Facing rising COVID cases, UK government resists calls for new restrictions ahead


(LONDON) — Flanked by public health officials, the U.K. Health Secretary painted a bleak picture of the current state of the pandemic in Britain.

“Cases are rising,” Sajid Javid, told the nation this week. “And they could go yet as high as 100,000 a day. We’re also seeing greater pressure on the NHS (National Health Service) across the U.K. We’re now approaching 1,000 hospitalizations per day.”

Yet, despite growing calls from doctors’ associations and scientists across the U.K. — Javid resisted calls to introduce mandated prevention measures, such as mask wearing, which were dropped in England in July.

On Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson doubled down on that message, stressing the way forward was for as many eligible people as possible to take booster jabs, a rollout that experts warned is lagging behind demand.

Since July, when virtually all social distancing restrictions were relaxed in England, cases and hospitalizations have steadily increased, though at a rate far lower than previous waves of infections when the population did not have access to vaccines.

This week, the U.K. posted a worrying set of figures.

On Tuesday, the government recorded 223 COVID deaths, the highest since March.

The last time the country recorded less than 20,000 daily cases was July — and this week the latest weekly average stands at over 47,000 daily cases. Deaths, hospitalizations and cases are increasing week over week.

Just under 80% of the population over age 12 have received two doses of coronavirus vaccine, but the evidence suggests that the effectiveness wanes over time, and the U.K. has been slower to vaccinate children than other countries. Rising cases have been linked to the resumption of the school year, where children are not formally required to wear masks and self-isolation rules around COVID-positive schoolchildren have been relaxed.

The booster program, which Israeli officials credit as proving crucial in Israel’s success in getting infections under control this summer, has not been as effective as the first wave of vaccinations, he said. An estimated 5 million people have taken their boosters, but around half of all people eligible are yet to take up the call for a third shot of vaccine, according to a report in the Financial Times.

“The vaccine program has really fallen flat,” according to Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist and the lead investigator of the ZOE Covid Symptom app, which tracks coronavirus infections in the U.K “It’s peaked at around 66%, 67% [across the total population] and is hardly moving. And we know now we didn’t know then that that’s not enough. And I think we’re very much back to where we were in March 2020, in some ways.”

U.K. government data still shows that the mortality and hospitalization rates among unvaccinated people are still far higher than the vaccinated.

According to reports in the British media, the government does have a ‘Plan B’ over the winter, which would include reintroducing working from home, mask mandates and potential vaccine passports in nightclubs. “It remains the case we would only look to use that if the pressure on the NHS was looking to become unsustainable,” the prime minister’s spokesperson said in a statement to ABC News this week.

This week, the British Medical Association, a doctors’ trade union, described the government’s approach as “willfully negligent,” while the NHS Confederation has called for new measures to avoid “stumbling into winter crisis.”

Yet Prime Minister Johnson has held out so far against mandating restrictions, and has instead placed greater emphasis on vaccine boosters and the procurement of antiviral drugs. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different rules than England, with Scotland, for example, mandating mask use and vaccine passports for nightclubs — policies that are part of Johnson’s yet-to-be-implemented ‘Plan B.’ Health Secretary Javid, while acknowledging there was significant pressure on the National Health Service, said the level was not yet “unsustainable.”

Complacency due to the success of the early vaccine rollout, as well as poor public health messaging, has contributed to the recent rise in cases, according to Spector.

“There’s been a total absence of public education, no reiteration of [changes in] symptoms [with the delta variant], no ideas about how to stop spreading it in schools,” he said. “You know, there’s no prevention. There’s no concept of prevention.”

In mid-July, polling from the Office of National Statistics reported that 63% of adults always or often maintained social distancing, but the same body reported that only 39% of adults were doing so in mid-October.

In terms of infections, the U.K. is now far outpacing other countries in Western and Central Europe. In its weekly epidemiological update, the World Health Organization reported that Europe is the only region where coronavirus infections are rising, by 7% over the past seven days, driven by infection rates in the U.K., Russia and Turkey.

Despite the growing concern, the health service is not yet overwhelmed by an influx of coronavirus patients.

“No, we’re not there, we’re not there yet,” Spector said. “But the point is that everyone scientifically, medically, is seeing these curves going up and inevitably these things get worse as you hit winter, and you hit other respiratory infections.”

According to the government’s latest seven-day average, 937 patients per day were hospitalized with COVID, with just over 8,000 currently receiving treatment. In January, meanwhile, prior to the vaccine rollout, daily hospitalizations peaked at over 4,000, while the highest number of patients in hospital reached over 39,000.

Instead, doctors and scientists are warning that with infections rising, there is potential for COVID to add to the winter burdens of an already stretched health service that has faced pressures even in pre-pandemic times.

“This time it genuinely does feel different,” Siva Anandaciva, the chief analyst at the King’s Fund, an independent health think tank, told ABC News. “I think that’s because there are a lot of familiar pressures that you always have … you’ve got the steady ticking up of winter viruses.”

Part of the pressure, he said, is the resumption of ordinary care for the massive backlog of patients waiting to be seen in hospitals, that has built up since the pandemic began. 5.7 million people in the U.K., almost 10% of the population, are on waiting lists for planned routine care, and in a worst case scenario this number could rise up to 14 million, Anandaciva said.

“COVID’s almost like an accelerant on a fire,” he said. “The NHS has always struggled over the winter, and these are pressures that are spread more wildly… It is a problem with COVID, but more fundamentally some of the demand for care coming back after a pause in services and also crucially some of the resourcing issues that have long plagued the NHS. Not having enough staff, not having enough resources.”

Facing pressure this winter, the government has announced new funding for the NHS, but it could be years before the health service begins to function at pre-pandemic levels, according to Anandaciva.

Spector was once critical of the government’s approach for “underreacting, then overreacting” to the pandemic with successive lockdowns, but now says he now doesn’t understand some of the inaction.

“It’s complacency to think that this, you know, this isn’t going to get worse,” he said. “I haven’t heard of anyone who says it’s going to get better next week. So that’s why I can’t understand why introducing some simple measures that don’t cost the economy anything, only have a political cost can’t be implemented.”

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US cleans up Biden’s ‘commitment’ to defend Taiwan from Chinese invasion


(WASHINGTON) — The Biden administration is again playing cleanup after President Joe Biden said the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an invasion by mainland China — despite decades of policy that leaves that an open question.

His comment prompted a stern warning from the People’s Republic of China, which considers the self-governing island a breakaway province, especially since Biden has made it twice now in the last couple of months.

That’s led to speculation that Biden may be pushing the boundaries of “strategic ambiguity,” the longstanding U.S. policy that leaves unanswered whether and how the U.S. would intervene in a conflict across the Taiwan Strait. In recent months, as China has escalated its incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone and ramped up its rhetoric about reunion, some China hawks in Washington have called for an end to the policy.

But the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon all said Friday there was no change in U.S. policy despite Biden’s answer during a CNN town hall.

“There has been no shift,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “The president was not announcing any change in our policy, nor has he made a decision to change our policy. There is no change in our policy.”

Speaking at NATO headquarters, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. would continue to provide Taiwan “the sorts of capabilities that it needs to defend itself.” But he dismissed questions about a Chinese attack as a “hypothetical.”

State Department spokesperson Ned Price went the further, telling reporters, “We have been nothing but clear when it comes to where we stand.”

But Biden has been anything but clear. In August, the president told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos that the U.S. had a commitment to act “if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against NATO,” Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. While that’s true of the first three — all treaty allies of the United States — it isn’t of Taiwan.

Instead, since a 1979 agreement, the U.S. has recognized the People’s Republic of China, including Taiwan, as the sole legal government of China — what’s known as the ‘One China’ policy. But under that agreement, the U.S. has maintained unofficial relations with Taiwan’s government, which is defined by a 1979 law that then-senator Biden voted for. The law commits the U.S. “to assist Taiwan in maintaining its defensive capability,” to oppose any one-sided changes in the status quo and to support a peaceful resolution to their differences, according to the State Department.

But Biden contradicted that again on Thursday, telling CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he would have the U.S. military come to Taiwan’s defense.

“If China attacked?” Cooper followed up — and Biden responded, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”

In response, China’s Foreign Ministry issued its own warning about its “determination and ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

“We urge the U.S. to strictly abide by the one-China principle and the three Sino-U.S. joint communiqués, be cautious in its words and deeds on the Taiwan issue, and refrain from sending any false signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces — or it will seriously damage to Sino-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” said Wang Wenbin during a briefing Friday.

Some China hawks in the U.S. have been urging the administration to end “strategic ambiguity” and clearly commit to Taiwan’s defense, arguing China’s increasing pressure on the island is a signal it is preparing to retake it by force and that a clear U.S. commitment would deter that.

But Biden’s own pick for U.S. ambassador to China disagreed, just one day prior to the president’s comments. During his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, retired career ambassador Nick Burns called for strengthening the U.S. military position in the region and selling weapons to Taiwan to make it a “tough nut to crack.”

When asked about ending “strategic ambiguity,” however, Burns said, “My own view, and this is also the view … more importantly of the Biden administration, is that the smartest and effective way for us to help deter aggressive actions by [China] across the Taiwan Strait will be to stay with a policy that’s been in place.”

It’s not the first time an American president has had to walk back comments about Taiwan’s defense. In 2001, shortly after he took office, George W. Bush told ABC News’s Charlie Gibson he would also come to Taiwan’s defense.

“With the full force of the American military?” asked Gibson. Bush responded: “Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself.”

Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blasted Bush in an editorial, writing, “In this case, his inattention to detail has damaged U.S. credibility with our allies and sown confusion throughout the Pacific Rim.”

“Words matter, in diplomacy and in law,” Biden added.

ABC News’s Karson Yiu contributed to this report from Hong Kong and Ben Gittleson from the White House.

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Suspected poacher likely killed by elephant in South Africa

Moonstone Images/iStock

(LONDON) — A suspected poacher found dead in a South African national park is believed to have been killed by an elephant, park officials said.

Rangers in Kruger National Park discovered the body on Thursday after following tracks in the Stolznek section of the giant game reserve, a spokesperson for the park said in a statement on Twitter.

“Initial investigations suspect that the deceased was killed by an elephant and left behind by his accomplices,” the statement said.

The identity of the deceased individual was not released.

The Rangers did not find any animals killed in the immediate area, the spokesperson said.

Park officials took the opportunity to warn that it is “dangerous to hunt illegally” in the park.

“Criminals stand to lose their lives and freedom,” the statement said.

Kruger National Park is South Africa’s largest wildlife sanctuary, encompassing nearly 5 million acres. The game reserve is also one of the hardest-hit regions in the country for rhino poaching. The park’s rhino population has decreased by 60% since 2013. In the first half of 2020, 166 rhinos were poached in South Africa, with 88 in Kruger National Park.

There are 3,529 white rhinos and 268 black rhinos left in Kruger National Park, according to South African National Parks.

To help combat rhino poaching, in recent months Kruger National Park has deployed more patrols in addition to using dogs and detection technologies to track suspects.

Between July and September, there was a nearly 30% increase in the number of poachers arrested in the park compared with the same period last year, according to South African National Parks.

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Queen Elizabeth was hospitalized for ‘preliminary investigations’


(LONDON) — Queen Elizabeth was hospitalized Wednesday night for “preliminary investigations,” a Buckingham Palace spokesman confirmed to ABC News.

The queen was back at her desk at Windsor Castle by Thursday afternoon and undertaking light duties.

No other details about the queen’s condition are currently available.

“Following medical advice to rest for a few days, The Queen attended hospital on Wednesday afternoon for some preliminary investigations,” the palace said in a statement. “[She] remains in good spirits.”

Queen Elizabeth, 95, hosted a reception for leaders, including Bill Gates and John Kerry, at Windsor Castle on Tuesday.

The next day she was forced to cancel a trip to Northern Island as her medical team advised her to get some rest.

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What the appointment of 98 female judges to Egypt’s State Council means for women’s rights


(GIZA, Egypt) — Seventy-two years of Egyptian women’s rights activism paid off this week as the State Council, an important independent judiciary body in the country, appointed 98 female judges for the first time.

Iman Sherif, one of the appointed judges, described the move as “historic” during the swearing-in ceremony, saying she was over the moon, according to state-run Al-Ahram Newspaper.

“We pledged to live up to our responsibilities. I can’t describe my happiness,” she added.

“It is very important, not only to see the long resistance came up with this result, but also how much it means to the new generation,” Nehad Abu El Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, told ABC News. “It is a step ahead for the younger generation to believe there can be no restrictions in their dreams.”

The recent appointment of 98 judges to Egypt’s State Council has considerable implications.

The State Council — established in 1946 — is an independent judicial body and one of the pillars of the judicial authority in Egypt. It has its own courts and hierarchy, like the civil and criminal justice systems.

According to the National Council of Women — which is a state organization — the very first female judge in Egypt was appointed in 2003 in the Constitutional Court. Later, in 2007, 31 more female judges joined the judiciary in 2008 and 2015.

However, what distinguishes the recent hiring of women judges by the State Council is that this body has mounted the stiffest resistance against women judges joining the judiciary over the last decades.

“That’s exactly where the conflict was. The institutions which were supposed to defend and support the citizens’ rights were resisting against women’s rights within themselves,” Abu El Komsan explained. “That is why we celebrated this last move by the State Council.”

According to the last official statistics released in 2015 and published by the National Council of Women, women shaped less than half a percent of the total number of judges working in Egypt’s judiciary system. While there were only 80 female judges, there were around 12,000 male ones.

“It was and still is a male-dominated field, and even with the new 98 judges the percentage is still less than half a percent,” Abu El Komsan said.

The State Council decision of hiring women judges came after a recommendation that the justice ministry made public. The justice ministry said on March 8 that President Fattah Al-Sisi had called on them to appoint female judges in the State Council and Prosecution as he marked the International Women’s Day.

To Abu El Komsan, this recommendation was a result of years of women’s rights activism and civil demands for a change, rather than a gesture.

However, not all women’s rights activists share the same stance.

“Al-Sisi needs to just show the world that Egypt does not have any problem with women. But they really do,” Reda Eldanbouki, a lawyer and the executive director of the Women’s Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness, told ABC News.

“We have had great women judges who did want to join the State Council, but their applications were rejected because [they were] not necessarily aligned with the system. It did not matter how much they pursued their cases through legal paths, it still did not work,” Eldanbouki said.

“Actually, gender doesn’t matter. Male or female, you need to obey the system,” he added.

Eldanbouki and Abu El Komsan believe these newly appointed judges were not chosen from the graduates of the law schools, but rather the Council “promoted” or simply “relocated” the women judges who were already working at different positions or departments of the judiciary.

“They [the State Council] still have not opened the doors to the female graduates of the law schools. Most of them work as lawyers,” Abu El Komsan said. “We still have to push for breaking the glass ceiling.”

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‘Rapid evolution’ of tuskless elephants caused by ivory trade, scientists say


(NEW YORK) — Ivory poaching has led to a “rapid evolution” of tuskless African elephants, as elephants without tusks were far more likely to survive during the height of the ivory trade, according to new research.

Much of the distress on the species occurred during the Mozambican Civil War from 1977 to 1992, when the ivory poaching in the region was at its most intense, according to a new study published Thursday in Science. During the conflict, armed forces on both sides relied heavily on the ivory trade to finance the war efforts, according to the researchers.

The elephant population in the region declined more than 90% due to the war, and the mass hunting of the mammals for their tusks resulted in a phenotype of the species that had a better chance of survival — specifically, female elephants.

During the conflict, a tuskless female would have five times the chances of survival than a female with a tusk, Shane Campbell-Staton, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, told ABC News.

“So it actually seems to be a very strong selection over a very short period of time,” he said.

The explanation for the trait evolving in female elephants and not males has to do with the genetics of tooth development, according to the study. Specifically, an X chromosome male-lethal syndrome that diminishes the growth of lateral incisors,

Campbell-Staton began hearing about the rise of “tusklessness” elephants years ago when he was in graduate school, but the research to find an explanation for the phenomenon had not yet occurred, he said.

“In regions where there’s intensive poaching, there seem to be more animals without tusks,” he said. “But we had no idea what was going on, why it happened … the degree with which it happened.”

The scientists investigated the impacts of ivory hunting on the evolution of African elephants in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, during and after the civil war.

The findings shed new light on just how powerful an effect human exploitation can have on wildlife populations, the researchers said.

“The selective killing of species – whether for food, safety, or profit – has only become more common and intense as human populations and technology have grown,” the authors wrote. “So much so, it’s suggested that wildlife exploitation by humans has become a powerful selective driver in the evolution of targeted species.”

However, if the ivory trade were to continue to decline and elephant populations were to rebound, there is a chance that the evolution of tuskless elephants could be reversed, Campbell-Staton said, adding that researchers already see this to be the case.

In Gorongosa National Park, which he described as a “success story” due to the climbing population, the children of female elephants that survived the war are inheriting the trait, but only by about 50%, Campbell-Staton said.

While the notion that rapid evolution is not new, the findings were surprising to Campbell-Staton due to the long life spans of African elephants, which can live up to 70 years, and the long gestation periods, which are typically about two years.

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Man attempting to demolish ancient sphinx in Cairo caught

Abdallah M. Elbarawy

(CAIRO) —A man attempting to demolish one of four ancient sphinxes adorning the Tahrir square in Cairo was caught by security personnel, an eyewitness reports.

“I and my friends were in Tahrir when we saw someone climbing up to the head of one of the sphinxes. He was wielding a big hammer and shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ before starting to hit it,” Abdallah Elbarawy, a 22-year-old law student at Cairo University, told ABC News.

“He was then captured by security guards, who took him away,” Elbarawy said.

Local media said the man, who was not identified, was being questioned.

An antiquities ministry source told ABC News that no damage was sustained to any of the sphinxes.

Last year, Egypt relocated the four ram-headed sphinxes to Tahrir in the heart of Cairo from the southern city of Luxor — a move criticized at the time by many archaeologists, who feared the artifacts could be damaged because of their exposure to air pollution and heat in the congested square.

The sphinxes were previously located in a courtyard behind the first pylon of the famed Karnak temple in Luxor.

After being transferred to Tahrir, the sphinxes were kept in wooden crates before being unveiled last April, shortly before Egypt held a procession for 22 royal mummies from the iconic square. They lie beneath a 90-tonne obelisk that dates back to the era of famous New Kingdom pharaoh Ramses II.

Egypt said it will soon re-open the Grand Avenue of Sphinxes, a 3,000-year-old road that connects Karnak Temple with Luxor Temple, to the public after completing excavation and restoration works in the ancient pathway.

The avenue is flanked by hundreds of ram-headed sphinxes, similar to the ones that were moved to Tahrir.

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8 Nigerians charged with alleged internet scams promising romance, travel


(NEW YORK) — Eight Nigerians have been charged in the U.S. with running widespread internet scams for at least a decade from their base of operation in Cape Town, South Africa, federal prosecutors in New Jersey announced Wednesday.

The suspects, who were arrested in Cape Town and are awaiting extradition, have suspected ties to a transnational organized crime syndicate originating in Nigeria known as Black Axe.

From 2011 through 2021 the defendants allegedly ran schemes that involved their telling victims in the United States false narratives about traveling to South Africa for work and needing money after a series of unfortunate and unforeseen events, according to the indictment.

Other Americans fell victim to the defendants’ romance scams, believing they were in romantic relationships with someone using an alias and, when requested, the victims sent money and items of value to South Africa, the indictment said.

“The Co-conspirators often used aliases not only of the purported love interest of a victim, but also of other people involved in that person’s life, including a purported child, a business partner, or a friend, to bolster the perceived legitimacy of the stories portrayed, as a part of the Romance Scam or Advance Fee Scheme and to further induce the victims to send money on behalf of the purported love interest,” the indictment said.

Federal prosecutors quoted messages the defendants allegedly sent to victims, in one instance seeking a loan to fix a crane for a construction project:

“Honey, i don’t know how you will take this, i hate doing it but i have no other option, with profound sense of sadness and disgrace i am begging you to please loan me the balance, if possible a little bit more for upkeeping, i promise i will reimburse you once they come for inspection and give me the part-payment and that cannot be more than sometime next week.”

Sometimes victims were allegedly convinced to open financial accounts in the United States that the conspirators would then be permitted to use themselves to launder money.

Internet-based scams like the ones described in the indictment cost victims $600 million in 2020, according to the FBI.

“If you continue to be able to have a scheme that works you’re going to keep going back to it,” said George Crouch, special agent-in-charge of the FBI’s Newark Field Office.

He said the schemes allegedly perpetrated by the Nigerians charged this week were particularly insidious because they played on people’s emotions.

“Widowers, widows, divorcees, they really target those folks in a vulnerable state, pulling at their heart strings, all with the intent of separating them from their money,” Crouch told ABC News in a phone interview.

“Americans are too often victimized by criminal organizations located abroad who use the internet to deceive those victims, defraud them of money, and, many times, persuade the victims to wittingly or unwittingly assist in perpetuating the fraudulent schemes,” acting U.S. Attorney Rachael Honig said. “The public should be on guard against schemes like these.”

The defendants are charged with wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and aggravated identity theft.

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No US injuries in attack on remote American base in Syria


(AL-TANF, Syria) — There were no U.S. military injuries or deaths resulting from a coordinated attack Wednesday on a small remote U.S. military base at al Tanf, Syria, according to two U.S. officials.

The attack “at a minimum” involved drones and “indirect fire,” the military term for mortar or rocket fire, according to a U.S. official.

Iraqi security sources said the attack involved five booby-trapped drones and was carried out from inside Syria.

There is no indication yet as to who may have been responsible for the attack, but similar drone attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq have been a tactic used by Iranian-backed militias, most notably Kataib Hezbollah.

Drone attacks attributed to those militias have at times resulted in American retaliatory airstrikes in Iraq and Syria targeting their facilities.

The remote base at al Tanf is located along a key highway in southern Syria on the border with Jordan and is surrounded by a 35-mile buffer zone to prevent potential conflicts with Russian and Syrian government troops located nearby.

The small outpost is the only American military base in Syria not located in Syrian Kurdish-held areas in eastern Syria where most of the 1,000 American troops in Syria are based.

U.S. troops remain in Syria as part of an ongoing effort to prevent ISIS from regaining territory inside that country.

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Former ‘400 Mawozo’ hostages describe ordeal as Haiti gang demands $17 million ransom for kidnapped missionaries

Pawel Gaul/iStock

(NEW YORK) — Survivors of a previous kidnapping by the notorious Haitian gang 400 Mawozo have revealed details about what life was like as a hostage, with the group currently demanding a $17 million ransom to set free 16 Americans and one Canadian they have captive.

The group of missionaries affiliated with Christian Aid Ministries were kidnapped at a checkpoint in the capital of Port-au-Prince on Saturday, officials told ABC News, and the FBI, State Department and other U.S. agencies have sent a team to the country to secure their safe release. A senior Haitian police official involved in the efforts to free the Americans told ABC News that the kidnappers have demanded a ransom of $1 million per person.

Christian Aid Ministries, based in Ohio, revealed more details about the hostages on Tuesday, saying that the adults held captive were between the ages of 18 and 48, while there were also five children, the youngest of whom is 8 months old.

In Haiti, a majority Catholic country, 400 Mawozo gang members are known for their brutal tactics and targeting of clerical groups. Gédéon Jean, the director of Haiti’s Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, told the Washington Post that the gang was responsible for the most abductions.

Haiti has the highest kidnapping rate per capita in the world, and 400 Mawozo members are believed to have been responsible for kidnapping ten French missionaries in April of this year, who were released after 20 days. In interviews with ABC News, two survivors recounted their experience and offered their prayers for the current hostages.

Father Jean Millien, who was among the group of missionaries and is still based in Haiti, told ABC News that he was hopeful the hostages would be set free.

“The message I have for them is not to be impatient,” he said. “I do think that one day all of them will be free.”

And another of the survivors from the April kidnapping, Sister Agnes Bordeau, 81, of the Sisters of Providence, who has since returned to France, shared details with ABC News about what life is like under hostage conditions. They were kidnapped after being given repeated warnings from the French Embassy in Haiti about the dangers of operating in the country.

After they were kidnapped by the armed gunmen, Bordeau said that the group changed locations three times; their captors able to evade the authorities in a country that is roughly the same size as the state of Maryland.

“We were sleeping on cardboard outdoors in the middle of the forest,” Bordeau told ABC News. “Five days outdoors without moving. Of course, if we needed to go to the restrooms we had to ask permission and we were followed by an armed guard. [When we were moved inside] we were afraid for our lives as the room was very dirty and it was very hot. Only one person could stand or sit.”

In the forest they experienced perhaps the most terrifying event of their ordeal — when they suspected their captors were digging makeshift graves.

“At some point, I could hear noises of people digging and I asked a priest what it was about and he told me very peacefully that the ang was preparing for us a pauper’s grave,” she said. “They tied our hands, one of the gang members [ripped] a priest’s robe to make strips to blindfold us altogether, but it did not last for a very long time.”

Despite the harrowing ordeal, during which they were only fed one meal a day, Bordeau said, the missionaries eventually engaged in dialogue with their captors, even though all of their possessions — with the exception of their personal bibles, were stolen.

They survived, she said, through their collective faith.

“We supported each other, we took care of each other, we paid attention to our own words as well,” she said. “We were never discouraged and we had very deep moments of prayers… And personally I can say I could really feel the presence of God in the middle of us.”

After 20 days of captivity, Bordeau said they were abruptly released in the middle of the night. It is unknown whether or not a ransom was paid.

“When we were released, the big chief of the gang asked us to pray for them,” she said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has vowed that the U.S. will do all it can to secure the release of the hostages.

“Gangs dominate many parts of Port-au-Prince and other parts of Haiti, the national police can’t even operate in many of these areas,” Blinken said, noting the practical difficulties of life on the ground.

ABC News’ Conor Finnegan and Marcus Moore contributed to this report

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