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Plane evacuating cruise passengers re-routed after Turkey denies landing permission amid novel coronavirus fears

TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images(KARACHI, Pakistan) -- A Turkish airliner chartered by Holland America cruise line to evacuate passengers from its Westerdam cruise was abruptly turned around mid-flight Thursday, according to flight data and multiple sources.

The flight was carrying 283 citizens from multiple countries, including the United States, when it was forced to land in Karachi, Pakistan, instead of Istanbul, Turkey -- its original destination.

A source familiar with the situation told ABC News the last-minute landing was because the Turkish government barred the aircraft from landing in the country over concerns about the novel coronavirus -- setting off an international fiasco.

Holland America confirmed the incident, saying in a statement to ABC News that the chartered flight "was unexpectedly instructed by Turkish officials to turn around midway through its journey," even though passengers on board had been cleared by the Cambodian Ministry of Health with a letter approved by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's office in Cambodia, where the ship has been docked.

An 83-year old American woman who disembarked the cruise ship in Cambodia last weekend and flew to Malaysia was confirmed to have the virus that has infected nearly 76,000 people and killed over 2,100, the vast majority in China where it originated. She and her husband have been hospitalized in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, according to U.S. officials, setting off concerns that others on board the ship may have the virus, formally known as COVID-19.

But the Cambodian Ministry of Health announced Wednesday that all 781 Westerdam passengers remaining in the country had tested negative for COVID-19. The remaining passengers disembarked from the ship, while those who had stayed in hotels in the area were permitted to begin leaving Cambodia and fly home.

"Everyone is healthy, and now you just saw a number of buses leave," said Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America, which owns the Westerdam. "We expect everybody to be on the way home in the next two days."

Among those trips home, Holland America chartered the Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul, where passengers would be able to travel onward to their final destination.

While in the skies over Iran, Turkish Airlines Flight 3441 informed air traffic control that it had a "technical issue" and needed to land. An hour and 40 minutes later, it made a previously unscheduled landing at Karachi International Airport at around 9:50 p.m., local time, according to a Pakistani civil aviation official.

Before landing, air traffic control told the pilot, "No assistance is required upon arrival," according to a recording of the exchange.

The emergency landing and rescinded invitation to Istanbul forced officials to scramble to find a new location for the plane to land. Consular officials from foreign countries in Karachi were awoken, according to the source, as they and other officials pressed the Turkish government to change its mind and then searched for a new location for the aircraft to land.

The aircraft took off again at 2:09 a.m., local time, and was heading to Amsterdam, according to flight data.

Holland America, Turkish Airlines and the Turkish embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to questions on Thursday.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


As fighting in Syria intensifies, pressure is rising for US intervention amid the crisis

Oleksii Liskonih/iStock(IDLIB, Syria) -- As fighting over Syria's last rebel-held stronghold intensifies and puts U.S. ally Turkey in direct conflict with Russia, there is a growing chorus for the U.S. to do something about the dire humanitarian crisis.

Nearly one million people have been displaced since December by Syrian President Bashar al Assad's offensive into the Idlib province, backed by Russian air power and Iranian-commanded forces. Relief organizations are struggling to respond to the overwhelming need amid freezing temperatures and a lack of basic resources -- like tents.

But for the four million civilians in Idlib, there is no where to go as Assad's forces back them closer to the border with Turkey, which remains shut as Turkey struggles to host nearly four million Syrian refugees already.

Turkey and the Syrian forces it arms and backs have been pushing to hold Assad's offensive at bay, with direct clashes on Thursday. But while the Trump administration has condemned the offensive and vocalized support to Turkey, advocates -- including, the last U.S. ambassador to Syria -- are urging for U.S. intervention.

"What's happening in Idlib is the worst case scenario we have worried about in Syria since 2011. We never wanted it to come, we hoped it wouldn't come, and it's here," said Ambassador Robert Ford, who was forced to leave Syria amid threats from Assad when he served as U.S. envoy from 2011 to 2014.

He continued, "This is not just another problem in Syria. The scale is much greater than anything the world has seen in recent decades."

More than 900,000 people have fled their homes or shelters in Idlib, according to the United Nations, most of whom were previously displaced by Syria's now nine-year old civil war. Approximately 80% of the displaced are women and children, facing severe winter weather conditions like snow and freezing temperatures.

The military offensive has killed hundreds of civilians, according to war monitoring groups. But the freezing temperatures have killed seven children, according to the humanitarian group Save the Children.

"We are striving to save lives, but the space for these efforts is shrinking," Filippo Grandi, the high commissioner for refugees at the U.N. said Thursday.

That's in part because aid organizations themselves have also been forced to flee, including Huzayfa al Khateeb, a Syrian radio reporter and volunteer relief worker. He was forced to flee from his home in western Ghouta outside Damascus three years ago, but in Idlib in recent days, he's been forced to live in his car while so many sleep outside or in the rubble of schools, hospitals, and other buildings bombed by Assad's forces and Russia.

"There is no place safe, in Idlib and in any place. Every day, they are bombing us," al Khateeb said. "They can't live here because the Assad regime is bombing us, Russian regime, and they can't -- there is no single town, no single area you can live."

For Joumane Mohamad and her two young children, they are lucky enough to have a house to rent. But the psychological toll of the bombing has deepened, even after nine years of war have forced them to move to 10 different houses across the country.

"I hope that you will let the world know what sufferings, what pain, what frustration, and what inhuman conditions that we are living here now," she said during a briefing call with al Khateeb, organized by Refugees International, an advocacy organization. "We feel as if the world has betrayed us, as if the world has abandoned us."

Mothers are "suffering the most because of all the burdens and responsibilities and fears they have to deal with," Mohamad said, adding every morning feels "as if it could be our last meeting."

She said she tried to smuggle her family, including her nine-year old and her nursery-school age son, across the border into Turkey once -- but was scared away by gunfire.

Turkey has all but shut down its border in recent months, overwhelmed by the 3.6 million Syrians it already hosts, according to U.N. data.

Instead, Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to use military force to repel Assad's offensive if it isn't halted. Erdogan has armed, trained and backed rebel forces throughout Syria's civil war and entered into agreements with Russia and Iran to create safe zones in areas, including Idlib -- which Assad, Russia and Iran have later seized.

U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey traveled to Ankara last Wednesday to meet with senior Turkish officials and offer U.S. assistance for its NATO ally. Before the trip, Jeffrey told reporters in Washington the U.S. was "looking at the various things we can do" to halt the offensive, including more sanctions, but hinted at no immediate action.

That's not enough, according to activists who rallied on Capitol Hill Thursday.

"What's also more outrageous is the lack of outrage that we're seeing across the United States and in the Western world," said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency taskforce, an advocacy group. "No one is talking about what's unfolding there, no one is speaking out for children, some of whom have been burned to a cinder."

He and Ford called on the Trump administration and Congress to "take some prompt steps," to halt the offensive, including finding funds for humanitarian groups to deal with the "unprecedented" need, press Russian officials to halt their support and back Turkey in what way they can.

President Donald Trump once claimed credit for "saving" Idlib by tweeting his opposition to a previous Assad offensive in 2018. But while he told Assad and Russia "Don't do it!" in December, his tweet was undercut by his clear unwillingness to take action to stop any fighting that he does not see as America's problem.

"Let Syria and Assad protect the Kurds and fight Turkey for their own land," he tweeted in October. "I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!"

But Ford warned that whatever comes next, the crisis will spill out of Syria, just as Assad and Russia's assault on Aleppo led to mass refugee flows into Europe that bolstered far-right politics across the continent.

While the Turkish-Syrian border is closed for now, al Khateeb and Mohamad both said there are plans to storm the border because they say it may be Syrians' only option to survive.

Even if it kills "1,000 people, the rest will save their lives and cross the border and be in safety," al Khateeb said.

He added, "This is what people are thinking about because there is no other chance, no other choice for us."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Right-wing extremism suspected in Germany shooting that left 11 dead, including suspect

welcomia/iStock(HANAU, Germany) -- A mass shooting in Germany that left 11 people dead, including the suspected gunman, appears to have been motivated by racist, right-wing extremist views, authorities said.

The massacre in the Frankfurt suburb of Hanau erupted around 10 p.m. Wednesday at two hookah bars in the city of fewer than 100,000 people.

"Racism is poison, hatred is poison and this poison exists in society and it is to blame for far too many crimes," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday morning. "There are many indications at the moment that the perpetrator acted on right-wing extremist, racist motives, out of hatred towards people of other origins, religions and appearance."

The mass shooting follows a series of right-right extremist attacks in Germany, including one in October at a synagogue in Halle that left two people dead and the June assassination of pro-migrant politician Walter Lubcke by a suspect with right-wing links who confessed to the murder.

The killing rampage on Wednesday in Hanau was carried out by 43-year-old man authorities would only identify as Tobias R.

The investigation of the shooting is being headed by the German Federal Prosecutor's Office, officials said.

Investigators are examining a video the suspect posted online in which he allegedly expressed right-wing conspiracy theories, German Public Prosecutor General Peter Frank said at a news conference. He said investigators are also examining documents believed to have been written by the suspect.

"In addition to confused thoughts and conspiracy theories, [the video and writing] shows deeply racist attitudes," Frank said. "That is why I have taken over the investigation in this case."

Authorities cautioned that investigators have not established a clear link between the online videos and Wednesday's attack.

While German police said they believe the deceased suspect is the lone person responsible, federal investigators are looking into whether the suspect received support in the attack, adding that they are attempting to clarify the alleged gunman's background and contacts both in Germany and abroad.

Shots were fired at two separate hookah bars about a mile apart in Hanau, one in the Heumarkt district in the center of the city and the other in Kurt-Schumacher-Platz in the western neighborhood of Kesselstadt, according to a statement from local authorities. The nine people killed in the bar shootings ranged in age from 21 to 44 and were both foreign and German nationals, officials said.

Kemal Aydin, Turkey's ambassador to Berlin, told reporters that five Turkish nationals were among those killed.

"The heinous attack last night in Hanau, Germany, is a new and grave manifestation of the rising racism and hostility to Islam," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "We extend our condolences to the families of those who lost their lives, especially our citizens, and wish urgent recovery to the injured in this heinous attack."

"It is not possible to consider these incidents as individual attacks anymore," the statement continued. "The insensitivity shown towards the fight against increasing xenophobia in Europe leads to new attacks every day. It is time to put an end to these attacks. Otherwise, racism and xenophobia will reach more serious levels and lead us to a dangerous situation."

The alleged perpetrator was later found dead at his home by a special police task force. It was there police said they found another dead body they identified as the suspect's 72-year-old mother.

Both the suspect and his mother died from gunshot wounds, officials said. A firearm found next to the suspect, according to authorities.

The suspect's father was found unharmed by police outside the home, officials said.

Witness accounts said a vehicle fled the scene of the shootings, which led authorities to the alleged suspect's home.

The shooting comes less than three years after an 18-year-old gunman killed nine people at a shopping mall in Munich before taking his own life. Bavarian authorities said the July 2016 attack was "politically motivated" and said the teenage suspect had "radical right-wing and racist views."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


US citizen to remain in Egypt detention after prosecution appeal accepted

ericsphotography/iStock(CAIRO) -- A dual U.S.-Egyptian national who won a court order to be released from a Cairo prison will remain in jail after a prosecution appeal was accepted on Thursday, her lawyer has said.

Pennsylvania teacher Reem Desouky had been serving a pre-trial detention that is renewed periodically since she was arrested at Cairo's airport during a visit to her family in July 2019. She was accused of running a Facebook page that criticizes the government.

She had a chance to walk free on Wednesday when a court ordered her release. However, an appeal from prosecutors against her release and that of several other well-known activists was accepted one day later.

Nour Fahmy, one of the lawyers who represent Desouky in the case, told ABC News that her detention was extended for at least 45 more days.

"We had hopes that she would be released … she has been detained for a long time now," he said.

Other activists who will remain in custody include Alaa Abdel-Fattah, one of the figures who spearheaded the 2011 revolution that unseated autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak.

Moustafa Hamed, Desouky's 13-year-old son, was briefly detained with his mother at the airport six months ago before being released 11 hours later. In an emotional video posted on social media more than a month following Desouky's arrest, he pleaded with U.S. President Donald Trump to help free her. Egypt has made no comments on the case.

Egyptian-American Mohamed Soltan, himself a former prisoner who now leads human rights group Freedom Initiative, which focuses on political prisoners in the Middle East, told ABC News on Wednesday that U.S. officials have been increasing pressure on Egyptian authorities to release Desouky.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Coronavirus patient numbers double overnight in South Korea

nigelcarse/iStock(SEOUL, South Korea) -- Coronavirus cases more than doubled overnight in South Korea, with most of the outbreak centered in and around the city of Daegu, the country’s fourth-largest city with 2.5 million people.

Fifty-three new cases were confirmed, spiking the total to 104 infected as of Thursday evening local time. The number of cases are expected to increase in the coming days.

South Korea also reported its first death, a man in his early 60s, who died at a hospital in Cheongdo, 19 miles south of Daegu. The patient posthumously tested positive after being hospitalized for schizophrenia and later had suffered symptoms of pneumonia, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health authorities are tracing and testing 1,001 followers at the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, since most of the newly confirmed patients attended the church’s services on Feb. 9 and 16. The church has closed all of its 74 branches nationwide and asked followers to access online worship services.

Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin urged citizens to refrain from going outside and wear masks, even when indoors.

"National quarantine efforts that are currently focused on blocking the inflow of the virus and stemming its spread are inadequate for preventing the illness from circulating in local communities," Kwon said in a televised news conference.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Touring US troops in Saudi Arabia, Pompeo touts pressure on Iran amid high tensions

Johannes Simon/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo toured with American troops deployed by President Donald Trump to Saudi Arabia, as tensions with Iran remain high over crippling aggression and U.S. sanctions, less than two months after the countries stood on the brink of war.

Ahead of his latest visit to the kingdom, top U.S. lawmakers had urged Pompeo to also raise human rights issues, especially the case of an American citizen reportedly tortured in Saudi custody -- something Pompeo said he was "sure I'll bring up."

But while he told reporters he would discuss "a wide range of human rights issues," the top U.S. diplomat made clear his focus is on the remaining potential for conflict with Iran.

"Their desire to wipe the state of Israel off the map and to do harm to the United States of America remains, and our aim is to change that behavior from the regime, and there remains a great deal of work to do to deliver on that ultimate objective," Pompeo told reporters Thursday.

After meeting Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud Thursday, Pompeo flew from Riyadh to Prince Sultan Air Base, where U.S. troops are stationed to support the Saudis' defenses after a sophisticated attack on Saudi Aramco facilities on Sept. 14 that cut Saudi oil production by half. That deployment includes F-15 fighter aircraft and a nearby U.S. Patriot battery, which Pompeo toured.

"The fact that so many young American men and women are here and in other facilities not only here in Saudi Arabia, but in Iraq, indeed in Qatar and folks part of the NAVCENT Fifth Fleet, I think, demonstrates that the demand for deterrence remains," he said.

Trump has sent about 20,000 more U.S. service members to the Middle East since last May as Iran ramped up its attacks on commercial oil vessels and facilities in a backlash to his "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran -- firing rocket attacks against U.S. facilities in Iraq, downing an American drone, and even conducting a mass attack on Aramco's oil processing facilities with nearly a dozen cruise missiles and over 20 drones.

In December, one of those rocket attacks against an Iraqi base killed an American contractor, sparking a cycle of escalating violence. The U.S. retaliated by killing at least 25 members of an Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militia, and days later, the militia and its supporters stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. When the assault ended, a U.S. drone killed Qassem Soleimani, perhaps the second most powerful figure in Iraq and commander of its elite Quds Force. Less than a week later, Iranian ballistic missiles rained down on two Iraqi bases that house U.S. troops, injuring 109 Americans.

While the cycle seemed to end there, high tensions remain between the two sides, with Trump's tight economic sanctions still in place. What Iran has derided as "economic terrorism," Pompeo praised for "draining their capacity to conduct strategic activity in the region and destabilize the Middle East."

"They're having to make harder choices today. It will take time," he added. "There remains work to do."

While in Riyadh, Pompeo is also expected to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the real power broker behind his father's throne. In those meetings, the top Democrat and Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee have called on Pompeo to press for the charges against Dr. Walid Fitaihi to be dropped and for he and his family to be permitted to leave the country.

Fitaihi is a dual Saudi-American citizen who was detained for 21 months by Saudi officials -- arrested in late 2017 as part of the sweeping crackdown orchestrated by Crown Prince Mohammed against wealthy Saudis that he accused of stealing from the kingdom. Fitaihi and his family allege that he was tortured by Saudi officials once -- slapped, blindfolded, stripped to his underwear, bound to a chair, and shocked with electricity, they told the New York Times.

A Saudi official denied that Fitaihi was tortured, telling ABC News last August the reports "are without foundation. ... The Law of Criminal Procedure and other legal provisions in the Kingdom prohibit torture and hold accountable anyone involved in such abuse of power."

Fitaihi was released from custody at the time, the official said, but he and his family -- all U.S. citizens -- have been barred from leaving the country while he awaits trial, according to U.S. lawmakers.

Saudi Arabia, like several other countries, only recognizes the citizenship of their nationals, even if they are dual citizens.

Fitaihi became a U.S. citizen while in medical school in the Boston area, where he worked as a doctor for years before returning to his native Saudi Arabia in 2006 to found a hospital. His case has sparked fierce bipartisan condemnation in Congress -- even prompting Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to say the crown prince had gone "full gangster."

Before Pompeo left Ethiopia for Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the House Foreign Affairs chairman and ranking member, urged him to raise Fitaihi's case.
 
"It has been a consistent priority of the United States -- throughout Democratic and Republican administrations -- to free Americans abroad from unjust detention," they said in a letter. "We urge you to build on these successes and press the Saudi government to resolve the case against Dr. Fitaihi and allow him and his family to come home to the United States."

Five Democratic senators sent Pompeo another letter, with almost the exact same language calling for him to press senior Saudi officials about Fitaihi's case. But in their note, Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Ron Wyden of Oregon added, "We urge you to also advocate for the rights of all those unjustly detained in Saudi Arabia, especially American citizens."

There are several high-profile cases of Saudi dissidents or political activists who remain imprisoned, especially women's rights activists that demonstrated for the right to drive and a loosening of the male guardianship rules over women's lives. Under Crown Prince Mohammed, sometimes known by his initials MBS, some of those rules have been relaxed, including granting women the right to drive.

But the most prominent female activists have remained imprisoned since then, and four have said they have been tortured, according to human rights groups.

Loujain al Hathloul, detained since May 2018 for her work promoting women's rights in the kingdom, including defying the previous ban on women driving, turned down an offer to finally secure her freedom, but only if she denied being tortured while in custody, according to her family.

A Saudi official denied she was tortured, too.

The Trump administration has been criticized by both sides of the aisle in Congress for doing little to condemn the Saudi government's human rights record, including denying that MBS played a role in the killing and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The administration has defied several orders from Congress to provide an accounting of what role the Crown Prince played in the gruesome murder.

En route to Riyadh, Pompeo was asked by the traveling press if he would raise Fitaihi's case: "I'm sure I'll bring up that issue," he responded, adding that on trips to the kingdom as CIA director and now the top U.S. diplomat he's "raised these important issues, the issues that matter a lot to the American people."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Egyptian court orders release of US citizen after 6-month detention

Oleksii Liskonih/iStock(CAIRO) -- An Egyptian court on Wednesday ordered the release of a dual U.S.-Egyptian national who was arrested upon her arrival at the Cairo airport in July 2019, the head of a Washington-based rights group said.

Egyptian-American Mohamed Soltan, himself a former prisoner, said the court order to release Pennsylvania teacher Reem Desouky is pending an appeal from the prosecution which will be heard on Thursday.

Desouky was detained at the Cairo airport during a visit to her family six months ago. She was accused of running a Facebook page that criticizes the government.

Soltan told ABC News that U.S. pressure on Egyptian authorities following last month’s death of Mustafa Kassem, another U.S. citizen who died in detention after a lengthy hunger strike, appeared to have paid off.

“You cannot not relate [the release order] to the death of Mustafa Kassem and the U.S. pressure to free the other Americans, and she is the most prominent case after that,” said Soltan, who leads human rights group Freedom Initiative, which focuses on political prisoners in the Middle East.

“There is a lot of U.S. pressure, a lot of US engagement … such release orders do not come out of nowhere, things do not go that way,” Soltan continued.

Moustafa Hamed, Desouky's 13-year-old son, was briefly detained with his mother at the airport before being released 11 hours later. In an emotional video posted on social media more than a month following Desouky’s arrest, he pleaded with U.S. president Donald Trump to help free her. Egypt has made no comments on the case.

Egypt has shown little tolerance for dissent since the army toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi after mass protests against his divisive one-year rule in power in 2013.

Rights groups accuse president Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of launching a relentless crackdown on opponents, estimating that tens of thousands are languishing behind bars on trumped-up charges. Egyptian authorities deny that and insist that prisoners who are kept in custody have gone through due judicial process.

Egypt receives about $1.5 billion in U.S. assistance each year -- the second largest amount doled out by the country after Israel. There are at least six other U.S. citizens currently detained in Egyptian prisons, according to Human Rights Watch.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Two cruise ship passengers in Japan die from novel coronavirus

Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images(LONDON) -- Two passengers from a cruise ship quarantined in Japanese waters have died from the novel coronavirus, officials said.

It's the first deaths to occur out of the hundreds of confirmed cases from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

The deceased patients -- a man and a woman -- were in their 80s and were residents of Japan. Both were taken ashore for treatment last week after having prolonged fevers, and they ultimately tested positive for the newly identified virus, known officially as COVID-19. They both died Thursday, according to Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, which is leading and coordinating the public health response on board the cruise ship.

The Diamond Princess docked at the Japanese port of Yokohama on Feb. 3 and was placed under quarantine two days later, as passengers and crew tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, over 600 people on board have been infected with the disease, according to Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

All those aboard the vessel who were infected have been brought ashore for treatment, while thousands of others were confined to their rooms until the quarantine period ends. Passengers who have tested negative for COVID-19 have been disembarking the ship since Wednesday.

Princess Cruises, which operates the cruise ship, has cancelled all Diamond Princess voyages through April 20 due to the "prolonged quarantine period." The cruise line is offering a full refund to all 2,666 guests, more than 400 of whom were from the United States.

The U.S. government evacuated more than 300 American passengers on two charter flights Monday, including 14 who had tested positive for the new coronavirus. Roughly 60 Americans, some who were hospitalized and others who opted to stay on the ship, remain in Japan.

The cruise ship is the largest center of infection outside China.

The initial cases of COVID-19 emerged back in December in Wuhan, the capital of China's central Hubei province. China has since placed the city under lockdown but the country has still struggled to contain the virus.

As of Wednesday, China's National Health Commission said it has received 74,576 reports of confirmed cases and 2,118 deaths on the Chinese mainland. Over 83 percent of the cases have been reported in Hubei province, the outbreak's epicenter.

An additional 99 confirmed infections have been reported in the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao as well as Taiwan, with two deaths in Hong Kong and one in Taiwan, according to China's National Health Commission.

The virus spread overseas, with 924 confirmed cases in 25 countries, including the United States. There have been at least three deaths reported outside of China, according to the World Health Organization, which has declared the outbreak a global health emergency.

The WHO has not yet officially confirmed several other deaths recently reported in various nations, including the two cruise ship passengers in Japan.

Amid fears over the health crisis, the mayor of the South Korean city of Daegu urged its 2.5 million residents on Thursday to refrain from leaving their homes, after dozens of new infections were reported in the city and its nearby towns.

COVID-19 causes symptoms similar to pneumonia, ranging from the mild, such as a slight cough, to the more severe, including fever and difficulty breathing, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is no vaccine yet for the virus.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Iran reports 2 novel coronavirus deaths, the country's 1st cases

BornaMir/iStock(TEHRAN, Iran) -- Iranian authorities said that two patients diagnosed with novel coronavirus in the country are now dead, Fars News Agency, the nation's state-run news organization, reported Wednesday.

Earlier on Wednesday, health officials said two cases of the virus, known officially as COVID-19, had been detected in the central province of Qom.

The World Health Organization has not yet confirmed the two Iranian coronavirus deaths, but should they be confirmed, it would raise the death toll outside of China to seven.

The news out of Iran comes as coronavirus deaths in China have topped 2,000. More than 75,000 people around the world have contracted the virus, with at least 74,185 of those cases in China.

In Japan, 500 passengers were allowed to disembark from the Diamond Princess cruise ship on Wednesday, which has been under quarantine since early February. The ship, docked off Japan's coast, became the site of the largest infection center outside of China after more than 620 people tested positive for the virus.

There are still as many as 2,000 people aboard the ship, and authorities said they anticipate it taking several more days before those remaining can be offloaded.

Sporting events have been canceled or scaled back in recent weeks. Shanghai's Formula One race, originally scheduled for April, was called off last week.

On Monday, Tokyo officials announced that the city would limit its marathon in March to elite runners and wheelchair participants. The event originally was supposed to include more than 38,000 participants.

The virus, which is in the same family as SARS, MERS and the common cold, causes symptoms similar to pneumonia, which can range from a slight cough to fever and difficult breathing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There is no approved treatment for COVID-19 yet, nor a vaccine to protect against the virus. Scientists are still working to determine exactly how infectious and severe it is.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Prince Harry and Meghan confirm last day as working members of Britain's royal family

Chris Jackson/Getty Images(LONDON) -- Being royalty is usually a lifetime role, not one that comes with start and end dates. However, an end date as working members of Britain's royal family is set for Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Harry and Meghan's last day as working members of Britain's royal family will be March 31, a spokesperson for the Sussexes confirmed Wednesday.

The couple's office at Buckingham Palace, their headquarters for the past year, will be closed the next day, April 1. Going forward, Harry and Meghan will be represented through their charity, according to the spokesperson.

The end date marks a new chapter for Harry and Meghan, who announced last month their intention to step back as "senior members" of the royal family and to spend time outside the U.K.

Under guidelines announced in January by Buckingham Palace, Harry and Meghan will retain but no longer use their HRH titles, will no longer represent Her Majesty, will not receive public funds for royal duties and will spend the "majority of their time" in North America.

The Sussexes recently traveled to Miami and San Francisco for meetings but have been staying in Canada with their infant son Archie as they plan their next chapter.

The terms of Harry and Meghan's split from the royal family will be reviewed in one year, according to the spokesperson, who explained, "As there is no precedent for this new model of working and eventual financial independence, the Royal Family and the Sussexes have agreed to an initial 12-month review to ensure the arrangement works for all parties."

A major focus of Harry and Meghan's post-royal work will be their new non-profit organization. The couple will continue to focus on causes important to them, including "the Commonwealth, community, youth empowerment and mental health, collectively," according to their spokesperson.

What is not yet known is what the couple will name their nonprofit. Harry and Meghan had used the same Sussex Royal branding they have also used on their @SussexRoyal Instagram account and SussexRoyal.com website.

With their new roles outside the royal family, Harry and Meghan may be asked by royal officials to drop the word "royal" from their Sussex Royal brand.

The couple's spokesperson confirmed Wednesday that "discussions are still ongoing."

"As The Duke and Duchess are stepping back as senior Members of the Royal Family, and will work towards financial independence, use of the word 'Royal,' in this context, needed to be reviewed," the spokesperson said in a statement. "Discussions are still ongoing, however, a change will be announced alongside the launch of their new non-profit organisation."

Another new detail is that Prince Harry and Meghan plan to return to the U.K. and hold engagements there before their final day in March.

The couple spent an extended holiday break on Vancouver Island and have remained there with Archie for most of the past two months.

Meghan's last royal engagement in the U.K. was on Jan. 7, when she and Harry visited Canada House, just one day before they dropped their bombshell announcement. Harry's last U.K. engagement was on Jan. 19, when he delivered emotional remarks at a benefit for his Sentebale charity.

Harry is expected to make an appearance in the U.K. at the end of February. The couple have several U.K.-based events on their schedules in March.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


EU imposes sweeping regulations on facial recognition, Artificial Intelligence

inakiantonana/iStock(NEW YORK) -- The European Union is set to announce Wednesday sweeping new proposals regulating technology including artificial intelligence and data collection. The proposals could place a temporary ban on all facial recognition in public, create a single market for data throughout the entire EU, and ask for almost $22 billion to invest in A.I.
 
The new tech regulations have sent Silicon Valley executives, like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai, to Brussels to lobby the EU's antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager in the last week.

While details of the plan have yet to be released, European Commission President Ursula van der Leyen has sought to confront "high-risk AI," or its application in sectors like health care, policing, and transport since she took office in December.

Some tech executives, like Pichai, have expressed cautious support of the plans.

"There is no question in my mind that artificial intelligence needs to be regulated," Pichai said in a speech in Brussels last month. But he urged "a proportionate approach, balancing potential harms with social opportunities."

Vestager said in a press briefing ahead of the announcement, that the commission’s plan "will produce and deploy much more artificial intelligence" in Europe, but create an AI environment that looks different from that in the U.S. and China.

In a widely leaked European Commission white paper, officials called for Europe to "become a global leader in innovation in the data economy and its applications."

In addition to releasing its plan to regulate AI, the EU is expected to also announce its European Data Strategy on Wednesday. The purpose of the plan is to “explore how to make the most of the enormous value of non-personal data as an ever-expanding and reusable asset in the digital economy," as per a statement from the EU.

After the plan is released, there will be a 12-week debate period, during which tech companies and European governments can weigh in on the initiatives.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Former North Korean diplomat declares run for National Assembly in South Korea

ABC News(SEOUL, South Korea) -- A high-level North Korean official who defected to South Korea in 2016 plans to run for a seat in South Korea’s National Assembly elections this April.

If elected, Thae Yong-ho would be the first-ever former North Korean official to become a lawmaker in the South.

A former deputy ambassador at the North Korean embassy in London, Thae caught public attention as he was spotted accompanying North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s elder brother Kim Jong Chul to a Eric Clapton concert in London in 2015. He is the second-highest North Korean official in history to defect. The late Hwang Jang Yop, a former senior official in the regime widely credited with crafting North Korea’s founding principle of Juche, or self-reliance, defected in 1997.

“I stand before you as a proud South Korean citizen that wants to do his part in deciding the future of our country,” Thae told a group of foreign press members in fluent British-accented English on Wednesday in Seoul. “This is also a great opportunity to show the North Korean people our democracy and freedom.”

Thae said he believes thousands of North Korean laborers, students, diplomats and entrepreneurs currently working abroad outside of North Korea will get to see how democracy works and become interested in South Korean elections.

“Breaking down communism and totalitarianism will take more than coercive force,” Thae said. “This election, and my campaign, can be a game-changing opportunity for our peninsula.”

Since his defection four years ago with his wife and two sons, Thae has been protected by the South Korean government for fear of assassination or terror by North Korean infiltrators. He has occasionally appeared on local TV and wrote articles on North-South issues, gradually increasing his voice in recent months on human rights for 33,523 North Korean defectors living in the South. Thae’s YouTube Channel has drawn 137,000 subscribers and is growing fast.

Earlier this month, Thae joined the main opposition United Future Party, to run for the National Assembly election in April. The conservative party’s official in charge of candidacies announced that Thae “was the first among the defectors who volunteered to confront the voter’s judgment by running for the elections.” Unlike the proportional representation candidates, Thae has to compete with other party nominees. Thae is awaiting the United Future Party to designate in which local constituency he will be competing.

Thae said the turning point for him came when he saw the image of two North Korean fishermen apprehended in South Korean waters being handed over to North Korean authorities, against their will. The forced repatriation by the South Korean government was a controversial issue. North Korea claimed they were criminals who fled, but many, including Thae, in the South insisted that is propaganda in disguise and asylum should have been granted to the young men.

“As long as we are human beings, we should save the people who want to be saved,” Thae said. “That is humanity. That's why I want to change the law.”

Thae said he wants to help the international community understand the real face of the North Korean regime and get over the "total failure and diplomatic catastrophe" of Trump’s engagement efforts with Kim Jong Un.

But he said he realized that he needed a political platform to have his voice heard by foreign counterparts. For example, since he is a defector from North Korea, China bans him from entering the country. Thae wants to explain to Chinese officials where North Korea stands in nuclear negotiations, help the Japanese resolve the issue of civilians abducted by the North, and talk to U.S. senators and congressmen about why Kim Jong Un will "never give up its nuclear weapons program."

Thae’s race will be a tough one. He faces much criticism from South Korea’s ruling democratic party and its supporters in favor of rapprochement with the North.

“There are people here who say I shouldn’t talk about human rights or campaign for the assembly seat because Kim Jong Un feels uncomfortable,” he told the press, raising his voice. "We should not try to appease the [North Korean] government. That is surely unjust."

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


China revokes press credentials for three Wall Street Journal reporters amid coronavirus crisis

zodebala/iStock(LONDON) -- The Chinese government has revoked the press credentials of three Beijing-based journalists from The Wall Street Journal as punishment for the headline of a recent opinion piece published by the U.S. newspaper that referred to China as "the real sick man of Asia."

An official from China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the decision during a press conference Wednesday, saying the Feb. 3 op-ed "smears the efforts of the Chinese government and people on fighting the [coronavirus] epidemic." The move comes after the ministry had asked The Wall Street Journal last week to publicly apologize for the article and hold the person involved accountable.

"The editors used such a racially discriminatory title, triggering indignation and condemnation among the Chinese people and the international community," the official said. "However, regrettably, what the WSJ has done so far is nothing but parrying and dodging its responsibility. It has neither issued an official apology nor informed us of what it plans to do with the persons involved."

"The Chinese side handles affairs related to foreign journalists in accordance with laws and regulations," the official added. "The Chinese people do not welcome those media that speak racially discriminatory languages and maliciously slander and attack China. As such, it is decided that from today, the press cards of three WSJ journalists will be revoked."

The Wall Street Journal identified the three journalists as Josh Chin, its deputy bureau chief in Beijing and a U.S. citizen; reporter Chao Deng, also an American; and Philip Wen, an Australian national.

ABC News has reached out to the newspaper's publisher, Dow Jones & Company, for comment.

The initial cases of the novel coronavirus, known officially as COVID-19, emerged back in December in Wuhan, the capital of China's central Hubei province. China has since placed the city under lockdown but the economic powerhouse has still struggled to contain the spread of the disease.

COVID-19 causes symptoms similar to pneumonia, ranging from the mild, such as a slight cough, to the more severe, including fever and difficulty breathing, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is no vaccine yet for the virus.

As of Wednesday, China's National Health Commission said it has received 74,185 reports of confirmed cases and 2,004 deaths on the Chinese mainland. An additional 94 confirmed infections have been reported in the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao as well as Taiwan, with one death in Hong Kong and another in Taiwan.

The newly discovered virus us spread overseas, with 805 confirmed cases in 25 countries, including the United States. There have been three deaths reported outside of China, bringing the worldwide death toll to 2,009, according to the World Health Organization, which has declared the outbreak a global health emergency.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


US forces 5 Chinese media outlets to register as foreign missions

Olkeksii Liskonih/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- The State Department notified five Chinese media outlets on Tuesday that they must register as "foreign missions," requiring them to share information on all their U.S.-based employees and properties with the U.S. government.

Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network (CGTN), China Radio International, China Daily Distribution Corp. and Hai Tian Development USA are all being designated in a move that ramps up the Trump administration's efforts to combat what they say is the Chinese Communist Party's increasingly dominant control of media and its spread of propaganda overseas, including in the U.S.

"We're not seeking conflict by any stretch of the imagination, but we're going to call it straight, we're going to call it as we see it," said a senior State Department official who briefed reporters on the announcement, "And the fact of the matter is each and every single one of these entities does in fact work 100% for the Chinese government and the Chinese communist party."

These designations were similarly used for Soviet outlets, such as Pravda, during the Cold War, although currently, Russian outlets including RT or Sputnik have not been required to register as foreign missions. The most recent designation was the Vietnam News Agency, a state-run outlet that was required to register five years ago, according to a second senior State Department official.

All five Chinese outlets have already been required to register by the Justice Department as foreign agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. But this authority will give the U.S. government increased insight into their operations, according to the senior officials, including a list of employees and requiring prior approval for acquiring any new commercial property.

Even U.S. citizens who work for one of these five outlets, which includes the widely available cable news channel CGTN, will have their information handed over to the U.S. government. That includes basic details, such as name, date of birth, residential address and job title, according to one official.

Asked about the timing, they said the outlets had increasingly come under party control under the rule of Xi Jinping, China's president and the Chinese Communist Party's general secretary, even reading a quote from Xi about the importance of party control over the media.

Senior Trump administration officials have become increasingly hawkish on China, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence warning that the Communist Party is creating a totalitarian system that it seeks to export overseas to dominate the 21st century. In a speech to U.S. governors on Feb. 8, Pompeo warned that that effort to expand its influence even includes taking advantage of the freedom of the U.S. system.

"The Chinese Government has been methodical in the way it's analyzed our system, our very open system, one that we're deeply proud of. It's assessed our vulnerabilities, and it's decided to exploit our freedoms to gain advantage over us at the federal level, the state level and the local level," he said. "Today they have free rein in our system, and we're completely shut out from theirs."

In a similar vein, the State Department announced in October that Chinese personnel at the embassy in Washington and consulates across the U.S. would be required to notify the U.S. of any meetings with state and local governments and educational or research institutions. It was a decision to "level the playing field," a senior State Department official said at the time, as U.S. diplomats in China must get approval for any similar meeting while Chinese officials still do not.

The new registration requirement for media outlets will not, however, place any "constraints" on these outlets' activities in the U.S. or the content they produce and publish, according to the senior officials.

But while they wouldn't go so far as to accuse them of spreading disinformation, one official told ABC News, "They are part and parcel of the PRC (People's Republic of China) propaganda apparatus, and anyone that consumes news or any other content that those guys produce should keep that in the back of their mind."

Both officials batted away concerns about possible Chinese retaliation against U.S. or other Western journalists in China, saying press freedom there is already severely restricted.

The U.S. expects all five companies will comply, according to one official, who declined to discuss what enforcement options the administration would take if they did not.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Hospital director at coronavirus epicenter dies from the virus

jarun011/iStock(WUHAN, China) -- The director of a hospital in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak, died on Tuesday after contracting the virus.

Liu Zhiming, 51, was a neurosurgeon and director of the Wuchang Hospital in Wuhan, according to the Wuhan health commission.

Zhiming's death follows last week's report that more than 1,700 medical workers had been sicked by the virus, and six had died, most of them in Hubei province.

So far, there have been more than 72,500 infections in China and 1,850 deaths, according to the World Health Organization, with three deaths recorded outside of China. In the past 24 hours, 110 new cases of novel coronavirus were diagnosed outside of China.

Among those, 90% were diagnosed on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked off the coast of Japan.

"The situation on the ship obviously has evolved," Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Program, said at a Tuesday news conference. While quarantining passengers in separate accommodations on the ship seemed like a better option than dispersing those individuals around the world a few weeks ago, "there's been more transmission than expected."

A new study by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an agency of the National Health Commission, found that more than 80% of those who've contracted the newly discovered virus -- known officially as COVID-19 -- had mild symptoms and recovered, while 14% of the cases included severe symptoms, like pneumonia and shortness of breath. About 5% of patients had critical symptoms, such as organ and respiratory failure or septic shock.

The study, which cited analyses of more than 44,000 cases of COVID-19, also found that a patient's risk of death increased with their age, and relatively few children had contracted the disease.

Scientists need more research to understand why so few cases of the disease have been in children, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference Monday. And while the data indicates a decline in cases, Tedros cautioned that the trend should be "interpreted very cautiously."

"It's too early to tell if this reported decline will continue," he told reporters. "Every scenario is still on the table."

At a press briefing in Ethiopia on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on China to "increase its transparency" about the outbreak.

"We hope that every country that has information -- this includes China -- will be completely open and transparent. It took us too long to get the medical experts into the country," he said. "But we are hopeful that the Chinese government will increase its transparency [and] will continue to share this information."

COVID-19 causes symptoms similar to pneumonia, ranging from the mild, such as a slight cough, to the more severe, including fever and difficulty breathing, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is no vaccine yet for the virus.

Meanwhile, the Diamond Princess cruise ship continues to be the largest center of infection outside China.

The Diamond Princess docked at the Japanese port of Yokohama on Feb. 3 and was placed under quarantine two days later, as passengers and crew tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, more than 540 people on board the cruise ship have been infected with the disease -- 99 of whom were confirmed in the past 24 hours. At least one quarantine officer also has been infected, according to Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, which is leading and coordinating the public health response on board.

Those aboard the ship who were infected were brought ashore for treatment, while thousands of others were confined to their rooms until the quarantine period ends.

The United States is the first country to evacuate its citizens from the quarantined ship in Japan. More than 300 Americans, including 14 who'd tested positive for the novel coronavirus, were evacuated Monday on two flights chartered by the U.S. government, officials said. Roughly 60 Americans, some who were hospitalized and others who opted to stay on the ship, remain in Japan.

The first charter flight landed at Travis Air Force Base in California early Monday morning. The second landed soon after at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Everyone on board will be quarantined for 14 days. Several individuals, including some who tested positive, were transferred to hospitals, officials said.

Princess Cruises, which operates the cruise ship, announced in a statement Sunday that it will cancel all Diamond Princess voyages through April 20 due to the "prolonged quarantine period." The cruise line is offering a full refund to all 2,666 guests, more than 400 of whom were from the U.S.

The initial cases of COVID-19 emerged in December in Wuhan, the capital of China's central Hubei province. Chinese authorities have placed the city on lockdown in an effort to contain the virus.

The WHO has declared the outbreak a global health emergency, with a "very" high risk of spread within China and a "high" risk of spread at the global and regional levels.

The Health Commission of Hubei Province announced on Feb. 13 a change in how cases would be diagnosed and counted, with the total number of confirmed cases now including "clinically diagnosed cases," or patients who showed symptoms of the disease and were diagnosed through CT scans of the lungs, for instance, but not yet had laboratory testing.

The expanded criteria is meant to ensure "patients can receive standardized treatment according to confirmed cases as early as possible to further improve the success rate of treatment," the commission said in a statement.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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