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(TEHRAN, Iran) -- Iran has agreed to restart negotiations over its nuclear program next month, its chief negotiator said Wednesday.

Those talks, in which Iran and the U.S. have engaged through intermediaries, come as the Obama-era nuclear deal hangs by a thread and amid warnings about Iran's nuclear advances since Iran halted talks in June.

It's unclear whether an agreement has been reached to resume talks, when they would begin and whether Iran still has preconditions like sanctions relief. Iran's top negotiator, deputy foreign minister Ali Bagheri Kani, said the "exact date will be announced next week."

A State Department spokesperson told ABC News the administration had "seen the reports but do not have any further details about a possible return to Vienna talks in November."

Iran had halted those talks in the Austrian capital right before its presidential election in June, saying for months now that the new administration of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi needed time to transition and formulate his team.

But during that halt, Iran has advanced its nuclear program -- expanding its stockpile of enriched uranium, enriching uranium to higher levels, spinning more centrifuges and more advanced ones -- alarming U.S. officials.

It has also obstructed the work of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, whose chief said last week its monitoring ability is "no longer intact."

The Biden administration has increasingly warned that while the door is still open to diplomacy, time is running out before restoring the deal would be pointless because of how advanced Iran's nuclear program had become.

"This window will not remain open forever as Iran continues to take provocative nuclear steps, so we hope that they come to Vienna to negotiate quickly and in good faith," the State Department spokesperson said Wednesday in a statement.

To critics, that window should have already been closed, while many analysts warned that Iran is still stalling, even as it talks about resuming negotiations.

"If they continue to stall while advancing their nuclear program, there may come a time when the U.S. or Israel turn to 'plan B'," tweeted Nicholas Miller, a Dartmouth College professor who researches nuclear proliferation.

The top U.S. negotiator, special envoy for Iran Rob Malley, said Monday there's "shared impatience" with Iran among the U.S. and other negotiating parties -- Russia, China, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the European Union, which coordinated the previous six rounds of talks.

"Time is not on our side. The JCPOA cannot survive forever," Malley added, using an acronym for the nuclear deal's formal name.

But there's still a "strong preference for diplomacy, for an effort to revive the JCPOA," he said, and said there's "willingness" and "determination" from the Biden administration to make it happen.

On Wednesday, Bagheri met with Enrique Mora, a senior European Union diplomat who had been facilitating the talks. After their "serious and constructive conversation," Bagheri tweeted, Iran "agreed to start negotiations by the end of November."

But his boss, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, also said Wednesday that while Iran would restart talks, it would not resume them with what had been agreed upon by June -- jettisoning months of previous negotiations. He also called on the U.S. to release $10 billion of Iranian funds frozen by U.S. sanctions to build confidence ahead of any agreement.

That's a sign of how far apart the new U.S. and Iranian governments are. Even if the parties convene again in Vienna, it will be a long road ahead to revive the deal.

As Abdollahian reiterated, Iran has demanded that the U.S. lift sanctions first, since it was former President Donald Trump who first violated the deal by exiting and reimposing sanctions. But President Joe Biden has committed to not lifting any sanctions until Iran returns to compliance -- what his administration calls a "mutual return" to the deal -- amid continued domestic criticism of the original agreement in Washington.

In the meantime, as Iranian centrifuges continue to spin, Iran hawks in the U.S. and Israel warn that it's too late for diplomacy and that other options, including a possible military strike, must be considered.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has not engaged questions about a strike but told reporters two weeks ago the Biden administration was considering "every option to deal with the challenge posed by Iran."

"We, of course, retain all other options to be able to deal with this program as necessary," National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Tuesday. "But beyond that, I'm not going to comment further because we believe there still is an opportunity to resolve this diplomatically."

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Jesus College, University of Cambridge

(LONDON) -- A college at the University of Cambridge is set to return an artifact looted by British soldiers to Nigeria, in a move described as "the first institutional return of its kind."

On Wednesday, Jesus College Cambridge will hand over a statue of a cockerel -- a young rooster -- to Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments. The statue is a Benin Bronze, part of a collection of artifacts stolen from the Kingdom of Benin in modern-day Nigeria by British soldiers in 1897. Many of the other Benin Bronzes are on display at the British Museum.

The return comes amid growing pressure in Western countries to return artifacts looted during colonization.

"This is an historic moment," Sonita Alleyne, Master of Jesus College, said in a statement. "We look forward to welcoming representatives from Nigeria and Benin to the handover ceremony and to celebrating the return of this Bronze."

"This is the right thing to do out of respect for the unique heritage and history of this artifact," she added.

The Nigerian government has welcomed the return of the statue.

"We thank Jesus College for being a trailblazer and we look forward to a similar return of our artifacts by other institutions that are in possession of them," Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the Minister for Information and Culture, said in a statement.

This week, British media reported that the Nigerian government had sent a formal letter to the British Museum, which holds the largest collection of Benin Bronzes, requesting the return of the artifacts.

In France, the Quai Branly Museum is also set to return 26 Benin Bronzes, with the collection on display until the end of the month before they are sent to Nigeria. Germany is also set to return hundreds of looted artifacts to Nigeria.

"This return offers new hope for amicable resolution in cultural property ownership disputes," Professor Abba Isa Tijani, the Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria, said. "We hope that it will set a precedent for others around the world who are still doubtful of this new evolving approach whereby nations and institutions agree with source nations on return without rancour."

"On our part, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments is receiving this antiquity for the benefit of the Benin people and the people of Nigeria," he added.

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Vladislav Zolotov/iStock

(LONDON) -- Britain's Queen Elizabeth II will not travel to Scotland next week as planned as she continues to follow doctors' advice to rest.

The queen had been scheduled to attend an evening reception next Monday at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in Glasgow.

Instead, Queen Elizabeth, 95, will stay at Windsor Castle and deliver an address to attendees via a recorded video message, Buckingham Palace said in a statement Tuesday.

The palace noted the queen was "disappointed not to attend" and said she has been "undertaking light duties" at Windsor Castle and "following advice to rest."

The queen spent one night in the hospital last week for "preliminary investigations." She was released the next day, on Oct. 21, and was back at her desk at Windsor Castle that afternoon, a palace spokesperson confirmed last week.

The queen made her first public appearance since her hospitalization on Tuesday, when she held a virtual audience at Windsor Castle to receive South Korea's ambassador to the United Kingdom, Gunn Kim.

The queen, wearing a yellow dress and a pearl necklace, spoke with the ambassador via video link from the royal residence in England's Berkshire county, where she has been staying since her hospitalization.

Last week, Queen Elizabeth hosted a reception at Windsor Castle for a global investment summit where she met with leaders, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and U.S. climate envoy John Kerry.

Just prior to her hospitalization, Queen Elizabeth was also forced to cancel a trip to Northern Ireland under orders from her medical team to rest.

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(YAKUTSK, Russia) -- Thirty years ago, the road out from the village of Mai was flat. So were the fields around it, enough that local people used to play football on them.

But today, the road and fields around this town in the remote Siberian region of Yakutia, are strangely warped, an expanse of wavy ground and weird bubble-like mounds, that a drive over will bounce passengers out of their seats.

"This plot of land was very flat. In 1994, we played football, volleyball on it," Petr Yefremov, a local scientist who grew up in the village, told ABC News. "And you see, in that time, it's fallen like that."

The odd ground around the village is a sign of how in Siberia climate change is literally re-shaping the landscape, as rapidly warming temperatures start to alter what has long been a given in much of Russia's vast hinterland: that the ground is frozen.

Around two-thirds of Russia is covered by permafrost -- permanently frozen ground that never thaws, even during summers. It runs from just below the surface of much of Siberia for sometimes thousands of meters underground, kept frozen by the region's fierce colds.

But Siberia is warming and faster than almost anywhere else on Earth. Russia's average annual temperatures are currently rising two and a half times faster than the global average, according to Russian government data.

In Yakutia, the vast region where Mai is located, the warming is causing permafrost to start thawing. As it does, swamps and lakes are mushrooming around the region, as well as the strange landscapes like that around the village.

"The changes are noticeable," Pavel Konstatinov, head of the laboratory at the Melnikov Permafrost Institute in Yakutia's capital Yakutsk, about 3,000 miles from Moscow, told ABC News.

Stretching down from the Arctic, Yakutia would be larger than most countries if it was independent and is one of the coldest inhabited places on Earth, with winter temperatures routinely reaching below -70 Fahrenheit.

But Yakutia's average temperatures have risen by around 2 to 3 degrees Celsius in the past 40 years, according to local scientists. Like much of the Arctic, it is already well ahead of the 1.5 degrees Celsius that scientists have said the earth's temperature must not breach to avoid already catastrophic climate change.

Yakutia is seeing milder winters -- though still bitterly cold -- and in summer increasingly extreme heat, according to Russian government meteorological data. For the past four years, it has suffered record drought and heatwaves, which this summer contributed to colossal wildfires, some of the biggest ever anywhere in recorded history.

"Since the start of the 1980s, it has very sharply increased and the average annual air temperature for five years has jumped up 2, 3 degrees and until now stands at that level," said Konstantinov.

Yefremov, also a scientist at the Permafrost Institute, has studied permafrost for three decades. He and a team from the institute have sunk temperature monitors several meters into the permafrost near Mai.

Yefremov said that when the team first took measurements in the mid-1990s, the frozen soil's temperature 10 meters below ground was around -3. Now, it is closer to -1, he said.

"You see already how much it has fallen. Within 30 years, it's fallen from -3 to -1 degrees," he told ABC News during a visit to the monitors in August.

As the permafrost melts, it retreats further beneath the surface. In places like Mai, the receding ice leaves hollows underground. Over time, the top layer of earth begins to fall in, leaving little valleys that create the strange, uneven mounds. From above, the files look almost like giant scales. Eventually, the mounds all fall in together to form large pits that usually become lakes.

The land affected becomes largely useless for agriculture or building.

The amount of thawing in Yakutia varies drastically from place to place, depending on other ground conditions. It is far faster in areas where the permafrost is mixed with unfrozen ground and where there is water and some human activities.

Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said that there was not yet "massive thawing" of permafrost but that we are now crossing the threshold into it.

"Ten or 20 years from now, that will be a different picture," he told ABC News. "If the trajectory will continue the same— we will have massive thawing of permafrost in warmer, discontinuous permafrost zone."

"Discontinuous" permafrost refers to areas where it is mixed with stretches of unfrozen land, unlike parts of the Arctic where the permafrost stretches as an unbroken mass.

Romanovsky said in Alaska, where conditions are somewhat different to Yakutia, he estimated around 50% of permafrost in the state's interior had begun to show signs of thawing in the past five years.

Scientists at Yakutia's Permafrost Institute this year estimated as much of 40% of Yakutia's territory is at risk of "dangerous" melting. Permafrost Konstantinov said some projections suggested even in moderate scenarios, a third to a quarter of southern Yakutia's permafrost would melt by the end of the century.

Some scientists worry that it also poses a profound threat for the rest of the world. The frozen soil holds hundreds of billions of tons of greenhouse gases, like methane and CO2, which are released as it slowly thaws.

The fear is that as the thawing unlocks more of the gases, they will further warm the planet, in turn triggering more melting. The amount of gases held in the permafrost dwarf those already put into the atmosphere by humans, and the fear of a cataclysmic feedback loop has led some scientists to call Siberia's melting permafrost a possible "methane time bomb."

Scientists caution there is still insufficient evidence to know how much melting greenhouse gas could be released by melting permafrost, but most experts believe it is a concern.

In Russia, the shifting ground is already posing enormous consequences, putting at risk roads, buildings and infrastructure across Siberia.

When frozen, permafrost is as hard as concrete and so most buildings in Yakutsk are constructed without foundations.

For that reason in Yakutsk, most buildings sit on stilts that raise them about a meter off the ground. Otherwise, heat from the buildings would thaw the permafrost beneath them, essentially turning their foundations into sand and causing them to subside.

Some older buildings in Yakutsk give a preview of what happens when the permafrost melts under them.

On a central street, one block is slowly collapsing. Huge cracks started appearing in the walls around five years ago. Local authorities declared the building unsafe for habitation a few years ago. Residents said and some of them had already been re-settled, but others remained, unable to find anywhere else to go.

Fedor Markov lives and works in a studio in one of the building's upper floors. He is a sculptor of miniatures made from mammoth tusks, fragments of which are widely found across Yakutia, where the permafrost sometimes preserves Ice Age creatures almost entirely intact. Markov's studio has large cracks in its walls and ceiling, including a gaping hole in its plaster, he said was caused by the building subsiding.

"The house is shaking," said Markov.

In another neighborhood further out of the city, residents have had to abandon a group of older barracks buildings. One building has a huge crack running to the roof, splitting the structure almost in half.

Russia's government has estimated the damage from the melting ground could cost tens of billions of dollars and there are increasing calls for action to mitigate the effects.

“Yakutia is already not like Yakutia,” Markov said. "In general, nature was excellent in my childhood. Summer was summer, winter was winter. Even though it was strong frosts, the people all the same could put up with it. Now we're starting to get scared," he said.


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Obtained by ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- "It's like a living hell for us now," Zahra, 20, told ABC News on a phone call while hiding out in western Afghanistan, in a country she hardly even knows.

"When I think about all the things that I'm missing out on -- because of these people -- I feel like crying," she said, seeming to be fighting back tears.

While Zahra (ABC News has changed her name and her sister's to protect them and their family) was born in Afghanistan, she has lived in India since she was 8 and is currently studying petrochemical engineering at a university based in Gujarat.

She visited her family in Afghanistan in late May as COVID-19 worsened in India after her father suggested she and her younger sister, Amina, travel home for the summer, where they all thought it would be safer. The sisters were excited to see their family, having only gone back to their home country a handful of times since they moved to India in 2007 for their education.

They now call the decision to return the "worst mistake of our lives."

"The person who I was -- I was so joyous, I loved going out," Amina, 17, told ABC News. "Now, I'm just at home. I don't even feel like talking to my cousins. Sometimes I think that I'm depressed."

Amina graduated high school in New Delhi in May and was planning to start classes toward a bachelor's degree in Germany in September after spending the summer with family.

But now, the sisters said, they haven't left their house in more than a month.

Just outside, they said, Taliban flags are displayed prominently and fighters, armed with guns, patrol the streets.

"I really prefer staying at home rather than going out and seeing this chaos. It's better to stay inside and be safe," Amina said.

Amina and Zahra said they are in hiding with their father, mother, and brother, who also studied in India and has worked for an international aid organization. Only their brother and mother leave the house for groceries, and her mother is forced to wear an all-encompassing burqa, a head-to-toe garment they said she finds difficult to breathe in and "oppressive."

Their family thought about leaving at the end of July, as the crisis worsened, they said, but were unable to travel to embassies in Kabul.

They said they'll never forget Aug. 15 -- the day they woke up to embattled President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country and the Taliban taking over the capital, entering the presidential palace in Kabul.

"At that moment, the day Kabul was taken, we were, like, 'no, there's no way for us to be able to leave this place. We are stuck here." Zahra said.

"I get up in the morning, and I think, 'It was just a dream,' and then I see the news. It has not been a dream. It's like a never-ending nightmare," Amina added, saying she's cut back on social media for her mental health.

Zahra said she blames the Afghan government for misleading people on how dire the situation was becoming -- but also blamed herself.

"If only we were told there was a slight chance of them taking over Afghanistan so quickly, we wouldn't be feeling this bad. We were foolish, we were foolish," Zahra said.

"My dad really worked hard for us to be where we are right now, but unfortunately, everything is just a waste. We're stuck here with no solution. Every day I wake up, it's the same -- more or less worse," Zahra said.

Amina, the youngest daughter, repeated several times in an interview that not only her family, but Afghanistan as a whole, needs support.

"I feel really bad that Afghans are not standing up for themselves enough, but they have no choice," she said. "If they stand up for themselves, they get shot, or they will be dead. So we're all scared for our lives."

Both sisters said their biggest concern is the fate of their father.

A father's devotion to education makes him a target

"I don't know after five minutes if I will be alive here or not -- especially with all of my family," their father said on another phone call.

"Now, I'm full of worry, in a bad, bad situation. First, my daughters are at home. They cannot study. They cannot work. I don't know what will be the future of my daughters," he said. "Second, I don't know what will become of myself."

The father, a professor who speaks six languages, has a Ph.D. and has chaired departments in universities in both India and Afghanistan, moved back from India to Afghanistan in 2012, after five years abroad, to take a top position at a prestigious university.

Housing provided by that university for the last eight years is now under Taliban control. The family retreated to their "ancestral home" at the end of July, which they feel thankful to have kept while their dad was teaching, as the situation worsened. It now serves as their safe house.

"I fear it's a matter of days now before they find him," Zahra said.

The daughters, who praise their father for being a public figure in Afghanistan who spoke for education, women's rights, and against the Taliban regime, worry fighters will find documents identifying him in a raid of their old home.

As his daughters fear for their father's life, he is most concerned about their future.

"My daughters are so intelligent, and all the time they sit at home," the professor said. "They are so sad, and they ask me, 'Papa, what can we do, what will be our future?' Unfortunately, I cannot give a good answer."

"But I only tell them, 'Please, my daughters, please be patient, because God help us, maybe our problems will be solved,'" he said.

"My dad really cares about our education and about our well-being," Zahra told ABC News on a separate call. "Not many Afghans are like that. They don't really care about women's education or rights, but my dad has given his entire life for the well-being of his daughters."

Now the very thing he wanted for his family -- education -- has put them directly at risk.

'Team 13' answers the family's call

Amina and Zahra's older sister escaped Afghanistan during the chaotic evacuations from Hamid Karzai International Airport. She says she was caught in a stampede outside of the Baron Hotel two days before ISIS-K suicide bombers killed as many as 170 civilians and 13 U.S. service members in a bombing outside the Abbey Gate.

Among those who helped her get out safely was an ad-hoc group of 13 volunteers, mostly based in the U.S., who call themselves "Team 13" to honor the U.S. service members who spent their last minutes alive helping get Afghans like her to freedom. Now they're working to get the rest of her family to safety.

"We're this motley little crew working together to try to get them over here, and we know that if more Americans know what's really happening, that these people are having to make a 'Sophie's choice' with their families, they would be horrified," Cori Shepherd Stern, the group's de-facto leader, who is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker by day, told ABC News.

Team 13 helped to get out 80 Afghans and their families during the evacuations in Kabul in August. They attribute this greatly to Jeff Phaneuf, a former Marine Corps infantry officer in touch with Marines at the Abbey Gate. Shepherd Stern found him on Twitter after he posted tips for people trying to access the airport.

Phaneuf said he's thrilled to help do his part to evacuate at-risk Afghans, but that it's not one he imagined he'd find himself while pursuing an MBA from Stanford.

"I should never have been, a couple of years out of the Marine Corps, in a position to be making life-and-death decisions for people on whether or not they got out. And that's sort of the situation we found ourselves in," he told ABC News.

While heaping praise on the U.S. military and State Department officials, Phaneuf said the evacuation mission is simply not complete.

"I look at it through the eyes of a Marine Corps infantry officer, and this is not mission accomplished. This is mission failure, and there are people who deserve to get out who we are not getting a lot of hope for at this point," he said.

Team 13 is still working on the cases of 200 individuals in the country wanting to get out, including the professor's family.

"America would be lucky to get this family," Shepherd Stern said. "We should be begging these people to come to work, and we should be sending planes, and rolling out a red carpet."

Unfortunately, she said, they are instead facing "a lot of red tape."

A multipronged approach to 'mission failure'

Team 13 is trying what the group calls a "multipronged" approach to get the family to safety. Having engaged in other kinds of relief work through the years with her friend, Megan Johnson, Shepherd Stern said, "One thing that we've learned is you pursue every possible option until you get the breakthrough."

One option they helped secure was a teaching fellowship in Germany for the professor, but the program has a huge caveat for the family-devoted man: It accepts only a spouse and children under the age of 18.

"That's the problem with all of these things. It's immediate family and young children," Shepherd Stern said, noting Amina is 17. "We're seeing over and over again rules that are not necessarily reasonable given the crisis situation."

Ideally, they said, the professor's family could relocate to the U.S. where he could teach at a university and his daughters could finish their degrees online or in the U.S.

The two U.S. options they are primarily focused on are 1) obtaining a Program Priority 2 Designation or P-2 for the professor, which he would appear to qualify for, having worked for the U.S. government aid affiliate International Rescue Committee; or 2) obtaining humanitarian parole for each individual family member, which they qualify for as at-risk Afghans.

Under a P-2 visa, a program extended to qualifying Afghans by the Biden administration in August, an individual can take their spouse and children of any age. Team 13 has efforted the family's applications for both options, hoping for P-2 status, putting them in the queue with approximately 9,800 referrals to the Afghan P-2 refugee resettlement program the State Department has so far, a spokesperson told ABC News on Monday. But the Catch-22 with P-2s is that a person cannot finish applying while still in Afghanistan. Because it's a form of refugee status, Afghans have to leave the country first.

Their other option, humanitarian parole, faces steep hurdles as the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services agency has received nearly 20,000 applications as of Friday, according to a Voice of America report -- more than 10 times the number of humanitarian parole applications submitted in a typical year, Danilo Zak at the National Immigration Forum told ABC News.

"The reason people are suggesting humanitarian parole is, despite a number of the same problems, it's a faster way to get access to protection in the U.S. than P-2 which only allows you entrance into the refugee pipeline," Zak said. "For both, you can begin the first part of your application while you're in Afghanistan, but eventually you're going to have to escape the country which is a huge challenge within itself."

Johnson, leading Team 13's filing efforts, has personally prepared more than 30 humanitarian parole applications -- but hasn't seen a single one processed by USCIS. The group has at least 100 hopeful humanitarian parolees in their pipeline as well as 76 P-1 and P-2 cases.

"I am not a paperwork person," she laughed, at first. "I'm a creative type so if you talk to me about paperwork, I just sort of check out."

"So the amount of paperwork involved in HP applications that has to be filed per person -- even a three-day-old baby has to have a packet -- when I first saw everything you had to do, the first thing that occurred to me was, 'Oh, the United States doesn't want these people here,'" she told ABC News.

"It is so much work, and so much of it seems ridiculous and repetitive, that in my opinion, I feel like they make it so hard so that it will intimidate you," she added.

Johnson is calling on the U.S. government to waive the humanitarian parole application fees of at least $575 per person. For her part, she has signed on to financially sponsor nine Afghans -- an element required in a person's humanitarian parole application.

"We need to do a full surge at the State Department," Johnson said. "The processing needs to happen faster. It needs to be seen as an urgent, moral issue because it is an urgent, moral issue."

Shepherd Stern emphasized that ways to process families like the professor's are already available and the support to expedite the safety of at-risk Afghans is bipartisan.

"We already have the ability to absorb these people into the U.S. We don't have to change any laws to make this happen," she said. "It's sad that it's the thing that unites our country, but in 10 years, the face of America will be even brighter with these particular people in our country."

Zak said the National Immigration Forum is calling on the Biden administration to work with foreign governments to create more safe passages out of the country.

"We're hoping that the administration will put more political will and diplomacy into establishing safe passages out of Afghanistan for people who qualify for humanitarian parole or P-2 and who may have some of these initial pre-approvals prior to the additional vetting in third countries," he said.

'It's not enough'

As the State Department prioritizes getting the remaining American citizens out -- at least 176 people of whom still want to leave, up from the roughly 100 officials said were there last month -- Phaneuf said more needs to be done across the board.

"It's not enough," the former Marine infantry officer told ABC News. "That's not a political statement -- it's just the reality on the ground."

"As the new cycle starts to move on, and I think, for some in the administration, they'd prefer the conversation move away from Afghanistan, we're worried that if the attention of the American public moves on from this too, then there's nobody else to help them. There are hundreds of us who are working day and night to still try to pull people out, but the reality is that we have severe limitations," he said.

However, Phaneuf added, it's the Americans pulling together to pick up the slack that gives him hope.

"It's astonishing to see that when the American government really fails to accomplish a mission like this that there are so many concerned citizens that are willing to drop everything and just get it done," he said.

That spirit keeps families like the professor's sustained, they said.

"That's what keeps us going," Amina, his youngest daughter said. "There's a light at the end of the tunnel because there are people working really hard right, trying everything, just to get us out of here."

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(CAIRO) -- After initially being put under house arrest by military forces Monday, Sudan's acting Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and his wife Muna Abdalla were "kidnapped" at dawn from their Khartoum residence, according to the prime minister's office.

The move happened after the military forces arrested several top civilian officials, including cabinet ministers. Soon after, Sudan's de facto leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan declared a state of emergency and dissolved the ruling transitional sovereign council and the government on Monday. It led to a backlash from the opposition and the United States.

Opposition figures said bridges and roads were blocked and that the internet was cut off in Khartoum. Videos posted on social media showed a large number of protesters taking to the streets, setting tires on fire and chanting against the apparent coup.

"What happened today in Khartoum is an attempt to erode the democratic gains of our December 2018 revolution," Ismail El Taj, a leading member of the Sudanese Professionals Association, one of the main coalitions that rose up against the autocratic regime of Omar al-Bashir, told ABC News. "We will resist this coup with all peaceful means, such as peaceful marches, sit-ins and civil disobedience. The trembling hands that are trying to turn back the clock will not succeed."

Both the U.S. embassy in Khartoum and the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa issued statements condemning the military takeover.

On Saturday, U.S. special envoy for Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman met with Hamdok and coup leader Gen. Burhan together and "urged all actors to recommit to working together to implement the constitutional declaration and Juba Peace Agreement." The agreement lays out the transition to democratic rule, according to the embassy.

"The US is deeply alarmed at reports of a military take-over of the transitional government," Feltman said in a statement Monday. "This would contravene the Constitutional Declaration and the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people and is utterly unacceptable. As we have said repeatedly, any changes to the transitional government by force puts at risk U.S. assistance."

Following Monday's military takeover, the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum urged Americans to shelter in place in Monday and to avoid traveling to the embassy or international airports. It said armed forces were "blocking certain areas in and around Khartoum" and that internet in the capital is "non-functional."

"There are unverified reports of violence against protesters. Flights are not leaving the country," the embassy said in an alert.

The U.N. secretary-general called on the immediate release of the prime minister and all others who have been detained.

"The unlawful detention of the PM, government officials, and politicians is unacceptable and contravenes the constitutional document, and the partnership critical for the success of Sudan's transition," a spokesperson for UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement Monday.

Regardless of the objections by other parties and the international community, coup leader al-Burhan said in a live television statement Monday that he was keen on completing a transition to democracy, adding that "a government of independent competent figures will be formed to lead the country until the elections (in July 2023). The equitable representation of all the people of Sudan, its factions and groups shall be taken into account."

Sudan's information ministry said military forces had stormed state TV offices in Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman on Monday.

The prime minister's office condemned the military forces' move, saying the military leaders of the Sudanese state "bear the criminal, legal and political consequences of the unilateral decisions they have taken." In a statement, they describe it as "a complete coup against the gains of the revolution and our people, who sacrificed their blood in search of freedom, peace and justice."

ABC News' Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.


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(File photo) - SHansche/iStock

(VICTORIA, British Columbia) -- Sixteen people have been evacuated from a container ship that caught fire off the coast of Canada, according to officials.

A fire broke out in 10 containers on the MV Zim Kingston near Victoria, British Columbia, on Saturday, according to the Canadian Coast Guard.

Crews mobilized to the location to rescue crew members and contain the fire. An emergency zone was set up for 2 nautical miles surrounding the ship, and rescue efforts continued into Sunday.

A navigational warning was issued overnight by the Canadian government reporting that the ship was on fire and expelling toxic gas. Two fallen containers are floating in the vicinity of the vessel.

Overnight, the tug Seaspan Raven cooled the hull of the MV Zim Kingston by spraying the hull with cold water. Due to the nature of chemicals on board the container ship, applying water directly to the fire is not an option.

Photos showed smoke billowing from a row of stacked containers that had collapsed.

There was no safety risk to people on land, according to the Canadian Coast Guard. No injuries were reported, according to a statement from Danaos Shipping Co, the company that manages the ship.

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(NEW YORK) -- Princess Mako, niece to Japan's enthroned emperor, Naruhito, is planning to leave the imperial family, moving out of her family's estate on Oct. 26 when her marriage to Fordham-educated Kei Komuro is officially registered.

Female members of Japan's imperial family must renounce their royalty when marrying a commoner. After the high-profile scandal surrounding their courtship, Japanese royalty is being forced to consider not just its dwindling numbers but its future.

Komuro's mother, involved in an unresolved financial dispute, has been portrayed as a gold digger in tabloids, which have harshly criticized the couple. Princess Mako, an imperial household spokesperson told ABC News, is now suffering from PTSD because of the scrutiny.

Some among the nation's citizenry are questioning whether maintaining an emperor as a living symbol of the state is still necessary. In 2019, the aging but popular Emperor Akihito abdicated, citing his age and declining health. His son, Naruhito, assumed the throne to reserved fanfare.

The latest scandal surrounding the princess' fiance has left a bad taste in the mouths of many. Naotaka Kimizuka, a professor at Kanto Gakuin University who specializes in modern British and European political diplomatic history, said the Princess Mako courtship kerfuffle will take a historic toll on the Chrysanthemum Throne, adding: "The pair have already disgraced the heritage of Japan's imperial household."

Although Princess Mako has pledged to make a clean break from royalty, refusing the taxpayer-funded, one-time entitlement of 150 million yen (about $1.35 million), distrust remains. Many citizens aren't convinced they won't still be on the hook, even after the princess and her husband move to New York.

"The taxpayers will be paying for this in one way or expected to another," one Tokyo resident told ABC News. "If one is in the imperial family, they'll always be in the imperial family."

Japan's royal family, believed to be the world's oldest continuous hereditary monarchy, has seen its numbers dwindle. Currently, women can't ascend to the throne, so royal women marry commoners due to a lack of viable imperial suitors. Children from those marriages are then excluded from the imperial family line.

Hirokazu Matsuno, a government spokesperson, said in response to the question of dwindling numbers among Japanese royals: "The marriage of Princess Mako is scheduled for the 26th of this month. We wish her happiness, and prosperity for the imperial family. An expert panel has been established to address the issue [of dwindling numbers] in the imperial family. Detailed discussions are ongoing."

More than 80% of Japanese citizens, according to a Kyodo poll, said they'd readily accept either a male or female ascending to the throne, or even a male who descended just from a female member of the imperial family. Most conservatives, including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, disagree. The question of female ascension is a common clash in Japan of liberal vs. conservative values.

Japan ranked 120th in a global gender-equality ranking of 156 countries, according to a 2021 World Economic Forum report. Attorney Kazuko Ito, secretary general of Human Rights Now, said she believes living human beings can never be a symbol.

"I think the treatment toward the royal family and system as a whole is inhuman," she added. "Exclusion from the royal family might be a good thing for female family members since they will get freedom for the first time as a human being, not as a restricted virtual role model."

Hideya Kawanishi, an associate professor of Japanese history at Nagoya University, believes that keeping together the imperial family helps keep together Japan.

"There is no doubt that the emperor of Japan is a symbol of Japan's unity as a nation," he said. "In fact, it can be said that the emperor is somehow holding together the fragmented Japanese society. I believe that the same phenomenon is occurring in the royal families of Europe, and that a monarchy is needed in the 21st century world and in Japan."

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(LONDON) -- Flanked by public health officials, the U.K. Health Secretary painted a bleak picture of the current state of the pandemic in Britain.

"Cases are rising," Sajid Javid, told the nation this week. "And they could go yet as high as 100,000 a day. We're also seeing greater pressure on the NHS (National Health Service) across the U.K. We're now approaching 1,000 hospitalizations per day."

Yet, despite growing calls from doctors' associations and scientists across the U.K. -- Javid resisted calls to introduce mandated prevention measures, such as mask wearing, which were dropped in England in July.

On Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson doubled down on that message, stressing the way forward was for as many eligible people as possible to take booster jabs, a rollout that experts warned is lagging behind demand.

Since July, when virtually all social distancing restrictions were relaxed in England, cases and hospitalizations have steadily increased, though at a rate far lower than previous waves of infections when the population did not have access to vaccines.

This week, the U.K. posted a worrying set of figures.

On Tuesday, the government recorded 223 COVID deaths, the highest since March.

The last time the country recorded less than 20,000 daily cases was July -- and this week the latest weekly average stands at over 47,000 daily cases. Deaths, hospitalizations and cases are increasing week over week.

Just under 80% of the population over age 12 have received two doses of coronavirus vaccine, but the evidence suggests that the effectiveness wanes over time, and the U.K. has been slower to vaccinate children than other countries. Rising cases have been linked to the resumption of the school year, where children are not formally required to wear masks and self-isolation rules around COVID-positive schoolchildren have been relaxed.

The booster program, which Israeli officials credit as proving crucial in Israel's success in getting infections under control this summer, has not been as effective as the first wave of vaccinations, he said. An estimated 5 million people have taken their boosters, but around half of all people eligible are yet to take up the call for a third shot of vaccine, according to a report in the Financial Times.

"The vaccine program has really fallen flat," according to Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist and the lead investigator of the ZOE Covid Symptom app, which tracks coronavirus infections in the U.K "It's peaked at around 66%, 67% [across the total population] and is hardly moving. And we know now we didn't know then that that's not enough. And I think we're very much back to where we were in March 2020, in some ways."

U.K. government data still shows that the mortality and hospitalization rates among unvaccinated people are still far higher than the vaccinated.

According to reports in the British media, the government does have a 'Plan B' over the winter, which would include reintroducing working from home, mask mandates and potential vaccine passports in nightclubs. "It remains the case we would only look to use that if the pressure on the NHS was looking to become unsustainable," the prime minister's spokesperson said in a statement to ABC News this week.

This week, the British Medical Association, a doctors' trade union, described the government's approach as "willfully negligent," while the NHS Confederation has called for new measures to avoid "stumbling into winter crisis."

Yet Prime Minister Johnson has held out so far against mandating restrictions, and has instead placed greater emphasis on vaccine boosters and the procurement of antiviral drugs. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different rules than England, with Scotland, for example, mandating mask use and vaccine passports for nightclubs -- policies that are part of Johnson's yet-to-be-implemented 'Plan B.' Health Secretary Javid, while acknowledging there was significant pressure on the National Health Service, said the level was not yet "unsustainable."

Complacency due to the success of the early vaccine rollout, as well as poor public health messaging, has contributed to the recent rise in cases, according to Spector.

"There's been a total absence of public education, no reiteration of [changes in] symptoms [with the delta variant], no ideas about how to stop spreading it in schools," he said. "You know, there's no prevention. There's no concept of prevention."

In mid-July, polling from the Office of National Statistics reported that 63% of adults always or often maintained social distancing, but the same body reported that only 39% of adults were doing so in mid-October.

In terms of infections, the U.K. is now far outpacing other countries in Western and Central Europe. In its weekly epidemiological update, the World Health Organization reported that Europe is the only region where coronavirus infections are rising, by 7% over the past seven days, driven by infection rates in the U.K., Russia and Turkey.

Despite the growing concern, the health service is not yet overwhelmed by an influx of coronavirus patients.

"No, we're not there, we're not there yet," Spector said. "But the point is that everyone scientifically, medically, is seeing these curves going up and inevitably these things get worse as you hit winter, and you hit other respiratory infections."

According to the government's latest seven-day average, 937 patients per day were hospitalized with COVID, with just over 8,000 currently receiving treatment. In January, meanwhile, prior to the vaccine rollout, daily hospitalizations peaked at over 4,000, while the highest number of patients in hospital reached over 39,000.

Instead, doctors and scientists are warning that with infections rising, there is potential for COVID to add to the winter burdens of an already stretched health service that has faced pressures even in pre-pandemic times.

"This time it genuinely does feel different," Siva Anandaciva, the chief analyst at the King's Fund, an independent health think tank, told ABC News. "I think that's because there are a lot of familiar pressures that you always have ... you've got the steady ticking up of winter viruses."

Part of the pressure, he said, is the resumption of ordinary care for the massive backlog of patients waiting to be seen in hospitals, that has built up since the pandemic began. 5.7 million people in the U.K., almost 10% of the population, are on waiting lists for planned routine care, and in a worst case scenario this number could rise up to 14 million, Anandaciva said.

"COVID's almost like an accelerant on a fire," he said. "The NHS has always struggled over the winter, and these are pressures that are spread more wildly... It is a problem with COVID, but more fundamentally some of the demand for care coming back after a pause in services and also crucially some of the resourcing issues that have long plagued the NHS. Not having enough staff, not having enough resources."

Facing pressure this winter, the government has announced new funding for the NHS, but it could be years before the health service begins to function at pre-pandemic levels, according to Anandaciva.

Spector was once critical of the government's approach for "underreacting, then overreacting" to the pandemic with successive lockdowns, but now says he now doesn't understand some of the inaction.

"It's complacency to think that this, you know, this isn't going to get worse," he said. "I haven't heard of anyone who says it's going to get better next week. So that's why I can't understand why introducing some simple measures that don't cost the economy anything, only have a political cost can't be implemented."

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(WASHINGTON) -- The Biden administration is again playing cleanup after President Joe Biden said the U.S. would come to Taiwan's defense in the event of an invasion by mainland China -- despite decades of policy that leaves that an open question.

His comment prompted a stern warning from the People's Republic of China, which considers the self-governing island a breakaway province, especially since Biden has made it twice now in the last couple of months.

That's led to speculation that Biden may be pushing the boundaries of "strategic ambiguity," the longstanding U.S. policy that leaves unanswered whether and how the U.S. would intervene in a conflict across the Taiwan Strait. In recent months, as China has escalated its incursions into Taiwan's air defense zone and ramped up its rhetoric about reunion, some China hawks in Washington have called for an end to the policy.

But the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon all said Friday there was no change in U.S. policy despite Biden's answer during a CNN town hall.

"There has been no shift," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. "The president was not announcing any change in our policy, nor has he made a decision to change our policy. There is no change in our policy."

Speaking at NATO headquarters, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. would continue to provide Taiwan "the sorts of capabilities that it needs to defend itself." But he dismissed questions about a Chinese attack as a "hypothetical."

State Department spokesperson Ned Price went the further, telling reporters, "We have been nothing but clear when it comes to where we stand."

But Biden has been anything but clear. In August, the president told ABC News's George Stephanopoulos that the U.S. had a commitment to act "if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against NATO," Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. While that's true of the first three -- all treaty allies of the United States -- it isn't of Taiwan.

Instead, since a 1979 agreement, the U.S. has recognized the People's Republic of China, including Taiwan, as the sole legal government of China -- what's known as the 'One China' policy. But under that agreement, the U.S. has maintained unofficial relations with Taiwan's government, which is defined by a 1979 law that then-senator Biden voted for. The law commits the U.S. "to assist Taiwan in maintaining its defensive capability," to oppose any one-sided changes in the status quo and to support a peaceful resolution to their differences, according to the State Department.

But Biden contradicted that again on Thursday, telling CNN's Anderson Cooper that he would have the U.S. military come to Taiwan's defense.

"If China attacked?" Cooper followed up -- and Biden responded, "Yes, we have a commitment to do that."

In response, China's Foreign Ministry issued its own warning about its "determination and ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity."

"We urge the U.S. to strictly abide by the one-China principle and the three Sino-U.S. joint communiqués, be cautious in its words and deeds on the Taiwan issue, and refrain from sending any false signals to the 'Taiwan independence' separatist forces -- or it will seriously damage to Sino-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait," said Wang Wenbin during a briefing Friday.

Some China hawks in the U.S. have been urging the administration to end "strategic ambiguity" and clearly commit to Taiwan's defense, arguing China's increasing pressure on the island is a signal it is preparing to retake it by force and that a clear U.S. commitment would deter that.

But Biden's own pick for U.S. ambassador to China disagreed, just one day prior to the president's comments. During his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, retired career ambassador Nick Burns called for strengthening the U.S. military position in the region and selling weapons to Taiwan to make it a "tough nut to crack."

When asked about ending "strategic ambiguity," however, Burns said, "My own view, and this is also the view ... more importantly of the Biden administration, is that the smartest and effective way for us to help deter aggressive actions by [China] across the Taiwan Strait will be to stay with a policy that's been in place."

It's not the first time an American president has had to walk back comments about Taiwan's defense. In 2001, shortly after he took office, George W. Bush told ABC News's Charlie Gibson he would also come to Taiwan's defense.

"With the full force of the American military?" asked Gibson. Bush responded: "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself."

Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blasted Bush in an editorial, writing, "In this case, his inattention to detail has damaged U.S. credibility with our allies and sown confusion throughout the Pacific Rim."

"Words matter, in diplomacy and in law," Biden added.

ABC News's Karson Yiu contributed to this report from Hong Kong and Ben Gittleson from the White House.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Moonstone Images/iStock

(LONDON) -- A suspected poacher found dead in a South African national park is believed to have been killed by an elephant, park officials said.

Rangers in Kruger National Park discovered the body on Thursday after following tracks in the Stolznek section of the giant game reserve, a spokesperson for the park said in a statement on Twitter.

"Initial investigations suspect that the deceased was killed by an elephant and left behind by his accomplices," the statement said.

The identity of the deceased individual was not released.

The Rangers did not find any animals killed in the immediate area, the spokesperson said.

Park officials took the opportunity to warn that it is "dangerous to hunt illegally" in the park.

"Criminals stand to lose their lives and freedom," the statement said.

Kruger National Park is South Africa's largest wildlife sanctuary, encompassing nearly 5 million acres. The game reserve is also one of the hardest-hit regions in the country for rhino poaching. The park's rhino population has decreased by 60% since 2013. In the first half of 2020, 166 rhinos were poached in South Africa, with 88 in Kruger National Park.

There are 3,529 white rhinos and 268 black rhinos left in Kruger National Park, according to South African National Parks.

To help combat rhino poaching, in recent months Kruger National Park has deployed more patrols in addition to using dogs and detection technologies to track suspects.

Between July and September, there was a nearly 30% increase in the number of poachers arrested in the park compared with the same period last year, according to South African National Parks.

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(LONDON) -- Queen Elizabeth was hospitalized Wednesday night for "preliminary investigations," a Buckingham Palace spokesman confirmed to ABC News.

The queen was back at her desk at Windsor Castle by Thursday afternoon and undertaking light duties.

No other details about the queen's condition are currently available.

"Following medical advice to rest for a few days, The Queen attended hospital on Wednesday afternoon for some preliminary investigations," the palace said in a statement. "[She] remains in good spirits."

Queen Elizabeth, 95, hosted a reception for leaders, including Bill Gates and John Kerry, at Windsor Castle on Tuesday.

The next day she was forced to cancel a trip to Northern Island as her medical team advised her to get some rest.

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(GIZA, Egypt) -- Seventy-two years of Egyptian women's rights activism paid off this week as the State Council, an important independent judiciary body in the country, appointed 98 female judges for the first time.

Iman Sherif, one of the appointed judges, described the move as "historic" during the swearing-in ceremony, saying she was over the moon, according to state-run Al-Ahram Newspaper.

"We pledged to live up to our responsibilities. I can't describe my happiness," she added.

"It is very important, not only to see the long resistance came up with this result, but also how much it means to the new generation," Nehad Abu El Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, told ABC News. "It is a step ahead for the younger generation to believe there can be no restrictions in their dreams."

The recent appointment of 98 judges to Egypt's State Council has considerable implications.

The State Council -- established in 1946 -- is an independent judicial body and one of the pillars of the judicial authority in Egypt. It has its own courts and hierarchy, like the civil and criminal justice systems.

According to the National Council of Women -- which is a state organization -- the very first female judge in Egypt was appointed in 2003 in the Constitutional Court. Later, in 2007, 31 more female judges joined the judiciary in 2008 and 2015.

However, what distinguishes the recent hiring of women judges by the State Council is that this body has mounted the stiffest resistance against women judges joining the judiciary over the last decades.

"That's exactly where the conflict was. The institutions which were supposed to defend and support the citizens' rights were resisting against women's rights within themselves," Abu El Komsan explained. "That is why we celebrated this last move by the State Council."

According to the last official statistics released in 2015 and published by the National Council of Women, women shaped less than half a percent of the total number of judges working in Egypt's judiciary system. While there were only 80 female judges, there were around 12,000 male ones.

"It was and still is a male-dominated field, and even with the new 98 judges the percentage is still less than half a percent," Abu El Komsan said.

The State Council decision of hiring women judges came after a recommendation that the justice ministry made public. The justice ministry said on March 8 that President Fattah Al-Sisi had called on them to appoint female judges in the State Council and Prosecution as he marked the International Women's Day.

To Abu El Komsan, this recommendation was a result of years of women's rights activism and civil demands for a change, rather than a gesture.

However, not all women's rights activists share the same stance.

"Al-Sisi needs to just show the world that Egypt does not have any problem with women. But they really do," Reda Eldanbouki, a lawyer and the executive director of the Women's Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness, told ABC News.

"We have had great women judges who did want to join the State Council, but their applications were rejected because [they were] not necessarily aligned with the system. It did not matter how much they pursued their cases through legal paths, it still did not work," Eldanbouki said.

"Actually, gender doesn't matter. Male or female, you need to obey the system," he added.

Eldanbouki and Abu El Komsan believe these newly appointed judges were not chosen from the graduates of the law schools, but rather the Council "promoted" or simply "relocated" the women judges who were already working at different positions or departments of the judiciary.

"They [the State Council] still have not opened the doors to the female graduates of the law schools. Most of them work as lawyers," Abu El Komsan said. "We still have to push for breaking the glass ceiling."

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(NEW YORK) — Ivory poaching has led to a "rapid evolution" of tuskless African elephants, as elephants without tusks were far more likely to survive during the height of the ivory trade, according to new research.

Much of the distress on the species occurred during the Mozambican Civil War from 1977 to 1992, when the ivory poaching in the region was at its most intense, according to a new study published Thursday in Science. During the conflict, armed forces on both sides relied heavily on the ivory trade to finance the war efforts, according to the researchers.

The elephant population in the region declined more than 90% due to the war, and the mass hunting of the mammals for their tusks resulted in a phenotype of the species that had a better chance of survival -- specifically, female elephants.

During the conflict, a tuskless female would have five times the chances of survival than a female with a tusk, Shane Campbell-Staton, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, told ABC News.

"So it actually seems to be a very strong selection over a very short period of time," he said.

The explanation for the trait evolving in female elephants and not males has to do with the genetics of tooth development, according to the study. Specifically, an X chromosome male-lethal syndrome that diminishes the growth of lateral incisors,

Campbell-Staton began hearing about the rise of "tusklessness" elephants years ago when he was in graduate school, but the research to find an explanation for the phenomenon had not yet occurred, he said.

"In regions where there's intensive poaching, there seem to be more animals without tusks," he said. "But we had no idea what was going on, why it happened ... the degree with which it happened."

The scientists investigated the impacts of ivory hunting on the evolution of African elephants in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, during and after the civil war.

The findings shed new light on just how powerful an effect human exploitation can have on wildlife populations, the researchers said.

"The selective killing of species – whether for food, safety, or profit – has only become more common and intense as human populations and technology have grown," the authors wrote. "So much so, it's suggested that wildlife exploitation by humans has become a powerful selective driver in the evolution of targeted species."

However, if the ivory trade were to continue to decline and elephant populations were to rebound, there is a chance that the evolution of tuskless elephants could be reversed, Campbell-Staton said, adding that researchers already see this to be the case.

In Gorongosa National Park, which he described as a "success story" due to the climbing population, the children of female elephants that survived the war are inheriting the trait, but only by about 50%, Campbell-Staton said.

While the notion that rapid evolution is not new, the findings were surprising to Campbell-Staton due to the long life spans of African elephants, which can live up to 70 years, and the long gestation periods, which are typically about two years.

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Abdallah M. Elbarawy

(CAIRO) —A man attempting to demolish one of four ancient sphinxes adorning the Tahrir square in Cairo was caught by security personnel, an eyewitness reports.

"I and my friends were in Tahrir when we saw someone climbing up to the head of one of the sphinxes. He was wielding a big hammer and shouting 'Allahu Akbar' before starting to hit it," Abdallah Elbarawy, a 22-year-old law student at Cairo University, told ABC News.

"He was then captured by security guards, who took him away," Elbarawy said.

Local media said the man, who was not identified, was being questioned.

An antiquities ministry source told ABC News that no damage was sustained to any of the sphinxes.

Last year, Egypt relocated the four ram-headed sphinxes to Tahrir in the heart of Cairo from the southern city of Luxor -- a move criticized at the time by many archaeologists, who feared the artifacts could be damaged because of their exposure to air pollution and heat in the congested square.

The sphinxes were previously located in a courtyard behind the first pylon of the famed Karnak temple in Luxor.

After being transferred to Tahrir, the sphinxes were kept in wooden crates before being unveiled last April, shortly before Egypt held a procession for 22 royal mummies from the iconic square. They lie beneath a 90-tonne obelisk that dates back to the era of famous New Kingdom pharaoh Ramses II.

Egypt said it will soon re-open the Grand Avenue of Sphinxes, a 3,000-year-old road that connects Karnak Temple with Luxor Temple, to the public after completing excavation and restoration works in the ancient pathway.

The avenue is flanked by hundreds of ram-headed sphinxes, similar to the ones that were moved to Tahrir.

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