News briefs: The 20s begins around the globe

Associated Press

Cheers, tears, prayers for 2020: A new decade is ushered in

Revelers around the globe are bidding farewell to a decade that will be remembered for the rise of social media, the Arab Spring, the #MeToo movement and, of course, President Donald Trump. A look at how the world is ushering in 2020:

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NEW YORK

Fireworks burst and confetti fell as throngs of revelers cheered the start of 2020 in New York City's Times Square.

In one of the globe's most-watched New Year's Eve spectacles, the crowd counted down the last seconds of 2019 as a luminescent crystal ball descended down a pole.

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Australia sending aid to wildfire towns as death toll rises

PERTH, Australia (AP) — Australia deployed military ships and aircraft Wednesday to help communities ravaged by apocalyptic wildfires that have left at least 17 people dead nationwide and sent thousands of residents and holidaymakers fleeing to the shoreline. 

Navy ships and military aircraft were bringing water, food and fuel to towns where supplies were depleted and roads were cut off by the fires. Authorities confirmed three bodies were found Wednesday at Lake Conjola on the south coast of New South Wales, bringing the death toll in the state to 15. 

More than 175 homes have been destroyed in the region.

Some 4,000 people in the coastal town of Mallacoota fled to the shore as winds pushed a fire toward their homes under a sky darkened by smoke and turned blood-red by flames. Stranded residents and vacationers slept in their cars, and gas stations and surf clubs transformed into evacuation areas. Dozens of homes burned before winds changed direction late Tuesday, sparing the rest of the town.

Victoria Emergency Commissioner Andrew Crisp told reporters the Australian Defence Force was moving naval assets to Mallacoota on a supply mission that would last two weeks and helicopters would also fly in more firefighters since roads were inaccessible.

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Trump deploys more troops to Mideast after embassy attack

WASHINGTON (AP) — Charging that Iran was "fully responsible" for an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, President Donald Trump ordered about 750 U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East as about 3,000 more prepared for possible deployment in the next several days.

No U.S. casualties or evacuations were reported after the attack Tuesday by dozens of Iran-supported militiamen. U.S. Marines were sent from Kuwait to reinforce the compound.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday night that "in response to recent events" in Iraq, and at Trump's direction, he authorized the immediate deployment of the infantry battalion from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He did not specify the soldiers' destination, but a U.S. official familiar with the decision said they will go to Kuwait.

"This deployment is an appropriate and precautionary action taken in response to increased threat levels against U.S. personnel and facilities, such as we witnessed in Baghdad today," Esper said in a written statement.

Additional soldiers from the 82nd Airborne's quick-deployment brigade, known officially as its Immediate Response Force, were prepared to deploy, Esper said. The U.S. official, who provided unreleased details on condition of anonymity, said the full brigade of about 4,000 soldiers may deploy.

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North Korea's Kim touts strategic weapon amid stall in talks

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Expressing deep frustration over stalled nuclear talks, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned of unspecified "shocking" action and that his country will soon reveal a new "strategic weapon" to the world as its bolsters its nuclear deterrent in face of "gangster-like" U.S. pressure.

Kim also said North Korea was no longer obligated to maintain a self-imposed suspension on the testing of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, which President Donald Trump has touted as a major diplomatic accomplishment. But Kim gave no clear indication that a resumption of such tests was impending and appeared to leave the door open for eventual negotiations.

Kim has used the diplomatic stalemate to expand his military capabilities by intensifying tests of shorter-range weapons. His arsenal is now estimated to include 40-50 nuclear bombs and various delivery systems, including solid-fuel missiles designed to beat missile-defense systems and developmental ICBMs potentially capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

Kim has also strengthened his negotiating position, moving the diplomacy closer to an arms reduction negotiation between nuclear states rather than talks that would culminate in a unilateral surrender of the weapons he sees as his strongest guarantee of survival. 

Lee Sang-min, spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry, said North Korea carrying out its threat to showcase a new strategic weapon would be unhelpful for diplomacy.

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US troops fire tear gas at pro-Iran protesters in Iraq

BAGHDAD (AP) — U.S. troops fired tear gas on Wednesday as Iran-backed militiamen and other protesters gathered outside the American Embassy in Baghdad for a second day set fire to the roof of a reception area inside the embassy compound. 

Dozens of Iran-allied militiamen and their supporters had camped out at the gates of the embassy overnight, a day after they broke into the compound, trashing a reception area and smashing windows before pulling back. It was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. diplomatic mission in years.

The U.S. Marines guarding the embassy fired tear gas Wednesday as more crowds arrived and after the protesters lit a fire on the roof of the reception area. Smoke rose from the building. There have been no reports of any injuries since the protests began.

The militiamen were protesting deadly U.S. airstrikes that targeted an Iran-backed militia over the weekend, killing 25 fighters. Those strikes were in response to a rocket attack on an Iraqi army base that killed a U.S. contractor.

The violence comes as Iran and its allies have faced unprecedented mass protests in recent months and after heavy U.S. sanctions on Iran that have cratered its economy and raised tensions across the region. In Iraq, the protesters have been angered at their own government's corruption and economic mismanagement, as well as its close ties to Tehran. 

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Big crowd gathers in Hong Kong for 1st protest rally of 2020

HONG KONG (AP) — A huge crowd gathered in Hong Kong Wednesday for an annual New Year's Day protest march as the monthslong pro-democracy movement extends into 2020. 

Authorities said the assembly was mostly orderly, but that five people were arrested for criminal damage on suspicion of vandalizing the glass door and automated teller machine at a bank along the march route. Banks and businesses identified with mainland China have been frequent targets of hardcore protesters. 

Protesters also hurled Molotov cocktails and garbage at officers in the Wan Chai district through which the march route passed. 

Police used pepper spray and tear gas to drive off the demonstrators, although a government statement said officers had been "deploying the minimum necessary force" in dispersing the group.

March participants were asked to "disperse soon after it ends and not to take part in any illegal or violent acts that may occur."

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In a 24/7 food culture, periodic fasting gains followers

NEW YORK (AP) — On low-carb diets, meat and cheese are OK. 

On low-fat diets, fruit and oatmeal are fine. 

With the latest diet trend, no foods at all are allowed for long stretches of time.

A diet that forbids eating for hours on end might seem doomed in a culture where food is constantly available, but apps and Facebook groups are popping up for people practicing "intermittent fasting."

Bri Wyatt, a 32-year-old Tennessee resident, tried it this summer.

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Climate change, Brexit divorce: EU faces challenges in 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) — December served up a warning of the massive challenges ahead for the European Union. 

Freak storms wreaked havoc on parts of southern Europe, showing how the impact of extreme weather will drive the bloc's thinking and climate change policy over the coming years. The EU has already said it wants to spend effort and money to remain the global driver of measures to fight climate change. 

The United States also threatened sanctions against companies working on a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, again showing that the trans-Atlantic alliance between EU nations and the U.S. stands for less and less in the age of power politics. 

And across the Channel, a rare December election in Britain brought Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson a solid majority to back up his efforts to "get Brexit done." As things stand, Britain on Jan. 31 is scheduled to become the first nation ever to leave the EU.

All these challenges will need a strong coordinated response from the EU's soon-to-be 27 nations if they want to live up to their goal of having a bigger global impact. 

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Year-end violence highlights danger of worshipping

NEW YORK (AP) — When a machete-wielding attacker walked into a rabbi's home in Monsey, New York, during Hanukkah and a gunman fired on worshippers at a Texas church 14 hours later, the two congregations in different regions of the country joined a growing list of faith communities that have come under attack in the U.S. 

It is a group that crosses denominations and geography and has companions around the world. The frequency of attacks has faith leaders and law enforcement grappling with how to protect people when they are at their most vulnerable. 

FBI hate crime statistics show that incidents in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques increased 34.8% between 2014 and 2018, the last year for which FBI data is available. 

"For a person bent on hate crime against a particular religion or race, you go to a place where you know a lot of people in that group will be congregating — and vulnerable," said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Boston's Northeastern University. "One place you can go to find people of a certain religion is where they worship." Most congregations, he said, do not have security.

Three of the deadliest attacks on congregation members have occurred since June 2015, when a gunman killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA TODAY and Northeastern University. The database includes attacks where four or more victims are killed.

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Fire kills animals at zoo in western Germany

BERLIN (AP) — A fire at a zoo in western Germany killed a large number of animals in the early hours of the new year, authorities said. They did not comment on local media reports that the fire was started by celebratory fireworks.

The Krefeld zoo near the Dutch border said the entire ape house burned down and all the animals inside are dead. The dpa news agency, quoting officials, said the dead animals included chimpanzees, orangutans and two gorillas, as well as fruit bats and birds. 

The zoo said the nearby Gorilla Garden didn't go up in flames, however. Gorilla Kidogo and his family are alive, the zoo wrote on Facebook early Wednesday.

"An unfathomable tragedy hit us shortly after midnight." the zoo said. "Our ape building burned down to the foundation."

Both the zoo and the city said that they didn't know the cause of the fire and that police are investigating. Officials would not confirm reports by local media that New Year's fireworks could have caused the blaze. The zoo will remain closed on Wednesday.

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