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Friday
Jun152018

China retaliates immediately after US announces tariffs

iStock/Thinkstock(BEIJING) -- China said Friday it is retaliating against U.S. tariffs by imposing penalties on the same scale against the United States.

China's commerce ministry announced the tariffs after President Donald Trump said earlier Friday the United will hit $50 billion of goods from China with a 25 percent tariff.

The ministry did not detail specifically what goods China will penalize.

China had warned the White House earlier Friday that it would respond “in the first instance” to protect its economy if Trump moved forward with any tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods.

At the daily briefing here, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, “If the U.S. side adopts unilateralism and protectionism and damages China’s interests, we will respond in the first instance and take necessary measures to firmly safeguard our legitimate rights and interests.”

The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal were among the publications reporting overnight that Trump, fresh from his return from the Singapore Summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, has decided to enact significant tariffs on Chinese goods.

Friday's salvos mark a significant step toward a full-blown trade war between the United States and China despite months of trade talks and negotiations in an effort to avoid that outcome.

The Trump administration unveiled its tariffs just hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned from his first visit to Beijing where he met with his Chinese counterparts and President Xi Jinping.

Although Pompeo was in Beijing to debrief the Chinese on the Singapore summit, the trade friction was never far from the surface.

In a joint news conference Thursday evening in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China and the United States have two options before them: one is “cooperation” and a “win-win” scenario and the other is “lose-lose.”

"China opts for the first one and has made such a decision,” Wang said before warning, “we hope the U.S. will make a wise choice and China on its part is prepared on all fronts.”

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Friday
Jun152018

South Korea, US begin discussing end to military drills

iStock/Thinkstock(SEOUL) -- South Korea and the United States have begun discussions to end joint military displays that have long angered North Korean leadership.

President Donald Trump surprised many with his announcement on Tuesday that the U.S. "will be stopping the war games" because the drills with South Korea were "expensive" and "provocative" to North Korea.

"In accordance with the guidelines, Korea-U.S. discussions have already begun," a senior South Korean official said on Friday. "Though nothing has been decided yet, we're going to announce a decision soon in the near future, through close consultations between the South and the U.S."

The annual military maneuvers are viewed by most South Koreans and Americans as defensive in nature, more of a dress rehearsal for how to respond to aggression from North Korea. Leaders in Pyongyang, on the other hand, have denounced the drills as two allied nations preparing to invade the North.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Thursday said it might be necessary to reconsider the military exercises at a time when conversations among the three nations are underway.

But, in his opening remarks at a national-security meeting, Moon said, "The unwavering Korea-U.S. cooperation and combined defense posture need to be maintained based on the ironclad Korea-U.S. alliance."

Moon also said he was "filled with deep emotion" over the meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jun142018

Eiffel Tower installing bulletproof glass walls to protect monument from terror attacks

iStock/Thinkstock(PARIS) -- The Eiffel Tower will soon be surrounded with bulletproof glass walls to protect the iconic monument from terrorist threats.

Since the terror attacks that killed 130 people in Paris and Saint-Denis on Nov. 13, 2015, the iconic tower has been under constant surveillance. French soldiers and policemen patrol the site 24 hours a day. But the company that operates the tower, SETE, said the site still needed more security.

"The square of the Eiffel Tower was still, at the time, accessible to anyone very easily," Bernard Gaudillere, SETE's president, told ABC News. "Therefore we decided to build a new perimeter around the Eiffel Tower to increase the security."

The new perimeter will be unveiled to the public next month. But ABC News was given access to the construction site for a preview.

Temporary barriers were set up around the 1063-foot tower in June 2016. They are now being replaced by permanent bulletproof glass walls on the northern and southern ends of the landmark, and by metal fences on the eastern and western sides. Visitors will have access to the Eiffel Tower through these fences.

"The two glass walls are 10 feet high," Gaudillere said of the new, permanent walls. "They are bulletproof and very solid."

He also said 420 blocks will also be installed in front of the glass walls to prevent a vehicle attack like the ones that have occurred in New York and across Europe.

The new security perimeter, which costs $40 million, will be completed and unveiled in July.

But critics, including people living in the neighborhood near the Eiffel Tower, say that the walls will drastically change the appearance of the landmark, making it look like a fortress. Jean-Sébastien Baschet, the president of an organization called Les Amis du Champ-de-Mars, said in a statement last year that the new perimeter would affect local residents' access to the gardens near the tower.

"The privatization of the gardens located right next to the Eiffel Tower is unacceptable and incompatible with the notion of cohabitation, which is very important to our neighborhood," Baschet said in a statement posted to the group's website in May 2017.

Baschet did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

Others see the barriers as necessary to protect visitors.

"It will look much better than the temporary barriers that were installed two years ago, but most importantly, the security of our visitors will be increased, and this is our absolute priority," Alain Dumas, technical director for the Eiffel Tower operating company, told ABC News.

Gaudillere said the threat of terrorism at the tower is very real. In August 2017, a man with a knife tried to breach security at the Eiffel Tower. He was quickly surrounded and arrested on the scene by French police. No one was hurt in the incident but the tower was briefly evacuated.

After a difficult year in 2016 in which the numbers of visitors to the Eiffel Tower felt below 6 million people for the first time in 15 years, there has been a rebound.

In 2017, more tourists came back to the monument, Gaudillere said, adding: "We expect the upward trend to continue in 2018."

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Thursday
Jun142018

'Aquarius' ship carrying hundreds of migrants set to arrive in Spain after international controversy 

iStock/Thinkstock(VALENCIA, Spain) -- For 629 migrants on board a ship in the Mediterranean Sea, this weekend could mark the end of an international controversy over their final destination.

On Saturday, Spain plans to welcome the Aquarius ship, which has been making an 800-mile humanitarian journey with international supervision due to safety concerns.

The ship's final destination was confirmed after Italy, Malta and France stopped fighting and procrastinating over where the ship should be allowed to dock.

On Sunday, Italy's new anti-migrant interior minister, Matteo Salvini, blocked the ship from docking in Sicily, saying Italy had already taken in enough migrants -- 640,000 over the last five years.

But then, after Malta said "no," Spain unexpectedly said "yes."

"It was our duty to accept these migrants," Idoia Oneba of the Spanish Commission for Refugees (CEAR) told ABC News. "We hope they will arrive safe - as the boat was overcrowded and the journey is exhausting."

There are 11 children and seven pregnant women on board, according to the Spanish Red Cross.

When they arrive in Valencia, Spain, the Red Cross will welcome them with psychological support, medical care and humanitarian aid.

The UN refugee agency in Madrid confirmed that the crew and passengers should reach Valencia on Saturday evening if the weather conditions are good.

For Aquarius passengers, arriving in Spain was not their first choice. They chose the Libyan route because the border between Morocco and Spain is harder to cross with a higher risk to be deported.

"Most of the passengers are Moroccan and Algerians," the UN refugee agency told ABC News.

Spain welcoming the ship was unexpected, but like Italy, the country just swore in a new government.

"What Spain has done is undertake what you could see as a symbolic act," the country's new foreign minister, Josep Borell, said, "because at the end of the day it is only a small number of people that will question Europe about inability when it comes to deal with migration issues."

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jun142018

Trump administration reinstates funding to Syrian aid group White Helmets

Amer Almohibany/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump has authorized the release of $6.6 million in funding to the humanitarian group the Syrian Civil Defense, commonly referred to as the White Helmets, according to the State Department.

“The United States government strongly supports the White Helmets who have saved more than 100,000 lives since the conflict began, including victims of Assad’s chemical weapons attacks,” a State Department statement read.

The funding will also benefit the United Nation’s International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), which is responsible for investigating and prosecuting crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in Syria.

The White Helmets, an all-volunteer group, have been lauded internationally for their lifesaving actions, rushing into bombing sites to evacuate citizens and provide medical care. They have ministered to the victims of Syrian President Bashar Assad government’s chemical weapons attacks, and they often become targets of Syrian and Russian airstrikes. Their efforts were chronicled in a critically acclaimed Netflix documentary.

In March, the administration froze more than $200 million in aid to Syria, including aid to the White Helmets, for "re-evaluation." At the time, President Trump was blasting U.S. spending in the Middle East. At a March 29 infrastructure event in Ohio, Trump said U.S. troops would soon be coming out of Syria and that the U.S. should “let other people take care of it.”

There are currently approximately 2,000 U.S. service members in Syria, and there are dozens of United States Agency for International Development and State Department officials and contractors working on de-mining, rubble removal, and restoring water and electricity.

A State Department statement during the time that funding was frozen said the department continually re-evaluates appropriate assistance levels and how they are best utilized.

One State Department official defended the decision to freeze funding, telling ABC News that the U.S. "jointly supports the White Helmets with other donors, and we expect their operations to continue as a result of additional multilateral donors. The president has been clear that partners and allies should assume a larger role in stabilizing Syria."

The White Helmets had received about $33 million from the U.S. at the time the funding was frozen. There are about 3,000 volunteers in the group.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jun142018

A year later, Grenfell Tower fire victims remembered

Simon Dawson/Getty Images(LONDON) -- Londoners who lost loved ones in the Grenfell Tower fire marked the anniversary at the remnants of the building Thursday with a moment of silence to remember the 72 victims who died.

Many wiped away tears and carried white flowers in their hands. Some wore green as part of a campaign to show support for those whose lives were forever altered by the fire.

Mahmoud Alkarad, a Syrian refugee who lived in the tower at the time of the fire, brought a photo of his close friend Mohammad Alhaj Ali, who died in the fire.

“It's been a year, and it went so quickly,” he told ABC News. “It’s emotional to be here and remember my friend and how we used to live.”

Alkarad added that it's been comforting to mourn with others who lost friends and family members in the blaze. Since the fire, he said he has gotten to know many of his former neighbors.

“We are united now,” he said. “I used to know 10 people in the tower. Now I know 40.”

The fire, which broke out last year in the overnight hours in North Kensington, burned for about 24 hours. It took hundreds of firefighters to get the 24-story structure under control.

The deadly blaze in the public housing apartment complex sparked outrage and raised questions about inequality in one of the richest boroughs of London. Before the fire, residents had complained about lack of safety in the building and warned that a massive fire could happen.

A public inquiry examining the circumstances leading up to the fire recently included feedback from experts, who determined that there were safety issues with doors, ventilators and elevators in the building and that external cladding helped the flames spread quickly. The fire started on the fourth floor, but it only took minutes for flames to engulf the building.

London’s Metropolitan Police is carrying out a criminal investigation and considering manslaughter charges.

On Thursday, a nationwide moment of silence was observed at noon local time. It lasted 72 seconds -- one second for each victim.

The tower was lit green at 12:54 a.m., the same time the fire was first reported one year ago.

At the memorial, the names of the 72 people who died in the fire were read aloud, followed by the words “forever in our hearts.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan laid a wreath in front of the tower.

British Prime Minister Theresa May tweeted a tribute to the victims of the fire and their loved ones.

"Today, we remember those who lost their lives at Grenfell Tower and pay tribute to their family, friends and loved ones for the strength and dignity they have shown," she tweeted.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jun142018

Trump seen in awkward exchange of salutes with North Korean general on state TV

Handout/Getty Images(PYONGYANG, North Korea) -- President Donald Trump saluted a North Korean general in an awkward moment captured on video and broadcast by North Korean state media on Thursday.

The brief interaction was featured in a 42-minute-long program about Tuesday's unprecedented summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The program, narrated by North Korea's most famous newscaster, Ri Chun-hee, aired on state-run television two days after the summit in Singapore and a full day after Kim returned home to his country's capital, Pyongyang.

In the video, Trump can be seen going to shake the hand of a North Korean general, who salutes the American president instead. Trump then returns the salute before the two finally shake hands, while Kim looks on as a grin spreads across his face.

The footage offered a behind-the-scenes look at Kim's trip, including his arrival in Singapore on a chartered Air China flight and his motorcade driving past what appeared to be a warm welcome from throngs of people crammed on the streets.

In the video, Kim can also be seen lounging in his swanky room at the St. Regis Singapore, one of the most luxurious hotels on the island city-state, and heading out for an evening tour the night before the summit.

North Korean viewers had to wait almost 20 minutes into the program for Trump's first appearance. The video included the lengthy handshake between the two leaders, which took place before their one-on-one meeting at the luxury Capella Hotel on Singapore's Sentosa Island.

It was the first time a sitting U.S. president met face to face with a North Korean leader. On the agenda were North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons program and a potential deal to denuclearize the country.

The North Korean state TV broadcast also showed Trump and Kim after the meeting, signing their joint agreement in which North Korea pledged to take steps to denuclearize, while the United States vowed to end military exercises in South Korea. Both leaders invited each other to visit their respective capitals in the future.

The carefully crafted program repeatedly showed North Korea's supreme leader smiling, and depicted him as polite, confident and completely in control. Kim has ruled with an iron fist since 2011, when he assumed power following his father's death.

All media in North Korea is controlled by the state, and so the program's entirely positive view of Kim, the summit and its results come as no surprise.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jun142018

Ireland to vote on removing blasphemy from constitution

iStock/Thinkstock(DUBLIN) -- Less than a month after Ireland held a remarkable referendum vote that legalized abortion, government officials announced plans this week to hold a referendum on removing the offense of blasphemy from its constitution.

Ireland’s constitution, which was written in 1937 following its independence from the United Kingdom, states that the "publication of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offense which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

The Defamation Act of 2009 outlines a fine of just under $30,000 liable for anyone convicted of the offense, defining the act as “publishing or uttering matters that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.”

The last known conviction for blasphemy in Ireland was in 1855, according to the Irish news outlet The Journal.

In 2015, police in Ireland investigated a complaint of blasphemy with regard to comments made by the author and broadcaster Stephen Fry on the Irish state broadcaster RTE.

Fry was asked for his thoughts on the existence of God, to which he replied that “the god who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish.”

The complaint was made by a member of the public who asked not to be identified.

The investigation was dropped in 2017 after police failed to find a significant number of people offended by his comments.

The announcement of the referendum follows a landmark vote last month to legalize abortion. Ireland was one of the last countries in Europe where abortion remained illegal.

The government hopes for changes in the law on abortion to be effective by the end of the year.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Jun142018

US Ambassador returns letter written by Christopher Columbus to the Vatican

iStock/Thinkstock(ROME) -- The U.S. ambassador to the Vatican returned a letter written by Christopher Columbus after it was stolen and replaced with a forgery, officials said.

“The Columbus Letter, as it is known, is an account of the explorer’s discovery of America written in 1493 to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain,” according to a press release from the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.

The letter was translated into Latin and several copies were distributed throughout Europe, the embassy said. The letter was stolen from the Vatican Library and sold in 2004, according to the Department of Justice.

After the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Homeland Security Investigations discovered that the copy held in the Vatican was a fake, they contacted a man named Robert Parsons, who purchased a copy of the original letter in 2004, the release said.

Parsons’ widow, Mary Parsons, decided to return the letter to the Vatican and relinquish her rights to it, according to a press release.

U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Callista L Gingrich, delivered the letter to Vatican’s archivist and librarian, Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, and the prefect, Bishop Cesare Pasini.

“The Columbus Letter, written in 1493, is a priceless piece of cultural history. I am honored to return this remarkable letter to the Vatican Library -- its rightful owner," Ambassador Gingrich said.

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Wednesday
Jun132018

Senators move to prevent Trump from removing US troops in South Korea

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A pair of Senate Democrats introduced a bill Wednesday that would prevent President Donald Trump from unilaterally drawing down the American troop presence on the Korean peninsula – not necessarily because he’s said he will, but because they don’t want to rely on his word that he won’t.

Other measures that also tie the president’s hands, but don’t go as far, are already closer to being passed as part of an essential military policy bill.

The new legislation, from Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., would prevent Trump from withdrawing troops from South Korea unless the secretary of defense says it’s in the interest of national security and that it would not undermine the security of allies in the region.

“U.S. troops are not bargaining chips to be offered up in an off-handed manner,” Duckworth said in a statement.

During his summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Trump announced the U.S. would be ending large-scale annual military exercises conducted with South Korea but insisted that the status of the 28,500 American soldiers on the peninsula is not up for negotiation.

“They are going to stay. We didn’t even discuss that, that wasn’t discussed,” Trump said in an interview with Voice of America.

But he also said, during a press conference, that he still wants to draw down troops in Korea at some point – just not as part of negotiations over the North’s nuclear capability.

“At some point, I have to be honest. I used to say this during my campaign… I want to bring our soldiers back home. We have 32,000 soldiers in South Korea. I would like to be able to bring them back home. That’s not part of the equation. At some point, I hope it would be,” he said.

That type of uncertainty was enough for Murphy to try to establish some new restrictions.

“I don’t think it’s smart policy for Congress to rely on the word of the president,” the Connecticut Democrat told ABC. “This time he gave away exercises for nothing, what’s to stop him from giving away troops for nothing?”

The two Democrats want their amendment added to the Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which sets military policy for the next fiscal year. The House’s version already has a similar provision, which would limit funds that can be used to reduce troop levels in South Korea, and the Senate includes a “sense of the Senate” provision stipulating that “the significant removal of the United States military forces from the Korean Peninsula is a non-negotiable item” as it relates to North Korea’s denuclearization.

Once each chamber passes its respective NDAA, the two must be merged in what is known as a conference committee.

So while Murphy would obviously like to see his bill passed, he acknowledged that this year’s NDAA will be making some sort of a statement warning the president not to try to reduce troop levels in South Korea unless there is a national security imperative.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who wrote the sense of the Senate resolution, said he is concerned Trump might try to limit troop numbers on the Korean peninsula, which he warned would play right into China’s desires to have an unchallenged presence in the region.

“The Chinese have probably been coaching Kim Jong Un to seek that as part of the nuclear negotiation goals,” he told ABC.

Last month, Trump ordered the Pentagon to issue options for reducing the American presence in South Korea, despite his administration’s assurances that they were not a bargaining chip in the Kim talks.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said those kinds of comments indicate that it might be time to consider tying the president’s hands when it comes to defense on the peninsula.

“I generally wouldn’t be open to that, but I might be now,” he told ABC, although he added that the Senate should hold a hearing on the Murphy/Duckworth proposition before any votes are contemplated.

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