The Biden administration says Russia has added 7,000 more troops to its forces surrounding Ukraine — contradicting Moscow’s claims of a partial withdrawal from Ukraine’s border. The competing claims came as defense ministers from all 30 NATO member nations met in Brussels for a second straight day of talks on tensions over Ukraine. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia is continuing to build up its forces in preparation for a possible invasion. In Moscow, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson shrugged off those claims.
Maria Zakharova: “All those statements by Stoltenberg — who is either the NATO secretary general or a banker, I have not figured it out yet — we are no longer interested in them. He is not a person whose words will be taken seriously in Moscow.”
This month Stoltenberg was named as the incoming governor of Norway’s central bank. Despite the war of words between Moscow and Washington and its NATO allies, Russian officials say they remain open to diplomacy and continue to dismiss claims that an invasion is imminent.
The World Health Organization says the number of confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide fell by 19% last week, as many countries in Europe and the Americas saw a sharp drop from record-high levels of infection. Even so, there were 16 million new cases and about 75,000 deaths reported around the globe last week.
Here in the United States, where more than 3,300 new COVID-19 deaths were reported Wednesday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said her agency is preparing to issue new guidelines that will suggest loosening public health restrictions. Top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said it’s understandable, given growing public fatigue with the pandemic.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: “There’s no perfect solution to this. They’re trying to balance the fact that the world and the United States, and particularly certain parts of the United States, are just up to here with COVID. They just really need to somehow get their life back. You don’t want to be reckless and throw everything aside, but you’ve got to start inching towards that.”
Meanwhile, a new study by the People’s Vaccine Alliance shows European Union nations are set to throw away nearly double the number of vaccine doses the EU has donated to Africa so far this year. That’s about 55 million expired doses, compared to just 30 million doses exported to African nations. Just 11% of the African population has been fully vaccinated.
In Syria, over a dozen hospitals have been forced to shut down or scale back in the war-ravaged northwestern Idlib province due to lack of funding. At some hospitals, health workers are having to work without pay in order to keep services running. More than two-thirds of people living in Idlib are displaced, and nearly the entire population of the region lives in extreme poverty and relies on food assistance, according to the United Nations.
Meanwhile, fighting continues in the protracted Syrian war. On Wednesday, Israel fired missiles south of the capital Damascus, according to Syrian state media, the second Israeli strike this month.
The U.N. is warning around two-thirds of aid programs in Yemen had to be slashed or closed last month and that continued lack of funding could mean 8 million Yemenis will lose all humanitarian assistance by next month. Meanwhile, new fronts have opened in the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed war that has led to the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Over 650 civilians were killed in January alone, the highest recorded death toll in at least three years.
In Colombia, a new United Nations report finds some 74,000 people were forcibly displaced in 2021, with direct attacks against civilians rising by over one-third to more than 2,400. Some 8 million people in total have been displaced in Colombia after six decades of conflict and instability. Last month, Íngrid Betancourt, who was kidnapped and held captive by FARC rebels for six years in 2002, announced her bid to become Colombia’s next president.
In Mexico, journalists disrupted a session of Congress to denounce the assassinations of five reporters since the start of the year and to call for an end to impunity for killers. Protesters also held a minute of silence in honor of their slain colleagues. This is journalist José Reveles.
José Reveles: “The only way for these crimes not to be repeated is exemplary punishment for the culprits, be it hitmen, intellectuals, politicians in office or businessmen. Let them know that killing a journalist has a cost.”
The family of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against actor and producer Alec Baldwin and others for the fatal shooting of Hutchins on the set of the film “Rust” last October. The lawsuit also names the film’s other producers, citing “reckless behavior and cost-cutting,” which led to Baldwin firing a live round during rehearsals, resulting in Hutchins’s death.
Eight Republican senators have written a letter to the Justice Department registering their “strong opposition” to a federal do-not-fly list for unruly passengers convicted of disrupting U.S. flights. The senators argue passengers who resist mask requirements aboard flights should not be compared to terrorists. This follows over 4,000 incidents in 2021 in which passengers became hostile or violent aboard flights when ordered to comply with a federal mask mandate. Just last week, a passenger aboard a Delta flight tried to open an emergency door at high altitude, endangering the lives of everybody aboard. The passenger later told the FBI he was trying to get other passengers to film him sharing anti-vaccine views.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said, “We’ve been punched, kicked, spit on, and sexually assaulted. This puts everyone at risk and disrupts the safety of flight, which is never acceptable and every single one of the Senators who signed this letter knows full well what is at stake if we leave a gap in aviation safety and security.”
In St. Paul, Minnesota, the federal civil rights trial of three former police officers involved in George Floyd’s murder continues. On Wednesday, J. Alexander Kueng said he was following senior officer Derek Chauvin’s lead when Kueng helped restrain Floyd. Kueng also testified he never received training on how to intervene if a fellow officer used excessive force, and that he didn’t know if Chauvin was violating policy when he pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes, slowly killing him. Ex-cop Tou Thao presented a similar defense. During a tense exchange, Thao told the prosecutor, “I think I would trust a 19-year veteran to figure it out,” when asked why he did not intervene to stop Chauvin.
In Louisiana, a Black man who spent 44 years behind bars was released from Angola state prison this week after a judge ruled he never got a fair trial. Vincent Simmons was convicted by a nearly all-white jury in 1977 of attempted aggravated rape and sentenced to 100 years. But key pieces of evidence were withheld from his lawyers at the time. Over the years Simmons had tried to get a new trial more than a dozen times. While he was not acquitted of the charges, the district attorney has declined to retry Simmons. Vincent Simmons turned 70 years old today.