News briefs: Countries take tough steps to try and contain virus

Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) — Saudi Arabia cut travel to Islam's holiest sites, South Korea toughened penalties for those breaking quarantines and airports across Latin America looked for signs of sick passengers Thursday as a new virus troubled a mushrooming swath of the globe.

With the illness pushing its way into a sixth continent and the number of sick and dead rising, the crisis gave way to political and diplomatic rows, concern that bordered on panic in some quarters, and a sense that no part of the world was immune to the disease's spread.

"Viruses don't know borders and they don't stop at them," said Roberto Speranza, the health minister in Italy, where northern towns were on army-guarded lockdowns and supermarket shelves were bare.

Schools throughout Japan were being closed for weeks to try to stop new transmissions.

As growing parts of Europe and the Middle East saw infections and a first case was found in South America, air routes were halted and border control toughened. But for an illness transmitted so easily, with its tentacles reaching into so many parts of the world, leaders puzzled over how to keep the virus from proliferating seemed willing to try anything to keep their people — and economies — safe.

Saudi Arabia halts pilgrimages over virus; Iran cases spike

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia on Thursday banned foreign pilgrims from entering the kingdom to visit Islam's holiest sites over the new coronavirus, potentially disrupting the plans of millions of faithful ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and as the annual hajj pilgrimage looms.

The decision showed the growing worry across the Mideast about the virus as Iran's confirmed that infected cases spiked by over 100, to 254 now. A total of 26 people have died so far, it said. That pushes the region's overall cases to above 350. Iran's death toll is highest outside of China where the outbreak began.

Saudi Arabia's barring of pilgrims from Mecca, home to the cube-shaped Kaaba that the world's 1.8 billion Muslims pray toward five times a day, and Medina appeared unprecedented in modern history. The kingdom's Al Saud ruling family stakes their legitimacy in overseeing and protecting the sites. Authorities also suspended entry to travelers from nations affected by the new virus who hold tourist visas for the kingdom. 

It appeared Saudi officials worried about the risk of pilgrims spreading the virus as they had in Iran. The virus' epicenter in the Islamic Republic is the holy Shiite city of Qom, where the faithful in reverence reach out to kiss and touch a famous shrine. That shrine and others have remained open, despite Iran's civilian government calling for them to be closed.

The tiny, oil-rich nation of Kuwait announced a sudden jump to 43 cases from 26 on Thursday as well, all linked to travelers who recently came from Iran. There have been no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Saudi Arabia amid the outbreak.

Trump urges calm even as US reports worrisome new virus case

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump declared that a widespread U.S. outbreak of the new respiratory virus sweeping the globe isn't inevitable even as top health authorities at his side warned Americans that more infections are coming.

Shortly after Trump spoke Wednesday, the government announced a worrisome development: Another person in the U.S. is infected — someone in California who doesn't appear to have the usual risk factors of having traveled abroad or being exposed to another patient. 

At a White House news conference, Trump sought to minimize fears as he insisted the U.S. is "very, very ready" for whatever the COVID-19 outbreak brings. Under fire about the government's response, he put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of coordinating the efforts.

"This will end," Trump said of the outbreak. "You don't want to see panic because there's no reason to be panicked."

But standing next to him, the very health officials Trump praised for fighting the new coronavirus stressed that schools, businesses and individuals need to get ready.

Gunman kills 5 at Milwaukee brewery before taking own life

MILWAUKEE (AP) — An employee opened fire Wednesday at one of the nation's largest breweries in Milwaukee, killing five fellow workers before taking his own life, police said.

The assailant who attacked the Molson Coors complex was identified as a 51-year-old Milwaukee man who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police said.

"There were five individuals who went to work today, just like everybody goes to work, and they thought they were going to go to work, finish their day and return to their families. They didn't — and tragically they never will," Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said.

Authorities offered no immediate motive for the attack and did not release details about the shooter or how the shooting unfolded.

None of the victims was identified. Police, who were still contacting relatives, said identities would not be released for at least 24 hours. No one was wounded beyond those who were killed, authorities said.

Sanders' rise fuels Dems' angst over keeping House control

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Bernie Sanders' ascendancy as Democrats' leading presidential hopeful fueled growing unease as lawmakers openly expressed anxiety that the self-proclaimed democratic socialist could cost them House control and questions abounded over what party leaders should do.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., projected calm — and neutrality — on Wednesday as she batted away reporters' queries about whether it was time for her to try thwarting Sanders to protect her party's majority. 

"We're not going to lose the House," she said. "We're going to be united by whomever is the candidate for president. But we are taking responsibility for winning the House, and we're not assuming anything. But we feel very confident."

She delivered a similar message to colleagues at a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning, when she told them, "We cannot show any division. This has to be about unity, unity, unity." Her remarks were described by a Democratic aide on the condition of anonymity to relay private comments.

Yet with Sanders, I-Vt., riding high after early nominating contest wins in New Hampshire and Nevada and a virtual first-place tie in Iowa, other House Democrats were less sanguine. 

Labor union unveils $150M campaign to help defeat Trump

WASHINGTON (AP) — One of the nation's largest labor unions is unveiling plans to invest $150 million in a nationwide campaign to help defeat President Donald Trump, a sweeping effort focused on eight battleground states and voters of color who typically don't vote.

The investment marks the largest voter engagement and turnout operation in the history of the Service Employees International Union, which claims nearly 2 million members. The scope of the campaign, which quietly launched last month and will run through November's general election, reflects the urgency of what union president Mary Kay Henry calls "a make-or-break" moment for working people in America under Trump's leadership.

"He's systematically unwinding and attacking unions. Federal workers rights have been totally eviscerated under his watch," Henry said in an interview. "We are on fire about the rules being rigged against us and needing to elect people that are going to stand with workers."

The union's campaign will span 40 states and target 6 million voters focused largely in Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin, according to details of the plan shared with The Associated Press. The union and its local members will pay particular attention to two key urban battlegrounds they believe will play a defining role in the 2020 general election: Detroit and Milwaukee. There may be some television advertising, but the investment will focus primarily on direct contact and online advertising targeting minority men and women who typically don't vote. 

Few groups of voters will be more important in the 2020 general election. Trump won the presidency four years ago largely because of his popularity with working-class whites and a drop-off in turnout from minority voters.

Syrian opposition fighters retake key town from government

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters on Thursday retook a strategic northwestern town in Syria that was recently captured by government forces, and cut the highway linking the capital, Damascus, with the northern city of Aleppo days after the government reopened it for the first time since 2012. 

The retaking of Saraqeb which sits on the highway is a setback for Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces who have scored major gains in a weeks long Russian-backed campaign in the last rebel stronghold in Idlib province. Officials had hailed the reopening of the motorway, known as the M5, as a major victory in the nine-year conflict.

The government's military campaign to recapture Idlib, the last opposition-held stronghold in the country, has triggered a humanitarian catastrophe and the war's largest single wave of displacement. According to the U.N. almost 950,000 civilians have been displaced since early Decembers, and more than 300 have been killed. Most have fled further north to safer areas near the Turkish border, overwhelming camps already crowded with refugees in cold winter weather. 

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitoring group, said the opposition fighters seized the town of Saraqeb after intense bombardment by Turkish troops. Turkey and Russia support opposite sides in Syria's brutal civil war, with Ankara backing the opposition and Moscow backing Assad.

From inside Saraqeb, activist Taher al-Omar said the town is now under opposition control. He posted a video with a fighter saying the government forces "ran away like rats."

India says US politicizing religious riots in which 30 died

NEW DELHI (AP) — India accused a U.S. government commission of politicizing communal violence in New Delhi that killed at least 30 people and injured more than 200 as President Donald Trump was visiting the country.

The violent clashes between Hindu and Muslim mobs were the capital's worst communal riots in decades and saw shops, Muslim shrines and public vehicles go up in flames. Though the rioting had largely subsided, the rising toll was confirmed by hospital officials Thursday.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said it was deeply troubled by the violence and cited accounts that police had not intervened in attacks against Muslims, which police and India's federal government have denied.

"The government is failing in its duty to protect its citizens," Commissioner Anurima Bhargava said.

India's External Affairs Ministry said the commission's comments were "factually inaccurate and misleading" and appeared to be "aimed at politicizing the issue."

Al-Qaida, IS affiliates team up in West Africa

THIES, Senegal (AP) — The only place in the world where fighters linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group are cooperating is in West Africa's sprawling Sahel region, giving the extremists greater depth as they push into new areas, according to the commander of the U.S. military's special forces in Africa. 

"I believe that if it's left unchecked it could very easily develop into a great threat to the West and the United States," U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Dagvin Anderson told The Associated Press in an interview this week. 

The leader of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa described the threat even as the Pentagon considers reducing the U.S. military presence in Africa.

Experts have long worried about collaboration between al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. While the cooperation in the Sahel is not currently a direct threat to the U.S. or the West, "it's very destabilizing to the region," Anderson said. 

He spoke on the sidelines of the U.S. military's annual counterterrorism exercise in West Africa, currently the most active region for extremists on the continent.

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