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Massive explosion rocks town in Ghana

Sergio Amiti/Getty Images

(APPIATSE, Ghana) -- A town in Ghana was rocked by a huge explosion Thursday that sent several people to the hospital, the authorities said.

The Ghana Police Service announced that the explosion took place around 3 p.m. local time in the town of Appiatse, between Bogoso and Bawdie. Buildings and structures were gutted, and debris was scattered in the streets.

A preliminary investigation has determined that the explosion appears to have been caused by a mining vehicle carrying explosives, traveling from Tarkwa to the Chirano mines, colliding with a motorcycle, police said.

"The public has been advised to move out of the area to nearby towns for their safety while recovery efforts are underway," police said in a statement.

First responders and residents scrambled to find victims, with some using construction vehicles to clear debris. Smoke from the explosion could be seen miles away.

Police said victims had been taken to area hospitals but didn't provide any details on the number of victims or the extent of their injuries. The number of fatalities isn't immediately known.

"An appeal is also being made to nearby towns to open up their classrooms, churches, etc. to accommodate surviving victims," police said.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Nineteen-year-old breaks record of youngest woman to fly solo around the world

NICOLAS MAETERLINCK/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

(LONDON) -- From flying over an active volcano to surviving in minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit, British-Belgium teen Zara Rutherford has experienced a lot in her five-month journey flying over 40 countries and five continents.

When the 19-year-old landed in Belgium on Thursday, she made history by breaking the record of the youngest woman to ever fly solo around the world. The pilot who previously held the record, Shaesta Waiz, was 30 years old when she completed the journey.

"It's been ... challenging, but so amazing at the same time," Rutherford told ABC News. "I think there're some experiences that I'll just never forget and others that I would wish to forget."

Rutherford embarked on her epic journey with her Shark Aero, a high-performance, two-seat ultralight aircraft manufactured in Europe. The small plane is especially made to withstand long journeys at the cruising speed of 186.4 mph.

Since both of her parents are certified pilots, Rutherford learned her way behind the airplane controls when she was very young.

"Zara's first flight in a very small airplane, was when she was three or four months old. … And frequently, she'd be given the opportunity to sit in the front, to start with, of course, on about six cushions to be able to manipulate the controls and move the aircraft around," Sam Rutherford, Zara's father and a former army helicopter pilot, told ABC News.

But it was not until about five years ago that Rutherford truly realized her passion for flying.

"It only really crystallized into something she actually wanted to do more formally when she was 14, and at 14, she started actually taking flying lessons," Rutherford's father said.

Then teen ran into maintenance problems, COVID-19 complications and visa issues along her journey. She said once she reached Russia, she fully realized the risks of her mission.

"There was no humans. It's too cold. It's like nothing. There's no roads, there's no power like electricity cables. There's nothing, there's no animals, there's no trees. I didn't see a tree for over a month," Rutherford said.

"When you're flying alone and suddenly this challenge comes up, I can't say, 'I'm done. I'm out. I give up.' You have to still land the plane. You have to make sure that you get down on the ground safely," she said.

Still, she was often amazed by the things she saw along the way.

"That is still like the hands down the most amazing thing flying straight over Central Park … because of air space [regulations] you have to fly quite low. And it's quite strange when… some of the buildings still are higher than you like. Wow, this is incredible," the young solo pilot said.

Someone to look up to

Before starting her journey, Rutherford messaged Waiz -- the American-Afghan pilot who previously held the flying record -- on LinkedIn and asked if she would mind if she attempted to break her record.

"'Of course, that's OK. Records are meant to be broken,' I told her," Waiz, who finished her journey in 2017, told ABC News.

"'Not only are you going to fly around the world, but I'm going to do everything I can to help you, because it is an incredible experience and I want [you] to have that,'" she said to Rutherford.

Waiz got on her first plane as an infant, when her family left Afghanistan as refugees during the Soviet–Afghan War and settled in California. She didn't fly again until she was 17.

"I was terrified. But as soon as that plane lifted off, something ignited in me and I just thought to myself, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,'" she recalled.

Changing perspectives

Flying solo around the world, for Rutherford and Waiz, was not just about crossing geographical borders and breaking records, but also about getting to see life from a different perspective.

To Waiz, the unique thing about aviation is the way it takes away all discriminations and differences among people.

"When you're in the airplane and you're flying, it's such an unbiased environment that that aircraft doesn't care where you come from or what you look like," she said.

Rutherford said flying has taught her that life is "fragile," and there is "so much more to life than just getting a good career and making and having a good salary."

She hopes her history-making journey inspires other girls and women to chase their dreams.

"Her aim is actually not to fly around the world. Her aim is to encourage young women and girls to consider and hopefully take up careers in aviation, science, technology, engineering and mathematics," Rutherford's father said. "There's very little point to her flying around the world if nobody gets to hear about it. We all have our own worlds to fly around."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


British police arrest two men in probe of hostage-taking incident at Texas synagogue

Malik Faisal Akram - Obtained by ABC News

(LONDON) -- Two men were arrested in England on Thursday morning as part of an ongoing investigation into a hostage-taking incident at a synagogue in the United States, British authorities said.

Counterterrorism officers detained one of the men in Birmingham and the other in Manchester, about 85 miles north of Birmingham. The pair "remain in custody for questioning," according to a statement from the Greater Manchester Police.

Assistant Chief Constable Dominic Scally of the Greater Manchester Police has said that counterterrorism officers are assisting their U.S. counterparts in the probe of Saturday's hourslong standoff between American authorities and a hostage-taker at the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, about 27 miles northwest of Dallas.

An armed man claiming to have planted bombs in the synagogue interrupted Shabbat services on Saturday just before 11 a.m. local time, taking a rabbi and three other people hostage, according to Colleyville Police Chief Michael Miller.

One hostage was released uninjured at around 5 p.m. CT on Saturday, Miller told a press conference later that night. An elite hostage rescue team from the Federal Bureau of Investigation then breached the synagogue at about 9 p.m. CT, after hearing the hostage-taker say he had guns and bombs and was "not afraid to pull the strings," according to a joint intelligence bulletin issued Wednesday and obtained by ABC News.

"As a tactical team approached to make entry to the synagogue, the hostages escaped and were secured by tactical elements," the bulletin said. "The assault team quickly breached the facility at a separate point of entry, and the subject was killed."

No hostages were injured during the incident, according to Miller.

The slain suspect, identified by the FBI as 44-year-old British citizen Malik Faisal Akram, was from the Blackburn area of England's Lancashire county, about 20 miles northwest of Manchester, according to Scally.

A motive for the siege is under investigation. The FBI said in a statement Sunday that the incident "is a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted, and is being investigated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force."

During the negotiations with authorities, Akram "spoke repeatedly about a convicted terrorist who is serving an 86-year prison sentence in the United States on terrorisms charges," according to the FBI.

Multiple law enforcement sources told ABC News that the hostage-taker was demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, who is incarcerated at Carswell Air Force Base near Fort Worth, about 16 miles southwest of Colleyville. Siddiqui, who has alleged ties to al-Qaida, was sentenced to 86 years in prison after being convicted of assault as well as attempted murder of an American soldier in 2010.

Two teenagers were arrested in southern Manchester on Sunday evening in connection with the synagogue attack. They were questioned and later released without being charged, Greater Manchester Police said in a statement Tuesday. Multiple law enforcement sources told ABC News that the teens are Akram's children.

Akram has ancestral ties to Jandeela, a village in Pakistan’s Punjab province, the local police chief told ABC News. He visited Pakistan in 2020 and stayed for five months, the police chief said, a duration that may have been necessitated by COVID-19 restrictions.

Akram has been separated from his wife for two years and has five children, according to the police chief.

After arriving in the U.S. last month via a flight from London to New York City, Akram stayed at homeless shelters at various points and may have portrayed himself as experiencing homelessness in order to gain access to the Texas synagogue during Shabbat services, multiple law enforcement sources told ABC News.

U.S. President Joe Biden, who called the hostage-taking incident "an act of terror," told reporters Sunday that investigators suspect Akram purchased a gun on the street. While Akram is alleged to have claimed he had bombs, investigators have found no evidence that he was in possession of explosives, according to Biden.

ABC News' Luke Barr, Aaron Katersky, Habibullah Khan, Josh Margolin and Joseph Simonetti contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Tonga's undersea cable may take 'weeks' to repair after volcanic eruption

Dana Stephenson//Getty Images

(LONDON) -- It may take weeks to repair an undersea fiber-optic cable connecting Tonga to the rest of the world, which was severed during Saturday's massive eruption of a submarine volcano near the South Pacific archipelago nation.

New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement Wednesday that U.S.-based company SubCom, which builds underwater cable networks across the globe and is the repair contractor for more than 31,000 miles of cable in the South Pacific Ocean, "advises it will take at least four weeks for Tonga's cable connection to be repaired."

The ministry added that Caribbean-based mobile network provider Digicel has set up an interim system on Tonga's main island, Tongatapu, using the University of South Pacific's satellite dish, which may allow a 2G connection to be established Wednesday, though the ministry said it will be "limited and patchy."

Domestic and international communications for Tonga were cut off due to damage to the undersea cable. While limited communication within Tonga has been restored through satellite telephones and high-frequency radio, the internet is still down, the Tongan government said in a statement Tuesday.

Satellite images captured the blast of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Saturday evening, with NASA's Earth Observatory calling it "one of the most potent volcanic eruptions in decades."

The explosion "obliterated" the small, uninhabited South Pacific island where the submarine volcano was located, about 40 miles north of Tonga's capital, Nuku'alofa, and "produced an atmospheric shock wave and tsunami that traveled around the world," the observatory said in a statement Saturday.

Nearly 50-foot tsunami waves crashed ashore on several of Tonga's 170 islands, devastating villages, while a huge mushroom-shaped cloud of volcanic ash, steam and gas covered the entire Polynesian kingdom, according to the Tongan government. A search-and-rescue mission was launched the following morning and at least three people have been confirmed dead -- a British national and two Tongan citizens. There were also a number of injuries reported, the Tongan government said.

New Zealand's foreign ministry confirmed Wednesday that no further deaths were reported in Tonga.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement Wednesday that its humanitarian partners on the ground reported the entire population of Tonga -- more than 100,00 people -- had been impacted by volcanic ash and tsunami waves. There's been no reported evidence of ongoing volcanic or tsunami activity within the region in the last 24 hours, according to OCHA.

"However, activity could resume at any time without warning," the agency said.

Data from surveillance flights over Tonga showed up to 100 homes "severely damaged" on Tongatapu and 50 on the nearby island of 'Eua. Mango and Niniva were also "heavily impacted" with structures destroyed and trees uprooted, but those islands are only thinly populated, according to OCHA.

The Tongan government has declared a state of emergency that will last until at least Feb. 13.

Sea and air transportation have been impacted due to continuing large waves in the waters surrounding Tonga as well as volcanic ash blanketing airport runways. Water supplies have also been "seriously affected," the Tongan government said.

Emergency response operations, including distribution of disaster relief supplies, initial assessments of the damages and clean-up of the airports, were still underway Tuesday, according to the Tongan government. New Zealand's foreign ministry said the work to clear airport runways in Tonga is expected to be completed Wednesday.

Australia and New Zealand have dispatched naval ships carrying relief supplies and clean drinking water to Tonga, their South Pacific neighbor. New Zealand's vessels are expected to arrive by Friday, depending on weather conditions, according to New Zealand's foreign ministry.

OCHA said it is understood that ships will be able to dock at Tonga's ports. Meanwhile, relief flights from both Australia and New Zealand are on standby until the Fuaʻamotu International Airport on Tongatapul is operational, according to OCHA.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


New baguette price sparks ire of some in France

MirageC/Getty Images

(PARIS) -- The new price of baguettes at a leading French supermarket is sparking outrage from some.

As of last week, customers in Leclerc stores were greeted with the new baguette price -- 29 cents (in Euros).

The president of the Leclerc supermarket chain, Michel-Édouard Leclerc, announced Jan. 11 that baguettes would remain at that price in Leclerc stores across France for a minimum of four months.

"Yes, blocking the price of the baguette at 29 cents is quite a symbol!" Leclerc tweeted Wednesday, officially launching the initiative, adding that: "The baguette is a benchmark for the evolution of prices and purchasing power for consumers."

That is 10 cents cheaper than Leclerc competitors Intermarché and Super U, and 16 cents less than at Carrefour stores. Meanwhile, the average baguette price in France is 90 cents.

This new price stirred the ire of five key players in the industry that branded the measure as "shameful" and "destructive" in a joint press release signed by the national farmers' union FNSEA, the National Association of French Milling (ANMF), the National Confederation of French Bakery and Pastry shops (CNBPF), the organization representative of the French cereals sector Intercéréales and the General Association of Wheat Producers (AGPB) on Wednesday.

"In France, there are 450,000 people doing all this work in the cereal sector. It's not just bread, but the whole cereal industry. I think it's denigrating the whole industry!" the president of Intercéréales Jean-François Loiseau said to ABC News, arguing that "every day, a French person eats 30 cents worth of bread on average. When Leclerc sells his baguette for 29 cents, if I follow the same proportion, it means that he offers the French to eat bread for 10 cents every day. That's a 20-cent difference every day. Is the subject of purchasing power in France at 20 cents a day, on bread?"

In the joint statement, the five organizations emphasized the difficult circumstances they said they are facing. For many years now, they said they have been fighting to be paid more fairly, while the price of wheat has exploded worldwide in recent months, and production costs are also increasing "strongly."

Some customers had mixed reactions to the pricing announcement.

To Youssef Aïtbaila, 39, who just bought a baguette at the boulangerie Les Pyramides in Colombes, a northwestern suburb of Paris, Leclerc "is right" because "everything has become very expensive."

"It's always good to be able to give everyone access to a cheap baguette because it's true that bread has increased a lot," said Emilie Péré, 38, a client and mother of one.

At the Leclerc store across the street, 30-year-old Justine Grangette wasn't too thrilled about the decision, insisting that it's part of Michel-Edouard Leclerc's "mentality" of cutting prices. "Anyway, I will continue to buy from my local baker."

After an increase in 2021, the purchasing power per household in France is expected to fall by 0.5% in the first half of the year according to an assessement by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (Insee).

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Huge asteroid safely passes close to Earth

NASA

(NEW YORK) -- A comet more than three times the size of the Empire State Building got up close to Earth's orbit Tuesday afternoon but was far enough to avoid turning into a sci-fi disaster movie, according to astronomers.

Asteroid 7482 (1994 PC1) flew by Earth around 4:51 p.m., according to NASA, which has been tracking the object for decades through its planetary defense systems.

Researchers say the asteroid, which measures 1 kilometer in diameter, came around .01325 Astronomical Units, or 1.2 million miles, away from Earth's atmosphere.

That distance didn't pose any threat to the Earth, according to researchers.

The last time the asteroid was this close to Earth's orbit was 89 years ago when it flew 0.00752 AU, roughly 699,000 miles, away from the planet, NASA data showed.

The next time the asteroid will come this close to Earth will be in 2105 when it will fly 0.01556 AU, roughly 1.4 million miles, away from Earth.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Tonga government releases 1st statement since volcanic blast, described huge mushroom plume

Handout/New Zealand Defense Force via Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- For the first time since a massive undersea volcano erupted and caused widespread damage, the government of Tonga released its first statement on Tuesday morning, describing a huge mushroom plume that covered the entire South Pacific island kingdom and nearly 50-foot tsunami waves that crashed ashore and devastated villages.

International and domestic communication, including the Internet, had been severed since the blast of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Saturday. According to the government's statement, the volcanic eruption damaged an underwater fiber optic cable, cutting off communication to the outside world.

"As a result of the eruption, a volcanic mushroom plume was released reaching the stratosphere and extending radially covering all Tonga Islands, generating tsunami waves rising up to 15 meters, hitting the west coast of Tongatapu Islands, 'Eue and Ha'apai Islands," the government statement said.

The eruption occurred in the South Pacific, about 40 miles south of Tonga.

A damage assessment was underway on Tuesday and the government was relying on satellite phones and high-frequency radio to establish communication between the multiple islands that comprise the Polynesian kingdom. Government officials said communication with at least one island, Niuas, had yet to be restored.

At least three deaths have been confirmed, including the death of a British national, the government said. Also killed was a 65-year-old woman on Mango Island and a 49-year-old man from Nomuka Island, according to the statement.

Two people remain unaccounted for and numerous injuries have been reported, the government said.

The government said it is particularly concerned about the damage caused to the islands of Mango, Fonoifua and Nomuka after receiving initial reports from first responders deployed to those islands.

"The first consignment is headed for these islands as all houses were destroyed on Mango Island; only two houses remain on Fonoifua Island with extensive damage on Nomuka Island," the government said.

It was not immediately clear how many houses and people occupied the islands of Mango, Nomuka and Fonoifua. Many of Tonga's 170 islands are uninhabited or sparsely inhabited.

At least eight houses were completely destroyed and 20 others were severely damaged in the village of Kolomotu on Tonga's most populated island, Tongatapu, the government said.

On 'Eua Island, two houses were completely destroyed and 45 were severely damaged, according to the government.

The government said that evacuations are underway from the small island of 'Atata near the capital city of Nukuʻalofa, throughout Tongatapu, Mango, Fonoifua and Nomuka islands.

"Water supplies have been seriously affected by the volcanic ash," the government statement said. "Government efforts have to be made to ensure the continuity of the supply of drinking water."

Sea and air transportation have also been affected due to continuing large waves and volcanic ash covering airport runways.

"Domestic and international flights have been deferred until further notice as the airports undergo clean-up," the government said.

The volcanic eruption was so strong it caused a sonic boom that could be heard and felt more than 6,000 miles away in Alaska, officials said.

The blast also triggered tsunami warnings from Fiji to Hawaii and the California coast.

The large waves caused by the volcanic eruption were being blamed for an oil spill off the Peruvian coast roughly 6,600 miles from Tonga. The Peruvian Civil Defense Institute released a statement on Monday saying a ship was loading oil into La Pampilla refinery on the Pacific coast of Puru on Sunday when waves moved the vessel and caused the spill.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Teens arrested in England are children of alleged hostage-taker in Texas, sources say

PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

(LONDON) -- Two teenagers have been arrested in England as part of an ongoing investigation into Saturday's hostage-taking incident at a synagogue in the United States, British authorities said.

The pair were detained in southern Manchester on Sunday evening and "remain in custody for questioning," according to a statement from the Greater Manchester Police. Multiple law enforcement sources in the U.S. told ABC News that the teens are the children of the alleged hostage-taker.

The arrests were made in connection with a 10-hour standoff between American authorities and a hostage-taker at the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, about 27 miles northwest of Dallas. An armed man claiming to have planted bombs in the synagogue interrupted Shabbat services on Saturday just before 11 a.m. local time, taking a rabbi and three other people hostage, according to Colleyville Police Chief Michael Miller.

The suspect, identified by the FBI as 44-year-old British citizen Malik Faisal Akram, died in a "shooting incident," according to Miller and FBI Dallas Special Agent in Charge Matt DeSarno, neither of whom provided further details.

Multiple law enforcement sources told ABC News that the initial indication is that Akram was shot and killed by the FBI team. The FBI said in a statement Sunday that its Shooting Incident Review Team "will conduct a thorough, factual, and objective investigation of the events."

A motive for the incident is under investigation.

Assistant Chief Constable Dominic Scally of the Greater Manchester Police said in a statement Sunday that counterterrorism officers are assisting their U.S. counterparts in the probe. Akram was from the Blackburn area of Lancashire, about 20 miles northwest of Manchester, according to Scally.

During the negotiations with law enforcement, Akram "spoke repeatedly about a convicted terrorist who is serving an 86-year prison sentence in the United States on terrorisms charges," the FBI said in a statement Sunday.

"This is a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted, and is being investigated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force," the agency added. "Preventing acts of terrorism and violence is the number one priority of the FBI. Due to the continuing investigation we are unable to provide more details at this time."

Multiple law enforcement sources told ABC News that the suspect was demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, who is incarcerated at Carswell Air Force Base near Fort Worth, about 16 miles southwest of Colleyville. Siddiqui, who has alleged ties to al-Qaida, was sentenced to 86 years in prison after being convicted of assault as well as attempted murder of an American soldier in 2010.

One hostage was released uninjured at around 5 p.m. CT on Saturday. The standoff ended hours later, when Cytron-Walker and the other two hostages executed an escape plan that included Cytron-Walker throwing a chair at the suspect and bolting to an exit door with his fellow hostages, the rabbi told CBS News.

Law enforcement sources also told ABC News that after arriving in the United States, Akram stayed at homeless shelters at various points and may have portrayed himself as experiencing homelessness in order to gain access to the Texas synagogue during Shabbat services, sources said.

Biden told reporters Sunday that he was briefed on the incident at the Texas synagogue by Attorney General Merrick Garland. Biden confirmed that the suspect had only been in the country for a couple of weeks and spent at least one night in a homeless shelter.

Bide said investigators suspect Akham purchased a gun on the street. While Akham is alleged to have claimed he had bombs, investigators have found no evidence that he was in possession of explosives, according to Biden.

"This was an act of terror," Biden said.

ABC News' Luke Barr, Meredith Deliso, Bill Hutchinson, Aaron Katersky and Josh Margolin contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


North Korea launches fourth missile test in two weeks

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

(SEOUL, South Korea) -- North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles toward the East Sea Monday morning, its fourth test in less than a month.

“South Korea’s military detected two projectiles believed to be short-range ballistic missiles launched into the East Sea to the northeast from the Sunan Airfield in Pyongyang, North Korea, around 08:50 a.m. and 08:54 a.m.,” South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff told reporters Monday.

The missiles traveled about 236 miles and reached an altitude of about 26 miles, said South Korea’s military, which was analyzing details of the launch.

It was the fourth missile launch this year, following two self-claimed hypersonic missile tests on Jan. 5 and Jan. 11 and last Friday’s short-range ballistic missile that the secluded regime’s state news agency, KCNA, claimed was launched from a rail car.

Pyongyang’s consecutive showcases of its military capabilities came as the United States discussed sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear program.

“North Korea probably believes they pulled out a response from the U.S. by firing hypersonic missiles in the new year because the U.S. acted with new sanctions,” Moon Keun-sik, a military expert at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, told ABC News. “North Korea claims that ballistic missile test-launch is a part of the training, but it also acknowledges that their action is a UN violation.”

North Korea has said its weapons development is a rightful act of self-defense. The country blames the U.S. for escalated tensions.

“The DPRK's recent development of new-type weapon was just part of its efforts for modernizing its national defense capability. Nevertheless, the U.S. is intentionally escalating the situation even with the activation of independent sanctions, not content with referring the DPRK's just activity to the UN Security Council,” KCNA said on Friday, citing North Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson.

North Korea expressed open discontent about the sanctions imposed last Wednesday on North Korean individuals and entities who support the country's ballistic-missile program.

“We could say that the situation has escalated as the United States took out the sanctions card in response to North Korea's recent missile test launch,” Kim Yong-hyun, professor of North Korean studies at Seoul-based Dongguk University, told ABC News. “Through missile experiments, Kim Jong Un intends to highlight North Korea’s presence while the United States is mainly taking care of Ukraine issues, and at the same time maintain solidarity among their people.”

Some experts saw the recent tests as planned drills on North Korea’s side. Kim Jong Un announced at the 8th Party Congress in January 2021 that the country planned to strengthen its weapon systems, including hypersonic missiles.

“Pyongyang’s missile tests will take rounds and rounds for the next three years, not mainly intended to send a political message, which is only part of the motivation,” Bong Young-shik of Yonsei University told ABC News. “It would be a mistaken belief to think that the North Korea military can be bought out with massive immediate concessions because North Korea is moving on its own schedule by military capability.”

Analysts in South Korea agreed that North Korea was following its own schedule to ramp up military capabilities in a time when there's a slim chance of negotiating with other countries in person.

“North Korea is in the direction of enhancing the technical completeness of their missile program and knocking on the United States, trying to persuade them they should reach out to North Korea in any way,” Kim told ABC News.

It isn’t the first time North Korea has scaled up in its weapons experiments. Back in 2019, North Korea fired over 20 short-range ballistic missiles between May and November.

ABC News' Chae Young Oh contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Senior citizens go digital as Korea moves toward contact-free culture

ABC News

(SEOUL, South Korea) -- Jae-Yeol Tae recalls the time he broke into a cold sweat after noticing a long line behind him as he struggled to order a hamburger on a local fast-food restaurant's self-order kiosk.

“I kept reading the instructions on the kiosk, but they were difficult to follow. I asked for help from an employee, but she flat-out rejected me and told me to use the machine,” Tae, 78, said. “But now that I’ve practiced how to use a kiosk many times, I have no problem ordering a burger or fries on my own.”

The South Korean senior is not the only one who has felt powerless and at the mercy of such self-serve digital kiosk machines. Adults ages 65 and older have enrolled in the senior digital education program at Seoul-based Seocho Joongang Senior Welfare Center to learn how to use the devices in this modern digital era.

Seocho District’s senior community center has been providing digital education classes and resources for willing seniors over the past two years. Since September 2019, more than 1,500 senior citizens have learned how to use digital machines and devices like self-serve kiosks through the program.

The educational kiosks at the welfare center provide various scenarios for the students to practice real-life simulations. The scenarios are divided into nine different themes, which range from purchasing tickets at movie theaters, airports and bus terminals to ordering food at fast-food restaurants and cafes.

“We’ve significantly expanded educational programs focused on maneuvering digital devices to help better the livelihood of senior citizens since the start of the pandemic,” Yu-rim Kang, 25, a social worker at the welfare center who guides seniors in more active digital use, told ABC News. “Elders often have a hard time in public places due to the sudden shift towards a more contact-free culture.”

After two years of enduring the pandemic, a large number of restaurants and stores have adopted self-service electronic kiosks as alternatives to keep personnel costs down while continuing to keep their businesses running. The size of the domestic kiosk market is expected to grow 5.7% annually by 2023, according to the report from Shinhan Investment Corporation.

Digital education for senior citizens has become a necessity as South Korea continues to accelerate the digitization of its public sectors in accordance with the nation’s pandemic regulations. Anyone who wants to enter any sort of public facility must check in using their personal QR code on their smartphones to provide proof of vaccination.

At the start of 2022, Seoul introduced the “cash-free bus” initiative designating 418 buses to only accept transportation cards or mobile tickets. The project offers passengers instant mobile tickets by scanning QR codes at bus stations, but it makes public transportation more complicated for less tech-savvy senior citizens who typically carry around cash only.

“I’d like to say if we senior citizens don’t want to fall way behind the rest of society, we need to be prepared for any future changes,” Hye-sook Park, a 74-year-old student who once had technophobia, told ABC News. “Don’t be afraid to try and learn new technologies.”

Seocho District’s senior community center is not the only one promoting digital education for older adults. In an effort to support digitally-isolated senior citizens and diversify accessibility to these programs, Seoul runs educational programs on various digital devices including smartphones, kiosks and even virtual reality sets.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government also recently announced that it will invest over $1.68 million to further expand education resources necessary for senior support.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


US accuses Russia of 'fabricating a pretext' to invade Ukraine

Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- After a week of high-stakes diplomacy, the U.S. on Friday accused Russia of "fabricating a pretext" to invade its neighbor Ukraine.

It's another sign that the "drumbeats of war" are getting louder, in the words of one U.S. ambassador, after three key meetings this week to defuse tensions raised by Russia massing approximately 100,000 troops on its borders with Ukraine.

But whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will act on a long-held desire to consume Ukraine, or whether his posturing is a bluff to strengthen Moscow's hand and therefore its influence, is still an open question, according to senior U.S. officials.

A "massive" cyberattack against Ukrainian government sites on Friday sparked new fears that the very kind of sabotage plot that U.S. officials have described could already be underway.

"Russia is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion, including through sabotage activities and information operations, by accusing Ukraine of preparing an imminent attack against Russian forces in eastern Ukraine," a U.S. official said Friday.

U.S. intelligence has "information that indicates Russia has already prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine," the official added, saying the group was trained in urban warfare and the use of explosives.

The alleged plot would begin several weeks before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which he attacked in 2014 by annexing Crimea and fomenting a war in its eastern provinces known as Donbas. That conflict has killed as many as 14,000 people in the last eight years, with artillery and sniper fire still exchanged weekly between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-led separatists.

Not long after, White House press secretary Jen Psaki spelled out the U.S. accusations in public.

"We are concerned that the Russian government is preparing for an invasion in Ukraine that may result in widespread human rights violations and war crimes, should diplomacy fail to meet their objectives," Psaki told reporters at her daily briefing. "As part of its plans, Russia is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion, and we've seen this before.

She repeated the U.S. official's assertion that Russian action could occur sometime between the middle of this month and mid-February.

"We have information that indicates Russia has already pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine," Psaki continued. "The operatives are trained in urban warfare and in using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia's own proxy forces. Our information also indicates that Russian influence actors are already starting to fabricate Ukrainian provocations in state and social media to justify a Russian intervention and sew divisions in Ukraine."

The Kremlin dismissed the accusations, saying no proof has been presented.

"All these statements still have just the character of hearsay and haven't been confirmed by anything," spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the state news agency TASS.

The buildup since last fall of nearly 100,000 Russian forces, with potential plans for as many as 175,000, according to U.S. officials, has heightened fears of a full-scale invasion or new attack. In addition to the troops, Russia has stationed artillery systems and electronic warfare systems, according to U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, Michael Carpenter.

"The drumbeat of war is sounding loud, and the rhetoric has gotten rather shrill," Carpenter said Thursday after the third and last round of talks with Russia. "We have to prepare for the eventuality that there could be an escalation."

That rhetoric - accusing Ukraine of abusing human rights and increasing belligerence - has dominated on Russia-language social media, according to the U.S. official. In December, it increased roughly 200 percent to nearly 3,500 posts per day, they said, in order "to justify a Russian intervention and sow divisions in Ukraine."

That appeared to include a "massive" cyberattack against Ukrainian government sites on Friday. Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said theirs and other sites were temporarily down, with a message posted on the site by the attackers, address to "Ukrainians!"

"All your information will become public, be afraid and expect the worst. This is for your past, present and future," it said in part.

Andrei Yermark, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said later Friday that approximately 90 percent of sites have been restored and that critical infrastructure was not affected.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, and Yermak said the country's security service was investigating now.

"Of course, we have some thoughts," he added, saying this kind of attack was "one of the potential parts of the destabilization" that officials have warned about.

With partners like the U.S. and the U.K., "We will be ready to answer to this attack and continue to work with our partners to protect," he said.

Psaki said President Joe Biden was briefed about the cyberattack against Ukrainian government sites, but held back from naming who might be behind it.

"We don't have attribution at this time, and I can't point to any more specifics … I would just note that we will take necessary and proper steps, of course, to defend our allies, support our partners, and support the Ukrainian people, but we're still assessing that at this point in time," she said.

ABC News' Justin Gomez and Patrick Reevell contributed to this report.

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Ukraine says 'massive cyberattack' hits government websites

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(LONDON) -- Ukraine said Friday a “massive cyber attack” has knocked offline the websites of most of its government ministries.

The websites of the government’s cabinet office, the foreign ministry, emergency services minister, as well as the ministries of energy, education, agriculture and several others, were down on Friday, according to Ukrainian media. The country’s public services platform Diia, which holds Ukrainians’ tax numbers and COVID-19 vaccination certificates, was also hit.

A message was posted on the targeted websites reading, “Ukrainians! All your personal data will be uploaded onto the general web. All data on your computer will be destroyed, it will be impossible to restore them. All your information will become public, be afraid and expect the worse. This is for your past, present and future.”

Ukraine’s government has not said who is behind the attack. It comes amid fears of a Russian invasion of the country, as Moscow has massed around 100,000 soldiers at the border, and follows warnings from Ukraine and the United States that Russia might launch cyberattacks amid the tensions.

A day earlier, talks between Moscow and NATO countries aimed at averting a possible Russian military attack concluded with no progress, with Russia saying they were reaching a “dead-end.”

Ukraine’s government did not say whether the attack had caused damage beyond taking down the websites.

“As a result of a massive cyber attack, the websites of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a number of other government agencies are temporarily down,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry said. “Our specialists are already working on restoring the work of IT systems, and the cyber police opened an investigation.”

The message posted on the affected websites included a list of historical grievances.

“This is for your past, present and future. For Volyn, for the OUN UPA [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists/Ukrainian Insurgent Army], for Halychyna, for Polissya and for historical lands,” it read.

The two groups named in the post refer to Ukrainian nationalist partisan fighters that collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War. Russia frequently accuses Kyiv’s government of embracing fascist groups.

On Friday, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, Josep Borrell, said the bloc’s political and social committees as well as its cyber units would meet to try to assist Ukraine.

“We are going to mobilize all our resources to help Ukraine to tackle this cyberattack. Sadly, we knew it could happen,” Borrell was quoted as saying by Reuters at an E.U. foreign ministers meeting in Brest, France. “It’s difficult to say [who is behind it]. I can’t blame anybody as I have no proof, but we can imagine.”

Russian officials on Thursday suggested the talks with the U.S. and NATO countries this week were at an impasse, since Western countries are refusing to accept Moscow’s key demands for binding guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO and that the alliance pull back troops from eastern European countries that joined after the Cold War. The U.S. and NATO have rejected those demands as “non-starters.”

Russia’s lead negotiator, deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov, on Thursday said he saw no grounds for more talks in the near future as long as the U.S. and NATO were refusing Moscow’s key demands.

But Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has said the country will now wait for written responses from the U.S. and NATO, which it expects next week, before deciding next steps.

Russia has denied it has any plans to attack Ukraine. It warned that if the U.S. and NATO fail to give security guarantees, it will take alternative measures that will have unspecified consequences for European security.

Lavrov on Friday told reporters that Russia would not wait endlessly for the U.S. to accept Russia’s security demands on NATO.

“Our patience is at an end,” he said at a pre-scheduled press conference in Moscow

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North Korea test-fires missile for third time in 2022 alone

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(SEOUL, South Korea) -- North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles toward the East Sea Friday afternoon, three days after the regime claimed a successful launch of a newly developed hypersonic missile.

“South Korean military detected two projectiles believed to be short-range ballistic missiles fired northeast towards the East Sea from Uiju, North Pyonganbuk-do,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters Friday.

Pyongyang has tested its missile capabilities three times this month. On Wednesday, North Korea’s state media, Korean Central News Agency, hyped the test-fire of the claimed hypersonic missile by reporting that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspected the launch himself.

North Korea’s show of force took place on the same day the regime expressed discontent over new sanctions implemented by the U.S.

"If the U.S. adopts such a confrontational stance, the DPRK will be forced to take a stronger and certain reaction to it," a North Korean foreign ministry spokesperson said in a statement.

Cheong Seong-Chang of Seoul-based Sejong Institute said these missile launches were an expression of frustration over U.S. sanctions on the regime’s mass destruction weapons and ballistic missile programs.

“Considering that North Korea has been testing new weapons at dawn or early morning, it's reasonable to assume that North's missile test launch this afternoon was improvised to showcase backlash against the U.S. sanctions,” he told ABC News.

Shin Beom Chul, a researcher at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, saw the consecutive missile launches as an effort to gain more bargaining chips by North Korea.

“Considering that political dialogue is restricted due to COVID-19 at the moment, it seems North Korea intends to strengthen its nuclear capabilities in the meantime,” Shin told ABC News. “At the same time, this consecutive military provocation has more than one purpose – to neutralize the U.S. efforts with stronger sanctions and also to secure the status of a de facto nuclear powerhouse.”

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Teachers in France strike over COVID-19 health and safety protocols

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(NEW YORK) -- A nationwide strike took place in schools across France on Thursday as teachers and other school staff demonstrated against the government’s management of COVID-19 protocols in schools.

Teachers, other school staff and parents in the country have been complaining for months, saying the health protocols in schools are confusing and continually changing. The government changed the rules twice for schools in the past week.

They argued that they are facing the crisis with inapplicable measures, a growing work overload, teachers not being replaced when sick, no additional resources or staff to alleviate the issues and a lack of transparency from the education minister.

Teachers unions had called for a walkout to denounce the "indescribable mess" in schools as COVID-19 cases have surged and pharmacies have reported shortages of self-test kits since the beginning of the year.

The primary school teachers’ union, SNUipp-FSU, announced an estimated 75% participation rate among their ranks, and the secondary school union, SNES-FSU, said 62% mobilized. However, the Ministry of National Education claimed that 38.5% of primary school teachers and 23.7% of secondary school teachers participated.

“The teachers express their anger at this minister who does not hear them, who does not listen to what’s going on in the field, who does not listen to the distress present in schools and to all the possible dysfunctions, and above all a minister who addresses the press first before addressing the students," a SNUipp-FSU representative told ABC News. "And so, the teachers are very angry."

The leading parent association, the FCPE, also joined the movement in support of the teachers, and earlier this week called for a "white day" in schools, urging parents to keep their children at home Thursday.

FCPE co-president Nageate Belahcen said while the COVID-19 protocols look "pretty" on paper, there is "no pedagogical continuity."

"Nothing is put in place because the means are not there, and there are no substitute teachers," Belahcen told ABC News, adding that she is also concerned about exams occurring this year. "All this means that the parents are still very, very worried for the future of their children, for the well-being of their children, and above all, we cannot take this situation any longer."

For weeks now, education professionals have been asking Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer for more staff and reinforced measures -- including FFP2 masks for the teachers, CO2 sensors and air purifiers for classrooms -- to fight against the growing cases of COVID-19.

Blanquer has come under fire multiple times since the beginning of the pandemic due to concerns over the way he has handled the COVID-19 crisis.

“When will you present your resignation, Mr. Minister?" Sylvie Tolmont, a national assembly deputy from Sarthe, asked Tuesday during a government questioning session. This isn’t the first time his resignation has been asked for since he took office in 2017.

In a bid to appease the demonstrators, Prime Minister Jean Castex met with the unions Thursday evening, along with the health and education ministers.

After a discussion that lasted three hours, Blanquer announced he had agreed to some of the unions' requests, including the distribution of 5 million FFP2 masks to schools, the recruitment of 3,300 contractual substitute teachers and additional non-teaching and administrative staff.

There has been a similar dispute over health and safety in schools in the United States. After five days of canceled classes, the Chicago Teachers Union voted, with 56% in favor, to approve a COVID-19 agreement with Chicago Public Schools that included expanded testing, masks and a plan to shut down schools during outbreaks.

Thursday's strike was a "historic mobilization" for France, according to SNUipp-FSU, considering the number of strikers, the unity between teachers' unions and the fact that the FCPE participated as well.

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Egypt to mark centenary of Tutankhamun tomb discovery by inaugurating new, lavish museum

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images

(GIZA, Egypt) -- Sharm El-Sheikh -- Egypt said the best way to mark the centenary of Tutankhamun tomb's discovery would be inaugurating a new state-of-the-art museum later this year to house the ancient boy king's vast treasures.

The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), a mega project on the outskirts of the capital that Egypt said would be the biggest museum in the world dedicated to a single civilization, nears completion as the country applies the finishing touches ahead of its opening.

"If the coronavirus-related conditions are stable, then the (museum's) opening would be in the second half of the year," Egypt's antiquities and tourism minister Khaled el-Anany told ABC News on the sidelines of the World Youth Forum, an annual international youth conference that the country hosts in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.

"We will be ready by the middle of this year … but we want to make sure that our guests can arrive in large numbers. We aim to invite presidents and kings from all over the world," el-Anany said.

The nearly 480,000 square meter museum, which overlooks the famed Giza Pyramids, will hold more than 100,000 artifacts. About 5,000 belong to Tutankhamun, the famous 18th dynasty ruler who died at the age of 19 after a 10-year reign.

The Egyptian Museum, a 120-year-old red storied structure built in Cairo's central Tahrir square, housed less than 3,000 of those objects, including Tutankhamun's golden burial mask. Other artifacts were kept in the museum's storerooms.

However, a century after British archeologist Howard Carter discovered those treasures in Luxor's Valley of the Kings in 1922, they will be displayed in full for the first time when the Grand Egyptian Museum opens.

"The GEM is distinguished by its location, architecture and the full collection of Tutankhamun," el-Anany added.

"We are celebrating the 200-year anniversary of Egyptology and 100-year anniversary of Tutankhamun tomb's discovery in many parts of the world through Egyptian institutions. However, I believe that the best celebration of Tutankhamun would be opening the Grand Egyptian Museum," he said.

String of discoveries

Egypt made a string of discoveries over the past few years as it seeks to lure back tourists following the adverse effects of the political turmoil that followed the 2011 revolution and 2013 mass protests along with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The highlight of 2021, according to el-Anany, was the unearthing of a 3,000-year-old city in the southern province of Luxor, which Egypt had termed the "Lost Golden City." It dates back to the 18th-dynasty of King Amenhotep III, who ruled Egypt from 1391 till 1353 B.C.

Egypt also held two lavish ceremonies to transfer 22 mummies from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir to a newly-inaugurated museum in the old Islamic city of Fustat in a "royal procession" and to celebrate the opening of a 3,000-year-old sphinx-filled avenue in Luxor.

"The numbers of tourists were increasing last year until December when the new coronavirus variant emerged … we are in the recovery phase, but we hope there would be no more variants," El-Anany said.

El-Anany told ABC News that Egypt plans to announce another significant discovery in February or March, which he said will "capture the world's attention." However, he refused to disclose further details.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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