Listeners Club

Forgot Password

Not a Member? Sign up here!

banner

LISTEN TO Hits FM ANYWHERE!

World

Queen Elizabeth was hospitalized for 'preliminary investigations'

iweta0077/iStock

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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

NiroDesign/iStock

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

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

"We pledged to live up to our responsibilities. I can't describe my happiness," she added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Actually, gender doesn't matter. Male or female, you need to obey the system," he added.

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

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

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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

BethWolff43/iStock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Man attempting to demolish ancient sphinx in Cairo caught

Abdallah M. Elbarawy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


8 Nigerians charged with alleged internet scams promising romance, travel

damircudic/iStock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


No US injuries in attack on remote American base in Syria

omersukrugoksu/iStock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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

Pawel Gaul/iStock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They survived, she said, through their collective faith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


China's reported hypersonic weapon test raises security concerns

Zoya RusinovaTASS via Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Reports that China may have tested a new hypersonic weapon have grabbed the world's attention and divided national security experts about its strategic significance and whether the U.S. was falling behind in a new arms race.

But it also raised basic questions about the new technology, what it all means, and what it is that China may have tested.

"The U.S. does not currently have the ability to even track this weapon, much less defeat it," said Steve Ganyard, a retired Marine colonel and ABC News contributor.

On Monday, China's foreign ministry denied a Financial Times report that it had tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile and instead claimed that it had conducted a "routine test" of a reusable space vehicle.

The newspaper cited five American officials who said China had launched a long-range rocket that deployed a hypersonic glide vehicle that circled the earth in a low orbit before returning to a target area in China, missing it by two dozen miles. ABC News has not independently confirmed the report.

The development raised the possibility of a new arms race for a concept and technology that few people have even heard of.

The idea is that gliders fitted atop ballistic missiles use the rocket's force to achieve hypersonic speeds, more than five times the speed of sound, as they glide and maneuver through the atmosphere for longer distances than ballistic missiles.

It is believed that because the gliders travel at lower altitudes than a warhead launched from an ICBM, current early warning systems would have a hard time tracking them as they head toward their targets.

They are also hard to track because the glide vehicles are maneuverable in the atmosphere, unlike ballistic warheads that follow a fixed trajectory, meaning they could weave their way around ground-based interceptor missile systems.

The U.S. has been developing its own hypersonic weapons programs, but both Russia and China have claimed technological advances that they say have made their programs already operational.

But China's test launch would be a significant step forward because a glider was placed into a low earth orbit and then reentered the atmosphere as it headed towards a target at hypersonic speed.

"What China tested was an orbital bombardment system," said Jeffrey Lewis, with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "The glider entered orbit and had to be brought back down with a de-orbit burn. It's not clear how much gliding it actually did."

Either way, the possibility of a new Chinese glider capability from space is raising concerns, particularly if it is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and able to evade current missile defense systems.

"It will give the Chinese the ability to conduct a nuclear strike anywhere in the world without warning," said Ganyard.

"They now have a weapon that we don't have, we can't defend against, we can't even see. So, we are at a strategic disadvantage," he said. "And it is probably the first time since the end of World War Two, maybe 1945-46, that the U.S. has been at a strategic disadvantage to any other country. We are behind, and the Chinese have the edge."

Taylor Fravel, the Director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, acknowledges that the new Chinese capability "does expose the limits of the U.S. missile defense system" designed to counter ballistic missiles from North Korea and Iran," but he does not see a new Chinese glide vehicle as destabilizing.

"Given the continued large gap in warhead stockpiles, whereby China possess only a fraction of those of the U.S. this particular test should not upset the U.S.-China nuclear balance or be destabilizing in that way," he told ABC News.

"However, it underscores China’s determination to strengthen its deterrent, especially as amid the steep decline in U.S.-China relations and long-standing concerns about missile defense," he added.

A nuclear military power since the 1960s, China is believed to maintain a small stockpile of at least 250 nuclear warheads, as well as a modest launch capability housed in dozens of missile silos.

Meanwhile, the United States has declared a stockpile of 3,750 warheads capable of being deployed by hundreds of land-based and sea-launched missiles and a strategic bomber fleet.

But recent open-sourced satellite images indicate that China is constructing more than 200 additional missile silos, an indication that it may be expanding its nuclear weapons capability.

In an interview with Stars and Stripes Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, declined to confirm the details of the Financial Times report but said “It almost seems like we can’t go through a month without some new revelation coming about China.”

“I am not surprised at reports like this. I won’t be surprised when another report comes next month,” he said, adding, the “breathtaking expansion of strategic and nuclear capabilities” means “China can now execute any possible nuclear employment strategy."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


North Korea fires possible ballistic missile, eighth test this year

(File photo) - Alexyz3d/iStock

(SEOUL, South Korea) -- North Korea fired a possible submarine-launched ballistic missile off the East Coast Tuesday morning, according to the neighboring countries South Korea and Japan, marking the eighth missile test-fire this year alone.

"Our military detected a missile launch eastward from a site in the vicinity of Sinpo, South Hamgyong Province around 10:17 a.m.," South Korea's Joint Chief of Staff, General Won In-choul, told reporters.

The unidentified ballistic missile allegedly launched from a submarine and flew 370 miles at an altitude of 37 miles, according to South Korea's military.

"It is likely a new mini-SLBM that North Korea showcased last week at an arms exhibition," Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, told ABC News.

Another analyst told ABC News that Kim Jong Un is developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles in order to prepare a more survivable nuclear deterrent able to blackmail his neighbors and the United States.

"North Korea cannot politically afford appearing to fall behind in a regional arms race with its southern neighbor," Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told ABC News.

Easley said that although the North Korean missile launch timing is largely driven by a technical schedule for when tests are ready and useful, there's also a political factor.

"Pyongyang is celebrating the ruling party's founding and looking to boost national morale after harsh pandemic lockdowns. And the Kim regime likely wants to one-up South Korean missile tests, at least in Pyongyang's propaganda," Easley said.

The same day, the intelligence chiefs of South Korea, the United States and Japan held a closed-door trilateral meeting in Seoul to discuss the pending issues in the Korean peninsula, such as the security situation, according to South Korea's National Intelligence.

Meanwhile in Washington, South Korea's chief nuclear envoy Noh Kyu-duk discussed North Korea's missile launch over the phone with the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Sung Kim. Noh happened to be in Washington for the meeting to discuss ways to bring the North back to the negotiating table the day before.

North Korea's missile launch comes only two weeks after Pyongyang made a conditional peace offer to Seoul on reconnecting the military hotline. For Seoul, it was a symbolic gesture that their relations could see an improvement.

As Pyongyang raised international concern by firing yet another missile just 19 days after the latest missile test, South Korea's presidential office held a presidential National Security Council right after the missile launch.

"The council members expressed deep regret that North Korea's launch occurred while active consultations are underway with related countries like the United States to advance the Korean Peninsula peace process," South Korea's Unification Ministry said in an official statement.

North Korea's last test-fire of an SLBM was in October 2019.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Seventeen missionaries, including five children, kidnapped in Haiti, ministry says

Pawel Gaul/iStock

(NEW YORK) -- A Haitian gang has been blamed for kidnapping a group at a Haitian airport that included 17 missionaries, five of them children, according to officials.

Nineteen people were abducted by a gang at a checkpoint in Haiti during an airport run on Saturday, a source at the U.S. embassy told ABC News. The kidnapping occurred at the intersection of "Carrefour Boen" and "La Tremblay 17," a source at the Haitian presidential office told ABC News.

Included in the group are 17 missionaries -- 16 Americans and one Canadian -- and two Haitian citizens, according to the U.S. Embassy. Two French priests were also kidnapped in a separate attack at the same location earlier in the day, the source said.

The Haitian government suspects the gang known as 400 Mawozo to be responsible for the abductions, the source said.

It is unclear where the victims were taken.

The FBI made contact with the 400 Mawozoa on Monday, the agency told ABC News.

A team of U.S. authorities, including State Department officials, was "dispatched to Haiti to work closely with Haitian authorities on this matter," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Monday.

"This is something that we have treated as ... with the utmost priority since Saturday," he said.

Price added that the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince has been in "constant contact" with Haitian national police, the missionary group Christian Aid Ministries and the victims' families.

The Ohio-based ministry Christian Aid Ministries confirmed in a statement that a group of 17 people were "abducted" while on a trip to an orphanage on Saturday. They added in a statement Monday that, "civil authorities in Haiti and the United States are aware of what has happened and are offering assistance."

"We greatly appreciate the prayers of believers around the world, including our many Amish and Mennonite supporters. The Bible says, 'The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much,' (James 5:16)," the ministry said in a statement Monday.

Five men, seven women and five children are among those abducted, according to the ministry.

Haitian police inspector Frantz Champagne told The Associated Press that the 400 Mawozo gang kidnapped the group while they were in Ganthier, about 17 miles east of Port Au Prince.

The gang has also been blamed for kidnapping five priests and two nuns earlier this year, according to The Associated Press. The country is experiencing a rise in gang-related kidnappings, many demanding ransom, that quelled after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7 and a 7.2-magnitude earthquake on Aug. 14 that killed more than 2,200 people.

The U.S. State Department told ABC News in a statement that it is "in regular contact with senior Haitian authorities and will continue to work with them and interagency partners."

"The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State," the statement read.

The FBI is expected to assist in negotiations, ABC News has learned.

Additional information on the kidnapping was not immediately available.

ABC News' Aicha el Hammar and Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


What to know about the escalating tensions between China and Taiwan

samxmeg/iStock

(NEW YORK) -- Since the beginning of October, Beijing has sent more than 150 military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense zone in an attempt to intimidate the Taiwanese government. In recent days, the People’s Liberation Army also mounted large amphibious landing drills on the mainland side of the Taiwan Straits -- an unambiguous show of force and a sign of escalating tensions in the region.

Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng even warned the Taiwanese legislature earlier this month that Beijing might be able to launch a "full-scale" invasion of the island by 2025.

Tensions across the Taiwan Straits are now at the highest level in years and unforeseen error from either sides risks dragging the United States into a potential conflict with China.

The spokesman for Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Ma Xiaoguang, called the military exercises a "just" move aimed at "separatist activities" on the island and what it says is “collusion with foreign forces” by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) -- a not-so-veiled allusion to U.S. support for Taiwan.

At the heart of the matter is Beijing's view that Taiwan is a breakaway province of 23 million people that will eventually have to "reunified" with the rest of China. Beijing leaders continue to press for what they call "peaceful reunification" but have not ruled out the use of military force. Xi Jinping has ramped up the pressure on Taiwan, making reunification a stated goal of the “China Dream” of “national rejuvenation.”

Since coming back into power in 2016, the DPP government has increasingly leaned into the island’s separate self-rule status, and has just fallen short of declaring independence, which Beijing views as a bright red line.

The ‘Taiwan Question’

Beijing sees the Taiwan Question as a relic of national shame that originated when the island was taken from the imperial Qing Dynasty by Japan as a colony in 1895.

At the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the defeated Kuomintang (KMT) Government of the Republic of China (ROC) retreated to Taiwan, which they reclaimed at the end of WWII. Meanwhile the prevailing Communist Party of China declared the mainland the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with both sides eyeing the eventually "reunification" of China. The ROC and the PRC both continue to claim legitimate sovereignty over China with Beijing frequently threatening to liberate the island.

The United States maintained official diplomatic relations with Taipei until 1979 when it switched its recognition to Beijing. The switch was made easier at the time when Taiwan wasn’t the democracy it is today but an authoritarian regime.

In switching diplomatic recognition to Beijing, the U.S. and China agreed to abide by the "One China" Policy. For the U.S. it was an acknowledgement that the “Chinese on either sides of Taiwan Straits maintain there is but one China” but the status of Taiwan is undetermined and is expected to be resolved peacefully. For Beijing it means that Taiwan belongs to Beijing’s "One China." This different interpretations of the policy have been at the foundation of the U.S.-China relationship.

In order to give assurances to Taiwan, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which calls for the U.S. to maintain unofficial, de facto relations with Taipei and allows the U.S. to provide Taiwan arms for self-defense. The act did not guarantee, however, that the U.S. would intervene if Beijing attacks or invades the island but sets up a "strategic ambiguity" in hopes of dissuading Beijing from attacking and Taipei from unilaterally declaring independence.

Beijing soon began offering Taipei the option of a “peaceful reunification.” As Hong Kong prepared to be handed back over from the British to the Chinese in 1997, Beijing proposed using the "One Country, Two Systems" principle devised for Hong Kong as model to bring Taiwan back into the fold.

Isolating the Tsai Ing-wen government

Since coming into to power in 2016, Tsai has tiptoed the acceptable bounds of the cross-strait relationship but has never publicly embraced independence nor the 1992 Consensus, the latter angering Beijing.

Almost immediately Beijing cut off all official lines of communication with Tsai’s DPP government, painting the DPP as secessionists. Beijing suspended all Chinese tour groups to the island cutting, off a reliable source of revenue on the island. Beijing then began poaching Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies in hopes of completely isolating the government. During Tsai’s first term as president she lost seven diplomatic allies to Beijing.

The squeeze almost worked. A year out from the 2020 election, Tsai was on shaky ground for re-election but then 2019 Hong Kong protests erupted. Playing into the fear of increased Beijing encroachment and the broken promises of “Once Country, Two Systems “ gave Tsai the momentum to be reelected in a landslide in early 2020 just before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The prospect of “One Country, Two Systems” had become so toxic in Taiwan after the Hong Kong protests that both the KMT and the DPP publicly rejected it as a possibility for Taiwan.

'Gray-zone' warfare amid cratering US-China ties

Emerging from the pandemic with a renewed confidence, Beijing began to refocus its pressure campaign on Taiwan just as its relationship with Washington began to crater.

Beijing soon began to employ what Taiwan called low-level “gray-zone warfare” to exhaust the Taiwanese military and people. In 2020, Chinese warplanes made 380 incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone making Taipei scramble their own jets to respond every single time. The incursions only increased this year.

In response, the U.S. has engaged with Taiwan more openly. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed all restrictions between diplomatic contacts between U.S. and Taiwan officials in the finals days of the Trump Administration, infuriating Beijing. The Biden Administration has taken it further by encouraging working ties with Taiwanese officials, even invited the Taiwanese envoy to President Biden's inauguration.

At the same time, Beijing has been nurturing a rise in nationalistic sentiment across the country, fueled in part by their success in suppressing COVID-19 and the growing view that Western powers especially the U.S. is in a state of decline exemplified by its failure to control the pandemic.

The view was further exasperated by Chinese state media playing up the U.S.’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer. China’s nationalistic tabloid Global Times painted the U.S as unreliable, asking whether Afghanistan was “some kind of omen for Taiwan’s future fate?”

Just as Americans have an increasing unfavorable view of China, the Chinese public has had an increasingly antagonistic view of Americans. The Eurasia Group Foundation found that less than 35% of Chinese people have a positive opinion about the U.S. compared to 57% just two years earlier.

Chinese propaganda and pop culture have been cashing in and normalizing a U.S.-China conflict. The Chinese blockbuster "The Battle at Lake Changjin," financed by the government’s propaganda department tells of a PLA victory over U.S. troops during the Korean War. Since Oct. 1st it has grossed over $633 million at the Chinese box office.

Now armed with the most well-equipped military China has ever possessed including the world’s largest navy by number of ships, Xi has been preparing Chinese officials and the military for challenging days ahead.

“We must persist in strengthening the overall planning of war and make preparations for military struggle,” he told the Politburo over the summer and in September told young Communist Party officials, “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has entered a key phase, and risks and challenges we face are conspicuously increasing. It’s unrealistic to always expect easy days and not want to struggle.”

What’s next?

With China facing an unprecedented domestic power crunch, a major real estate developer threatening the economy with an impending default, a major Communist Party leadership meeting in November and the task of holding the Winter Olympics in a few months’ time, Beijing may have some more pressing issues than entering a conflict over Taiwan.

After the unprecedented defense zone jet intrusions, it appears that both Beijing and Taipei have attempted to temporarily dial the temperature down a notch in separate speeches celebrating a shared anniversary across the Taiwan Strait last weekend.

While Xi reiterate his desire for "reunification" he stressed that “peaceful means best serves the interests of the Chinese nation as a whole, including compatriots in Taiwan.”

Taiwan’s Tsai called for dialogue with Beijing on "the basis of parity."

This comes as Beijing and Washington have attempted to stabilize their relationship in recent weeks with a series of meetings.

Even after reports of a small presence of U.S. Marines deployed to train Taiwanese forces on the island -- an act which Beijing could see as a violation of their red line -- the Foreign Ministry spokesperson chose to highlight the incremental process made during a meeting between Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi which is paving the way for Biden-Xi virtual summit before the end of the year.

When asked about the rising tensions between Beijing and Taipei, President Biden told the press that he raised the issue with Xi on a call.

"I've spoken with Xi about Taiwan. We agree ... we'll abide by the Taiwan agreement," he said. "We made it clear that I don't think he should be doing anything other than abiding by the agreement."

After the comments the Taiwan Foreign Ministry was assured by the U.S. that the American commitment to Taiwan was "rock solid."

Beijing has continued to warn the U.S. against playing the "Taiwan Card."

How U.S.-China relations continue to play out in the coming months and years will ultimately determine Taiwan’s future.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Young Afghan woman, separated from family in US, pleads for help getting out

Obtained by ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- "I'm in danger," the daughter cried to her father from thousands of miles away in Afghanistan.

"We cannot go outside with friends. Before, we were going outside to restaurants, shopping, but now we are like prisoners in our own home," she said, her voice full of fear, saying Taliban fighters might find her.

"Mina" (ABC News has changed her name for her protection and that of others), a university-educated and unmarried Afghan woman, separated from her family in the U.S., was pleading for help on a call with advocates trying to get her out.

With her father having aided the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and her immediate family living in New Jersey, Mina is in hiding, saying she fears her ties to the U.S. make her a target.

On a recording of a call ABC News listened to, her voice was breaking.

"I'm not mentally good nowadays because this situation is a burden on me," she said, adding that she did not know which relative she might find shelter with next.

"She is under pressure," her father said, helping translate for a daughter he said is normally proficient in English. "Now in this status situation, she forgot her language. She forgot her information. She forgot her mind."

Mina's mother says she isn't used to relying on medication to fall asleep, but after calls like this one, she says she needs it to escape the dark reality facing her only daughter -- blaming herself for Mina being left behind.

Mina's parents and two brothers were able to come to the U.S. in 2016 on her father's Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, granted to those who helped the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Her oldest brother, who also worked with the U.S., immigrated in 2018 under the same program. But Mina, now 34, aged out to qualify as a dependent.

While her father has petitioned since 2018 to bring her to the U.S. via a Petition for Alien Relative, a route that permanent, lawful residents can use to bring immediate relatives to the U.S., the chaotic evacuation of American troops from the country at the end of August ignited a desperate search for options.

"It's life or death," Elizabeth Dembrowsky, the attorney who's handling Mina's case from New York, told ABC News. "Her father's worked and aided the United States -- because of their interests -- and because of that aid, he's put his daughter at risk."

Mina's father said he sometimes regrets not lying about her age on the SIV application, believing, he said, that if he hadn't abided by the rules of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, his daughter might already be with them.

He says people in Afghanistan know her immediate family lives in the U.S. and mockingly call her "'the Americans' daughter.'"

'Please help my daughter'

Dembrowsky founded Good Counsel Services, a nonprofit that offers legal advice to other nonprofit organizations, in 2016. Volunteering at an immigration office while studying at Brooklyn Law School, she met a man who had helped the U.S. mission in Afghanistan who then started recommending her legal services to his friends. One of them was Mina's father who first contacted her in 2018.

"'Please help my daughter'" were the only words in an email Mina's father sent her last month.

Dembrowsky is actively working on filing humanitarian parole applications in 13 similar cases, a legal route she took with Mina's case as U.S. troops left the country, taking with them the hopes of many Afghans desperate to escape.

Granted by USCIS on a "case-by-case basis," humanitarian parole allows certain individuals to enter and reside in the U.S. without a visa. Each application comes with a $575 fee and extensive paperwork, including an "Affidavit of Support" that serves as proof a sponsor has agreed to provide financial support to the person who is known as the parolee. It's a process Dembrowsky said has bipartisan backing.

"You can wring your hands and scream and blame the former or current president or the entire decision to go into Afghanistan, but it's not helpful because the crisis is ongoing. We have people today that need to be taken out of there, and we as Americans can help by volunteering to serve as sponsors," Dembrowsky said.

Once a sponsor is secured, it can take weeks to months to process applications. There's currently a backlog of roughly 11,000, according to the National Immigration Forum. That does not include the majority of SIV holders -- tens of thousands of people -- who were also left behind in the abrupt evacuation. Dembrowsky is calling on the federal government to do more to expedite applications from allies and their families she says the U.S. "abandoned."

To expedite a parole application, a person can directly write or call immigration services, but advocates say an often more effective route is having a member of Congress contact them about a specific application on their behalf. Dembrowsky said she contacted the offices of Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., on Sept. 2, and of Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. on Sept. 23.

"My office is working closely with the Department of State, USCIS, and family members in New Jersey to bring this young woman safely to the United States. We are making progress on her case and are confident that she will be able to join her family in New Jersey," Pallone told ABC News in a statement on Thursday afternoon.

Dembrowsky learned late Wednesday that Mina's Petition for Alien Relative application, filed in 2018 to prove she was related to her family, was "processed," but they haven't been contacted about next steps. Mina's humanitarian parole application still hangs in limbo, as they do for thousands of Afghan nationals.

The UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, has reported more than half a million Afghans have been internally displaced since January due to Taliban advances, 80% of whom are women and children.

'Matter of political will'

Even if Mina's parole application is conditionally approved, there's still a major caveat.

With the U.S. Embassy in Kabul closed, she must make the dangerous and uncertain trek to an embassy or consulate in another country for additional processing. That journey has been made nearly impossible since the former Afghan government collapsed and the U.S. withdrew -- with few flights out of the country and uncertainty over how to get a seat, or risky travel over land through Taliban checkpoints.

"It's extremely difficult and that's why, while this humanitarian parole application process can offer some hope, it's not an easy solution," Danilo Zak, a senior policy and advocacy associate at the National Immigration Forum, told ABC News. "In general, it's going to be very difficult for people to escape on their own now."

Mina's devoted father said in the call reviewed by ABC News that he would personally find a way to get her across the border.

He just needs the paperwork.

"If the government makes excuse that there is no embassy of America in Kabul ... if they issue the visa for her, paper-wise, and send by email, I can go to third country and evacuate her from Afghanistan and process her documentation and visa and fingerprint and interview with her -- and then I will bring her with me," he said.

Dembrowsky said her team is also working with veterans groups to help facilitate safe passage if and when Mina is deemed eligible and called for processing at an embassy or consulate.

Despite what may seem like insurmountable obstacles, Zak said granting humanitarian parole is the most effective option right now for those left behind because the process was designed for quick, emergency evacuations. The U.S. has repeatedly granted parole to allies, under presidents of both parties, under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, including 130,000 parolees after the Vietnam War.

"We can't discriminate against these parolees for the nature of the emergency evacuation -- which is really what we're doing here," Zak said, arguing the need for an Afghan Adjustment Act to establish a pathway for refugees and parolees to permanent residency.

Further congressional action, such as expediting immigration processes and mandating the U.S. work with allies to create safe evacuation routes, he said, is all "a matter of political will."

"That's what we saw before the evacuation, where suddenly we actually were able to ramp up SIV processes. The same thing is true now," he said. "It's just a matter of making this a top priority to evacuate those who remain at risk in Afghanistan."

'What would I do?'

For now, Mina waits -- in hiding.

And volunteers at Good Counsel Services continue lobbying lawmakers -- and everyday Americans -- on cases like hers.

When Congress passed its continuing resolution last month to prevent a government shutdown, it included a provision of benefits for Afghan parolees they otherwise wouldn't be able to access without a visa, such as housing, childcare and federal financial support, critical for volunteer agencies and for recruiting all-important sponsors.

"The result is that resettlement agencies can play a much, much larger role for many of those who are coming in under parole, and that means that there's less of responsibility for the sponsor, and certainly no responsibility to house them," Zak said.

Dembrowsky, for her part, said she's asked daily to take on more applications for people still desperate to get out, but lamented she won't commit to them without securing financial sponsors first.

"I just don't want to throw this life preserver and not be able to hold on to the other end of it," she said.

One person who answered her call is Ford Seeman, a social impact entrepreneur in New York, who credited being adopted at birth for giving him a unique understanding of how one's future can be affected by circumstance. He's donated $10,000 to Good Counsel Services for the cause, as well as agreed to gather the necessary documents and sign on to sponsor a potential parolee.

"I'm honored and, frankly, feel somewhat obligated to share with those facing overwhelming obstacles," he told ABC News in an email. "We are all one people and need to look out for each other."

While thousands of Afghans like Mina face an uncertain fate, Dembrowsky said the U.S. is facing a moment of moral reckoning.

"I wasn't alive during the Holocaust. I wasn't alive during the Civil Rights movement in the 60s. But we, as humans, ask ourselves these questions, 'What would I do in that circumstance?'" Dembrowsky said. "Today in Afghanistan, there is something we can do, and if we refuse to do something -- and if anything were to happen to her -- it will be on our collective hands."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Massive asteroids will whiz past Earth in coming weeks, including 1 nearly size of Empire State Building

xtockImages/iStock

(NEW YORK) -- Several massive asteroids are expected to whiz close to Earth in the coming weeks, including one nearly the size of the Empire State Building.

Two are expected to soar near the planet on Saturday, followed by more in the coming days, according to data from NASA's Center for Near Earth Object Studies.

On Friday, Asteroid 2021 SM3, which has a diameter of up to 525 feet -- bigger than the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt -- was projected to zoom by around 3.5 million miles away from Earth, USA Today first reported based off CNEOS data.

Near-Earth objects are defined by NASA as "comets and asteroids that have been nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits that allow them to enter the Earth's neighborhood."

But fear not, though these asteroids are passing relatively close to Earth, they're still a great distance away, experts say.

"Astronomically, these are coming close to the Earth. But in human terms, they are millions of miles away and can get no closer than millions of miles away," Paul Chodas, the director of the CNEOS at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, told ABC News.

The center tracks near-Earth objects for the entire asteroid community so that when close approaches happen astronomers can know where and when and observe their movements.

One of the closest approaches is Asteroid 2021 TJ15, which will pass the Earth at the same distance at the moon, or 238,854 miles away, on Saturday.

"That asteroid has a diameter of 5.6 to 13 meters (18 to 42 feet). That's a tiny asteroid coming to about the distance of the moon. It's still a long, long way, it can't hit the Earth, there's no chance of that," Chodas said.

Asteroid 2004 UE is up to 1,246 feet, nearly the size of the Empire State Building, that will make its close approach Nov. 13 about 2.6 million miles from Earth.

"So that is the size of a small building. That's approaching a medium size. But that's 11 lunar distances approaching sequence, it cannot get any closer than 11.11 lunar distances," Chodas said.

The center has discovered and tracked over 27,000 near-Earth objects. Asteroids range in size with most being small-, medium-size asteroids ranging from 300 meters to 600 meters (984 feet to 1,968 feet) in size and large ones 1 kilometer (3,280 feet) and up in size. He said many of the asteroids that pass Earth are tiny and burn up when they enter the planet's atmosphere.

Unlike the apocalyptic plots in movies, the chances of a massive astroid striking the planet is extremely rare, Chodas said.

"It's simply the fact that there are very fewer medium- and large-size asteroids that come near the Earth to begin with," he said. "There are comparatively few large asteroids. The largest near-Earth asteroid is something like 10 kilometers. But there's only one or two of those."

The asteroids are discovered through observatories, cameras, telescopes and asteroid surveys that search the night sky for movement. After an asteroid is discovered, the center tracks their measurements and locations, and computes an orbit trajectory to predict its future movements to see if there's any chance it'll intersect with Earth.

Just how often do asteroids end up hitting Earth?

"Over the last 20 years of doing this, we've had a total of four asteroids -- tiny, tiny asteroids -- that have been observed in space and headed for the Earth, and have impacted the atmosphere and burned up. They became a bright fireball in each case," Chodas said. "In two of the cases, we've predicted where they would hit ahead of time and predicted where to find the meteorites. Expeditions have gone out and found the meteorites. So our mathematics work pretty well."

One of the most prominent was the Chelyabinsk Event in Russia in February 2013.

"That was the largest observed impact we've had in recent memory, I guess it's a 100-kind of year event. That was a 20-meter asteroid that blazed through the atmosphere over Russia, and it disintegrated. What was started off as a 20-meter asteroid ended up as a core rock that was only one meter across, and it landed in a frozen lake and made a nice round hole in the ice," Chodas said.

So far this year, the biggest asteroid to pass by Earth was Asteroid 2001 FO32, dubbed Apophis the "God of Chaos", in March which was estimated to be 1,100 feet across, NASA said.

Michael Zolensky, an astromaterial curator and researcher at NASA, told ABC News asteroids are " basically leftovers from planet formation."

"Some of them have been whacked and broken by impacts from the other asteroids and then have kind of come back together again, as sort of traveling beanbags of loose rubble," he said.

On Saturday, NASA's newest asteroid probe named Lucy took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a 12-year mission to study some asteroids known as Trojans around Jupiter.

Lucy will be the first spacecraft to visit these asteroids with the hopes of helping scientists learn more about how our solar system's planets formed and how they ended up in their current configuration, NASA said in a release.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


UK MP David Amess dies after being stabbed multiple times

Zoe Norfolk/Getty Images

(ESSEX, England) --  David Amess, a conservative British member of Parliament, died Friday after being stabbed multiple times, officials said.

Amess, 69, represented Southend West in Essex.

He was attacked while holding his monthly “meet and greet” with voters at Belfairs Methodist Church in Leigh-on-Sea, British outlet Sky News reported.

The attack is being called a terrorist incident and the investigation will be led by the Met's Counter Terrorism Command. Authorities said the early indication is the attack was tied to Islamist extremism.

Essex Police were called to reports of a stabbing shortly after 12:05 p.m. local time and found a man injured.

"He was treated by emergency services but, sadly, died at the scene," police said in a press release.

Police said a 25-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of murder after the stabbing and a knife was recovered at the scene. Authorities are not looking for any other suspects in the incident.

Amess was first elected to parliament in 1983. He is survived by his wife Julia and five children.

Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons, said in a statement, "This is an incident that will send shockwaves across the parliamentary community and the whole country."

"I am shocked and deeply distressed by the killing of Sir David Amess," Hoyle added. "‘In the coming days we will need to discuss and examine MPs’ security and any measures to be taken, but for now, our thoughts and prayers are with David’s family, friends and colleagues."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a video statement, “I think all our hearts are full of shock and deep sadness today ... He was one of the kindest, nicest, most gentle people in politics."

Johnson's wife Carrie also shared a tribute, tweeting: “Absolutely devastating news about Sir David Amess. He was hugely kind and good. An enormous animal lover and a true gent. This is so completely unjust. Thoughts are with his wife and their children.”

In 2016, Labour Party MP Jo Cox died after being shot and stabbed in the street outside a public library where she was meeting with her constituents in Birstall, West Yorkshire.

Her widow, Brendan Cox, shared a tribute as well to Aswell, saying, "My thoughts and love are with David’s family. They are all that matter now. This brings everything back. The pain, the loss, but also how much love the public gave us following the loss of Jo. I hope we can do the same for David now."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Trapped in the woods: Belarus accused of using migrants as weapons

yorkfoto/iStock

(LIPSK, Poland) -- It was pitch black as the activists entered the forest. Even with headlamps and torches, their beams shone only small windows into the darkness, illuminating the trunks of birch trees.

The activists, from the migrants rights group, Grupa Granica, were looking for a small group of men who a short while ago had crossed the border from Belarus into a corner of northeastern Poland.

The men being sought were among hundreds of people trapped in forests where the European Union shares borders with Belarus; men caught in a worsening -- and highly unusual-- migration crisis on the bloc's eastern frontier.

For months, the border between Belarus, Poland and Lithuania has seen a surge of migrants, that European countries allege is orchestrated by Belarus' authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko in retaliation for their support of the pro-democracy protest movement that came close to toppling him last year.

Lukashenko -- often dubbed 'Europe's last dictator'-- is accused of luring migrants, mostly from the Middle East, to Belarus by offering easy access to Europe and then pushing them over the border into Poland and Lithuania. The number of migrants crossing has soared in recent months from what is normally a few dozen to thousands, with many headed to Germany and other Western European countries, according to Polish and Lithuanian authorities.

But in response, Poland and Lithuania have begun blocking the arrivals, deploying extra border guards, erecting fences and also allegedly pushing back many without allowing them to file for asylum, a violation of international law.

The result is that dozens -- likely hundreds -- of people are now reportedly trapped in a no-man's land throughout the dense forests between Belarus and Poland, bouncing between the countries' security forces and without food or shelter, often for weeks, according to testimonies from those trapped.

At least five migrants have died already, according to Polish and Belarusian officials, as temperatures fell close to freezing.

In Poland, activists from human rights groups and charities say they are trying to help the migrants, bringing food, clothes and assistance with asylum claims to prevent border guards from forcing people back across the border

The activists ABC News accompanied last week said they had received a call for help from three men around midnight one day last week. As the activists searched the woods, they shouted, "Don't be afraid. We are not the police," and made low whistles, a previously agreed upon signal with the men.

Eventually they found three terrified, shivering men from Yemen. One was without shoes.

"We were there fifteen days, without food, without anything," one man, Rami Olaqi told the activists as they quickly gave Olaqi and the other men snack bars and tea. "We are drinking from streams and we're eating from trees. The Belarusian army said, 'If we see you again, we will kill you,'" he said.

Olaqi, an IT engineer, said he was fleeing Yemen's civil war. They had been in the woods almost since landing in Belarus' capital, Minsk, and were from a group of 16 Yemenis, the remainder still stuck on the border's Belarusian side. They said they had tried to cross the border four times, but each time had been pushed back by Polish guards.

Back on the other side, Olaqi said Belarusian border guards had grabbed them and forced them back toward Poland. Olaqi says the guards shoved them back, and that Belarusian guards had beaten and robbed them, taking anything they wanted from the men's bags.

He said after catching them again, the Belarusian guards had thrown the men into a river.

"They don't care," he said. "It will be better for them if we die, you know. Because 'Look, Poland is killing refugees.' That's what we understand now."

It's just a way "for the Belarusian state to intimidate Europe. And using the refugees as a bullet in their war," Olaqi said.

Lukashenko has publicly threatened to flood Europe with migrants, presumably in retaliation for EU sanctions on his regime for its crackdown on the protests and for hijacking a Ryanair passenger flight in May.

"We were stopping drugs and migrants -- now you will catch them and eat them yourselves," Lukashenko said in a speech in May.

Belarus has eased visa restrictions for many countries. In July, Lukashenko issued a decree allowing citizens of 73 countries to travel to Belarus without a visa for five days. WhatsApp and Facebook groups have sprung up where smugglers offer passage to Germany and other western European countries via Belarus and many migrants said they had used travel agencies to acquire invitations to come.

At the border, several migrants told ABC News that Belarusian security forces were coordinating migrant crossings.

Boushra Al-Moallem, a teacher from Syria who said she had spent 20 days in the forest, said Belarusian guards had separated people into groups and then led them to crossing points at the border, picking the time they would cross.

"They were choosing the people who should go in each group," she said. Al-Moallem said people like her had been caught up in the conflict between Belarus and Poland. "It's a bad war -- and we are the weapons," she said.

Several migrants alleged they were robbed of their money, phones and documents by Belarusian guards before being pushed over the border into the forest. When they try to return, Belarusian police shove them back again and threaten them, they said.

Under international and European law, Poland is obligated to consider any asylum applications made on its territory. But some of the migrants and activists say Polish border guards are refusing to accept the applications and instead push people back across the border.

That meant a harrowing choice for Olaqi and other men fleeing from Yemen. The activists helped them fill out asylum papers on the forest floor. But in order to apply they would need to summon the Polish border guards -- the same guards that had repeatedly driven them back into the woods.

The activists explained said that they hoped the presence of foreign media would prevent the guards from doing so again but there was no guarantee. With no other plan, Olaqi and another man decided to risk crossing the border.

When the guards arrived they were polite and said they would take the men to a nearby border station, something the activists credited to the media cameras on-site. Poland's border service later confirmed the two men had been permitted to apply for asylum and would now be sent to a migrant center while they awaited the decision.

Such cases, though, are still the exception. Activists are responding to almost daily calls of people being pushed back from Poland, regardless of whether they claim asylum, said Kalina Czwarnog, from the immigrant rights group Fondacja Ocalenie. Czwarnog said she had witnessed young children being pushed back and that injured migrants were sometimes transported from hospitals back into the woods.

Poland's government has defended its border service's actions, arguing it is permitted to push people back to Belarus since they are not in danger there, an argument disputed by most experts in asylum law.

"We are not pushing back those people to Syria or, I don't know, Afghanistan," Poland's deputy foreign minister Marcin Przydacz told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle this week. He did not deny that Polish border guards were pushing people back across the border, saying most wanted to apply for asylum in Germany, not Poland. He said the focus should be on the fact that this was an "artificial crisis, orchestrated by the Belarusian regime."

By declaring a state of emergency Poland has created a closed zone along the border, which critics say is mostly intended to prevent activists and media from documenting the treatment of migrants. Police checkpoints block access to many villages in the zone and journalists entering risk arrest. The activists are only able to help those that make it outside the zone.

Lithuania initially allowed more asylum seekers to enter the country, taking in over 4,000 and housing them at first, mainly in tent camps. As the weather grows colder, the country has moved many migrants to more permanent facilities, including a prison at Kybartai.

When ABC News visited last week nearly 700 men were housed at Kybartai, living in a former cell block. Families and more vulnerable people are kept in different centers.

But Lithuania so far has granted just one asylum request of 900 already processed, according to its interior ministry. Over 2,500 more are pending.

On Wednesday there was a possible sign that Lukashenko might be backing down. A travel agency,Anex Tour, published a notice that Belarus was no longer issuing visas on arrival at Minsk airport for citizens Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and Nigeria. Belarus' foreign ministry however has not confirmed that to ABC News.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko's main opponent, who was forced into exile last year during the mass protests, said she was urging European countries not to lose sight that Lukashenko is the root cause of the crisis.

"I always remind them, don't forget who's guilty in this," she told ABC News in an interview last week. "Migrants are also a hostage of this regime."

She said EU countries needed to show a unified front against Lukashenko and warned that calls for Poland and Lithuania to accept all migrants arriving would play into his hands. She said Lukashenko was counting on criticism over human rights in European countries forcing them to give in before he did.

"Lukashenko knows that organizations in Europe are worrying about the situation and they can put pressure on the Polish government, Lithuanian government, but they can't put any kind of pressure to the dictator because he doesn't care," she said. "He knows the rules and misuses them. Poland, Lithuania, Latvia are being blackmailed by Lukashenko. That's why unity is crucial here."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


On Air Now

Ron Pritchard
Ron Pritchard
10:00am - 2:00pm
The Greatest Hits Of All Time

Hits FM Facebook

 

Melinda