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Tuesday
May212019

US believes Iran behind vessel attacks as senior officials brief Congress

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- U.S. intelligence now believes that Iran is behind the attacks against commercial vessels off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a U.S. official told ABC News.

The new assessment, directly blaming Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps comes as senior Trump administration officials will brief members of Congress about -- what they call -- a heightened threat from Iran and several U.S. actions in response, including military deployments to the region and the ordered departure of non-emergency U.S. diplomats from Iraq.

The movement of a U.S. aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Middle East have been an effective deterrent against Iran, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Tuesday, forcing the government to "recalculate" and "put on hold the potential for attacks on Americans" in the Middle East.

"That doesn't mean the threats that we previously identified have gone away," Shanahan added.

The acting defense chief will join Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford on Capitol Hill Tuesday afternoon to brief members of Congress on the heightened tensions with Iran, although Democrats are already crying foul over the administration's intelligence assessment and some of their actions.

The latest assessment is that Iran's elite IRGC placed explosive charges at the waterline on four oil tankers that were damaged last week, said a U.S. official. The vessels -- two of which belonged to Saudi Arabia, one to the United Arab Emirates and one to Norway -- had holes 5 to 10 feet wide in their hulls, the official said, after reportedly being attacked at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.

"It's quite possible that Iran was behind these," Pompeo said in an interview Tuesday, but added that the U.S. hasn't "formed a definitive conclusion that we can speak about publicly."

Another piece of intelligence that led the U.S. to perceive a new Iranian threat to U.S. Naval forces was overhead imagery that showed cruise missiles placed atop small Iranian boats known as "dhows," it was believed they could be used against ships or land targets. But according to the U.S. official, last week those missiles were removed from two dhows that had been monitored by U.S. intelligence.

Shanahan said while "there were attacks" -- an apparent reference to the vessel incidents -- the recent U.S. military moves had prevented any strike on Americans, at least so far.

"I think our steps were very prudent," he told reporters outside the Pentagon. "We've put on hold the potential for attacks on Americans. That's what's extremely important."

"We're in a period where the threat remains high and our job is to make sure that there is no miscalculation by the Iranians. That's the most important thing we can do as the department, is avoid miscalculation and then control escalation. Our posture is for deterrence," he added.

The new developments will likely be part of Shanahan, Pompeo, and Dunford's briefing to Congress Tuesday as they try to tackle skepticism among some members of Congress about the credibility of U.S. intelligence that led to the military movements and ordered departure of non-emergency personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Erbil.

"Part of today will be to give credible information that will address that," said Shanahan.

But Pompeo struck a stronger tone, calling on lawmakers of both parties "to be united" in responding to Iran and "very supportive of this administration when we take acts that are consistent with protecting Americans."

Some members of Congress have said that the Trump administration is spinning U.S. intelligence to paint a picture of a more dire threat from Iran.

"I'm listening to Republicans twist the Iran intel to make it sound like Iran is taking unprovoked, offensive measures against the U.S. and our allies. Like it just came out of nowhere. I've read the intel too. And let me be clear -- that's not what the intel says," tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on Monday.

House Democrats will receive an additional briefing from two prominent foreign policy voices from the Obama administration before they meet with Pompeo: Former CIA Director John Brennan and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, who was Obama's lead negotiator for the Iran nuclear deal.

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Tuesday
May212019

US ban on dog imports from Egypt leaves animal rescuers 'paralyzed'

Phanuwat Yoksiri/iStock(CAIRO) — In Egypt, the sight of stray dogs being chased, stoned, beaten up by sticks or even poisoned is not entirely uncommon.

There has always been a way out for at least some of those dogs -- commonly referred to as "baladi dogs" in colloquial Arabic, which means a native Egyptian breed -- in the form of sending them abroad, to be adopted by families in the United States.

But a U.S. decision earlier this month to temporarily ban importing them from Egypt threw a wrench in the work of rescuers.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) cited multiple instances of dogs that contracted rabies in Egypt being brought to the U.S. in recent years as a reason for the decision.

CDC estimates 100,000 dogs are imported from countries at high-risk for rabies every year.

A spokesman for Egypt's agriculture ministry told ABC News the country had launched an investigation into the matter to find out what went wrong. But until the probe yields any tangible results, there is little room for rescuers to operate and save more dogs from abuse.

"This decision has completely paralyzed us," Ahmed Al Shurbaji, founder of HOPE-Egyptian Baladi Rescue & Rehabilitation, told ABC News.

"Given that it's difficult to export baladi dogs to European countries because most of the landlords do not allow dogs at their places, the U.S. has been the only door opened for us for many years," he said.

"Through my shelter, 103 dogs were exported for adoption in the U.S. in 2016, 2017 and 2018, but now I'm struggling to help more dogs because the shelter is overcrowded," he said. "Dogs must leave the shelter at some point and have a new home."

Dog rescuers interviewed by ABC News gave a grim outlook of the future of their rescue operations should the U.S. ban last for long. Egyptians are not fond of adopting baladi dogs, so there should be options, they believe.

The abundance of stray dogs has stirred some hot debates in Egypt over the past few years, with one Parliament member causing an outcry last year after floating the idea of exporting dogs to South Korea for meat consumption. There are more than 15 million stray dogs in the country, according to the agriculture minister's estimates.

Laila Fayek is an individual rescuer who earned wide acclaim in 2015 for saving Cleopatra, a baladi dog whose six puppies were murdered after being hit by a wooden stick in Alexandria. The dog was eventually sent to a family in the U.S.

She is now afraid other abused dogs could not be saved.

"Before the U.S. ban, seeing the relatively very few dogs who traveled and were happy was what pushed us to continue, because you really feel you made a difference in their quality of life and gave them a chance they would have never gotten in their home country," Fayek said.

"Egyptian baladi dogs are sadly, and by far, the most looked down upon dog breed, especially by Egyptians. Finding them homes in Egypt is almost impossible," she said.

U.S. regulations

The CDC said in May it will maintain the dog suspension "until appropriate veterinary safeguards to prevent the importation of rabid dogs from Egypt have been established," with dog rescuers admitting some Egyptians do not completely adhere to U.S. requirements.

Dr. Salah Hassan, a veterinarian who founded the American Veterinary Center, which has branches in the U.S. and Egypt, said part of the solution could be mandating a Rabies Titer Test for dogs before they are exported. It tests the effectiveness of the vaccine given to them.

"The U.S. should have required this test long time ago, as many countries do in Europe. They had defects in their regulations which they now want to address," he said.

Egyptian rescuers are hoping the CDC will speed up the process and set new regulations that can be followed. Otherwise, the fate of abused dogs would be up in the air.

"I am praying the CDC lifts the ban soon and applies reasonable and affordable policies for both rescue and personal dogs," Fayek said.

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Tuesday
May212019

Sperm whale found dead on Italian beach had plastic in its stomach, Greenpeace says

Junaidi Hanafiah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images (FILE photo)(NEW YORK) -- A sperm whale found dead on an Italian beach might have died from consuming too much plastic, according to environmental advocates.

The whale, estimated to be able 6 years old, washed up on the Cefalu beaches in Sicily on Friday, Greenpeace Italy wrote on Facebook. Sperm whales typically live to be about 70 years old.

A large amount of plastic was found in the whale's stomach, although it is unclear if the waste caused the whale's death, according to the organization.

Plastic has been documented at all levels in the marine food web, from the deepest trenches to the most far-flung beaches, according to a study published Thursday by Scientific Reports.

Six sperm whales have washed up on Italian beaches in the last five months, according to Greenpeace. The most recent whale was found in Palermo on Tuesday, Felice Moramarco, press officer for Greenpeace Italy, told ABC News. An necropsy will be performed on Wednesday, Moramarco said.

Last month, a pregnant sperm whale was found dead outside Porto Cervo in Sardinia with about 50 pounds of plastic in its stomach, National Geographic reported.

In March, after a dead whale washed onto a beach in the Philippines, 88 pounds of plastic were found in its belly, according to Greenpeace.

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Tuesday
May212019

Yemen's Houthi rebels target Saudi Arabian city with drone

pop_jop/iStock(DUBAI, United Arab Emirates) — Air defense crews raced to action in the southern Saudi Arabian city of Najran Tuesday night to intercept an attack from Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels as tensions remain high between Tehran and the United States.

The attack on Najran, about 10 miles north of the Saudi border with Yemen, was carried out by one Qasef K-2 drone armed with an explosive warhead and targeted a Saudi airport and military facility, the Houthi news outlet Al Masirah said. The broadcaster added that the drone struck an "arms depot," causing a fire.

Najran has repeatedly been targeted by the Houthis since the Saudi-led war in Yemen began four years ago. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are leading a Western-backed coalition of Sunni Muslim states seeking to restore the internationally recognized government ousted from power in Yemen by the Houthis in late 2014.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

On Tuesday morning, in a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) and reported in the pro-regime newspaper Arab News, Colonel Turki Al-Maliki, the spokesman of the Saudi-led military coalition fighting the war in Yemen, said Houthi militants had tried to hit a civilian facility in Najran with a drone carrying explosives.

"The Houthi-backed terrorist militia of Iran continues to carry out acts of terrorism that pose a real threat to regional and international security by targeting civilian objects and civilian facilities, as well as civilian citizens and residents of all nationalities," Al-Maliki said in the statement.

Saudi Arabia initially declared on Twitter that it had intercepted two "Iranian-made" missiles fired against the province of Mecca, many miles to the north, but Houthi rebels denied targeting Mecca, Islam's holiest site.

Houthi commanders called the claim a tactic by Saudi Arabia to rally support for its war in Yemen. "The Saudi regime is trying, through these allegations, to rally support for its brutal aggression against our great Yemeni people," Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said on Facebook, according to a Reuters report.

The attack came after Iran announced it quadrupled its uranium-enrichment production capacity a year after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement with world powers, designed to limit Iran's nuclear production capabilities. Iran's recent boost in nuclear material is still at a level far lower than required for production of nuclear weapons.

Riyadh has accused Iran of ordering last week's drone strikes on two oil pumping stations in the kingdom, for which the Houthis claimed responsibility. Tehran denied responsibility for the strikes.

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Tuesday
May212019

Duchess Kate gives Queen Elizabeth a tour of her new, interactive garden

GEOFF PUGH/AFP/Getty Images(LONDON) -- Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, welcomed a VIP guest Monday to her "Back to Nature" garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in London.

Kate gave a personal tour of the interactive garden she helped design to her grandmother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II.

The queen and Kate both wore floral dresses to tour the garden, which Kate reportedly consulted on with Queen Elizabeth, an avid gardener herself.

The garden -- described by Kensington Palace as a "woodland setting for families and communities to come together" -- is part of Kate's focus on the importance of children's early years of development. It includes a swing seat and a high platform tree house, inspired by a bird or animal nest and made from chestnut, with hazel, stag horn oak and larch nest cladding.

"I believe that spending time outdoors when we are young can play a role in laying the foundations for children to become happy, healthy adults," Kate said, speaking ahead of the garden unveiling.

Queen Elizabeth and Kate were joined at the garden Monday by Kate's husband, Prince William, the second in line to the throne.

"It's an opportunity for [Kate and William] to firm their bond with [the queen] and also for them to learn from her on the job," said ABC News royal contributor Victoria Murphy. "She's been the queen for 67 years. She's been doing this for a long time. She knows what she's doing."

William and Kate each greeted Queen Elizabeth with a kiss on both cheeks, and a curtsy from Kate for Her Majesty.

The day before the queen's visit, Kate and William brought their three children to visit the garden.

Prince George, 5, Princess Charlotte, 4, and Prince Louis, 1, played a role in helping their mom decorate the garden by gathering moss, leaves and twigs, according to the palace. During their visit, George and Charlotte dangled their feet in the water of a stream below, and Louis stole the show by showing off his walking skills for the first time.

All five members of the family also took turns on the garden's swing.

George gave his mom the ultimate compliment by declaring the garden a 20 out of 10.

“I really feel that nature and being interactive outdoors has huge benefits on our physical and mental well-being, particularly for young children," Kate said in an interview with the BBC for the garden's unveiling. "I really hope that this woodland that we have created really inspires families, kids and communities to get outside, enjoy nature and the outdoors, and spend quality time together.”

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Tuesday
May212019

Kami Rita Sherpa keeps breaking his own Everest summit record

Zzvet/iStock(ROME) -- A Nepalese mountain guide reached the peak of Mount Everest for the 24th time, breaking his own world record for most summits -- that he set less than one week earlier.

Kami Rita Sherpa, 49, reached the 29,035-foot summit by the traditional southeast ridge route on the early morning of May 21.

A week earlier, on May 15, he summited for the 23rd time. That 23rd time broke the last record of 22 summits, which he set in 2018, according to Outside magazine.

Kami Rita made his first ascent 25 years ago at the age of 24.

Sherpa guides are essential to Nepal's climbing industry and would-be Everest climbers as they haul equipment on the steep Himalayan peaks, set lines and physically help the climbers themselves.

Sherpa is an ethnic group native to the mountainous area, and as such, they have a unique capacity to work in the low-oxygen, high altitude atmosphere that requires days or weeks of acclimatization for foreigners.

Kami Rita puts his accomplishments down to just doing his job as a guide.

"I did not climb for world records, I was just working. I did not even know you could set records earlier," he told the Hindustan Times last month before setting off for Everest base camp.

He also has no plans to stop climbing after this season, meaning he will probably break his own record again in the future.

"I can climb for a few more years," he told the BBC before the 23rd attempt one week ago. "I am healthy -- I can keep going until I am 60 years old. With oxygen it's no big deal."

The short climbing window, which depends on favorable weather, generally falls in mid-May, so Kami Rita may not have an opportunity to make another attempt this year.

As many as 5,000 climbers have scaled the world's highest peak since 1953, according to the official records of the Tourism Department of Nepal.

This season, over 750 people, including 378 foreigners, will be on Mount Everest, according to Alan Arnette, an Everest expert.

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Monday
May202019

Pro-Brexit politician Nigel Farage hit by protest milkshake

Ian Forsyth/Getty Images(LONDON) -- You might have had a bad Monday, but it probably wasn't as bad as Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage's.

The former UK Independence Party leader was hit with a milkshake thrown by a protester ahead of a pro-Brexit event in Newcastle, England.

In video that captured the moment, security can be seen rushing around Farage. "Complete failure," Farage is heard to say.

Farage emerged as an international lightning rod following his prominent role in the Brexit movement, in which he helped shepherd an ultimately-successful vote to divorce England from the European Union. He later became an outspoken ally of candidate and then-President Donald Trump.

The Brexit Party Twitter page used the incident to promote the party's resiliency.

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Monday
May202019

UK bans nationals from entering or remaining in war-torn Syria

Britain's Home Secretary Sajid Javid. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)(LONDON) — The U.K. government has announced plans to ban British nationals from entering or remaining in parts of war-torn Syria, utilizing powers granted by a controversial new counterterrorism law.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who oversees domestic security policy, cited the recent terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka and New Zealand, as well as the murder of a journalist in Northern Ireland, in a speech on Monday outlining his use of the 2019 Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act to ban British nationals from Syria.

“Today I can announce that I’ve asked my officials to work closely with CT [Counter-Terrorism] policing and intelligence agencies to urgently review the case for exercising this power in relation to Syria, with a particular focus on Idlib and the Northeast,” said Javid. “So, anyone who is in these areas without a legitimate reason should be on notice.”

“I can also see that there may be a case in the future for considering designating parts of West Africa,” he added.

The home secretary said that while ISIS, also known by the Arabic acronym Daesh, had been defeated on the ground in Syria and elsewhere, the “poisonous ideology remains” across borders.

“Of all the terrorist plots thwarted by the U.K. and our Western allies last year, 80% were planned by people inspired by the ideology of Daesh, but who had never actually been in contact with the so-called 'Caliphate,'” he said.

Over 900 people in the U.K. of “national security concern” have traveled to Syria to fight since the civil war began in 2011, according to the Home Office. Of those, around 20 percent were killed during the fighting, while 40 percent have returned to the country.

Syrian Kurdish forces declared victory over the ISIS in March after a years-long fight to reclaim territory that once belonged to the terror group.

However, fighting has recently intensified in Idlib, a city in northeastern Syria, as government forces backed by Russia seek to retake the last opposition-held stronghold, according to the New York Times.

The new move by the U.K. forbidding British nationals from from entering areas of conflict has been criticized by Liberty, a human rights charity, as “crude and draconian.” The organization has called on Javid to reconsider the law.

“Criminalizing the mere act of being in a particular place reflects an attempt to sidestep the basic principles of the criminal law, in circumstances where there is insufficient evidence to prosecute people for genuine terrorist activity,” Rosalind Comyn, Liberty's policy and campaigns officer, told ABC News.

“It risks criminalizing people visiting their families, as well as those conducting research or documenting human rights abuses. Worryingly, it may also sweep up vulnerable people -- including children -- who have been coerced into travelling, are unable to leave an area, or are simply unaware an area has been designated.”

Javid has been criticized before for his decisions as Home Secretary surrounding ISIS, particularly after he revoked the U.K. citizenship of 19-year-old ISIS bride Shamima Begum. Begum joined ISIS at the age of 15 in 2015, and was heavily pregnant when she was stripped of her British citizenship after she asked to return to the U.K. Her baby was born in March, and died shortly afterwards.

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Monday
May202019

Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy sworn in as Ukraine's president, dissolves Parliament

Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images(KIEV, Ukraine) -- Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the 41 year-old TV comedian who won Ukraine's elections last month, was sworn in as president on Monday and immediately called for the country's Parliament to be dissolved so that snap elections can be held.

At the inauguration ceremony held in the Parliament building in Kiev, Zelenskiy pledged to seek an end to the war with Russia in Ukraine's east and told lawmakers he wanted them to pass legislation to root out corruption.

Zelenskiy won a landslide election in late April with 73 percent of the vote, defeating the incumbent President Petro Poroshenko as he rode a wave of popular dissatisfaction with Ukraine's political class and weariness over five years of war. He ran on a platform promising to shake up Ukraine's politics, which most Ukrainians consider deeply corrupt and self-serving.

His victory made international headlines, in part because the popular entertainer has no previous political and stars in a TV show in which he plays a man who unexpectedly becomes president.

Monday's ceremony was markedly different from past inaugurations in Ukraine and the usual forbidding grandiosity that marks such occasions in former Soviet countries. Zelenskiy dropped the traditional motorcade that shuts down traffic, instead walking through a park past a large crowd. Beaming, he stopped and high-fived supporters, even at one point jumping up to kiss a man on the top of his head.

In his speech in front of MPs, officials and foreign dignitaries, Zelenskiy said his election showed people were tired of an exploitative political class and told lawmakers who weren't ready to change things they should resign.

"I don't understand our government, which only throws up its hands and tells me that we can't do anything. That's not true -- you can, you can take some paper, take a pen and free up your places for those who will think about the next generation and not about the next elections," he told lawmakers before announcing he was dissolving Parliament.

In his speech, he told officials he did not want them to hang portraits of him in their offices. "Because a president isn't an idol," he said. Instead, he told them to hang photos of their children and look at them before taking decisions.

Zelenskiy called on MPs to pass new legislation on illegal enrichment and strip lawmakers of immunity from prosecution. He also asked them to support his motions to fire Ukraine's defense minister, the head of the Ukrainian security service and the prosecutor general. He said he was giving MPs two months to do so.

Quoting Ronald Reagan, who he noted was an actor who became an "awesome president." Zelenskiy said, "Government isn't the solution to our problem, it is the problem."

Zelenskiy and his young team have presented themselves as a break with the Soviet-style strongman leaders and their accompanying cults of personality that are common in the region, from Belarus and Russia to the republics of Central Asia.

In his speech, Zelenskiy said his priority is ending the war with Russia in Ukraine's east that has killed over 13,000 people since 2014, and he continued the conciliatory message for Russian-speaking Ukrainians that he had offered in his campaign.

He said he was ready to lose his popularity and his new position for the sake of peace. "We didn't start it, but we will end this war," he said, promising his first step would be to return Ukrainian prisoners of war taken by Russia.

Zelesnkiy switched for part of the speech into Russian -- his own first language -- and said Ukrainian authorities had failed to make people living in areas under pro-Russian rebel control feel that they were still Ukrainians. He slapped down a nationalist MP, Oleh Lyashko, who interrupted to shout that people in the separatist areas didn't understand Ukrainian.

"We are all Ukrainians, no matter where we live," he said.

The difficulties Zelenskiy faces were underlined last week when Poroshenko, in one of his last acts as president, signed a law giving the Ukrainian language special status and making it obligatory for civil servants. Russia has condemned that law as a provocation and on Monday called an emergency session of United Nations Security Council to discuss it.

Zelenskiy's attempt to dissolve the Parliament already faces a challenge. A faction in the Parliament last week announced it was leaving the ruling coalition, technically collapsing Poroshenko's government.

Parliamentary rules prohibit it from being disbanded for 30 days after a coalition breaks up, a delay that would create another delay since it would mean the Parliament would already be in the final six months of its a term, when it cannot be disbanded.

But Zelenskiy's team has said it considers the claim that the faction's exit makes it impossible to dissolve parliament is invalid, since the coalition in practice has not existed for years.

Closing his speech, Zelensky referred to his previous career as a comedian.

"Throughout all of my life, I tried to do everything to make Ukrainians laugh," he said. "In the next five years I will do everything, Ukrainians, so that you don't cry."

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Monday
May202019

US Navy ship sails past Chinese-claimed reef in South China Sea

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Morgan K. Nall(WASHINGTON) -- A U.S. Navy destroyer sailed within 12 miles of the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea on Monday in a challenge to China's maritime territorial claims that will likely set off renewed Chinese complaints.

"The guided-missile destroyer USS Preble conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea, May 20. USS Preble sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Reef in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law," said Cmdr. Clayton Doss, a spokesman for the Navy's Seventh Fleet.

Scarborough Reef, aka Scarborough Shoal, is an uninhabited reef in the South China Sea about 120 miles west of the Philippines surrounded by rich fishing grounds claimed by both China and the Philippines. China seized control of the reef from the Philippines in 2012 as part of an effort to claim control of South China Sea areas near the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands.

Under international law, a country's territorial water limits extend 12 nautical miles from its coastline. The U.S. Navy will sail what are known FONOPS within that limit to challenge a country's excessive maritime territorial claims.

The U.S. Navy executes FONOPs worldwide to challenge excessive maritime claims, but the missions challenging China's claims in the South China Sea always draw the most attention.

"U.S. Forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea," Doss said. "All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe."

Monday's passage by the USS Preble is only the Navy's second Freedom of Navigation Operation off Scarborough Shoal -- the first one was in January 2018.

The passage past Scarborough Reef was the USS Preble's second FONOP this month. In early May, the destroyer was one of two warships to sail past the Spratly Islands.

The Pentagon has criticized China's militarization of the Spratly and Parcel Island chains.

China has placed significant military structures and equipment on seven artificial islands it's built on reefs in the Spratly Islands.

There have been U.S. and Philippine concerns that in the future China might engage in similar dredging operations to create an artificial island around Scarborough Reef.

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