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Tuesday
Aug132019

Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile 'likely' cause of fatal explosion in Russia, US official says

republica/iStock(WASHINGTON) --  The explosion in northern Russia last week that killed 7 people “likely” involved Russia’s new nuclear-powered cruise missile, a U.S. official said. Russian authorities have given conflicting information about the explosion and whether it was triggered by testing of the missile, which is intended to fly long distances and go around air defense missile systems.

The U.S. official also said that increased levels of radiation had been detected in areas near the site of last week’s explosion.

It remains unclear if the radiation levels and the explosion were linked to a possible launch of the new missile system.

On Monday afternoon, President Trump tweeted about the incident.

Called the 9M730 Burevestnik by Russia and the SSC-X-9 Skyfall by NATO, the cruise missile features a small nuclear-powered engine that enables it to fly long distances and conceivably allows it to circumvent missile defense systems.

First unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 1, 2018 as being “invulnerable” to missile defense systems, Russia has continued promoting the program. Last July the Russian Defense Ministry released video of what it said was a successful missile launch as well as images of the missile under development.

But U.S. officials have said that the missile is not operational and has experienced multiple crashes, including a crash in the Russian Arctic.

Last Thursday, the Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged there had been explosion at the Nenoksa Missile Test Site along the coast of the Arkhangelsk region in northwestern Russia that killed two service members and injured six others. The Ministry said the explosion was triggered by a test of a liquid fueled propulsion engine.

TASS, Russia’s state news agency, reported that the explosion occurred on a floating launch platform off the coast.

But Russian authorities cloaked the incident in secrecy and have released few and conflicting accounts in state media.

Nenoska’s local government initially posted a report of a spike in radiation at the site on its website, but that report removed after the defense ministry said no elevated radiation levels had been detected.

Late Sunday, the Russian Federal Nuclear Center, which operates under Russia’s state atomic agency, Rosatom, confirmed that the test involved the testing of nuclear power sources and that five of the center’s specialists had also died in the explosion and three more were injured.

Alexander Chernishev, the Center’s deputy director, said in a video interview that its experts had recorded a spike but that it only lasted an hour.

“No lingering nuclear pollution has been recorded either by our experts or external ones,” Chernishev said.

Russia’s lack of information about the incident and its secretive official response has prompted comparisons with the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Local residents in the area were reported by Russian media to be buying up iodine pills, used to prevent radiation poisoning.

Russia has never given details on how the the new missile works but most arms experts believe it is a so-called ramjet—that is an engine that works by sucking in air, heating it and then releasing it out the back to create propulsion. The miniature nuclear-reactor heats the air.

The United States abandoned the development of a similar program in the 1960’s, leading outside experts to question whether the concept of a nuclear powered missile is feasible.

Cheryl Rofer a veteran scientist who formerly worked at Los Alamos Laboratory and who said she had been personally acquainted with the U.S. ramjet program, in a< href="https://nucleardiner.wordpress.com/2019/08/11/speculations-on-the-nenoksa-explosion/"> blog post Sunday wrote that the Kremlin had likely been persuaded to back an unrealistic program.

“I think that what has happened is that someone sold a program to Putin. The visuals are cool, and the idea of a cruise missile that can just keep cruising obviously appealed to him. The promoter of the program may even believe in it,” Rofer said. “ I’m saying I think they’ll never have an operating system.”

Russia's development of the new cruise missile was not restricted by existing nuclear arms reduction agreements with the United States including the recently scrapped Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Tuesday
Aug132019

Riot police storm Hong Kong airport as protesters force second day of cancellations

winhorse/iStock(HONG KONG) -- Riot police stormed the Hong Kong International Airport on Tuesday as a protest by thousands of anti-government demonstrators forced flights to be canceled for the second straight day.

Travelers at one of the world's busiest airports were advised that check-in had been suspended and hundreds flights were cancelled, and that they should leave the terminals as quickly as possible and contact airlines for more information.

The clashes appeared to represent an escalation after 10 weeks of largely peaceful protests in semi-autonomous Hong Kong. A Chinese official said protesters "have begun to show signs of terrorism," and China appeared to be weighing a crackdown on the democratic movement.

Chinese paramilitary police were seen in video released by the state holding exercises in Shenzhen, China, which sits across the border from Hong Kong. Images circulated online showing a convoy of armored personnel carriers from the People’s Armed Police traveling to the site.

U.S. President Donald Trump meanwhile took to Twitter to say that U.S. intelligence "has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!"

Earlier on Tuesday, Trump told reporters he hoped the situation in Hong Kong "works out for everybody, including China, by the way," and that "nobody gets killed."

The U.S. State Department has urged "all sides to exercise restraint," according to a spokesperson, but it has vocalized more support for the protesters than Trump, saying the U.S. is "staunch in our support for freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in Hong Kong."

The spokesperson also urged China "to adhere to its commitments... to allow Hong Kong to exercise a high degree of autonomy" and noted "concerns about the erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy."

Tensions come as the United States and China have been locked in a year-long trade war and both sides have accused the other of engaging in unfair practices and dragging their heels to reach a deal.

Senior U.S. officials like Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been sharply critical of China, especially its increasingly strong hand around the world and human rights record at home, and last month Pompeo called China’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority the “stain of the century.”

On Tuesday, Pompeo met in New York with China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi, the director of the Central Foreign Affairs Committee. The two men "had an extended exchange of views on U.S.-China relations," according to State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus. The State Department would not say how long the meeting had been planned in advance and whether they discussed Hong Kong.

The protests in semi-autonomous Hong Kong began in June, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to march against the government's proposal to change an extradition law that would allow individuals to be sent to mainland China for trial. The proposal prompted fears that China would use it to round up political dissidents.

Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam, suspended consideration of the bill indefinitely but stopped short of completely withdrawing it from the legislative agenda.

Tuesday marked the fifth consecutive day that the black-clad demonstrators have occupied the airport.

Protesters held an orderly sit-in at one of the terminals and clashed with police in chaotic scenes elsewhere at the airport.

At one point, a group swarmed around and detained one man, believed to be an undercover police officer, and some protesters attacked him while others tried to shield him. Medics eventually arrived and cared for him before he was carried out of the airport. Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of China's state-owned nationalist newspaper Global Times, later said the man was one of his reporters and had been sent to the hospital.

Sean Lavin, an American who is in Hong Kong on vacation, said that he and his travel companions are slated to fly out of the airport on Wednesday, but the protests have left that in question.

"I'm supposed to leave tomorrow late afternoon so I've been monitoring the airport [to] see if we can," Lavin told ABC News Live by phone. "Right now we don't know if we can leave so we're watching very closely."

Lavin said his group arrived in Hong Kong from Phuket, Thailand, several days ago, and that they were surprised to find throngs of protesters after making their way through customs.

"It was something I've never experienced before," he said, adding that the protesters were "very polite" and helped his group find their way out of the airport.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Monday
Aug122019

French officials call for investigation of Jeffrey Epstein’s 'links with France'

Ben185/iStock(PARIS) -- A pair of French government officials are calling for an investigation of Jeffrey Epstein’s activities in France, citing the “many unanswered questions” in the wake of Epstein’s suicide in jail over the weekend.

French Secretary of State for Equality between men and women Marlène Schiappa and Secretary of State for the ministry of solidarity and health Adrien Taquet released a joint statement on Monday asking the French authorities to open their own investigation of Epstein.

“The US investigation has highlighted links with France,” Schiappa and Taquet said in a statement. “It thus seems to us fundamental for the victims that an investigation be opened in France so that all is brought to light.”

In response to questions from ABC News, a spokesperson for the Paris prosecutor’s office said that request was under careful consideration.

“The elements received at the Paris prosecutor’s office are being analyzed and cross-referenced,” the spokesperson told ABC News. “The first audits are currently underway to determine whether an investigation should be opened in France”.

Epstein, a multimillionaire financier who was indicted in New York on sex trafficking charges in July, maintained a number of residences around the world, including one at 22 Avenue Foch in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.

Property records obtained by ABC News show that he purchased multiple properties within that building, through a real estate entity called JEP, for about 1.5 million euros in 2002 and added an additional property in 2004 for just 20 euros.

Flight logs reviewed by ABC News show that Epstein made frequent trips to France over the last two decades. Authorities noted that Epstein had been returning from Paris when he was taken into custody at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

And Virginia Roberts Giuffre, one of Epstein’s accusers, claims to have accompanied Epstein and his alleged co-conspirator Ghislaine Maxwell on a trip to Paris in 2001 when she was just a teenager.

According court documents related to a since-settled defamation lawsuit filed by Giuffre against Maxwell that were unsealed on Friday, Giuffre has alleged that she was “forced” to have sex with several people, including French model scout Jean-Luc Brunel, an allegation Brunel has denied, and in a deposition, Giuffre stated that she believed it was in France that Maxwell “sent [her] to have sex with the owner of a large hotel chain.”

Maxwell has not been charged, and in court documents, Maxwell has denied Giuffre’s allegations and claims that Giuffre has not produced any evidence to support them.

Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York alleged that from about 2002 to 2005, Epstein "sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls at his homes in Manhattan, New York, and Palm Beach, Florida, among other locations," using cash payments to recruit a "vast network of underage victims," some of whom were as young as 14 years old.

More than a decade ago, Epstein served just 13 months of an 18-month sentence in county jail after reaching a much-criticized plea deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, then led by Alexander Acosta, who recently resigned as President Donald Trump’s labor secretary.

The deal, which is currently under review by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, not only allowed Epstein to plead guilty to two state charges and avoid federal charges for an allegedly broad pattern of sexual misconduct, but also provided him and any alleged co-conspirators with immunity from further federal prosecution in the Southern District of Florida.

Epstein, who had pleaded not guilty to the charges for which he faced up to 45 years imprisonment, apparently hanged himself in his cell at Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan early Saturday morning, angering many of his alleged victims who felt they had once again been robbed of an opportunity to hold him accountable for his conduct.

"I am extremely mad and hurt thinking he once again thought he was above us and took the easy way out ... I still can't wrap my head around the fact that's really true," Jena-Lisa Jones, 30, an alleged victim of Epstein, said in a statement. "God will have his judgement now."

Jennifer Araoz, 32, who claimed that Epstein raped her when she was 15, called on authorities to "pursue and prosecute his accomplices and enablers.”

"I am angry Jeffrey Epstein won’t have to face his survivors of his abuse in court,” Araoz said. “We have to live with the scars of his actions for the rest of our lives, while he will never face the consequences of the crimes he committed the pain and trauma he caused so many people.”

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Monday
Aug122019

Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile 'likely' cause of fatal explosion in Russia, US official says

macky_ch/iStock(MOSCOW) -- The explosion in northern Russia last week that killed 7 people “likely” involved Russia’s new nuclear-powered cruise missile, a U.S. official said. Russian authorities have given conflicting information about the explosion and whether it was triggered by testing of the missile, which is intended to fly long distances and go around air defense missile systems.

The U.S. official also said that increased levels of radiation had been detected in areas near the site of last week’s explosion.

It remains unclear if the radiation levels and the explosion were linked to a possible launch of the new missile system.

On Monday afternoon, President Trump tweeted about the incident.

Called the 9M730 Burevestnik by Russia and the SSC-X-9 Skyfall by NATO, the cruise missile features a small nuclear-powered engine that enables it to fly long distances and conceivably allows it to circumvent missile defense systems.

First unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 1, 2018 as being “invulnerable” to missile defense systems, Russia has continued promoting the program. Last July the Russian Defense Ministry released video of what it said was a successful missile launch as well as images of the missile under development.

 But U.S. officials have said that the missile is not operational and has experienced multiple crashes, including a crash in the Russian Arctic.

Last Thursday, the Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged there had been explosion at the Nenoksa Missile Test Site along the coast of the Arkhangelsk region in northwestern Russia that killed two service members and injured six others. The Ministry said the explosion was triggered by a test of a liquid fueled propulsion engine.

TASS, Russia’s state news agency, reported that the explosion occurred on a floating launch platform off the coast.

But Russian authorities cloaked the incident in secrecy and have released few and conflicting accounts in state media.

Nenoska’s local government initially posted a report of a spike in radiation at the site on its website, but that report removed after the defense ministry said no elevated radiation levels had been detected.

Late Sunday, the Russian Federal Nuclear Center, which operates under Russia’s state atomic agency, Rosatom, confirmed that the test involved the testing of nuclear power sources and that five of the center’s specialists had also died in the explosion and three more were injured.

Alexander Chernishev, the Center’s deputy director, said in a video interview that its experts had recorded a spike but that it only lasted an hour.

“No lingering nuclear pollution has been recorded either by our experts or external ones,” Chernishev said.

Russia’s lack of information about the incident and its secretive official response has prompted comparisons with the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Local residents in the area were reported by Russian media to be buying up iodine pills, used to prevent radiation poisoning.

Russia has never given details on how the the new missile works but most arms experts believe it is a so-called ramjet—that is an engine that works by sucking in air, heating it and then releasing it out the back to create propulsion. The miniature nuclear-reactor heats the air.

The United States abandoned the development of a similar program in the 1960’s, leading outside experts to question whether the concept of a nuclear powered missile is feasible.

Cheryl Rofer a veteran scientist who formerly worked at Los Alamos Laboratory and who said she had been personally acquainted with the U.S. ramjet program, in a< href="https://nucleardiner.wordpress.com/2019/08/11/speculations-on-the-nenoksa-explosion/"> blog post Sunday wrote that the Kremlin had likely been persuaded to back an unrealistic program.

“I think that what has happened is that someone sold a program to Putin. The visuals are cool, and the idea of a cruise missile that can just keep cruising obviously appealed to him. The promoter of the program may even believe in it,” Rofer said. “ I’m saying I think they’ll never have an operating system.”

Russia's development of the new cruise missile was not restricted by existing nuclear arms reduction agreements with the United States including the recently scrapped Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Monday
Aug122019

Trump admin quiet on Moscow protests while defending Hong Kong's demonstrations

Man at Work/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- For more than a month now, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of two major cities to demand democratic reforms and been met by strong crackdowns by their government. But only one of those movements is getting vocal support from the U.S.

In Hong Kong, demonstrations shut down much of the territory, including the airport, for the 10th weekend in a row. What initially began as outrage over legislation that would allow extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China have burned on -- even after authorities said they would not pursue the bill -- and protesters are now demanding that the bill be formally withdrawn, an investigation be launched into police brutality against demonstrators and they want broader democratic reforms.

Moscow has now seen four weekends with protesters filling the streets to demand that opposition candidates be included on the ballot for city elections in September. As those protests have grown and hundreds have been taken into custody, protesters are now also calling for their release.

In both cities, authorities have responded with fierce crackdowns that have, at times, included the use of brute force.

Hundreds of people have been detained by law enforcement in Moscow each weekend. On Aug. 10, more than 350 people were arrested for participating in unsanctioned protests in Moscow and other cities, according to independent rights watchdog OVD-Info, which reported that more than 1,000 people were detained during Aug. 3 protests and approximately 1,400 people on July 27.

Opposition leaders have also been targeted, with one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's top opponents, Alexey Navalny, and his doctor accusing the government of poisoning him. Lyubov Sobol, who was one of the independent candidates barred from the ballot, live-streamed video as police entered her home and arrested her this past weekend.

 On Sunday, there was a dramatic escalation of violence in Hong Kong too, with riot police firing tear gas in subway stations and bean bag rounds at close range. Demonstrators wore eye patches on Monday in symbolic solidarity with a woman who was reportedly hit in the eye on Sunday with a bean bag round and allegedly sustained permanent vision loss.

Since the movement's peaceful beginnings in early June, the demonstrations have, at times, turned violent and confrontational in response to police attempts to disperse crowds. Protesters have also been assaulted by pro-Beijing vigilantes that may have ties to organized crime. In the chaos, Hong Kong authorities have tried to paint protesters as violent Western-backed riots.

 In response to these events, the Trump administration has repeatedly voiced support for the demonstrations in Hong Kong while saying next to nothing about Moscow.

After protests the last three weekends in both cities, ABC News asked the State Department for a response to the mass arrests and the protesters' demands. Each time, a department spokesperson declined to take questions on Moscow and instead referred to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's comments on July 29.

 Asked about the protests and the alleged poisoning of Navalny, Pompeo said, "I don't have anything to add this morning. I think everyone understands the U.S. position, right? This goes for -- you asked about Hong Kong earlier, Russia, all these places -- we always support freedom of expression, freedom to practice one's religion, to live out one's conscience. We hope that for every citizen of the world."

In contrast, U.S. lawmakers condemned Russian authorities' actions and voiced support for demonstrators' democratic objectives: "This type of behavior by Russian police and by Putin serves as a disturbing reminder of the dangers of speaking out against the regime in Russia. We stand with the courageous opposition leaders, protesters, and activists in Russia," Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement the same day as Pompeo's comments.

Other Western countries have also been outspoken. Germany's Foreign Minister, for example, called for "all peaceful demonstrators to be released soon" and "all independent candidates who meet the requirements to be allowed to run for election" in a statement on Aug. 4.

The response to Moscow's demonstrations is also in sharp contrast to those in Hong Kong.

 The State Department spokesperson issued three statements on Hong Kong, each urging "all sides to exercise restraint and refrain from violence" while underscoring support for protesters' "freedoms of speech and assembly" and expressing concern about the "erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy."

On Monday, a spokesperson reinforced U.S. support for the demonstrations by adding, "[We] remain staunch in our support for freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in Hong Kong," and urging, "Beijing to adhere to its commitments ... to allow Hong Kong to exercise a high degree of autonomy."

Others in the administration have not been quite as vocal, deferring more to Chinese authority over the territory. Hong Kong is a specially administered region -- a part of China, but with its own capitalist economic system and a degree of political autonomy.

"That's between Hong Kong and that's between China because Hong Kong is a part of China. They will have to deal with that themselves," Trump said on Aug. 1.

Regardless of the U.S. response, both Russia and China have accused the U.S. of interfering in their affairs. Russia summoned a senior U.S. diplomat from the embassy in Moscow over an embassy advisory to U.S. citizens warned about the protests and included a map of their route -- which the Foreign Ministry said amounted to incitement. Beijing has accused Washington of backing protests, which the State Department denied -- a growing spat that escalated Friday with accusations of "thuggish" behavior.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Monday
Aug122019

Hong Kong airport cancels all departing flights as protesters occupy terminals

winhorse/iStock(HONG KONG) -- Hong Kong International Airport has canceled all remaining flight departures for the day after thousands of anti-government protesters flooded its terminals.

Members of the public were advised not to come to the airport.

"Airport operations at Hong Kong International Airport have been seriously disrupted as a result of the public assembly at the airport today," airport authorities said in a statement on Monday afternoon. "All check-in service for departure flights has been suspended. Other than the departure flights that have completed the check-in process and the arrival flights that are already heading to Hong Kong, all other flights have been cancelled for the rest of today."

Monday marked the fourth straight day protesters have occupied the airport, one of the world's busiest.

Many of the demonstrators were wearing eye patches on Monday to show support for a woman who was reportedly shot in the face by a bean bag round fired by police on Sunday. There are unconfirmed reports she could lose her right eye as a result of the injury.

Protesters have been pressuring the Hong Kong government for the past 10 weeks to answer their five demands, which include formally withdrawing the now-suspended extradition bill that kick-started these demonstrations and establishing an independent commission to investigate police conduct in their handling of the protests.

The demonstrations have, at times, turned violent and confrontational since the movement's peaceful beginnings in early June, when hundreds of thousands of mostly young protesters marched against the government's proposal to change an extradition law that would allow individuals to be sent to mainland China for trial. Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam, suspended the bill indefinitely but stopped short of completely withdrawing it from the legislative agenda.

The protesters' demands have since broadened to include universal suffrage. The movement led to a city-wide strike last Monday, disrupting traffic and hundreds of flights.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Monday
Aug122019

US service member killed during Iraqi Security Force mission identified

CT757fan/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- Officials have identified a United States service member who was killed Saturday in the northern Nineveh province of Iraq while advising Iraqi security forces, according to the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“One U.S. service member died today during an Iraqi Security Force mission in Ninewah province, Iraq, while advising and accompanying the (Iraqi security forces) during a planned operation,” the statement said.

On Sunday, the Department of Defense identified the service member as 35-year-old Gunnery Sergeant Scott A. Koppenhafer of Mancos, Colorado, who died "after being engaged by enemy small arms fire while conducting combat operations."

A U.S. contractor was also killed in Saturday's attack, according to a U.S. official.

The incident is currently under investigation, officials said in a statement.

Koppenhafer was assigned to the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, Marine Forces Special Operations Command in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He was named the Marine Special Operator of the Year for his role leading Marine Special Operations Team 8223, according to the Marine Corps Times.

Approximately 5,000 troops are currently stationed in Iraq as part of a security agreement with the Iraqi government to train, advise and assist the country’s troops in the fight against the Islamic State, which overran large parts of Iraq in 2014.

Iraqi forces have recently launched operations in the country's north to weed out remnants of the Islamic State group.

This is the first combat-related death of an American service member in Iraq this year. Two American service members and a Defense Department civilian were killed in Manbij, Syria in January as part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS there.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Saturday
Aug102019

'Lions are on the menu now': Inside the legal lion bone trade

EMS Foundation(MAPUTO, Mozambique) -- Kris Everatt was tracking lion prides as part of his conservation research in Mozambique's Limpopo National Park when he came across dozens of dead vultures near a waterhole.

As he walked closer to the waterhole, he saw the mutilated bodies of three lions. Their faces and paws were missing.

"I'd never seen a lion with its head and feet cut off before," said Everatt, the Mozambique program manager for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization. "But I knew they were poisoned."

That was more than five years ago. Since then, the number of lions in Limpopo National Park has plunged from 67 to about 10 or less, according to Everatt, who began studying the park's lion population in 2011. Each was poisoned by suspected poachers, and the animals that scavenged their carcasses dropped dead too, he said.

Many of the lions were found with their heads and paws hacked off, while others were only missing their teeth and claws. Some were completely deboned, with just their butchered flesh and skin remaining, Everatt said.

It's illegal to hunt lions in Limpopo National Park, a protected area of 1 million hectares along Mozambique's western frontier. But just across the border in South Africa, killing captive-bred lions to export their skeletons is perfectly legal -- and increasingly lucrative. The bones are typically shipped to Asia, where they are often falsely advertised as tiger parts in luxury products.

Everatt said he's witnessing the detrimental impact that South Africa's legal lion bone trade is beginning to have on the conservation of wild lion populations, which are already in steep decline across Africa. He said poachers in the region have caught on to the growing market for lion parts, and the iconic big cats are relatively easy to kill by simply lacing a piece of meat with poison.

"There's been this increase in poaching of wild lions where there wasn't before," Everatt told ABC News in a recent telephone interview. "Lions are on the menu now."

South Africa has been legally exporting lion skeletons since 2008. Back then, the bones typically entered the international market as a by-product of the trophy hunting industry. Many of the trophies originated from captive-born lions that were killed in canned hunts, in which the often-tamed animal is hunted in a confined area. Americans once comprised half of South Africa's foreign clientele, according to a recent study of the industry.

But that all started to change after the United States suspended imports of captive-bred lion trophies in 2016. Later that year, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) directed South Africa, the world's largest legal exporter of lion bones, to establish an annual export quota for lion skeletons derived from captive breeding facilities. In 2017, the South African government set a quota of 800 lion skeletons, with or without the skull. Officials raised the quota to 1,500 last year but then reduced it back to 800 following public outcry.

Researchers surveyed 117 captive lion facilities registered in South Africa, most of which had sold live lions for the hunting industry, and 82 percent said the U.S. ban impacted their businesses. While most of the breeders said they scaled down their operations and laid off staff as a result, 30 percent said they turned to the lion bone trade, according to the study, which was published in the scientific journal PLOS One in May.

The sale price for live lions in South Africa has plummeted while the price for their skeletons has increased by more than 22 percent since 2012, as the big cats are being increasingly slaughtered for their bones. A lion skeleton with the skull can now fetch an average of more than $3,000, according to the study.

The growing demand for lion bones comes at a time when the African lion, which is classified as "vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, is already under major threat across the African continent from habitat loss, a decrease in their natural prey species, and human encroachment. The South African government has raised concerns that bones would be sourced illegally from wild lions to satisfy demand if the trade in captive-bred ones was prohibited. But the export quota seems to present a further challenge to the controversial industry, with 52 percent of breeders saying they will search for "alternative markets" for lion bones if the quota restricts their business in any way, according to the study.

Once in Asia, lion bone is often sold as jewelry or sometimes used as a substitute for increasingly scarce tiger parts in lavish products, such as fortified wines and cakes. Tiger parts, which have long been used as remedies in traditional Chinese medicine, have become a status symbol in East and Southeast Asian countries. But with just a few thousand wild tigers left in the world, tiger bone is harder to get and more expensive. So dealers and vendors are taking advantage of the fact that tiger and lion bones are virtually indistinguishable, according to Karl Ammann, a Swiss conservation activist, wildlife photographer, author and filmmaker who has investigated the wildlife trade in Africa and Asia.

The Asian demand for lion parts is on the rise and South Africa's legal trade is only stoking the flames, he said.

"The demand side is obviously a major issue," Ammann told ABC News in a recent telephone interview. "The middle class in China and Vietnam is increasing and, as long as it's increasing, there will be demand for the product."

The bone trade is just one of the many ways South Africa is commodifying its captive-bred lions at every stage of life, from birth to death.

There are hundreds of facilities across the country that are legally breeding and raising lions, sometimes in tiny enclosures and unsatisfactory conditions. Cubs are separated from their mothers just days after birth, so the female adult lions can be continuously bred.

The lions are then hand-reared so they grow up to be tame and used to humans. Cubs are used in petting attractions while they're very young and small. Adolescent lions are used in other tourist activities, such as walking with lions.

When they get too big to safely interact with tourists, the lions are either recycled back into the breeding industry or sold to other facilities where they will be gunned down in canned trophy hunts or killed for their bones.

Some facilities lure in unwitting volunteers to help raise the cubs, like Beth Jennings. In February 2015, Jennings traveled from the United Kingdom to South Africa where she spent two weeks volunteering at a so-called lion conservation park in a rural area, some 70 miles outside the city of Pretoria. She was told she would be helping care for orphaned cubs and prepare them to be released back into the wild. But she soon realized that wasn't the truth, Jennings said.

The park was excessively breeding lions, and the staff instructed Jennings and the other volunteers to separate two-week-old cubs from their mother to hand-rear them, she said. When Jennings expressed concerns to the staff, she said they told her that the mother had become too aggressive with the cubs and was started to reject them. But Jennings said she saw no signs of such behavior during her stay.

Jennings said the young cubs at the facility were passed around to groups of tourists, who cuddled and petted them and posed for photos.

"The cubs make this absolutely heart-breaking noise that is them calling for their mum," Jennings told ABC News in a recent telephone interview. "It sounds really cute if you don’t know what it is."

One evening, the staff instructed Jennings to lock five cubs in a single crate overnight because they had apparently outgrown their enclosures. The crate was small and there was no access to food or water, she said.

"The next morning, they were covered in urine and desperate for water," she told ABC News. "It was horrible."

Jennings said the staff continued to be dismissive whenever she raised concerns, so she decided to quietly document her stay and then started a blog called "Claws Out" when she returned home. Her blog ultimately became part of a U.K.-registered charity, International Aid for the Protection and Welfare of Animals, where Jennings now works as a campaign manager and has created a short documentary about her experience.

South African government officials did not respond to ABC News' questions about the captive lion breeding industry nor a request for data. It's unclear exactly how many facilities there are, how many lions are being housed in them and what -- if anything -- is being done to ensure the animals' welfare. But critics say it's a poorly-regulated and cruel business that's exploded into a multi-million dollar industry amid the rising demand for lion parts.

"This industry has really developed over the past couple decades," said Mark Jones, a U.K.-based veterinarian and the head of policy at The Born Free Foundation, an international wildlife charity. "We now have a situation where there's probably upwards of 300 facilities containing -- nobody really knows, but certainly -- upwards of 8-10,000 lions and other big cats."

There have been reports in recent months of large-scale slaughterhouses emerging at some lion farms in South Africa's Free State province, where dozens of big cats are killed at a time for the sole purpose of selling their bones.

"Often raised in appalling conditions, the animals are emaciated or very diseased," Jones told ABC News in a recent telephone interview. "If you're raising an animal to sell into the bone trade, the condition of the animal doesn’t really matter."

But a landmark court ruling this week has brought a sense of hope to those calling on South Africa to ban captive lion breeding and the bone trade.

The High Court of South Africa on Tuesday declared the annual export quotas for lion bone in 2017 and 2018 "unlawful and constitutionally invalid," because the government had ignored the welfare of the animals in captivity. The judge ruled in favor of the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA), a South African animal welfare organization that has documented incidents of alleged cruelty in captive lion facilities. It's the first time in the country's history that such an organization has challenged conservation procedure.

The ruling doesn't put an end to the bone trade or captive breeding, nor does it prevent the government from setting quotas in the future; but it requires officials to consider animal welfare issues when making those decisions.

"We kept this litigation relatively narrow and within our mandate as there was a risk if we went too wide that a loss would have strengthened the lion industry's position," Karen Trendler, manager of the NSPCA's wildlife trade and trafficking portfolio, told ABC News in a text message. "So one achievable step at a time."

South Africa's Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy, has yet to set a lion bone export quota for 2019. Her office did not respond to ABC News' request for comment.

Everatt, the lion researcher in Mozambique, said he worries the damage has already been done and that any action the South African government may take to reverse it will be "too little, too late."

"The industry doesn't belong from a conservation and ethical point of view, but now they're in the middle of it and it's going to be a dirty end," Everatt told ABC News. "It's a lesson that the rest of Africa and the rest of the world needs to learn."

Everatt said he's already seen the bone trade cause the collapse of the wild lion population in Mozambique's Limpopo National Park. He said he's also heard of poachers coming into nearby villages where they are bribing residents to call them if they have any issues with lions in the area, rather than report it to the government which typically tries to relocate the wild animal. The poachers will poison the big cat and quietly take away its carcass, most likely to sell its parts, according to Everatt.

"My fear, and I think it's justified, is that this is going to spread around Africa," he said. "It's a real threat."

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Friday
Aug092019

North Korea launches two more projectiles into Sea of Japan

Oleksii Liskonih/iStock(SEOUL, South Korea) -- North Korea has fired two more unidentified projectiles into the Sea of Japan, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported Friday.

The projectiles were reportedly fired from the northeastern city of Hamhung. South Korean military is monitoring the situation in case of additional launches.

This is the fifth missile launch in recent weeks from North Korea.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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Friday
Aug092019

Generator issue causes London power outage

ZoltanGabor/iStock(LONDON) -- Large parts of London and the southeastern part of the United Kingdom were without electricity on Friday night.

The outage, caused by the failure of two power generators on National Grid's network, caused train services in and out of the capital to be delayed and cancelled. There were also issues with traffic lights and the London Underground.

National Grid said later on that their systems responded to the failure as expected, "disconnecting an isolate portion of the electricity demand." That action, the company says, protected the system and allowed for quick restoration of power.

Electricity was restored by 6:30pm local time, National Grid said.

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