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Biden-Putin talks yield no breakthrough in Ukraine tensions

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin were still far apart after two hours of talks on the escalating crisis caused by Russia's massing of tens of thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine.

Biden delivered a simple message during Tuesday's video call with Putin: invade Ukraine again and face painful sanctions that will do resounding harm to your economy. Putin had his own blunt take, according to his foreign adviser Yuri Ushakov, telling the U.S. president that "the Russian troops are on their own territory, and they don't threaten anyone."

With no immediate breakthrough to ease tensions on the Ukraine question, the U.S. emphasized a need for diplomacy and de-escalation, while issuing stern threats to Russia about the high costs of a military incursion.

Biden "told President Putin directly that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures," U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said. He added that Biden said the U.S. would also "provide additional defensive material to the Ukrainians … and we would fortify our NATO allies on the eastern flank with additional capabilities in response to such an escalation." 

White House officials made clear that Biden is not interested in putting U.S. troops in harm's way defending Ukraine. But Sullivan added that potential efforts to bolster regional allies could lead to additional deployments of U.S. troops to eastern European NATO allies.

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Scholz succeeds Merkel as German chancellor, opening new era

BERLIN (AP) — Olaf Scholz became Germany's ninth post-World War II chancellor Wednesday, opening a new era for the European Union's most populous nation and largest economy after Angela Merkel's 16-year tenure.

Scholz's government takes office with high hopes of modernizing Germany and combating climate change but faces the immediate challenge of handling the country's toughest phase yet of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers voted by 395-303 to elect Scholz, with six abstentions — a comfortable majority, though short of the 416 seats his three-party coalition holds in the 736-seat lower house of parliament. That's not unusual when chancellors are elected, and some lawmakers were out sick.

Scholz exchanged fist bumps with lawmakers from across the political spectrum before German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier formally appointed him as chancellor. He was due to be sworn in by the speaker of parliament later Wednesday.

Merkel, who is no longer a member of parliament, looked on from the spectators' gallery as parliament voted. Lawmakers gave her a standing ovation as the session started.

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Afghans wait and worry at US bases after frantic evacuation

JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. (AP) — The former interpreter for the U.S. Army counts himself among the lucky as an Afghan who managed to make it through frantic crowds outside the Kabul airport to board a military evacuation flight out of the country with little more than the clothes on his back.

Esrar Ahmad Saber now waits, along with 11,000 other Afghans, from the safety of a U.S. base in central New Jersey, while worrying about family members left behind and enduring a prolonged resettlement process. 

Saber has been at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in central New Jersey since Aug. 26 as has nearly everyone else at one of the three "villages" set up there for refugees. "They want to go to their new homes and start their new lives," the 29-year-old said. "They are really excited about it. But the fact is, the process is very slow."

The slow pace has become a defining characteristic of Operation Allies Welcome, the largest U.S. refugee resettlement effort in decades. Even as Afghans still arrive, thousands remain in limbo, anxious about their future as they fearfully follow the news of Taliban reprisals and economic collapse back in their homeland.

Operation Allies Welcome reached a milestone this week as the number resettled in American communities — 37,000 — surpassed the 35,000 at six bases around the country. But people involved with the effort readily concede it's been a challenge for a number of reasons, including a scarcity of affordable housing, cutbacks to refugee programs under Trump as well as the sheer number of refugees. 

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USSR's death blow was struck 30 years ago in a hunting lodge

MOSCOW (AP) — When the leaders of the Soviet Union's three Slavic republics met at a secluded hunting lodge on Dec. 8, 1991, the fate of vast country hung in the balance. With a stroke of their pens, they delivered a death blow to the USSR, triggering shockwaves that are still reverberating three decades later in the tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

The agreement they signed at the dacha in Viskuli, in the Belavezha forest near the border with Poland, declared that "the USSR ceases to exist as a subject of international law and as a geopolitical reality." It also created the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose alliance of ex-Soviet republics that still exists but carries little meaning.

Two weeks later, eight other Soviet republics joined the alliance, effectively terminating the authority of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who stepped down on Dec. 25, 1991, with the hammer and sickle flag lowered over the Kremlin.

Stanislav Shushkevich, the head of the republic of Byelorussia, as Belarus was called at the time, spoke about the signing of the agreement with pride. The accord reached with Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, marked a "diplomatic masterpiece," he said.

"A great empire, a nuclear superpower, split into independent countries that could cooperate with each other as closely as they wanted, and not a single drop of blood was shed," added Shushkevich, 86, in an interview with The Associated Press.

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With jury set, Potter trial turns to opening statements

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Jurors will be presented with starkly different views of the Minnesota police officer who killed Black motorist Daunte Wright during opening statements at her manslaughter trial Wednesday, with the defense claiming that Kim Potter made an innocent mistake by pulling her handgun instead of her Taser and the prosecution portraying her as a veteran cop who had gone through extensive training that warned of such a mix-up.

Potter, 49, is charged with first-degree and second-degree manslaughter in Wright's April 11 death in Brooklyn Center. The white former officer – she resigned two days after the shooting – has said she meant to use her Taser on the 20-year-old Wright after he tried to drive away from a traffic stop as officers tried to arrest him, but that she grabbed her handgun instead.

Her body camera recorded the shooting.

A mostly white jury was seated last week, setting the stage for testimony to begin in a case that sparked angry demonstrations outside the Brooklyn Center police station last spring. Those demonstrations, with protesters frequently clashing with police in riot gear, happened as former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin was on trial just 10 miles (16 kilometers) away for killing George Floyd.

Potter was training a new officer when they pulled Wright over for having expired license plate tags and an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, according to a criminal complaint.

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Closing arguments set in actor Jussie Smollett's trial

CHICAGO (AP) — Closing arguments are scheduled for Wednesday morning in the case against former "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett, who is accused of staging a racist, anti-gay attack against himself in downtown Chicago to get publicity. 

The jury is then expected to begin deliberating whether Smollett is guilty on six counts of a low-level felony for lying to Chicago police about the January 2019 attack.

Taking the witness stand earlier this week, Smollett repeatedly denied the attack was a fake, telling a prosecutor "there was no hoax on my part" and that two brothers who testified against him are "liars."

Smollett called the Osundairo brothers' testimony that he paid them $3,500 to carry out the fake attack "100% false," and described how he was the victim of a hate crime while walking in his neighborhood early on Jan. 29, 2019. He also testified that a $3,500 check he wrote for Abimbola Osundairo was for meal and workout plans because he was trying to get toned for an upcoming music video.

Under cross-examination by special prosecutor Dan Webb, Smollett said Tuesday that a few days before the alleged attack he collected Osundairo in his car to go work out and that Osundairo's brother, Olabingo, came along. Smollett denied the brothers' testimony that they circled the area where the alleged attack occurred three times as a "dry run" for the fake assault. He said it wasn't unusual for him to drive around in circles, and that he canceled the plan to work out because he didn't want to work out with Olabingo Osundairo, whom he hadn't invited along.

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Video piles pressure on UK's Johnson in lockdown-party saga

LONDON (AP) — A leaked video that shows staff members in British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's office joking about holding a lockdown-breaching Christmas party is adding fuel to allegations that government officials flouted coronavirus rules they imposed on everyone else.

For days, the prime minister's office has been trying to rebut reports that Johnson's staff held a December 2020 office party — complete with wine, food, games and a festive gift exchange — when pandemic regulations banned most social gatherings. 

According to multiple British media outlets, the party took place on Dec. 18, when restrictions in London prohibited most indoor gatherings, and a day before Johnson tightened the rules even further, ruling out family Christmas celebrations for millions of people.

The prime minister's office said in response to the footage broadcaster ITV aired late Tuesday that "there was no Christmas party. COVID rules have been followed at all times." 

The video, recorded on Dec. 22, 2020, shows then-press secretary Allegra Stratton appearing to joke about an illicit party at the prime minister's Downing Street office.

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PHOTOS: Afghan Taliban fighters now man urban checkpoints

HERAT, Afghanistan (AP) — Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan more than three and a half months ago amid a chaotic withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops, their fighters have changed roles, from insurgents fighting in the mountains and fields to an armed force running the country.

Many Taliban foot soldiers now have new jobs: manning checkpoints on the streets and carrying out security patrols in and around Afghan cities and towns. Last month, several Taliban fighters posed for portrait photographs for The Associated Press on nighttime patrols and at checkpoints in the western city of Herat.

One of them, 21-year-old Ahmad Wali, was on patrol in the village of Kamar Kalagh, north of Herat. A student in an Islamic religious school known as a madrassa, he said he joined the Taliban because he believed in the teachings of the Quran and was against the American presence in his country and against the previous Afghan government, which was widely criticized for corruption. 

Now, he said, he is very busy with his new responsibilities providing security in the area he was assigned to. He hopes both he and his country will have a bright future, and said he was "99% sure" better days will come for all people in Afghanistan.

After the Taliban takeover in mid-August, Afghanistan's already dilapidated and aid-dependent economy careened into full-blown crisis. The international community has withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in financing that the country of 38 million people relied on. Billions of dollars in Afghan assets abroad have been frozen.

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Major outage at Amazon disrupts businesses across the US

A major outage in Amazon's cloud computing network Tuesday severely disrupted services at a wide range of U.S. companies for more than five hours, the latest sign of just how concentrated the business of keeping the internet running has become.

The incident at Amazon Web Services mostly affected the eastern U.S., but still impacted everything from airline reservations and auto dealerships to payment apps and video streaming services to Amazon's own massive e-commerce operation. That included The Associated Press, whose publishing system was inoperable for much of the day, greatly limiting its ability to publish its news report.

Amazon has still said nothing about what, exactly, went wrong. In fact, the company limited its communications Tuesday to terse technical explanations on an AWS dashboard and a brief statement delivered via spokesperson Richard Rocha that acknowledged the outage had affected Amazon's own warehouse and delivery operation but said the company was "working to resolve the issue as quickly as possible."

Roughly five hours after numerous companies and other organizations began reporting issues, the company said in a post on the AWS status page that it had "mitigated" the underlying problem responsible for the outage, which it did not describe. It took some affected companies hours more to thoroughly check their systems and restart their own services.

Amazon Web Services was formerly run by Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, who succeeded founder Jeff Bezos in July. The cloud-service operation is a huge profit center for Amazon. It holds roughly a third of the $152 billion market for cloud services, according to a report by Synergy Research — a larger share than its closest rivals, Microsoft and Google, combined.

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New soccer league helps Gaza amputees cope with war trauma

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The players race across the pitch on crutches, jostling for the soccer ball and passing it back and forth, their prosthetic legs lined up along the sidelines at a stadium in the Gaza Strip.

They are the first Palestinian national soccer team made up entirely of amputees — players drawn from a population of hundreds that has grown in recent years through several rounds of fighting between Israel and the territory's militant Hamas rulers.

They say the game helps them cope with the trauma of their injuries and the hardships of living in a crowded territory that has endured four wars and a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt since Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.

"We feel we have something, we can give something," said Ziad Abu Halib, 41, who lost his right leg in 2008, during the first Israel-Hamas war. He hasn't missed a single practice or match since joining the local league after it was founded in 2019.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, working with the Palestinian Amputee Football Association, sponsored the long process of forming the national team. The players hope to compete regionally, their sights set on the World Cup for amputees in Turkey next October. 

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