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iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A government watchdog group said the Department of Defense has provided funding to Afghan military units accused of child sexual abuse.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released its review of how DoD and the State Department have handled allegations of child sexual abuse committed by members of Afghan forces. The report specifically examines how the U.S. has implemented the Leahy law, which withholds funds from Afghan units if there is credible information of a gross violation of human rights.

Some 93 members of Congress requested the review back in 2015 after the New York Times published articles about the "rampant" sexual abuse of children by members of the Afghan military and police forces.

SIGAR found that despite DoD and the State Department's knowledge of confirmed human rights violations among Afghan security forces, the Secretary of Defense has used a clause in DoD's Appropriations Act that continues to provide them funding for select training, equipment, and other assistance — bypassing Leahy law compliance.

Invoking the clause does not require Congressional notification, and Senate Appropriations Committee has since worked to remove the clause from the FY18 Defense Appropriations Bill.

DoD has provided funds to twelve Afghan security force units implicated in fourteen gross violation of human rights incidents in 2013, SIGAR said. Nine additional units received funds with some exceptions of how that money can be used.

SIGAR interviewed 37 individuals and organizations for their report, twenty-four of which said they were aware of child sexual assault incidents or related exploitation by Afghan security forces to include bacha bazi — an Afghan term which translates to "boy play" and encompasses sexual relations between adult men and boys.

"Two service members who reported directly observing or hearing what they believed to be evidence of child sexual assault by Afghan security forces said they did not receive training on how to address sexual abuse of children by Afghan security forces if they encountered it," SIGAR said.

A third service member interviewed by SIGAR said it was well known on his base that sex occurred between boys and Afghan National Police personnel.

"While he and his fellow service members talked and laughed about it, he added, they did not take action to report it," SIGAR said.

When given an opportunity to respond to SIGAR's report, DoD said U.S. Forces Afghanistan's Legal Office provides weekly training to all newly-arriving military personnel, government employees, and contractors, but that the department will "reinforce the importance of training on human rights abuse reporting, including suspected child sexual assault."

DoD also told SIGAR that it would establish a single tracking system for gross violations of human rights incidents. Without a single tracking system, SIGAR said there was "confusion" among parts of DoD as to who implemented the Leahy Law in Afghanistan.

In a statement to ABC News, the State Department thanked SIGAR for its report, and said they will continue to impress on the Afghan government at the highest levels the importance of more effective action to prevent these practices.

"We have long been aware of the challenges that SIGAR highlights in its report, and strongly condemn any violation of human rights, particularly child sexual assault and the practice of bacha bazi in which men exploit boys for social and sexual entertainment," the State Department said.

"Our 2016 Human Rights Report and 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report makes clear that we take a strong stand against the abuse of Afghan children," they added. "The State Department provides assistance through the Afghanistan Justice Sector Support Program to help strengthen provisions against sexual abuse and exploitation in relevant laws and regulations. U.S. programs train law enforcement officials on human rights reporting and accountability. The State Department works with Afghan civil society organizations, including Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, to provide protection and community support for victims of bacha baazi and other abuses."

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iStock/Thinkstock(PARIS) -- Paris is under siege from near record-breaking rainfall.

For days, the City of Lights has sustained an unrelenting downpour that has caused the River Seine to overflow. Water levels have risen to almost 17 feet; more than double the average.

Already, the surge has led officials to close roads, including routes around the Eiffel Tower.

Cruises have been halted and, as of Wednesday, train services at six stations alongside the Seine were going offline, the railway company SNCF confirmed.

Storm conditions are not expected to relent in the coming days.

The alarming rise of the waters since Saturday has some fearing the river could exceed 2016 levels, when it rose to 6.1 meters, or 20 feet.

During that time, the Louvre and other famous landmarks were temporarily shut down.

At higher elevations throughout France, so much snow has fallen, and at such a fast rate, that many ski resorts have shuttered to protect the public from possible avalanches.

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Jeoffrey Maitem/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images(MANILA) -- A stunning time-lapse video captured smoke spewing of the Mayon volcano in the Philippines this week.

“The lava fountains reached 500 meters to 700 meters [about 1,640 to 3,000 feet] high and generated ash plumes that reached 2.5 kilometers to 3 kilometers [1.5 to 1.9 miles] above the crater,” according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.

Officials from PHIVOLCS raised the alert to four out of a possible five on Monday in response to the volcanic activity.

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Mark Wilson/Getty Images(PARIS) -- In the aftermath of another "apparent chlorine gas attack" by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson blasted the Assad regime for its "crimes against humanity" but also laid some of the blame on Russia.

"Whoever conducted the attacks, Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in east Ghouta and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons since Russia became involved in Syria," Tillerson said in Paris at the launch of a new international group to pressure Assad and Russia.

The strong statement comes as the U.S. tries to rally the international community and assert a leadership role in Syria after seven years of war and in the face of an increasingly assertive Assad regime.

As ABC News reported Monday, Tillerson highlighted the latest reported chemical weapons attack that affected more than 20 civilians -- most of them children, he said. The attack hit east Ghouta, an enclave of rebel support in the Damascus suburbs, a part of the country that Assad has long dominated. East Ghouta has been under siege by the regime for years now, but despite a cease-fire agreement over the summer, the regime has starved and bombed the area for the past few months. In recent weeks, that bombing campaign escalated, according to monitoring groups.

"The recent attacks in east Ghouta are a serious concern that Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime may be continuing its use of chemical weapons against its own people. "Since April 2014, there has been mounting evidence that Syria continues to illicit possess chemical weapons and use them against its own people."

But it was Russia that Tillerson took to task, challenging the role the country plays by providing support and troops to Assad -- who, after initial defeats, now controls half of the country's population and territory.

"Russia's failure to resolve the chemical weapons issue in Syria calls into question its relevance to the resolution to the overall crisis," Tillerson said.

In particular, Tillerson said Russia had failed to live up to its commitments under the 2013 deal with the Obama administration to eliminate all of Syria's chemical weapons and other international legal obligations: "There is simply no denying that Russia, by shielding its Syrian ally, has breached its commitments to the United States as a framework guarantor. It has betrayed the Chemical Weapons Convention and U.N. Security Council Resolution 2218," he said.

Russia has intervened in Syria on Assad's behalf since 2015, but in August 2013 it helped broker an agreement with President Barack Obama to remove Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. That agreement came on the heels of Obama contemplating airstrikes on Syrian targets after the regime killed at least 1,400 people, including 426 children, in a chemical weapons attack, also in the Damascus suburbs, according to a U.S. government report at the time. Ultimately, Obama punted to Congress, and the U.S. never took any action.

The Trump administration challenged Syria's use of chemical weapons once before -- with a series of airstrikes last April on a Syrian air base after the regime killed dozens in a town called Khan Shaykhun.

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley joined Tillerson in his condemnation of Russia, releasing a paper statement that said, "This attack in Syria should weigh heavily" on Russia's "conscience."

The U.S. "will pursue all available avenues for accountability," according to Haley's office, including through the U.N. Security Council, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons -- the new international group Tillerson helped launch Tuesday. The 29-nation organization will collect, share and publicize information about chemical attack perpetrators, including details about sanctions.

For his part, Tillerson called on Russia to "at a bare minimum ... stop vetoing and at least abstain from future Security Council votes on this issue."

Russia has twice vetoed resolutions for an investigative body to examine who is responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria, and the Security Council was set to meet again on Syria on Tuesday afternoon.

"This initiative puts those who ordered and carried out chemical weapons attacks on notice. You will face a day of reckoning for your crimes against humanity and your victims will see justice done," Tillerson said in conclusion. "The people of east Ghouta are watching, and the rest of the world is watching as well."

But in a major policy address on Syria last week, Tillerson sounded a more optimistic tone on Russia and the "meaningful role" it plays in Syria -- and even praised Russia for its cooperation with the U.S. and Jordan on one de-escalation zone south of Damascus, despite ongoing Assad offensives elsewhere.

"That's why we're disappointed with the foreign minister's comments," Under Secretary of State Steve Goldstein told ABC News Monday, a reference to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accusing the U.S. of fomenting unrest and instability in Syria and even supporting al Qaeda-linked militants. "The secretary is very unhappy that Russia has not stepped up to the plate as we would expect them to."

Still, with offensives against the last rebel stronghold, Idlib province, and the relentless bombing of east Ghouta, Assad and his allies, including Russia and Iran, seem to be marching onward, again and again deploying brutal tactics.

"No party in the Syrian conflict is capable of victory or stabilizing the country via military means alone," Tillerson warned.

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ABC News(CAPE TOWN, South Africa) -- The water supplies of one of the world's top tourist destinations, South Africa's Cape Town, have dwindled even further than predicted, prompting authorities to adjust their estimate of when taps could run dry.

City officials have moved up "day zero" -- when taps are expected to run dry -- by nine days, to April 12.

A 1.4-percent drop in dam levels prompted the change a week after the city had said April 22 would likely be Cape Town's "day zero," officials said Monday.

The city is now estimated to have enough water for less than 80 days.

The premier of South Africa's Western Cape province, Helen Zille, wrote to South Africa President Jacob Zuma calling for the declaration of a national disaster, saying the drought has escalated from a threat to an imminent crisis.

Water would have to be driven in from other provinces.

After three consecutive years of drought, the city’s dams, sourced by rainfall, were sitting at just over 27 percent, the city said.

The debilitating water shortage has forced city government to implement a controversial online water consumption map, which allows residents to check up on their neighbors’ water habits based on households’ municipal bills.

With an estimated 3.74 million people in 2016, Cape Town is the second-most populous city in South Africa behind Johannesburg. It is the provincial capital of the Western Cape.

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ABC News(PYONGYANG, North Korea) -- North Korea's arrival at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang may have captured the attention of foreign leaders, but it's a different dignitary who has South Korea enthralled this week.

Weeks after South Korea agreed to accept a delegation from their isolated neighbors, local media has been captivated by Hyon Song Wol, who led an inspection team from North Korea this week to view the facilities it will be using when the games kick off next month, but who is more widely known as the leader of Moranbong Band.

Moranbong Band is an all-female music group from North Korea. Popular for its sensuous performances, the band makes use of synthesizers and electric guitars on stage. Even more shocking, performers wear short skirts and show off flashy dance moves to attract public gaze -- more in line with South Korean pop groups than traditional, conservative performance groups in North Korea.

The band's debut concert in July 2012 came as a refreshing jolt to North Korean people. Strobe lights, electric instruments and state-of-the-art stage settings were more than enough to fascinate its audience.

Young beautiful women, capable of playing instruments, singing and dancing, were a new phenomenon in the isolated country, free from Western pop music. In each show, six to eight members come up on stage to perform the communist state's propaganda tunes. They perform titles -- translated from Korean -- such as "My Country is the Best," "Hymn of Advancing Socialism" and "Glory to General Kim Jong Un," all praising their leader.

The same year Moranbong Band made their debut, North Korea’s local paper Rodong Sinmun proudly reported about the band’s 10-day-long concert in Pyongyang.

Signaling a change

When the Moranbong Band was introduced to public in 2012, as Kim’s regime began to settle into Pyongyang, it left behind memories of the Unhasu orchestra from the Kim Jong Il era.

Kim began a concerted effort to spread propaganda though new cultural policies. Moranbong Band was a symbol Kim put forward in order to show people the direction of change in North Korea.

"Kim used Moranbong Band to signal change in the regime. From now on, propaganda and agitation will be carried out based on Morangbong Band," Lee Woo-Young, research staff at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Kyungnam University, told ABC News.

Adhering to its intentions, Moranbong Band is differentiated from other performance groups in North Korea. Their music is westernized, up-tempo and digital, heavily focusing on visual affect. Lee explained it has a lot to do with the foreign culture that has been penetrating into North Korea in the 21st century.

"Cultural standards of North Korea's people began to change," Lee said. "This means they could no longer unify the people with the old, traditional-style cultural arts. So they have to meet the new cultural standards."

Kim even gave the name Moranbong to the band himself, according to Maeil Business News Korea.

Kim's favorite music group

In September 2014, Kim and his wife were spotted enjoying the Moranbong concert in Mansudae Art Theater, Pyongyang, North Korea.

Korean Central News Agency reported the same day that "the great leader said the Moranbong Band brought up their revolutionary and militant ability to create songs in the concert."

Reportedly, Kim has the right to make final selection of Moranbong Band members.

“The artistically talented ones are chosen when they’re young and raised separately as arts performers to be chosen by the party later, and Kim finally makes the decision,” Lee told ABC News.

Moranbong Band members also engage in party events with Kim guests. Former NBA player Dennis Rodman, maybe the closest foreign friend of Kim, shared his experience of seeing Moranbong Band members during his stay in Pyongyang in 2013.

"[Kim] had this girl band -- like 14 girls. They traveled with him everywhere," Rodman told ABC News’ Bob Woodruff in an interview for "20/20" last December.

Rodman said Kim sang karaoke along to Frank Sinatra’s "My Way" during his visit -- the same song which Moranbong Band caught public attention for covering on YouTube.

Will Moranbong come to Pyeongchang?

Along with heightened interest in the band, there has come a question, “Are they coming to the Olympics?”

South Korean government officials have refused to speculate, putting extra caution into statements regarding the North’s delegates coming to the Olympics.

"The North said their art troupe was going to be formed around the Samjiyon orchestra," said Lee Woo-sung, the head of culture and arts policy office at the culture ministry, at a Jan. 15 press conference discussing talks. "There was no specific mention of the Moranbong Band coming to the Olympic games."

Meanwhile, a North Korean expert predicted some members from the Moranbong Band will be included in the Samjiyon orchestra, the 140-member art troupe set to perform at the Olympics.

"Samjiyon orchestra seems to be coined for the Pyeongchang Olympics," said Kang Dong-wan, who teaches diplomacy at Dong-A University in South Korea. "There is a possibility of Moranbong Band’s electric instrument players to come to Korea."

Kang went on to explain that most of the songs played by Moranbong Band are political, and trouble is inevitable if they performed propaganda songs in South Korea.

"The Samjiyon orchestra is likely to cross out songs that are politically engaged, to avoid trouble in the Olympic games," Kang said.

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iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Applications are being accepted for a memorial grant established in memory of a reporter who went missing while reporting on an inventor who allegedly killed her.

Kim Wall, 30, an international freelance reporter who covered what she described as “the undercurrents of rebellion,” went missing in August after boarding a Danish inventor’s submarine for a story. Wall’s dismembered body was later found and the inventor, Peter Madsen, has been charged in the slaying.

Wall’s family and friends started to raise money in September for the Kim Wall Memorial Fund in what her parents described as an effort to ensure that their daughter’s “spirit will live on.” The fund will award a female reporter a $5,000 grant on March 23, Wall’s birthday.

“We want Kim to be remembered and honored as the great journalist she was, not as a victim,” Wall’s parents, Ingrid and Joachim Wall, said in a statement released today. “We can never get Kim back, but we can see to it that her spirit will live on and inspires other young women journalists to go out in the world and cover deserving stories that rarely make it to the front pages.”

Wall reported on a range of stories including: a report on Chinese feminists attending the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., a story about a subculture passionate about all things furry and a profile of a plus-sized pole dancing queen.

A Danish prosecutor last week formally filed charges against Madsen that include murder and indecent handling of a corpse.

“This is a very unusual and extremely brutal case which has had tragic consequences for Kim Wall and her relatives,” Special Prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jepsen said in a statement.

The actual cause of death is unknown but Madsen may have cut Wall’s throat or strangled her, the indictment alleges, though the prosecutor hasn’t publicly addressed any motive.

The prosecutor said Madsen planned the alleged murder and is asking for life imprisonment.

Madsen has denied killing Wall, saying she died in an accident aboard the submarine. But he has pleaded guilty to the indecent handling of a corpse charge, saying he dismembered her body.

The jury trial will begin March 8 and a verdict is expected April 25.

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ABC News(Italy) -- Behind the expensive price tag of a bottle of Italian extra-virgin olive oil are the effort, labor costs, and production that goes into it.

Extra-virgin olive oil has to be free of defects. “It’s just crushed fruit,” says Curtis Cord, publisher of Olive Oil Times. “We pay more for extra-virgin olive oil because we expect that it has certain tastes and certain health qualities.”

Cord says to produce the best olive oil, it takes the right terrain, region, and weather. However, these requirements have made it challenging for Italian farmers to harvest their olive crops over the past few years.

“What we're seeing right now in Italy is the effect of drought. There are pests and outbreaks of bacterial infections.” Cord said in 2016. “The olive oil producer is on a never-ending battle with climatic conditions, economic conditions, and a whole host of other things.”

In 2014, Italy experienced a freeze that knocked budding flowers from the blossoming olive trees. Then in Tuscany during the summer, temperatures turned hot and humid and a huge hailstorm followed. This led to continued growing struggles for olive growers.

“I remember 2014 everybody was saying, ‘Well. It happened one year...’” said Giorgio Gonnelli of Gonnelli 1585. Producers expected that after 2014 the weather and production would improve.

By 2016, “Everybody was expecting a big year.” Gonnelli said “Then July and August turned out to be crazy.” More hot temperatures, humidity and another violent hailstorm cut the Italian olive oil production by more than 50 percent from initial projections, according to data from the International Olive Oil Council.

Gonnelli says that olives need a span of colder, dry weather, to allow their fruit to mature. For the past couple of years, it has been harder to produce the amount of oil they need from the juice the fruit is providing. If there is too much rainfall, the olives produce less oil.

Outside of the challenges that volatile weather conditions have caused, a bacterial virus called xylella fastidiosa and an insect called the olive fruit fly have also wreaked havoc on the labors of olive farmers.

The fruit fly in particular is a difficult issue to solve because the fly lays its eggs inside ripening olives. The problem is you can’t see what is happening inside unless you cut open the olive. By the time the growers know the fly larva is there the damage has already been done.

Entomologist Luigi Ponti has studied the relationship between the fruit fly and weather. “If you don't control the fly, it's gonna be a problem regardless of the year or the season,” Ponti said. “You have to take measures to control the populations of these insects.”

“The soil, you've got to keep it clean from grass so that all the bugs, you can kill them,” said Marina Colonna, an oil producer from Southern Italy. Colonna pointed out the importance of spending money in order to continue producing quality extra virgin olive oil.

With the struggles olive oil production faces in Italy, American consumers may wonder what that means for their consumption. According to Cord, olive oil producers have bumper crops in place as a backup when they face a troubling production season.

This means what the consumer thinks is fresh may be an older oil. “We're going to the store and we're buying what we think has a two-year shelf life but it's already been there for at least a year, if not longer,” said Cord.

He says it's best to look for a harvest date on the label. “At least make sure it's fresh, once you do that, then you can learn how to taste it and see for yourself.”

In comparison to 2016’s production, the farms of Italy saw a 75 percent increase in 2017, according to the International Olive Oil Council.

This gives hope to those Italian farmers. “It's very difficult because everything is conspiring against you. The industry and the system, and so you’ve got to try to keep your company, try to keep your farm,” Colonna said, “If you can make it, you are lucky.”

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Subscribe To This Feed PREFECTURE, Japan) -- The sudden eruption of a volcano near a ski resort in Japan killed one person and injured 17 others on Tuesday.

The eruption took place on Mount Kusatsu-Shirane in Gunma Prefecture, in central Japan, about 116 miles north of Tokyo.

A soldier with the Japan Defense Force was killed when an avalanche at a nearby ski resort was triggered in the eruption, according to Japanese news outlet NHK.

Video from ski resort shows smoke and chunks of rock flying, though the actual eruption is out of picture.

The army was on a training mission in the area when the avalanche hit. Of the 17 people injured, five were members of the Japanese army, NHK reported.

Nine people at the ski resort were injured, NHK said, including four who were hit by rocks and five who suffered injuries when a gondola was damaged by debris.

NHK said officials were working to evacuate the 80 people who were visiting the ski resort.

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Alaa Mohammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images(DAMASCUS, Syria) -- As the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad was accused of another chemical weapons attack, the Trump administration is trying to rally international condemnation of the regime and increase pressure on Russia to rein in its ally.

But more than nine months after President Trump ordered airstrikes on a Syrian air base after it deployed chemical weapons, yet another use of the internationally-banned weapons would be a sign of how intractable the conflict has become and how little influence the U.S. has to shape events in the country.

According to activists and rescue teams, Assad's government launched an attack with suspected poisonous gas that affected at least 20 civilians in a rebel-held suburb near Damascus, the Associated Press reported.

The area, known as eastern Ghouta, is an enclave of rebel support in a part of the country that Assad has long dominated during the country's near seven-year-old war. It has been under siege by the Assad regime for years now, but despite a ceasefire agreed to over the summer, the regime has starved and bombed the area for the past few months. In recent weeks, that bombing campaign escalated, according to monitoring groups.

Amid these latest allegations, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in France to launch the "International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons" Tuesday with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. The new 29-nation group is meant to increase pressure on the Assad regime for the use of chemical weapons, but especially on Russia for protecting the regime from repercussions at the UN Security Council and elsewhere.

"Let’s be clear: Russia’s unwillingness or inability to restrain the Assad regime is costing innocent Syrian lives. We’ve been firm in our determination to hold parties accountable for the use of chemical weapons, which have killed far too many Syrians," State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert tweeted Monday.

The new partnership will unveil a series of commitments "aimed at strengthening their cooperation in the fight against impunity for those who use or develop chemical weapons," according to the French Foreign Ministry, including collecting, sharing. and publicizing information about chemical attack perpetrators.

"Russia has failed to rid Syria of chemical weapons, and they've been blocking chemical weapons organizations. Enough is enough," Under Secretary of State for Public Affairs Steve Goldstein told reporters Monday.

But less than a week ago in a major policy speech, Tillerson said that the U.S. airstrikes last April on Assad's airbase were meant "to dissuade the Syrian regime from further use or proliferation of chemical weapons." On his flight back to Washington afterwards, he also told ABC News the U.S. and Syria were "very well aligned" in Syria and their end goals there.

"That's why we're disappointed with the Foreign Minister's comments," Goldstein said, a reference to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday accusing the U.S. of fomenting unrest and instability in Syria and even supporting al Qaeda-linked militants. "The Secretary is very unhappy that Russia has not stepped up to the plate as we would expect them to," Goldstein added.

To critics, Russian intransigence and stalwart support for Assad are a reality that the administration should have seen earlier. "Russia has fooled the U.S. again in Syria," the Washington Post editorial board warned in a recent headline.

Either way, it's unclear how another international group or more public statements from the U.S. will change the situation on the ground, especially as Assad's forces continue to regain territory. As Tillerson said in that speech last week, the regime now controls about half of the country's population and territory, thanks in large part to Russian support.

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Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images(MOSCOW) -- Ksenia Sobchak, a former reality TV star-turned-journalist running against Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in the country's election this year, has gathered enough signatures to get on the ballot, her campaign said Monday.

In a post on its website, Sobchak’s campaign said she had obtained over 101,000 signatures, putting her around 10,000 over the threshold required to be registered as a candidate by Russia’s central election commission.

It means that Sobchak, who is the daughter of Putin’s political mentor and has sometimes been described as "Russia’s Paris Hilton," will almost certainly be on the ballot when Russians go to the polls on March 18.

Her regional campaign director, Timur Valeyev, told the local newspaper RBC that the campaign will continue collecting signatures in case any are rejected as fake.

Sobchak's registration adds a showbiz name to a list of otherwise familiar veteran candidates running against Putin, who is seeking another six-year term after 18 years in power.

Putin, who has marginalized all serious opposition to his rule, is widely expected to win without difficulty against the challengers, who critics of the Russian president say have only been allowed to take part to give the illusion of competition.

On Sunday, Putin’s campaign said it had halted signature collection for his candidacy after it reached half a million.

Sobchak herself has said she is not seeking to beat Putin, but rather pursuing a controversial protest campaign to highlight official corruption and the lack of political freedom in Russia. Sobchak, one of Russia's best-known celebrities who several years ago reinvented herself as a successful liberal journalist, has called on Russia’s beleaguered liberal opposition to unite around her as its only substantial representative allowed to run, after its most popular leader, Alexey Navalny, was barred.

Her candidacy has instead, however, provoked an increasingly acrimonious schism among the opposition, with many in it accusing her of doing the Kremlin’s bidding, willing or otherwise. Critics have called her a spoiler meant to provide Putin with a safe liberal opponent to face off against and to divide the anti-Kremlin vote.

Ahead of her candidacy, leaks from Putin's presidential administration to a leading business newspaper Vedomosti suggested the Kremlin considered her an "ideal candidate" to spice up the race against Putin. Skeptics also note the absence of the usual harassment faced by Putin critics. Navalny is regularly arrested and his campaign events disrupted. Sobchak, by contrast, has been given time on state media, where opposition figures normally face a blackout.

Criticism of Sobchak has intensified since Navalny was blocked from the elections. In December, Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner who has built up a large grassroots following, was refused registration by the election commission. He was barred because of a fraud conviction that Navalny says is politically motivated, a claim backed by the European Court of Human Rights, which called his trial “arbitrary.”

After being blocked, Navalny called for a general boycott of the election and said Sobchak should withdraw.

Sobchak, who had previously offered to withdraw if Navalny was allowed on the ballot, has rejected a boycott, arguing it will be ineffective because it would be impossible to tell who stayed away in protest and who simply out of apathy.

The disagreement is increasingly pushing the two candidates into open confrontation. Navalny's campaign had already indicated it considered Sobchak's candidacy a Kremlin ploy, but both sides have previously sought to avoid publicly quarreling, believing it only aids the authorities. Still, the strains have begun to show.

In a video calling for the boycott, Navalny criticized the other candidates as only those who Putin “has personally chosen and who do not represent even the smallest threat to him and who aren’t running actual campaigns.”

Sobchak has been assiduously courteous to Navalny, regularly asserting his primacy within the opposition. But she has said the opposition ought to back the candidate able to run. After he was refused registration, she called on Navalny to join her campaign.

“I understand how insulting and difficult it is for Alexey, but the common good is more important,” Sobchak wrote in a post on her Instagram account.

But the dispute slid into public acrimony last week when Navalny's supporters suggested on social media that Sobchak appeared to have been at a party with a Russian billionaire on the Pacific island of Bali, instead of gathering signatures for her campaign. When Sobchak disputed the claims, Navalny’s campaign manager, Leonid Volkov, suggested on Twitter that Sobchak had lied.

In response, Sobchak burst into a studio at a liberal radio station where Volkov was giving an interview last Monday. With two camera people in tow, Sobchak accused Volkov of lying about her and demanded an apology. Volkov refused and asked her to leave.

In a blog post after the fracas, Volkov accused Sobchak directly of being part of a “game of the presidential administration” and said Navalny’s campaign had no desire to be “dragged into” debates with her.

Putin “is our main opponent,” Volkov wrote. “As for the other participants of this show, we will, of course, talk about them. But only when their actions become maximum shameful.”

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iStock/Thinkstock(SEOUL, South Korea) -- A North Korean delegation arriving in South Korea ahead of the Winter Olympics was met with dozens of protesters burning a banner image of leader Kim Jong Un.

The delegation was led by North Korean celebrity Hyon Song Wol of the Moranbong band, an all-female music group whose members are reportedly handpicked by the supreme leader.

Hyon is rumored to have had a past relationship with Kim, which is vigorously denied by officials.

She is in charge of the North’s artistic performances during the Winter Olympic Games, and is in Seoul to inspect musical venues.

As she and the delegation arrived at a Seoul train station before boarding a bus to the sites, around 50 protesters shouted slogans against North Korea and waved South Korean and American flags as she passed.

Later the activists stomped on images of Kim Jong Un and set their banners on fire, which was extinguished by police.

The protests are an indication of the mixed response in South Korea to the decision to unite North and South Korean teams, with athletes marching together under a unified flag and with the two countries fielding a joint team to compete in women’s ice hockey.

While most South Koreans support the North’s participation in the Games, conservatives in the South condemn the moves as an appeasement to Kim Jong Un.

The leader of the main conservative party in South Korea, Hong Joon-pyo, denounced the unity flag last week, saying, “We are dancing to the tune of Kim Jong Un’s disguised peace offensive.”

The Moranbong band members, a mix of vocalists and musicians, are all former military officers and often wear military costumes whilst singing patriotic songs about the North Korean state and in particular the supreme leader.

In July 2017 the regime held a concert celebrating the alleged launch of the state's first intercontinental ballistic missile launch -- with Moranbong the headline act.

Rumors about the band went into overdrive in 2013 when some North Korean outlets reported that members -- including Hyon Song Wol -- were executed for purportedly taking part in raunchy videos that violated the North's strict anti-pornography laws.

The regime fiercely denied the reports, and Hyon Song Wol made a prompt public appearance following the rumors.

The band's heavy involvement with regime propaganda has made Hyon's involvement in the artistic elements of the games a divisive topic.

The Pyeongchang Olympics are scheduled to begin in early February with more than 90 nations participating.

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istock/Thinkstock(KABUL, Afghanistan) -- At least six civilians and five gunmen are dead following an 11-hour siege Saturday of the Intercontinental Hotel in Afghanistan's capital of Kabul, according to the country's interior ministry.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. The terror group's spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the insurgents initially planned to attack the hotel Thursday night but postponed the assault because there was a wedding underway and they wanted to avoid civilian casualties.

Ministry spokesman Najib Danish told ABC News that six people were also injured: three police officers and three civilians.

 Following the siege, Afghan special forces searched room-by-room to ensure that all of the attackers had been accounted for.

Danish said 153 hotel guests and staff, including 8 foreigners, were rescued.

An official at the U.S. Department of State told ABC News they “are monitoring the situation and are in contact with local authorities to determine if any U.S. citizens have been affected.”

 The U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a security alert Saturday, saying a "series of explosions" erupted at the Intercontinental Hotel around 9 p.m. local time.

"The attack is reported to be ongoing at this time. Afghan authorities have announced they are reacting to the incident and a heightened police presence throughout the city is expected," the embassy stated.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul had issued a previous security alert Thursday, saying it was "aware of reports that extremist groups may be planning an attack against hotels" in the capital city.

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iStock/Thinkstock(ABUJA, Nigeria) -- Two Americans and two Canadians who were kidnapped by gunmen in northern Nigeria earlier this week have been rescued, police said.

The foreigners -- three men and a woman -- were rescued early Saturday in the Jere area of the Kagarko local government area of Kaduna state after a massive police manhunt, Kaduna state police spokesman Mukhtar Aliyu told ABC News.

They have been transported to Nigeria's capital, Abuja. All four were said to be in fairly good condition, Aliyu said.

Kaduna state police commissioner Agyole Abeh told ABC News that no ransom was paid for the foreigners' release. A suspect has been arrested in connection to their abduction, he added.

Police officers were escorting the four foreigners through Kaduna state on Tuesday night when they were ambushed on a roadway in Kagarko. A gun fight ensued between the police officers and the attackers. Two policemen were killed and another was wounded.

The gunmen abducted the foreigners and took off, according to Aliyu.

The foreigners had visited Kafanchan and Kaura in Kaduna state and were heading back to Abuja at the time of the ambush.

When asked for comment Saturday, an official at the U.S. Department of State told ABC News, "We are aware of reports of two U.S. citizens kidnapped and released in Nigeria. The safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas are among our top priorities. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment."

Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Elizabeth Reid told ABC News the Canadian government had received confirmation that two of their nationals were freed from their captors in Nigeria.

"We are very pleased that all individuals involved have been released and are safe," Reid said. "Canadian officials worked closely with Nigerian government officials on the ground to ensure the best possible outcome."

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Photodisc/Thinkstock(RATON, N.M.) -- A key Zimbabwe opposition leader was killed Wednesday night in a helicopter crash in the United States, authorities said.

Roy Bennett, an outspoken critic of longtime Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who was forced to resign in late November, died when a helicopter crashed in a remote area of northeastern New Mexico, according to the New Mexico State Police.

Bennett, 60, had left Zimbabwe under Mugabe's rule for exile in South Africa, but continued to be a fierce opponent of the president. He was listed by New Mexico State Police as a resident of Colorado and South Africa. It's unclear why he was in New Mexico.

His wife, 55-year-old Heather Bennett, also died in the crash, along with the pilot, the co-pilot and 61-year-old Texas investor Charles Ryland Burnett, police said.

One unidentified passenger who sustained serious injuries in the crash was expected to survive, police said. The survivor called 911 to report the incident around 6 p.m. local time Wednesday, but the exact location of the crash was uncertain.

Authorities searching for the crash site spotted wreckage on a rancher's property east of Raton, where a grass fire believed to have been caused by the downed helicopter had burned approximately a 1-mile radius around the crash, according to police.

Apart from the survivor who dialed 911, first responders found two men alive but in critical condition. One of them died at the scene a short time later, and the other succumbed to injuries while being airlifted to a hospital. The three other people aboard the downed helicopter were found dead at the scene upon arrival, police said.

The limited flight data available indicated the privately owned Huey Bell UH-1 helicopter was traveling from Raton to Folsom, police said. But the nature of the flight and the cause of the crash is unknown. The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating.

Bennett, who was born in Zimbabwe, was a founding member of the Zimbabwean opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change. He had previously been a commercial farmer in the mountainous Chimanimani region, according to party spokesman Obert Chaurura Gutu.

Although he was white, Bennett was known among many black Zimbabweans as "Pachedu," which means "one of us" in Zimbabwe's Shona language. Bennett spoke the native language fluently, Gutu said.

"His work with the local farming communities in Chimanimani district is very well-documented, and he was also a renowned philanthropist who assisted hundreds of local villagers with school fees for their children and other necessary requirements to look after their families," Gutu said in a statement released to the media on Friday.

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