China reports major drop in new virus cases; 143 new deaths
BEIJING (AP) — China reported 2,641 new virus cases Saturday as it escalates measures to contain the outbreak and reassure an anxious public.
The figure is a major drop from the higher numbers in recent days since a broader diagnostic method was implemented. The number of new deaths rose slightly to 143, bringing the total fatalities in mainland China to 1,523. The number of confirmed cases in the country now stands at 66,492, according to China’s National Health Commission.
COVID-19, a disease stemming from a new form of coronavirus, has spread to more than two dozen countries since December, when the first infections appeared in central China. Egypt on Friday counted the first infection on the African continent.
Saturday marks the second day the number of new cases fell since a spike Thursday, when the hardest-hit province of Hubei began including clinical diagnoses in its official count. Using the wider scope of classification, the central Chinese province reported 15,152 cases, including 13,332 that were diagnosed using doctors’ analyses and lung imaging, as opposed to the prior standard of laboratory testing.
Hubei health authorities said in the notice that the new method was adopted to facilitate earlier treatment for those suspected of infection.
US and Taliban agree to truce, way forward in Afghanistan
MUNICH (AP) — The United States and the Taliban have agreed to a temporary truce that, if successful, would open the way for a deal that would bring American troops home from Afghanistan and end 18 years of war.
The peace deal would call for negotiations between Afghans on both sides of the conflict to start next month, an eventual countrywide cease-fire and a commitment from the Taliban not to harbour terrorist groups like al Qaida, while setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The truce marks a milestone in efforts to end America’s longest-running conflict and fulfil President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to bring U.S. troops home from foreign conflicts. But prospects for a real and lasting peace remain unclear.
Details were provided separately Friday by a senior U.S. official and a Taliban official, who were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The U.S. official said the agreement for a seven-day “reduction in violence” is “very specific” and covers the entire country, including Afghan government forces. There were indications a formal announcement could come as early as the weekend.
US won’t charge ex-FBI official McCabe, a Trump target
WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal prosecutors have declined to charge former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, closing an investigation into whether the longtime target of President Donald Trump’s ire lied to federal officials about his involvement in a news media disclosure, McCabe’s legal team said Friday.
The decision, coming at the end of a tumultuous week between the Justice Department and the White House, is likely to further agitate a president who has loudly complained that federal prosecutors have pursued cases against his allies but not against his perceived political enemies.
The action resolves a criminal investigation that began nearly two years ago with a referral from the Justice Department’s inspector general’s office, which concluded that McCabe had repeatedly lied about having authorized a subordinate to share information with a newspaper reporter for a 2016 article about an FBI investigation into the Clinton Foundation.
The case was handled by the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, which was at the centre of a public rift with Justice Department leadership this week over the recommended sentence for Trump ally Roger Stone. Senior Justice Department officials overruled a decision on a recommended prison sentence that they felt was too harsh, prompting the trial team to quit the case. Attorney General William Barr also took a rare public swipe at Trump by saying in a television interview that the president’s tweets about the Stone case and other matters were making his job “impossible.”
Separately, the Justice Department has begun reviewing the handling of the case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, a person familiar with the matter said Friday.
Freezing weather compounds crisis for displaced in Syria
BEIRUT (AP) — A military offensive on an opposition-controlled region of northwestern Syria has created one of the worst catastrophes for civilians in the country’s long-running war, sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing, many of them sleeping in open fields and under trees in freezing temperatures.
The military campaign in Idlib province and the nearby Aleppo countryside has also killed hundreds of civilians, and a bitter winter has compounded the pain.
The weather has contributed to at least 10 deaths, including four who suffered hypothermia, a family of four that died of suffocation in their tent and two who burned to death when their tent caught fire, according to Mohammed Hallaj, a co-ordinator for the area’s Response Coordination Group.
Nizar Hamadi, 43, lost his brother and three other family members, including a three-year old. Their family had been displaced multiple times to escape the swift government offensive, ending up in a settlement made up of rudimentary tents stitched together with sticks and cloth.
“It was God’s destiny that it was really cold. The temperatures was no less then -8 or -9 and this is rare in Syria,” he said, speaking to The Associated Press from the Idlib town of Binnish.
Go West: 2020 Democrats seek their fortunes in Nevada
LAS VEGAS (AP) — As the Democratic presidential race hurtles toward Nevada, candidates in the still-crowded field are jumping into their first test in a racially diverse state with solid union muscle and shaky plans for a presidential caucus.
Nevada has no obvious front-runner, though Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders heads into the contest on strong footing. The state has received only a sliver of the attention of the first two states on the primary calendar, Iowa and New Hampshire. Looking at the jumbled field, the state’s most powerful union decided to take a pass on endorsing a candidate, rather than make a divisive choice or risk picking a loser. Most of the state’s most prominent officials have stayed neutral.
The open race has every Democrat spending much of the next week searching for fortunes in the state’s working-class neighbourhoods, union halls, casino convention halls and stuccoed suburbs. For Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, it’s a chance to prove their staying power after strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. For former Vice-President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, it could be a life preserver to rescue their bids after disappointing starts. For Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, it’s a chance to prove her third-place finish in New Hampshire wasn’t a fluke.
Candidates are making a get-out-the-vote push Saturday morning as early voting starts, and they plan to attend a Saturday night fundraising gala for the Las Vegas-based Clark County Democratic Party. Several candidates are making the hourlong flight up to Reno, a city newly flush with tech money and California transplants, and are due back in Las Vegas on Wednesday for the ninth Democratic debate.
This year, with the results of Iowa’s caucuses muddled by technology and reporting problems, Nevada is under pressure to pull off a problem-free caucus. The Nevada State Democratic Party abandoned its original plans to use an app like the one that caused trouble in Iowa and has scrambled to come up with a new system to tabulate results.
No handshakes: Viral outbreak spooks Asian places of worship
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — In a popular Catholic church in the Philippines, nearly half of the pews were empty for Sunday Mass. The few hundred worshippers who showed up were asked to refrain from shaking others’ hands or holding them during prayers to prevent the spread of the virus that started in China.
In Hong Kong, Cardinal John Hon Tong, wearing a mask, announced the suspension of public Masses for two weeks and urged churchgoers to instead watch them online.
Buddhist temples, Christian churches and Muslim mosques have been ordered closed since Jan. 29 in mainland China, where the new coronavirus strain was first detected in central Wuhan, under an order to avoid “collective religious activities.”
The restrictions and dwindling crowds in religiously diverse places of worship underscore the extent of the scare over the outbreak that has permeated many aspects of life in the hard-hit Asian region. The virus has killed more than 1,500 people and infected more than 67,000 others, mostly in China, where several cities that are home to more than 60 million people have been placed under lockdown in an unprecedented effort to contain the disease.
All but three of the deaths have been in China. Japan, Hong Kong and the Philippines have reported one fatality each.
Unrepentant Trump ignores Barr’s plea to back off tweeting
WASHINGTON (AP) — Unbowed by a public rebuke from his attorney general, President Donald Trump on Friday declared he has the “legal right” to intervene in criminal cases and sidestep the Justice Department’s historic independence. At the same time, it was revealed federal prosecutors have been ordered to review the criminal case of his former national security adviser.
A day after Attorney General William Barr said the president’s tweets were making it “impossible for me to do my job,” Trump declared he had the right to ask the agency to intervene in cases but so far has “chosen not to.” It was a rare public flare-up of tensions, simmering for weeks at the upper echelon of the Trump administration, as Barr marked one year on the job Friday.
While Barr complained that Trump’s tweets undermine the department’s perception as independent from political interference, he has proven to be eager to deliver on many of the president’s investigative priorities — often laid out by Trump for all to see on Twitter.
The attorney general stepped in this week to alter the sentencing recommendation that Trump had denounced as too harsh for his ally Roger Stone. Also, Justice Department prosecutors are reviewing the handling of the federal investigation into Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, a person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press on Friday. And Barr has appointed a U.S. attorney who is conducting a criminal investigation into the origins of the FBI’s probe of the 2016 election that morphed into special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible Trump-Russia co-operation.
Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during its probe of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, but his sentencing has been postponed several times after he complained he was misled during his questioning. The U.S. attorney in St. Louis, Jeff Jensen, is working with Brandon Van Grack, a member of Mueller’s team, to review the Flynn case, a Justice Department official said.
Jimmy Hoffa associate who was suspect in disappearance dies
BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) — Charles “Chuckie” O’Brien, a longtime associate of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa who became a leading suspect in the labour leader’s disappearance and later was portrayed in the Martin Scorsese film “The Irishman,” has died.
O’Brien’s stepson, Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith, said in a blog post that O’Brien died Thursday in Boca Raton, Florida, from what appeared to be a heart attack. He was 86.
O’Brien was a constant companion to Hoffa in the decades when the labour leader developed the Teamsters into one of the largest and most powerful unions in the nation in the from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. After Hoffa’s still-unsolved disappearance in 1975, O’Brien became a leading suspect when the federal government publicly accused him of picking up Hoffa and driving him to his death.
Goldsmith called the accusation untrue. “But practically everyone believed it,” he said.
FBI agents questioned O’Brien about the death at least a dozen times.
Migrants cross Yemen war zone to find work in Saudi Arabia
LAC ASSAL, Djibouti (AP) — “Patience,” Mohammed Eissa told himself.
He whispered it every time he felt like giving up. The sun was brutal, reflecting off the thick layer of salt encrusting the barren earth around Lac Assal, a lake 10 times saltier than the ocean.
Nothing grows here. Birds are said to fall dead out of the sky from the searing heat. And yet the 35-year-old Ethiopian walked on, as he had for three days, since he left his homeland for Saudi Arabia.
Nearby are two dozen graves, piles of rocks, with no headstones. People here say they belong to migrants who like Eissa embarked on an epic journey of hundreds of miles, from villages and towns in Ethiopia through the Horn of Africa countries Djibouti or Somalia, then across the sea and through the war-torn country of Yemen.
The flow of migrants taking this route has grown. According to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, 150,000 arrived in Yemen from the Horn of Africa in 2018, a 50% jump from the year before. The number in 2019 was similar.
AP Exclusive: Agency memo contradicts Greyhound on bus raids
SEATTLE (AP) — A Customs and Border Protection memo obtained by The Associated Press confirms that bus companies such as Greyhound do not have to allow Border Patrol agents on board to conduct routine checks for immigrants in the country illegally, which is contrary to the company’s long insistence that it has no choice but to do so.
Greyhound, the nation’s largest bus carrier, has said it does not like the agents coming on board, but it has nevertheless permitted them, claiming federal law demanded it. When provided with the memo by the AP, the company declined to say whether it would change that practice.
Greyhound has faced pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union, immigrant rights activists and Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson to stop allowing sweeps on buses within 100 miles (160 kilometres) of an international border or coastline.
They say the practice is intimidating and discriminatory and has become more common under President Donald Trump. Border Patrol arrests videotaped by other passengers have sparked criticism, and Greyhound faces a lawsuit in California alleging that it violated consumer protection laws by facilitating raids.
Some other bus companies, including Jefferson Lines, which operates in 14 states, and MTRWestern, which operates in the Pacific Northwest, have made clear that they do not consent to agents boarding buses.
The Associated Press