US concludes combat mission in Iraq as Biden meets with Iraqi prime minister

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(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden said the U.S. is “not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission” in Iraq.

The president, while meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi Monday afternoon, said the U.S. role there will be focused on training and assisting to combat the Islamic State group.

“Our shared fight against ISIS is critical for the stability of our region and our counterterrorism cooperation will continue, even as we shift to this new phase we’re going to be talking about,” Biden said.

A U.S. official told ABC News Thursday the change in mission is more of a semantic one and the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will not dramatically differ as they shift their emphasis to training and assisting.

As with anywhere around the world, the official added, U.S. troops reserve the right to defend themselves too.

Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Fareed Yasseen told ABC News last week that Iraqi forces will continue to request direct U.S. assistance for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and training.

Several U.S. officials have said the 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq are already largely in that kind of advise-and-assist role.

Both sides have repeatedly committed to U.S. troops exiting once the coalition to defeat ISIS completes its work, essentially kicking the can down a long road now to appease political pressure in Iraq, fueled by Iranian-backed factions and militias and U.S. air strikes against them.

During the Trump administration, a tit-for-tat series of attacks between Iraqi militias and U.S. forces in Iraq to fight ISIS precipitated an assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in January 2020. While the Shiite militias were able to breach an outer perimeter, no one was injured in the attack.

Days later, President Donald Trump ordered the airstrike that killed Iran’s most powerful general Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force. The strike outside Baghdad International Airport further inflamed anti-American sentiment among Shiite militias and Iraq’s government responded by denouncing it as another U.S. violation of its sovereignty.

With a majority in parliament, Shiite lawmakers voted to expel U.S. troops that month. While the resolution was non-binding, there’s been strong political pressure on the Iraqi government since then to see an end to the U.S. military presence, especially after the two governments and the defeat ISIS coalition declared the end of the terror group’s so-called caliphate.

In a series of “strategic dialogues” since then, they have negotiated ways to strengthen U.S.-Iraqi cooperation on other issues, including trade, energy and diplomacy with Iraq’s Arab neighbors, while repeatedly committing to pulling American forces out one day.

Biden on Monday also noted that the U.S. is sending Iraq 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines, which the president said should be arriving “in a couple of weeks.”

With Monday’s announcement, that day could be closer — but it’s still not here yet.

That much was clear to those Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, also known as Popular Mobilization Forces. The spokesperson for one group, the Nujaba Movement, said in a statement that the change in mission was a “cheap trick.”

They “will not differentiate between advisers of the occupation or soldiers of the occupation, for all of them are important targets for the weapons of the resistance, until the last occupying soldier leaves the land of Iraq,” said the spokesperson, Nasser al Shammari.

ABC News’ Libby Cathey contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Discontent over Fukushima nuclear disaster response casts shadow over Tokyo Olympics

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(NEW YORK) — Some 150 miles from Tokyo’s Olympic venues, calendars that line the walls of empty classrooms remain frozen on a date more than a decade in the past: March 11, 2011.

Images from an abandoned elementary school in Futaba, Japan, are an eerie reminder of the uneven recovery efforts 10 years after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered a catastrophic tsunami and caused the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

About 164,000 people were forced to evacuate in the aftermath of the meltdown at the now-infamous Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Many never returned home.

As the Japanese government doggedly forges ahead with the delayed and beleaguered Olympic Games this year, some advocates say initial promises that the situation in Fukushima is “under control” are false. Some also say the “Recovery Olympics” branding exploits residents who feel forgotten, and cleanup of the Dai-ichi power plant will take decades longer than government estimates.

Japanese officials insist radiation levels in reopened parts of Fukushima prefecture — which is set to host baseball and softball for the Summer Games — are safe for visitors, and many independent monitors agree. But what many say is a lack of transparency has eroded public trust, and a new debate rages over the what to do with the more than 1 million tons of “treated” radioactive wastewater piling up in storage tanks at the damaged nuclear power plant.

Here is how the legacy of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe looms large over the Tokyo Olympics.

A ‘Made in Japan’ disaster

Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the chairman of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (a group mandated by Japanese legislators to examine what went wrong and make recommendations), told ABC News that recovery efforts are far from complete and a permanent plan for how to dispose of contaminated waste is not in place.

“It has a long way to go,” Kurokawa told ABC News of Fukushima’s recovery. “It’s a very tragic thing — and there are just certain people that cannot go back.”

“The issue is, what is the long-term prospectus of how to contain Fukushima Dai-ichi, and I’m not so sure TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Company] has a clear long-term plan of what to do,” Kurokawa added. “They’re doing at least their best effort, but I think cleaning up radioactivity is a mess, and particularly with Fukushima Dai-ichi’s issues.”

While the quasi-state-owned power firm that runs the embattled nuclear power plant has suggested a 30- to 40-year timeline for decommissioning, Kurokawa said conflicting research estimates it could take at least “100 years.”

In his team’s scathing report on what went wrong, delivered to Japanese lawmakers in the aftermath of the event, Kurokawa calls the nuclear catastrophe a “profoundly manmade disaster — that could and should have been foreseen and prevented.”

Kurokawa blasted cultural factors in the nation with the world’s third-largest gross domestic product that he says ultimately resulted in more suffering.

“What must be admitted — very painfully — is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan,'” Kurokawa wrote in the English version of the executive summary. “Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.”

While they are separate issues, similar criticisms have been leveled at Japanese officials still insistent upon hosting the Olympics despite a global pandemic.

“The biggest issue from our point of view has been this historical lack of adequate transparency on the part of TEPCO and also the Japanese government,” Azby Brown, a researcher for the nuclear monitoring nonprofit organization Safecast, told ABC News, “and this is from the beginning and may actually predate the accident.”

“We see some similar things happening regarding the coronavirus response and even among the negotiations or the discussions regarding the Olympics and what measures will be taken to protect the safety of people who come here for that,” Brown added. “So, it’s all part of a similar phenomenon within Japanese institutions and bureaucracies and government.”

‘Recovery is far from reality’ ahead of so-called ‘Recovery Olympics’

Before the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the world, the Japanese government originally painted the 2020 Olympic Games as the “Recovery Olympics,” meant to showcase how the nation rebuilt in the decade following the cataclysmic triple disaster of 2011.

The global health crisis and mounting costs associated with hosting the international event during a once-in-a-century pandemic has led to dwindling public support for holding the games, but these concerns appear to have largely fallen on deaf ears. Many locals have expressed fears that it could lead to a surge in coronavirus cases as vaccination rates in Japan lag far behind its peers in the developed world.

For some residents or evacuees of Fukushima, however, hosting the Olympics at a cost of some $12.6 billion is a painful reminder of government-spending priorities.

“Some people feel abandoned not only by the government but also by the nation,” Kazuya Hirano, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, told ABC News. “They also feel used for the promotion of the government slogan, the ‘Recovery Olympics.'”

Hirano — whose research has focused on the continued social, political and health effects of the disaster — said that the government terminated financial support for evacuees in 2017, but most have not returned home.

“Reconstruction does not make much sense as most former Fukushima residents who were affected by the disaster have not returned or have no intention to return because they are worried about the radiation for their families as well as themselves,” Hirano said. “Most people have already settled in new places.”

Safecast’s Brown said that he feels some people in the region take pride in hosting Olympic events, as it provides something to be optimistic about.

“But for them to try to use this as a way to showcase recovery, it was a sketchy idea from the beginning and I think now it’s probably certainly backfired,” he said. “Instead, it will only highlight the problems and the lack of recovery.”

“We spend a lot of time with people in communities we help,” Brown said. “They’re all totally skeptical of these big-picture things, like to spend millions and millions on Olympics. They are saying we need more support for concrete things — actual support for small businesses, actual support for single parents.”

With “real, concrete things” still not adequately taken care of in Fukushima, Brown said many residents view the billions of dollars pumped into the Olympics as “just misspent funds.”

In his 2013 speech pitching Tokyo as a host city, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told members of the International Olympic Committee that the situation in Fukushima is “under control” and “has never done and will never do any damage to Tokyo.”

His words have drawn ire from Fukushima residents for years.

In July 2020, Katsunobu Sakurai — who was mayor of Minamiosama, Fukushima, at the time of the catastrophe — blasted the “Recovery Olympics” branding in an interview with the one of the country’s biggest newspapers.

“No matter how much you tout the games as a sign of recovery, the overall picture of only Tokyo prospering while the recovery of the disaster-hit areas in the Tohoku region remains undone will not change,” he told the Mainichi newspaper, referring to the region that is home to Fukushima. “I’ve been to Tokyo many times, and saw that there were more crane trucks at the construction site of the athletes’ village than in the disaster-hit areas.”

“It was obvious at a glance where the national government was placing its resources,” he added.

How safe is the area now?

The Japanese government has been slowly lifting evacuation orders and “restricted areas” over the years, removing top soil and declaring new swaths of land safe for residents to return to in the lead up to the Summer Games. Currently, a vast majority of Fukushima is considered safe to visit — only about 230 square miles remain in designated evacuation zones, or 2.7% of the total area of Fukushima prefecture.

Fukushima’s Azuma Baseball stadium, about 42 miles from the Dai-ichi power plant, is set to host baseball and softball competitions for the Tokyo Olympics.

In a symbolic move, the Olympic torch relay kicked off at the J-Village National Training Center, a sports complex just 12 miles south of the Dai-ichi plant. The complex served as a front-line base for first responders in the aftermath of the meltdown.

“That place, the base of operations dealing with the nuclear accident, has now been reborn into Japan’s largest holy site of soccer, filled with children’s smiling faces,” Abe said of J-Village in a January 2020 speech. The former prime minister and fierce champion of hosting the games also reminisced how a man born in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb was dropped carried the Olympic flame in Tokyo’s 1964 Olympics, sending a message to the world that “Japan had achieved reconstruction” following World War II.

While the government has assured visitors the designated areas in Fukushima are safe, some independent monitoring organizations, including Greenpeace Japan, have reported finding radioactive hotspots with readings that don’t align with figures released by the officials.

Kurokawa and Brown agreed that the risk of dangerous levels of radiation exposure in reopened areas of Fukushima is low, but residents’ trust in official statements also remains low.

“More or less, I think it’s very clean and if there’s any sort of radioactivity, there are some warnings around there, so I think local people know where it is safe and where may not be as safe,” Kurokawa told ABC News. He added that he believes people can “reasonably trust” municipal radiation data even if they have doubts about TEPCO-released figures.

Brown added that barring intentionally scaling a fence and entering a prohibited zone, radiation in most areas welcoming Olympic guests is relatively low.

“Before coronavirus there was a question if it was safe to have Olympic events in Fukushima. We were involved in that and had people involved who measured at the stadium, talked to people,” Brown said. “Our opinion was that … the risk of an overseas visitor going to Fukushima was similar to the radiation risk they got on their flight over.”

“That is not an exaggeration and is not trying to minimize risk in general,” he added. “You get a very hefty dose on an overseas flight.”

‘Transparency is the foundation of trust’

Earlier this year, Japan’s government announced plans to start releasing “treated” radioactive wastewater from the Dai-ichi plant into the Pacific Ocean in approximately two years. The move had already been delayed due to protests, drawing ire from local fisherman as well as Japan’s neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said this decision is “unavoidable” in order to “make progress in the decommissioning of Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant and achieve the reconstruction of Fukushima.”

The wastewater has been stored in tanks at the wrecked power plant for years, and space is reaching full capacity, the prime minister added. As of January 2021, there were approximately 1,061 tanks on the site of the power plant, carrying 1.24 million tons of treated water. Suga said he doesn’t think the plan reflects a “contradiction” to Abe’s former pledge to Olympic officials that the Fukushima situation was “under control.”

The water has been treated, but still contains minute amounts of the harder-to-remove radioactive isotope tritium. In a failed bid to gain public support for the plan, the Japanese government created a rosy-cheeked so-called “Little Mr. Tritium” mascot. The cute character that looked like something out of a children’s book was scrapped from government websites in a single day after community backlash.

“The gap between the gravity of the problems we face and the levity of the character is huge,” a local fisherman told Japan’s Kyodo News Agency.

Suga promised they would reduce the tritium concentration to “one-fortieth or less of the domestic regulatory standard value,” or levels small enough to be largely considered safe by the nuclear energy community.

While nuclear operators around the world release small amounts of tritium into the ocean as part of standard operating procedures, Brown told ABC News that it’s a “false comparison to say that Fukushima Dai-ichi is the same.”

“What we’re dealing with is a stopgap emergency response to a horrific nuclear disaster,” he said, noting that the release is not being done as part of the designed operation of the plant.

“Another criticism of ours is that there should be a process, a full environmental impact assessment before the decision is made,” Brown said. While a limited assessment was carried out, he added, “It has not been done transparently.”

“We think that if it is done the way they said they are going to do it, then the impact on health and the environment can be very low,” he added. “But the point is there has been such bad faith all along that none of us should take it on their word. We believe it needs to be independently verified.”

Kurokawa added that while the tritium debate has dominated discussion, there’s evidence that there could be trace amounts of other radioactive elements in the wastewater destined for the Pacific.

“I just testified in the parliament, there are other sort of radioactivities in addition to tritium,” he said. “But nobody talks much about this.”

While he said he genuinely believes the levels are within accepted norms, it sill must be disclosed.

“It’s safe, but you have to say it,” he said.

Kurokawa is advocating for TEPCO and the Japanese government to invest in a highly transparent, bilingual website that is constantly being updated with the latest data and plans for Fukushima.

“I think all the data has to be available because in this connected world, transparency is a foundation of trust,” he said. “You just cannot hide it.”

The city of Minamiosama, where Sakurai was mayor, was among the hardest-hit by the disaster. Kurokawa and his team’s report found that 44% of evacuees from Fukushima were residents of this city. Data indicates that even after it was declared safe, it still suffered a mass exodus of its young people.

“The Japanese government has prepared for the Olympics while upholding the ‘disaster recovery’ label, even though a recovery is far from reality,” Sakurai said to the Mainichi newspaper in July 2020. “It is superficial to declare a recovery with no actual progress.”

“The government is now talking of an Olympics that could be a sign of humanity’s triumph over the pandemic, but vaccines have not yet been put into practical use, and the world has not yet been freed from the risk of infection,” he added. “There is no chance of success by trying to box in reality to meet the labels the government upholds. The idea of a ‘coronavirus Olympics’ may also likely end as a mere fantasy.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

What to know about PHA biodegradable plastic and how it could help Southeast Asia

ABC News

(SUWON, South Korea) — South Korean conglomerate CJ Cheiljedang is jumping into the global market to begin mass production of PHA biodegradable plastic, or polyhydroxyalkanoates.

PHA is considered a viable alternative to petroleum-based plastic because the new technology allows its plastic waste to decompose completely in the ocean and soil in a significantly shorter period of time.

“Plastics made from crude oil are said to take over 500 years to completely decompose, while biodegradable plastics take decades at most,” SungYeon Hwang, Head of Bio-based Chemistry Research Center at the Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology, told ABC News. “Biodegradable plastic does not pollute the sea even if it accidentally flows into the shore.”

This next generation of plastic, PHA — made from microorganism fermentation — is currently manufactured by U.S. company Danimer, based in Bainbridge Georgia, and Japanese company, Kaneka.

CJ Cheiljedang aims to construct a 5,000 tons worth PHA manufacturing line in Indonesia by the end of this year. The global bioplastic production market is anticipated to reach up to 2.8 million tons by 2025, according to the European Bioplastics’ market analysis in 2020.

The inevitable move from petroleum-based plastic to an eco-friendly substitute has been exacerbated by Europe’s sales ban of the 10 most commonly found plastic waste items at the bottom of the ocean such as straws, takeout containers and water bottles made of polystyrene.

“With PHA, CJ Cheiljedang hopes to play a leading role in changing the paradigm of the global materials market,” CJ Cheiljedang’s communications team told ABC News. “’Going green’ is an inevitable trend in all industries.”

CJ Cheiljedang’s PHA has been certified biodegradable in industry use, household compost, soil and water by TUV Austria, an institution for biodegradability testing and certification.

From microorganism to eco-friendly plastic

Making solid PHA material begins by engineering and creating microorganisms. At CJ Cheiljedang lab in Suwon, just south of Seoul, researchers grow and nurture microorganisms and select the strongest strain through automated machines.

“These selected strains are optimally grown in a controlled environment where we tightly regulate the shaking speed and temperature,” Researcher Park Yae-seul told ABC news.

The chosen strains go through a fermentation process during which the cells are grown in bioreactors and subsequently fed with sugar made from feedstock for better production of PHA.

After a certain period of fermentation, the materials go through a refinery process where PHA are dehydrated and aggregated before being made into long strands of liquid plastic, which later dries up into solid biodegradable plastic materials.

Shortfalls of PHA

While a number of biodegradable materials have been proposed as a solution to the global plastic pollution problem, there is still much controversy over how the biodegradable plastic waste is disposed of.

“Ideally, it is best to collect used PHA-based plastic waste and process them in an industrial compost in order to meet its biodegradable characteristics,” In-Joo Chin, president of the Korean Bioplastics Association, told ABC News.

Bioplastics like PHA are, theoretically, compostable if collected and buried separately but, for now, consumers are advised to throw them away together along with general waste.

The amount of commercial waste at this point is not enough to design a separate collecting system, experts say. PHA will only become an effective eco-friendly alternative for plastic when its manufacturing reaches an adequately sized economy of scale in the future.

CJ Cheiljedang, as a starter to its next generation makeover, has recently begun wrapping their tofu bundle with vinyl packaging containing their own PHA as a test use in consumer goods. But reaching economies of scale is still a long way off.

“The cost of replacing the original vinyl packaging made out of petroleum based plastic PP with a biodegradable alternative was more expensive, but we consider the biodegradable plastic market as an economy of scale,” Technology Strategy professional Young Min Lee told ABC News. “As more and more plastics are replaced with biodegradable plastic, the production cost will naturally go down.”

“It will make a big step for a better environment if the plastic waste that has no choice but to go to general waste-straws, such as agricultural munching films, and small containers-are replaced with biodegradable plastic like the PHA,” Hong Soo-yeol, chief researcher at Seoul-based Resource Recycle Consulting, told ABC News.

ABC News’ Hyun Soo Kim contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

How colonial-era debt helped shape Haiti’s poverty and political unrest

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(NEW YORK) — When Haiti won its independence nearly 200 years ago, it came at a hefty price — an estimated $21 billion today.

The country spent the next century paying off the debt to its former slave owners, France.

It’s a financial conundrum that those experts and historians say have helped keep some formerly colonized countries impoverished: the demand by former slave owners and colonizers for pay in exchange for independence.

The French recognized Haiti’s independence in 1825 but in return demanded a hefty indemnity of 100 million francs, approximately $21 billion (USD) today. It took Haitians more than a century to pay off the debt to its former slave owners and lenders including the City Bank of New York, experts who spoke with ABC News said.

“By forcing Haiti to pay for its freedom, France essentially ensured that the Haitian people would continue to suffer the economic effects of slavery for generations to come,” said Marlene Daut, a professor at University of Virginia specializing in pre-20th century French colonial literary and historical studies.

Money that could have gone toward erecting a country was channeled to France, Daut said. And France had already profited immensely from slaves producing sugar and coffee, said Alyssa Sepinwall, a history professor at California State University San Marcos.

Since 2004, the bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution, Haiti has unsuccessfully sought compensation from France. After Haiti was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2010 that left approximately 250,000 people dead, international activists urged the French president to reimburse Haiti’s “independence debt” in the form of disaster relief — an amount totaling $20 billion. The government has yet to respond to these requests.

The Elysee, the official residence of the President of the French Republic, told ABC News in a request for comment: “there’ll be no reaction from Elysee on that matter.”

The country’s GDP remains extremely low at $1,149.50 per capita and nearly 60% of Haitians currently live in poverty. Even though the country has finished paying off its debt and interest by 1947, its economy has not advanced significantly because it is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and corruption.

Ralph Emmanuel Francois, a Haitian and CEO of a social enterprise in Haiti, said the debt left a gaping hole in Haiti’s economy and believes France should pay reparations to Haiti. “I’m saying that they also have a responsibility about what they did to us and how they, you know, stole our economy that we could use for our benefit,” Francois said.

A similar tale: Jamaica asking to zero out the balance

Jamaica, another Caribbean island that was a British colony from 1707 until it gained independence in 1962, is also preparing a petition asking Britain to compensate an estimate of 7.6 billion pounds to descendants of former indentured African slaves who were forced to work on sugar plantations, according to Mike Henry, a member of Jamaican Parliament.

Henry, whose private motion served as the basis for the petition, said his motion is about addressing the human rights abuse former slaves had to endure and added that the motion is first to pursue a political approach in asking reparations for chattel slavery.

The motion has since been approved by the National Commission on Reparations which examines cases for reparations for descendants of slaves in Jamaica.

Jamaica was considered the richest British colony of the time and slavery was regarded as the key to wealth. A Cambridge report on legacies of British slave ownership found that 15 to 20% of wealthy British directly benefited from slavery. After the abolition of slavery in 1835, the British government compensated its slave owners with 20 million pounds, which is worth 2 billion pounds today.

An international push to address legacies of slavery

The death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement reverberated on a global scale, prompting the U.N. human rights chief to inspect the issue of racism across nations.

A report published by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet in June, stated that there is a “long-overdue need to confront the legacies of enslavement, the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and colonialism and to seek reparatory justice.” Discussing the report further, the human rights chief called on all countries to “stop denying racism…. confront past legacies and deliver redress.”

France has “amnesia” when it comes to dealing with its past about slavery, history professor Sepinwall said.

“This is so long ago and I think that’s one reason why there’s not been a push among French citizens to say we need to be accountable for this,” said Sepinwall. “The political will is not there in France for this to happen sadly because not enough people recognize what happened.”

Former French president Jacques Chirac said in 2000: “Haiti was not, strictly speaking, a French colony.”

There is reason to be skeptical about the U.N.’s efforts, Sepinwall said, because there were often gaps between its rhetoric and action.

“It is also about accountability. It is also about responsibility. Not only saying that I’m sorry, but also saying that I am fully responsible for that,” said Francois.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Nigeria’s men’s team aims for Africa’s 1st Olympic basketball medal

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(TOKYO) — It was one of the most lopsided losses in Olympic basketball history: Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Team USA thrashed the Nigerian men’s basketball team by 83 points in London in 2012, with a final score of 156-73.

“I remember that game,” said 21-year-old Precious Achiuwa, who was born in Nigeria and immigrated to the United States in eighth grade. “It wasn’t good.”

Fast forward nine years, and Achiuwa, now a forward for the Miami Heat and Nigeria’s national team, helped pull off a surprising upset against Team USA, 90-87, in an Olympic exhibition game two weeks ago — playing highlight-reel defense against American superstar Kevin Durant.

It was the first time an African team has ever defeated Team USA. It was a coming-out party of sorts for the Nigerian team, called D’Tigers, who are hunting for Africa’s first basketball medal in the upcoming Olympics.

“Hopefully it brings a lot of attention to us from younger athletes that are Nigerian, that may be interested in being a part of Nigerian basketball now,” said Gabe Nnamdi Vincent, a Nigerian American guard who, like Achiuwa, plays for the NBA’s Heat and the Nigerian national team.

Stephen Bardo, a former NBA player and college basketball analyst who has run basketball clinics across Africa, told ABC News he wasn’t surprised by Nigeria’s victory.

“Over half that team has NCAA or NBA experience,” he said. Eight players on the team’s 12-man Olympic roster are currently playing in the NBA.

The team also has a top-flight coach in Mike Brown — a former NBA coach of the year who helmed teams with some of the world’s top stars, including LeBron James and Bryant.

“I’ve been a head coach in the NBA Finals. I’ve been an assistant coach in multiple finals with multiple different teams. And I’ve won a couple,” he told ABC News. “Being a coach in the Olympics, I’ve never done that. So why not experience that now?”

While he doesn’t have any personal ties to Nigeria, Brown sees the role as an opportunity to build something bigger than a strong national team — and is working for the Nigerian Basketball Federation without pay.

“I got 10 toes in. I got both arms in. I got my big ole head in, every part of my body is in — to uplift Nigeria as a country through the game of basketball,” he said.

With a team of stars, the USA men’s team is still the favorite for the gold medal in Japan. But after dropping consecutive exhibition games to Nigeria and a powerhouse Australian team, the Americans are entering their first game in their shakiest position since 2004, when a team of NBA stars struggled to play together and wound up with the bronze medal at the Athens Olympics.

Brown said “the rest of the world is catching up” to Team USA.

That shrinking skills gap has been on full display this summer, as Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks superstar born in Greece to Nigerian parents, led his team to victory in the NBA Finals, through the playoffs filled with teams anchored by stars from Cameroon, Slovenia, Serbia, France and the Bahamas.

“We all fought so hard to make sure that we opened the door for the next generation to come and compete in this game,” said Dikembe Mutombo, the Congolese American Hall of Fame basketball player-turned-philanthropist.

He was one of three African-born players in the NBA when he was drafted in 1991. Last year, the NBA season began with 107 international players from 41 countries — including 14 from Africa.

Now, he’s excited to watch the Nigerian team perform in Tokyo, and said they have a good shot at ending up on that medal stand.

“This will be a great celebration for everyone on the continent of Africa. We can say that we did it — not just Nigeria,” he said. “They are representing a big flag, not just the green flag of Nigeria.”

Ekpe Udoh, a veteran on Team Nigeria who played in the NBA for eight years, expressed optimism for the future of the national team.

“The core of our team [is] pretty young,” he told ABC News. “So if we can start now and continue to build a culture, I know we’ll be successful for years to come.”

“I don’t think there’s any one or two countries that would dominate something like the Olympics forever,” Vincent told ABC News. “I think it’s only a matter of time that Africa itself will step up.”

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

US sanctions Cuba over crackdown on protests in 1st steps toward new policy

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(WASHINGTON) — In his first steps toward his own Cuba policy, President Joe Biden is sanctioning the Cuban defense minister and its special forces for the aggressive crackdowns on protests across the island nation earlier this month, the White House announced Thursday.

Those protests were some of the largest and most widespread in decades as Cuba reels from a new wave of the coronavirus, the economic pain of COVID-19, and shortages of food and medicine.

They also short-circuited Biden’s administration into a response. Six months into his term, Biden has yet to formulate a policy toward America’s close neighbor after his former boss Barack Obama warmed relations with Cuba’s communist government and his immediate predecessor Donald Trump all but cut contact and implemented the toughest sanctions and restrictions.”This is just the beginning – the United States will continue to sanction individuals responsible for oppression of the Cuban people,” Biden said in a statement Thursday, demanding the government “immediately release wrongfully detained political prisoners, restore internet access, and allow the Cuban people to enjoy their fundamental rights.”

The Treasury Department announced that it sanctioned Defense Minister Alvaro Lopez Miera and the Brigada Especial Nacional, the government’s special forces unit within the Interior Ministry that was deployed “to suppress and attack protesters,” according to the agency.

The new sanctions are not likely to inflict any new pain in Havana beyond the decades-old embargo, but they send a clearer message about where Biden will stand after Obama’s rapprochement and Trump’s heavy penalties. The Cuban Foreign Ministry has not yet responded, but government leaders including President Miguel Díaz-Canel repeatedly blamed the U.S. government or the Cuban diaspora in Miami for stirring up the protests.

“Treasury will continue to enforce its Cuba-related sanctions, including those imposed today, to support the people of Cuba in their quest for democracy and relief from the Cuban regime,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement.

While he helped Obama’s efforts to ease tensions with Cuba and reopen trade and travel, Biden has kept most of Trump’s sanctions and restrictions in place so far as his administration completes his review.

Beyond Thursday’s sanctions, the administration announced other baby steps in staking out its own Cuba policy earlier this week, including creating a working group to study the issue of remittances — the money that Americans, especially Cuban Americans, send back to the island.

Remittances were severely restricted by the Trump administration, which said they were largely lining the pockets of the Cuban government as it charged large fees for their transmission. The limits imposed by Trump led Western Union, the financial services company, to close its operations in Cuba.

Biden’s new working group will look for ways to allow money to flow to the Cuban people without enriching the Cuban government, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday.

Biden had said last week that he would not ease those Trump-era restrictions, but administration officials denied they were backing away from that pledge, noting that the president said during a press conference that it was “highly likely that the regime would confiscate those remittances or a big chunk of it.”

“That’s certainly something that we’re mindful of and we’re looking at. That will be a point of discussion in these working groups,” Psaki said Tuesday.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price added that there’s no amount of Cuban government collection on remittances that would be “acceptable to us” but declined to get ahead of what the working group may decide.

He also announced that the State Department will launch its own review about adding staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana. Only a skeleton crew works there now after Trump’s first Secretary of State Rex Tillerson drew down embassy staff after the first reports of medical incidents sometimes known as “Havana syndrome” emerged publicly.

“The staffing at our embassy will serve to enhance our diplomatic, our engagement – our diplomatic activity, our engagement with civil society, our consular service engagement, all of which will be in service of helping the Cuban people to secure greater degrees of human rights, of freedom, of the universal rights that have been denied to them for far too long,” Price said Tuesday.

He declined to provide any timeline on when staffing changes could be made or speak to any changes in security after those “unexplained health incidents,” as the department calls them, that cause “Havana syndrome” — except to say safety will be a top consideration in this review.

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Russia battered by deadly COVID 3rd wave

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(RUSSIA) — Russia is enduring a devastating third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, registering record numbers of daily virus deaths many days for the past month as the virus rages in the country where there are few quarantine restrictions in place and much of the population is reluctant to get vaccinated.

In many parts of the country doctors have said hospitals have been overflowing for almost a month, placing huge strain on medical workers already battered by a year and a half of the pandemic.

Despite surging death tolls, authorities have declined to introduce tough restrictions or even strictly enforce ones in place like mask wearing.

In the late spring, authorities had hailed a supposed end to the worst of the pandemic, following a grim winter that saw Russia reach the highest death toll per capita among developing nations. The few restrictions in place were almost all lifted. President Vladimir Putin at an economic forum in St. Petersburg at the start of June told a large crowd that “life is gradually returning to its normal course.”

But by mid-June, the virus came roaring back, fuelled by the virus’ delta variant, and Russia’s health system is struggling under a wave that many experts estimate is as bad and potentially even worse than this winter’s deadly one. Although there are signs now the wave is now easing in Moscow, it is continuing to batter much of the rest of the country where it arrived later.

“Compared with the second wave, it’s much tougher,” said Viktoria, an ambulance work in the Leningrad region, who asked to withhold her last name because she did not have permission to speak publicly. “The first wave was tough because no one knew anything what to do. And now it’s just on account of a very high infection rate.”

Since the start of July, Russia’s official coronavirus statistics have shown over 700 people dying most days, on many days breaking previous daily records from the winter.

That may be a significant undercount, many experts said. Throughout the pandemic Russia’s official COVID-19 statistics have been criticized for drastically underplaying its real virus numbers.

Calculations of so-called “excess deaths” from publicly available mortality data — considered internationally as the best way of assessing the pandemic’s true toll — show that Russia has recorded nearly 550,000 more deaths than in an average year between June 2021 and the start of the pandemic.

That is nearly four times higher than the official toll of 150,000, provided by Russia’s government coronavirus task force. It also does not take into account June and July, which have been the deadliest months of the third wave for the country.

[We] “are in the heart of a storm, which no one even tried to prevent,” Alexander Dragan, a data analyst who has tracked Russia’s pandemic statistics, wrote in a Medium post this month.

The wave of infections and deaths has hit as Russia had erected few defences to stem it. By June, authorities had lifted most of the limited restrictions that had been in place and spoke of an end to the pandemic in sight. Restaurants, bars and shops were working as usual, most workers had returned to offices, people were packing out events.

As the numbers surged in June, authorities in some regions scrambled to reimpose measures. In Moscow, where the mayor’s office has taken a more pro-active approach, companies were told to make some staff work from home and bars made to shut at 11 p.m. A small number of badly hit regions reimposed lockdowns.

But in most places restrictions have remained light and life is largely unaltered. In St. Petersburg, authorities in June allowed mass events, permitting thousands to throng during a city-wide graduation celebration and to attend Euros 2020 soccer matches. And in most regions, events involving hundreds of people are still permitted.

The result has been the virus — accelerated by the delta variant — has burned through Russia almost unrestricted.

The wave flooded hospitals in many regions from the start of June. In cities across Russia, local authorities warned they had run out of beds and were forced to open emergency reserve hospitals.

In St. Petersburg, medics told ABC News hospitals were packed with COVID patients since mid-June. Dmitry, a doctor at a hospital in the city said its 450 beds had been filled for the last month and that patients had to be kept in corridors, although the situation had improved in the last week.

The numbers were putting a huge strain on medical workers, he said, saying one medic was often having to look after 30 patients.

“It’s really a lot,” he said, also requesting anonymity because he was not permitted to comment publicly.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg the wave appears to be finally easing, with space appearing at last in hospitals. But in other regions where the wave arrived later, cases continue to climb. And the peak of deaths, which lag two to three weeks behind infections, in most places has still not arrived.

Alexey Raksha, a demographer who formerly worked at Russia’s state statistics agency Rostat, told ABC News he estimated Russia might see between 70,000-90,000 deaths for July alone.

“We’re yet to see the peak of deaths. And I predict that July could be the worst month” so far, Raksha said.

Some doctors and experts blamed the scale of the third wave on the messaging from authorities that the pandemic was essentially over and abandoning restrictions.

“At the end of the second wave they were telling us that everything is going down, down, down, everything is super. They loosened everything up and basically people cut loose,” said Viktoria.

“Russia is the country where COVID dissidents actually won,” Raksha said. “The result is hundreds of thousands (at least 200-300k) deaths above what could have happened otherwise,” he wrote in a message.

Russian officials had said they hoped to end the pandemic with vaccines developed by the country.

But the level of vaccination in Russia has stalled in mid-spring at around 14%, despite Russia having one of the world’s first COVID-19 vaccines, amid widespread reluctance among Russians to get the jab. Polls have showed around two-thirds of Russians do not intend to get vaccinated.

Experts have in part blamed that reluctance on authorities’ refusal to enforce tough restrictions and mixed messages suggesting that the situation in Russia was not so bad and underplaying the real number of deaths.

“Naturally, if people don’t believe that COVID is serious they have no motivation to get vaccinated,” Irina Yakutenko, a science journalist told the Russian news site, Bumaga.”Crudely speaking, the government did a lot so that so many people haven’t got the jab.”

As the third wave hit, authorities have launched a drive to try to overcome the vaccine hesitancy.

Moscow’s mayor made vaccination mandatory for people working in public-facing roles including restaurant workers, teachers, hairdressers and public transport staff — amounting to around 2 million people. A growing number of other regions followed suit, making Russia one of the few countries in the world to introduce large-scale mandatory vaccination.

In Moscow, authorities also announced unvaccinated people would not be able to access routine medical treatments at hospitals. For three weeks, a new rule required people to get a QR-code showing proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test to dine inside restaurants.

The push appears to have had an effect; the number of those vaccinated has climbed in the few weeks, according to official statistics and independent experts.

However, it’s not clear that pace will be kept up. Moscow has now backtracked over the rule requiring vaccination for indoor dining and the Kremlin has indicated it opposes broadening mandatory vaccination to the population at large. That puts in doubt whether Russia will reach a sufficient level of vaccination by the autumn to head off a deadly fourth wave.

Dmitry, the doctor in St. Petersburg said he did not have much hope a new wave would be avoided, even as the current wave eased.

“I think it’s a sort of calm before the storm,” he told ABC News.

He said both authorities and citizens needed to accept more restrictions to do so, alongside vaccination.

“In my view it’s better to cancel concerts for half a year than over the course of two years bury a large number of people,” he said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Despite security threats, Afghans who US will evacuate have to make their own way to Kabul

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(WASHINGTON) — The U.S. embassy in Afghanistan has issued its first notifications to Afghans who worked for the U.S. mission and will be evacuated to an American military base in Virginia that flights are set to start next week as the U.S. withdraws the last troops after two decades of war.

But for those Afghans and their families who will be relocated, they will have to find their own way to Kabul, according to a senior State Department official, despite deep concerns about their safety.

The Taliban have waged a summer offensive to seize territory and a psychological victory, as the militant group stalls peace negotiations with the Afghan government.

The top U.S. military officer conceded Wednesday that the Taliban have the “strategic momentum” after winning “a significant amount of territory.”

“There’s a possibility of a negotiated outcome that’s still out there. There’s a possibility of a complete Taliban takeover or a possibility of any number of other scenarios – breakdowns, warlordism, all kinds of other scenarios,” said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The U.S. military withdrawal is 95% complete, but still scheduled to wrap up by Aug. 31, according to the Pentagon. But in the three months since President Joe Biden announced U.S. troops would depart, the security situation has deteriorated, with warnings of all-out civil war or the collapse of the Afghan government.

Before that withdrawal is complete, the Biden administration will evacuate Afghans who have applied for special immigrant visas to the U.S. after working as interpreters, guides and other contractors, a service for which the Taliban have put targets on their backs.

Despite that threat, the State Department said Wednesday it will not be able to provide transportation to Afghans who are approved for evacuation flights but have to make that potentially dangerous journey from home to the capital.

“They would have to get themselves to Kabul. Obviously, we don’t have a substantial U.S. military presence, we don’t have an ability to provide this transportation for them,” the senior official told ABC News.

With the Taliban in control of nearly half of the country’s districts, according to Milley, that risk can be high.

“If they’re, say, in the north of the country and they don’t feel safe staying in Afghanistan, they could go to a neighboring country and finish their SIV application process there,” officials added, using an acronym for the Special Immigrant Visa program.

But the militant group now controls several border crossings to those northern neighbors, leaving it unclear if that journey would be any safer.

So far, the State Department has confirmed that approximately 4,750 Afghan applicants will be relocated, along with their eligible family members like spouses, children and other dependents.

“We owe a great debt to those who have provided valuable and faithful service to the United States, working alongside our military and diplomatic personnel; thereby putting their own lives at risk,” Brian McKeon, the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, who is helping coordinate the effort, told reporters Wednesday.

The first group totals approximately 2,500 Afghans, about 750 applicants and their families, who have already been approved and cleared security vetting, according to senior State Department officials. They will be granted parole to enter the U.S. and be moved to Fort Lee, an Army base in central Virginia, for seven to 10 days as they await the final steps toward receiving their U.S. visa, including a medical evaluation.

An additional 4,000 Afghans, along with their families, will be evacuated from the country to a safe third country or a U.S. military installation overseas, the senior officials said, who declined to say where still, citing ongoing diplomatic conversations with other countries.

That list includes the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait, according to two U.S. officials. All three of those locations host U.S. installations. The list also includes Afghanistan’s neighbors in Central Asia, such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

The senior officials declined to provide a total estimate for this group because their own estimations vary widely, but one official told ABC News that each applicant brings on average between three and five dependents, which would put the range between 12,000 and 20,000 Afghans in total.

Approximately 20,000 Afghans have applied for this Special Immigrant Visa, according to a State Department spokesperson. But around half of them have not finished their applications, and the senior State Department official said they are “not in a position to move forward with their case until they do so,” which means leaving potentially 10,000 Afghans and their families behind.

Among the other 10,000 who have finished their application, however, it’s still unclear how many more the administration plans to evacuate beyond the 4,750 applicants and their families.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price told ABC News Wednesday that it’s “looking at all potential contingencies” still, neither ruling in or out more evacuations. But for now, “this is the group that we’re speaking to at the moment, the groups that we’re actively making plans for,” he added.

Among other “contingencies,” the administration is also “looking at other options and pathways for people who’ve helped us,” the senior official said, such as development workers, journalists for U.S. media outlets, and prominent women’s rights activists. That could include refugee status, other special visas, or humanitarian parole, which gives a foreign national temporary eligibility to enter the U.S.

While the administration still weighs those options, some critics have demanded they settle on plans urgently, warning of more targeted Taliban attacks against such high-profile targets, especially as they win control of more territory. U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad noted Tuesday that there are “credible reports of atrocities” emerging from Taliban territory, while the top U.S. diplomat in Kabul, Chargé d’Affaires Ross Wilson, warned the Taliban were shutting down media in territory it now controlled and “attempting to conceal their violence in a press blackout.”

According to Milley, the Taliban now control about half of the country’s 419 district centers and are pressuring about half of the 34 provincial capitals. But they have yet to capture any capital, as Afghan security forces prioritize holding larger towns and cities, he said.

The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces are “taking an approach to protect the population, and most of the population lives in the provincial capitals, in the capital city of Kabul, so they are right now as we speak adjusting forces to consolidate into the provincial capitals and Kabul.”

He conceded that the Taliban had seized “a significant amount of territory… so momentum appears to be – strategic momentum appears to be sort of with the Taliban.” But he warned that the group was trying to create the impression of an inevitable victory.

“I don’t think the endgame is yet written,” he told reporters Wednesday.

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At least 25 dead after flash flooding in China causes year’s worth of rain in three days

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(HONG KONG) — Rescue efforts are underway as flash floods in China’s central city of Zhengzhou killed at least 25 people and displaced hundreds of thousands of others.

Local forecasters say it is the heaviest downpour they have seen in decades, with nearly a year’s worth of rain coming down in just three days in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, located on the banks of the Yellow River.

The city is home to more than 10 million people and is one of China’s major transportation and logistical hubs, connecting the countryside to the rest of the nation.

The floods are now threatening to disrupt the food security and supply chain in the region, where major roadways have been transformed into riverbanks. Footage from the ground shows cars floating above the muddy floodwater.

Heavy rains overwhelmed some of Zhengzhou’s flood defenses, causing apocalyptic scenes to unfold, including floodwater cascading into subways and a resident being swept away.

More video from the region shows rescue workers at schools, placing kindergarteners in plastic buckets to float them to safety.

Another clip from China’s state television channel shows passengers in a subway car, trapped with water up to their chest. At least a dozen people died in the city’s underground tunnels, with at least seven more still missing. More than 500 people were eventually rescued.

Officials fear the toll from the floods may be much worse than what is known, and they warn that the danger is not over yet as more rainfall is expected over the coming days.

The floods also caused a massive explosion at an aluminium alloy plant in Henan province. No casualties were reported.

Some distressed family members outside of Zhengzhou used social media to try to find their relatives as power lines in the city had gone down.

Officials said the Yihetan Dam in Luoyang, about 90 miles west of Zhengzhou, is in danger of bursting “at any time.” Soldiers have been mobilized to try to prevent the dam from collapsing, blasting part of it to relieve pressure and divert the flooding.

Floods are common during China’s rainy season, but the threat over the years has worsened. Scientists blame the effects of climate change and urbanization.

As recovery efforts continue, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the floods were “extremely severe” and “demanded that authorities at all levels must give top priority to ensuring people’s safety and property,” according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

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Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony director fired over Holocaust joke

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(LONDON) — The Tokyo Olympics organizing committee fired the director of the opening ceremony on Thursday over a joke he made about the Holocaust as a comedian in 1998.

A video clip resurfaced online of Kentaro Kobayashi’s performance during a comedy show more than 20 years ago, in which he joked about a game he called: “Let’s play Holocaust.” Criticism of Kobayashi, a former member of the popular Japanese comedy duo Rahmens, quickly spread on social media. Then Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, announced on the eve of the opening ceremony that Kobayashi has been dismissed.

“We found out that Mr. Kobayashi, in his own performance, has used a phrase ridiculing a historical tragedy,” Hashimoto said during a press conference Thursday. “We deeply apologize for causing such a development the day before the opening ceremony and for causing troubles and concerns to many involved parties as well as the people in Tokyo and the rest of the country.”

It’s the latest scandal to plague the Tokyo Games. Earlier this year, Hashimoto’s predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, was forced to resign over sexist comments he made suggesting women talk too much in meetings. Hiroshi Sasaki also stepped down as creative director for the opening and closing ceremonies after suggesting Naomi Watanabe, a Japanese actress, comedian and plus-size fashion designer, could wear pig ears at the opening ceremony while performing as what he called an “Olympig.”

“Maybe these negative incidents will impact the positive message we wanted to deliver to the world,” Toshiro Muto, CEO of the Tokyo organizing committee, said during the press conference Thursday.

The organizing committee and the Japanese government have also sparked controversy for pushing ahead with the already-delayed 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, despite public health concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic. Recent polls have shown that a majority of the Japanese public want the Tokyo Games to be postponed further or outright cancelled as the capital city and other regions grapple with a resurgence in COVID-19 infections. Meanwhile, Japan’s top medical experts, including some of the government’s advisers on COVID-19, have warned that holding the Games now could help spread the virus both at home and abroad.

The Nomura Research Institute, a Tokyo-based economic research and consulting firm, estimates that cancelling the Games would cost Japan around $17 billion.

At least 91 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed at the Tokyo Games so far. Four of those cases are people staying at the Olympic and Paralympic Village in the Harumi waterfront district of Tokyo. Two are athletes, according to data released Thursday by the Tokyo organizing committee.

The Tokyo metropolitan government reported 1,979 newly confirmed cases in the city on Thursday, up from 671 last Thursday.

Earlier this month, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared another state of emergency in Tokyo due to rising infections. The declaration lasts through Aug. 22, meaning the Olympics, which officially kick off on Friday, will be held entirely under emergency measures. The Paralympics will open on Aug. 24.

Various measures and restrictions, including a ban on all spectators from Olympic venues in Tokyo, are in place during the Games in an effort to reduce the risk of infection.

“We have been preparing for the last year to send a positive message,” Hashimoto told reporters Thursday. “Toward the very end now there are so many incidents that give a negative image toward Tokyo 2020.”

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