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.

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


(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


(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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Prince George smiles in photo taken by Duchess Kate to mark his 8th birthday


(LONDON) — Prince George is turning 8, and stealing the show in a new photo released to mark his birthday.

George, who was born on July 22, 2013, was photographed earlier this month in Norfolk, England, where his family has a home.

George’s mom, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, took the photo that was released to mark his birthday on Thursday.

George, the oldest child of Kate and Prince William’s three children, was in the spotlight recently when he joined his parents at London’s Wembley Stadium to watch England compete in the UEFA European Championship.

He watched England win in an earlier round but then saw the team lose to Italy in the finals earlier this month.

George will celebrate his birthday privately with his family, which also includes his younger sister, 6-year-old Princess Charlotte, and 3-year-old Prince Louis.

It has become a family tradition for Prince William and Duchess Kate to share new photos to mark the birthdays of each of their children.

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After Biden administration releases 1st Guantanamo prisoner, remaining detainees hope for swift action

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(GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba) — Following the transfer of the first Guantánamo Bay inmate of the Biden administration this week, remaining detainees at the offshore prison are hoping that a change in policy from the Trump years will bode well for their release, according to testimony obtained by ABC News.

Moroccan national Abdul Latif Nasser, 56, was released into the custody of his home country and reunited with his family on Monday after being held without charge for 19 years at the Guantánamo Bay detention center, on a U.S. naval base in Cuba. The U.S. Department of State authorized Nasser’s transfer five years after he was initially cleared for release during the Obama administration.

“The United States is grateful to the government of Morocco for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility,” a State Department spokesperson told ABC News on Tuesday. “The Biden Administration remains dedicated to a deliberate and thorough process focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population and ultimately closing of the Guantánamo facility.”

Nasser’s departure made him the first inmate to be transferred from the facility since 2016, and leaves the number of remaining detainees at 39. In testimony shared exclusively with ABC News by U.K.-based legal charity Reprieve, which represents several Guantánamo detainees, those still inside the camp expressed hope in their prospects of freedom under President Joe Biden, after a Trump-era policy of refusing to release more detainees. They appealed to the 46th commander in chief to ensure their release.

Of the remaining Guantánamo detainees, 10 have been cleared for release, 10 are part of the military commissions process and two have been convicted, a senior administration official told a press briefing on Monday. The rest are eligible for review, and several of those inmates spoke about their hopes for release in the testimony shared by Reprieve.

Khalid Qassim, a 44-year-old Yemeni citizen, was denied recommendation for transfer out of Guantánamo Bay by the interagency Periodic Review Board last year, due to “his continued refusal to answer questions regarding pre-detention activities,” which the board said includes “involvement” in “basic and advanced training” from al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Qassim’s lawyers argue he was captured for a bounty and that his capture and detention is a case of mistaken identity due to false confessions under torture.

“I saw the national anthem and Biden speaking,” Qassim said in a conversation with his lawyer in January, two days after Biden’s inauguration, shared with ABC News. “You know, it used to almost be exciting when you saw Trump speak. Every time it was something new. What he said, he would say crazy things, how he loves dictators, things like this. It’s good to not hear some crazy talk.”

“Now it’s the attorneys’ work,” he added, “and the work of people like Kamala Harris or Nancy Pelosi to make sure we go home.”

In an op-ed published by The Guardian in 2017, Qassim wrote: “I have never been charged with a crime and I have never been allowed to prove my innocence. Yet I am still here.”

Ahmed Rabbani, a 51-year-old Pakistani citizen born in Saudi Arabia, is also being held in indefinite detention at Guantánamo Bay. He has not been recommended for transfer or charged with a crime but has been detained since 2004. He was named in the historic 2014 Senate Select Committee Report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention program as having been subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which he has described as “torture, pure and simple.”

“I would tell [Biden] I want to touch my child,” Rabbani said in a conversation in January, shared with ABC News. “I would tell him that I would like to die in the laps of my children. I do not want to go in a coffin or a body bag. I want justice. I have been held for political reasons, and I have nothing to do with the political reasons.”

Afghan national Asadullah Haroon Gul, 39, has been been detained at Guantánamo Bay without trial since 2007. He was captured by Afghan forces while serving as a commander of the now-former Hezb-i-Islami militia, known as HIG, which once fought alongside al-Qaida and the Taliban against the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. The U.S. government detained Gul on the claim that he had regular contact with senior leadership within the al-Qaida and Taliban ranks and may have useful information regarding ongoing operations. But Gul’s lawyers argue that his war ended in 2016, when the HIG struck a peace deal with the Afghan government.

“I think Biden is serious about a lot of things,” Gul said in a conversation in June, shared with ABC News. “If we talk about justice I do not see any reason why I should not be released from here.”

Reprieve and other advocacy groups, such as the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Center for Victims of Torture, welcomed Nasser’s release but said that further action to speed up the closure of Guantánamo Bay is needed.

“Abdul Latif Nasser’s release shows how easy this process can be when there is political will, and that it can be done safely,” Reprieve’s deputy director, Katie Taylor, told ABC News on Wednesday. “We’re taking the Biden administration at their word. They say they want to close Guantánamo and the first step is to transfer the remaining men who have been cleared for release, followed by others who have never been charged with a crime.”

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U.N. committee strips Liverpool of World Heritage status


(NEW YORK) — The city of Liverpool, England was stripped of its World Heritage status on Wednesday, after a U.N. committee determined that the recent construction has been detrimental to its value.

Liverpool was inscribed on the United Nations’ Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage List in 2004 for its value as a Maritime Mercantile City. The committee listed it as “in danger” in 2012, over concerns about development within the city.

UNESCO says Liverpool’s “historic centre and docklands were inscribed for bearing witness to the development of one of the world’s major trading centres in the 18th and 19th centuries.” They also cited major developments in dock technology, transportation, and port management that were made in Liverpool.

But UNESCO says the Liverpool Waters development project at the city’s north docks, as well as a new soccer stadium being built for the club team Everton F.C., have contributed to an “irreversible loss of attributes.”

Liverpool is just the third property to lose World Heritage status, according to the U.N. The prior sites to lose that status are the Elbe Valley in Dresden, Germany and the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman.

Liverpool Mayor Joanne Anderson called the decision “the wrong call,” insisting that her city “has never looked better.”

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Brisbane awarded 2032 Summer Olympic Games

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(BRISBANE, Australia) — The 2032 Summer Olympic Games will be held in Brisbane, Australia, the International Olympic Committee confirmed on Wednesday.

The IOC steered the bidding for the 2032 Games towards Brisbane, avoiding rival bids. The city was given exclusive negotiating rights in February, leaving officials in Qatar, Hungary and Germany disappointed with the failure of their own planned bids.

It will be the first Games in Australia since the 2000 Olympics in Syndey. Prior to that, Melbourne hosted the Olympics in 1956.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the IOC that Australia knows “what it takes to deliver a successful games.” That, in an 11-minute video call with IOC members.

Brisbane is the latest host city to be named, and will follow the Summer Games in Paris in  2024, and the Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028. The IOC describes the Brisbane project as “a passion-driven, athlete-centric offer from a sports-loving nation.”

Events will be held across the Australian state of Queensland. The city of Brisbane says it already has more than 80 percent of stadiums and event venues in place, which will allow it to avoid excessive spending.

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US intelligence community convenes new panel to probe ‘Havana syndrome’ causes amid new cases in Austria


(WASHINGTON) — The U.S. intelligence community has launched a new panel of experts that brings together senior officers and outside medical and scientific experts to investigate the “anomalous health incidents” affecting dozens of U.S. personnel around the world, an intelligence official told ABC News.

The U.S. government still has not reached a conclusion into the cause of the incidents, sometimes known as “Havana syndrome” after the first cluster of cases was reported at the U.S. embassy in Cuba.

But more reported cases are now being investigated at the embassy in Austria’s capital, Vienna, according to the State Department, whose spokesperson said Monday that it is “vigorously investigating reports of possible unexplained health incidents” among U.S. personnel there.

Austria is just the latest country where incidents have now been reported. The National Security Council is overseeing a government-wide review “to ascertain whether there may be previously unreported incidents that fit a broader pattern,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, and “whether they constitute an attack of some kind by a foreign actor.”

Beyond that review, the intelligence community also established the new panel of experts earlier this month — bringing together senior officers from the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and outside scientific and medical experts — to explore the multiple hypotheses into what is causing the “health incidents,” an intelligence official told ABC News.

It’s the latest federal government review into an issue that has vexed officials since 2016 when the first cases were reported in Cuba, underscoring how little U.S. officials still know about it.

The new panel will build off of the findings of a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine last December, according to the official, which concluded that “directed, pulsed radio frequency energy appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining these cases, especially in individuals with the distinct early symptoms.”

Dozens of U.S. officials have been diagnosed with injuries, including traumatic brain injuries, after reporting strange experiences like high-pitched sounds or feelings of pressure or vibration, or debilitating symptoms including headaches, nausea, cognitive deficits, and trouble with seeing, hearing, or balancing.

Before Austria, the U.S. government had acknowledged, in public or in declassified documents, reported cases in Cuba, China, Uzbekistan, Russia, and the United States, although the White House has said “the vast majority” of cases have been reported overseas.

The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee warned in May that the “pattern of attacking our fellow citizens serving our government appears to be increasing.”

“In coordination with our interagency partners, we are vigorously investigating reports of possible unexplained health incidents among the U.S. embassy community there” in Vienna, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Monday.

The agency has declined to provide more details, including the number of affected personnel. But according to The New Yorker magazine, which first reported on the Vienna cluster, it totals around two dozen U.S. diplomats, intelligence officers and other government officials — now second only to Havana.

A CIA spokesperson told ABC News that director Bill Burns “is personally engaged with personnel affected by anomalous health incidents and is highly committed to their care and to determining the cause of these incidents” but declined to provide more details.

Both the CIA and the State Department have elevated their internal task forces investigating reported incidents among their personnel, while the State Department has its own team of medical experts that responds to reported incidents around the world.

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Guantanamo detainee Abdul Latif Nasser speaks out after release


(NEW YORK) — A Guantanamo Bay detainee who spent nearly two decades at the notorious facility and thought he might not make it out alive spoke out after being released — the first prisoner freed by the Biden administration.

“I was born again on July 19. My birthday is no longer March 4. I was born yesterday on July 19,” Abdul Latif Nasser said in a statement shared with ABC News. “I have no words to describe my overwhelming sense of happiness and joy. It is like a miracle after 20 years to be home and celebrate Eid together with my family.”

On Tuesday, the legal charity Reprieve, which campaigned for his release and provided legal support, confirmed to ABC News that Nasser was reunited with his family in Morocco.

Nasser, whose case was profiled by ABC News in 2019, was first cleared for release from Guantanamo more than five years ago. He had been detained there for 19 years after he was captured in Afghanistan, alleged by the U.S. government to be an active member of the Taliban and then to have trained with al-Qaeda.

During his time at Guantanamo, he was never charged with a crime, and his lawyers stress that none of the U.S. government’s claims have been aired in a court of law. He was cleared for release in 2016 following a Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearing, set up by the Obama administration in 2011, in order to speed up the process recommending individuals for transfer away from the facility.

The PRB consists of officials from six major agencies, and all members of the board must recommend that law of war detention is no longer justified.

However, after a series of bureaucratic missteps and a political reversal from the Trump administration, which declared that no more prisoners would be released, he remained imprisoned in the facility.

“I want to thank everyone, all the people who worked very hard and spared no efforts to make this possible,” said Nasser in the statement. His case was also the subject of a recent podcast series, ‘The Other Latif’ on New York Public Radio.

With Nasser’s release, the first from the facility since 2016, 39 detainees remain at Guantanamo, 10 of whom have been cleared for release. Seventeen of the remaining are eligible for review, 10 are part of the military commissions process and two detainees have been convicted for their crimes, officials said at a press briefing on Monday.

“On June 17th of this year, the Department of Defense notified Congress of its intent to repatriate Mr. Nasir to Morocco, and, in consultation with our Moroccan partners, we have undertaken a responsible transfer,” a senior administration official said. “The Biden administration remains dedicated to a deliberate and thorough process focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population and ultimately closing of the Guantanamo facility.”

The United States is grateful to the Kingdom of Morocco for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility,” the senior administration official said.

In a statement from Nasser’s brother, Mustafa, his family said were delighted Nasser was home in time for the Islamic festival, Eid al-Adha.

“This is a dream for us as a family that came true at a very special moment,” he said in a statement. ” We want to thank everyone involved who made this miracle possible. Now we would just like some peace and some time to ourselves to help our brother begin his new life in Morocco.”

Advocacy groups celebrated Nasser’s release, but said that the Biden administration must do more to make good on the Obama-era promise to shut the facility down.

“Abdul Latif Nasser’s release is hugely encouraging, but he’s only one man among many who have suffered the same grave injustice of years of detention without trial, even after long since being cleared for release,” Reprieve deputy director Katie Taylor said in a statement. “There are 10 other men cleared for transfer who should be sent home without any further delay or resettled in countries where they can safely begin to rebuild their lives.”

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