(WASHINGTON) -- Counterfeit versions of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine have been identified in Mexico and Poland, a Pfizer spokesperson confirmed to ABC News -- adding to the running tally of scam attempts in the U.S. and internationally.
"We are cognizant that in this type of environment -- fueled by the ease and convenience of e-commerce and anonymity afforded by the Internet -- there will be an increase in the prevalence of fraud, counterfeit and other illicit activity as it relates to vaccines and treatments for COVID-19," the spokesperson told ABC News.
A source familiar with the matter told ABC News a cosmetic product was inside the vials of fake vaccine in Poland; Pfizer is now working closely with local authorities.
The Justice Department's International Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property attorneys in Latin America and Eastern Europe are "aware" of the counterfeit Pfizer vaccines identified in Mexico and Poland, and "are seeking to coordinate with and support local authorities and Pfizer, as needed," the DOJ said.
DOJ and the law enforcement agencies at the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center "continue to closely monitor U.S. sources for any indication of fakes in the domestic supply chain," the spokesman said.
This latest volley of fraud was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, however, it's not the first time this issue has been raised on the international stage.
In February, the health secretary for the Mexican state of Nuevo León warned about the "clandestine" sale of "alleged Covid vaccine." An investigation found at least 80 people paid the equivalent of hundreds of U.S. dollars per dose for a coronavirus vaccine -- though the substance was unknown, and may have been water, or something even more harmful. Secretary of Health Manuel de la O Cavazos urged citizens not to buy these unknown substances posing as real shots.
In March, the World Health Organization issued an alert for "falsified" Pfizer vaccines detected in Mexico, which was given to patients outside authorized programs, and that WHO warned at the time "may still be in circulation in the region and may continue to be offered."
U.S. federal authorities have seized at least eight websites for posing as biotech companies offering both coronavirus treatments and vaccines, allegedly in order to harvest people's personal information for "nefarious" use in fraud, phishing attacks and deployment of malware.
Homeland Security Investigations, part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was notified of two of those sites by a victim biotech company that had been granted FDA emergency use authorization for their COVID-19 antibody drug cocktail treatment, the Justice Department said earlier this month. A spokesperson for Regeneron told ABC News its company was the one victimized.
Another domain name offered coronavirus vaccines for sale that it claimed were manufactured by pharmaceutical companies that had been granted EUA, the Justice Department said. Under the site's "shop" tab, there were two counterfeit vaccinations offered that it claimed did not require sub-zero storage. But the domain had been created in February 2021, and its registrar organization was listed as a privacy service used to shield domain registrants' actual information from being seen publicly.
Undercover HSI special agents called the phone number listed on the site in mid-March, and an "unknown individual agreed to sell 50 vials of the counterfeit vaccines for $20 each with a $500 deposit, and the remaining $500 due upon receipt of the vaccine doses," the Justice Department said.
On Wednesday, Pfizer warned the public not to trust online vendors selling the vaccine.
"Patients should never try to secure a vaccine online -- no legitimate vaccine is sold online -- and only get vaccinated at official vaccination centers or by certified healthcare providers," a spokesperson told ABC News. "We continue to work with governments, law enforcement, healthcare providers and others to combat this illegal trade."
ABC News' Anne Laurent contributed to this report.
(MOSCOW) -- People in dozens of Russian cities joined protests in support of the jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny, responding to calls from Navalny's allies who have said he is dangerously ill in prison while on a hunger strike.
Protests took place in most cities in Russia, from Vladivostok in the far east to Moscow and St. Petersburg, with crowds ranging from a few dozen to thousands and people turning out despite warnings from authorities that they would face arrest. People gathered in central squares or marched, chanting "Freedom to Navalny." In many places, they were confronted by police, who arrested several hundred people but generally did not move to aggressively disperse the protests.
Navalny's team called for the protests over the weekend, saying it was an "emergency" and painting it as a "final battle" to save life of the Kremlin's fiercest opponent and rescue his movement from destruction.
His allies and doctors have warned Navalny's health has sharply deteriorated after three weeks of a hunger strike, perhaps exacerbated by lingering effects of his nerve agent poisoning last year, and that he could die in "a matter of days." They said Navalny's life depended on how many people came out onto the streets.
The biggest crowd was in Moscow, where thousands of people gathered a few hundred yards from the Kremlin, chanting "Putin is a thief." It was difficult to estimate the crowd's size, but ABC News reporters on the ground, as well as several other observers, estimated it was over 10,000. In the Siberian city of Yekaterinburg, local authorities estimated around 5,000 people took part, and other large cities saw crowds of a few thousand, unusual for places that rarely see protests.
The street demonstrations were the first called for by Navalny's team since he was arrested when he returned to Russia in January. Authorities succeeded in quashing those demonstrations with a tough crackdown.
Police were noticeably more hands-off during these protests than they were in January, when battalions of riot police closed down city centers and aggressively detained thousands, beating people with clubs and electro-shockers.
This time, there were fewer riot police, and officers often stood watching, without moving to disperse the crowds. Police still detained over 1,200 across Russia on Wednesday, according to OVD-Info, a group that tracks arrests, but that's far fewer than in January, when over 5,000 were detained in a single day. Almost half of the detentions happened in St. Petersburg, where police appeared to be more aggressive, moving against a crowd of several thousand.
The turnout seems likely to do little to persuade the Kremlin, which has appeared determined to crush Navalny's movement, that it cannot control the protest movement inspired by him.
Last week, prosecutors moved to have Navalny's key organizations, the Anti-Corruption Fund and his regional campaign offices, declared "extremist groups," a step that would equate them to terrorist organizations. Under the legislation, Navalny's movement would be effectively outlawed, and anyone participating in it or even voicing public support for it could face a lengthy prison sentence.
"Very many people are afraid. A lot of people are afraid to lose their jobs," said Daria, 32, a protester in Moscow who did not want to give her last name for fear of reprisal. "But we need more people to come out."
The protest was timed to coincide with a major speech from President Vladimir Putin, who gave his annual state-of-the-nation address Wednesday. The address was closely watched this year because of tensions over Russia's military buildup close to Ukraine that has sparked a war scare.
Putin has previously used the speech to make major announcements -- such as unveiling constitutional changes that could extend his rule to 2036 -- and there had been speculation he might again announce new actions relating to Ukraine or neighboring Belarus. But in the end, though Putin made threatening warnings to the West, he did not make any major foreign policy announcements.
Instead, Putin focused on domestic issues, urging people to get vaccinated against coronavirus and announcing new social spending, aimed at reassuring Russians hurt by the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Putin did warn the West against crossing Russia's "red lines" and focused in particular on Belarus, where he accused Western countries of backing a supposed coup attempt against its leader Alexander Lukashenko, that Russian and Belarusian security services claimed to uncover over the weekend, which many observers believe is a fabrication.
"The practice of organizing state coups, plans for political killings,” Putin said, “That is already too much. They’ve already crossed all boundaries.”
To applause, Putin said Russia doesn't want to "burn bridges" but warned that if other countries did so, Russia's response would be "asymmetric, quick and harsh."
Western countries, including the United States, have warned Russia that there will be consequences if Navalny dies in prison.
Navalny began his hunger strike three weeks ago to demand that his doctors be allowed to treat him for severe back pain caused by two herniated discs. Over the weekend, his team began sounding the alarm that his condition was deteriorating rapidly and accused the Kremlin of killing Navalny in slow motion.
Doctors helping Navalny's family have said his blood tests show he has dangerously high levels of potassium that could cause his heart to stop at "any minute" and that his kidneys may also be failing. In such a state, his doctors say he should be in intensive care.
Russia's prison service has insisted his condition is "satisfactory" and on Sunday moved Navalny to a hospital at a different nearby prison, where he has been given a glucose drip, according to his lawyers.
Navalny himself in a message Tuesday appeared to resist his doctors' prognoses that he was at risk of imminent death and said he is determined to continue his hunger strike. In the message posted on Instagram by his team, Navalny wrote that he "laughed" when he saw the warnings about his potassium levels, writing "you won't take me that easily."
"After Novichok, potassium isn't frightening," Navalny wrote, referring to the nerve agent that nearly killed him.
Russia's human rights ombudswoman Tatiana Moskalkova on Wednesday said that four doctors not from the prison service had visited Navalny and found that for now there was "no serious risks" to him. Moskalkova told Russian reporters that the doctors for now considered his treatment with the drip to be sufficient.
(NEW YORK) -- Herlin Odicio has lived a life in defense of his tribe's territory. As a consequence, he now finds himself in exile from it.
"Just a few days ago they came looking for me in my community," he said. "They send me death threats by text. They say they're going to make me disappear."
Odicio, 35, is the leader of the Cacataibo tribe in Peru's central Amazon. He has been in hiding after denouncing the drug traffickers who have plagued his people's ancestral home.
Situated along the eastern slopes of the Andes, Cacataibo territory has long been under siege by outsiders. The region's dense cloud forests favor the cultivation of coca leaves, a by-product of cocaine. What's more, an absence of the Peruvian state provides cover for the illegal actors who operate here.
But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, this region has witnessed a proliferation of invaders, including land speculators, illegal loggers and drug traffickers. Their presence has culminated in increased deforestation, death threats and bloodshed. In less than a year, several of Peru's Cacataibo and Ashaninka tribespeople have been murdered in the Amazon by suspected coca growers and drug traffickers.
"This is an invasion. We've seen the illegal crops, we've documented the maceration pits they use to make cocaine paste, and we've denounced it all to the district attorney and local police. But there is so much corruption and impunity here," said Odicio, who serves as president of the Cacataibo Federation of Native Communities.
Peru's historically anemic state institutions tasked with helping protect tribes and manage coca eradication have been further weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic -- all as the global demand for cocaine increases. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, the country is the second-largest supplier of coca leaves in the world behind Colombia.
The Cacataibo number roughly 10,000 people spread throughout eight communities. Increasingly, they've witnessed waves of migrant coca farmers from the Andes converge on or adjacent to their densely forested land in the country's Huánuco and Ucayali jungle regions. Legal title to land can take decades for tribes to procure in Peru. As a result, territorial boundaries are often murky and clashes with outsiders here are frequent.
"Where there is coca, there is money, guns and people with connections to local authorities -- a mafia. And so there is a high likelihood of conflict here," said Miguel Macedo, an anthropologist with The Common Good Institute, a nonprofit working with the Cacataibo. "These communities are abandoned and left to fight invaders alone."
According to Global Forest Watch, the region lost more than 8,500 acres of primary rainforest in 2020. Much of that deforestation is thought to be linked to the flourishing drug trade.
"This is the new VRAEM," said Odicio, using the acronym for Peru's "Cocaine Valley," the country's most prolific drug trafficking region, home to a Maoist terror insurgency that sowed chaos in the country for decades.
An abundance of land, ill-defined territorial borders, highway connection and corrupt local officials have shifted the focus onto this region, creating a powder keg for the Cacataibo. Last April, community leader and outspoken land rights advocate Arbildo Meléndez Grande was murdered by suspected land grabbers outside of his village of Unipacuyacu.
And in February of this year, two more Cacataibo -- Herasmo Garcia Grau and Yenser Rios Bonsano -- were murdered in their villages.
Odicio denounced the killings to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as threats on his own life increased.
He claims drug traffickers bribed him with large sums of money to allow small narco-planes to funnel drugs out of the region via furtive airstrips deep within his territory. Odicio rejected their offer, which he said led to more threats.
"It was getting too dangerous to remain in my community. I couldn't stay in my office or even in the region because of direct death threats. It was getting very real," Odicio told ABC News on a recent WhatsApp call.
Berlin Diquez, president of the regional indigenous organization ORAU, warned that without state intervention, including a commitment to assist tribes in obtaining legal title to ancestral land, the "chaos" would continue unmitigated.
"The state also needs to safeguard laws which protect the human rights of indigenous environmental defenders. In this moment there are no such protections," he said.
Last week, COICA, the indigenous federation representing tribes throughout the nine countries which share the Amazon basin, issued an emergency declaration in response to a reported killing of 202 human rights and environmental defenders throughout the region in 2020.
In Peru, Herlin Odicio's life remains in the balance.
"To not be by my family's side in my community, I'm left suffering. All for defending them. I just want to live in peace."
(HONG KONG) -- An Indonesian submarine with 53 on board is feared missing after the country’s military lost contact with it Wednesday during an early morning torpedo training exercise in the waters north of Bali.
The 42-year old German-made submarine, KRI Nanggala-402, is part of the Indonesian Navy’s 2nd Fleet and was taking part in naval drills that were supposed to culminate on Thursday.
Indonesia’s military chief Marshal Hadi told the local outlets that he has asked Singapore and Australia for assistance, with whom Jakarta has signed submarine rescue agreements with. They are expected to join several of the Indonesian warship already dispatched to the area to aid in the rescue efforts.
Tjahjanto is expected to travel to Bali Thursday morning, where he was originally scheduled to oversee the final exercises but now he will give an update on the search for the KRI Nanggala.
Tjahjanto told local outlet Kompas that the submarine disappeared in waters about 60 miles the north of Bali Island around 3 a.m. local time.
"Just when the dive permit was given, after being given the clearance, contact was immediately lost," Hadi told Kompas.
A source in the Indonesian Navy told ABC News that Nanggala-402 was last in contact around 3 a.m. when it was given clearance to dive. The Navy was expecting the crew to check in before it was supposed to resurface around 6 a.m. local for a flotilla exercise.
According to the source, the surface crew became increasingly worried with each passing hour without contact until, according to Janes, a defense news outlet, the Indonesian armed forces sent out a distress call to the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office at about 9:37 a.m. local time to report the submarine as missing with the presumption that it has sunk.
(LONDON) -- Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend a U.S.-led climate change summit this week at the invitation of President Joe Biden.
Biden has invited 40 world leaders to participate in the Leaders Summit on Climate, which will be held virtually on Thursday and Friday. It's the latest move by the Biden administration to push the United States back to the forefront of the global fight against human-caused climate change.
Xi will appear at the summit via video from Beijing on Thursday and will deliver an "important speech," according to a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Xi's acceptance of Biden's invitation came after U.S. special envoy for climate John Kerry traveled to Shanghai last week to meet with his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua. The pair released a joint statement over the weekend, saying their two countries "are committed to cooperating with each other" and will take "enhanced climate actions that raise ambition in the 2020s."
Cooperation between the United States and China, the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gas, is crucial to the success of global efforts to curb climate change. But disputes over trade, human rights and other issues have threatened that partnership. In an apparent veiled remark against the United States last week, Xi said no nation should "arrogantly instruct others and interfere."
The summit will also mark a resumption of dialogue on U.S. climate policy that came to a virtual standstill under President Donald Trump, who withdrew the country from the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change that was adopted by nearly every nation at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Biden brought the United States back into the accord earlier this year.
(LONDON) -- Queen Elizabeth is celebrating her 95th birthday Wednesday, her first birthday in more than 70 years without her husband Prince Philip by her side.
Philip's death at the age of 99, and his funeral on Saturday, mark the end of an era for the royal institution and a new normal moving forward for Queen Elizabeth and her family.
The queen had described Philip, her husband of 73 years, as her "strength and stay."
He was by her side at thousands of royal engagements and overseas tours until his retirement from official royal duties in 2017.
Queen Elizabeth has been attending royal engagements solo since 2017, and is expected to continue to do so after Philip's death.
"She’s always understood that this day will come," said ABC News royalty consultant Alistair Bruce. "She’s got on with her work, and in fact, straight after the funeral, she went back to her official papers and got them done."
But Queen Elizabeth is also expected to be supported by her family even more in the weeks and months ahead, both due to Philip's death and her age.
"I think for the queen, she’s got to change with the way in which her family supports her, but she’ll just get on as the heartbeat of the nation," said Bruce. "She’s got a wonderful family around her that will support and help with the work."
"It will just be a different way, but the same way," he said, noting how the British monarchy has continued for 1,000 years through deaths, divorces and births.
One item now on the royal family's agenda will be to divide the more than 800 patronages that Philip held, some of which he kept even after his retirement.
The queen and Philip's children are expected to step in to help, primarily Prince Charles, the oldest child and heir to the throne, Princess Anne, the couple's only daughter, and Prince Edward, their youngest child.
The couple's fourth child, Prince Andrew, stepped back from his royal public duties in 2019 due to heavy criticism over his relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who died in prison from an apparent suicide.
As the heir to the throne, Prince Charles is expected to be seen more frequently at Queen Elizabeth's side and in her place at royal engagements.
At age 72, Charles remains the longest heir apparent in British history. Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1952 at the age of 25.
Queen Elizabeth and Philip's grandchildren, most notably Prince William and Duchess Kate, will also be looked upon to support the queen at official engagements. William, at age 38, is second in line to the throne after Charles, his father.
William and Kate, along with Charles and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, had already increased their royal duties in the past year in the absence of Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan.
Harry and Meghan, the son and daughter-in-law, respectively, of Prince Charles, stepped down last year from their roles as senior, working members of the royal family. The couple publicly revealed their tensions with the royal family in a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey last month.
Philip's funeral marked the first time in over one year that Harry, who now lives in California with Meghan and their son Archie, had seen his family in person. Meghan, who is pregnant with the couple's second child, did not travel to the U.K. for the funeral at the advice of her doctor.
While Harry and Meghan have confirmed they will not be returning to their working royal roles, it was hoped by royal observers that Philip's funeral would at least mark a time for Harry to reunite with his family.
Harry and William, the only children of Charles and the late Princess Diana, walked in the same row during Philip's funeral procession and were photographed walking together back to Windsor Castle after the service at St. George's Chapel.
The brothers were also understood to have spoken more once they were back at Windsor Castle, according to ABC News royal contributor Victoria Murphy.
A repaired relationship between Harry and his family is seen by many as being beneficial not only personally for the family but also institutionally for the monarchy, which will see upheaval once again when Queen Elizabeth dies and Charles becomes king.
And it would be fitting if a reconciliation was started at a gathering for Philip, who was very protective of both his family and the family business into which he married, and was close with his grandsons William and Harry.
"I think when a family gets together, the love that’s there and the capacity for reconciliation, which should be in every family, is always very important," said Bruce. "After all, they had joined together to mark Prince Philip, their grandfather, and I think for both of them, he was such a tower of strength."
(WASHINGTON) -- The State Department has updated its travel warnings to better reflect the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it said, meaning that as of Tuesday, approximately 80% of countries are now a "Level 4: Do Not Travel" on its advisory.
The agency warned that the coronavirus pandemic "continues to pose unprecedented risks to travelers," even as Americans are increasingly vaccinated and ready to get on a plane.
"In light of those risks, the Department of State strongly recommends U.S. citizens reconsider all travel abroad," it said in a new notice Monday.
Last year, the department issued a blanket "Level 4: Do Not Travel" advisory, the first of its kind, to urge Americans not to travel overseas as the coronavirus swept around the world. The notice was lifted last August, as the department instead instituted individual notices for every country again, reflecting the local risks from the pandemic and other threats, like terrorism, crime or unrest.
Several countries, such as India, are seeing enormous spikes in cases of COVID-19, and the World Health Organization has reported that the average number of cases reported daily worldwide is now higher than it has ever been.
But the State Department's new advisories are not because there are spikes in the majority of these countries, it said, but rather an "adjustment" to using the "CDC's existing epidemiological assessments" in each country individually.
Prior to the announcement, just over 16% of countries had a "Level 4: Do Not Travel" warning from the State Department, and most of those were for extreme threats -- ongoing conflict like in Afghanistan or Iraq, bloody unrest like in Myanmar or Haiti, and dangerous regimes like in North Korea or Iran.
Like the State Department, the CDC has a four-tier system -- launched in November -- that rates the level of COVID-19 cases from low, at Level 1, to very high, at Level 4. Those levels are determined using the number of cases on a per capita basis and the direction of infection rates.
With mounting cases and new variants, the CDC is urging even vaccinated travelers to be cautious.
"Because of the current situation in India even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants and should avoid all travel to India," it said in its new notice for India late Monday -- standard language for all countries at its highest-level warning.
All travelers, including U.S. citizens, are currently required to provide a negative COVID-19 test before being able to board a flight to the U.S.
In addition, non-U.S. citizens who have traveled through China, Iran, Brazil, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Ireland and the 26 European countries in the Schengen Area in the prior two weeks are barred from entering the U.S., with certain exceptions, like for spouses or children.
(PARIS) -- Newly reelected president of Chad, Marshal Idriss Déby Itno, died Tuesday on the battlefield in clashes with rebels, according to the Chadian army.
"Supreme Chief of the Armed Forces, Idriss Déby Itno has just given his last breath while defending the territorial integrity on the battlefield. It is with deep bitterness that we announce to the Chadian people the death, this Tuesday, April 20, 2021, of Marshal of Chad ... as a result of his injuries to the forehead," Chad army spokesman, General Azem Bermandoa Agouna, said during a statement on Tchad TV.
One of Africa's longest-ruling leaders, Déby was injured on the front line in the Kanem region where rebel groups took control of the territory, Chad's presidential office told ABC News.
Déby's death comes amid the nation's army's battles with rebel group Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT). The rebels entered Chad through Libya on the country's election day, April 11, a FACT representative told ABC News.
The U.S. State Department raised Chad's travel advisory to a red-alert Level 4 Saturday, urging all Americans not to travel to the country "due to civil unrest and armed violence" and listing COVID-19 as a reason to "reconsider" travel to Chad.
On Saturday, Chadian government spokesperson Chérif Mahamat Zene said that rebels advancing on N'Djamena -- Chad's capitol city -- had been defeated, but that fighting had later resumed.
Déby was declared winner of the presidential elections on Monday, April 19 -- the day before his death -- which would have given him another six years in office. According to provisional results announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), Déby had won the election with 79.32% of the votes.
Déby ruled with an iron fist for 30 years and was accused of fixing elections. According to Human Rights Watch, Chadian security forces led a relentless crackdown on protesters and political opposition to the 2021 presidential election, compromising the ability of Chadians to freely choose their elected representatives, HRW said on April 8.
At 68, he had been the all-powerful head of state of Chad taking over via a coup on Dec. 2, 1990.
Despite a poor human rights record, he was a key counterterrorism ally of France, the U.S. and others in Africa's Sahel region.
In the wake of the announcement of Déby's death, Chad's constitution was suspended and a military council is governing the country. A curfew from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. was established throughout the national territory and land and air borders are closed until further notice, the Temporary Military Council announced in a press release.
Ned Price, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, offered "the people of Chad our sincere condolences as they mourn the passing of President Idriss Deby Itno" in a statement "on behalf of the United States."
The statement added: "We condemn recent violence and loss of life in Chad. The United States stands with the people of Chad during this difficult time. We support a peaceful transition of power in accordance with the Chadian constitution."
(WASHINGTON) -- The Biden administration is voicing increasing concern about the reported atrocities committed in Ethiopia's Tigray region and continued restrictions and challenges for aid organizations responding to a crisis that has only grown since fighting erupted last November.
The U.S. deployed a disaster response team to the region last month, but its leader told ABC News in an exclusive interview that its personnel and aid partners still need greater and sustained access to civilians in the region, warning of a growing humanitarian crisis without international aid.
"Humanitarians absolutely need unhindered access to populations in need, and we are concerned about the fact that there are populations that we haven't yet been able to reach," said Emily Dakin, the senior U.S. Agency for International Development official leading the U.S. response in Tigray.
That response, totaling $305 million to date, is providing emergency food aid, medical care, temporary shelters and "extremely important" support for victims of violence, especially sexual-based violence, according to Dakin. Just days ago, President Joe Biden's U.N. ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield warned of fresh "reports of rape and other unspeakably cruel sexual violence," adding that the overall situation was "deteriorating."
The federal government of Ethiopia, Africa's second most-populous country and a linchpin of security, has been battling Tigray's regional ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front. Amid tensions over local elections, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accused the TPLF of attacking government bases last fall -- launching an offensive as long-simmering tensions hit a boiling point. Eritrea, a small neighboring country long at odds with the TPLF too, sent troops across the border and have been accused of some of the worst atrocities.
After almost six months of fighting, the conflict has displaced nearly two million people, according to the United Nations -- with tens of thousands of refugees fleeing into neighboring Sudan. It's unclear how many people have been killed, but it is estimated that thousands of people are dead.
While Abiy's government has said that it secured victory against the TPLF and fighting has ended, clashes continue, according to aid groups and media outlets on the ground.
Members of the U.S. Disaster Assistance Response Team, or DART, have not directly experienced conflict, but ongoing fighting "makes it challenging to ensure that we're able to support our partners to have the safe and consistent access they need to really be able to respond to some of the pretty dire humanitarian needs that we're seeing, particularly around food assistance," Dakin told ABC News.
Just weeks ago, a Doctors Without Borders team arrived at the aftermath of an ambush attack on Ethiopian government forces, then witnessed those troops pull four men off a bus and kill them. Government forces later beat the Doctors Without Borders team's driver, according to the aid group.
The Biden administration has called for a ceasefire and demanded that Eritrean troops leave the country -- which Abiy announced on March 26 they agreed to do. But last week, Thomas-Greenfield warned there were "credible reports that Eritrean forces are re-uniforming as Ethiopian military in order to remain in Tigray indefinitely," and there is no evidence other Eritrean troops have departed.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described atrocities in the region as "ethnic cleansing," urging Abiy and all the parties to halt hostilities. But the State Department has declined to blame different fighting forces for certain atrocities, even as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and several media outlets have published reports documenting specific crimes by Eritrean troops, Ethiopian troops and the TPLF.
Instead, Thomas-Greenfield is warning that the "humanitarian and human rights situation" is "deteriorating," including more reports of sexual violence.
More than 500 rape cases have been reported, the United Nations said in late March, although the number is likely higher.
"We are horrified by the reports of rape and other unspeakably cruel sexual violence that continue to surface. The degradation and trauma associated with these attacks will have long-term effects on the affected communities. We condemn all sexual violence and demand perpetrators be brought to justice," Thomas-Greenfield in a statement Thursday, hours after the U.N.'s aid chief briefed the Security Council in a closed-door session.
Dakin told ABC News in an interview last week that USAID is "seeing a significant number of needs" for sexual violence counseling and medical care, while declining to "speak to the absolute scale."
"We have worked to scale up the medical attention, the case management and we've supported specialized training for health care staff to care for survivors of violence," she added.
The growing level of hunger, however, is what alarms many humanitarians. There are 4.5 million people in need of immediate assistance, including four million who need immediate food aid, Dakin said, and approximately 400,000 women and children suffering from malnutrition.
"We are very concerned about rising malnutrition levels and the U.N. has warned about the risk of famine," she said, warning the situation could "deteriorate if our partners are not able to safely and consistently access the populations in need."
Fighting has not only destroyed crops, but also interrupted last fall's harvest, forcing folks to flee their farms and livestock and impeding market access -- all of which has exacerbated the current crisis.
Compounding the challenge is that much of Tigray's health care system has been destroyed, according to Dakin, who declined to say whether facilities were intentionally targeted.
"We've been very concerned about lack of functionality of health centers in Tigray. Approximately 37% of health centers are currently functional and the health system is really on the verge of collapse," she said, noting the U.S. is funding about 30 mobile health care and nutrition teams that are operating throughout the region.
While Ethiopian government forces have been responsible for some of that destruction, Dakin called Abiy's government a "key partner in this response." The U.S. team and other aid groups are still dependent on the government's permission to bring in certain equipment, although Dakin said there have been "some marked improvements" since Abiy approved "a blanket-notification process" in March that allows humanitarian workers to travel to the region and "really scale up in a way that's required."
But the fighting itself continues to make aid work very difficult. While humanitarian convoys have not been targeted, the unpredictability of violent clashes and the blocking of key highways, for example, have made their work at times impossible, according to aid groups.
Dakin declined to address questions about the government's response, saying diplomatically, "We're focused more really on the humanitarian impact and how we can make sure that our partners are really able and resourced to meet the needs of the population."
But there is growing urgency elsewhere in Washington for Abiy to change course. The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, said last week that Abiy "must fulfill his commitments on Tigray regarding the full withdrawal of Eritrean troops, full humanitarian access and accountability for human rights abuses."
His Democratic colleague, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, who Biden sent as an emissary to meet Abiy last month, carried the same message, tweeting, "I'm disappointed PM Abiy has not yet fulfilled his commitments to withdraw Eritrean forces, remove obstacles to humanitarian access, & hold perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable. I'm concerned by atrocities continuing to occur across #Ethiopia—inside & outside of Tigray."
In the meantime, U.S. aid will continue -- and continue to push for greater access -- Dakin said: "We are seeing such significant humanitarian needs that we will continue to provide assistance and support to partners ... in a needs-based way."
(MOSCOW) — For weeks, Russia has been massing troops close to Ukraine in a military buildup on a scale not seen since its invasion in 2014.
Analysts, as well as Ukrainian and Western officials, have struggled to understand what the Russian buildup means: It is simply posturing intended to send a message to Ukraine and the Biden administration, or is it genuine preparations for Russian military action or even a full-scale invasion of Ukraine?
Right now, only the Kremlin knows the answer. But most observers have concluded for now that the highly visible build-up is most likely saber-rattling, though the threat of escalation still can’t be ruled out.
“In general, the situation is better now than it was a week before,” Oleksiy Semenov, a former adviser to the secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, said in an interview on Friday.
“I would say that actually the percentage of some kind of real war or even mid-size military conflict -- be it on the line or be on the border -- is low,” he said. “It does not mean the situation cannot change.”
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has been at a low intensity since 2015, when a peace agreement ended major fighting. That peace process has been deadlocked more or less ever since, leaving parts of eastern Ukraine under the rule of Russian-controlled separatists who face off down a frontline with Ukrainian government forces. The separatist areas are nominally self-declared republics, but in practice are effectively controlled by Moscow, which has so far stopped short of recognizing them.
Since late March, Russian social media has been full of videos showing trainloads of armored vehicles and heavy artillery moving into Crimea and close to eastern Ukraine. That has been accompanied by a barrage of warlike rhetoric on Russian state media. At the same time, a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine between Russian-controlled rebels there and the Kyiv government has collapsed, with an upsurge in firing.
Estimates of the number of Russian troops deployed near Ukraine now range from around 60,000 to over 100,000, though many of those are permanently stationed there. Russia’s defense minister has said it moved two armies and three airborne units to its southwestern border, saying the buildup is part of a “readiness check” in response to alleged increased activity by the United States and NATO forces.
Russia has set up a large new field base for hundreds of vehicles, visible on commercially available satellite imagery, and foreign journalists have been allowed to get close by.
Most observers say they believe the very visible nature of the Russian buildup means it’s intended to be seen, which suggests it is a message, not a prelude to an invasion.
“We were and are spectators of a show, which many have been taking -- and are still taking -- for reality,” Dmitry Trenin, the director of Carnegie Moscow Center, said in an interview with Russian website 47News.
Many observers believe that show is intended to send signals to both Ukraine and the Biden administration.
To Ukraine, Trenin said, it’s a warning against any attempt to use military force to retake its occupied territories and also to express dissatisfaction over a recent shift by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky toward a more assertive stance against pro-Russian groups in the country.
To the U.S., Trenin said the message was likewise a warning to keep tight control over Kyiv, which the Kremlin sees as dominated by the U.S.
Other analysts say they believe it was meant as an early test for the Biden administration and as a message from the Kremlin that it can reignite the conflict at will if its interests are ignored.
The moves have succeeded in attracting the West’s attention. President Joe Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin and offered him a summit meeting in the coming months, something analysts say Putin eagerly seeks.
Some analysts said they believed the Kremlin had seized on more assertive moves by Kyiv recently in order to make its points. The escalation began when Zelensky banned three pro-Russian media channels and sanctioned a powerful oligarch often described as Putin’s point man in Ukraine. Zelensky also conducted military exercises close to the front.
“Even though Kyiv’s moves at that time were not preparations for a military offensive,” Trenin wrote in a recent article, “The Kremlin decided to seize upon them to raise the stakes.”
Trenin and other analysts have suggested Russia is genuinely concerned that Kyiv’s leaders could mistake words of support from the U.S. as backing for an attempt to forcibly take back the occupied regions.
Such a view is unsettling, some observers said, suggesting a dangerous disconnect between the Kremlin’s perspective of the conflict and how it is seen by Ukraine and Western countries.
“There was no Ukrainian military effort underway that could have justified the operations Russia is now engaged in on Ukraine’s borders,” Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a recent article.
“While the Kremlin’s fears are based on illusions, it believes that these illusions entitle it to real offensive actions.”
(MOSCOW) -- Russia’s prison service said it is moving the jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny to a hospital at another prison camp, as Navalny’s allies continue to warn that he is dangerously ill and could die within days.
International concerns has been growing for Navalny after his team said his life is “hanging by a thread.” His health rapidly deteriorated during a hunger strike he declared nearly three weeks ago. His doctors have warned that blood tests show dangerously high levels of potassium, meaning Navalny could suffer heart failure “at any moment” and that his kidneys may also be failing.
Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service on Monday said Navalny’s condition was “satisfactory” and that he was being examined by a doctor every day and that he had agreed to start taking vitamins.
It said Navalny, 44, was being moved to a hospital which “specializes in dynamic observation for such patients.”
Russia's Alexey Navalny 'is dying' in prison, allies call for nationwide protests
The hospital is located at Correctional Facility No. 3 in the city of Vladimir about 60 miles east of Moscow and not far from Navalny’s current prison.
Navalny’s team, however, dismissed the claim Navalny was being now being hospitalized, saying in reality he is essentially just being moved to another prison, where he will not receive proper treatment. They claim the facility is mostly used for tuberculosis patients.
“Please stop writing that Navalny has been transferred to hospital. It’s not a hospital,” Maria Pevchikh, an investigator at Navalny’s Anti-corruption Foundation, wrote on Twitter. “It’s just a different penal colony that has the same tortuous conditions, same everything apart from the fact that there are a few formally qualified doctors on site. This changes nothing.”
Ivan Zhdanov, a top lieutenant of Navalny's, wrote that the move just showed that "Navalny's condition has worsened."
"And worsened so much that even the torture camp acknowledges it," he wrote on Twitter.
The prison and the hospital where Navalny is being sent was featured in a 2018 report by the Russian news website The Daily Storm, which quoted inmates describing it as a frightening place where prisoners from other camps were sometimes sent for “re-education.”
The article alleged prisoners were frightened to be transferred to the prison because of its reputation for frequent torture and lack of oversight.
Navalny began his hunger strike 20 days ago in protest at the prison’s refusal to allow his doctors to treat him for severe back pain, believed to be caused by two herniated discs.
Since Friday, Navalny’s team and his doctors have been warning that Navalny’s condition has gone into rapid decline, perhaps in part because of the lasting effects of the nerve agent poisoning that he narrowly survived last year. Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh has said the threat to Navalny’s life is as serious as when he was poisoned.
His team have called for mass protests this Wednesday, pleading with people to join them and saying only a large turnout can save Navalny’s life. They accused the Kremlin on Sunday in a post of “killing Navalny for a second time before the eyes of all Russia.”
It comes amid signs the Kremlin may now be determined to destroy Navalny’s movement entirely, with authorities moving to outlaw his organizations as "extremist groups" that would effectively make anyone actively supporting Navalny at risk of long prison sentences.
Many of Navalny’s key allies are already under house arrest or now overseas. On Monday, another leading member of Navalny’s team, Vladimir Milov, said he had left the country to avoid being arrested.
The dire pleas from Navalny’s team have prompted the Biden administration and European countries to warn Russia that it will face consequences if Navalny dies.
The Kremlin’s spokesman on Monday rebuffed those warnings and told reporters he had “no information” on Navalny’s current condition.
Asked about the international warnings, the spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "The health of convicts and prisoners in the territory of Russia cannot and should not be an issue of their interest."
Peskov warned that the protests on Wednesday would be “illegal” if they did not receive permission to go ahead, which is highly unlikely.
(WINDSOR, England) -- Duchess Kate paid homage to Queen Elizabeth II in a touching way during Prince Philip's funeral.
She arrived on Saturday wearing an elegant necklace from the queen's collection along with pearl drop earrings, a beautiful black fascinator, a veil and a protective face mask.
The Duchess of Cambridge paired the look with a Roland Mouret dress that included a bow-like detail near the neckline.
The statement piece is a four-row pearl choker-style necklace that includes a diamond clasp at its center.
Duchess Kate also wore the pearl chocker in 2017 to the queen's and Philip's 70th anniversary event in 2017.
Originally worn by the queen on several occasions, the necklace was originally a gift to the queen from the Japanese government, according to The Court Jeweller.
The queen has worn the piece while visiting Bangladesh as well as during tiara affairs in the 1980s.
During this same time period, the late Princess Diana also wore the queen's necklace while visiting the Netherlands.
Ahead of the funeral, Prince William shared a touching reflection surrounding the life and legacy of his grandfather Prince Philip.
"I feel lucky to have not just had his example to guide me, but his enduring presence well into my own adult life -- both through good times and the hardest days," he said in a statement. "I will always be grateful that my wife had so many years to get to know my grandfather and for the kindness he showed her. I will never take for granted the special memories my children will always have of their great-grandpa coming to collect them in his carriage and seeing for themselves his infectious sense of adventure as well as his mischievous sense of humor!"
(NEW YORK) -- All systems were a go as NASA made history on the red planet Monday.
The agency launched its Ingenuity helicopter into the atmosphere of Mars around 3:30 a.m. ET, marking the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet.
The four-pound helicopter, which landed on the planet with the Perseverance rover in February, tested flight conditions in the planet's atmosphere, which is colder and has different levels of gravity.
The first test flight hovered at around 10 feet off the ground, according to NASA.
The flight was originally scheduled for April 11, however, the agency had to postpone the take-off as engineers worked on preflight checks and a solution to a command sequence issue.
NASA said subsequent flight tests will be scheduled and they will be documented via high-definition cameras on the Perseverance rover.
"The Perseverance rover will provide support during flight operations, taking images, collecting environmental data, and hosting the base station that enables the helicopter to communicate with mission controllers on Earth," the agency said in a statement.
The flight was streamed live on NASA's website, as well as on its social media platforms at 6:15 a.m ET, when the data from the flight reached Earth.
(NEW YORK) -- There is growing international concern for jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, as his team warned he is now dangerously ill and could die within "a matter of days."
Navalny’s allies are calling for mass protests this week, saying if the Kremlin is not forced to give Navalny medical care, he will die.
Navalny, known as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critic, is 19 days into a hunger strike in prison, where he was sentenced after returning to Russia having survived a nerve agent poisoning last year.
He declared the hunger strike to protest the prison’s refusal to provide him with medical treatment for severe back pain caused by two suspected hernias, but in recent days, his team has said his health has deteriorated fast.
In a message calling for the protests, his team said Navalny’s life is now “hanging by a hair” and accused the Kremlin of “killing Navalny for a second time before the eyes of all Russia."
Since Friday, his team has been sounding the alarm that Navalny’s health is rapidly declining and warning that the threat to his life is now as serious as when he was poisoned last August.
“Events are developing too quickly and too badly. The life of Alexey Navalny and the fate of Russia depends on how many citizens come out to the streets this Wednesday,” Navalny’s team said in a statement on its website.
Doctors helping Navalny’s family said on Saturday blood tests showed his potassium levels are “catastrophically” high, meaning that he could suffer heart failure at "any moment." One of the doctors, Yaroslav Ashikhmin, said the tests also suggested that Navalny’s kidneys are now shutting down.
In such a condition, Ashikhmin wrote on Facebook, a patient would normally be moved to an intensive care unit.
"People usually avoid using the word 'dying,'" Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh wrote on Facebook Saturday. “Me personally because I don’t like throwing such big statements around. But right now Alexey is dying. In his state, it is a matter of days.”
Yarmysh and other members of Navalny’s team said they now fear that the Kremlin has decided to put an end to the challenge posed by him, by allowing him to die out of sight in the prison camp. Navalny's doctors again sought to visit him Sunday but said they were denied entry.
On Friday, Russian prosecutors moved to have Navalny’s key organizations declared "extremist groups," which would outlaw his movement and put anyone supporting him at risk of lengthy prison sentences. The request to ban the groups -- the Anti-Corruption Foundation and Navalny’s regional campaign headquarters -- is the most serious attempt yet to destroy Navalny's movement.
The European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Sunday issued a statement expressing “deep concern” about Navalny’s condition and demanding that the Kremlin grant immediate medical access to him. The bloc’s foreign ministers will discuss the situation at a meeting on Monday, it said in a statement.
The U.S. State Department also called for Russia to immediately give Navalny access to medical care.
"Russian authorities are responsible for Aleksey Navalny's well-being, and we call on them to allow him access to necessary medical care immediately in response to disturbing reports his health is deteriorating," the department's spokesperson Ned Price wrote on Twitter.
Before Navalny fell ill, his allies had planned to hold a mass protest this spring once 500,000 people registered on a website saying they were ready to take part. But on Sunday, Navalny’s team said they could no longer wait given how critical the situation was.
The team called for protests in the central squares of every Russian city at 7 p.m. local time, coinciding with the same day that Putin is due to give an annual state-of-the-nation address.
In January, the Kremlin was able to shut down protests that broke out after Navalny returned to Russia and was jailed on parole violations that have been widely condemned as politically motivated. After police detained thousands during the protests, Navalny’s team was forced to call for further demonstrations. The plan to gather 500,000 online registrations was intended to ensure protests were large enough to have an impact, but Navalny’s decline has upended that plan.
Observers in Moscow said they feared that Russia, having weathered the protests in January and only having received symbolic sanctions from Western countries over Navalny’s jailing, may have concluded it can now allow him to die.
"The danger is that the collective Kremlin may have decided to end the Navalny problem once and for all: he may die in detention, and his infrastructure will be destroyed. Protests? They can be suppressed and will go into decline,” Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter.
Navalny's team said said this week's protests have become a final showdown with the Kremlin to stop Navalny's death and prevent the complete destruction of a democratic opposition in Russia.
"If we are silent now then the darkest time will come for free people," Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov, two top Navalny aides, said in a video posted Sunday. "Russia will sink into total darkness."
(LONDON) -- A suspected poacher has been trampled to death after accidentally running into a herd of breeding elephants while trying to flee from authorities.
The incident occurred on Saturday, April 17, in Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa when field rangers were out on a routine patrol of the Phabeni area of the more than 7,500-square mile reserve when they said they detected incoming spoor -- the track or scent of something -- and decided to follow up on it, according to a statement from Kruger National Park.
It was shortly after that the rangers saw three alleged poachers in the park.
“Three individuals were spotted by the Rangers and attempted to run away, but Rangers requested backup from the Airwing and K9 unit,” officials from Kruger National Park said in the statement. “When they realised they had been spotted, the suspected poachers dropped an axe and a bag with their provisions in an attempt to escape from the rangers.”
One of the suspects was arrested shortly after the pursuit and informed the rangers that the three of them had run into a herd of elephants while trying to make their escape and that he was unsure his accomplice managed to make it out.
During their investigation into the suspect’s claims, the rangers managed to find the suspect’s accomplice badly trampled and dead from his injuries, according to Kruger National Park.
Gareth Coleman, the Managing Executive of the park, congratulated the rangers involved in the arrests in the statement.
"We are proud of the teamwork and dedication of our Rangers Corp, our aviators and the K9 unit,” said Coleman. “It is unfortunate that a life was unnecessarily lost. Only through discipline, teamwork and tenacity will we be able to help stem the tide of rhino poaching in KNP."
The search for the third suspect is currently ongoing and authorities say that the individual is said to have been injured in the eye while fleeing.
A rifle has been recovered so far in the search for the third suspect and authorities have not yet disclosed what charges the alleged surviving poachers could be facing.