SpaceX launches 4 amateurs on private Earth-circling trip

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — SpaceX’s first private flight streaked into orbit Wednesday night with two contest winners, a health care worker and their rich sponsor, the most ambitious leap yet in space tourism.

It was the first time a spacecraft circled Earth with an all-amateur crew and no professional astronauts.

“Punch it, SpaceX!” the flight's billionaire leader, Jared Isaacman, urged moments before liftoff.

The Dragon capsule’s two men and two women are looking to spend three days going round and round the planet from an unusually high orbit — 100 miles (160 kilometers) higher than the International Space Station — before splashing down off the Florida coast this weekend.

It’s SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s first entry in the competition for space tourism dollars.


Biles: FBI turned 'blind eye' to reports of gymnasts' abuse

WASHINGTON (AP) — Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles told Congress in forceful testimony Wednesday that federal law enforcement and gymnastics officials turned a “blind eye” to USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of her and hundreds of other women.

Biles told the Senate Judiciary Committee that “enough is enough” as she and three other U.S. gymnasts spoke in stark emotional terms about the lasting toll Nassar’s crimes have taken on their lives. In response, FBI Director Christopher Wray said he was “deeply and profoundly sorry” for delays in Nassar’s prosecution and the pain it caused.

The four-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time world champion — widely considered to be the greatest gymnast of all time — said she “can imagine no place that I would be less comfortable right now than sitting here in front of you." She declared herself a survivor of sexual abuse.

“I blame Larry Nassar and I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse,” Biles said through tears. In addition to failures of the FBI, she said USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee “knew that I was abused by their official team doctor long before I was ever made aware of their knowledge.”

Biles said a message needs to be sent: "If you allow a predator to harm children, the consequences will be swift and severe. Enough is enough.”


France says head of Islamic State in Sahara has been killed

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — France's president announced the death of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara's leader late Wednesday, calling Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi's killing “a major success” for the French military after more than eight years fighting extremists in the Sahel.

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that al-Sahrawi “was neutralized by French forces” but gave no further details. It was not announced where al-Sahrawi was killed, though the Islamic State group is active along the border between Mali and Niger.

“The nation is thinking tonight of all its heroes who died for France in the Sahel in the Serval and Barkhane operations, of the bereaved families, of all of its wounded," Macron tweeted. “Their sacrifice is not in vain.”

Rumors of the militant leader's death had circulated for weeks in Mali, though authorities in the region had not confirmed it. It was not immediately possible to independently verify the claim or to know how the remains had been identified.

“This is a decisive blow against this terrorist group,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly tweeted. “Our fight continues.”


Democrats could change 'weaponized' California recall system

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Hours after California Gov. Gavin Newsom beat back a recall election that could have cost him his job, his fellow Democrats in the state Legislature said Wednesday that they will push for changes to make it more difficult to challenge a sitting governor.

That could include increasing the number of signatures needed to force a recall election, raising the standard to require wrongdoing on the part of the officeholder and changing the process that could permit someone with a small percentage of votes to replace the state's top elected official.

“I think the recall process has been weaponized,” Newsom said a day after his decisive victory.

He said the recall rules affect not just governors but school boards, city councils, county supervisors and district attorneys, notably in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where progressive prosecutors with reform agendas are facing recall efforts.

The governor noted that California has one of the nation's lowest thresholds for the number of signatures needed to trigger a recall election. In Newsom's case, organizers had to collect nearly 1.5 million signatures out of California's 22 million registered voters in their bid to oust him, or 12% of the electorate who voted him into office in 2018. By contrast, Kansas requires 40%.


Afghan killed by drone praised by co-workers in US aid group

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan man who was killed in a U.S. drone strike last month was an enthusiastic and beloved longtime employee at an American humanitarian organization, his colleagues say, painting a stark contrast to the Pentagon’s claims that he was an Islamic State group militant about to carry out an attack on American troops.

Signs have been mounting that the U.S. military may have targeted the wrong man in the Aug. 29 strike in Kabul, with devastating consequences, killing seven children and two other adults from his family. The Pentagon says it is further investigating the strike, but it has no way to do so on the ground in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, severely limiting its ability to gather evidence.

Accounts from the family, documents from colleagues seen by The Associated Press, and the scene at the family home — where Zemerai Ahmadi’s car was struck by a Hellfire missile just as he pulled into the driveway — all seem to sharply contradict the accounts by the U.S. military. Instead, they paint the picture of a family that had worked for Americans and were trying to gain visas to the United States, fearing for their lives under the Taliban.

At the home, the mangled, incinerated Toyota Corolla remains in the driveway. But there are no signs of large secondary blasts the Pentagon said were caused by explosives hidden in the car trunk. In the tightly cramped, walled compound, the house is undamaged except for broken glass, even a badly built wooden balcony remains in place. A brick wall immediately adjacent to the car stands intact. Trees and foliage close to the car are not burned or torn.

The family wants the United States to hear their side of the story and see the facts on the ground.


Biden announces Indo-Pacific alliance with UK, Australia

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that the United States is forming a new Indo-Pacific security alliance with Britain and Australia that will allow for greater sharing of defense capabilities — including helping equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. It's a move that could deepen a growing chasm in U.S.-China relations.

Biden made the announcement alongside British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who joined him by video to unveil the new alliance, which will be called AUKUS (pronounced AWK-us). The three announced they would quickly turn their attention to developing nuclear-powered submarines for Australia.

"We all recognize the imperative of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term," said Biden, who said the new alliance reflects a broader trend of key European partners playing a role in the Indo-Pacific. “We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it may evolve.”

None of the leaders mentioned China in their remarks. But the new security alliance is likely to be seen as a provocative move by Beijing, which has repeatedly lashed out at Biden as he’s sought to refocus U.S. foreign policy on the Pacific in the early going of his presidency.

Before the announcement, a senior administration official sought to play down the idea that the alliance was meant to serve as a deterrent against China in the region. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the announcement, said the alliance’s creation was not aimed at any one country, and is about a larger effort to sustain engagement and deterrence in the Indo-Pacific by the three nations.


FDA strikes cautious tone ahead of vaccine booster meeting

WASHINGTON (AP) — Influential government advisers will debate Friday if there's enough proof that a booster dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective — the first step toward deciding which Americans need one and when.

The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday posted much of the evidence its advisory panel will consider. The agency struck a decidedly neutral tone on the rationale for boosters — an unusual and careful approach that's all the more striking after President Joe Biden and his top health advisers trumpeted a booster campaign they hoped to begin next week.

Pfizer’s argument: While protection against severe disease is holding strong in the U.S., immunity against milder infection wanes somewhere around six to eight months after the second dose. The company gave an extra dose to 306 people at that point and recorded levels of virus-fighting antibodies threefold higher than after the earlier shots.

More important, Pfizer said, those antibodies appear strong enough to handle the extra-contagious delta variant that is surging around the country.

To bolster its case, Pfizer pointed the FDA to data from Israel, which began offering boosters over the summer.


As COVID-19 vaccine mandates rise, religious exemptions grow

An estimated 2,600 Los Angeles Police Department employees are citing religious objections to try to get out of the required COVID-19 vaccination. In Washington state, thousands of state workers are seeking similar exemptions.

And in Arkansas, a hospital has been swamped with so many such requests from employees that it is apparently calling their bluff.

Religious objections, once used sparingly around the country to get exempted from various required vaccines, are becoming a much more widely used loophole against the COVID-19 shot.

And it is only likely to grow following President Joe Biden's sweeping new vaccine mandates covering more than 100 million Americans, including executive branch employees and workers at businesses with more than 100 people on the payroll.

The administration acknowledges that a small minority of Americans will use — and some may seek to exploit — religious exemptions. But it said it believes even marginal improvements in vaccination rates will save lives.


Southwest China earthquake collapses homes, kills at least 2

BEIJING (AP) — An earthquake collapsed homes, killed at least two people and injured dozens Thursday in southwest China's Sichuan province, state media reported.

Rescue work was underway following the magnitude-6.0 earthquake.

It struck at 4:33 a.m. in Luxian county at a depth of 10 kilometers (6 miles), the official Xinhua News Agency said. State broadcaster CCTV said that 60 people were injured, three seriously, and 35 houses had collapsed.

The epicenter was about 200 kilometers (120 miles) southeast of Chengdu, the provincial capital.

Western China is regularly hit by earthquakes. A magnitude-7.9 quake in May 2008 left nearly 90,000 people dead in Sichuan, many of them in collapsed schools and other poorly constructed buildings.


Milley defends calls to Chinese as effort to avoid conflict

WASHINGTON (AP) — The top U.S. military officer on Wednesday defended the phone calls he made to his Chinese counterpart in the turbulent final months of Donald Trump's presidency, saying the conversations were intended to convey “reassurance” to the Chinese military and were in line with his responsibilities as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Some in Congress accused Gen. Mark Milley of having overstepped his authority and urged President Joe Biden to fire him, but Biden indicated Wednesday he stands behind Milley.

“I have great confidence in Gen. Milley,” Biden said when asked by a reporter whether Milley had done the right thing.

In a written statement, Milley's spokesman, Col. Dave Butler, said Milley acted within his authority as the most senior uniformed adviser to the president and to the secretary of defense.

“His calls with the Chinese and others in October and January were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability,” Butler said. “All calls from the chairman to his counterparts, including those reported, are staffed, coordinated and communicated with the Department of Defense and the interagency.”

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