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(WASHINGTON) -- The Office of Director of National Intelligence on Friday released its highly anticipated report on the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi Friday, making public the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Saudi Arabia's crown prince approved an operation to capture or kill him.

The brutal killing has roiled the United States' longstanding ties with Saudi Arabia, and President Joe Biden has vowed to recalibrate the relationship after his predecessor Donald Trump shielded the kingdom from U.S. pressure.

"We assess that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi," the report said.

Prince Mohammed is heir to the Saudi throne and the country's de facto ruler, meaning the now public U.S. assessment of his involvement will strain relations between the U.S. and its key Middle East partner and a major global oil provider.

The Saudi government has denied that the crown prince, sometimes known by his initials MBS, was involved, instead blaming a rogue team of government agents.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and U.S. permanent resident, was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in Oct. 2018, murdered, and dismembered.

U.S. lawmakers were briefed on a classified version of this report in 2018, leading Republicans and Democrats to urge former President Donald Trump to punish MBS for the murder. But Trump and his top advisers cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence finding, saying there was no "smoking gun" and the U.S.-Saudi relationship was too important.

The now declassified report says the intelligence community's assessment was based on the crown prince's "control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of [his] protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince's support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi."

Iyad El-Baghdadi is keenly aware of those measures. The activist and writer, who was friends with Khashoggi, lives in exile in Norway, where local authorities have warned him he is under threat from Saudi agents.

"Simply naming and shaming MBS -- that itself goes a long way. Telling the truth about who MBS is and what he did and what his role was in the murder is going to make it very difficult for him to be integrated as a normal member of the international community," El-Baghdadi told ABC News Friday.

The Biden administration is expected to announce other steps to hold the Saudi government accountable for Khashoggi's murder, although it's unclear what form that will take.

The report details the 15-member team that arrived in Istanbul from Saudi Arabia, including members of MBS's inner circle and personal protective detail. It names 21 officials it says U.S. intelligence has "high confidence" were involved.

All 21 officials were banned from receiving U.S. visas by the Trump administration, and 17 of them faced financial sanctions. But Trump stopped short of implicating the crown prince, even though the report said it is "highly unlikely" they "would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince's authorization."

The group includes Saud al Qahtani, a top adviser to MBS who was removed from his role after Khashoggi's murder was confirmed by the Saudi government.

Eleven Saudi officials were tried for the murder, three were sentenced to prison, and five were sentenced to death -- although their sentences were later commuted to jail time after Khashoggi's faily made a formal statement of forgiveness.

Their trial was largely criticized for its lack of transparency, with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard calling it the "antithesis of justice" and a "mockery" -- charges the Saudi government rejected.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



(LONDON) -- As rich countries race to inoculate their populations against COVID-19, poorer nations have fallen behind in the biggest vaccination campaign in history.

But a global vaccine-sharing scheme aims to ensure rapid and equitable access to vaccines for all countries regardless of income. Although there are a number of obstacles, the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) initiative may be the best bet on worldwide immunization against the novel coronavirus.

What is COVAX?

COVAX is part of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, a framework for global collaboration that was set up in response to a call from G20 leaders in March 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and was subsequently launched by the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Commission, France and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in April 2020. The ACT Accelerator is made up of three pillars: Diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, according to the WHO.

COVAX is the vaccines' pillar and is co-managed by three partner agencies: Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the WHO. It is the only global initiative that is working with governments and manufacturers to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are available worldwide to both higher-income and lower-income countries.

"The pandemic has highlighted more than ever the nexus between equity and global health security," Anuradha Gupta, deputy CEO of Gavi, said in a video statement on Feb. 23. "It has also highlighted the vital importance of global solidarity that is epitomized by COVAX."

COVAX acts as a platform that will support the research, development and manufacturing of a wide range of COVID-19 vaccine candidates and will negotiate the pricing. By joining COVAX, all participating countries and economies -- regardless of their ability to pay -- will have access to a portfolio of COVID-19 vaccines, once they are developed and proven to be both safe and effective, according to GAVI.

The portfolio of vaccine candidates -- the largest in the world -- is managed by CEPI's research and development experts.

"The best chance of success is to hedge risk by creating a diverse portfolio of vaccine candidates, based on a range of vaccine technologies," CEPI says on its website. "The breadth of our portfolio will increase our chances of developing multiple successful vaccines, which is crucial if we are to meet global demand and protect vulnerable populations."

What is the goal?

The initial goal is to procure and fairly distribute 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines across almost 200 countries and economies by the end of 2021 through a mechanism, the COVAX Facility, created by Gavi. That should be enough to protect high-risk and vulnerable people as well as front-line health care workers, according to Gavi.

Most importantly, COVAX also aims to ensure that 92 middle- and lower-income countries that cannot fully afford to pay for COVID-19 vaccines themselves get equal access to them, just as higher-income, self-financing countries do and at the same time.

Vaccine research and development is critical to achieving this goal, with an estimated $2.1 billion needed to move three COVID-19 vaccine candidates to licensure, according to CEPI. COVAX has already made bilateral agreements with various vaccine makers, including U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

In late December, the WHO issued an emergency use listing for a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech. In mid-February, the WHO issued emergency use listings for two versions of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by England's University of Oxford and British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca -- one made in India and the other in South Korea. The WHO is on track to approve other vaccine candidates for emergency use in the coming months.

According to an interim distribution forecast published in early February, COVAX plans to distribute an initial batch of 336 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine by mid-2021. It also aims to start shipping 1.2 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in the first quarter of the year.

"We're on track to meet our targets. We have countries signed up; we have doses secured; and we have raised billions of dollars in funding," Aurelia Nguyen, managing director of the COVAX Facility, said in a video statement on Feb. 24. "Nothing like this has ever been attempted before, and so every day has brought new challenges -- both seen and unforeseen -- but we are now delivering on our promise to people across the world, and vaccines are on their way."

How does it work?

Countries and economies of all income levels can participate in the COVAX Facility, either in a self-financing capacity or through a separate financing instrument called the Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC). The AMC is funded mainly through government aid, as well as contributions from the private sector and philanthropy, and it supports access to COVID-19 vaccines for 92 middle- and lower-income countries, according to Gavi.

Self-financing participants will be guaranteed sufficient doses of COVID-19 vaccines to protect a certain proportion of their population, depending how much they buy into the scheme. Additionally, richer countries and economies will pay a premium to subsidize poorer ones.

Meanwhile, funded participants will receive enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to inoculate up to 20% of their population in the longer term, subject to funding availability.

Since the United States officially rejoined the WHO, President Joe Biden has pledged $4 billion in contributions to COVAX.

Allocation of vaccine doses will be spread across participants based on the amount that's available. These allotments will grow as availability increases, according to Gavi.

The COVAX Facility has access to vaccine doses through deals that Gavi strikes with vaccine manufacturers on behalf of the program. Meanwhile, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) is leading the vaccine procurement and delivery efforts on behalf of COVAX.

UNICEF has already begun delivering initial shipments of COVID-19 vaccine doses. This week, the West African nations of Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire became the first and second recipients, respectively, to receive doses from the COVAX Facility -- a historic step in the global endeavor.

"It's about a million doses total to begin with and that will just begin accelerating now," Michael Nyenhuis, president and CEO of UNICEF USA, told ABC News in a recent interview. "We've done all of the pre-work necessary in many, many of these countries to make sure that the supply chains are ready, that the health systems are ready, that the refrigeration is ready where it's needed for the vaccines, that the vaccinators, the people actually administer the vaccine in communities, are ready."

Why do we need it?

The global pandemic has already claimed the lives of millions of people and has disrupted the lives of billions more. In addition to reducing further loss of life and helping to get the virus under control, the WHO estimates that the introduction of a vaccine will prevent the loss of $375 billion to the global economy every month.

Global equitable access to a vaccine is the only way to mitigate the public health and economic impact of the pandemic, according to the WHO.

"Developing a vaccine against COVID-19 is the most pressing challenge of our time -- and nobody wins the race until everyone wins," the WHO says on its website.

Without a global initiative like COVAX, there is a very real risk that the majority of people in the world will go unprotected against COVID-19, allowing the virus and its impact to continue unabated, according to Gavi.

"With a disease that spreads as fast as COVID-19, vaccines will only be effective if everyone is protected," Gavi CEO Seth Berkley said in a video statement on Feb. 24.

COVAX was created to maximize the chances of successfully developing COVID-19 vaccines and to produce them in the quantities needed to end the pandemic, all while ensuring that income level does not become a barrier to accessing them.

"It's an all-hands-on-deck effort to do something that's never been done before, the largest global vaccine campaign ever and the largest single thing that UNICEF has ever done," Nyenhuis said. "This is nothing less than a historic effort to end the global pandemic. The only way that we're going to end this is if enough people are vaccinated all around the world to put a stop to it."

What are the challenges?

A global effort to vaccinate the world's population won't be without its challenges.

"There are three things that really need to come together well in order for this to happen," Nyenhuis noted. "One is the production of the vaccine."

COVID-19 vaccines need to continue being developed and manufactured and production needs to ramp up. Vaccine makers also must monitor new variants of the virus to see if any changes need to be made to their vaccines, Nyenhuis said.

"The second piece is supply chain and logistics," he continued. "How do you get all those vaccines from manufacturing out to everybody who needs them? We've seen here in the U.S. what a challenge that has been and it's an even greater challenge when you're talking about countries with less sophisticated infrastructure."

UNICEF, however, has an advantage in this part of the puzzle. The agency is the main procurement partner of Gavi and is the largest single vaccine buyer in the world, procuring more than 2 billion doses of life-saving vaccines every year for routine immunization and outbreak response on behalf of nearly 100 countries. UNICEF will use the same supply chains and expertise to coordinate the procurement and supply of COVID-19 vaccines for the COVAX Facility, according to Nyenhuis.

"The third piece is vaccine confidence or, to put the other way, hesitancy," he said. "How do you combat hesitancy at the community level for people? How do you build confidence so that people actually take the vaccine?"

In the past, vaccine hesitancy has been a challenge in some parts of the world when trying to stamp out other virus outbreaks. Trust and confidence in vaccines need to be built at the community level so that people will actually choose to get inoculated when doses become available, Nyenhuis said.

"So you really need all three of these pieces. You need the production side, you need the supply chain side and you need the community-level confidence," he added. "And there are challenges in all three pieces of that. That's why this is such a Herculean task and such an important effort."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


iStock/Pornpak KhunatornBy MICHAEL DOBUSKI, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Australia's Parliament approved the final amendements to a new law Thursday requiring tech companies to pay news organizations for their content. That means companies like Facebook and Google will have to shell out in order to have Austrailian news outlets post articles on their platforms. The move caps a tumultuous few days for social media companies in the country.

Facebook had halted the sharing of all news content for Australians on February 18. News organizations couldn't post to their official pages, Australian residents couldn't share links to news articles, and even non-Australians were restricted from posting stories from the country's news outlets. This week, after last-minute amendments to the law passed, Facebook began restoring the wiped content.

"It was deliberately destructive, and very much achieved its goal," says Protocol Editor-In-Chief David Pierce. The far-reaching ban on news content came after a year of debate around a piece of legislation called the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.

Part of the law would have forced the tech companies to pay news publishers in the country to appear on the platforms. If the companies refused, they'd be forced into arbitration- a process that would've given the Australian government final say in how much a tech company would have to pay a news publisher in order to host content.

"The Australian government wanted to pass legislation that they hoped would reset the balance between publishers and big tech companies," says Pierce.

Google and Facebook have been pushing back against the law since its introduction, with the former threatening to pull its search function from the country, and the latter taking the drastic step of removing news content from the platform once the legislation appeared likely to pass.

Certain Australian government organizations got caught up in the ban as well. Services like fire and rescue pages, a weather forecaster, and even one of Facebook's own pages were wiped from the platform temporarily. Pierce says the collateral damage was no accident.

"This is sort of a deliberate move on Facebook's part, more as a bargaining tactic than anything... Like, 'we can remove news- and look how bad it is.'"

News publishers in the country quickly saw how much of their audience came from just Facebook. Traffic to Australian news outlets was down about 13% according to analytics firm Chartbeat. A report last year from market research firm Roy Morgan found 38% of Australians consider social media their main source of news; nearly eight million people. So, with pressure building from all sides, Australian Parliament made some changes to the legislation. Now, tech companies will be allowed a longer period to work out a deal with news publishers, with arbitration being used only as a last resort. In addition, tech companies will have more leeway over which news organizations they do business with.

"It’s always been our intention to support journalism in Australia and around the world, and we’ll continue to invest in news globally and resist efforts by media conglomerates to advance regulatory frameworks that do not take account of the true value exchange between publishers and platforms like Facebook," Campbell Brown, Facebook VP of Global News Partnerships, said in a statement.

"The Australian government caved, basically," says Pierce.

By midweek Facebook had begun restoring news content. The company says it's already cut a deal with publisher Seven West Media, and is working on doing the same with another organization called Nine Entertainment. Google, meanwhile, has announced a deal with News Corp, which owns and operates a variety of newspapers and TV channels in the country.

Though it appears the social media landscape is returning to some form of normalcy in Australia, the incident did catch the attention of some other countries. Pierce says the international attention is a big part of the reason Facebook acted in such a dramatic way.

"I think if this had gone through and it had actually brought Facebook and Google to heel to some extent, I think you would've seen a lot of other countries pick this up," says Pierce. "So that's why, for Facebook, it was important to come out and say, essentially, 'we are more powerful than you.'"

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U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Indra BeaufortBy LUIS MARTINEZ, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- Two U.S. Navy ships deployed to the Middle East are experiencing coronavirus outbreaks and have arrived in Bahrain to isolate infected crew members, the Navy said in a statement Friday morning.

The amphibious transport ship USS San Diego has gone into port in Bahrain after 12 service members tested positive for the virus, the Navy's Fifth Fleet said.

The cruiser USS Philippine Sea was at sea when it was discovered that several sailors aboard had also been exposed to the virus and were considered to be "persons under investigation."

The cruiser has since arrived in Bahrain, where those sailors tested positive for COVID-19, a Fifth Fleet spokesperson told ABC News Friday.

"Sailors with positive cases and close contacts have been isolated on the ship, and the ship remains in a restricted COVID bubble at the pier," said Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich.

"U.S. 5th Fleet took immediate actions to identify, isolate, test and treat affected Sailors and Marines aboard two ships," the Navy said in its initial statement.

"Medical health professionals are conducting a thorough contact investigation to determine the source of COVID-19 aboard the ships and whether any other personnel may have been exposed," it added.

The sailors aboard the USS San Diego have been isolated aboard the ship, and the ship itself is "in a restricted COVID bubble."

The recent exposures aboard the two ships at sea come a week after three sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt tested positive for the virus while it was deployed to the Pacific Ocean.

A previous large-scale coronavirus outbreak aboard that ship in 2020 ultimately infected a quarter of the 5,000 sailors on board. As a result, the Navy imposed strict mitigation procedures for ship crews at sea and two-week quarantines for those preparing to deploy.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



(LOS ANGELES) -- Prince Harry showed his funny and lighthearted side in a new interview with Late Late Show host James Corden, while also opening up about serious topics, like his decision with Duchess Meghan to step back from their royal duties and leave the U.K.

"There was a really difficult environment, as I think a lot of people saw. We all know what the British press can be like, and it was destroying my mental health," said Harry, who has recently waged legal battles with some British tabloids. "I was like, 'This is toxic,' so I did what any husband and any father would do, which is like, I need to get my family out of here."

"But we never walked away. And as far as I'm concerned, whatever decisions are made on that side, I will never walk away," added Harry, who described his move as a royal as "stepping back rather than stepping down."

"I will always be contributing ... my life is public service, so wherever I am in the world, it's going to be the same thing," he said.

Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, announced their decision to step back from their royal duties last January. The couple completed their last official royal engagement last March and have now settled in Santa Barbara, California, with their son, Archie, who will turn 2 in May.

Buckingham Palace confirmed this month that Harry and Meghan will not return as working members of Britain's royal family.

"I have no idea," Harry said when asked by Cordon how he envisions his life in California as the state begins to reopen after the coronavirus pandemic. "A slightly different version but a continuation of what we were doing back in the U.K. anyway."

He went on, "My life is always going to be about public service and Meghan signed up to that and the two of us enjoy doing that. Trying to bring some compassion and trying to make people happy and trying to change the world in any small way that we can."

The interview with Corden, conducted atop a Los Angeles tour bus, was Harry like the public has never seen him before. The duke showed off his funny side, rapped the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song as he and Corden visited the actual house, which Corden encouraged Harry to buy, took on a military-style obstacle course with Corden and allowed the TV host to FaceTime on his iPhone with Meghan, who we learned has a nickname for Harry, "Hazz."

The Sussexes, who are expecting their second child, wed in 2018 after meeting through friends.

Harry also opened up to Corden about his courtship with Meghan, saying the pair went "from zero to 60 in the first two months."

"The second date I was starting to think, 'Wow, this is pretty special,'" he said. "It was just the way that we hit it off with each other and we were so comfortable in each other's company."

"Dating with me, with any member of the royal family I guess, is kind of flipped upside down," Harry added. "All the dates become dinners, watching the TV or chatting at home, and then eventually, once you become a couple, then you venture out to dinners, to the cinema, to everything else. So everything was done back to front with us, so actually we got to spend an enormous amount of time just the two of us, rather than going to friends' houses or out for dinner where there are other distractions. There were no distractions and that was great."

Nearly three years later, Harry and Meghan's family life is fairly normal, with Harry telling Corden that a typical night consists of bathing and putting Archie, whom Harry described as "hysterical" and already talking and singing, to bed.

Then he and Meghan will eat takeout or something Meghan has cooked and watch Jeopardy! or something on Netflix.

Speaking of Netflix, The Crown, which is a fictional drama depicting the royal family, Harry said he prefers the show to tabloid stories about his family.

"They don't pretend to be news," he said of the show. "It's fictional, but it's loosely based on the truth. Of course it's not strictly accurate. But loosely, it gives you a rough idea about what that lifestyle, what the pressures of putting duty and service above family and everything else, what can come from that."

"I'm way more comfortable with The Crown than I am seeing the stories written about my family or my wife or myself," Harry said, adding that he'd like to see Damian Lewis play him on TV. "Because it's the difference between that is obviously fiction, take it as you will, but this is being reported on as fact because you're supposedly news, and I have a real issue with that."

When it comes to his family members in the U.K., Harry said he is staying in touch, including doing video calls with his grandparents, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who gave Archie, their great-grandson, a waffle maker for Christmas.

"Breakfast now, Meg makes up a beautiful, like organic mix, in the waffle maker, flip it, out it comes, and he loves it," Harry said. "Archie wakes up in the morning and literally just goes, 'Waffle.'"

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(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden spoke to King Salman of Saudi Arabia on Thursday -- the two leaders' first call amid pressure on his new administration to change the U.S. relationship with the kingdom over its alleged human rights abuses.

In particular, the Biden administration is set to release an unclassified report from the U.S. intelligence community on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident who lived in Virginia. The report, whose release is required by law, is expected to implicate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, King Salman's son and heir to the Saudi throne.

The White House said until Biden called the king, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence would not release the report, which is set to further roil relations between Washington and its longtime partner in the Middle East.

But Biden appears to be interested in threading the needle -- promoting accountability for Khashoggi's grisly murder and the Saudi government's air war in neighboring Yemen, while also maintaining the close ties with a key regional partner.

That will be harder to do as Prince Mohammed, sometimes referred to by his initials: MBS, takes tighter control of the kingdom. Heralded by some for reforming the Saudi economy and cultural and legal frameworks, including by letting women drive, he's also been condemned for a brutal crackdown on political enemies and human rights activists, including women like Loujain al Hathloul who fought for the right to drive.

During Thursday's call, Biden "affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law," according to the White House. But he also "told King Salman he would work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible. The two leaders affirmed the historic nature of the relationship and agreed to work together on mutual issues of concern and interest."

Neither Khashoggi nor the report was mentioned in the White House readout of the call, although it's possible the two still discussed the issue.

The Saudi government has denied a role in Khashoggi's murder -- saying a "rogue" team of government agents were responsible and that MBS was not involved.

Pressure has grown on the Biden administration to shift the relationship with the Saudis after former President Donald Trump shielded its government from Congress' ire over Khashoggi's murder and its campaign in Yemen, which has drawn accusations of war crimes from the United Nations.

Trump used his veto power on multiple occasions to protect Saudi interests, including to sustain U.S. support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen and to bypass Congress to sell arms to the coalition. Along with top advisers like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he continually cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence communities' finding about the crown prince's role.

But in November 2018, just weeks after Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered by Saudi agents in the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul, U.S. lawmakers were briefed on the classified version of the intelligence report. Republicans and Democrats have said repeatedly that MBS played a role.

"We also have a crown prince that's out of control," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., then the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at the time. "Whether there's a smoking gun, I don't think there is anybody in the room that doesn't believe he was responsible for it."

Congress passed a law to force the Trump administration to release an unclassified version of that intelligence report, but Trump refused. Instead, he sanctioned 17 Saudi officials with financial penalties and 21 officials with visa bans -- limiting U.S. penalties to the officials identified by the Saudi government.

Eleven Saudi officials were put on trial and five were sentenced to death until the Khashoggi family forgave them and their sentences were commuted to 20 years in jail.

Now, Biden's team said they will "follow the law" with the report's release -- and pledged Thursday to advance accountability for Khashoggi's killing.

"The release of this report, when that time comes, will be an important step in that direction. ... I wouldn't expect the accountability to stop there however," State Department spokesperson Ned Price told ABC News.

Price and White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to discuss possibilities, but Psaki told ABC News there are a "range of actions that are on the table."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Oleksii Liskonih/iStockBy LUIS MARTINEZ, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- The United States conducted a military airstrike in eastern Syria along the border with Iraq on Thursday night targeting Iranian-backed militias in retaliation for a recent rocket strike in Erbil in northern Iraq that left several Americans injured, according to the Pentagon.

The airstrike targeted structures in the eastern Syrian town of Al Bukamal that belong to two Iranian-backed militias that have launched rocket attacks in the past against American facilities in Iraq, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, according to a U.S. official.

"At President Biden's direction, U.S. military forces earlier this evening conducted airstrikes against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria," John Kirby, Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement issued Thursday night.

"These strikes were authorized in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel," Kirby continued. "Specifically, the strikes destroyed multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kait'ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kait'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS)."

Another official described the airstrike as targeting a location through which both groups engaged in smuggling into Iraq.

"This proportionate military response was conducted together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with Coalition partners," said Kirby. "The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq."

The airstrike was in retaliation for a Feb. 15 rocket attack against a U.S. base in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil that killed a coalition contractor and left several American contractors and a U.S. military service member wounded.

The airstrikes took place at about 6 p.m. ET Thursday.

Thursday's airstrike "was probably calculated and scaled to avoid an escalation and send a message that Iran's use of militias as proxies will not allow them to avoid responsibility," said Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East and an ABC News contributor. "The decision to strike in Syria instead of Iraq was likely to avoid causing issues for the Iraqi government, a key partner in the continuing efforts against ISIS."

The Pentagon had not blamed Iranian-backed militias for the attack in Erbil even though forensic evidence recovered soon after the attack pointed to a connection to Iranian-backed militias that have conducted similar attacks in the past.

As Biden administration officials said the attack remained under investigation White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week that the U.S. "reserves the right to respond in the time and manner of our choosing" to the attack.

Earlier on Thursday, the Kurdish Government in northern Iraq claimed that it had identified suspects in the attacks and had provided that information to the Iraqi government and the U.S. military in Baghdad.

Thursday's air strike was not the first time that the U.S. military has targeted Kait'ib Hezbollah. It did previously in retaliation for a rocket attack on a military base that killed two American service members, a British service member and wounded 14 others.

ABC News' Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.

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(NEW YORK) -- NASA released an immersive new panoramic image with 360-degree views of Mars on Wednesday that was taken by its Perseverance rover.

The photo is the latest in a series being sent back by the rover, which arrived at the red planet last week.

The rover, nicknamed "Percy," snapped the image by rotating its head 360 degrees to allow its Mastcam-Z instrument to capture Mars' Jezero Crater from all angles.

The panorama was stitched together from more than 140 images to show the Martian landscape in new detail.

I’m taking it all in. This is the first 360º view of my home using Mastcam-Z. This dual, high-definition camera system sits atop my mast and has zoom capability. Inspect tiny details of Jezero Crater with the special interactive viewer at #CountdownToMars

— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) February 24, 2021

Perseverance is NASA's most sophisticated rover yet, featuring more than two dozen cameras and a slew of other technology to help it explore its new home and send back detailed images.

Earlier this week, NASA also released audio sounds of Mars, which captured both the mechanical sounds of the rover and a Martian breeze.

The rover is tasked with searching for signs of ancient life on the red planet and paving the way for eventual human exploration.

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(LONDON and RIO DE JANEIRO) -- At least 79 inmates have died in riots at four prisons across Ecuador, authorities said.

Gen. Edmundo Moncayo, head of Ecuador's prison system, known by its Spanish acronym SNAI, told reporters that the violence erupted Tuesday between rival drug gangs trying "to seize the criminal leadership of the detention centers." He said the clashes were precipitated by a break in leadership of a prominent local gang called Los Choneros. The leader of Los Choneros was assassinated in December at a shopping mall in the port city of Manta in Manabi province.

Moncayo said a search for weapons was carried out at a large prison in the port city of Guayaquil in Guayas province on Monday. Officials were tipped off by Ecuador's national police force that inmates had two firearms smuggled to them by a guard and were planning to kill Los Choneros leaders. That search sparked a series of coordinated mutinies in various prisons the following morning and it was not until the afternoon that authorities regained control, according to Moncayo.

Videos recorded by inmates and shared on social media showed mutilated bodies in the aftermath of the bloodbath.

As of Wednesday, 31 people had died at that prison in Guayaquil while six others had died at another prison in the same city. Thirty-four had died at a prison in the southern city of Cuenca in Azuay province and eight had died in the central city of Latacunga in Cotopaxi province, according to a statement from SNAI.

Moncayo plans to present a strategy to the Constitutional Court of Ecuador for preventing such violence from happening within the country's prisons, an official at the Ecuadorian Ministry of Interior told ABC News.

The official said there were just 52 criminal deaths registered in Ecuador's prison system last year.

An investigation into the deadly riots is ongoing and special units are carrying out operations, the official told ABC News.

Family of inmates have gathered outside the prisons as they await to hear whether their loved ones are safe.

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Marco Ravagli/Barcroft Media via Getty ImagesBy ERIC M. STRAUSS and MARK OSBORNE, ABC News

(LONDON) -- Moderna, which produces one of two vaccines authorized for use in the U.S., said Wednesday it has shipped a vaccine modified to fight the so-called South African variant of the virus to the National Institutes of Health for testing.

The company said the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the NIH, will conduct a phase one trial to determine if the modified vaccine boosts immunity against the variant, which has caused concerns due to being more resistant to the current vaccines.

"We look forward to beginning the clinical study of our variant booster and are grateful for the NIH's continued collaboration to combat this pandemic," Stéphane Bancel, Moderna's chief executive officer, said in a statement. "As we seek to defeat COVID-19, we must be vigilant and proactive as new variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerge. Leveraging the flexibility of our mRNA platform, we are moving quickly to test updates to the vaccines that address emerging variants of the virus in the clinic."

Moderna said last month that a six-fold reduction in protection was noted for the South African variant versus other strains of the virus, but also said the neutralizing antibodies created by the vaccine "remain above levels that are expected to be protective."

Moderna said the booster, if necessary and if approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, could be "provided to the global community in late 2021 and 2022."

The pharmaceutical company said it is taking a three-pronged approach to the variant testing. In addition to the variant-specific booster candidate, it is testing a combination of the current vaccine and the new booster and, finally, a third dose of the current vaccine.

Moderna also said its current vaccine still works well against variants and the testing is precautionary.

In addition to the news about testing for the South African variant, Moderna announced it is stepping up production of its currently authorized vaccine -- now being injected around the U.S.

"We believe from our discussions with governments around the world that there will continue to be significant demand for our COVID-19 vaccine and we now are committed to materially increasing our manufacturing capacity," Bancel said in a statement.

"We expect our additional capital investments to drive our capacity to 1.4 billion doses for 2022, assuming the current 100 μg dose," he added. "If our variant vaccine booster requires a lower dose, such as 50 μg, we could have more than 2 billion doses of capacity for 2022."

Moderna is increasing its plan from delivering 600 million doses in 2021 to 700 million.

The company has shipped 55 million doses to the U.S. government to date, it said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


simon2579/iStockBy MAGGIE RULLI and ERIN SCHUMAKER, ABC News

(ACCRA, Ghana) -- The first shipment of vaccines touched down in Ghana’s capital Wednesday morning, marking a pivotal moment in the world’s fight against COVID-19.

The 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that arrived by plane from India are the first vaccines distributed to low- and middle-income countries by COVAX, the global initiative for equal vaccine distribution.

"This is a momentous occasion, as the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines into Ghana is critical in bringing the pandemic to an end," the World Health Organization and UNICEF said in a joint statement.

"The only way out of this crisis is to ensure that vaccinations are available for all."

Months after vaccines were first approved and distributed in wealthier nations, COVAX has begun sending their lifesaving shipments to lower-income countries. UNICEF, which is helping coordinate the rollout on the ground, told ABC News that Wednesday’s shipment to Ghana is just the beginning. More vaccines are set to arrive at the Ivory Coast tomorrow and in several countries in Asia in coming days.

COVAX has a goal of delivering 2 billion vaccine doses to participating countries this year, which the WHO and UNICEF called "an unprecedented global effort to make sure all citizens have access to vaccines."

The United States is now a leader in fundraising for COVAX, with the vaccines funded in part by U.S. taxpayers. President Joe Biden announced last week that the U.S. would donate $4 billion for vaccines in low- and middle-income countries, a change from former President Donald Trump;s administration, which had declined to participate in the COVAX effort.

Brandon Locke, policy and advocacy manager for the ONE Campaign, which aims to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, told ABC News that Wednesday’s shipment is good news.

"I think that it's easy to forget just how impressive the COVAX facility is in terms of what we managed to accomplish in such a short period of time. So it's really happy to sort of see the fruits of that labour start to materialize … it's a very good start. But we're just starting the battle."

While today is a major step forward, there's a long way to go, according to Locke. "We can't understate just how inequitable the distribution is at the moment," he said. "There is a really massive course correction that we need to sort of put things in perspective and sort of get vaccination where it needs to be in low- and middle-income countries.”

According to the United Nations, 75% of vaccinations are happening in just 10 countries, while 130 countries have not received a single dose.

Wealthier nations have bought up so many vaccines, Locke explained, that if they were to completely vaccinate their populations, they would still have 1.2 billion vaccines left over. He acknowledged that there's a delicate balance. On one hand, countries want to protect their citizens' health. On the other, the virus poses a global threat. "When we say none of us are safe until all of us are safe, it isn't just a cliche,” he added.

There's also the risk of the new variants of the virus cropping up in countries without access to vaccines. If the virus spreads unchecked, "we're just going to see it come back in more resistant ways that can potentially not be tackled by our existing vaccines and medicines," Locke said.

"What we really need to do is make sure that we're slowing the spread of the virus as quickly as possible. And to do that, we need to make sure that the most vulnerable populations and health care workers in all countries are vaccinated. That's just science.”

It's a point that has been consistently reiterated by WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. On Monday, Tedros asked rich countries to check with the WHO to ensure their deals with vaccine manufactures weren't undermining COVAX's efforts. Funding COVAX isn't helpful if the program can't use the money to buy vaccines, he explained.

In addition to urging governments to fully fund the COVAX initiative, the ONE Campaign is appealing to richer countries to give their extra vaccine supplies to lower- and middle-income countries.

"It's not about charity," Locke said. "We're only safe when everyone around the world has been vaccinated. So I think we need to communicate that to citizens, that this is about enlightened self-interest. It's in everybody's interest to end the pandemic as soon as possible.”

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CGinspiration/iStockBy CONOR FINNEGAN, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. and Iran are inching closer toward diplomatic talks over Tehran's nuclear program, even as the Iranian government moved further outside the original nuclear deal on Tuesday by curtailing international inspections of its nuclear sites.

The delicate dance between the two sides, along with the other world powers that remain party to the deal, has entered a new phase in recent days after President Joe Biden offered to join direct talks with the remaining participants last week.

"A lot of diplomatic work is underway in order to arrange the meeting to green light the JCPOA and to put all the participants together," Josep Borrell, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs, said Tuesday, using the acronym for the nuclear deal's formal name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

But on Tuesday, Iran halted certain inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Curbing those inspections in particular sparked condemnation from France, Germany and the United Kingdom, the European countries that remain in the agreement. In a joint statement, their foreign ministers said Iran's "dangerous" decision will "significantly constrain the IAEA's access to sites and to safeguards-relevant information."

Still, while Tehran moved ahead with the restrictions, its foreign minister signaled for the first time that the country is open to talks that include U.S. officials.

"We will not have an official meeting because America is not a member of the JCPOA. We are assessing the idea of an unofficial meeting, in which America is invited to as a non-member," Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tuesday.

Such a meeting could come as soon as next month.

The State Department said Tuesday that Iran still has not formally responded to its offer to join talks. On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the Biden administration "would accept an invitation from" Borrell to meet with Iran and the other remaining signatories -- the Europeans, as well as China and Russia.

Former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear deal in May 2018 and reimposed U.S. sanctions on Iran -- leaving America at odds with its closest European allies. One year later, Iran followed suit, continually taking steps out of the nuclear deal to pressure the Europeans to make up for U.S. sanctions and provide the economic relief guaranteed under the nuclear deal.

Now, the U.S. is back on the same page with the so-called E3, issuing a joint statement last week that they seek a U.S. and Iranian return to the nuclear deal and new negotiations on extending the pact and addressing Iran's ballistic missiles and regional activity -- something Tehran has said it will not agree to.

"We are working hand-in-glove with our European allies, and we believe that gives us a position of strength when it comes to these negotiations and we believe it provides the best path forward," Price said Tuesday.

Iran's new restrictions on inspections are the latest move in its efforts to raise its leverage.

Zarif announced Tuesday that Iran will no longer share surveillance footage of its nuclear facilities with the IAEA. Instead, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said it would retain the footage for three months -- leaving a window to hand it over to the IAEA, but only if there's sanctions relief before then.

IAEA director general Rafael Grossi traveled to Tehran Sunday for last-minute negotiations to stop Iran from implementing the restrictions, which were passed into law by Iran's parliament in December.

Those talks achieved a "temporary, bilateral, technical understanding," Grossi said Tuesday, that allowed "necessary" monitoring and verification activities to continue for now -- even as Iran has now stopped abiding by its "additional protocol" agreement with the agency, including ending snap inspections of nuclear sites.

"It is our conviction that in doing what we did, we can facilitate a smooth return to the previous situation, if that is possible after the consultations that are going to take place -- and most of all, I think, we facilitated an easier atmosphere and time for the indispensable diplomacy that will be deployed in the next few days, I hope, in order to bring back some stability to a situation that needs it very, very badly," Grossi told the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based think tank.

That timeline provides a small "window of opportunity" to put the nuclear deal "back on track," Borrell told the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. Last Thursday, his deputy invited the U.S. to join the next meeting of the joint commission that meets regularly under the deal's terms, which would be the first U.S. attendance since Trump withdrew in May 2018.

But even if U.S. and Iranian officials are in the room together again soon, it is unclear how both sides will return to compliance -- and whether the U.S. and European push for more negotiations can materialize after U.S. sanctions are lifted.

Iran has so far refused Biden's offer, that the U.S. would return to compliance by lifting sanctions only once Iran met its obligations again, like limiting its stockpile of enriched uranium and the number of centrifuges. Biden's offer has also included a good will gesture to lift severe travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats at the United Nations in New York and rescind a Trump posture that U.N. sanctions on Iran had "snapped back" -- a view that nearly no other country accepted.

Iran will only "follow ACTION w/ action," Zarif tweeted Thursday.

One possible avenue for discreet action may be Iran's oil revenues, frozen by U.S. sanctions in overseas banks. South Korea's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that Iran had agreed to a proposal to begin unfreezing those funds, but it required U.S. sign-off first.

Price told ABC News, "There has been no transfer of funds," but the U.S. does "discuss these issues broadly with the South Koreans."

That could spark criticism, especially from Republican lawmakers who oppose the nuclear deal and have cast Biden's call for talks as a concession.

"Sanctions should only be relieved for a commensurate change in behavior or policy by Iran," said Behnam Ben Taleblu, calling the potential move "self-defeating" and the possible "beginning of more indirect sanctions relief to Tehran."

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(NEW YORK) -- See the Martian landscape come to life in the first high-resolution, color image released by NASA from the hazard cameras on the underside of its Perseverance rover.

The rover, dubbed "Percy," arrived at the red planet on Thursday. It teased the image on its Twitter handle shortly after landing, but NASA on Tuesday released the high-resolution version on its website.

The photo details the surface of Mars like never before, showing the extraterrestrial rocks and debris on the planet's Jezero Crater.

This is the first mission where NASA is collecting and storing Martian rock and dust.

The rover's goal is to search for signs of ancient life on Mars and pave the way for eventual human exploration.

On Monday, NASA released new video of the rover's entry, descent and landing on Mars as well as the first audio recordings of sounds from the planet.

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Atlantic-Lens-Photography/iStockBy KATIE KINDELAN, ABC News

(LONDON) -- Prince Philip, who was hospitalized last week, is being treated for an infection, according to Buckingham Palace.

The palace did not provide any further details about the infection or what type of treatment Philip is undergoing, saying only, "He is comfortable and responding to treatment but is not expected to leave hospital for several days."

The Duke of Edinburgh, who will turn 100 in June, was taken by car from Windsor, England, to the King Edward VII Hospital in London on Feb. 17 for what the palace described as a "precautionary measure" after Philip reported feeling unwell.

Philip's illness is not COVID-19-related, a royal source told ABC News.

Philip's oldest son, Prince Charles, visited his father in the hospital on Saturday and stayed for around 30 minutes. Visitors are only allowed at the hospital in “exceptional circumstances” because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the hospital's website.

Charles, who was photographed entering the hospital wearing a face mask, is believed to be the only family member so far to have visited Philip in the hospital.

The duke's youngest child, Prince Edward, told Sky News on Tuesday that he had spoken with his father by phone.

"As far as I'm aware, well, I did speak to him the other day, so he's a lot better thank you very much indeed, and he's looking forward to getting out, which is the most positive thing," Edward said of Philip. "So we keep our fingers crossed."

Philip's grandson, Prince William, also spoke about his condition while visiting a vaccine center in Norfolk, telling longtime royal photographer Arthur Edwards that Philip is "OK," adding, "They're keeping an eye on him."

While Philip is hospitalized in London, Queen Elizabeth remains at Windsor Castle, where she has been staying with her husband for most of the coronavirus pandemic.

The queen and Philip celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary in November.

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BlakeDavidTaylor/iStockBy ALEXANDER MALLIN, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- The wife of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was arrested Monday in Virginia at Dulles International Airport on international drug trafficking charges, with prosecutors accusing her of participating in a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, meth, heroin and marijuana for import into the U.S.

Emma Coronel Aisupuro is also accused of conspiring with others to assist El Chapo in his July 2015 escape from Altiplano prison and prosecutors said she also planned with others to arrange another prison escape for the drug kingpin before his extradition to the U.S. in January of 2017.

She will make her initial appearance Tuesday virtually in Washington, D.C. District Court. Aisupuro, 31, is a dual U.S.-Mexican citizen, of Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico.

Guzman was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in New York in 2019 for his role as a leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.

In addition to the life term, the judge ordered a $12.6 billion forfeiture, which prosecutors said was a conservative estimate of the proceeds of El Chapo’s drug trafficking.

The government presented evidence that Guzman ordered the murder of or, in some instances, personally tortured and murdered 26 individuals and groups of individuals. His army of assassins carried out violence on his orders, prosecutors said.

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