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US says Kabul drone strike killed 10 civilians, including children, in ‘tragic mistake’
18 September 2021, 4:40 AM

A drone strike in Kabul last month killed as many as 10 civilians, including seven children, the US military said on Friday, apologizing for what it called a “tragic mistake”.

The Pentagon had said the August 29 strike targeted an Islamic State suicide bomber who posed an imminent threat to US-led troops at the airport as they completed the last stages of their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Even as reports of civilian casualties emerged, the top US general had described the attack as “righteous”.

The head of US Central Command, Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, said that at the time he had been confident it averted an imminent threat to the forces at the airport.

“Our investigation now concludes that the strike was a tragic mistake,” McKenzie told reporters.

He said he now believed it unlikely that those killed were members of the local Islamic State affiliate, ISIS-Khorasan, or posed a threat to US troops.

The Pentagon was considering reparations, McKenzie said.

The killing of civilians, in a strike carried out by a drone based outside Afghanistan, has raised questions about the future of US counter-terrorism strikes in the country, where intelligence gathering has been all but choked off since last month’s withdrawal.

And the confirmation of civilian deaths provides further fuel to critics of the chaotic US withdrawal and evacuation of Afghan allies, which has generated the biggest crisis yet for the Biden administration.

In a statement, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the drone strike had killed a Mr. Ahmadi who worked for a non-profit called Nutrition and Education International.

“We now know that there was no connection between Mr. Ahmadi and ISIS-Khorasan, that his activities on that day were completely harmless and not at all related to the imminent threat we believed we faced,” Austin said in the statement.

“We apologize, and we will endeavor to learn from this horrible mistake.”

While it is rare for senior Pentagon officials, including the defense secretary, to apologize personally for civilians killed in military strikes, the US military does publish reports on civilians killed in operations around the world.

Reports had emerged almost immediately that the drone strike in a neighborhood west of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport had killed civilians including children.

Video from the scene showed the wreckage of a car strewn around the courtyard of a building.

A spokesperson for Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers, Zabihullah Mujahid, said at the time that the attack killed seven people, and that the Taliban was investigating.

The strike came three days after an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 13 US troops and scores of Afghan civilians who had crowded outside the airport gates, desperate to secure seats on evacuation flights, after US-trained Afghan forces melted away and the Taliban swept to power in the capital.

Following the suicide bombing at the airport, the US military launched a drone strike in eastern Afghanistan that it said killed two Islamic State militants. That strike is not under review.

The second, mistaken strike came as the US military was on heightened alert, with officials warning they expected more attacks on the airport, including from rockets and vehicle-borne explosive devices, as the Pentagon wrapped up its mission.

General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared to blame the fog of war, even as he acknowledged in a statement that the civilian deaths were “heart wrenching”.

“In a dynamic high threat environment, the commanders on the ground had the appropriate authority and had reasonable certainty that the target was valid,” Milley said.

The authority to carry out strikes in Afghanistan — against Al Qaeda or Islamic State — will not rest any more with US commanders in the region, a US defense official told Reuters, adding Austin himself will have to authorize any future strikes.

Still, the intelligence failure exposed in America’s last military strike of its war in Afghanistan raises hard questions about the risks going forward.

These include whether the United States can keep track of Al Qaeda and Islamic State threats, and act quickly on any information it gets.

McKenzie played down the impact the latest civilian casualties would have on future actions in Afghanistan.

“I don’t think you should draw any conclusions about our ability to strike in Afghanistan against ISIS-K targets in the future based on this particular strike,” he said.

 

Some US hospitals forced to ration care amid staffing shortages, COVID-19 surge
18 September 2021, 4:10 AM

Surges in coronavirus cases in several US states this week, along with staffing and equipment shortages, are exacting a mounting toll on hospitals and their workers even as the number of new admissions nationwide ebbs, leading to warnings at some facilities that care would be rationed.

Montana, Alaska, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Kentucky experienced the biggest rises in new COVID-19 hospitalisations during the week ending September 10 compared with the previous week, with Montana’s new hospitalisations rising by 26%, according to the latest report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on September 14.

In Alaska, the influx is so heavy that the state’s largest hospital is no longer able to provide life-saving care to every patient who needs it due to the influx of COVID-19 hospitalisations, according to an open letter from the medical executive committee of Providence Alaska Medical Center this week.

“If you or your loved one need specialty care at Providence, such as a cardiologist, trauma surgeon, or a neurosurgeon, we sadly may not have room now,” the letter read. “There are no more staffed beds left.”

Some hospital workers have become so overwhelmed by the fresh wave of COVID-19 cases — a year and half after the pandemic first reached the United States — that they have left for jobs at retailing and other non-medical fields, Nancy Foster, vice president of quality and patient safety the American Hospital Association, told Reuters.

At the same time, distribution and other issues are leaving some hospitals short of oxygen supplies desperately needed to help patients struggling to breathe, Foster said.

On Friday, the hospital association held a webinar for its members on how to conserve oxygen, an effort to address a 200% jump in demand at many hospitals, she said.

“There is a shortage of drivers with the qualifications to transport oxygen, and a shortage of the tanks needed to transport it,” Foster added.

While there are some breakthrough cases among the vaccinated, Foster said most of the hospitalisations were among the unvaccinated.

A SURGE ‘LIKE NEVER BEFORE’

On September 16, 1 855 Americans died of COVID-19 and 144 844 new cases were reported, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county data.

Both trend lines have been increasing in the United States overall since hitting their lows this summer in July and June, respectively.

New hospital admissions are still surging in several mostly rural and Midwestern states, even as the number of COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals daily in the entire United States slipped to about 10 685 on September 14 after cresting around 13 028 in late August, according to the latest data from the US Centers for Disease Control.

“Despite our hospital being ground zero in Kentucky for the onset of the pandemic 18 months ago, this week we are being hit with a COVID surge like never before since the onset of the pandemic”,  said Dr. Stephen Toadvine, chief executive officer at Harrison Memorial Hospital, in a statement posted on the Kentucky state website.

He added that patients seeking emergency care in Kentucky hospitals and being treated for COVID-19 are at all-time highs.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said on Thursday that the commonwealth would soon run out of a key treatment for COVID-19- the use of monoclonal antibodies – and the federal government also recently announced a national shortage.

Since May, the number of COVID-19 cases at hospitals run by the University of Wisconsin’s UW Health system has quadrupled, Dr. Jeff Pothof said in an interview.

Emergency rooms are so full that doctors are having to seek rooms for their patients in other facilities, he said, a trend seen in other states, including Florida.

“For the first time in my career we’re at the point where not every patient in need will get the care we might wish we could give,” Dr Shelly Harkins, chief medical officer and president of St. Peter’s Health in Helena, Montana said in a video announcement Thursday.

In West Virginia, COVID-19 hospitalisations this week have far outstripped their previous peak of 815, rising from 852 on Monday to 922 on Friday, said Jim Kaufman, the president and CEO of the West Virginia Hospital Association.

The state’s hospitals are also facing severe staffing shortages, resulting in fewer patients treated and delays in non-emergency care.

Smaller hospitals are sending patients to larger ones that can accommodate them, Kaufman said.

In Oklahoma, new hospitalisations declined by 11% during the week ending September 10 compared with the previous week, but 35% of hospitals in the state report staffing shortages, according to the CDC.

 

As California fire nears, crews protect world’s largest tree in special wrap
18 September 2021, 3:34 AM

Fire crews in California have resorted to wrapping the bases of some giant sequoias in fire-resistant coverings in a desperate effort to save the towering specimens, including the General Sherman, the world’s largest tree, the National Park Service said on Friday.

The blaze, one of dozens to erupt across several western states in a fire season that got off to an early start, forced the closing earlier this week of Sequoia National Park and left a dense layer of smoke in the area early on Friday.

The so-called KNP Complex fire, near the small town of Three Rivers, about midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, grew to more than 4,450 hectares on Friday, according to the federal Inciweb fire information system.

It was burning about 1.6 km from Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest, home to the General Sherman, the largest tree on Earth by volume, park service spokesperson Mark Garrett said.

Giant sequoias, many of which are more than 3 000 years old, grow only in the high elevations of the western slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. With their thick bark, they can withstand most fires and even thrive on them.

Still, Garrett said, the park service was taking no chances with the General Sherman and a few of the other big trees.

Even though they’re fire-adapted … we cannot lose that tree,” Garrett said by phone.

The wraps are made of a fire-resistant, heat-reflecting material that firefighters carry for protection, he said.

The General Sherman tree towers over 2 000 other giant sequoias in the park at 83 m and is over 11 m in diameter at its base, according to the park service, about as high as the Capitol Dome in Washington, D.C., above its east front.

Crews of 482 firefighters, aided by aircraft, are battling the week-old blaze, which was started by lightning and is burning in difficult-to-reach steep canyons, fueled by dry timber and chaparral, the Inciweb system said.

Maximum wind gusts of about 65 kph have been hampering firefighters, but a predicted cooling trend is expected to aid their battle, it said.

The KNP Complex is one of at least 28 fires in California and 129 across several western states that have erupted since June in a fire season that traditionally begins in late summer, according to Inciweb data.

Other steps the park service said it has taken to protect the sequoias are prescribed burns, which would reduce the amount of available fuel in case KNP complex reaches them.

 

Biden to convene virtual virus summit on fringe of UN
18 September 2021, 2:52 AM

US President Joe Biden will convene a virtual COVID-19 summit on Wednesday on the margins of the UN General Assembly aimed at boosting vaccinations worldwide with the goal of ending the pandemic by the end of 2022.

White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said the United States will be asking participants to commit to “a higher level of ambition” on making vaccines available on a more equitable basis and getting shots in arms, among other steps recommended to address the pandemic.

Biden travels to New York on Monday for his first trip as President to attend the UN General Assembly and will speak to the gathered world leaders on Tuesday.

He will convene the virus summit from the White House.

A senior administration official said Biden will issue a call to action.

The summit is not a pledging conference, “though we hope and expect some partners will come prepared to announce new efforts.”

“We need to end the pandemic” as soon as possible, aiming by the end of next year. We also need to build capacity so that all countries, everywhere, are able to prevent, detect, and respond to future biological threats and mitigate outbreaks on their communities,” the official said.

Biden wants to attack the pandemic globally by bringing together global leaders from the private sector, non-governmental organisations, philanthropists and civil society leaders to help end the pandemic and prevent the next one, the official said.

More talks on the subject are expected among world leaders, including at the G20 summit to be held in Rome at the end of October.

More than 227.26 million people have been reported to be infected by the novel coronavirus globally and 4 877 603 have died, according to a Reuters tally.

Infections have been reported in more than 210 countries and territories since the first cases were identified in China in December 2019.

Former R. Kelly assistant testifies about singer’s sexual activity, ‘apology letter’
18 September 2021, 2:25 AM

A former assistant to R. Kelly testified on Friday she once saw him engage in sexual activity with one of the women he is charged with abusing, as prosecutors neared the end of presenting their sex trafficking case against the R&B singer.

On the 18th day of testimony at Kelly’s trial in federal court in Brooklyn, Cheryl Mack, the mother of music producer London on da Track, said she saw the woman begin to massage Kelly while backstage at a Connecticut concert where he was performing.

“That was kind of my cue to leave,” Mack said. “I was very uncomfortable.” She said that as she left the room she caught a glimpse of the woman moving her head toward Kelly’s groin.

Mack also said Kelly lost his temper in 2015 after she supposedly ruined a surprise birthday party for former stylist Kash Howard, and had her sign an “apology letter” that included false claims she accepted kickbacks from booking agents.

“I apologized out of fear,” Mack said.

Several witnesses have testified that Kelly made them write apology letters, purportedly to absolve him of misconduct, but which prosecutors could use to illustrate the tight control that witnesses have said Kelly demanded over those around him.

Friday’s final prosecution witness was Dawn Hughes, a clinical psychologist who discussed how people might groom underage girls for sex, and how victims cope with the trauma.

Defense lawyers are expected to cross-examine her on Monday.

Kelly, 54, has pleaded not guilty to charges over his alleged grooming and preying on women and girls as far back as the mid-1990s, when he shot to stardom with music including the 1996 smash “I Believe I Can Fly.”

The singer, whose full name is Robert Sylvester Kelly, faces one count of racketeering and eight counts of illegally transporting people across state lines for prostitution.

Kelly’s indictment said he abused six women and underage girls including the singer Aaliyah, who Kelly married illegally in 1994 when she was 15.

Aaliyah died in a 2001 plane crash.

Prosecution witnesses have said Kelly instilled fear as he demanded they follow his stringent rules, including by having women and girls call him “Daddy,” and punished those who disobeyed, including by demanding unwanted sex.

Kelly’s lawyers have tried to portray his accusers as fans who once hoped to capitalize on the singer’s fame but felt jilted, and questioned why they and former employees failed to leave Kelly sooner or go to the police.

Deveraux Cannick, one of Kelly’s lawyers, tried while cross-examining Mack to show jurors she should have known not to sign an apology letter, given that she was in her late 40s and had many years of music industry experience.

“I wasn’t thinking at all,” Mack told him.

The trial began on August 18.

Kelly has faced sexual abuse accusations for nearly two decades.

Scrutiny increased after the #MeToo movement began in late 2017, and Lifetime aired the documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” in January 2019.

Kelly also faces sex-related charges in Illinois and Minnesota.

 

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