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Guatemala tries blocking caravan of 9,000 Honduran migrants

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Guatemalan soldiers blocked part of a caravan of as many as 9,000 Honduran migrants Saturday at a point not far from where they entered the country seeking to reach the U.S. border.
The soldiers, many wearing helmets and wielding shields and sticks, formed ranks across a highway in Chiquimula, near the Honduras border, to block the procession of migrants.
Guatemala’s immigration agency distributed a video showing a couple of hundred men scuffling with soldiers, pushing and running through their lines, even as troops held hundreds more back.
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei issued a statement calling on Honduran authorities “to contain the mass exit of its inhabitants.” On Friday, the migrants entered Guatemala by pushing past about 2,000 police and soldiers posted at the border; most entered without showing the negative coronavirus test that Guatemala requires.
“The government of Guatemala regrets this violation of national sovereignty and calls on the governments of Central America to take measures to avoid putting their inhabitants at risk amid the health emergency due to the pandemic,” Giammattei’s statement continued.
Guatemala has set up almost a dozen control points on highways, and may start busing more migrants back to Honduras, as it has done before, arguing they pose a risk to themselves and others by travelling during the coronavirus pandemic.
Governments throughout the region have made it clear they will not let the caravan through.
Mexico continued to drill thousands of National Guard members and immigration agents on its southern border, in a show of force meant to to discourage the caravan from crossing into Mexico.
On Friday night, two groups of more than 3,000 Honduran migrants each pushed their way into Guatemala without registering, part of a larger migrant caravan that had left the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula before dawn. A third group entered Guatemala Saturday.
The Honduran migrants are trying to cross Guatemala to reach Mexico, driven by deepening poverty and the hope of a warmer reception if they can reach the United States border. However, several previous attempts at forming caravans have been broken up by Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
On Friday, the migrants set out at about 4 a.m. from San Pedro Sula, young men and entire families carrying sleeping children. Some quickly caught rides while others walked along the highway escorted by police.
Mainor Garcia, a 19-year-old laborer from San Pedro Sula, carried a purple knapsack as he walked along the highway early Friday. He said he was scared about the journey, but willing to run the risk. “(Hurricanes) Eta and Iota destroyed all of our homes,” he said.
“There’s no choice” but to leave, said 25-year-old Oscar Zaldivar, a driver from Cofradia. “You have to leave here, this country because we’re going to die here.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement Friday that “The combination of COVID-19, social exclusion, violence and climate-related disasters that occur at the same time with a magnitude seldom seen before in Central America raises new humanitarian challenges.”
The migrants leave with little certainty about how far they will make it. Regional governments have recently appeared more united than ever in stopping their progress.
Francisco Garduño Yáñez, head of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, said in a statement Friday that his country has “to guarantee our national territory” and called for “an orderly, safe and legal migration with respect for human rights and with humanitarian policies.”
On Wednesday, the 11-nation Regional Conference on Migration “expressed concern over the exposure of irregular migrants to situations of high risk to their health and their lives, primarily during the health emergency.”
On Thursday, Mexican officials said they had discussed migration with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and discussed a possible program for the development of northern Central America and southern Mexico “in response to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic and the recent hurricanes in the region.”

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Mexico publishes heavily edited probe of exonerated general

MEXICO CITY (AP) — One day after Mexico angered U.S. officials by publishing an entire 751-page U.S. case file against former Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos, the Mexican prosecutors who exonerated him released their own version — but with so many pages wholly blacked out it was almost impossible to tell what they’d found.
The report released Sunday by the Mexican Attorney General’s Office included a 226-page stretch with every page blacked out, followed shortly thereafter by a 275-page stretch of blacked-out pages.
In the few sections with less redacting, all names and images were blacked out.
The officials appeared to be struggling to control the damage to the reputation of the justice system after prosecutors took just five days to completely absolve retired Gen. Cienfuegos of U.S. allegations, backed by years of investigation, that he aided drug traffickers in return for bribes.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Saturday dismissed the U.S. case as “fabricated” and his government released the documentation U.S. prosecutors sent when they released Cienfuegos as a diplomatic concession to Mexico and sent him to face investigation at home.
The U.S. Department of Justice said releasing the full report of evidence violated a legal assistance treaty and called into question whether the U.S. can continue to share information.
That further embittered security relations strained by the Mexican government’s decision to restrict U.S. agents and remove their immunity even after Cienfuegos was returned home rather than facing trial in the U.S.
The president said that while many Mexicans see U.S. courts as “the good judges, flawless … in this case, with all respect, those that did this investigation did not act with professionalism.”
In the newly released Mexican report, what little was visible appeared to have involved asking the army to investigate whether the accusations were credible, and relying on what Cienfuegos officially declared in income.
For example, one of the few legible documents is a report by an army communications officer (name redacted) saying that no Army BlackBerries had been officially assigned to Cienfuegos or anyone else.
The 751-page file that U.S. authorities shared with Mexico consists largely of intercepted BlackBerry messenger exchanges between since-slain traffickers describing dealings with a person they identify as Cienfuegos, often referring to him by the nickname “The Godfather.”
López Obrador has leaned heavily on the military for a wide range of projects well beyond security and his government apparently reacted to military outrage at Cienfuegos’ arrest, complaining they had not been briefed adequately on the case by U.S. officials beforehand.
Cienfuegos was arrested in Los Angeles in October, but the U.S. government dropped its charges against him in November after Mexican officials threatened to restrict U.S. agents.
The released U.S. documents include purported intercepted text messages between the leader of the H-2 cartel based in the Pacific coast state of Nayarit and a top aide, who allegedly served as go-between with the general.
In one exchange, Daniel Silva Garate told his boss, Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez, that he’d been picked up by men with short, military-style haircuts and was taken to Defense Department headquarters in Mexico City for a meeting with “The Godfather.”
Silva-Garate tells his boss the “The Godfather” told him “Now we are going to do big things with you … that what you have done is small-time.”
Patrón Sanchez says he wants unmolested routes to ship drugs from Colombia and Silva Garate texts back, “He says that as long as he is here, you will be free … that they will never carry out strong operations,” or raids.
Silva Garate tells his boss the “The Godfather” told him that, “You can sleep peacefully, no operation will touch you.”
Other exchanges describe The Godfather purportedly offering to arrange a boat to help transport drugs, introducing the traffickers to other officials and acknowledging helping other traffickers in the past.

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In cold weather, anti-Netanyahu protests continue in Israel

JERUSALEM (AP) — Hundreds of protesters braved a cold night in Jerusalem on Saturday to press on with their calls for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step down over corruption charges against him.
Demonstrators gathered at a Jerusalem square near Netanyahu’s official residence.
The weekly protests have been taking place for over seven months.
Netanyahu is charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three cases involving billionaire associates and media moguls, charges that he denies.
The protesters insist Netanyahu cannot properly lead the country while under indictment for corruption.
His trial is set to begin evidentiary hearings next month.
Israel will hold its fourth national elections in two years in March, in what will likely be another referendum on Netanyahu as he faces a challenge from defectors within his Likud party.
The protesters also say Netanyahu and his government have bungled the coronavirus response.
The country has seen its economy hit hard by virus restrictions throughout the year and is again under a nationwide if partial lockdown amid surging infection rates.
Netanyahu and his allies have used Israel’s vaccination drive, in which more than a tenth of its population has been immunized, to try to belittle the protesters and their cause. They say the prime minister is working to end the outbreak while they hold demonstrations.

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Indonesian teams find more bodies, clear roads after quake

MAMUJU, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesian rescuers on Sunday retrieved more bodies from the rubble of homes and buildings toppled by a strong earthquake, raising the death toll to 77, while military engineers managed to reopen ruptured roads to clear access for relief goods.
More heavy equipment reached the hardest-hit city of Mamuju and the neighboring district of Majene on Sulawesi island, where the magnitude 6.2 quake struck early Friday, said Raditya Jati, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency’s spokesperson.
A total of 68 people died in Mamuju and nine in the neighboring district of Majene, said the director of the National Search and Rescue Agency, Didi Hamzar.
Power supplies and phone communications have begun to improve in the area.
Thousands of people were left homeless and more than 800 were injured, with more than half of them still receiving treatment for serious injuries, Jati said.
The disaster agency’s data showed that nearly 27,850 survivors were moved to shelters. Most of them went to makeshift shelters that have been lashed by heavy monsoon downpours. Only a few were lucky to be protected by tarpaulin-covered tents.
They said they were running low on food, blankets and other aid, as emergency supplies were rushed to the hard-hit region.
“We are unable to return to our destroyed homes,” said a father of three who identified himself only as Robert. He said he fled from his bed while being treated at Mamuju’s Mitra Manakarra hospital, which was flattened by the quake. He and his family are among thousands of displaced people who took shelter in a hilly area.
He said his bed was shaking when he awoke and realized that it was an earthquake. He then removed a drip from his hand and ran out. He had seen several nurses helping patients who were unable to move before the building collapsed.
“I cried when I saw the hospital where I was being treated collapse with people still inside. I could have died if I got out late,” he said.
Rescuers managed to retrieve four survivors and four bodies from the rubble of the flattened hospital, according to the Search and Rescue Agency.
Jati said that at least 1,150 houses in Majene were damaged and that the agency was still collecting data on damaged houses and buildings in Mamuju.
Mamuju, the provincial capital of nearly 300,000 people, was strewn with debris from collapsed buildings. The governor’s office building was almost flattened by the quake and a shopping mall was reduced to a crumpled hulk.
The disaster agency said the army corps of engineers cleared the road connecting Mamuju and Majene that was blocked by landslides. They also rebuilt a damaged bridge.
Many on Sulawesi island are still haunted by a magnitude 7.5 earthquake that devastated Palu city in 2018 and set off a tsunami that caused soil to collapse in a phenomenon called liquefaction. More than 4,000 people were killed, including many who were buried when whole neighborhoods were swallowed in the falling ground.
Indonesia, home to more than 260 million people, is frequently hit by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis because of its location on the “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin.
A massive magnitude 9.1 earthquake off Sumatra island in western Indonesia in December 2004 triggered a tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries.

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Uganda’s opposition rejects Museveni’s reelection as ‘fraud’

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — A day after Uganda’s longtime leader was declared winner of the country’s presidential election, the opposition party dismissed the results as “fraud” and called for the release of their leader, Bobi Wine, who has been under house arrest for several days.
President Yoweri Museveni won a sixth five-year term, extending his rule to four decades, according to official results announced Saturday.
Top opposition challenger Wine dismissed Museveni’s victory as “cooked-up, fraudulent results” while his party urged the government to release the challenger.
“We ask Ugandans to reject this fraud,” the opposition party, the National Unity Platform, said in a statement Sunday. “This is a revolution and not an event. A revolution of this nature cannot be stopped by a fraudulent election.”
The opposition party said that its “quest for a free Uganda is on despite the current attack on free speech and association,” referring the days-long shutdown of the internet by the government. The party urged its followers to use every “constitutionally available avenue” to pursue political change.
Wine tweeted Sunday that military units are not allowing him and his wife, Barbie, from leaving their house, not even to harvest food from their garden.
“It’s now four days since the military surrounded our home and placed my wife and I under house arrest,” said Wine’s tweet. “We have run out of food supplies and when my wife tried to pick food from the garden yesterday, she was blocked and assaulted by the soldiers staged in our compound.”
The electoral commission said that Museveni received 58% of the vote to Wine’s 34%, with a voter turnout of 52%.
Although Museveni stays in power, at least nine of his Cabinet ministers, including the vice president, were defeated in the parliamentary elections, many losing to candidates from Wine’s party, local media reported.
Officials struggled to explain how polling results were compiled amid an internet blackout.
In a generational clash watched across the African continent with a booming young population and a host of aging leaders, the 38-year-old singer-turned-lawmaker Wine posed arguably the greatest challenge yet to Museveni, 76, since he came to power in 1986.
Calling himself the “ghetto president,” Wine had strong support in Uganda’s cities, urban where frustration with unemployment and corruption is high.
Museveni dismissed the claims of vote-rigging.
“I think this may turn out to be the most cheating-free election since 1962,” when Uganda won independence from Britain, said Museveni in a national address on Saturday.
The electoral commission deflected questions about how countrywide voting results were transmitted during the internet blackout by saying “we designed our own system.”
“We did not receive any orders from above during this election,” commission chair Simon Byabakama told reporters, adding his team was “neither intimidated nor threatened.”
Tracking the vote was further complicated by the arrests of independent monitors and the denial of accreditation to most members of the U.S. observer mission, leading the U.S. to cancel its monitoring of the vote.
“Uganda’s electoral process has been fundamentally flawed,” the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Tibor Nagy, tweeted, warning that “the U.S. response hinges on what the Ugandan government does now.”
The U.S. State Department urged “independent, credible, impartial, and thorough investigations” into reports of irregularities. It condemned “the continuing attacks on political candidates” and called for the immediate restoration of the internet and social media.
“We reiterate our intention to pursue action against those responsible for the undermining of democracy and human rights in Uganda,” it said.

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Austria extends lockdown to Feb. 7, toughens some measures

BERLIN (AP) — The Austrian government is extending the country’s lockdown until Feb. 7 in a drive to push down still-high infection figures as officials worry about the possible impact of new coronavirus variants.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said Sunday that some measures will also be tightened as a result of the more infectious variants that were first detected in Britain and South Africa. He said people will now be asked to stay 2 meters (61/2 feet) apart instead of 1 meter.
Beginning on Jan. 25, they will also be required to wear full protective masks on public transport and in shops, rather than just fabric face coverings. People on low incomes will get such masks free, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said.
Austria’s current lockdown, its third, started on Dec. 26 and was to end on Jan. 24. Kurz said Austria is keen to avoid a situation such as that in Britain and Ireland, where infections have risen sharply and rapidly as new variants take hold. So far, Austria has over 150 suspected infections with the British variant, Anschober said.
Kurz said Austria needs to get as close as it can to, and preferably below, an infection level of 50 new cases per 100,000 residents over 7 days. The figure now stands at 131.
“Our aim is to approach this figure … by Feb. 8 and start the first steps toward opening on Feb. 8,” with schools, nonessential shops, museums and services such as hairdressers reopening, Kurz told a news conference in Vienna.
But Kurz made clear that restaurants and hotels will have to wait longer.
“We have to assume at present that, at least in February, it will not be possible to open tourism and catering,” he said, adding that a decision will be made in mid-February.
Austria, a nation of 8.9 million, has confirmed nearly 390,000 cases and seen 6,964 deaths related to COVID-19.

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Uganda opposition leader Bobi Wine says military enters home

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Ugandan opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine said Friday the military had entered and “taken control” of his home and “we are in serious trouble.”
He tweeted the news just hours after he alleged that Thursday’s election was rigged and said “every legal option is on the table” to challenge the official results, including peaceful protests. He referred to himself as the “president-elect.”
“None of these military intruders is talking to us. We are in serious trouble. We are under siege,” tweeted Wine, who was arrested several times during campaigning but never charged while dozens of party members were detained. He earlier said he feared for his life.
The government cut internet access in the East African country on the eve of the largely peaceful election day, and it remains off.
Uganda’s electoral commission said longtime President Yoweri Museveni leads Wine and other candidates based on results from roughly half of polling stations, receiving 62% of ballots while Wine had 29%. It said final results will be declared Saturday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, Wine, a popular singer-turned-lawmaker half the president’s age, alleged to reporters that “whatever is being declared is a total sham.” At the time, there was a heavy police presence near his home.
The electoral commission said the burden is on Wine to prove his allegations. Wine said he would provide evidence of pre-ticked ballots and other irregularities once internet access in Uganda is restored.
“We secured a comfortable victory,” Wine said. “I am very confident that we defeated the dictator by far.” He was considering “peaceful and nonviolent protests” over the declared results and said “every legal option is on the table.” Candidates can challenge election results at the Supreme Court.
The election’s generational clash between the young singer-turned-lawmaker Wine and the 76-year-old president is widely watched in many African countries where booming youthful populations express frustration with longtime leaders amid the stresses of high unemployment and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Observers have reported problems monitoring the vote, including obtaining accreditation. Charity Ahimbisibwe, the team leader at the leading Uganda-based election observer group, said Friday she had been arrested while meeting with a journalist in a hotel in the capital, Kampala. She said she was taken to a police station where she was yet to be informed of the charges.
The electoral commission asserted that the internet shutdown will have no effect on the process. Meanwhile, Ugandans reported trouble as the internet shutdown disrupted mobile money payments.
Elections results were not announced by district, challenging attempts to track the vote.
Museveni has led Uganda since 1986 and still has support among some in Uganda for bringing stability. A longtime U.S. security ally, he once criticized African leaders who refused to step aside but has since overseen the removal of term limits and an age limit on the presidency.

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Mexico president accuses DEA of fabricating general’s case

MEXICO CITY (AP) — One day after Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office announced it was dropping the drug trafficking case against its former defense secretary, Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Friday that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had “fabricated” the accusations against retired Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos.
López Obrador suggested that there could have been political motivations behind U.S. authorities’ arrest of Cienfuegos at Los Angeles International Airport in October, noting that the investigation had been ongoing for years, but the arrest came shortly before U.S. presidential elections.
The president said that Mexican prosecutors had dropped the case because the evidence shared by the United States had no value to prove he committed any crime.
“Why did they do the investigation like that?” López Obrador said. “Without support, without proof?”
The president said the evidence shared by the U.S. against Cienfuegos would be made public, because the people should see and it had been a strike against Mexico’s prestige.
In a statement Thursday night, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office went beyond just announcing they were closing the case. Its statement cleared the general entirely.
“The conclusion was reached that General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda never had any meeting with the criminal organization investigated by American authorities, and that he also never had any communication with them, nor did he carry out acts to protect or help those individuals,” the office said in a statement.
It said Cienfuegos had not been found to have any illicit or abnormal income, nor was any evidence found “that he had issued any order to favor the criminal group in question.”
A seven-year investigation by the U.S. authorities was completely disproved by Cienfuegos within five days of having the U.S. evidence shown to him, the statement said.
All charges were dropped and Cienfuegos, who was never placed under arrest after he was returned by U.S. officials, is no longer under investigation.
Gladys McCormick, an associate professor in history at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, said the only surprise was that Mexico didn’t make a better show of looking into Cienfuegos.
“One would think that they would have at least followed through on some semblance of an investigation, even if it was just to put some window dressing on the illusion that the rule of law exists,” McCormick said. “From the Mexican side, this signals the deep-seated control the military as an institution has on power. It also shows that the level of complicity at play in this case.”
López Obrador has given the military more responsibility and power than any president in recent history, relying on them to build massive infrastructure projects and most recently to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine, in addition to their expanded security responsibilities.
Cienfuegos was arrested in Los Angeles in October, after he was secretly indicted by a federal grand jury in New York in 2019. He was accused of conspiring with the H-2 cartel in Mexico to smuggle thousands of kilos of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana while he was defense secretary from 2012 to 2018.
Prosecutors said intercepted messages showed that Cienfuegos accepted bribes in exchange for ensuring the military did not take action against the cartel and that operations were initiated against its rivals. He was also accused of introducing cartel leaders to other corrupt Mexican officials.
Under the pressure of Mexico’s implicit threats to restrict or expel U.S. agents, U.S. prosecutors dropped their case so Cienfuegos could be returned to Mexico and investigated under Mexican law.
Acting U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme told a judge at the time, “The United States determined that the broader interest in maintaining that relationship in a cooperative way outweighed the department’s interest and the public’s interest in pursuing this particular case.”
Even though the U.S. yielded on Cienfuegos, Mexico’s Congress a few weeks later passed a law that will restrict U.S. agents in Mexico and remove their diplomatic immunity.
Mike Vigil, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s former chief of international operations, said clearing Cienfuegos “could be the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as U.S.-Mexico cooperation in counter-drug activities.”
“It was preordained that Mexican justice would not move forward with prosecuting General Cienfuegos,” Vigil said. “It will greatly stain the integrity of its judicial system and despite the political rhetoric of wanting to eliminate corruption, such is obviously not the case. The rule of law has been significantly violated.”

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China builds new quarantine center as virus cases rise

BEIJING (AP) — A city in northern China is building a 3,000-unit quarantine facility to deal with an anticipated overflow of patients as COVID-19 cases rise ahead of the annual Lunar New Year travel rush.
State media on Friday showed crews leveling earth, pouring concrete and assembling prefabricated rooms in farmland in an outlying part of Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei province, which has seen the bulk of the new cases.
That recalled scenes from early last year, when China rapidly built field hospitals and turned gymnasiums into isolation centers to cope with a then-spiraling outbreak in Wuhan, where the virus was first detected in late 2019.
The spike in northern China comes as a World Health Organization team prepares to collect data on the origin of the pandemic in Wuhan, which lies to the south. The international team, most of which arrived Thursday, must undergo two weeks of quarantine before it can begin field visits.
Two of the 15 members were held up in Singapore over their health status. One, a British national, was approved for travel Friday after testing negative for the coronavirus, while the second, a Sudanese citizen from Qatar, again tested positive, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.
China has largely contained domestic spread of the virus, but the recent spike has raised concern due to the proximity to the capital, Beijing, and the impending rush of people planning to travel large distances to rejoin their families for the Lunar New Year, the country’s most important traditional festival.
The National Health Commission said Friday that 1,001 patients were under care for the disease, 26 in serious condition. It said 144 new cases were recorded over the past 24 hours. Hebei accounted for 90 of the new cases, while Heilongjiang province farther north reported 43.
Local transmissions also occurred in the southern Guangxi region and the northern province of Shaanxi, illustrating the virus’s ability to move through the vast country of 1.4 billion people despite quarantines, travel restrictions and electronic monitoring.
To date, China has reported 87,988 confirmed cases with 4,635 deaths.
Shijiazhuang has been placed under virtual lockdown, along with the Hebei cities of Xingtai and Langfang, parts of Beijing and other cities in the northeast. That has cut off travel routes, while more than 20 million people have been told to stay home for the coming days.
China is pushing ahead with inoculations using Chinese-developed vaccines, with more than 9 million people already vaccinated and plans for 50 million to have shots by the middle of next month.
About 4,000 doses are delivered daily to the Chaoyang Planning Art Museum, one of more than 240 sites across Beijing where the first of two doses was being given Friday to high-risk groups, including medical, delivery and transportation workers.
The vaccine, produced by a Beijing subsidiary of state-owned Sinopharm, is the first approved for general use in China.
“Being vaccinated is not only to protect myself but also to protect people around me,” Ding Jianguang, a social worker who received her first shot earlier this month, told foreign journalists on a government-organized visit to the site.
Former World Health Organization official Keiji Fukuda, who is not part of the team in Wuhan, cautioned against expectations of any breakthroughs from the visit, saying that it may take years before any firm conclusions can be made on the virus’s origin.
“China is going to want to come out avoiding blame, perhaps shifting the narrative. They want to come across as being competent and transparent,” he told The Associated Press in a video interview from Hong Kong.
For its part, WHO wants to project the image that it is “taking, exerting leadership, taking and doing things in a timely way,” he said.
Scientists suspect the virus that has killed more than 1.9 million people globally since late 2019 jumped to humans from bats or other animals, possibly in southwest China.
China approved the World Health Organization visit only after months of diplomatic wrangling that prompted an unusual public complaint by the head of WHO.
The delay, along with the ruling Communist Party’s tight control of information and promotion of theories the pandemic began elsewhere, added to speculation that China is seeking to prevent discoveries that chisel away at its self-proclaimed status as a leader in the battle against the virus.
In Wuhan, street life appeared little different from other Chinese cities where the virus has been largely brought under control. Senior citizens gathered to drink and dance in a riverside park Friday, and residents had praise overall for the government’s response to the crisis.
In other countries, “people go out arbitrarily, and they hang out and gather together, so it’s especially easy for them to be infected,” Xiang Nan said. “I hope they can stay home, and reduce traveling. … Don’t let the pandemic spread further anymore.”

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AP Interview: Netanyahu challenger pledges change with Biden

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top challenger in upcoming elections is promising a tough line toward Iran and the Palestinians, yet expressed confidence he has the tools to avoid what appears to be a collision course with the incoming Biden administration.
In an interview, Gideon Saar voiced harsh criticism of Netanyahu, accusing the prime minister of turning the ruling Likud party into a “cult of personality” as he faces a corruption trial. While welcoming President Donald Trump’s affinity for Israel, he acknowledged that Netanyahu’s close ties with the divisive U.S. president had alienated many Democrats and vowed to restore traditional bipartisan support for Israel.
“I think I am in a better position than the prime minister to have an effective and true dialogue with President-elect (Joe) Biden and his administration,” he told The Associated Press.
That could be critical given the deep differences between Israel and Biden, who plans to return to the Iranian nuclear deal and adopt a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Saar, who defected from Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party last month, shares the prime minister’s hard-line nationalistic ideology. He is a strong proponent of West Bank settlements, rejects the idea of a construction freeze and favors the eventual annexation of the settlements. He said he would never agree to an independent Palestinian state that includes the removal of settlements.
“I oppose a Palestinian state in the heart of our homeland,” he said. “I think it will not bring peace and it will undermine stability and security in the region.”
These positions will put him at odds with Biden, who — like many of his predecessors — opposes settlement construction and favors a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. Saar seems to be counting on his reputation as a bridge builder to massage the inevitable disagreements likely to arise.
His demeanor and style are starkly different from Netanyahu’s. While Netanyahu is a firebrand orator, Saar, a lawyer by training, speaks methodically, often pausing to find the right word. Where Netanyahu has gained a reputation for an extravagant lifestyle, Saar conducted Thursday’s interview in the book-lined living room of his high-rise apartment in an upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood. With four children living at home, he lamented the challenges, including Zoom lessons, of raising a blended family during the pandemic.
Saar, 54, entered Israeli politics in 1999 as Cabinet secretary during Netanyahu’s first term. He held key senior Cabinet posts after Netanyahu returned to power in 2009.
But as with many other fast-rising Likud figures, he eventually had a falling out with Netanyahu. Saar took a break from politics in 2014 to spend time with his new wife, TV anchor Geula Even, and their children.
He returned in 2019 but never seemed to repair his ties with Netanyahu. Later that year, Netanyahu trounced him in a party leadership vote, confining Saar to the backbenches.
Since bolting Likud and launching his “New Hope” party last month, Saar has made no secret that their battle is personal. In his inaugural speech, he accused Netanyahu of creating a “cult of personality” — a term he repeated Thursday to describe those who blindly support Netanyahu’s claims that his corruption trial is a conspiracy.
Saar said a key moment for him came last May, when Netanyahu arrived at the courthouse for the opening of his trial joined by a group of Likud ministers and lawmakers. The group stood silently behind Netanyahu as he accused the media and justice system of trying to topple him.
“A cult of personality is when the most important thing in order to be advanced in a political system is to flatter and serve the personal interests of its leader,” Saar said. He said that while Netanyahu has the right to fight the charges against him, his claims of a grand conspiracy are “absolute nonsense.”
Netanyahu’s tactics have drawn comparisons to Trump, who showered his Israeli counterpart with diplomatic gifts, ranging from the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital to brokering normalization agreements between Israel and four Arab countries.
Saar said he had great respect for Trump’s contributions to Israel and did not want to wade into U.S. politics. But in an apparent reference to the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol, he said: “I cannot identify with talk that delegitimized the democratic electoral process and its results.”
Saar is among the legions of critics who believe that Israel is being dragged into its fourth election in just two years due to Netanyahu’s legal troubles and divisive personality. It is widely believed that Netanyahu is seeking a coalition of allies willing to grant him immunity from prosecution.
Saar, emerging as Netanyahu’s biggest challenger in the March 23 election, appears poised to prevent that. Opinion polls project New Hope will become the second-largest party in parliament, smaller than Likud but with enough seats to prevent Netanyahu from assembling a majority.
That has made Saar the unofficial leader of a diverse group of “anyone but Bibi” parties that refuse to serve under Netanyahu, who is widely known by his nickname. Netanyahu says his opponents are motivated by sour grapes and little more than shared animosity toward him.
Saar believes he can find enough common ground to form an alternative coalition. In a reflection of his political savvy and ability to work with rivals, he coordinated a surprise late-night parliamentary maneuver last month that caused the coalition to collapse.
Saar described himself as pragmatic. He said, for example, he welcomed Netanyahu’s agreement to shelve a plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank as part of last year’s agreement establishing diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates. He said he would respect that pledge if elected.
If elected, Saar’s first big test with the Biden administration is likely to be the Iranian nuclear issue.
In 2015, Netanyahu famously delivered a speech to Congress to lobby against the Iran deal as then-President Barack Obama was wrapping it up. Netanyahu was a driving force in Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal, one of Obama’s signature achievements. His confrontation with Obama remains a sore point with many Democrats.
Saar said he respected Netanyahu’s campaign, but that times have changed and a new approach will be needed to make sure the nuclear deal is not revived in its original form. He said he would seek a mutually respectful dialogue to ensure that Iran never develops a nuclear bomb.
“I will have to deal with the political reality of 2021,” he said. “I will do it much better than anyone else.”