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Wednesday
Aug212019

Fires in Amazon rainforest up more than 80% this year, scientists warn

gustavofrazao/iStock(NEW YORK) -- The Amazon rainforest in Brazil is experiencing a record amount of fires this year, according to the country's space agency.

The number of fires in the Brazilian Amazon between Jan. 1 and Aug. 20 -- more than 74,000 as of Tuesday -- has risen 84% from the same period in 2018, according to data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which used satellites to collect its research.

The wildfires are so intense that smoke loomed over the city of Sao Paolo, more than a thousand miles away, according to Greenpeace.

The severity of the fires has prompted the state of Amazonas to declare a state of emergency. The hashtags #PrayforAmazonas and #AmazonRainforest were trending on Twitter on Wednesday.

Wildfires are common during Brazil's dry season but are also deliberately started for the illegal deforestation of land for cattle ranching, the BBC reported.

Scientists warn that if the Amazon fires reach a "point of no return," the forests could be replaced by fire-prone brush and savanna, causing the death of millions of species, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

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Wednesday
Aug212019

Migrants allowed to disembark Open Arms ship at Lampedusa as Italian government shakes

Naeblys/iStock FILE(NEW YORK) -- Dozens of people were allowed to disembark a rescue ship on the Italian island of Lampedusa, ending a 19-day standoff between the Spain-based rescue organization and the Italian government.

The Open Arms ship, managed by an NGO of the same name, had been waiting in the central Mediterranean with nearly 100 migrants, largely from Africa, to be allowed port on Lampedusa.

However, the Italian government, under Interior Minister Matteo Salvini -- the leader of the country's anti-immigrant party -- has not allowed private migrant rescue ships to dock in Italian ports. And the Open Arms refused to move elsewhere.

Minors and those needing medical treatment were eventually taken to the shore, but nearly 100 people remained on board. After more than two weeks on the ship, some migrants chose to jump overboard this week, attempting to swim to shore.

They were rescued by Italian coastguard operations.

"And finally, after 19 captive days on the deck of a ship, all of the people on board will walk on hard land," Open Arms tweeted in Spanish, along with a video of people apparently on the ship hugging and celebrating.

The NGO added in another tweet that there were 83 people aboard and that they would be receiving immediate assistance on Lampedusa.

Salvini, who took office last summer, did not appear cowed. He livestreamed a video of himself on Facebook discussing the Open Arms ship, with a caption referencing past investigations of his migrant policies.

"I am not afraid," he said in part in Italian, "[but] proud to defend the borders and security of my country."

The arrivals came as tensions between Salvini and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte reached a head, fueled in part by the Open Arms crisis. Among other disagreements, Conte had urged Salvini to "urgently adopt the necessary measures to ensure assistance and protection for minors present in the boat," according to CNN.

After an apparent power play by Salvini calling for a non-confidence vote in Conte and for new elections, Conte resigned Tuesday, criticizing Salvini along the way.

In the meantime, people are still attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called on Italy to change its policies and allow rescue ships to dock.

At least 576 people have died so far this year trying to cross the sea on the Central Mediterranean route to Italy, according to the International Organization for Migration's latest report through Aug. 4. Last year, the UNHCR found that while fewer people are attempting to make the crossing, it had become deadlier.

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Wednesday
Aug212019

Ahead of G-7 Summit, Trump again backs Russia being allowed back into alliance

republica/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- Just days before heading to the G-7 Summit in France, President Donald Trump on Tuesday doubled down on his support for allowing Russia to rejoin the group of the world's advanced economies.

Trump has repeatedly called for closer ties with Moscow and it's a move he backed last year. But Western democracies have said no, citing Russian aggression in Europe and in particular Ukraine.

"I think it's much more appropriate to have Russia in," Trump said Tuesday at the White House. "A lot of the things we talk about have to do with Russia, I could certainly see it being the G-8 again, if someone would make that motion, I would be disposed to think about it favorably."

In 2014, President Barack Obama and other the member nations booted Russia out of what was then the G-8 as a rebuke to Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea and its support for Russian-led separatists in eastern Ukraine.

But Trump suggested Tuesday that Obama wanted Putin out because he had been "outsmarted" by Putin.

"I guess President Obama because Putin outsmarted him. President Obama thought it wasn't a good thing to have Russia in, so he wanted Russia out," he said.

A diplomatic source briefed on the G-7 preparations said there was no interest in inviting Russia back to the group because there had been no progress in Ukraine. Instead, finding ways to support the country's new president in the face of ongoing Russian interference will be a priority for the meeting, the source said.

Despite that opposition, Trump suggested there would be support "if someone would make that motion."

The G-7 members are the U.S., France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada and the United Kingdom. France is hosting the annual summit of the group's heads of state this weekend in the resort city of Biarritz.

In June 2018, Trump also suggested that Russia should attend last year's G-7 hosted by Canada. A spokesperson for the Kremlin turned down the offer, saying the country was not interested at the time.

Trump has repeatedly called for closer ties with Moscow, even as his administration has increased sanctions on its defense and intelligence sectors and expelled dozens of Russian diplomats.

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Wednesday
Aug212019

Man charged in Anguilla hotel worker's death describes life as 'a living nightmare'

ABC News(NEW YORK) -- The New York City banker who was charged in the death of an Anguillan hotel worker in April described his life as "a living nightmare" since he was charged with manslaughter.

Connecticut resident Scott Hapgood, 44, was allegedly with his two daughters in a room at the Malliouhana Resort on April 13 when a man dressed in a hotel uniform knocked on the door "minutes" after the girls "walked back to the hotel room on their own," according to a statement released by the family in May.

The man, identified by Anguilla police as hotel maintenance worker Kenny Mitchel, allegedly stated that he was there to fix a broken sink before he came inside and demanded money from Hapgood, the family said. A scuffle that ensued, which the family said Hapgood was "fighting for his life," was broken up when he was restrained by a security guard, according to the family.

Hapgood was then taken to the hospital, and he later learned that Mitchel had died when he was giving a witness statement at the police station, the family said.

On Tuesday, Hapgood and his international defense attorney, Juliya Arbisman, held a press conferences to express the injustice they felt was taking place as a result of Hapgood's bail conditions, which require him to attend procedural court hearings in Aguilla three times in one week.

Although they traveled to Anguilla on Monday, the pair will be required to travel back to the island on Thursday, even though the Anguillan attorney general will be requesting an adjournment to the case during that hearing, according to Arbisman.

A request for Hapgood to make his appearance by video was denied by the attorney general "without explanation," and he cannot stay on the island for the duration of the hearings because of security threats, Arbisman said.

"We were advised, in the context of a security warning by the police authorities, that the less time he spends in Anguilla the better," she said, describing the attorney general's decision as "cruel and unreasonable."

Hapgood promised to "fully comply with the requirements of the court."

Arbisman also accused prosecutors from withholding a toxicology report for more than two months that allegedly "showed Mr. Kenny Mitchel was not only drunk, with a blood alcohol level that is double the legal limit in the U.S., but also high on cocaine and other drugs when he attacked Scott."

ABC News could not get confirmation from officials in Anguilla about the claims from Arbisman regarding the results of Mitchel's toxicology report.

"During those months that the report has been withheld, the AG has allowed a portrait of Mr. Mitchell to persist in the media that is at odds with what we now know to be true," Arbisman said. "I worry about Scott's ability to get a fair trial when relevant information is withheld and a persistent narrative has been given to potential jurors, the people of Anguilla, which is based on falsehoods and admissions."

Hapgood and Arbisman declined to further discuss what occurred prior to Mitchell's death.

Hapgood, an account manager at UBS Global Asset Management, has been on administrative leave since the incident, he said, saying that he and his family "have been living a nightmare" and "hanging on by a thread" ever since their trip to Anguilla.

He also described the experience as "terrifying" for his daughters, who are 12 and 14 years old. He and his family were victims, Hapwood said, adding that "the truth will come out."

"We have a long road ahead of us, but I'm looking forward to someday getting back to the life we once had," he said.

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Tuesday
Aug202019

Russia refuses to share data after nuclear explosion, alarming monitors, US officials

MaxOzerov/iStock(MOSCOW) -- A senior Russian official said the country did not have to share with international monitors any data about a recent nuclear blast that spiked radiation levels in a northern region of the country.

The international monitor at the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization reported Monday that several radiation detection sites in Russia went silent after the accident at a military test facility on Aug. 8. The CTBTO monitors radiation around the world to ensure compliance with the treaty.

Four stations went down in the days after the explosion of a suspected nuclear-powered cruise missile. Two sites went dark on Aug. 10, with two more stopping transmission of data on Aug. 13.

"They have reported communication and network issues, and we're awaiting further reports on when the stations and/or the communication system will be restored to full functionality," a CTBTO spokesperson told ABC News on Monday. "We continue to be in touch with our collaborators in Russia to resume operations as soon as possible."

The organization's executive director Lassina Zerbo, a scientist from Burkina Faso, tweeted on Tuesday that two of the stations have resumed data-sharing and back-filling some information.

"Excellent cooperation & support from our Russian station operators," he added.

Russia has provided few details about the blast, beyond confirming that five employees were killed. A U.S. official told ABC News that it "likely" took place during a test on the new nuclear-powered missile, known by the names the SSX-C-9 "Skyfall" by NATO and the 9M370 Burevestnik, or "Storm Petrel," by Russia.

Immediately after the explosion, there was a spike in radiation in cities near Nenoksa missile test site on Russia's northern Arctic coast. Russian authorities initially denied any spike, until three days later the state weather service Roshydromet acknowledged radiation levels jumped up to 16 times above the norm. The environmental group Greenpeace had its own readings that showed a similar increase, but said it was brief.

But these readings came from cities miles from the test site. There is concern that radiation levels closed to the explosion are not known, including at the village next to the blast or from the missile's radioactive debris that could have traveled from the test site.

The CTBTO monitors could aid in determining those levels, making their transmission blackout concerning.

But Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Tuesday that the accident is none of the organization's business.

"Handing over data from our national stations which are part of the international monitoring system is entirely voluntary for any country," he said, according to Russian news agency Interfax.

A CTBTO spokesperson told ABC News Ryabkov was right that data sharing is "not binding," in part because the treaty cannot be fully implemented until all countries with nuclear technology ratify it. The holdouts are China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the U.S.

Instead, Ryabkov said, "exhaustive explanations about what happened and what the consequences were have been given by the relevant structures," and there was no threat to the environment or local populations.

The State Department did not respond to request for comment. But analysts in the U.S. expressed concern about the lack of information.

"Russia is setting a terrible precedent. This isn't just about covering up a failure or a new weapon, this information is for the safety and security of the world," according to Melissa Hanham, deputy director of Open Nuclear Network and director of the Datayo Project at One Earth Future Foundation.

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Tuesday
Aug202019

Ebola outbreak spreads to remote, militia-controlled territory in Democratic Republic of Congo

Cesare Ferrari/iStock(LONDON) — A new case of Ebola has popped up in a remote, militia-controlled area in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, hundreds of miles away from the epicenter of the yearlong outbreak.

The patient is a 70-year-old woman living in Pinga, a rural village located in Walikale territory in North Kivu province, according to a recent statement from the technical committee running the country's Ebola response and reporting directly to the president. The woman has been hospitalized in Pinga since Aug. 13 and was placed in isolation on Aug. 15. Her blood samples were sent to a laboratory in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, and came back positive for Ebola virus disease on Aug. 17.

A rapid response team was dispatched on Sunday and traveled by road, reaching Pinga a day later. A helicopter team also descended on the village Monday, according the technical committee, which described Pinga as an "area of insecurity and poor telephone network coverage."

Walikale is a mineral-rich territory that is largely controlled by a faction of the Mai-Mai armed group. The region is remote and difficult to access due to its poor roads and thick forest. The village of Pinga has been the site of frequent attacks by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a notorious rebel group known by its French acronym FDLR.

It's the first Ebola case to be recorded in this part of North Kivu province, far from where previous cases have been concentrated near the country's eastern border with Uganda and Rwanda. Pinga is about 95 miles northwest of Goma, a major city and transportation hub near the Rwandan border where the virus reached last month, and is more than 200 miles from Beni, a conflict-torn city near the Ugandan border that is the center of the current outbreak.

The virus' spread to Walikale territory comes just days after cases were confirmed in a third province, South Kivu.

According to the latest data released by the technical committee, a total of 2,888 people have reported symptoms of hemorrhagic fever in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's eastern provinces of North Kivu, Ituri and now South Kivu since Aug. 1, 2018. Among those cases, 2,794 have tested positive for Ebola virus disease, which causes an often-fatal type of hemorrhagic fever and is transmitted through contact with blood or secretions from an infected person.

The ongoing outbreak has a case fatality rate of about 67 percent. There have been 1,938 deaths so far, including 1,844 people who died from confirmed cases of Ebola. The other deaths are from probable cases. Less than 900 people sickened with the virus have recovered so far, according to the technical committee.

An experimental Ebola vaccine developed by American pharmaceutical company Merck that was tested in the West Africa epidemic was approved for use in the Democratic Republic of the Congo a week after the outbreak was declared last year. More than 198,000 people in the current outbreak zone have received the experimental vaccine since Aug. 8, 2018.

Meanwhile, two of four experimental treatments being tested in the outbreak are now being offered to all patients after showing promise in saving lives. Preliminary findings from a randomized controlled trial that began last November in four Ebola treatment centers in North Kivu indicated that patients receiving either of two antibody-based therapies, known as REGN-EB3 and mAb114, had a greater chance of survival compared to those receiving two other experiential drugs, known as ZMapp and remdesivir

After a meeting to review the initial results, an independent monitoring board recommended all future patients be offered either REGN-EB3 or mAb114, while the other two treatments be stopped.

"From now on, we will no longer say that Ebola is incurable," Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe, director general of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's National Institute for Biomedical Research, which is co-sponsoring the clinical study, told reporters during a telephone briefing last week.

Still, the epidemic continues to spread, with an average of 81 new Ebola cases confirmed each week, according to the World Health Organization, the global health arm of the United Nations which last month declared the current outbreak an international emergency.

This is the second-largest, second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in the world. It's also the 10th outbreak of the disease in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the most severe there since 1976, when scientists identified the deadly virus near the Ebola River.

The WHO's director-general has described the current outbreak as more complex than the deadlier 2014-2016 outbreak in multiple West African countries due to the region's political instability, attacks on health workers, a highly mobile population and community mistrust and misinformation. It's the first Ebola outbreak to occur in an active war zone.

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Tuesday
Aug202019

Migrants rescued after jumping overboard from ship being denied port in Italy

Naeblys/iStock(NEW YORK) -- Italian coastguards rescued more than 10 migrants wearing life jackets who had jumped from a rescue ship stranded off southern Italy and tried to swim to shore Tuesday, according to a Spanish charity in charge of the ship.

Almost 100 migrants were on-board the Open Arms ship at sea for 19 days.

The boat was stranded due to an Italian ban on the docking of private rescue ships, which has created ongoing problems under the right-wing interior minister Matteo Salvini, who took office last year.

Italy argues it has taken on too much of the responsibility in African migration to Europe, with Salvini, who is anti-migration, calling these charity-run ships "taxis" for human smugglers.

But the charity calls the situation a desperate one and warns that some migrants are suicidal.

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Tuesday
Aug202019

Tourist recalls being chased by a white rhino on South African safari

Binty/iStock(NEW YORK) -- A South African safari turned into a terrifying high speed chase through the brush with one of the area's largest animals.

Rian Boshoff, who was with his tour group to photograph leopards last month, told ABC News they first spotted the white rhino in the road and slowly tried to pass it when the animal charged.

"At first, I just thought it's going to be like a short charge and then it would stop," Boshoff said. "The road had a lot of turns in it which made it difficult for us to get away."

But even the driver's maneuvers weren't enough to shake the animal off their tail.

"The driver took a 90-degree turn into the bush to try and deter the rhino because they have bad eyesight," Boshoff explained. "But he was determined to get to us he just kept on coming."

Cellphone video captured a portion of the nearly two-minute chase by the three-ton animal, which can reach speeds up to 30 mph.

Looking back on the closer-than expected-encounter, Boshoff said, "I thought it [was] going to eat us."

The safari driver reportedly told the group that same rhino had charged other vehicles in the past.

"The driver really did a good job to keep us safe," Boshoff explained. "He just asked us to sit still and he got us out of the situation."

There were no injuries reported from the incident.

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Monday
Aug192019

Facebook, Twitter remove accounts they say Chinese government was using to undermine in Hong Kong protests

Twitter(NEW YORK) -- Twitter announced on Monday that it had suspended about 200,000 accounts that it said were part of a Chinese government-backed attempt to undermine "the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement" in Hong Kong.

The social media giant made the announcement on the same day that Facebook announced it had removed seven pages, three groups and five accounts that it said originated from China and were "involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior."

"What we've heard is both platforms saying variations on the theme that they have found people who are linked to the Chinese government, who've got caught running troll campaigns against the Hong Kong protesters, posting content saying that the protesters are cockroaches, that they're evil people, that they are the darkness standing in the way of the light of the people's revolution," said Ben Nimmo, a digital investigator with the social media analysis firm Graphika.

Nearly 1,000 of the accounts that Twitter suspended were actively attempting to "sow political discord in Hong Kong," the press release said. The company said that some of the accounts accessed Twitter from mainland China, where Twitter is blocked, but that many of them gained access instead through virtual private networks, which can hide the location from which you’re browsing

"One of the interesting things with the Twitter announcement ... is they say that a lot of these accounts were being run through ... proxy internet accounts in different countries," Nimmo said.

Facebook, meanwhile, said that the individuals behind the influence campaign it identified sometimes created fake accounts to manage pages that posed as news organizations, posted in groups, shared content or directed people to off-platform news websites.

"They frequently posted about local political news and issues including topics like the ongoing protests in Hong Kong," a Facebook press release said. "Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government."

Now in their 11th week of protests, the announcements follow a week in which mainland China has begun to consider ratcheting up efforts to shut down the protests in the semi-autonomous territory as the protests have become more violent.

Amid a city-wide strike, thousands of protesters last week stormed Hong Kong International Airport, forcing officials to cancel flights for two days in a row as protesters paralyzed its operations. The protests marked an escalation between the Chinese government and Hong Kong protesters, who at one point barricaded themselves in the airport with luggage carts before clashing with riot police.

On Sunday, protesters rallied in Victoria Park in Hong Kong for what demonstrators say was the largest protest yet, with 1.7 million people in attendance. It was mostly peaceful, save for a few blocked streets from overcrowding in the park.

The protests began in June when hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators marched in opposition to an extradition bill that government leaders in the territory had reached with the Chinese government. The bill was suspended as the protests grew louder.

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Monday
Aug192019

As Trump, negotiators work toward peace, attacks highlight violent realities

Golden_Brown/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump has made clear his desire to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan. But as his negotiators finalize agreements with the Taliban and the Afghan government, the violent reality of the conflict has shown how delicate or even far-fetched a final deal may be.

In particular, a spate of deadly bombings on Monday as Afghans marked 100 years of independence and a brutal attack on a wedding Saturday in the capital Kabul have rocked the country.

An Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility for the Saturday attack, killing 63 people and injuring 182 more. Beyond the horror of a wedding party turned into a funeral -- the dance floor filled with dead bodies -- the assault is also a sign of the group’s growing strength -- and the challenge that poses to the U.S. president who wants to pull troops out.

"We're there for one reason. We don't want that to be a laboratory, OK? Can't be a laboratory for terror. And we’ve stopped that," Trump told reporters Sunday, despite the deadly wedding attack.

While there hasn’t been an effective Afghanistan-based plot on the U.S. by terror groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS for years, the issue of counter terrorism -- what brought American troops to the country nearly 18 years ago -- remains an elusive challenge.

For one thing, the Pentagon and State Department say the local ISIS affiliate is now stronger than ever. The group has carried out dozens of attacks, killing nearly 800 people and injuring over 1,400 in the last year, according to Ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales.

When asked if this ISIS affiliate presented a risk to the U.S., Sales said, "Any ISIS affiliate around the world that has the capability and intent to conduct external operations is a threat to the United States and our partners and our interests."

The Afghan government said Monday that it will crush the terror group, while the Taliban condemned Saturday’s attack as "forbidden and unjustifiable." But there are real concerns about the ability of either to effectively take on ISIS and prevent it from growing or plotting attacks overseas.

To that end, Trump said he wants the U.S. to ultimately keep an intelligence presence in the country.

"It's very important that we continue intelligence there, in all cases, because it is somewhat of a nest for hitting us," he said Sunday.

There are approximately 14,000 U.S. troops in the country now, according to the Pentagon, 5,000 of which are on a counter terrorism mission with the other 9,000 training and supporting Afghan forces.

But while the U.S. hopes to keep some military presence, the Taliban have pushed for a total withdrawal. Finalizing those details -- how many U.S. troops in what role must leave by when -- has been at the heart of U.S. talks with the Taliban.

Led by former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, the talks have been through eight rounds now and taken about a year. Khalilzad briefed Trump on Friday, along with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It’s a sign that Khalilzad and his team are close to a final deal with the militant group -- one that the U.S. hopes will have four pillars, according to officials: American troop withdrawal, a nationwide ceasefire, Afghan peace talks and a commitment by the Taliban to keep Afghanistan from becoming a terror safe haven.

Khalilzad said Sunday that the wedding attack shows, "We must accelerate the Afghan peace process, including intra-Afghan negotiations. Success here will put Afghans in a much stronger position to defeat ISIS."

But the Taliban still refuses to recognize the Afghan government, let alone meet with it or commit to work together to combat ISIS. In negotiations, the U.S. has struggled to win such a commitment and define what it entails and how to implement it -- especially given that the Taliban maintains ties with al-Qaeda.

Critics say Saturday’s attack is a clear demonstration that the militant group, which is itself considered a terror organization under some U.S. law, can’t credibly make that kind of commitment.

The challenge is that the Taliban has the upper hand in negotiations, knowing well that Trump wants to fulfill a campaign promise to end America’s endless wars and start bringing troops home.

Pompeo said at the end of July that it was his "directive" from Trump to begin a withdrawal before next November, adding, "It's not only my expectation. It would be job enhancing."

Trump himself said in August 2017 that his instinct was to pull out American forces, but he had been convinced by his advisers to increase troop numbers at the time.

Officials have tried to paper over that desire, consistently saying any withdrawal would be "conditions-based." Trump said on Sunday that he is still weighing a decision.

"We'll be bringing it down a little bit more, and then we'll decide whether or not we'll be staying longer or not," he said.

But what’s clear from him, Pompeo and others is that any decision will be based on U.S. priorities and not include a commitment from the Taliban to the Afghan government, which has not seen any draft agreements from the talks or the Afghan people.

Those issues, including the continued violence by the Taliban against Afghan civilians, are an internal matter, officials say, and up to the Afghan people to determine.

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