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Russia-Ukraine live updates: Putin announces operational pause after seizing Luhansk

Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's "special military operation" into neighboring Ukraine began on Feb. 24, with Russian forces invading from Belarus, to the north, and Russia, to the east. Ukrainian troops have offered "stiff resistance," according to U.S. officials.

The Russian military has since launched a full-scale ground offensive in eastern Ukraine's disputed Donbas region, capturing the strategic port city of Mariupol and securing a coastal corridor to the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

Here's how the news is developing. All times Eastern:

Jul 05, 8:43 am
NATO completes negotiations with Sweden and Finland

NATO announced on Monday it has concluded negotiations with Sweden and Finland on their accession to the organization.

"Finland and Sweden have completed accession negotiations at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, as agreed last week by the leaders of the countries at the summit in Madrid,” a NATO press release said.

“Both countries have officially confirmed their desire and ability to fulfill their political, legal and military obligations as NATO members," the NATO press service added.

The countries will sign their accession protocols on Tuesday. All member countries will then have to ratify the documents according to their national laws.

Finland and Sweden jointly submitted applications to join NATO on May 18, ending decades of neutrality in the face of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

-ABC News' Edward Szekeres, Yuriy Zaliznyak, Max Uzol and Nataliia Kushnir

Jul 05, 7:40 am
Putin announces operational pause after capturing towns in the east

Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated the Russian seizure of Lysychansk and the majority of the Luhansk regional border in eastern Ukraine by appearing to direct his military to conduct an “operational pause”, the Institute for the Study of War reported on Monday.

Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu called the recent Russian gains in the Luhansk region as a major victory for Russian forces in Ukraine.

The Russian president also stated that the Russian units that participated in the battle for Lysychansk should rest to increase their combat capabilities, the ISW report claimed.

Putin‘s public comment was likely meant to signal his concern for the welfare of his troops in the face of periodic complaints in Russia about the treatment of Russian soldiers, the ISW experts said.

Russian troops that fought through the Luhansk region are very likely in need of a significant period in which to rest and refit before resuming large-scale offensive operations, observers noted.

It is not clear, however, that the Russian military will accept the risks associated with a long enough operational pause to allow these likely exhausted forces to regain their strength, the ISW report said.

Putin was quick to remark on Monday that “other military formations, including the East Group and the West Group, must carry out their tasks according to the previously approved plans.”

“I hope that everything will happen … in the same way as it has happened in Luhansk,” the Russian President added as quoted by local media.

Vyacheslav Volodin, who chairs the Russian Duma -- the lower house of the Federal Assembly -- said on Tuesday that Ukraine was "doing everything" to ensure that Moscow's troops would not stop their "special military operation" at the borders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic in eastern Ukraine, according to Russian state media.

Serhii Haidai, the head of the Luhansk Regional Military Administration, said on Tuesday that Russian attacks in the Luhansk region destroyed more than 90% of the infrastructure in the territories that were actively defended by the Ukrainian military.

An overwhelming majority of houses were under fire, Haidai said, and most of them “can't be restored.”

-ABC News' Edward Szekeres, Yuriy Zaliznyak, Max Uzol and Nataliia Kushnir

Jul 05, 6:12 am
Russia likely to switch focus to Donetsk after declaring victory in Luhansk

Russian forces will "now almost certainly" switch focus to capturing Donetsk Oblast after claiming control of neighboring Luhansk Oblast in eastern Ukraine's disputed Donbas region, according to intelligence briefings from the U.K. Ministry of Defense.

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in Luhansk on Monday, a day after Ukrainian troops withdrew from the city of Lysychansk -- their last stronghold of resistance in the province. Ukrainian troops had spent weeks trying to defend Lysychansk and to keep it from falling to Russian forces, as the neighboring city of Sievierodonetsk did a week ago. A river separates the two cities.

"Russia's focus will now almost certainly switch to capturing Donetsk Oblast, a large portion of which remain under the control of Ukrainian forces," the U.K. Ministry of Defense said in Monday's briefing. "The fight for the Donbas has been grinding and attritional and this is highly unlikely to change in the coming weeks."

Putin has made capturing the entire Donbas -- Ukraine's mostly Russian-speaking industrial heartland in the east -- a key goal in his war in neighboring Ukraine. Russia-backed separatists in Donbas have battled Ukrainian forces since 2014, when they declared independence from Kyiv after the Russian annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. Moscow formally recognized the self-proclaimed republics in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts just days before launching its Feb. 24 invasion.

"Russia's relatively rapid capture of Lysychansk extends its control across virtually all of the territory of Luhansk Oblast, allowing it to claim substantive progress against the policy objective it presented as the immediate purpose of the war, namely 'liberating' the Donbas," the U.K. Ministry of Defense said in Tuesday's briefing.

"Ukrainian forces have likely largely withdrawn in good order, in line with existing plans," the ministry continued. "The Ukrainian held areas of Sieverodonetsk-Lyschansk consisted of a bulge or salient which Russian could attack from three sides. There is a realistic possibility that Ukrainian forces will now be able to fall back to a more readily defendable, straightened front line."

"The battle for the Donbas has been characterised by slow rates of advance and Russia’s massed employment of artillery, levelling towns and cities in the process," the ministry added. "The fighting in Donetsk Oblast will almost certainly continue in this manner."

Jul 04, 6:54 am
Pope hints at possible trip to Ukraine

Speaking of the situation in Ukraine in an exclusive interview with Reuters over the weekend, Pope Francis said he might be heading to Ukraine after returning from his trip to Canada.

Francis, who has repeatedly condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine, said he “would like to go [to Ukraine],” but wanted to “go to Moscow first."

No pope has ever visited Moscow. Last Thursday, Francis implicitly accused Russia of waging a "cruel and senseless war of aggression."

Francis noted over the weekend that there have been contacts between Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about a possible trip to Moscow.

“After I come back from Canada, it is possible that I will manage to go to Ukraine," Francis said. "The first thing is to go to Russia to try to help in some way, but I would like to go to both capitals."

According to Francis, the Vatican first inquired about a trip to Russia several months ago, but Moscow said it was not the right time.

-ABC News' Edward Szekeres, Yuriy Zaliznyak, Max Uzol and Fidel Pavlenko

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


DHS to ramp up security assistance in Qatar for World Cup

David Ramos/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- Attending the World Cup in November? The Department of Homeland Security will be on hand to help make sure the soccer tournament is safe and secure, according to a senior department official.

"We are committed to working closely with Qatar to make sure the world can enjoy a safe and secure World Cup," Rob Silvers, the under secretary for strategy, police and plans at DHS, told ABC News in an interview. "We're are going to be providing security support to our partner and we're going to be doing that in a range of ways."

Silvers said he is headed to Qatar this week to shore up those security partnerships.

One of the ways is by providing Transportation Security Agency personnel to provide baggage screening support for people attending the matches.

"We're going to host a delegation from Qatar at a U.S. airport to show them our airport security practices here because obviously they are expecting a large number of visitors and we want to help them on that front," Silvers explained.

The department has experience with large scale sporting events domestically, with the U.S. Secret Service taking the lead on security every February at the Super Bowl.

While the Secret Service won't physically be on site, they will be providing training to the Qataris.

"We're going to have our Secret Service providing support on protective details and on major event security coordination," Silvers said.

Silvers also explained they are providing cyber resources through the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

The DHS official told ABC News there is no credible threat to the World Cup but "it's a large and prominent gathering, and we should always be prepared from a security perspective."

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story stated the Secret Service will be at the World Cup in Qatar. It has been corrected to reflect that the agency will not be on site.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Plans revealed for redeveloped area around Notre-Dame cathedral

Kiran Ridley/Stringer via Getty Images

(PARIS, FRANCE) -- As construction crews race to meet the 2024 deadline set by French President Emmanuel Macron for the reopening of Notre-Dame, a jury chaired by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has revealed the winning project for the redevelopment of the area surrounding the cathedral.

The project, estimated at 52 million euros ($54 million), is being led by Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets, with a team composed of urban planning agency GRAU and architecture agency Neufville-Gayet.

The plan, scheduled for completion in 2027, calls for a greener and more welcoming look for Notre-Dame.

"There were three essential points for us: it was to reveal the cathedral, second to improve the connection with the Seine, and thirdly, to multiply the uses through this climatic approach," Smets told ABC News.

A 400-meter long park will emerge along the Seine, where "people will be able to come and picnic [and] play in this magnificent place, between the south facade of the cathedral and the Seine," Smets said. "Behind the cathedral, we will make a very large lawn of 17,000 square meters (4,2 acres), as large as the large lawn behind the Luxembourg Gardens."

The chestnut trees around the cathedral will be supplemented by 131 new trees, including hackberries, maples and hornbeams, as well as alders, and a few oaks -- an homage to the cathedral's oak-made frame that burned in the 2019 fire that damaged the historic structure.

The underground parking garage beneath the cathedral square will be made into a reception center, called "le passage," which Smets said will be able to fit nearly 1,000 people and include luggage storage and meeting rooms to accommodate groups, as well as access to the cathedral's archaeological crypt.

Along the Seine, Smets said that they are going to open the walls of the quays that line the river to provide direct access to the Seine from the passage, which will be "a critical place" in this undertaking.

Cousins Amélie Vieites, 20, from Tours, and Emma Quiquemelle, 19, from Le Mans, hailed the redevelopment while visiting the site on Saturday.

Vieites said that adding trees will be "really good" for reducing pollution, while Quiquemelle told ABC News that "there aren't a lot of green spaces in Paris, so that could make young people want to come and sit down."

Omar Miloudi, 36, on holiday from Algiers, agreed, noting that visiting tourist sites in the summer is "a little too hot" to be "facing this heat."

"It's a great idea!" 47-year-old Brian Astl said of plans for the new greenery. Astl, visiting from Toronto, Canada, with his family, said he was already excited to come back to grounds for a picnic.

Officials say they hope the new-and-improved Notre-Dame will attract 12 million visitors per year, and will appeal to both tourists and Parisians.

The work on the cathedral grounds is scheduled to begin in the second half of 2024.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Queen Elizabeth reduces workload, according to Buckingham Palace source

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

(LONDON) -- Queen Elizabeth is reducing her workload.

According to the Telegraph, Buckingham Palace changed the details of the queen’s job description in its annual report by swapping out the “Queen’s programme” of engagements for more general “visits in royal programmes.”

Instead, members of the royal family, including Prince Charles, will step in and support some of her duties.

A palace source emphasized that it isn’t a “drastic” change but a small update. The Sovereign Grant report indicated that the queen’s role still comprises two key elements: Head of State and Head of Nation, which means that as Head of State, the 96-year-old “must fulfill” specific duties.

In May, Charles stepped in for his mother when she missed the opening of Parliament due to mobility issues. It was the first time in six decades that she was not present. Instead, her crown was placed next to Charles, who is the queen’s oldest child and the heir to the throne.

Last week, Queen Elizabeth made a public appearance in Scotland for Royal Week. The monarch appeared at a special military parade, her second public apparance since her Platinum Jubilee celebrations.

ABC News' Zoe Magee contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Russia-Ukraine live updates: Russian strikes near Odesa after Snake Island withdrawal

STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's "special military operation" into neighboring Ukraine began on Feb. 24, with Russian forces invading from Belarus, to the north, and Russia, to the east. Ukrainian troops have offered "stiff resistance," according to U.S. officials.

The Russian military has since launched a full-scale ground offensive in eastern Ukraine's disputed Donbas region, capturing the strategic port city of Mariupol and securing a coastal corridor to the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

Here's how the news is developing. All times Eastern:

Jul 04, 6:54 am
Pope hints at possible trip to Ukraine

Speaking of the situation in Ukraine in an exclusive interview with Reuters over the weekend, Pope Francis said he might be heading to Ukraine after returning from his trip to Canada.

Francis, who has repeatedly condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine, said he “would like to go [to Ukraine],” but wanted to “go to Moscow first."

No pope has ever visited Moscow. Last Thursday, Francis implicitly accused Russia of waging a "cruel and senseless war of aggression."

Francis noted over the weekend that there have been contacts between Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about a possible trip to Moscow.

“After I come back from Canada, it is possible that I will manage to go to Ukraine," Francis said. "The first thing is to go to Russia to try to help in some way, but I would like to go to both capitals."

According to Francis, the Vatican first inquired about a trip to Russia several months ago, but Moscow said it was not the right time.

-ABC News' Edward Szekeres, Yuriy Zaliznyak, Max Uzol and Fidel Pavlenko

Jul 04, 6:37 am
Ukrainian annual military budget spent in just over a month, PM says

Ukraine spends almost as much on its army in a month as it did in a year before Russia's invasion, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told local media on Sunday.

Ukraine's monthly military budget is now about $4.4 billion, according to Shmyhal. Before the war, its annual military budget was close to $5.3 billion, the prime minister said.

Shmyhal added that Ukraine's overall monthly budget is lacking around $150 million. Many businesses have suspended work or completely ceased to exist, he said, adding that millions of tons of harvest remain stuck in warehouses due to Russia blocking the path for exports.

On Sunday, Turkish customs detained a Russian cargo ship with grain stolen by Russian forces and shipped from the Ukrainian port of Berdyansk, the Ukrainian ambassador to Turkey said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that Turkey will be able to re-export grain products, including wheat, oat, and barley from the Black Sea to countries in need after talks with Russia and Ukraine that will be held in the coming days.

Turkey has about 20 bulker ships ready to transport grain, Erdogan added.

-ABC News' Edward Szekeres, Yuriy Zaliznyak, Max Uzol and Fidel Pavlenko

Jul 03, 4:26 pm
Ukrainian troops retreat from Lysychansk

Ukrainian troops have retreated from the eastern Ukrainian city of Lysychansk in order to save the lives of soldiers, Ukrainian military officials said Sunday.

The General Staff of Ukraine's Armed Forces confirmed that Ukrainian troops have left Lysychansk after weeks of heavy fighting.

Ukrainian military officials said a combination of Russian artillery superiority, the prowess of Russian military aviation and its rocket salvo systems proved too much for Ukranian troops.

"This was done to save the lives of the soldiers," the general staff said in a statement, adding that the continuation of the defense of the city "would lead to fatal consequences."

Russian forces now effectively control Luhansk Oblast, bringing them a step closer to seizing Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Jul 03, 4:24 pm
Russia claims total control of Lisichansk in eastern Ukraine

The city of Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine is purportedly under total control of Russian forces and the Kremlin-backed Luhansk People's Militia, the Russian Ministry of Defense said Sunday.

Russian Army Gen. Sergei Shoigu said in a statement that Lysychansk and a number of settlements in the Luhansk oblast, or province, of the Dobas region -- including the largest settlements of Belogorovka, Novodruzhesk, Maloryazantsevo and Belaya -- are under control of Russia after weeks of heavy fighting.

Shoigu said that over the past day, Russia and the Luhansk People's Militia have taken control of more than 70 square miles of the Luhansk province.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday that Ukraine has not confirmed that the Russian's have seized Lysychansk.

"We cannot definitively say that Lysychansk is under the control of the Russian Federation" Zelensky said in a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Sunday.

However, Zelensky acknowledge that battle for Lysychansk and other areas of the Luhansk region has been tough for Ukrainian forces.

"It's really the most difficult situation, the most dangerous, and we don't have an advantage there, and it's true, it's our weak spot," Zelenskyy said.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Two women killed in shark attacks in Egypt's Red Sea, officials say

Anton Petrus/Getty Images

(CAIRO) -- Two women were killed in shark attacks in Egypt's Red Sea over the weekend, prompting officials to close off a stretch of the coastline.

The Egyptian Ministry of Environment said in a statement Sunday that the women were attacked by a shark while swimming in the Red Sea near the resort town of Hurghada. The governor of the wider Red Sea Governorate, Maj. Gen. Amr Hanafi, has issued an order to suspend all water activities in the vicinity of the deadly attacks, according to the ministry.

The ministry said a committee of specialists has been formed to investigate the circumstances of the incidents and any scientific reasons behind them. The group "is still completing its work to find out precisely the reasons for the behavior of the shark that attacked the two victims," according to the ministry.

It was unclear whether the same shark was involved in both attacks.

"The Ministry of Environment regrets the accident and extends its deepest condolences to the families of the two victims and extends its sincere thanks and appreciation to all concerned parties for their support," the ministry added.

The ministry did not release the identities of the two women.

A spokesperson for the Austrian Foreign Ministry confirmed to ABC News on Monday that an Austrian citizen from the western state of Tyrol had died in Egypt. The Austrian embassy in Cairo is in contact with the victim's relatives as well as Egyptian authorities, according to the spokesperson, who would not provide further information due to "reasons of data protection and confidentiality."

A spokesperson for the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also confirmed to ABC News on Monday that a Romanian woman who was vacationing in Hurghada had died after being attacked by shark. The Romanian embassy in Cairo is in contact with Egyptian authorities and is working with Romanian authorities to identify the victims' relatives, according to the spokesperson, who said they "cannot offer any additional or specific details regarding the victim."

Shark attacks in Egypt's Red Sea coastal region have been relatively rare in recent years. In 2020, a 12-year-old Ukrainian boy lost an arm and an Egyptian tour guide lost a leg in a shark attack while snorkelling off the coast of Sharm El-Sheikh, another Red Sea resort town.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Three killed, four critically wounded in shooting at Copenhagen shopping mall, police say

OLAFUR STEINAR GESTSSON/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

(LONDON) -- At least three people were killed and four others were critically wounded in a shooting at a Copenhagen shopping mall on Sunday, authorities said.

Police responded to reports of a shooting at the Field's shopping center in Denmark's capital just before 5:30 p.m.local time on Sunday. A boy and girl, both 17-year-old Danish citizens, and a 47-year-old Russian man were killed when a gunman opened fire there, according to Copenhagen chief police inspector Søren Thomassen.

As of Monday, four people -- two Danish and two Swedish citizens -- remain hospitalized in critical but stable condition. Several others suffered minor injuries while fleeing the mall, Thomassen said.

The suspect -- a 22-year-old man with a history of mental health issues -- was arrested at the scene, according to Thomassen. The man was expected to be arraigned in a Danish court on Monday on preliminary charges of murder.

The deadly shooting remains under investigation. While a motive was unknown, Thomassen said the victims appeared to have been randomly targeted and the gunman was believed to have acted alone. There was also nothing to suggest terrorism, he said.

"There is nothing in our investigation, or the documents we have reviewed, or the things we have found, or the witnesses' statements we have gotten, that can substantiate that this is an act of terrorism," the police inspector told reporters during a press conference Monday.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Russia-Ukraine live updates: Russian strikes near Odesa after Snake Island withdrawal

GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's "special military operation" into neighboring Ukraine began on Feb. 24, with Russian forces invading from Belarus, to the north, and Russia, to the east. Ukrainian troops have offered "stiff resistance," according to U.S. officials.

The Russian military has since launched a full-scale ground offensive in eastern Ukraine's disputed Donbas region, capturing the strategic port city of Mariupol and securing a coastal corridor to the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

Here's how the news is developing. All times Eastern:

Jul 01, 4:25 pm
21 dead, 39 injured in missile strike near Odesa

Russian missiles struck residential areas near the key port city of Odesa in southern Ukraine early Friday, killing at least 21 people and wounding 39 others, Ukrainian authorities said.

Russian bombers fired a trio of X-22 missiles that hit a nine-story apartment building and two recreational areas in the small coastal town of Serhiivka, located about 31 miles southwest of Odesa, according to a statement from the Security Service of Ukraine, which noted that rescue operations were underway.

Many victims were in the apartment building, where the entire entrance was "completely destroyed," authorities said.

One of the wounded children was a baby who was in a coma after being pulled from the charred rubble, according to authorities.

"This was a targeted Russian missile attack -- Russian terror against our cities, villages, our people," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.

The pre-dawn attacks followed the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine's Snake Island on Thursday, a move that was expected to potentially ease the threat to nearby Odesa, home to Ukraine's biggest seaport and one of the largest ports in the Black Sea basin.

"Occupants can't win on the battlefield, so resort to the vile murder of civilians," Ivan Bakanov, chairman of the Security Service of Ukraine, said in a statement Friday. "After the enemy was kicked out of Snake Island, he decided to respond with a cynical shelling of civilian objects."

Jul 01, 12:50 pm
Ukraine submits memo to International Court of Justice on Russian aggression

Ukraine on Friday submitted a memorandum to the International Court of Justice on Russian aggression.

"We prove that Russia violated the Genocide Convention by justifying its aggression with a false pretext of a 'genocide' that never was," tweeted Dmytro Kuleba, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs.

He called it a "critical step to hold Russia accountable and make Russia pay for the harm it has inflicted."

Jul 01, 11:27 am
Most Ukrainians want to return home

Close to 90% of refugees who fled Ukraine since the start of Russia's invasion plan to return home at some point, according to a recent poll by the Rating group.

Only 8% of refugees said they would never return to Ukraine, while 15% are prepared to go back as soon as possible, the poll showed.

Around half of those displaced only plan on returning when the war is over. Close to a third of people who lost their jobs because of the war are still not able to find new employment, the data revealed.

Jul 01, 9:42 am
Moscow denies targeting civilians in Odesa

Russia has dismissed reports from Ukrainian officials that Russian missiles struck residential areas in the southern town of Odesa early on Friday morning and reiterated its claim that Moscow does not target civilians.

“I would like to remind you of president [Vladimir Putin's] words that the Russian Armed Forces do not engage with civilian targets,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call with reporters on Friday.

Ukrainian authorities had earlier said Russian missiles hit an apartment building and two holiday camps in the region, killing at least 20 people and wounding dozens of others, including children.

To counter the threat of indiscriminate Russian strikes, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pledged more supplies of advanced weapons and equipment to Ukraine on Thursday.

Speaking at a press conference in Madrid, Stoltenberg said NATO has a list of requested equipment and nothing would be ruled out or excluded from that list. Several NATO countries expressed reservations about the transfer of some weapons -- including tanks and other heavy weapons -- to Ukraine in the first months of the war.

-ABC News' Edward Szekeres, Max Uzol, Fidel Pavlenko and Yuriy Zaliznyak

Jul 01, 8:59 am
Will Russia become a pariah state?

In response to the invasion of Ukraine, the West has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia, nearly crippling its economy and isolating it from all but a few allies.

U.S. President Joe Biden and other government officials have said sanctions from the United States and its allies will make Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, pariahs on the world stage.

However, one expert who spoke with ABC News says that casting Russia out of the international community, making it a pariah state, may not be so easy.

"Russia is a member of the UN security council, it has veto power there. It is just a major actor on the world stage in so many ways. So isolating Russia, shaming it, making it a pariah is a huge challenge," said Daniel Hamilton, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Yet, "Russia has not done too well with allies," Hamilton also said.

"Today, it's real allies are ... sort of also pariah states. It's Assad's Syria, it's Venezuela, it's Cuba and that's about it. Others tolerate Russia. They figure out ways to deal with it, in the former Soviet space. But they're not really allies," Hamilton said.

Russia and Belarus are yet to mirror NATO's recent military activity, Belarusian President Oleksandr Lukashenko said in a speech on Thursday. Lukashenko also called on Russia to “be ready” for the use of nuclear weapons.

While a frontal attack on Ukraine from Belarusian territory is not perceived as an imminent threat by Ukrainian officials, roadblocks were reinforced in the capital of Kyiv due to the risk of diversionary and intelligence groups from Belarus roaming around the city, a National Guard spokesperson said Friday as reported by local media.

Belarus extended a large-scale military exercise near the Ukrainian border until at least July 9, a local monitoring group reported on Friday.

Lukashenko's administration ordered conscripts en masse to report to military commissariats without disclosing the reason for the call-up, local media reported on Thursday.

Military officials threatened conscripts with criminal prosecution in case they failed to show up to their respective commissariats, according to local reports.

Belarusian officials maintain that the call-up is “simply training” that is part of “mobilization exercises.” “No one is taking anyone to any war,” military officials claimed as quoted by local media.

-ABC News' Edward Szekeres, Max Uzol, Fidel Pavlenko and Yuriy Zaliznyak

Jul 01, 7:03 am
Russian missiles kill at least 19 in residential areas near Odesa

Russian missiles struck residential areas near the key port city of Odesa in southern Ukraine early Friday, killing at least 19 people, Ukrainian authorities said.

Russian bombers fired a trio of X-22 missiles that hit a nine-story apartment building and two recreational areas in the small coastal town of Serhiivka, located about 31 miles southwest of Odesa, according to a statement from the Security Service of Ukraine, which noted that rescue operations were underway.

Two children were among the 19 confirmed deaths. Another 38 people, including six children and a pregnant woman, were hospitalized with injuries. Most of the victims were in the apartment building, where the entire entrance was "completely destroyed," authorities said.

One of the wounded children was a baby who was in a coma after being pulled from the charred rubble, according to authorities.

The pre-dawn attacks followed the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine's Snake Island on Thursday, a move that was expected to potentially ease the threat to nearby Odesa, home to Ukraine's biggest seaport and one of the largest ports in the Black Sea basin.

"Occupants can't win on the battlefield, so resort to the vile murder of civilians," Ivan Bakanov, chairman of the Security Service of Ukraine, said in a statement Friday. "After the enemy was kicked out of Snake Island, he decided to respond with a cynical shelling of civilian objects."

Jun 30, 7:09 pm
Snake Island 'significantly changes' situation in Black Sea, Zelenskyy says

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the situation on Snake Island, which was freed of Russian forces Thursday, "significantly changes the situation in the Black Sea."

"It does not guarantee safety yet, it does not yet guarantee that the enemy will not return. But it already limits the actions of the occupiers significantly," he said in his latest national address.

The rocky Ukrainian island, located in the Black Sea, has been the target of Russia since day one of the invasion.

Ukrainian military officials claimed Thursday to have taken back control of Snake Island overnight following a successful military operation. Meanwhile, the Russian defense ministry said Thursday that it withdrew all its forces from Snake Island as a "gesture of goodwill."

Jun 30, 2:24 pm
Fierce fighting ongoing near last Luhansk Oblast city under Ukraine’s control

Fierce fighting is ongoing southwest of Lysychansk -- the last city in Ukraine’s Luhansk Oblast that remains under Ukrainian control, Ukraine’s General Staff said. If Lysychansk falls, one of the two Donbas regions would effectively be seized by Russia.

Russian forces have secured positions in the northwestern and southeastern parts of the Lysychansk Oil Refinery and are firing artillery on Ukrainian forces around the refinery and in nearby settlements, Ukraine’s General Staff said.

Serhii Haidai, the head of the Luhansk RMA, said Russian forces are shelling the city from several directions, but there’s no street fighting in Lysychansk and the city is not yet encircled.
 

Jun 30, 10:09 am
Biden announces $800M more in aid, 'going to support Ukraine as long as it takes'

President Joe Biden at his press conference in Madrid Thursday announced $800 million more in aid for Ukraine, including air defense systems and offensive weapons.

A reporter asked how to explain to the American people a joint statement from Biden and other G-7 leaders Monday that read: "We will continue to provide financial, humanitarian, military and diplomatic support and stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes."

Asked if that meant indefinite support from the U.S., or whether there would be a time support from the U.S. would stop, Biden replied: "We are going to support Ukraine as long as it takes."

"I don't know what -- how it's going to end," Biden added, "But it will not end with a Russian defeat of Ukraine in Ukraine."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said recently that the war needs to end by the winter. But Biden said that, "no," that assessment hadn’t changed his calculation in terms of the pace and kind of assistance the U.S. is sending Ukraine.

Biden was also pressed on record high gas prices that he has attributed to the war in Ukraine. "How long is it fair to expect American drivers and drivers around the world to pay that premium for this war?" he was asked by a reporter.

"As long as it takes," he replied. "Russia cannot, in fact, defeat Ukraine and move beyond Ukraine. This is a critical, critical position for the world."

Biden highlighted his domestic efforts to bring down the price at the pump, like releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and asking Congress and states to approve a gas tax holiday to help save consumers money at the pump.

"So I think there's a lot of things we can do, and we will do, but the bottom line is ultimately the reason why gas prices are up is because of Russia," he said. "Russia, Russia, Russia. The reason why the food crisis exists is because of Russia. Russia not allowing grain to get out of Ukraine."

-ABC News' Ben Gittleson and Molly Nagle

Jun 30, 8:10 am
Nearly all released Azov defenders return wounded

Almost all soldiers of the Ukrainian Azov Regiment who were released from Russian captivity return home wounded, a representative of the Association of Families of Azovstal Defenders told local media on Wednesday.

"Almost everyone – 99% – were left without arms, without legs. Some do not hear, some do not see, but their eyes are happy,” Tetiana Kharko said.

According to Kharko, the sister of a captured Marine commander, some troops “talk with tears in their eyes, some can't [speak].” The representative added that the soldiers from the latest exchange of prisoners need urgent medical care and an examination.

In his Wednesday evening address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said 95 Azovstal defenders returned home from Ukrainian captivity, along with dozens of other troops.

-ABC News' Edward Szekeres, Max Uzol, Natalya Kushnir and Yuriy Zaliznyak

Jun 30, 7:07 am
Mariupol theater airstrike was 'a clear war crime' by Russian military: Amnesty International

The Russian military committed "a clear war crime" when its forces bombed a packed drama theater in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in March, Amnesty International said Thursday.

The London-based international human rights group published a new report documenting how the deadly blitz on the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater unfolded, citing interviews with numerous survivors and witnesses as well as "extensive digital evidence," which included photographs, videos, radio intercepts, satellite imagery and radar data. The report concluded that the evidence indicates the attack "was almost certainly an airstrike carried out by the Russian military," with the theater as "the intended target."

"After months of rigorous investigation, analysis of satellite imagery and interviews with dozens of witnesses, we concluded that the strike was a clear war crime committed by Russian forces," Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnes Callamard said in a statement Thursday.

Jun 30, 7:01 am
War outlook remains 'grim,' top US intelligence officer says

Russian President Vladimir Putin still wants to seize most of Ukraine, and the outlook for the war remains grim, Avril Haines, the top U.S. intelligence officer, said Wednesday as reported by Reuters.

“In short, the picture remains pretty grim and Russia's attitude toward the West is hardening," Haines said at a Commerce Department conference.

The intelligence officer added that U.S. spy agencies expect the war to grind on “for an extended period of time.” But the Russian forces are so degraded by combat, Haines said, that they likely can only achieve incremental gains in the near term.

Haines also said it will take years for Russia to rebuild its forces. Still, U.S. intelligence agencies foresee three possible scenarios in the war, according to Haines, the most likely being a grinding conflict in which Russian forces "make incremental gains, with no breakthrough."

The other scenarios include a major Russian breakthrough and Ukraine succeeding in stabilizing the frontlines while achieving small gains, perhaps near the Russian-held city of Kherson and other areas of southern Ukraine.

Ukraine is likely to rely on more NATO support as the conflict drags on, with Ihor Zhovkva, the Deputy Head of the Ukrainian Presidential Office, stating Wednesday that Ukraine believes it already meets NATO standards and maintains a course to continue integration.

"No one removes Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic integration from the agenda," Zhovkva said at the NATO summit in Madrid.

Zhovka, who headed the Ukrainian delegation in Madrid, said he was satisfied with the results of the summit. The official also stressed that Ukraine maintains its course to join NATO.

Russia warned Tuesday that Ukraine joining NATO could lead to World War III should Kyiv then attempt to encroach on the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

-ABC News' Edward Szekeres, Max Uzol, Natalya Kushnir and Yuriy Zaliznyak

Jun 29, 3:20 pm
Zelenskyy addresses NATO summit

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the NATO summit Wednesday, commending the decision to invite Finland and Sweden to join NATO.

Zelenskyy told the NATO leaders, "The goals of Ukraine are exactly the same as yours: We are interested in security and stability on the European continent and in the world."

“This is not a war of Russia only against Ukraine, this is a war for the right to dictate conditions in Europe,” he said.

-ABC News' Christine Theodorou

Jun 29, 1:37 pm
Biden, Erdogan meet after Turkey drops opposition to Finland, Sweden joining NATO

President Joe Biden met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the NATO summit in Madrid Wednesday, where he thanked Erdoğan for dropping his objections to Finland and Sweden becoming NATO members.

“I want to particularly thank you for what you did putting together the situation with regard to Finland and Sweden and all the incredible work you're doing to try to get the grain out of Ukraine and Russia,” Biden said.

“We think your pioneering in this regard is going to be crucial in terms of strengthening NATO for the future,” Erdoğan said. “And it's going to have a very positive contribution to the process between Ukraine and Russia.”

Senior administration officials told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. made no formal offer in exchange for Erdoğan dropping Turkey’s resistance to Finland and Sweden becoming NATO members.

The U.S. Department of Defense earlier came out in support of Turkey’s plans to modernize its aircraft fleet with American-made F-16s.

-ABC News' Gabe Ferris

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


WNBA star Brittney Griner's trial begins in Russia as US works to secure her release

Mike Mattina/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) - Brittney Griner appeared in a courtroom in Khimki, a suburb of Moscow, on Friday morning for the first day of the WNBA star's trial in Russia, where she has been in custody for 134 days.

Griner was detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Russia on Feb. 17 after she was accused of carrying vape cartridges containing hashish oil, which is illegal in Russia.

The first witness at Griner's trial was a customs officer who was at the airport when she was arrested.

According to a Russian reporter inside the courtroom, who spoke with ABC News, Griner said through a translator that she understood the accusation but declined to comment on the charge, saying she will share her thoughts at a later time.

The judge began the examination of evidence with the interrogation of witnesses. Representatives of the U.S. Embassy, as well as two representatives from Russian and foreign media were allowed into the courtroom.

An American reporter inside the courtroom, who spoke with Griner, told ABC News on Monday that Griner said she is fine, but she misses her ability to work out like she used to. She also said that since she doesn't speak Russian, the court appearances are difficult for her, but she has been provided an interpreter.

As Griner left the courtroom, she did not respond to ABC News' question when asked how she's doing. The Phoenix Mercury player is expected to appear in court again for the second day of the trial on July 7.

Griner's detention in Russia was extended repeatedly, most recently through Dec. 20, which is the expected length of her trial. If convicted, Griner, 31, faces up to 10 years in prison.

Ahead of the trial, friends and family members of Griner gathered for a vigil in New York City in honor of the detained athlete on Wednesday.

"Feb 17th was the last time I talked to my sister," said Janell Roy, Griner's childhood friend. "I haven't been in communication with her, I haven't been able to talk to her and it hurts."

"... The fact remains that the U.S. Government has determined that Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained and being used as a political pawn," Griner's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, wrote in a series of tweets on Monday . "The negotiation for her immediate release regardless of the legal proceedings should remain a top priority and we expect [President Joe Biden] and [Vice President Kamala Harris] to do everything in their power, right now, to get a deal done to bring her home."

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday that Griner is "unjustly detained" and called on the Russian government to release the American basketball star.

Sullivan further stressed that the U.S. is "actively engaged" in working to secure Griner's release, but added that the diplomatic efforts are "sensitive matters."

"But I will tell you it has the fullest attention of the President and every senior member of his national security and diplomatic team, and we are actively working to find a resolution to this case, and will continue to do so without rest until we get Brittney safely home," he said. "We also are trying to work actively to return all unjustly detained Americans and hostages being held overseas, whether that be in Iran or Afghanistan or Russia or Venezuela, or China or elsewhere."

Russia's invasion of Ukraine began one week after Griner was detained. Some officials are concerned that Americans jailed in Russia could be used as leverage in the ongoing conflict.

Calls to free Griner escalated following the release of U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed in April, who was freed from a Russian prison as part of a prisoner exchange. Former Marine Paul Whelan has also been detained in Russia since 2019.

Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, told "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts in May that she would like to speak with President Joe Biden.

"I just keep hearing that, you know, he has the power. She's a political pawn," she said. "So if they're holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it."

Asked about a potential meeting between Cherelle Griner and President Biden last week, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, "We don't have anything to share about a potential phone conversation or meeting."

ABC News' Shannon Crawford and Molly Nagle contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Xi hails Hong Kong's autonomy but with a major caveat: Beijing has final say

Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

(HONG KONG) -- In a speech celebrating the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, Chinese President Xi Jinping strongly reaffirmed the territory’s autonomy under the promise of “One Country, Two Systems” but with one very strong caveat: Beijing has full jurisdiction and Hong Kong must respect that.

“One Country, Two Systems is an unprecedented great initiative of historical significance,” Xi declared in a victory lap of a speech now that the opposition in the city has either been silenced or behind bars. “There is no reason to change such a good system, and it must be maintained for a long time.”

Xi’s words run counter to the view of many in the city who supported the now-silenced pro-democracy activists and Western politicians around the world who view Beijing’s increasing direct influence in the city as reneging on the agreement made between the United Kingdom and China that led to the handover on July 1, 1997.

Also marking the occasion, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued a video statement on Twitter saying, "We made a promise to the territory and its people and we intend to keep it, doing all we can to hold China to its commitment”

"We simply cannot avoid the fact that for some time now, Beijing has been failing to comply with its obligations. It's a state of affairs that threatens both the rights and freedoms of Hong Kongers and the continued progress and prosperity of their home.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken added, “it is now evident that Hong Kong and Beijing authorities no longer view democratic participation, fundamental freedoms, and an independent media” as a part of its promise.

In Xi’s view, the Chinese government is fulfilling its obligations in allowing the former British colony to choose its path and thrive economically, if not politically, over the past quarter century.

“Hong Kong will maintain the original capitalist system unchanged for a long time and enjoy a high degree of autonomy” Xi, who is on a two-day visit to the city, told a 1,300-strong gathering of Hong Kong’s political and business elite at the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Center. But he warned that residents must “consciously respect” the rule of Chinese Communist Party and its socialist system in the mainland.

Having implemented a far-reaching security law two years ago to silence dissent, Xi mostly sidestepped security and political concerns and focused on Hong Kong’s economic development, signaling an intention to turn the page on the turmoil of the last decade.

The Chinese government has long believed that the vast chasm of economic inequality in the city, exacerbated by unaffordable housing costs, was the chief reason for popular discontent which, in Beijing's telling of events, were then exploited by “foreign forces” to foment anti-government protests.

“Hong Kong cannot afford more chaos,” Xi told the newly inaugurated administration led by Hong Kong’s former security official John Lee.

“The public has good expectations to have better livelihoods, that they can live in a wider and bigger home, with more job opportunities, better education for the children, and can be better taken care of when they are old,” Xi continued.

“The new government should not disappoint them and should place these expectations as top priorities," stressed the Chinese leader.

“The major issue for John Lee is to deliver better housing and relieve economic inequality and poverty and if possible, find new engines for economic growth,” David Zweig, Professor Emeritus at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told ABC News.

“Economic problems that Hong Kong has faced for past 20 years were due largely to the [real estate] tycoons who would not allow [the Hong Kong leader and legislature] to resolve these core issues,” Zweig explained, which led to the younger generation insisting on a more representative system which, in Beijing’s eyes, threatened to shift the power in the legislature.

In the wake of the 2019 protests, Zweig believed that when the popular opposition was positioned to take over the legislature and replace Beijing’s "executive-led government" with a de-facto parliamentary one, the Chinese government was unwilling to take that risk.

In response, Beijing reformed the electoral system to ensure “only patriots can govern Hong Kong.”

“Our mistake as observers was not to realize that, while China could support a more open system, under ‘One country, Two systems’ it would never let the opposition take over,” said Zweig.

At an event earlier this week, the last British governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten recalled a pro-Beijing businessman explaining this dynamic to him as the two governments were hashing out the final details before the handover. “You don't understand the Chinese,” Patten remembered the individual telling him, “they don't want to rig the elections, they just want to know the result in advance. Well, yes, I see that, but it's not what's called democracy.”

“John Lee and Beijing, having established an authoritarian regime, must deliver on the core economic issues,” Zweig told ABC News.

After spending less than 10 hours in the city over two days, Xi and his wife left Hong Kong via the high speed rail link that physically ties the center of Hong Kong to the mainland.

The new Hong Kong chief executive has his work cut for him. Hong Kong’s strict COVID measures and sealed borders over the past two years has endangered Hong Kong’s status as an aviation hub and international financial center. Its economy contracted 4% in the first quarter of this year -- one of the worst performances in 30 years.

Coupled with the security crackdown, Hong Kong residents have been voting with their feet. Since the beginning the year there has been 154,000 net departures from the city, the highest rate since Hong Kong returned to China.

“We won’t let President Xi down,” Lee told the press after the Chinese president’s departure. “We won’t let the people down.”

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


North Korea claims 'alien things' at the border caused COVID-19

KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images

(SEOUL, South Korea) -- Authorities in North Korea have instructed its people to avoid “alien things” falling near its border with South Korea.

North Korea’s state newspaper Rodong Sinmun published a news report on where the COVID-19 virus came from and pointed the finger at materials that flew in from South Korea. The paper said that two local townspeople showed COVID-19 symptoms after touching "alien things" at the border.

“State Emergency Epidemic Prevention Headquarters saw to it that an emergency instruction was issued stressing the need to vigilantly deal with alien things coming by wind and other climate phenomena and balloons in the areas along the demarcation line and borders,” Rodong Sinmun said Friday.

The influx of non-native objects, especially from the southern half of the Korean peninsula, has put North Korea’s border at the highest level of alert for the longest amount of time since the two Koreas separated in 1953. Sending propaganda leaflets and materials in air balloons has been common practice from both sides but Seoul has made it illegal in 2020.

“It appears to be an attempt to raise suspicion among North Korean citizens about the propaganda leaflets, an attempt to spread the false idea that the leaflets are carrying COVID-19,” Hyung Joong Park, head researcher at the Korea Institute of National Unification, told ABC News.

Park also explained that they are forming the narrative that COVID was caused not by failures by the Party but by a premeditated move from the outside.

North Korea has reported over 4,750 cases of "fever" on Friday and claims that, as of Thursday evening, since the pandemic began more than 99.827% of the people who had "fever" have recovered. There is an extremely limited number of COVID test kits in North Korea as the regime has refused to accept foreign assistance to help identify patients.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry responded to North Korea’s accusation and that they see zero possibility of viruses entering North Korea through leaflets from the South, explaining that the timing of the North’s claim of contact with "alien materials" at the beginning of April does not match the timing of leaflet-sending that activists in South Korea say took place in late April.

“South Korea’s Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization is on the same page that it is impossible to be infected with COVID-19 through the virus remaining on the surface of an object, not to mention there isn’t any officially confirmed case of COVID-19 infection through mail or other supply,” Cha Duck Chul, the deputy spokesperson of South’s Unification Ministry told reporters Friday.

On Tuesday, the defector group Fighters For North Korea based in Seoul claim to have flown 20 unauthorized balloons carrying masks, pain relief pills, and doses of Vitamin C in order to send support to pandemic-hit North Korea.

“Accusing the balloon and leaflets from South Korea of spreading virus lays a foundation for North Korea taking extreme measures against balloon launches on the grounds that it is a national security threat,” John Delury, professor at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies, told ABC News.

ABC News' Eunseo Nam and Hyerim Lee contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Tear gas or pepper spray used at South African nightclub when teenagers died, eyewitness says

STR/AFP via Getty Images

(EAST LONDON, South Africa) -- Tear gas or pepper spray was used on patrons at a popular nightclub in South Africa when more than a dozen teenagers mysteriously died there, an eyewitness told ABC News.

Sibongile Mtsewu, 22, said he was ordering drinks at the crowded Enyobeni Tavern near the South African city of East London over the weekend, when suddenly the doors were closed and some type of chemical agent was released into the air.

"There was no way out," Mtsewu, who lives nearby, told ABC News in a telephone interview Thursday. "There was no chance to breathe."

Mtsewu said he passed out after inhaling the substance. He recalled being surrounded by bodies when his brother woke him up some time later.

"The tear gas suffocated many people," he told ABC News. "That's why people died."

Mtsewu said one of his legs was injured and he has pains in his body from the incident.

The South African Police Service has declined to comment on possible causes of deaths, citing the ongoing probe.

Officers were called to the Enyobeni Tavern in Scenery Park, a suburb on the edge of East London in Eastern Cape province, on Sunday morning at around 4 a.m. local time, according to police. Upon arrival, they discovered 17 teens dead inside the club. Four more died when they were hospitalized or being transported to hospitals. The youngest victim was 13, police said.

The incident remains under investigation. The circumstances surrounding the tragedy were unclear, and the causes of deaths have yet to be established. No arrests have been made, according to police.

"We do not want to make any speculation at this stage as our investigations are continuing," Brig. Tembinkosi Kinana, a spokesperson for the South African Police Service, told ABC News on Sunday.

As of Thursday, all 21 victims had been identified and the autopsies were completed, but toxicology reports were still pending, according to Siyanda Manana, a spokesperson for the Eastern Cape Department of Health. A mass funeral will be held next week.

The South African Police Service's commissioner for Eastern Cape province, Lt. Gen. Nomthetheleli Mene, released a statement on Wednesday expressing concern "about circulating rumours and media reports speculating on the cause of death."

"As indicated earlier, at an appropriate time and when an official report has been made available by the experts, the family and members of the public will be informed by the relevant authority," Mene said. "We urge people to refrain from making risky assumptions which do not assist our investigations."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


China's president returns to Hong Kong for 25th anniversary of British handover

Feng Li/Getty Images

(HONG KONG) -- When Chinese President Xi Jinping stepped off a high speed train into Hong Kong on Thursday to throngs of flag waving residents and a traditional lion dance performance, it marked his first trip outside the borders of Mainland China in nearly 900 days, since the very beginning of the pandemic and also the first time the Chinese leader has set foot in the Chinese territory since the 2019 anti-government protests paralyzed the city.

“Hong Kong has withstood severe tests time and time again,” Xi said in brief remarks upon his arrival. “After ups and downs, Hong Kong has risen from the ashes and showed vigorous vitality.”

Amidst an incoming typhoon warning, a tight security blanket and a COVID-19 bubble, Xi returned to the city for a two-day visit to inaugurate the new Beijing-approved administration and celebrate the 25th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to China, marking the halfway point of the 50 year ‘One Country, Two Systems’ promise to Hong Kong that it could maintain its autonomy and capitalist system.

Everyone attending and interacting with Xi and his delegation over the next two days has had to isolate beforehand because COVID-19 infections in Hong Kong are much higher than on the zero-COVID-adhering mainland. Local media reports say Xi is not expected to overnight in Hong Kong, instead choosing to head back over the border before returning Friday morning. His total time in the city will only add a few hours over the two day span.

Nevertheless, Xi was bullish in his praise.

“One country, two systems has strong vitality,” Xi declared. “It can ensure Hong Kong's long-term prosperity and stability.”

For many, the foundation of that “One Country, Two Systems” promise has crumbled since Xi was last in Hong Kong in 2017 for what was then the 20th anniversary of the handover.

In a speech five years ago, Xi issued a terse warning that “any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government” or to “use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible.”

Hours after that speech, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents were still able to take to the streets that year for an annual pro-democracy protest march that coursed its way through the vibrant Asian financial center. Newsstands still sold pro-democracy papers and magazines and a boisterous contingent of opposition politicians locked heads with pro-Beijing counterparts.

Five years later Xi arrived in a very different city, one that has been silenced of outward dissent.

The at-times violent street protests that captured the world’s attention in 2019 had -- in Xi’s view -- crossed the "red line” he warned about.

Amid the pandemic, Beijing imposed a security crackdown that has not only quietened the streets but remade the fabric of the city. The National Security Law that was seeded into Hong Kong two years ago has either locked up, chased out or silenced nearly the entire once-vocal opposition.

Though its supporters deny it, speech has also been curtailed in the name of national security. Protest marches disappeared and all remembrances of the Tiananmen Square crackdown erased. Media outlets were either brought in line or forced to shutter like pro-democracy tycoon Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily did last year. Lai, himself, now sits behind bars on multiple counts including national security charges that may keep him in prison for the rest of his life.

The electoral system for all officials and lawmakers was rewritten last year to ensure “only patriots governed Hong Kong,” tipping the scale in Beijing’s favor for the foreseeable future and closing the door on further democratic reforms. Hong Kong’s mini-constitution “The Basic Law” had aimed to work towards eventual universal suffrage but that is now on hold indefinitely.

School curriculums have been overhauled to ensure Beijing approved “patriotism” is instilled at a young age including new textbooks waiting in the wings that deny Hong Kong was ever a British Colony -- apparently because, they argue, China never recognized British rule over their sovereign territory.

On top of it all, Hong Kong’s strict COVID measures and sealed borders have cut off the city not only from mainland China but from the rest of the world, which has seen Hong Kong’s status as an aviation hub and international financial center squeezed away by local government policies as its economy contracted by 4% in the first quarter of this year -- one of the worst performances in 30 years.

A combination of some or all these factors have contributed to Hong Kong residents voting with their feet. Since the beginning of the year there has been 154,000 net departures from the city, the highest rate since Hong Kong returned to China.

Chinese state media has played the developments differently with the People’s Daily declaring on Thursday, “the Hong Kong National Security Law has become the "patron saint" for safeguarding Hong Kong's prosperity and stability.”

Hong Kong’s future is at a trepidatious crossroad and Beijing knows it. Earlier this month, the Hong Kong & Macau Affairs Office in Beijing which oversees the city took the unprecedented steps -- despite the city’s supposed autonomy -- to publish targets for the incoming administration led by John Lee, the former security official who implemented Beijing’s crackdown against the pro-democracy movement and press.

On the top of the list is affordable housing concerns, which Beijing blames for discontent in the city and “to improve Hong Kong’s international competitiveness.”

At the anniversary ceremony on Friday morning, Xi is expected again to give a speech outlining his vision for Hong Kong over the next five years. Unlike the speech he gave in 2017, he will no longer have to worry about issuing red lines because the government claims they've already dealt with those who he viewed to have violated them.

Xi, who is solidifying his case to be given an unprecedented third term as president later this year, will likely take a victory lap as the leader who finally brought this once rebellious city firmly back in the fold.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Verdict in France's 'trial of the century': Between relief and the years ahead

BENOIT PEYRUCQ/AFP via Getty Images

(PARIS) -- Wednesday marked the epilogue of a nearly 10-month-long and emotional trial for the Paris terror attacks of Nov. 13, 2015, with Salah Abdeslam -- the only person directly involved in the planning who's still alive -- receiving the heaviest sentence under French law.

Families of victims and journalists were amassed either in the cafés or under the shades afforded by the trees circling Place Dauphine, in front of the 1st Arrondissement Tribunal, on Wednesday afternoon, waiting for the verdict in the "trial of the century."

They waited all afternoon for the court, which had retired to deliberate Monday, to finally learn the fate of the 20 defendants, among whom is 32-year-old Abdelsam, the only survivor of the death commando and key suspect in the landmark trial for the 2015 terror attacks that claimed 130 lives, and more than 400 others were wounded.

Nine suicide bombers committed simultaneous attacks outside the Stade de France in Saint-Denis during a soccer match, on a number of Parisian cafés and restaurants and inside the Bataclan concert hall during a packed performance, where the American rock band Eagles of Death Metal was playing. The attacks were later claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. At the Bataclan alone, 90 people were killed by terrorists with machine guns after being taken hostage.

The trial for the deadliest attacks ever committed in France opened on Sept. 8, 2021. There were 1,800 plaintiffs and 330 lawyers, and the trial took place in front of a specially composed panel of professional judges, instead of a jury of peers.

The 149 days of the trial that followed, often interrupted by cases of COVID-19 among the accused, were punctuated by the emotional and graphic testimonies of 415 people -- out of the thousands of victims -- along with testimony from first responders, former President François Hollande, the defendants and Belgian investigators.

Stéphane Sarrade, a member of the victims' association 13Onze15 -- a name that refers to the date of the attack, lost his then-23-year-old son Hugo at the Bataclan.

"It's going to start. It smells of beer," was the last text he received from Hugo at 8:00 p.m. that night, the father of two told ABC News.

Stéphane Sarrade, who "had almost no expectations at the start of this trial," was happy to end the trial with "some details on the chronology of events," which allowed him to imagine his son's last moments.

On May 17, some of Hugo's heroes -- Eagles of Death Metal's singer Jesse Hughes and former guitarist Eden Gavino -- joined the victims' families on l'Île de la Cité to testify before the court.

"I felt like broken," Gavino said, while Hughes said he "forgive[s] them [the terrorists]" and "hope[s] that they find the peace of God themselves."

Alexis Lebrun, 33, a Bataclan survivor and a member of the victims' association Life for Paris, hesitated "a lot," like many, but ultimately did not testify, he told ABC News near the tribunal on Wednesday.

Awaiting the verdict, Lebrun, who vehemently refuses to be seen as only "a victim of November 13 and nothing else," told ABC News he now "aspire[s] to a form of banality."

When Périès announced the verdict -- ranging from two years to life in prison, with Abdeslam receiving life without the possibility of parole -- before a very packed court, 39-year-old Thibault Morgant, who escaped the Bataclan attack with his wife, felt "nothing," he said

However, as one of the administrators of 13Onze15, he told ABC News he felt pride "seeing that my country has been able to carry out such a procedure to its conclusion without renouncing its values."

"The ordeal is over," Stéphane Sarrade told ABC News.

Talking with French media France Info after the verdict, Arthur Dénouveaux, who was at the Bataclan and presides over Life For Paris, had words for the other silent victims of terrorism, the 200 children of French jihadists who still live in detention camps in Syria with their mothers.

This landmark trial will give way to another in September, as France isn't done reckoning with terror on its soil. This time, the special Paris court will house the trial for the 2016 Nice terror attack that left 86 dead on the Promenade des Anglais.

In October, five of the 20 defendants from the Nov. 13 trial -- including Abdeslam and his childhood friend Mohammed Abrini, who was filmed by CCTV cameras during the attacks in Brussels pushing a cart with two other suicide bombers -- will be among the 10 defendants on trial before the Brussels Court of Appeal for the March 2016 attacks in Belgium.

In 2027, the Terrorism Memorial Museum, which aims to pay tribute to the victims of terrorism across France and around the world, is expected to open its doors.

ABC News' Ibtissem Guenfoud contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Why it may be hard to isolate Russia, experts say

Henry Nicholls - Pool/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- In response to the invasion of Ukraine, the West has imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia, nearly crippling its economy and isolating it from all but a few allies.

President Joe Biden and other government officials have said sanctions from the U.S. and its allies will make Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, pariahs on the world stage.

However, one expert who spoke with ABC News says that casting Russia out of the international community, making it a pariah state, may not be so easy.

"Russia is a member of the UN security council, it has veto power there. It is just a major actor on the world stage in so many ways. So isolating Russia, shaming it, making it a pariah is a huge challenge," said Daniel Hamilton, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Yet, "Russia has not done too well with allies," Hamilton also said.

"Today, it's real allies are ... sort of also pariah states. It's Assad's Syria, it's Venezuela, it's Cuba and that's about it. Others tolerate Russia. They figure out ways to deal with it, in the former Soviet space. But they're not really allies," Hamilton said.

China has also kept a relationship with Russia, which Hamilton called "pro-Russian neutrality," with China falling short of giving Russia its full support, he said

An analysis of American policymakers found that the U.S. punishes pariah states committing one of five acts: the development of weapons of mass destruction, involvement in terrorism, posing a military threat, challenging international norms and, most recently, cyberthreats.

The U.S. currently designates Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism, according to the Department of State.

Russia's gross domestic product, a metric used to gauge the size of an economy by quantifying all the goods and services it produced, will be hard hit, according to Andrew Lohsen, a fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Russian GDP, by their own estimates, is expected to to fall by between eight and 12%. This is the sharpest contraction since 1994," said Lohsen.

"Other former finance officials in Russia put that number close to 30%," Lohsen said.

Lohsen also told ABC News the way Russia has conducted its war warrants a strong response from the international community.

"I think the images of civilians with their hands tied behind their back or shot execution style is an indication that Russia simply cannot be treated the way it has before, that this is a war crime," Lohsen said.

"The way that Russia has fought this war in a way that is so obviously meant to terrorize and inflict pain and suffering on civilian noncombatants," Lohsen added.

Putin considers Ukraine not as a sovereign country, but rather, a lost tribe of Russia, Hamilton said.

"He really is determined to either cripple it or to absorb it, if possible. He's having some trouble doing that," Hamilton said.

As it moves to isolate Russia, the U.S. is softening relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia, despite Biden's campaign promise to make Saudi Arabia a pariah for its killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

While the U.S. has been able to cut out Russian oil, the European Union still relies on Russia for 25% of it's oil and 40% of its natural gas.

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