'I came here to fight': Rare footage of Ethiopia's Tigray

MEKELE, Ethiopia (AP) — The 16-year-old girl hoped to go to war. Inspired by the sight of resurgent local forces marching in to retake the capital of Ethiopia's Tigray region six months after being forced to flee, Meron Mezgeb waited in a crowd seeking to get a gun and join them.

"I came here because I saw girls like me being raped" by combatants, she said. "I actually wanted to go (fight) at the beginning but I was told I was too young. But because I saw my comrades come, I came here to fight alongside them."

The scenes of jubilation and determination in the city of Mekele, in video obtained by The Associated Press and smuggled out of Tigray days later, are a rare look at the dramatic turn in a conflict that has threatened to destabilize one of Africa's most populous and powerful countries.

After months of fear in a city occupied by Ethiopian soldiers and forces from neighboring Eritrea who pursued the Tigray regional leaders, crowds of Mekele residents rushed to the local security bureau to sign up to fight.

They were buoyed by the striking sight of a long parade of thousands of Ethiopian soldiers now held as prisoners of war, and by Tigray leaders walking openly in the city again. Residents lining the streets jeered the prisoners, and cheered their leaders.

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Pope Francis arrives at Vatican 10 days after surgery

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis arrived at the Vatican after he was discharged from a Rome hospital Wednesday, 10 days after intestinal surgery to remove half of his colon.

The Ford car carrying Francis stopped briefly at the side entrance to Vatican City. Francis emerged from the passenger seat with the aid of a bodyguard to greet some security guards standing outside. 

He then got back in the car and proceeded to enter the Vatican through the Perugino Gate.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP's earlier story follows below.

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis was seen leaving the hospital on Wednesday, 10 days after undergoing planned surgery to remove half his colon.

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US COVID-19 cases rising again, doubling over three weeks

The COVID-19 curve in the U.S. is rising again after months of decline, with the number of new cases per day doubling over the past three weeks, driven by the fast-spreading delta variant, lagging vaccination rates and Fourth of July gatherings. 

Confirmed infections climbed to an average of about 23,600 a day on Monday, up from 11,300 on June 23, according to Johns Hopkins University data. And all but two states — Maine and South Dakota — reported that case numbers have gone up over the past two weeks. 

"It is certainly no coincidence that we are looking at exactly the time that we would expect cases to be occurring after the July Fourth weekend," said Dr. Bill Powderly, co-director of the infectious-disease division at Washington University's School of Medicine in St. Louis.

At the same time, parts of the country are running up against deep vaccine resistance, while the highly contagious mutant version of the coronavirus that was first detected in India is accounting for an ever-larger share of infections.

Nationally, 55.6 percent of all Americans have received at least one COVID-19 shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The five states with the biggest two-week jump in cases per capita all had lower vaccination rates: Missouri, 45.9 percent; Arkansas, 43 percent; Nevada, 50.9 percent; Louisiana, 39.2 percent; and Utah, 49.5 percent.

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Cuba, Haiti stir fresh political pressures for US president

WASHINGTON (AP) — They are two tiny Caribbean states whose intractable problems have vexed U.S. presidents for decades. Now, Haiti and Cuba are suddenly posing a growing challenge for President Joe Biden that could have political ramifications for him in the battleground state of Florida.

Cuban demonstrators have taken to the country's streets in recent days to lash out at the communist government and protest food shortages and high prices amid the coronavirus pandemic. In Haiti, officials are asking the U.S. to intercede in a roiling political crisis after last week's assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in a nation where military and humanitarian interventions by U.S. presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama have proved to be politically harrowing. 

Biden is facing increased pressure from Republican lawmakers for his administration to step up support of Cuban demonstrators. And his aides have demonstrated determined caution in response to requests for more U.S. involvement in Haiti.

The administration has come under fire from both sides of the political spectrum for its responses to each of the crises, both unfolding less than two hours' flying time from Miami. The troubled U.S. history in both countries has hardened positions, making virtually any policy decision politically unpalatable for a president seeking to toe a middle line. 

In the background: How the Biden administration handles the crises looms large in electorally rich Florida. 

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Biden blasts 'un-American' voting limits; Texas Dems act

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — President Joe Biden declared preserving voting rights an urgent national "test of our time" on Tuesday but offered few concrete proposals to meet it. Texas Democrats took their own dramatic action to stymie Republican efforts to tighten ballot restrictions in their state.

Biden, who has proclaimed protecting ballot access the central cause of his presidency, has faced sharp criticism from allies for not doing more, though political headwinds and stubborn Senate math have limited his ability to act. Despite his ringing words Tuesday, he avoided any mention of trying to alter the Senate filibuster rule that stands in the path of federal legislation.

Speaking at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Biden called state efforts to curtail voting accessibility "un-American" and "un-democratic" and launched a broadside against his predecessor, Donald Trump, who baselessly alleged misconduct in the 2020 election after his defeat. Biden called passage of congressional proposals to override new state voting restrictions and to restore parts of the Voting Rights Act that were curbed in recent years by the Supreme Court "a national imperative."

Yet, instead of raising the possibility of fighting the filibuster, he appeared to tacitly acknowledge the fading hopes for the bills, saying he would launch a nationwide campaign to arm voters with information on rule changes and restrictions ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

"We have to prepare now," the president said.

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Texas Democrats dig in after exodus; GOP threatens arrest

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Democrats who hurriedly took off to Washington to block sweeping new election laws urged Congress on Tuesday to quickly pass legislation protecting voting rights, while Republican Gov. Greg Abbott threatened them with arrest the moment they return. 

Speaking to reporters outside the Capitol, the Democrats were realistic about the limits of their gambit, noting they can hold up the GOP-backed proposals at home for only so long and arguing that only federal legislation would prevent some of the new restrictions from becoming law. In Austin, House Republicans authorized state troopers to find and corral missing legislators, while a depleted but still-working state Senate passed new voting restrictions in a show of GOP resolve.

"We can't hold this tide back forever. We're buying some time. We need Congress and all of our federal leaders to use that time wisely," Democratic state Rep. Chris Turner said, gathered with his fellow quorum-breakers outside the U.S. Capitol.

The Democrats' dramatic exodus was in part aimed at rallying their voters on what they see as a priority issue ahead of the 2022 midterms, and at pressuring President Joe Biden to act as federal voting legislation has stalled for months in the Senate. But just as they began getting settled in Washington, Biden appeared to tacitly acknowledge the fading hopes for the bills during a speech in Philadelphia. 

Biden called efforts to curtail voting accessibility "un-American" and "un-democratic" and launched a broadside against his predecessor, Donald Trump, who baselessly alleged misconduct in the 2020 election after his defeat. More than a dozen states this year have already passed tougher election laws, but only in Texas have Democrats put up this kind of fight. 

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Senate Democrats' $3.5T budget deal backs up Biden's goals

WASHINGTON (AP) — this story is a refire/new doc of last night's story with new material wire embargoed for 6 a.m. EDT Wednesday; lead with photo WX203.

Senate Democrats say they have reached a budget agreement envisioning spending an enormous $3.5 trillion over the coming decade, paving the way for their drive to pour federal resources into climate change, health care and family service programs sought by President Joe Biden.

The accord announced Tuesday night marks a major step in the party's push to meet Biden's goal of bolstering an economy that was ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic and setting it on course for long-term growth — and includes a Medicare expansion of vision, hearing and dental benefits for older Americans, a goal of progressives.

But Democrats behind the agreement face possible objections from their rival moderate and progressive factions and will have to work hard to convert their plans into legislation they can push through the closely divided Congress over what could be unanimous Republican opposition.

"We are very proud of this plan," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters. "We know we have a long road to go. We're going to get this done for the sake of making average Americans' lives a whole lot better."

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Western wildfires threatening American Indian tribal lands

BLY, Ore. (AP) — Fierce wildfires in the northwest are threatening American Indian tribal lands that already are struggling to conserve water and preserve traditional hunting grounds in the face of a Western drought.

Blazes in Oregon and Washington were among some 60 large, active wildfires that have destroyed homes and burned through close to a million acres in a dozen mostly Western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In north-central Washington, hundreds of people in the town of Nespelem on the Colville Indian Agency were ordered to leave because of "imminent and life-threatening" danger as the largest of five wildfires caused by dozens of Monday night lightning strikes tore through grass, sagebrush and timber.

Seven homes burned but four were vacant and the entire town evacuated safely before the fire arrived, said Andrew Joseph Jr., chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation that includes more than 9,000 descendants of a dozen tribes.

Monte Piatote and his wife grabbed their pets and managed to flee but watched the fire burn the home where he'd lived since he was a child.

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Neck rubs, tapped phones: Merkel has history with US leaders

BERLIN (AP) — Neck rubs, pricy dinners, allegations of phone tapping, awkward handshake moments.

Angela Merkel has just about seen it all when it comes to U.S. presidents.

The German chancellor is making her 19th and likely final official visit to the U.S. on Thursday for a meeting with President Joe Biden — her fourth American president — as she nears the end of her 16-year tenure.

Merkel, who turns 67 on Saturday, will be heading into political retirement soon after deciding long ago not to seek a fifth term in Germany's Sept. 26 election.

One of the longest-serving leaders of one of the closest U.S. allies, Merkel is set for a warm welcome when she meets Biden during her first visit to Washington since he took office in January. 

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Spears hearing to deal with turmoil from her dramatic speech

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Three weeks after Britney Spears ' dramatic comments in court condemning the conservatorship that has controlled her life for 13 years, a Los Angeles judge and others with legal power over the pop star will convene for a hearing Wednesday to deal with the aftermath. 

Spears' remarks led to the resignation of her court-appointed lawyer, the withdrawal of an estate-management company that was supposed to oversee her finances, and a volley of accusations between her father and a professional conservator over who's to blame for the legal circumstances Spears said are "abusive" and need to end. 

Spears is not expected to speak again at the afternoon hearing, in which all the parties are expected to take part remotely, but she may weigh in as she seeks to hire a lawyer of her choice. 

At the June 23 hearing, her first public words in court on the matter, Spears said she was being forced to take medication and use an intrauterine device for birth control, said she was not allowed to marry her boyfriend, and said she wanted to own her own money.

"I just want my life back," Spears said. 

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