Categories
International Headlines

US ambassador in Moscow heads home for consultations

MOSCOW (AP) — The U.S. ambassador to Russia said Tuesday he will head home for consultations — a move that comes after the Kremlin prodded him to take a break as Washington and Moscow traded sanctions.
The Kremlin emphasized that it couldn’t order Ambassador John Sullivan to leave for consultations and could only “recommend” that he do so amid the current tensions.
Sullivan said in a statement that he is returning to the United States this week to discuss U.S.-Russian ties with members of President Joe Biden’s administration. He emphasized that he would come back to Moscow within weeks.
“I believe it is important for me to speak directly with my new colleagues in the Biden administration in Washington about the current state of bilateral relations between the United States and Russia,” Sullivan said in a statement issued by the embassy. “Also, I have not seen my family in well over a year, and that is another important reason for me to return home for a visit.”
Sullivan’s departure comes after Russia on Friday stopped short of asking Sullivan to leave the country but said it “suggested” that he follows the example of the Russian ambassador to the U.S., who was recalled from Washington last month after President Joe Biden described Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “killer.” Russia has set no time frame for Ambassador Anatoly Antonov’s return to Washington.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the ambassadors’ departures reflect current tensions in the relationship between the United States and Russia.
“The relations now have hit the bottom,” Peskov said. “There are certain consequences of the unfriendly measures taken against our country and the retaliatory measures taken by us.”
On Thursday, the Biden administration announced sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and for involvement in the SolarWind hack of federal agencies — activities Moscow has denied. The U.S. ordered 10 Russian diplomats expelled, targeted dozens of companies and people and imposed new curbs on Russia’s ability to borrow money.
Russia denounced the U.S. move as “absolutely unfriendly and unprovoked” and retaliated by ordering 10 U.S. diplomats to leave, blacklisting eight current and former U.S. officials and tightening requirements for the U.S. Embassy operations.
While ordering the sanctions, Biden also called for de-escalating tensions and held the door open for cooperation with Russia in certain areas.
Biden emphasized that he told Putin that he chose not to impose tougher sanctions for now and proposed to meet in a third country in the summer. Russia said it was studying the offer.
“I will return to Moscow in the coming weeks before any meeting between Presidents Biden and Putin,” Sullivan said in Tuesday’s statement.
On Monday, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had a call with Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian presidential Security Council, to discuss the prospect of a U.S.-Russian summit and they “agreed to continue to stay in touch,” according to a statement from U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne.
Peskov noted the Sullivan-Patrushev call, adding Tuesday that “if it becomes expedient, the ambassadors will come back and resume their duties.”
“As for the Russian ambassador, the president of Russia will decide when such expediency comes,” Peskov said during a conference call with reporters.
He said, “Russia certainly can’t order” the U.S. ambassador to return home for consultations but can recommend that he do so.
John Sullivan is a rarity in the U.S. diplomatic corps: a non-career Trump administration political ambassadorial appointee whom Biden has asked to stay on.
His return to Washington for consultations comes not only at a moment of soaring tensions with Moscow over the new sanctions and Russia’s troop buildup along the Ukraine border, but as the Biden administration is gradually assembling its Russia policy team.
Just last week, the Senate confirmed Wendy Sherman to Sullivan’s previous job as deputy secretary of state, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote on Wednesday on the nomination of Victoria Nuland, a Russia hawk and expert on the country, to the State Department’s number 3 position, undersecretary of state for political affairs.
Sherman, who played a leading role in U.S. negotiations with North Korea during the Clinton administration and with Iran during the Obama administration, and Nuland, who as assistant secretary of state for European Affairs, incurred Moscow’s wrath during the 2014 Maidan uprising in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, are both expected to be heavily involved in formulating strategies for dealing with Russia. In addition, Biden has nominated a former senior National Security Council official, Karen Donfried, to Nuland’s old post running European affairs at the State Department.
All three women will be primary points of contact for Sullivan in Moscow and he has yet to meet any of them in person in his current position.
While the new U.S. sanctions further limited Russia’s ability to borrow money by banning U.S. financial institutions from buying Russian government bonds directly from state institutions, they didn’t target the secondary market. The Biden administration held the door open for more hard-hitting moves if need be.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that “we are in the very beginning of analyzing the situation” regarding Biden’s summit proposal and no specifics have been discussed yet. “A big question is what course the U.S. will take,” Ryabkov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.
Fyodor Lukyanov, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy expert, said while the Kremlin’s advice to Sullivan to leave for consultations stopped short of expulsion, it reflected Moscow’s dismay about the new sanctions.
“If the political contacts have been reduced to zero, and economic ties never were close enough, why have so many people in the embassies?” Lukyanov said in a commentary. He predicted that ties will continue to deteriorate despite Biden’s offer to hold a summit.
“During the past Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States at least shared a certain mutual respect and a recognition of each other’s political legitimacy, and it’s no longer the case,” Lukyanov observed.
“Each party sees the other as heading toward decay and lacking the moral and political right to behave as it does,” he said.

Categories
International Headlines

Russia’s feared prisons follow system from Soviet Gulag era

MOSCOW (AP) — Some Russian prisons might be mistaken for vacation destinations based on their nicknames, with animal appellations that include the Black Dolphin and the Polar Owl. But a hunger strike by jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny cast a spotlight on the fear and torment that critics say are the signatures of Russia’s prison system.
Amid reports about his declining health, Navalny was transferred Sunday from a penal colony known for its particularly strict treatment of inmates to a hospital unit in another prison.
Russia’s penal institutions house nearly 520,000 inmates, by far the largest number in Europe though a slightly smaller proportion of the general population than prisoners represent in Turkey. Most of the country’s prisons are collective colonies, a system dating back to the Soviet Gulag era, with inmates sleeping in dormitories and working in production facilities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin “is satisfied with such prisons….He wants to have a frightening instrument in his hands. You need to have a place where everyone is afraid to go,” Olga Romanova, head of the prisoners’ rights group Rus Sidyashchaya (Russia Behind Bars), said.
In the penal colony where Navalny had been held since March, metal bunk beds stand in long rows in a room with aqua-painted walls that resembles a low-budget backpackers’ hostel, according to a report from Russia’s state-funded RT television. RT correspondent Maria Butina, who served 18 months in the United States for a conviction of being a foreign agent, claimed the prison was “more like a Scout camp” and far better than what she experienced in a U.S. federal prison.
Konstantin Kotov, who spent time in the penal colony 85 kilometers (53 miles) east of Moscow while serving an 18-month sentence for participating in an unauthorized protest, said RT’s portrayal is accurate but superficial. The prison officially is called IK-2 — IK being the acronym for Ispravitelnaya Koloniya or Corrective Colony — and hasn’t been given a nickname.
“As to living conditions, they are normal in principle….Everything is on a pretty good level – renovated facilities, more-or-less decent food – but that’s it in terms of positive things,” Kotov told The Associated Press.
Medical care is slow and inadequate, he said, recalling that he had to wait two months to see a doctor about a rash that prison medics said was an allergy but turned out to be scabies, a mite infection.
Kotov said the only up-to-date medical equipment he saw in the prison was an X-ray machine used to examine inmates for tuberculosis. The disease is a persistent problem in Russian prisons, although the current infection rate of about 500 per 100,000 prisoners is far lower than the 3-in-10 infection rate of the 1990s, according to epidemiologist Olga Vinokurova of People’s Friendship University.
Navalny began his hunger strike on March 31 to protest what he said was poor medical care for severe back pain and loss of feeling in his extremities and to demand the authorities allow a visit by his personal doctor.
Other hunger strikers in Russian prisons have attracted wide international concern. Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov lasted 145 days, taking only glucose and vitamins, before abandoning his strike under the threat of forced feeding.
Kotov said the guards at the prison appear eager to harass inmates by finding niggling procedural violations, such as failing to greet an officer or using gloves during an outdoor roll call in cold weather.
“What’s most important about these reprimands is that they use them to strip you of a chance to get parole. So you fail to greet an officer and will stay behind bars to the end of your term,” he said.
Dmitry Demushkin, a Russian nationalist leader who also served time in the penal colony, said the physical demands could be excruciating.
“Much worse than beatings is the detention regime. You either stand for six to eight hours a day or you sit with your back straight, legs together, arms on your knees and nothing can be done,” Demushkin told RT in a program that aired about two years before its broadcast about Navalny’s prison conditions.
“For any action, for example, if you want to scratch your nose, you have to get permission from the ‘activists,'” he said, using the term that prisoners apply to inmates who cooperate with the guards and report on fellow prisoners’ behavior.
Occasionally, images leak of inmates living a much different, even lavish, sort of life. A year ago, photos emerged appearing to show Zaur Dadayev, who was convicted of the 2015 assassination of leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, sitting along with other prisoners at a long table laden with food. Prison authorities promised to open a probe but never reported the findings.
Neither Kotov nor Demushkin reported being beaten, but beatings and torture of inmates are common in other prisons.
While the colony in the town of Pokrov is an example of so-called “red” prisons where regulations are meticulously observed and authorities watch over inmates’ every step, violence reportedly is widespread in “black” prisons where inmates set their own rules and authorities look the other way.
Human rights groups periodically release videos showing prisoners getting beaten and tortured. In February, independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported on videos from a penal colony that it said showed beatings in 2016-2017, including of one inmate who died a month later.
The beatings took place at the same prison that figured in a 2018 case that led to the convictions of 13 prison guards who beat an inmate as he lay facedown on a table. The guards received sentences of three or four years, and the prison’s director and deputy were acquitted.
In the most-severe prisons, such as the Black Dolphin, routine procedures appear to come close to actions that are considered unacceptable torture under international human rights laws. Video from Russian television shows prisoners shoved down corridors while blindfolded, forced to bent over with hands cuffed behind them and their arms raised high.
Romanova, the prisoner rights activist, said she thinks the cruelty stems from the kind of people who gravitate to work in the penal system.
“People go to work there according to the leftover principle — when they no longer can be taken anywhere else. And they themselves often live the same way as prisoners,” she said by email. “They are so used to it and do not understand that it is possible to be otherwise.”

Categories
International Headlines

Egypt fires top railway official after deadly train crashes

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s transportation minister on Tuesday said he sacked the country’s top railway official, following three train accidents in less than a month that left at least 29 people dead and some 320 injured.
The firing of Asharf Raslan, head of the railway authority, was part of a wide ranging overhaul of the rundown railway system’s leadership amid public outcry over repeated train crashes.
Raslan, who headed the railway authority since July 2018, was replaced Mustafa Abuel-Makarm, the office of Transportation Minister Kamal el-Wazir said in a statement.
The changes included the main departments of the railway authority that manages train traffic in the Arab world’s most populous country.
The overhaul was designed to “inject a number of competent professionals” amid efforts to upgrade the poorly-maintained network.
The changes came after a passenger train derailed Sunday north of Cairo, killing at least 11 people and injuring at least 98 others. That followed another train crash in the Nile Delta province of Sharqia last week that left 15 people wounded.
After Sunday’s crash, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi announced the establishment of an official commission to investigate its causes. Prosecutors also launched their own probe.
On March 25, two passenger trains collided in the southern province of Sohag, killing at least 18 people and injuring 200 others, including children. Prosecutors blamed gross negligence by railway employees for that crash.
The country’s railway system, one of the world’s oldest, has a history of badly maintained equipment and poor management.
The government says it has launched a broad renovation and modernization initiative, buying train cars and other equipment from European and U.S. manufacturers to automate the system and develop a domestic railcar industry.
El-Sissi said in March 2018 that the government needs about 250 billion Egyptian pounds, or $14.1 billion, to overhaul the run-down rail system.
Hundreds of train accidents are reported every year. In February 2019 an unmanned locomotive slammed into a barrier inside Cairo’s main Ramses railway station, causing a huge explosion and a fire that killed at least 25 people. That crash prompted the then-transportation minister to resign.
In August 2017, two passenger trains collided just outside the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, killing 43 people. In 2016, at least 51 people were killed when two commuter trains collided near Cairo.
Egypt’s deadliest train crash was in 2002, when over 300 people were killed after a fire broke out in an overnight train traveling from Cairo to southern Egypt.

Categories
International Headlines

1st woman applies to run for Syria’s presidential elections

BEIRUT (AP) — A woman from the capital Damascus has applied to run for Syria’s presidential elections, the parliament speaker said Tuesday, becoming the first female to make a bid for the country’s top job in a largely symbolic vote certain to be won by President Bashar Assad.
The presidential election, the second since the country’s civil war broke out 10 years ago, is to be held May 26. Syrians abroad will vote on May 20.
Speaker Hammoud Sabbagh said Faten Ali Nahar, a 50-year-old resident of Damascus, has nominated herself for the post. Little is known about Nahar. The parliament speaker provided her age, place birth and her mother’s name in the announcement. There were no reports on who she is on social media.
Two other candidates have submitted their names, including a businessman who applied to run against Assad in 2014. Then Assad won nearly 90% of the votes.
While Assad has not yet applied, he is widely expected to run for a fourth seven-year term. He has held power since 2000, when he took over after the death of his father who ran the country for 30 years.
Syria only allowed multi-candidate votes in the last elections in 2014, where competition with Assad was symbolic and seen by opposition and Western countries as a sham aimed to give the incumbent president a veneer of legitimacy.
The international community is unlikely to recognize the legitimacy of the upcoming elections. According to the UN resolution for a political resolution of the conflict in Syria, a new constitution is supposed to be drafted, approved in a public referendum before a U.N.-monitored presidential elections are to take place. But little progress has been made on the drafting committee while Assad continues to have the backing of Russia and Iran.
Last month, the Biden administration said it will not recognize the result of its presidential election unless the voting is free, fair, supervised by the United Nations and represents all of Syrian society.
Syria has been in the throes of civil war since 2011, when Arab Spring-inspired protests against the Assad family rule turned into an armed insurgence in response to a brutal military crackdown.

Categories
International Headlines

Laschet wins battle to lead Merkel’s bloc in German election

BERLIN (AP) — Armin Laschet, the governor of Germany’s most populous state, emerged victorious Tuesday from a bruising power struggle and became the candidate of Angela Merkel’s center-right bloc to succeed the longtime chancellor in the country’s September election.
Laschet, 60, now faces another big battle: to connect with voters and win over frustrated fellow conservatives who backed his more popular rival, Markus Soeder.
Their Union bloc was the last major political force to nominate a candidate for chancellor in the Sept. 26 parliamentary election. Merkel isn’t seeking a fifth term after nearly 16 years in power.
The race turned into a heated duel after both Laschet, the leader of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, and Soeder, who leads its smaller Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, declared their interest in succeeding Merkel.
“The die is cast: Armin Laschet will be the chancellor candidate of the Union,” Soeder said Tuesday, conceding after the CDU leadership backed Laschet in a late-night vote. “Only a united Union can be successful,” he added.
“We will support him without a grudge, with all our strength,” he told reporters in Munich.
Parts of the CDU strongly favored Soeder, while others vehemently opposed his bid to elbow Laschet aside for the top job. Soeder has much better poll ratings, but Laschet was elected in January to lead by far the bigger of the sister parties. It was primarily a conflict of personality and style rather than policy.
Laschet is the governor of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Soeder is the governor of Bavaria.
Early last week, Laschet informally rallied the CDU leadership behind his bid. But Soeder said the matter shouldn’t be resolved “only in a small back room.”
After days of talks failed to produce a solution but laid bare deep divisions in the CDU, Soeder said Monday that the bigger party must decide the matter and he would respect a “clear decision.”
At a turbulent CDU leadership meeting, 31 of its members voted for Laschet, nine for Soeder and six abstained, news agency dpa reported. That prompted Soeder to concede.
The Union bloc campaigns together in federal elections and has a joint parliamentary group in Berlin. The CSU exists only in Bavaria, while the CDU runs in Germany’s other 15 states.
The Union leads polls ahead of the environmentalist Greens, who on Monday nominated Annalena Baerbock as their first candidate to be chancellor. The struggling center-left Social Democrats nominated Finance Minister Olaf Scholz as their candidate months ago.
Laschet, a miner’s son from Aachen, a city on Germany’s border with Belgium and the Netherlands, served as a member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2005.
He was elected in 2017 as governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, a traditional center-left stronghold.
Supporters frequently point to that victory when asked about his poor poll ratings — along with his success in the race to lead Merkel’s party, in which he beat conservative favorite Friedrich Merz.
They also emphasize his conciliatory nature. Laschet governs his home region in a coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats, the CDU’s traditional ally, but likely could work smoothly with a partner further to the left. Current polls suggest the Greens could hold the key to forming the next government, even if Baerbock doesn’t win the chancellery.
Still, Laschet hasn’t had a honeymoon as CDU leader. In recent weeks, he drew criticism for appearing to dither over how to manage a resurgence in coronavirus cases, while Soeder has cultivated an image as a decisive backer of tough action. Last month, the CDU lost two state elections.
National polls have shown the Union giving up gains it made on the strength of Merkel’s management of the early stages of the pandemic. There has been discontent with a slow start to Germany’s vaccination campaign and a scandal over some Union lawmakers’ alleged profiteering from mask-procurement deals last year.

Categories
National News

A jab on the job: Companies, unions offer COVID-19 vaccines

Marie Watson wanted to be among the first in line when she and other essential workers became eligible for the coronavirus vaccine — and with good reason.
The maintenance parts buyer for a Mission Foods tortilla plant in Pueblo, Colorado, had lost her father to COVID-19 in the fall and was told by a doctor last year that she herself almost certainly had the virus.
So when her union, the United Food Workers and Commercial Workers, secured appointments for the plant’s 200 workers, she jumped in her car and drove to a nearby drive-thru clinic for the first of two doses.
“There was this sense of relief,” Watson said. “This was more confirmation that I’m on my way to being normal.”
A growing number of labor unions and companies are securing shots for their employees as eligibility widens. Some large companies such as Amazon are offering workplace vaccinations through licensed health care providers, while smaller outfits are booking appointments for workers at outside locations.
For employers, the vaccines are a critical step toward restoring normalcy at a time when they expect a spike in demand for their services as more people get inoculated. They are also betting that employees who did not initially trust the vaccine will have a change of heart when they see co-workers receiving it.
For workers, employer assistance with the vaccine eliminates hurdles, including transportation issues or maneuvering through a patchwork of websites to find appointments. That access could help to narrow the racial and socioeconomic gaps that have opened in the country’s vaccination drive.
While many essential workers have spent weeks trying to get time slots, Watson got her shot days after Colorado extended eligibility to food workers.
Iliana de la Vega, owner of the Mexican restaurant El Naranjo in Austin, Texas, said she secured appointments for all 12 of her employees out of gratitude that they stuck with her through shutdown orders and capacity restrictions that ate into their pay.
Some workers hesitated at first but were quickly persuaded with the promise of a day off, De la Vega said.
“A couple of them said, ‘We are not sure.’ I said, ‘That’s not an option. Take it or leave it. Who knows when you will be able to get it again?'” de la Vega said.
Despite the growing number of companies offering on-site vaccinations, there are signs that some may have lost interest. In March, when vaccine eligibility was widening and distribution efforts improving in the U.S., a survey by the consulting firm Gartner found 30% of companies planned to bring vaccines to their employees. That was down from 42% in January, when distribution was still spotty and obtaining appointments was still extremely difficult for most people.
“The speed of the rollout has exceeded their expectations so companies are realizing they can take a back seat,” said Brian Kropp, chief of research at Gartner’s human resources practice.
Vaccinating employees is also less urgent for a growing number of companies that are adopting permanent remote-work policies, Kropp said. While nearly two-thirds of companies plan to reopen their workplaces by the end of this year, the majority say they will allow many employees to keep working from home at least some days, according to Gartner, which surveyed 300 companies.
Nonetheless, prominent companies continue to join the list of those offering on-site vaccinations.
Ford Motor Co. and the United Auto Workers opened up on-site vaccinations Monday in Michigan, Kansas and Ohio. In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine had initially put a stop to workplace clinics out of concern they would tie up supply, but he allowed them to resume last week as demand dropped at the state’s mass vaccination sites.
Amazon launched its long-anticipated on-site vaccinations last month in Kansas, Missouri and Nevada. Warehouse and other front-line workers can sign up for shots at kiosks or through Amazon’s employee app.
Yogurt maker Chobani, which employs 2,200 people in the U.S., partnered with a local pharmacy to vaccinate hundreds of its employees at its Twin Falls, Idaho, plant, according to the company’s chief People and Culture Officer Grace Zuncic.
American Airlines, Subaru, chicken producer Mountaire Farms, and agricultural equipment maker Vermeer are among 40 companies that brought vaccines to their employees through partnerships with Premise Health, a direct health care provider. American Airlines is administering vaccines at airports in Chicago, Charlotte, Tulsa and Dallas-Fort Worth, according to the company.
At least 25,000 people have been vaccinated through the partnerships, said Premise President Jami Doucette. He expects that number to climb into the millions.
Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest food companies, said it has vaccinated nearly 40,000 employees — nearly one-third of its workforce — at vaccination events in 16 states. Tyson also expanded its on-site event last week to include eligible family members of employees.
Bob Reinhard, who is leading Tyson’s vaccination effort, said a minority of employees have refused to get vaccinated while some others are interested but want more information and don’t want to go first.
“That secondary group is now coming around,” Reinhard said.
Employer-organized vaccination events, along with incentives such as bonuses or paid time off, allow companies to keep track of how many employees get vaccinated. Employer are legally allowed to require the vaccine, but the vast majority have shied away from doing so; some say it doesn’t make sense to do so until everyone is eligible and there is sufficient supply.
Still, the idea is gaining some traction. While Gartner’s March survey showed just 8% of companies planned to require employees to show proof of vaccinations, that number was up from 2% in January.
Chobani, which says it has avoided outbreaks at its plants and has seen few positive cases among employees, has not ruled out requiring the vaccines, Zuncic said. The company plans to assess how many of its workers have been vaccinated by midyear.
“It’s a discussion that continues,” Zuncic said. “We want to get a pulse and sense of how far along we are.”

Categories
National News

Coast Guard: Search for missing crew to be suspended

CUT OFF, La. (AP) — The U.S. Coast Guard said it will suspend the search for crew members who disappeared when a lift boat capsized off Louisiana last week at sunset Monday, and authorities do not expect to find more survivors from the vessel.
The grim news from Capt. Will Watson, commander of the Coast Guard Sector New Orleans, comes after days of searching for the missing workers from the oil industry lift boat Seacor Power, which capsized Tuesday during a fierce storm in the Gulf of Mexico about eight miles (13 kilometers) south of Port Fourchon. Six of the 19 workers on the boat were rescued within hours of the wreck; five more bodies were found in the water or on board the vessel in the days since then. Eight remain missing.
Watson said officials had just come from briefing the families on the news.
“There was a lot of hugging and a lot of crying. There was a lot of sadness and grief,” he said.
The president of the Seacor Marine, which owns the boat, said during the news conference that divers from a company they have contracted with will continue to search the entire vessel. John Gellert said they are about halfway through the vessel as of midday Monday. Gellert also said that divers from a company Seacor contracts with were on the scene four hours after the ship capsized.
“We are steadfast in our efforts to return those who remain missing,” Gellert said. But he added that efforts will depend on the weather, not just on the surface but below the surface. “The currents are currently very strong. That will determine diving windows. When we are able to dive we will dive continuously.”
Families who have been waiting for days for any news of their loved ones were already preparing for the worst earlier Monday. Arlana Saddler, the youngest sister of missing worker Gregory Walcott, told the AP earlier that she was trying to be realistic about her brother’s chances of survival.
“I’m being real. This is the seventh day, and even if they made it through the boat turning over and all that, there’s no food, no water. You’re talking seven days,” she said.
Many families have been questioning why the ship was out in such stormy seas. Gellert said while there were warnings of bad weather, what the boat actually encountered when it was offshore was significantly worse than expected.
“There were warnings. There were not warnings on the magnitude of which we encountered,” he said. “The weather they were forecasted to encounter was well within the limits of the vessel. The weather that they encountered was well beyond the forecast, as far as we know, at this time.”
Gellert said the decision on whether to go or not was entirely up to the captain, but he emphasized that the captain had the company’s full support. The captain, David Ledet, 63, was among the dead.
“He was one of our best captains. He was very prudent and conservative,” he said.
The coroner’s office has identified the other four people whose bodies have been recovered: Anthony Hartford, 53, of New Orleans; James Wallingsford, 55, of Gilbert, Louisiana; Ernest Williams, 69, of Arnaudville; and Lawrence J. Warren, 36, of Terrytown, Louisiana.
The Seacor Power is a lift boat. Such vessels have three legs that can be lowered to the sea floor to raise the ship off the water to serve as a temporary offshore platform. The boats are often used in the offshore oil industry. When they are traveling the legs stick straight up in the air.
Gellert said it appeared the legs were full retracted — meaning all the way up and a position he described as its “most vulnerable” — at the beginning of the voyage but there are indications that the captain was trying to lower the legs when the ship capsized.
“As far as we can make out there was about five feet of leg that was retracted from the hull, which leads us to believe the captain was starting, trying to jack down,” said Gellert. He said it takes about a minute to move the legs down five feet. The ship capsized in about 50 to 55 feet of water.
Late Sunday, officials told family members that they had recovered another body — the fifth since the operation began. The coroner on Monday identified the body as that of Lawrence J. Warren, 36, of Terrytown, Louisiana. Frank Boeckl was Warren’s uncle. He choked up while lovingly talking about his nephew “Larry,” but said he was glad that he had been found and that the family’s ordeal was over.
“We just feel so blessed that we are able to take him home, and we hope for the rest of the families that they are able to take their loved ones home, too,” he said. “We’re going to be able to take him home, and that’s it. I just really pray for all the other families.”
Andrew Ehlers, marine accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board that is investigating, estimated that it could be as long as two years before an official determination is made of what happened. He said they will be looking at three main areas: people involved in the case both on the ship and on land, the ship and equipment, and the weather.
Investigators are asking for anyone with information about the ship, people who might have served on it before and have photos or videos of it, or people who were out on the water that day to reach out.

Categories
National News

Winners of $20M contest make concrete to trap carbon dioxide

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Organizers of a $20 million contest to develop products from greenhouse gas that flows from power plants announced two winners Monday ahead of launching a similar but much bigger competition backed by Elon Musk.
Both winners made concrete that trapped carbon dioxide, keeping it out of the atmosphere, where it can contribute to climate change. Production of cement, concrete’s key ingredient, accounts for 7% of global emissions of the greenhouse gas, said Marcius Extavour, XPRIZE vice president of climate and energy.
“So it’s not surprising that the winning teams focused on reducing emissions associated with concrete, which will be a game-changer for global decarbonization,” he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Musk, the electric car and space entrepreneur, has pledged $100 million for researchers who can show how to trap huge volumes of carbon dioxide straight from the atmosphere and store the gas permanently. That competition will kick off Thursday, which is Earth Day.
“We want teams that will build real systems that can make a measurable impact and scale to a gigaton level. Whatever it takes. Time is of the essence,” Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, said in February.
Both contests are organized by XPRIZE, which encourages new technology by putting up prize money for demonstrating achievements. Most famously, Mojave Aerospace Ventures won a $10 million XPRIZE in 2004 by being first to fly a privately funded, reusable rocket plane into space multiple times.
The $20 million prize announced Monday had two parts: One at a coal-fired power plant in Wyoming and the other at a gas-fired power plant in Alberta, Canada. The contest focused on using carbon dioxide nabbed from the plants’ smokestacks, and the winners showed they can trap the emissions in cement, making stronger concrete in some cases.
The winner at the Wyoming plant, Los Angeles-based CarbonBuilt, used carbon dioxide to cure concrete, trapping it in a process that also emitted less of the greenhouse gas compared with traditional cement production, according to XPRIZE.
The winner in Alberta was CarbonCure Technologies, based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, which showed it can inject carbon dioxide into water used to wash out cement trucks and mixers at a cement plant, resulting in a mix that makes stronger concrete, according to XPRIZE.
The two winners will split $15 million. Ten finalists split the other $5 million in 2018.
The U.S. portion of the contest took place at the Wyoming Integrated Test Center, a facility at a coal-fired power plant near the city of Gillette that hosts research into ways to trap and use carbon dioxide in real-world scenarios.
Gov. Mark Gordon has often touted the research center as an example of Wyoming’s interest in finding solutions to climate change — potentially preserving the state’s declining coal industry in the process.
U.S. coal production has declined by half over the last 15 years or so as utilities get more electricity from renewables and cheaper natural gas. About 40% of U.S. coal comes from Wyoming, more than any other state by far.
The state covered three-quarters of the $20 million cost of the Wyoming Integrated Test Center, which opened in 2018.
“Managing carbon, there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all,” said Jason Begger, the center’s managing director. “A cement plant might not make a lot of sense at a power plant in Wyoming, but it might make a heck of a lot of sense in Japan.”
Wyoming officials have expressed interest in participating in the Musk-funded XPRIZE contest but hasn’t heard back from him, Gordon spokesman Michael Pearlman said.

Categories
National News

Oregon gun storage law would be among the toughest in the US

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A proposed gun storage law that would be among the toughest in the U.S. is headed for a vote in the Oregon Legislature, with backers saying it will save lives and opponents contending it could lead to deaths.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, a less sweeping gun storage bill was signed into law Monday by Gov. Jared Polis., who said: “It’s a sensible measure to help avoid immeasurable heartbreak.”
Colorado’s new law creates the offense of unlawful storage of a firearm if a person stores a gun knowing that a juvenile could access it without permission or if a resident of the premises is ineligible to possess a firearm.
Oregon’s bill generated testimony from hundreds of people, mostly in writing because there wasn’t enough time to take all the oral testimony.
A vote in Oregon’s House of Representatives on the bill, initially scheduled for Monday, was pushed back by a week to enable Democratic representatives to work with the Senate “to guarantee the bill is on track to pass and be enacted,” said Hannah Kurowski, spokeswoman for the majority House Democrats.
Among those testifying was Paul Kemp, whose brother-in-law Steve Forsyth was killed with a stolen gun in a mass shooting at a Portland-area shopping mall in 2012.
“I will never forget the screams I heard when we had to tell my teenage nephew that his father had been killed at the mall,” Kemp said.
But opponents say forcing people to keep guns locked up could waste precious moments if they need to defend themselves against armed intruders.
Jim Mischel, of Sheridan, Oregon, described how his wife woke up when he was away one night in 1981. She heard a noise, went to investigate and saw that a man had broken into their home.
She returned to the bedroom and tried to get to a pistol that was in a locked gun box in the nightstand.
“She was unable to get the box unlocked and the pistol out before he got into the bedroom and threatened her with his gun,” Mischel said. “She has never recovered.”
The debate in Oregon over guns mirrors similar discussions being held nationwide, with little movement on gun control even as the number of mass shootings climbs again as the nation eases coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
Massachusetts is the only state that requires that all unattended firearms be stored with locking devices in place, according to the Giffords gun safety advocacy group. Penalties for violations can range from imprisonment to thousands of dollars in fines.
States that have passed laws requiring some level of firearms safe storage include California, Connecticut and New York, said Allison Anderman, senior counsel at Giffords.
Similar bills this session have failed in Illinois, Kentucky, Montana, New Mexico and Virginia, Anderman said.
Oregon’s bill mandates that gun owners secure unattended weapons with trigger locks or in locked compartments. Those who don’t would be strictly liable for any injuries or property damage. If a minor gets ahold of an unsecured firearm, the gun’s owner would face a maximum $2,000 fine.
Tensions are running high as the Oregon Legislature considers this and other gun bills, even leading to death threats.
Recently, six Republican state senators stayed for a vote on a different firearms bill, instead of doing a walkout in what has become a tactic for them to prevent a vote from taking place. That bill would ban guns from the Capitol and other state buildings and allow local jurisdictions to decide whether people with a concealed handgun license can bring guns into public buildings.
They voted “nay” on the bill instead of joining a GOP boycott to deny a quorum. All six GOP senators who stayed got threatening emails. They have been turned over to the Oregon State Police for investigation
“You should be shot,” said one of the emails.
Advocates for the gun storage bill have said it would reduce suicides. Anderman said putting anything between a person’s impulse to take their own life and a gun could give the person a moment to reconsider.
Elizabeth Klein testified in favor of the bill “on behalf of my deceased brother,” who killed himself with a gun.
“My family is devastated by my brother’s gun suicide. It always seems preventable to me,” Klein wrote.
Safe storage could also reduce school shootings. Minors who commit those attacks often obtain the gun from their home or the home of a relative or friend.
Opponents have said the bill is an infringement on the constitutional right to bear arms.
“As usual, the Second Amendment is under attack because attacking it is a perennial favorite with Democrats and has been for years,” said James Purvine of Eugene, Oregon, who testified in writing to the House Committee on Health Care about the bill.

Categories
International Headlines

Afghanistan withdrawal draws concerns over abducted American

WASHINGTON (AP) — As the U.S. moves to withdraw its military from Afghanistan over the next five months, concerns are growing about one American who risks being left behind.
Mark Frerichs, a contractor from Lombard, Illinois, believed held for more than a year by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, was not mentioned in President Joe Biden’s address on Afghanistan last week. Nor was the troop withdrawal, scheduled to be complete by Sept. 11, conditioned on his release from custody, fueling concerns that the U.S. could lose bargaining power to get Frerichs home once its military presence is removed from the country.
“Any leverage that we had, we’ve just now announced to the world and to the Taliban and the Haqqanis that we’re going to pull out. Not only is it our leverage, it’s our military capability to rescue him,” Rep. Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican and Green Beret who served in Afghanistan, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “So it’s just utterly disheartening.”
The Biden administration has said it regards the return of hostages to be a top priority. Despite this, the fate of a single captive is unlikely to sway the broader policy interest in ending a 20-year war that began in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It’s not uncommon for detainee issues to be eclipsed by other foreign policy matters, as appeared to happen last week when the administration didn’t mention Russia’s detention of two Americans, even as it announced reasons for taking punitive action against Moscow.
Even so, for Frerichs’ family, the failure to make his return a factor in the withdrawal is a source of frustration, as is the fact that the Trump administration signed a peace deal in February 2020, just weeks after Frerichs vanished in Afghanistan while working on engineering projects in the country.
His sister, Charlene Cakora, said in a statement that the military withdrawal “puts a time stamp on Mark. We have 150 days to get him home or our leverage is gone.”
Frerichs’ home-state senators, Democrats Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, had raised similar concerns in a letter earlier this year to Biden.
In an interview Monday, Duckworth said she’s been reassured by the administration that Frerichs has been part of the discussions and that officials are aware of his case. She said she spoke privately with Biden himself last Thursday, handing him a note with information about the case.
“He said he was very well aware and he asked me to also let the family know that he was aware and was on top of it,” Duckworth said.
The U.S. has not disclosed much about Frerichs’ fate or status but confirmed Monday that it was in active negotiations with the Taliban.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, working closely with Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, “has continued to press the Taliban for Mr. Frerichs’ release, and continues to raise his status in senior level engagements in Doha and Islamabad. We place a high priority on Mark Frerichs’ safety and will not stop working until he is safely returned to his family.”
The AP reported in January that the Taliban during the Trump administration had sought the release of a combatant imprisoned on drug charges in the U.S. as part of a broader effort to resolve issues with Afghanistan. The request prompted dialogue between the State Department and the Justice Department about whether such a release could happen, though it ultimately did not.
Duckworth, who has spoken about the case with Khalilzad, said the Taliban remained “insistent” on that release and not moved off that condition.
The announced withdrawal from Afghanistan was one of two significant foreign policy moves announced by Biden last week. The other involved sanctions on Russia for election interference and for the hack of federal government agencies.
The White House did not use that opportunity to call out Moscow for what U.S. officials say is the unjust detention of at least two Americans: Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges, and Trevor Reed, a Marine veteran who was convicted in an altercation with police in Russia and sentenced to nine years.
Whelan’s brother, David, said in a statement that he was hopeful for rapprochement between Moscow and Washington but also concerned that the tit-for-tat actions — Russia responded to the U.S. sanctions with its own diplomatic sanctions — may have made that more challenging.
“First, the sanctions continue to make it difficult for the two nations to create the relationship and dialogue necessary to create conditions that might lead to Paul’s release,” Whelan wrote. “Second, the winnowing of US Embassy staff in Russia will make the difficult work of consular support even harder.”