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US accuses Russia of 'fabricating a pretext' to invade Ukraine

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(WASHINGTON) -- After a week of high-stakes diplomacy, the U.S. on Friday accused Russia of "fabricating a pretext" to invade its neighbor Ukraine.

It's another sign that the "drumbeats of war" are getting louder, in the words of one U.S. ambassador, after three key meetings this week to defuse tensions raised by Russia massing approximately 100,000 troops on its borders with Ukraine.

But whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will act on a long-held desire to consume Ukraine, or whether his posturing is a bluff to strengthen Moscow's hand and therefore its influence, is still an open question, according to senior U.S. officials.

A "massive" cyberattack against Ukrainian government sites on Friday sparked new fears that the very kind of sabotage plot that U.S. officials have described could already be underway.

"Russia is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion, including through sabotage activities and information operations, by accusing Ukraine of preparing an imminent attack against Russian forces in eastern Ukraine," a U.S. official said Friday.

U.S. intelligence has "information that indicates Russia has already prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine," the official added, saying the group was trained in urban warfare and the use of explosives.

The alleged plot would begin several weeks before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which he attacked in 2014 by annexing Crimea and fomenting a war in its eastern provinces known as Donbas. That conflict has killed as many as 14,000 people in the last eight years, with artillery and sniper fire still exchanged weekly between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-led separatists.

Not long after, White House press secretary Jen Psaki spelled out the U.S. accusations in public.

"We are concerned that the Russian government is preparing for an invasion in Ukraine that may result in widespread human rights violations and war crimes, should diplomacy fail to meet their objectives," Psaki told reporters at her daily briefing. "As part of its plans, Russia is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion, and we've seen this before.

She repeated the U.S. official's assertion that Russian action could occur sometime between the middle of this month and mid-February.

"We have information that indicates Russia has already pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine," Psaki continued. "The operatives are trained in urban warfare and in using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia's own proxy forces. Our information also indicates that Russian influence actors are already starting to fabricate Ukrainian provocations in state and social media to justify a Russian intervention and sew divisions in Ukraine."

The Kremlin dismissed the accusations, saying no proof has been presented.

"All these statements still have just the character of hearsay and haven't been confirmed by anything," spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the state news agency TASS.

The buildup since last fall of nearly 100,000 Russian forces, with potential plans for as many as 175,000, according to U.S. officials, has heightened fears of a full-scale invasion or new attack. In addition to the troops, Russia has stationed artillery systems and electronic warfare systems, according to U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, Michael Carpenter.

"The drumbeat of war is sounding loud, and the rhetoric has gotten rather shrill," Carpenter said Thursday after the third and last round of talks with Russia. "We have to prepare for the eventuality that there could be an escalation."

That rhetoric - accusing Ukraine of abusing human rights and increasing belligerence - has dominated on Russia-language social media, according to the U.S. official. In December, it increased roughly 200 percent to nearly 3,500 posts per day, they said, in order "to justify a Russian intervention and sow divisions in Ukraine."

That appeared to include a "massive" cyberattack against Ukrainian government sites on Friday. Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said theirs and other sites were temporarily down, with a message posted on the site by the attackers, address to "Ukrainians!"

"All your information will become public, be afraid and expect the worst. This is for your past, present and future," it said in part.

Andrei Yermark, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said later Friday that approximately 90 percent of sites have been restored and that critical infrastructure was not affected.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, and Yermak said the country's security service was investigating now.

"Of course, we have some thoughts," he added, saying this kind of attack was "one of the potential parts of the destabilization" that officials have warned about.

With partners like the U.S. and the U.K., "We will be ready to answer to this attack and continue to work with our partners to protect," he said.

Psaki said President Joe Biden was briefed about the cyberattack against Ukrainian government sites, but held back from naming who might be behind it.

"We don't have attribution at this time, and I can't point to any more specifics … I would just note that we will take necessary and proper steps, of course, to defend our allies, support our partners, and support the Ukrainian people, but we're still assessing that at this point in time," she said.

ABC News' Justin Gomez and Patrick Reevell contributed to this report.

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Ukraine says 'massive cyberattack' hits government websites

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(LONDON) -- Ukraine said Friday a “massive cyber attack” has knocked offline the websites of most of its government ministries.

The websites of the government’s cabinet office, the foreign ministry, emergency services minister, as well as the ministries of energy, education, agriculture and several others, were down on Friday, according to Ukrainian media. The country’s public services platform Diia, which holds Ukrainians’ tax numbers and COVID-19 vaccination certificates, was also hit.

A message was posted on the targeted websites reading, “Ukrainians! All your personal data will be uploaded onto the general web. All data on your computer will be destroyed, it will be impossible to restore them. All your information will become public, be afraid and expect the worse. This is for your past, present and future.”

Ukraine’s government has not said who is behind the attack. It comes amid fears of a Russian invasion of the country, as Moscow has massed around 100,000 soldiers at the border, and follows warnings from Ukraine and the United States that Russia might launch cyberattacks amid the tensions.

A day earlier, talks between Moscow and NATO countries aimed at averting a possible Russian military attack concluded with no progress, with Russia saying they were reaching a “dead-end.”

Ukraine’s government did not say whether the attack had caused damage beyond taking down the websites.

“As a result of a massive cyber attack, the websites of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a number of other government agencies are temporarily down,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry said. “Our specialists are already working on restoring the work of IT systems, and the cyber police opened an investigation.”

The message posted on the affected websites included a list of historical grievances.

“This is for your past, present and future. For Volyn, for the OUN UPA [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists/Ukrainian Insurgent Army], for Halychyna, for Polissya and for historical lands,” it read.

The two groups named in the post refer to Ukrainian nationalist partisan fighters that collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War. Russia frequently accuses Kyiv’s government of embracing fascist groups.

On Friday, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, Josep Borrell, said the bloc’s political and social committees as well as its cyber units would meet to try to assist Ukraine.

“We are going to mobilize all our resources to help Ukraine to tackle this cyberattack. Sadly, we knew it could happen,” Borrell was quoted as saying by Reuters at an E.U. foreign ministers meeting in Brest, France. “It’s difficult to say [who is behind it]. I can’t blame anybody as I have no proof, but we can imagine.”

Russian officials on Thursday suggested the talks with the U.S. and NATO countries this week were at an impasse, since Western countries are refusing to accept Moscow’s key demands for binding guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO and that the alliance pull back troops from eastern European countries that joined after the Cold War. The U.S. and NATO have rejected those demands as “non-starters.”

Russia’s lead negotiator, deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov, on Thursday said he saw no grounds for more talks in the near future as long as the U.S. and NATO were refusing Moscow’s key demands.

But Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has said the country will now wait for written responses from the U.S. and NATO, which it expects next week, before deciding next steps.

Russia has denied it has any plans to attack Ukraine. It warned that if the U.S. and NATO fail to give security guarantees, it will take alternative measures that will have unspecified consequences for European security.

Lavrov on Friday told reporters that Russia would not wait endlessly for the U.S. to accept Russia’s security demands on NATO.

“Our patience is at an end,” he said at a pre-scheduled press conference in Moscow

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North Korea test-fires missile for third time in 2022 alone

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(SEOUL, South Korea) -- North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles toward the East Sea Friday afternoon, three days after the regime claimed a successful launch of a newly developed hypersonic missile.

“South Korean military detected two projectiles believed to be short-range ballistic missiles fired northeast towards the East Sea from Uiju, North Pyonganbuk-do,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters Friday.

Pyongyang has tested its missile capabilities three times this month. On Wednesday, North Korea’s state media, Korean Central News Agency, hyped the test-fire of the claimed hypersonic missile by reporting that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspected the launch himself.

North Korea’s show of force took place on the same day the regime expressed discontent over new sanctions implemented by the U.S.

"If the U.S. adopts such a confrontational stance, the DPRK will be forced to take a stronger and certain reaction to it," a North Korean foreign ministry spokesperson said in a statement.

Cheong Seong-Chang of Seoul-based Sejong Institute said these missile launches were an expression of frustration over U.S. sanctions on the regime’s mass destruction weapons and ballistic missile programs.

“Considering that North Korea has been testing new weapons at dawn or early morning, it's reasonable to assume that North's missile test launch this afternoon was improvised to showcase backlash against the U.S. sanctions,” he told ABC News.

Shin Beom Chul, a researcher at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, saw the consecutive missile launches as an effort to gain more bargaining chips by North Korea.

“Considering that political dialogue is restricted due to COVID-19 at the moment, it seems North Korea intends to strengthen its nuclear capabilities in the meantime,” Shin told ABC News. “At the same time, this consecutive military provocation has more than one purpose – to neutralize the U.S. efforts with stronger sanctions and also to secure the status of a de facto nuclear powerhouse.”

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Teachers in France strike over COVID-19 health and safety protocols

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(NEW YORK) -- A nationwide strike took place in schools across France on Thursday as teachers and other school staff demonstrated against the government’s management of COVID-19 protocols in schools.

Teachers, other school staff and parents in the country have been complaining for months, saying the health protocols in schools are confusing and continually changing. The government changed the rules twice for schools in the past week.

They argued that they are facing the crisis with inapplicable measures, a growing work overload, teachers not being replaced when sick, no additional resources or staff to alleviate the issues and a lack of transparency from the education minister.

Teachers unions had called for a walkout to denounce the "indescribable mess" in schools as COVID-19 cases have surged and pharmacies have reported shortages of self-test kits since the beginning of the year.

The primary school teachers’ union, SNUipp-FSU, announced an estimated 75% participation rate among their ranks, and the secondary school union, SNES-FSU, said 62% mobilized. However, the Ministry of National Education claimed that 38.5% of primary school teachers and 23.7% of secondary school teachers participated.

“The teachers express their anger at this minister who does not hear them, who does not listen to what’s going on in the field, who does not listen to the distress present in schools and to all the possible dysfunctions, and above all a minister who addresses the press first before addressing the students," a SNUipp-FSU representative told ABC News. "And so, the teachers are very angry."

The leading parent association, the FCPE, also joined the movement in support of the teachers, and earlier this week called for a "white day" in schools, urging parents to keep their children at home Thursday.

FCPE co-president Nageate Belahcen said while the COVID-19 protocols look "pretty" on paper, there is "no pedagogical continuity."

"Nothing is put in place because the means are not there, and there are no substitute teachers," Belahcen told ABC News, adding that she is also concerned about exams occurring this year. "All this means that the parents are still very, very worried for the future of their children, for the well-being of their children, and above all, we cannot take this situation any longer."

For weeks now, education professionals have been asking Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer for more staff and reinforced measures -- including FFP2 masks for the teachers, CO2 sensors and air purifiers for classrooms -- to fight against the growing cases of COVID-19.

Blanquer has come under fire multiple times since the beginning of the pandemic due to concerns over the way he has handled the COVID-19 crisis.

“When will you present your resignation, Mr. Minister?" Sylvie Tolmont, a national assembly deputy from Sarthe, asked Tuesday during a government questioning session. This isn’t the first time his resignation has been asked for since he took office in 2017.

In a bid to appease the demonstrators, Prime Minister Jean Castex met with the unions Thursday evening, along with the health and education ministers.

After a discussion that lasted three hours, Blanquer announced he had agreed to some of the unions' requests, including the distribution of 5 million FFP2 masks to schools, the recruitment of 3,300 contractual substitute teachers and additional non-teaching and administrative staff.

There has been a similar dispute over health and safety in schools in the United States. After five days of canceled classes, the Chicago Teachers Union voted, with 56% in favor, to approve a COVID-19 agreement with Chicago Public Schools that included expanded testing, masks and a plan to shut down schools during outbreaks.

Thursday's strike was a "historic mobilization" for France, according to SNUipp-FSU, considering the number of strikers, the unity between teachers' unions and the fact that the FCPE participated as well.

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Egypt to mark centenary of Tutankhamun tomb discovery by inaugurating new, lavish museum

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(GIZA, Egypt) -- Sharm El-Sheikh -- Egypt said the best way to mark the centenary of Tutankhamun tomb's discovery would be inaugurating a new state-of-the-art museum later this year to house the ancient boy king's vast treasures.

The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), a mega project on the outskirts of the capital that Egypt said would be the biggest museum in the world dedicated to a single civilization, nears completion as the country applies the finishing touches ahead of its opening.

"If the coronavirus-related conditions are stable, then the (museum's) opening would be in the second half of the year," Egypt's antiquities and tourism minister Khaled el-Anany told ABC News on the sidelines of the World Youth Forum, an annual international youth conference that the country hosts in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.

"We will be ready by the middle of this year … but we want to make sure that our guests can arrive in large numbers. We aim to invite presidents and kings from all over the world," el-Anany said.

The nearly 480,000 square meter museum, which overlooks the famed Giza Pyramids, will hold more than 100,000 artifacts. About 5,000 belong to Tutankhamun, the famous 18th dynasty ruler who died at the age of 19 after a 10-year reign.

The Egyptian Museum, a 120-year-old red storied structure built in Cairo's central Tahrir square, housed less than 3,000 of those objects, including Tutankhamun's golden burial mask. Other artifacts were kept in the museum's storerooms.

However, a century after British archeologist Howard Carter discovered those treasures in Luxor's Valley of the Kings in 1922, they will be displayed in full for the first time when the Grand Egyptian Museum opens.

"The GEM is distinguished by its location, architecture and the full collection of Tutankhamun," el-Anany added.

"We are celebrating the 200-year anniversary of Egyptology and 100-year anniversary of Tutankhamun tomb's discovery in many parts of the world through Egyptian institutions. However, I believe that the best celebration of Tutankhamun would be opening the Grand Egyptian Museum," he said.

String of discoveries

Egypt made a string of discoveries over the past few years as it seeks to lure back tourists following the adverse effects of the political turmoil that followed the 2011 revolution and 2013 mass protests along with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The highlight of 2021, according to el-Anany, was the unearthing of a 3,000-year-old city in the southern province of Luxor, which Egypt had termed the "Lost Golden City." It dates back to the 18th-dynasty of King Amenhotep III, who ruled Egypt from 1391 till 1353 B.C.

Egypt also held two lavish ceremonies to transfer 22 mummies from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir to a newly-inaugurated museum in the old Islamic city of Fustat in a "royal procession" and to celebrate the opening of a 3,000-year-old sphinx-filled avenue in Luxor.

"The numbers of tourists were increasing last year until December when the new coronavirus variant emerged … we are in the recovery phase, but we hope there would be no more variants," El-Anany said.

El-Anany told ABC News that Egypt plans to announce another significant discovery in February or March, which he said will "capture the world's attention." However, he refused to disclose further details.

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Rocket hits Green Zone, US Embassy in Iraq: 'We're still assessing the damage'

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(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. Embassy and other parts of the Green Zone in Baghdad were attacked by "terrorist groups" Thursday, according to the embassy.

"The U.S. Embassy compound was attacked this evening by terrorist groups attempting to undermine Iraq’s security, sovereignty and international relations," the embassy said in a tweet. "We have long said that these sorts of reprehensible attacks are an assault not just on diplomatic facilities, but on the sovereignty of Iraq itself."

This is the latest rocket or drone attack on the U.S. presence in Iraq and neighboring Syria in recent weeks, though so far none have caused any American casualties.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. Iran-backed militias have conducted previous attacks, including last Thursday, calling them retribution for the U.S. strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani two years ago this month.

Security sources told ABC News that three rockets were fired from the Dora area, south of Baghdad. Two were intercepted, and one landed inside a school in the Green Zone, causing damage and injuring a woman and a girl.

"In a cowardly terrorist act, the innocent residents of the Green Zone in Baghdad and the headquarters of the diplomatic missions that the Iraqi security forces bear the responsibility of protecting were attacked by a number of missiles launched from the Dora area south of the capital, which led to the injury of a girl and a woman," the Iraqi government said.

The Green Zone is a heavily fortified area of Iraq that is home to various governmental buildings as well as several foreign embassies.

"We're still assessing the damage," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Thursday. "We're still assessing the health and safety of our people."

ABC News' Luis Martinez contributed to this report.

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Prince Andrew returns military titles, royal patronages to Queen Elizabeth amid Epstein scandal

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(LONDON) -- Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, has lost his military titles and royal patronages just one day after his attempt to have a lawsuit dismissed from alleged Jeffrey Epstein victim Virginia Giuffre was denied.

Buckingham Palace announced Thursday that Andrew's titles and patronages have been returned to his mother, Queen Elizabeth II.

"With The Queen's approval and agreement, The Duke of York's military affiliations and Royal patronages have been returned to The Queen," the palace said in a statement. "The Duke of York will continue not to undertake any public duties and is defending this case as a private citizen."

Prince Andrew, the second youngest of Queen Elizabeth and the late Prince Philip's four children, served for 22 years in the Royal Navy.

Stripping him of his military titles is "hugely significant," according to ABC News royal contributor Robert Jobson.

Andrew's honorary military titles included Colonel of the Grenadier Guards, one of the oldest regiments in the British Army; Honorary air commodore of RAF Lossiemouth; Colonel-in-chief of the Royal Irish Regiment; Colonel-in-chief of the Small Arms School Corps; Commodore-in-Chief of the Fleet Air Arm; Royal colonel of the Royal Highland Fusiliers; Deputy colonel-in-chief of The Royal Lancers; and Royal Colonel of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

"It's clear to me there's no way back from this for Andrew as a public figure," Jobson said. "The reality is, as the queen is not only head of state but also of the armed forces, she will have taken note of the unrest amongst the military affiliated with the duke and acted appropriately."

"The last sentence, referring to him as a private citizen in an official statement, is unheard of and shows that he has clearly been cut adrift by the royal family," Jobson added.

The Duke of York will no longer use the style "His Royal Highness" in any official capacity, a royal source told ABC News.

Andrew's military and patronage roles will be redistributed among members of the royal family, according to the source.

The last time Andrew, the father of Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, appeared in a public capacity with the royal family was last April, when the family gathered in London for Prince Philip's funeral.

In November 2019, Andrew stepped back from public duties, saying in a statement at the time that his, "former association with Jeffrey Epstein has become a major disruption to my family's work and the valuable work going on in the many organizations and charities that I am proud to support."

The scrutiny over Andrew's relationship with Epstein, a convicted sex offender, increased even more in 2020, when Epstein died in prison from an apparent suicide.

On Wednesday, a federal judge in New York rejected Prince Andrew's claim that a 2009 settlement agreement between Giuffre and Epstein exempted him from civil litigation.

The settlement agreement releases from legal liability "other potential defendants" and attorneys for the Duke of York had argued that prevents her from suing him because he was a potential defendant in her earlier lawsuit.

The judge called the agreement "ambiguous" and lacked "clear and precise" drafting.

ABC News royal contributor Victoria Murphy said the ruling is likely what led the monarchy to establish more distance from Andrew.

"They are now going even further than they have gone previously in distancing themselves from him," she said. "It sends the message they understand the latest ruling has escalated the reputational damage and they want to put every last bit of distance they can between him and the monarchy."

Giuffre alleges Epstein trafficked her to Prince Andrew, who took advantage and sexually abused her when she was under 18.

Prince Andrew has repeatedly denied the allegation.

In response to the judge's ruling, a source close to Andrew told ABC News the duke "will continue to defend himself."

"Given the robustness with which Judge Kaplan greeted our arguments, we are unsurprised by the ruling. However, it was not a judgement on the merits of Ms Giuffre’s allegations," the source said. "This is a marathon not a sprint and the Duke will continue to defend himself against these claims.”

A Buckingham Palace spokesperson declined to comment on the ruling Wednesday, telling ABC News, "We would not comment on what is an ongoing legal matter."

Andrew's U.S.-based legal team had previously signaled its intent to seek dismissal on jurisdictional grounds, arguing Giuffre cannot take advantage of the U.S. federal court system while she lives in Australia.

ABC News' Zoe Magee, Aaron Katersky and James Hill contributed to this report.

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Russian troops begin leaving Kazakhstan after government restores control

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(ALMATY, Kazakhstan) -- Russian-led troops sent to help Kazakhstan’s government quell violent protests have begun leaving the country, according to Russia’s defense minister.

Roughly 2,300 troops were dispatched to Kazakhstan last week by a Moscow-dominated alliance of former Soviet countries, after Kazakhstan’s president appealed for assistance amid the protests that saw his government lose control in the country’s biggest city, Almaty.

Kazakhstan’s government has since re-established its grip after its security forces forcibly ended the unrest, using live fire to clear the streets in Almaty, where over a hundred were killed. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev this week announced the foreign troops from the alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), had completed their mission and could leave now that the situation in the country was stable.

Russia’s defense ministry on Thursday said the first Russian paratrooper units had taken off from Almaty. Four Il-76 transports would fly the troops and their equipment to their base in the Russian city Ivanovo, the ministry said.

Sergey Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, said the withdrawal was ongoing and would be completed by Jan. 19. In a televised meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Shoigu said the several hundred troops from other CSTO countries -- Tajikistan, Belarus and Armenia -- would all leave on Russian aircraft on Friday. A contingent sent from neighboring Kyrgyzstan would leave by land, Shoigu said.

Putin in the meeting said the troops had completed their mission and thanked Russia’s military command.

“On the whole we need to return home -- we’ve completed our task,” Putin said.

Video published by Kazakh news media on Thursday showed CSTO troops taking part in a farewell ceremony in Kazakhstan, marching on a parade ground at a military institute in Almaty. Photos also showed Russian paratrooper boarding transport planes at the city’s airport.

Russia sent the largest contingent from the CSTO alliance, which was established as Moscow’s answer to NATO following the fall of the Soviet Union. The deployment was the first time Russia has acted through the alliance to assist a friendly regime against street protests in one of its former Soviet neighbors.

Peaceful protests began in Kazakhstan over fuel prices but they escalated into a violent uprising against Tokayev’s regime in the middle of last week. Armed mobs stormed government buildings and there was widespread looting in Almaty. Tokayev and Putin have claimed foreign-backed forces inside the country sought to exploit the unrest to stage an “attempted coup” against Tokayev.

Russia deployed soldiers as well as armored vehicles from the 45th Guards Special Purpose brigade, the 98th Guards Airborne Division and the 31st Separate Guards Order.

The Russian-led troops were not used in combat operations or against protesters, according to Kazakhstan’s authorities. Instead the foreign soldiers were used to guard key facilities, freeing up Kazakh security forces to restore order elsewhere, the government said. Russia’s defense ministry released video of Russian troops patrolling a power station.

Western countries, worried about Russian intervention in Kazakhstan, expressed concerns about whether Moscow might seek a more permanent presence in the country and whether its independence could be eroded. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last week told reporters: "One lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it's sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.”

The situation in Kazakhstan has calmed and Tokayev’s government appears to be back in control. In Almaty, normal life is returning, although there remains a heavy security presence in the city, according to an ABC reporter there.

Kazakhstan’s authorities said they arrested nearly 10,000 people during the protests. The interior ministry on Thursday said 524 people were currently in pre-trial detention and that 412 of them had been charged with offenses relating to the unrest. At least 164 people died, including 18 police officers, and over two thousand were injured, according to the government.

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French voting app Elyze matches users with presidential candidates that share their values

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(PARIS) -- What would you do if your ideal presidential candidate was only a few swipes away?

That's the promise of the French app Elyze, which was created by students Grégoire Gazcarra, 22, and François Mari, 19, who will participate in their first presidential election in less than three months.

Elyze is for voting, not dating, but like the popular dating app Tinder, it asks users to swipe right or left -- right to agree, left to disagree -- with more than 500 anonymous propositions. It then ranks each user's matches by affinity to each of the dozen candidates. In addition, the app offers a short explanation tab for each topic, and a third option if the user wants to pass rather than agree or disagree.

With the first round of the French presidential elections around the corner, Elyze's founders want to convince young French people to vote on April 10.

"I see around me that my friends have a more distanced, even more critical relationship with the political class, and that many people do not go to vote because they have the impression that politics no longer has an impact on their daily lives, that it is no longer able to improve our lives, and that their voices, their votes, will not change anything or even are not legitimate," Gazcarra told ABC News.

Elyze was invented to convince citizens, particularly young ones, "whatever their political sensitivity, their personal background, that their voice is worth hearing," Gazcarra added.

The app has been downloaded more than 500,000 times since its launch on Jan. 2.

Abstention, especially among young voters, regardless of the type of election, has been a major issue in France for many years now, with notably 82% of young people ages 18 to 35 having abstained from voting during the regional elections last year.

"Our generation is disconnected from social issues and presidential elections … and multiple initiatives tried to resolve these problems, but they did not use our generation's codes, like the swipe … So we try to use new codes," Mari, who first got interested in politics during the first lockdown, told ABC News.

Gazcarra, who founded the non-partisan movement "Les Engagés" in 2017 to "give young people a taste for politics," and co-created the NGO A Voté for "the defense of civil rights and democratic progress," is convinced that, even though many French politicians are on social media, education is to blame for young people's lack of interest and involvement in politics today.

"Our belief is that our generation is no less engaged than the previous ones, but it engages differently. … And we are convinced that to reconcile our generation with politics, we must reclaim its codes," Gazcarra said. "We must talk to young people where they are, especially in digital spaces. … there is still a challenge for politicians to truly understand how young people interact on these platforms and what they expect from them. That said, our drive with Elyze was … to explain that the real issue is that of pedagogy."

Since the start of his mandate, French President Emmanuel Macron has demonstrated his mastery of social media, and in recent months has increased his efforts toward connecting with young people. Back in May, in an unprecedented communication exercise, the president shot a video with famous YouTubers McFly and Carlito at the Élysée palace, following a challenge to reach 10 million views on their video about barrier measures against COVID-19.

Last summer, in a counter-offensive after the anti-health pass mobilization, he defended, phone in hand, the COVID-19 vaccination from Fort Brégançon, in a virtual Q&A with young people on TikTok and Instagram, while wearing a T-shirt.

With the rising number of COVID-19 cases amid the omicron surge in France, the presidential candidates have had to adjust their campaigns to follow the recent health guidelines. In the opposition, The Republicans (LR) cancelled a 5,000-person gathering to induct their candidate, Valérie Pécresse, on Dec. 11.

While Elyze's creators hope to soon reach 1 million users, a recent Ifop poll revealed that more than half (59%) of 18- to 30-year-olds plan to not vote in the presidential election.

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US denies request to help find 2 Americans missing after Panama plane crash

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(WASHINGTON) -- Two American women remain missing more than a week after their plane crashed off the coast of Panama, as their families plead with the United States government for assistance in the recovery effort.

Debra Ann Velleman, 70, of Waukesha, Wisconsin, and Sue Borries, 57, of Teutopolis, Illinois, both retired public school teachers, were part of a community of snowbirds and expats living in the area of Chame, Panama.

The two friends were traveling with their husbands back to Chame after spending New Year's Eve weekend at a bed and breakfast on the Panamanian island Isla Contadora on Jan. 3 when the crash occurred. The small plane, piloted by the owner of the bed and breakfast, suffered an engine failure and crashed off the coast of Chame, according to friends and family.

Their husbands, Anthony Velleman and Dennis Borries, as well as the pilot were rescued by Panamanian search and rescue teams, though the women have yet to be found despite continued search efforts, according to Albert Lewitinn, a representative for the Velleman family. The women are believed to be in the unrecovered plane wreckage, he said.

The Panamanian government had requested that the U.S. deploy assets including Navy salvage divers and sonar to aid in the search effort and locate the wreckage, but the request was denied this week due to a lack of assets and jurisdiction, according to a family statement.

The families are continuing to "implore" the U.S. government to send equipment and personnel to aid in the search and recovery effort.

"The only acceptable outcome is that our loved ones are found and recovered so that our families can begin the long and difficult grieving process," the Borries and Velleman families said in a statement. "Until our loved ones are recovered and brought home, that cannot occur. It is the United States government's duty to provide much needed assistance in accomplishing this."

ABC News has reached out to the U.S. Embassy in Panama for comment.

The Velleman family has been in touch with two of their Wisconsin representatives, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, as they seek assistance in the search and recovery effort.

Baldwin's office told ABC News it has contacted the Embassy and the State Department "to share our concern that Ms. Vellemen has not yet been located." The office said it has also contacted the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Defense "to urge them to deploy and use any resources that may be available to help in the search effort."

According to Baldwin's office, the U.S. Coast Guard has provided Panamanian authorities with technical modeling to support the search for the aircraft.

"The Department of State, through its Embassy in Panama City, is working in close coordination with the National Transportation Safety Board and USCG to support the Panamanian search operation," Baldwin's office said. "The U.S. Embassy is also maintaining contact with the families of those missing and the Panamanian government throughout this response."

A spokesperson for Fitzgerald's office told ABC News it cannot comment on ongoing casework.

The surviving passengers continue to recover following the crash. Anthony Velleman will travel by air ambulance back to Wisconsin after having spinal surgery in Panama and "will need months of extensive medical care," Lewitinn said.

Meanwhile, the Vellemans' two sons are looking for closure.

"It's been a week, and they are American citizens," Josh Velleman told ABC Milwaukee affiliate WISN from Panama. "I believe the U.S. should do the right thing, bring those Americans home where they belong."

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NATO rejects Russian demands for security guarantees in latest round of talks

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(BRUSSELS) -- A new round of talks between Russia and NATO countries aimed at averting a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine have again ended with little progress, with the two sides still at an impasse over Russia's demands for security guarantees.

Russia met with 30 NATO member states at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, the second of three diplomatic meetings organized this week in Europe between Russia and Western countries amid fears raised by Russia's massing of 100,000 troops on Ukraine's border.

In Wednesday's talks, NATO offered Russia to hold a series of meetings to discuss arms control and other confidence building measures in an attempt to persuade it to lower tensions around Ukraine. The alliance's secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said it had proposed talks on limiting missile deployments and troop exercises as well as how to improve communication and transparency. He told reporters afterward that Russia said it needed to time to consider the offer, but it had not rejected it out of hand.

"We are ready to sit down," Stoltenberg told journalists. "And we hope Russia is ready to sit down and hold these meetings."

But NATO unanimously rebuffed Moscow's core demands for formal guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO and that the alliance will pull back its forces from countries in Eastern Europe that joined after the Cold War. Russia and the United States held talks on Monday in Geneva where Moscow pressed those demands and which the U.S. rejected as impossible.

NATO and the U.S. said they would never compromise on what they called the alliance's "core principles," after Russia's negotiators, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin, presented the same demands again at Wednesday's meeting.

"Together, the United States and our NATO allies made clear we will not slam the door shut on NATO's open-door policy," U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who led the U.S. delegation, said after the meeting, calling them a "non-starter."

But while Russia's key demand was again rejected, the door to a diplomatic solution remains open, U.S. and NATO officials said.

"There was no commitment to deescalate, nor was there a statement that there would not be," Sherman added, even offering some praise for the Russian delegation for sitting "through nearly four hours of a meeting where 30 nations spoke -- and they did -- which is not an easy thing to do. I'm glad they did it."

She and Stoltenberg said Russia now had a choice to make whether to engage with dialogue, saying she hoped the Russian negotiators would now go back to President Vladimir Putin and they would choose "peace and security."

Russia made the sweeping demands over NATO in two draft treaties in December after building up troops close to Ukraine for months. That buildup, along with bellicose rhetoric and plans for "internal sabotage," according to U.S. officials, raised fears that Putin may be preparing to launch a renewed attack on the country after he seized Crimea and launched a separatist war in 2014.

Russia has denied it is planning to attack Ukraine, despite the buildup on its border. Amid the diplomatic efforts, it staged live fire exercises on Tuesday with 3,000 troops and hundreds of tanks in three regions neighboring Ukraine.

The U.S. and NATO have hoped that Russia might accept more modest offers, such as limiting missile deployments and troop exercises. But Russia's negotiator, Grushko, insisted again Wednesday that Russia could accept nothing less than the guarantees on Ukraine and NATO, calling it "imperative." No progress on arms control or confidence-building measures could be made without progress on Moscow's core demands, he told reporters afterward.

Grushko said Russia was now waiting for NATO and the U.S. to send written responses to the Russian proposals and that it would then make a decision on how to proceed.

Russia has complained for decades about NATO expansion into countries formerly dominated by Moscow under the Soviet Union. The Kremlin now alleges that NATO assistance to Ukraine means the former Soviet country is becoming a defacto part of the alliance. The U.S. and NATO say Moscow's demand is an attempt to reimpose its Soviet-era sphere of influence on Eastern Europe and that it violates a fundamental right for countries to choose their security alliances.

Grushko said deescalation was "absolutely possible," but he warned that the alliance's enlargement into Eastern Europe had become "unbearable" for Russia, warning if Russia felt threatened it would use "military means."

"We have a range of military-technical measures that we will use if we will feel a real threat to our security," Grushko said. "And we already are feeling it, if they are looking at our territory as a target for guided, offensive weapons. Of course, we cannot agree with that. We will take all necessary measures in order to fend off the threat with military means, if political ones don't work."

But Grushko also spoke positively about the talks, saying for the first time he believed Russia had "managed to convey to the members of the alliance that the situation is unbearable."

Stoltenberg said Russia could not have a veto over Ukraine joining the alliance, saying Russian claims to feel threatened by Ukraine were also wrong.

"Ukraine is a sovereign nation. Ukraine has the right to self-defense," he said. "Ukraine is not a threat to Russia. To say that Ukraine is a threat to Russia is to put the whole thing upside down."

Western officials have been trying to understand whether the threat of a Russian attack on Ukraine is real or a bluff to strengthen Moscow's hands as it makes its demands. Sherman suggested that remained an open question, perhaps even for the Kremlin itself.

"Everyone, Russia most of all, will have to decide whether they really are about security, in which case they should engage, or whether this was all a pretext," she said. "And they may not even know yet."

While the buildup, including the new live-fire exercises Wednesday, could still be a negotiating tactic, some Western officials and independent experts also worry that Russia might be engaging in the talks intending for them to fail, so as to use that as a pretext for a military intervention.

"The United States and our allies and partners are not dragging our feet. It is Russia that has to make a stark choice: deescalation and diplomacy, or confrontation and consequences," Sherman said. "If Russia walks away, however, it will be quite apparent they were never serious about pursuing diplomacy at all."

On Thursday, the talks will move to a third round at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a Cold War-era forum that includes all of the continent's countries, the U.S. and Canada and several in Central Asia. Those talks are expected to yield even fewer results, with 57 member states participating in an open dialogue.

The Kremlin has suggested it will make a decision whether it is worth continuing talks following this week's meetings. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Tuesday said Moscow did not "see a substantial reason for optimism" so far but that for now it was not drawing any conclusions.

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Boris Johnson faces new calls to resign over Downing Street lockdown party

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(LONDON) -- U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced new calls for his resignation over a party he and his wife attended with Downing Street staff in May 2020, when the country was under lockdown.

Johnson apologized on Wednesday for attending the event, which he said he thought was a work meeting, although rules in the U.K. at the time said households could only meet with one other person in outdoor settings.

News that Johnson's private secretary, Martin Reynolds, had sent an email to more than100 staffers, telling them to make the most of the summer weather and "bring your own booze" was leaked to ITV News, the latest in a series of alleged breaches of lockdown rules by the prime minister's team.

Late last year, it was reported that members of his staff had attended a Christmas party in 2020 in breach of lockdown conditions at the time. The prime minister's former advisor was forced to resign after video was leaked where she could be seen joking about the alleged event.

Coronavirus survivors' groups expressed their anger, and the opposition Labour Party effectively hammered home the message that under Johnson's leadership, it's been "one rule for them and another for everyone else."

In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Johnson faced down furious calls to resign.

Johnson apologized for attending the party and called for patience as an internal investigation looked into the claims. His ruling Conservative Party holds a majority in the U.K. Parliament, but, after a host of scandals, some lawmakers may have begun to lose faith in Johnson's authority to lead the country.

"I want to repeat that I thought it was a work event and, Mr. Speaker, I regret very much, I regret very much that we did not do things differently that evening ... and I take responsibility and I apologize, Mr. Speaker," Johnson said in Parliament Wednesday.

But the apology did little to wave off calls to resign from opposition politicians, with the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, describing Johnson's apology as "worthless."

"Well, there we have it," Starmer said in a fiery exchange Wednesday. "After months of deceit and deception, the pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road. His defense that he didn't realize he was at a party is so ridiculous that it's actually offensive to the British public. He's finally been forced to admit what everyone knew, that when the whole country was locked down, he was hosting boozy parties in Downing Street. Is he now going to do the decent thing and resign?"

As of yet, however, the prime minister remains in place. With a large majority in Parliament, whether or not he clings to power will depend on whether lawmakers within his own Conservative Party, many of whom are said to be disgruntled with his leadership, maintain their loyalty.

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Prince Andrew's request to dismiss alleged Epstein victim lawsuit denied

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(NEW YORK) -- Prince Andrew's attempt to have a lawsuit from alleged Jeffrey Epstein victim Virginia Giuffre dismissed failed Wednesday after a federal judge in New York rejected his arguments.

The judge rejected Prince Andrew's claim that a 2009 settlement agreement between Giuffre and Jeffrey Epstein exempted him from civil litigation.

The judge called the agreement "ambiguous" and lacked "clear and precise" drafting.

"The 2009 agreement cannot be said to demonstrate, clearly and unambiguously, that the parties intended the instrument 'directly,' 'primarily' or 'substantially' to benefit Prince Andrew," Judge Lewis Kaplan wrote. "The existence of the requisite intent to benefit him, or others comparable to him, is an issue of fact that could not properly be decided on this motion even if defendant fell within the releasing language, which itself is ambiguous."

Giuffre alleges Jeffrey Epstein trafficked her to Prince Andrew who took advantage and sexually abused her when she was under 18.

Prince Andrew has repeatedly denied the allegation and attacked Giuffre's credibility and motives.

Giuffre and Epstein settled a civil lawsuit for $500,000. The settlement agreement releases from legal liability "other potential defendants" and attorneys for the Duke of York had argued that prevents her from suing him because he was a potential defendant in her earlier lawsuit.

Judge Kaplan said "that seemingly simple supposition…is not accurate in the context of this case" though he did not foreclose the possibility of further argument.

He also rejected the prince's assertion that Giuffre hadn't alleged sufficient facts.

"Today's decision by Judge Kaplan denying Prince Andrew's effort to dismiss Virginia Giuffre's case against him is another important step in Virginia's heroic and determined pursuit of justice as a survivor of sex trafficking," said Giufffre’s attorney Sigrid McCawley, a partner at the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner LLP.

Prince Andrew's U.S.-based legal team had previously signaled its intent to seek dismissal on jurisdictional grounds, arguing Giuffre cannot take advantage of the U.S. federal court system while she lives in Australia.

"We would not comment on what is an ongoing legal matter," a Buckingham Palace spokesperson told ABC News.

A spokesperson for Prince Andrew said no comment when asked for one.

ABC News' Zoe Magee contributed to this report.

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Magawa, a rat recognized as a hero for detecting landmines, dead at 8

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(LONDON) -- Magawa, a rat credited with finding over 100 landmines and explosives in Cambodia, is dead at age 8.

The African giant pouched male rat was the most successful landmine detecting rat for the nonprofit APOPO -- a Tanzania-based group that trains the species to detect landmines and tuberculosis -- dubbing them "HeroRATs."

Magawa won a People's Dispensary for Sick Animals Gold Medal -- the highest honor given to heroic animals by the U.K.-based veterinary charity -- for his work in Cambodia in 2020. According to APOPO, Magawa "passed away peacefully this weekend," having recently celebrated his birthday.

Magawa retired last year after spending four years discovering explosives with his incredible sense of smell.

African giant pouched rats are larger than the average pet rat, but are not heavy enough to set off most landmines by walking over them.

With 60 million people in 59 countries affected by uncleared landmines, training animals like Magawa can improve efficiency and cut costs in a decades-long battle to clear landmines from past conflict zones, APOPO says.

"All of us at APOPO are feeling the loss of Magawa and we are grateful for the incredible work he's done," the nonprofit said on its website. "During his career, Magawa found over 100 landmines and other explosives, making him APOPO's most successful HeroRAT to date. His contribution allows communities in Cambodia to live, work, and play; without fear of losing life or limb."

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Kazakhstan's president says Russian troops to start leaving this week

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(KAZAKHSTAN) -- Russian-led troops sent to help quell protests will begin leaving Kazakhstan in two days now that the government is back in control, the country's president has said.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in an address to Kazakhstan's parliament Tuesday said the troops, deployed by the Moscow-dominated military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation at his request last week, would start a phased withdrawal that would finish in no more than 10 days.

"The main mission of the CSTO peacekeeping forces has been successfully completed," Tokayev told lawmakers. He said that the situation was now stable in all regions of Kazakhstan.

The Russian-led alliance sent troops late last week to Kazakhstan as violent protests saw Tokayev's authoritarian government lose control over its biggest city, Almaty. Russia sent the largest contingent, deploying paratroopers units with armored vehicles, backed by several hundred soldiers from the other former Soviet countries in the alliance: Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Tokayev has said the force numbers around 2,300 troops.

In recent days, Tokayev's security forces have forcibly regained control in Kazakhstan, using live fire to end the uprising in Almaty and arresting nearly 10,000 people. The unrest saw at least 164 people killed and over 2,000 injured, according to authorities.

The Russian-led troops have not been used in combat or in direct clashes with protesters, according to the authorities, who say instead they were used to guard key facilities, including Almaty's airport which was overrun by protesters. Tokayev has said the arrival of the foreign forces freed up his security forces in the capital Nur-Sultan to help quash the unrest in other regions.

The Russian intervention had worried Western countries that have expressed fear the Kremlin's forces might remain indefinitely and that Kazakhstan could find its independence eroded.

The U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken this weekend told reporters, "I think one lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it's sometimes very difficult to get them to leave."

Russia's president Vladimir Putin a day earlier has insisted his troops would "without question" leave as soon as their mission was complete.

Life was slowly returning to some normalcy in Almaty on Tuesday, although the city remained under heavy guard by security forces. Troops are posted at key buildings and checkpoints, stopping people and examining their phones for signs they may have taken part in the protests, according to an ABC reporter on the ground.

Tokayev on Tuesday announced his picks for a new government, including a new prime minister. The lower house of parliament quickly approved Tokayev's acting prime minister, Alikhan Smailov, to the the post. In a special session of parliament, Tokayev also promised to launch broad reforms to overhaul Kazakhstan's government and tackle economic problems in the country -- addressing concerns that led to the protests. The unrest was triggered by a sudden hike in fuel prices, and came amid wide discontent with rising prices on basic goods and stagnant wages that have worsened with the pandemic.

Tokayev said his government would announce a new packet of measures within two months aimed at tackling inflation and raising incomes.

He also declared he would radically improve Kazakhstan's security forces to prevent a repeat of last week's unrest, promising to increase the number of special forces units in the police and create new ones in the national guard. He also promised to announce in September a packet of political reforms, saying Kazakhstan would "continue a course of political modernisation."

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