Hundreds of migrants living in squalor in warehouse in Belarus amid ongoing border crisis

ABC News

(BRUZGI, Belarus) — Parsa Akram now lives with her mother, father and brother under a warehouse shelf. The space is about 2 meters wide. The 18-year-old and her mother sleep in a tent, her brother and father on the ground.

They are among hundreds of people — mostly from Iraqi Kurdistan — now living in a warehouse about a mile from Belarus’ border with Poland, caught up in the migration crisis that, although eased, has not ended.

The warehouse in Bruzgi is not a refugee center; it is just a packing warehouse, the kind Amazon or FedEx would use to store goods. People are now living on the stacks of shelves that would normally hold packages. Whole families like the Akrams are packed into the spaces under the shelving; others have clambered up to make nest-like beds in the higher levels.

“It’s not a camp,” Parsa said. “[It’s] a chicken house!”

For months, thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, have found themselves trapped between Belarus and Poland amid a crisis allegedly engineered by Belarus’ authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, who is accused of luring them to Europe’s border in an effort to retaliate against the European Union for its support for Belarus’ pro-democracy movement.

The migrants, mainly trying to reach western Europe, have been blocked by Poland and neighboring Lithuania, stranding them in forests along the border often for weeks, without food or shelter.

The crisis came to a head three weeks ago, when Belarus marched hundreds of migrants to a crossing point with Poland. Scenes of migrants sleeping in the open air in freezing temperatures and then violent clashes with Polish border guards, that Belarus was accused of inciting, attracted global attention.

Following the clashes, Belarus moved about 2,000 of the migrants to the warehouse, raising hopes the crisis might be easing.

Although better than the forest, the warehouse is not set up to house hundreds of people and after two weeks, conditions inside have rapidly deteriorated. When ABC News reporters visited this weekend, people were sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags and sometimes thin tents, huddled together in dirty clothes. There is almost no sanitation, just a few chemical toilets. People wash themselves from two portable water tanks set up in a yard slick with mud and slush.

There are dozens of children, including some a few months old, and pregnant women.

This week, Belarus’ military brought a mobile sauna in a tent to allow people to wash, for many, the first time in a month. Belarus is also feeding people, giving them portions of buckwheat porridge twice a day. Food trucks, selling bread and snacks, are also set up.

Many people in the camp said they were sick. Several told ABC News they were suffering from food poisoning that they blamed on expired tinned food they said Belarusian authorities had given them.

There are also fears COVID-19 is in the camp. Belarusian authorities — who have been accused of undercounting COVID cases more generally — claim only two cases have been recorded in the warehouse. But the sound of coughing there is constant and ABC News reporters met a man being hospitalized with pneumonia on Sunday.

“People cannot wait any longer because the weather is getting really really cold. And all the people in here, they’re all sick, they’re getting sick so bad,” said Zanyar Dishad, an 18-year-old from Kurdistan who was with his family.

Lukashenko visited the camp last Friday, accompanied by state television cameras. In a speech, he told the migrants he would not force them to go home and would do everything to help them reach Europe. He also demanded Poland and Germany take them in.

Belarusian authorities told the migrants European countries will soon take them, though there is no indication when or if this will happen. Several migrants said they believed Lukashenko was holding talks with the EU to get them across the border and many were unaware of the reasons behind his conflict with Europe.

“He’s a very good man,” said Karwan Jamal, 26, who is living now in a tent with his wife and 7-year-old son.

“He’s very kind,” his wife Narin added. “Because Belarus all the time helps all people in here.”

In reality, Belarusian authorities refused to allow migrants out of the forests for weeks. Migrants in recent weeks have told ABC News that Belarusian border guards beat and robbed them, forcing them to cross back into Poland after being pushed back.

But EU efforts to cut off the flow of migrants to Belarus seem to be having an effect. The number of new arrivals has sharply and visibly dropped off. Belarus also appears to now be allowing people to leave the border area.

Hundreds of Iraqi citizens have also returned home in the last week on voluntary repatriation flights organized by Iraq’s government, which said 1,800 people have returned already.

Among them was Balsam Khalaf, 51, who said he had given up after five months of being pushed back and forth across the border, saying he had been roughed up by Belarusian, Polish and Lithuanian guards.

“We turned to a bouncing ball between both sides,” he said in an interview in Baghdad this week.

It is unclear how many migrants are still in Belarus, but it estimated to be at least a few thousand, including in the forests. Polish authorities accuse Belarus’ security forces of continuing to try to push dozens of people across the border each night.

Iraq’s government said it would hold a final repatriation flight this week because it said no one else wished to return. It said 3,000 people in total had expressed a desire to return.

At the camp, most people said they would not go back, despite the wretched conditions.

“Never ever,” said Narin.

ABC News’ Bader Katy contributed to this report from Baghdad and Tanya Stukalova contributed from Bruzgi, Belarus.

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Global health authorities warn against ‘blanket’ travel bans

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(WASHINGTON) — Global health authorities are urging against the use of “blanket” travel bans in response to the threat of new coronavirus variants, as some nations have rushed to shutter incoming travel from southern African countries where the omicron variant has been detected.

The same health officials also warn that travel bans could have a negative effect on global efforts to respond to the pandemic, as nations may not wish to report new data and variants if they worry they could be seemingly punished for it by other countries barring their nationals from travel.

“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” the World Health Organization said in a statement Tuesday. “In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivizing countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data.”

Rather than blanket travel bans, the United Nations’ public health body urges countries to apply an “evidence-informed and risk-based approach” when implementing new travel restrictions.

The WHO’s advice comes after it said some 56 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures aimed at potentially delaying the importation of the omicron variant.

In the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, told ABC News’ “This Week” anchor George Stephanopoulos this past Sunday that travel bans could “slow things down,” but they won’t prevent a new variant from coming into the country.

“What you can do is you can delay it enough to get us better prepared,” Fauci said. “And that’s the thing that people need to understand. If you’re going to do the travel ban the way we’ve done now and that we’re implementing right now, utilize the time that you’re buying to fill in the gaps.”

Fauci’s remarks notably came before the U.S. confirmed the first case of the omicron variant in California on Wednesday.

“Travel bans are a very weak measure at best, but they’re most valuable very, very early on in the emergence of a new variant,” said Dr. John Brownstein, a professor at Harvard Medical School, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News contributor.

Travel bans can “buy you a little time,” he said, but only if they are implemented quickly and uniformly.

“The problem that we have here is that detection doesn’t mean being the epicenter of where the outbreak is,” Brownstein said. “Just because South Africa had incredible capacity to detect sequence doesn’t mean that necessarily this is where the most amount of cases occur.”

Some South African officials and scientists are calling the travel bans aimed at their country discriminatory and punitive.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa echoed the WHO’s sentiments in remarks to reporters while traveling to Nigeria on Tuesday, saying South Africa should not be “punished” for travel bans after being transparent with its omicron detection and research.

“These bans must be removed, they must be lifted,” Ramaphosa said. “And in fact, we have advanced in the world to a point where we now know when people travel, they should be tested like I was tested last night, and I’m happy to be tested when I arrive again. We’ve got the tools we’ve got the means to be able to deal with this.”

Ramaphosa added that the open travel is critical for the tourism industry around the world, which he said has been “really devastated.”

“And for us, the tourism industry is one of the key industries for southern Africa as well,” he said. “So, this is unfair, this is discriminatory against us, and they are imposing a very unfair punishment.”

One of the South African scientists who helped identify the omicron variant similarly blasted the travel bans imposed on southern African countries as a result of their discovery.

Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in Stellenbosch, South Africa, tweeted Monday night that he had “spent a big part” of his day speaking with genomic and biotech companies because “soon” his team “will run out of reagents as airplanes are not flying to South Africa.”

In a series of tweets last week, de Oliveira urged the world to “provide support to South Africa and Africa and not discriminate or isolate it.”

“We have been very transparent with scientific information. We identified, made data public, and raised the alarm as the infections are just increasing. We did this to protect our country and the world in spite of potentially suffering massive discrimination,” he tweeted.

In an interview with the New Yorker, de Oliveira added that he was “very upset” with the events that took place after the discovery, specifically related to travel bans.

“The U.K., after praising us for discovering the variant, then put out this absolutely stupid travel ban, and it has hoarded vaccines for the last year,” he told the outlet. “It’s trying to put the blame on vaccine hesitancy. It’s looking for a reason to fault Africa.”

Brownstein, who also noted that countries would feel penalized, rather than incentivized, for reporting new variants, suggested that testing pre- and post-travel and “intense surveillance” would be “incredibly helpful and probably more valuable than the travel restrictions.” Travel bans, he said, are “not the best tool.”

“We have really robust testing, we have other tools at our disposal,” he said. “We should be in a position where we don’t need to implement these things.”

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said in remarks Tuesday that it was “deeply concerning” that countries “are now being penalized by others for doing the right thing.”

“I well understand the concern of all countries to protect their citizens against a variant that we don’t yet fully understand,” he said. “But I am equally concerned that several Member States are introducing blunt, blanket measures that are not evidence-based or effective on their own, and which will only worsen inequities.”

Ultimately, Ghebreyesus called on nations to take “rational, proportional risk-reduction measures, in keeping with the International Health Regulations.”

“The global response must be calm, coordinated and coherent,” he added.

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Russia planning ‘significant aggressive moves against Ukraine,’ Blinken warns

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(WASHINGTON) — The U.S. is “deeply concerned by evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.

In the most urgent warning yet, Blinken said the U.S. and its NATO allies would impose a steep cost on Moscow if it attacked its neighbor.

But that cost would be economic and political, with the top U.S. diplomat threatening “a range of high-impact economic measures that we’ve refrained from using in the past.” But he and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stopped short of mentioning the use of force to defend Ukraine, which is not a member of the military alliance.

“We don’t know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade. We do know he’s putting in place the capacity to do so in short order,” Blinken said — the clearest statement to date of Western worries of an invasion, as Russia masses approximately 100,000 troops, along with heavy equipment, near Ukraine’s border.

Blinken will meet his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of a summit on European security Thursday, as well as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

It will be the latest high-level engagement between the U.S. and Russia amid heightened concern about Russia threatening Ukraine. President Joe Biden deployed his CIA Director Bill Burns to Moscow last month to convey U.S. concerns in person, Blinken said, declining to specify whether he would lay out precisely what those “high-impact” sanctions would be with Lavrov.

Russia has denied it is mounting any attack on Ukraine and instead accused Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO of menacing forces near its borders. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday his government is seeking guarantees from the West that it not move troops or weapons systems “in close vicinity to the Russian territory,” while Lavrov called the presence of Ukrainian troops “alarming.”

Blinken literally laughed off that latter comment, telling reporters after a two-day NATO summit in Latvia that it was “perplexing,” “profoundly wrong” and “misguided.”

“The idea that Ukraine represents a threat to Russia would be a bad joke if things weren’t so serious,” he added, warning that Russia may “claim provocation for something that they were planning to do all along.”

To that end, Blinken said, Russia has not only massed combat forces, it’s also “intensified disinformation to paint Ukraine as the aggressor” — increasing anti-Ukrainian propaganda by more than tenfold to levels not seen since its 2014 invasion.

Russia’s “plans include efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within, as well as large-scale military operations,” he added — the former, a possible reference to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s claim that Russia is behind a potential coup attempt to overthrow his government. The top U.S. diplomat for Europe said last Friday that the U.S. was in touch with Ukrainian authorities “to obtain additional information” and verify Zelenskiy’s statement.

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Climate change is affecting when grey seals give birth, scientists say

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(NEW YORK) — Scientists are continuing to discover ways in which climate change is already affecting animal species around the world — including how it’s changing the phenology, or timing of biological events.

Grey seals are the latest species to see phenological shifts due to warming ocean waters, a new study published Tuesday in the Royal Society Journals has found.

Researchers who monitored grey seals in the U.K.’s Skomer Marine Conservation Zone for three decades found that climate change has caused older seal mothers to give birth to pups earlier, an observation that favors the hypothesis that climate affects phenology by altering the age profile of the population.

When the researchers first began surveying grey seals in 1992, the midpoint of the pupping season was the first week of October. By 2004, the pupping season had advanced three weeks earlier, to mid-September, according to the study.

Warmer years were also associated with an older average age of mothers, the scientists found. Grey seals typically start breeding around 5 years old and can continue for several decades after. But the older the seals got, the earlier they gave birth, the researchers said.

The changes were not isolated to the U.K. There have been observable changes in the timing of seal life throughout the Atlantic and the world, according to the study.

Climate change has also recently been linked to a rising divorce rate in albatross couples, which mate for life, and to the shrinking of dozens of species of Amazonian birds, which are evolving to have smaller bodies and longer wing spans.

The causes and consequences of phenological shifts across ecosystems and geographical regions as a result of climate change have become a major area of interest in recent years, according to the study.

These changes can have a domino effect. Since species do not live in isolation, phenological changes can cascade through biological communities through trophic, competitive and mutualistic interactions, according to the study. This can be especially apparent in “mismatches in seasonal events,” such as those between predator and prey populations or flowering plants and their pollinators.

Eventually, phenological shifts in life-history events, such as breeding and pupping, can decouple biological communities and lead to critical transitions in population structure and even the collapse of ecosystems, the scientists said.

 

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Iran returns to negotiations, with a nuclear crisis still looming large for Biden

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(WASHINGTON) — Iran returned to negotiations over its nuclear program on Monday — meeting for the first time in over five months, with the country’s new hard-line government now in control.

Its chief negotiator emerged from closed doors bullish, as Tehran demands its concerns about continued U.S. sanctions be addressed first after former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal.

But the U.S. and the deal’s European signatories are warning that after months of stalling, Iran is facing its last opportunity to revive the 2015 deal that placed constraints on its nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions relief.

A top European Union diplomat who is coordinating the indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran expressed some guarded optimism afterward — and much urgency.

“There is clearly a will on all the delegations to listen to the Iranian positions brought by the new team, and there is clearly a will of the Iranian delegation to engage in serious work to bring JCPOA back to life,” said Enrique Mora, the senior EU diplomat, using an acronym for the nuclear deal’s formal name — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“I feel positive that we can be doing important things for the next weeks to come,” Mora added after delegations from Iran, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany met in Vienna, Austria.

Whether or not the U.S. and its European allies are willing to wait weeks is an open question — especially since Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s new president who is a conservative cleric close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has delayed the resumption of talks since he won election in June.

“These talks are the last opportunity for the Iranians to come to the table and agree the JCPOA,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Monday. “We will look at all options if that doesn’t happen.”

Patience is all but out in Israel, whose defense minister warned Monday that Iran is “dashing towards a nuclear weapon.”

Israeli officials shared intelligence with the U.S. and other allies showing that Iran is nearing a nuclear weapon, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said.

Since Trump’s exit, Iran has increasingly taken steps in violation of the deal, including by enriching more uranium, enriching uranium to higher levels, using more advanced centrifuges and more of them, and enriching uranium metal. The United Nation’s nuclear watchdog — the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA — reported this month that Iran has enriched 39 pounds of uranium to 60%, which is a short technical step from weapons-grade 90%.

Under the nuclear deal, Iran’s enrichment was capped at 3.67% for 15 years.

The State Department declined to comment on reports that Iran may be moving toward 90% enrichment levels, but deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter told reporters that “obviously would be a provocative act, and I’ll just underscore that we’ve made clear that Iran’s continued nuclear escalations are unconstructive and they’re also inconsistent with what’s stated in the goal of returning to a mutual compliance with the JCPOA.”

But ahead of talks resuming, Iran has used sharper language rejecting the idea of “mutual compliance” — increasingly arguing that the U.S. must act first because it was Trump that first exited the deal back in 2018.

“The principle of ‘mutual compliance’ cannot form a proper base for negotiations since it was the U.S. government which unilaterally left the deal,” Iran’s chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, wrote in an editorial Sunday, calling for a “clear and transparent mechanism to ensure that sanctions will be removed” and U.S. “compensation for the violation of the deal, which includes the removal of all post-JCPOA sanctions.”

The Biden administration has said it will not lift sanctions first, and the idea of compensating Iran for U.S. sanctions is politically toxic in Washington.

It’s unclear if those demands are just Iran posturing before sitting down, or if those are red lines. Out of Monday’s meetings, Bagheri claimed a “considerable achievement” by saying the remaining parties to the deal agreed to address U.S. sanctions first. But that doesn’t mean they agreed those sanctions need to be lifted before Iran’s own non-compliance is addressed. The working-level discussions will address U.S. sanctions on Tuesday and Iran’s nuclear program Wednesday, according to Mora.

The State Department has not yet provided a readout from special envoy for Iran Rob Malley’s meetings in Vienna, where the previous six rounds of talks were held as well.

Beyond Mora’s optimism, Russia’s envoy Mikhail Ulyanov said the talks “started quite successfully” and reached agreement on “further immediate steps,” without specifying what they were.

Any optimism has run face first into dire warnings from Israel, whose Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has vocally opposed the restoration of the nuclear deal.

“Iran deserves no rewards, no bargain deals, and no sanctions relief in return for their brutality. I call upon our allies around the world: Do not give in to Iran’s nuclear blackmail,” Bennett said Monday.

Malley told NPR last week the U.S. and Israel don’t agree on the deal, but do agree on the need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon: “We’re not going to wait and see them get so close,” he said, but the U.S. hopes “that this could be resolved diplomatically, and it should be.”

Amid warnings that Iran could stall by prolonging these talks, Malley added the U.S. will not “sit idly by” if the country moves toward a nuclear bomb.

But the U.S. and European allies have pulled their punches at the IAEA, declining again last week to censure Iran for not just its violations of the deal but its growing obstruction of the IAEA’s work.

Iran has barred inspectors from accessing certain sites, harassed inspectors with invasive security searches and failed to explain still the detected presence of uranium at three undeclared locations, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi told the U.N. body last Wednesday.

Grossi visited Tehran last week — his first trip under the Raisi government — but he did not reach a deal to address these issues, he told reporters Wednesday. A previous ad-hoc arrangement with Iran to keep international eyes at its declared nuclear sites is coming apart, he warned. Iran agreed to keep IAEA cameras and other monitoring equipment in place and turn the tapes over to the agency when a deal was reached. That equipment needs servicing to “guarantee continuity of knowledge,” Grossi said, but Iran has blocked IAEA inspectors so far.

“Such a long period of time without us getting access, knowing whether there are operational activities ongoing, is something in itself that would prevent me from continuing to say I have an idea of what’s going on,” he said at a press conference. “We must reach an agreement. We must do it.”

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61 people snowed in at English pub are now back home

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(LONDON) — A British inn and pub officially bid “fond farewell” to 61 guests Monday after a blizzard stranded them for days inside.

Located 270 miles north of London, Tan Hill Inn in Yorkshire, England, had arranged an event for an Oasis tribute band on Friday. Later that night, however, the region was hit hard by a late autumn storm which blocked local roads with heavy snow.

“The last time we had our costumers locked in was four or five years ago, but that was just for one night. This time it was a very different experience with four days,” Nicola Townsend, the pub manager, told ABC News.

The staff and guests came up with spontaneous ideas “to kill the boredom,” Townsend said. They organized a movie event, a quiz night and karaoke.

“Customers started to develop bonds from the second day on by hanging out, making friends and exchanging numbers. And they were so cooperative in running the affairs. Like they felt home indeed,” she said, adding, “Our staff are exhausted, but very happy that our guests had fun. Some of them said they had so much fun that they did not want to go back home when the roads were cleared.”

Now the group has agreed to a reunion next year.

The storm, named “Arwen,” also left thousands in Scotland without power for several nights.

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At least 19 dead, 32 injured after bus crash in Mexico

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(JOQUICINGO, Mexico) — At least 19 people are dead and dozens more injured after a bus crash in central Mexico Friday.

The accident occurred on a highway in Joquicingo, a township in the State of Mexico that’s approximately 45 miles southwest of Mexico City.

A tour bus heading to a religious site in the State of Mexico crashed into a building after the brakes went out, the State of Mexico’s Ministry of Health said in a statement.

Officials said 19 people were reported dead and 32 injured following the crash.

Six people, including two minors, were flown to a hospital in Toluca, while others were transported to several hospitals in the region, officials said. Those injured included multiple women and children, with injuries ranging from broken bones to head trauma, according to the Ministry of Health.

Multiple agencies responded to the site of the crash, including the Red Cross and the Emergency Service of the State of Mexico.

Alfredo Del Mazo, the governor of the State of Mexico, said in a statement on Twitter that he has instructed the heads of the Civil Protection, Security, Rescue and Health agencies to support the impacted families.

Officials said the bus was with the tourism company Turismo Tejeda and was heading from the municipality of Sahuayo, Michoacán, and bound for the Santuario del Señor de Chalma, a place of worship that is a Christian pilgrimage site.

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Germany and Austria seeing COVID cases rise among unvaccinated population

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(BERLIN) — Germany passed a grim milestone on Thursday: 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. In recent weeks, the situation has spiraled out of control as cases have spiked and intensive care beds have become scarce in some regions.

The country has one of the lowest rates vaccination rates in western Europe — only 68% of the population has been vaccinated, according to recent health statistics.

“Sadly, the coronavirus still hasn’t been beaten. Every day we see new records as far as the number of infections are concerned,” newly elected German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said at a press conference on Wednesday.

As of Friday morning, the country’s disease control agency, the RKI, said a record 76,414 cases had been reported in the past 24 hours.

With winter around the corner, Europe has once again become the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis. Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported deaths due to COVID-19 had reached 4,200 a day, double the death rate at the end of September. The organization warned that a further 700,000 people in the European region could die by March given the current trend.

The rise in cases is mainly do to the more contagious Delta variant and the fact that more people are staying indoors as winter begins. The number of people who remain unvaccinated is around 54%, according to WHO Executive Director Robb Butler.

“Let me be absolutely clear, the majority of people in ICU, in intensive care units and ICU today, are the unvaccinated” Butler said in an interview with Sky News.

Germany, like many countries around Europe, has moved ahead with stricter measures to cope, some of which apply to the entire country. Most blanket rules affect the unvaccinated population, which now need to show proof of vaccination, recent recovery or a negative COVID-19 test to enter public transport. Germany already had rules in place requiring similar proof when entering indoor spaces like bars, restaurants and entertainment facilities.

Yet each of Germany’s 16 states can also choose to implement their own measures. In Bavaria and Saxony where vaccination rates are low and hospitalization rates are rising to worrying levels, stricter lockdowns have been put in place. The seasonally popular Christmas markets were canceled for the second year in a row.

In Bavaria, a region with 13 million residents, politicians face grave crises in dealing with the growing number of cases.

“The situation is overwhelming and just keeps escalating,” the region’s leader, Markus Söder, told reporters. News agency DPA reported that a military plane will fly seriously ill patients from the Bavarian town of Memmingen to the state of North Rhine-Westphalia on Friday afternoon.

Söder is a proponent of making vaccinations mandatory.

“Compulsory vaccination does not violate the right to freedom — far more, it is a precondition for us to win back our freedom,” he wrote in an op-ed with politician Winfried Kretschmann of German region Baden-Württemberg in Tuesday’s newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Germany is mulling compulsory vaccination after Austria became the first European country to announce a vaccine mandate. It will go into effect February 2022. The announcement brought tens of thousands of people out to protest on the streets of Vienna last weekend.

On Monday, the country went into its fourth national lockdown, set to last for 10 days and likely to be extended to 20 days. Although less strict than previous lockdowns of 2020, citizens may only leave their houses for specific purposes, such as buying groceries, exercising or going to the doctor. Only 66% of the country of 8.9 million people have been vaccinated.

With the rise in COVID cases, particularly in northern Europe, and the introduction of new measures restricting access of unvaccinated people from public life, tensions seem to be flaring up in certain populations. Belgium and the Netherlands saw violent protests against lockdown measures last weekend.

Complicating matters is a worrying new virus variant B.1.1.529 which been discovered in southern Africa. As of Friday morning, a number of countries have implemented travel bans, including Germany, Italy and the U.K.

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Honduras votes in elections critical to country’s future and Biden’s agenda

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(NEW YORK) — Honduras teeters on the edge of democracy.

In one of the most consequential elections in the Western Hemisphere, in one of Central America’s poorest countries, Hondurans head to the polls Sunday to choose a new president, new lawmakers, new mayors and new city council members.

“The elections this Sunday, November 28th, definitely present our golden opportunity, the only one, to rescue democracy in this country,” Clara López, a voter in the country’s capital Tegucigalpa, told ABC News. “It’s now or never.”

Honduras’ recent history of election-related violence has many on edge. Among them, President Joe Biden’s administration will be watching for a peaceful election outcome, a possible new partner to work with, and any effect on migration issues to the southern U.S. border.

The State Department also deployed a top U.S. diplomat to Honduras this week, who told ABC News the U.S. is prepared to act if there are any irregularities in the election.

There are 11 candidates in total for the presidency, but the race has really come down to two: Tegucigalpa’s mayor Nasry Asfura, who would extend the right-wing party’s hold on power, but faces allegations of corruption; and Xiomara Castro, a popular former first lady who has united a left-wing coalition and could become Honduras’s first female leader and Latin America’s only current female head of state.

But tensions have risen across Honduras, with a recent spate of election-related violence, including assassinations of candidates. Looming large over the elections, too, are last year’s back-to-back hurricanes and history’s shadow — a 2009 coup that forced Castro’s husband from power and the 2017 elections, riddled with irregularities, according to the Organization of American States, the region’s bloc.

Despite the OAS’ call for a new vote in 2017, presidential incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández was declared the winner, sparking protests that led to days of violent, deadly clashes.

Amid apparent concerns over the potential for more violence, the U.S. deployed the top diplomat for the Western Hemisphere, Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols, to Honduras for a three-day trip. But after his meetings, including with both Castro and Asfura, Nichols expressed optimism that the country can hold free and fair elections.

“We will call things as we see them. We believe this is going to be a free and fair process that reflects the will of the Honduran people. If we see something that deviates from that — well, then we’ll take the appropriate steps, but I’m confident that this is going to be a peaceful, free, fair election,” Nichols told ABC News in an exclusive interview.

To many Hondurans, however, recent years have chased away any confidence. Just 30% of Hondurans believe democracy is preferable to all other forms of government, according to Latinobarometro’s 2021 report — the lowest in all of Latin America — while four-fifths of Hondurans believe the country is on the wrong path.

“The people are in a critical state,” Salvador Nasralla, Castro’s running mate and Hernández’s opponent in 2017, told ABC News. “I do not dismiss the possibility of a civil war in the country.”

In the 2017 elections, Nasralla was ahead in the polls and largely expected to win, making the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s declaration that Hernández won after a delayed count that much more suspicious to many Hondurans. But the Trump administration backed Hernández’s claim to victory, dismissing concerns from the OAS and other international election observers about irregularities.

This time around, Nasralla, a popular former sportscaster, said he felt compelled to join Castro’s ticket to try to ensure a left-wing victory.

“It wouldn’t be winning if I subtracted votes from the opposition, and that would’ve made me a bad Honduran,” he told ABC News in his only interview with an English-language outlet.

Castro herself has become a force in Honduran politics, leading the movement against the 2009 coup where the military deposed her husband Manuel Zelaya after he pushed a referendum to change the constitution and abolish its one-term limit.

Backed by her new liberal party, she has been ahead in the polls in recent weeks, especially after Nasralla’s surprising endorsement.

But Asfura remains a potent opponent, boosted by his own party’s hold on government and promises “to create jobs and opportunities so that people can bring food to their homes, health, and education,” as he said in a recent rally.

Asfura’s popularity comes despite allegations against him in the recent Pandora Papers which revealed he used offshore tax loopholes, and local officials accused him of embezzling funds from the capital city’s municipal government.

They’re not the first charges against the ruling National Party’s leaders. Hernández was named by a U.S. federal court as a co-conspirator in a huge narcotics trafficking case that saw his brother, former congressman Tony Hernández, sentenced to life in prison. The president has denied wrongdoing and has not faced criminal charges.

Despite those allegations, the Biden administration has tried to work with Hernández and other Central American governments to stem migration from the region, which has surged during his presidency. Nearly 1.7 million migrants reached the southern U.S. border in fiscal year 2021, which covers October 2020 through September 2021, and one-fifth of them — 308,931 in total — were Honduran.

“Honduras doesn’t guarantee its citizens a dignified life within its territory, and it forces them to flee,” said López, the Tegucigalpa voter who is backing Castro’s campaign.

During his own 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, Biden pledged to invest $4 billion in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — sometimes called the Northern Triangle countries — to improve the quality of life, including the rule of law and countering corruption, and give their citizens reasons to stay in their communities.
PHOTO: The president of the National Electoral Council of Honduras, Kevin Izaguirre (R), and the Chief of the Armed Forces of that country, Tito Livio Moreno, carry a box with electoral material for the elections in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Nov. 23, 2021.
Gustavo Amador/EPA via ShutterstockGustavo Amador/EPA via Shutterstock
The president of the National Electoral Council of Honduras, Kevin Izaguirre (R), and the…

While that money has started to flow, corrupt and increasingly power-grabbing political leaders in all three countries have made it difficult for the U.S. to find partners to work with.

Free and fair elections, a peaceful transfer of power and a new leadership partner in Honduras are important to Biden’s agenda, particularly because if the situation deteriorates, even more Hondurans could flee in search of a better life to the north.

“Everything is at stake here. For the first time, you have a very clearly differentiated path that is being put forward by the proposals of both parties,” said Sergio Bahr, a Honduran sociologist. “This election will define the direction in which the country goes in the next 10 to 20 years.”

That’s why the State Department deployed its top diplomat for the region to Honduras. Nichols, the assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, met with Honduras’ national electoral council, its chief of defense, and its attorney general, among others, saying he was assured they’re taking “all measures necessary” to secure the election and prevent violence like 2017.

“We certainly will be looking to Honduran electoral authorities to carry out their responsibilities professionally and transparently, and they’ve assured their own people as well as the international community of the same,” he told ABC News.

For voters like Ela Rubio, that’s all that they want, she said.

“We want democracy. We want transparent elections,” said Rubio, an Asfura supporter.” We don’t want to regress. We want to move forward. We want to keep going, and to show the world that not everything in Honduras is bad.”

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US, others warn citizens in Ethiopia to leave as prime minister heads to front lines

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(WASHINGTON) — The U.S. government is warning American citizens in Ethiopia even more starkly to leave the country now, as the conflict there continues to deteriorate.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is heading to the front lines to lead the federal government’s forces, he announced, urging his fellow citizens to join him and “lead the country with a sacrifice.”

On the other side, forces from Ethiopia’s Tigray region, now aligned with other ethnic-based groups, are marching toward the capital Addis Ababa, pledging to end Abiy’s blockade of their region one year after fighting there burst open decades-old wounds.

Now the conflict in Africa’s second-most populous nation is increasingly existential for both sides, potentially “ripping the country apart and spilling over into other countries in the region,” as Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned in recent days.

The U.S. special envoy for the region said he still had hope for a ceasefire and a negotiated resolution after some “nascent progress,” but he warned the fast-moving conflict threatened to swiftly sweep away international diplomatic efforts and cause “a bloodbath situation or chaos.”

That fear has driven fresh warnings from foreign countries, including France and Turkey, urging their citizens to depart the country immediately while commercial flights remain. The United Nations announced it was evacuating its staff’s dependents on Tuesday, too.

Since Nov. 5, the U.S. embassy in Addis has been on ordered departure, evacuating non-emergency staff and diplomats’ families and leaving a smaller team behind. While the mission remains open and continues to provide services like passports and repatriation loans, the U.S. military is maintaining a “state of readiness,” according to U.S. Africa Command, in case there are issues “related to the safety of our diplomats where the security environment has deteriorated.”

But after the unprecedented, chaotic evacuation effort from Afghanistan, the State Department has gone to extraordinary lengths to make sure U.S. citizens in Ethiopia know military flights like those out of Kabul will not be coming to rescue them.

“There should be absolutely no expectation of the military becoming involved,” a senior State Department official said Monday. For months now, the agency has issued travel warnings, urging Americans to leave now while Addis’s international airport continues commercial flights.

This week, their warnings have employed even stronger language: “We just want to make sure that we don’t get into a situation where U.S. citizens are waiting for something that’s never going to happen,” the senior State Department official added. “We need them to remember what the norm is, and the norm is leaving via commercial while that’s available.”

The official and others have declined to speak to any plans to close the embassy or evacuate American diplomats, except to say that they’re “engaged in contingency planning for hypotheticals” with the Pentagon.

The Pentagon declined to comment on any troop movements to ABC News after a report that the U.S. had put Navy ships in the region on “standby” and deployed a small number of Army Rangers to the neighboring country Djibouti. The Pentagon’s East African Response Force — a team trained to move within 24 hours to assist U.S. embassies in the region with additional security or an evacuation — is based in the small African country.

Despite the increasingly grim developments on the battlefield, the State Department made clear it has not yet given up on a diplomatic resolution.

“There is some nascent progress in trying to get the parties to move from a military confrontation to a negotiating process, but what concerns us is this fragile progress risks being outpaced by the alarming developments on the ground… by the military escalation on the two sides,” Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, special envoy for the Horn of Africa, told reporters Tuesday.

In particular, Tigrayan forces said this week they are now some 130 miles northeast of Addis, while Abiy declared Monday that he would go to the front lines to lead troops directly.

“Unfortunately, each side is trying to achieve its goals by military force and believe they are on the cusp of winning,” Feltman said Tuesday, back in Washington after days of meetings in Addis. He met not just Abiy and Tigrayan leaders, but also the African Union’s special envoy for the conflict, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

From those meetings, Feltman said he sensed a “greater willingness to brainstorm with us about how you could put together the pieces of a deescalation and negotiated ceasefire process” — instead of an outright refusal to even consider any other means but force.

What the two sides say they want can be achieved at the same time, too, Feltman added: Abiy wants to return Tigrayan forces to Tigray region, and Tigrayan forces want Abiy’s de facto blockade of the region to end.

“The tragedy is, the sadness is that both sides have in mind the same type of elements. … They just need to muster the political will in order to pivot from the military to the negotiations, and we’re not the only ones encouraging them to do so, but we can’t force them to the table,” Feltman said.

As of now, U.S. and international pressure, Obasanjo’s mediation and the humanitarian suffering of the Ethiopian people have not yet been enough for leaders to come to the table. Feltman said Abiy also told him in their meeting Sunday that he had “confidence” he could achieve his goals militarily — and the seasoned U.S. diplomat warned the incitement of ethnic-based violence is spiraling out of control.

That means there’s “no sign” that direct negotiations are “on the horizon,” but perhaps some back-channel diplomacy is possible — and Feltman and Obasanjo will continue to pursue that, according to the U.S. diplomat.

“Right now, both sides are still pursuing military options, but they are also engaged on other ways to pursue their objectives… And that’s what I find marginally encouraging, but again, I don’t want to overstate the case,” Feltman said.

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