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Thai court rules PM can stay, did not exceed term limit

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled Friday that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha can remain in his job and did not violate a constitutional provision limiting him to eight years in office.

Opposition lawmakers had petitioned the court to decide on their contention that Prayuth, who took power as army commander in a 2014 coup, had violated the eight-year limit for prime ministers that was included for the first time in Thailand’s 2017 Constitution.

Prayuth officially became prime minister in a military government in August 2014, and was named prime minister again after a 2019 election. Using 2014 as a starting date, he would have reached his legal limit last month.

He and his supporters argued that the countdown for the term limit should begin when the current constitution came into effect in April 2017, which would allow him to serve until 2025 if he is returned to office after the next general election.

The nine-member court ruled in a 6-3 vote that because the constitution came into effect after Prayuth had already taken power, the term limit did not apply to the time he had previously served, since the constitution did not specify it could be applied retroactively.

The court’s decision had been widely expected, since it has generally ruled in the government’s favor in a series of political cases. The judiciary, especially the Constitutional Court, and the military are strong defenders of the country’s conservative establishment, whose most important pillar they consider to be the monarchy,

Prayuth will still face a political reckoning early next year when Parliament’s four-year term expires and a new election must be called. His popularity ratings are low, with critics saying he has mishandled the economy and botched Thailand’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand that Prayuth and his Cabinet resign, while also calling for the constitution to be amended and the monarchy to be reformed. Several confrontations between the student-driven protest movement and authorities turned violent. Activists threatened new protests if the court favored Prayuth, raising fears of more unrest.

The protest movement was weakened by COVID-19 restrictions and repression from the government, and only about 30 people answered a call to demonstrate Friday in central Bangkok, shouting insults as they listed to the court’s verdict over a loudspeaker.

Chai-amorn Kaewwiboonpan, a musician and veteran activist also known as Ammy, said the ruling was no surprise.

“I think tomorrow the people will come out on the streets, and hopefully we will have a lot of people,” he said.

A leading anti-government protest group, Ratsadon, called Prayuth an “illicit prime minister” and asked people to dress in black from Oct. 1 to Oct. 7 to express mourning for Thailand’s political future.

Prayuth paid his respects to the court on his Facebook page and thanked those Thais who he said had given him good wishes and encouragement since the court took up the case.

“It was the opportunity for me to realize that I must spend the government’s limited remaining time to follow up and push several important projects that I have initiated, and complete them for the country’s progress and our children’s future,” he said, highlighting infrastructure development.

Last month, the Constitutional Court temporarily suspended Prayuth from carrying out the prime minister’s duties pending its ruling. The senior deputy prime minister in his Cabinet, Prawit Wongsuwan, became acting prime minister while Prayuth retained his concurrent position of defense minister.

Had Prayuth been forced out Friday, power would have been ceded to a caretaker government with limited executive powers, assembled from the current Cabinet, that would have sat until Parliament elected a new prime minister.

The eight-year term limit was meant to target former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist billionaire who was ousted by a 2006 military coup but whose political machine remains powerful. The army in 2014 also ousted the government of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who was forced from office shortly before the takeover by a controversial court decision.

Thailand’s traditional conservative ruling class, including the military, felt that Thaksin’s popularity posed a threat to the country’s monarchy as well as their own influence. The courts have been stalwart defenders of the established order and ruled consistently against Thaksin and other challengers.

China dismisses complaints over quarantining U.S. diplomats
Author: Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) — China on Friday dismissed complaints from two U.S. congressmembers over the quarantining of American diplomats and their family members under the country’s strict COVID-19 regulations.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said China “adopts a science-based and effective epidemic prevention protocol for both Chinese and foreigners coming to China without discrimination.”

The policy, Mao said, is “open and transparent.” Regardless of their status, all U.S. visitors accepted China’s epidemic policies, including post-entry medical observation and health monitoring, Mao told reporters at a daily briefing.

“Such statements by individual U.S. lawmakers are really absurd and completely groundless,” Mao said, adding that the congressmen appeared to be showing signs of “China phobia.”

Republicans James Comer of Kentucky and Michael T. McCaul of Texas wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday asking for clarification on the quarantining of U.S. diplomats and family members by the People’s Republic of China.

“U.S. Embassy officials in Beijing recently confirmed that 16 U.S. diplomats and their family members — throughout the pandemic — have been involuntarily held in quarantine camps and subjected to strict confinement measures with no definitive release date,” their letter stated.

“Committee Republicans are concerned that U.S diplomats could be or have been pressured to surrender intelligence while detained in PRC quarantine camps,” it said. “The PRC poses a geopolitical threat to the United States and should not be coercing U.S. diplomats into and surveilling them under draconian quarantine policies.”

The U.S. Embassy had no immediate comment on the letter on Friday.

The letter followed an article in the Washington Post newspaper in July which cited the embassy saying 16 U.S. diplomatic personnel or their family members had “been sent, against their will, to Chinese government medical quarantine centers since the pandemic began.”

It said the State Department concluded that was a “clear violation” of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and that U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns has since secured a promise that U.S. diplomats and their family members would be allowed to quarantine in their homes or at the embassy rather at government-run isolation centers notorious for poor hygiene, overcrowding and a lack of privacy.

Mao said she was not aware to the situation of the 16 Americans mentioned or how the number had been arrived at.

“It is even more nonsense to say that China obtained intelligence from the U.S. through quarantine,” she said.

Supreme Court keeping live audio as it opens again to public
Author: JESSICA GRESKO, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court says it will continue providing live audio broadcasts of arguments in cases, even as it welcomes the public back to its courtroom for a new term that begins Monday.

The justices began providing live audio of arguments after the court closed to the public in March of 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Monday will be the first time in more than two and a half years that the justices will hear arguments with members of the public present.

Chief Justice John Roberts had said earlier this month that the public would be allowed back in October, following the court’s summer break. But the court had not announced specifics or said what would happen to the audio feed of arguments the court has been providing through its website. Before the pandemic, audio of arguments was generally available only several days after they took place.

On Wednesday the high court announced that the building would still remain closed to visitors “until further notice” outside oral arguments, which are scheduled on four days in October. Members of the public who attend on those days will not be required to wear masks.

The court at first postponed arguments entirely in 2020 because of virus concerns but went on to hear them by phone for more than a year and a half. The justices returned to in-person sessions without the public in the fall of last year and heard their entire last term without being open to the public. That included big cases in which they ultimately expanded gun rights and stripped away women’s constitutional protections for abortion. Aside from arguing lawyers, only the justices’ law clerks, court staff and journalists who cover the court were allowed to be at argument sessions, and for a time there were mask and testing requirements.

On the first day of the new term Monday the court will hear cases involving the nation’s main anti-water pollution law, the Clean Water Act, and a dispute between states over unclaimed money. Big cases already on the docket this term include one challenging the role of race in college admissions and another that could further weaken the Voting Rights Act.

The court looks different from the last time the public was allowed to see the justices on the bench, with two new justices. Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the court following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020. And Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court’s first Black female justice, joined the court following the retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer in June.

The changes mean that for the first time a majority of the justices are not white men, and for the first time four women are sitting together on the court. The justices will hold an invitation-only ceremonial investiture for Jackson in their courtroom on Friday.

Newsom signs bill protecting transgender youths and families fleeing red-state policies
Author: Mackenzie Mays, Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Again heralding California as a refuge from discriminatory policies in conservative states, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law on Thursday that aims to protect transgender youths and their families from bans against gender-affirming care.

Senate Bill 107 by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) provides for a range of safeguards meant to block out-of-state attempts to penalize families that come to California seeking medical treatment for transgender children and teens or move to the state to avoid consequences for already seeking that treatment elsewhere.

In a signing message, Newsom said that state laws attempting to ban medical care for transgender people younger than 18 “demonize” the community and are an act of hate.

“In California we believe in equality and acceptance. We believe that no one should be prosecuted or persecuted for getting the care they need — including gender-affirming care,” Newsom said. “Parents know what’s best for their kids, and they should be able to make decisions around the health of their children without fear. We must take a stand for parental choice.”

The new law prohibits California courts and attorneys from enforcing subpoenas requested by other states about gender-affirming care for minors, and healthcare providers from releasing medical information.

The bill also declares that any potential out-of-state arrest warrant for violating laws related to such care will be given “the lowest law enforcement priority.”

“While attacks on the transgender community are not new, we are experiencing alarmingly blatant attempts to use legislation, policy and political rhetoric to restrict or eliminate the autonomy, freedom and existence of transgender people across the country,” the advocacy group Equality California said in a statement of support for the bill.

The California bill comes after more than 20 Republican-led states have introduced legislation to outlaw gender-affirming medical care for young people, and to penalize parents and healthcare providers who allow it.

The actual enactment of policies to limit that care has largely been stalled as states face legal challenges at the federal level. In August, a federal appeals court in Arkansas ruled that the state can’t enforce its ban on transgender children receiving gender-affirming medical care.

But Wiener said California cannot bank on such blockages continuing.

“We don’t know what’s going to play out in appeal or if states will find other kinds of laws they can get through to courts,” Wiener said in an interview before the bill’s passage. “It would be absolutely negligence for us to say we’re not going to do anything until one of these laws gets upheld and someone gets put in prison.”

Whether SB 107 itself will be upheld in court is also in question because of federal requirements that states must recognize out-of-state laws when residents travel.

Last-minute amendments to the bill include a severability clause because “it is unclear whether this bill will run afoul of the Constitution,” according to a legislative analysis of the measure. Severability allows parts of a law to remain in effect even if other provisions are struck down.

Wiener acknowledged that uncertainty, and said that the bill was crafted carefully to avoid violations of the U.S. Constitution, but said that California should not act as “an arm of law enforcement of the states of Texas or Alabama.”

“We may have limits under the U.S. Constitution, but we are going to go right up to the edge of what we’re able to do to protect them and say, ‘Unless we are absolutely forced to send you back, we are not going to send you back,’” he said of potential families of transgender youth who may come to California.

California has also labeled itself a “sanctuary state” for those seeking abortions, which several states have banned following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the historic 1973 ruling that granted a legal right to the procedure.

As with California’s attempt to support out-of-state residents seeking abortions, the impact of SB 107 is hard to estimate because many people in other states don’t have the option or financial wherewithal to abruptly move to California.

“We can’t solve everything in one bill. We’re making sure that people who are being criminalized have a place to go,” Wiener said. “This bill is about giving people refuge.”

Gender-affirming care includes a range of “social, psychological, behavioral and medical interventions designed to support and affirm an individual’s gender identity,” according to the World Health Organization.

That can include hormones and puberty blockers, depending on a child’s age. The World Professional Assn. for Transgender Health recommends some surgeries for patients starting at 15 years old, according to new guidelines released in June.

Conservative groups opposed the bill. The California Family Council, which routinely opposes LGBTQ rights legislation, said that SB 107 encourages “medical child abuse.”

Sen. Brian Dahle (R-Bieber), who is running against Newsom for governor, said children “really don’t know what their identify is,” and said the legislation would insert the state into family custody battles.

“If one parent is for it and the other is against it, the state now will be in the middle of that decision,” Dahle said on the Senate floor before voting against the measure. “This bill is basically putting the state in your home.”

The bill’s supporters included Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California and Equality California.

UN body faults ‘piecemeal’ work to end racial discrimination
Author: Associated Press

GENEVA (AP) — Recent initiatives in places like the Americas and Europe to end discrimination against people of African descent are mostly “piecemeal” and more efforts are needed to dismantle entrenched racism, the U.N. human rights office said Friday as it released a new report.

The report, prepared in August and published Friday, detailed government efforts to end racism.

It focused on seven cases of police-related deaths of people of African descent, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the United States; Adama Traore in France; Luana Barbosa dos Reis Santos and Joao Pedro Matos Pinto in Brazil; Kevin Clarke in Britain; and Janner García Palomino in Colombia.

The rights office decried continued patterns of discrimination, illegal deportations and excessive use of force against African migrants and migrants of African descent. It also said Blacks around the world were disproportionately impacted by the death penalty.

Acting U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al-Nashif said countries must show more political will to fight such racial discrimination.

“There have been some initiatives in different countries to address racism, but for the most part they are piecemeal,” al-Nashif said in a statement.

“They fall short of the comprehensive evidence-based approaches needed to dismantle the entrenched structural, institutional and societal racism that has existed for centuries, and continues to inflict deep harm today,” she said.

She called on countries to “redouble efforts to ensure accountability and redress wherever deaths of Africans and people of African descent have occurred in the context of law enforcement, and take measures to confront legacies that perpetuate and sustain systemic racism.”

Al-Nashif is expected to present the report to the Human Rights Council, the U.N.’s main human rights body, on Monday.

Palestinians mourn boy who died ‘of fear’ of Israeli troops
Author: Associated Press

TEQUA, West Bank (AP) — A throng of men clutching the body of a 7-year-old Palestinian boy marched through a town in the occupied West Bank toward the child’s final resting place on Friday, a day after his parents say he died from fear of Israeli soldiers.

Rayan Suleiman, with bright eyes and a backpack emblazoned with an animated race car, was walking home from school on Thursday when his family says he and his brothers were chased by Israeli soldiers. After the boys bolted home, the troops banged furiously on the door and threatened to arrest the children, their parents say. Just moments later, Rayan, the youngest of the three brothers, was dead.

The story shot across the occupied West Bank, providing an emotive focus for fury over Israel’s military tactics and what Palestinians contend is their victimization by the Israeli occupation.

The State Department demanded an investigation. The European Union said it was “shocked” by Rayan’s “tragic death.”

Photographs of Rayan’s tiny, lifeless body under a sheet in the hospital became a potent new symbol overnight, threatening to fuel already heightened tensions just a day after the deadliest Israeli raid since the military escalated its crackdown on the West Bank earlier this year.

Like many such incidents in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rayan’s death has sparked contention. The Israeli military has denied any violence in the interaction with Rayan’s family, saying that just one officer came to the family’s house after spotting children throwing stones.

Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a military spokesman, said the officer spoke in a “very calm manner” with Rayan’s father and left.

“There was no violence, no entry into the house,” Hecht said.

Yasser Suleiman, Rayan’s father, told The Associated Press on Friday that Rayan collapsed after he saw the Israeli soldiers who chased him appear at his front door. Suleiman said he was trying to reason with the soldiers, who accused his children of throwing rocks. The soldiers threatened to return at night and arrest all three children, including Rayan’s older brothers, ages 8 and 10, Suleiman said. Amid the chaos, Rayan fell on the floor, unconscious.

Doctors at a hospital in Beit Jala, a Palestinian town south of Jerusalem, could not resuscitate him. A pediatric specialist, Dr. Mohamed Ismail, said Rayan was healthy and had no previous medical conditions.

“The most probable scenario of what happened is that under stress, he had excess adrenaline secretion, which caused the increase of his heart beat,” Ismail said. “He developed cardiac arrest.”

A forensic doctor is currently conducting an autopsy on Rayan.

In the meantime on Friday, a crowd of mourners thronged his body outside his stone house in Tequa, a Palestinian town that borders an Israeli settlement with some 4,000 residents.

“God is great!” they shouted, some jogging to stay ahead of his small body on the wooden pallet. “Oh Rayan, light of the eye!”

With 2 MAX models at risk, Congress moves to give Boeing a break
Author: Dominic Gates, The Seattle Times

The Federal Aviation Administration sent a high-level letter to Boeing this month warning that the documents the manufacturer has provided for certification of the 737 MAX 7 model are wholly inadequate — making it unlikely that MAX 7 certification will be completed by a year-end deadline.

Political action has begun in Congress, however, to provide Boeing the time and leeway it needs to complete the safety assessment documentation.

A Republican senator on Thursday filed an amendment to a pending bill that would grant Boeing the extension it will need to get both the Renton-built MAX 7 and MAX 10 certified without any further design changes.

The MAX 7 is the smallest model in Boeing’s new 737 MAX family of jets. The FAA warned Boeing in March that the largest model, the MAX 10, is also unlikely to meet the deadline.

FAA’s scathing letter to Boeing

The deadline looming over Boeing is embedded in the Aircraft Certification, Safety and Accountability Act passed by Congress in December 2020 after two deadly MAX crashes. In light of the failures in the original certification of the MAX, the law was designed to reform the FAA oversight process.

It also laid out more stringent design standards for future airplanes — but allowed a two-year time frame for compliance, with the expectation that Boeing would have achieved certification of all the MAX planes by then.

The law requires any airplane certified after Dec. 31 of this year to comply with the latest FAA safety regulation mandating what kind of alerts pilots receive when something goes wrong in flight. The 737 jet family is the only Boeing jet that doesn’t meet that latest safety standard.

Pressed by European and Canadian aviation regulators, Boeing agreed to two system enhancements that will be introduced on the MAX 10 that significantly improve the crew alerting system. However, the model still doesn’t meet the latest FAA standard.

Two prior models, the MAX 8 and MAX 9, have already been certified and are in service flying passengers. But the MAX 7 and MAX 10 are not yet certified and, the FAA indicates, now have little chance of meeting the year-end deadline.

The Sept. 19 letter was sent by Lirio Liu, executive director of aviation safety at the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service, to Mike Fleming, the Boeing senior vice president in charge of the 737 MAX return to service.

A series of FAA letters critical of Boeing’s progress on providing safety documentation were sent between lower-level officials. This one was top level.

Liu began by reminding Fleming that the FAA had told Boeing it was to have turned in all remaining System Safety Assessment, or SSA, documentation for the MAX 7 by mid-September to meet the target deadline of certification in December.

“As of September 15, just under 10 percent of the SSAs have been accepted by the FAA and another 70 percent of these documents are in various stages of review and revision,” Liu then wrote. “Most concerning, however, is that Boeing has yet to provide an initial submittal for six of the outstanding SSAs.”

“Many of these documents will take significant time to review due to their complexity and bearing on the overall safety of the new aircraft,” Liu concluded. “I look forward to continuing our discussions about realistic time frames for receiving the remaining documents.”

Sen. Wicker’s amendment

If Boeing misses the deadline without a congressional extension it would have to redesign and upgrade the MAX’s crew alerting system.

Boeing has lobbied Congress, arguing that maintaining commonality between the MAX crew alerting systems and those on the prior 737 NG models would be safer than upgrading the MAX systems.

It contends that pilots at airlines flying both the older and newer 737 models, including Alaska Airlines and Southwest, could move from one plane to the other without any confusion about different cockpit systems.

“A common, consistent operational experience across the 737 MAX family … ultimately benefits flight crews by enhancing safety and reducing risk,” Boeing said in an April statement.

Some in Congress are now moving to grant Boeing what it wants.

According to two people closely familiar with the details, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, this week sent a letter to the FAA asking the agency for an estimate of how much extra time Boeing would need if it fails to meet the deadline.

And on Thursday, one of those people and a third person familiar with the details said Wicker filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would give Boeing the extension it needs.

All three sources requested anonymity because they were not officially authorized to speak about the details of Wicker’s letter and his amendment.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chair of the Armed Services Committee, had requested all amendments to that bill be filed by Thursday.

Wicker’s amendment is understood to be a placeholder. It stipulates a new date of Sept. 30, 2024, before compliance with the crew alerting standard would become a requirement.

That date could be modified later in the legislative process when the House weighs in.

Will Congress give Boeing what it wants?

It’s unclear which way Congress might swing if and when an extension for Boeing comes to a vote.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chair of the commerce committee, has said she is open to whatever course of action the FAA deems safest: either to demand the redesign of the MAX cockpit systems or to maintain commonality with the 737 NG.

In the U.S. House, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, came out firmly against granting Boeing an extension.

The families of the 346 victims of the two 737 MAX crashes, in which the cacophony of crew alerts played a significant role, are also staunchly opposed to giving Boeing more time and want those systems upgraded.

And in March, two technical experts and whistleblowers — ex-FAA safety engineer Joe Jacobsen and ex-Boeing flight control engineer Curtis Ewbank — presented a detailed proposal to Cantwell’s Senate committee on how the 737 MAX cockpit could be upgraded to current design standards while limiting the extra costs.

Stakes are high for Boeing and for its Renton workforce that builds the MAX.

On Thursday, Boeing announced another substantial order for the MAX 10 after WestJet of Canada ordered 42, worth about $2.3 billion, according to an estimate by aircraft valuation firm Avitas.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun even said in July that rather than upgrade the systems, he might cancel the MAX 10 if an extension isn’t granted.

Now that threat would also have to include the MAX 7.

Hurricane Ian heads for Carolinas after pounding Florida
Author: MEG KINNARD and ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON, Associated Press

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — A revived Hurricane Ian set its sights on South Carolina’s coast Friday and the historic city of Charleston, with forecasters predicting a storm surge and floods after the megastorm caused catastrophic damage in Florida and left people trapped in their homes.

With all of South Carolina’s coast under a hurricane warning, a steady stream of vehicles left Charleston on Thursday, many likely heeding officials’ warnings to seek higher ground. Storefronts were sandbagged to ward off high water levels in an area prone to inundation.

On Friday morning in Charleston, powerful wind gusts bent tree branches and sent sprays of steadily falling rain sideways. Streets in the 350-year-old city were largely empty, an ordinarily packed morning commute silenced by the advancing storm.

With winds holding at 85 mph (140 kph), the National Hurricane Center’s update at 8 a.m. Friday placed Ian about 105 miles (175 km) southeast of Charleston and forecast a “life-threatening storm surge” and hurricane conditions along the Carolina coastal area later Friday.

The hurricane warning stretched from the Savannah River to Cape Fear, with flooding likely across the Carolinas and southwestern Virginia, the center said. The forecast predicted a storm surge of up to 7 feet (2.1 meters) into coastal areas of the Carolinas, and rainfall of up to 8 inches (20 centimeters).

In Florida, rescue crews piloted boats and waded through riverine streets Thursday to save thousands of Floridians trapped amid flooded homes and buildings shattered by Hurricane Ian.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at least 700 rescues, mostly by air, were conducted on Thursday involving the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Guard and urban search-and-rescue teams.

Ian had come ashore Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast as a monstrous Category 4 hurricane, one of the strongest storms ever to hit the U.S. It flooded homes on both the state’s coasts, cut off the only road access to a barrier island, destroyed a historic waterfront pier and knocked out electricity to 2.6 million Florida homes and businesses — nearly a quarter of utility customers. Some 2.1 million of those customers remained in the dark days afterward.

Climate change added at least 10% more rain to Hurricane Ian, according to a study prepared immediately after the storm, said its co-author, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab climate scientist Michael Wehner.

At least six people were confirmed dead in Florida, including two who died Thursday afternoon when their car hydroplaned and overturned in a water-filled ditch in north Florida’s Putnam County, while three other people were reported killed in Cuba after the hurricane struck there on Tuesday.

In the Fort Myers area, the hurricane ripped homes from their slabs and deposited them among shredded wreckage. Businesses near the beach were completely razed, leaving twisted debris. Broken docks floated at odd angles beside damaged boats. Fires smoldered on lots where houses once stood.

“I don’t know how anyone could have survived in there,” William Goodison said amid the wreckage of a mobile home park in Fort Myers Beach where he’d lived for 11 years. Goodison said he was alive only because he rode out the storm at his son’s house inland.

The hurricane tore through the park of about 60 homes, leaving many destroyed or mangled beyond repair, including Goodison’s single-wide home. Wading through waist-deep water, Goodison and his son wheeled two trash cans containing what little he could salvage — a portable air conditioner, some tools and a baseball bat.

The road into Fort Myers was littered with broken trees, boat trailers and other debris. Cars were left abandoned in the road, having stalled when the storm surge flooded their engines.

Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno said his office was scrambling to respond to thousands of 911 calls in the Fort Myers area, but many roads and bridges were impassable.

Emergency crews sawed through toppled trees to reach stranded people. Many in the hardest-hit areas were unable to call for help because of electrical and cellular outages.

A chunk of the Sanibel Causeway fell into the sea, cutting off access to the barrier island where 6,300 people live.

Hours after weakening to a tropical storm while crossing the Florida peninsula, Ian regained hurricane strength Thursday evening over the Atlantic. The National Hurricane Center predicted it would hit South Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane Friday.

National Guard troops were being positioned in South Carolina to help with the aftermath, including any water rescues. And in Washington, President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for the state, a needed step to speed federal assist for recovery once Ian passes.

The storm was on track to later hit North Carolina, forecasters said. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper urged residents to prepare for torrents of rain, high winds and potential power outages.

Visiting the state’s emergency operations center Thursday, Cooper said that up to 7 inches (17.8 centimeters) of rain could fall in some areas, with the potential for mountain landslides and tornadoes statewide.

Putin illegally annexes Ukraine regions; Kyiv seeks NATO entry
Author: JON GAMBRELL and HANNA ARHIROVA, Associated Press

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin signed treaties Friday to illegally annex more occupied Ukrainian territory in a sharp escalation of his seven-month invasion. Ukraine’s president immediately countered with a surprise application to join the NATO military alliance.

Putin’s land-grab and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s signing of what he said is an “accelerated” NATO membership application sent the two leaders speeding even faster on a collision course that is cranking up fears of a full-blown conflict between Russia and the West.

Putin vowed to protect newly annexed regions of Ukraine by “all available means,” a nuclear-backed threat at a Kremlin signing ceremony where he also railed furiously at the West, accusing the United States and its allies of seeking Russia’s destruction.

Zelenskyy then held a signing ceremony of his own in Kyiv, releasing video of him putting pen to papers that he said were a formal NATO membership request. He called the move “our decisive step.”

Putin has repeatedly made clear that any prospect of Ukraine joining the world’s largest military alliance is one of his red lines and it was among the justifications he has cited for his invasion — the biggest land war in Europe since World War II..

In his speech, Putin urged Ukraine to sit down for peace talks but immediately insisted he won’t discuss handing back occupied regions. Zelenskyy said there’d be no negotiations with Putin.

“We are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but … with another president of Russia,” he said.

In his signing ceremony in the Kremlin’s ornate St. George’s Hall, Putin accused the West of fueling the hostilities as part of what he said is a plan to turn Russia into a “colony” and a “crowds of slaves.” The hardening of his position, in the conflict that that has killed and wounded tens of thousands of people, further cranked up tensions, already at levels unseen since the Cold War.

The U.S. announced sanctions for more than 1,000 people and firms connected to Russia’s invasion, including its Central Bank governor.

Of Putin’s annexation of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, President Joe Biden said: “Make no mistake: These actions have no legitimacy.”

The European Union rejected and condemned “the illegal annexation.” Its 27 member states said they will never recognize the illegal referendums that Russia organized “as a pretext for this further violation of Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Zelenskyy vowed to keep fighting, defying Putin’s warnings that Ukraine shouldn’t try to take back what it has lost.

“The entire territory of our country will be liberated from this enemy,” the Ukrainian leader said. “Russia already knows this. It feels our power.”

The immediate ramifications of the “accelerated” NATO application weren’t immediately clear, since it requires the unanimous support of all members. The supply of Western weapons to Ukraine has, however, put it closer to the alliance’s orbit.

“De facto, we have already proven compatibility with alliance standards,” Zelenskyy said. “We trust each other, we help each other, and we protect each other. This is the alliance.”

Putin’s Kremlin ceremony came three days after the completion in occupied regions of Moscow-orchestrated “referendums” on joining Russia that were dismissed by Kyiv and the West as a bare-faced land grab held at gunpoint and based on lies.

In his fiery speech at the ceremony, he insisted that Ukraine must treat the Kremlin-managed votes “with respect.”

After the signing ceremony of treaties to join Russia, Moscow-installed leaders of the occupied regions gathered around Putin and they all linked hands, joining chants of “Russia! Russia!” with the audience.

Putin, however, cut an angry figure as he accused the United States and its allies of seeking to destroy Russia. He said the West acted “as a parasite” and used its financial and technological strength “to rob the entire world.”

He portrayed Russia as being on a historical mission to reclaim its post-Soviet great power status and counter Western domination that he said is collapsing.

“History has called us to a battlefield to fight for our people, for the grand historic Russia, for future generations,” he said.

The separatist Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine have been backed by Moscow since declaring independence in 2014, weeks after the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The southern Kherson region and part of neighboring Zaporizhzhia were captured by Russia soon after Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Both houses of the Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament will meet next week to rubber-stamp the treaties for the regions to join Russia, sending them to Putin for his approval.

Putin and his lieutenants have bluntly warned Ukraine against pressing an offensive to reclaim the regions, saying Russia would view it as an act of aggression – threats that Moscow can back up with the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear warheads.

The illegal annexation was an attempt by Putin to avoid more defeats on the battlefields that could threaten his 22-year rule. By formalizing Russia’s gains, at least on paper, Putin seemingly hopes to scare Ukraine and its Western backers with the prospect of an increasingly escalatory conflict unless they back down — which they show no signs of doing.

Russia controls most of the Luhansk and Kherson regions, about 60% of the Donetsk region and a large chunk of the Zaporizhzhia region where it took control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

But the Kremlin is on the verge of another stinging battlefield loss, with reports of the imminent Ukrainian encirclement of the eastern city of Lyman. Retaking it could open the path for Ukraine to push deep into Luhansk, one of the regions Russia is absorbing.

“It looks quite pathetic. Ukrainians are doing something, taking steps in the real material world, while the Kremlin is building some kind of a virtual reality, incapable of responding in the real world,” former Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst Abbas Gallyamov said.

“People understand that the politics is now on the battlefield,” he added. “What’s important is who advances and who retreats. In that sense, the Kremlin cannot offer anything сomforting to the Russians.”

Russia pounded Ukrainian cities with missiles, rockets and suicide drones, with one strike reported to have killed 25 people and wounded 50, the general prosecutor’s office. The salvos together amounted to Moscow’s heaviest barrage in weeks.

The strike left deep craters and sent shrapnel tearing through the humanitarian convoy, killing their passengers. Nearby buildings were demolished. Trash bags, blankets and, for one victim, a blood-soaked towel, covered the bodies.

Analysts have warned that Putin was likely to dip more heavily into his dwindling stocks of precision weapons and step up attacks as part of a strategy to escalate the war and shatter Western support.

A Ukrainian counteroffensive has deprived Moscow of mastery on the battlefield. Its hold of the Luhansk region appears increasingly shaky, as Ukrainian forces make inroads there, with the pincer assault on Lyman. Ukraine also still has a large foothold in the neighboring Donetsk region.

In the Zaporizhzhia region’s capital, anti-aircraft missiles that Russia has repurposed as ground-attack weapons rained down on people waiting in cars to cross into Russian-occupied territory so they could bring family members back across front lines, said Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office.

Russian-installed officials in Zaporizhzhia blamed Ukrainian forces, but gave no evidence.

Russian strikes were also reported in the city of Dnipro. Regional Gov. Valentyn Reznichenko said at least one person was killed and five were wounded.

Ukraine’s air force said the southern cities of Mykolaiv and Odesa were targeted with Iranian-supplied suicide drones that Russia has increasingly deployed, seemingly to avoid losing more pilots who don’t have control of Ukraine’s skies.

Ukraine has vowed to retake all occupied territory and Russia has pledged to defend its gains, threatening nuclear-weapon use and mobilizing an additional 300,000 troops despite protests.

That was underscored by the fighting for Lyman, a key node for Russian military operations in the Donbas and a sought-after prize in the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The Russian-backed separatist leader of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, said the city is “half-encircled” by Ukrainian forces. The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted him as calling the setback “worrying news.”

”Ukraine’s armed formations,” he said, “are trying very hard to spoil our celebration,”

Woman charged with setting fire at apartment that killed 4
Author: Associated Press

WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) — A former tenant is heading to court Friday to face arson and murder charges in connection with a fire at a Massachusetts apartment building last May that claimed the lives of four people, including a man who had sued right-wing radio host Alex Jones ‘ Infowars website.

Yvonne Ngoiri, 36, faces four counts of second-degree murder and was also indicted on multiple assault charges, the office of Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early Jr. said in a statement late Thursday. It was not immediately clear if she had an attorney who could comment.

The cause of the fire at the three-story, six-unit building in Worcester in the early morning hours of May 14 was determined to be “incendiary,” according to the district attorney’s office, but no motive was disclosed.

The victims have previously been identified as Joseph Garchali, 47; Christopher Lozeau, 53; Vincent Page, 41; and Marcel Fontaine, 29. They died of smoke inhalation and thermal injuries, authorities said.

In addition, several residents were injured, including one who jumped from a third-story window. The building had about 20 tenants.

Fontaine sued Infowars in Texas in 2018. The complaint, seeking unspecified damages, said Infowars posted his photograph on its website the day of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, depicting him as the gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people died.

Lawyers for Infowars countered that Fontaine failed to show any evidence of malice or any injury because of his photo’s publication.