Sunday, October 2, 2022

A sign offering a $300 hiring bonus is posted at a McDonalds restaurant, Friday, June 17, 2022, in Miami. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier=Newsis)
A sign offering a $300 hiring bonus is posted at a McDonalds restaurant, Friday, June 17, 2022, in Miami. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier=Newsis)

The CEOs of the nation’s biggest banks appeared in front of Congress Wednesday and gave a dim view of the U.S. economy, reflecting the financial and economic distress many Americans are facing.

JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, Citigroup’s Jane Fraser and other chief executives said the U.S. consumer is in good shape but faces threats from high inflation and rising interest rates.

The hearing was held on the same day the Federal Reserve announced it was raising its benchmark interest rate by three-quarters of a point in a bid to contain inflation. When asked by lawmakers, the bank CEOs seemed increasingly skeptical that the Fed can achieve its goal of a “soft landing,” where inflation is brought back down without causing widespread damage to the economy.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” Dimon said.

Fraser said in remarks prepared for the hearing that while “COVID is behind us, the economic challenges we are now facing are no less daunting.”

Despite the dimmer view, the CEOs generally said the U.S. consumer is currently in good financial health due to the savings they accumulated during the pandemic. Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan said the amount of money in customers’ accounts has been stable.

Dimon said wages are up while debt loads have dropped, and Fraser said consumers are spending at elevated levels.

All that could change as the Fed increases rates at an aggressive pace. With inflation rising as high as 9% this year, the Fed has aggressively raised rates from near zero to a range of 3% to 3.25% in a few months. Fed Chair Jerome Powell acknowledged that households will feel an impact.

“We have got to get inflation behind us. I wish there were a painless way to do that. There isn’t,” Powell said at a news conference following the announcement of the rate increase.

While less confident about a “soft landing,” the seven bank executives did give a unanimous vote of confidence in Powell’s ability to rein in inflation when asked by Rep. Jake Auchincloss, D-Massachusetts.

While billed as a hearing on everyday finances, the CEOs were also peppered with election-year political questions. Democrats pushed the CEOs on issues like racial equity, the unionization efforts at banks, as well as evergreen financial topics like overdraft fees and fraud.

“In this environment, the role that banks play to protect consumers and provide access to affordable credit is absolutely critical,” said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California and chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee.

Republicans took the opportunity to both push back on the need for the hearing – this is the third time Democrats have brought Wall Street executives in front of this committee since taking control of the House in 2019 – as well as high inflation. One hot-button issue was gun store sales. Earlier this month the major payment networks – Visa, Mastercard and American Express – said they would start categorizing gun store sales as a separate merchant code. It’s a decision gun control advocates have pushed for, potentially to help catch surges of gun sales ahead of a mass shooting.

Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, pushed the bank CEOs on whether they would follow the payment networks’ decision. In response, all six CEOs said they would not stop legal gun sales and would protect consumers’ privacy.

“We don’t want to tell Americans what to do with their money,” Dimon said.

Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, which focus on investment banking, did not testify at Wednesday’s hearing. Instead, the CEOs of three new banks were brought in: Andy Cecere of U.S. Bank, William Demchak of PNC Financial, and Bill Rogers Jr. of Truist.

Each of them runs “super regionals” – banks that are huge in their own right, with thousands of branches and hundreds of billions in assets, but dwarfed in size by JPMorgan, BofA, Citi and Wells.
Many Americans still remember bailing out the banking industry nearly 15 years ago, so the CEOs also used the platform to sell themselves as a force for good.

Eager to avoid the political headache that comes with being labeled as part of “Wall Street,” the super regionals used the hearing to sell themselves as a competitive “Main Street” alternative to the Wall Street mega banks.

“We are one-sixth the size of some banks on this panel,” PNC’s Demchak said.

After the committee hearing ended, Waters said that it is important to bring the regional banks before her committee, saying the recent wave of mergers of midsize banks could negatively impact competition.
“These mergers need to be looked at much more carefully,” Waters said.
The head of Wells Fargo typically faces tough questions from lawmakers because of the various scandals that cost the bank billions of dollars in fines and forced it to operate under the supervision of the Federal Reserve.

Wells CEO Charles Scharf said the bank has taken a number of steps to revamp its culture. But Waters was doubtful, noting recent reports about the bank holding fake job interviews for women and having additional fines imposed upon it by financial regulators.
The CEOs will testify before the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday. (AP=Newsis)

(220515) -- BUFFALO, May 15, 2022 (Xinhua) -- Photo taken with a mobile phone on May 15, 2022 shows police working at the scene of a mass shooting in Buffalo of New York State, the United States. An armored gunman killed ten people and injured three at a supermarket in Buffalo of New York State on Saturday, according to local enforcement officials. (Photo by Zhang Jie/Xinhua=Newsis)
(220515) — BUFFALO, May 15, 2022 (Xinhua) — Photo taken with a mobile phone on May 15, 2022 shows police working at the scene of a mass shooting in Buffalo of New York State, the United States. An armored gunman killed ten people and injured three at a supermarket in Buffalo of New York State on Saturday, according to local enforcement officials. (Photo by Zhang Jie/Xinhua=Newsis)

The white gunman accused of massacring 10 Black people at a Buffalo supermarket wrote as far back as November about staging a livestreamed attack on African Americans, practiced shooting from his car and traveled hours from his home in March to scout out the store, according to detailed diary entries he appears to have posted online.

The author of the diary posted hand-drawn maps of the grocery store along with tallies of the number of Black people he counted there, and recounted how a Black security guard at the supermarket confronted him that day to ask what he was up to. A Black security guard was among the dead in Saturday’s shooting rampage.

The diary taken from the chat platform Discord came to light two days after 18-year-old Payton Gendron allegedly opened fire with an AR-15-style rifle at the Tops Friendly Market. He was wearing body armor and used a helmet camera to livestream the bloodbath on the internet, authorities said.

He surrendered inside the supermarket and was arraigned on a murder charge over the weekend. He pleaded not guilty and was jailed under a suicide watch. Federal authorities are contemplating bringing hate crime charges.

Copies of the online materials were shared with The Associated Press by Marc-Andre Argentino, a research fellow at the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence.

A transcript of the diary entries was apparently posted publicly sometime ahead of the attack. It was not clear how many people might have seen the entries. Experts said it was possible but unlikely the diary could have been altered by someone other than the author.

The FBI’s top agent in Buffalo, Stephen Belongia, indicated on a call with other officials Monday that investigators are looking at Gendron’s Discord activity, citing posts last summer about body armor and guns and others last month in which he taunted federal authorities. Belongia gave no give details in the call, which the AP obtained.

But in an April 17 post apparently by Gendron, he exhorted readers to kill agents from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Messages seeking comment were left with Gendron’s lawyers. No one answered the door at his family’s home.

The violence spread grief and anger in Buffalo and beyond.

Former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield Jr., who lost his 86-year-old mother, Ruth Whitfield, in the shooting, asked how the country could allow its history of racist killings to repeat itself.

“We’re not just hurting. We’re angry,” Whitfield said at a news conference with civil rights attorney Ben Crump and others. “We treat people with decency, and we love even our enemies.”

“And you expect us to keep doing this over and over and over again – over again, forgive and forget,” he continued. “While people we elect and trust in offices around this country do their best not to protect us, not to consider us equal.”

The victims also included a man buying a cake for his grandson; a church deacon helping people get home with their groceries; and a supermarket security guard.

The online diary details a March 8 reconnaissance visit the writer made to Buffalo, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) from Gendron’s home in Conklin, New York.

Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said at a news conference that there was information indicating Gendron was in Buffalo in March, but Gramaglia declined to say more.

The commissioner said numerous investigators are working on obtaining and reviewing Gendron’s online postings.

“There’s a lot of social that’s being looked at, or that’s being verified, captured,” Gramaglia said. “Some of that takes warrants that have to be served on various social media platforms.”

The author of the diary talked about checking out targets including the Tops Friendly Market and said a security guard asked what he was doing after his second visit of the day. He gave an excuse about collecting data and soon left – “a close call,” he wrote.

A 180-page document purportedly written by Gendron said the attack was intended to terrorize all nonwhite, non-Christian people and get them to leave the country. Federal authorities said they are working to confirm the document’s authenticity.

Gendron had briefly been on authorities’ radar last spring, when state police were called to his high school for a report that the then-17-year-old had made threatening statements.

Belongia, the FBI agent, said Gendron had responded to a question about future plans by saying that he wanted to commit a murder-suicide.

A December Discord post that Gendron apparently made said he had given that answer to a question about retirement in an economics class and ended up spending “one of the worst nights of my life” in a hospital.

Gramaglia said Gendron had no further contact with law enforcement after a mental health evaluation that put him in a hospital for a day and a half. On the call with Belongia, Gramaglia said state police “did everything within the confines of the law” at that time.

It was unclear whether officials could have invoked New York’s “red flag” regulation, which lets law enforcement, school officials and families ask a court to order the seizure of guns from people considered dangerous.

Federal law bars people from owning guns if a judge has determined they have a “mental defect” or they have been forced into a mental institution. An evaluation alone would not trigger the prohibition.

At the White House, President Joe Biden, who planned a visit Tuesday to Buffalo, paid tribute to the slain security guard, retired police officer Aaron Salter.

Salter fired repeatedly at the attacker, striking his armor-plated vest at least once before being shot and killed. Biden said Salter “gave his life trying to save others.”

Authorities said that in addition to the 10 Black people killed, three people were wounded: one Black, two white.

Zeneta Everhart said her son, supermarket employee Zaire Goodman, was helping a shopper outside when he saw a man get out of a car in military gear and point a gun at him. Then a bullet hit Goodman in the neck.

“Mom! Mom, get here now, get here now! I got shot!” he told his mother by phone. Goodman, 20, was out of the hospital and doing well Monday, his mother said.

In livestreamed video of the attack circulating online, the gunman trained his weapon on a white person cowering behind a checkout counter, but said, “Sorry!” and didn’t shoot. Screenshots purporting to be from the broadcast appear to show a racial slur against Black people scrawled on his rifle. (AP=Newsis)

A Ukrainian family who fled the war waits at the train station in Przemysl, southeastern Poland, on Sunday, March 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris=Newsis)
A Ukrainian family who fled the war waits at the train station in Przemysl, southeastern Poland, on Sunday, March 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris=Newsis)

Russia escalated attacks in western Ukraine on Sunday with a deadly airstrike on a military base where Ukrainian troops had trained with NATO forces, bringing the conflict closer to Poland and other members of the bloc.


Continued fighting in multiple regions caused more misery throughout Ukraine and provoked renewed international outrage. Outside the capital city of Kyiv, a U.S. video journalist died Sunday and another American journalist was injured when they were attacked by Russian forces.


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russia of trying to create new “pseudo-republics” to break his country apart. He called on Ukraine’s regions not to repeat the experience of 2014, when pro-Russian separatists began fighting against Ukrainian forces in two eastern areas.


Now in its third week, the war has forced more than 2.5 million people to flee Ukraine. Thousands of civilians and soldiers have been killed.


Here are some key things to know about the conflict:

<b> WHAT HAPPENED IN WESTERN UKRAINE?</b>


Ukrainian officials said at least 35 people were killed and 134 wounded Sunday when more than 30 cruise missiles were fired at the Yavoriv military range, just 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the Polish border.


The training base appears to be the most westward target struck so far in the 18-day invasion. The facility, also known as the International Peacekeeping and Security Center, has long been used to train Ukrainian military personnel, often with instructors from the United States and other NATO countries.


The base has also hosted international NATO drills. As such, the site symbolizes what has long been a Russian complaint: That the 30-member NATO alliance is moving ever closer to Russia’s borders. Russia has demanded that Ukraine drop its ambitions to join NATO.


The United States condemned the attack on Yavoriv, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeting Sunday: “The brutality must stop.”


The U.S. also issued a swift warning: White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that NATO will respond if any Russian attacks go beyond Ukrainian borders and hit NATO countries.


Russian airstrikes also again hit the airport in Ivano-Frankivsk, another city in western Ukraine south of Lviv and 250 kilometers (155 miles) away from Ukraine’s border with NATO members Slovakia and Hungary. The city’s mayor, Ruslan Martsinkiv, said Russia’s goal was “to sow panic and fear.”


<b> 
WHAT’S HAPPENING IN MARIUPOL AND ELSEWHERE?</b>


In the besieged port city of Mariupol, the city council says more than 2,180 people have been killed in near-constant shelling by Russian forces.


The International Committee of the Red Cross said suffering in the port city is “simply immense” and that hundreds of thousands of residents are “facing extreme or total shortages of basic necessities like food, water and medicine.” The organization said bodies of civilians and soldiers remained where they fell.

 Ukrainian authorities said Russians agreed that more than 10 humanitarian corridors would open Sunday – including a route from Mariupol. But similar promises have failed and there was no word late Sunday on whether the routes were usable. Officials said a convoy carrying 100 tons of aid was expected to arrive in Mariupol on Monday.

 In the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, near the Black Sea, authorities reported nine people killed in bombings. They said 32 people were also wounded in Russian airstrikes on a monastery and a children’s resort in the eastern Donetsk region.


<b> 
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE U.S. JOURNALISTS?</b>


The Kyiv police force said Sunday that Russian troops opened fire on the car of Brent Renaud  and another journalist in Irpin, near the capital. Police said the injured journalist, Juan Arredondo, was taken to a hospital in Kyiv.


A New York Times spokesperson said Renaud, 50, was a “talented filmmaker who had contributed to The New York Times over the years.” The spokesperson said he was not working for the publication at the time of his death. TIME released a statement saying Renaud had been working on a TIME Studios project about the global refugee crisis.


Journalist Annalisa Camilli told The Associated Press she was at a hospital in Kyiv where Arredondo was brought for treatment. In a video recorded by Camilli, Arredondo, lying on a stretcher, said he and Renaud had been filming refugees fleeing the area when Russian soldiers opened fire at a checkpoint.


The driver of their vehicle turned around, but soldiers continued firing, Arredondo said. Arredondo said an ambulance carried him away and Renaud, who was shot in the neck, was left behind.


<b> 
WHAT HAS THE AP DIRECTLY WITNESSED OR CONFIRMED?</b>


At a hospital in Brovary, near Kyiv, doctors tended to the injured, including three people who drove over a mine.


Valentyn Bagnyuk, the hospital’s chief doctor, said 80% of patients at the hospital are civilians who have been injured by shelling.


Volodymr Adamkovych sat shirtless on a hospital bed, bandages on his abdomen covering wounds caused by a shell that landed in his home. He said he spent the night in the basement of the home before he could safely reach the hospital. He said his wife and child were also at home but were not injured.


In the Kyiv suburb of Irpin, Ukrainian soldier Alexei Lipirdi, 46, said that the Russians “want to intimidate us so that we will not be calm,” but he and his unit remain defiant. Smoke billowed from distant buildings as he spoke.

<b>WHAT IS THE LATEST ON UKRAINIAN REFUGEES?</b>


While the number of people arriving in neighboring countries from Ukraine appears to have eased in the past week, the refugees’ harrowing accounts of destruction and death continue.


At the train station in Przemysl, Poland, refugees described traveling in packed trains and “people sleeping on each other” during their journeys to safety. Some heard explosions as they passed through a western region of Ukraine near Lviv, in the area where Russian missiles hit the military training base.


“The sky,” said Elizaveta Zmievskaya, 25, from Dnipro, “became red.”


Ina Padi, 40, who crossed the border with her family, was taking shelter at a fire station in Wielkie Oczy, Poland, when she was awakened by blasts Sunday that made the windows shake.


“I understood in that moment even if we are free of it, (the war) is still coming after us,” she said.


More than 1.5 million refugees have arrived in Poland since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 – the United Nations says a total of about 2.7 million people have fled Ukraine so far.


Polish border guard spokeswoman Anna Michalska said the numbers of refugees arriving have eased in the past week with about 79,800 arriving on Saturday, compared to 142,000 a week earlier.


<b> 
WHAT ARE WORLD LEADERS SAYING?</b>


Talks to establish a broad cease-fire have been unsuccessful so far. The Kremlin’s spokesman said another round of talks would take place Monday by videolink, according to Russian state news agency Tass.


U.S. President Joe Biden is sending his national security adviser to Rome on Monday to meet with a Chinese official, amid concerns that Beijing is amplifying Russian disinformation and may help Moscow evade punishing Western sanctions. The White House said the talks will focus on the direct impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine on regional and global security.


Meanwhile, from Vatican City, Pope Francis decried the “barbarianism” of the killing of children and other defenseless Ukrainians and called for attacks to stop “before cities are reduced to cemeteries.”


“In the name of God, I ask: `Stop this massacre,”‘ Francis said. (AP=Newsis)

A child clutches a man's leg before boarding a Lviv bound train, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda=Newsis)
A child clutches a man’s leg before boarding a Lviv bound train, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda=Newsis)

It took Tatyana Pelykh and her 11-year-old son four days of travel and a wait of nearly 48 hours at the border crossing to escape their native Ukraine for Romania. There they found safety and a place to sleep, on the floor of a hotel conference room.


But Pelykh, a baker, says she still carries the terror of war inside her.


“I feel that my body is here, but my heart and my soul are in Okhtyrka and Kharkiv,” the cities in Ukraine where her parents and best friend remain hunkered down in basements and garages under Russian attack.


In just one week, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has produced a refugee exodus so large that it almost matches the number of people who sought refuge in Europe in a whole year during the 2015 migration crisis.


The United Nations refugee agency said Thursday that 1 million people had fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, the swiftest exodus of refugees this century.


In 2015, hundreds of thousands of Syrians had fled their strife-torn country, which Russia also bombarded. Together with people escaping fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, they headed west, with thousands dying at sea trying to reach a continent where many didn’t want them.


The arrival of about 1.3 million people sparked tensions among European partners, who squabbled over how many to accept, and bolstered far-right populists, some friendly to the Kremlin.


This time, as Russian forces inflict massive destruction on Ukraine, Europeans have united in extending a helping hand.


In one week, neighboring nations accepted more than 2% of Ukraine’s population of 44 million, according to the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR. The operation has gone relatively smoothly thanks to an enormous mobilization of volunteers who have gone to the borders to help.


The European Union decided Thursday to grant people fleeing Ukraine temporary protection and residency permits. EU Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson said millions more were expected to move into the 27-nation bloc and would require shelter, schooling and work. The U.N. refugee agency predicted the war could produce up to 4 million refugees.


Meanwhile, Ukrainians and others who had been living in Ukraine continued to arrive in Polish, Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian and Moldovan border towns.


Among them was Nadia Zuravka, a teenager who arrived Thursday in Przemysl, Poland, with her mother. They came from Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, which is under bombardment. She said both her school and home had been hit by bombs, and her friends were all hiding in basements.


“Everything of value to me” has faced some kind of destruction, she said.


Poland, a neighboring Slavic nation where many Ukrainians have settled in recent years for work, has received the largest single group of refugees so far, with many being taken in by relatives or friends. Many refugees continue moving west to countries like Italy and Germany.


Volunteers and local authorities at border crossings meet exhausted people who have been traveling for days. They serve food or guide the newcomers to shelters; sometimes they take strangers into their own homes. Children arriving with cancer were evacuated to hospitals in Poland.


Pope Francis thanked Poland for its role in helping refugees, praising the country’s people for “opening your borders, your hearts, the doors of your homes.”
People from across Europe are helping too, even as they struggle with their own fears of what this dangerous new chapter holds for a continent that has faced so much bloodshed in past wars.


Luc Dedecker drove 1,650 kilometers (1,025 miles) from his home in Belgium to Przemysl, stopping only to sleep in his car. He was prepared to take strangers back to his place.


“People need to be helped,” he said. He also described a profound fear of Russian President Vladimir Putin.


For Poles, Russia’s attack on Ukraine evokes memories of their own country’s double invasion in 1939 by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The German invasion triggered World War II and a brutal five-year occupation that killed 6 million Poles, including 3 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.


Scenes of destroyed Ukrainian cities today recall the look of Polish cities leveled by German bombardments during the war.


Some Poles described helping Ukrainians now as part of a struggle by the democratic West to defend their own liberty, since sheltering Ukrainian women and children frees men to fight at home.


“We think that if Ukrainians fight and win, we will be safe. Now, we are not safe,” said Bartosz Tomaszewski, a 28-year-old Pole in a yellow security vest that marked him as a volunteer.


He was guiding people coming off trains in Przemsyl, where he has traveled each day from his home in nearby Rzeszow.


Tomaszewski fears that if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fails to stop Putin, Poland could be next, along with the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.


Pelykh, the Ukrainian refugee in the Romanian border town of Siret, hopes people in Russia “will read about this and think about what is happening now (in Ukraine). It’s not photoshop, it’s not fairy tales. It’s real, it’s real. It’s in my town.” (AP=Newsis)

FILE - Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces train, in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. As the West sounded the alarm about the Kremlin ordering troops into eastern Ukraine and decried it as an invasion, Russian state media painted a completely different picture — of Moscow coming to the rescue of war-torn areas tormented by Ukraine’s aggression and bringing them peace. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka=Newsis)
FILE – Members of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces train, in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. As the West sounded the alarm about the Kremlin ordering troops into eastern Ukraine and decried it as an invasion, Russian state media painted a completely different picture — of Moscow coming to the rescue of war-torn areas tormented by Ukraine’s aggression and bringing them peace. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka=Newsis)

The Kremlin said rebels in eastern Ukraine asked Russia for military assistance Wednesday to help fend off Ukrainian “aggression,” an announcement that immediately fueled fears that Moscow was offering up a pretext for war, just as the West had warned.

A short time later, the Ukrainian president rejected Moscow’s claims that his country poses a threat to Russia and said a Russian invasion would cost tens of thousands of lives.

“The people of Ukraine and the government of Ukraine want peace,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an emotional overnight address to his nation in Russian. “But if we come under attack, if we face an attempt to take away our country, our freedom, our lives and lives of our children, we will defend ourselves. When you attack us, you will see our faces, not our backs.”

Zelenskyy said he asked to arrange a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin late Wednesday, but the Kremlin did not respond.
In an apparent reference to Putin’s move to sanction the deployment of the Russian military to “maintain peace” in eastern Ukraine, Zelensky warned that “this step could mark the start of a big war on the European continent.”

“Any provocation, any spark could trigger a blaze that will destroy everything,” he said.

He challenged the Russian propaganda claims, saying that “you are told that this blaze will bring freedom to the people of Ukraine, but the Ukrainian people are free.”

The United Nations Security Council quickly scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday night at Ukraine’s request. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called the separatists’ request “a further escalation of the security situation.”

Anxiety about an imminent Russian offensive against its neighbor soared after Putin recognized the separatist regions’ independence on Monday, sanctioned the deployment of troops to the rebel territories and received parliamentary approval to use military force outside the country. The West responded with sanctions.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the rebel chiefs wrote to Putin on Wednesday, pleading with him to intervene after Ukrainian shelling caused civilian deaths and crippled vital infrastructure.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the separatists’ request for Russian help was an example of the sort of “false-flag” operation that the U.S. and its allies have expected Moscow to use as a pretense for war.

“So we’ll continue to call out what we see as false-flag operations or efforts to spread misinformation about what the actual status is on the ground,” she said.

Earlier in the day, Ukrainian lawmakers approved a decree that imposes a nationwide state of emergency for 30 days starting Thursday. The measure allows authorities to declare curfews and restrictions on movement, block rallies and ban political parties and organizations “in the interests of national security and public order.”

The action reflected increasing concern among Ukrainian authorities after weeks of trying to project calm. The Foreign Ministry advised against travel to Russia and recommended that any Ukrainians who are there leave immediately.

“For a long time, we refrained from declaring a state of emergency … but today the situation has become more complicated,” Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council head Oleksiy Danilov told parliament, emphasizing that Moscow’s efforts to destabilize Ukraine represented the main threat.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the Russian force of more than 150,000 troops arrayed along Ukraine’s borders is in an advanced state of readiness. “They are ready to go right now,” Kirby said.

The latest images released by the Maxar satellite image company show Russian troops and military equipment deployed within 10 miles of the Ukrainian border and less than 50 miles from Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

In other developments, Russia evacuated its embassy in Kyiv; Ukraine recalled its ambassador to Russia and considered breaking all diplomatic ties with Moscow and dozens of nations further squeezed Russian oligarchs and banks out of international markets.

President Joe Biden allowed sanctions to move forward against the company that built the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and against the company’s CEO.

“As I have made clear, we will not hesitate to take further steps if Russia continues to escalate,” Biden said in a statement.
Germany said Tuesday it was indefinitely suspending the project, after Biden charged that Putin had launched “the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine” by sending troops into the separatist regions. The pipeline is complete but has not yet begun operating.

Putin said Tuesday he had not yet sent any Russian troops into the rebel regions, contrary to Western claims, and Donetsk rebel leader Denis Pushilin insisted Wednesday there were no Russian troops in the region even though a local council member claimed the previous day they had moved in.

Ukrainian Minister for Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov said a wave of denial-of-service attacks targeted official websites and some banks Wednesday. The attack knocked offline the sites of the parliament, cabinet and Foreign Ministry and caused interruptions or delays to the sites of the defense and interior ministry, which controls the police.

Already, the threat of war has shredded Ukraine’s economy and raised the specter of massive casualties, energy shortages across Europe and global economic chaos.

European Union sanctions against Russia took effect, targeting several companies along with 351 Russian lawmakers, who voted for a motion urging Putin to recognize the rebel regions, and 27 senior government officials, business executives and top military officers.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has shrugged off the sanctions, saying that “Russia has proven that, with all the costs of the sanctions, it is able to minimize the damage.”

In Ukraine’s east, one Ukrainian soldier was killed and six more were injured after rebel shelling, the Ukrainian military said. Separatist officials reported several explosions on their territory overnight and three civilian deaths.

Facing a barrage of criticism at the 193-member United Nations General Assembly, Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vassily Nebenzia warned Ukraine that Russia will monitor a cease-fire in the east and emphasized that “no one intends to go softly, softly with any violators.”

“A new military adventure” by Kyiv “might cost the whole of Ukraine very dearly,” he warned ominously.

After weeks of rising tensions, Putin’s steps this week that dramatically raised the stakes. He recognized the independence of those separatist regions, a move he said extends even to the large parts of the territories now held by Ukrainian forces, and had parliament grant him authority to use military force outside the country.

Putin laid out three conditions that he said could end the standoff, urging Kyiv to recognize Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014, to renounce its bid to join NATO and to partially demilitarize. Ukraine long has rejected such demands. (AP=Newsis)

Nurse Salak Ali, right, administers a 'Jingle Jab' Covid vaccination booster injection to a patient, at the Good Health Pharmacy, north London, Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021. Thousands of people across England are spending a few minutes of Christmas Day to line up under leaden winter skies to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as the omicron variant fuels a surge in infections across the country. The Good Health Pharmacy in north London is one of dozens of vaccination sites that kept their doors open Saturday to administer “jingle jabs" amid a government push to offer booster shots to all adults by the end of the year. (Gareth Fuller/PA via AP=Newsis)
Nurse Salak Ali, right, administers a ‘Jingle Jab’ Covid vaccination booster injection to a patient, at the Good Health Pharmacy, north London, Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021. Thousands of people across England are spending a few minutes of Christmas Day to line up under leaden winter skies to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as the omicron variant fuels a surge in infections across the country. The Good Health Pharmacy in north London is one of dozens of vaccination sites that kept their doors open Saturday to administer “jingle jabs” amid a government push to offer booster shots to all adults by the end of the year. (Gareth Fuller/PA via AP=Newsis)

In Germany, Lutheran pastors are offering COVID-19 shots inside churches. In Israel’s science-skeptical ultra-Orthodox community, trusted rabbis are trying to change minds. And in South Africa, undertakers are taking to the streets to spread the word.


The funeral directors’ message: “We’re burying too many people.”


A year after the COVID-19 vaccine became available, traditional public health campaigns promoting vaccination are often going unheeded. So an unconventional cadre of people has joined the effort.


They are opening sanctuaries and going door to door and village to village, touting the benefits of the vaccines and sometimes offering shots on the spot.


As the outbreak drags on into a third year, with the global death toll at 5.4 million, vaccine promoters are up against fear, mistrust, complacency, inconvenience and people who simply have bigger worries than COVID-19.


On a December day, a convoy of hearses with sirens wailing drove up to a shopping mall in Johannesburg’s sprawling Soweto township.


“Vaccinate, vaccinate!” Vuyo Mabindisi of Vuyo’s Funeral Services said as he handed out pamphlets on how to avoid COVID-19. “We don’t want to see you coming to our offices.”


Several people responded with curiosity and questions, while others carried on with their shopping.


With a population of 60 million, South Africa has reported 3 million-plus COVID-19 cases, including over 90,000 deaths. Those are the highest figures in Africa. Only about 40% of South Africa’s adult population is fully vaccinated, and that is one of the best levels on the continent. After a fitful start, there is ample vaccine.


Thabo Teffo, a 32-year-old bank employee, was among those seeking shots recently at a Soweto church.


Teffo said he had been skeptical but came under pressure from his parents and two vaccinated sisters, and also had a recent health scare that turned out not to be COVID-19.


“That encouraged me to go ahead and get vaccinated for my peace of mind and to protect my family,” he said.


Rupali Limaye, a behavioral scientist who studies global vaccine hesitancy at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said community-level efforts may resonate more than impersonal mass media campaigns.


German pastor Christoph Herbst believes giving COVID-19 shots in surroundings that feel more familiar than medical settings may help. That’s why he and several other Lutheran pastors in the Saxony region contacted an aid group to offer shots inside their churches, despite sometimes violent anti-vaccination protests in recent weeks. Some pastors have been criticized and even threatened.


“We believe that we have a responsibility that goes beyond ourselves,” said Herbst, of St. Petri church in the eastern city of Chemnitz. “We’re not doctors and we’re not professionals. But we have the space and we have volunteers who can organize something like this.”


Herbst opened St. Petri’s wrought-iron doors on a recent vaccination day and sighed with relief when he saw the long line of people waiting in the cold.


Retirees Hannelore Hilbert and her husband came to get booster shots in time for the holidays.


“Last year’s Christmas was really sad. We were all alone,” said the 70-year-old Hilbert, who looked forward to celebrating with at least some of her five grandchildren in person – not on Skype, like last year.


The Western-made vaccines have proved extraordinarily safe and remarkably effective overall at preventing COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations, and experts say that seems to be holding true even amid the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant. Health authorities warn that low vaccination rates are giving the virus more opportunities to mutate into new variants.


Saxony has Germany’s lowest vaccination rate and high COVID-19 numbers.


Herbst said many naysayers are concerned about possible side effects, feel they are overly pressured by authorities, or resent any measures supported by the government. Some feel discriminated against as East Germans, because not all their hopes have been fulfilled 30 years after communism’s collapse.


“It’s important that there’s a space where we listen to each other without immediately lapsing into condemnation,” Herbst said.


Chicago community activist Caesar Thompson uses that same approach as he knocks on doors in struggling Black neighborhoods hit hard by the virus.


Thompson, 44, is a “vaccine ambassador” enlisted by city health authorities. He said the idea is not to strong-arm or cajole. Instead, he said, he offers information, answers questions and lets people know he can sign them up to receive shots in their homes or nearby.


Thompson has a salesman’s gift of gab, and he has used it at churches, train stations, parks, flea markets – almost anywhere people gather.


Thompson said it helps that he’s “just a guy on the street.” “You might even know me if you live in my neighborhood,” he said.


In communities he targets, the coronavirus is often not the most pressing concern, Thompson said. For people in crime-ridden neighborhoods who lack jobs or health insurance and are struggling to feed their families, “COVID is down the list for them,” he said.


In conservative Wyoming, the vaccine can be a hard sell. Commissioners in Campbell County voted against using federal dollars for an education campaign about the vaccines, worrying that it would smack of a mandate. The county’s vaccination rate is about 27%.


Gabby Watson, 23, of Gillette, said she has no intention of getting vaccinated “because I’m really healthy and take care of myself. I’m just not a high risk for COVID. I just don’t see the reasoning for me to get the vaccine.”


She said the U.S. government is pushing COVID-19 vaccines too hard.


“They’re pushing more people away and creating more of this thought bubble of, `What the hell are you trying to do with my body? What are you trying to do with my freedom?'” Watson said. “And that’s not a good direction to go into either.”


Suspicion of secular authorities is rampant in Israel’s community of ultra-Orthodox Jews, They shun many trappings of modern life, follow a strict interpretation of Judaism and rely on rabbis to guide many life decisions. While some rabbis have encouraged vaccination, others have taken a less aggressive approach.


The ultra-Orthodox have some of Israel’s lowest vaccination rates and have been hit hard by the pandemic.


Now, facing omicron, Israeli officials “are going on the offensive,? said Avraham Rubinstein, the mayor of Bnei Brak, the country’s largest ultra-Orthodox city. They are deploying mobile vaccination clinics and enlisting prominent rabbis in the community.


Yossi Levy, a 45-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jew, recovered from the virus earlier this year, as have his eight children and wife. He has repeatedly booked and canceled COVID-19 vaccine appointments.


“It isn’t something pressing. I’m not opposed to it. It’s just laziness,” Levy said.
While Israel’s vaccination rates for the second dose among the general population hover around 63% and the booster at 45%, in the ultra-Orthodox community the numbers are around half of that.


The ultra-Orthodox – 13% of Israel’s population – tend to live in crowded neighborhoods, with large families in small apartments, where sickness can spread quickly. Synagogues, the centerpiece of social life, bring men together in small spaces. Also, half of that population is under 16 and only recently became eligible for vaccination.


Gilad Malach, who heads the ultra-Orthodox program at a Jerusalem think tank, said there is a “double fear: fear of the state and fear of science. There is no basic trust in these entities.”


In India, complacency is contributing to a low rate of second shots among the population of 1.4 billion: 40% are fully vaccinated and around 19% have received just one shot.


The country has recorded nearly 35 million cases and over 450,000 deaths.
In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populated state, Rohit Kanojia received his first shot in August but didn’t get the second one.


“I forgot,” the 23-year-old said, adding that people are no longer afraid of COVID-19. People roam around without masks and no one maintains social distance, he said. “Life is almost normal.”


Jeet Bahadur, a 45-year-old cook, got his second shot months late at a Sikh temple in New Delhi. For him, like many others in India who are trying to eke out a living in a crippled economy, the virus just wasn’t very high on his list of priorities. (AP=Newsis)

President Joe Biden speaks as he announces that he is nominating Jerome Powell for a second four-year term as Federal Reserve chair, during an event in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. Biden also nominated Lael Brainard as vice chair, the No. 2 slot at the Federal Reserve. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh=Newsis)
President Joe Biden speaks as he announces that he is nominating Jerome Powell for a second four-year term as Federal Reserve chair, during an event in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. Biden also nominated Lael Brainard as vice chair, the No. 2 slot at the Federal Reserve. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh=Newsis)

Democrats and climate activists generally supported President Joe Biden’s decision to release a record 50 million barrels of oil from America’s strategic reserve, even as the move appeared to contradict his long-term vision of combating climate change.
 

The U.S. action, announced Tuesday in coordination with countries such as India, the United Kingdom and China, is aimed at global energy markets and helping lower gasoline prices that have risen more than a dollar per gallon since January. But it could also undermine Biden’s climate goals, including a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.


 Some leading climate hawks, however, said they were not concerned by the move because they see it as a short-term fix to meet a specific problem. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who has focused on combating climate change, said Biden was “taking effective action to protect Americans from oil price gouging” even as the administration continues to boost renewable energy that it hopes will eventually mean less dependence on fossil fuels.


 “This is what reserves are for – defending our economy against disruption,? Markey tweeted. “Profiteering can’t go unanswered, especially as Big Oil makes billions and fuels the climate crisis through exports.?


 The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is an emergency stockpile to preserve access to oil in case of natural disasters, national security issues and other events. Maintained by the Energy Department, the reserves are stored in caverns created in salt domes along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coasts. There are roughly 605 million barrels of petroleum in the reserve.


 Markey and other Democrats had urged Biden to release oil from the reserve to ease prices on consumers. There have also been calls on the president to reinstate a ban on crude oil exports that was lifted in 2015. Biden has made no move to reimpose the export ban, which was repealed by congressional Republicans in a bid to assert U.S. energy dominance and promote domestic production.


 Biden has authority under the legislation to declare an emergency and limit or stop oil exports for up to a year but is not expected to do so.


 Kelly Sheehan, senior director of energy campaigns with the Sierra Club, hailed Biden’s actions as a way to ease Americans’ energy burdens. But she said the current spike in oil prices was a reminder that “the only way to truly achieve energy security is to rapidly transition away from risky fossil fuels like oil and gas and make it easier for more people to access clean energy.?


 Lorne Stockman, research director of Oil Change International, an environmental group focused on creating a “fossil-free future,? said Biden should have acted sooner, if only to counter a barrage of Republican criticism blaming him for high gasoline prices.


 “Presidents are always blamed for high gas prices, whether they have anything to do with it or not,? Stockman said, calling the measure a small step to bring short-term relief to American consumers.


 Speaking at the White House on Tuesday, Biden said the rise in gas prices made the move necessary and that it wouldn’t distract from his larger ambitions of moving toward energy independence.


 “My effort to combat climate change is not raising the price of gas,” Biden said. “What it is doing is increasing the availability of jobs building electric cars like the one I drove … in a GM factory in Detroit last week.”


 Americans who buy electric cars will save up to $1,000 in fuel costs this year, Biden said, “and we’re going to put those savings within reach of more Americans and create jobs installing solar panels, batteries and electric heat pumps. We can make our economy and consumers less vulnerable to these sorts of price spikes when we do that.”


 Biden said the White House was looking into potential price gouging by oil companies squeezing customers while making money off lower costs. And Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said U.S. companies were keeping production below pre-pandemic levels in order to increase profits.


 The coronavirus pandemic has roiled energy markets. As closures began in April 2020, demand collapsed and oil futures prices turned negative. Energy traders did not want to get stuck with crude that they could not store. But as the economy recovered, prices jumped to a seven-year high in October.


 Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., called Biden’s use of the strategic reserve, along with calls for OPEC and Russia to increase production, “desperate attempts to address a Biden-caused disaster” and no substitute for increased American energy production.

 Lukas Ross, manager of climate and energy justice at Friends of the Earth, another environmental group, said the spike in gas prices shows that “our continued dependence on a volatile compound that is literally cooking the climate is exactly why we need” Biden’s sweeping social and environmental bill approved as quickly possible.


 The $2 trillion bill, which has been approved in the House and is pending in the Senate, includes about $550 billion for climate change efforts, including proposals to boost wind and solar power and support electric vehicles. Republicans unanimously oppose the measure.
 

Biden has said the U.S. needs to transition away from oil dependence, and “now is the moment to keep that promise by urgently speeding the transition to electric cars and a renewable energy grid,” said Kassie Siegel, director of a climate law institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, another environmental group.


 “Price volatility will always be part of Big Oil’s playbook,” she added. “Let’s break their stranglehold on our economy once and for all.” (AP=Newsis)

Taliban fighter stand near the flags in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi=Newsis)
Taliban fighter stand near the flags in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi=Newsis)

The Taliban were in full control of Kabul’s international airport on Tuesday, after the last U.S. plane left its runway, marking the end of America’s longest war and leaving behind a quiet airfield and Afghans outside it still hoping to flee the insurgents’ rule.

Vehicles raced back and forth along the Hamid Karzai International Airport’s sole runway on the northern, military side of the airfield. Before dawn broke, heavily armed Taliban fighters walked through hangars, passing some of the seven CH-46 helicopters the State Department used in its evacuations before rendering them unflyable.

Taliban leaders later symbolically walked across the runway, marking their victory while flanked by fighters of the insurgents’ elite Badr unit.

“The world should have learned its lesson and this is the enjoyable moment of victory,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a livestream posted by a militant.

Later speaking to Al-Jazeera Arabic on the airport’s tarmac, Mujahid rejected having a caretaker government and insisted that Kabul remained safe.

“There will be security in Kabul and people should not be concerned,” he said.

Taliban fighters greeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi=Newsis)
Taliban fighters greeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi=Newsis)

Taliban fighters draped their white flags over barriers at the airport as others guarded the civilian side of the airfield. Inside the terminal, several dozen suitcases and pieces of luggage were left strewn across the floor, apparently left behind in the chaos. Clothes and shoes also were scattered. A poster of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famed anti-Taliban fighter, had been destroyed.

The airport had seen chaotic and deadly scenes since the Taliban blitzed across Afghanistan and took Kabul on Aug. 15. Thousands of Afghans besieged the airport, some falling to their death after desperately hanging onto the side of an American C-17 military cargo jet. Last week, an Islamic State suicide attack at an airport gate killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.

But on Tuesday, after a night that saw the Taliban fire triumphantly into the air, guards now blearily on duty kept out the curious and those still somehow hoping to catch a flight out.

“After 20 years we have defeated the Americans,” said Mohammad Islam, a Taliban guard at the airport from Logar province, cradling a Kalashnikov rifle. “They have left and now our country is free.”
“It’s clear what we want. We want Shariah (Islamic law), peace and stability,” he added.

Mohammad Naeem, a spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, similarly praised the takeover in an online video early Tuesday.

“Thank God all the occupiers have left our country completely,” he said, congratulating fighters by referring to them as mujahedeen, or holy warriors. “This victory was given to us by God. It was due to 20 years of sacrifice by the mujahedeen and its leaders. Many mujahedeen sacrificed their lives.”

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative who oversaw America’s talks with the Taliban, wrote on Twitter that “Afghans face a moment of decision & opportunity” after the withdrawal.

“Their country’s future is in their hands. They will choose their path in full sovereignty,” he wrote. “This is the chance to bring their war to an end as well.”

But the Taliban face what could be a series of major crises as they fully take over the government. The majority of the billions of dollars Afghanistan holds in foreign reserves is now frozen in America, pressuring its now-depreciating Afghani currency. Banks have implemented withdrawal controls, fearing runs on their deposits in the uncertainty. Civil servants across the country say they haven’t received their salary in months.

Medical equipment remains in short supply, while thousands who fled the Taliban’s advance remain living in squalid conditions. A major drought also has cut into the country’s food supplies, making its imports even more important and raising the risk of people going hungry.

Militiamen loyal to Ahmad Massoud, son of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, take part in a training exercise, in Panjshir province, northeastern Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. The Panjshir Valley is the last region not under Taliban control following their stunning blitz across Afghanistan. Local fighters held off the Soviets in the 1980s and the Taliban a decade later under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a guerrilla fighter who attained near-mythic status before he was killed in a suicide bombing in 2001. (AP Photo/Jalaluddin Sekandar=Newsis)
Militiamen loyal to Ahmad Massoud, son of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, take part in a training exercise, in Panjshir province, northeastern Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. The Panjshir Valley is the last region not under Taliban control following their stunning blitz across Afghanistan. Local fighters held off the Soviets in the 1980s and the Taliban a decade later under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a guerrilla fighter who attained near-mythic status before he was killed in a suicide bombing in 2001. (AP Photo/Jalaluddin Sekandar=Newsis)

During the evacuation, U.S. forces helped evacuate over 120,000 U.S. citizens, foreigners and Afghans, according to the White House, making it the largest airlift in the history of the American military. Coalition forces also evacuated their citizens and Afghans. But for all who got out, foreign nations and the U.S. acknowledged they didn’t evacuate all who wanted to go.

At the airport’s eastern gate, a handful of Afghans still tried their luck to get in, hoping for any flight. As of now, however, commercial airlines are not flying into the airport and it remains unclear who will take over managing the country’s airspace. On their way out, the U.S. military warned pilots the airport was “uncontrolled” and “no air traffic control or airport service are available.”

Several of those trying to come into the airport came from Kandahar province, the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan that saw some of the war’s fiercest fighting. One of the men, Hekmatullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name, carried paperwork he said showed he worked as a translator.

Hekmatullah said he had waited four days for an opportunity to leave.
“But now I don’t know what chances I have,” he said.(AP=Newsis)

A sign warns of extreme heat danger as people walk on salt flats in Badwater Basin, Sunday, July 11, 2021, in Death Valley National Park, Calif. Death Valley in southeastern California's Mojave Desert reached 128 degrees Fahrenheit (53 Celsius) on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service's reading at Furnace Creek. The shockingly high temperature was actually lower than the previous day, when the location reached 130 F (54 C). (AP Photo/John Locher=Newsis))
A sign warns of extreme heat danger as people walk on salt flats in Badwater Basin, Sunday, July 11, 2021, in Death Valley National Park, Calif. Death Valley in southeastern California’s Mojave Desert reached 128 degrees Fahrenheit (53 Celsius) on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service’s reading at Furnace Creek. The shockingly high temperature was actually lower than the previous day, when the location reached 130 F (54 C). (AP Photo/John Locher=Newsis))

Firefighters working in searing weather struggled to contain a Northern California wildfire that continued to grow Sunday and forced the temporary closure of a major highway, one of several large blazes burning across the U.S. West amid another heat wave that shattered records and strained power grids.

In Arizona, two firefighters died Saturday after a plane they were in crashed during a survey of a small wildfire in rural Mohave County. The Beech C-90 aircraft was helping perform reconnaissance over the lightning-caused Cedar Basin Fire, near the tiny community of Wikieup, when it went down around noon.

The two firefighters were the only people on board. Officials identified one of them as Jeff Piechura, a retired Tucson fire chief who was working for the U.S. Forest Service. The name of the other was withheld until relatives could be notified. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash.

In California, officials asked all residents to reduce power consumption quickly after a major wildfire in southern Oregon knocked out interstate power lines, preventing up to 5,500 megawatts of electricity from flowing south into the state.

The California Independent System Operator, which runs the state’s power grid, said Saturday the Bootleg Fire took three transmission lines off-line, straining electricity supplies as temperatures in the area soared.

“The Bootleg Fire will see the potential for extreme growth today,” the National Weather Service in Medford, Oregon, tweeted Sunday.

Pushed by strong winds, the blaze exploded to 224 square miles (580 square kilometers) as it raced through heavy timber in Oregon’s Fremont-Winema National Forest, near the Klamath County town of Sprague River.

To the southeast, the largest wildfire of the year in California was raging near the border with Nevada. The Beckwourth Complex Fire – a combination of two lightning-caused blazes burning 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of Lake Tahoe – showed no sign of slowing its rush northeast from the Sierra Nevada forest region after doubling in size between Friday and Saturday.

Late Saturday, flames jumped U.S. 395, which was closed near the small town of Doyle in California’s Lassen County. The lanes reopened Sunday, and officials urged motorists to use caution and keep moving along the key north-south route where flames were still active.

“Do not stop and take pictures,” said the fire’s Operations Section Chief Jake Cagle. “You are going to impede our operations if you stop and look at what’s going on.”

Cagle said structures had burned in Doyle, but he didn’t have an exact number. Bob Prary, who manages the Buck-Inn Bar in the town of about 600 people, said he saw at least six houses destroyed after Saturday’s flareup. The fire was smoldering Sunday in and around Doyle, but he feared some remote ranch properties were still in danger.

“It seems like the worst is over in town, but back on the mountainside the fire’s still going strong. Not sure what’s going to happen if the wind changes direction,” Prary said. Erratic winds were a concern for firefighters, Cagle noted, with gusts expected to reach 20 mph (32 kph).

The blaze, which was only 9% contained, increased to 131 square miles (339 square kilometers). Temperatures in the area could top 100 degrees (37 Celsius) again Sunday.

It was one of several fires threatening homes across Western states that were expected to see triple-digit heat through the weekend as a high-pressure zone blankets the region.

Death Valley in southeastern California’s Mojave Desert reached 128 degrees Fahrenheit (53 Celsius) on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service’s reading at Furnace Creek. The shockingly high temperature was actually lower than the previous day, when the location reached 130 F (54 C).

Death Valley also recorded a 130-degree day in August of last year. If that reading and the one Friday are confirmed by experts as accurate, they will be the hottest highs recorded there since July 1913, when the Furnace Creek desert hit 134 F (57 C), considered the highest measured temperature on Earth.

The National Weather Service warned the dangerous conditions could cause heat-related illnesses.

Palm Springs in Southern California also hit a record high temperature of 120 F (49 C) Saturday, while Las Vegas tied the all-time record high of 117 F (47 C).

NV Energy, Nevada’s largest power provider, also urged customers to conserve electricity Saturday and Sunday evenings because of the heat wave and wildfires affecting transmission lines throughout the region.
In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little mobilized the state’s National Guard to help fight fires sparked after lightning storms swept across the drought-stricken region. (AP=Newsis)

Smoke caused by Israeli airstrikes are seen at a residential building in Gaza City, early Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra=Newsis)
Smoke caused by Israeli airstrikes are seen at a residential building in Gaza City, early Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra=Newsis)

Israel stepped up its attacks on the Gaza Strip, flattening a high-rise building used by the Hamas militant group and killing at least three militants in their hideouts on Tuesday as Palestinian rockets rained down almost nonstop on parts of Israel.

It was the heaviest fighting between the bitter enemies since 2014, and it showed no signs of slowing.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to expand the offensive, while Gaza militants unleashed a fierce late-night barrage of rockets that set off air-raid sirens and explosions throughout the densely populated Tel Aviv metropolitan area.

Five Israelis, including three women and a child, were killed by rocket fire Tuesday and early Wednesday, and dozens of people wounded. The death toll in Gaza rose to 35 Palestinians, including 10 children, according to the Health Ministry. Over 200 people were wounded.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, a 26-year-old Palestinian was killed during clashes with Israeli troops that entered al-Fawar refugee camp in southern Hebron, the ministry said.

In another sign of widening unrest, demonstrations erupted in Arab communities across Israel, where protesters set dozens of vehicles on fire in confrontations with police.

The fighting between Israel and Hamas was the most intense since a 50-day war in the summer of 2014. In just over 24 hours, the current round of violence, sparked by religious tensions in the contested city of Jerusalem, increasingly resembled that devastating war.

The booms of Israeli airstrikes and hisses of outgoing rocket fire could be heard in Gaza throughout the day, and large plumes of smoke from targeted buildings rose into the air. Israel resumed a policy of airstrikes aimed at killing wanted militants and began to take down entire buildings – a tactic that drew heavy international criticism in 2014.

In Israel, the nonstop barrages of rocket fire left long streaks of white smoke in their wake, while the explosions of anti-rocket interceptors boomed overhead. Air-raid sirens wailed throughout the day, sending panicked residents scurrying for cover.

In a nationally televised address, Netanyahu said that Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant groups “have paid, and I tell you here, will pay a heavy price for their aggression.”

He claimed that Israel had killed dozens of militants and inflicted heavy damage on hundreds of targets.

“This campaign will take time,” he said. “With determination, unity and strength, we will restore security to the citizens of Israel.”

He stood alongside Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a political rival, in a show of unity. “There are lots of targets lined up. This is only the beginning,” Gantz said. The military said it was activating some 5,000 reservists and sending troop reinforcements to the Gaza border.

The current violence has coincided with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, a time of heightened religious sentiments.

Critics say heavy-handed Israeli police measures in and around Jerusalem’s Old City helped stoke nightly unrest. Another flashpoint has been the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where dozens of Palestinians are under threat of eviction by Jewish settlers.

Confrontations erupted last weekend at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is the third-holiest site in Islam and the holiest site in Judaism. Over four days, Israeli police fired tear gas and stun grenades at Palestinians in the compound who hurled stones and chairs at the forces. At times, police fired stun grenades into the carpeted mosque.

On Monday evening, Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza. From there on, the escalation was rapid.

In a televised address, Hamas’ exiled leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said Israel bore responsibility. “It’s the Israeli occupation that set Jerusalem on fire, and the flames reached Gaza,” he said.

Palestinian health officials gave no breakdown on the death toll in Gaza, but Islamic Jihad confirmed that three senior commanders were killed in a strike on their hideout in a Gaza City apartment building. The Health Ministry said 10 children and a woman were also killed.

Netanyahu said Israel had attacked hundreds of targets. The fiercest attack was a set of airstrikes that brought down an entire 12-story building. The building housed important Hamas offices, as well as a gym and some start-up businesses. Israel fired a series of warning shots before demolishing the building, allowing people to flee and there were no casualties.

Israeli aircraft heavily damaged another Gaza City building early Wednesday. The nine-story structure housed residential apartments, medical companies and a dental clinic. A drone fired five warning rockets before the bombing. Israel said Hamas had intelligence offices and the group’s command responsible for planning attacks on Israeli targets in the occupied West Bank.

Fighter jets struck the building again after journalists and rescuers had gathered around. There was no immediate word on casualties. The high-rise stood 200 meters (650 feet) away from the Associated Press bureau in Gaza City, and smoke and debris reached the office.

Soon after the bombing, Hamas announced that it would resume its attacks and aimed 100 rockets at the Israeli desert town of Beer-Sheva. Hamas said the renewed barrage was in response to the strike on the building. The latest rocket attack early Wednesday killed a man and his seven-year-old daughter in the central city of Lod, according to Israel’s Kan public radio.

The Israeli military said hundreds of rockets were launched toward Israel. Two women, including an Indian caregiver, were killed in separate rocket strikes in the southern city of Ashkelon.

Then, late at night, Hamas said it unleashed a barrage of 130 rockets toward Tel Aviv in response to the destruction of the high-rise. As the rockets rose into the skies, mosques across Gaza blared with chants of “God is great,” “victory to Islam” and “resistance.”

One rocket killed a woman in the city of Rishon LeZion, and another struck a bus in the nearby city of Holon, wounding three people, including a young girl.
The violence was beginning to spill over to Israel’s own Arab population.

In Lod, thousands of mourners joined a funeral for an Arab man killed by a suspected Jewish gunman the previous night. The crowd clashed with police, and set a synagogue and some 30 vehicles, including a police car, on fire, Israeli media reported. Paramedics said a 56-year-old man was seriously hurt after his car was pelted with stones.

The city’s mayor, Yair Revivo, described the situation in the mixed Jewish-Arab city as “civil war,” and the government ordered a deployment of paramilitary border guards from the West Bank to Lod.

In neighboring Ramle, ultra-nationalist Jewish demonstrators were filmed attacking cars belonging to Arabs. In the norther port town of Acre, protesters torched a Jewish-owned restaurant and hotel. Police arrested dozens of others at Arab protests in other towns.

Diplomats sought to intervene, with Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations working to deliver a cease-fire. All three serve as mediators between Israel and Hamas.

The U.N. Security Council planned to hold its second closed emergency meeting in three days Wednesday on the escalating violence, an indication of growing international concern. Council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions have been private, said the U.N.’s most powerful body did not issue a statement because of U.S. concerns that it could escalate tensions.

The escalation comes at a time of political limbo in Israel.

Netanyahu has been caretaker prime minister since an inconclusive parliamentary election in March. After failing to form a coalition government by a deadline last week, his political rivals have now been given the opportunity.
The support of an Arab-backed party with Islamist roots is key for the anti-Netanyahu bloc. But the current tensions might deter the party’s leader, Mansour Abbas, from joining a coalition with Jewish parties, at least for the time being.

The sides have three more weeks to reach a deal. If they fail, Israel would likely begin an unprecedented fifth election campaign in just over two years. (AP=Newsis)