New Mexico governor becomes substitute teacher amid Covid shortage

Schools have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, with thousands of teachers forced off work

Los Angeles (AFP) - The governor of New Mexico started work Wednesday as a substitute teacher, replacing one of the thousands of educators across the United States who have been forced off work by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Michelle Lujan Grisham -- a lawyer by training -- swapped the governor's mansion for the classroom as part of the "Supporting Teachers and Families" initiative designed to plug holes in staffing in schools and child care across the state.

"It was maybe one of the best days in my entire career," Grisham said after the final school bell had rung.

"It was easier than managing the cabinet," she quipped, but "it was more complicated than I was expecting."

Last week, Grisham issued a plea for state workers and National Guard troops to sign up as licensed substitute teachers and child care workers. 

"Our schools are a critical source of stability for our children, we know they learn best in the classroom and thrive by being among their peers," the governor said in a statement announcing the program.

The United States is facing an unprecedented wave of Covid-19 infections, driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Nearly five million new cases were logged last week, with New Mexico among hard-hit states.

Almost half of the southwestern state's school districts were forced to return to online classes in recent weeks, with teachers and faculty members having to isolate after being infected or being a close contact of a Covid-positive person.

Candidates for the substitute teacher program need to have a high school diploma and to pass a background check. No formal teaching qualifications or experience are necessary.

The United States has the highest number of Covid-19 infections of any country, and is lagging behind other wealthy nations in its drive to innoculate the population due to widespread vaccine hesitancy.

Astronomers predict SpaceX space junk will hit the Moon

A SpaceX rocket carrying a NASA weather satellite blasts off in February 2015 from Cape Canaveral, Florida

Washington (AFP) - A chunk of a SpaceX rocket that blasted off seven years ago and was abandoned in space after completing its mission will crash into the Moon in March, experts say.

The rocket was employed in 2015 to put in orbit a NASA satellite called the Deep Space Climate Observatory.

Since then the second stage of the rocket, or booster, has been floating in what mathematicians call a chaotic orbit, astronomer Bill Gray told AFP Wednesday.

It was Gray who calculated the space junk's new collision course with the Moon.

The booster passed by pretty close to the Moon in January in a rendezvous that altered its orbit, said Gray.

He is behind Project Pluto, software that allows for calculating the trajectory of asteroids and other things in space and is used in NASA-financed space observation programs.

A week after the rocket stage whizzed close to the Moon, Gray detected it again and concluded it will actually crash into the satellite's dark side on March 4.

Gray appealed to the amateur astronomer community to join him in observing the booster -- it is bright and easy to detect -- and his conclusion was confirmed.

The exact time and spot of impact may change a bit from his forecast but there is widespread agreement that there will be a collision on the Moon that day.

"I've been tracking junk of this sort for about 15 years. And this is the first unintentional lunar impact that we've had," Gray told AFP.

The impact of this object weighing four tons on the Moon will not be visible from Earth in real time.

But it will leave a crater that scientists can observe, such as with NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter or India's Chandrayaan-2 satellite, and thus learn more about the geology of the Moon.

Spacecraft have been intentionally crashed into the Moon before, for scientific purposes.

In 2009, for instance, NASA sent a rocket stage hurling into the Moon near its south pole to look for water.

But most rockets do not go so far from Earth. SpaceX brings its rocket boosters back through the Earth's atmosphere so they disintegrate over the ocean.

Gray said there could be more unintentional crashes into the Moon in the future as the US and Chinese space programs leave more junk in orbit.

Twitter suspends spoiler account for 'Wordle' answer reveal

Web game wordle asks players to guess a five-letter word in six tries every day

San Francisco (AFP) - Twitter suspended a bot account on Wednesday for spoiling the solution to the next day's Wordle, the wildly popular internet word puzzle.

The game, which only offers one puzzle per day, has amassed millions of players since it came online last year. 

But the Twitter profile @wordlinator seemed determined to ruin the fun for participants posting their scores on the social media site. 

"The account referenced was suspended for violating the Twitter Rules and the Automation Rules around sending unsolicited @mentions," a Twitter spokesperson told AFP.  

The bot account automatically responded to accounts posting their Wordle scores with messages such as "Guess what. People don't care about your mediocre linguistic escapades. To teach you a lesson, tomorrow's word is" -- followed by the actual answer for the next day. 

Twitter said it does not tolerate its platform being used to harass other users. 

Its policy also notes that sending unsolicited, aggressive or bulk mentions, replies or direct messages warrants suspension from the platform or deleting of the account in question.

Though Wordle gives players six chances to guess a five-letter word, does not have a mobile app and is only available on a web browser, the game has quickly caught on, partly thanks to users' ability to share their scores in green, yellow and gray grids on social media. 

It is likely the person behind the @wordlinator account found the upcoming winning words by simply looking at the Wordle web page's source code. 

"Just what kind of sick, twisted person do you have to be to hate the sight of people enjoying a harmless activity so much you hack Wordle?" asked one player on Twitter Tuesday.

Dozens of people missing after boat capsizes off Florida: US Coast Guard

The Coast Guard in Miami said the capsized vessel was approximately 45 miles (70 kilometers) east of Fort Pierce Inlet, Florida

Miami (AFP) - The US Coast Guard has launched a search for 39 people reported missing when a boat capsized off the coast of Florida in a "suspected human smuggling venture."

The Coast Guard in Miami said Tuesday it received a report "from a good Samaritan" who rescued a man "clinging to a capsized vessel approximately 45 miles east of Fort Pierce Inlet."

The survivor said the boat left Bimini in the Bahamas on Saturday night, and had encountered rough weather before it capsized.

"According to the survivor, no one was wearing a life jacket," the statement said.

"Coast Guard air and surface asset crews are actively searching for people in the water. This is a suspected human smuggling venture," said the statement posted on Twitter. 

It added later that air and surface crews would "continue to search throughout the night" for the missing people.  

An image released by the Coast Guard showed the capsized vessel in the water with a man straddling the hull. 

The survivor was taken to a hospital to be treated for dehydration and sun exposure, the Coast Guard said.

Human smugglers are known to use the Bahamas -- a group of islands near the Florida coast -- as a jumping-off point for transporting people, many from other Caribbean countries such as Haiti, to the United States.

According to the International Organization for Migration, around 5,000 Haitian migrants work legally in the Bahamas, but 20,000 to 50,000 of their compatriots are in the country illegally.

Bimini, the westernmost district of the Bahamas and its closest point to the mainland, is approximately 130 miles (217 kilometers) from Fort Pierce Inlet.

On Friday, 32 people were rescued after a boat capsized about five miles west of Bimini in another suspected human smuggling attempt, according to the US Coast Guard and the Royal Bahamas Defence Force. 

The US Coast Guard tweeted that its vessels patrol the waters around Haiti, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas "to ensure the safety of life at sea." 

"Navigating the seas in overloaded and less than seaworthy vessels is extremely dangerous and can result in loss of life," it warned.

Spikes in the number of people trying to reach the United States from the Caribbean have accompanied upheavals in the region. 

US authorities noted an increase in migration from Cuba by sea in recent months. In July, the country saw scores of demonstrations triggered by economic strife, medical and food shortages and anger at the government.

US judge upholds conviction of drug lord 'El Chapo' Guzman

This US Department of Justice handout photo received February 19, 2019, shows Mexican drug lord Joaquin

New York (AFP) - A US appeals court on Tuesday upheld the conviction of Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman, rejecting his request for a new trial and keeping him in prison for life.

Guzman was convicted in February 2019 of trafficking hundreds of tons of cocaine and other drugs into the United States over the course of 25 years, as well as money laundering and racketeering.

He was later sentenced to life plus 30 years and ordered to pay $12.6 billion in forfeiture.

Guzman's lawyers asked for a new trial, citing juror misconduct, among other issues.

One of the jurors told the website Vice News that he and others had ignored trial judge Brian Cogan's ban on them following media coverage of the 11-week trial.

But in a 44-page ruling released Tuesday, Judge John Newman of the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd District rejected the request by Guzman's attorneys.

"Judge Cogan conducted the three-month trial with diligence and fairness, after issuing a series of meticulously crafted pretrial rulings," Newsman wrote.

"For the reasons set forth above, the resulting judgment of the District Court is AFFIRMED."

When Cogan read the drug lord's life sentence in July 2019, Guzman said, in Spanish, "there was no justice here." 

Guzman -- his nickname means 'shorty' for his abbreviated stature -- had also argued that the total solitary confinement to which he was subjected after his extradition from Mexico in 2017 prevented him from working with his legal team before and during the trial.

Guzman is serving his term in a high security prison in Colorado.

During Guzman's reign, his Sinaloa cartel's empire expanded across the globe, its tentacles stretching from the Americas to Europe and Asia.

In Mexico he managed to break out of prison twice. 

The second time, in mid-2015, he did so via a one-mile (1.5 kilometer) tunnel that opened in his cell's shower. He zoomed out by hopping on a modified motorcycle mounted on rails.

Mexican marines captured Guzman six months later and he was extradited to the United States a year after that, ending his decades-long cat-and-mouse game with the authorities.

Guzman's wife, Emma Coronel, was sentenced to three years in prison in the United States in November for drug trafficking and money laundering in association with her husband's cartel.

Gun insurance would become compulsory under proposed California city law

Tens of thousands of people die in the United States every year after being shot

Los Angeles (AFP) - Gun owners would be compelled to take out insurance to cover any damage caused by their weapon, under a law being debated Tuesday in one California city.

The planned ordinance will also require that they pay an annual fee that will fund a non-profit group to help victims of gun violence.

The law, which is expected to go to its first vote in San Jose on Tuesday, is intended both to reduce the harm caused by firearms and to cut down the costs to taxpayers.

"We have seen how insurance has reduced auto fatalities over several decades, for example, by incentivizing safer driving and the purchase of cars equipped with airbags and antilock brakes," Mayor Sam Liccardo said.

"Similarly, gun liability insurance available today on the market can adjust premiums to encourage gun owners to use gun safes, install trigger-locks, and take gun safety classes."

Guns abound in the United States, where around 40 percent of adults live in a gun-owning household, according to the Pew Research Center.

Almost 23 million firearms were sold across the country in 2020 and 40,000 people die from gunshots annually.

Despite the horrific toll and the fact that a majority of Americans favor the tightening of gun control rules, repeated attempts to limit gun ownership have failed, with opponents arguing controls are an infringement of individual liberties.

A press release from San Jose city council said gun violence costs the city nearly $40 million a year, including for emergency police and medical response, health care, and investigations.

"While the Second Amendment protects every citizen's right to own a gun, it does not require taxpayers to subsidize that right," said Liccardo.

The $25 annual fee will help to fund programs aimed at reducing gun violence, as well as mental health counseling and addiction treatment.

The National Foundation for Gun Rights, an advocacy group, described the proposed law as "a blatantly unconstitutional scheme."

"This is just as unthinkable as imposing a 'free speech tax' or a 'church attendance tax.'

"The National Foundation for Gun Rights is preparing a lawsuit to challenge this gun ownership tax in federal district court."

The ordinance must pass a second reading on February 8 before it becomes law in August.

Anthony Blinken says has 'no doubts' Germany is resolute on Ukraine

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to tamp down concerns about Germany's commitment to opposing Russian aggression against Ukraine, expressing confidence that the Germans were aligned with NATO and Washington

Washington (AFP) - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday he has "no doubts" Germany is maintaining a united front with NATO on the Ukraine crisis, after Berlin faced pressure to toughen its stance against potential Russian aggression.

The top US diplomat also dismissed the idea of slapping punitive sanctions on Russia now, before any potential invasion of the former Soviet republic Ukraine, saying sanctions should be used as a means of "dissuading" Moscow from an attack.

Blinken's comments follow a week of intense diplomacy in which he held talks with his Russian counterpart and also sat down with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz as Kyiv voiced mounting fears of a Russian invasion.

Germany was in the hot seat at the weekend after its navy chief Kay-Achim Schoenbach said Russian President Vladimir Putin deserves respect and also suggested it was "nonsense" to think Russia was ready to pour troops into Ukraine.

Schoenbach resigned Saturday, but his remarks rattled the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Blinken did a round of talk show appearances in a bid to tamp down the worry.

"I can tell you that the Germans very much share our concerns and are resolute and being determined to respond -- and to respond swiftly, effectively, and in a united way," Blinken said on NBC talk show "Meet the Press."

"I have no doubts about that."

On CBS News show "Face the Nation," he also mentioned Germany's commitment to stand shoulder to shoulder with Europe and Washington, saying, "I am very convinced there will be a united response to whatever Russia does."

With Kyiv facing what Blinken has described as an "unprecedented" threat from Russia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Western nations not to delay imposing sanctions on Moscow as a way to prevent an invasion.

"I support imposing sanctions now," Zelensky told the Washington Post on Thursday. "Why do you need sanctions after we lose the whole territory of Ukraine?"

But Blinken dismissed the idea of punishing Russia before any potential invasion of the former Soviet republic, saying the sanctions should be used as a means of "dissuading" Moscow from engaging in further aggression against Ukraine.

"Once sanctions are triggered, you lose the deterrent effect," Blinken told CBS. "So what we're doing is putting together a whole series of actions that would figure into President Putin's calculus."

That includes beefing up defenses in Ukraine with more military assistance, Blinken said.

'Yellowstone': from 'red state' to 'every state' TV hit

Los Angeles (AFP) - With its gun-totin' heroes, elegiac shots of rodeo horses and disparaging jokes about Californians, "Yellowstone" might appear to be a television show aimed squarely at America's conservative heartland.

But the Kevin Costner-fronted Western, which blends soapy melodrama with brutal vigilante violence, has become a rare crossover hit, bridging the stark cultural divisions of the United States.

The show follows the wealthy Dutton family, which owns a Montana ranch "the size of Rhode Island" and must protect it by any means necessary from corporate developers, greedy politicians and displaced Native Americans.

In its first seasons, "Yellowstone" cultivated a devoted fanbase in rural and smaller urban markets, benefiting from cross-marketing with NFL broadcasts in regions where live TV still rules over streaming.

But by the fourth season's premiere in November, a whopping 11 million people across the country tuned into cable TV channel Paramount Network -- numbers higher than "Game of Thrones" at the same stage.

"Just because it's in Montana and there are ranchers, people say it's a red-state show," Keith Cox, the network's president of development and production, told AFP, referring to states that typically vote Republican.

"Now we're seeing it's just an every state show."

This month, the show was finally even recognized by Hollywood, where it received its first nomination from the Screen Actors Guild.

'Throwback'

So, how did a series about land rights, livestock officers and bucking broncos win a foothold among the coastal urban elites?

Costner -- a bona fide if ageing movie star in his first multi-season TV role -- is evidently a key draw.

As the show has gained popularity in liberal circles, it has increasingly been talked up as a frontier version of HBO's critically adored "Succession" -- another drama about a wealthy, warring family, set mainly in New York.

But while both shows center on seemingly omniscient patriarchs with political connections, private helicopters and petulant offspring, they preach very different values.

The nihilistic, amoral and selfish siblings vying to betray their father on "Succession" are off-putting to many Americans, said Mary Murphy, associate professor of journalism at University of Southern California.

Despite its wall-to-wall media coverage, "Succession" drew just 1.7 million to its latest finale.

By comparison, "Yellowstone" is essentially the story of a man "who uses all his simple connections with people to keep the land safe," said Murphy.

"The people who watch it, they feel reassured about a simpler way of life," she added, pointing to the "insecurity" of the pandemic-affected time we live in.

According to Murphy, "Yellowstone" is a "throwback" that evokes American values and reflects on "how America was built" -- themes that resonate across the coasts and middle America.

It also benefits from a sense of authenticity in representing the everyday world of ranchers, rodeos and cowboys, even if the violence and scandal are exaggerated to keep the plot moving.

Creator Taylor Sheridan ("Sicario"), a horse-riding, ranch-owning Texan, wrote every episode himself.

"This is his world and he knows it best," said Cox. "Hollywood can't come in and fake it."

'Anti-woke?'

Still, "Yellowstone" has been embraced by some on the right as a celebration of "red state" values, and a rejection of supposedly "woke," politically correct Hollywood dramas.

When yuppie coastal transplants in Montana's rapidly gentrifying cities condemn his vast domain and his cattle herds' massive carbon footprint, Costner's ranch owner John flags their hypocrisy and his family's long stewardship of the land.

But according to Cox, the show never "takes a stance."

"It doesn't like outsiders moving in and raising prices and taking away the tradition of the ranchers," he said.

"But I feel like this show is not waving a flag for either side... Anti-woke? I think it's just real."

Cox, whose family hail from conservative bastion states including Missouri and Kentucky, said he has "never spoken to my cousins so much" since the show first aired.

"They haven't watched a lot of my other shows. This one they're obsessed with, and it's brought us together."

And while it has taken them a little longer, many of the Hollywood executives he meets at industry lunches who previously refused to watch "Yellowstone" are now ardent fans.

"It's very funny. A lot of my peers poo-pooed it or dismissed it," said Cox.

"And suddenly, they're in."

Biden warns of 'disaster for Russia' if they invade Ukraine

US President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House.

Washington (AFP) - US President Joe Biden warned Russia Wednesday that it will pay a stiff price for a full-blown invasion of Ukraine, but sowed confusion by suggesting a "minor" incursion would prompt much less pushback from the West.

Biden said he did not believe that President Vladimir Putin wants a war, but said the Russian leader has created a situation that is proving extremely difficult to defuse -- and that could easily "get out of hand" in the region.

"My guess is he will move in. He has to do something," Biden said during a press conference marking his first year in office.

He said Putin could be planning "something significantly short of a significant invasion" to test the United States and NATO that would be met with a lesser pushback from the allies.

"It's one thing if it's a minor incursion, and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, etcetera," he said.

'Swift' and 'severe'

Republican lawmakers quickly blasted the US leader, accusing him of tacitly okaying an attack by Russian troops.

"Joe Biden's impotence emboldened Vladimir Putin and now he just green-lighted Putin to invade Ukraine," tweeted Senator Tom Cotton.

Senator Marco Rubio called Biden's comments "bizarre."

"So if (Putin) only takes over parts of Ukraine our response will be less severe than if he takes it all?" he said on Twitter.

The White House moved swiftly to clarify Biden's comments.

"If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that's a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our allies," said Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

The Russians "have an extensive playbook of aggression short of military action, including cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics," she noted, referring to Biden's own explanation.

Biden "affirmed today that those acts of Russian aggression will be met with a decisive, reciprocal, and united response," she said.

Heavy loss of life

Biden was speaking ahead of a meeting on Friday in Geneva between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva.

Blinken held meetings in Kyiv Wednesday in preparations for the Geneva talks, and urged Moscow to choose the "peaceful path." 

With more than 100,000 troops and war-making machinery poised on Ukraine's borders, Moscow has sent alarms through the West over its threat to Kyiv.

Biden said the United States and its allies are "ready to impose severe costs and significant harm on Russia and the Russian economy" if it attacks.

"If they actually do what they're capable of doing with the force they've massed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia," Biden told reporters.

"The cost of going into Ukraine in terms of physical loss of life, for the Russians... it's going to be heavy."

'Room to work'

Biden appeared to suggest ways of deconfliction, playing down Putin's biggest worries, that Ukraine would join NATO and that the West would position strategic weapons in Ukraine.

And he opened the door for a new summit with his Russian counterpart.

"There's room to work if he wants to do that," he said.

"What I'm concerned about is this could get out of hand, very easily get out of hand, because of... the borders of Ukraine, and what Russia may or may not do," he said.

"I am hoping that Vladimir Putin understands that, short of a full-blown nuclear war, he is not in a very good position to dominate the world," Biden said.

"Putin has, I know, a stark choice, either escalation or diplomacy," he said.

"I think he will pay a serious and dear price for it if he doesn't think now."

Defiant Biden touts first year, vows to reconnect with voters

US President Joe Biden is looking to change the narrative as he enters his second year in office

Washington (AFP) - Joe Biden sought to reset his presidency in a marathon press conference Wednesday, vowing to reconnect with voters in his second year and touting what he said were his unprecedented successes, but stumbling during an answer on the Ukraine crisis.

"Can you think of any other president that's done as much in one year?" Biden asked, ticking off the epic struggle against Covid-19 and trillions of dollars in government funding to save the US economy from pandemic fallout.

"I don't think there's been much on any incoming president's plate that's been a bigger menu than the plate I had given to me," the Democrat said. "The fact of the matter is, we got a lot done."

Speaking on the eve of the anniversary of his inauguration on January 20, 2021, Biden held only the second White House press conference of his presidency -- then surprised many by taking questions for almost two full hours.

At various times combative, joking and meandering into thoughtful musings on everything from the workings of Vladimir Putin's mind to Republican opponents, Biden brushed off criticism over his handling of the pandemic and soaring inflation.

Asked about his approval ratings, which have sunk into the low 40 percent area, Biden was curt.

"I don't believe the polls," he said.

Biden did acknowledge missteps in the 12 months since he took over from Donald Trump, saying it had been "a year of challenges."

These included that he "didn't anticipate" the ferocity of Republican obstruction to his agenda in Congress. On Covid testing capabilities, which continue to struggle to meet demand, he said "we should have done it quicker."

Biden likewise said he understood "frustration" over steadily rising prices, which he blamed on Covid-related supply chain issues.

Fighting inflation will be "hard and take a lot of work."

"It's going to be painful for a lot of people," he said, noting that high prices were being felt "at the gas pump, the grocery stores and elsewhere."

Ukraine confusion

On one of the most traumatic episodes of his presidency -- the chaotic and rushed final withdrawal from the 20-year long Afghanistan war -- Biden said flatly: "I make no apologies."

"There was no way to get out of Afghanistan after 29 years easily," he declared.

The press conference, which defied the widely shared image of Biden as shrinking from contact with the media, focused especially heavily on the looming crisis in Ukraine, where the United States is leading Western efforts to find a diplomatic solution to Russia's military posturing on the border.

Biden said he was ready to meet with Putin and bluntly warned the Kremlin leader that an attack on Ukraine would be "a disaster" for Russia.

However, Biden caused confusion when he appeared to suggest that a small-scale attack by the Russians would prompt much less pushback from the West. The White House quickly issued a statement clarifying that what he meant was that any military invasion would prompt a "severe" response, while non-military aggression, like paramilitary attacks, would be met with a "reciprocal" response.

'Getting out'

With a State of the Union speech to Congress set for March 1, Biden faces a rapidly diminishing period in which he can engineer a strategy to fight off a Republican comeback at midterm congressional elections this November.

Republicans are forecast to crush his party and take control of the legislature. That risks bringing two years of complete obstruction from Congress, likely including threats of impeachment and a slew of aggressive committee probes. 

Trump, who continues to perpetuate the lie that he beat Biden in 2020 and seeks to undermine Americans' faith in their election system, is eyeing a possible attempt at another run at the White House in 2024.

Biden confirmed he wants to run for reelection with Kamala Harris as his vice president again. And he said that while Democrats proved unable to use their razor-thin congressional majority to pass two big priorities -- the Build Back Better social spending bill and election law reforms -- they could instead settle for passing "big chunks" of the failed legislation.

Above all, Biden emphasized his desire to leave the confines of the White House after a year featuring a decidedly light travel schedule.

"Number one: I am getting out of this place more often. I am going to go out and talk to the public," he said.

"I find myself in a situation where I don't get a chance to look people in the eye, both because of Covid and the situation in Washington," he said, describing how he wanted to "connect with people, let them take a measure of my sincerity."

Russians pose threat to US training mission in Ukraine

US servicemen take part in a military drill near Yavoriv, western Ukraine, in 2015. The threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine puts at risk the US military training mission in the country.

Washington (AFP) - The US military could be forced to withdraw American soldiers currently based in Ukraine if Russia invades the country.

Close to 200 National Guard troops are in Ukraine, part of a regular rotation dating back to 2015, training with the Ukrainian army alongside troops from NATO countries like Canada and Germany.

In addition there is an unknown number of US special operations forces in the country, working with their Ukrainian counterparts.

US President Joe Biden has ruled out the possibility of US soldiers fighting against the Russians if they do attack Ukraine. This is seen as a distinct possibility as Moscow has deployed more than 100,000 of its troops and heavy fighting equipment along the country's borders, according to Western estimates.

That could mean those Americans now inside the country being forced to beat a hasty retreat if fighting erupts.

"The Florida National Guard has members currently deployed to Ukraine in this rotating advise-and-assist capacity," said Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby.

"Obviously . . . we are going to continue to watch the situation on the ground, and if we need to make decisions for force protection purposes, we'll do that," Kirby said.

There are no changes planned to their operations in Ukraine "at this time," he said.

Since 2015 American reservists have been participating in disaster relief operations and joint military training in Ukraine on regular nine-month rotations.

They are based in Yavoriv in the country's far west, near Poland and well away from the fighting between government troops and pro-Moscow secessionists in the east.

The current contingent arrived in November and is scheduled to leave at the end of June.

Special forces

Less is known about the small number of US special operations troops inside Ukraine.

"Special Operations Command Europe plays a large role in the development of Ukrainian Special Operations Forces through regular validation training exercises," said Lieutenant Colonel Anton Semelroth, a Pentagon spokesman.

However, he said their number is kept secret "due to operational security."

"Training with our Ukrainian partners cultivates trust, fortifies readiness, and develops relationships, which in turn promotes peace and stability throughout Europe," he said in a statement.

One part of training involves teaching Ukrainian soldiers how to operate arms that Washington provides them, which include coastal patrol vessels and Javelin anti-tank missiles.

On Wednesday the United States released $200 million in new defense aid for Kyiv, adding to $450 million allocated last year before Russia began moving tens of thousands of troops to the Ukraine border.

Nevertheless, the presence of some 10,000 to 15,000 US citizens in Ukraine who might need evacuation in a war could change the mission of the US troops there.

In December US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin dodged the question of whether US soldiers could take part alongside Ukrainians in a possible war with Russians.

"In situations like this, I think conveying red lines only exacerbates the problem. I think we need to focus on finding ways to de-escalate and reduce tensions,” he said.

Martin Luther King's family joins call for US voting reform — citing Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin as barriers

Washington (AFP) - Members of Martin Luther King Jr's family joined marchers Monday in Washington urging Congress to pass voting rights reform as the United States marked the holiday commemorating the slain civil rights leader.

King's son Martin Luther King III spoke at the march, warning that many states "have passed laws that make it harder to vote" more than half a century after the activism of his father.

The march's message was aimed at boosting support for the Freedom to Vote Act currently before the Senate, and which passed in the House of Representatives last week.

But the bill faces an uphill battle as President Joe Biden negotiates with two holdout senators in his own Democratic Party to change a procedural rule that would allow Congress to pass the law without Republican support.

Biden argues the bill is vital to protecting American democracy against Republican attempts to exclude Black and other predominantly Democratic voters through a spate of recently enacted laws at state and local levels.

Marchers at Monday's Peace Walk echoed demands made by MLK more than 60 years ago as they chanted, "What do we want? Voting rights! When do we want it? Now!"

Many carried posters printed with King's image and his famous 1957 appeal to "Give us the ballot," which called on the federal government to enforce Black Americans' right to vote nationwide, including in the heavily segregated South.

"We march because our voting rights are under attack right now," pastor Reverend Wendy Hamilton told AFP at the demonstration.

"As a matter of fact, our democracy is very fragile," said Hamilton, a local politician in Washington, whose residents themselves do not have full representation in Congress.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, such as Terri Sewell from Alabama and chairwoman Joyce Beatty from Ohio, also spoke at the march -- as did King's 13-year-old granddaughter Yolanda Renee King.

King's daughter Bernice King also took to the social media platform to call for the Senate to pass voting reform.

"If these state voter suppression laws persist, the America my father dreamed about will never come to be," she wrote.

At the White House, Vice President Kamala Harris urged senators to pass the Freedom to Vote Act in honor of King's legacy.

King "pushed for racial justice, for economic justice and for the freedom that unlocks all others: the freedom to vote," she said.

She denounced bills under consideration or already passed in state legislatures that she said could make it harder for 55 million Americans to cast ballots.

"To truly honor the legacy of the man we celebrate today, we must continue to fight for the freedom to vote, for freedom for all," Harris said.

Biden and Harris last week visited the crypt where King -- who was assassinated in 1968 at age 39 -- and his wife, Coretta Scott King, are buried in Atlanta.

Activision says it fired dozens over harassment allegations

Bobby Kotick, chief executive officer of Activision Blizzard in 2019

New York (AFP) - The video game giant Activision Blizzard said Monday it has fired nearly 40 employees and disciplined more than 40 others since July as it deals with allegations of sexual harassment and other misconduct.

Over the past seven months the company has received about 700 reports of employee concerns over sexual assault or harassment or other misconduct, in some cases separate reports about the same incident, The Wall Street Journal reported.

A summary of the personnel action that the maker of "Call of Duty," "World of Warcraft" and other blockbuster games has taken was scheduled to be released before the winter holidays, the Journal said. 

But CEO Bobby Kotick delayed the release, arguing that it would make the company's workplace problems look even bigger than they were known to be, the paper added.

Activision denied as "simply inaccurate" the allegation that Kotick held up the report, in a statement prompted by the Journal story. 

"An interim update to our employees is still being worked on, and the company remains committed to continuing to provide periodic updates on its progress," the statement said.

It said the company has completed reviews of 90 percent of the complaints it has received since July -- it did not say how many there were -- and that "37 employees have exited the company and another 44 received written reprimands, formal warnings or other discipline."

In July, California state regulators accused the company of condoning a culture of harassment, a toxic work environment, and inequality.

In September the Securities and Exchange Commission launched a probe into the company over "disclosures regarding employment matters and related issues."

And two months later the Journal reported that Kotick, accused of mishandling the harassment complaints, had signaled he would consider stepping down if he failed to quicky fix the company culture. He has led the company for more than three decades.

Nearly 20 percent of Activision Blizzard's 9,500 employees have signed a petition calling for Kotick to resign.

The Journal said the company is under pressure from shareholders and business partners for more accountability over its handling of misconduct issues. 

Late last year chief operating officer Daniel Alegre pledged a 50 percent increase in female and non-binary staff over the next five years so that they will account for more than a third of Activision's workers.

US airlines warn of 'chaos' if 5G not limited near airports: letter

US airlines are nervous about the rollout of new 5G telecommunications technology beginning on January 19, 2022, warning that the service should be limited close to major airports

Washington (AFP) - The chief executives of America's largest airlines warned ahead of Wednesday's 5G service rollout that the technology should be limited near US airports, or risk "significant operational disruption" to travel and shipping.

"We are writing with urgency to request that 5G be implemented everywhere in the country except within the approximate 2 miles of airport runways as defined by the FAA on January 19, 2022," the CEOs wrote in a Monday letter, which was obtained by AFP -- and also signed by shipping giants FedEx and UPS.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Sunday it had approved some transponders to be safely operated within areas where 5G will be deployed, clearing "as many as 48 of the 88 airports most directly affected by 5G C-band interference."

The airlines are worried that remaining limitations at those airports, as well as a large amount of equipment still uncertified, could cause major disruptions.

"Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies," the CEOs wrote.

"In addition to the chaos caused domestically," the letter continues, the lack of certified planes "could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas."

Verizon and AT&T, who won contracts to operate 5G in the 3.7-3.8 GHz frequency bands, have twice delayed the launch of their new technology, due to warnings from the airlines and aircraft manufacturers.

Unless the major telecommunications companies are blocked by federal regulators or reach an agreement with the airlines, they are scheduled to turn on their 5G service nationwide on January 19.

Millions hunker down as storm hits eastern US

The US Capitol dome during a snowstorm in Washington, DC, on January 16, 2022

Washington (AFP) - Millions of Americans hunkered down as a major winter storm hit the eastern United States with heavy snow and ice knocking power out for an estimated 190,000 customers as of early Monday.

The National Weather Service (NWS) said the storm was bringing a miserable combination of heavy snow, freezing rain and high winds, impacting the southeast and coastal mid-Atlantic before moving up to New England and southern Canada.

A swath from the upper Ohio Valley north to the lower Great Lakes region could expect more than a foot (30 centimeters) of snow Monday, it warned.

"Heavy snow and ice accumulations are likely to produce hazardous travel, downed trees, and power outages through Monday for portions of the eastern US," it said.

In all, more than 80 million people fell under the winter weather alerts, US media reported.

About 190,000 customers were without power early Monday, according to the website PowerOutage.US.

The storm spawned damaging tornadoes in Florida and flooding in coastal areas, while in the Carolinas and up through the Appalachians icy conditions and blustery winds raised concerns. 

Transport was seriously disrupted, with thousands of flights canceled, and a portion of busy interstate highway I-95 closed in North Carolina.

More than 3,000 flights within, into or out of the United States were canceled Sunday.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina was the worst-affected with 1,200 flights, or more than 90 percent of its scheduled services, canceled, according to the FlightAware website. A further 1,200 flights nationwide had been canceled early Monday.

State of emergency

Drivers were warned of hazardous road conditions and major travel headaches from Arkansas in the south all the way up to Maine, on the Canadian border.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp had declared a state of emergency on Friday, and snowplows were at work before noon Sunday to clear the roads.

Virginia and North Carolina also declared states of emergency.

More than 15 inches of snow had fallen in parts of North Carolina by late Sunday night, the NWS tweeted, with areas of Georgia and Tennessee also seeing 10-11 inches.

Virginia State Police said on Twitter they had responded to almost 1,000 crashes and disabled vehicles on Sunday. "Mostly vehicle damage. No reported traffic deaths," the force said.

A "multi-vehicle backup," along with minor crashes, had earlier stopped traffic on a major interstate in the southern part of the state.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said on Twitter that up to a foot of snow had fallen in some areas by midday, and that "significant icing is causing trouble in the Central part of the state" as he reminded people to stay inside and avoid travel if possible.

Also in North Carolina, students were shaken up after the storm caused the roof of a college residence hall to collapse, according to a local ABC news station, though no one was hurt.

"Very scary," Brevard College sophomore Melody Ferguson told the station. "I'm still shaking to this moment."

The NWS even reported some snow flurries in Pensacola, Florida, while usually mild Atlanta, Georgia also saw snow.

The northeastern United States already experienced snow chaos earlier this month. When a storm blanketed the northeast, hundreds of motorists were stuck for more than 24 hours on the I-95, a major highway linking to the capital Washington.