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Monday
Sep162019

Venezuelan opposition calls talks with Maduro dead, causing rift 

iStock/grynold(CARACAS, Venezuela) -- Venezuela's opposition has declared talks with its strongman president Nicolás Maduro dead after weeks without meetings -- a decision meant to bring renewed international pressure, but that appeared to crack its united front.

One day after the opposition leader, who the legislature has declared is the legitimate president, said talks were off, minority parties in the legislature signed an agreement with top Maduro officials to move forward with new negotiations.

The U.S. welcomed the decision by Juan Guaidó, the president of Venezuela's National Assembly which declared Maduro illegitimate in January. But days after the U.S. touted the opposition's unity, the new rift appears to threaten the Trump administration's road map ahead.

Guaidó's mission to the U.S. downplayed the announcement, denouncing the parties as "fake opposition" who have been supporting Maduro and adding that they, "in no way weaken the legitimate government of Interim President Juan Guaidó."

Norway had been brokering talks held in Barbados to resolve the political crisis and the humanitarian catastrophe that has driven over 4 million Venezuelans from the country, led to hyperinflation and massive shortages of food and medicine, and increased tensions in the region.

But those talks have been dead since early August after the U.S. imposed an economic embargo on Maduro, freezing all Venezuelan assets in America's jurisdiction and allowing the U.S. to impose sanctions on anyone doing business with Maduro.

"The regime is the main obstacle to a political solution. It is imperative that everyone -- inside and outside Venezuela, together -- increase the pressure," Guaidó said on Sunday.

Specifically, the opposition hoped to use the declaration of an end to talks to push the European Union to impose greater sanctions on Maduro and his officials, Guaidó's envoy in Washington, Carlos Vecchio, told ABC News. Maduro and his allies have used European banks to help skirt the stringent U.S. sanctions, while the E.U. has sanctioned only 18 officials so far, according to Vecchio.

"We need to increase the level of pressure in the international arena and also domestically, internally," Vecchio said, adding that the opposition will push for greater demonstrations inside Venezuela in the coming weeks and for new institutional pressure through the National Assembly.

To boost that campaign and rally more international attention and pressure, Guaidó is also considering attending the United Nations General Assembly next week, Vecchio said. It would be a bold journey overseas, only his second since being declared interim leader and one complicated by the difficult secret journey required to exit and re-enter the country.

Maduro announced last Thursday that he would not attend the global meeting in New York, prompting speculation that his grip on power may be too tenuous for him to even leave the country.

But over nine months after this political crisis began, Maduro maintains control of the government and is still recognized by the U.N., although the U.S. and over 50 other countries recognize Guaidó as the legitimate leader. In particular, it's Maduro's enduring sway with the Venezuelan armed forces and its leadership that has kept him in command.

The announcement of a deal with a small group of National Assembly lawmakers could help boost his image as working with the opposition to solve the crisis, according to analysts.

Representatives of several opposition parties signed an agreement with Maduro's communications minister and other officials to reform the country’s electoral board, according to the Associated Press, and begin negotiations over the pro-government Constitutional Assembly, which Maduro created in 2018 to rival the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Guaidó called the announcement a "maneuver" by Maduro to split the opposition and stall for time, noting previous engagements with him have failed to reach any resolutions, according to the Associated Press. Vecchio's spokesperson told ABC News in an email that Maduro is "set[ting] up a fake negotiation with collaborationist parties to raise a false agreement that does NOT call for new presidential elections."

Before talks disbanded last month, Guaidó's side offered a detailed road map on how to move forward, including creating a transitional government headed by neither man and allowing free elections with international monitors nine months later, Vecchio said.

Maduro rejected that proposal. But now, with diplomacy seemingly dead and both sides digging in, it's unclear what path there is for the opposition and U.S. to remove Maduro.

Vecchio said Monday they are "looking for a peaceful solution," but remain open to "whatever we can do to put more pressure on" Maduro, including a naval blockade and other "military options."

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Monday
Sep162019

Man chooses to bring clown to redundancy meeting for 'support'

iStock/Nikolasimage(AUCKLAND, New Zealand) -- When one New Zealand man was facing redundancy, he brought a dash of color -- and some balloon animals -- to the meeting where he got laid off.

Employers in New Zealand are legally required to offer employees the chance to bring a "support person" to help cushion the blow of losing their job, but the human resources department at Josh Thompson's former advertising agency in Auckland were likely not expecting him to turn up with a professional clown for company.

A picture of the meeting, taken through the FCB New Zealand boardroom window, started circulating online, before the clown-friendly copywriter was identified and shared his story.

After receiving an unexpected email from his employer regarding a discussion of his role, Josh feared the worst and responded in a way that he now admits was a "touch unusual."

"I thought it's either a promotion or worse. I thought it's best to bring in a professional and so I paid $200 and hired a clown," Thompson told Magic Talk radio.

The clown turned into the ideal hire for the occasion, providing support by lightening the mood with balloon animals.

"It was rather noisy him making balloon animals so we had to tell him to be quiet from time to time," Thompson said.

Despite losing his job at the agency, the aspiring comedian is trying to look on the bright side. "I mean I did get fired, but apart from that it was all smooth running," he said.

Josh's clown companion has brightened up offices across the globe, with his humorous tale making headlines worldwide. Thompson has even already landed himself a new job, where he hopefully won't need any jester backup any time soon.

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Monday
Sep162019

17th service member killed in Afghanistan this year, 1st since peace talk collapse

choness/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- A U.S. service member was killed in action in Afghanistan on Monday, the first American combat death since President Donald Trump decided to call off peace talks with the Taliban earlier this month.

The service member is the 17th American killed in combat in Afghanistan this year -- the highest number since the end of 2014.

"In accordance with U.S. Department of Defense policy, the name of the service member is being withheld until 24 hours after family notification is complete," Resolute Support, the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, said in a statement on Monday.

Last week, the president declared that peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban were officially dead, after calling off a secret meeting with its leaders at Camp David.

For months, the U.S. had been negotiating a peace deal that would potentially bring an end to the 18-year war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history. However, a car bomb -- claimed by the Taliban -- that killed an American soldier in Kabul last week caused the president to cancel the talks.

"They thought they had to kill people in order to put themselves in a little better negotiating position," Trump told reporters on the White House south lawn last week. "When I heard, very simply, that they killed one of our soldiers and 12 other innocent people, I said, 'There is no way I'm meeting on that basis. There is no way I’m meeting.'"

The American killed in that attack was Sgt. 1st Class Elis Angel Barreto Ortiz of Morovis, Puerto Rico, who served with the 3rd Combat Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division.

Despite the failed talks, the president may decide to withdraw some forces without a peace deal, bringing the total number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan down from approximately 14,000 to 8,600, according to U.S. officials.

Meanwhile, the chief U.S. negotiator for the talks, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, is back in Washington, after months of meetings with the Taliban in Qatar and with Afghan officials in Kabul.

State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said last week that the U.S. still hopes to achieve peace in Afghanistan and bring American troops home but acknowledged that, "how we get there obviously is going to diverge from how we thought we were going to get there two weeks ago."

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Monday
Sep162019

Iran fired cruise missiles in attack on Saudi oil facility: Senior US official

JeanUrsula/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- Iran launched nearly a dozen cruise missiles and over 20 drones from its territory in the attack on a key Saudi oil facility Saturday, a senior Trump administration official told ABC News Sunday.

It is an extraordinary charge to make, that Iran used missiles and drones to attack its neighbor and rival Saudi Arabia, as the region teeters on the edge of high tensions.

President Donald Trump warned the U.S. was "locked and loaded" to respond to the attack on Sunday, waiting for verification of who was responsible and for word from Saudi Arabia on how to proceed.

The Trump administration, in particular Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has blamed Iran for the attack since Saturday, but so far, there's been no public accusation that Iran launched missiles.

The Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen claimed responsibility for the assault, which hit one of the world's largest oil processing facilities, hundreds of miles from the Yemen-Saudi border, and sharply impacted global oil supplies.

But a senior U.S. official told ABC News Saturday that was false: "It was Iran. The Houthis are claiming credit for something they did not do."

Pompeo tweeted that there was "no evidence the attacks came from Yemen."

The attack on the Saudi state-owned oil company Aramco also included more than 20 drones, the official said.

Iran has denied responsibility for the attack, accusing Pompeo of "max deceit," as the country's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted Saturday.

In a Sunday evening tweet, Trump did not share the definitive accusation against Iran, instead saying the U.S. had "reason to believe that we know the culprit ... but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] as to who they believe was the cause of this attack."

The senior official told ABC News the president is fully aware that Iran is responsible, but he wants the Saudis to acknowledge it if they want U.S. help.

Trump promised the U.S. was "locked and loaded depending on verification" and waiting for the Saudis to say "under what terms we would proceed!"

Critics condemned Trump's threat to act, especially at the Saudis' behest. Rep. Justin Amash, of Michigan, a former Republican and now Independent, tweeted, "Under our Constitution, the power to commence war lies with Congress, not the president and certainly not Saudi Arabia. We don’t take orders from foreign powers."

The attack and ensuing threats of retaliation had the region on edge Sunday, with heightened fears of a conflict -- Iran and its proxies against the Saudis and U.S.

Tensions have been high since Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and strictly reimposed sanctions, including on Iran's oil industry -- its economic lifeblood.

In an escalating series of moves, Tehran has sought to counter or undermine those sanctions -- attacking a handful of oil tankers, seizing others and their crews and assaulting Saudi oil facilities, according to U.S. officials.

The risk of conflict seemed lower less than a week ago, with the departure of hNational Security Adviser John Bolton and Trump seeming to embrace the possibility of talks with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly later this month in New York. Pompeo said Tuesday that Trump was "prepared to meet with no preconditions."

But in a reversal Sunday, Trump tweeted it was "incorrect" to say he was willing to meet without conditions, blaming the "fake news" despite his repeated statements saying so.

In July 2018, the president first said "no preconditions ... If they want to meet, I'll meet -- anytime they want."

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Sunday
Sep152019

3 migrants killed, 11 detained after boat sinks in Caribbean: CBP

U.S. Customs and Border Protection(NEW YORK) -- Three people were killed and 11 were detained on Saturday night when a makeshift boat capsized in the Caribbean, authorities said.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents in the Caribbean bureau said the makeshift vessel, called a "yola," went under Saturday night with "approximately" 38 undocumented immigrants on board, according to a statement. Three drowned and 11 were detained by the Ramey Border Patrol, the CBP stated via the agency's verified Twitter account. It is unclear what the status is of the other migrants.

Officials tweeted images from the scene Sunday evening, showing agents as they examined the damaged vessel on the shore. It was painted blue and appeared to be made of wood.

There was no word on where the boat departed from or where it may have been headed. Officials said they would release more information when available.

The CPB's Caribbean bureau is responsible for the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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Sunday
Sep152019

Thousands of climate change activists block entrance to Frankfurt auto show

iStock/VanderWolf-Images(FRANKFURT, Germany) -- Thousands of climate-change activists formed a human roadblock on Sunday to the Frankfurt auto show, one of the largest car industry showcases in the world.

Protesters, many wearing surgical masks and white hazmat suits, blocked the entrance to Germany's 68th annual International Auto Show, demanding German lawmakers to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and some calling for a ban on gas-guzzling SUVs.

“The automotive industry makes money by destroying the environment,” Marion Tiemann of the environmental activist group Greenpeace, one of the organizers of the protest, told demonstrators. “We’re in the midst of a climate crisis.”

It was the second day of mass protests at the auto show, where inside some 800 auto manufacturers showed off their latest models.

Protesters launched their attempt to disrupt the show on Saturday, when tens of thousands of demonstrators, including several thousand on bicycles, clogged major roads leading to the auto exhibition.

On Sunday, protesters returned to the Frankfurt show, blocking the entrance and holding banners that said, "Make love not CO2." Others called for an outright ban on SUVs.

The four-day show -- which included the latest vehicles from iconic German automakers Mercedes, Porsche, BMW and Volkswagen -- began on Thursday with a speech from German Chancellor Angela Merkel in which she challenged the auto industry to the "Herculean task" of coming up with "climate-friendly" vehicles.

"High mobility will have its price, if more efficient, climate-friendly vehicles are not manufactured," Merkel said in her speech.

She added that "no reduction in CO2 from the total volume of traffic has been achieved" since 1990.

"We are still a long way from having 100 percent renewable energy," said Merkel, who is scheduled to chair the first meeting of her high-level climate cabinet on Sept. 20.

Germany has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 55% from 1990 levels by 2030.

Some German car manufacturers are using the show to debut their latest electric and hybrid models, including Porsche's rollout of its all-electric $150,000 Taycan.

Bernhard Mattes, the president of the German Association of the Automotive Industry, also spoke at the show, telling manufacturers they are facing the "most profound transformation our industry has ever had to overcome."

"Yes, too many vehicles in a city affects our quality of life through noise, fumes, and by taking up space," Mattes said.

But Mattes went on to say that imposing more climate regulations and banning SUVs will not help the industry meet goals of cutting carbon emissions and traffic. He emphasized that innovation will produce a greener auto industry.

The protests over the weekend in Germany came just days after 16-year-old Swedish climate-change activist Greta Thunberg led a large protest outside the White House and called on Congress and President Donald Trump to take action on the climate crisis.

Thunberg, who gained notoriety last month by sailing to the United States from Europe as an alternative to air travel, encouraged young people to participate in Global Climate Strikes on Sept. 20 that are planned for major cities around the world.

“I am so incredibly grateful for every single one of you and I’m so proud of you who have come here," Thunberg told the crowd gathered on Friday in a park across the street from the White House. “Never give up, we will continue and see you next week on Sept. 20.”

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Sunday
Sep152019

Tunisian presidential elections: a major test for the Arab Spring’s legacy

iStock/twinsterphoto(TUNIS, Tunisia) -- On Sunday, 7 million Tunisians will vote for a new president in the country's second presidential election since Tunisia’s Arab Spring in 2011.

Arab Spring led to Tunisia’s first democratic elections.

Initially scheduled for Nov. 17, the election was pushed forward after the death of the incumbent president Béji Caïd Essebsi on July 25.

In 2011, Tunisians protested for four weeks against social inequalities and government corruption in a context of high unemployment, eventually ousting longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

For many, Tunisia is seen as the only real success coming out of the Arab Spring and as a new democracy. The nation held its first democratic elections in 2014 which led to Essebsi’s presidency.

But a series of terrorist attacks on popular tourist sites in 2015 prompted major European countries to advise against traveling to Tunisia, which hit the country's tourism sector hard. And a severe economic crisis brought unemployment rates as high as 15%, particularly effecting Tunisia's young people.

Now the country struggles to establish a true democratic process, as voter turnout plummets and distrust in politicians increases. In the last local elections, less than 40% of Tunisians came out to vote.

The sudden incarceration of the main contender Nabil Karoui late August on charges of tax evasion and money laundering could further decrease Tunisians’ belief in the democratic process. Karoui, an "anti-establishment" media mogul, was leading in the polls with a campaign centered around his personality and the liberalization of the Tunisian economy.

Karoui was leading in polls as of May. In July, the Tunisian government passed a law banning the publishing of opinion polls during an electoral campaign, so there is no updated polling information available since then.

Unable to attend the main electoral debate last Saturday, Karoui continues his campaign from prison. His party, Qalb Tounes, (translated as "Heart of Tunisia") denounced in a press release the "kidnapping" of its leader and evoked a "fascist practice."

In a Facebook post, his legal counsel revealed that Karoui began a hunger strike on Wednesday to demand that his constitutional right to vote in the elections be respected.

For Tunisian’s second presidential elections, voters will have to choose among no less than 24 candidates, including the current prime minister, a former defense secretary and the conservative Muslim party Ennahda. If no candidate wins a majority on Sunday’s first round, which is likely, a second round will take place in November.

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Sunday
Sep152019

Prince Harry celebrates first birthday as a dad

ABC News(LONDON) -- The Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry, is celebrating his 35th birthday Sunday, complete with a social media tribute from his wife Meghan on their joint Instagram account.

The post includes a collage of photos of Harry, beginning with one of him as a baby, carried by his mother, the late Princess Diana.

There's another photo of Harry with older brother Prince William, one of his wedding day with Duchess Meghan as well as a photo of Harry saluting in full military regalia with his grandfather Prince Philip.

The collage also includes a newly-released photograph of Harry and Meghan's son Archie at his christening ceremony earlier this year. Photographer Chris Allerton captured the sweet moment.

"Wishing a very happy birthday to His Royal Highness Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex!" the Instagram caption states.

The post goes on to include a tribute from Meghan to her husband: "Your service to the causes you care so deeply for inspires me every day. You are the best husband and most amazing dad to our son. We love you ❤️ Happiest birthday!"

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Sunday
Sep152019

Solid gold toilet worth over $1 million stolen from Winston Churchill's birthplace

iStock/Thinkstock(LONDON) -- A solid gold toilet named “America” worth over $1 million has been stolen from a palace in the United Kingdom.

The piece of art by Maurizio Cattalan had been installed at Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, as part of a functioning exhibition where people were invited to use the fully-functioning toilet.

The toilet had only been installed for two days before the theft occurred early on Saturday morning. The exhibition opened on Thursday.

Thames Valley Police received a report of the burglary at the palace at 4:57 a.m. on Saturday saying that the offenders broke in overnight and left the scene of the crime at 4:50 a.m.

“The piece of art that has been stolen is a high value toilet made out of gold that was on display at the palace,” said Detective Inspector Jess Milne of Thames Valley Police.

“Due to the toilet being plumbed in to the building, this has caused significant damage and flooding Milne said in a police statement. “We believe a group offenders used at least two vehicles during the offense.”

Blenheim Palace issued an official statement on Twitter saying that they are “are saddened by this extraordinary event, but also relieved no-one was hurt.”

“We knew there was huge interest in the Maurizio Cattelan contemporary art exhibition, with many set to come and enjoy the installations,” the statement said. It’s therefore a great shame an item so precious has been taken.”

Visitors could book a three-minute appointment to use the toilet which had been a popular feature of the exhibition when it was displayed at the Guggenheim in New York City.

The Washington Post reports that the Guggenheim received a request from the White House to borrow a painting by Vincent Van Gogh but responded by offering up the toilet-- that has been used by more than 100,000 people -- instead.

Thames Valley Police say that a 66-year-old man has been arrested in connection with this incident and remains in police custody. The man remains unnamed and any charges he may face have not been disclosed.

Edward Spencer-Churchill, the brother of the Duke of Marlborough who resides at Blenheim Palace, spoke to The Times last month before the theft saying “It’s not going to be the easiest thing to [steal].”

“Firstly it’s plumbed in and secondly a potential thief will have no idea who last used the toilet or what they ate. So no, I don’t plan on guarding it,” said Spencer-Churchill.

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Saturday
Sep142019

Pompeo blames Iran for major attack on Saudi oil facility amid high regional tensions

MicroStockHub/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday blamed Iran for a massive attack on a critical Saudi oil facility that has put the region on high alert.

Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen claimed responsibility for the assault, which was conducted using drones and hit the world's largest oil processing facility hundreds of miles from the Saudi-Yemen border.

Saudi Aramco, the massive state-run firm, said oil production, at least temporarily, would be reduced to about 50% capacity, a difference of approximately 5.7 million barrels per day.

A senior official told ABC News more than 20 drones were used in the strike and that Iran definitely was behind it.

"It was Iran," the senior official said. "Houthis are claiming credit for something they did not do."

President Donald Trump called Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Saturday "to offer his support for Saudi Arabia's self-defense," the White House said in a statement, which didn't specifically blame anyone, including Iran.

A Saudi-led coalition has been fighting against the Houthis in Yemen for over four years now after the group captured the capital Sanaa in the chaos of the country's civil war. The Houthis are backed by Iran, the Saudis' chief rival, which the Trump administration accuses of destabilizing the region and attacking oil supply chains to counter U.S. sanctions on its own oil industry.

"Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen," Pompeo tweeted.

In a video statement, Houthi spokesman Yahya Saree claimed that the rebel group carried out the drone bombings and threatened more attacks unless Saudi Arabia halted its military campaign against them: "We promise the Saudi regime that our upcoming operations will expand more and more and will be more painful than ever, so long as it continues in its assault and siege."

The Saudi-led coalition said it was still conducting an investigation into who was responsible, which could have dramatic implications for what comes next, especially if the kingdom blames Iran.

Trump's friend and ally in Congress, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called for the president to consider a U.S. "attack on Iranian oil refineries if they continue their provocations or increase nuclear enrichment."

But critics said the administration and its allies are distorting the reality of the conflict.

"This is such irresponsible simplification, and it's how we get into dumb wars of choice," Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said about Pompeo's tweet. "The Saudis and Houthis are at war. The Saudis attack the Houthis and the Houthis attack back. Iran is backing the Houthis and has been a bad actor, but it's just not as simple as Houthis [equal] Iran."

The Houthis have shown increasingly sophisticated capabilities to attack in Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. partner in the Middle East that the Trump administration has drawn particularly close to. Over the last few months, there have been a swarm of drone attacks and ballistic missile launches by the group, prompting more Saudi airstrikes in Yemen.

A State Department official told ABC News recently that the group was "gaining capability by the day" with new ranges, types of equipment and increased frequency and complexity of their attacks, which the official blamed on Iran's Quds Force, an elite unit in its Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran denies supplying the Houthis with weapons, although the United Nations, other Western countries and Gulf Arab nations join the U.S. in saying Tehran does.

But the U.S. has engaged the Houthis in occasional talks in an effort to bring the brutal war, which has killed at least 91,000 and brought the country to the brink of famine, to a negotiated settlement. The State Department official said the administration is pursuing talks in hopes of peeling the Houthis away from Iran and back to a U.N.-led peace process that secured a preliminary agreement last December, but that hasn't been implemented.

"I don't know what the level of ideological affinity is among the Houthis for Iran, other than they both share a mutual antipathy toward the United States and Israel," the official said. "But I think it's important to explore it."

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