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Neo-Nazi leader among 2 arrested in plot targeting Baltimore’s power grid, feds say

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The FBI captured two people, one a nationally known neo-Nazi leader, before they could launch an attack on Baltimore’s power grid, officials said Monday.

The suspects, Brandon Russell and Sarah Clendaniel, were taken into custody last week, one in Maryland and the other in Florida, officials said.

Federal authorities described the alleged plot as “racially motivated.”

Russell is a founder of the Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi group bent on “ushering in the collapse of civilization,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group admires Charles Manson and supports “the idea of lone wolf violence,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Sarah Clendaniel
Sarah Clendaniel is a suspect in an alleged plot to attack Baltimore’s power grid.NBC News

The suspects “conspired and took steps to shoot multiple electrical substations in the Baltimore area, aiming to quote, ‘completely destroy this whole city,’ ” Erek L. Barron, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland, told reporters.

Thomas J. Sobocinski, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Baltimore office, said the suspects were serious in their efforts aimed at paralyzing the city of 580,000. More than 61% of Baltimore residents are Black.

“The accused were not just talking, but taking steps to fulfill their threats and further their extremist goals. Russell provided instructions and location information. He described attacking the power transformers as the greatest thing somebody can do,” Sobocinski said.

“Their actions threatened the electricity and heat of our homes, hospitals and businesses.”

Attacks on the nation’s power grid came into focus in December, following two high-profile incidents.

There were shootings at two electrical substations in central North Carolina in early December, officials said. At the peak of Duke Energy outages, more than 45,000 homes and businesses were in the dark.

That incident was followed by attacks at four electricity substations on Christmas weekend near Tacoma, Washington, as about 14,000 homes and businesses were forced to do without power, officials said.

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

Koch group to back GOP presidential candidate who will ‘write new chapter for the country’

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The conservative donor network founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch says it is wading into the 2024 Republican presidential primary in an effort “to turn the page” and “write a new chapter for our country.”

In a memo released Sunday, Americans for Prosperity said it will endorse more candidates in light of the GOP’s disappointing performance in the 2022 midterm elections.

“The Republican Party is nominating bad candidates who are advocating for things that go against core American principles. And the American people are rejecting them,” the group’s CEO, Emily Seidel, wrote.

Seidel said Americans for Prosperity looks to support a candidate in the 2024 GOP presidential primary “who can lead our country forward, and who can win.”

“So the best thing for the country would be to have a president in 2025 who represents a new chapter,” Seidel wrote. “The American people have shown that they’re ready to move on, and so AFP will help them do that.” 

AFP’s memo does not directly mention former President Donald Trump, but comes months after the disappointing performances of Trump-endorsed candidates in the 2022 midterm elections cost the GOP seats in key swing-state races. 

The AFP’s decision to get involved in the GOP primary marks a significant shift in strategy after it sat out the two most recent White House nomination battles.

Trump and the AFP have butted heads in recent years after Charles Koch refused to spend the network’s money to influence the 2016 presidential election in favor of Trump.

After Trump entered office, top leaders of AFP in 2018 vented about their frustrations with the direction of the Republican Party during Trump’s presidency as they attempted to rebrand the organization by vowing to be less partisan and work with elected officials across the political spectrum to advance their policy priorities.

In a series of tweets in 2018, Trump fired back at the Koch-backed group for saying it would distance itself from the then-president and other top Republicans who don’t support their agenda. “The globalist Koch Brothers, who have become a total joke in real Republican circles, are against Strong Borders and Powerful Trade. I never sought their support because I don’t need their money or bad ideas,” Trump tweeted.

Tensions between Trump and AFP were prevalent throughout the 2022 midterm election cycle as well, with Trump and AFP’s respective candidates duking it out in the Nebraska governor’s race and Michigan and South Carolina congressional races.

The influential Club for Growth, which previously aligned itself with Trump, and other major donors also have distanced themselves from the former president. The group clashed with Trump in the 2022 midterms by backing different candidates in the Ohio and Pennsylvania Senate primaries. In an interview with Axios last moth, Club for Growth president David McIntosh said that “it’s time for a new standard bearer that believes and will fight for free-market principles” and that the group is “just focused on different things” compared to Trump.

Chuck Todd, Mark Murray , Ben Kamisar, Bridget Bowman and Alexandra Marquez contributed.

Buffalo, New York, area is hit with the strongest earthquake in 40 years

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A 3.8-magnitude earthquake struck Monday morning near Buffalo, New York, the strongest recorded in the area in 40 years.

The stateside tremor hit 1.24 miles east-northeast of West Seneca, New York, with a depth of 1.86 miles around 6:15 a.m., according to the United States Geological Survey.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said no damage reports have been received so far in West Seneca, a suburb of Buffalo that sits near the U.S.-Canada border.

He added he spoke with the Erie County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services’ Deputy Commissioner Gregory J. Butcher, who said a “confirmed quake was felt as far north as Niagara Falls and south to Orchard Park.”

“It felt like a car hit my house in Buffalo. I jumped out of bed,” Poloncarz said

Yaareb Altaweel, a seismologist at the National Earthquake Information Center, said Northeast earthquakes “happen all the time” and quakes can strike anywhere at any time. 

Since 1983, there have been 24 earthquakes above a magnitude of 2.5 in the West Seneca region, with Monday’s being largest so far in the area.

Altaweel said there was another 3.8-magnitude quake that took place in 1999 in western New York.

On a scale of earthquakes, 3.8 isn’t that big. But the crust in that region is old crust. It’s old and cold and the efficiency of transferring the seismic waves versus sedimentary areas — that’s why people can feel it more. That’s why earthquakes can be felt even at 1.0 in some places,” Altaweel explained.

Altaweel said that a 3.8-magnitude quake is “not a big earthquake that you’d expect damage from.”

Pre-existing fractures and pre-existing fault lines can be the cause of earthquakes hitting so far inland, he said.

Altaweel said there’s nothing abnormal about this shock. 

“I’d say it’s very normal. There was one, a 2.6 in March 2022. There was another 2 in 2020. These keep happening in this region at low magnitude,” he explained.

Across the globe, two quakes shook southeastern Turkey and northern Syria, leaving devastation in its wake. An initial 7.8-magnitude earthquake in southeastern Turkey was followed hours later by a 7.5-magnitude quake that shook buildings and left more than 1,400 dead in the already war-torn region.

National Enquirer sold to group that includes indicted ex-MoviePass chairman

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The National Enquirer, the tabloid at the center of many controversies involving former President Donald Trump, will be sold to a joint venture involving Theodore Farnsworth, the former MoviePass chairman who has been criminally charged with securities fraud.

The Enquirer’s parent company, a360 Media, agreed to sell the publication — along with other tabloid brands the National Examiner, the Globe and the National Enquirer UK — to VVIP Ventures, a joint venture made up of Vinco Ventures and Icon Publishing, the companies said Monday.

The deal’s price wasn’t disclosed, but Farnsworth, the founder of Icon Publishing, told The New York Times that it was a little under $100 million. The National Enquirer has been on the block for about four years.

In November, prosecutors alleged Farnsworth and Mitchell Lowe, the former MoviePass CEO, misled investors about the once-hot movie ticketing startup by saying its “unlimited” plan would be sustainable and profitable. Rather, authorities said, the two men knew it was merely a marketing tactic. A spokesman for Farnsworth has said his lawyers would fight the charges until he’s vindicated.

The news of the deal comes a week after former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker and his attorney were seen entering a Manhattan courthouse where a grand jury was meeting to determine whether to charge Trump over an alleged scheme to pay hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election.

Pecker was known to be friends with Trump. He has been accused of pulling “catch and kill” tactics on stories that were seen as potentially embarrassing to Trump. Meaning, the Enquirer under his watch would allegedly pay for stories about Trump and never publish them.

In 2018, for instance, federal prosecutors gave immunity to the National Enquirer’s parent company over the $150,000 hush-money payment the tabloid gave Karen McDougal, the Playboy model who claims she had an affair with Trump.

Live updates: 7.8-magnitude earthquake hits Turkey, Syria

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TV reporter runs as second quake hits live on air

Video has been shared on Turkish TV showing a news team reporting on the huge early morning earthquake being forced to flee as a second temblor strikes.

At at 1:25 p.m. (5:25 a.m. ET) the reporter is shown standing in a built-up street in the eastern city of Malatya, which was already covered in debris and dust, as a small crowd of people surveys the damage.

Soon sirens begin to sound, shouts are heard and then a crashing roar reverberates as the crowd and reporting team run for safety. A cloud of dust rises around them.

It’s unclear whether the apparent building collapse was caused by the second earthquake reported Monday at around the same time. The broadcaster, A Haber, said damaged buildings fell down as an aftershock hit.

Massive new quake rocks Turkey and Syria as death toll rises to more than 1,300

A massive new earthquake hit southern Turkey on Monday, hours after a 7.8-magnitude quake killed more than 1,300 people in the country and neighboring Syria, with scores more trapped in the rubble.

Residents joined rescuers to search for survivors in freezing conditions, with the death toll expected to increase as the level of destruction became clear from the initial powerful pre-dawn temblor.

A 7.5-magnitude temblor then hit about 100 miles north of Gaziantep at a depth of 6 miles or so at 1:24 p.m. local time (5:24 a.m. ET), according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Read the full story here.

Photos: Rush to rescue survivors after buildings collapse in Syrian city of Aleppo

Locals watch as rescue teams search for survivors beneath the rubble of a collapsed building after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck in the regime-controlled northern Syrian city of Aleppo early on Monday.

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Turkey and Syria early on February 6, killing hundreds of people as they slept, levelling buildings and sending tremors that were felt as far away as the island of Cyprus, Egypt and Iraq.
AFP – Getty Images
AFP – Getty Images

World leaders offer condolences and support after quake

Prime ministers and presidents across the world have been quick to offer support and solidarity to Turkey and Syria as both nations reel from Monday’s earthquake. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 45 countries had offered to help with search and rescue operations.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet he was “anguished” by the loss of life and immediately offered assistance.

Similar offers of condolence and assistance were made by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

Support was also offered to Turkey and Syria by Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a message on the Kremlin’s website.

Photos: Children treated for injuries in rebel-held Syria

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Turkey and Syria on February 6, killing hundreds of people as they slept, levelling buildings, and sending tremors that were felt as far away as the island of Cyprus and Egypt.
Omar Haj Kadour / AFP – Getty Images

Children injured in a morning earthquake receive treatment at al-Rahma hospital in the Syrian town of Darkush on the outskirts of the rebel-held province of Idlib on Monday.

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Turkey and Syria on February 6, killing hundreds of people as they slept, levelling buildings, and sending tremors that were felt as far away as the island of Cyprus and Egypt.
Omar Haj Kadour / AFP – Getty Images

New massive quake hits Turkey and Syria

A second massive 7.6-magnitude earthquake has hit southeastern Turkey, the country’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority said.

Quake kills 912 and injures more than 5,000 in Turkey, Erdogan says

At least 912 people were killed and 5,383 injured in Turkey in Monday’s magnitude-7.8 earthquake, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

Erdogan said it was the country’s largest disaster since 1939, adding that 2,818 buildings had collapsed in the earthquake and aftershocks. 

“Nine thousand personnel are currently carrying out search and rescue operations, and this number is constantly increasing with those who reach the region from outside,” he added. “We do not know how far the number of dead and injured will rise, as debris removal works continue in many buildings in the earthquake zone.”

The number of people rescued was 2,818, he added, speaking on state television.

Photos: Desperate efforts to find survivors in southern Turkey

Diyarbakir earthquake Turkey
Ilyas Akengin / AFP – Getty Images

Local men help rescue workers as they try to move a large piece of debris after a building collapsed in Diyarbakir, Turkey, on Monday, trapping residents underneath the rubble. A man weeps during the search for survivors in Diyarbakir after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck.

Image: TURKEY-QUAKE
Ilyas Akengin / AFP – Getty Images

WHO concerned about some areas of Turkey after earthquake — official

GENEVA — The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday it was concerned about areas in Turkey from which there had been no news following a deadly earthquake overnight.

“National authorities will be focussing on search and rescue at the moment,” a WHO spokesperson told Reuters in a statement. “Then we will expect an increased need for trauma care to treat the injured and to support the entire health system in affected areas.”

Historic castle dating back to the Roman empire partially destroyed

Gaziantep castle or Kalesi in Gaziantep, Turkey
The castle at Gaziantep before it suffered major damage in Monday’s earthquake.Dimitar Chobanov / Alamy Stock Photo

An imposing castle in the city of Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey, which sits on a site that can be traced back to the ancient Hittite empire, has been left in ruins by Monday’s devastating earthquake.

The castle was developed and expanded by the Romans in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. The Byzantine empire in the 6th century added the 12 towers surrounding the inner keep.

Historical Gaziantep Castle damaged in the 7.4 earthquake in Turkiye
Damage to Gaziantep Castle after Monday’s earthquake.Mehmet Akif Parlak / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A popular tourist spot, the remarkably well-preserved castle also housed the Gaziantep Defense and Heroism Panoramic Museum, which told the story of the site’s central role in the Turkish war of independence following the World War I.

The most recently renovation began in 2020, when a series of ancient underground tunnels was discovered.

NATO allies ‘mobilizing support now,’ secretary general says

Photos: Historic Gaziantep Castle badly damaged in quake

The historic Gaziantep Castle appears badly damaged after a huge earthquake struck the southern Turkish province of Gaziantep.

Historical Gaziantep Castle damaged in the 7.4 earthquake in Turkiye
Mehmet Akif Parlak / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A similar view shows the castle in November 2021.

Gaziantep castle or Kalesi in Gaziantep, Turkey
Dimitar Chobanov / Alamy Stock Photo

Turkey’s Iskenderun port damaged from quake

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s maritime authority said on Monday that the Iskenderun port located in the southern Turkish province of Hatay is damaged due to the major earthquake.

Following its damage inspections, the authority said on Twitter that operations continue in ports besides Iskenderun. 

Photos: Syrian first responders rush to help in northern Idlib

At least 50 have been reportedly killed in north Syria after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that originated in Turkey and was felt across neighbouring countries.
Aaref Watad / AFP – Getty Images

Victims are rushed to the emergency ward of the Bab al-Hawa hospital in the rebel-held northern countryside of Syria’s Idlib province on the border with Turkey. Members of the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, transport an injured person pulled from the rubble in Shalakh village in Idlib’s early on Monday.

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Turkey and Syria on February 6, killing hundreds of people as they slept, levelling buildings, and sending tremors that were felt as far away as the island of Cyprus and Egypt.
Muhammad Haj Kadour / AFP – Getty Images

France’s Emmanuel Macron offers help to quake-struck region

“Terrible images come to us from Turkey and Syria after an earthquake of unprecedented force,” France’s president wrote on Twitter. “France stands ready to provide emergency aid to the populations on the spot. Our thoughts are with the bereaved families.” 

Photo: Dramatic rescue of infant in Syria’s Idlib province

A member of the Syrian Civil Defence, a volunteer force also known as the White Helmets, carries a child rescued from the rubble in the town of Zardana in the northwestern Idlib province early on Monday.

- A 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Turkey and Syria on February 6, killing hundreds of people as they slept, levelling buildings, and sending tremors that were felt as far away as the island of Cyprus and Egypt.
Abdulaziz Ketaz / AFP – Getty Images

Death toll rises to more than 660

At least 668 people have been killed in the quake, according to the latest figures.

At a news conference, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay confirmed at least 284 had been killed in the country.

At least 237 more were killed in government-controlled areas of Syria, according to the country’s health ministry. At least 147 people were killed in rebel-held areas, according to the White Helmets.

That takes the combined death toll across the two borders to at least 668, with fears it may still rise substantially with scores injured and rescue workers and residents sifting through the rubble.

Map shows where the earthquake hit

A 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook central Turkey early Monday and was followed by a strong aftershock.
AP

Hundreds dead after massive earthquake rocks Turkey and Syria

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A 7.8-magnitude earthquake left more than 600 people dead and many trapped as it toppled buildings in southern Turkey and northern Syria on Monday.

Read the full story here.

Rescue teams try to reach trapped residents in Adana, Turkey

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Rescue teams try to reach trapped residents inside collapsed buildings in Adana, southern Turkey, after a powerful earthquake knocked down multiple buildings.AP

Is a Florida pastor accused of fraud feigning illness to avoid prison?

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The mystery over the health of a Florida pastor accused in a Covid relief scam has deepened after a court-ordered psychiatrist prepared a report that suggested he might be faking some of his symptoms. 

The pastor, Evan Edwards, has been hospitalized since December when he and his son were arrested on charges of fraudulently obtaining $8 million in pandemic loans for a sham ministry. 

A judge ordered a psychiatrist to examine Edwards, 64, after he refused to participate in his first court appearance and mumbled incoherently in a subsequent one. But the psychiatrist, Dr. Ryan Hall, wasn’t able to shed much light on the pastor’s health.

Edwards was “unable or unwilling” to engage with the psychiatrist, Magistrate Judge Leslie Hoffman Price said at a Jan. 26 court hearing, according to a transcript obtained by NBC News. 

Hall ultimately determined that Edwards was unfit to stand trial. But the judge said there were questions over whether the accused fraudster was feigning illness.

“I know there’s a suggestion of potential malingering on some aspects, but there’s medical issues that are completely verifiable,” Price said.

The judge offered no further details because the specifics of Edwards’ health issues, as well as Hall’s report, are still under seal. Hall reached his conclusion that Edwards was not competent after spending only 15 minutes with him.

Hall was “unable to determine if it’s a medical issue or if it’s a mental issue or some combination of the same,” Price said.

Edwards’ court-appointed lawyer, Brian Phillips, told the judge he thought the report was inconsistent and raised more questions than answers. He said he believed the issue should be resolved in a competency hearing.

“I can’t take Dr. Hall’s report at face value,” Phillips added.

The judge then raised the issue of how to proceed with a detention hearing with Edwards’ mental fitness in question. She asked Phillips if he was able to communicate with his client.

“In only the most limited fashion, your honor,” Phillips replied.

He said Edwards has only communicated in “monosyllabic responses or gestures to simple binary questions.”

“I’m able to discern from that that he would prefer to not be handcuffed, ankle and wrist, to the hospital bed that he’s been in since December,” Phillips said. “That much, I’m certain of.”

A competency hearing is expected to take place later this month.

Phillips did not return a request for comment.

Edwards was in a wheelchair when federal agents arrested him and his son, Josh, 30, at their home in New Smyrna Beach, where his wife and daughter also lived. They each face up to 30 years in prison if convicted on the top count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud.

At the initial court appearance, a lawyer for Josh Edwards told the judge he was having trouble communicating with his client, prompting the judge to ask a series of basic questions including “Are you in pain?”

Josh Edwards didn’t say a word, and the judge ordered a psychiatric exam.

But then a prosecutor chimed in, noting that the agents who arrested him earlier in the day said he was “speaking and responding to them just fine.”

If the Edwardses were faking an illness or exaggerating symptoms, it wouldn’t be the first time accused criminals did so to avoid prison.

In perhaps the most famous case, mobster Vincent “The Chin” Gigante delayed his racketeering trial for years by acting strange — a move that garnered him a second nickname, “Oddfather.”

Reputed crime boss Vincent "The Chin" Gigante is escorted to a waiting car on his way to attend court in his federal racketeering trial in New York in 1997.
Reputed crime boss Vincent “The Chin” Gigante is escorted to a waiting car on his way to court during his federal racketeering trial in New York in 1997.Jon Levy / AFP via Getty Images

The arrest of Edwards and his son came more than two years after federal agents showed up at the home to execute a search. 

Later that day in September 2020, Florida police officers pulled over the family’s Mercedes SUV as it was heading north on a highway in central Florida, about 150 miles from the family’s home, according to a police report. 

Evan Edwards, seated in the front passenger seat, had a laser printer on his lap. In a rear passenger seat, next to his wife and daughter, were two clear garbage bags full of shredded documents, according to the civil forfeiture complaint. 

The family’s personal electronic devices were stuffed into a Faraday bag, which blocks radio frequencies to keep the devices from being tracked.

There were also suitcases full of financial records, two other Faraday bags with laptops and tablets inside, a document shredder and multiple backpacks containing external hard drives and USB drives, the complaint says. 

The Edwardses were taken into custody but released the next day.

Pastor Evan Edwards and his daughter, Joy, pray for people at a drive-thru event in an undated video.
Pastor Evan Edwards and his daughter, Joy, pray for people at a drive-thru event in an undated video.The Roys Report

The case centers on a $6 million Paycheck Protection Program loan application filed by Josh Edwards to cover payroll, rent and utilities for his family’s religious organization, ASLAN International Ministry. 

The documents said that ASLAN had 486 employees and a monthly payroll of $2.7 million. ASLAN International was ultimately approved for an $8.4 million loan.

But federal investigators later found that its offices had been abandoned, its website donation links inactivated and its payroll expenses and revenues “significantly lower or entirely nonexistent,” according to a civil forfeiture complaint. 

The family had tried to use the money to buy a $3.7 million, 4,700-square-foot home in a new Disney World development called Golden Oaks, according to prosecutors. 

But the deal never went through. The authorities seized the $868,000 that had been set aside for the down payment.

In court late last month, a prosecutor said the government believes Edwards poses a serious flight risk and would oppose his release to home confinement.

“This is a difficult situation and set of facts, but there is a history of flight, and the family was involved in that — the same family that would be caring for him,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kara Wick told the judge, according to the transcript.

The U.S. Marshals Service has been working with Orange County officials to find a local correctional facility that can accommodate Edwards given his complex medical issues.

He was cleared for discharge from the hospital in December, but all of the detention centers in the area have refused to house him, prosecutors said in a Feb. 3 court filing.

According to a health official with the Orange County jail, Edwards requires “total daily care,” consisting of “intervention at least every hour or two hours; and assistance with daily living tasks, including a feeding tube,” the filing says.

While a facility in South Carolina has agreed to take Edwards through a special program, his lawyer said he believes the better option is for him to go home to be cared for by his family.

“According to Defendant’s family, the family has been trained to care for him at home as a result of his medical conditions which came to light last summer,” Phillips wrote in the filing.

The response from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida was unambiguous.

“The government’s position is that release to the defendant’s family is inappropriate,” prosecutors wrote.

Iran’s supreme leader pardons ‘tens of thousands’ of prisoners, state media reports

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Iran’s supreme leader on Sunday reportedly ordered an amnesty or reduction in prison sentences for “tens of thousands” of people detained amid nationwide anti-government protests shaking the country, acknowledging for the first time the scale of the crackdown.

The decree by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, part of a yearly pardoning the supreme leader does before the anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, comes as authorities have yet to say how many people they detained in the demonstrations. State media offered a list of caveats over the order as well that means those with ties abroad or facing internationally criticized spying charges wouldn’t be eligible.

State media reports about the decree offered no explanation for the decision by Khamenei, who has final say on all matters of state in Iran. However, prisons and detention facilities already had faced overcrowding in the country after years of protests over economic issues and other matters.

Authorities also did not name any of those who had been pardoned or seen shorter sentences. Instead, state television for instance referred to the demonstrations as being a “foreign-backed riot,” rather than homegrown anger over the September death of Masha Amini, an Iranian-Kurdish woman detained by the country’s morality police. Anger also has been spreading over the collapse of the Iranian rial against the U.S. dollar, as well as Tehran arming Russia with bomb-carrying drones in its war on Ukraine.

More than 19,600 people have been arrested during the protests, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that’s been tracking the crackdown. At least 527 people have been killed as authorities violently suppressed demonstrations, the group said. Iran hasn’t offered a death toll for months. It already has executed at least four people detained amid the protests after internationally criticized trials.

All this comes as Iran’s nuclear deal has collapsed and Tehran has enough highly enriched uranium to potentially build “several” atomic bombs if it chooses, the United Nations’ top nuclear envoy has said. A shadow war between Iran and Israel has risen out of the chaos, with Tehran blaming Israel for a drone attack on a military workshop in Isfahan last week as well.

Meanwhile, a long-detained opposition leader in Iran is calling for a nationwide referendum about whether to write a new constitution for the Islamic Republic.

Mir Hossein Mousavi’s call, posted late Saturday by the opposition Kaleme website, included him saying he didn’t believe Iran’s current system giving final say to a supreme leader worked any longer. He also called for the formation of a constitutional assembly of “real representatives” to write a new constitution.

It remains unlikely Iran’s theocracy will heed the 80-year-old politician’s call. He and his wife have been under house arrest for years after his disputed presidential election loss in 2009 led to the widespread Green Movement protests that security forces also put down. However, he himself had supported and served in Iran’s theocracy for decades.

In 2019, Mousavi compared Khamenei to the former Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose rule saw troops gun down demonstrators in an event that led to the Islamic Revolution.

Downed spy balloon raises diplomatic tensions between U.S. and China

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The Chinese spy balloon might be down, but the diplomatic temperature continued to rise Sunday as officials in Beijing blasted the U.S. decision to shoot it out of the sky. 

Describing it as “a clear overreaction,” Tan Kefei, a spokesperson for China’s Defense Ministry, said in a statement Sunday that his country reserved “the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations.” In a similarly strongly worded statement, China’s Foreign Ministry said it was “a serious violation of international customary practice.” 

Both statements described the balloon as a “civilian unmanned airship,” and China had previously said the orb was used for research and “meteorological purposes.”

An American F-22 Raptor shot down what the Defense Department called a “high-altitude surveillance balloon,” with a single missile off South Carolina on Saturday afternoon. The U.S. military will now focus on salvaging parts of the craft from a debris field that spans about 7 nautical miles. 

First spotted over Montana, which is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, the site of one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields, the massive white orb, which is about the size of three school buses, headed southeastward over Kansas and Missouri at around 60,000 to 65,000 feet. 

Shortly after the strike, President Joe Biden told reporters that he made the order to shoot it down after he was briefed about it Wednesday but that the Pentagon “decided that the best time to do that was when it got over water.” 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bali, Indonesia, on July 9, 2022.
Senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi and U.S.Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Bali, Indonesia, in July.Stefani Reynolds / Pool via AFP – Getty Images file

While he described the Chinese suggestions of further action as “ominous,” David Sacks, a research fellow in U.S-China diplomacy at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said he doubted it had done much to alter relations between the two countries.

“They will issue a statement with a little bluster in it, but I don’t think that China is going to try to respond in any way,” he said, adding that escalating the issue would be of little benefit to China.

Beijing would not have wanted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone his visit to China, which had been scheduled to start Monday, Sacks said. 

Blinken said Friday he told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over the U.S. was “an irresponsible act” that was “detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.” His visit to China would have been the first by a U.S. secretary of state since 2018. 

Some on Chinese social media mocked the U.S. decision to shoot down the balloon, and others expressed anger. Some of the more hawkish news outlets criticized the move, and the state-run Global Times newspaper called it “an obvious overreaction.” 

Several commentators also questioned the decision, while Jin Canrong, a specialist in Sino-U.S. relations at Beijing’s Renmin University of China, questioned the decision to postpone Blinken’s visit.   

In a post on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo, he said there had been opposition to the trip inside the U.S., particularly from Republican lawmakers.   

“It should be said that Blinken’s visit to China itself is not a bad thing, but the atmosphere is not good,” he said, adding that the U.S. always liked to “create a little bargaining chip for themselves” before high-level meetings “to force the Chinese side to give in.”     

“This does not work. The Chinese side has long stopped buying this,” he added.

Rescheduling the trip could prove problematic for the Biden administration “until China provides a more convincing and fulsome explanation regarding these latest espionage allegations,” Craig Singleton, a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said Saturday before the balloon was shot down.  

“Expectations were generally low that Blinken’s trip would result in any diplomatic deliverables, and at this point, a meaningful reset between the two superpowers appears all but off the table,” he said.

Explosion possible in wake of Ohio train derailment involving hazardous materials

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As federal investigators worked to find out why a 150-car train derailed in northeastern Ohio, the state’s governor warned late Sunday that unstable temperatures in a car transporting chemicals could lead to an explosion.

The area most at risk of being affected by the Friday crash, that within a 1-mile radius of the crash in the village of East Palestine, was evacuated by early Saturday and remained off-limits, officials said.

But Gov. Mike DeWine’s office said an estimated 500 residents remained behind in the 1-mile zone. It said they were subject to an “urgent warning” to evacuate.

“Within the last two hours, a drastic temperature change has taken place in a rail car, and there is now the potential of a catastrophic tanker failure which could cause an explosion with the potential of deadly shrapnel traveling up to a mile,” the governor’s office said in a statement.

The governor’s office said residents with children who stay could be arrested. It cited a threat made by the Columbiana County Sheriff’s Office.

At 8 p.m., the governor ordered Ohio National Guard troops to East Palestine to help local authorities, his office said.

The crash site produced multiple small explosions or outbursts of combustion after multiple cars believed to be transporting hazardous materials erupted in the derailment, reported at 8:55 p.m. Friday, and continued to burn Sunday morning.

The wreckage included roughly 50 cars off-track, officials said. National Transportation Safety Board member Michael Graham identified at least 10 of them Sunday as “hazmat cars,” or those carrying hazardous materials or chemicals. Five of those were said to be carrying a chemical of concern, vinyl chloride.

A train aficionado whose backyard faces the east-west railway used by Norfolk Southern said the area of the derailment is a straight section.

Federal investigators have focused in part on the role of a possible mechanical malfunction, officials said Sunday.

The train’s crew said an alarm indicating such a malfunction sounded just before the accident, Graham said at a news conference.

In addition, two videos of the train obtained by NTSB investigators show one of the rail cars may have had a broken or malfunctioning axle, Graham said Sunday.

The crew — an engineer, a conductor and a conductor trainee — were able to help bring the train to a stop Friday night and then disconnect its three engines from its cars, many of them burning, officials said. No injuries were initially reported.

Vinyl chloride, which is highly flammable, is linked to increased risk of cancer, and it can be unhealthful at the level of emitting a scent humans can smell.

The chemical, which is used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes, vehicle upholstery and picnic utensils, has been linked to increased risk of liver, brain and lung cancer, as well as some cancers of the blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Environmental Protection Agency personnel have been in East Palestine since Friday night and were monitoring air and water, two EPA officials said at Sunday’s news conference.

In a statement Saturday, the village of East Palestine said “zero health risks” had been discovered so far.

“The village’s drinking water is safe to drink and is being continually monitored,” it said.

The NTSB was leading the investigation.

Colorado State apologizes for students’ pro-Russia chant directed at Ukrainian basketball player

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Colorado State University is apologizing after some of its student spectators directed a pro-Russia chant at a Ukrainian player on the opposing basketball team Saturday night.

Officials tweeted they learned after the game “that a small group of individuals in our student section chanted ‘Russia’ at a student-athlete from Utah State, who is from Ukraine.”

“On behalf of Colorado State, we apologize to the student-athlete and Utah State,” the school said in a follow-up tweet.

“Every participant, student, and fan should feel welcomed in our venues, and for something like this to have occurred is unacceptable at Colorado State,” the tweet thread concluded.

The university didn’t name the student who was targeted. NBC affiliate KSL of Salt Lake City reported that Utah State junior guard Max Shulga was the target of the chant, which occurred while he was attempting free throws near the end of the game.

Shulga was born in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, and attended high school in Spain, according to his official biography.

KSL reported last year that Shulga’s family still lives in Kiev and that he draped a Ukrainian flag over himself at the start of the first game after Russia invaded Ukraine. Utah State students also held up yellow and blue papers resembling the Ukrainian flag at that game to show their support for Shulga.

The yearlong war has led to the deaths of thousands of civilians and soldiers, as well as Russian troops’ committing sexual violence and torture against women and children in Ukraine, along with other war crimes, according to a United Nations investigation.

Utah State Athletics condemned the incident in a statement on Sunday, calling it “inappropriate and unacceptable,” and it said both the athletics department and the university support Shulga and his family in Ukraine.

“We appreciate the Colorado State administration and basketball staff for not condoning such behavior,” the statement concluded.

In a statement to NBC News, Colorado State’s assistant vice president of communications, Greg Harrison, said that the university directs its apology to Shulga and the Utah State basketball team and its fans and that the CSU students or employees who participated in the chant could be subject to disciplinary action.

“If a student or employee was involved [in the chant] and can be identified, they would be subject to a review under the student code of conduct,” Harrison said. “Based on the findings of a code of conduct review, a student or employee can be prohibited from entering future athletic events, among other actions.”

Utah State won the game 88-79.