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Thursday
Jan172019

Brexit: What’s next?

MicroStockHub/iStock(LONDON) -- British Prime Minister Theresa May and her government survived a vote of no-confidence on Wednesday and will remain in power for the time being.

However, the future of Brexit is far from certain.

The U.K. voted in June 2016 to leave the European Union by a majority of 52 to 48 percent. But the question on the ballot did not specify what relationship Britain would have with the European bloc if it left, and the last two years have been fraught with negotiations and politicking.

The deal May secured with the EU was voted down by Parliament on Tuesday by a historic margin of 432-202, leaving an open question of how the U.K. will leave the EU.

It is possible that the U.K. will leave the EU on March 29 without a deal in place, which is likely to cause major disruptions. If the U.K. seeks to delay the exit date and ask for more time, their request will have to be agreed on by all 27 EU Member States.

Meanwhile, Guy Verhostadt, the Brexit coordinator for the European Parliament, has said that it is “unthinkable” that the extension would go beyond the European elections in May.

With the March 29 deadline to leave the EU looming ever closer, here’s what could happen next:

The prime minister’s plan B

After the Brexit deal May proposed was rejected on Tuesday evening, the prime minister will now have to present an alternative plan to parliament on Monday. May has said she will reach out to senior parliamentary leaders from all political parties to find out what changes would persuade them to vote for a new deal.

The prime minister has two main options:

1. Renegotiate the current deal. May could seek concessions from the EU on the controversial points of her current deal, such as on the Irish backstop. It is highly unlikely she will secure major concessions by Jan. 21.

2. The prime minister could abandon her plans entirely and pursue a "Soft Brexit." This will satisfy the opposition Labour Party and “Remainers” in her own Conservative Party. Soft Brexit would mean the U.K. remains closely tied to the EU, staying in the customs union and remaining under key EU policies such as freedom of movement. This scenario is more likely to get Parliament’s approval, but May will be risking an irreparable divide with the “Hard Brexiteers” in her own Conservative party.

If May can secure Parliament’s approval, whatever her next plan may be, the U.K. will leave the EU on March 29 with that deal.

And if plan B doesn’t work?

Finding a solution to persuade Parliament is no easy task. The rejection of May’s deal on Jan. 15 was the biggest defeat for a government in modern British political memory. If May’s new deal goes before Parliament and she loses, things get really complicated. May could either:

1. Keep trying again and again with more variations of the deal. This is unlikely to happen as faith in her leadership would dwindle.

2. Resign. This would likely trigger a general election and delay the March 29 deadline. A new government would be tasked with handling Brexit.

3. Pursue a “no deal" Brexit.

No Deal

This is the default position the U.K. is now in. If nothing else happens, the U.K. will leave the EU with no deal on March 29.

MPs want to avoid this scenario, as it promises to be hugely disruptive and damaging to both the U.K. and the EU. However, with each day the deadline approaches, a no-deal outcome becomes more and more likely.

A second referendum?

If May decides to support a “no deal” Brexit after MPs reject her plan, a second referendum is also possible. There is a growing campaign, supported by a number of influential MPs, to have a “People’s Vote” on the final terms of any Brexit outcome.

To get there, a majority in Parliament would have to vote for a bill to seize power over Brexit from the government, and hand it to a committee. This scenario would be given considerable weight if the opposition Labour Party decides to support a second referendum.

A second referendum would delay Brexit by several months, and certainly well beyond March 29. Parliament would then proceed to deal with with whatever the result is.

Like the prospect of no deal, the chances of this once far-fetched proposition are now increasing.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jan172019

Pence: North Korea taken no 'concrete steps' to dismantle nuclear program

Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- North Korea has still not taken "concrete steps" to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday, ahead of a reported meeting between North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator and top U.S. officials.

The admission was a candid assessment from the Trump administration, seven months after the president's summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and as the White House prepares for a second meeting between the two leaders.

"While the president has started a promising dialogue with Chairman Kim, we still await concrete steps by North Korea to dismantle the nuclear weapons that threaten our people and our allies in the region," Pence told U.S. ambassadors and chargés d'affaires assembled in Washington on Wednesday.

To date, North Korea has taken no verifiable steps to destroy its nuclear weapons program, has refused to detail its nuclear facilities or stockpiles and has asked the U.S. to ease sanctions before it takes any further steps. While the regime has said they have shut down a missile engine test site and a nuclear test facility, those steps have not been verified by international inspectors, despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying in October that inspectors would be allowed in "as soon as we get it logistically worked out."

Critics of the administration say North Korea has been clear all along that it is not interested in the unilateral disarmament that the Trump administration is seeking and that it is something it did not sign up for in that Singapore summit, despite Trump administration statements to the contrary.

"There really is a potential deal on the table here that involves significant limits on their nuclear and missile arsenal that would help alleviate the threat to the United States and our allies," said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, but, "the Trump administration has always been all or nothing in these negotiations, and so far they've gotten next to nothing."

While Pence conceded North Korea hadn't taken concrete steps, Pompeo -- President Donald Trump's point person on the North Korea talks -- has been more defensive of the administration's progress.

"We're moving forward in these conversations, lots of ideas about how we might continue to decrease the risk to the American people ... whether that's by our success to date in stopping their missile testing, stopping their nuclear testing," Pompeo told Fox News on Friday. "I am hopeful that in the year ahead we can make substantial progress on that, including getting another summit between the two leaders."

To that end, Pompeo is going to meet his North Korean interlocutor in the U.S. this week, according to a U.S official. Former spy chief and top aide to Kim, Kim Yong Chol may be traveling to Washington this week to meet Pompeo, and possibly Trump as well. The last time he visited the U.S. in May 2017, Kim Yong Chol met with Pompeo in New York and then traveled to Washington to hand deliver a letter to Trump from Kim, just weeks before the Singapore summit.

The State Department declined to confirm Kim Yong Chol’s visit or any meetings. But a U.S. official said the meeting is to take the North Koreans’ temperature ahead of a second Trump-Kim summit and see if such a meeting would be productive.

It would be the first time the two countries' lead negotiators have met since the North Koreans abruptly canceled a meeting in early November in New York. The State Department said at the time the meeting was postponed, but rescheduling has dragged on as the two sides are at a stalemate over what comes next: U.S. sanctions relief or North Korean action.

To date, the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Steve Biegun has yet to meet with his counterparts for detailed negotiations. Instead, it seems, Pompeo's meeting with Kim Yong Chol has only been rescheduled because Kim may be able to meet with Trump as well.

As the two sides try to finalize details on a second summit, Pompeo has said the U.S. will not make any concessions until North Korea takes steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

"I don't think there has been a single variant from the core proposition, which is the fully denuclearized North Korea as verified by international experts," he said Friday. "We intend to achieve that."

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Wednesday
Jan162019

American killed in Nairobi terror attack wanted 'to help people,' his parents say

KTRK-TV(HOUSTON) -- The American who was killed in Tuesday's terror attack in Nairobi, Kenya, was a loving son, brother and uncle who had traveled around the globe, helping entrepreneurs in developing countries grow their businesses, according to those who knew him.

Jason Spindler, 40, was among more than a dozen people who Kenyan authorities say died when armed men burst into a high-end complex in Nairobi's Westlands neighborhood, setting off explosives and opening fire on civilians. Al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-linked extremist group based in neighboring Somalia, claimed responsibility for the assault.

Spindler was the founder and managing director of I-DEV International, a San Francisco-based strategy and investment advisory firm with an office in Kenya's capital city, the company confirmed to ABC News in an email Wednesday. He was a native of Houston, Texas, and would have turned 41 years old next week, according to his parents, who spoke to ABC's Houston station KTRK-TV.

Spindler had been living in Nairobi for work for the past three years. On Tuesday afternoon, he left his office and walked to the nearby multi-use compound, which houses luxury hotel, restaurant, bars and offices. He would often work and have lunch at the garden, his mother, Sarah, told KTRK-TV in an interview Wednesday.

Spindler's parents said they were unable to contact him when they saw the news about the attack because his phone was broken, so he left the office without it.

"Nobody could get a hold of him, so they were searching," Spindler's mother, Sarah Spindler, told KTRK-TV. Friends of his searched for him for eight hours, showing his photo to hospital workers, police officers and employees at the U.S. embassy.

Jason Spindler's father, Joseph Spindler, told KTRK-TV that he knew something was "drastically wrong" since Spindler hadn't called to let them know he was safe.

Their son's body was later found in a cafe located within the gated complex.

"The American Embassy gave me a call and informed me he had been identified and he was at the morgue," Joseph Spindler said.

Jason Spindler was killed in the same hotel where his parents stayed when they visited him in August, located in what "was supposed to be the safest area in Nairobi," Joseph Spindler said, adding that the compound is "very hard to get to," and includes a series of checkpoints. His mother described Kenya as a "safe" and "friendly" country.

After graduating from college, Jason Spindler took a job working in the World Trade Center complex in downtown Manhattan. He happened to be running late to work the day the buildings were destroyed in the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, his parents said.

Spindler was excelling in a career on Wall Street when he told his parents he wanted to take a different path.

"He came and said, 'I really don't like what I'm doing. I want to help people,'" his father told the local station.

Jason Spindler later decided to join the Peace Corps in Peru where he helped locals launch a farming co-operative that allowed them to sell their crops to larger markets.

Upon returning home from the volunteer program, he got a degree from the New York University School of Law and started his own company, I-DEV International, which helps to develop sustainable businesses in third-world countries, his father said.

"Jason is warmly remembered by those who knew him at NYU Law," the school said in a statement to ABC News on Wednesday. "His tragic death is a loss not only to his loved ones, but to the community of individuals dedicated to improving the lives of others through social enterprise."

As his business grew and developed, Jason Spindler decided to open an office in Nairobi but was in the process of handing the reigns of his company to a successor so he could move home and start a career in politics within the next two years, his father said.

He would have turned 41 next week.

Spindler's parents said they are planning to travel to Nairobi on Wednesday to retrieve their son's body. They have been receiving nonstop phone calls and texts ever since the news of his death broke from people he touched all over the world, his father said.

"He was the type of guy that worked very hard, played very hard and would stay with you up all night and talk to you and help you through your problems," his father told KTRK-TV. "All over the world, for people that met him even once and yet touched them to such an extent that he helped change their lives."

Joseph Spindler described his first-born as a "wonderful" son and person who would uplift people as soon as they walked into a room.

"We're going to miss him tremendously," he said.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Wednesday
Jan162019

Prison rights monitors briefly see detained American Paul Whelan in Russian prison, say he seems 'healthy' and 'fine'

Whelan family(MOSCOW) -- Two Russian prisoner rights monitors who attempted to visit Paul Whelan, the American arrested as a spy in Russia, said they were only able to see him for a few seconds, but told ABC News that the former U.S. Marine appeared well and in good health.

On Tuesday, Eva Merkacheva and Yevgeny Yenikyeyev, members of the Public Oversight Committee which monitors prisoner treatment, visited Whelan in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison -- where the American has been held since he was arrested on espionage charges in late December.

Whelan has not been seen in public since his arrest and Russia has yet to provide any details on the charges against him, besides saying that he detained while carrying out “spying activity.”

The two monitors were prevented from meeting with Whelan by prison guards, on the grounds that they didn’t speak English and he doesn’t know Russian, they said. Instead they were permitted to visit Whelan’s cell and talk with his cellmate.

They saw Whelan for a few seconds as he was brought out of the cell as they entered. He was dressed in prison clothes and appeared well, they said.

“He is healthy, everything is fine with him,” Merkacheva said by telephone on Wednesday.

Whelan’s cell is standard and comfortable for a Russian prison, the pair said. Whelan and his Russian cellmate share a cell that measures about 26-29 square feet. The room has a refrigerator and a real toilet, not a hole in the floor common in many Russian pretrial detention centers. There is also a television, which broadcasts only Russian television, the monitors told ABC News.

Whelan was placed with his Russian cellmate because the man speaks basic English. Yenikyeyev described Whelan's cellmate as pleasant and “educated”, and said he told the monitors that he had been helping Whelan communicate with the guards. The cellmate, named Oleg, is charged with illegal weapons possession.

Merkacheva told Interfax on Wednesday that the cellmate was the former director of security for Togliattizot, a major Russian chemicals company. In December, the company’s security director, Oleg Antoshin was arrested on charges of illegal firearms possession.

Yenikyeyev said he believed they were being prevented from speaking with Whelan because the guards fear that the monitors could communicate something to him without them understanding. Whelan is due to appear in a Moscow court on January 22 for an appeal hearing to request his pretrial detention be converted to bail, according to his Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov.

Lefortovo prison where Whelan is being held is a notorious former KGB jail, known as for holding high-profile prisoners, including political dissidents and suspected spies, as well as those charged in major criminal cases. Until 2005 it was controlled by the Federal Security Service or FSB, Russia's the KGB's main successor agency that arrested Whelan. It is now overseen by Russia’s Justice ministry but several lawyers in other cases have previously told ABC News they believe the FSB ultimately retains control.

The United States, as well as Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland have all offered consular assistance to Whelan, who holds citizenship for all four countries.

Whelan’s family have said the Russian charges are impossible. Director of security for the American car-parts supplier BorgWarner, Whelan was in Moscow attending the wedding of an old friend from the Marines when he was detained in his hotel hours before the ceremony. His Russian lawyer has said Whelan intends to plead not guilty.

Irish diplomats visited Whelan on Wednesday and spent about an hour with him, the imprisoned American's family said.

“The Irish consular staff said the prison conditions were okay, that he had his glasses, and was working on learning some Russian words,” Whelan’s twin brother, David said in a statement. The Irish diplomats were able to give Whelan some toiletries, such as soap and a toothbrush, as well as taking messages from him to pass along to his family.

It was the first consular visit to Whelan since the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Jon Huntsman visited Whelan on January 2, they said.

A dispute appeared to be brewing over Britain’s access to Whelan, after Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday asserted that the United Kingdom (UK) had yet to request a consular visit to Whelan. Britain’s embassy in Moscow released a statement contradicting that, asserting that embassy officials made a request for access on January 2 and that Russian officials had confirmed receipt of the request.

Lavrov linked the supposed delay to the UK’s unwillingness to grant Russian officials consular access in the case of Sergey and Yulia Skripal, the former Russian spy and his daughter poisoned with a nerve agent in Britain last March. Britain accuses Russia of trying to murder Skripal and has placed him and his daughter under protection, saying it fears Russia might try to harm them again.

Lavrov also denied suggestions that Russia had seized Whelan with the aim of exchanging him for Russians jailed abroad.

“We never do such things,” Lavrov said at a press conference in Moscow, asserting that Whelan had been detained while conducting “concrete illegal activities in a hotel.”

Russia's domestic security service, known as the FSB, arrested Whelan in his room at Moscow’s upscale Metropole hotel, near the Kremlin.

“He was detained red-handed,” Lavrov contended.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Wednesday
Jan162019

Four Americans killed, three injured in bomb blast in northern Syria

omersukrugoksu/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- Four Americans, including two service members, one Department of Defense civilian, and one contractor, were killed in a bomb blast in Syria, the U.S. military confirmed Wednesday, in the deadliest attack on the U.S. military since American troops went into Syria and the first claimed by ISIS since President Donald Trump ordered a U.S. withdrawal claiming ISIS had been defeated..

Three U.S. service members were also injured by the explosion while the group was conducting a local engagement, according to a statement from U.S. Central Command.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the blast, which occurred in the northern city of Manbij.

Since U.S. troops entered Manbij nearly two years ago, vehicle patrols have included "dismounted" patrols with American forces in the city on foot, which is what the U.S. service members who were killed were doing at the time of the explosion.

“The President has been fully briefed and we will continue to monitor the ongoing situation in Syria," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement. She later put out a separate White House statement saying, "Our deepest sympathies and love go out to the families of the brave American heroes who were killed today in Syria. We also pray for the soldiers who were wounded in the attack. Our service members and their families have all sacrificed so much for our country."

Wednesday's deadly incident comes about one month after President Donald Trump ordered 2,000 U.S. troops to leave Syria, as the White House declared victory over ISIS. But since then, there has been growing confusion over the withdrawal plans, as the administration shifted from a 30-day timeline to one that is now "conditions-based" to include the enduring defeat of ISIS, protection for the Syrian Kurds, and assurance that Iran can't increase its influence in the region.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a vocal critic of Trump's decision to withdraw American troops, interrupted an unrelated hearing Wednesday to make an unusual high-profile plea to the president, saying: "My concern by the statements made by President Trump is that you have set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we are fighting."

Graham, who said he believed the Americans were killed at a restaurant he had visited during his visit to Manbij last July, said he hoped the president would reexamine U.S. policy in Syria.

"The only reason the Kurds and the Arabs and the Christians were in that restaurant is cause we gave them the space to be in that restaurant," Graham said. "Think what you want to about 'those people' over there -- they have had enough of killing. They would love to have the opportunity that we have to fix their problems without the force of violence. So I would hope the president would look long and hard of where he is headed in Syria."

Four other American service members have been killed in Syria since the U.S. entered the country under the Obama administration in October 2015. Those Americans were: Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Scott Cooper Dayton, Air Force Staff Sgt. Leo Austin Bieren, Army Spc. Etienne Jules Murphy, and Army Master Sgt. Jonathan Jay Dunbar.

Trump cited the hardship of speaking with families who had lost loved ones in a video produced on the White House lawn the day he announced the withdrawal, saying "I get very saddened when I have to write letters or call parents or wives or husbands of soldiers who have been killed fighting for our country. It’s a great honor. We cherish them but it’s heartbreaking."

The president's surprise announcement last month led to an outcry from U.S. partners and allies and a series of high-level resignations, namely that of former Defense Secretary James Mattis who felt the U.S. was abandoning its allies and partners in the region.

One of the chief concerns has been how to protect the Kurds, a group that's been a critical U.S. partner in the fight against ISIS but which Turkey views as terrorists.

In a series of tweets on Sunday, Trump suggested that a 20-mile "safe zone" could be created to decrease tension between the two groups. The president also discussed the idea by phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday, according to a Turkish readout of the call, but the White House has not provided details about how that zone would be enforced.

In the past week, the U.S. moved some equipment out of Syria, but no troops, two U.S. officials told ABC News. American service members will remain in Iraq, and Trump has suggested as recently as Sunday that they could "attack again from existing nearby base" if ISIS or another terrorist group emerged.

Despite Trump's declaration of victory over ISIS, State Department and Pentagon officials had cautioned as recently as the week before his announcement that the fight was not over -- with the U.S. recently estimating that about 2,000 ISIS fighters remain in Syria.

According to statistics released by U.S. Air Forces Central Command last week, the U.S. and coalition aircraft dropped the highest number of bombs over Syria in the month before the president made his withdrawal announcement: 1,424 weapons released in November, up from 876 in October and 758 in September.

In a statement on Friday, the U.S. military said that its partners had only "recently liberated" a town from the terror group, calling ISIS a "determined ... force who employed complex attacks, improvised-explosive devices and booby-trapped buildings."

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Wednesday
Jan162019

Theresa May survives crucial no-confidence vote amid Brexit uncertainty

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images(LONDON) -- British Prime Minister Theresa May has narrowly survived a no-confidence vote just one day after suffering a historic defeat in Parliament over her Brexit deal.

The vote was scheduled by the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, on Tuesday evening.

In the end, May’s government survived to fight another day, as members of Parliament (MPs) voted in her favor by a margin of 325 to 306.

This is the second no-confidence vote the prime minister has faced in a matter of weeks. On Dec. 12, May survived a vote of no-confidence, orchestrated by disgruntled MPs from within her own Conservative party, by the margin of 200-117.

This vote, however, had the potential for far more significant implications.

If May had lost the vote, she would have likely been forced to resign, with a general election to follow soon after, putting the ultimate fate of Brexit even more in doubt.

Although 118 MPs in May's own Conservative Party voted against her Brexit deal on Tuesday, the prime minister was expected to survive the no-confidence vote.

Conservative MPs rallied behind her Wednesday, despite opposing the Brexit deal on Tuesday. The vote of confidence suggests they feared the prospect of a general election more than the prospect of May remaining in charge of the Brexit process.

May has held onto power, but the future of Brexit is still up in the air. After her heavy defeat on the Brexit deal on Tuesday evening, May now has until Monday to propose another deal to Parliament.

So far there are no indications as to what changes May plans to make to her original failed Brexit deal. However, after Tuesday's defeat, the prime minister said she would listen to politicians' concerns and try to seek better terms with leaders of the European Union.

In the lead-up to Tuesday's crushing defeat, May's deal was criticized by politicians and pundits on all sides of the political spectrum. Some argued May's deal would mean that the U.K. would be too closely tied to the EU for the indefinite future, while others suggested the deal would damage the economy and lead to job losses.

With more than two-thirds of parliament voting against May’s original Brexit deal on Tuesday, the defeat was the biggest government loss in a parliamentary vote in more than 100 years, according to the Institute for Government, a U.K. think tank.

May has spent the better part of two years negotiating a Brexit deal with EU leaders.

Jean Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, the EU's main political body, expressed his "regret of the outcome of the vote" on Tuesday evening.

"The risk of a disorderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom has increased with this evening's vote," he said in a statement. "While we do not want this to happen, the European Commission will continue its contingency work to help ensure the EU is fully prepared. I urge the United Kingdom to clarify its intentions as soon as possible."

The deadline for the U.K. to leave the European Union is March 29. If Parliament cannot agree to a deal or the deadline isn't extended, the U.K. could leave the EU with "no deal," which most politicians and businesspersons agree would be disastrous.

"Time," Junker added, "is almost up."

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Wednesday
Jan162019

Pregnant Meghan Markle had the perfect response to a woman who called her a 'fat lady'

Jeff Spicer/Getty Images(LONDON) -- Meghan Markle, who is due to give birth in April, showed all the graciousness of a royal when she expertly responded to a comment about her growing body.

“I’ll take it,” Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, said Wednesday with a laugh after a woman, pointing to Meghan's bump, called her a “fat lady.”

The exchange, which was caught on camera, came as Meghan visited Mayhew, a U.K. animal charity of which she is now patron.

Markle, 37, gamely held some of the charity’s rescue dogs and petted others as she visited with staff and volunteers at Mayhew, which offers veterinary care and support for dogs and cats around the world.

Markle is a known dog lover who had her rescue dog, Guy, by her side on the morning of her wedding to Prince Harry last May. One photo even raised speculation that Guy rode in a car with Queen Elizabeth II ahead of Harry and Meghan's wedding at St. George's Chapel in Windsor.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex also became the new owners of a Labrador puppy in August, just a few months into their life as newlyweds.

The Duchess of Sussex paired a $35 H&M cream maternity dress with a cashmere coat by Armani for her visit to Mayhew. She also carried a bag made of vegan leather by Stella McCartney, who designed Meghan's evening wedding dress.

Mayhew is the second charity visited by Meghan since it was announced last week that she has taken on four patronages.

Pregnant Meghan Markle gives hint about due date in 1st appearance of 2019 with Prince Harry

In addition to Mayhew, the Duchess of Sussex is also the patron of Smart Works, a charity that helps women get back on their feet, the National Theatre and the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

Meghan is taking over the latter two patronages, the National Theatre and Association of Commonwealth Universities, from Queen Elizabeth II.

Meghan's four patronages "reflect the causes and issues with which she has long been associated including the arts, access to education, support for women and animal welfare," Kensington Palace said in a statement last week.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Wednesday
Jan162019

Poaching likely created a generation of tuskless elephants, scientists say

LeighGregg/iStock(ROME) -- The elephant herds in Gorongosa National Park, in central Mozambique, are survivors.

Despite massive poaching operations that decimated more than 90 percent of the elephant population in the park during the Mozambique Civil War 30 years ago, a small number survived, and the population is growing again.

But a team of scientists monitoring the herd noticed a remarkable trait among the survivors: some 30 percent of the new females are born without tusks.

"The key explanation is that in Gorongosa National Park, the tuskless elephants were the ones which eluded poaching during the civil war and passed this trait on to many of their daughters," Dominique D'Emille Correia Gonçalves, a PhD student from the England’s University of Kent on a team researching the phenomenon, said in interviews with British media this week.

The scientists noted that many in the herd have no tusks or smaller than usual tusks, which makes the animals less attractive to poachers. The team also noted that the females in the Gorongosa herds are much more aggressive to humans than other African elephants.

"Many of the matriarchs and lead females of the family units were alive during the slaughter and saw their families and friends being hunted," Correia Gonçalves added. "They are survivors, and the trauma is still present, which would explain such intolerance to humans."

The 26-year-old ecologist, who also heads the Elephant Ecology Project, was part of a team that attached GPS tracking collars to 10 females and conducted genetic studies of the population to further test their assumptions.

Dr. Michael D. Kock, a wildlife veterinarian who studies African elephants, is doubtful that the increased number of tuskless elephants is due to natural selection.

In his research of the elephant population in North Luangwa, Zambia some 60 percent of the surviving elephants were tuskless, but as conservation efforts allowed the numbers to grow, the percentage of animals with tusks returned to normal.

"In my opinion, it is purely to do with the fact that poachers target tusked animals, and as they reduce the population of elephant, the survivors are the animals naturally without tusks. Therefore, the tuskless gene predominates because a tuskless animal is less likely to be killed," Kock said in an email to ABC News.

"The tusked gene predominates in the population under normal circumstances," Kock added. "Preventing the killing of tusked elephants and a growth rate of 8 percent or more will see the ratio revert closer to normal. This is not natural selection but poaching pressure selection!"

Correia Gonçalves said her team's research is not exactly linked to Darwin's theories, though.

"These tuskless elephants are growing from the survivors of poaching," she told the Daily Mail, "so while we are not talking about evolution yet, we could be talking about the removal of certain genes from the population."

Studies of the effects of poaching are not limited to Mozambique. Researchers following elephants in Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa found that 98 percent of the 174 female elephants in 2000 were also tuskless.

"The prevalence of tusklessness in Addo is truly remarkable and underscores the fact that high levels of poaching pressure can do more than just remove individuals from a population,” Ryan Long, a University of Idaho behavioral ecologist told National Geographic last fall.

Researchers add that elephants without tusks cannot dig for water or scrape bark for food, forcing them to travel greater distances to survive.

Kock highlighted one other peculiarity from his research on the effects of poaching on forest elephants.

"I have worked with forest elephants for 15 years and have never seen a tuskless forest elephant. This may be due to the difficulty in poaching these animals in dense forest, and the elephants learning and avoidance behavior," he said. "Poaching pressure in forest elephant has resulted in a complete change in behavior, with animals visiting forest clearings in the middle of the night, leaving well before dawn and heading for dense refuges where they spend the day."

Long told National Geographic that the lasting effect humans have had on the animals could have wide-ranging impacts.

"Any or all of these changes in behavior could result in changes to the distribution of elephants across the landscape, and it's those broad-scale changes that are most likely to have consequences for the rest of the ecosystem," he said.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Wednesday
Jan162019

Rescuers find hair of toddler who fell into a well, giving hope of finding him

Valeria Vechterova/iStock(LONDON) -- DNA of a toddler who fell down a well outside the southern Spanish city of Malaga has been found, giving rescue teams hope they are now closer to finding him.

Two-year-old Julen Rosello fell down the borehole, which is more than 300 feet deep, on Sunday when he wandered away while visiting a cousin's boyfriend's property.

From just a few feet away, his family hopelessly watched the boy fall in and attempted to rescue him immediately, but they didn't realize how deep it actually went down.

After days of searching, on Wednesday, Spanish rescuers said they found hair of the boy in a deeper section of the well, confirming he had been inside.

"We are working with all means and institutional cooperation. We hope to soon be able to give good news," Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said in a press conference on Tuesday.

"We understand the anguish, but we have the maximum confidence in resolving it in the best way," Ana Botella, Spain’s secretary of state security, said during the press conference.

In an interview with Spanish newspaper Sur, Julen Rosello's father, Jose, explained how the incident unfolded. Vicky, the boy’s mother and Rosello’s wife, had been with the boy as Rosello cooked lunch. She asked Rosello to keep an eye on the boy, who was only 16 feet away from him, while she made a call to work.

As Rosello grabbed additional wood for the fire, he said, the boy wandered off. Rosello’s cousin ran after the boy, worried he would stumble.

Before she could reach him, however, the toddler fell through a hole that had been weakly covered by rocks, Rosello said.

"I pushed the rocks aside and stuck my arm inside, all the way up to my shoulder, resting my head against the ground because I didn’t know how deep the well was and I thought he was closer," Rosello told Sur in Spanish.

"I heard him cry. All I could say to him was, 'Stay calm, Dad is here and your little brother will help us,'" Rosello said.

The family reportedly lost a son in 2017, a 3-year-old who died suddenly.

"We are not giving up," Jose Rosello told a group of reporters on Wednesday. "We have the hope that an angel is going to show up for my son to come out alive."

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Wednesday
Jan162019

Theresa May faces no-confidence vote after defeat on Brexit deal

Jack Taylor/Getty Images(LONDON) -- British Prime Minister Theresa May will face a no-confidence vote in her government Wednesday after suffering a historic defeat in Parliament over her flagship Brexit deal.

The vote was tabled by the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, on Tuesday evening moments after Members of Parliament heavily voted down the government's Brexit deal, 432-202.

If a majority of MPs vote against the government, May will be forced to resign, which could trigger a general election. Parliament will debate the no-confidence motion for six hours beginning around 8 a.m. EST, with the vote scheduled immediately afterward.

Although 118 MPs in May's own Conservative Party voted against her Brexit deal, the prime minister is expected to survive the no-confidence vote.

Conservative MPs, despite opposing the Brexit deal, are believed to fear the prospect of a general election. If the government wins the vote, May will remain, not leave.

In the lead-up to Tuesday's crushing defeat, May's deal was criticized by politicians and pundits on all sides of the political spectrum. Some argued May's deal would mean that the United Kingdom would be too closely tied to the European Union for the indefinite future, while others suggested the deal would damage the economy and lead to job losses.

After Tuesday's defeat, the prime minister said she would listen to politicians' concerns and seek better terms with EU leaders.

However, the final majority for Tuesday's vote was 230 against, meaning the prime minister has the backing of less than a third of the House of Commons for her flagship deal. The defeat was the biggest government loss in a parliamentary vote in more than 100 years, according to the think tank Institute for Government.

May has spent the better part of two years negotiating with EU leaders.

Jean Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, the EU's main political body, expressed his "regret of the outcome of the vote" on Tuesday evening.

"The risk of a disorderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom has increased with this evening's vote," he said in a statement. "While we do not want this to happen, the European Commission will continue its contingency work to help ensure the EU is fully prepared. I urge the United Kingdom to clarify its intentions as soon as possible."

The deadline for the U.K. to leave the European Union is March 29. If Parliament cannot agree to a deal or the deadline isn't extended, the U.K. could leave the EU with "no deal," which most politicians and businesspersons agree would be disastrous.

"Time," Junker added, "is almost up."

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