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(WASHINGTON) — After a spiraling descent into bloodshed in recent days, the U.S. is boosting its diplomatic efforts to halt the violence between Israeli security forces and Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group ruling Gaza.

President Joe Biden called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, vocally backing Israel's "right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory."

That unprecedented barrage of rockets, along with deadly Israeli airstrikes, have killed civilians caught in the crosshairs on both sides, while waves of Arab-Israeli street clashes are now rising within Israel itself -- a new threat of violence that could quickly worsen.

The Biden administration has consistently called on "both sides" to de-escalate, leading to criticism from American conservatives who accused Biden of not standing strongly enough with Israel and from American progressives who said the power dynamic is asymmetrical and Israel's response has been disproportionate.

Wading into those waters now is senior U.S. diplomat Hady Amr, who serves as deputy assistant secretary for Israeli and Palestinian affairs. Secretary of State Antony Blinken dispatched Amr to the region Wednesday to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials and urge de-escalation.

The death toll in Gaza has risen to 65 Palestinians, including 16 children, while at least 365 have been wounded, including 86 children, according to the Associated Press, citing the local health ministry. On the Israeli side, seven have been killed by rocket fire, including two children, while dozens have been wounded, as Hamas' rockets overwhelm Israel's Iron Dome defense system.

Breaking his silence on the issue, Biden told reporters Wednesday, "My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later."

A White House readout issued afterwards added that Biden "conveyed his unwavering support for Israel's security and for Israel's legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians." The brief statement made no mention of Palestinian civilian deaths or Israeli actions that helped to spark this round of clashes, like the potential evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem or the use of force against Muslims at the Temple Mount.

Earlier in the day, Blinken was more nuanced, condemning the barrage of rocket fire from Hamas, but adding that Israel has an "extra duty" to avoid civilian casualties and that Palestinians have a "right to safety and security."

He said that the U.S. is "deeply engaged across the board," including with Palestinian leadership and that the "most important thing now is for all sides to cease the violence, de-escalate and to try to move to calm."

To that end, he also spoke to Netanyahu Wednesday and "emphasized the need for Israelis and Palestinians to be able to live in safety and security, as well as enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and democracy," his spokesperson said.

Netanyahu thanked Blinken "for the American support of Israel's right to self-defense, which the Secretary reiterated during the call," according to an Israeli readout. The embattled prime minister has so far rejected calls for a ceasefire, saying Hamas must pay a price and vowing to expand the Israeli offensive.

Prior to Biden's call, critics, including Republican lawmakers and his predecessor Donald Trump, accused Biden of pulling back U.S. support for Israel.

"Hamas has watched Biden downgrade our relationship with Israel and then restore funding to the PA and the UN's most corrupt agency without reform. Now, they're testing him. While terrorist rockets rain down on Israeli civilians, Biden is nowhere to be found," tweeted Nikki Haley, Trump's United Nations ambassador.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Biden has been briefed daily and added Wednesday that senior U.S. officials have had more than 25 "high-level calls and meetings" with officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and key regional countries, including Qatar, Jordan and Egypt.

On Tuesday night, Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke to his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben Shabbat and to Egyptian officials, according to his spokesperson Emily Horne. Egypt historically has played the role of directly negotiating with Hamas, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization, and Sullivan and Egyptian officials "discussed steps to restore calm over the coming days and agreed to stay in close touch," according to Horne.

While the two countries have strong security relations, Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Tuesday that his government had tried to contact the Israeli Foreign Ministry, but had not received a response. Then on Wednesday, the two foreign ministers spoke.

Shoukry stressed "the need to stop Israeli attacks on Palestinian territories and the importance of working to spare the peoples of the region further escalation and any resorting to military means, stressing Egypt's keenness to stabilize the region on the basis of settling issues by diplomatic means and through negotiations."

While Biden seems reluctant to get involved, convincing Netanyahu to pull back may fall to the U.S. -- starting with Amr, who served in the Obama administration as deputy special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. While he is a senior diplomat, he's also the administration's only top official on this issue right now. There's no U.S. ambassador to Israel, let alone a Biden nominee; no special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian issues, even as Biden has appointed several other envoys; and no U.S. consul general in East Jerusalem, a role that Trump dissolved but historically was the top liaison to Palestinian leadership.

"The Biden administration cannot ignore this conflict. In the first four months of this administration, it's very clear that this issue was not a priority ... but it is irresponsible to step away from engaging in a meaningful way," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal advocacy group. "It leaves the conflict unattended and contributes heavily to the escalating tensions that can explode as they precisely have in the last 48 hours into violence."

The State Department has denied that the administration hasn't been engaged, instead blaming the fact that neither Israeli nor Palestinian leadership has been willing to engage in peace negotiations.

"We're just not in a position to see meaningful progress, and our policy has recognized that," spokesperson Ned Price said Monday.

Price's comments have sparked some anger on the left, including from Democratic lawmakers including Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman and Ilhan Omar.

After he equivocated on issues like the Palestinians' right to defense and the asymmetrical levels of strength between the two sides, Omar, D-Minn., tweeted Monday, "This unsurprising response is devoid of empathy and concern for human suffering. He can't even condemn the killing of children."

Price later cited the early nature of reports and said the administration wouldn't speak until there was confirmation on the ground. But he and Blinken have changed their tone slightly to more vocally defend Palestinian civilians, even as they condemn Hamas' rocket attacks.

Asked about the proportionality of Israel's response Wednesday, Blinken said there was a "very clear and absolute distinction" between Hamas "targeting civilians and Israel's response defending itself." But he added that civilian casualties in Gaza have "a powerful impact, and I think Israel has an extra burden in trying to do everything it possibly can to avoid civilian casualties."

ABC News' Hatem Maher in Cairo and Ben Gittleson and Karen Travers at the White House contributed to this report.

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SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Tensions in the Middle East have risen to new heights as deadly confrontations continued unabated Wednesday between Israel's military and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group ruling the Gaza Strip.

The Israel Defense Forces said on Twitter early Wednesday that Hamas and other militant groups had fired more than 1,000 rockets into central and southern Israel over the past two days, targeting cities including Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beersheba, Tel Aviv and the capital, Jerusalem.

In response, the Israel Defense Forces unleashed hundreds of airstrikes aimed at what it said were Hamas and other terror targets in the Gaza Strip, where two million Palestinians have lived under a blockade imposed by neighboring Israel and Egypt since Hamas took control of the 140-square-mile territory in 2007.

The civilian death toll has been increasing on both sides. At least 53 people, including 14 children and three women, have been killed in the Gaza Strip since the violence escalated Monday, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Another 320 people have been wounded there, including 86 children and 39 women.

In Israel, at least six people, including three women and a child, have been killed by rocket fire, while 46 others have been injured, according to Israeli emergency services.

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed that its fighter jets had struck two civilian buildings used by Hamas, one as a weapons storage and another for the group's intelligence unit. The Israel Defense Forces said it warned residents to leave the area before striking the targets.

The strikes killed "a number of senior commanders" who "were a key part of the Hamas 'General Staff' and are considered close to the head of the Hamas military wing," the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement Wednesday, without providing the name of those who were killed.

Hamas confirmed that its Gaza City commander Bassem Issa was killed in a strike Wednesday. The armed wing of Hamas said in a statement that Issa was killed "along with a few of his fellow brothers of leaders and holy fighters."

Among the dead was Israel Defense Forces Staff Sgt. Omer Tabib, who was killed by one of Hamas' missiles on Wednesday morning. He's the first Israeli soldier to die in the ongoing violence. Two other soldiers were injured in the missile attack, according to a statement from Israel Defense Forces.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to continue the retaliatory attacks.

"Hamas and Islamic Jihad have paid and I tell you here, they will pay a very heavy price for their aggression. I say here tonight, they signed their death warrants," Netanyahu said in a televised statement Tuesday evening. "We continue to attack with all our might."

Hamas began firing a barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip on Monday evening, and the situation quickly escalated. The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement on its website that at least seven of those rockets were fired toward Jerusalem. Israel's sophisticated air defense system, known as the Iron Dome, has intercepted hundreds of rockets since Monday, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

"We will do what is right to ensure the security of Israel," Nadav Argaman, the head of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security agency, said during a press conference Tuesday.

Hamas’ exiled leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said the group has "defended Jerusalem" and that Israel bears responsibility.

"It's the Israeli occupation that set Jerusalem on fire, and the flames reached Gaza," Haniyeh said during a televised speech Tuesday.

The fighting marks the worst outbreak of violence between Israeli forces and Hamas since a 50-day war in the summer of 2014. Israel Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the conflict is far from over.

"This is just the beginning," Gantz said during a press conference Tuesday. "[We] will restore security and we will do it for the long term."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken to leaders on both sides and called for an end to the violence, according to U.S. Department of State spokesperson Ned Price.

"Israel has the right to defend itself and to respond to rocket attacks. The Palestinian people also have the right to safety and security, just as Israelis do," Price said in prepared remarks at the start of Tuesday's press briefing. "The United States will continue to remain engaged with senior Israeli officials and Palestinian leadership in the days and weeks ahead."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki condemned the ongoing rocket attacks by Hamas and other groups but said the United States also continues to support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would create an independent Israel and Palestine. Israel and the United States both consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

"We believe Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measures of freedom, security, dignity and prosperity," Psaki told reporters at a press briefing Tuesday. "And U.S. officials, in recent weeks, have spoken candidly with Israeli officials about how evictions of Palestinian families who have lived for years, sometimes decades, in their homes and of demolitions of these homes work against our common interests in achieving a solution to the conflict."

The violence follows last weekend's clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in east Jerusalem outside the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Hundreds of people were injured after Israeli officers fired tear gas and stun grenades at Palestinian demonstrators who hurled rocks and chairs. The clashes came as Israelis marked Jerusalem Day last Sunday, a national holiday commemorating when Israel captured the eastern part of the city from Jordan during the 1967 war.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has raged on for decades. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were displaced from their homes in what is now Israel during a war that accompanied the country's creation in 1948. Some Palestinian refugees were rehoused in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem by the Jordanian government in the 1950s -- before Israel took control of the area. Now, those families are facing possible eviction from land that Jewish settlers claim they lost to Arabs during the 1948 war. Israeli law allows citizens to take back such land, but it does not allow Palestinians to do the same.

Tensions have been rising over a prospective court ruling on the evictions, which was delayed on Monday.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



(NEW YORK) -- As India, the second-most populous country in the world, grapples with a devastating second wave of COVID-19 infections that has pushed its health system to the brink of collapse, officials in Africa, the world's second-largest continent, are on high alert.

"What’s happening in India must not happen here," Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization's regional director for Africa, said at a virtual press briefing last Thursday. "If we prepare now, we will not pay the price later."

The more than 414,000 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 recorded in India last Thursday was the highest single-day count by any nation during the pandemic. But the alarming spike is a relatively new phenomenon there. Until late February, India was considered a success story, with experts surmising that declining infections might be due to the South Asian country's warm climate, young inhabitants and high population density. Now, India is the epicenter of the pandemic.

Africa, which has a comparable population size to India, has reported more than 4.6 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 124,000 deaths from the disease so far, representing just under 3% of the world's cases and less than 4% of the fatalities, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University and the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Overall, cases and deaths have been trending downward in Africa since peaking in mid-January. But countries across the continent continue to report sustained transmission and increases in some areas as new, more contagious variants of the virus make inroads, according to the WHO. Meanwhile, African countries are slipping behind the rest of the world in vaccine rollouts, with immunization campaigns heavily dependent on a global vaccine-sharing alliance known as COVAX, whose main supplier is the Serum Institute of India, the world's largest vaccine manufacturer.

The Serum Institute of India, which makes the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, paused exports in March to battle India's worsening outbreak at home. Some 140 million Africa-bound doses that were supposed to be delivered through COVAX this spring have been delayed for the foreseeable future. Africa CDC data shows that under 2% of the continent's population has received the first or second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine so far -- that’s only about 1% of doses administered worldwide, according to the WHO.

ABC News spoke with experts about three African countries that have had different approaches to COVID-19 and face distinct challenges with their response efforts and vaccination campaigns. All agreed that India's crisis could be a harbinger of what could befall Africa, where many nations have fragile health systems and depend on aid.

"There is major concern that what is going on in India could easily happen in Africa," said Dr. Bertha Serwa Ayi, a consultant in infectious diseases at Essentia Health West in Fargo, North Dakota, who is also a member of the case management technical group of the Africa CDC's task force on COVID-19.

While Ayi acknowledged that "Africa has been a leader" in "COVID-19 management, oversight and control," she said things could take a turn.

"It's like a bus at the edge of a cliff," she added. "Everybody's doing what they can to really hold the fort and make sure Africa doesn't become a situation like what's going on in India. But I think the potential is not lost on anyone."

South Africa: The continent's hardest-hit country trying to fend off a third wave

South Africa doesn't have to look to India as a cautionary tale. The 59-million-strong nation arguably went through an India-like second wave of COVID-19 infections earlier this year. At its January peak, South Africa was reporting more cases per million people on average than India is currently reporting, according to data collected by Our World in Data.

South Africa is also the hardest-hit country in Africa by far, with more than 1.5 million confirmed cases and over 54,000 deaths, accounting for almost 35% of the continent’s infections and nearly 44% of the fatalities, according to Africa CDC data.

"We had a devastating second wave," said Dr. Richard Lessells, an infectious disease expert at Kwazulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) in Durban, where he researches the virus variant first identified in South Africa.

Although daily new infections in South Africa have fallen from nearly 22,000 in mid-January to around 2,000, the country -- as well as the greater southern Africa region -- is bracing for a third and potentially more severe wave with the start of winter season in June.

"We are concerned about the South African winter coming in," Moeti told reporters during the WHO press briefing last Thursday.

Lessells said he was less worried about winter and more concerned about complacency among South Africans with regard to public health measures, such as mask wearing and social distancing.

"We get lulled into this strange false sense of security,” he told ABC News. “We go through these devastating waves and then, partly because people don't understand the dynamics of an epidemic and why these waves contract, they think we're through the worst of it."

But while South Africa's second wave rivaled India's in terms of official infections per capita and mortality, India's health system is collapsing to an extent that South Africa's did not. Experts also said the real number of infections and deaths in India are likely far higher than the official reported numbers.

"Of course, eyes are on South Africa," Ayi told ABC News, "but they also have the hospital capacity and laboratory infrastructure to be able to hold things together."

While Lessells described South Africa's health system as "severely strained" during its second wave, pandemic preparedness and planning enabled the country to largely avoid the oxygen shortages India faces.

But health care quality and access isn't equal across South Africa. In addition to disparities between public and private hospitals, urban cities are better equipped to handle outbreaks than rural communities, and a third wave could potentially overwhelm outlying areas with weaker health infrastructure. Solely looking at metropolitan regions might give the impression South Africa is doing well, explained Dr. Jeffrey Mphahlele, a virologist and vice president for research at the South African Medical Research Council in Cape Town.

On the outskirts and in rural areas, "you see a different world of South Africa," Mphahlele said.

While many countries rich enough to buy or develop and manufacture vaccines have embarked on robust immunization campaigns to stem infection rates, South Africa's has barely begun, despite being well-positioned to do so financially and in terms of manufacturing.

In early February, South Africa halted its Oxford/AstraZeneca rollout over concerns the shot was less effective against the B.1.351 variant, the dominant virus strain there, and the government ultimately sold those doses to the Africa Union. Then in late April, the country's rollout of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was temporarily suspended while the United States investigated a link to rare blood clots.

Eschewing the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot means South Africa isn't affected by India’s ban on vaccine exports, but switching immunization plans severely delayed its rollout. Less than 1% of people in South Africa have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Africa CDC data.

For months, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has called on wealthy countries to share their excess doses with countries that need them. He doubled down on that perspective in his weekly newsletter to the nation on Monday, calling vaccines a global public good that should be available for all, not just the highest bidder.

"A situation in which the populations of advanced, rich countries are safely inoculated while millions in poorer countries die in the queue would be tantamount to vaccine apartheid," Ramaphosa wrote.

Ghana: After early COVID-19 success, vigilance wanes

Ghana was heralded as a success story in Africa and around the world early in the pandemic. It was the first country on the continent to announce a lockdown last year and has since been praised for its aggressive testing, contact tracing and strong leadership. To date, the West African nation of 30 million people has conducted more than 1.1 million COVID-19 tests and has confirmed over 93,000 cases and at least 783 deaths, according to Africa CDC data.

In late February, Ghana became the first country in the world to receive COVID-19 vaccine doses from COVAX. The rollout was launched a week later, with Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo receiving the first shot.

In an interview with CNN last week, Akufo-Addo said his country aims to vaccinate 20 million people -- effectively the entire adult population -- by the end of 2021, but he acknowledged that delays in receiving doses from COVAX "have been a little troublesome."

"The need for us to look to ourselves to find the ways of resolving our problems has been heightened, has been intensified by what has happened in this last year," Akufo-Addo told CNN. "We cannot depend on charity, we cannot depend on the generosity of foreigners."

Experts told ABC News that Ghana is now looking into other sources to acquire more doses, given the hold-up in India, and is also hoping to start manufacturing them.

"What they've done well right from the beginning is leadership engagement," said Ayi, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Health and Allied Sciences and the University of Development Studies’ School of Medicine and Health Sciences as well as a senior lecturer at Accra College of Medicine, all located in Ghana. “The [vaccine] rollout I think was excellent and superb.”

But others argued that the country’s COVID-19 response has been inconsistent. The Ghanian government allowed political rallies to be held during the December general election, in which Akufo-Addo was re-elected for a second term, and Johns Hopkins' data shows the country saw a surge in cases in the weeks after the vote. By the end of January, Ghana reported a record of more than 1,500 confirmed cases in a single day. In February, the Ghanaian parliament was forced to shut down for several weeks due to an outbreak among lawmakers and staff.

"We have been through a mini version of what India’s going through," said Nana Kofi Quakyi, a Ghana-based research fellow in the Department of Health Policy and Management at New York University's School of Global Public Health, where he is also a doctoral candidate.

Although the Ghanaian government has eased restrictions in recent months, including fully reopening schools, some establishments and venues remain closed and there are still restrictions on social gatherings. People are also required to wear face masks in public.

Quakyi, who has been living in Ghana’s capital for the past year but plans to return to New York City soon, said the enforcement and compliance of those measures is questionable as life has largely returned to normal from his viewpoint.

"We haven’t really seen much in the form of additional policy that would actually prevent the spread," he told ABC News. "If you were in Accra right now, you would not believe that there was COVID-19 here. There’s very low mask wearing, there is very little social distancing."

Ayi agreed that the vigilance surrounding mask wearing and social distancing "is gone."

"That needs to come back," she said.

Democratic Republic of the Congo: A surge in infections would be 'catastrophic'

With a population of 87 million in central Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has among the lowest COVID-19 infection and death rates on the continent but has conducted fewer than 200,000 tests. So far, the country has reported more than 30,000 confirmed cases and at least 775 deaths, according to Africa CDC data. Experts told ABC News that while the true numbers are likely higher than what's being reported, there's currently no indication of a significant outbreak.

The pandemic hit as Congolese health workers were still in the throes of the country's 10th outbreak of Ebola virus disease, one of the deadliest on record anywhere and the first to occur in an active conflict zone. Although the Democratic Republic of the Congo is now Ebola-free and has a wealth of experience combating infectious diseases, experts said the country's COVID-19 response is insufficiently funded and lacks community engagement.

"The Ebola response got a lot of money. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has not got enough money," said Dr. Deogratious Wonya'rossi, a Congolese public health physician and tropical diseases researcher who has been part of the Ebola response. "On the other hand, the country has a good number of experts who are capable to organize and implement the responses as they are still doing now."

Like many other African nations, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was quick to respond to the pandemic, with the government announcing a state of emergency in March of last year and closing borders, schools, restaurants and places of worship. Those measures helped prevent COVID-19 from spreading, experts said, but overall the poor health care infrastructure makes the country unprepared to deal with a potential surge as the government struggles to scale up medical services.

"If we have a major outbreak coming, it's going to be extremely difficult to handle," said Jean Metenier, senior coordinator for the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo at the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF).

Moreover, the country’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout hasn't gone smoothly. First, the Congolese government delayed rolling out 1.7 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine it received from COVAX in early March, after several European nations suspended use of the shots due to a link to rare blood clots. Then, after vaccinations began in late April, the government announced that it would redeploy 1.3 million of those doses to other African countries, including Ghana, which had already used up its initial supply. The government said it wouldn't be able to administer the doses before they expired on June 24 and that some people were simply refusing to get the shot.

"We have seen a surge in terms of vaccine hesitancy, particularly in urban areas where there's high penetration of social media," Dr. Richard Mihigo, immunization and vaccine development program coordinator at the WHO's regional office for Africa, told reporters during the press briefing last Thursday. "We are watching the situation in DRC quite very carefully."

Experts told ABC News that vaccine hesitancy is nothing new in the Democratic Republic of the Congo but has been exacerbated by the bad press surrounding the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot. A recent online survey of more than 4,100 people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo found that 24% of respondents were convinced COVID-19 did not exist, with just over 55% indicating they were willing to be vaccinated.

"This is where risk communication at the community level is important," said Tolbert Nyenswah, a senior research associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who was Liberia's deputy minister of health for disease surveillance and epidemic control from 2015 to 2017 during the Ebola outbreak across West Africa.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca shot, which is cheaper than others and can be stored at normal fridge temperatures as opposed to requiring ultra-cold storage, is currently the only COVID-19 vaccine available in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Last month, the AU announced the launch of a partnership to manufacture vaccines at five research centers to be built across the continent within the next 15 years, with a goal of locally producing 60% of all vaccines used in Africa within 20 years -- compared with 1% today. Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, who is the current AU chair, said the initiative "will not just fight against COVID-19 but see the establishment of vaccine production for known illnesses and prepare for future epidemics and pandemics."

Meanwhile, a new virus variant first identified in India has since been detected in at least three African nations, including Uganda, which shares a border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On Monday, the WHO upped its classification of the B.1.617 strain from a "variant of interest" to a "variant of concern," noting that preliminary studies indicate it may be more transmissible than other variants.

"I am very, very worried with the fact that the Indian variant may be at the door of the DRC," Metenier told ABC News.

Nyenswah said it would be "catastrophic" if the Democratic Republic of the Congo saw a surge in COVID-19 infections.

"Amidst the many Ebola outbreaks, internal conflicts and health system challenges," he added, "the authorities there need to think beyond twice before giving up life-saving shots."

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Alexey Nasyrov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

(MOSCOW) -- At least seven children and two adults have been killed and around 20 more injured in a mass shooting at a school in the Russian city of Kazan.

A gunman attacked school no. 175 in the city, about 500 miles east of Moscow, on Tuesday morning while hundreds of children were in classes. Armed with a semi-automatic shotgun and explosives, the attacker forced his way into the building and made his way to classrooms and opened fire on eight graders there, according to police.

Heavily armed police stormed the school and detained the alleged shooter, identified as a 19-year-old man.

Videos from the scene showed terrified children trying to flee the school building, with some jumping out of high windows as the sound of gun shots rang out. Emergency services helped others to climb down ladders. Other videos showed children lying in grass near the school covered in blood.

"It's a great tragedy. We have lost seven children -- four boys, three girls. They died here on the third floor," Tatarstan's president, Rustam Minnikhanov, told reporters standing outside the school following the shooting. He said two female teachers at the school were also killed.

The seven children killed were eighth graders. At least 21 people were hospitalized, 18 of them children, and six are in critical condition, according to regional health authorities. Most of the children are between the ages of 7 and 15.

Children at the school described to Russian media how they locked themselves in their classrooms on the third floor after hearing explosions and gunfire. In several accounts, students said the gunman tried to break down the doors to get to them.

"He sort of started to smash the door," a pupil, identified as Adelya, told the Russian news site Media.Zona. "Then the police came into the corridor. He ran and started shooting, and a bullet hit our door."

Authorities identified the attacker as Ilnaz Galyaviyev, a resident of Kazan and according to local media a former pupil at the school. There were early conflicting reports suggesting two gunmen were present at the attack, but local authorities have since said he acted alone.

Russian media have found a channel on the Telegram messenger purportedly created by the alleged shooter a few days before the attack. In photos posted on the channel, a man poses in a long, dark coat and a mask with the word "God" written in Russian on it. In the posts, the alleged gunman refers to himself as a "god" and threatened mass killings in the near future.

After police said they had detained the shooter, local media posted a video purporting to show Galyaviyev's interrogation by police. In the video, a young man, shirtless and tied by his arms and legs to a cage, screams at an officer that he has realised he "is a god" and that he "hates everyone."

Galyaviyev until last month was a student at a college in Kazan but dropped out in April, the college told the Russian news site, RBC. He graduated from the school four years ago and had been studying programming at the college.

Russian officials said that Galyaviyev obtained a gun license last month, using it to buy the semi-automatic shotgun used in the attack.

Although in recent years there have been a series of deadly attacks at schools by students in Russia, mass school shootings of the sort seen in the United States are rare and this is already one of the most deadly. In 2018, an 18-year-old killed 20 people and injured dozens more before killing himself at a school in Kerch in Crimea.

President Vladimir Putin expressed condolences to the victims on Monday and immediately ordered authorities to tighten up gun regulations.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had ordered the head of Russia's National Guard that oversees gun ownership to develop new rules for the type of weapons civilians are permitted to possess. Peskov said the change was needed to address to assault weapons sometimes being improperly classed as hunting rifles.

Following Putin's order, Russia's National Guard quickly said it would develop new rules in coordination with other government bodies and the head of Russia's parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, said it would meet next week to discuss measures for tougher controls, including ensuring stricter background checks. Volodin also said the parliament should discuss whether anonymity on the internet now ought to be restricted.

Tatiana Moskalkova, Russia's human rights ombudswoman, called for the age for purchasing firearms to be raised from 18 to 21, except for those with military experience.

Russia has fairly tough gun laws, requiring potential owners to take classes and pass a series of tests, including medical and psychological examinations, before they can receive a license to buy smoothbore guns, such as shotguns. To buy a rifle requires another five-year waiting period following that.

After the 2018 Kerch school shooting, Putin also ordered the National Guard to tighten firearm rules. But since then, proposed plans -- including to have gun owners inform the guard of their location within three days if they travel with their weapons -- have stalled and little has changed, according to the Russian news sites Meduza and Kommersant.

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(LONDON) -- Queen Elizabeth stepped out Tuesday for her first public engagement outside of Windsor Castle since the death last month of Prince Philip, her husband of 73 years.

The queen opened the United Kingdom's parliament with a speech, performing a ceremonial duty in her role as head of state.

Queen Elizabeth, who turned 95 on April 21, wore a lavender day dress and a hat for her speech, forgoing the full ceremonial dress and crown for this year's state opening, which featured fewer ceremonial elements and attendees due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Imperial State Crown, signifying the queen as Head of State, sat on a table next to the queen as she delivered her speech, which laid out the U.K.'s government's priorities for the coming months, including a post-pandemic recovery effort.

Queen Elizabeth was accompanied at parliament by her son and heir, Prince Charles, and his wife Camilla, the duchess of Cornwall, both of whom sat directly next to the queen.

Prince Charles has accompanied the queen for the last three state openings of parliament. There was no state opening last year due to the pandemic.

The engagement was the first time Charles has been seen publicly with the queen since last month, when the royal family gathered at Windsor Castle for Prince Philip's funeral.

After a two-week period of mourning, Queen Elizabeth officially returned to work on April 27, holding virtual audiences with two incoming ambassadors to the U.K.

Just a few days earlier, the queen celebrated her 95th birthday in private at Windsor Castle, where she has stayed through most of the pandemic. She issued a very personal statement on her birthday, describing a "period of great sadness" for her family.

"I have, on the occasion of my 95th birthday today, received many messages of good wishes, which I very much appreciate," Queen Elizabeth said in the statement. "While as a family we are in a period of great sadness, it has been a comfort to us all to see and to hear the tributes paid to my husband, from those within the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and around the world."

"My family and I would like to thank you all for the support and kindness shown to us in recent days," she said. "We have been deeply touched, and continue to be reminded that Philip had such an extraordinary impact on countless people throughout his life."

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(JERUSALEM) -- At least seven of the more than 150 rockets launched by militant group Hamas on Monday targeted Jerusalem, according to Israel’s Defense Forces (IDF).

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that a line was crossed when rockets were launched from Gaza at Jerusalem.

“Israel will respond with great force. We will not tolerate attacks on our territory, on our capital, on our citizens and on our soldiers. Whoever attacks us will pay a heavy price,” said an official statement.

Israel retaliated within hours, carrying out airstrikes against a number of Hamas installations in Gaza, according to an announcement made by the Israeli military.

“In response to continuous rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory, over the past few hours, the IDF struck a number of terror targets belonging to the Hamas terror organization in the Gaza Strip,” said the IDF in a press release. “Among the targets are two rocket launchers, two military posts and eight terror operatives belonging to the Hamas terror organization in the Gaza strip were struck.”

The Palestinian Health Ministry told ABC News that 20 people were killed in the IDF attack, among them nine children, and at least 65 were wounded.

The rocket attacks from Gaza were in response to clashes earlier on Monday between Palestinians, who were protesting Palestinian housing evictions, and Israeli police near the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem -- known as the third-holiest site in Islam -- located on the Temple Mount.

The Israeli police said in a statement on Twitter that “at the end of the prayer on the Temple Mount, thousands of worshipers began to disturb the order, throwing stones and firing fireworks. Israeli police forces are operating at the scene and so far six policemen have been injured.”

The Palestinian Red Crescent reported 522 injured in the clashes with 333 requiring care at hospitals and clinics.

There is growing pressure from the Biden administration to address the new tensions between Israel and Palestinians which marked the first time since 2014 that Hamas has fired rockets towards Jerusalem.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the attacks during a press conference. He said they "need to stop immediately."

Spokesperson Ned Price of the U.S. State Department said Monday that although the U.S. has called for a de-escalation of violence, there is still a possibility that the attacks will continue.

"I don't want to speak to what would happen in the absence of de-escalation, but of course the possibility of additional violence, of extended violence is something we're concerned about," he said.

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U.S. Navy

(NEW YORK) -- A U.S. Coast Guard cutter fired 30 warning shots at two armed Iranian fast-attack boats on Monday after they approached American warships at a high rate of speed while transiting through the Strait of Hormuz, according to the U.S. Navy.

It is the second time in as many weeks that American ships have had to fire warning rounds at Iranian speedboats that engaged in what the Navy called "unsafe" and "unprofessional" behavior near the Persian Gulf.

The two Iranian boats were part of a larger group of 13 fast-attack boats from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) that made what the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet called "a high-speed approach" on six American ships.

At the time, the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey, patrol coastal ships USS Thunderbolt, USS Hurricane, USS Squall and Coast Guard patrol boats USCGC Wrangell and USCGC Maui were escorting the guided-missile submarine USS Georgia through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway separating the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.

"Two of the 13 IRGCN vessels broke away from the larger group, transited to the opposite side of the U.S. formation and approached Maui and Squall from behind at a high rate of speed (in excess of 32 knots) with their weapons uncovered and manned," according to a Navy statement. "The remaining 11 FIAC maintained position which places the formation of the U.S. ships in between the two IRGCN groups."

The crew of the Coast Guard cutter Maui fired two warning-shot volleys from its .50-caliber machine gun at the two speed boats after they ignored acoustic device warnings -- horn blasts and bridge-to-bridge radio communications from the American vessels.

The Iranian boats did not break away from the American ships until after a second volley of warning shots were fired as they approached to a distance of 150 yards and at a high rate of speed.

The Navy statement labeled the warning shots as "lawful de-escalatory measures."

At a briefing with reporters on Monday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby labeled the action by the Iranian boats as "unsafe" and "unprofessional" and "dangerous."

The Navy described the approach by the two Iranian boats to within 150 yards as "an unnecessarily close range that put the ships and their crews in immediate danger."

Monday's incident was the third close encounter between Iranian boats and American warships in the last five weeks.

Once a regular occurrence, Iran's harassment of American Navy ships in the Persian Gulf had ceased over the past year until an April 2 incident involving Iranian boats that swarmed two U.S. Coast Guard cutters.

The second incident on April 27 led the Navy patrol boat USS Firebolt to fire warning shots at three Iranian small boats that had closed to within 68 yards of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Baranoff.

U.S. Coast Guard ships have operated in the Persian Gulf since 2003 and fall under the control of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command's Task Force 55.

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(NEW YORK) -- The fate of coral reefs around the world remains grim should global warming continue at its current rate, according to new research.

Coral reefs will stop growing in the next decade or so unless a significant reduction in greenhouse gases is achieved, a new study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests.

A team of researchers led by Christopher Cornwall, a marine botanist at the Victoria University of Wellington in Australia, analyzed data from 183 reefs worldwide to estimate the effects of ocean warming and acidification, which are posing increasing threats to underwater ecosystems.

The calcifying coral reef taxa that constructs the calcium carbonate framework of the reef and cements it together are "highly sensitive" to ocean warming and acidification, the scientists said. Climate change affects both the abundance and the calcification rates, while ocean acidification, which is mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels, also reduces the calcification rates.

Under the worst case scenario presented by the researchers, 94% of all reefs could erode by 2050. Under other scenarios, declines are projected to be so severe that reef production will cease by 2100, the researchers said.

Geographic location also played a role in production declines, with reefs in the Pacific Ocean faring better than more degraded coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean, the researchers said.

The population declines are largely due to bleaching events, a process that occurs when water is too warm and the algae the corals expel from their tissues cause them to turn completely white.

The capacity for reef-building taxa to gain tolerance to marine heat waves and ongoing ocean warming and acidification over the coming decades is unknown, the scientists said.

If coral reefs stop growing, there would be negative effects on a vast array of biodiversity that reside in its ecosystems. The reefs also yield billions of dollars of revenue for fisheries and tourism around the world and protect tropical shorelines from hazards, such as storms, the researchers said.

Should sea levels continue to rise due to climate change, reefs will no longer be effective at protecting coastlines because the production will not be able to keep up with the amount of melting ice, Cornwall told ABC News.

"Our work highlights a grim picture for the future of coral reefs," Cornwall said in an email.

"Rapid reduction" of carbon dioxide emissions is necessary to protect coral reefs, according to the study's authors.

The findings highlight "the low likelihood that the world's coral reefs will maintain their functional roles without near-term stabilization of atmospheric CO2 emissions," the study states.

"The only hope for coral reef ecosystems to remain as close as possible to what they are now is to quickly and drastically reduce our CO2 emissions," Cornwall said. "If not, they will be dramatically altered and cease their ecological benefits as hotspots of biodiversity, sources of food and tourism, and their provision of shoreline protection."


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(NEW YORK) -- Germany's powerful Catholic progressives are offering to bless same sex unions in about 100 different churches all over Germany this week. The move is in direct defiance of a recent Holy See pronouncement that priests cannot bless gay unions.

The Vatican pronouncement was released in March and argued the decision was made because God "cannot bless sin."

Germany legalized same-sex marriage in 2017, and the country also banned the use of gay conversion therapy practices on people under age 18, according to the BBC.

Pope Francis, who has championed a more decentralized church structure, has already reminded the German hierarchy that it must remain in communion with Rome.

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(NEW YORK) -- Duchess Meghan made her first appearance since her bombshell interview with Oprah this past weekend.

In a pre-taped video that aired during Global Citizen's Vax Live: The Concert to Reunite the World event, she wore a floral print red and pink shirtdress by Carolina Herrera accompanied by a "Woman Power Charm" necklace by Awe.

The 14K gold necklace combines the female Venus symbol with a protesting fist. It also features a purple amethyst stone at the center -- symbolizing protection as well as abundance and enlightenment.

Additionally, 20% of each necklace purchase is being donated to help women in need.

Meghan's necklace symbolized her speech on women's empowerment. She spoke about being "thrilled" to be welcoming a daughter with Prince Harry.

"When we think of her, we think of all the young women and girls around the globe who must be given the ability and the support to lead us forward," she said.

She continued, "Their future leadership depends on the decisions we make and the actions we take now to set them up, and set all of us up, for a successful, equitable and compassionate tomorrow."

Harry, who was a campaign co-chair for the event along with Meghan, discussed misinformation about vaccines being magnified on social media and how it "exposes a collective threat to humanity."

The royal couple's baby girl is due to arrive this summer.

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ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- The parents of one of two Americans who were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the slaying of an Italian police officer have broken their silence for the first time since the verdict.

In an exclusive interview with ABC News airing Monday on Good Morning America, Ethan and Leah Elder said they are concerned about their son's mental health behind bars.

"We just want Finn to be able to survive this," Leah Elder said. "He has a noted history of attempted suicide, and we're really worried and really concerned. He was utterly devastated by the verdict, just devastated. It was completely unexpected for him."

When Elder's mother testified in court in Rome last December, she spoke of her son's suicide attempt at the Torpedo Wharf, a pier in San Francisco that sits at the mouth of the Golden Gate, the one-mile-wide strait connecting San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Leah Elder told ABC News that the court-appointed psychiatrist also noted other previous suicide attempts in his report on her son.

"He struggles with anxiety and depression, and his current situation is really perilous," she said.

Prosecutors alleged that Finnegan Lee Elder, then 19, and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, then 18, attacked two members of Italy's storied Carabinieri paramilitary police force on a street corner in Rome in the early morning hours of July 26, 2019, after a botched drug deal. Police said the teenagers, who are former classmates from the San Francisco area, were trying to buy drugs in Italy's capital but were sold a fake substance. They then allegedly robbed a man who had directed them to the drug dealer in the first place, stealing his backpack and demanding he pay them 100 euros and a gram of cocaine to get it back. The man agreed but, unbeknownst to them, he also contacted authorities, according to police.

Carabinieri Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega, 35, had just returned to duty from his honeymoon when he responded to the call with his partner at around 3 a.m. local time. Both officers were in plainclothes when they confronted the American tourists on a street near an upscale hotel in Rome where they were staying, according to police.

Elder testified that he and Natale-Hjorth were suddenly confronted by two men who they thought were drug dealers.

A scuffle ensued and Elder allegedly stabbed Cerciello Rega 11 times with a combat knife that he brought with him on his trip to Europe, while Natale-Hjorth allegedly punched Cerciello Rega's partner repeatedly, according to prosecutors.

A coroner concluded that Cerciello Rega bled to death. Italy mourned the newlywed policeman as a national hero.

Elder admitted to stabbing Cerciello Rega, but said he did it in self-defense because he feared that he was being strangled during the four-minute encounter.

Speaking to ABC News, Elder's parents described their son as "incredibly kind, incredibly sensitive" and "painfully honest."

"From the moment Finn was detained, he has not changed his version of that night one iota," Leah Elder said.

Police said Elder and Natale-Hjorth were captured on surveillance video fleeing the scene with the stolen backpack. The duo were tracked down at their hotel, a block away from the scene and near Rome's Tiber River. Police said they discovered the knife and blood-soaked clothes hidden in the ceiling of the teens' hotel room.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth were questioned by police for hours and, when "faced with overwhelming evidence, they confessed," according to the Provincial Command of Rome.

Natale-Hjorth testified that he hid the knife at Elder's request and that he didn't know his friend had the weapon on him prior to the stabbing.

In the days after the killing, Italian newspapers published a leaked photo of what appears to be Natale-Hjorth blindfolded and handcuffed while in custody, prompting questions about the pair's confessions. It is illegal to blindfold a suspect in Italy.

Elder's parents told ABC News that their son was "illegally interrogated" by police "without a lawyer present."

"We raised Finnegan as I’m sure many other parents do, to tell the truth and things will be okay," Ethan Elder said. "And part of his utter devastation at this verdict is he has told the truth from the very moment he was being illegally interrogated."

During a press conference in Rome on July 30, 2019, the Carabinieri commander told reporters that Cerciello Rega had "forgotten his gun" that fateful night, but there was still "no time" for the officers to react and the suspects then took off. Cerciello Rega's partner could not have used his weapon on the suspects as they fled because it's a serious crime and was trying to help the wounded officer, the commander said.

The murder trial ended last Wednesday. A jury convicted both Elder, now 21, and Natale-Hjorth, now 20, on all five identical charges and handed them life sentences, Italy's stiffest punishment. Under Italian law, an accomplice in an alleged murder can also be charged with murder even if they did not actually kill the victim.

Cerciello Rega’s widow, Rosa Maria Esilio, broke down in tears in the courtroom upon hearing the verdict.

Elder's parents said they were shocked that Natale-Hjorth was also charged with murder and received the same sentence.

"My heart breaks for that entire family," Leah Elder said.

Elder's parents said they feel their son's sentencing was too harsh, given his mental health issues and young age, and that they will appeal the "abhorrent decision."

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Latest update, 12:36 a.m.: The rocket has reentered Earth's atmosphere and fell into the Indian ocean north of the Maldives at latitude 22.2, longitude 50.0, according to an update from Space-Track.

Latest update, 11:45 p.m.: The rocket has reentered Earth's atmosphere, according to U.S. Space Command, which has been providing updates via Space-Track.

The Space Command said it believes the rocket splashed down in the Indian Ocean, but was waiting for official confirmation from 18 Space Control Squadron.

The official China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, meanwhile, said on Weibo it had reentered the Earth's atmosphere at 10:24 p.m. ET and provided coordinates: around 72.47° east longitude and 2.65° north latitude. Those coordinates would put it in the northern Indian Ocean, near the Maldives.

It said most of the rocket debris was "ablated and destroyed" during reentry.

Update, 8:24 p.m.: The reentry window has shifted to between 9:11 and 11:11 p.m. ET. Saturday, with the projected landing now in the Mediterranean Basin.

Update, 5:03 p.m. The latest data from the U.S. Space Force has narrowed the reentry window for the rocket body to just two hours: 9 to 11 p.m. ET.

Computer projections show that if the debris were to reenter the atmosphere at exactly 10:04 p.m. ET on Saturday, it likely would be over the northern Atlantic Ocean, though the location varies minute to minute.

Space Force won't know the precise landing location until after the rocket body has already landed, according to Space Track.

Predictions for when and where Chinese rocket debris hurtling toward Earth is expected to land are narrowing.

The section is part of a rocket called Chinese Long March 5B, which launched a module of the country's first permanent space station into orbit last week.

Officials have been tracking the rocket body's uncontrolled return to Earth for several days now, estimating when it might reenter the atmosphere.

The rocket body's reentry is currently projected at anywhere between 7:30 p.m. ET and 1:30 a.m. ET, according to the latest U.S. Space Force data.

The U.S. Space Force has projected four possible orbits for reentry in play -- three over water, one over land.

Potential landings over land are subject to change, but currently include the Southeastern U.S., Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, parts of Southern Europe, much of Northern and Central Africa, the Middle East, Southern India and Australia.

Since the rocket section is moving at 18,000 mph, experts won't be able to estimate a reentry location until a few hours before it happens.

People can follow the latest reentry time estimates at Space Track, which is working with the U.S. Space Force on tracking the debris.

The massive rocket body measures 98 feet long and 16.5 feet wide and weighs 21 metric tons, according to the Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit that performs technical analyses and assessments for a variety of government, civil and commercial customers.

Instead of falling downrange during the launch, the empty rocket body reached orbital velocity, which placed it "in an elliptical orbit around Earth where it is being dragged toward an uncontrolled reentry," the corporation explained in a blog post.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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Yevhen Liubimov/ Ukrinform/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- Secretary of State Antony Blinken spent less than 24 hours on the ground in Ukraine's capital, but his day of meetings was meant to send a strong, important signal amid the "twin" threats of Russian aggression and corruption, he said.

Ukraine is only the sixth country the top U.S. diplomat has visited -- before other key allies or even whole regions, and just over 100 days into the Biden administration.

As Blinken put it before his meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, "I thought it was important as early as possible to come and say so in person" that President Joe Biden is committed to Ukraine.

That message of strong support contrasts with the chaotic signals sent by former President Donald Trump, who tried to withhold lethal weapons and a White House meeting to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's government to announce investigations into then-candidate Biden, his son Hunter, and Hunter's role on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. That effort ultimately resulted in his first impeachment in late 2019.

But Blinken also carried with him some strong warnings, urging Zelenskiy, his top officials and Ukrainian lawmakers to enact reforms to counter corruption, strengthen Ukraine's young democracy, and bolster its institutions.

"Ukraine faces twin challenges -- aggression from outside coming from Russia, and in effect, aggression from within coming from corruption, oligarchs and others who are putting their interests ahead of those of the Ukrainian people," Blinken said during a press conference with Zelenskiy.

In the shadow of that threat looms Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney whose home was raided by the FBI last week as part of an investigation into his alleged lobbying efforts in Ukraine. Giuliani was at the heart of Trump's efforts to push Zelenskiy, serving as the primary interlocutor with top Ukrainian aides.

"Let's not talk about the past. Let bygones be bygones, and let's discuss the future," Zelenskiy told reporters when asked about Giuliani, pivoting to instead talk about his government's counter-corruption reforms.

Instead of discussing Trump, Blinken talked with Zelenskiy, Kuleba and others about boosting U.S. support for Ukraine, especially against continued Russian aggression. While that Russian military build-up on Ukraine's borders has drawn down, Russia continues to occupy Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, lead and arm separatists in Ukraine's eastern provinces, block access to the Sea of Azov and use hybrid warfare against Kyiv, like cyber attacks and disinformation.

Both Zelenskiy and Blinken warned the threat remains substantial, including for military action.

"Russia has the capacity on fairly short notice to take aggressive action if it so chooses, and so we are watching this very, very carefully," Blinken told reporters.

At one point during their press conference, there was an issue with the simultaneous translation, and Zelenskiy, a comedian prior to becoming president, quipped it must be "Russian translators, they're here. They're everywhere."

But despite Ukraine's requests for more lethal weapons, there was no announcement during the trip of any new U.S. deliveries. Instead, Blinken and others have said they're actively reviewing what Ukraine needs and what the Biden administration will provide.

Former President Barack Obama declined to sell Ukraine lethal weapons, saying it would escalate the conflict with Russia. Trump approved the sale in late 2017, but when the newly inaugurated Zelenskiy asked for more anti-tank missiles in 2019, Trump famously responded, "I would like you to do us a favor though," according to a White House memo about the call -- which later was the center of Trump's impeachment.

In addition to withholding anti-tank weapons, Trump's White House was withholding a meeting between him and Zelenskiy, asking that in exchange they first launch the Biden investigations.

On Thursday, Zelenskiy publicly invited Biden to visit Kyiv, too, and Blinken said he would "welcome the opportunity at the right time."

Trump and his allies defended their actions with Ukraine by saying they were fighting corruption in Ukraine -- although critics say their actions actually fostered it by ousting U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and backing the corrupt former prosecutor-general.

In contrast, Blinken met with anti-corruption activists, praising them for being "on the front lines in that second fight against corruption and for a democracy" and asking what they believe the U.S. can do to better support their efforts.

He warned Zelenskiy directly of the "powerful interests lined up against reform and against anticorruption efforts. Those include external forces like Russia but also internal forces like oligarchs and other powerful individuals who are pursuing their own narrow interests through illegitimate means."

In particular, his State Department has scolded Zelenskiy's government for replacing half of the board of Ukraine's state-run energy firm Naftogaz with allies -- an issue Blinken raised in person with Zelenskiy as well.

While Blinken made no mention of Trump or Giuliani, even when asked about it by reporters, he did acknowledge how U.S. embassy staff were dragged into the impeachment. Beyond Yovanovitch, staffers like her replacement, charge d'affaires Bill Taylor, and David Holmes, who served as political counselor in Kyiv, were called to testify about Trump's plan.

"Even before COVID, Ukraine and this mission were pulled into matters that should not have been the case, and one thing that's very important is that politics stops at the C Street door, and that's very much the case now," Blinken told staff during a virtual meet-and-greet, referring to the entrance of the State Department's Washington headquarters.

Victoria Nuland, the State Department's new, third highest-ranking official, joined Blinken for his stop in Kyiv, another strong gesture. In 2014, Nuland was the top U.S. diplomat for Europe when she visited the pro-Western Maidan square protests in Kyiv that ousted the pro-Russian president. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal praised her visit as "symbolic," while Foreign Minister Kuleba joked warmly that he missed her baked goods.

Nuland has long been a foe of Russia. At the height of that Ukrainian revolution, her conversation with another U.S. diplomat was hacked and leaked by Russian intelligence. Her line, "F*** the EU," caused a stir, but it didn't divide the U.S. and EU in backing Ukraine's protesters.

Blinken paid tribute to those protests and the Ukrainian soldiers killed in the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine with Russian-led separatists at the Wall of Remembrance. Afterwards, he toured St. Michael's, a monastery and church that houses the Tomos of Autocephaly -- the decree establishing Ukraine's independent Orthodox Christian church in 2019.

The stops on a brisk spring day in Kyiv were two more symbols -- nods to Ukraine's latest nationalist steps that have further separated the country from its dominant neighbor Russia.

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(NEW YORK) -- Scientists are racing to determine what will happen as a result of melting glaciers before the repercussions of climate change on communities become a reality.

Researchers are especially worried about the increased risk of flood outbursts from glacial lakes, which can pose threats to residents who live downstream, according to a new study published Thursday in Nature Climate Change.

A glacial lake is a body of water that forms when a glacier erodes into land and then its water melts into the depression that forms. An outburst flood occurs when one of the naturally occurring dams break, sending a tidal wave of water out of the depression.

The risk is especially profound in the Third Pole, the region that encompasses the Hindu Kush Himalayan mountain range, the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding areas. It has the largest number of glaciers outside of the polar regions, according to the study.

The Third Pole has distinctly higher warming rates than the Northern Hemisphere, and warming in the region is leading to rapid loss of ice and the formation and expansion of glacial lakes, which then pose a severe threat to communities that reside downstream, scientists said.

"Particularly, when water is suddenly released, glacial lake outburst floods can devastate lives and livelihoods up to hundreds of kilometers downstream of their source," the study states.

The highest risk is in the eastern Himalayas, and the overall risk in the region is expected to triple as a consequence of more lakes developing, according to the study. The outbursts can be triggered by a number of mechanisms, including intense precipitation and snow or, most commonly, from the impact of ice or rock avalanches into a lake.

Glaciers across the Himalayas have experienced significant ice loss over the past 40 years, with the average rate of ice loss doubling in the 21st century compared to the end of the 20th century, according to a study published in Science Advances in 2019.

A glacial lake outburst flood was initially blamed for the "water monster" of rushing water and sediment that plunged down a steep flank in the Himalayas and into a hydroplant in northern India in February, killing dozens of people and leaving more than 100 missing.

The results of the study highlight the need for urgent, "forward-thinking" and collaborative approaches to mitigate future impacts of climate change, the researchers said.

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(NEW YORK) -- Archie Sussex, the oldest child of Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan, is turning 2.

The young royal and great-grandchild of Queen Elizabeth and the late Prince Philip is expected to celebrate his second birthday in California, where his family moved last year from the United Kingdom.

Archie received birthday wishes on social media from his family members in the U.K., including his great-grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, his uncle and aunt, Prince William and Duchess Kate, and his grandparents, Prince Charles and Camilla, duchess of Cornwall.


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