World

Fourteen Americans evacuated from cruise ship in Japan test positive for coronavirus

Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- China indicated that it will likely delay its annual congress meeting in March because of the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak, the committee for the National People's Congress said Monday.

Postponing the biggest political meeting of the year would be in the best interest of citizens' safety and health, Xinhua, China's state-run news agency, reported.

High-profile cancellations linked to the outbreak continue, with Beijing postponing its International Automotive Exhibition on Monday. The event, which was originally slated for April 21-30, will be rescheduled in order to "to ensure the health and safety of exhibitors and participants," the organization said in a statement.

The Tokyo Marathon will take place as scheduled on March 1 but race organizers dramatically reduced the number of runners who are eligible to participate. Only elite runners and wheelchair participants will be allowed to compete in what was previously expected to be a 38,000-person event. "We cannot continue to launch the event within the scale we originally anticipated," race organizers said in a statement Monday.

New data out of China is giving scientists a clearer picture of the outbreak, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general at the World Health Organization, said Monday at a news conference.

More than 44,000 patients have confirmed cases of novel coronavirus and the mortality rate of about 2% appears less deadly than SARS or MERS.

About 80% of people who contracted the virus had mild symptoms and recovered, while 14% of cases included severe symptoms, such as pneumonia and shortness of breath. Roughly 5% of patients had critical symptoms like organ and respiratory failure and septic shock. Risk of death increased with age, and relatively few children contracted the disease. Scientists need more research to understand why so few cases of the disease have been in children.

While the data appear to show a decline in cases, Tedros cautioned that the trend should be "interpreted very cautiously."

"It’s too early to tell if this reported decline will continue," he said. "Every scenario is still on the table."

Meanwhile, more than 300 Americans who were passengers aboard a cruise ship quarantined at sea in Japan over coronavirus infections have evacuated the country on two flights chartered by the U.S. government, officials said.

After disembarking from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, 14 of the passengers were found to be infected with the novel coronavirus, known officially as COVID-19, prior to boarding the charter planes at Tokyo International Airport on Monday. The passengers, who had been tested a couple days earlier, "were moved in the most expeditious and safe manner to a specialized containment area on the evacuation aircraft to isolate them in accordance with standard protocols," according to a joint statement from the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

"After consultation with HHS officials, including experts from the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, the State Department made the decision to allow the 14 individuals, who were in isolation, separated from other passengers, and continued to be asymptomatic, to remain on the aircraft to complete the evacuation process," according to the statement, noting that the individuals would continue to be isolated from the other passengers during the flights.

"All passengers are being closely monitored by medical professionals throughout the flight, and any who become symptomatic will be moved to the specialized containment area, where they will be treated."

The first charter flight landed at Travis Air Force Base in California early Monday morning. The second landed at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

Upon arrival, all passengers will remain under quarantine for 14 days. Those who develop symptoms in flight and those with positive test results will remain isolated on board the aircraft until they are transported to "an appropriate location for continued isolation and care," according to a joint statement from the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

COVID-19 causes symptoms similar to pneumonia, ranging from mild, such as a slight cough, to more severe, including fever and difficulty breathing, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is no vaccine yet for the virus, nor any known effective therapeutics.

Utah resident Mark Jorgensen was among the American passengers evacuated from the cruise ship on Monday. He confirmed to ABC News by telephone that he had arrived at Travis Air Force Base in California. His wife, Jerri, however, is still in Japan. She remains isolated in a hospital there after being diagnosed with COVID-19 but is staying positive, Jorgensen told ABC News.

Jorgensen posted several photos and videos to his Facebook page on Monday, documenting the evacuation. He said it took a total of three hours for the hundreds of passengers to disembark the cruise ship and load into nine buses on the dock. On the charter flight, crew members were clad in full protective gear while passengers wore face masks.

"The logistics of putting this together have got to be enormous," Jorgensen wrote in one of his Facebook posts.

The Diamond Princess docked at the Japanese port of Yokohama on Feb. 3 and was placed under quarantine two days later, as passengers and crew tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, at least 454 people on board the cruise ship have been infected with the newly discovered virus. At least one quarantine officer has also been infected, according to Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, which is leading and coordinating the public health response on board.

All those infected with the disease on the Diamond Princess have been brought ashore for treatment, while thousands of other passengers have been confined to their rooms on board until the quarantine period ends. The United States is the first country to evacuate its citizens from the quarantined ship.

Princess Cruises, which operates the ship, announced in a statement Sunday that it will cancel all Diamond Princess voyages through April 20 due to the "prolonged quarantine period." The cruise line is offering a full refund to all 2,666 guests who were on board the ship. More than 400 passengers were from the United States.

The ship is the largest center of infection of anywhere outside China, where the first cases of the new coronavirus were detected back in December. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a global health emergency.

As of Monday, China's National Health Commission said it had received at least 70,635 reports of confirmed cases and 1,772 deaths on the Chinese mainland. More than 82 percent of the confirmed infections were reported in Hubei province, which includes the city of Wuhan, the outbreak's epicenter. An additional 87 confirmed infections had been reported in the Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions as well as Taiwan province. One death was reported in Hong Kong and another in Taiwan, according to China's National Health Commission.

Zeng Yixin, vice minister of China's National Health Commission, told reporters last Friday that 1,716 medical workers are among those infected and six of them have died. Most of the workers were in Hubei province, Zeng said.

The Health Commission of Hubei Province announced last Thursday a change in how cases are diagnosed and counted, with the total number of confirmed cases now including "clinically diagnosed cases," or patients who showed symptoms of the disease and were diagnosed through CT scans of the lungs, for instance, but have not yet had laboratory testing. The expanded criteria is meant to ensure "that patients can receive standardized treatment according to confirmed cases as early as possible to further improve the success rate of treatment," the commission said in a statement.

Outside of China, there were 694 laboratory-confirmed cases in 25 countries and three reported deaths as of Monday, according to the WHO, which would bring the global death toll to 1,775.

Prior to the arrival of the Americans from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, there were 15 reported cases in the United States, according to the WHO. The patients are in Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. All but two of the U.S. cases are linked to travel to Wuhan, China.

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Passengers stuck on cruise ship due to coronavirus struggle to pass the time

David Mareuil/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- An Oscars screening, tons of movies, the internet and workout classes. Some would say this sounds like a great vacation -- but it isn’t the kind of vacation guests on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship were expecting.

Officials have found more than 200 cases of the novel coronavirus, known officially as COVID-19, on board the cruise ship, which has been docked at Japan's port of Yokohama since Feb. 3.

Reporting for ABC News’ "Perspective" podcast, Maggie Rulli has been talking to passengers aboard the vessel, some of whom have nicknamed it the “ship of doom.”

John Haering and his wife Melanie went on the cruise to celebrate his retirement. Now, he’s quarantined off the boat with a 103-degree fever and a positive test for the virus, while his wife remains on the ship.

“I’m alone here in the room and would rather be back on the cruise ship,” John said.

But being quarantined on a ship for days can affect mental health, so the cruise line is providing entertainment packages and helping those aboard pass the time with movies and online workout classes. With some passengers getting only one hour outside over the last six days, it’s important to keep spirits high.

Back on land, the mood in Japan is fearful so the number of people going out on weekends and nights has noticeably decreased. Restaurants, theaters and bars are about half as full as they usually are at peak times. People in the street cover themselves with face masks.

“You don’t know where the germs are; we still don’t really know how it’s transferred,” Rulli reports outside the docked ship. “Washing my hands nonstop, I have hand sanitizer on me at all times, I have those wet wipes, I try to wipe down my phone every hour with those wipes.”

With more than 1,300 coronavirus fatalities in China, officials are not taking chances -- so those who are infected or at high risk are being quarantined until their test results come back negative.

The cruise ship is currently starting to unload some of its passengers, but there are still many to go before all guests are clear to return to their normal lives.

You can listen to the full episode of "Perspective" here.

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Colombia to decide on historic abortion ruling

iStockFourteen years after Colombia's landmark decision to legalize abortions in some cases, the country is once more bracing itself for a historic vote.

The Colombian Constitutional Court has until Feb. 19th to decide whether it will legalize abortion for pregnancies up to 12 weeks. The current law allows for abortion in only three instances: if the mother's life is at risk, if a fetus is malformed or if the pregnancy is a result of rape.

This is the "first real opportunity to actually advance reproductive rights," according to Paula Avila-Guillen, the director of Latin America Initiatives for the Women's Equality Center.

"I think they have the opportunity to actually make history," Avila-Guillen told ABC News.

The decision is hanging on two female justices who have not yet made clear how they will vote, according to Avila-Guillen. She said that out of the nine justices, four men are in favor, and two men, as well as one woman, are against.

The country's current abortion law is among the more lenient in Latin America.

The Center for Reproductive Rights classifies Colombia's abortion law as legal if it is "to preserve health." Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru also fall under that category.

Six Latin American countries have total abortion bans: the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Suriname.

By law, all institutions providing health services in Colombia -- whether public, private, secular or religious -- are required to perform an abortion if a woman proves that she meets one of the three exceptions.

Even so, advocates say the reality is that it's not regulated and hospitals often deny women the service.

Out of the estimated 400,400 abortions performed in the country each year, only 322 are legal procedures performed in health facilities, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization on sexual and reproductive rights.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, found that of the 428 women and girls who requested an abortion through MSF in 2017 and 2018, 88% reported that they faced at least one obstacle while trying to access the service.

MSF noted that while the data does not represent the country as a whole, "it does provide a snapshot of the situation."

There are two main abortion providing groups in Colombia: Orientame and ProFamilia, both of which have multiple facilities across the country.

Dr. Juan Vargas, a gynecologist of 25 years at ProFamilia, told ABC News that in 2019 the clinic performed some 22,000 abortions. He said that most of the women who seek abortion from a ProFamilia clinic do so for health reasons. Rape accounts for 1%, while fetal malformation makes up about 3%, according to Vargas.

He noted that rape survivors need to prove in some way they have been raped. It is most often done through a police report or complaint, he said; however, many victims of rape often do not report their assault.

Vargas said between 90 to 95% of women who seek an abortion are granted one at ProFamilia. Abortions that are not performed at one of the facilities are done in hospitals, where proper access is a major issue, according to Avila-Guillen.

"Safe abortions continue to be a problem," she said. "Access has never really materialized."

Unsafe abortions are one of the five leading causes of maternal mortality worldwide, according to MSF. The other four are postpartum hemorrhage, sepsis, birth complications and hypertensive disorders.

"Of all these, unsafe abortion is the only one that is completely avoidable," MSF reports.

Avila-Guillen said such a consequence makes the upcoming vote all the more important.

"This will be significant and a huge legacy for this court and these two women judges, which it's in their hands to recognize women's rights and women's autonomy and women's equality," she said.

Though Avila-Guillen did not have statistics on how the public in Colombia feels about abortion, she said like many places around the world, the country is in the midst of a "battle."

"We just elected our first female mayor who is married to a congresswoman, and I think that just shows you how Colombia is moving toward a more progressive society," Avila-Guillen said.

Yet on the other hand, she noted, Colombia has not been spared a push of a right-wing agenda and there are some in the country who still vehemently oppose abortion rights.

She noted that the Colombian Constitutional Court is only considering the change in law after author Natalia Bernal Cano, who wrote a book titled "The right to information about the risks of induced abortion," brought forth a case to ban abortion entirely. In her book, Cano argues that she is providing "the right to information about the risks to women's mental and physical health from the voluntary interruption of pregnancy."

The court has since used her case to consider ultra petita, or beyond what is sought.

"They have requested a lot of technical information from providers, from lawyers, from public health experts, from criminal attorneys, so that is a good sign," Avila-Guillen said. "Whatever decision they make, it's going to be informed and based on facts."

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US, Taliban reach agreement to reduce violence opening door troop withdrawal

zabelin/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- The United States and Taliban reached an agreement on Friday to reduce violence for seven days, which could open the door to the two sides signing a larger peace deal reached last year, according to a senior State Department official.

That larger deal would require U.S. forces to begin to withdraw, in exchange for a Taliban commitment to not allow Afghanistan to be a safe haven for terrorism and to sit down with other Afghans for peace talks -- two commitments critics are skeptical the militant group will follow through on.

The reduction in violence had been a key U.S. demand since President Donald Trump called out negotiations last fall, but it's a step short of the complete ceasefire that the Afghan government had been calling for.

Still, after over 18 years of war, the seven-day deal could open the door to a historic agreement that ends U.S. deployment in Afghanistan, with the senior official not ruling out a complete withdrawal.

But first, the Taliban must follow through and implement the reduction in violence, according to the official.

"Should the Talibs implement what they've committed to doing, we'll go forward with the agreement," they said.

A Taliban source told ABC News the reduction would begin on Feb. 22, with plans for the two sides to sign the larger agreement on Feb. 29 and Afghan national peace talks to begin March 10.

While it's not a full ceasefire, the reduction is nationwide and includes Afghan government forces, not just the U.S. and Taliban. The language is also "very specific," the official said, including prohibiting roadside bombs, suicide bombs and rocket attacks.

The U.S. military will monitor the reduction and use a hotline directly to the militant group, as well as the Afghan government, to raise any violations or other issues.

The senior official said they expect there will be some "spoilers ... who benefit from the status quo" and will conduct attacks, but the U.S. --- led by Gen. Austin Miller, head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan -- will assess each incident individually.

"That's why this channel is so important, that if we see something, we should be able to determine, and if we can't determine, we raise questions," the official said.

It's still unclear if certain military activity will still be permissible, making this interim deal different from a complete ceasefire.

The official, who briefed reporters traveling with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Munich, would not go into reports of secret annexes in the larger U.S.-Taliban deal or discuss specifics, like how many U.S. troops and what kind could remain behind.

They said only the U.S. withdrawal would be "conditions-based and in phases," tied directly to the Taliban meeting its commitments.

Those commitments are to joining Afghan national peace talks and to barring terrorists from any safe haven in the country -- "no hosting, no presence, no training, no recruitment, no fundraising," the official said, which has been the top U.S. priority over 18 years after al Qaeda operatives used the country to launch the Sept. 11 attacks.

Critics remain skeptical that the militant group can fulfill that promise, but the official said the U.S. will have "monitoring and verification" to ensure they do.

The Afghan government, which the Taliban refuses to recognize, had been hoping for a permanent ceasefire first. The U.S. had initially called for a one as part of any deal, but abandoned that after the Taliban made clear they wouldn't agree to it. But the senior State Department official said a "comprehensive, permanent ceasefire to end the Afghan-Afghan war will be one of the first topics" of Afghan national peace talks.

They refused, however, to say whether the U.S. withdrawal was conditioned on those Afghan peace talks being successful, calling it a hypothetical.

Those talks will bring the Taliban together with a wide range of Afghan leaders, including government officials, but they'll be forced to attend in a "private" capacity because of the Taliban refusal to recognize the Kabul government.

A round of informal Afghan national dialogue yielded some success last July, bringing together Taliban and government officials, civil society leaders, tribal elders and some women that agreed on a somewhat vague, but inclusive resolution calling for peace.

But the senior official left the door open to the agreement ultimately ending with no U.S. troops in Afghanistan at all.

"Having a military presence in Afghanistan is not an end in itself for the United States," the official said. "What's important is whether there are conditions in Afghanistan that necessitate a presence ... and that depends on whether the Talibs deliver."

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China says 1,716 health workers among over 63,000 infected by novel coronavirus

Samara Heisz/iStock(BEIJING) -- Chinese health officials have revealed for the first time the number of frontline workers who have been infected by the novel coronavirus.

Zeng Yixin, vice minister of China's National Health Commission, told reporters Friday that so far, 1,716 medical workers have tested positive for the newly discovered virus, known officially as COVID-19, and six of them have died. Most of the workers were in Hubei, the province at the center of the outbreak since the first coronavirus cases emerged in its capital, Wuhan, back in December.

"At present, the duties of medical workers at the front are indeed extremely heavy," Zeng said at a press conference Friday. "Their working and resting circumstances are limited, the psychological pressures are great and the risk of infection is high."

As of Friday, there were 63,851 reports of confirmed cases and 1,380 deaths on the Chinese mainland. More than 81% of the confirmed infections were reported in Hubei province. There were another 81 reports of confirmed cases and one death in the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong, according to the National Health Commission.

Hubei province reported a nearly tenfold increase in cases on Thursday morning, after health officials applied new methodology to how cases are categorized.

The Health Commission of Hubei Province explained in a press release that the record spike was due to a change in how cases are diagnosed and counted, with the total number of confirmed cases now including "clinically diagnosed cases," or patients who showed symptoms of the disease and were diagnosed through CT scans of the lungs, for instance, but have not yet had laboratory testing.

The expanded criteria is meant to ensure "that patients can receive standardized treatment according to confirmed cases as early as possible to further improve the success rate of treatment," the commission said.

Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization's Health Emergencies Program, said at a press conference Thursday that the overnight increase in cases from China shouldn't be considered a spike since they are being retrospectively reported.

"We need to be cautious when drawing conclusions from daily reported numbers," Ryan told reporters. "We need to be very careful when reporting any extremes."

There are at least 447 cases confirmed in 24 other countries, according to the WHO, which has declared the outbreak a global health emergency. There's been one death in Japan and one in the Philippines, bringing the global death toll to three.

So far, there are only 15 cases confirmed in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The patients are in Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. All but two of the U.S. cases are linked to travel to Wuhan, China.

COVID-19 causes symptoms similar to pneumonia, ranging from mild, such as a slight cough, to more severe, including fever and difficulty breathing, according to the CDC. There is no vaccine yet for the virus, nor any known effective therapeutics.

Meanwhile, a cruise ship quarantined at sea in Japan has become the largest center of infection of anywhere outside China.

Since the Diamond Princess arrived at the Japanese port of Yokohama on Feb. 3, at least 218 people on board have tested positive for the new coronavirus. At least one quarantine officer has also been infected, according to Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

All those infected with the disease on the Diamond Princess have been brought ashore for treatment, while the other passengers have been confined to their rooms on board as the ship remains quarantined at sea.

However, Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare announced Thursday its plans for a voluntary disembarkation of guests to complete their quarantine period at a shoreside facility.

A spokesperson for Princess Cruises, which operates the ship, said "it is our understanding that this will be a phased approach, with the most medically vulnerable guests in the first phase, including older adults with pre-existing health conditions."

"According to officials, guests in the first group will be tested for the 2019 novel coronavirus," the cruise line spokesperson said in a statement Thursday. "If the test is positive, they will be transported to a local hospital for further evaluation and isolation. If the test is negative, they will be given the option to leave the ship and be transported to a quarantine housing facility."

All guests aboard the Diamond Princess "remain welcome to stay on board through the end of the quarantine period," the spokesperson added.

Earlier in the week, the spokesperson told ABC News that 23 Americans were among those who had tested positive for COVID-19. It's unclear whether any additional U.S. citizens have been infected since then.

Approximately half of all people who were onboard the Diamond Princess are from Japan, while more than 400 passengers are from the United States, according to the cruise line spokesperson.

Natalie Costa, the cruise director aboard the Diamond Princess, posted a video message on Friday, saying, "We are all hanging in there, doing fine and keeping together as a big family."

"A lot of questions coming in about what we're doing during the day," Costa continued. "It changes, changes from hour to hour. We're manning the photos were getting deliveries out, different games and puzzles."

"Wherever we're required," she added, "that is where we are."

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Prince Harry, Meghan to close Buckingham Palace office

Circle Creative Studio/iStock(LONDON) -- Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, plan to close their Buckingham Palace office as they step back from their roles as working members of the royal family, a royal source told ABC News.

The source confirmed the closing of office means some members of Harry and Meghan's staff will lose their jobs, saying, "While the details are still being finalized and efforts are being made to redeploy people within the Royal household, unfortunately there will be some redundancies."

Harry and Meghan's office has been based at Buckingham Palace since last year, when Harry and his brother Prince William split their households.

In their new roles that will begin this spring, Harry and Meghan plan to spend "the majority of their time" in North America, according to Buckingham Palace. They are currently in Canada with their 9-month-old son Archie but there is speculation that could also spend time in the Los Angeles area, where Meghan was born and raised.

Harry and Meghan, who will no longer use their HRH titles, will also no longer represent Queen Elizabeth and no longer receive public funds for royal duties, freeing them to earn money on their own.

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Pompeo makes fist trip to Africa in bid to reassert US as leading partner

State Department by Michael Gross/ Public Domain(WASHINGTON) -- After nearly 22 months in office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will make his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa on Saturday, in a bid to reassert the U.S. as the leading partner to the world's youngest and likely to be most populous continent amid strong Chinese influence and a growing Russian presence.

The top U.S. diplomat will visit Senegal, Angola and Ethiopia, describing them as "three countries in various stages of development in their transition to democracy and their stability."

His major themes will include promoting trade with the U.S., good governance and the rule of law, while also urging African officials and business leaders to eschew Chinese investment.

But he will face considerable headwinds because of the Trump administration's lack of engagement with Africa, President Donald Trump's reported disparaging remarks about the continent and several new policies, including proposing budget cuts for African programs, expanding the president's travel ban to include nearly a quarter of the continent's population and potentially cutting back the U.S. military's presence.

"The challenge that Pompeo's facing in Africa is explaining the contradictory messages coming from Washington," said Witney Schneidman, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Africa Growth Initiative. "It's the lack of attention that's been paid. It's the fact that (former national security adviser John) Bolton rolled out this Africa strategy 14 months ago, and since then, very little has been accomplished where many other nations have moved forward."

Pompeo's trip will mark the first by a Trump cabinet official there in 19 months, after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross visited Ethiopia, Kenya, Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana and pledged the U.S. would facilitate $1 billion of private-sector deals in July 2018. Trump's previous Secretary of State Rex Tillerson only visited once in his 13 months on the job, getting fired the day after returning from Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Chad and Nigeria.

Still, African officials are largely willing to look past that and eager for increased U.S. investment, especially as an alternative to Chinese financing, with its excessive amounts of credit, tied to steep interest rates and high risk of forfeiture. That's a message that Pompeo, one of the administration's lead China hawks, has carried on nearly all his foreign trips, warning Southeast Asian countries of China's "debt-trap diplomacy" or Western European allies against using Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant that leads in 5G technology. Just last Saturday, he warned China is always "working you ... working the team around you" in a speech to U.S. governors.

But African leaders already know all that, according to Ahmadou Aly Mbaye, economics professor at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Senegal, who said that they want to hear what the U.S. will do to help them finance their economic growth and provide for their burgeoning populations instead.

"The needs for investment are huge, in particular, in terms of infrastructure investment," Mbaye said, but, "The existing routes the West and the U.S. are using have shown their limitations. The World Bank and Western international organizations provide very little to fill in these gaps. ... If you remove China, you have almost nothing left."

Pompeo told reporters traveling with him on Thursday that he wants to talk to leaders in all three countries and at the African Union about encouraging economic reforms to increase market access, combat corruption and promote the rule of law -- all of which would bring more American investment, he said.

That will be a particularly important message in Ethiopia, as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed pushes to liberalize the economy by privatizing state monopolies, and in Angola, where President Joao Lourenco has tackled corruption and tried to shift the country off economic dependence on oil exports. Pompeo said the U.S. could also provide technical assistance to help spur these reforms.

To that end, Trump may host African leaders for a U.S.-Africa investment summit in Washington, co-hosted by South Africa, according to Lana Marks, the U.S. ambassador in Pretoria and a close Trump friend.

The administration also requested in its new FY 2021 budget $800 million for the Development Finance Corporation, a newly created government agency that provides financing for private development projects. That's more than double the $299 million Congress gave it in fiscal year 2020. Trump's budget proposal also sought an additional $50 million for its Prosper Africa initiative to increase two-way trade, for a new total of $75 million. But overall, the budget proposal slashes assistance to Africa by 39%, or $3.23 billion, and funding for key health programs in Africa like the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, which would see a 26% cut.

There is a similar contradiction in the administration's military posture across the continent. Senior officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy, have warned for months now about the deteriorating security situation in the Sahel, the region situated between the Sahara desert and the savanna and stretching across the continent from Senegal and Mauritania to Sudan and Ethiopia.

With terrorist fighters and weapons flowing south from Libya, the Sahel has seen a dramatic rise in terrorist attacks -- with Nagy warning in November that the U.S. and European strategy to contain it was not working: "We need to have a much, much more robust engagement. There has to be much more robust coordination."

But the Pentagon is currently reviewing whether to slash its troop presence in West Africa. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday no decision had been made about the U.S. counterterrorism mission there, but the Pentagon announced Wednesday that about one thousand service members would depart as part of a change in mission in East Africa, where a special Army unit to train local partner forces will replace members of an Army infantry division.

Even that scaling down "makes very little sense," according to Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow also with Brookings, who called it "an overly narrow fixation on pulling forces out of Africa and elsewhere in order to get them closer to Russia and China" and position them for "great power" competition, as Trump's national security strategy says.

Mbaye said any cuts to troop totals in the Sahel would be "very, very worrisome."

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Lawmakers, experts warn of potential arms race as nuclear treaty's end date nears

mashabuba/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- As the Trump administration ramps up the country’s nuclear capabilities in the latest Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal, the clock is ticking on the only remaining arms control treaty that keeps the world’s two leading nuclear powers -- Russia and the United States -- in check.

In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, said the treaty’s expiration would signal for the first time in more than four decades that "there is no arms control regime in the world" -- which could potentially lead to arms proliferation.

"When we combine the huge numbers of arsenals and potentially even higher numbers of arsenals as New START goes away ... that's a recipe for sort of that return to Cold War-style arms racing that I think people are worried about," Pranay Vaddi, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow, told ABC News.

Vaddi, who helped work on New START during his time at the State Department, said that he had expected the increased nuclear investments as a result of an Obama-era nuclear modernization framework and the subsequent impact of the Budget Control Act.

But Vaddi said the efforts to recapitalize U.S. nuclear programs against growing nuclear capabilities from adversaries could not come at a more inconvenient time as the treaty’s days are numbered.

Commander of U.S. Strategic Command Charles A. Richard, who testified at the hearing, addressed concerns over a potential arms race, saying that the idea "baffles him," as no other nation has done more to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons.

He acknowledged how critical New START has been in providing transparency and information on nuclear threat levels from Russia, but pointed out its shortcomings.

"It does not address a very large class of weapons that the Russians have a significant advantage in … and it is a bilateral treaty," Richard said. "Ultimately a decision to extend a treaty is a political decision."

The White House has put off extending the 2011 Obama-Medvedev negotiated treaty in an attempt to bring China into a multilateral nuclear arms agreement.

Tuesday at an Atlantic Council forum, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien fielded reporters' questions regarding the United States' timeline and position on extending New START.

"I think we’ll be sitting down with our Russian colleagues very soon and we’ll be talking about those important issues," O’Brien told one reporter.

In response to another question, O’Brien invoked the White House’s desire to bring China into negotiations: "Once any potential agreement takes shape, we’ll have to see how the issue of China plays into it. But we’ll get through that as part of the negotiating process."

A deadline to form a position on New START, however, is something O’Brien said the administration could not predict right now.

As for Russia’s position, the country’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke at a news conference in January, saying that President Vladimir Putin made an offer to extend the treaty as an "insurance policy" while planning multilateral negotiations.

"We suggest extending the New START Treaty without any preconditions ... I hope that the Americans have heard us," Lavrov later said.

Many arms control experts have criticized the administration for not moving forward with extending New START as leverage to bring China into negotiations.

The Arms Control Association responded that the notion of using New START as a bargaining chip is useless, "unless the administration is willing to walk away from the treaty if Russia and China don’t meet U.S. demands for talks."

Moreover, using the treaty as leverage would be a dangerous risk because the treaty "is too important to be gambled away," the association said in a statement.

Vaddi also challenged the White House’s strategy of leverage, saying that it only made sense if the administration had an idea of what it wants out of an agreement with China, which the White House has yet to identify.

He critiqued the idea of bringing China into multilateral negotiations since the country’s number of nuclear warheads pales in comparison to that of the U.S. and Russia, a counterpoint that other arms experts have raised. China also does not perform its nuclear operations in the same manner that U.S. and Russia do.

As the U.S. continues to hold off, lawmakers, advocates and political figures have echoed a growing concern over the fate of New START.

On Feb. 5, the treaty’s anniversary, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Sen. Bob Menendez and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Eliot Engel published a joint statement urging for its extension, calling the treaty an "indispensable pillar of security."

Former U.S. Secretary Madeleine Albright and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov penned an op-ed in the New York Times earlier this week as a Hail Mary to push for the extension of New START.

Last year, Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) introduced a bipartisan bill that calls for the extension of New START following the United States' withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

"The collapse of New START would be a global disaster – and can be avoided at the stroke of a pen," said Derek Johnson, executive director of the international Global Zero movement, an international group that seeks to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

Whether an arms race will happen or not, Vaddi suggested that it would be in Russia’s interest to play the responsible party as opposed to producing more nuclear weapons if the treaty were to expire.

"The U.S. and Russia would not benefit from engaging in any kind of conflict that involves these weapons," he said.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


The birthplace of Saint Valentine is looking for an American partner

KeithBinns/iStock(NEW YORK) -- The "city of love" is looking for a partner.

Terni -- the birthplace of Saint Valentine located in central Italy just an hour north of Rome -- has begun a search for a U.S. sister city.

The search launched Friday, Valentine's Day, a holiday that commemorates the day Saint Valentine was martyred.

Sister cities are long-term partnerships between two communities in two countries to help maintain or improve international relations. Terni already has sister cities in France, Hungary and Spain, but none in the U.S. yet.

Terni is looking for an American city that is somewhat comparable to itself. Specific traits include places with a romantic element and places with aquatic features (Terni is located outside of a man-made waterfall created by the Ancient Romans).

"Terni is the city of love. ... We decided to bring the idea of friendship and love into the modern age by launching a search for an American city or town which shares our values and with which we might twin," the mayor of Terni, Leonardo Latini, said in a statement to ABC News.

Interested cities must submit a short video showing why they would be a good match. The submissions will be judged by Latini and Julie Hansen, the CEO of the language-learning app Babbel, which is helping Terni in the search and will donate 1,000 Babbel subscriptions to the city so residents can learn Italian.

The closing date for applications is September 2020 and the winner will be announced on Valentine's Day 2021.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Stores in Tehran told to stop selling Valentine's Day gifts

Somayeh Malekian for ABC News(TEHRAN, Iran) -- Gift shops around Tehran, Iran had stocked their shelves with heart-shaped balloons, roses and small glass hearts for Valentine's Day.

But government officials are warning shop owners not sell Valentine’s Day balloons, which are popular in town.

“Based on the decision of the [haberdashery] guild, members are informed about the prohibition of selling such balloons and they must follow the regulations,” said Hossein Dokmehchi, head of the haberdashery guild, according to Mehr News Agency.

One gift shop owner said the decision was unfair.

“[The police] only come to check on the Valentine’s Day and look for anything huge in the shape of heart in the shop windows,” said Mr. Anisi, 53, who did not want his full name to be published. “They say the [holiday] is an occasion in western culture. So, if I do not follow the regulations, they will close my shop from three to seven days, and they have done it before.”

Narges, a 29-year old physician who had come to buy gifts for her sweetheart, said she does not understand the ban.

“I am sure if those officials who make such decisions are honest, they also want their children to channel their youthful energy into love and friendship. They must accept us the way we really are,” she said.

Zahra Rahmani, an 18-year-old industrial engineering student who follows the long black veil conservative dress code, questioned the decision of government officials.

“Why do [they] think the occasion is exclusively for romantic relations? I would love to buy a gift for my mother tomorrow,” she said.

“Even if the decision is true, it is not possible to control all shops around the city with so many customers,” her cousin, Hannaneh Jebelli, added.

According to the Mehr News Agency report, Dokmechi explained that the guild is merely responsible for sending out the notice and other related organizations are responsible for “executing” the regulation.

After years of closing his shop for a week after Valentine’s Day, Anisi said he finally decided to speak up.

“I went to the related police office and told them that closing shops is not fair,” he said.

Anisi talked to the police about the problems shop owners face when closing their stores.

“They told me to keep big heart gifts off my window and avoid promoting the occasion,” he said.

He then moved the big heart gifts to appease the police.

“It is all a matter of compromise here. People will keep buying what they need. I keep selling and the police are happy, too," he said.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Fifteenth novel coronavirus patient reported in the US

jarun011/iStock(SAN ANTONIO) -- A 15th patient has been diagnosed with novel coronavirus in the United States, health officials reported Thursday.

The patient was among the Americans repatriated from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the new coronavirus outbreak, and had been quarantined at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

At the same time, a second novel coronavirus death outside of China was reported in Japan, the country's health minister announced Thursday.

The patient, a woman in her 80s, had been hospitalized in Tokyo since early February, after she developed symptoms of the virus. The only death from the outbreak outside of China occurred in the Philippines. There has also been a death in the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong.

The Chinese province at the heart of the novel coronavirus outbreak reported a nearly tenfold increase in cases on Thursday morning, after applying new methodology as to how cases are categorized.

The Health Commission of Hubei Province announced an additional 14,840 cases of the newly identified virus, known officially as COVID-19, as well as 242 more deaths.

The commission explained in a press release that the record spike was due to a change in how cases are diagnosed and counted, with the total number of confirmed cases now including "clinically diagnosed cases," or patients who showed symptoms of the disease and were diagnosed through CT scans of the lungs, for instance, but have not yet had laboratory testing.

The expanded criteria is meant to ensure "that patients can receive standardized treatment according to confirmed cases as early as possible to further improve the success rate of treatment," the commission said.

The overall number of cases in China now stands at 59,882, with 1,368 deaths, including one in the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong, according to the Chinese National Health Commission. Roughly 80 percent of those cases have been reported in central Hubei province, with the epicenter of the outbreak in its capital, Wuhan, where the first cases were detected last December.

There are at least 441 cases confirmed in 24 other countries, according to the World Health Organization, which has declared the outbreak a global health emergency.

So far, there are only 15 cases confirmed in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The patients are in Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington, Wisconsin and Texas and all but two cases are linked to travel to Wuhan, China.

The novel coronavirus causes symptoms similar to pneumonia, ranging from mild, such as a slight cough, to more severe, including fever and difficulty breathing, according to the CDC. There is no vaccine yet for the virus, nor any known effective therapeutics.

Meanwhile, the number of people infected with the virus aboard a quarantined cruise ship in Japan continues to tick upward. Since the Diamond Princess arrived at the Japanese port of Yokohama on Feb. 3, at least 218 people on board have tested positive for the new coronavirus by Thursday morning -- with 44 new cases in the past 24 hours. At least one quarantine officer has also been infected, according to Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

The uptick in cases makes the vessel the largest center of infection of anywhere outside of China.

All those infected with the disease on the Diamond Princess have been brought ashore for treatment, while the other passengers have been confined to their rooms on board as the ship remains quarantined at sea.

However, Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare announced Thursday its plans for a voluntary disembarkation of guests to complete their quarantine period at a shoreside facility.

A spokesperson for Princess Cruises, which operates the ship, said "it is our understanding that this will be a phased approach, with the most medically vulnerable guests in the first phase, including older adults with pre-existing health conditions."

"According to officials, guests in the first group will be tested for the 2019 novel coronavirus," the cruise line spokesperson said in a statement Thursday. "If the test is positive, they will be transported to a local hospital for further evaluation and isolation. If the test is negative, they will be given the option to leave the ship and be transported to a quarantine housing facility."

All guests aboard the Diamond Princess "remain welcome to stay on board through the end of the quarantine period," the spokesperson added.

The spokesperson also confirmed the 44 new cases. Earlier in the week, the spokesperson told ABC News that 23 Americans were among those infected. It's unclear whether the latest cases include any additional U.S. citizens.

Approximately half of all people who were onboard the Diamond Princess are from Japan, while more than 400 passengers are from the United States, according to the cruise line spokesperson.

One of the American passengers on board, Dave Abel, said the ever-rising number of cases is "getting people's moods down."

"One of the passengers in the night was keeping other passengers awake, a lady who was crying for a couple of hours in her cabin," Abel told ABC News in a telephone interview Thursday. "So life isn't as easy as it was last week. It's a bit more challenging.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Rumors swirl around Prince Harry speaker series at big banks

Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images(LONDON) -- After a reported speaking engagement in Miami last week, rumors have swirled about what speaking opportunities and jobs Prince Harry may take on in his future role as a non-working member of Britain's royal family.

Harry and his wife Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, reportedly flew from Vancouver Island, where they've been staying with their 8-month-old son Archie, to Miami last weekend. The couple attended a speaking engagement on Feb. 6 for JPMorgan, the U.S.-headquartered global financial services firm, according to a royal source.

It is not known whether or not Harry and Meghan were paid speakers at the event for JPMorgan, but it is common for speakers at corporate events to receive compensation.

In the days since that event, it's been reported that Harry, 35, has been in negotiations for a speaking role with Goldman Sachs, another U.S.-based global financial services firm.

While Goldman Sachs has been in discussions with the royal for about a year, the discussions center on a partnership between one of Harry's charities and the bank, not with Harry himself, a royal source has confirmed to ABC News.

Goldman Sachs also hosts a "Talks at GS" series that features one-on-one interviews with everyone from supermodel Karlie Kloss to former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. That speaking series is not a paid engagement.

Buckingham Palace has not commented on the Goldman Sachs rumors and declined to comment on the private schedule of the Duke and Duchess in regards to the JPMorgan event.

The speculation around the future roles Harry could take on, and the money he could receive, come as he and Meghan prepare to depart this spring as working members of Britain's royal family.

In their new roles, announced in January after intense negotiations, Harry and Meghan will no longer represent Queen Elizabeth and no longer receive public funds for royal duties, freeing them to earn money on their own.

Harry and Meghan, who will no longer use their HRH titles, also plan to spend "the majority of their time" in North America, according to Buckingham Palace. They are currently in Canada but there is speculation that could also spend time in the Los Angeles area, where Meghan was born and raised.

Harry's last public engagement was an event for his Senetable charity on Jan. 20, just before he left the U.K. to reunite with Meghan and Archie in Canada.

Meghan has been photographed walking on Vancouver Island with Archie and the family's dogs, prompting the Sussexes' legal team to issue a legal notice to U.K. media and photo agencies concerning the use of paparazzi agency photos.

Last month, before the couple's new roles were announced, Meghan visited two women-focused organizations in Vancouver. The private meetings only became public after the organizations shared photos on social media.

The next opportunity for the public to see Prince Harry and Meghan back in the U.K. could come as early as next month. Britain's royal family, of which Harry and Meghan remain members, will gather in London on March 9 to mark Commonwealth Day in the U.K.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Fires in New South Wales contained for the first time since Australia's fire season began

Stuart_Shaw/iStock(NEW SOUTH WALES, Australia) -- All bushfires in New South Wales, Australia are contained for the first time since this fire season began in September 2019, the state's fire agency reported Thursday.

Rob Rogers, the deputy commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Service, called the development "great news" after a "truly devastating season for both firefighters and residents who suffered through so much."

Rogers said "we can really focus on helping people rebuild."

In what has been a very traumatic, exhausting and anxious bush fire season so far, for the first time this season all bush and grass fires in NSW are now contained.
It has taken a lot of work by firefighters, emergency services and communities to get to this point. #nswrfs pic.twitter.com/RhqmcYhJ1j

— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) February 13, 2020

New South Wales was particularly ravaged by the fires, with more than 13 million acres burned and nearly 2,500 homes destroyed, according to the fire agency. At least 25 people were killed across the country, according to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

The blazes began about three months before the fire season typically starts in Australia.

Rainfall helped put out some of the fires, though major flooding and severe thunderstorms have now created problems of their own in the state, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

As for the economic damage, insurance claims reached $485 million in early January, according to the Insurance Council of Australia.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Images show ice-less region of Antarctica following record-high temperatures

jocrebbin/iStock(NEW YORK) -- Images out of a northern region of Antarctica show a landscape nearly devoid of ice and snow after record-setting temperatures last week.

Video taken near in the Chilean Antarctic Territory, on the continent's peninsula, show mountain bases with mere patches of snow and sections of ocean topped with little to no ice.

Last Thursday, the Esperanza Base, a year-round Argentine research center on the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula, recorded a temperature of 18.3 degrees Celsius -- nearly 65 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Argentina's national meteorological service.

The previous record was set in the same location in March 2015 at 17.5 degrees C, or 63.5 degrees F.

The amount of ice lost annually from the Antarctic has increased six-fold from 1979 to 2017, the World Meteorological Organization, the United Nations' authoritative voice on weather, climate and water, said in a statement last week.

Despite the spike in temperatures, snow has continued to fall in Fildes Bay, on an archipelago north of the peninsula between King George Island and Nelson Island, scientists said.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


US, Taliban nearing deal to reduce violence, finalize talks that would lead to American withdrawal

KeithBinns/iStock(NEW YORK) -- The U.S. and Taliban are close to finalizing an agreement to reduce violence in Afghanistan, which would open the door to a historic deal on the U.S. military presence there, according to U.S. and Taliban officials.

Unable to secure a full ceasefire from the Taliban, American negotiators had instead been demanding the militant group agree to a formal "reduction in violence" before moving ahead on an agreement that the two sides had come close to finalizing in September. The details of this reduction are still unknown, but the militant group has been pushing the U.S. to sign off on it soon, according to a Taliban source.

Importantly, the reduction in violence seems to have the support of the Afghan government, although it has falls short of its calls for a full nationwide ceasefire. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said the Taliban had committed to a "significant and enduring reduction in violence" after he spoke with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Tuesday.

The U.S. has not specified what the Taliban proposed, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday, "There is a reduction in violence proposal on the table." A State Department spokesperson said Tuesday discussions about the specifics on this interim agreement were ongoing between chief U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban officials in Doha, Qatar, which has hosted over a dozen rounds of talks now.

A reduction in violence has been the key U.S. demand since President Donald Trump called off talks in September. Trump cited the death of a U.S. soldier in a Taliban attack as grounds for doing so, but it came after he had invited the militant group to Camp David, rescinded the invitation, and then tweeted about it, eventually saying talks were dead.

At the time, the two sides were close to a final agreement, and U.S. officials say that framework is still in place: The U.S. would agree to gradually withdraw its troops -- under a "conditions-based approach" -- according to U.S. officials, and the Taliban would commit to not allow Afghanistan to be a safe haven for terrorism and to start intra-Afghan peace talks, including with representatives of the government.

Those government officials would only be allowed to participate in a "private" capacity, however, as the Taliban still will not recognize, let alone sit down with the government. The militant group has also refused to agree to a ceasefire because it's concerned it would lose fighters in the process and weaken their negotiating position -- a position U.S. negotiators have essentially yielded to.

Still, Ghani expressed support for where things stand, saying in a statement Tuesday: "Our primary objective is to end the senseless bloodshed. ... I assure [the Afghan people] that their leadership maintains the courage, competence, and the necessary resources to achieve this objective. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan will manage the next steps in a manner that positively supports the overall peace process and will report to the public."

While the reduction in violence is short of a nationwide ceasefire, Esper said Wednesday it would include both U.S. and Afghan forces, along with other international troops there as part of NATO's mission. The reduction is expected to last for a short period of time, a matter of days, before the two sides would finalize the overall agreement and kick-start intra-Afghan negotiations.

That would mean U.S. troops could begin withdrawing this year. There are currently between 12,000 and 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, although Esper said he has been assured by U.S. military commanders that troop levels could be reduced to 8,600 because they're confident they can carry out their mission at that number.

The initial agreement could come as soon as this week, with Ghani and Pompeo expected to meet at the Munich Security Conference in Germany. The Taliban have been pushing the U.S. to sign off on the terms of a reduction in violence that have been negotiated, according to a Taliban source, with military commanders back in Afghanistan pressuring Taliban negotiators to finalize the deal.

"They want to get an answer," said the Taliban source of those commanders, adding they "feared that the U.S. may pull back again of the table due to any incident or attack in Afghanistan."

"If it’s not going forward, our military commanders will work on upcoming spring offensive, which they announce each year at the beginning of Afghan new year by end of March," they added.

Two U.S. soldiers were killed Saturday in a possible insider attack, where an Afghan military official attacks U.S. troops he or she is training with. One Afghan National Army member was also killed in the attack, with six officials wounded.

This year has already proven to be a deadly year for U.S. forces, with six service members killed in total, after last year was the deadliest for U.S. forces in Afghanistan in five years.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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