. Shen Yi-ming was responsible for overseeing the island's defense against China, which threatens to use military force to annex what it considers it own territory.

The helicopter was flying from Taipei to the northeastern city of Ilan for a new year's activity when it crashed.

According to Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense, 13 people were on the UH-60M Blackhawk helicopter, which took off shortly after 7:50 a.m. from Taipei's Songshan air force base on its way to a base in Yilan county on the east coast. Just over 10 minutes later, it dropped from the radar screen and went down in the mountainous, heavily forested Wulai area southeast of the capital.

Shen, 63, had taken over as chief of the general staff in July after serving as commander of Taiwan's air force, which is undergoing a substantial upgrade with the arrival of the most advanced version of the U.S. F-16V fighter.

Alexander Huang, a strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan who had known Shen for a decade, said he had stood out as a pilot and an officer.

"He was very calm and very stable and unlike other army guys he was always smiling, so he got a specific leadership style that also made him a popular leader in the entire military," Huang said.

It will likely be months before the cause of the crash is known, but the pilots, both of whom were killed, appeared to have been highly experienced.

"Of course, reasonable people would think in the direction of mechanical failure or maintenance problem, but without proof you can't say anything," Huang said.

Taiwan's military has operated Blackhawks for decades and in 2010, completed a sale for another 60 UH-Ms from the U.S. for $3.1 billion. The Blackhawk that crashed was a model dedicated to search and rescue and had been delivered in 2018, according to the ministry.

The loss of Shen and other high-ranking officials for require a rapid reshuffle of positions, but should have a minimal effect on Taiwan's Jan. 11 elections for president and lawmakers, said Andrew Yang, a former Ministry of National Defense deputy minister for policy who also worked with Shen .

"He was highly respected throughout his career," Yang said.

"I don't think the crash will have a strong impact over the elections but certainly it will affect the armed forced because so many senior officers passed away as a result of this crash,"

Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party has been strongly critical of China's attempts to increase economic, military and diplomatic pressure and incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen appears on track to win a second term over her more pro-China opponent, Han Kuo-yu of the main opposition Nationalists.


British ex-PM skipped 'street cred' of Olympics for cricket

In this Aug. 25, 1996 file photo, Britain's Prime Minister at the time, John Major watches play at the Oval as Pakistan played England in the third and final test between the two sides. (David Cheskin/PA via AP, File)

LONDON (AP) — For one British prime minister, choosing between the Olympics Games and cricket was a no-brainer.

Archival records released by the U.K. government on Tuesday reveal that aides tried to persuade Prime Minister John Major that attending the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta would be good for his "street cred."

Major, who was prime minister between 1990 and 1997, would have been scheduled to make a three-day trip in late July that included the rowing pairs final that would bring Britain it's only gold medal at the Atlanta Games.

Trying to make the Olympics more appealing to the prime minister, one aide mentioned that South African President Nelson Mandela, U.S. President Bill Clinton and French President Jacques Chirac were all due to be there.

Downing Street staff also appealed to Major's ego, according to the newly released records. Private secretary Rachael Reynolds told the prime minister that making the trip across the pond "is worth doing, if you can bear it."

"Some of the best pictures we see of you in the media are in relaxed, jacket off mode and there would be plenty of opportunity for that in Atlanta," Reynolds wrote.

"You have established your street cred in this area so well, it would be a pity to miss an opportunity which only comes up every four years," she added.

The appeals were to no avail. Major decided to stay home in London to watch a cricket Test match that England ended up losing to Pakistan.

The details came from a wave of archival records the British government released to comply with a law requiring certain records to be made public 20 to 30 years after they were created.


China sentences Protestant pastor to 9 years for subversion

In this 2016 photo provided by ChinaAid, pastor Wang Yi, left, toasts with his wife at their home in Chengdu, China. (ChinaAid via AP)

BEIJING (AP) — China has sentenced a prominent pastor who operated outside the Communist Party-recognized Protestant organization to nine years in prison for subversion.

Wang Yi had led the Early Rain Covenant Church and was arrested a year ago during China's ongoing crackdown on all unauthorized religious groups in the country. The government requires Protestants worship only in churches recognized and regulated by the party-led Three-Self Patriotic Movement. A separate body regulates the Catholic church in China, which has no formal relations with the Vatican.

The People's Intermediate Court in the southwestern city of Chengdu on Monday convicted Wang of incitement to subvert state power and involvement in illegal business operations and said he was fined and his personal assets were seized.

Si Weijiang, a lawyer hired by Wang's mother, said the charge of illegal business operations involved printing of books about Christian culture.

"It is actually about the freedom of publication and there has been no social harm," Si said in a phone interview.

The charge of incitement "involves preaching and is an issue of speech, which has also inflicted no social harm," he said.

Even within the narrow confines it has established, China's officially atheist ruling party has been seeking to rein in religious expression, including removing crosses from official and unofficial churches.

More widely, the party has demolished places of worship, barred Tibetan children from Buddhist religious studies and incarcerated more than a million members of Islamic ethnic minorities in what are termed "reeducation centers."

Early Rain is believed to have had several hundred members who met in different locations around Chengdu, the sprawling capital of Sichuan province. Many of those were taken from their homes overnight in lightning raids, including Wang's wife, Jiang Rong, who was later released on bail.

Wang had been critical of Communist Party leader and state President Xi Jinping and made a point of holding a prayer service on June 4 each year to commemorate the 1989 bloody assault on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Beijing's hard line on religion has underscored its contrast with other culturally Chinese societies, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, where most follow Buddhism and traditional Chinese beliefs, but where Christianity and other religions also thrive.

At least two members of Early Rain fled to Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy that China claims as its own territory.

Wang's sentencing was condemned by Amnesty International China researcher Patrick Poon as making a "mockery of China's supposed religious freedoms."

"Wang Yi was merely practicing his religion and peacefully standing up for human rights in China," Poon said in an emailed statement. "Wang Yi is a prisoner of conscience and must be immediately and unconditionally released."
 


Australia sending aid to wildfire towns as death toll rises

In this Monday, Dec. 30, 2019 photo provided by State Government of Victoria, a helicopter tackles a wildfire in East Gippsland, Victoria state, Australia. (State Government of Victoria via AP)

In this photo provided by the Australian Department of Defense, HMAS Choules departs from a fleet base in Sydney, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. (ABIS Benjamin Ricketts/ADF via AP)

Kangaroos graze in a field as smoke shrouds the Australian capital of Canberra, Australia, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

This Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019, photo provided by Twitter user @AvaTheHuman shows red sky from wildfires burning, in Victoria, Australia. (@AvaTheHuman via AP)

In this image dated Dec. 31, 2019, and provided by NSW Rural Fire Service via their twitter account, firefighter and police officer hold a possum and her baby after they rescued them under a car at a bushfire in Charmhaven, New South Wales.([email protected] via AP)

The Australian flag flies above Parliament House as smoke shrouds the Australian capital of Canberra, Australia, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

By TRISTAN LAVALETTE

PERTH, Australia (AP) — Australia deployed military ships and aircraft Wednesday to help communities ravaged by apocalyptic wildfires that have left at least 17 people dead nationwide and sent thousands of residents and holidaymakers fleeing to the shoreline.

Navy ships and military aircraft were bringing water, food and fuel to towns where supplies were depleted and roads were cut off by the fires. Authorities confirmed three bodies were found Wednesday at Lake Conjola on the south coast of New South Wales, bringing the death toll in the state to 15.

More than 175 homes have been destroyed in the region.

Some 4,000 people in the coastal town of Mallacoota fled to the shore as winds pushed a fire toward their homes under a sky darkened by smoke and turned blood-red by flames. Stranded residents and vacationers slept in their cars, and gas stations and surf clubs transformed into evacuation areas. Dozens of homes burned before winds changed direction late Tuesday, sparing the rest of the town.

Victoria Emergency Commissioner Andrew Crisp told reporters the Australian Defence Force was moving naval assets to Mallacoota on a supply mission that would last two weeks and helicopters would also fly in more firefighters since roads were inaccessible.

"I think that was our biggest threat in terms of what are we doing with the children if we need to go in the water to protect ourselves given the fact that they are only 1, 3 and 5," tourist Kai Kirschbaum told ABC Australia. "If you're a good swimmer it doesn't really matter if you have to be in the water for a longer time, but doing that with three kids that would have been, I think, a nightmare."

Conditions cooled Wednesday, but the fire danger remained very high across the state, where four people are missing.

"We have three months of hot weather to come. We do have a dynamic and a dangerous fire situation across the state," Crisp said.

In the New South Wales town of Conjola Park, 89 properties were confirmed destroyed and cars were melted by Tuesday's fires. More than 100 fires were still burning in the state Wednesday, though none were at an emergency level. Seven people have died this week, including a volunteer firefighter, a man found in a burnt-out car and a father and son who died in their house.

Firefighting crews took advantage of easing conditions on Wednesday to restore power to critical infrastructure and conduct some back burning, before conditions were expected to deteriorate Saturday as high temperatures and strong winds return.

"There is every potential that the conditions on Saturday will be as bad or worse than we saw yesterday," New South Wales Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said.

The early and devastating start to Australia's summer wildfires has led authorities to rate this season the worst on record and reignited debate about whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison's conservative government has taken enough action on climate change. Australia is the world's largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas, but Morrison rejected calls last month to downsize Australia's lucrative coal industry.

Morrison won a surprise third term in May. Among his government's pledges was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% by 2030 — a modest figure compared to the center-left opposition Labor party's pledge of 45%.

The leader of the minor Australian Greens party, Richard Di Natale, demanded a royal commission, the nation's highest form of inquiry, on the wildfire crisis.

"If he (Morrison) refuses to do so, we will be moving for a parliamentary commission of inquiry with royal commission-like powers as soon as parliament returns," Di Natale said in a statement.

About 5 million hectares (12.35 million acres) of land have burned nationwide over the past few months, with at least 17 people dead and more than 1,000 homes destroyed.

Some communities canceled New Year's fireworks celebrations, but Sydney's popular display over its iconic harbor controversially went ahead in front of more than a million revelers. The city was granted an exemption to a total fireworks ban in place there and elsewhere to prevent new wildfires.

Smoke from the wildfires meant Canberra, the nation's capital, on Wednesday had air quality more than 21 times the hazardous rating to be reportedly the worst in the world.

The smoke has also wafted across the Tasman Sea and into New Zealand.


Militiamen withdraw from US Embassy but Iraq tensions linger

 

Iraqi army soldiers are deployed in front of the U.S. embassy, in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. Iran-backed militiamen have withdrawn from the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad after two days of clashes with American security forces. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Protesters burn property in front of the U.S. embassy compound, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Iraqi army soldiers are deployed in front of the U.S. embassy, in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

In this photo released  by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting, in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. Khamenei criticized the U.S. airstrikes on the Iran-backed Iraqi militia on Sunday. He accused the U.S. of taking revenge on Iran for the defeat of the Islamic State group, which he said was an American creation. He condemned U.S. "wickedness," according to the remarks carried by the semi-official ISNA news agency. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA and JOSEPH KRAUSS

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iran-backed militiamen withdrew from the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Wednesday after two days of clashes with American security forces, but U.S.-Iran tensions remain high and could spill over into further violence.

The withdrawal followed calls from the government and senior militia leaders. It ended a two-day crisis marked by the breach of the largest and one of the most heavily fortified U.S. diplomatic missions in the world.

The attack and its volatile aftermath  prompted the Pentagon to send hundreds of additional troops to the Middle East an d U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to delay a European and Central Asian trip.

In an orchestrated assault, hundreds of militiamen and their supporters broke into the embassy compound, destroying a reception area, smashing windows and spraying graffiti on walls to protest U.S. airstrikes against an Iran-backed militia over the weekend that killed 25 fighters.

The U.S. blamed the militia for a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base in the northern city of Kirkuk last week that killed a U.S. contractor.

The protesters set up a tent camp overnight and on Wednesday set fire to the reception area and hurled stones at U.S. Marines guarding the compound, who responded with tear gas. There were no injuries on either side and no American staff were evacuated from the compound.

The Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of state-allied militias — many backed by Iran — called on its supporters to withdraw in response to an appeal by the Iraqi government, saying "your message has been received."

By late afternoon the tents had been taken down and the protesters relocated to the opposite side of the Tigris River, outside the so-called Green Zone housing government offices and foreign embassies. U.S. Apache helicopters circled overhead.

"After achieving the intended aim, we pulled out from this place triumphantly," said Fadhil al-Gezzi, a militia supporter. "We rubbed America's nose in the dirt."  Trump has vowed to exact a "big price" for an attack he blamed squarely on Iran.

Kataeb Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia targeted by the U.S. airstrikes, initially refused to leave but later bowed to demands to disperse. The militia is separate from the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon, though both are backed by Iran.

"We don't care about these planes that are flying over the heads of the picketers. Neither do we care about the news that America will bring Marines," said Mohammed Mohy, a spokesman for Kataeb Hezbollah. "On the contrary, this shows a psychological defeat and a big mental breakdown that the American administration is suffering from," he said, before withdrawing from the area.

The violence came as Iran and its allies across the region have faced unprecedented mass protests in recent months and heavy U.S. sanctions have cratered Iran's economy.

Iraq has been gripped by anti-government protests since October fueled by anger at widespread corruption and economic mismanagement, as well as Iran's heavy influence over the country's affairs. Those protesters were not involved in the embassy attack.

The Pentagon sent an infantry battalion of about 750 soldiers to the Middle East. A U.S. official familiar with the decision said they would go to Kuwait. Pompeo postponed a trip that was scheduled to start in Ukraine late Thursday so that he can monitor developments in Iraq and "ensure the safety and security of Americans in the Middle East," said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.

Iran denied involvement in the attack on the embassy. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted by media as saying that "if the Islamic Republic makes a decision to confront any country, it will do it directly."

Iran later summoned the Swiss charge d'affaires, who represents American interests in Tehran, to protest what it said was war-mongering by U.S. officials.

Public consular operations at the embassy were suspended and future appointments cancelled, it said in a statement.

Tensions have steadily risen since Trump withdrew the U.S. from Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and embarked on a campaign of maximum pressure through economic sanctions. Iran has responded by abandoning some of its commitments under the deal.

U.S. officials have blamed Iran for the sabotage of oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and a drone attack on Saudi oil facilities in September that caused a spike in world oil prices. But the Trump administration has not responded with direct military action, apparently fearing a wider conflict.

The U.S. has sent more than 14,000 additional troops to the Gulf region since May in response to concerns about Iranian aggression. At the time of the attack, the U.S. had about 5,200 troops in Iraq, mainly to train Iraqi forces and help them combat Islamic State extremists.

The U.S. and Iran have vied for influence over Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Iran has close ties to Iraq's Shiite majority and major political factions, and its influence has steadily grown since then.

Iran helped to mobilize tens of thousands of mostly Shiite militiamen to battle the Islamic State group when it stormed across northern and western Iraq in 2014 as the armed forces collapsed. The U.S. and Iran both provided vital aid to Iraqi forces, who eventually declared victory over the extremists in December 2017.

The political influence of the Popular Mobilization Forces has risen in recent years, and their allies dominate the parliament and the government. That has made them the target of the anti-government protesters, who have attacked Iranian diplomatic missions and the local headquarters of parties affiliated with the militias across southern Iraq.

They have also set up a sprawling protest camp in central Baghdad, and for weeks have been trying to enter the Green Zone. Iraqi security forces have beaten them back with tear gas and live ammunition, killing hundreds.

The militiamen and their supporters, however, were able to quickly enter the Green Zone and mass in front of the embassy, with little if any resistance from authorities.

Iraq's government vehemently condemned the airstrikes on the militia, saying it violated national sovereignty. But Iran and its allies might have also seen the attack as a way of diverting attention from the anti-government protests.

"Iran has been trying to provoke the U.S. into helping it solve its Iraq problem," said the Crisis Group, an international think tank. "The Trump administration, by responding to the attacks in Kirkuk and elsewhere with airstrikes, has obliged.".


Year-end violence highlights danger of worshipping

 

In this Oct. 28, 2018, file photo, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, right, of Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha Congregation hugs Rabbi Cheryl Klein, left, of Dor Hadash Congregation and Rabbi Jonathan Perlman during a community gathering held in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

In this Nov. 10, 2017, file photo, family and friends gather around a makeshift memorial for the victims of the First Baptist Church shooting at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

By GARY FIELDS and DAVID CRARY

NEW YORK (AP) — When a machete-wielding attacker walked into a rabbi's home  in Monsey, New York, during Hanukkah and a gunman fired on worshippers at a Texas church 14 hours later, the two congregations in different regions of the country joined a growing list of faith communities that have come under attack in the U.S.

It is a group that crosses denominations and geography and has companions around the world. The frequency of attacks has faith leaders and law enforcement grappling with how to protect people when they are at their most vulnerable.

FBI hate crime statistics show that incidents in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques increased 34.8% between 2014 and 2018, the last year for which FBI data is available.

"For a person bent on hate crime against a particular religion or race, you go to a place where you know a lot of people in that group will be congregating — and vulnerable," said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Boston's Northeastern University. "One place you can go to find people of a certain religion is where they worship." Most congregations, he said, do not have security.

Three of the deadliest attacks on congregation members have occurred since June 2015, when a gunman killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA TODAY and Northeastern University. The database includes attacks where four or more victims are killed.

However, the database wouldn't include the most recent attacks that have refocused attention on the security vulnerabilities at religious institutions.

The FBI's hate crime highlights list  a number of crimes, including a Colorado plot to blow up a synagogue, an Oregon man sentenced to federal prison for targeting a Catholic Church and two guilty pleas in the bombing of an Islamic Center in Minnesota where congregants were worshipping in the mosque.

A five-year compilation of AP reports showed the frequency of attacks countrywide.

Recent stories included the stabbing of an Orthodox Jewish man as he approached the driveway of his synagogue in Monsey in November, as well as a Las Vegas incident where a suspect torched a Buddhist temple, then shot toward at least one monk fleeing the fire.

The data is definitive enough that the FBI invited faith leaders  to its Washington, D.C., headquarters last June to discuss how to protect themselves and their congregants from bias-based attacks.

Mark Whitlock Jr., pastor of Reid Temple AME Church in Glenn Dale, Maryland, said his own staff and volunteers have met five times in the last month to discuss safety.

"Our first responsibility is to make sure our congregants have faith in God and second, that they are safe," Whitlock said. "We must not create an environment of fear but we also must not fail to recognize things do happen and evil is present."

Reid has a paid security staff of about 20 who wear uniforms and are armed. There are volunteers as well, made up of former and current federal agents, law enforcement officers and military who also provide security, Whitlock said.

Even with the protection, he is watchful. On Sunday, he was in the pulpit and saw the security force reacting to something. They explained later it was a stranger they wanted to identify.

"When you're looking at thousands of people and you see your security force walking around, your mind begins to wonder," he said.

The new spate of anti-Semitic attacks has added to the sense of urgency that's been felt by Jewish security experts since the 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 people were killed.

"The greatest adversary we truly face is not an external threat, it's a sense of denial," said Michael Masters, national director of the Secure Community Network. It was formed by leading Jewish organizations in 2004 to coordinate a response to security threats.

"The conversation prior to Pittsburgh was whether safety and security was necessary," Masters said. "Now it's a question of how do we effectuate that — there's now a reality that these events can happen anywhere."

Sunday's attack in White Settlement, Texas, in which the gunman was shot dead by a highly trained leader of the church's security team, came barely two years after more than two dozen people were killed at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. That remains the deadliest shooting at a house of worship in the U.S. in modern times.

The two Texas attacks have heightened worries among churchgoers in neighboring Oklahoma, said the Rev. Derrek Belase, a former police officer turned pastor who coordinates security training for the more than 480 United Methodist churches in Oklahoma.

"Texas is close to home for us," Belase said. "People see it on the news and think, 'That could be us.'"

Under Oklahoma law, houses of worship are among the places where adults are allowed to carry firearms, whether concealed or openly. Churches may ask worshippers not to bring guns with them, but Belase says that's not a common request.

When Belase is advising churches on security, his core recommendations are to work in tandem with local law enforcement, be wary of for-profit security consultants, and be sure that members of any church security team are thoroughly trained.

The security team leader in White Settlement "wasn't just a guy with a gun," Belase said. "He was trained to do that."

Pardeep Singh Kaleka, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, said his own Sikh temple has armed guards and an evacuation plan, the result of a 2012 attack in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, that killed six worshippers, including his father. He said the conference members talk regularly about how to prevent the next tragedy. "All faiths want to remain open, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Christians, but you also have to be vigilant and institute safety protocols."


Apes, monkeys among 30 animals killed in Krefeld Zoo fire

Firefighters stand in front of the burning monkey house at Krefeld Zoo, in Krefeld, Germany, Wednesday Jan 1, 2020. (Alexander Forstreuter/dpa via AP)

By KIRSTEN GRIESHABER

BERLIN (AP) — A fire raced through a zoo in western Germany in the first few minutes of the new year, killing more than 30 animals, including apes, monkeys, bats and birds, authorities said. Police said paper sky lanterns launched nearby to celebrate the arrival of 2020 were probably to blame.

Several witnesses saw cylindrical paper lanterns with little fires inside flying in the night sky shortly after midnight Wednesday near the Krefeld Zoo, Gerd Hoppmann, the city's head of criminal police, told reporters.

"People reported seeing those sky lanterns flying at low altitude near the zoo and then it started burning," Hoppmann said.

He said investigators also found used lanterns on the ground that hadn't burned entirely. They were 34 centimeters (over 13 inches) long, made out of white paper with an opening at the bottom where a small fire would be suspended. The fire heats the air inside, making them fly and shine at night.

Police and firefighters received the first emergency calls at 12:38 a.m.

The zoo near the Dutch border said its entire ape house burned down and more than 30 animals — including five orangutans, two gorillas, a chimpanzee and several monkeys — were killed, as well as fruit bats and birds.

Only two chimpanzees were able to be rescued from the flames by firefighters. They suffered burns but are in stable condition, zoo director Wolfgang Dressen said.

"It's close to a miracle that Bally, a 40-year-old female chimpanzee, and Limbo, a younger male, survived this inferno," Dressen said, adding that many of the zoo's animal handlers were in shock at the devastation.

"We have to seriously work through the mourning process," Dressen said. "This is an unfathomable tragedy."

He said many of the dead animals were close to extinction in the wild..

The zoo said the Gorilla Garden, which is near its devastated Ape House, didn't go up in flames and that gorilla Kidogo and six other members of his family are alive.

Germans usually welcome in the new year with fireworks at midnight and people are allowed to buy and launch fireworks. Sky lanterns, however, are both illegal and uncommon in Krefeld and most of Germany. The mini hot-air balloons made of paper have been used in Asia for centuries.

After requests by police for witnesses to come forward, Krefeld police said several people had come in and were being interrogated. Police said they would not release details on them.

Hoppmann said some of the partially burned lanterns had handwritten notes on them.

The Krefeld zoo, which opened in 1975, attracts 400,000 visitors each year. It closed after the fire and plans to remain closed Thursday.


DAILY UPDATEE

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Year-end violence highlights danger of worshipping

Apes, monkeys among 30 animals killed in Krefeld Zoo fire