S. Korea reports 1st virus death; 2.5M urged to stay home

By KIM TONG-HYUNG and HYUNG-JIN KIM Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea reported its first death from the new virus on Thursday while the mayor of a southeastern city urged its 2.5 million people to stay inside as infections linked to a church congregation spiked.
The death was the ninth confirmed from the virus outside mainland China. Other deaths have occurred in France, Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the South Korean man, believed to be about 63 years old, died at a hospital on Wednesday and posthumously tested positive for the virus. Officials said he had been hospitalized due to schizophrenia for an extended period and recently suffered pneumonia symptoms.
The center also confirmed 22 additional cases of the virus, raising the total in South Korea to 104.
Twenty-one of those new cases were in and around the city of Daegu, where the mayor urged citizens earlier Thursday to stay home and wear masks even indoors if possible.
In a televised news conference, Mayor Kwon Young-jin expressed fears that rising infections in the region will soon overwhelm the city’s health system and called for urgent help from the central government.
“National quarantine efforts that are currently focused on blocking the inflow of the virus (from China) and stemming its spread are inadequate for preventing the illness from circulating in local communities,” Kwon said.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 49 of 73 new patients confirmed in the city’s region in the past two days went to services at a Daegu church attended by a previously confirmed virus patient or contacted her elsewhere. That patient is a South Korean woman in her early 60s who has no recent record of overseas travel, according to center officials. She tested positive for the virus on Tuesday.
The center’s director, Jung Eun-kyeong, told reporters that it’s still unclear whether she was a “super spreader” of the disease or merely the first patient detected in the area. Jung said officials were screening some 1,000 people who attended services at the Shincheonji Church of Jesus with the woman on Feb. 9 and Feb. 16 and were placing them under home isolation.
The church, which claims about 200,000 followers in South Korea, said it has closed all of its 74 sanctuaries around the nation and told followers to instead watch its worship services on YouTube. It said in a statement that health officials were disinfecting its church in Daegu and were tracing the woman’s contacts. The Daegu church has about 8,000 followers.
It said church officials have advised followers since late January to stay at home if they had recently traveled overseas or were experiencing even mild cold-like symptoms. But the woman assumed she had a common cold and kept coming to the church because she hadn’t traveled overseas, church officials said.
“We think it’s deeply regrettable … for causing concerns to the local community,” the statement said.
Shincheonji, which translates as “New heaven and new Earth,” is a controversial new religious movement established in 1984 by Lee Man-hee. The church describes him as an angel of Jesus sent to testify about the fulfilled prophecies of the Book of Revelation.
The explosion of infections in Daegu and the neighboring region, as well as some new cases in the Seoul metropolitan area where the sources of infection are unclear, have raised concern that health authorities are losing track of the virus as it spreads more broadly in the country.
Kwon spoke shortly before South Korea’s government acknowledged for the first time that the country was beginning to see “community transmission” of the illness, albeit at a “limited range.”
“We are seeing infections in some areas like Seoul and Daegu where it’s difficult to confirm the cause or routes of the infections,” Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said, adding that the government would need to change its quarantine strategy that has focused on tracing contacts.
In a telephone conversation with Kwon later Thursday, President Moon Jae-in said the central government will provide all available assistance to help Daegu fight the virus, according to the presidential Blue House.

PM says Australians ‘devastated’ by domestic violence attack

SYDNEY (AP) — Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Thursday that Australians were “shocked, saddened and devastated” by the deaths of five people including three children after a car fire in apparent domestic violence.
Hannah Baxter, 31, and her children Aaliyah, 6, Lainah, 4, and Trey, 3, died after their car was set alight on a street in suburban Brisbane on Wednesday morning.
Baxter’s estranged husband and the children’s father, Rowan Baxter, allegedly doused his family with gas before setting the car alight.
The 42-year-old, a former player with the New Zealand Warriors in Australia’s National Rugby League football competition, was found dead near the scene, reportedly after stabbing himself.
“Australians all over the country are just shocked, saddened and devastated about what has happened in a suburban street … where Hannah and her three children were so senselessly and maddeningly murdered in what has occurred in a terrible act of violence,” Morrison told reporters.
Angela Lynch, CEO of the Women’s Legal Service in Queensland state, of which Brisbane is the capital, called for an overhaul of Australia’s family court system.
“Domestic violence services are under pressure everywhere,” she told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
She said that women were seeking assistance more than ever and “we should have the systems there, appropriate systems to be able to respond to them.”
Carolyn Robinson, from the Beyond DV (domestic violence) organization, said the domestic welfare sector had been shocked by the incident. “Everyone’s shocked, I mean in the DV sector, we all work with each other, we all support each other,” Robinson told reporters.
“I did speak with several people yesterday, we’re just all in shock. It couldn’t have been predicted. I hope it never happens again,” she said.
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This story has correct the spelling of Robinson’s given name from Caroline to Carolyn.

9 killed in suspected far-right attack in Germany

By DAVID McHUGH and FRANK JORDANS Associated Press
HANAU, Germany (AP) — A 43-year-old German man shot and killed nine people at several locations in a Frankfurt suburb in attacks that appeared to have been motivated by far-right beliefs, officials said Thursday.
The gunman first attacked a hookah bar and a neighboring cafe in central Hanau at about 10 p.m. Wednesday, killing several people, before heading about 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) west and opening fire again, first on a car and then a sports bar, claiming more victims.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said that while the circumstances of the attack still needed to be fully investigated, the shootings exposed the “poison” of racism in German society. Merkel pledged to stand up against those who seek to divide the country.
“There is much to indicate that the perpetrator acted out of far-right extremist, racist motives. Out of hatred for people with other origins, other faiths or a different appearance,” the German leader said.
Hookah lounges are places where people gather to smoke flavored tobacco from Middle Eastern water pipes, and some of the victims appeared to be Turkish.
Witness Kadir Kose ran over from a cafe he runs nearby after he heard the first shots, initially assuming there was an altercation between family members.
“But when I heard the second shots I thought it was a terror attack,” Kose said.
He said he was shocked at the extent of the violence, saying that while fights or stabbing aren’t unheard of, “this is a whole other level, something we hear about from America.”
Witnesses and surveillance videos of the suspect’s getaway car led authorities quickly to his home, near the scene of the second attack, where he was found dead near the body of his 72-year-old mother, said Peter Beuth, the interior minister for the state of Hesse.
Neighbor Dieter Hog said he looked out his window and saw 25 or 30 police officers with dogs combing the area.
“They were running around looking for the fugitive who was involved,” Hog told The Associated Press, adding that even though he lived close by he did not know the suspect.
Both the suspect and his mother had gunshot wounds, and the weapon was found on the suspect, Beuth said.
At the townhouse Thursday, forensic experts came and went from the building, and police kept people away.
A website believed to be the suspect’s is being evaluated, Beuth said.
“Initial analysis of the web page of the suspect indicate a xenophobic motivation,” he said. It does not appear, however, that the suspect was known either to police or Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, he added.
He said federal prosecutors have taken over the investigation of the crime and are treating it as an act of domestic terrorism.
“This is an attack on our free and peaceful society,” he said.
Following a conference call with Germany’s state interior ministers, Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann said on the basis of the investigation so far, “it was a right-radical xenophobic” attack, German news agency dpa reported.
The attack was quickly and broadly condemned by many organizations, including the Central Council of Muslims, the Confederation of Kurdish Associations in Germany, and the Central Council of Jews.
Merkel pledged that “everything will be done to investigate the circumstances of these terrible murders.”
In unusually plain words, the German leader said: “Racism is a poison. Hatred is a poison.”
“This poison exists in our society and its is responsible for far too many crimes,” she added, citing the killings committed by a far-right gang known as the NSU, the fatal shooting last year of a regional politician from her party, and the attack on a synagogue in Halle in October.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the consulate in Frankfurt and the embassy in Berlin were trying to obtain obtain information about the attack, including the possibility that some of the victims were Turkish.
“According to the initial information, it was an attack with a racist motive, but we would need to wait for the (official) statement,” he told state television TRT.
German news agency dpa reported that police are examining a video the suspect may have posted online several days earlier in which he details a conspiracy theory about child abuse in the United States. The authenticity of the video couldn’t immediately be verified.
In the video, the dark-haired speaker wearing a white button-down shirt under a suit jacket, said he was delivering a “personal message to all Americans” that “your country is under control of invisible secret societies.”
In a slow and deliberate voice, in accented English, he says there are “deep underground military bases” in which “they abuse, torture and kill little children.”
He makes no reference to the far-right fringe QAnon movement in the U.S., but the missive is similar to the movement’s central, but baseless belief that U.S. President Donald Trump is waging a secret campaign against enemies in the “deep state” and a child sex trafficking ring run by satanic pedophiles and cannibals.
On a website registered by someone with the same name as the man in the video, Tobias R., the owner says he was born in Hanau in 1977 and grew up in the city, later training with a bank and completing a business degree in 2007.
The attack comes amid growing concerns about far-right violence in Germany.
Merkel called off a planned visit Thursday to a university in Halle. Her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said she was “being constantly kept abreast of the state of the investigations in Hanau.”
Halle was the site of a deadly anti-Semitic attack last year. A man expressing anti-Jewish views tried to shoot his way into a synagogue, failed and killed two passers-by before being arrested.
The shooting in Halle came months after the killing of Walter Luebcke, the regional politician from Merkel’s party. The suspect had a long history of neo-Nazi activity and convictions for violent crime.
“Thoughts this morning are with the people of Hanau, in whose midst this terrible crime was committed,” Seibert said on Twitter. “Deep sympathy for the affected families, who are grieving for their dead. We hope with those wounded that they will soon recover.”
In addition to those killed, Beuth said one person was seriously wounded and multiple other people suffered less serious injuries.
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted it was a day of “immense sadness” and pledged his “full support for Germany.”
“I’m at the side of Chancellor Merkel in her fight for our values and the protection of our democracies,” he said.
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Geir Moulson and David Rising in Berlin, Michael Probst and Christoph Noelting in Hanau, and Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report. Jordans reported from Berlin.

New Chinese virus cases decline, but method revised again

By KEN MORITSUGU Associated Press
BEIJING (AP) — New virus cases in China have again declined, up just 394, after authorities on Thursday again changed how they count new daily infections. They are now discounting cases that came back negative after laboratory tests.
Another 114 people reportedly died from the new illness, COVID-19, as health inspectors went door-to-door to attempt to find every infected person in the worst-hit city of Wuhan.
Japan’s health ministry said two former passengers of a virus-stricken cruise ship died, raising the number of deaths in Japan to three. The Diamond Princess has by far the most cases outside China with 621 passengers and crew testing positive.
Mainland China has reported 2,118 deaths and 74,576 total cases. While the overall spread of the virus has been slowing, the situation remains severe in Hubei province and its capital, Wuhan, where the new coronavirus was first detected in December. More than 80% of the country’s cases are in Hubei and 95% of the deaths, according to data from China’s National Health Commission.
The new daily figure is a notable drop from the 1,749 cases recorded the previous day. The commission said 279 cases were deducted from the daily report after nucleic acid tests showed negative results.
The reduction in new cases in China was partly a result of health workers ceasing to diagnose patients on the spot, and refinements in the way symptoms were classified, according to Wang Guiqiang, an infectious disease specialist at the First Hospital connected with Beijing’s elite Peking University.
Improvements in testing have allowed health workers to better assess those seeking treatment, Wang said.
Inspectors in protective suits went door-to-door Wednesday in Wuhan searching for every infected person. “This must be taken seriously,” said Wang Zhonglin, the city’s newly selected Communist Party secretary.
Cities in Hubei with a combined population of more than 60 million have been under lockdown since the Lunar New Year holiday. Authorities halted nearly all transportation and movement except for quarantine efforts, medical care, and delivery of food and basic necessities. “Wartime” measures were implemented in some places, with residents prevented from leaving their apartments.
The stringent measures have followed public fury over Hubei authorities’ handling of the outbreak when it began. The risk of human-to-human transmission was downplayed, and doctors who tried to warn the public were reprimanded by police. Wuhan residents reported overcrowding in hospitals and futile attempts to seek treatment.
Many countries have also set up border screenings and airlines have canceled flights to and from China to prevent further spread of the disease, which has been detected in about two dozen countries and has infected more than 1,000 people outside mainland China. Nine deaths have been confirmed outside the mainland — three in Japan, two in Hong Kong and one each in France, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan.
In South Korea, the mayor of the city of Daegu urged its 2.5 million people on Thursday not to go outside as cases of the virus spiked. Daegu has confirmed the illness in 13 people, 11 of whom either went to a church attended by a female patient or came into contact with her at a hospital, according to the disease control center. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency also reported the country’s first death from the virus.
Chinese scientists reported some troubling findings about how the virus spreads. Swabs were taken from 14 people who returned to Guangdong province in January after visiting Wuhan and developing the disease. High amounts of the virus were detected soon after symptoms started, more in the nose than in the throat, and the virus was also found in one of their close contacts who never showed any symptoms.
That adds to concern about potential spread of the virus by people who may not know they’re infected. The report from the Guangdong Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention was published by the New England Journal of Medicine.
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Associated Press journalists Marilynn Marchione in Milwaukee and Katie Tam in Hong Kong and researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.

Weather and protests hamper Ukraine quarantine efforts

by YURAS KARMANAU Associated Press
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s effort to evacuate more than 70 people from China over the outbreak of a new virus faced setbacks Thursday as weather conditions delayed the return of the evacuees and protests broke out near a hospital where they were to be quarantined.
Several hundred residents in Ukraine’s Poltava region protested to stop officials from quarantining the evacuees in their village because they feared becoming infected. Demonstrators put up road blocks and burned tires, while Ukrainian media reported that there were clashes with police. More than 10 people were detained.
“The situation is rather heated,” Poltava regional police spokesman Yuri Sulayev said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy weighed in, saying the protests showed “not the best side of our character.” He tried to reassure people that the quarantined evacuees wouldn’t pose any danger to residents of the village of Novi Sarzhany.
In a statement published on his Facebook page, Zelenskiy said the people evacuated from China are healthy and will live in a closed medical center run by the National Guard in the village as a precaution.
“In the next two weeks it will probably be the most guarded facility in the country,” Zelenskiy said.
In the early hours of Thursday, a plane with 45 Ukrainians and 27 other foreign nationals took off from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak that has infected more than 75,000 people worldwid e and killed over 2,100.
The plane stopped off in Kazakhstan to drop off two Kazakh passengers. Later, it sought to land in Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine, but could not due to bad weather conditions.
Instead it flew to Kyiv to refuel, and eventually arrived in Kharkiv.
Also Thursday, the Russian Embassy in Japan said that two more Russians aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined in Japan have been diagnosed with the virus, the Russian Embassy in Japan said. That raises to three the number of Russians on the ship confirmed to have the virus.
The two will be transferred to a hospital in Japan for treatment, according to the embassy.
The Diamond Princess has been docked in the Yokohama port near Tokyo since Feb. 4, when 10 people on board tested positive for the virus. So far 621 cases of the virus, which has been named COVID-19, have been confirmed among the the Diamond Princess’s original 3,711 people on board.
Russia so far has reported only two cases of the disease on its soil. Two Chinese nationals diagnosed with the virus and hospitalized in two different regions of Siberia in late January have recovered and have been released from hospitals.
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Associated Press writer Daria Litvinova contributed from Moscow. See more AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak

Official says US, Taliban reach Afghanistan truce agreement

By MATTHEW LEE and KATHY GANNON Associated Press
MUNICH (AP) — The United States and the Taliban have reached agreement on a temporary truce that will take effect in the coming days and, if successfully completed, will lead to a formal cease-fire, the start of peace negotiations between all Afghan sides next month and the ultimate withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, a senior U.S. official said Friday.
The official said the agreement for a seven-day “reduction in violence” is “very specific” and covers the entire country, including Afghan government forces. There were indications a formal announcement could come as early as the weekend.
The official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Taliban had committed to a halt in roadside and suicide bombings as well as rocket attacks. The official said the U.S. would monitor the truce and determine if there were any violations.
Should the Taliban comply, the “reduction in violence” agreement would be followed by the signing of a second agreement between the United States and the Taliban. That agreement, culminating 16 months of talks, would initiate the peace negotiations and the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
A Taliban official familiar with the deal said the second agreement would be signed on Feb. 29 and the Afghan talks would begin on March 10. The official said Germany and Norway have offered to host the talks but there has been no decision on the venue.
That Taliban official, who was not authorized to speak to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Feb. 29 agreement would provide for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners before the start of the negotiations.
To make good on its promise to release Taliban prisoners, Washington is going to need Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has been critical of the way U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has conducted the talks, complaining about being kept in the dark.
Ghani has also bickered with his partner in the current Unity Government, Abdullah Abdullah, over who will represent Kabul at the negotiating table. Ghani has insisted he lead the talks, while his political opponents and other prominent Afghans have called for more inclusive representation at the negotiating table.
The Taliban and those familiar with the details of the Afghan negotiations say the representatives from Kabul will include government officials but they will sit across from the Taliban as ordinary Afghans and not as government representatives.
President Donald Trump previously called off the peace talks because of an attack that killed two Americans.
U.S. officials have not publicly spelled out their timetable for an initial drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but the expectation is that a reduction from the current total of about 12,000 to approximately 8,600 will begin after the signing of a U.S.-Taliban deal. That initial reduction is likely to stretch out over a period of weeks or months.
The Taliban official said the withdrawal of foreign troops would start gradually and would be carried out over 18 months.
A senior U.S. military officer told a small group of reporters that U.S. counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida will continue, separate from the truce agreement. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive aspects of military operations ahead of an expected announcement of the U.S.-Taliban deal.
He also said the United States has sufficient intelligence-gathering assets to be able to determine within the seven-day period whether the Taliban is making a good-faith effort to reduce violence, even if some limited violence persists.
The new developments came as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper met Friday in Munich with Ghani. They spoke on the sidelines of an international security forum in Munich.
A truce had been widely anticipated, and Trump agreed in principle to the deal, according to U.S. officials.
The final details were hammered out in recent days by Khalilzad and Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. Khalilzad was in Munich and attended Pompeo and Esper’s meeting as did Gen. Scott Miller, the commander of the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan.
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Gannon reported from Islamabad. AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.

Virus cases rise as experts question China’s numbers

By KEN MORITSUGU Associated Press
BEIJING (AP) — Infections and deaths from the new virus in China ballooned for a second straight day Friday, on paper at least, as officials near the epicenter of the outbreak struggled to keep up with a backlog of patients’ lab work.
The acceleration in cases was not necessarily an indicator of a surge in the illness known as COVID-19 because the hardest-hit province of Hubei and its capital of Wuhan changed the way it counted cases. But public health experts wrestled with what exactly could be deduced from the numbers given the shift in approach.
“If you change the way you count cases, that obviously confounds our capacity to draw firm conclusions about the effectiveness of the quarantine,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University in the United States. “We have to interpret the numbers with great caution.”
Confirmed cases of the virus rose to 63,851 in mainland China, an increase of 5,090 from a day earlier, according to the National Health Commission. The death toll stood at 1,380, up 121.
Still, the World Health Organization continued to report lower numbers, standing by the way cases were counted before Hubei’s shift. WHO pressed for more details Friday on the change in tabulating cases. Doctors in Hubei are now making diagnoses based on symptoms, patient history and chest X-rays instead of waiting for laboratory confirmation.
“We’re seeking further clarity on how clinical diagnoses are being made to ensure other respiratory illnesses including influenza are not getting mixed into the COVID-19 data,” said WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Meantime, the vulnerability of health workers responding to the epidemic was crystalized with other data emerging from China. More than 1,700 medical workers in China have contracted COVID-19 and six have died, according to the health commission, which said it was “highly concerned” by the infections.
WHO echoed that, with Tedros saying more information was needed on when the workers were infected and under what circumstances. Transmissions to front-line health workers can signal problems in infection control policies and signal that a disease is becoming more easily transmissible.
Schaffner said he was optimistic that China’s unprecedented quarantines — putting 60 million people in its hardest-hit cities under lockdown — would help reduce transmissions. But without consistent numbers, he said, it was hard to draw any such conclusion.
“China and the world community would like to restore a sense of normalcy but in order to do that we need to have confidence in what is going on and we’re not there yet,” Schaffner said.
China has come under intense criticism within the country for its response to the crisis and has been the target of complaints from elsewhere too. But WHO’s chief of emergencies, Dr. Michael Ryan, defended China’s handling of the outbreak and its cooperation with others.
“From our perspective, we have a government that’s cooperating with us, that’s inviting in international experts, that’s shared sequences with the world, that continues to engage with the outside community,” he said.
The vast majority of cases are in China but reverberations from the outbreak were felt around the world, with hundreds of infections reported elsewhere.
More than 580 cases have been confirmed outside mainland China, including the first infection on the African continent, reported Friday in Egypt. Experts and African leaders have expressed concern that should the virus spread there, it might wreak havoc among less developed countries with fewer health resources.
There have been three fatalities, in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan.
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Associated Press writers Matt Sedensky in New York; Maria Cheng in London; Ralph Jennings in Taipei, Taiwan;, and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

Valentine’s Day brings love and some worry in Iraq holy city

By MARIAM FAM Associated Press
NAJAF, Iraq (AP) — Hasanain al-Rufaye was busy in his flower shop wrapping bouquets, stuffing dolls into gift boxes and sprinkling petals into others labeled with “LOVE,” while simultaneously fielding orders.
“It’s Valentine’s these days. On normal days, it would have been 10 minutes but today that would be impossible,” he told one customer on the phone about the wait time to get an order ready.
For all the frenzied activity and lightheartedness in the shop there was more than just love in the air for al-Rufaye: “There’s still some worry and fear.”
Valentine’s Days past could be fraught with tensions. One year, an angry crowd burst into his store yelling “Shut it down, shut it down” while others shouted “infidels!” Heart-shaped balloons framing the entrance of the store were popped by the mob. Al-Rufaye was beaten and his clothes torn. Windows were shattered and the teddy bears he sells set ablaze, he said. “It was the most difficult day of my life.”
In recent years, Valentine’s Day in the southern city of Najaf has emerged as a battleground. On one side are personal freedom advocates and revelers who see it as harmless fun. Pitted against them are conservatives who view it as sacrilege–a foreign celebration that has no place in a city sacred to Shiite Muslims, site of the shrine of the much revered Imam Ali, son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad.
In the last few years, a religious mourning event was held near stores selling Valentine’s gifts in part to counter the love festivities. This year, that event was scrapped for security reasons after at least eight anti-government protesters were killed this month in a nearby protest camp.
“Thank God, I observe my religion. I pray and I fast, but I am not a hardliner when it comes to religion,” al-Rufaye said. “I love life. I love for people to be optimistic and happy.”
“Najaf is a holy city and I am against people singing or dancing on the street…but if someone is buying a gift for his fiancée, wife, mother or sister, then what’s the problem?” he asked. “It’s just a teddy bear or a flower.”
Religion is ingrained into Najaf’s DNA. The holy city is an esteemed seat for Shiite learning. Low-slung houses tucked away in dusty alleys are home to clerical luminaries including Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Pilgrims — the women covered up in billowing black abayas–flock to the city. Mourning processions commemorating the death of Shiite saints weave through its streets as believers pound their chests in grief. And its vast cemetery is a coveted final resting place for Shiites.
The issue of Najaf’s “sanctity” has spurred heated debates. Some have been clamoring for a law outlawing women not wearing the veil in public or stores displaying women’s clothes in windows or on the street “in a way that runs contrary to public morality.”
The now-dissolved provincial council hosted talks between supporters and opponents, including clerics, lawyers and activists, said Hussein al-Essawi, the head of its legal committee. It ended up not supporting the veil and clothing proposals but it did adopt a provincial decree last year keeping some articles, such as one against holding parties with dancing or singing “that violate public decency” on the street.
“Some people exploit the sanctity of the city and the status of Najaf to try to restrict freedoms,” al-Essawi said. “Religion means tolerance; it means culture, freedom and democracy.” Many clerics were against stifling freedoms, he said.
“Najaf is a holy city whether there is a law or there isn’t a law,” he said.
But Hasan Hamza, a member of the dissolved council, argued a decree was necessary because of offensive behavior, including women dressing immodestly or some cafes employing women to attract a male clientele. “We took into consideration human rights, modernity and democracy,” he said.
Celebrations such as Valentine’s Day should be held in private places like hotels, not on the street, he said. “This ruffles the feathers of others in society.”
Najaf is not the only city addressing Valentine’s Day. The annual homage to romance also appeared to cause some worry elsewhere. In the Afghan capital, Kabul, there’s a contest called Mr. and Miss Valentine but the organizers, apparently afraid of a backlash from religious conservatives, said that despite the name it had nothing to do with Valentine’s Day.
Some religious clerics on mosque loudspeakers warn against western influences, worst among them Valentine’s Day. “Valentine’s is an un-Islamic day and celebrating this day can bring girls and boys under the same roof which is not allowed in Islam until after they are married,” said cleric Abdul Aziz Mufleh. Still, the capital’s downtown is resplendent with red heart-shaped balloons and flowers.
Emad Rasoul, one of the organizers of the mourning events around Valentine’s time in Najaf, said that besides religious and other reasons– such as commemorating fighters killed in the battle against Islamic State militants–they wanted to send a message to the young. “This is not our celebration to observe. This celebration runs contrary to our religious and social constants,” he said.
“The purpose is not to turn Najaf into a closed-off or uncivilized city…but there are opportunists who want to tarnish the image of Najaf and of its sect,” he argued. “They want to undermine the city with such ideas as Valentine’s. There is no such a thing as Valentine’s in Najaf.”
He said he agreed with police on canceling the event this year due to the security situation and to free police for protecting protesters.
“People in Najaf don’t want to be isolated from the world,” activist Yaser Mekki said. “The Iraqi society suffers from wars, pain, tragedies and bloodshed. All these horrible things have led the young and others in society to look for an outlet away from all the destruction.”
Last year, Mekki got thrust into the Valentine’s controversy when he was stopped by police and dragged to a police station after filming the mourning event and asking people on the street for their views.
There are attempts by “a political religious elite to create an imaginary enemy to have the people coalesce around them as the protectors of the religion and of the sect,” he said.
“There is a special status for Najaf that must continue. At the same time there are people who love life and want to make changes,” he said. “The thing is how to find balance.”
At al-Rufaye’s store, 20-year-old Israa Amer, swathed in a flowing abaya, browsed shelves lined with red lanterns with hearts carved into them, teddy bears with the words “Me to You” and red hearts on sticks. She deliberated with a friend before she settled on a choice.
Those who want to celebrate should do so indoors out of respect for the people recently killed, she said.
One Najaf cafe with a special section for “families” separate from that for men was decorated with balloons and red tablecloths for the holiday.
Some have been observing Valentine’s with a Najafi twist. Ali al-Sunbuly and other local activists one time, in a show of gratitude, handed flowers to police at a checkpoint that had been attacked. Another Valentine’s Day, they showed up with flowers at the office of al-Sistani. The flowers weren’t allowed in for security reasons, he said.
An answer to a question about the religious ruling on celebrating Valentine’s on al-Sistani’s website says there is no objection “as long as there is no propagating of corruption or of straying from the right path.”
The protests, al-Sunbuly said, were amplifying the voice of the young and pushing the social envelop.
“The youth of this revolution believe in freedoms within the allowed legal framework. They celebrate on New Year’s and celebrate on Valentine’s,” he said. “They are the ones who have always been dismissed as too young or immature and lacking in experience. This revolution has shattered such taboos.”
Still, Zainab Radhi said many “are afraid to be seen with a red rose or a red teddy bear.” This year, the 20-year-old particularly wanted to celebrate.
“Love is beautiful,” she said her face lighting up as she smiled coyly.
“The men, they say this is haram (religiously forbidden) but they do everything they want and just say it’s haram for the women of Najaf….It’s because of traditions,” she said. “I don’t accept this. I want everything to change.”
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Associated Press writer Tameem Akhgar, in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.
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Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Virus renews safety concerns about slaughtering wild animals

By SAM McNEIL and CANDICE CHOI Associated Press
BEIJING (AP) — China cracked down on the sale of exotic species after an outbreak of a new virus in 2002 was linked to markets selling live animals. The germ turned out to be a coronavirus that caused SARS.
The ban was later lifted, and the animals reappeared. Now another coronavirus is spreading through China, so far killing 1,380 people and sickening more than 64,000 — eight times the number sickened by SARS.
The suspected origin? The same type of market.
With more than 60 million people under lockdown in more than a dozen Chinese cities, the new outbreak is prompting calls to permanently ban the sale of wildlife, which many say is being fueled by a limited group of wealthy people who consider the animals delicacies. The spreading illness also serves as a grim reminder that how animals are handled anywhere can endanger people everywhere.
“There’s a vast number of viruses in the animal world that have not spread to humans, and have the potential to do so,” said Robert Webster, an expert on influenza viruses at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
SARS and the current outbreak of COVID-19 are not the only diseases in people traced back to animals. The killing and sale of what is known as bushmeat in Africa is thought to be a source for Ebola. Bird flu likely came from chickens at a market in Hong Kong in 1997. Measles is believed to have evolved from a virus that infected cattle.
Scientists have not yet determined exactly how the new coronavirus first infected people. Evidence suggests it originated in bats, which infected another animal that spread it to people at a market in the southeastern city of Wuhan. The now-shuttered Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market advertised dozens of species such as giant salamanders, baby crocodiles and raccoon dogs that were often referred to as wildlife, even when they were farmed.
Of the 33 samples from the Wuhan market that tested positive for the coronavirus, officials say 31 were from the area where wildlife booths were concentrated. Compared with long domesticated livestock like chickens and pigs, researchers say less is known about the viruses that circulate in wild animals.
The Wuhan market was also like many other “wet markets” in Asia and elsewhere, where animals are tied up or stacked in cages. Activists say it’s difficult to distinguish between those that were legally farmed and those that may have been illegally hunted. The animals are often killed on site to ensure freshness. The messy mix raises the tiny odds that a new virus will jump to people handling the animals and start to spread, experts say.
“You’ve got live animals, so there’s feces everywhere. There’s blood because of people chopping them up,” said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, which works to protect wildlife and public health from emerging diseases.
And more frequent global travel and trade means there’s greater risk for outbreaks to spread, Daszak said.
China’s taste for wildlife is relatively new, prompted by the country’s economic growth, said Peter Li, who studies Chinese politics at the University of Houston. But with the outbreak upending lives across the country, many on Chinese social media are expressing frustration that rich people’s appetite for wild animals is again endangering everyone else.
“This is the second time … the first is SARS, this time is Wuhan. We don’t want a third time,” Lai Xinping, a project cost assessor, said by phone from her home in Sichuan.
“We hate them too, and we are blamed,” said Tao Yiwei, a 36-year-old homemaker. She is among those who want the temporary ban on wildlife, enacted to contain the current outbreak, to be permanent.
There are signs the Chinese government may make more lasting changes to how exotic species are raised and sold. This month, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said the country should “resolutely outlaw and harshly crack down” on the illegal wildlife trade because of the public health risks it poses.
In the eastern province of Anhui, officials sealed farms breeding species like badgers and bamboo rats. In the port city of Tianjin, authorities say their crackdown on the sale of wildlife caught six traders, including three who were selling pythons and parrots.
All told, officials say about 1.5 million markets and online operators nationwide have been inspected since the outbreak began. About 3,700 have been shut down, and around 16,000 breeding sites have been cordoned off.
It’s not clear how the measures will play out over time. Before the outbreak began, it was legal in China to sell 54 species like pangolins and civets — as long as they were raised on farms . That made it difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal wildlife in wet markets, and enforcement was lax, said Jinfeng Zhou of China Biodiversity, Conservation and Green Development Foundation, an environmental group based in Beijing.
He pointed to a widely shared image of a Wuhan market advertisement listing 72 species, including peacocks and bullfrogs, as proof that the trade is too lucrative to be stopped by anything less than a total ban on all wildlife. “The profit is huge … like drugs,” Jinfeng said.
Others disagree, arguing that banning the wildlife trade is not a realistic way to reduce risk, especially in poorer regions of the world where it can be an important food source. They say improved monitoring, regulation or public education may better control the problem. When wildlife is farmed, for example, it allows for greater surveillance and testing for viruses, said Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance.
Even if China successfully regulates or bans it, the wildlife trade is likely to continue elsewhere. Recent visits to wet markets in the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia and in the coastal city of Doula in Cameroon revealed similar conditions to wet markets in China. Vendors were slaughtering and grilling bats, dogs, rats, crocodiles and snakes, and sanitary measures were scant.
Ongoing destruction of species’ habitats will likely bring people into closer contact with animals and their viruses, said Raina Plowright, a University of Montana researcher who studies how diseases spread from wildlife to people.
“We are inevitably going to be exposed,” she said.
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Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, Maria Cheng in London, Malcolm Ritter and Kathy Young in New York, and researchers Liu Zheng and Yu Bing in Beijing, and Chen Si in Shanghai contributed to this report.
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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Freezing temperatures in Syria’s Idlib compounds cris

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By SARAH EL DEEB and ZEINA KARAM Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — A military offensive on an opposition-controlled region of northwestern Syria has created one of the worst catastrophes for civilians in the country’s long-running war, sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing, many of them sleeping in open fields and under trees in freezing temperatures.
The military campaign in Idlib province and the nearby Aleppo countryside has also killed hundreds of civilians, and a bitter winter has compounded the pain.
The weather has contributed to at least 10 deaths, including four who suffered hypothermia, a family of four that died of suffocation in their tent and two who burned to death when their tent caught fire, according to Mohammed Hallaj, a coordinator for the area’s Response Coordination Group.
Nizar Hamadi, 43, lost his brother and three other family members, including a three-year old. Their family had been displaced multiple times to escape the swift government offensive, ending up in a settlement made up of rudimentary tents stitched together with sticks and cloth.
“It was God’s destiny that it was really cold. The temperatures was no less then -8 or -9 and this is rare in Syria,” he said, speaking to The Associated Press from the Idlib town of Binnish.
He said his brother, Steif Abdel-Razak Hamadi, had moved north, as Binnish also came under attack, to set up his family’s next shelter in Killi. On Tuesday, he set up a coal heater and by nightfall, as the fire died down, he moved it inside the tent and went to sleep with his family including his wife, two children and his grandchild.
“For the whole night, the heater was sucking out all the oxygen in the tent,” Hamadi said.
When the son sleeping in another tent woke up and came to their tent, he found them all dead.
The government’s Russian-backed assault on Idlib, the Syrian opposition’s last stronghold, has uprooted more than 830,000 people since Dec. 1, most of them fleeing toward safer areas near the border with Turkey, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Friday. At least 143,000 people have been displaced in the last three days.
“Humanitarian needs are increasing exponentially,” Dujarric said. “The ongoing emergency compounds the already dire humanitarian situation for people in the northwest, who have been made vulnerable by years of crisis, violence, economic downturn and, of course, multiple displacements,” Dujarric said.
Terrified families piled on trucks and vehicles, sitting on top of mattresses and blankets, clogging sludgy rural roads in harrowing scenes of exodus that have been recurrent in Syria’s conflict, now in its ninth year.
Around half the territory’s population had already been displaced from other parts of Syria, so formal camps are full.
“It’s cold, it’s snowing and our life is terrible, we can’t take this cold and neither can the kids,” said a woman, who identified herself by her nickname Um Muhammad, who recently fled and was staying at a tent camp near the Turkish border.
“This life, what can I say? We are broken now. I am an old woman with kids, no one is taking care of us,” she said, her face wrapped up in big black scarf against the cold.
The fighting has killed 1,700 people since last April, and the latest military campaign is disrupting aid operations, according to the United Nations. As of Feb. 11, at least 72 health facilities have suspended services due to insecurity or mass displacement, it says.
The U.N. Security Council held a closed meeting Friday on the escalating violence in Idlib at the request of its European Union members — France, Germany, Belgium and Estonia along with former member Poland.
Afterward, the five EU nations issued a statement expressing alarm at the military escalation and demanding an immediate end to the attacks.
“This is one of the worst man-made displacements that we have seen anywhere in the world in years. And it has been and continues to be entirely avoidable,” the nations said in the statement.
The United Nations World Food Programme said it was forced to temporarily stop food distributions because of the recent upsurge in hostilities disrupted the movement of trucks carrying supplies into the region from Turkey.
In the camps, refugees dig up mud from their flooded tent, other dust off the snow dumped by unusually cold spell. New trucks pull up with new arrivals, and mattresses piled on top.
Hooriya Al-Essa, a camp resident who arrived with his family last month from the Idlib countryside, said they lacked heaters, blankets, mattresses and firewood.
“Our situation is very bad. This entire camp is poor. We have nothing. We need help — money, heating, blankets, mattresses,” he said, standing next to a snow-covered tent.
On Friday, a government helicopter was shot down and its crew killed amid the fighting in Idlib. It was the second helicopter shot down in a week. Another government helicopter gunship was downed three days earlier, near the village of Nairab.
Videos posted online Friday showed a helicopter spiraling downward from the sky, with flames trailing behind as onlookers cheered.
A military official told Syrian state media that the helicopter was hit by a “hostile rocket” in the western countryside of Aleppo province. The unnamed official said the helicopter crashed and its crew was killed. Turkey-backed opposition fighters claimed responsibility, saying it was hit in response to the Syrian army’s indiscriminate targeting of civilians.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground, said the helicopter was downed Friday in the village of Qibtan al-Jebel, north of Aleppo city. It said two crew members were killed and their bodies were found near the site of the crash.
The Observatory said the helicopter was downed Friday by Turkish military forces stationed in the opposition-held region. There was no immediate comment from Turkey.
Insurgents have sought to acquire portable defense systems to target government warplanes, often acquiring them from seized stockpiles or from outside supporters.
Turkey, backer of Syria’s opposition, has been deploying equipment and troops in the region, which is home to more than 3 million people, in an attempt to halt the Syrian military’s advances.
But the increased Turkish footprint has also resulted in confrontations with the Syrian troops and clashes between the two sides have killed 13 Turkish military personnel and 13 Syrian troops.
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Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.