World leaders return to UN and face many escalating crises

NEW YORK (AP) — World leaders will be back at the United Nations for the first time in two years on Tuesday with a formidable agenda of escalating crises to tackle, including the still raging COVID-19 pandemic and a relentlessly warming planet.

Other pressing issues are rising U.S.-China tensions, Afghanistan's unsettled future under its new Taliban rulers and ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Ethiopia's embattled Tigray region.

Last year, no leaders came to the U.N. because the coronavirus was sweeping the globe, so all their addresses were pre-recorded. This year, the General Assembly offered leaders a choice of coming to New York or remaining online, and more than 100 heads of state and government decided to appear in person in the General Assembly hall.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres, who opens the week-long event, "will pull no punches in expressing his concern about the state of the world, and he will lay out a vision to bridge the numerous divides that stand in the way of progress," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

By tradition, the first country to speak is Brazil, whose president, Jair Bolsonaro, isn't vaccinated. He reiterated last Thursday that he doesn't plan to get the shot any time soon, justifying his refusal by saying he had COVID-19 and therefore has a high level of antibodies.

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Biden aims to enlist allies in tackling climate, COVID, more

NEW YORK (AP) — President Joe Biden planned to use his first address before the U.N. General Assembly to reassure other nations of American leadership on the global stage and call on allies to move quickly and cooperatively to address the festering issues of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and human rights abuses.

Biden, who arrived in New York on Monday evening to meet with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ahead of Tuesday's address, offered a full-throated endorsement of the body's relevance and ambition at a difficult moment in history.

The president, in brief remarks at the start of his meeting with Guterres, returned to his mantra that "America is back" — a phrase that's become presidential shorthand meant to encapsulate his promise to take a dramatically different tack with allies than predecessor Donald Trump.

"The vision of the United Nations has never been short on ambition, any more than our Constitution," Biden said.

But the president was facing a healthy measure of skepticism from allies during his week of high-level diplomacy. The opening months of his presidency have included a series of difficult moments with friendly nations that were expecting greater cooperation from Biden following four years of Trump's "America first" approach to foreign policy.

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Options shrink for Haitian migrants straddling Texas border

DEL RIO, Texas (AP) — The options remaining for thousands of Haitian migrants straddling the Mexico-Texas border are narrowing as the United States government ramps up to an expected six expulsion flights to Haiti Tuesday and Mexico began busing some away from the border. 

More than 6,000 Haitians and other migrants had been removed from an encampment at Del Rio, Texas, U.S. officials said Monday as they defended a strong response that included immediately expelling migrants to their impoverished Caribbean country and faced criticism for using horse patrols to stop them from entering the town.

That was enough for some Haitian migrants to return to Mexico, while others struggled to decide on which side of the border to take their chances.

Marie Pierre, 43, stood on the Mexican side of the river as night fell with hundreds of other migrants unsure what to do. She said Border Patrol agents had separated her from her 19-year-old son in Texas and she didn't know if he had been deported or not. She waited for a chance to charge her phone, hoping to get news from her sister and cousin in Florida.

"They told me he was an adult and couldn't be with us," she said of the moment they were separated.

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Haitian journey to Texas border starts in South America

TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — Robins Exile downed a traditional meal of plantains and chicken at a restaurant run by Haitian immigrants, just a short walk from the walled border with the United States. He arrived the night before and went there seeking advice: Should he try to get to the U.S., or was it better to settle in Mexico? 

Messages on WhatsApp and Facebook and YouTube videos from Haitian migrants warned him to avoid crossing in Del Rio, Texas, where thousands of Haitians have converged recently. It was no longer the easy place to cross that it was just a few weeks ago. 

Discussion Monday at the Tijuana restaurant offered a snapshot of Haitians' diaspora in the Western Hemisphere that picked up steam in 2016 and has shown little sign of easing, demonstrated most recently by the more than 14,000 mostly Haitian migrants assembled around a bridge in Del Rio, a town of only 35,000 people.

Of the roughly 1.8 million Haitians living outside their homeland, the United States is home to the largest Haitian immigrant population in the world, numbering 705,000 people from the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. Significant numbers also live in Latin American countries like Chile, which is home to an estimated 69,000 Haitians, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Nearly all Haitians reach the U.S. border on a well-worn route: Fly to Brazil, Chile or elsewhere in South America. If jobs dry up, slowly move through Central America and Mexico by bus and on foot to wait — perhaps years — in northern border cities like Tijuana for the right time to enter the United States and claim asylum. 

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After Afghans fell from plane, families live with horror

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — It's a scene that has come to symbolize the chaotic end to America's 20 years of war in Afghanistan: A lumbering U.S. Air Force cargo plane takes off from Kabul airport, chased by hundreds of desperate Afghan men scrambling to get on the aircraft. 

As the C-17 transporter gains altitude, shaky mobile phone video captures two tiny dots dropping from the plane. Footage from another angle shows many in the crowd on the tarmac stopping in their tracks and pointing.

The full extent of the horror becomes apparent only later. The dots, it turns out, were desperate Afghans hidden in the wheel well. As the wheels folded into the body of the plane, the stowaways faced the choice of being crushed to death or letting go and plunging to the ground.

More than a month later, much remains unclear about what happened in that tragic takeoff on Aug. 16, a day after the Taliban swept into Kabul, prompting a flood of Afghans trying to escape the country. 

Even how many were killed remains unknown. Videos show two dots falling from the airborne plane, several seconds apart. But two bodies landed on the same rooftop at the same time, suggesting they fell together, so the other figure seen falling in the videos could be at least one other person. Also, the U.S. military has said it found human remains still in the wheel well of the C-17 when it landed in Qatar but did not specify how many people. At least one person, a young soccer player, died on the tarmac, crushed under the C-17's wheels.

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Trudeau's party wins Canada vote but fails to get majority

TORONTO (AP) — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party secured victory in parliamentary elections but failed to get the majority he wanted in a vote that focused on the coronavirus pandemic but that many Canadians saw as unnecessary.

Trudeau entered Monday's election leading a stable minority government that wasn't under threat of being toppled — but he was hoping Canadians would reward him with a majority for navigating the pandemic better than many other leaders. Still, Trudeau struggled to justify why he called the election early given the virus, and the opposition was relentless in accusing him of holding the vote two years before the deadline for his own personal ambition.

In the end, the gamble did not pay off, and the results nearly mirrored those of two years ago. The Liberal Party was leading or elected in 156 seats — one less than they won 2019, and 14 short of the 170 needed for a majority in the House of Commons.

The Conservatives were leading or elected in 121 seats, the same number they won in 2019. The leftist New Democrats were leading or elected in 27, a gain of three seats, while the Bloc Québécois remained unchanged with 32 seats and the Greens were down to two. 

"You are sending us back to work with a clear mandate to get Canada through this pandemic," Trudeau said. "I hear you when you say you just want to get back to the things you love and not worry about this pandemic or an election."

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China keeps virus at bay at high cost ahead of Olympics

BEIJING (AP) — The Beizhong International Travel Agency in the eastern city of Tianjin has had only one customer since coronavirus outbreaks that began in July prompted Chinese leaders to renew city lockdowns and travel controls.

Most of China is virus-free, but the abrupt, severe response to outbreaks has left would-be tourists jittery about traveling to places they might be barred from leaving. That has hit consumer spending, hindering efforts to keep the economic recovery on track.

China's "zero tolerance" strategy of trying to isolate every case and stop transmission has helped keep the country where the virus first was detected in late 2019 largely free of disease. But the public and businesses are paying a steep price.

Foreign athletes are due to compete in the Winter Olympics that start Feb. 4 in Beijing and the nearby city of Zhangjiakou, but the government has yet to say whether restrictions that prevent most foreigners from entering China will be relaxed to allow spectators in.

"Two years ago, this was our busiest season," said the Beizhong agency manager, Wang Hui.

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COVID has killed about as many Americans as the 1918-19 flu

COVID-19 has now killed about as many Americans as the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic did — approximately 675,000. 

The U.S. population a century ago was just one-third of what it is today, meaning the flu cut a much bigger, more lethal swath through the country. But the COVID-19 crisis is by any measure a colossal tragedy in its own right, especially given the incredible advances in scientific knowledge since then and the failure to take maximum advantage of the vaccines available this time.

"Big pockets of American society — and, worse, their leaders — have thrown this away," medical historian Dr. Howard Markel of the University of Michigan said of the opportunity to vaccinate everyone eligible by now.

Like the Spanish flu, the coronavirus may never entirely disappear from our midst. Instead, scientists hope it becomes a mild seasonal bug as human immunity strengthens through vaccination and repeated infection. That could take time. 

"We hope it will be like getting a cold, but there's no guarantee," said Emory University biologist Rustom Antia, who suggests an optimistic scenario in which this could happen over a few years.

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Q&A: America's new COVID-19 rules for international travel

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is rolling out new international travel policies affecting Americans and noncitizens alike who want to fly into the U.S. The goal is to restore more normal air travel after 18 months of disruption caused by COVID-19.

The across-the-board rules, which will take effect in November, will replace a hodgepodge of confusioning restrictions. Some details of the plan announced Monday are being worked out, but here are some questions and answers about what to expect:

WHAT IS THE NEW POLICY IN A NUTSHELL?

All adult foreign nationals traveling to the U.S. will be required to be fully vaccinated before boarding their flight. This is in addition to the current requirement that travelers show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure to the U.S. 

Once the vaccination requirement is put in place, the White House will ease all the country-specific restrictions on international travel that have prevented noncitizens who have been in the United Kingdom, European Union, China, India, Iran, Republic of Ireland, Brazil or South Africa in the prior 14 days from entering the U.S.

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Nerves on edge on Spanish island as quakes, lava threaten

EL PASO, Canary Islands (AP) — Several small earthquakes shook the Spanish island of La Palma off northwest Africa in the early hours of Tuesday, keeping nerves on edge as rivers of lava continued to flow toward the sea and a new vent blew open on the mountainside.

The new vent is 900 meters (3,000 feet) north of the Cumbre Vieja ridge, where the volcano first erupted on Sunday after a week of thousands of small earthquakes. 

That so-called earthquake swarm gave authorities warning that an eruption was likely and allowed more than 5,000 people to be evacuated, avoiding casualties.

The new fissure opened after what the Canary Islands Volcanology Institute said was a 3.8-magnitude quake late Monday. 

La Palma, with a population of some 85,000 people, is part of the volcanic Canary Islands.

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