Friction among Taliban pragmatists, hard-liners intensifies

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Friction between pragmatists and ideologues in the Taliban leadership has intensified since the group formed a hard-line Cabinet last week that is more in line with their harsh rule in the 1990s than their recent promises of inclusiveness, said two Afghans familiar with the power struggle.

The wrangling has taken place behind the scenes, but rumors quickly began circulating about a recent violent confrontation between the two camps at the presidential palace, including claims that the leader of the pragmatic faction, Abdul Ghani Baradar, was killed.

The rumors reached such intensity that an audio recording and handwritten statement, both purportedly by Baradar himself, denied that he had been killed. Then on Wednesday, Baradar appeared in an interview with the country's national TV.

"I was traveling from Kabul so had no access to media in order to reject this news" Baradar said of the rumor.

Baradar served as the chief negotiator during talks between the Taliban and the United States that paved the way for the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was completed in late August, two weeks after the Taliban overran the capital of Kabul.

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UN chief urges 'rapid' emission cuts to curb climate change

GENEVA (AP) — The head of the United Nations called Thursday for "immediate, rapid and large-scale" cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to curb global warming and avert climate disaster.

Ahead of the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting next week, Antonio Guterres warned governments that climate change is proceeding faster than predicted and fossil fuel emissions have already bounced back from a pandemic dip.

Speaking at the launch of a U.N.-backed report summarizing current efforts to tackle climate change, Guterres said recent extreme weather — from Hurricane Ida in the United States to floods in western Europe and the deadly heatwave in the Pacific Northwest — showed no country is safe from climate-related disasters.

"These changes are just the beginning of worse to come," he said, appealing to governments to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord.

 "Unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, we will be unable to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit)," said Guterres. "The consequences will be catastrophic."

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California GOP licks wounds after another lopsided loss

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The results of Tuesday's recall election in which California Gov. Gavin Newsom defeated an attempt to remove him from office look all too familiar to the state's enfeebled Republicans — they were embarrassed again by Democrats, who haven't lost a statewide race in 15 years.

The returns were incomplete Wednesday — about 26 percent remained uncounted — but Newsom's 2.5 million-vote lead gave him an insurmountable lead. It was business as usual for him a day after his victory. He visited an Alameda County school to talk about the pandemic and investments in education, two key issues for him. 

For the state GOP, it once again was a time to evaluate what went wrong. Despite pre-election polls showing high enthusiasm among Republican voters for an election that was driven by GOP activists, only 36 percent voted to remove Newsom. That preliminary result fell into a predictable range for statewide elections in recent years – an unwelcome sign for the party as it looks for a comeback.

When then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump in California in 2020, he grabbed 63.5 percent of the vote, compared to 34.3 percent for Trump. It was similar in 2018 statewide races, when no Republicans seeking top offices were able to break 40 percent of the vote.

That year, Newsom — in his first run for governor — received 62 percent of the vote, with Republican John Cox picking up 38 percent. Those double-digit margins reflect a simple political truth in the state at this time: There are a lot more Democrats in California than Republicans, with the party holding a statewide registration edge of nearly 2-to-1.

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France calls killing of Islamic State leader big victory

PARIS (AP) — France killed the leader of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara because the group attacked French aid workers, African civilians and U.S. troops, French officials said Thursday, calling him "enemy No. 1" in protracted anti-terrorism efforts in the Sahel.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced the death of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi overnight. According to Macron's office, al-Sahrawi personally ordered the killing of six French aid workers and their Nigerien colleagues last year, and his group was behind a 2017 attack that killed U.S. and Niger military personnel.

He was killed in a strike by France's Barkhane military operation "a few weeks ago," but authorities waited to be sure of his identity before making the announcement, French Defense Minister Florence Parly told RFI radio Thursday.

She did not disclose details of the operation or where al-Sahrawi was killed, though the Islamic State group is active along the border between Mali and Niger. 

"He was at the origin of massacres and terror," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Thursday on France-Info radio. He urged African governments to fill the void and seize back ground taken by the Islamic State extremists.

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With foreign funds frozen, Afghan aid groups stuck in limbo

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A month after the fall of Kabul, the world is still wrestling with how to help Afghanistan's impoverished people without propping up their Taliban leaders — a question that grows more urgent by the day.

With the Afghan government severed from the international banking system, aid groups both inside Afghanistan and abroad say they are struggling to get emergency relief, basic services and funds to a population at risk of starvation, unemployment and the coronavirus after 20 years of war. 

Among the groups struggling to function is a public health nonprofit that paid salaries and purchased food and fuel for hospitals with contributions from the World Bank, the European Union and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The $600 million in funds, which were funneled through the Afghan Health Ministry, dried up overnight after the Taliban took over the capital. 

Now, clinics in Afghanistan's eastern Khost Province no longer can afford to clean even as they are beset with COVID-19 patients, and the region's hospitals have asked patients to purchase their own syringes, according to Organization for Health Promotion and Management's local chapter head Abdul Wali. 

"All we do is wait and pray for cash to come," Wali said. "We face disaster, if this continues." 

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FDA strikes cautious tone ahead of vaccine booster meeting

WASHINGTON (AP) — Influential government advisers will debate Friday if there's enough proof that a booster dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective — the first step toward deciding which Americans need one and when.

The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday posted much of the evidence its advisory panel will consider. The agency struck a decidedly neutral tone on the rationale for boosters — an unusual and careful approach that's all the more striking after President Joe Biden and his top health advisers trumpeted a booster campaign they hoped to begin next week.

Pfizer's argument: While protection against severe disease is holding strong in the U.S., immunity against milder infection wanes somewhere around six to eight months after the second dose. The company gave an extra dose to 306 people at that point and recorded levels of virus-fighting antibodies threefold higher than after the earlier shots.

More important, Pfizer said, those antibodies appear strong enough to handle the extra-contagious delta variant that is surging around the country.

To bolster its case, Pfizer pointed the FDA to data from Israel, which began offering boosters over the summer. 

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Long weekend becomes 9 week lockdown for AP Vietnam reporter

VUNG TAU, Vietnam (AP) — I wake up as the loudspeaker outside my window starts the community broadcast at 7 a.m. I try to recall the date. Vietnam's pandemic lockdown has been so long I've lost my sense of time. I now count by weeks.

This is the ninth I've been stuck in Vung Tau, a seaside resort more than 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) from my home in Hanoi. 

I get out of bed, keeping to my routine of yoga before breakfast. As I roll out the mat, the broadcast gives the latest pandemic news and blares out a propaganda-style song: "Citizens, let's join forces in this fight so COVID disappears..."

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Russia votes in parliament election without main opposition

MOSCOW (AP) — After a few weeks of desultory campaigning but months of relentless official moves to shut down significant opposition, Russia is holding three days of voting this weekend in a parliamentary election that is unlikely to change the country's political complexion.

There's no expectation that United Russia, the party devoted to President Vladimir Putin, will lose its dominance of the State Duma, the elected lower house of parliament. The main questions to be answered are whether the party will retain its current two-thirds majority that allows it to amend the constitution; whether anemic turnout will dull the party's prestige; and whether imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny's Smart Voting initiative proves to be a viable strategy against it. 

"There is very little intrigue in these elections … and in fact they will not leave a special trace in political history," Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The Associated Press.

Putin, however, on Thursday urged Russians to vote, saying in a video message that "election of (the Duma's) new composition is undoubtedly the most important event in the life of our society and country." 

With 14 parties fielding candidates for half of the Duma's 450 seats that are chosen by party list, the election has a veneer of being genuinely competitive. But the three parties aside from United Russia that are expected to clear the 5 percent support necessary to get a seat rarely challenge the Kremlin.

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SpaceX launches 4 amateurs on private Earth-circling trip

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — SpaceX's first private flight streaked into orbit Wednesday night with two contest winners, a health care worker and their rich sponsor, the most ambitious leap yet in space tourism.

It was the first time a spacecraft circled Earth with an all-amateur crew and no professional astronauts.

"Punch it, SpaceX!" the flight's billionaire leader, Jared Isaacman, urged moments before liftoff.

The Dragon capsule's two men and two women are looking to spend three days going round and round the planet from an unusually high orbit — 100 miles (160 kilometers) higher than the International Space Station — before splashing down off the Florida coast this weekend.

It's SpaceX founder Elon Musk's first entry in the competition for space tourism dollars. 

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At 101, she's still hauling lobsters with no plans to stop

ROCKLAND, Maine (AP) — When Virginia Oliver started trapping lobster off Maine's rocky coast, World War II was more than a decade in the future, the electronic traffic signal was a recent invention and few women were harvesting lobsters.

Nearly a century later, at age 101, she's still doing it. The oldest lobster fisher in the state and possibly the oldest one in the world, Oliver still faithfully tends to her traps off Rockland, Maine, with her 78-year-old son Max.

Oliver started trapping lobsters at age 8, and these days she catches them using a boat that once belonged to her late husband and bears her own name, the "Virginia." She said she has no intention to stop, but she is concerned about the health of Maine's lobster population, which she said is subject to heavy fishing pressure these days.

"I've done it all my life, so I might as well keep doing it," Oliver said.

The lobster industry has changed over the course of Oliver's many decades on the water, and lobsters have grown from a working class food to a delicacy. The lobsters fetched 28 cents a pound on the docks when she first starting trapping them; now, it's 15 times that. Wire traps have replaced her beloved old wooden ones, which these days are used as kitsch in seafood restaurants.

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