Critical US pipeline shut by ransomware attack

The Colonial Pipeline serves millions of customers on the East Coast, including Washington Dulles International Airport

Washington (AFP) - The largest fuel pipeline system in the United States was forced to shut down its entire network after a ransomware attack, the operating company said in a statement Saturday.

The Colonial Pipeline Company ships gasoline and jet fuel from the Gulf Coast of Texas to the populous East Coast through 5,500 miles (8,850 kilometers) of pipeline, serving 50 million consumers.

It said it had been "the victim of a cybersecurity attack" which involved ransomware -- attacks that encrypt computer systems and seek to extract payments from operators.

"In response, we proactively took certain systems offline to contain the threat, which has temporarily halted all pipeline operations, and affected some of our IT systems," it said.

"A leading, third-party cybersecurity firm was engaged, and they have launched an investigation into the nature and scope of this incident, which is ongoing. We have contacted law enforcement and other federal agencies," the statement continued.

Colonial, based in the southern state of Georgia, is the largest pipeline operator in the United States by volume, transporting 2.5 million barrels of gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and other refined petroleum products per day.

The attack prompted calls from cybersecurity experts for improved oversight of the industry to better prepare for future threats.

'More frequent attacks'

"This attack is unusual for the US. But the bottom line is that attacks targeting operational technology -- the industrial control systems on the production line or plant floor -- are becoming more frequent," said Algirde Pipikaite, cyber strategy lead at the World Economic Forum's Centre for Cybersecurity.

"Unless cybersecurity measures are embedded in a technology's development phase, we are likely to see more frequent attacks on industrial systems like oil and gas pipelines or water treatment plants."

Eric Goldstein, an executive assistant director at the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, said CISA was "engaged" with the company over the situation.

"This underscores the threat that ransomware poses to organizations regardless of size or sector. We encourage every organization to take action to strengthen their cybersecurity posture to reduce their exposure to these types of threats," he said.

The US was rocked in recent months by news of two major cybersecurity breaches -- the massive SolarWinds hack that compromised thousands of US government and private sector computer networks and was officially blamed on Russia; and a potentially devastating penetration of Microsoft email servers.

The latter is believed to have affected at least 30,000 US organizations including local governments and was attributed to an aggressive Chinese cyberespionage campaign.

Both breaches appeared to be aimed at stealing emails and data but they also created "back doors" that could allow attacks on physical infrastructure, according to The New York Times.

B.1.617 variant devastating India may be dodging vaccine protections: WHO chief scientist

A Covid-19 variant spreading in India is more contagious and may be dodging vaccine protections, contributing to the country's explosive outbreak, the World Health Organization's chief scientist said Saturday.

In an interview with AFP, Soumya Swaminathan warned that "the epidemiological features that we see in India today do indicate that it's an extremely rapidly spreading variant".

India on Saturday for the first time registered more than 4,000 Covid-19 deaths in just 24 hours, and more than 400,000 new infections.

New Delhi has struggled to contain the outbreak, which has overwhelmed its healthcare system, and many experts suspect the official death and case numbers are a gross underestimate.

Swaminathan, an Indian paediatrician and clinical scientist, said the B.1.617 variant of Covid-19, which was first detected in India last October, was clearly a contributing factor to the catastrophe unfolding in her homeland.

"There have been many accelerators that are fed into this," the 62-year-old said, stressing that "a more rapidly spreading virus is one of them".

The WHO recently listed B.1.617 -- which counts several sub-lineages with slightly different mutations and characteristics -- as a "variant of interest".

Resistant to antibodies?

But so far it has stopped short of adding it to its short list of "variant of concern" -- a label indicating it is more dangerous than the original version of the virus by being more transmissible, deadly or able to get past vaccine protections.

Several national health authorities, including in the United States and Britain, have meanwhile said they consider B.1.617 a variant of concern, and Swaminathan said she expected the WHO to soon follow suit.

"B 1.617 is likely to be a variant of concern because it has some mutations which increase transmission, and which also potentially could make (it) resistant to antibodies that are generated by vaccination or by natural infection," she said.

But she insisted that the variant alone could not be blamed for the dramatic surge in cases and deaths seen in India, lamenting that the country appeared to have let down its guard down, with "huge social mixing and large gatherings".

Mass election rallies held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other politicians have for instance partly been blamed for the staggering rise in infections.

But even as many in India felt the crisis was over, dropping mask-wearing and other protection measures, the virus was quietly spreading.

'Taking off vertically'

"In a large country like India, you could have transmission at low levels, which is what happened for many months," Swaminathan said.

"It was endemic (and) probably gradually increasing," she said, decrying that "those early signs were missed until it reached the point at which it was taking off vertically."

"At that point it's very hard to suppress, because it's then involving tens of thousands of people and it's multiplying at a rate at which it's very difficult to stop."

While India is now trying to scale up vaccination to rein in the outbreak, Swaminathan warned that the jabs alone would not be enough to gain control of the situation.

She pointed out that India, the world's largest vaccine-making nation, had only fully vaccinated around two percent of the 1.3 billion-plus population.

"It's going to take many months if not years to get to the point of 70 to 80 percent coverage," she said.

With that prospect, Swaminathan stressed that "for the foreseeable future, we need to depend on our tried and tested public health and social measures" to bring down transmission.

The surge in India is frightening not only due to the horrifying number of people who are sick and dying there, but also because the exploding infection numbers dramatically increase the chances of new and more dangerous variants emerging.

"The more the virus is replicating and spreading and transmitting, the more chances are that... mutations will develop and adapt," Swaminathan said.

"Variants which accumulate a lot of mutations may ultimately become resistant to the current vaccines that we have," she warned.

"That's going to be a problem for the whole world."

Racist Texas place names poised for historical reckoning

Negrohead Lake near Houston may finally see its name officially changed amid America's racism reckoning

Houston (AFP) - Racist and offensive Texas place names are holdovers from a dark past, but they are poised to finally change as a reckoning on how white America treats Black people washes over the United States.

Though state lawmakers sought to officially rename a series of features in 1991, that change was stymied, and decades later places like "Negrohead Lake" or "Negro Creek" still carry their derogatory monikers.

Yet the murder last year of African American George Floyd under a white police officer's knee has brought new impetus to confronting racism, including place names or statues honoring Confederate war generals.

While Texas fought on the side of the slavery-supporting Confederacy during the nation's civil war, today it is a state where non-Hispanic white people are in the minority.

A vote by a federal panel that is set for next month could finally officially rebaptize 16 Texas places whose names include the word "negro", a once common description that many now see as outdated and offensive.

"It's a tremendous relief. It's late, but better late than never," Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis told AFP.

In 1991, as a state senator, Ellis carried a bill to have those names removed. But he didn't follow up, saying: "I thought passing a law was enough."

However the power to officially change the titles of features like lakes and rivers belongs to a federal panel called the US Board on Geographic Names that is due to revisit the matter on June 10.

The panel had voted against the changes in 1998, after waiting years to consider the question. Their explanation?

'Review and revise offensive names'

They cited "a concern that there had been no consultation with local governments, nor did the (1991) legislation provide any biographical details" on the people whose names would be given to the features, board geographer Jennifer Runyon told AFP.

Under the rules, applicants are supposed to show a link between a place and any person for whom it would be named.

But, Runyon said no follow up on those questions was ever submitted to the bureau after its rejection.

That changed in late 2020 when the panel got a media query about the names, which then led to Ellis, the Harris County commissioner, pushing to get the changes reconsidered.

Runyon said the panel agreed, in part, because the state has not been using the old names for close to 30 years now, "along with the renewed interest in the matter".

Under the proposal, Negrohead Lake, which is near Houston, would be rebaptized Lake Henry Doyle for the first African American law student to attend a public university in Texas.

It is impossible to say how the board will vote, but its members will do so in a remarkably different context than they did decades ago.

Runyon said they have "definitely seen an increased interest in the matter", primarily via media queries into the process of changing offensive names.

At the same time, the panel is under the Department of Interior, which is led by Deb Haaland, the first Native American to be a US cabinet secretary.

She served peviously in Congress, where she proposed a bill in September to "review and revise offensive names" of federal government properties.

Legislation aside, the panel is expected to soon look at whether "squaw", a pejorative word for Native American women, should still be part of the name of two mountain peaks and a valley in the state of Oregon.

"We should use public spaces to honor people that inspired us, Rodney Ellis told AFP.

For him, the change in Texas is only the beginning.

"Racially offensive name are all over the place," he said. "I'm hopeful that changes will be done all over the country."

California sequoia still smoldering after 2020 fires

A forest fire near Camp Nelson, California is seen September 14, 2020

Los Angeles (AFP) - One of California's iconic giant sequoia trees was recently found to be still smoldering and smoking in an area of the state devastated by massive wildfires last summer, National Park authorities said Wednesday.  

"Scientists and fire crews were surveying the effects from the 2020 Castle Fire in Sequoia National Park, when they observed a still smoldering and smoking giant sequoia tree that appears to be caused from last year's fire," the park service said in a statement. 

Experts believe the tree's circumstances are a result of the wildfire that began August 19, 2020 when a spark from a lightning strike grew and spread throughout the region, burning an estimated 270 square miles (700 square kilometers) of forest as of December. 

The tree in question is isolated and does not present a danger to its environment or park visitors, according to the park service, but the fact that such obvious fire effects are lingering even months later "demonstrates how dry the park is," Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks fire expert Leif Mathiesen said.

"With the low amount of snowfall and rain this year, there may be additional discoveries as spring transitions into summer," he said, warning of finding other trees in potentially similar conditions. 

The western United States suffered a particularly brutal fire season in 2020 as they dealt with a chronic drought exacerbated by the effects of climate change, with 33 people dead and more than 6,500 square miles (17,000 square kilometers) burned in California alone.  

Authorities fear a repeat this year and have already begun to prepare as the drought continues. 

Giant sequoias are the biggest trees in the world and can live up to 3,400 years, according to the National Park Service. 

Ex-Olympic boxer charged with killing lover and his unborn child

San Juan (AFP) - Puerto Rican former Olympic boxer Felix Verdejo was charged Monday with killing his lover and their unborn child, in a case that has ignited anger over violence against women in the US territory.

Verdejo appeared for a virtual hearing in the federal court in San Juan, where the judge charged him with three counts of kidnapping and murdering Keishla Rodriguez, who was pregnant at the time.

The judge, Camille Velez, ordered that the 27-year-old Verdejo be held without bail ahead of a plea hearing, reported local newspaper El Nuevo Dia.

A federal complaint obtained by AFP stated that Verdejo, who is married and was also in a relationship with Rodriguez, allegedly kidnapped the victim on April 29 after she told him she was pregnant.

Verdejo asked another person, whom the affidavit refers to as a "witness", for help in terminating Rodriguez's pregnancy.

Verdejo -- who in his career won 27 fights, 17 by knockout -- "punched the victim in the face, and she was injected with a syringe filled with a substance," stated the affidavit of the FBI agent who led the investigation.

He and the witness then tied Rodriguez's hands and feet with wire, and tied her to a block.

Then they drove to a lagoon in San Juan, where she was "tossed off the side of the bridge and into the water," the affidavit said.

Verdejo then shot Rodriguez when she was already in the water.

'Sexist violence'

The FBI found evidence that Verdejo and Rodriguez, 27, had communicated by phone on the day of the abduction. A security camera shows a car similar to the boxer's standing on the bridge.

Rodriguez had been reported missing on Thursday and her body was found in the San Jose lagoon on Saturday.

Her family had blamed the boxer for her disappearance and later her death.

The case sparked protests in Puerto Rico, whose governor, Pedro Pierluisi, declared a state of emergency in January due to violence against women.

Verdejo represented Puerto Rico in the London 2012 Olympic Games, and that same year began his professional career in the lightweight category.

The boxer, whose career suffered after a motorcycle accident in 2016, could face the death penalty if found guilty on the charges.

On Thursday, the day when Rodriguez went missing, Puerto Rican authorities also found the charred body of another woman, Andrea Ruiz, in the town of Cayey.

A 40-year-old man, whom she had previously filed a complaint against, was arrested two days later.

"Here there is a sexist violence that comes from the past, which must be attacked head on," said Pierluisi at a press conference Monday. "It is a culture that must be corrected."

Joe Biden reverses course on refugees after fierce criticism from allies

President Joe Biden announced Monday, after coming under fierce criticism, that he was raising the maximum number of refugees allowed into the United States this year to 62,500 -- up from the 15,000 cap imposed by his predecessor Donald Trump.

The change follows backlash from allies over Biden's earlier decision to keep the Trump-era limits -- a politically costly moment of confusion that stood out in a White House notable for its iron discipline in its first three months.

"This erases the historically low number set by the previous administration of 15,000, which did not reflect America's values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees," Biden said in a statement.

"The new admissions cap will also reinforce efforts that are already underway to expand the United States' capacity to admit refugees, so that we can reach the goal of 125,000 refugee admissions that I intend to set for the coming fiscal year."

The course correction was quickly welcomed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is controlled by Biden's Democratic party.

"I welcome the Biden administration's announcement that it will increase the number of refugees allowed to be resettled in the United States. This is an important step in continuing our proud, bipartisan tradition of providing refugees protection through resettlement," the committee chairman, Senator Bob Menendez, tweeted.

The American Civil Liberties Union, a powerful advocacy group, also voiced approval, saying that the country's "reputation" was at stake.

"We are pleased to see President Biden has abandoned the Trump administration's abysmal refugee goal and recommitted to prioritizing helping people who are fleeing persecution around the globe," ACLU representative Manar Waheed said.

"We recognize that the goal may not be easy and it requires rebuilding a system that was decimated by the Trump administration, but candidate Biden promised," Waheed said. "He must fulfill that promise, lives are at stake."

- Biden needs party unity -

Trump clamped down on refugees as part of the hardline border policies at the heart of his nationalist political platform.

Biden campaigned on promises to restore more traditional US attitudes. But he then backtracked after his government ran into difficulties in handling a surge of migrants entering the country illegally, or claiming asylum, at the Mexican border.

Last month, the White House said it needed more time to "rebuild" the post-Trump refugee program and would therefore keep the cap at 15,000 for the year.

After a top Democrat and refugee aid groups slammed Biden's target as "appallingly low" and "deeply disappointing," the White House issued a statement hours later saying the low number was only provisional.

In another shift from Trump's policies, Biden announced in April that quotas were being expanded for refugees from Central America, the Middle East and Africa, while also opening the doors to three mostly Muslim countries -- Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

With Monday's announcement, the White House will hope to have calmed the political waters among Democrats just when it needs party unity to push forward on huge proposed social and infrastructure spending plans in an almost evenly divided Congress.

"We are amid the largest global refugee crisis in history, and after four years of slashing admittances to the lowest point on record, we need to return to our leadership position," another Democratic senator, Tim Kaine, said.

"I am heartened by today's announcement that moved toward upholding our values of accepting refugees."

Florida governor lifts all Covid restrictions

Miami (AFP) - Florida governor Ron DeSantis on Monday lifted all Covid-19 restrictions in the US state, citing the effectiveness and availability of vaccines, in a move that attracted criticism from Democratic mayors.

DeSantis signed a law invalidating local emergency orders -- which impose restrictions due to Covid-19 -- effective from July 1, and then signed an executive order that bridges the gap between now and then.

"That's the evidence thing to do," the Republican governor said at a news conference, referring to the reduction in infections and deaths as the vaccine rollout continues.

Nearly nine million people -- out of a total of 23 million residents -- have had at least one dose of the vaccine in Florida, according to the US health department.

"At this point, the people that haven't been vaccinated is certainly not because a lack of supply or a lack of availability," he added.

The vaccine was made available last Friday for everyone over the age of 16 without the need for proof of state residency, a document that had been required since January to cope with the initial high demand.

This enabled vaccinations for undocumented migrants, who had difficulty proving their residency, as well as, tacitly, so-called vaccine tourism.

DeSantis -- a potential 2024 presidential candidate who is popular with many Donald Trump supporters -- criticized the strict security measures that remain in place elsewhere in the United States.

He said that those who say they need to still restrict residents are saying they "don't believe in the vaccines."

Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are available, in many cases without appointment, at federal, state and county centers; in addition to numerous pharmacies and supermarkets.

"I'm deeply concerned by this decision. We are still in a public health emergency," said Daniella Levine-Cava, Democratic mayor of Miami-Dade county, the most populous in the state.

"Fewer than half of our residents have been vaccinated, and we face a growing threat from variants."

Rick Kriseman, St. Petersburg mayor, said DeSantis was putting his own ambitions above health policy.

"This isn't for the protection of Floridians," he said. "This is for politics -- and that's not what it's supposed to be."

Prince Harry and J-Lo lead 'Vax Live' concert in Los Angeles

Prince Harry joined pop royalty for the 'Vax Live' fundraising concert in Los Angeles to promote global vaccinations against Covid-19

Los Angeles (AFP) - Britain's Prince Harry joined pop royalty including Jennifer Lopez at a star-studded concert in Los Angeles Sunday to urge faster and more even global vaccinations, as he voiced support for India during its devastating Covid outbreak.

"Vax Live: The Concert To Reunite The World" featured video messages from the pope and President Joe Biden and in-person appearances from Hollywood stars such as Ben Affleck and Sean Penn.

The show will air on television and YouTube on May 8, after being pre-taped in front of thousands of fully vaccinated spectators at a vast California stadium Sunday.

"Tonight, we stand in solidarity with the millions of families across India, who are battling a devastating second wave," said Prince Harry, who was greeted with a standing ovation.

"The virus does not respect borders, and access to the vaccine cannot be determined by geography," added Harry, making his first in-person appearance at a major public event in California since moving last year to the United States with wife Meghan Markle, who did not appear.

The concert organized by Global Citizen, an international advocacy organization, aims to battle vaccine disinformation while calling on world leaders and corporations to take action and make donations.

Thousands of spectators gathered inside Los Angeles' giant, recently completed SoFi stadium for the first time. Most attendees were frontline medical workers, many dressed in nurse and doctor uniforms.

Selena Gomez hosted proceedings, calling for "doses and dollars" to go to the world's poorest countries even as California and parts of the West emerge from lengthy lockdowns thanks to massive inoculation progress.

Not 'out of the woods'

A glittering J-Lo told fans she had been forced to spend Christmas without her mother for the first time due to the pandemic -- before bringing the Lopez matriarch onto an elaborate meadow-themed stage for a feelgood singalong of "Sweet Caroline."

The Foo Fighters were joined by surprise guest Brian Johnson of AC/DC for a rendition of "Back in Black."

"We ain't out of the woods yet... let's work as hard as we can to make sure we can do this" every night, said frontman Dave Grohl.

Organizers said the event had surpassed its fundraising goal need to purchase 10 million vaccine doses for low and middle-income countries, drawing more than $53 million in donations from corporations and philanthropists.

In pre-taped messages, President Biden said he was "working with leaders around the world to share more vaccines and boost production" while Pope Francis said: "I beg you not to forget the most vulnerable."

Other video messages came from Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Prince Harry, who took to the large circular stage in the middle of the arena dressed casually in a blue shirt, described online disinformation about vaccines as a "humanitarian crisis" that is "getting worse."

The concert will stream on YouTube along with American television networks ABC and CBS on May 8 at 8:00 pm ET (midnight GMT). It will also air internationally on Brazil's Globo, Colombia's Caracol, SABC in South Africa and MultiChoice in Africa.

Northern Ireland marks 100 years, divided

Northern Ireland marks its centenary on Monday

Belfast (AFP) - Northern Ireland marks its 100th year on Monday, but faltering efforts to commemorate the centenary encapsulate the rift at the heart of the British province.

Ever since Ireland was freed from British rule in 1921, Northern Ireland's existence has been controversial, and the knot in an often bloody tug-of-war between warring factions.

The province's troubled past, fragile present and uncertain future are endlessly disputed between pro-UK unionists and republicans who favour union with Ireland.

But the zero-sum contest is heating up again, in part due to Brexit.

"The centenary of Northern Ireland is, by its very nature, divisive, and it can't be anything but divisive," said Jonathan Evershed, a researcher at University College Cork.

"There is simply no way of commemorating Northern Ireland in a way that is reconciliatory or inclusive," he told AFP.

  • 100 years of strife - 

Northern Ireland was created on May 3, 1921 when the island of Ireland was split in two following the Irish war for independence.

Northern Ireland had a powerful Protestant pro-UK majority but a large demographic of pro-Ireland Catholics seeking shared destiny with a new free Irish state, which eventually became a full republic.

To this day, republicans often call Northern Ireland "the north of Ireland" and refer to the creation of the province as "partition" -- nodding to deeply held beliefs about an illegitimately imposed border.

Northern Irish republicans -- also known as nationalists -- often fly the Irish tricolour flag from their homes, a signal they identify as citizens of Ireland occupied by a foreign power.

On the other side, unionists pepper their enclaves with Union Jack flags, murals to Britain's royal family and the UK armed forces -- signifiers of a bond with mainland Great Britain.

This is the profound rift at the heart of Northern Ireland -- a war over whether it should, or even does, legitimately exist, and which sparked 30 years of bitter sectarian conflict known as "The Troubles".

Some 3,500 lives were lost before a 1998 peace accord and though violence has waned, division remains in a tug-of-war contest to edge the province closer to Ireland or to the UK.

In this context, each side's gain is the other side's loss -- sustaining a bitter cycle of political enmity and recrimination.

"Partition and the legitimacy of Northern Ireland are what conflict in Northern Ireland is about, and views on this are irreconcilably opposed," said Evershed.

  • Controversy - 

Britain's Northern Ireland Office promised centenary celebrations will "highlight the strength and beauty of the diverse perspectives and identities" in the province and the rest of the UK.

But the events are necessarily founded on the premise that Northern Ireland is a part of the UK, with Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state.

One planned event is for a "centenary rose" to be "presented to Her Majesty the Queen for her own garden" -- a prospect unlikely to delight fervent republicans.

The programme does include olive-branch events intended to fold in support from the nationalist community, including a cross-denominational church service and the foundation of an inclusive "shared history fund".

But the two main republican parties in Northern Ireland -- Sinn Fein and the SDLP -- boycotted a planning forum for events.

"There will be no celebration of partition which has failed the people of this island," said Sinn Fein's leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O'Neill, last year.

Conversely, some unionists seemingly unsatisfied with the UK government's neutral rhetoric have set up a celebration committee with "a roadmap towards the next 100 years of Northern Ireland".

"Unionists and nationalists have different understandings of the past -- they commemorate different things, and do so differently –- because they have conflicting visions of the political future," said Evershed.

  • Future at stake - 

The centenary also comes at a time when Northern Ireland's future is ever more uncertain, and ever more hotly contested.

Unionists have lost their historic grips on regional and national parliamentary power while Britain's departure from the European Union has radically altered the international status of Northern Ireland.

When a post-Brexit transition period ended in January a new "protocol" for the province came into place, with checks at ports keeping it effectively in the EU customs union and single market for goods.

Rioting broke out in early April, emanating from the unionist community and among more hardcore loyalists where many feel the protocol endangers their identity.

First Minister Arlene Foster announced her resignation last week.

"Northern Ireland's centenary is, I think, quite an unhappy one," said Evershed.

"Unionism greets the centenary of a state built in its own image but in which it no longer feels... secure, while republicans are forced to confront that a border they have opposed for 100 years still exists."

New York's oldest play blazes trail as Broadway waits

Charles Geyer et Catherine Russell durant une représentation de la pièce

New York (AFP) - Broadway is not due to return until September but New York's longest-running play is already back thanks to its indomitable lead who has played the same role over 13,500 times.

Catherine Russell, 65, is the driving force behind "Perfect Crime," a rollicking whodunit that has been on Big Apple billboards since 1987.

"I'm very determined. And whenever people tell me, you can't do something, I'm like, 'Screw you. Watch me do it,'" she tells AFP.

Not only is Russell the show's main actor, she is also the manager of the Theater Center that puts on the play and a "dynamo" according to co-star Charles Geyer.

"I can do 180 push-ups in a row. Marine push-ups, not girl push-ups," insists Russell, as if anyone would dare dispute the fact.

When performance venues shut in March 2020 as the pandemic spread like wildfire through New York, Russell kept busy so as not to get too depressed.

She repainted the theater, repaired a few of its armchairs and bought a ventilation system to help keep the air clean.

When Russell heard that bowling alleys were going to be allowed to reopen at the end of August last year, while theaters remained shut, she thought: "This is crazy!"

"Bowling alleys are great. But if you can bowl, you should be able to go to a theatre and sit with a mask and watch a show," Russell says.

So she sued the city government and the state's governor to try to force them to reopen small performance venues like hers.

In early March Governor Andrew Cuomo ruled that theaters could reopen at 25 percent capacity, later updated to 33 percent, which is still not financially viable for most venues.

Russell is continuing her lawsuit to try to obtain at least 50 percent seating.

On April 9, she reopened the Theater Center with performances of "The Office: A Musical Parody."

On April 17, Russell performed in "Perfect Crime," for the 13,524th time, world record.

"Many people felt they were not ready, and that's fine. (But) I felt that we were ready," she recalls.

"I don't think of (myself as) a torchbearer. Perhaps I'm a little less fearless than other people, and maybe I have less to lose because I'm a little off-Broadway show," Russell adds.

'Bringing New York back'

She admits that the theater is losing money and that even an increase to 50 percent capacity would not be enough to balance the books.

"We're kind of scrappy, and I'm willing to do this for principle," Russell says.

Her theater received the green light from the main performing arts union, the Actors' Equity Association, provided every actor is vaccinated and tested before each show.

When AFP visited, the audience was at covid-era capacity, with 66 people in a room that would normally hold 200. Attendance has been steady since reopening, said producer Armand Hyatt.

Susan Jacknowitz, 75, traveled from North Carolina to see the play with a friend from New York.

"When she texted me to say I got theater tickets, I was so excited," said Jacknowitz.

"Perfect Crime", a classic murder mystery matured by a hint of psychology, usually gets drowned out by the countless Broadway shows on offer.

But the current hiatus is allowing it to get a little more attention than usual.

Theater fan Jessica Bloom had passed the Theater Center, off Times Square, dozens of times without stopping to go in. 

"It's something new and anything that will get me inside a theater I will see it, even if I don't know what it's about," said the 35-year-old.

Geyer, the actor, recalls a "terrific" reopening night.

"We were the first players to be back on stage. They were the first audience to come and support the players, so we were like a team," he says.

"There's a larger meaning than just a night at the theater. It's about being in the vanguard of bringing New York back, culturally."

ISS astronauts splash down off Florida on SpaceX craft

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying four astronaunts was retrieved from the Gulf of Mexico and the crew will be flown to Houston after medical checks

Washington (AFP) - A SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying four astronauts back to Earth splashed down off Florida early Sunday in NASA's first nighttime ocean landing in more than 50 years.

The crew reported they were feeling well after their arrival back on Earth following a nearly six-month mission aboard the International Space Station, NASA said.

The capsule splashed down at 2:56 am (0656 GMT) in the dark in the Gulf of Mexico off Panama City after a six-and-a-half-hour flight from the ISS, night-vision images relayed by NASA's WB-57 high-altitude research aircraft showed.

Teams aboard the Go Navigator recovery ship retrieved the capsule and hoisted it onto the deck about half an hour later. It was the first nighttime splashdown for NASA since the crew of Apollo 8 arrived in the Pacific Ocean on December 27, 1968.

Commander Michael Hopkins was the first to emerge after the hatch was opened, doing a little jig as he set foot on deck, followed shortly after by fellow NASA astronaut Victor Glover.

"On behalf of Crew-1 and our families, we just want to say thank you ... It's amazing what can be accomplished when people come together. Y'all are changing the world. Congratulations. It's great to be back," Hopkins said in a NASA tweet.

NASA astronaut Shannon Walker and Japan's Soichi Noguchi were the other two aboard.

"Welcome home Victor, Michael, Shannon, and Soichi, and congratulations to the teams at NASA and SpaceX who worked so hard to ensure their safe and successful splashdown," said new NASA administrator Bill Nelson.

"We've accomplished another incredible spaceflight for America and our commercial and international partners. Safe, reliable transportation to the International Space Station is exactly the vision that NASA had when the agency embarked on the commercial crew program."

71 million miles

The four astronauts went to space last November as the crew on the first fully operational mission to the ISS aboard a vehicle made by Elon Musk's SpaceX, which has become NASA's favored commercial transportation partner.

They traveled 71.2 million miles (114.6 million kilometers) during their 168 days in orbit (including 167 days aboard the space station), NASA said.

After medical checks, the four astronauts will be flown by helicopter to Pensacola to board a plane for Houston to be reunited with their friends and family, NASA said.

Seven astronauts remained on the ISS including a new crew of four who arrived on a different SpaceX craft last week.

"Thanks for your hospitality," Hopkins said earlier as the capsule undocked from the space station for its return journey. "We'll see you back on Earth."

Prior to that, two American astronauts made a test mission to the ISS in May and stayed for two months. 

That was the first launch to the ISS from US soil since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. It was also the first crewed mission run by a private company, as opposed to NASA. 

Until then US astronauts had caught rides to the ISS aboard Russian spacecraft.

GOP seeks way out of political limbo after losing White House and Congress under Trump

Washington (AFP) - Shut out of the White House and desperate to reclaim power in Congress next year, Republicans are locked in an internal battle over their party's direction, and whether to embrace or jettison the divisive politics of Donald Trump.

One hundred days after Trump's turbulent term gave way to Democratic rule in Washington, Republican lawmakers spent part of the last week in closed-door soul searching at their annual retreat in Florida, struggling to tamp down their conference's extremist personalities and highlight conservative policies they believe will resonate with voters.

The party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan is scrambling to forge a path out of political limbo in the run up to the 2022 midterm elections and ultimately the next presidential race in 2024.

Even if there is GOP appetite for ditching the rhetoric of nativist grievance and moving on from Trump, many Republicans still see him as their party's de facto leader -- although an NBC News poll this week showed Trump's support among Republican voters is slipping.

Trump himself told Fox News last week he is "beyond seriously" considering another White House bid to challenge President Joe Biden, or another Democrat, in 2024.

Such statements are likely to freeze the primary field until Trump announces his political plans, denying the party opportunities to vet and debate the candidates who would otherwise step forward to challenge Democrats for the White House.

Republican strategists and lawmakers themselves acknowledge the party is grappling with how much distance they need to take from Trump and who can lead them back to power.

"Any party that loses a presidential election goes into the wilderness for a while," Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant in Texas, told AFP in a Friday interview.

"When you're in the wilderness you don't have one unified leader," he explained. "But the difference with us is we do have one leader, and it's Trump."

The ex-president however is weighed down with baggage. His approval ratings have slid, he faces mounting legal woes, and his former personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani is under federal investigation.

"But Trump's agenda was successful," Mackowiak said.

"There's an emerging consensus that Trumpism without Trump may give us the best opportunity to win in 2024."

  • 'Common sense, common ground' -

Eager to appear as the party of inclusion, especially following the guilty verdict in the trial of the white ex-police officer charged with murdering George Floyd, Republicans appointed Senator Tim Scott, the chamber's only Black Republican, to deliver the rebuttal to Biden's Wednesday address to Congress.

In a 15-minute response, Scott made an open-armed plea for Americans of all political stripes to reach "common sense and common ground."

The choice of Scott was ideal, Mackowiak said, because his approach to policy and engagement has "the broadest appeal" within the party.

But even as Scott sought to assure that "America is not a racist country," members of his own GOP have used nativist rhetoric as the party struggles with its populist impulses.

Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who once publicly embraced QAnon conspiracy theories and is a fierce Trump defender, was among a handful of conservatives reportedly backing a platform that advocated "Anglo-Saxon political traditions."

Congress's most powerful Republican, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has made clear he opposes such rhetoric.

He refused to latch himself to Trump, an election loser who fueled conspiracy theories about voter fraud and was impeached for inciting a deadly riot at the US Capitol in January.

But in April the former president eviscerated McConnell before well-heeled donors at Trump's Mar-a-Lago club, where he reportedly called the veteran senator "dumb".

As Republicans craft their 2022 midterms strategy, an ugly rift emerged at the retreat between top House Republican Kevin McCarthy and conference chairwoman Liz Cheney -- a breakdown the GOP was hoping to avoid as it urges internal unity.

Cheney, among 10 Republicans who voted for Trump's impeachment in January, said politicians who challenged the election results should be disqualified from running for president.

McCarthy shot back saying discussing such issues at a retreat focused on policy was "not being productive."

Cheney, who caught flak within her own party for fist-bumping Biden before his speech to Congress, has not ruled out running for president.

But her political future would likely be hamstrung until and unless the Republican Party breaks with Trump, who has repeatedly attacked Cheney in recent statements.

Trainer Bob Baffert makes history as Medina Spirit wins 147th Kentucky Derby

Medina Spirit won the 147th Kentucky Derby Saturday at Churchill Downs, giving trainer Bob Baffert a record seventh victory in the US flat racing classic.

Puerto Rican jockey John Velazquez piloted Medina Spirit to the front early and held on to win the first jewel of US racing's Triple Crown for the fourth time as overwhelming pre-race favorite Essential Quality finished fourth.

"I cannot believe he won this race," Baffert said of 12-1 shot Medina Spirit, who was second in his previous start in the Santa Anita Derby on April 3.

"He won this race. That little horse, it was all guts."

Velazquez said he and Baffert had decided to take Medina Spirit to the front early, and the strategy paid off.

"Johnny had him in a perfect spot, and if you have him on the lead he'll fight."

Mandaloun, a 26-1 shot trained by Brad Cox and ridden by US-based French jockey Florent Geroux, applied the most pressure in the final straight, but settled for second ahead of Hot Rod Charlie, trained by Doug O'Neill and ridden by another US-based Frenchman, Flavien Prat.

The bigger disappointment for Cox, trying to become the first Louisville-born trainer to win the Kentucky Derby, must be the failure of Essential Quality.

Unbeaten in five prior starts, the gray colt owned by Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum's Godolphin stables left the global racing and breeding powerhouse still seeking a Kentucky Derby win after 12 attempts.

Baffert moved out of a tie with legendary trainer Ben Jones for most career Kentucky Derby wins. His six prior winners of the 1 1/4-mile race for 3-year-olds at Churchill Downs included Triple Crown winners Justify and American Pharoah.

Baffert admitted he didn't have the same kind of expectations for Medina Spirit that he had for those greats.

"I'm so spoiled bringing these heavy duty horses here," he said. "But that little horse has such a heart."

The Triple Crown chase resumes on May 15 with the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore, and concludes June 5 with the Belmont Stakes in New York.

Human smuggling probe underway after 90 people found in Houston home

Police were initially alerted to the property in Houston, Texas by a report of a kidnapping

Houston (AFP) - US authorities opened an investigation Friday into a possible human smuggling operation after police in Houston found more than 90 people crammed into a home in the Texas city.

Assistant Police Chief DB Edwards said police were initially alerted to the house in a southwest Houston neighborhood by a report of a kidnapping.

"When they got inside the house they realized this is actually going to turn into a human smuggling investigation," Edwards told reporters. "It was a big surprise when we got in the house and saw what we saw."

He said police discovered just over 90 people in the modest two-storey home. Five were women and the rest were men. No children were among the group.

Edwards said it appears to be "definitely more of a smuggling thing and not a trafficking thing."

"I don't know if they were going to be parceled off into doing some kind of work or labor or something like that," he said.

Edwards said some of the people in the house appeared to have Covid-19 and would need to be quarantined. "We do have some people that are symptomatic." he said.

Edwards did not say where the people in the house came from but the Texas-Mexico border is a known crossing point for illegal immigrants to the United States.

Afghan retreat: US formally begins withdrawing from its longest war

The prospect of an end of 20 years of US presence comes despite fighting raging across the countryside

Kabul (AFP) - The United States formally begins withdrawing its last troops from Afghanistan Saturday, bringing its longest war nearer to an end but also heralding an uncertain future for a country in the tightening grip of an emboldened Taliban.

US officials on the ground say the withdrawal is already a work in progress -- and May 1 is just a continuation -- but Washington has made an issue of the date because it is a deadline agreed with the Taliban in 2020 to complete the pullout.

The skies above Kabul and nearby Bagram airbase have been buzzing with more US helicopter activity than usual as the pullout gears up, following the start Thursday of a concurrent NATO withdrawal.

The prospect of an end of 20 years of US presence comes despite fighting raging across the countryside in the absence of a peace deal.

A stark reminder of what remains came late Friday with a car bomb in Pul-e-Alam, south of the capital, killing at least 21 people and wounding 100 more.

US President Joe Biden is determined to end what he called "the forever war", announcing last month that the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 American forces would be complete by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

"A horrific attack 20 years ago... cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021," he said. 

Since the US withdrawal deal was struck the Taliban have not directly engaged foreign troops, but insurgents have mercilessly attacked government forces in the countryside and waged a terror campaign in urban areas.  

The exit of US forces has only exacerbated the fear felt by ordinary Afghans.

"Everyone is scared that we might go back to the dark days of the Taliban era," said Mena Nowrozi, who works at a private radio station in Kabul.

"The Taliban are still the same; they have not changed. The US should have extended their presence by at least a year or two," she told AFP.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani insists that government forces -- who for months have carried out most of the ground fighting against the Taliban -- are "fully capable" of keeping the insurgents at bay.

He said the pullout also means the Taliban have no reason to fight.

"Who are you killing? What are you destroying? Your pretext of fighting the foreigners is now over," Ghani said in a speech this week. 

Worst-case analysis

Still, General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has not ruled out total chaos.

"On the worst-case analysis, you have a potential collapse of the government, a potential collapse of the military," he said earlier this week.

"You have a civil war and all the humanitarian catastrophe that goes with it."

Police officer Abdul Malik from the former insurgent bastion of Kandahar said they were prepared.

"We have to take care of our homeland... We will do our best to defend our soil," he told AFP.

The US-led military onslaught in Afghanistan began in October 2001 in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

Two decades later, and after the death of almost 2,400 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans, Biden says the final withdrawal was justified as US forces had now made sure the country cannot again become a base for foreign jihadists to plot against the West.

Concerns are high that the Taliban might yet strike at retreating US forces, and in the southern province of Kandahar -- where the foes used to clash regularly -- security sources say several areas are laden with explosives planted by the insurgents.

"If the Taliban attack retreating US or allied forces, it would be to bloody the nose of a defeated enemy and to humiliate it further," said Afghanistan specialist Nishank Motwani.

Andrew Watkins, of the International Crisis Group, said the coming months would see the situation become a more purely local conflict.

"The United States and its NATO partners are stepping back and giving the two primary sides of this conflict... their first instance to fight with and assess their opponents without the extra factor of the United States," he said.

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