World News

Trump administration taking steps to designate Cuba as state sponsor of terrorism in coming days

By Vivian Salama and Jennifer Hansler, CNN

Ellen Britt for (CNT) City News And Talk 


(CNN)The Trump administration will soon take steps toward designating Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism as an 11th hour effort to create hurdles for the incoming Biden administration, which is likely to pursue warmer ties with Havana.

A senior administration official told CNN that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to make the designation in the coming days. A second official confirmed that discussions are taking place, although the timing is uncertain.

The Cuban government has already denounced the move, which is one of a series of bold initiatives the Trump administration is taking as it attempts to leave a lasting imprint on US foreign policy with just three weeks left before President Donald Trump leaves office.

Currently, only three other nations bear the US terrorism designation: Iran, North Korea and Syria. Sudan was recently removed from the list as part of its agreement to normalize ties with Israel.

Such a designation would impose restrictions on US foreign assistance, a ban on defense exports and sales, certain controls over exports and various financial restrictions. It would also result in penalization against any persons and countries engaging in certain trade activities with Cuba.

The New York Times was first to report that Pompeo was considering the designation. A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on Tuesday, saying “we do not discuss deliberations or potential deliberations regarding designations.” The White House declined to comment on the record when reached by CNN.

Momentum to get the designation through had waned in recent months when one of the original advocates for the plan, Mauricio Claver-Carone — a hawkish Cuban-American attorney — left the National Security Council to become president of the Inter-American Development Bank.

However, others within the administration, including Elliott Abrams, Trump’s special representative for Venezuela, and senior Western Hemisphere official Michael Kozak, as well as Florida Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, all supported following through with the idea — despite a lack of support from most of the State Department’s Cuba desk, according to a former administration official.

‘Trashing the hotel room’

“Returning Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism has been a goal of some in the Trump administration since January 20, 2017,” said John S. Kavulich, the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “The Trump Administration has altered the definition of ‘terrorism’ to include the behavior of a government towards its citizens — no longer is terrorism solely about an explosion or bombing. The Trump administration connects Cuba with the FARC and with governments China, Iran, Russia, Syria, and North Korea.”

A US diplomat with experience on Cuba issues slammed the expected move, calling it “one more example of trashing the hotel room on the way out the door.”

The diplomat, who was not authorized to speak on the record, noted that when the US and Cuba were opening relations under the Obama administration, Cuba’s presence on the state sponsor of terrorism list “was an obstacle that took a while to overcome, because it comes with real legal restrictions on certain actions.”

Cuba was removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list in 2015 amid President Barack Obama’s efforts to restore ties between Washington and Havana. The Reagan administration designated Cuba in 1982, accusing the Castro government of sponsoring communist groups in Latin American and Africa.

“Cuba’s presence on that list really made a mockery of the list itself – there simply was not a good argument to be made that Cuba actually sponsored terrorism,” the US diplomat said. “I don’t know of anything that has changed since then in real terms — they’re just reinterpreting things to suit politics.”

Although designation would likely get overturned by the incoming Biden administration, the diplomat said that it could do “real damage to our credibility on state sponsorship of terrorism.”

‘Shelter and impunity’

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla on Wednesday “denounced” the expected designation, suggesting it was meant “to please the anti-Cuban minority in Florida.”

“US grants shelter and impunity to terrorist groups acting against Cuba from that territory,” Rodriguez Parrilla wrote on Twitter.

Since taking office, Trump sought to reverse efforts by the Obama administration to end Cold War-era hostilities with Cuba and help to foster a new era of prosperity and growth for the country following decades of rule by socialist Fidel Castro.

Trump’s administration labeled Cuba as part of a so-called “Troika of Tyranny,” which included Venezuela and Nicaragua, and has imposed bruising sanctions and other restrictions on all three countries in the name of combating socialism in the Western Hemisphere. A terrorism designation would likely please Cuban Americans and other voters who helped power Trump to victory in Florida though he ultimately lost the election.

Critics of the Trump administration’s policies toward Cuba and Venezuela believe that sanctions and other clampdowns have only caused more suffering for the people of those countries, while having a limited impact on the regimes they target.

President-Elect Joe Biden said during his campaign that if elected, he “will promptly reverse the failed Trump policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.”

CNN’s Patrick Oppmann contributed to this report.


World News

UK abolishes ‘tampon tax’ on menstrual products

By Amy Woodyatt, CNN

Ellen Britt for (CNT) City News And Talk 


London (CNN)The UK has abolished the 5% rate of value-added-tax (VAT) on menstrual products, known as the tampon tax.

It means that from January 1, period products will no longer be subject to VAT.

The UK government said the change was made possible by the end of the Brexit transition period, and freedom from an EU law that mandates VAT on sanitary products.

“I’m proud that we are today delivering on our promise to scrap the tampon tax,” said UK finance minister Rishi Sunak, who committed to the change in his March budget.

“Sanitary products are essential so it’s right that we do not charge VAT,” he said in a statement.

Menstrual products will no longer be subject to VAT.

Campaigners had been calling for the end of the tax, labeled “sexist” and “outdated,” for years.

“It’s been a long road to reach this point, but at last the sexist tax that saw sanitary products classed as non-essential, luxury items can be consigned to the history books,” Felicia Willow Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, the UK’s oldest charity campaigning for women’s rights and gender equality.

In November, Scotland became the first country in the world to allow free and universal access to menstrual products, including tampons and pads, in public facilities.

Globally, just a handful of countries have zero tax added to sanitary products, including Canada, India, Australia, Kenya and several US states.

Last year, Germany voted to reduce its tax rate on feminine hygiene products after deeming them to be a daily necessity, not luxury.


World News

Australia has changed its national anthem in a bid to reflect 60,000 years of Indigenous history

By Jessie Yeung, CNN

Ellen Britt for (CNT) City News And Talk 


(CNN)Australia woke up to a new year on Friday — and a slightly different national anthem.

The anthem, “Advance Australia Fair,” has been tweaked to recognize the country’s Indigenous history and communities, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced late Thursday, hours before 2021.

The first line, “Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free,” will now end with “one and free.”

“Australia as a modern nation may be relatively young, but our country’s story is ancient, as are the stories of the many First Nations peoples whose stewardship we rightly acknowledge and respect,” Morrison wrote in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Olivia Fox sings Australia’s national anthem in the Eora language during the Tri Nations rugby match in Sydney on December 5, 2020.

“In the spirit of unity, it is only right that we also now acknowledge this and ensure our national anthem reflects this truth and shared appreciation. Changing ‘young and free’ to ‘one and free’ takes nothing away, but I believe it adds much.”

The government has a history of changing the song to be more inclusive — when Peter Dodds McCormick’s original 1878 composition was declared the official national anthem in 1984, replacing “God Save the Queen,” two instances of “sons” were switched with gender-neutral phrasing.

The anthem has become controversial in recent years, amid growing conversation about Indigenous representation, systemic inequality, and racial injustice. In particular, many have pushed back against the phrase “for we are young and free” — a nod to when Britain’s First Fleet landed in Australia in 1788 — given Australia is home to one of the world’s oldest known civilizations.

In 2018, a 9-year-old girl was attacked by prominent politicians, who called for her to be kicked out of school, because she refused to stand during the anthem out of respect for the Indigenous population. In 2019, athletes made headlines for refusing to sing the anthem at football matches. And in 2020, national rugby union players sang the anthem in the language of the Eora Nation — the first time it has been sung in an Indigenous language at a major sporting event.

Peter Vickery, the founder and chair of the non-profit Representation In Anthem, has been campaigning for a more inclusive anthem since 2016. “Many of our indigenous people found it difficult, if not impossible, to sing the exclusionary words of ‘Advance Australia Fair’,” Vickery said Friday. “We simply can’t have an anthem which causes hurt to its own people.”

Vickery worked with other Indigenous leaders and singers to create alternate, more inclusive lyrics — one change being the phrase “one and free” that Morrison adopted. Their campaign gained greater visibility and momentum last year when Gladys Berejiklian, premier of New South Wales state, expressed her support.

“Frankly, I’m elated,” Vickery said. “It does achieve a major objective of our work, which was to convert words of hurt or exclusion to words of inclusion, and embrace a multicultural society of the 21st century.”

Other prominent Indigenous Australian figures, including Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt and Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Cathy Freeman, also celebrated the change.

But it was also met with skepticism from some who called it insubstantial, and more symbolic than effecting any real change.

“The anthem one word change isn’t good enough!” tweeted Indigenous former world boxing champion Anthony Mundine on Friday, adding that the country needed to “scrap the song & start fresh with bit of black history & white history.”

Vickery openly acknowledged such criticisms, saying the campaign’s symbolic power “can never be a substitute for substance.” But, he added, the anthem was still “a critically important first step.”

Other critics argued the message of unity, and the inclusion of “free” in the lyric, is undermined by controversial policies for asylum seekers and refugees detained in Australia’s notorious offshore immigration centers, as well as the systemic barriers still facing the Indigenous population.

While the country’s Indigenous population makes up 3.3% of its 25 million people, they account for more than a quarter of its 41,000 prisoners. Indigenous Australians are also almost twice as likely to die by suicide, have a life expectancy that is almost nine years lower, and have higher infant mortality rates than non-Indigenous Australians.

The unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians is more than 4 times the national average.

Ian Hamm, chair of the Indigenous organization First Nations Foundation, praised the changed lyric — but also highlighted other, more concrete actions that need to be taken.

For instance, Australia still doesn’t have a treaty between its government and its Indigenous people — unlike other Commonwealth countries such as New Zealand and Canada. The Australian constitution also doesn’t explicitly mention the country’s Indigenous population.

“I think it’s a good step, but after all, it’s just one step, one thing,” Hamm said. “And the anthem in itself is just that — it’s a song. There’s a whole bunch of other initiatives and changes and efforts to be done to create equity of opportunity for Aboriginal people, and equity in life outcomes for Aboriginal peoples.”


World News

UK emergency Covid-19 field hospitals asked to be ‘ready’ to admit patients as crisis looms

By Laura Smith-Spark and Arnaud Siad, CNN

Ellen Britt for (CNT) City News And Talk 


London (CNN)UK health workers are preparing to reactivate seven emergency Covid-19 field hospitals, as a surge of coronavirus cases fueled by the spread of a new, more contagious variant threatens to overwhelm intensive care units.

A spokesperson for the National Health Service (NHS) told CNN on Saturday that those in charge of the field hospitals — hastily set up during the first wave of the pandemic but largely mothballed since — were asked on December 23 to “get services ready to use.”

The emergency hospitals are called NHS Nightingale, after the pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale. In London, the huge ExCel convention center in the Docklands area was converted to offer up to 500 beds equipped with ventilators and oxygen. But only a few dozen patients received treatment there in the spring.

The NHS has come under severe strain in recent weeks as the new variant of the virus has taken hold, particularly in southeast England — including London, Kent and Essex — and parts of Wales.

On Friday, the UK reported 53,285 new confirmed Covid-19 cases and 613 new deaths. On Thursday, it reported 55,892 new cases, the highest daily number in the country since the pandemic began.

According to the government’s latest healthcare data on January 1, there are currently 22,534 coronavirus patients in hospitals across England, of whom 1,940 patients with confirmed Covid-19 infections have required mechanical ventilation beds.

Doctors have made impassioned appeals to the public to stay at home and follow government guidelines on social distancing as hospitals and other health care services come under intense pressure.

Intensive care doctor Rupert Pearse, at the Royal London Hospital in east London, tweeted Saturday that he was working on the Covid ICU again. “Almost all my patients are less than 60 years old and previously fit. Some are very young. If you think this disease can’t touch you then think again,” he said.

In another message posted Thursday, Pearse said: “Media reports of pressures on the NHS are all true. The situation in London is now MUCH worse than the first wave, and still deteriorating. Sad to see long queues of ambulances outside the hospital where I work.”

Ambulances are parked outside the NHS Nightingale hospital at the ExCel centre in east London on January 1, 2021.

‘Record numbers’ of Covid patients

London Mayor Sadiq Khan told CNN that the capital’s hospitals were dealing with “record numbers” of Covid-19 patients on top of the normal, non-Covid winter surge in demand.

“We now have in the hospitals in London more Covid patients than at any time during this pandemic and the NHS in London, hospitals in London and our fantastic health workers in London are stretched,” Khan said Thursday.

Khan said he was “concerned” about hospitals becoming overwhelmed but added that the NHS had the flexibility to increase capacity, for example by canceling certain routine, elective surgeries.

“But the big worry we do have is, if we continue to see an increase in the virus spreading, it’s possible that hospitals won’t have the ability to cope and that’s particularly the concern because we have not yet reached the normal January, non-Covid peak,” he said.

Asked whether the military could step in to help with new patients, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told Times Radio on Thursday: “Of course we stand ready to help with Nightingales if the critical pressures go beyond the capacity of the existing NHS.”

He said the Army currently had about 5,000 personnel deployed in the Covid-19 response.

A general view of social distancing signs displayed at Coldfall Primary School in Muswell Hill on January 2, 2021 in London, England.

Most of England is now under the toughest level of restrictions to try to limit the virus’ spread.

Amid the worsening situation, ministers were forced to reverse a decision to reopen some primary schools in London next week, after coming under pressure from local authorities and teaching unions. All schools in London will now switch to remote learning from Monday, when the new term starts, with only vulnerable and critical worker children allowed to attend in person.

The change of course came only two days after the UK Department for Education said nine London boroughs and the City of London would keep primary schools open, while those in 23 other boroughs would remain closed. Khan tweeted Friday that the government had “finally seen sense and U-turned” on its plan to open schools in some areas.

Vaccine roll-out plan

The UK government is pinning its hopes for a route out of disaster on a swift roll-out of the two vaccines now approved for use by the national regulatory agency.

But its plans to delay giving second doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in order to prioritize first doses for as many vulnerable people as possible have prompted opposition from doctors’ groups.

The new strategy, announced Wednesday by the head of the UK’s medicines regulator MHRA, means that the interval between doses could be extended to up to 12 weeks, instead of the three weeks previously stipulated.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been in use in the UK since early December, when the country became the first in the world to approve it, but supplies are limited. Pfizer has said it does not have data to demonstrate that just a single dose of its vaccine would provide protection against the disease after more than 21 days.

UK regulators have also advised giving the second dose of the newly approved Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine four to 12 weeks later.

More than half a million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will be available from Monday, according to UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock, with millions more to follow in the coming weeks. The vaccine is cheaper and easier to distribute than the Pfizer/BioNTech jab because it can be kept at regular refrigerator temperatures for at least six months.

But even if the government achieves its aim of swiftly inoculating millions of elderly and clinically vulnerable people, thereby reducing Covid-related hospital admissions, the UK faces some tough weeks ahead.

“It is a pretty grim and depressing picture at the moment” in England, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van Tam told a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday. “It is almost certainly true that the NHS has not yet seen the impact of the infections that will have occurred during mixing in Christmas and that unfortunately is rather sobering.”

Members of the public are seen on a quiet Princess Street on Hogmanay on December 31, 2020 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

New variant more prevalent in under-20s

As of January 1, at least 30 countries, including the United States, had reported cases of the more infectious variant of the coronavirus first detected in the UK.

A study authored by a collaborative team from Imperial College London, University of Edinburgh, Public Health England and others confirmed that the variant had greater transmissibility and was more prevalent in people under 20 years of age.

While the study, released Thursday, found that people aged under 20 make up a greater proportion of cases of the new variant of the virus, its authors said it was too early to determine the reasons for this, adding that further research was ongoing.

There’s no evidence that the variant is any more deadly or causes more severe disease, according to health officials.

Responding to the study, Jim Naismith, a professor of structural biology at the University of Oxford, told the UK’s Science Media Centre that it was “not really possible to overstate how serious this new strain is” in terms of reducing the rate of infection.

“Unless we do something different the new virus strain is going to continue to spread, more infections, more hospitalisations and more deaths,” he said. “The NHS is under serious strain and without a change this will get worse. January and early February will be difficult. If we fail to reduce the spread of the new strain, then we are likely to overwhelm the NHS, the consequences of this would be dire.”

CNN’s Hira Humayun contributed to this report.


World News

Thousands of people march in Nepal against PM dissolving parliament

Story by Reuters

Ellen Britt for (CNT) City News And Talk 


(CNN)Thousands of opponents of Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli marched through the streets of Kathmandu on Tuesday urging him to reverse his decision to dissolve parliament and call for early elections.

The protesters, who say his decision on December 20 was unconstitutional, rallied outside his office despite coronavirus curbs on gatherings.

Oli says internal squabbling and a lack of cooperation from his party have paralyzed decision-making, forcing him to seek a new popular mandate.

Police officials overseeing security said at least 10,000 people were on the streets to participate in the march — one of the most intense protests the country has witnessed since Oli dissolved parliament.

Supporters of the splinter group in the governing Nepal Communist Party protest in Kathmandu on December 29.

“We have tactfully managed the rally of about 10,000 protesters,” said Basanta Bahadur Kunwar, a police spokesman.

The country’s top court will in January continue hearing dozens of petitions filed against Oli’s political move and his plans to press ahead with parliamentary elections next year on April 30 and May 10, less than two years before the scheduled date.

“The Prime Minister has no authority to dissolve the parliament under the constitution. Therefore, he should reverse his decision immediately,” said 19-year-old student Rajesh Thapa, waving a flag with a red hammer and sickle printed on it, a symbol of the ruling Communist Party.

The headline on an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the reason for the protests. The protesters were demonstrating against the dissolution of parliament.


World News

More than 1,000 fines issued after illegal New Year’s party in France breaches coronavirus restrictions

By Benjamin Berteau and Pierre Buet, CNN

Ellen Britt for (CNT) City News And Talk 

Paris (CNN)Five people have been arrested and more than 1,000 fines issued after an illegal New Year’s rave in the French countryside ended on Saturday, local authorities said.

More than 2,500 partygoers attended the illegal party in the region of Brittany in France, despite the government’s strict coronavirus restrictions and a national night-time curfew.

French gendarmes talk to youths following the break-up of the party near a disused hangar in Lieuron on January 2.

About 1,200 fines were issued as of Saturday morning following the rave, which started on Thursday, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said via his official Twitter profile.

Trucks, sound systems and generators have been seized and Gendarmes officers “are continuing their investigation and checks so that this illegal event is harshly sanctioned,” Darmanin added.

Of the 1,200 fines, 800 were related to coronavirus restrictions and 400 to drug offenses, head of the Bretagne Gendarmerie forces General Pierre Sauvegrain told reporters.

French gendarmes break up the rave in Lieuron on January 2.

French gendarmes block access to the party about 40km south of Rennes on New Year’s Day.

Up to 20 vehicles, including trucks which may be carrying sound equipment, managed to escape the police block by driving on a lane which led to the highway, Sauvegrain said.

“There is a judicial investigation which will allow us to identify the main perpetrators and to arrest them,” he added.

Local police attempted to shut down the rave on Thursday, but said they “faced violent hostility,” with a police vehicle set on fire, other vehicles damaged, and soldiers sprayed with bottles and stones, which caused minor injuries.

“No new violence” occurred since then, a Gendarmerie Nationale spokesperson told CNN on Saturday, adding that partygoers were “leaving the premises voluntarily.”

Local authorities said the number of partygoers was “estimated at 2,500, coming from different French departments and from abroad.”

A national curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. has been in place since December 15.


World News

At least 22 killed in attack on Yemen’s Aden airport after new government arrives

By Mostafa Salem, CNN

Ellen Britt for (CNT) City News And Talk 


(CNN)Several explosions hit Yemen’s Aden airport as the newly formed power-sharing government arrived from Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.

The blasts killed at least 22 people and injured scores more, Rajeh Badi, the spokesman for the new government, told CNN. All the Cabinet members are safe, according to Yemen Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalek.

It is unclear if the explosions were caused by missiles fired on the airport. Badi told CNN that the investigations have not been concluded yet.

Saudi Arabia accused Iran-backed Houthi rebels of being behind the explosion, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA). The group has not claimed responsibility.

Col. Turki Al-Malki, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, said the coalition intercepted and downed an explosives-laden Houthi drone on Wednesday that was targeting the presidential Al-Maashiq Palace in Aden, according to SPA.

Al-Malki said the drone downing “confirms the responsibility” of the Houthi militia in the airport attack.

“The attempt to assassinate the Yemeni Cabinet is an attempt to thwart the Riyadh Agreement, which Yemeni people have adopted as a path toward unification of ranks, restoration of normal life, security and stability and a roadmap to reaching a comprehensive political solution in Yemen,” Al-Malki was quoted as saying in a statement carried on SPA.

Earlier, Yemeni Information Minister Muammar Al Eryani accused the Houthi rebels of being behind the explosion.

Prior to the attack, hundreds of people had gathered at the airport for the arrival of the government, which was sworn in in Saudi Arabia last week.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said one of its staff was killed, three were injured and two others were unaccounted for in the explosions.

Dozens were injured in the blasts.

“Our staff were transiting through the airport with other civilians. This is a tragic day for us and the people of Yemen,” the ICRC in Yemen said on Twitter. “We extend our sincere condolences to the families of the victims, and we hope for a speedy recovery for anyone injured.”

Footage from Saudi-owned Al Arabiya channel showed the moment of the attack: A loud boom was followed by gunshots. Smoke was seen billowing out of the terminal building.

The attack created a large hole in the ground and caused severe damage to an airport hall, according to footage from Saudi state broadcaster Al-Ekhbraiya.

“The cowardly terrorist act that targeted Aden airport is part of the war being waged against the Yemeni state and our great people, and it will only increase our insistence on fulfilling our duties until the coup is ended, the state is restored and stability,” the Yemeni Prime Minister said.

United Nations Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths condemned the attack on Twitter. “I wish the Cabinet strength in facing the difficult tasks ahead. This unacceptable act of violence is a tragic reminder of the importance of bringing Yemen urgently back on the path towards peace,” he added.

A US State Department official said that they “are aware of the reports of the attacks in Aden and are saddened by the reports of casualties and injuries.”

“The United States supports the Yemeni Government and stands with the Yemeni people,” the official said.

Last week, Yemen’s separatist Southern Transitional Council and the existing Saudi-backed government announced a new Cabinet to end a power struggle between them.

Both groups are part a coalition backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that has been engaged in a years-long civil war with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The conflict has cost thousands of lives and has plunged the country into a humanitarian crisis.

CNN’s Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.


World News

Crowds fill streets in China’s pandemic-hit Wuhan to celebrate the New Year

Story by Reuters

Ellen Britt for (CNT) City News And Talk 


Large crowds took to the streets at midnight on Friday in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, celebrating the arrival of 2021 after a year marred by a deadly pandemic that killed thousands there and required the city to be locked down between the end of January and early April.

As per tradition, hundreds gathered in front of the old Hankow Customs House building, one of the city’s more popular New Year’s Eve spots. When the building’s old clock reached midnight many people released balloons into the air, cheered and called out “happy new year.”

Crowds celebrate New Year in Wuhan

“I’m so so so incredibly happy,” said 20-year-old student and tourist Yang Wenxuan. “This is my first time in Wuhan. But it (the countdown) was so spectacular.”

“I hope that I can successfully obtain my bachelor degree and I hope I can find a boyfriend,” Yang added.

There was a heavy police presence and strict crowd control. Some security personnel were seen telling several of the few people without masks that they must put one on if they wished to stay. Still, the countdown appeared to proceed peacefully, in a relaxed atmosphere.

The festivities came 12 months after the World Health Organization (WHO) said it first received word of cases of a pneumonia of an unknown cause in Wuhan, which later became known as the world’s first outbreak of Covid-19.

A team of WHO experts is scheduled to arrive in China in January 2021 to investigate the origins of the pandemic.

Wuhan has been largely virus free for months, and in recent days it has been vaccinating some specific groups of the local population. But a recent small rise in cases in various Chinese cities, including Beijing, has reminded people in Wuhan that the pandemic is not over yet.

“I hope that in 2021 everything goes well in the country and Wuhan can return to normal and I hope that the world can soon defeat the pandemic,” said Wuhan resident Anson Yang.

A couple kiss as New Year approaches on December 31, 2020 in Wuhan.

The 25-year-old, who works in the international trade sector, said his earnings were hit hard in 2020 and he knows of many businesses in Wuhan who are yet to return to normal trading levels.

Several students yearned for an end to the pandemic so they could get on with in-person studies. One university student, however, drew some positive lessons from the fight against the pandemic.

“If we look at the measures people took, the things people did as part of the epidemic control and the like, a human or friendly touch, something that we would not normally see, was felt by everyone,” said 21-year-old Chen Mengfan.


World News

More than 2,000 attend illegal New Year’s party in France, despite coronavirus restrictions

By Benjamin Berteau, CNN

Ellen Britt for (CNT) City News And Talk 

Paris (CNN)More than 2,500 partygoers attended an illegal New Year’s rave in the region of Brittany in France, despite the government’s strict coronavirus restrictions and a national night-time curfew.

“In the early evening of December 31, several hundred vehicles began to converge on an industrial area in the town of Lieuron to set up a rave party,” the local authority said Friday.

According to a statement, local police attempted to shut down the rave, but “faced violent hostility.”

French gendarmes try to block the access to the party in Lieuron on January 1, 2021.

“A police vehicle was set on fire, three other vehicles were damaged, and soldiers were sprayed with bottles and stones, causing minor injuries,” the statement added.

Local authorities say the number of partygoers is “estimated at 2,500, coming from different French departments and from abroad.”

The public prosecutor’s office has since opened an investigation into the incident, which will be overseen by the local police department’s search brigade.

A national curfew from 8pm to 6am has been in place since December 15.


World News

US defense officials divided over potential for Iranian attack on eve of grim anniversary

By Jim Sciutto, Ryan Browne, Barbara Starr and Nicole Gaouette, CNN

Ellen Britt for (CNT) City News And Talk 


Washington (CNN)The US flew nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the Middle East Wednesday in the latest show of force meant to deter Iran, as defense officials remain divided over the risk posed by the regime and the Iraq-based militias it supports.

Pentagon officials say the military muscle-flexing is meant to warn Tehran off attacking American interests or personnel in the days surrounding the January 3 anniversary of the Trump administration’s assassination of the powerful Iranian leader Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

At the same time, acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller decided Wednesday against a push to extend the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz’s deployment to the Persian Gulf, sending it out of the region in an explicit de-escalation signal to Iran, according to a senior defense official.

The conflicting messages could reflect divisions within the Pentagon, where a second senior defense official tells CNN that the current threat level from Iran is the most concerning they have seen since Soleimani’s death. Officials cite new intelligence that Iran and allied militias in Iraq may be plotting attacks against US forces in the Middle East. For example, Iran has been moving short range ballistic missiles into Iraq, prompting the US to deploy additional military assets to the region.

Yet others in the Pentagon contend that the threat is being exaggerated, with the first senior defense official — who is directly involved in discussions — telling CNN that there is “not a single piece of corroborating intel” suggesting an attack by Iran may be imminent.

Asked about push back on the threat, another senior military official told CNN, “The intelligence isn’t perfect as you know, it never is, but we do see several planning efforts underway and if even some of them are true and they execute they could kill several Americans.”
This official went on to say that while nothing is 100%, there are some indications that the posture and messaging by the US has changed Iran’s calculus.

“It’s all very uncertain right now but we want the Iranians to know that they should not miscalculate and that we are not trying to provoke them and they should not provoke us,” the official said.

Military options

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif charged Thursday morning that the US was creating a pretext for war.

“Instead of fighting Covid in US, @realDonaldTrump & cohorts waste billions to fly B52s & send armadas to OUR region,” Zarif said in a tweet. “Intelligence from Iraq indicate plot to FABRICATE pretext for war. Iran doesn’t seek war but will OPENLY & DIRECTLY defend its people, security & vital interests.”

Later Thursday, Maj. Gen. Hossein Dehghan, the military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, addressed President Donald Trump directly in a tweet, warning him “not to turn the New Year into a mourning for Americans” following the flights.

Trump has fueled some of the uncertainty, reportedly asking in a mid-November meeting for military options he could use against Iran. He then threatened Iran after a December 21 attack on the US embassy in Baghdad that senior US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, attributed to Iraqi militias affiliated with Tehran.

“Our embassy in Baghdad got hit Sunday by several rockets,” Trump tweeted from aboard Air Force One after a December 23 White House meeting on Iranian threats. “Three rockets failed to launch. Guess where they were from: IRAN.”

Trump then offered “some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.”

A defense official tells CNN that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley “is paying extremely close attention to the situation. The military doesn’t believe an attack is imminent but is taking all precautions to ensure they deter Iran while protecting US forces.”

The B-52 flight was the second time this month the Pentagon has sent the nuclear-capable bombers to the region. It follows the Navy’s rare December 21 announcement that it had sent a nuclear-powered submarine through the Persian Gulf, accompanied by guided-missile cruisers.

US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said in a statement that Wednesday’s B-52 flight was meant “to underscore the US military’s commitment to regional security and demonstrate a unique ability to rapidly deploy overwhelming combat power on short notice.”

Before Miller called back the USS Nimitz, which had been due to leave the Gulf, CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie had been pushing to extend the warship’s deployment there, in what might have been the longest aircraft carrier deployment in many years, the first senior defense official told CNN.

This official expressed concern that some within the government are painting the situation with Iran as more dire than it actually is and are preoccupied with the potential for retaliatory attacks by Iran to mark the anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination.

After Soleimani was killed in Iraq by an American drone strike in January, Iran responded with a major missile attack on US military bases in the region.

Now, intelligence gathered by the US is indicating a “possibly imminent attack” by Iranian-backed militias on US forces in Iraq, although there is no certainty, a defense official tells CNN.

Nonetheless the concern is significant enough that additional protective measures for US troops have been taken, this official and a second defense official tell CNN. Both declined to specify the measures being taken.

Three US defense officials tell CNN that Iran has been moving additional weaponry into Iraq, including short range ballistic missiles, an arsenal that officials believe could be used to strike American targets.

The second senior military official said that the US has intelligence indicating that militia groups have been meeting with elements of Iran’s Quds Force, an expeditionary military force that Soleimani previously led, later adding that the US had evidence of militias planning for complex attacks in Iraq that would require Iranian assistance to be successful.

“There has been a number of troubling indications of advanced planning and preparation for attacks in Iraq that appear aimed at US military and US interests,” one US defense official said.

Officials stress that there are no plans or any preparations being taken for any offensive action directed at Iran and efforts to reinforce US troops in the region are about deterring attacks, not about conducting a preemptive strike.

This story has been updated with tweets from Maj. Gen. Hossein Dehghan and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and comments from a senior US military official.

CNN’s Jonny Hallam contributed to this report.