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Princes William, Harry to walk together in Prince Philip funeral procession

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(LONDON) -- Prince Harry will join royal family members Saturday in the procession behind Prince Philip's coffin, marking his first public appearance with his family in over a year, since he and his wife Duchess Meghan stepped away from their royal roles.

Harry -- who traveled from his home in California to the United Kingdom for his grandfather's funeral -- will walk alongside his brother, Prince William, and their father, Prince Charles, in the procession for Philip, who died April 9 at the age of 99.

The trio will be joined in the procession by Queen Elizabeth and Philip's three youngest children, Princess Anne, Prince Edward and Prince Andrew, as well as Peter Phillips, the son of Princess Anne; Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence, Princess Anne's husband; and the Earl of Snowdon, a nephew of the queen, according to Buckingham Palace.

The procession -- which will see Philip's body moved from Windsor Castle to the funeral location, St. George's Chapel, in a customized Land Rover -- is expected to bring back memories of the funeral of William and Harry's mother, Princess Diana, in 1997.

After Diana's unexpected death following a car crash in Paris, William, then 15, and Harry, then 12, walked behind her coffin in a procession that also included their father, Prince Charles, grandfather, Prince Philip, and Diana's brother, Charles Spencer.

Philip, who was a stalwart force for the royal family after Diana's death, reportedly agreed to walk in the procession to support his grandsons, whom he wanted to protect from press scrutiny and be allowed time to grieve.

When Downing Street officials suggested that William and Harry might walk behind their mother's coffin, an anguished Philip reportedly bellowed into the phone, "F--- off. We are talking about two boys who have just lost their mother."

Philip ultimately put aside his personal feelings and told young William and Harry, "I'll walk if you walk."

William and Harry are now attending Philip's funeral together at a time of family tension. The brothers, who have reportedly spoken by phone this week, have been at odds for at least the past year as Harry and Meghan decided to step down as senior working members of the royal family.

Harry and Meghan -- who did not travel to the U.K. for Philip's funeral because she is pregnant -- spoke out in a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey last month that spilled tensions in the royal family into public view.

In that interview, Harry described himself and William as being on "different paths."

"The relationship is space at the moment, and, you know, time heals all things, hopefully," Harry said. "I love William to bits. He's my brother. We've been through hell together, and we have a shared experience, but we were on different paths."

William and Harry will not be walking beside each other in Saturday's procession. Their first cousin, Peter Philips, will walk between them.

Guest list released for Prince Philip's funeral

The service for Philip will begin at 3 p.m. local time on Saturday, April 17, at St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Funeral guests will be limited to 30 people in order to comply with coronavirus pandemic and social distancing guidelines issued by the U.K. government.

In addition to Queen Elizabeth and the royal family members walking in the funeral procession, other guests attending the funeral include Prince William's wife Kate, Prince Charles's wife Camilla, Prince Edwards's wife Sophie, the queen and Philip's grandchildren, Queen Elizabeth's niece and two cousins and three of Philip's relatives on his mother's side who traveled from Germany for the wedding.

The only non-family member expected to attend the funeral is the Countess Mountbatten of Burma, close friend of Philip and the queen and Philip’s carriage driving companion.

Queen Elizabeth, who was married to Philip for 73 years, will follow the walking procession to St. George's Chapel in a car, accompanied by a lady-in-waiting.

During the procession, minute guns will be fired by the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery and a bell will toll.

The guests will wear face masks during the service, which will begin with a national moment of silence, according to Buckingham Palace.

Members of the royal family will not be in military uniform for the funeral of Philip, a Navy veteran. Queen Elizabeth is expected to wear black for the service, according to Alistair Bruce, ABC News royalty consultant.

"Military uniform is ideal when you are going in a great procession through the streets of London and following a gun carriage, but this is not like that. We are in a time of COVID," said Bruce, who explained the family will wear morning dress instead. "The queen will be wanting to make sure that the event is very much in the style of what this current pandemic sets for the nation and the world."

During the service, a choir of just four people will sing pieces of music chosen by Philip, according to Buckingham Palace.

The choir will also sing the national anthem at the end of the service, when Philip's coffin will be interred in the royal vault.

The royal family asked the public not to gather in crowds to mourn Philip after his death, and are saying the same for his funeral. Buckingham Palace on Thursday encouraged people to stay home and follow the events of Philip's funeral on TV and radio.

Philip passed away at Windsor Castle, where he and the queen spent the majority of the lockdown during the past year. Queen Elizabeth remains in residence at the castle, according to Buckingham Palace.

The royal family has also asked the public to consider making a charitable donation instead of leaving floral tributes.

The royal website also has an online book of condolences for well-wishers to leave virtual messages.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Blinken visits Afghanistan after Biden's withdrawal decision to press for diplomacy

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(WASHINGTON) -- Less than a day after President Joe Biden announced his decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his first visit to the country as he pushes to reignite diplomatic efforts for a deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Arriving in Kabul Thursday, Blinken met President Ashraf Ghani and other senior officials amid fears the government faces an imminent offensive by the militant group that has sought to establish an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan.

Ghani and Biden spoke Wednesday just before Biden's speech, where he told the U.S. public, "It is time to end America's longest war."

But while 2,500 U.S. troops and 7,000 NATO forces will depart before Sept. 11, the war in Afghanistan will not end. The Taliban and an Afghan national delegation have been engaged in negotiations since last September, but remain at a deadlock.

"I wanted to demonstrate with my visit the ongoing commitment of the United States to the Islamic Republic and the people of Afghanistan," Blinken said during a photo op with Ghani. "The partnership is changing, but the partnership is enduring."

Responding to Biden's withdrawal, Ghani said shortly, "We respect the decision and are adjusting our priorities."

Meeting with Abdullah Abdullah, head of the Afghan negotiating team, Blinken added said it is the start of "a new chapter that we're writing together, and I was very eager to come as quickly as possible also to begin the important work we have in writing that chapter and demonstrating as well the ongoing support the United States has for Afghanistan."

While the top U.S. diplomat acknowledge it's a "time of transition, and with any transition comes uncertainty, comes concern," he said in their meetings, Afghan leaders expressed "respect for the president's decision, profound appreciation for our years of partnership, but also commitment to and optimism about the next chapter."

That next chapter, however, looks grim to many in Kabul. The Taliban said this week they won't participate in peace negotiations until all U.S. and NATO forces exit.

Blinken tried to inject some urgency into that diplomatic process last month by submitting an eight-page proposal to both sides, calling for an interim, power-sharing government, future elections, protection for women's and minorities' rights, and an Islamic council to review Afghan laws.

The proposal was meant to urge both sides to bring ideas to the table for a peace conference in Turkey -- originally scheduled for April 16, then delayed until April 24 and now uncertain after the Taliban said Tuesday it would not participate until all U.S. and NATO forces exit.

Those forces will begin departing shortly, but will miss a May 1 deadline laid out in a deal former President Donald Trump's administration signed with the militant group. It stipulated a full U.S. withdrawal, provided the Taliban met their commitments to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government, including on a permanent ceasefire and prevented terror groups from using Afghan soil to launch attacks -- steps that U.S. officials have admitted the Taliban has not met.

Blinken's proposal infuriated Afghan officials, who have long expressed frustration with the U.S. peace efforts -- starting with the Trump administration's decision to move ahead with U.S.-Taliban talks that excluded the government.

Ghani has rejected Blinken's proposed power-sharing government, saying he is the democratically elected leader of Afghanistan, not the Taliban. But that may change now that U.S. troops, who have provided training and assistance to Afghan security forces, are exiting, leaving Ghani's government to the Taliban.

Many analysts say that once U.S. forces leave, the Taliban will move to retake power by force, potentially sparking an all-out civil war.

Blinken admitted that was a "realistic" possibility Wednesday, but argued it is in "no one's interests, including the Taliban, to plunge Afghanistan back into a long war."

"Ultimately, the people of Afghanistan will be the ones to decide their future. We will do whatever we can to support efforts for a peaceful, stable, just future, but they're the ones who have to decide it," he added.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


US troop withdrawal invites 'significant risk' of terrorism resurgence in Afghanistan, CIA director warns

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CIA Director William Burns told lawmakers Wednesday that the departure of American troops from Afghanistan will leave a "significant risk" of terrorism resurgence in the region -- a sobering assessment from the spy chief just hours before President Joe Biden planned to formally announce his commitment to remove U.S. forces from the war-torn country by September.

"Our ability to keep that threat in Afghanistan in check … has benefitted greatly from the presence of U.S. and coalition militaries on the ground," Burns said at the Senate Intelligence Committee’s annual Worldwide Threats hearing.

"When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish," he continued. "That is simply a fact."

On Wednesday afternoon, Biden plans to announce his intention to pull the roughly 2,500 remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks because "it is time to end America’s longest war."

"We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago," Biden will say in remarks Wednesday afternoon, according to excerpts released by the White House. "That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021."

Burns’ warning about the risks of removing American troops from Afghanistan will likely bolster Republican opposition to the decision. After departing the hearing room, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters he did not agree with Biden’s decision to withdraw, saying the U.S. intelligence agencies will "lose a lot of that capability in the very near future based on the president's decision."

Beyond the proposed troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, senators on Wednedsay peppered intelligence community leaders with queries about a broad spectrum of threats facing the U.S., including the "unparalleled threat" posed by China’s geopolitical ambitions, according to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.

The spy chiefs also discussed how fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to threaten governments, the nuclear challenges posed by Iran and North Korea, and Russia’s escalating cyber operations.

After Haines concluded her opening statement, the committee’s chairman, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., retorted, "that was a list of about as many awful things in 10 minutes as I may have heard in recent times."

Once an annual event, the Worldwide Threats hearings took a hiatus in 2020 after intelligence community leaders reportedly balked at depicting a national security landscape in conflict with the sentiments conveyed by then-President Donald Trump.

Their 2019 testimony, which contradicted Trump’s rosy vision of relations with Iran, attracted scrutiny on the then-president’s now-dormant Twitter page.

On Thursday, the leaders of the intelligence community -- including Burns, Haines and the directors of the FBI, National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency -- will return to Capitol Hill to field questions from the House Intelligence Committee.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Princes William, Harry reportedly speak as royal family gathers to mourn Prince Philip

Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images

(LONDON) -- Prince William and Prince Harry, brothers whose relationship has been strained over the past year, have reportedly spoken to each other as they prepare for the funeral of their grandfather, Prince Philip.

William, 38, and Harry, 36, are understood to have spoken by phone at some point since Harry arrived in the United Kingdom last weekend according to the U.K.'s The Telegraph.

Harry is currently staying at Frogmore Cottage, his family's home in Windsor, while he quarantines, following COVID-19 protocols after flying from California to the U.K.

William and his family, including his wife, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, and their children, Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis, are currently staying at their Anmer Hall home in Norfolk, about two hours from Windsor.

William, Kate and Harry are among the 30 family members and close friends who will attend Philip's funeral at Windsor Castle on Saturday. The funeral for Philip, who died April 9 at 99 years old, has been modified due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"The fact that it's a scaled-down funeral is exactly what Prince Phillip would have wanted," said ABC News royal contributor Robert Jobson. "Because really it's all about family in the end, whether you're a king or a pauper."

Harry will not see his family in person until the day of the funeral, which will be the first time he has seen them in over one year, when he and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, stepped down as senior working members of the royal family.

Harry and Meghan now live in California with their nearly 2-year-old son Archie. The couple spoke out in a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey last month that spilled tensions in the royal family into public view.

In that interview, Harry described himself and William as being on "different paths."

"The relationship is space at the moment, and, you know, time heals all things, hopefully," Harry said. "I love William to bits. He's my brother. We've been through hell together, and we have a shared experience, but we were on different paths."

Both Harry and William are expected to walk together behind their grandfather's coffin on Saturday, in a procession led by their father, Prince Charles, the oldest of Queen Elizabeth and Philip's four children.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Biden's US forces exit could doom Afghan peace talks between Taliban, government

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(WASHINGTON) -- The war in Afghanistan is not ending. U.S. forces will no longer be part of it, but that will likely make the fighting worse in the months to come, according to some analysts.

A senior U.S. administration official told reporters during a briefing Tuesday that President Joe Biden's administration will put the "full weight of our government behind diplomatic efforts to reach a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government."

Those "diplomatic efforts" are stalled at best, dead at worst.

The Taliban's spokesperson tweeted Tuesday that the group will not participate in any negotiations "until all foreign forces completely withdraw from our homeland."

At the very least, that delays U.S.-backed meetings in Istanbul, Turkey, planned to start on April 24. Turkey's Foreign Ministry announced hours earlier on Tuesday that both the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban had agreed to meet for 10 days "to accelerate and complement the ongoing intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha on the achievement of a just and durable political settlement."

The two sides have been meeting in Qatar's capital since September, but so far they've made little progress beyond setting an agenda.

But the exit of all U.S. forces before September 11 will fundamentally shift the power dynamics at the negotiating table.

"Making a public announcement is a gamble because the Taliban now knows Washington's plans. It can just wait the U.S. out and plan to focus its full attention on the fight once the last soldier has departed," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the the Wilson Center's Asian program.

While the presence of U.S. forces have sustained their Afghan counterparts, especially through American air power, the Biden administration said they won't be used to ensure an outcome in negotiations.

"What we will not do is use our troops as bargaining chips in that process," the senior administration official said Tuesday.

Instead, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to inject some urgency into negotiations last month by submitting an eight-page proposal to both sides that called for an interim, power-sharing government, future elections, protection for women's and minorities' rights, and an Islamic judicial council to review Afghan laws.

The Istanbul conference was where both sides were going to come negotiate that proposal, armed with their own ideas. April 24 was already a delay from the planned start this Friday, pushed back after the Taliban said that they wouldn't participate in meetings this week.

That delay was another example of the militant group stalling as it seeks a full withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO troops, according to Afghan officials, and most likely a return to power -- through force.

"The Taliban intends to stall the negotiations until U.S. and coalition forces withdraw so that it can seek a decisive military victory over the Afghan government," the Pentagon's latest inspector general report said in February, citing the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.

On Monday, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad wrapped up four days of meetings in Kabul with Afghan officials and civil society leaders, helping to ensure the Afghan side is prepared for the Istanbul meetings. That likely included some arm-twisting, as President Ghani has rejected Blinken's plan for an interim government, saying he is Afghanistan's democratically elected leader, not the Taliban.

Ghani spoke to Blinken again Tuesday, but his spokesperson Waheed Omer said they're declining to comment on the details of Biden's withdrawal until Biden calls Ghani, his counterpart as head of government. That call is expected "in the near future," according to Omer.

But even if the U.S. raises pressure on Ghani and other Afghan officials to accept a power-sharing government ahead of elections, it will take both sides to reach a deal -- and the Afghan government says they are prepared to fight.

"We will respect any decision taken by the US gov with regards to their troops. ANSDF [Afghan National Security and Defense Forces] has been defending our people with high moral past 2 years... They are fully capable of doing that in the future," Omer tweeted.

There are concerns, however, that they won't win that fight. In the absence of U.S. forces and a finalized peace deal, there are fears the country will spiral out into an all-out civil war, as Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib warned recently.

It's a view shared by the Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan panel of experts convened by the U.S. Institute for Peace that delivered a report last month.

"A precipitous U.S. withdrawal is likely to exacerbate the conflict, provoking a wider civil war," it found.

If that happens, the U.S. will not come to their aid, it seems. The senior administration official said Tuesday, "We will do all we can, working with the international community, to protect those gains -- but not with the continuation of a military force on the ground."

While the U.S. will continue "diplomatic, humanitarian and economic measures," the official said, those are not likely to deter a Taliban offensive to seize power -- with Afghan forces sure to fight back.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Biden to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan by 9/11

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(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden has decided to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that prompted America's longest war, officials said Tuesday.

There are roughly 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan now. American troop levels reached a high of 100,000 troops in August 2010 and stayed at that level for much of the next year.

Biden will announce the withdrawal on Wednesday, the White House said. A senior administration official and a U.S. defense official confirmed the president's decision, which was first reported by The Washington Post.

The senior administration official told reporters on a conference call that the drawdown would begin before the end of this month and could finish before Sept. 11, which the official called "the outside date by which it will be completed."

The official said that the number of troops would be reduced to zero and that the withdrawal would not be based on conditions on the ground.

"This is not conditions-based," the official said. "The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever."

While service members could be fully withdrawn "potentially a meaningful amount of time before" Sept. 11, "how long before September depends on, you know, conditions as the drawdown unfolds," the official said.

The official said the United States would focus on the ongoing peace process with the Taliban and the Afghan government, and that U.S. troops would not become "bargaining chips in that process."

"We judge the threat against the homeland now emanating from Afghanistan to be at a level that we can address it without a persistent military footprint in the country and without remaining at war with the Taliban," the official said.

Republican members of Congress blasted the decision, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calling the move "a grave mistake" and a "retreat and abdication of American leadership."

The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, said not leaving a residual force behind -- an idea Biden had supported as a presidential candidate -- would "put Afghans at risk" and "endanger the lives of U.S. citizens at home and abroad."

"Arbitrary deadlines would likely put our troops in danger, jeopardize all the progress we’ve made, and lead to civil war in Afghanistan -- and create a breeding ground for international terrorists," the most senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, said. "We’re talking about protecting American lives here."

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has also said that she strongly opposes this decision.

"Although this decision was made in coordination w/our allies, the U.S. has sacrificed too much to bring stability to Afghanistan to leave w/o verifiable assurances of a secure future," she wrote in a tweet.

"It undermines our commitment to the Afghan people, particularly Afghan women. I urge the Biden admin to make every effort between now and September to safeguard the progress made and support our partners in the formation of an inclusive, transitional government," she continued.

The Biden administration official said that "we have told the Taliban in no uncertain terms that any attacks on U.S. troops as we undergo a safe and orderly withdrawal will be met with a forceful response."

But also on Tuesday, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an assessment that said "prospects for a peace deal will remain low during the next year."

"The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support," the assessment read.

Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said moving forces elsewhere could put at risk gains made against the Taliban, which protected the group behind the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaida.

"While it is understandable to want all our forces to come home, it should not be at the expense of losing what we have gained to do so," Mulroy, an ABC News contributor, said. "We should keep enough of a force there in order to conduct counterterrorism operations and enable our partners to continue their fight against the very group we went there to defeat."

The administration official told reporters that U.S. intelligence agencies have determined that al-Qaida does "not currently possess an external-plotting capability that can threaten the homeland," the official said. Repositioning troops would help the U.S. "focus" on "a dispersed and distributed terrorist threat," according to the official.

"This is not 2001," the official said. "It is 2021 -- and in 2021, the terrorist threat that we face is real and it emanates from a number of countries -- indeed a number of continents -- from Yemen, from Syria, from Somalia, from other parts of Africa."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Biden "has to make decisions through the prism of what's in the interests of the national security of the United States."

"That includes keeping our focus on where the threats are emerging around the world, whether those are emerging threats from al-Qaida in parts of North Africa, or other threats or opportunities we see in other regions," Psaki said. "And hence, those are big motivating factors in his decision."

Last month, Biden told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos it would be "tough" for the U.S. to meet a May 1 deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

The May 1 deadline was part of an agreement the Trump administration signed with the Taliban, which agreed to negotiate with the Afghan government, including on a permanent cease-fire, and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terror groups like al-Qaida.

In February, a report by the Department of Defense's inspector general found that "it was unclear whether the Taliban was in compliance with the agreement, as members of al-Qaeda were integrated into the Taliban's leadership and command structure."

With a date now set, the Afghan government will now face heightened pressure to agree to an interim government with the Taliban -- a U.S. proposal its leaders have so far rejected -- before Afghan authorities lose American military support.

While the decision likely strengthens the Taliban's hand in negotiations, the militant group will remain under pressure to reach a deal with the government. Negotiations between the two sides have long stalled, although they are expected to meet on April 24 in Istanbul in a final push for an agreement.

More than 2,400 U.S. troops have died and another 20,000 have been wounded since October 2001. There have been no U.S. combat deaths since Feb. 8, before the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement was signed. While the Taliban had agreed to not attack U.S. troops, it did warn that if they didn't leave by May 1 they would resume. In the meantime, Afghans have suffered increased violence.

More than 43,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, according to the Watson Institute at Brown University.

ABC News' Conor Finnegan, Luis Martinez and Cindy Smith contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Biden proposes summit with Putin amid Russian military buildup on Ukraine's border

Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin Tuesday morning and proposed the two hold a summit in a third country "in the coming months to discuss the full range of issues facing the United States and Russia," according to the White House.

The call comes days after Biden spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky amid heightened concern about a massive buildup of Russian forces along Ukraine's border and in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that has been occupied by Russia since 2014.

Ukraine's foreign minister traveled to Brussels for meetings with Biden's Secretary of State Antony Blinken and senior NATO officials Tuesday in a strong signal of support for Kiev against any Russian aggression.

During his call with Putin, the White House said, Biden urged him to "de-escalate tensions" with Ukraine - and warned the U.S. would "act firmly" to defend its own interests after Russia's repeated cyber attacks and election interference.

Biden has emphasized a more nuanced approach to Russia than his predecessor, Donald Trump, who sought warmer relations with Putin and was criticized for downplaying Russian aggression, especially its interference in the 2016 presidential election to support him.

"President Biden reaffirmed his goal of building a stable and predictable relationship with Russia consistent with U.S. interests," the White House said Tuesday. U.S. officials have previously pointed to the agreement to extend New START, the last nuclear arms control pact between the U.S. and Russia, as an example of how the two countries can find common ground -- and Biden called for "building on" that during the call.

But Russia's enormous military buildup on Ukraine's borders may make any cooperation anathema in Washington. Russia has massed 41,000 troops at its border with eastern Ukraine and 42,000 more in Crimea, according to a spokesperson for President Zelensky.

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu confirmed Tuesday that the military has deployed two armies and three airborne formations to the region, but said they were participating in military exercises and in response to increased military activity by the U.S. and NATO.

In addition to massing forces, Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have escalated fighting in recent weeks. With renewed shelling and machine-gun fire, 28 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed this year, according to the Ukrainian military -- a sharp increase in the long-running conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people.

Beyond the battlefield, Russia has also launched "a disinformation campaign blatantly designed to falsely blame Ukraine for what are the Kremlin's own actions," according to the top U.S. diplomat for Europe, Phil Reeker, who traveled with Blinken to NATO headquarters.

The two met Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba Tuesday -- part of a strong signal of Western support for Kiev that included Kuleba meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and the NATO-Ukraine Commission as well. While Ukraine isn't a member of the western alliance, it has repeatedly sought to join, with Zelensky saying against last week that it would that a path to membership "is the only way to end the war in Donbass" and send a "real signal for Russia."

Stoltenberg didn't comment on Ukrainian membership, but during a press conference with Kuleba, he called Russia's military buildup "unjustified, unexplained, and deeply concerning" and said the alliance would continue to "provide more practical support to Ukraine, to help them to defend themselves."

In their own meeting, Blinken reiterated that the U.S. "stands firmly behind the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine," while Kuleba called their meeting a "good symbol" that helps "make it very clear for Russia that the price of its aggression against Ukraine will be too heavy for it to bear."

But it's unclear what that price will be. Blinken has warned of "consequences" if Russia sends troops or arms into Ukraine, but not provided any details.

The White House said Biden raised the buildup, but didn't warn of any response: "The President voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine's borders, and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions," it said in its readout.

Instead, Biden's call seemed more focused on U.S.-Russian relations. Early in his administration, the new president ordered the intelligence community to launch a review of Russia's reported role in the SolarWinds hack, the bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 2020 election interference, and the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

While that review remains ongoing, the U.S. joined other allies in sanctioning several Russian officials for Navalny's poisoning and jailing. The White House has said a U.S. response to the SolarWinds hack, which U.S. officials said Russia was responsible for, is coming in the "weeks" ahead.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


US, Iran recommit to indirect talks after sabotage attack on nuclear site

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(WASHINGTON) -- An attack on one of Iran's most sensitive nuclear facilities has threatened to unravel President Joe Biden's diplomatic efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal -- and to inflame tensions in a region already on edge.

The sabotage on Iran's underground site Natanz was first reported by Iranian state media Sunday, with its nuclear chief calling it an act of "nuclear terrorism." While the full details are unknown, Natanz was reported to have experienced a blackout, allegedly the result of a cyber attack on its electrical grid.

The White House said Monday that the U.S. was not involved in the incident at all. Suspicions have instead fallen on Israel, especially after several Israeli media outlets first reported Sunday that an Israeli attack and ensuing explosion took entire sections of the nuclear site offline.

The blackout comes just days after Iran and the U.S. began indirect negotiations over both countries re-entering the 2015 nuclear deal, possibly imperiling those talks if Iran sees growing pressure on its nuclear program as a reason to push it further.

But both the U.S. and Iran signaled full-steam ahead on Monday with their indirect negotiations, while Iran's foreign minister accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government of trying to derail those talks.

"This act of sabotage damaged not only Natanz, but also the Biden administration's plan to return to compliance with the nuclear deal," said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, a Washington think tank. "The United States and Iran mustn't let this attack derail the progress being made in Vienna."

Those talks in Austria's capital are set to resume Wednesday, with the U.S. meeting European parties still in the nuclear deal, while Iran meets all the remaining parties, including Russia and China.

Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, re-imposing strict sanctions and pushing to destroy the agreement. One year later, Iran began taking steps in violation of its commitments -- enriching more uranium at higher levels using more centrifuges and more advanced ones than what is allowed.

While Biden has called for both sides returning to the deal -- and then pursuing a "longer and stronger" follow-on agreement -- talks only started last week through intermediaries, as Iran refuses to meet the U.S. face-to-face so far. While officials described some progress, there remains a large gap over who should take the first step. Iran insists that the U.S. must lift all Trump-era sanctions first, but the U.S. has said there will not be sanctions relief until Iran restores the limits on its nuclear program -- proposing a mutual return instead.

Natanz has been at the heart of those restrictions.

Biden's Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Israel on Sunday, prompting speculation that Israel gave the U.S. advanced notice or was somehow involved. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday the U.S. was "not involved in any manner."

So far, there has been no change in plans for Wednesday's meetings.

"Our focus is of course on the diplomatic path forward. We have not been given any indication that attendance at the discussions... has changed," Psaki said.

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif vowed "revenge against the Zionists," a reference to Israel, but said the incident would not affect talks over the nuclear deal.

"The Zionists want to take revenge because of our progress in the way to lift sanctions," he said, according to state television. "We will not allow this act of sabotage to affect the nuclear talks."

But if talks continue, there could be an escalation in the region. Netanyahu warned last week that agreements with Iran "are worthless" and that Israel will do whatever is necessary "to prevent those who wish to destroy us from carrying out their plans."

There have been a series of attacks on Iran's nuclear program in the last year that have been traced back to Israel -- a signal that the country is willing to escalate and act boldly to dismantle Iran's nuclear program. Last July, there was a mysterious explosion at its advanced centrifuge production plant, while in November, Iran accused Israel of assassinating a nuclear scientist who launched its military nuclear program years ago.

The two countries have also been engaged in a shadow war at sea. Last Tuesday, an Iranian cargo ship was hit by an explosion, which Tehran blamed Israel for as well. The ship was said to be a floating base for Iranian forces engaged in Yemen's war.

With the director of Mossad, Israel's spy service, at his side on Sunday, Netanyahu urged Israeli forces to "continue in this direction" and praised their strength against foreign threats.

While that may put him at odds with Biden and his push for nuclear diplomacy, Austin and Netanyahu tried to project close ties, with Austin offering his "personal pledge to strengthening Israel's security."

But Netanyahu repeatedly warned of the threat from the "fanatical regime in Iran" and said Israel will "continue to defend itself against Iran's aggression and terrorism" -- while Austin made no mention of Iran in his brief remarks.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Record-setting biggest rabbit in the world stolen from home as police hunt for culprit

West Mercia Police

(LONDON) -- Police in England have found themselves with an unusual case on their hands after the world’s largest rabbit suddenly disappeared from his home over the weekend.

Darius, a Continental Giant rabbit who holds the Guinness world record for being the biggest rabbit in the world at 4 feet and 3 inches long (129 centimeters), vanished from his enclosure in Stoulton, Worcestershire, and police have issued an urgent appeal for the return of the prize-winning bunny.

“It is believed the Continental Giant rabbit was stolen from its enclosure in the garden of the property of its owners overnight on Saturday (10 April - 11 April),” the West Mercia Police in western England said in a statement. “The rabbit is quite unique in the fact it is 4ft in size and has been awarded a Guinness Record for being the biggest rabbit in the world.”

Annette Edwards, Darius’ owner, issued a plea on social media offering up £1,000 ($1,375) for anybody who can help return the giant leporine.

“A very sad day. Guinness world record Darius has been stolen from his home. The police are doing there [sic] best to find out who has taken him. There is a reward of a £1,000. Darius is to [sic] old to breed now. So please bring him back,” Edwards said in her statement.

Darius has held the record for being the largest rabbit in the world for over 11 years after the Guinness Book of World Records gave him his title of April 6, 2010.

“The longest rabbit is Darius, a Flemish giant rabbit owned by Annette Edwards (UK), who was found to be 4 ft 3 in (129 cm) long when measured for an article in the UK's Daily Mail newspaper on 6 April 2010.,” says the Guinness world record entry.

For now, however, Darius remains missing and anybody with any information on his whereabouts is asked to contact the West Mercia Police.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Prince Harry returns to UK for Prince Philip's funeral in first visit since leaving royal role

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(LONDON) -- Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, has flown from California to the United Kingdom after the death of his grandfather, Prince Philip.

Harry's arrival in England marks the first time he has returned home in more than a year, since he and his wife, Duchess Meghan, stepped down last March from their roles as working members of the royal family.

The prince's trip also comes just weeks after he and Meghan gave a bombshell interview to Oprah Winfrey, in which they claimed to have experienced racism during their time as senior royals, said they were cut off financially by Harry's father, Prince Charles, and alleged that Meghan was denied mental health help.

Harry traveled to London alone as Meghan is pregnant with the couple's second child and was advised by her doctor against traveling overseas.

Harry is staying at Frogmore Cottage, his and Meghan's home in Windsor, and is following COVID-19 protocols after traveling from the United States.

Even amid the divisions in the royal family, Harry and Meghan remained close to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip and stayed in touch through Zoom calls when the Sussexes and their son Archie moved to California.

"If there’s one thing that has remained constant throughout all of the turbulence of the past year it’s Harry and Meghan’s close relationship with the queen and Prince Philip," said ABC News royal contributor Omid Scobie. "Although Meghan isn’t here, she is of course supporting Harry. Her mind is very much on the situation over here."

Harry is expected to join his family members, including Prince William and Prince Charles, in walking in Philip's funeral procession. The 99-year-old Duke of Edinburgh will be remembered in a private funeral service on April 17 at St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Though Harry will come face-to-face with his family for the first time since airing their grievances publicly in the Winfrey interview, royal experts say they expect the family to stay focused on remembering Philip and supporting Queen Elizabeth, who lost her husband of more than seven decades.

"This trip is very much Harry coming here to support his grandmother at a very difficult time," said Scobie, the author of "Finding Freedom: Harry and Meghan and the Making of a Modern Royal Family." "Every family member at the moment is really on the same page, in that they’re here for one reason only, so any problems between family members, that’s going to be left very much outside of this situation. Harry hasn’t come over here with an ulterior motive other than to remember his grandfather."

Robert Jobson, ABC News royal contributor and the author of "Prince Philip’s Century: The Extraordinary Life of the Duke of Edinburgh," also echoed that sentiment, saying, "Funerals are difficult times, at the best of times for any family, but I think they’re going to have to focus really on mending that relationship at another time. This is absolutely focused on grief and mourning their grandfather."

Harry and William each issued separate statements Monday remembering their grandfather, Prince Philip.

"My grandfather’s century of life was defined by service -- to his country and Commonwealth, to his wife and Queen, and to our family," William said. "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."

"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!" William said, referring to his wife, Duchess Kate, and their three children, Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis.

"My grandfather was an extraordinary man and part of an extraordinary generation. Catherine and I will continue to do what he would have wanted and will support The Queen in the years ahead," he said. "I will miss my Grandpa, but I know he would want us to get on with the job."

Prince Harry remembered Prince Philip for his "seriously sharp wit," his barbecue skills and his service and dedication.

“My grandfather was a man of service, honour and great humor. He was authentically himself, with a seriously sharp wit, and could hold the attention of any room due to his charm -- and also because you never knew what he might say next," Harry said. “He will be remembered as the longest reigning consort to the Monarch, a decorated serviceman, a Prince and a Duke. But to me, like many of you who have lost a loved one or grandparent over the pain of this past year, he was my grandpa: master of the barbecue, legend of banter, and cheeky right ‘til the end."

He went on, “He has been a rock for Her Majesty The Queen with unparalleled devotion, by her side for 73 years of marriage, and while I could go on, I know that right now he would say to all of us, beer in hand, ‘Oh do get on with it!' So, on that note, Grandpa, thank you for your service, your dedication to Granny, and for always being yourself. You will be sorely missed, but always remembered -- by the nation and the world. Meghan, Archie, and I (as well as your future great-granddaughter) will always hold a special place for you in our hearts."

Harry ended his statement with, "‘Per Mare, Per Terram,'" the motto of the Royal Marines.

Harry took over Prince Philip’s role as Captain General of the Royal Marines in 2017, when Philip retired from official royal duties at the age of 96.

Harry, a veteran of the British Army, had to give up the role earlier this year when it was confirmed by Buckingham Palace that he and Meghan would not return as working members of the royal family.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Vaccine passports are being trialed in the UK: Why are they so controversial?

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(LONDON) -- The U.K.’s cautious approach to returning life to normal entered a new phase on Monday with non-essential shops and outdoor seating for restaurants and bars in England opening for the first time in over three months of lockdown.

But one measure that could prove essential to making sure society stays open is proving highly controversial.

Vaccine passports, or “COVID Status Certificates” as they are officially known, are being trialed at major sporting events this month, with the hope that mass events can open as safely as possible, and could provide a model for the future. Similar schemes are being piloted in countries around the world with private companies in the U.S. now piloting schemes in several areas. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has said these will not be federally mandated.

But in Britain, a fiery debate between civil liberties advocates and the government is raging in a country that has administered the most successful vaccination program in Europe so far, as the plans raise fears around data privacy and vaccine inequality.

What are the plans?

News that several major sporting events held this month would be the laboratory for the “COVID Status Certificate” scheme sparked instant debate in the U.K. when the story broke in the Daily Telegraph. Aside from that report, the news of exactly where else the scheme, which “could potentially play a role in settings such as theatres, nightclubs, and mass events” according to an interim report, is being trialed. The most likely form they will come in is a smartphone app that will provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test.

Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccine minister, told Sky News this month that trialing the vaccine passports was “the right thing to do.”

The Cabinet Office, the branch of government heading up the review into the use of vaccine passports, said in a statement to ABC News that they would be presenting their findings to the U.K.’s Parliament later this month. The trial highlights a more cautious approach to the last time England exited a major lockdown in the summer of 2020, in which pubs, bars, restaurants and shops all opened on a July date dubbed “Super Saturday.”

The current plans will see indoor dining areas in England open on May 17 at the earliest, and no social restrictions at all on June 21. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all on their own similar paths, but despite the celebratory mood, the government has warned caution is needed to make the changes “irreversible.”

“The Government expects that COVID-status certification could be demonstrated by: an up-to-date vaccine status; a negative lateral flow or PCR test taken at a test site on the same day or the day before their admission to a venue; or by proof of natural immunity, such as through a previous positive PCR for a time limit of 180 days from the date of the positive test and following completion of the self-isolation period,” an interim report published by the Cabinet Office said.

The government has also announced a significant increase in the availability of rapid testing alongside the potential plans.

‘Political tidal wave’

The plans have been met with an instant backlash by politicians across the spectrum and civil liberties organizations.

More than 70 lawmakers and several privacy groups signed an open letter opposing the government’s plans, and Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said that he instinctively felt the certificates to be “un-British” in a recent newspaper interview.

Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties campaign group which co-signed the letter, told ABC News that the plans had sparked a “political tidal wave.”

“We have given up an awful lot over the last year,” she said. “People have made enormous sacrifices. But don't tell us that we made all these sacrifices to enter this version of a new normal. Absolutely not. We made those sacrifices to make sure that everyone can be healthy, safe and free, and we are not going to be in any sensible sense free, if we are living under this kind of medical segregation in a check point society.”

“These events are either safe to open or they're not safe to open, I think that's the bottom line,” she said.

The plans have been met with a mixed reaction from businesses, too. Leaders of the U.K.’s major soccer leagues have indicated that certification may be necessary to get fans back into stadiums, while pub and restaurant business leaders have warned the plans could prevent “visiting the pub for months, unless they get themselves tested in advance.”

A vaccine passport tracker compiled by the Ada Lovelace Institute, an independent research organization based in the U.K., has aggregated information on potential vaccine passport plans in 41 countries, the European Union, the African Union and among private companies. According to a poll from YouGov, 58% of Britons are in favor of vaccine passports, with 34% opposed, while the vaccine rollout is still ongoing.

The World Health Organization has not yet formally advocated for the use of vaccine passports for international travel, let alone domestic settings. While countries have introduced their own measures of quarantine and proof of negative tests during the pandemic, under the International Health Regulations, yellow fever is the only disease for which countries can require proof of vaccination for international travelers.

Part of the reason they have not advocated their use so far is incomplete though promising data that vaccinated individuals will not transmit the virus, as well as ongoing debates about the ethical and economic impact, according to WHO spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris.

“Now generally with a good vaccine you do see a reduction in transmission,” she told ABC News. “And we're seeing some early data which suggests that this may well be happening, but we haven't got the proof yet. So to put something in place [like a vaccine passport] that says yes, you’ve got this, you can't transmit. We're not there yet.”

The immediate debate, however, is what the “new normal” will look like in the domestic setting, and Carlo is convinced the plans could lead to a long-term, “illiberal” change to British society.

“As the saying goes, nothing is as permanent as a temporary government program,” she said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Here's why COVID cases are surging in Toronto despite early lockdown

Luke Abrahams/iStock

(NEW YORK) -- Despite locking down in March 2020 and enacting strict social-distancing measures, Toronto is seeing hospitals and intensive care units near capacity as the city battles its worse COVID-19 wave yet.

"Sick Kids, our main children's hospital, has had to open up ICU beds for adults," said Toronto physician Dr. Kayla Wolofsky.

As of Thursday, strict stay-at-home orders -- people can leave home only for essential reasons -- were back in place for at least 28 days.

This third surge is likely due to new virus variants, pandemic fatigue, community spread as schools and stores reopen, as well as a comparatively slower vaccine rollout because of a lack of manufacturing capacity.

While more than a third of all Americans have received at least one vaccine dose, only about half as many (15%) Canadians have, according to public health statistics from both countries.

"The combination of a slow vaccine rollout and the rise of variants has placed an incredible amount of pressure on Ontario health systems, and has unfortunately left public health departments with few options to control spread," said John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital and an ABC News contributor.

According to epidemiologist Dr. Ashleigh Tuite at the University of Toronto, there are several variants causing concern. The majority of cases in Ontario right now are from the B.1.1.7 (U.K.) strain, but there have been some reported cases of the P.1 (Brazil/Japan) and B.1351 (South Africa) strains.

"In terms of what is happening in Ontario," Tuite said, "the variants of concern have become predominant -- at this point about 70% of reported cases have been identified as being a variant of concern."

Dr. Hiren Patel, an emergency doctor in Toronto, added: "Increasing vaccinations and maintaining strict lockdown guidelines may be the only way to prevent this wave from getting worse."

Toronto residents have expressed frustration over the vaccine rollout and its effect on their social lives, as have business owners with some restaurants, gyms, salons and other non-essential services now closed for more than 300 straight days.

"Toronto has experienced some of the most intense infection-control measures of any city on the planet," Brownstein said. "While lockdowns are ultimately a last resort when other measures fail, and health care is stretched beyond capacity, we can't ignore the sweeping collateral economic and health impacts."

Some of those health impacts include Toronto residents' mental health.

Elizabeth Whelan, a Toronto native, said that "in terms of high schools, all extracurriculars have essentially been canceled, and children are instead playing games or doing exercises with their teams on Zoom to try and maintain some human connection."

Many believe this latest lockdown could have been avoided if the vaccine had been available sooner or rolled out differently, perhaps prioritizing more younger essential workers instead of only the elderly.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is making efforts to provide additional funding to help with testing and contact tracing and has vouched for a $19 billion stimulus to restart the economy and provide continued support to Canadians.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


St. Vincent covered in ash as volcano activity continues

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(PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad) -- Much of St. Vincent remains covered in ash following eruptions Friday at the island's La Soufriere volcano.

The volcano has been inactive for nearly 42 years.

"There have been three explosive events that occurred during the day," University of the West Indies Seismic Research Center director Dr. Erouscilla Joseph said in a statement on the center's Facebook page.

The ash plume reached as high as 6 miles into the air, with wind taking it as far as 25,000 feet east of St. Vincent, according to official estimates.

Volcano activity continued into the weekend, with Vincentians reporting that rumblings could be heard coming from La Soufriere at night.

"We have had more or less an almost continued period of the venting of many ash up into the atmosphere," Richard Robertson, the UWI Seismic Research Center's lead scientist monitoring the volcano, said Saturday during a national radio address.

On Sunday, the country's national disaster management agency, NEMO, described the day as "dreary" and said everything looked like a "battle zone."

The volcano set off tremors over the weekend, with some lasting as long as 20 minutes, according to the UWI Seismic Research Center.

Explosions and accompanying ashfall are likely to continue over the next few days, the research center said.

Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, said the government is looking to see if any properties were damaged by the ash. Officials are also trying to figure out how to remove the ash.

Nadia Slater, a spokesperson for the office of the prime minister, told ABC News that as of Sunday afternoon 18,000 residents have been evacuated from St. Vincent's red zones. No one has been evacuated off the island yet, according to Slater.

Around 4,000 people have moved into the 72 shelters that have been set up by residents, and three cruise ships will be used as temporary shelters, Slater said.

Power was fully restored Sunday afternoon and the south of the country is still considered to be safe, according to the spokesperson.

Gonsalves announced plans Saturday to mount a cleanup operation, beginning in Kingstown, the capital of St. Vincent, and the Grenadines.

"It's a complicated business, you can't leave it," Gonsalves said. "But, in the disposal of it, you have challenges."

Officials were looking into using street sweepers and water from fire trucks.

Due to low visibility and heavy ashfall, Grantley Adams International Airport will remain closed until noon on Monday, officials said.

The ash has also affected at least one of the island's neighbors.

The government of Barbados is advising residents to use dust masks, wear long protective clothing that helps prevent direct contact with ash and avoid using air conditioning so that indoor air quality is not compromised.

Friday's eruptions came less than 24 hours after Gonsalves gave the order for people living closest to the volcano -- an area declared as the "red zone" -- to evacuate their homes.

Shelters have been set up to house evacuees, while the government has also booked hotel rooms for people to take shelter. Over 3,200 people have opted to use shelters.

Gonsalves said there may be delays in getting food supplies to evacuees in shelters, with numbers constantly changing.

Those impacted by the volcano's eruption are being told to be patient and remain calm, with "additional supplies" coming, according to Gonsalves.

Some countries have also publicly pledged to send supplies or even personnel to aid St. Vincent with recovery efforts. Gonsalves said the United States is among the countries he's been speaking with.

A number of neighboring Caribbean countries have offered to take in evacuees. Several cruise ship companies have also offered to send ships to transport evacuees to other islands.

"Those countries are not going to take you unless you are vaccinated, which is understandable in the time of the pandemic," Gonsalves said.

The last time St. Vincent's La Soufriere volcano erupted was on April 13, 1979.

Dr. Erouscilla Joseph, director of the UWI Seismic Research Centre, told reporters Sunday that previous eruptions lasted six months to a year, and if a "worst-case scenario" were to materialize, it would be in the next few weeks.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


United Arab Emirates names 1st Arab female astronaut

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(NEW YORK) — The United Arab Emirates named mechanical engineering graduate Nora AlMatrooshi as the first Arab female astronaut, a selection that she described as an "unforgettable moment."

AlMatrooshi was picked from more than 4,000 candidates to be part of the UAE's ambitious space program, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the country's prime minister, said on Twitter.

"We announce the first Arab female astronaut, among two new astronauts … to be trained with NASA for future space exploration missions," he said.

AlMatrooshi and Mohammad AlMulla, who was also selected in the UAE's Astronaut Program, will head to Texas to undergo training at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre said space has been AlMatrooshi's "passion since childhood." The 27-year-old, who holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, currently works at the UAE's National Petroleum Construction Company.

"The nation gave me unforgettable moments today. I aim to work hard to script historical moments and achievements that will be etched forever in the memory of our people," an elated AlMatrooshi said on Twitter.

She also said she drew inspiration from Hazzaa Al-Mansoori, who became the UAE's first astronaut in 2019, spending eight days on the International Space Station.

In February, the UAE became the first Arab country and the fifth in the world to reach Mars after launching its "Hope Probe" spacecraft into the orbit of the red planet.

The country also set ambitious targets to land on the moon in 2024 and establish human settlement in Mars by 2117.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Prince Philip's funeral service to be held April 17 with limited guests, palace announces

Danny Lawson - WPA Pool/Getty Images

(LONDON) -- The funeral for Britain's Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, will be held April 17 and limited to 30 guests, Buckingham Palace announced.

The Duke of Edinburgh, who died Friday at the age of 99, will be given a ceremonial royal funeral and will not lie in state, palace officials said during a press briefing Saturday.

"The plans for the funeral are very much in line with the Duke of Edinburgh's own wishes," a Buckingham Palace spokesman said.

The funeral service will begin at 3 p.m. local time at St. George's Chapel in Windsor, England, starting with a national minute of silence.

Funeral guests will be limited to 30 people, excluding clergy and pallbearers, and include royal family members and Prince Philip's private secretary.

According to a royal source, Prince Harry will attend his grandfather's funeral, though his wife, Megan Markle, who is currently pregnant with their second child, has been advised by her doctor not to travel.

The final guest list is expected to be provided in a briefing on Thursday.

Prince Charles paid tribute to his father, Prince Philip in a video posted on Twitter. He called his father "dear Papa" and a "very special person who, I think above all else would have been amazed by the reaction and the touching things that have been said about him."

Prince Philip's coffin, which is currently at Windsor Castle, will be carried to the chapel in a specially modified Land Rover that the duke himself had a hand in designing, a palace spokesperson said.

Funeral guests will follow the route during the royal procession. Arrangements for the Queen in the procession also will be confirmed next week.

Following the service, the coffin will be interred in the royal vault.

Coronavirus measures will be observed for both the procession and funeral service, officials said. England is in its third national lockdown during the pandemic, enacted earlier this year after the discovery of a more transmissible COVID-19 variant.

The funeral service will be broadcast "to enable as many people as possible to be part of the occasion, to mourn with us and celebrate a truly extraordinary life," a palace spokesperson said.

“While there is sadness that the public will not be able to physically be part of events to commemorate the life of the duke, the royal family ask that anyone wishing to express their condolences do so in the safest way possible and not by visiting Windsor or any other royal palaces to pay their respects," the spokesperson said.

A period of national mourning is being observed leading up to the funeral. The royal family and members of the household are also observing two weeks of mourning and wearing mourning bands when appropriate.

On Saturday, military teams across the U.K. fired 41-gun salutes to mark the death of the former naval officer.

ABC News' Meredith Deliso contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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