As recently discovered unmarked Indigenous graves in Canada nears 1,000, activists demand justice

Tuangtong/iStock

(NEW YORK) — For decades, beginning in the 1800s, thousands of Indigenous peoples from Canada were taken from their homes and families by the Canadian government, shipped thousands of miles away in some cases and placed into so-called residential schools.

The stated purpose of the schools, some of which date to the 19th century and the last of which closed in the 1990s, was assimilation — ridding the students of ties to their communities and instilling European culture, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).

There were reports from the TRC — a commission funded by the Canadian government as part of a legal settlement to address the wrongs of the system — of thousands of instances of abuse and mistreatment against students and many of the students did not make it back to their homes in what advocates for the Indigenous population and officials alternately term “injustice,” “systemic racism” or even “genocide.”

There have recently been a number of reminders of that grim past — one which advocates say continues to haunt Indigenous communities.

Another 182 sets of human remains were found on June 30 near the former St. Eugene’s Mission School for Indigenous children in the community of Aqam, bringing the total found in the country in recent days to nearly 1,000.

A week earlier, 751 unmarked graves were found at the cemetery of the former Marieval Indian Residential School. It is unclear how many of the students died or what the causes of death were.

“It’s opened fresh wounds for a number of people,” said David Pratt, the second vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations. FSIN is an advocacy organization that represents 74 First Nations in the implementation of treaties that protect Indigenous people and land.

The site at Marieval has the largest number of graves connected to a residential school discovered in Canada so far, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), which archives and compiles the complete history of Canada’s residential school system.

In a June 24 statement, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent his condolences to Indigenous groups across the country following the Marieval discovery.

“They are a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced – and continue to face – in this country,” the statement read. “Together, we must acknowledge this truth, learn from our past, and walk the shared path of reconciliation, so we can build a better future.”

However, Stephanie Scott, executive director of the NCTR, said that these problems continue to harm Indigenous communities to this day.

“The residential school system has impacted generations,” Scott said. “Take action, take responsibility to learn the true history, seek out survivors and indigenous people and start that dialogue.”

What are residential schools?

What are residential schools? In a 2015 report, the NCTR said there had been 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit students in the residential school system. The first schools of this kind were formed in the 1860s and lasted all the way until the final school, Gordon Indian Residential School, closed in the late 1990s.

About 139 Indian residential schools were identified in the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

For decades, Indigenous children in both Canada and the United States were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools, sometimes thousands of miles away, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Scott, whose mother was a student in one of these schools, said that many students were beaten and abused for speaking their language or practicing Indigenous traditions. She said there have been reports of physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and illness.

“We’ve even heard stories about young girls getting pregnant and the children being born and putting into incinerators,” Scott said. “We’ve heard stories of children being hidden in walls. We went to the community one time where there was a caretaker’s house where we found this strap that was covered in blood.”

The official report from TRC reiterates stories of children being strapped, beaten, and forced into crawl spaces.

Scott said her mother got pregnant while attending the residential schools, and child welfare authorities took her away.

“I was adopted out yeah into a community with that forced assimilation and those policies where I didn’t have access to my culture and community,” Scott said. “I grew up without my language.”

Why are there so many unmarked graves?

Many students never returned home from the schools, according to the NCTR. The NCTR reports that the deaths of more than 4,000 children have been connected to residential schools, as graves of young children continue to be uncovered — but Scott said that there are likely more left to be found.

Researchers have been used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to discover unmarked burials, like the St. Eugene’s Mission School and the Marieval Indian Residential School.

In May, researchers also found the remains of 215 students at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. Some children buried onsite had been as young as 3 years old.

The NCTR has found that many of the children died from illness and malnourishment, among other causes. Scott said she’s heard stories from old school attendees who claimed illnesses and injuries went untreated.

It is unclear how all of the children have died, and who they were.

For many, the discovery of graves is a time of grief, as many can remember the days when residential schools were still around. Pratt said the discoveries of unmarked graves bring up a lot of emotion, trauma and heartbreak for those who’ve been lost and called on the Canadian government and the Roman Catholic Church to help.

“They need to apologize and they need to take responsibility and ownership on the trauma and the chaos they’ve caused amongst indigenous peoples of this land,” Pratt said.

Who has taken responsibility for these?

The residential schools were run by the Canadian government, the department of Indian Affairs and churches, including the Roman Catholic Church at various points in their histories, which has been connected with the recent unmarked grave discoveries.

The St. Eugene’s Mission School, for instance, was operated by the Roman Catholic Church from 1912 to 1970. The Marieval Indian Residential School was also run by the Church from 1899 to 1997.

The Kamloops Indian Residential School was run by the Church until the late 60s when it was taken over by the federal government.

Pope Francis plans to meet in December with Indigenous survivors of the residential school system from the First Nations, Metis and Inuit groups.

But the Roman Catholic Church has yet to issue a statement on the discoveries. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops did not respond to ABC News’ requests for comments.

According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, the United States also had more than 350 government-funded boarding schools across the US.

In 2000, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Gover apologized for the trauma and violence against children at the American residential schools.

Trudeau, in his recent statement following the discovery of the Marieval graves, said he promised to help Indigenous people in Canada heal.

“The government will continue to provide Indigenous communities across the country with the funding and resources they need to bring these terrible wrongs to light,” the statement read. “While we cannot bring back those who were lost, we can – and we will – tell the truth of these injustices, and we will forever honour their memory.”

In the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, reached in 2007, Canada promised funding, support, and the formation of federal commissions to help the community heal. The settlement of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was a step, activists say, but many are demanding stronger action.

High incarceration rates, poverty, addiction, trauma, and climate change have plagued Indigenous communities, and Pratt links them to the lasting effects of residential schools.

Scott agreed, saying the unmarked graves have opened up an opportunity to discuss what Indigenous communities are owed and what they continue to experience as a community. Scott said education and dialogue about these atrocities are just the first steps.

“Canada must claim responsibility for the genocide and it has to show a commitment to sharing these truths with all people in Canada,” Scott said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

American lawyer convicted of assaulting Hong Kong police officer to be sentenced

DNY59/iStock

(HONG KONG) — An American corporate lawyer convicted of assaulting a police officer in Hong Kong during a period of citywide unrest about 18 months ago is to be sentenced July 6.

Samuel Phillip Bickett, 37, has been in custody since July 22, when a Hong Kong magistrate found him guilty of assaulting Senior Constable Yu Shu-sang in December 2019. Bickett was denied bail.

In a statement seen by ABC News, Bickett said he would appeal the “outrageous” verdict and “will not rest until justice is done.” The trial’s outcome, he added, is “entirely unsupportable by both the law and the evidence in this case.”

A State Department spokesperson said the United States was aware of Bickett’s case and that it was working to provide consular assistance: “We take seriously our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens abroad, and are monitoring the situation.”

Bickett, a former compliance director at Bank of America, reportedly was on his way to dinner when he tried to stop a man from attacking a commuter at an underground train station.

That man, it turned out, was an off-duty police officer who said he was using a baton to try to stop a turnstile jumper. At the time, Hong Kong officers were allowed to carry retractable batons during off-the-clock hours because of the ongoing protests.

Bickett claims the officer was threatening commuters and that he intervened in an attempt to prevent someone from getting hurt.

In his statement, Bickett said that in Hong Kong’s judicial system “rulings suggest a willful abandonment of fundamental legal principles by this magistrate, and make me sad for the state of rule of law in this city.”

Bickett’s case takes place amid a tense political backdrop. There have been a slew of arrests and prosecutions since last summer when Beijing imposed a national security law in the city, where crackdowns have affected a number of key sectors.

Last month, the city’s only remaining opposition newspaper, Apple Daily, was forced to close after the government froze its assets and arrested a handful of executives.

On Wednesday, Amnesty International said that Hong Kong is “on a rapid path to becoming a police state.”

The remarks came after the city’s former security secretary, John Lee, was promoted to Hong Kong’s second-highest job, while Lee’s post was handed over to police head Chris Tang.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam repeatedly has denied that the former colony’s freedoms and autonomy — meant to be guaranteed when the U.K. handed it back to China in 1997 — are being diminished.

But whether that assurance is enough for the American and international businesses, families and individuals who remain in Hong Kong remains to be seen.

“These are sensitive times for American business in Hong Kong,” said American Chamber of Commerce President Tara Joseph. City leaders are “wrestling not just with the National Security Law but also heightened U.S.-China tensions and strict COVID travel restrictions.”

A survey of members conducted by the chamber in May indicated that some 42% are considering leaving, but, as Joseph noted, Hong Kong remains a vital economic center: “For many sectors, Hong Kong remains an important business hub. Many companies will try to adjust to a new normal.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

K-pop classes now in schools as music’s boom becomes growth industry in South Korea

nigelcarse/iStock

(SEOUL, South Korea) — Dozens of children repeat after their instructor’s dance moves to K-pop group NCT Dream’s latest song “Hot Sauce,” as sweat drips from their foreheads.

These children, all around 8 years old, are intensely following their instructor’s every move as their parents’ watch and cheer on their sons in a K-pop dance class for elementary school kids at a dance studio located in the wealthy streets of the Gangnam district in Seoul, South Korea.

K-pop’s growing global presence — and subsequent success — in the music industry has led to a national recognition in South Korea of K-pop as a potential growth industry, alongside the likes of semiconductors and IT that South Korea has proven to be globally competitive.

When K-pop boy band BTS topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart last summer with their first all-English single “Dynamite,” South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism published an analysis report estimating that the economic ripple effect of the song “Dynamite” alone earned up to $1.5 billion for the country.

“The technical innovation of online concerts, and the growing K-pop fandom will have strong economic impact. When the K-pop industry grows, it inevitably leads to a need for more jobs in the industry,” Park Chanuk of the Cultural Industry Research Center at the Korea Culture & Tourism Institute, told ABC News.

With prospects brighter than ever, parents, and even schools, are now jumping onto the bandwagon for an opportunity of a potentially promising career for their children. Parents waiting for their children’s K-pop dance class to finish at the Shine Dance Academy in Gangnam say their boys and girls deserve a chance to discover their talents early on.

“I think if my son wanted to be a K-pop star, I’d like to see that,” Xing Mei, a Chinese mom who was a fan of the first generation K-pop group H.O.T., told ABC News as she was filming her son throughout the class. “But it’s up to him whether he’ll make it or not.”

Another parent told ABC News that he saw a lot of potential for the K-pop industry globally, and that he wanted to let his son have all possibilities open, including the possibility of becoming a K-pop celebrity like BTS, Blackpink and EXO.

“I think the perspective has changed a lot from less than 10 years ago,” Calvin Kang, father to a 9-year-old boy, told ABC News. “Many parents didn’t want their kids to be an entertainer in the past but now, after the success of K-pop, I think that a lot of parents introduce their kids to K-pop dancing and singing.”

The Shine Dance Academy, which claims it is the first and largest K-pop dance academy for kids in South Korea, explained that more children have shown interest in their program after the success of BTS in the global market.

“Parents are really serious about this,” dance instructor Joe Song told ABC News. “It’s not cheap to have kids take K-pop dance classes from an early age, and it takes that commitment for both kids and parents to actually do this.”

The accelerated popularity of K-pop has even pushed schools to create classes for their students.

Kwangchon High School, a small school of only 76 students in the rural town of Chungnam Province, was quick to adapt to this rising demand and, with permission from the Chungnam Province Office of Education, the school restructured its curriculum to specialize in “all things K-pop,” — even renaming the school to the High School of Korean Pop and Performing Arts.

Here, teenagers take classes such as musical instruments, live performance practice, second language and concert drills which are considered crucial to being on the path to become a star entertainer.

“The goal is not to nurture K-pop celebrities,” Principal Park Boyung Gyu of the K-pop high school told ABC News. “We aim to let students find their strengths so they can take part in the millions of job opportunities surrounding the globally expanding K-pop industry.”

The High School of Korean Pop and Performing Arts received over 10 million dollars’ worth of investments in its facilities from its local government and education offices.

The Chungnam province education office paid for the school’s K-pop changeover expense as well as for new instruments in the hopes that the school will become a landmark for K-pop in South Korea. All lessons, including professional K-pop dance and song writing classes using music editing software, are free of charge at the school and the 124 attending students only have to pay for their dormitory and commute.

“Considering the limitless potential of the K-pop industry, we are investing in the school hoping the city will become a mecca to train workforce for the growing K-pop industry,” Jeong Dae-hoe, vice commissioner from the Chungnam province education office, explained to ABC News.

More than a dozen colleges in South Korea that used to teach classical music and dance are beginning to adopt K-pop as part of its formal education curriculum as an increasing number of the younger generation aim to be part of the multi-billion-dollar industry in order to train young talent who could eventually take on jobs like producers, music writers, choreographers or production staff.

“There’s a greater added value to K-pop, not just from the music and contents itself, but K-pop’s impact on products and services provided by general companies,” K-pop columnist Kim Hern-sik told ABC News. “K-pop also has a positive effect on South Korea’s brand image, therefore resulting in an economic effect that cannot be calculated.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

This is how mass deforestation is wiping out species around the world

richcarey/iStock

(NEW YORK) — The mass-clearing of trees will be the doom of many forms of life on this planet.

Forests are critical to the Earth’s ecology. They capture and store carbon out of the atmosphere. They can alter the air quality and quantity of drinking water. And they provide the most habitat for the world’s terrestrial species.

And yet, alarming rates of deforestation are continuing all over the globe, despite warnings from scientists and urgent calls from environmental activists to cease the clearing as much as possible.

The planet is losing an estimated 137 species of plants, animals and insects every day due to deforestation, according to the World Animal Foundation.

Here are four important species at risk of extinction, each in a region heavily affected by deforestation:

Harpy eagle, the Amazon rainforest

Populations of the harpy eagle, one of the largest eagle species in the world, are dwindling as tree canopies in the Amazon rainforest disappear, and along with it the habitat for the eagles’ preferred prey, a new study published Wednesday in Nature Scientific Reports found.

The eagles rely on specific prey that live in the canopy forests: two-toed sloths, brown capuchin monkeys and grey woolly monkeys, but as the food supply decreased, the eagles did not switch to alternative prey, the researchers found.

The eagles would then deliver prey to their hatchlings less frequently, and when they did, the animals tended to have a smaller estimated weight in landscapes with 50% to 70% deforestation, according to the study.

The researchers observed multiple eaglet deaths from starvation and did not locate any nests in areas with more than 70% deforestation.

Brazil is home to 2.1 million square miles of rain forest — more than 65% of all the rain forest in the world, according to the World Animal Foundation.

But because of the Brazilian government’s dedication to meat and leather trade, about 15% of the world’s tropical forest cover was cleared between 1991 and 2004, according to the Foundation.

The harpy eagle is at risk of disappearing in a similar fashion as 10 mammal, 20 bird and eight amphibian species during three decades of deforestation, according to the foundation. The species is listed as near threatened, with a decreasing population, on the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

Apex predators are threatened around the world, and their extinctions are often driven by failure to acquire prey due to “severe prey scarcity,” according to researchers.

Sumatran orangutan, Southeast Asia

The palm oil industry, 85% of which is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, has wiped out a critical amount of trees in Southeast Asia — and with it, many endangered species.

Less than 80,000 orangutans are left in the world, and all of them live in Indonesia and Malaysia. Their habitats are under “constant threat” of deforestation, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Up to 3,000 are killed every year, according to the Orangutan Conservancy.

The trees are cleared by illegal logging and for conversion from rain forests to palm oil plantations. About 80% of the orangutan’s habitat was cleared in the 1990s and early 2000s by degradation, fragmentation and clearing — and sometimes by intentionally set fires, the magazine Scientific American reported.

Orangutans are agile climbers and “supremely adapted to life in trees, and it’s rare for adult orangutans to ever touch the ground, according Scientific American.

The orangutans are then forced to new areas in search for food, often bringing them in contact with humans, which leads to them being killed as “pests,” according to the Orangutan Conservancy.

Poachers are also targeting orangutans for the bush meat trade, ironically often by loggers who are clearing the forest, since the logging companies do not provide food for the workers, according to the magazine.

The Sumatran orangutan is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN’s Red List.

Koala, Australia

Koalas have been on the decline due to deforestation even before the 2019 Australian bushfires wiped out an estimated 5,000 of the marsupials.

Between 2012 and 2016, at least 5,183 koalas were killed due to the bulldozing of trees, the World Wildlife Fund Australia found.

The koalas live in eucalyptus trees in forests and woodland, using them as both food and shelter. The habitats are left fragmented or completely destroyed as a result of the clearing, and they are forced to the ground to seek alternative shelter. They are often hit by cars, attacked by dogs or contract diseases, according to WWF Australia.

“If you lose your home and your food source then you are doomed,” Deborah Tabart, chairman of the Australian Koala Foundation, told ABC News over email.

Protecting the habitat is the “only way” to save the species, Tabart said. The Australian Koala Foundation has proposed the Koala Protection Act, which would focus on protecting trees, including habitats that are empty. While current federal legislation focuses on protecting the koala species itself, its habitat “is almost impossible to protect,” according to the foundation.

The organization is also calling for a moratorium on logging of native forests, protection of all koala habitat and better management of plantation forests adjacent to koala habitats.

The species is listed as vulnerable with a decreasing population on the IUCN’s Red List. At the current rate, koalas could become extinct by 2050, according to WWF Australia.

Jaguar, North America

Populations of the largest species of cat in the Western Hemisphere are continuing to decrease due to loss of habitat.

While jaguars tend to live in habitat with dense tree canopy cover, such as the Amazon rainforest in Brazil or the Maya Forest in Central America, their range historically came as far north as New Mexico and Arizona, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The big cats require expansive areas of land for survival, but their current range is now just 51% of its historic range, according to the IUCN.

Accelerated deforestation continue to threaten the jaguar habitat, especially when it occurs in corridors that connect conservation areas, according to a 2016 study published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation. Without the corridors to travel through, the populations can become isolated and lose genetic diversity, which could then affect the short and long-term survival of the species.

In Gran Chaco, South America’s largest tropical dry forest located in Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia, about a third of critical jaguar habitat has been lost since the mid-1980s due to deforestation driven by agricultural expansion, a study published in Biodiversity Research in 2019 found.

There is a possibility that jaguars could reestablish a population in the United States through Mexico, which is the current northern edge of the range, Dan Thornton, assistant professor in the Washington State University School of the Environment and one of the authors of the study, told Washington State Magazine.

Jaguars are listed as near threatened with a decreasing population on the IUCN’s Red List. They are so elusive, that it is difficult to estimate how many are left in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

China marks Communist Party centennial with warning from Xi

iStock/pakornkrit

(HONG KONG) — As tension runs high in Hong Kong, Thursday marked 24 years of the former British colony’s return to China, and one year since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in response to months of unrest and challenge to its authority.

In stark contrast to the mood in Hong Kong, Beijing has been in a celebratory mode, with patriotic shows, military flybys and cannon salutes to memorialize the founding of the Communist Party 100 years ago.

Chinese President Xi Jinping declared in front of tens of thousands gathered in Tiananmen Square that foreign powers attempting to bully his country will “get their heads bashed” and that they’ll be met with a “great wall of steel.”

In a defiant hourlong address, Xi said there was no room for so-called “sanctimonious preaching.”

China’s strongest leader since Mao Zedong also made an “unshakeable” commitment to unification with Taiwan, which China sees as a wayward province. “No one should underestimate the resolve, the will and ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Xi said.

Beijing’s emphasis on security and territorial integrity isn’t lost on the citizens of Hong Kong, who’ve witnessed authorities carry out an intensive crackdown in the city over the last year since the introduction of the security law. Peaceful mass protests against Beijing’s encroachment erupted in the Asian financial hub in mid-2019 garnering global attention. However as the protest began to grew increasingly violent over the course of months, Beijing became determined to paint them as a Western-backed revolution laying the groundwork for the security law.

It now appears that any hint of resistance in Hong Kong is met with a heavy hand. Police say they can’t allow people to gather because of COVID-19 restrictions, but non-political gatherings seem to have been tolerated in other situations. Hong Kong’s malls on July 1 were packed.

On Wednesday, Amnesty International said the national security law has created a “human rights emergency” and that Hong Kong is “on a rapid path to becoming a police state.”

Beijing has also promoted Hong Kong’s top security official John Lee to become the number two leader in the city, ostensibly rewarding him for enforcing the security law.

When it was first introduced, Beijing insisted the security law would only be used to target an “small minority,” but 12 months on, activists say the law is being weaponized into wiping out the opposition entirely, to stamp out dissent and to curb the city’s freedoms.

The law has sent a chill throughout Hong Kong, and radically transformed its political landscape. Hong Kong police have arrested more than 100 people and charged dozens under its provisions, including almost the entire pro-democracy camp of lawmakers and media tycoon Jimmy Lai. Last month Lai’s paper Apple Daily was forced to close after its editorial staff were arrested and assets frozen.

On the day Apple Daily closed, in response President Biden released a statement saying, “It is a sad day for media freedom in Hong Kong and around the world.”

“Through arrests, threats and forcing through a National Security Law that penalizes free speech, Beijing has insisted on wielding its power to suppress independent media and silence dissenting views,” the statement continued.

Most prominent figures who’ve come to define the Hong Kong democracy movement have fled the city or are in jail. One of them is Albert Ho, who spoke with ABC News just days before he was sent to prison in May. “It’s just a matter of time,” Ho said, “You know, when Hong Kong is now facing such a setback and so many of my friends are already behind bars.”

Albert Ho was sentenced to 18 months in prison for inciting people to participate in an unauthorized assembly back on China’s National Day on October 1, 2019 when an unauthorized protest march later turned violent.

The judge who sentenced Ho and nine of his fellow pro-democracy activists said the harsher than normal sentence was to serve as a “deterrent” and “was necessary in maintaining public order.”

For many, the only response has been to leave, with the United Kingdom and other countries offering an easier pathway to citizenship for some Hong Kongers.

Ronny Tong, a top adviser to Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam, said that Hong Kongers will have no problem living in the city, as long as they respect the fact that the territory is part of China. “If you do understand the one country, two systems, which involves Hong Kong being a place which is a little bit different from other places, that we are part of China, that is a fact that you can’t change. Not only is it a fact you can’t change, but it’s a fact you need to respect,” Tong said.

“The other thing I would like to say is that I have confidence in the judiciary,” Tong added.

But there are now also questions hanging over whether the integrity of Hong Kong’s judiciary, which is based on the English common law system, might become caught in the crosshairs.

China’s head of security Zheng Yanxiong recently said that the city’s courts should derive power from Beijing. “[Hong Kong’s] independent judiciary’s power is authorized by the National People’s Congress. It must highly manifest the national will and national interest, or else it will lose the legal premise of the authorization,” said Zheng.

Zheng’s comments come as Hong Kong courts start to hear the national security cases of the past year.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

US leaves main base in Afghanistan as pullout now set to end in late August

iStock/Nastco

(NEW YORK) — The Pentagon confirmed on Friday that it had turned over the sprawling Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to the Afghan government and also announced that it now expects the total withdrawal of U.S. troops to be completed “at the end of August.”

The withdrawal of all U.S. military personnel from the base marks a major milestone in the withdrawal process as it had been the main hub for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan for the last 20 years.

Handing over control of the base had been seen as a key indicator that the end of the withdrawal from Afghanistan would be completed in July — months earlier than the Sept. 11 deadline set by President Joe Biden.

But the Pentagon announced Friday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had approved a plan to transfer command authority for the U.S. Forces Afghanistan from Gen. Austin Scott Miller to Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters that Miller will remain in Afghanistan for “a number of weeks.”

“The idea is to have him remain there … to effect all this, the turnover responsibilities, and … make preparations for Gen. McKenzie to assume those responsibilities,” said Kirby.

U.S. Army soldiers from the elite 75th Ranger Regiment helped to close Bagram Airfield on Thursday, a military source confirmed to ABC News.

U.S. military operations at the base ended with the departure of the last military flights carrying out American military personnel and equipment. Earlier this week, U.S. Central Command had said that 896 C-17 cargo flights of material had already taken place.

Kirby also said that the total U.S. military drawdown “process” from Afghanistan would be completed by the “end of August.”

The spokesman also said that the current defensive airstrike authority that Miller has to target the Taliban in support of the military will be transferred to McKenzie.

That development eases concerns that the Afghan military would be even more vulnerable to Taliban forces without American combat air support after all U.S. troops had left.

Even after the completion of the U.S. withdrawal, a force of 650 American military personnel will remain in Kabul to help defend the U.S. Embassy and the civilian airport in Kabul, according to a U.S. official.

This force will be led by Rear Adm. Peter Vasely who will be based at the embassy in command of what will be known as U.S. Forces Afghanistan-Forward.

While Turkey had agreed to provide security at the airport, a move seen as vital in ensuring the safety and operations of the U.S. Embassy, the pace of the U.S. military withdrawal had moved so quickly that questions remained about whether Turkey would have its forces in place.

Also, many details remain to be finalized for plans to remove at least 9,000 Afghan interpreters and their families outside of Afghanistan.

In addition to the new command in Kabul, Army Brig. Gen. Curtis Buzzard will be based in Qatar to lead the defense security cooperation management office that will administer U.S. funding to the Afghan military.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

French astronaut makes ‘crepe’ in space

ESA/TwitterESA/Twitter

(NEW YORK) — While it may not be a traditional crêpe, it’s as close to the real deal as a French astronaut can get in space.

Thomas Pesquet, the first French commander of the International Space Station, shared a video on Twitter of his spin on the sweet treat.

“Unfortunately for my teammates, my culinary skills do not match my nationality. At least Shane and Oleg with whom I have already lived were warned this time. Creation so French today: chocolate crepe, strawberries, (how’s that a tortilla?),” the translated tweet said.

The 43-year-old first shared the video Monday and as the floating disc of dough made its rounds on social media, comments varied with some hailing the snack as hilarious and original, to others calling it dismal and disappointing.

Although the recipe may not be Le Cordon Bleu-worthy, Pesquet gets serious points for creativity and credit for the first known crepe served in space.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Princes William, Harry attend Princess Diana statue unveiling amid family tensions

Dominic Lipinski – WPA Pool/Getty Images

(LONDON) — Princes William and Harry, who have reportedly been estranged for over a year, made a rare appearance together Thursday to honor their mother, the late Princess Diana.

William and Harry, the only children of Diana and Prince Charles, were both present as a much-anticipated statue of Princess Diana was installed in the Sunken Garden of Kensington Palace on July 1, which would have been Diana’s 60th birthday.

“Today, on what would have been our Mother’s 60th birthday, we remember her love, strength and character — qualities that made her a force for good around the world, changing countless lives for the better,” the brothers shared in a joint statement. “Every day, we wish she were still with us, and our hope is that this statue will be seen forever as a symbol of her life and her legacy.”

The princes also thanked the statue’s sculptor, Ian Rank-Broadley, and the garden designer, Pip Morrison, for their “outstanding work” as well as shouted out “all those around the world who keep our mother’s memory alive.”

Also in attendance at the event were Diana’s siblings: The Earl Spencer, The Lady Sarah McCorquodale and The Lady Jane Fellowes.

Not in attendance were the brothers’ wives as well as their father, Prince Charles, and their grandmother, Queen Elizabeth.

The statue itself, which is 1.25 times life size and bronze, aims to “reflect the warmth, elegance and energy” of the late Princess of Wales and shows her surrounded by three children meant to represent “the universality and generational impact” of her work, according to Kensington Palace.

“The portrait and style of dress was based on the final period of her life as she gained confidence in her role as an ambassador for humanitarian causes and aims to convey her character and compassion,” the palace continued.

The base of the statue features Diana’s name and the date of its unveiling. In front of it is a paving stone engraved with an extract from the poem “The Measure of a Man.”

The statue was commissioned by William, 39, and Harry, 36, in 2017 to mark the 20th anniversary of their mother’s death.

Diana died in August 1997 after a car crash in the Pont D’Alma Bridge in Paris. William and Harry were 15 and 12, respectively, at the time.

“It has been 20 years since our mother’s death and the time is right to recognize her positive impact in the UK and around the world with a permanent statue,” the brothers said in a joint statement in 2017. “Our mother touched so many lives. We hope the statue will help all those who visit Kensington Palace to reflect on her life and legacy.”

Just one year after the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death, in 2018, Prince Harry wed his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex.

The couple, who now live in California, stepped down from their roles as senior, working members of the royal family last year amid family tensions that they went on to reveal in a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey in March.

In the interview, Harry described himself and William as being on “different paths.”

“The relationship is space at the moment, and, you know, time heals all things, hopefully,” Harry said. “I love William to bits. He’s my brother. We’ve been through hell together, and we have a shared experience, but we were on different paths.”

William and Harry grew up at Kensington Palace and Diana lived there until her death.

Harry and Meghan, who just welcomed their second child, a daughter named Lilibet Diana, at one point also lived in Kensington Palace near William and Kate, who still have their main residence there with their three children.

In 2019, Harry and Meghan moved from the palace to a new home in Windsor and also left the household they shared with William and Kate, a split that author Robert Lacey said was due to an “explosive argument” between the brothers.

Citing palace insiders, Lacey wrote in his new book, “Battle of Brothers,” that Harry reportedly hung up the phone on William, who then went to address him in-person about the way Meghan was reportedly treating palace staff.

After the argument, William reportedly instructed a royal aide to “start the process of dividing their two households immediately,” according to the book.

William and Harry’s first in-person reunion in over a year happened in April, when the royal family came together for the funeral of the brothers’ grandfather, Prince Philip.

Their wives, Kate and Meghan, have not seen each other in person in over a year.

Many see today’s event as a chance for the brothers to bridge the gap between them.

“I think there’s been a lot of hope that an event like this would bring the brothers back together, and it’s certainly true that their mother’s memory and honoring her memory is pretty much one of the only things that really unites them right now,” Victoria Murphy, ABC News royal contributor, said.

Robert Jobson, another ABC News royal contributor, said he hopes William and Harry will be able to reconnect, adding that the presence of Diana’s sisters and close members of the family might help.

“Just standing there and looking at that statue … in the Sunken Gardens where they used to play as kids with her looking over them, maybe that just might be the catalyst to start the end to this rift,” Jobson added.

While he said the relationship between the brothers is still “extremely complicated,” ABC News royal contributor Omid Scobie said he understands “it is still a case of distance” and “they’re simply not talking at the moment.”

“This is really going to be the first time where they have a proper opportunity to chat to each other,” Scobie said. “And maybe being here in the presence of the memory of their mother will be a reminder of the importance of love and family.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Spectator arrested for allegedly causing massive Tour de France crash

Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

(PARIS) — After a four-day search, a woman was arrested Wednesday as part of the investigation into a large crash at the Tour de France earlier last week, according to local prosecutors.

The 30-year-old suspect turned herself into police and expressed feelings “of shame, of fear, in the face of the consequences of her act,” public prosecutor Camille Miansoni said Thursday. She is “distressed by the media coverage of what she calls ‘her blunder,'” added Miansoni.

Prosecutors said police would take measures “proportionate to the seriousness of the facts and to the personality of the author.”

The woman is accused of causing a large crash by holding a sign in front of cyclists in the opening stage of the competition on Saturday. She had allegedly left the scene before authorities arrived. Her cardboard sign read “allez opi-omi,” meaning “go grandma-grandpa” in German.

After the crash, three riders withdrew from the race due to their injuries, according to the Tour’s organizers, including German cyclist Jasha Sütterlin of Team DSM.

“Following the crash, he was taken to hospital for examinations which revealed no broken bones, but a severe contusion to his right wrist that will require further examinations back at home,” Team DSM said in a statement about Sütterlin, who admitted he was “so disappointed.”

Tony Martin, a member of top Tour contender Primoz Roglic’s Jumbo Visma squad, hit the woman on the right side of the road, causing a domino effect for riders inside the peloton.

The first fall was followed by another, which injured four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome.

Riders briefly halted the race on Tuesday to protest against the danger caused by spectators who were too close to the road.

“Following the crashes during the third stage of the Tour de France, the riders have been discussing how they wish to proceed to show their dissatisfaction with safety measures in place and demand their concerns are taken seriously,” the riders’ union, the Cyclistes Professionnels Associés, said in a statement. “Their frustration about foreseeable and preventable action is enormous.”

The local chief of police Nicolas Duvinage on Thursday called for calm in a press conference, saying the suspect was trying to send a message on TV to her grandparents and that it is “wise not to carry out a media lynching.”

Fearing a backlash, Tour de France organizers decided to drop their suit against the fan in question and withdrew their complaint “for the sake of appeasement … in the face of the excitement on social media,” said Tour director Pierre-Yves Thouault. “We don’t want to look like we are flogging a dead horse. But we remind you of the safety rules.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

New Israeli prime minister maintains tough stance against enemies

pawel.gaul/iStock

(JERUSALEM) — Israel may have a new prime minister but the departure of Benjamin Netanyahu does not appear to be changing the country’s tough stance against Iran.

Naftali Bennett has been in office less than three weeks and has already made clear that nothing has changed on the Jewish State’s right to defend itself.

The new prime minister on Wednesday vowed Israel will “always defend itself against any external threat” — a message widely seen as a warning to Iran.

Bennett also insisted Israel “will not have its hands tied” when it comes to security.

Like his predecessor Netanyahu, Bennett has indicated a revived U.S.-Iran nuclear deal will not stop Israel from acting to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.