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Monday
Feb112019

Prince William, Duchess Kate step out for BAFTAs

Karwai Tang/WireImage(LONDON) -- Duchess Kate walked down the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) red carpet Sunday night in a white asymmetrical dress.

Kate, 37, stepped out for the British Awards show accompanied by her husband, Prince William, 36, who is the BAFTA president and one of the presenters of the night.

Kate's white, one-shouldered, Alexander McQueen dress was accompanied with simple accessories including a white clutch and diamond bracelet. Kate also wore an Alexander McQueen gown when she tied the knot with William in 2011.

Her standout accessory were her dangly pearl earrings, which reportedly belonged to the late Princess Diana.

The duchess took time at the awards show to honor some of the best British film stars in the industry, including actress Rachel Weisz, who took home the BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Favourite.

Kate also spoke to Spike Lee, who took home an award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his film, BlacKkKlansman.

William exchanged a few words with the cast of the breakout Netflix hit Roma, as well as actress Leticia White, who won the coveted Rising Star Award.

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Monday
Feb112019

US sails two warships past disputed island chain in South China Sea

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Tyler Diffie/Released(WASHINGTON) -- Two U.S. Navy ships sailed within 12 miles of a disputed artificial island -- claimed by China -- in the South China Sea early Monday, according to a U.S. Navy statement.

The move is sure to once again draw criticism from China, which has criticized the passage of U.S. Navy ships challenging its maritime claims in the South China Sea.

“On February 11 (local time), guided-missile destroyers USS Spruance (DDG 111) and USS Preble (DDG 88) conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea," said Commander Clay Doss, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet.

"Spruance and Preble sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” said Doss.

A U.S. official said the two destroyers sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, one of seven artificial islands built up by China in recent years to press their territorial claims to the island chain.

By sailing within the international territorial limit of 12 nautical miles the transits stress that the waters off the seven artificial islands are international waters.

The Navy carries out what are called Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) around the world to challenge excessive maritime claims made by countries, but the operations directed at claims made by China draw the most attention.

China's Foreign Ministry routinely criticizes U.S. Navy FONOP missions in the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands, another island chain disputed by both China and Vietnam. Some of the transits have also resulted in close calls for the American ships. In October, the destroyer USS Decatur had to maneuver to avoid a collision with a Chinese warship that came within 45 yards of its bow.

A defense official said there were no unprofessional or unsafe actions during Monday's transit by the two destroyers.

Over the last five years China has rapidly built artificial islands housing significant military infrastructure on what had been low-lying reefs. The United States has criticized China for militarizing the islands by constructing long runways used by jet fighters and deploying anti-aircraft missiles.

“U.S. Forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea," said Doss. "All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe.“

“We conduct routine and regular Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS), as we have done in the past and will continue to in the future," said the Navy spokesman. "FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements.”

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Saturday
Feb092019

Humanitarian aid for Venezuelans stored at bridge crossing border as military blocks passage

ABC News(CUCUTA, Columbia) -- The first round of humanitarian aid provided by the United States government to Venezuela was unveiled at the Tienditas Bridge in Colombia on Friday. It was stored only a few miles away from thousands of Venezuelans who desperately need it.

“We expect more to come,” U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker told reporters during a press conference at the bridge.

“This is a down payment. This is just the beginning. It’s important. It’s significant,” Whitaker said.

The aid includes some locally purchased food items and hygiene kits that could feed a family of five for 10 days; ready-to-use supplementary food (RUSF) supplies to feed about 10,000 children severely malnourished for up to two months; and temporary meal replacement biscuits that can feed up to 10,000 schoolchildren for a month.

Among the aid packages are also emergency medical kits containing life-saving medical supplies and pharmaceuticals that can be used at hospitals and community health centers.

“We know how we will bring it across, when we will bring it across and who will bring it across,” said Lester Toledo, a representative for Venezuela's interim president Juan Guaido.

Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called the provision of aid a "show" and a "message to humiliate the people."

“If you want to help, stop the blockade, persecution and aggression against Venezuela,” he added.

Maduro also said that if the U.S. really wanted to help, it would instead lift the over $10 million in sanctions that have been imposed on Maduro’s regime, calling it a robbery of money belonging to the Venezuelan people.

As Maduro addressed a crowd of journalists, Guaido was simultaneously speaking to a crowd of university students in Caracas about the opening of the collection center in Cucuta, saying that another two collection centers will soon open and calling for all Venezuelans to gather together over the weekend and organize to bring the aid into the country.

“We are not going to be deterred by the threats, or by the usurpation, or by fear,” Guaido said.

On Wednesday, one truck tank and two containers were set up at the Tienditas Bridge crossing between Venezuela and Colombia, where the aid is currently stored, blocking access to Venezuela.

Toledo called on Venezuela's military during a press conference to help get the aid across the Tienditas Bridge, saying that the medicine and food provided also belonged to them and their families.

All this took place as thousands of Venezuelans continued to journey across another bridge that connects Venezuela and Colombia. Some were leaving their country in hopes of finding a better life while others were simply visiting Colombia to buy items that they either could not afford or get access to in their home country, including food, medicine and other essentials, such as diapers and personal hygiene products.

Additional supplies are currently being stored at warehouses in Miami and Houston, ready to be deployed to the region immediately, according to a press release by USAID.

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Friday
Feb082019

White House decision looms as US military continues with Syria withdrawal plan 

primipil/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. military is proceeding with its 120-day plan to pull all U.S. troops and equipment out of Syria by the end of April, although so far only equipment and supplies have been removed. However, U.S. officials say the White House will have to tell the military within a matter of weeks whether to proceed with the actual removal of troops.

Two U.S. officials say the U.S. military withdrawal plan is proceeding independently of the White House effort to get guarantees from Turkey not to attack America’s Kurdish allies after U.S. troops pull out. So far, Turkey has rejected U.S. proposals to make that happen.

As U.S. military equipment continues to flow out of Syria the officials say that in coming weeks the White House will have to make a decision about whether to begin the removal of U.S. troops.

That White House decision will be necessitated by the growing risk posed to troops in Syria as the withdrawal plan continues to remove gear and moves on to close U.S. bases.

The Pentagon continues to say there are no timelines associated with the removal of U.S. troops.

“We are not discussing the timeline of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria,” said Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman.

In mid-December President Trump made the surprise announcement that he was withdrawing the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria that have been advising and assisting the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in its fight against Syria.

In the last month, more than 10 percent of the U.S. equipment and supplies in Syria have been removed from Syria, according to two U.S. officials.

Ironically, the U.S. troop presence in Syria has grown to 3,000 as additional military personnel have been brought in to prepare equipment and personnel to leave the country.

Earlier this week Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told lawmakers that he had not been consulted about the decision.

What was initially a request for the American troops to withdraw in 30 days was adjusted to a more “deliberate” timeline of 120 days that would be completed by the end of April.

Operating under then-Defense Secretary James Mattis’ orders U.S. military planners crafted a withdrawal plan that would first take out equipment and supplies and then see the departure of U.S. troops.

As the withdrawal plan continues apace with the support of hundreds of U.S. airstrikes and support on the ground America’s Kurdish allies are on the verge of defeating the last remnants of ISIS fighters in Syria.

The last 1,000 ISIS holdouts are trapped in a small cluster of villages in eastern Syria no larger than a few square miles.

U.S. officials believe the SDF will be able to defeat those remaining ISIS fighters “in days” bringing to an end ISIS’s claim of a territorial caliphate.

But even after that victory, American troops will continue to work with the SDF to “back clear” desert areas where some ISIS fighters may have fled.

On Wednesday, President Trump told the 79 members of the anti-ISIS coalition meeting in Washington that the United States would continue to “destroy” any “remnants” of ISIS.

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Friday
Feb082019

Section of Italy's collapsed Genoa bridge being removed

Luca Reina Mafaraci/iStock(ROME) -- Nearly six months after the deadly collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, the demolition of the remainder of the span began in earnest Friday.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Danilo Toninelli, the country's minister of infrastructure and transport, and other officials -- donning hard hats -- listened as the chief engineers explained how a 36-meter portion of the bridge was going to be slowly detached.

"In the days following the tragedy we often repeated a phrase, 'Genoa in our hearts,'" Conte tweeted on Thursday ahead of his visit. "Tomorrow I go back to Genoa, which has never left my thoughts or heart."

Using four steel jacks -- the same as those used to right the Costa Concordia cruise ship, another recent Italian engineering feat -- workers plan to carefully lower the sections over the course of about eight hours, engineers told officials.

A 200-meter portion of the viaduct in the large port city collapsed in August during busy lunchtime traffic. The accident, due to structural failure, caused dozens of vehicles to plummet to the ground.

The collapse killed 43 people and injured dozens of others.

A judicial investigation is still underway to determine the cause and accountability.

Following the tragedy, about 600 people, who had been living in buildings under the flyover viaduct, had only a few hours to leave their homes and find alternative housing.

Marco Bucci, Genoa’s mayor and commissioner in charge of the bridge’s reconstruction, said the removal of an 800-ton portion of the bridge is only part of the job because there is still much to be done, according to RAINNews24 tv. He did tell the station, however, that approximately 3,000 tons of material have already been removed over the last few months.

Giovanni Totti, the governor for the region, said the demolition was a "symbolic moment," and that "all Italians will finally be able to see a dramatic change to the bridge's skyline," according to RAINNews24 tv.

Conte, meanwhile, added he would return regularly to see the bridge’s reconstruction and that the new bridge must be inaugurated as soon as possible.

The reconstruction of the bridge will begin on March 31 while the demolition is still underway.

Toninelli reiterated that the new bridge should be inaugurated next year and said that the new viaduct will be "the image of the revival of the country," according to Italian Tv Tgcom24.

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Friday
Feb082019

Losing grip on power, Venezuela's Maduro leans on Cuban security forces: US officials

YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro is increasingly leaning on the protection and support of his Cuban backers, amid mounting global pressure to leave office, according to several senior U.S. officials.

Adm. Craig Faller, head of U.S. Southern Command, told U.S. senators on Thursday that Havana "owns the security around Maduro and is deeply entrenched in the intelligence service."

The U.S. and dozens of other nations have recognized Juan Guaido, president of the country's National Assembly, as Venezuela's interim president, saying Maduro is no longer fit to govern. But despite international calls to step down and protests against his regime over the weekend, Maduro has clung to power, retaining allegiance from Venezuela's military.

But while the military remains on his side, the Pentagon said it's not the embattled president's own forces ensuring his safety -- it's members of Cuba's security service.

"I think it's a good sense for where the loyalty of the Venezuelan people are that his immediate security force is made up of Cubans," Faller told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Cuba is "inextricably intertwined in all areas of Venezuela," he said.

Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the United Nations Security Council, "No regime has done more to sustain the nightmarish condition of the Venezuelan people than the regime in Havana."

Elliott Abrams, the State Department's newly appointed envoy for the country, was more blunt, telling ABC News last week, "The only people willing to die for Maduro may be Cubans, who are his security guards."

Maduro's faith in his own military may continue to wane. The top Venezuelan air force general and the military attache in Washington already have defected from Maduro's government, and Guaido has been quick to call for others to abandon the man who has governed Venezuela since 2013, promising amnesty in exchange.

But -- at least for now -- Maduro has the support of his armed forces, which has really kept him in power.

"I think Maduro relies on more than just the Cuban people around him to stay in power," Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told ABC News. "The Venezuela military is fragmenting a little bit, but still unified at least at the senior level behind Maduro."

If that changes, Maduro could be forced to leave the country entirely, and Abrams suggested he could find safe haven with "friends" like Cuba or Russia.

Cuba has long involved itself in Venezuela, but the relationship became particularly close after Venezuela's former president, Hugo Chavez, came to power two decades ago.

"The Cuba-Venezuela relationship is very close and has been this way since Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro embraced each other," Piccone said, describing it as a son-father relationship.

Havana benefited from subsidized oil from Venezuela that floated Cuba's economy for a long time, he added. In return, Cuba provided social welfare services, including hundreds of doctors, to Venezuela.

But the nation also sent its security and intelligence advisers, who have trained and influenced Venezuela's military.

"Russia and Cuba are both complicit in Venezuela's descent into dictatorship, but Cuba is particularly influential in supporting Maduro," Faller wrote in written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Following the Cuban government’s advice and assisted by its intelligence machinery, Maduro is adhering to the autocratic blueprint Cuban leaders have ruthlessly executed for over six decades."

Piccone warned that even if Maduro transitions out of power, the Venezuelan military won't "suddenly become pro-American overnight."

"It's going to take some time for that to happen," he said.

The next anti-Maduro protest in Venezuela is scheduled for Tuesday.

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Friday
Feb082019

Ivanka Trump launches Global Women's Initiative targeting developing nations

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump signed a memorandum on Thursday launching a new “Women’s Global Development and Prosperity” Initiative aimed at empowering women in the developing world.

The force behind the initiative: the president’s daughter and adviser, Ivanka Trump.

“It's a culmination of a lot of hard work but also really the beginning because the program's now stood up and we have to execute on a very ambitious goal,” Ivanka Trump said in an exclusive interview with ABC Abby Huntsman, co-host of The View, following the launch of the initiative.

The $50 million fund, also known as W-GDP, will be distributed by USAID with the ambitious goal of empowering 50 million women in developing countries by 2025.

Trump said the initiative will aim to make resources available to women through education and vocational training, help women gain access to capital to execute on entrepreneurial ideas and aim to promote women’s interests in countries where there are legal and cultural barriers hampering women’s engagement.

Trump said the initiative was not only envisioned as an opportunity to provide economic assistance to women in the developing world, but also has ties into national security.

“We know there's a correlation between gender inequality and conflict, there's tremendous amounts of research. There's a reason today, the president signed WGDP as a national security presidential memorandum,” she said. “It is in our domestic security interests to empower women”

President Trump applauded his daughter for doing an “incredible job” during an Oval Office ceremony to formally launch the initiative and predicted it will outperform its goal of helping 50 million women.

“Our goal is to empower women to help their home countries become self-reliant and to allow a lot families -- millions of families throughout the world -- to become self-reliant, and also in the United States, very importantly,” he said Thursday.

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Friday
Feb082019

Prince Harry, Meghan Markle walk red carpet at Endeavour Fund Awards gala

Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images(LONDON) -- Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stepped out Thursday night to recognize the achievements of wounded servicemen and women.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who are expecting their first child this spring, attended the Endeavour Fund Awards in London.

The Endeavour Fund was founded in 2012 with the support of Harry, Prince William and Duchess Kate through The Royal Foundation, the royals' charitable arm that Meghan also became patron of when she and Harry wed in May.

The Fund offers funding for sporting and adventure challenges for wounded servicemen and women and helps provide them with support and mentoring.

The cause is close to Harry's heart. He served in the British Army and also founded the Invictus Games, the Paralympic-style sporting event that raises awareness for wounded service members.

Harry, 34, and Meghan, 37, chaired the judging panel that selected the nine winners announced Thursday at the gala at Draper's Hall in London.

The awards recognize "the significant achievement of nine members of the Armed Forces Community who were injured or fell ill in service, but have gone on to use sport and adventurous challenge as part of their recovery and rehabilitation," according to the Fund.

Meghan and Harry's last public appearance together was Feb. 1, when the couple faced snow flurries during their visit to the English city of Bristol.

Meghan has also been stepping out solo for her own charitable engagements, visiting all four of the charities of which she is now patron.

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Thursday
Feb072019

Aid arrives at Venezuela border as US demands Maduro let it in

Oleksii Liskonih/iStock(CARACAS, Venezuela) -- A convoy carrying American humanitarian aid arrived at the Colombia-Venezuela border on Thursday as the U.S. and Venezuela's interim president Juan Guaido pressure President Nicolas Maduro to let the aid in and leave power.

Nine trucks in total drove into the border city Cucuta, but it will remain on the Colombia side for the time being after Maduro used a tanker, two shipping containers and some fencing to block the highway on the Tienditas Bridge and deployed troops to guard them.

That aid, which included food and nutritional supplements, as well as hygiene and medical kits, will remain there "to reach Venezuelans in need in their own country as soon as that is safe and logistically possible," according to Elliott Abrams, U.S. Special Envoy for Venezuela.

 But Maduro has blocked aid from entering the country for years. It's not likely he will relent, and it's unclear how the U.S., Guaido and partner countries like Colombia and Brazil, intend to get aid in.

For now, it seems it will not be done forcefully.

"I don't think that we or the Colombians or the Brazilians or anyone else is planning to try to force it in... We're hopeful that that, at least initial, decision on the part of Maduro can be turned around, if he sees real demand on the part of the people of Venezuela. Let it in! That's all we're asking - let it in!" Abrams said Thursday in Washington.

The key to increasing the pressure on Maduro is the Venezuelan people themselves.

The U.S. is also hoping the armed forces will still abandon Maduro, even though there have not been major military defections in the two weeks since Guaido was sworn in as interim president by the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

"Members of the Army are Venezuelan citizens. They have parents and children and brothers and sisters who are suffering badly, so our hope is that they will be able to persuade Maduro, or they will simply disobey orders to continue the starvation of the people of Venezuela," said Abrams.

To add to that pressure, the State Department also announced new visa restrictions and revocations for members of the Constituent Assembly -- the legislative body that Maduro created and filled in a sham election after he tried to dissolve the National Assembly.

While Maduro is still hanging on and calling for dialogue, there was a major meeting in Uruguay on Thursday to test the waters for a democratic transition. A new international contact group, with members from European and Latin American countries, met in Montevideo, but the U.S. was not interested in joining, Abrams said.

Instead, the administration has backed Guaido in his rejection of any talks with Maduro, saying it is simply a way for the socialist leader to buy time.

"The time with dialogue for Maduro has long passed... The end game for him should be to leave power and the sooner, the better," Abrams said -- except to negotiate his departure.

The only talks worth having are negotiating Maduro's departure, Abrams said, saying he could flee to "friends" like Cuba or Russia, while other members of the regime could go to other countries that have privately approached the U.S. saying they are willing to take them in, according to Abrams. He declined to say which countries those were.

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Thursday
Feb072019

Rome airport closed after World War II-era bombs found

die-phalanx/iStock(ROME) -- All flights into Rome’s secondary international airport, Ciampino, were suspended on Thursday after construction workers doing maintenance work on a tarmac uncovered three World War II bombs beneath the asphalt, according to local officials and numerous local news reports and video.

The aviation authority, ADR, ordered the evacuation of the terminal and the suspension of all flights while bomb control experts worked to remove the explosives, according to reports.

Italian television channel, TG2, said the bombs were of German origin. The Italian Ministry of Defense tweeted photos showing military experts examining the bombs.

https://twitter.com/MinisteroDifesa/status/1093506460531810305?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1093506460531810305&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fabcnews.go.com%2FInternational%2Frome-airport-closed-world-war-ii-era-bombs%2Fstory%3Fid%3D60908857

Rome was bombed more than 1,100 times in 1943 by Allied forces, and again by retreating Nazi forces in 1944, according to author H.D. Lytton in "Bombing Policy in the Rome and Pre-Normandy Invasion Aerial Campaigns of World War II," a 1983 article in Military Affairs, the journal of the American Military Institute.

Passengers and airport workers that had been evacuated and were waiting outside the airport said there had been no panic when they were told to leave.

"I was eating my lunch inside the main building when the restaurant manager said everyone had to leave," Donato Eramo, a rescue helicopter technician at the airport, told The Local.

The airport is expected to open again on Thursday afternoon. Authorities are encouraging passengers to consult airline websites about delays.

Ciampino airport is the base for most low-cost airlines that serve Rome, as well as many private jets.

Desk Aeronautico, a portal used by Italian pilots that shares government regulations and navigation news, posted a map of the airport showing how it was affected.

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