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On the road again: Travelers emerge in time for Thanksgiving

DALLAS (AP) — Determined to reclaim Thanksgiving traditions that were put on pause last year by the pandemic, millions of Americans will be loading up their cars or piling onto planes to gather again with friends and family.

The number of air travelers this week is expected to approach or even exceed pre-pandemic levels, and auto club AAA predicts that 48.3 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home over the holiday period, an increase of nearly 4 million over last year despite sharply higher gasoline prices.

Many feel emboldened by the fact that nearly 200 million Americans are now fully vaccinated. But it also means brushing aside concerns about a resurgent virus at a time when the U.S. is now averaging nearly 100,000 new infections a day and hospitals in Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado and Arizona are seeing alarming increases in patients.

READ ICT'S THANKSGIVING COVERAGE

The seven-day daily average of new reported cases up nearly 30 percent in the last two weeks through Tuesday, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says unvaccinated people should not travel, although it is unclear whether that recommendation is having any effect.

More than 2.2 million travelers streamed through airport checkpoints last Friday, the busiest day since the pandemic devastated travel early last year. From Friday through Monday, the number of people flying in the U.S. was more than double the same days last year and only 8 percent lower than the same days in 2019. 

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Germany faces grim COVID milestone with leadership in flux

ESCHWEILER, Germany (AP) — Germany is set to mark 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 this week, passing a somber milestone that several of its neighbors crossed months ago but which Western Europe's most populous nation had hoped to avoid.

Teutonic discipline, a robust health care system and the rollout of multiple vaccines — one of them homegrown — were meant to stave off a winter surge of the kind that hit Germany last year.

Yet complacency and a national election, followed by a drawn-out government transition, saw senior politicians dangle the prospect of further lifting restrictions even as Germany's infection rate rose steadily this fall. 

"Nobody had the guts to take the lead and announce unpopular measures," said Uwe Janssens, who heads the intensive care department at the St. Antonius hospital in Eschweiler, west of Cologne.

"This lack of leadership is the reason we are here now," he said.

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Ethiopia says Abiy at war front, handing duties to deputy

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Ethiopia's government said Wednesday that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has gone to the battlefront to take charge in a yearlong war and left the daily work of running the country to his deputy as rival fighters approach the capital, Addis Ababa.

The 45-year-old prime minister, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former soldier, arrived at the front on Tuesday, government spokesman Legesse Tulu told reporters without giving details on the location, and state media did not show images of him. Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen is handling day-to-day government activities, Legesse said.

The war in Africa's second-most populous nation has killed an estimated tens of thousands of people, and countries including France, Germany and Turkey have told their citizens to leave immediately as rival fighters from Ethiopia's northern Tigray region advance.

U.S. envoy Jeffrey Feltman on Tuesday told reporters he fears that "nascent" progress in mediation efforts with the warring sides could be outpaced by the "alarming" military developments. The Tigray forces dominated the previous national government for 27 years before Abiy took office in 2018, and a growing political rift turned to war in November 2020.

"Unless there is some kind of divine intervention, I don't see any chance for a peaceful resolution through dialogue because the positions are highly polarized," said Kassahun Berhanu, professor of political science at Addis Ababa University, who added he believed Abiy's decision to go to the front is "aimed at boosting popular morale."

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'They become our family:' US farming couple rescues Afghans

FERGUS FALLS, Minnesota (AP) — The U.S. soldiers called them "Caroline's guys." They transformed farms in a war zone - risking their lives for the program she built, sharing her belief that something as simple as apple trees could change the world. 

The university-educated Afghans helped turn land in an overgrazed, drought-stricken and impoverished region in eastern Afghanistan into verdant gardens and orchards that still feed local families today. 

In the process, the 12 agricultural specialists, all traditional Afghan men, formed a deep, unexpected bond with their boss, an American woman who worked as a U.S. Department of Agriculture adviser in the region for two years.

Now Caroline Clarin is trying to save them one by one, doing it all from the 1910 Minnesota farmhouse she shares with her wife, drawing from retirement funds to help a group of men who share her love of farming.

Clarin has helped get five of her former employees and their families into the U.S. since 2017, while her wife has helped them rebuild their lives in America. 

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Child is 6th death in Waukesha parade crash; suspect charged

An 8-year-old boy became the sixth person to die Tuesday as a result of a man driving his SUV into a suburban Milwaukee Christmas parade, with a criminal complaint alleging that the suspect in the case steered side-to-side with the intent of striking marchers and spectators.

Darrell Brooks Jr., 39, was charged with five counts of first-degree intentional homicide, a charge that carries a mandatory life sentence if convicted. He rocked back and forth in his seat and cried throughout his court hearing on Tuesday, his attorney's arm on his back, as the charges against him were detailed. His bail was set at $5 million, and a preliminary hearing was scheduled for Jan. 14.

"The nature of this offense is shocking," said Waukesha Court Commissioner Kevin Costello.

Additional charges related to the sixth death and the more than 60 people injured will be coming later this week or next, said Waukesha County District Attorney Susan Opper. The criminal complaint said 62 people were injured, up from the 48 previously announced by police.

Brooks is accused of speeding away from police and entering the Waukesha Christmas parade on Sunday night, refusing to stop even as an officer banged on the hood of his SUV. Another officer fired three shots into the vehicle, but it did not stop.

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Jury in Ahmaud Arbery death set for 2nd day of deliberations

BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — Jury deliberations were scheduled to resume for a second day Wednesday in the trial of three white men charged with chasing and killing Ahmaud Arbery after the 25-year-old Black man was spotted running in their coastal Georgia neighborhood. 

The disproportionately white jury received the case around midday Tuesday and spent about six hours deliberating before adjourning without a verdict in the trial of father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley told jurors to reconvene at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday.

The McMichaels told police they suspected Arbery was a fleeing burglar when they armed themselves and jumped in a pickup truck to chase him on Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan joined the pursuit when they passed his house and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael blasting Arbery at close range with a shotgun as Arbery threw punches and grabbed for the weapon.

Arbery's killing became part of a larger national reckoning on racial injustice after the graphic video of his death leaked online two months later and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case, quickly arresting the three men. Each of them is charged with murder and other crimes.

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Many environmentalists back Biden's move to tap oil reserve

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats and climate activists generally supported President Joe Biden's decision to release a record 50 million barrels of oil from America's strategic reserve, even as the move appeared to contradict his long-term vision of combating climate change. 

The U.S. action, announced Tuesday in coordination with countries such as India, the United Kingdom and China, is aimed at global energy markets and helping lower gasoline prices that have risen more than a dollar per gallon since January. But it could also undermine Biden's climate goals, including a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Some leading climate hawks, however, said they were not concerned by the move because they see it as a short-term fix to meet a specific problem. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who has focused on combating climate change, said Biden was "taking effective action to protect Americans from oil price gouging" even as the administration continues to boost renewable energy that it hopes will eventually mean less dependence on fossil fuels.

"This is what reserves are for — defending our economy against disruption," Markey tweeted. "Profiteering can't go unanswered, especially as Big Oil makes billions and fuels the climate crisis through exports."

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is an emergency stockpile to preserve access to oil in case of natural disasters, national security issues and other events. Maintained by the Energy Department, the reserves are stored in caverns created in salt domes along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coasts. There are roughly 605 million barrels of petroleum in the reserve.

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Beyond Manchin: Dems' $2T bill faces Senate gauntlet

WASHINGTON (AP) — It took half a year but Democrats have driven President Joe Biden's $2 trillion package of social and climate initiatives through the House. It gets no easier in the Senate, where painful Republican amendments, restrictive rules and Joe Manchin lurk.

Facing unbroken GOP opposition, Democrats finally reached agreement among themselves and eased the compromise through the House on Nov. 19. One Democrat voted no in a chamber they control by just three votes. 

They're negotiating further changes for a final version they hope will win approval by Christmas in the 50-50 Senate, where they'll need every Democratic vote. House passage of the altered bill would still be needed.

The gauntlet they face:

BRIGHT SIDE FOR DEMOCRATS

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It's not just Peng. China is cracking down on MeToo movement

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Huang Xueqin, who publicly supported a woman when she accused a professor of sexual assault, was arrested in September. Wang Jianbing, who helped women report sexual harassment, was detained along with her. Neither has been heard from since. Meanwhile, several other women's rights activists have faced smear campaigns on social media and some have seen their accounts shuttered.

When tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared from public view this month after accusing a senior Chinese politician of sexual assault, it caused an international uproar. But back in China, Peng is just one of several people — activists and accusers alike — who have been hustled out of view, charged with crimes or trolled and silenced online for speaking out about the harassment, violence and discrimination women face every day.

When Huang helped spark a grassroots #MeToo movement in China in 2018, it gained fairly wide visibility and achieved some measure of success, including getting the civil code to define sexual harassment for the first time. But it was also met with stiff resistance from Chinese authorities, who are quick to counter any social movement they fear could challenge their hold on power. That crackdown has intensified this year, part of wider efforts to limit what's acceptable in the public discourse.

"They're publicly excluding us from the legitimacy, from the legitimate public space," said Lu Pin, an activist who now lives in the U.S. but is still active on women's rights issues in China. "This society's middle ground is disappearing."

In a sign of how threatening the #MeToo movement and activism on women's rights is to Chinese authorities, many activists have been dismissed as tools of foreign interference — a label used to discredit their concerns as fabrications by China's enemies meant to destabilize it. 

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NASA launches spacecraft to test asteroid defense concept

LOS ANGELES (AP) — NASA launched a spacecraft Tuesday night on a mission to smash into an asteroid and test whether it would be possible to knock a speeding space rock off course if one were to threaten Earth.

The DART spacecraft, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in a $330 million project with echoes of the Bruce Willis movie "Armageddon."

If all goes well, in September 2022 it will slam head-on into Dimorphos, an asteroid 525 feet (160 meters) across, at 15,000 mph (24,139 kph).

"This isn't going to destroy the asteroid. It's just going to give it a small nudge," said mission official Nancy Chabot of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which is managing the project.

Dimorphos orbits a much larger asteroid called Didymos. The pair are no danger to Earth but offer scientists a way to measure the effectiveness of the collision.

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