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US drone strike kills 2 Islamic State members in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON, Aug 28: Acting swiftly on President Joe Biden’s promise to retaliate for the deadly suicide bombing at Kabul airport, the U.S. military said it killed two members of the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate with a drone strike in the group’s eastern stronghold.

The attack Saturday local time came amid what the White House called indications that IS planned to strike again as the U.S.-led evacuation from Kabul airport moved into its final days. Biden has set Tuesday as his deadline for completing the exit.

Biden authorized the drone strike and it was ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide details not yet publicly announced. It was not immediately clear whether the targeted IS members were directly involved in Thursday’s airport attack. The U.S. military initially said one person was killed.

“It was a single mission to get these targets and as the assessments and information flowed over time, we were able to recognize that another was killed as well and one wounded,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a Defense Department briefing Saturday.

“They were ISIS-K planners and facilitators and that’s enough reason there alone. I won’t speak to the details of these individuals and what their specific roles might be,” Kirby said. He added: “We have the ability and the means to carry over the horizon counterterrorism capabilities and we’re going to defend ourselves.”

He declined to identify those killed but said the United States knew who they were.

The airstrike was launched from beyond Afghanistan less than 48 hours after the devastating Kabul attack that killed 13 Americans and 169 Afghans with just days left in a final U.S. withdrawal after 20 years of war. U.S. Central Command said it believed its strike killed no civilians.

The speed with which the U.S. military retaliated reflected its close monitoring of IS and years of experience in targeting extremists in remote parts of the world. But it also shows the limits of U.S. power to eliminate extremist threats, which some believe will have more freedom of movement in Afghanistan now that the Taliban is in power.

The airstrike came after Biden declared Thursday that perpetrators of the attack would not be able to hide. “We will hunt you down and make you pay,” he said. Pentagon leaders told reporters Friday that they were prepared for whatever retaliatory action the president ordered.

The president was warned Friday to expect another lethal attack in the closing days of a frantic U.S.-led evacuation. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s national security team offered a grim outlook.

“They advised the president and vice president that another terror attack in Kabul is likely, but that they are taking maximum force protection measures at the Kabul airport,” Psaki said, echoing what the Pentagon has been saying since the bombing Thursday at Kabul airport.

Late Friday, the State Department again urged Americans to stay away from airport gates, including “the New Ministry of Interior gate.”

‘We will hunt you down and make you pay’: Biden vows retaliation for Kabul attacks

WASHINGTON, Aug 27: President Joe Biden on Thursday vowed to find and retaliate against those responsible for an attack that killed 13 U.S. service members outside the Kabul airport.

“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said in remarks at the White House.

Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, earlier told reporters the group ISIS-K was responsible for the airport attack, in which scores of Afghan civilians also died.

Biden said he’s asked the U.S. military for options to strike ISIS-K targets in response to the airport attack. He also said the U.S. won’t be deterred in its evacuation efforts.

The chaotic U.S. exit from the country, however, is heightening underlying geopolitical risks, and, according to some analysts, potentially clouding the outlook for Biden’s legislative agenda.

Biden earlier Thursday delayed by a day his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as he met with his national security team on Afghanistan.

The daily White House press briefing was delayed until after Biden’s remarks, and a separate meeting with U.S. state governors was canceled. The president said he was “engaged all day” with the Afghanistan conflict, consulting the U.S. military and his national security team.

Biden earlier this week said that the U.S. is on track to finish its military involvement in Afghanistan by his Aug. 31 deadline. But he said he’d spoken with military leaders in case of a need to adjust the timetable, “should that become necessary.”

Biden and Bennett will meet Friday, the White House said.

Biden decides to stick with Aug 31 final pullout from Kabul

WASHINGTON, Aug 24: President Joe Biden has decided not to extend his August 31 deadline for completing the US-led evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies from Afghanistan, the Associated Press reported citing an official on Tuesday. Biden made the decision after consultation with his national security team.

Meanwhile, the Taliban has asked women workers to stay home “till security gets better” in the country, news agency AFP reported. Addressing a press conference, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also said that the US must complete its evacuation from Afghanistan by August 31–the date the Biden administration set for the withdrawal of all American troops.

CIA Chief Holds Secret Meeting With Taliban In Kabul

WASHINGTON, Aug 24: US Central Intelligence Agency chief William Burns held a secret meeting in Kabul with Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

The Monday meeting, which if confirmed will have been the highest-level encounter between the Islamist group and the Biden administration since the militants' return to power, came as efforts to evacuate thousands of people from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan became increasingly urgent.

Burns is one of US President Joe Biden's most experienced diplomats; while Baradar, who headed the Taliban's political office in Qatar, is one of the top leaders in the regime that has taken power in Kabul.

A spokesperson for the CIA would not confirm the meeting, saying that the agency "never discusses the director's travels."

The Washington Post, which cited anonymous US sources for the meeting, did not the content of the discussions between the Taliban co-founder and the CIA boss.

But it said it was likely they revolved around any delay in the deadline for the United States to finish evacuations at the airport of the Afghan capital, where thousands of Afghans, terrified by the return of the Islamists, are still massed with the hope of fleeing the country.

Biden has set an August 31 deadline to finish the chaotic airlift organised by thousands of temporarily deployed US and UK troops, but has left the door open to an extension if needed.

But a spokesman for the Taliban warned Monday the hardline Islamist group would not agree to any extension, calling the issue a "red line", with any delay viewed as "extending occupation".

"If the US or UK were to seek additional time to continue evacuations -- the answer is no. Or there would be consequences," Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Sky News.

The newspaper said the meeting took place on Monday.

Kathy Hochul Becomes New York’s First Female Governor

NEW YORK, Aug 24: Kathy Hochul became the first female governor of New York at the stroke of midnight Tuesday, taking control of a state government desperate to get back to business after months of distractions over sexual harassment allegations against Andrew Cuomo.

The Democrat from western New York was sworn in as governor in a brief, private ceremony in the New York State Capitol overseen by the state’s chief judge, Janet DiFiore.

Afterward, she told WGRZ, a Buffalo television station, she felt “the weight of responsibility” on her shoulders.

“I’ll tell New Yorkers I’m up to the task. And I’m really proud to be able to serve as their governor and I won’t let them down,” she said.

Hochul’s ascent to the top job was a history-making moment in a capital where women have only recently begun chipping away at a notoriously male-dominated political culture.

Cuomo left office at 12:00 a.m, two weeks after he announced he would resign rather than face a likely impeachment battle. He submitted his resignation letter late Monday to the leaders of the state Assembly and Senate.

On his final day in office, Cuomo released a pre-recorded farewell address in which he defended his record over a decade as New York’s governor and portrayed himself as the victim of a “media frenzy.”

Hochul was scheduled to have a ceremonial swearing-in event Tuesday morning at the Capitol, with more pomp than the brief, legally required event during the night.

She planned to meet with legislative leaders later in the morning and make a public address at 3 p.m.

For the first time, a majority of the most powerful figures in New York state government will be women, including state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Attorney General Letitia James and the chief judge, DiFiore. The state Assembly is led by a man, Speaker Carl Heastie.

Hochul will inherit immense challenges as she takes over an administration facing criticism for inaction in Cuomo’s final months.

Covid-19 has made a comeback, with new cases up nearly 1,370% since late June. Hospitalizations are climbing even as schools prepare to go back into session.

Big decisions lay ahead on whether to mandate masks or vaccines for certain groups, or whether to reinstate social distancing restrictions if the state’s latest wave of infections worsens. Hochul has said she favors making masks mandatory for schoolchildren, a contrast with Cuomo, who said he lacked that authority.

The economy remains unsettled. Jobs lost during the pandemic have been coming back, but unemployment remains double what it was two years ago.

New York has also struggled to get federal relief money into the hands of tenants behind on their rent because of the pandemic, releasing just 6% of the budgeted $2 billion so far. Thousands of households face the possibility of losing their homes if the state allows eviction protections to expire.

Hochul also faces questions about whether she’ll change the culture of governance in New York, following a Cuomo administration that favored force over charm.

Cuomo’s resignation comes after an independent investigation overseen by state Attorney General Letitia James concluded there was credible evidence he’d sexually harassed at least 11 women.

In his farewell remarks, Cuomo struck a defiant tone, saying the attorney general’s report that triggered his resignation was designed to be ”a political firecracker on an explosive topic, and it did work.”

“There was a political and media stampede,” he said.

Cuomo also touted himself as a bulwark against his party’s left wing, which he said wants to defund the police and demonize businesses, and boasted of making government effective in his years in office. He cited his work battling the COVID-19 pandemic, legalizing same-sex marriage and hiking the minimum wage to $15.

“I tried my best to deliver for you,” Cuomo said.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo Resigns

NEW YORK, Aug 10: Embattled New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his resignation on Tuesday after 11 women accused him of sexual harassment.

"I think that given the circumstances, the best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to government," Cuomo said in a live address.

"My resignation will be effective in 14 days."

U.S. approves potential sale of howitzers to Taiwan: Pentagon

WASHINGTON, Aug 5: The U.S. State Department approved the potential sale of 40 155mm M109A6 Medium Self-Propelled Howitzer artillery systems to Taiwan in a deal valued at up to $750 million, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.

This comes after arms sales last year that included drones and coastal missile defenses meant to upgrade the island's capabilities and discourage a Chinese invasion. The Biden administration has approved other direct commercial sales of arms to Taiwan since taking office.

The package would include the howitzers, 1,698 precision guidance kits for munitions, spares, training, ground stations and upgrades for Taiwan's previous generation of howitzers, the Pentagon said.

The Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of the possible sale on Wednesday.

Taiwan's defense ministry expressed "sincere gratitude" to the U.S. government in a statement on Thursday, saying the sales would help its ground forces increase their "capacity for speedy reaction and fire support".

The ministry called the continuous U.S. arms support a "basis for maintaining regional stability."

China's foreign ministry said it was "firmly opposed" to the sales and had lodged "stern representations" with the United States, according to comments from a spokesperson posted on the ministry's website.

The sales interfered in China's domestic affairs, the spokesperson said and warned that China would take countermeasures as the issue develops.

China's Taiwan Affairs Office reiterated a call for the United States to stop all arms sales to Taiwan so as not to send a wrong signal to Taiwan pro-independence forces.

Like most nations, the United States has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan but is required by law to provide the Chinese-claimed island with the means to defend itself and is its most important international backer, to Beijing's anger.

Despite approval by the State Department, the notification does not indicate that a contract has been signed or that negotiations have concluded. The Pentagon said BAE Systems Plc was the prime contractor for the weapons.

US To Require COVID-19 Vaccination For Foreign Travelers

WASHINGTON, Aug 4: The Biden administration is taking the first steps toward requiring nearly all foreign visitors to the U.S. to be vaccinated for the coronavirus, a White House official said Wednesday.

The requirement would come as part of the administrations phased approach to easing travel restrictions for foreign citizens to the country. No timeline has yet been determined, as interagency working groups study how and when to safely move toward resuming normal travel. Eventually all foreign citizens entering the country, with some limited exceptions, are expected to need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter the U.S.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the policy under development.

The Biden administration has kept in place travel restrictions that have severely curtailed international trips to the U.S., citing the spread of the delta variant of the virus. Under the rules, non-U.S. residents who have been to China, the European Schengen area, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, South Africa and India in the prior 14 days are prohibited from entering the U.S.

All travelers to the U.S., regardless of vaccination status, are required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of air travel to the country.

The Biden administration has faced pressure to lift some restrictions from affected allies, the air travel industry and families who have been kept separated from loved ones by the rules. Many have complained that the travel restrictions don’t reflect the current virus situation particularly as conditions in the U.S. are worse than in many of the prohibited nations.

Coronavirus Leaked from China Lab, Chinese Scientists Worked to Modify Virus to Infect Humans: US Report

WASHINGTON, Aug 2: A preponderance of evidence proves the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic leaked from a Chinese research facility, said a report by U.S. Republicans released on Monday, a conclusion that U.S. intelligence agencies have not reached.

The report also cited “ample evidence" that Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) scientists - aided by U.S. experts and Chinese and U.S. government funds - were working to modify coronaviruses to infect humans and such manipulation could be hidden.

Representative Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, released the report by the panel’s Republican staff. It urged a bipartisan investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic that has killed 4.4 million people worldwide.

China denies a genetically modified coronavirus leaked from the facility in Wuhan - where the first COVID-19 cases were detected in 2019 - a leading but unproven theory among some experts. Beijing also denies allegations of a cover-up.

“We now believe it’s time to completely dismiss the wet market as the source," said the report. “We also believe the preponderance of the evidence proves the virus did leak from the WIV and that it did so sometime before September 12, 2019."

The report cited what it called new and under-reported information about safety protocols at the lab, including a July 2019 request for a $1.5 million overhaul of a hazardous waste treatment system for the facility, which was less than two years old.

In April, the top U.S. intelligence agency said it concurred with the scientific consensus that the virus was not man-made or genetically modified.

U.S. President Joe Biden in May ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to accelerate their hunt for the origins of the virus and report back in 90 days.

A source familiar with current intelligence assessments said the U.S. intelligence community has not reached any conclusion whether the virus came from animals or the WIV.

 

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