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Cancun's boycott of taxis in Uber dispute gets rained out

Taxi boycott rained out

Residents of the Mexican resort of Cancun hoped people would boycott medallion taxis Friday, after a week of blockades and violent incidents by drivers protesting the ride-hailing app Uber.

Road blockades, stone throwing and cabbies physically preventing tourists from boarding Uber vehicles drew a U.S. travel advisory Monday, noting “past disputes between these services and local taxi unions have occasionally turned violent, resulting in injuries to U.S. citizens in some instances.”

With the hastag “A Day Without Taxis,” several groups urged people driving their own cars to give others a lift Friday.

But an usual, tenacious rainfall left Cancun residents scrambling to get any transportation they could, and the taxi driver’s union began apologizing for this week’s events.

Some Cancun streets were partly flooded, slowing traffic, and long lines of passengers waited for the ubiquitous vans that most workers use to get to their jobs. A regular taxi from the airport to Cancun’s hotel zone often normally cost as much as $50, a price most locals can't afford.

Rumors flew throughout the day that Cancun-registered taxis would be giving unlimited rides for about $1.25, something the union quickly denied. There were also reports that Uber would be giving free rides. Uber did not immediately comment on that.

Ruben Carrillo, leader of the Cancun taxi drivers' union, apologized in a taped message late Thursday, though he aslo accused Uber drivers of “making fun” of regular taxi drivers.

"We do not approve of any protest that affects third parties, either residents or much less tourists, nor any act of violence, like blocking roads or chasing Uber vehicles, as happened in recent days,? Carrillo said.

Ride-hailing apps had been blocked in Cancun until earlier this month, when a court granted an injunction allowing Uber to operate. The regular taxi drivers' union argues that because no state regulations have been approved for ride-hailing apps, they remain illegal.

The protests Monday forced some tourists to walk or catch rides in police pickups to get their flights out, or check in at hotels.



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Palestinian gunman kills 7 near Jerusalem synagogue

7 dead in synagogue attack

A Palestinian gunman opened fire outside an east Jerusalem synagogue Friday night, killing seven people, including a 70-year-old woman, and wounding three others before police shot and killed him, officials said. It was the deadliest attack on Israelis in years and raised the likelihood of further bloodshed.

The attack, which took place as worshippers were celebrating the Jewish Sabbath, came a day after an Israeli military raid killed nine people in the West Bank. The new attack set off public celebrations in both the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, where people fired guns into the air, honked car horns and distributed sweets.

The burst of violence, which also included a rocket barrage from Gaza and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes, has posed an early challenge for Israel’s new government, which is dominated by ultranationalists who have pushed for a hard line against Palestinian violence. It also cast a cloud over a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the region Sunday.

Israeli police said the attack occurred in Neve Yaakov, a Jewish area in east Jerusalem.

Jerusalem police chief Doron Turjeman told reporters the shooter was killed after trying to escape. He confirmed seven deaths, in addition to the shooter, and said three people were wounded.

Police identified the attacker as a 21-year-old east Jerusalem resident who apparently acted alone. Turjeman promised an “aggressive and significant” effort to track down anyone who had helped him.

Police also released a photo of the pistol it said was used by the attacker.

Israel's MADA rescue service said the dead included a 70-year-old woman. Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital later said a 15-year-old boy was recovering from surgery.

The bloodshed was the deadliest on Israelis since a 2008 shooting killed eight people in a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Given the location and timing, it threatened to trigger a tough response from Israel.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant scheduled a meeting with his army chief and other top security officials.

Overnight Thursday, Gaza militants fired a barrage of rockets into southern Israel, with all of them either intercepted or landing in open areas. Israel responded with a series of airstrikes on targets in Gaza. No casualties were reported. Earlier in the day, Gallant had ordered Israel to prepare for new action in Gaza “if necessary.”

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Friday’s shooting. In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said the attack was “a revenge and natural response” to the killing of nine Palestinians in Jenin on Thursday.

At several locations across the Gaza Strip, dozens of Palestinians gathered in spontaneous demonstrations to celebrate the Jerusalem attack, with some coming out of dessert shops with large trays of sweets to distribute. In downtown Gaza City, celebratory gunfire could be heard, as cars honked and calls of “God is great!” wafted from mosque loudspeakers. In the West Bank town of Jericho, Palestinians launched fireworks and honked horns in celebration.

The attack escalated tensions that were already heightened following the deadly military raid Thursday in the West Bank town of Jenin — where nine people, including at least seven militants and a 61-year-old woman, were killed. It was the deadliest single raid in the West Bank in two decades. A 10th Palestinian was killed in separate fighting near Jerusalem.

Palestinians had marched in anger earlier Friday as they buried the last of the 10 Palestinians killed a day earlier.

Scuffles between Israeli forces and Palestinian protesters erupted after the funeral for a 22-year-old Palestinian north of Jerusalem and elsewhere in the occupied West Bank, but calm prevailed in the contested capital and in the blockaded Gaza Strip for most of the day.

Signs that the situation was calming quickly dissolved with the east Jerusalem shooting. Israel’s opposition leader, former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, called it “horrific and heartbreaking.”

Neve Yaakov is a Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem that Israel considers to be a neighborhood of its capital. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its undivided capital, while the Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as a capital of their future state.

There was no immediate response from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Blinken’s trip is now likely to be focused heavily on lowering the tensions. He is likely to discuss the underlying causes of the conflict that continue to fester, the agenda of Israel’s new far-right government and the Palestinian Authority’s decision to halt security coordination with Israel in retaliation for the deadly raid.

The Biden administration has been deeply engaged with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in recent days, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said, underscoring the “urgent need here for all parties to deescalate to prevent the further loss of civilian life and to work together to improve the security situation in the West Bank.”

While residents of Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank were on edge, midday prayers Friday at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, often a catalyst for clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police, passed in relative calm.

Both the Palestinian rockets and Israeli airstrikes seemed limited so as to prevent growing into a full-blown war. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several smaller skirmishes since the militant group seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.

Tensions have soared since Israel stepped up raids in the West Bank last spring, following a series of Palestinian attacks. Jenin, which was an important a militant stronghold during the 2000-2005 intifada and has again emerged as one, has been the focus of many of the Israeli operations.

Nearly 150 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem last year, making 2022 the deadliest in those territories since 2004, according to leading Israeli rights group B’Tselem. Last year, 30 people were killed in Palestinian attacks against Israelis.

So far this year, 30 Palestinians have been killed, according to a count by The Associated Press.

Israel says most of the dead were militants. But youths protesting the incursions and others not involved in the confrontations also have been killed.

Anwar Gargash, a senior diplomat in the United Arab Emirates, warned that “the Israeli escalation in Jenin is dangerous and disturbing and undermines international efforts to advance the priority of the peace agenda.” The UAE recognized Israel in 2020 along with Bahrain, which has remained silent on the surge in violence.

In the West Bank, Fatah announced a general strike and most shops were closed in Palestinian cities. The PA said Thursday it would halt the ties that its security forces maintain with Israel in a shared effort to contain Islamic militants. Previous threats have been short-lived, in part because of the benefits the authority enjoys from the relationship, and also due to U.S. and Israeli pressure.

The PA has limited control over scattered enclaves in the West Bank, and almost none over militant strongholds like the Jenin camp.

Israel says its raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart attacks. The Palestinians say they further entrench Israel’s 55-year, open-ended occupation of the West Bank, which Israel captured along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want those territories to form any eventual state.

Israel has established dozens of settlements in the West Bank that house 500,000 people. The Palestinians and much of the international community view settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace, even as talks to end the conflict have been moribund for over a decade.



Video shows struggle for hammer during Pelosi attack

Pelosi attack video released

Video released publicly Friday shows the husband of former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi fighting for control of a hammer with his assailant during a brutal attack in the couple's San Francisco home last year.

The body-camera footage shows suspect David DePape wrest the tool from 82-year-old Paul Pelosi and lunge toward him the hammer over his head. The blow to Pelosi occurs out of view and the officers — one of them cursing — rush into the house and jump on DePape.

Pelosi, apparently unconscious, can be seen lying face down on the floor in his pajama top and underwear. Officials later said he woke up in a pool of his own blood.

The release comes after a coalition of news agencies, including The Associated Press, sought access to the evidence that prosecutors played in open court last month. The San Francisco District Attorney's Office had refused to make the exhibits available to journalists.

A state court judge Wednesday ruled there was no reason to keep the video secret.

The evidence includes portions of Paul Pelosi’s 911 call on Oct. 28, as well as video images from Capitol police surveillance cameras, a body camera worn by one of the two police officers who arrived at the house and video from suspect DePape’s interview with police.

The Capitol Police video shows DePape walk up to a glass-panel door, leave and then return wearing a large backpack and carrying two other bags. He set all the items down and pulled out a hammer, pausing to put on gloves, and used it to smash the door glass so he could step through an opening.

DePape has pleaded not guilty in ongoing state and federal cases. He is being held in jail without bail.

Members of Congress have faced a sharp rise in threats in the two years since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Paul Pelosi was asleep at the couple’s home when DePape allegedly broke in. Nancy Pelosi was in Washington at the time and under the protection of her security detail, which does not extend to family members.

Her husband of nearly 60 years later underwent surgery to repair a skull fracture and serious injuries to his right arm and hands. He has since appeared in public wearing a hat and a glove that covered his wounds.

Nancy Pelosi on Thursday told reporters her husband’s well-being was paramount and she did not know if she would view the video once it was released.

“I don’t even know if I will see that,” she said. “I mean, it would be a very hard thing to see an assault on my husband’s life, but I don’t know.”

Police have said DePape told them there was “evil in Washington” and he wanted to harm Nancy Pelosi because she was second in line to the presidency at the time.

DePape told police he was on a “suicide mission,” court documents say, and authorities have said he was drawn to conspiracy theories.

Misinformation about the attack has been rampant.

The San Francisco police officer's body-camera video begins with officers approaching the brick home and rapping on the door. It takes about 20 seconds for the door to open and during that time, the officers discuss whether they have the right house.

When the door opens, Paul Pelosi says, “Hi, guys, how are you?”

Both men are facing the officers at the door and a flashlight shows DePape holding the handle of a hammer with his right hand and clutching Pelosi’s right hand, which is gripping around the hammer head, with his left hand.

“What’s going on, man?” the officer asks.

“Everything’s good,” DePape replies.

“Drop the hammer,” the officer says.

DePape says no and begins to pull it from Pelosi’s grip. Pelosi says, “Hey, hey.”

DePape wins control of the hammer and attacks Pelosi. The attack happens off-camera but Pelosi can be seen lying on the ground. The officers call for backup as they struggle to get DePape’s hand.

There’s a snoring sound in the background and the officer calls for a medic.



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Green comet zooming our way, last visited 50,000 years ago

Comet streaks close by

A comet is streaking back our way after 50,000 years.

The dirty snowball last visited during Neanderthal times, according to NASA. It will come within 26 million miles (42 million km) of Earth Wednesday before speeding away again, unlikely to return for millions of years.

So do look up, contrary to the title of the killer-comet movie “Don’t Look Up.”

Discovered less than a year ago, this harmless green comet already is visible in the northern night sky with binoculars and small telescopes, and possibly the naked eye in the darkest corners of the Northern Hemisphere. It's expected to brighten as it draws closer and rises higher over the horizon through the end of January, best seen in the predawn hours. By Feb. 10, it will be near Mars, a good landmark.

Skygazers in the Southern Hemisphere will have to wait until next month for a glimpse.

While plenty of comets have graced the sky over the past year, “this one seems probably a little bit bigger and therefore a little bit brighter and it’s coming a little bit closer to the Earth’s orbit,” said NASA’s comet and asteroid-tracking guru, Paul Chodas.

Green from all the carbon in the gas cloud, or coma, surrounding the nucleus, this long-period comet was discovered last March by astronomers using the Zwicky Transient Facility, a wide field camera at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. That explains its official, cumbersome name: comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF).

On Wednesday, it will hurtle between the orbits of Earth and Mars at a relative speed of 128,500 mph (207,000 km/h). Its nucleus is thought to be about a mile (1.6 km) across, with its tails extending millions of miles.

The comet isn’t expected to be nearly as bright as Neowise in 2020, or Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake in the mid to late 1990s.

But "it will be bright by virtue of its close Earth passage ... which allows scientists to do more experiments and the public to be able to see a beautiful comet,” University of Hawaii astronomer Karen Meech said in an email.

Scientists are confident in their orbital calculations putting the comet's last swing through the solar system's planetary neighborhood at 50,000 years ago. But they don't know how close it came to Earth or whether it was even visible to the Neanderthals, said Chodas, director of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

When it returns, though, is tougher to judge.

Every time the comet skirts the sun and planets, their gravitational tugs alter the iceball’s path ever so slightly, leading to major course changes over time. Another wild card: jets of dust and gas streaming off the comet as it heats up near the sun.

“We don’t really know exactly how much they are pushing this comet around,” Chodas said.

The comet — a time capsule from the emerging solar system 4.5 billion years ago — came from what’s known as the Oort Cloud well beyond Pluto. This deep-freeze haven for comets is believed to stretch more than one-quarter of the way to the next star.

While comet ZTF originated in our solar system, we can't be sure it will stay there, Chodas said. If it gets booted out of the solar system, it will never return, he added.

Don’t fret if you miss it.

“In the comet business, you just wait for the next one because there are dozens of these," Chodas said. "And the next one might be bigger, might be brighter, might be closer.”



Biden picks Zients as his next White House chief of staff

Biden picks chief of staff

President Joe Biden announced Jeff Zients on Friday as his next White House chief of staff, tapping an experienced technocrat who headed his administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic as Biden prepares for a reelection bid while facing an onslaught of investigations from a newly empowered House Republican majority.

Zients succeeds Ron Klain, a longtime fixture in Biden’s political orbit who led the White House through its highs — passage of consequential legislation like the massive infrastructure bill and the Democrats’ climate, health care and tax law, as well as dozens of judges confirmed in the first two years — as well as its lows, such as the rocky withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The transition is the first major personnel change for an administration that has had minimal turnover at its highest ranks and throughout the Cabinet.

“I’m confident that Jeff will continue Ron’s example of smart, steady leadership, as we continue to work hard every day for the people we were sent here to serve,” Biden said in a statement.

Zients, 56, will be tasked with shepherding White House operations at Biden’s pivotal two-year mark, when the Democratic administration shifts from ambitious legislating to implementing those policies and fending off Republican efforts to defang the achievements. Zients is also charged with steering the White House at a time when it is struggling to contain the fallout from discoveries of classified documents at Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware, and at his former institute in Washington, which has triggered a special counsel investigation.

Klain, in his resignation letter to Biden, said it was the “right time” for a transition.

“The halfway point of your first term - with two successful years behind us, and key decisions on the next two years ahead — is the right time for this team to have fresh leadership,” he wrote. “I have served longer than eight of the last nine Chiefs of Staff, and have given this job my all; now it is time for someone else to take it on.”

Zients, not known to be a political operative, is expected to focus on the task of governing as a separate circle of advisers take the lead on politics, such as senior adviser Anita Dunn and Jen O’Malley Dillon, a deputy chief of staff who managed Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. Presidential counselor Steve Ricchetti, senior adviser Mike Donilon and deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed will continue in Biden’s inner circle, while Klain, a longtime Democratic operative, will continue to advise and be involved from the outside.

Through both the Obama and Biden administrations, Zients has been the go-to person for significant operational challenges — such as a nationwide coronavirus vaccination campaign — or to repair bureaucratic messes such as the glitches and crashes that marked the launch of HealthCare.gov in fall 2013.

Then-President Barack Obama also tapped Zients in 2009 to eliminate the backlog in applicants for the Cash for Clunkers program, which offered rebates to drivers who swapped old cars for fuel-efficient vehicles. Zients later took on a similar challenge to smooth sign-ups for an updated version of the GI Bill.

Zients was vice chairman of Biden’s transition after he won in November 2020 and served as director of the National Economic Council during the Obama administration and acting director of the Office of Management and Budget.

As COVID-19 coordinator, Zients led the effort that administered more than 220 million vaccinations in Biden’s first 100 days, while shoring up the nation’s supply of therapeutics and tests and distributing them. Zients gradually shifted the administration from a so-called “wartime” effort that grappled with COVID-19 at its most severe levels, to a strategy that would allow people to resume some normalcy with a virus that is likely to be endemic.

Although Zients left the administration in April 2022, he quietly returned in recent months to ensure the remaining two years of Biden’s term would be adequately staffed, a prelude to his taking on the much broader managerial role.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Biden’s first two years “would not have been nearly as successful without Ron Klain by the President’s side” and noted that he spoke with the outgoing chief of staff multiple times every day, knowing that his counsel and questions would be directly communicated to Biden.

“I’ve known Jeff for many years and cannot think of a better person to help smoothly implement the transformational legislation Congress passed,” Schumer said. “Jeff is the epitome of what an outstanding chief of staff should be. He’s organized, focused and deliberate, exactly the right person to lead the Biden administration and ensure the American people see and feel the benefits of these new laws.”

In the private sector, Zients served as top executive at the Advisory Board Co., a Washington consulting firm, and he maintains close relations with the business community. He’s worth between about $90 million and $400 million, according to the financial disclosure he filed when he entered the White House in 2021.

“I respect him enormously,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who spoke regularly with Zients during his stint as COVID-19 response coordinator, said this week. “He’s a very bright guy. I expect to be able to communicate with him.”

Yet those business ties have already spurred criticism of the Zients selection from some on the left, who have blasted the incoming chief of staff for his private-sector background. Progressives are anticipating a shift from Klain, who regularly tended to that ideological wing of the party and retained close ties with liberal lawmakers.

Zients was also an initial investor in Call Your Mother, a local bagel shop, although he divested his shares before joining the administration in 2021. He has also served as chairman of the Children’s National Hospital in Washington.



Gunman kills security chief at Azerbaijan Embassy in Iran

Gunman at embassy in Iran

A man armed with a Kalashnikov-style rifle stormed the Azerbaijan Embassy in Iran's capital Friday, killing the head of security at the diplomatic post and wounding two guards, authorities said.

Tehran's police chief, Gen. Hossein Rahimi, blamed the attack on “personal and family problems,” according to Iranian state television. However, the assault comes as tensions have been high for months between neighboring Azerbaijan and Iran.

Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry said it would evacuate its diplomatic mission, accusing Iran of not taking reported threats against it seriously in the past. Meanwhile, Iranian authorities replaced Rahimi as police chief hours later after footage emerged that appeared to show a police officer doing nothing to stop the attack.

Video purportedly from the scene of the attack showed an empty diplomatic police post just near the embassy, with one man apparently wounded in an SUV parked outside. Inside the embassy past a metal detector, paramedics stood over what appeared to be a lifeless body in a small office as blood pooled on the floor beneath.

A statement from Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry said that “an investigation is currently underway into this treacherous attack.” The ministry also described the attacker as destroying a guard post with assault rifle fire before being stopped by the wounded guards, whom authorities described as being in a “satisfactory” condition after being shot.

However, the ministry said a “recent anti-Azerbaijani campaign against our country in Iran has encouraged such attacks against our diplomatic mission.”

“There have been attempts to threaten our diplomatic mission in Iran before, and measures to prevent such situations and to ensure the safety of our diplomatic missions have been constantly raised before Iran,” the ministry said. “Unfortunately, the last bloody terrorist attack demonstrates the serious consequences of not showing proper sensitivity to our urgent appeals in this direction.”

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev called the attack a “terrorist act.”

“A terrorist attack against diplomatic missions is unacceptable!” he said in a statement.

Iranian state TV had quoted Rahimi as saying the gunman had entered the embassy with his two children during the attack. However, surveillance footage from inside the embassy released in Azerbaijan, which matched details of the other video of the aftermath and bore a timestamp matching the Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry's statement, showed the gunmen burst through the embassy's doors alone.

Those inside tried to push through metal detectors to take cover. The man opens fire with the rifle, its muzzle flashing, as he chases after the men into the small side office. Another man bursts from a side door and fights the gunman for the rifle as the footage ends.

Another surveillance video from outside the embassy which also corresponded to the same details showed the gunman slam his car into another in front of the embassy. The gunman then got out and leveled his rifle at a figure inside of the Iranian police stand, likely a police guard, who stood still and did nothing as the man stormed the embassy.

Associated Press journalists saw the embassy's front door pocked with bullet holes after the attack.

Iranian prosecutor Mohammad Shahriari reportedly said that the gunman's wife had disappeared in April after a visit to the embassy. The Iranian judiciary's Mizan news agency quoted Shahriari as saying the gunman believed his wife was still in the embassy at the time of the attack — even though it was some eight months later.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Nasser Kanaani, also said his country strongly condemned the attack, which was under investigation with “high priority and sensitivity.”

Azerbaijan borders Iran's northwest. There have been tensions between the two countries as Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Iran in October launched a military exercise near the Azerbaijan border, flexing its martial might amid the nationwide protests rocking the Islamic Republic. Azerbaijan also maintains close ties to Israel, which Tehran views as its top regional enemy. The Islamic Republic and Israel are locked in an ongoing shadow war as Iran's nuclear program rapidly enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.

Turkey, which has close ties to Azerbaijan, condemned the attack, called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice and for measures to be put in place to prevent similar attacks in the future. Turkey has backed Azerbaijan against Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Turkey, which has been subjected to similar attacks in the past, deeply shares the pain of the Azerbaijani people,” a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement said. “Brotherly Azerbaijan is not alone. Our support to Azerbaijan will continue without interruption, as it always has.”



Watchdog blames Syria's air force for deadly chlorine attack

Syria blamed in gas attack

An investigation by the global chemical weapons watchdog established there are “reasonable grounds to believe” Syria's air force dropped two cylinders containing chlorine gas on the city of Douma in April 2018, killing 43 people.

A report published Friday by a team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons offered the latest confirmation that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons during his country’s grinding civil war.

“The use of chemical weapons in Douma – and anywhere – is unacceptable and a breach of international law,” OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias said.

The organization said that “reasonable grounds to believe” is the standard of proof consistently adopted by international fact-finding bodies and commissions of inquiry.

Syria, which joined the OPCW in 2013 under pressure from the international community after being blamed for another deadly chemical weapon attack, does not recognize the investigation team’s authority and has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons.

Despite the latest findings, bringing perpetrators in Syria to justice remains a long way off. Syria’s ally Russia has, in the past, blocked efforts by the U.N. Security Council to order an International Criminal Court investigation in Syria.

“The world now knows the facts – it is up to the international community to take action, at the OPCW and beyond,” Arias, a veteran Spanish diplomat, said.

The report said there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that during a government military offensive to recapture Douma, at least one Syrian air force Mi8/17 helicopter dropped two yellow cylinders on the city.

One of the cylinders hit the roof of a three-story residential building and ruptured, “rapidly released toxic gas, chlorine, in very high concentrations, which rapidly dispersed within the building killing 43 named individuals and affecting dozens more,” according to the report.

A second cylinder burst through the roof of another building into an apartment below and only partially ruptured, “mildly affecting those who first arrived at the scene,” the report added.

Syrian authorities refused the investigation team access to the sites of the chlorine attacks. The country had its OPCW voting rights suspended in 2021 as punishment for the repeated use of toxic gas, the first such sanction imposed on a member nation.

The painstaking investigation by the organization’s team, was set up to identify perpetrators of chemical weapon attacks in Syria, built on earlier findings by an OPCW fact-finding mission that chlorine was used as a weapon in Douma.

The investigators also interviewed dozens of witnesses and studied the blood and urine of survivors as well as samples of soil and building materials, according to the watchdog agency.

The investigators also carefully assessed and rejected alternative theories for what happened, including Syria’s claim that the attack was staged and that bodies of people killed elsewhere in Syria were taken to Douma to look like victims of a gas attack.

The report found that the two cylinders carrying chlorine were modified and filled at the Dumayr air base and the helicopter or helicopters that dropped them were under control of the Syrian military’s elite Tiger Force.

The OPCW team “considered a range of possible scenarios and tested their validity against the evidence they gathered and analysed to reach their conclusion: that the Syrian Arab Air Forces are the perpetrators of this attack,” the organization said in a statement.

The ongoing conflict that started in Syria more than a decade ago has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half the country’s prewar population of 23 million.



Hong Kong to ban CBD, label it a 'dangerous drug'

Hong Kong to ban CBD

Hong Kong will ban CBD starting Wednesday, categorizing it as a “dangerous drug" and mandating harsh penalties for its smuggling, production and possession, customs authorities announced Friday.

Supporters say CBD can treat a range of ailments including anxiety and that, unlike its more famous cousin THC — which is already illegal in Hong Kong — CBD doesn’t get users high. Cannabidiol, derived from the cannabis plant, was previously legal in Hong Kong, where bars and shops sold products containing it.

But Hong Kong authorities decided last year to prohibit the marijuana-derived substance — a change that will soon go into effect. Residents were given three months from Oct. 27 to dispose of their CBD products in special boxes set up around the city.

“Starting from February 1, cannabidiol, aka CBD, will be regarded as a dangerous drug and will be supervised and managed by the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance," customs intelligence officer Au-Yeung Ka-lun said at a news briefing.

“As of then, transporting CBD for sale, including import and export, as well as producing, possessing and consuming CBD, will be illegal,” Au-Yeung said.

Penalties include up to life in prison and Hong Kong $5 million ($638,000) in fines for importing, exporting or producing CBD. Possession of the substance can result in a sentence of up to seven years and Hong Kong $1 million ($128,000) in fines.

In announcing the ban last year, the Hong Kong government cited the difficulty of isolating pure CBD from cannabis, the possibility of contamination with THC during the production process and the relative ease by which CBD can be converted to THC.

“We will tackle all kinds of dangerous drugs from all angles and all ends, and the intelligence-led enforcement action is our major goal,” Chan Kai-ho, a divisional commander with the department's Airport Command, told reporters Friday.

Despite the harsh penalties mandated, Chan said authorities would handle enforcement on a case-by-case basis and “seek legal advice from our Department of Justice to determine what the further actions will be.”

Hong Kong maintains several categories of “dangerous drugs," which include “hard drugs" such as heroin and cocaine, as well as marijuana.

Hong Kong's first CBD cafe opened in 2020 and the ban will force scores of businesses to remove CBD-infused gummies, drinks and other products, or shut down altogether.

The ban is in keeping with a zero-tolerance policy toward drugs in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous southern Chinese business hub, as well as on mainland China, where CBD was banned in 2022.

Chinese authorities have waged battles against heroin and methamphetamines, particularly in the southwest bordering on the drug-producing Golden Triangle region spanning parts of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.

Criminal penalties for both sale and usage are also enforced for marijuana. In one of the most high-profile cases, Jaycee Chan, the son of Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan, served a six month sentence in 2014-2015 for allowing people to consume marijuana in his Beijing apartment amid a crackdown on illegal narcotics in the Chinese capital.

At the same time, China has been a main source of the precursor chemicals used to manufacture the dangerous drug fentanyl, a trade often facilitated through social media.

A wealthy Asian financial center with a thriving commercial port and major international airport, Hong Kong is a key point of entry to China as well as a market for some drugs, especially cocaine. Police have recently seized hundreds of kilograms (pounds) of the drug worth tens of millions of dollars, some of it hidden in a shipment of chicken feet from Brazil.

Most Asian nations maintain strict drug laws and enforce harsh penalties for violators, including the death penalty, with the exception of Thailand, which made it legal to cultivate and possess marijuana last year.

Debate over CBD policy continues in many countries and regions.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Thursday there's not enough evidence about CBD to confirm that it’s safe for consumption in foods or as a dietary supplement. It called on Congress to create new rules for the massive and growing market.

Marijuana-derived products have become increasingly popular in lotions, tinctures and foods, while their legal status has been murky in the U.S., where several states have legalized or decriminalized substances that remain illegal federally.



South Korea extends restrictions on travellers from China

Restrictions on Chinese

South Korea says it will continue to restrict the entry of short-term travellers from China through the end of February over concerns that the spread of COVID-19 in that country may worsen following the Lunar New Year’s holidays.

South Korea in early January stopped issuing most short-term visas at its consulates in China, citing concerns about a virus surge in the country that abruptly eased coronavirus restrictions in December and the potential for new mutations.

South Korea has also required all passengers from China, Hong Kong and Macau to submit proofs of negative tests taken with 48 hours before their arrival and put them through tests again once they arrive.

The steps, which originally were imposed for the month of January, prompted China to retaliate by suspending South Korean short-term visa applications, raising concerns about disrupted business activities in a country that heavily depends on exports to China.

Following a meeting on South Korea’s COVID-19 response on Friday, health authorities decided to extend the coronavirus measures on short-term travellers from China for another month. While there had been some indications COVID-19 outbreaks in major Chinese cities were slowing, South Korean officials remain concerned about a viral resurgence following the massive gatherings and cross-country travel during the Lunar New Year’s holidays that ended this week.

South Korean officials during the meeting left open the possibility of easing the restrictions earlier if it becomes clearer that China’s COVID-19 situation is improving, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said in a statement.

According to South Korea’s Disease Control and Prevention Agency, around 10% of the 6,900 short-term travellers from China who arrived in the country from Jan. 2 to Thursday tested positive after being tested at the airport.

While allowing the extension of existing visas, South Korea has stopped issuing most short-term visas as its consulates in China, except for essential government, diplomatic and business activities and humanitarian reasons.



Cops hunt Oregon torture suspect jailed in Vegas kidnap case

Torture suspect sought

Police in southern Oregon were searching Thursday for a man accused of torturing a woman he held captive, less than two years after he was convicted in Nevada of keeping another woman in captivity for weeks before the victim managed to escape.

Grants Pass Police Chief Warren Hensman said in a telephone interview that he finds it “extremely troubling” that the felon is wanted in an attempted murder instead of still being behind bars for the Nevada crimes.

Benjamin Obadiah Foster, 36, is now charged in Oregon with attempted murder, kidnapping and assault. Foster tried to kill the victim in Grants Pass while “intentionally torturing” her and secretly confining her “in a place where she was not likely to be found,” Josephine County District Attorney Joshua Eastman wrote in a court document.

“We are laser-focused on capturing this man and bringing him to justice,” Hensman said at a news conference Thursday. “This is an all-hands-on-deck operation.”

In 2019, before moving to Oregon, Foster held his then-girlfriend captive inside her Las Vegas apartment for two weeks. He initially was charged with five felonies, including assault and battery, and faced decades in prison upon conviction. But in August 2021, Foster reached a deal with Clark County prosecutors that allowed him to plead guilty to one felony count of battery and a misdemeanor count of battery constituting domestic violence.

A judge sentenced him to up to 2 1/2 years in a Nevada prison, but after the 729 days he had spent in jail awaiting trial were factored into his punishment, Foster was left to serve less than 200 additional days in state custody.

Foster’s girlfriend at the time had suffered seven broken ribs, two black eyes and injuries from being bound at the wrists and ankles with zip ties and duct tape during her two-week captivity, according to a Las Vegas police report obtained by The Associated Press.

The woman also told police she was forced to eat lye and choked to the point of unconsciousness.

She escaped during a trip with Foster to a grocery store and a gas station, after Foster had let the woman out of her sight. According to the police report, the woman ran to a nearby apartment complex and found a resident who rushed her to a hospital. Foster was arrested by SWAT officers later that day.

At the time, court records show, Foster was out of custody on a suspended jail sentence for carrying a concealed weapon without a permit.

He also was awaiting trial in another 2018 case involving domestic violence. But Foster's plea deal with prosecutors in 2021 settled the domestic violence case, a copy of the agreement shows, and he was “sentenced to credit for time served.”

Police in Grants Pass, a town of some 40,000 in southwest Oregon, provided recent photos in a news release of Foster and the Nissan Sentra car he was driving. They said he is believed to be armed and is “considered extremely dangerous.”

“We are using every piece of technology available to locate this man," said Hensman, the police chief. "And I'll leave it at that.”

On Tuesday, police went to a home in a residential neighborhood of Grants Pass to investigate an assault, though Hensman didn't want to discuss yet how the officers were alerted.

When they arrived, the officers found a woman who had been bound and beaten unconscious. She was taken to a hospital in critical condition, police said.

“This is a very serious event, a brutal assault of one of our residents that we take extremely seriously,” the police chief added. “And we will not rest until we capture this individual.”

Hensman said he doesn't have time now to explore how authorities in Nevada handled Foster's crimes there.

“Whatever happened in the past," he said, “we can talk about those situations later.”



Israel, Gaza fighters trade fire after deadly West Bank raid

Violence in Gaza

Gaza militants fired rockets and Israel carried out airstrikes early Friday as tensions soared following an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank that killed nine Palestinians, including at least seven militants and a 61-year-old woman.

It was the deadliest single raid in the territory in over two decades. The flare-up in violence poses an early test for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government and casts a shadow on U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s expected trip to the region next week.

Of the five rockets fired at Israel, three were intercepted, one fell in an open area and another fell short inside Gaza, the military said. It said the airstrikes targeted an underground rocket manufacturing site for Hamas as well as militant training areas.

The rockets set off air raid sirens in southern Israel but there were no reports of casualties on either side.

Both the Palestinian rockets and Israeli airstrikes seemed limited so as to prevent escalation into a full-blown war. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several smaller skirmishes since the militant group seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.

Thursday's deadly raid in the Jenin refugee camp was likely to reverberate on Friday as Palestinians gather for weekly Muslim prayers that are often followed by protests. Hamas had earlier threatened revenge for the raid.

Raising the stakes, the Palestinian Authority said it would halt the ties that its security forces maintain with Israel in a shared effort to contain Islamic militants. Previous threats have been short-lived, in part because of the benefits the authority enjoys from the relationship and also due to U.S. and Israeli pressure to maintain it.

The Palestinian Authority already has limited control over scattered enclaves in the West Bank, and almost none over militant strongholds like the Jenin camp. But the announcement could pave the way for Israel to step up operations it says are needed to prevent attacks.

On Thursday, Israeli forces went on heightened alert as Palestinians filled the streets across the West Bank, chanting in solidarity with Jenin. President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of mourning, and in the refugee camp, residents dug a mass grave for the dead.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said Abbas had decided to cut security coordination in “light of the repeated aggression against our people." He also said the Palestinians planned to file complaints with the U.N. Security Council, International Criminal Court and other international bodies.

Barbara Leaf, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, said the Biden administration was deeply concerned about the situation and that civilian casualties reported in Jenin were “quite regrettable.” But she also said the Palestinian announcement to suspend security ties and to pursue the matter at international organizations was a mistake.

Thursday's gun battle that left nine dead and 20 wounded erupted when Israel's military conducted a rare daytime operation in the Jenin camp that it said was meant to prevent an imminent attack on Israelis. The camp, where the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group has a major foothold, has been a focus of near-nightly Israeli arrest raids.

Hamas’ armed wing claimed four of the dead as members, while Islamic Jihad claimed three others.

The Palestinian Health Ministry identified the 61-year-old woman killed as Magda Obaid, and the Israeli military said it was looking into reports of her death.

The Israeli military circulated aerial video it said was taken during the battle, showing what appeared to be Palestinians on rooftops hurling stones and firebombs on Israeli forces below. At least one Palestinian can be seen opening fire from a rooftop.

Later in the day, Israeli forces fatally shot a 22-year-old and wounded two others, the Palestinian Health Ministry said, as Palestinians confronted Israeli troops north of Jerusalem to protest Thursday’s raid. Israel's paramilitary Border Police said they opened fire on Palestinians who launched fireworks at them from close range.

Tensions have soared since Israel stepped up raids in the West Bank last spring, following a series of Palestinian attacks.



Biden pays tribute to victims of California shootings

Biden honours victims

President Joe Biden on Thursday honoured 18 people killed in two California mass shootings, saying “we have to be there” with the communities that have been forever scarred by gun violence.

“Our prayers are with the people of Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, and after yet another spree of gun violence in America,” he said at a Lunar New Year reception at the White House.

Eleven people were killed at a Southern California ballroom dance hall late Saturday and seven others died Monday at two mushroom farms in the northern part of the state.

Biden said he had spoken with Brandon Tsay, 26, who was at a second dance hall a few miles from the scene of the tragedy in Monterey Park when the same gunman entered, brandishing his weapon. Tsay disarmed the gunman, who then fled.

He praised Tsay's courage, calling him a “genuine hero."

“Brandon said he thought he was going to die, but then he thought about the people inside,” Biden said, asking the largely Asian American audience to ponder what could have happened had Tsay fled himself.

“I think sometimes we underestimate incredible acts of courage,” the president said. “Someone has a semiautomatic pistol aimed at you and you think about others. That's pretty profound, pretty profound.”

The shootings were carried out during celebrations of the arrival of the Lunar New Year, one of the most important Asian holidays, and sent fear through Asian American communities already dealing with increased violence directed at them, some of it due to misinformation about the coronavirus.

Authorities said Huu Can Tran opened fire late Saturday on a mostly elderly crowd of dancers at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park. Nine people also were wounded. Tran, 72, was later found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Days later, farmworker Chunli Zhao, 66, opened fire at two mushroom farms in Half Moon Bay on Monday, killing seven current and former co-workers, police said.

The White House had scheduled its Lunar New Year celebration before the shootings.

Both communities “will be affected by what they saw and what they lost for the rest of their lives," Biden said, referring to the trauma inflicted and the need for treatment. "And as a nation, we have to be there with them. We have to be there with them. We don't have a choice.”

He led the gathering in a moment of silence in honor of the victims.

Biden had ordered American flags on federal facilities lowered to half-staff through sunset Thursday out of respect for the Monterey Park victims. He said Thursday that he has been in touch with California Gov. Gavin Newsom. He also sent Vice President Kamala Harris, a native of the state, to Monterey Park on Wednesday to offer condolences on behalf of the government.

Biden had been in California on Jan. 19, just two days before the dance studio shooting, to survey flood damage along the state's central coast following days of heavy rains. He spoke with Tsay earlier this week.

“Thank you for taking such incredible action in the face of danger,” Biden told Tsay in a brief video of the conversation that the White House shared Thursday on Twitter. “I don’t think you understand how much you’ve done for so many people who are never even going to know you.”

Tsay replied that he was still processing what had happened.

“For you to call, that’s just so comforting to me,” Tsay told the president.



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