Taliban destroy statue of foe, stoking fear over their rule

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban have blown up the statue of a Shiite militia leader who fought against them during Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s, according to photos circulating on Wednesday, sowing further doubt about their claims to have become more moderate.

The insurgents' every action in their sudden sweep to power is being watched closely. They insist they have changed and won't impose the same draconian restrictions they did when they last ruled Afghanistan, all but eliminating women's rights, carrying out public executions and banning television and music.

They also promised not to seek revenge against those who have opposed them. 

But many Afghans remain deeply skeptical, and thousands are racing to the airport and borders to flee the country. Many others are hiding inside their homes, fearful after prisons and armories were emptied during the insurgents' blitz across the country. 

On Wednesday, groups of fighters carrying long guns patrolled a well-to-do neighborhood of the capital, Kabul, that is home to many embassies as well as mansions of the Afghan elite. The Taliban have promised to maintain security, but many Afghans are as afraid of them as they are of potential chaos.


Taliban encounter Afghan cities remade in their absence

Ezanullah, one of thousands of young Taliban fighters from the countryside who rode into Afghanistan's capital over the weekend, had never seen anything like it.

The paved streets of Kabul were lined with towering apartment blocks, glass office buildings and shopping malls. The plush furniture inside the Interior Ministry was like "something I thought of in a dream," said the 22-year-old fighter from the country's mountainous east.

He said he plans to ask his commander if he can stay. "I don't want to leave," he said.

The encounter highlights how much Kabul and other Afghan cities have changed in the 20 years since the Taliban, who mainly hail from rugged rural areas, last ruled the country. An entire generation of Afghans has come of age under a modernizing, Western-backed government flush with development aid. 

Many fear those gains will be reversed now that the Taliban are back in power and the last U.S. troops are on their way out.


In Taliban's 7-day march to power, a stunning string of wins

In just seven days, any lingering dreams of a free Afghanistan died.

As last week dawned, many clung to hope that the Taliban could be held back, though key trade routes had been seized, border crossings overtaken and swaths of remote areas clutched. But then, in just a week, militants won city after city, toppled the government and grabbed the grand prize of Kabul.

On its streets, ads with women in Western clothes were covered in white paint, while men in jeans and T-shirts rushed to change into traditional tunics. At the U.S. embassy, staff raced to destroy documents as helicopters shuttled away diplomats.

Fingers once splashed with purple ink — residue of voting, a badge of democracy — now clenched tickets seeking exit, and franticly punched ATMs to withdraw life savings.

All in seven days.


Injured in Haiti's quake continue to show up at hospitals

L'ASILE, Haiti (AP) — The problems in Haiti may be summed up by the public hospital in L'Asile, deep in a remote stretch of countryside in the nation's southwest area. Here, a full four days after a powerful earthquake hit this region the hardest, people are still showing up from isolated villages with broken arms and legs. 

Hospital director Sonel Fevry said five such patients showed up Tuesday, the same day officials raised the disaster's death toll by more than 500. Grinding poverty, poor roads and faith in natural medicine all conspire to make the problems worse. 

"We do what we can, remove the necrotized tissue and give them antibiotics and try to get them a splint," Fevry said, adding that road access to the facility in the department of Nippes is difficult and not everyone can make it.

Haiti's Civil Protection Agency increased the number of fatalities from Saturday's earthquake to 1,941. It also raised the number of injured to 9,900, many of whom have had to wait for medical help lying outside in wilting heat and riding out a storm Monday night that brought heavy rains and wind gusts.

The countryside was worse hit by the quake, perhaps, than the cities, but news is only slowly trickling out. The whole obstetrics, pediatric and operating wing at the L'Asile hospital collapsed, though everyone made it out. Despite the collapse, the hospital was able to treat about 170 severely injured quake victims in improvised tents in the facility's yard. 


'Heartbroken' Florida town has ties to Haiti's quake zone

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Not long after a powerful earthquake struck his Haitian hometown, Osambert Jean started receiving calls from dozens of friends who also emigrated from southwestern Haiti to settle in this South Florida suburb nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Everglades.

"Each one of them has bad news: My family is injured or my house collapsed," said Jean, a Haitian-born insurance agent in Boynton Beach whose brother lives in Les Cayes, Haiti. "People lost everything — everything."

The suburb south of West Palm Beach holds deep ties to Les Cayes, a town in southwest Haiti hard hit by Saturday's 7.2 magnitude earthquake, which has killed 1,941 people and injured 9,900 others.

Many residents here have been worried about their loved ones. Some are already mourning cousins and uncles who died while officials are trying to assess the needs, rallying the coastal town in the relief effort.

In the past decade, Boynton Beach has grown its Haitian population far from Miami's Little Haiti and established a partnership with Les Cayes by welcoming officials, including a former mayor who was found dead under the rubble of a hotel that collapsed in the earthquake.


Texas governor tests positive for COVID-19, in 'good health'

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, according to his office, who said the Republican is in good health and experiencing no symptoms.

Abbott, who was vaccinated in December and has refused calls to reinstate mask mandates as the highly contagious delta variant surges in Texas, was isolating in the governor's mansion in Austin and receiving monoclonal antibody treatment, spokesman Mark Miner said in a statement. He is at least the 11th governor to test positive for the virus since the pandemic began, according to a tally by The Associated Press.

"Governor Abbott is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, in good health, and currently experiencing no symptoms. Everyone that the Governor has been in close contact with today has been notified," Miner said. 

In a video posted on social media, Abbott said the fact that he had been fully vaccinated "may be one reason I'm really not feeling any symptoms right now. I have no fever, no aches and pains, no other types of symptoms."

The positive test comes a day after Abbott, who has seldom been seen wearing a mask in public recently, did not wear one while speaking indoors near Dallas to a crowded room of GOP supporters, most of whom were older and unmasked. Video posted by his campaign shows the 63-year-old governor — who is up for reelection in 2022 and has drawn two GOP challengers who have attacked the virus restrictions he put in place last year — mingling with attendees as they gathered around him taking pictures. 


DeSantis top donor invests in COVID drug governor promotes

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who has been criticized for opposing mask mandates and vaccine passports — is now touting a COVID-19 antibody treatment in which a top donor's company has invested millions of dollars.

DeSantis has been flying around the state promoting Regeneron, a monoclonal antibody treatment that was used on then-President Donald Trump after he tested positive for COVID-19. The governor first began talking about it as a treatment last year.

Citadel, a Chicago-based hedge fund, has $15.9 million in shares of Regeneron Pharmaceutical, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Citadel CEO Ken Griffin has donated $10.75 million to a political committee that supports DeSantis — $5.75 million in 2018 and $5 million last April.

It's not unusual for hedge funds to have a wide range of investments. And BlackRock, which has primarily donated to Democratic candidates, though has also donated substantially to Republicans, has a large holding in the company - more so than Citadel.

DeSantis ramped up the call for Floridians to seek out monoclonal antibody treatments in August as coronavirus cases spiked. He's held news conferences at treatment sites and a Tampa hospital touting the effectiveness of the drug if people receive treatment soon after testing positive.


Fueled by winds, largest wildfire moves near California city

GRIZZLY FLATS, Calif. (AP) — A wildfire raged through a small Northern California forest town Tuesday, burning dozens of homes as dangerously dry and windy weather also continued to fuel other massive blazes and prompted the nation's largest utility to begin shutting off power to 51,000 customers.

The Caldor fire in the northern Sierra Nevada had burned an estimated 50 homes in and around Grizzly Flats, a town of about 1,200 people, fire officials said at a community meeting.

Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency for El Dorado County because of the blaze, which tripled in size between Monday and Tuesday afternoon to nearly 50 square miles (129 square kilometers),

To the north the Dixie Fire — the largest of some 100 active wildfires in more than a dozen Western states — was advancing toward Susanville, population about 18,000.

Meanwhile, Pacific Gas & Electric announced it had begun shutting off power to some 51,000 customers in small portions of 18 northern counties to prevent winds from knocking down or fouling power lines and sparking new blazes.


Mustang roundups fuel deepening debate as drought grips West

TOOELE, Utah (AP) — The sound of the helicopter propeller thundered across the horizon as it dipped down toward mustangs dotting the golden brown plain. The horses burst into a gallop at the machine's approach, their high-pitched whinnies rising into the dry air. 

That helicopter roundup in the mountains of western Utah removed hundreds of free-roaming wild horses, shortly before the Biden administration announced it would sharply increase the number of mustangs removed across the region. It's an emergency step land managers say is essential to preserving the ecosystem and the horses as a megadrought worsened by climate change grips the region.

"What were seeing here in the West gives some insight into a new norm," Terry Messmer, a professor at Utah State University who studies wild horse management.

The removals are adding fuel to longstanding conflicts with activists for the animals whose beauty and power make them an enduring emblem of the American West. They say the U.S. government is using the drought as an excuse to take out horses in favor of cattle grazing. 

Horses that are captured are held in government corrals and pastures mostly in the West and Midwest before they are made available for public adoption. Some also end up being used by law enforcement entities such as the U.S. Border Patrol, or go to prison inmate programs where they are tamed for future use.


'Do not give up': Americans help Afghans in new homeland

DALLAS (AP) — Pleas for help from Afghans have been filling up Caroline Clarin's phone for days as she works from her rural Minnesota home and tries to provide hope to those who ping heart-wrenching messages of desperation from a world away.

Since 2017, Clarin, who ran a U.S. Department of Agriculture program in Afghanistan, and her wife, Sheril Raymond, have helped get five Afghans and their families from her program into the U.S. Now they are trying to help more than a half dozen other Afghans and their families leave Afghanistan.

"I've been getting messages about hopelessness, and waiting to be killed by the Taliban, and I said it's not over 'til it's over," Raymond said. "And as best as I can from sitting in my comfy chair in Minnesota where I'm safe, I am trying to say 'please do not give up hope, think of your children, and hold on.'"

Across the U.S., Americans are scrambling to help Afghans fleeing their country after the Taliban's speedy takeover. Driven by compassion, those pitching in include everyone from volunteers at refugee resettlement agencies to people like Clarin and Raymond, who are helping on their own.

Russell Smith, CEO of Refugee Services of Texas, said people are calling agencies like his and offering to help as it scrambles to prepare for the arrivals. Normally, he would get at least a week's notice that families are arriving in the cities where they'll be resettled, but that's accelerated.

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