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Reading From 'Prompter, Trump Launches 2024 White House Bid In Palm Beach

Palm Beach (United States) (AFP) - Donald Trump pulled the trigger on a third White House run on Tuesday, setting the stage for a bruising Republican nomination battle after a poor midterm election showing by his hand-picked candidates weakened his grip on the party.

"America's comeback starts right now," the 76-year-old former president told hundreds of supporters as he read from a teleprompter in an ornate, American flag-draped ballroom at his palatial Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida.

"I am tonight announcing my candidacy for president of the United States," said Trump, who filed his official 2024 paperwork with the US election authority moments before making his public announcement.

Trump's unusually early entry into the White House race is being seen in Washington as an attempt to get the jump on other Republicans seeking to be the party flag-bearer -- and to stave off potential criminal charges.

Republicans are licking their wounds after disappointing midterms, widely blamed on the underperformance of Trump-anointed candidates, and some are openly asking whether Trump -- with his divisive brand of politics and mess of legal woes -- is the right person to carry the party colors next time around.

Several possible 2024 primary rivals are circling, chief among them the governor of Florida Ron DeSantis, who bucked the tide and won a resounding reelection victory on November 8.

Trump, who lost the 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden after being impeached twice by the House of Representatives, launches his latest White House bid with several potential handicaps.

He is the target of multiple investigations into his conduct before, during and after his first term as president -- which could ultimately result in his disqualification.

These include allegations of fraud by his family business, his role in last year's attack on the US Capitol, his attempt to overturn the 2020 election, and his stashing of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.

With Trump now a declared candidate, Biden's attorney general, Merrick Garland, may be forced to name a special counsel to pursue the various investigations into the former president launched by the Department of Justice.

Still Millions Of Supporters

In addition, the powerful media empire of Rupert Murdoch has appeared to turn its back on Trump, labelling him after the midterms as a "loser" who shows "increasingly poor judgement."

Trump also remains banned by Facebook and Twitter, which was instrumental in his stunning political rise.

Despite the dismal election showing by Trump loyalists, the real estate tycoon retains an undeniable popularity with the millions of grassroots supporters who have flocked to his "Make America Great Again" banner.

And despite being abandoned by several top Republican donors, he has amassed a campaign war chest of well over $100 million.

Leading up to the midterms vote, Trump made denial of the 2020 election results a key litmus test for candidates seeking his endorsement.

But a string of defeats by Trump's most loyal allies sapped his momentum heading into Tuesday's launch.

Having failed to wrest control of the Senate, Republicans appeared poised to take over the House, but with a razor-thin majority that will be difficult to keep in line.

The 79-year-old Biden, whose victory Trump still refuses to acknowledge, has said his intention is to seek a second term -- but he will make a final decision early next year.

'Better Choices'

Trump's once-loyal vice president, Mike Pence, who released a new book, So Help Me God, on Tuesday and is seen as a potential 2024 challenger -- told ABC News this week that Trump's behavior on January 6, 2021 had been "reckless."

But Pence declined to say directly whether Trump should be president again. "That's up to the American people, but I think we'll have better choices in the future," he said.

For the moment, the hard-right DeSantis looks like the leading challenger to Trump in a Republican field that may include Pence, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and ex-South Carolina governor Nikki Haley.

The 44-year-old DeSantis, dubbed "Ron DeSanctimonious" by Trump, had a ready reply Tuesday when asked about the former president's attacks on him, urging "people to go check out the scoreboard from last Tuesday night."

Without naming Trump, he also suggested a Republican ticket headed by the former president would have trouble attracting independent voters "even with Biden in the White House and the failures that we're seeing."

By throwing his hat in the ring, Trump is seeking to become just the second American president to serve non-consecutive terms -- Grover Cleveland was elected in 1884, lost in 1888, and won again in 1892.

Kremlin Proxies Claim Victory In 'Sham' Ukraine Annexation Votes

Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) - Kremlin-installed authorities were already claiming victory Tuesday in annexation votes in Ukrainian regions under Russian control, as Moscow warned it could use nuclear weapons to defend the territories.

Ukraine and its allies have denounced the so-called referendums as a sham and said the West would never recognise the results of the ballots that have dramatically ratcheted up the stakes of Russia's seven-month invasion.

"It's already clear that the vast majority of people supported the issue of secession from Ukraine and joining Russia," Vladimir Saldo, the Moscow-appointed head of the Russian-held Kherson region, said on social media.

Election officials in Moscow said voters casting their ballots in Russia had overwhelmingly backed annexation, while authorities in Kherson and another Russian-occupied region, Zaporizhzhia, showed an initial 87 and 92 percent backing for the move.

"Saving people in the territories where this referendum is taking place... is the focus of the attention of our entire society and of the entire country," Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier during a televised meeting with officials.

His spokesman Dmitry Peskov meanwhile said the votes would have "radical" legal implications and that the so-called referendums "will also have consequences for security", referring to Moscow's threats to use nuclear weapons to defend its territory.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba however doubled down on Kyiv's promise to push out Russian forces from its country, saying the votes "would not have any influence" on the battlefield.

Russian forces in Ukraine this month have suffered serious setbacks, both in the east and south of the country, which observers say pushed Putin to rush ahead with the vote to cement Moscow's authority there.

'Right' To Use Nuclear Weapons

Putin said Russia would use any and all available means to defend its territory, implying that after the four regions were annexed Moscow could deploy strategic nuclear weapons to repulse Ukrainian attempts to take back the territory.

"I want to remind you -- the deaf who hear only themselves: Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons if necessary," former leader Dmitry Medvedev warned Tuesday on social media.

The four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine -- Donetsk and Luhansk in the east and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south -- announced that they would hold the elections just days before voting began last Friday.

Together, they form a crucial land connection for the Kremlin between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014 and is otherwise only connected to the mainland by bridge.

The EU spokesman Peter Stano announced the bloc would slap sanctions on organisers of the "illegal" vote, following a similar move by Britain earlier in the week.

"The sham referenda held by Russia have no legitimacy and are a blatant violation of international law. These lands are Ukraine," NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said on Twitter.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna meanwhile was in Kyiv for a surprise visit to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky and underscore her country's support for Ukraine's "sovereignty and territorial integrity".

Even Moscow's closest ally since the start of the invasion, Beijing, said after the votes were announced last week that Russia should respect territorial integrity in the war.

Russian Counter-Offensive

The so-called referendums follow a pattern that Moscow utilized in Crimea after nationwide street demonstrations saw Ukraine's Kremlin-friendly president ousted.

Like then, the outcome of the ballot is being viewed by observers as a foregone conclusion. Election officials brought ballot boxes door-to-door in many cases accompanied by armed Russian forces.

Lawmakers are expected to vote hastily to annex the territories after the results are announced and Russian news agencies have said Putin could sign legislation formalizing the land grab this week.

Ukrainian forces meanwhile have pursued their counter-offensive in the east.

The governor of the eastern Kharkiv region announced Tuesday its forces had recaptured Kupiansk-Vuzlovyi, "one of the largest logistical and railway junctions" in the region and not privy to this week's vote.

Polling stations were open in Crimea for people who fled fighting after the Russian invasion in February.

"With my voice I want to try to make a small contribution to stopping the war," 63-year-old Galina Korsakova from Donetsk told AFP. "I really want to go home."

Along with threats to use nuclear weapons, Putin announced a mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Russian men to bolster Moscow's army in Ukraine, sparking demonstrations and an exodus of men abroad.

The United Nations voiced alarm on Tuesday at credible reports of nearly 2,400 arrests in less than a week during nationwide protests in dozens of cities against the draft order.

Ex-Soviet Georgia, which was invaded by Russia in 2008, said the numbers of Russians crossing its borders had increased to around 10,000 people daily since Putin's announcement.

Kazakhstan, the Central Asian country on Russia's southern border, meanwhile said nearly 100,000 people had entered the country since September 21 and its leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said authorities would "ensure their safety."

The Russian defense ministry said it would not seek the extradition of those who fled to Georgia and Kazakhstan to evade the draft.

Lachlan Murdoch Suing Tiny Australian News Site Over 'Defamation'

Sydney (AFP) - A high-stakes defamation battle between News Corp co-chairman Lachlan Murdoch and small Australian news outlet Crikey will go to trial beginning March 27 in Sydney.

Rupert Murdoch's eldest son -- who is also chief executive of Fox News parent Fox Corporation -- is suing Crikey over an opinion piece that linked his family's media empire to the January 6, 2021 storming of the US Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.

The media scion's lawyers claimed their client was defamed over a dozen times in the article, which accused "the Murdochs and their slew of poisonous Fox News commentators" of being "unindicted co-conspirators" in the Capitol riot.

On Friday, Murdoch's barrister -- top defamation litigator Sue Chrysanthou -- pushed in the preliminary hearing for the earliest possible trial date, arguing Crikey had been "directing ridicule and hatred" towards her client.

Crikey was "publicly claiming martyrdom", she told the largely administrative case management hearing, pointing to the outlet running billboard advertisements about the case and fundraising online for its defense.

In the past month, Crikey's GoFundMe campaign has raised nearly S$333,000, and garnered support from two former Australian Prime Ministers, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull.

"Lachlan Murdoch owns boats that are worth more than Crikey," Turnbull commented alongside his $3,400 donation.

A Very Public Fight

The legal scuffle over the opinion piece burst into international headlines last month, when Crikey ran an advertisement in The New York Times daring Murdoch to sue.

The often pugilistic website said it welcomed the opportunity to "test this important issue of freedom of public interest journalism in a courtroom".

Murdoch filed his lawsuit the next day.

The tussle pits an upstart website, with subscriber numbers in the low tens of thousands, against one of the world's largest media empires.

Defamation expert David Rolph from the University of Sydney told AFP that Murdoch's case could be the first test of recent attempts to reform Australia's notoriously tough defamation laws.

Australia has gained a reputation as "the defamation capital of the world" after a slew of lawsuits launched by high-profile figures, including actors and politicians.

Crikey's defense, filed with the Federal Court Tuesday, denied it defamed Murdoch and flagged it would lean on two new defenses created by the reforms.

"One is a serious harm threshold... the plaintiff now has to prove that they not only suffered some harm to reputation, but that it was serious harm to reputation," Rolph explained.

Crikey will also seek to argue that the opinion piece, by writer Bernard Keane, was in the public interest.

"I suppose the difficulty here is that defense is entirely untested. This will be a test case of that," Rolph said.

'Fundamental Public Importance'

In a statement issued Thursday, Crikey chief executive Will Hayward said his company was fighting the case because "there is an issue of fundamental public importance at stake".

"We think it is important in an open, well-functioning society that the rich and powerful can be critiqued."

While Murdoch has stayed quiet since launching the case, his statement of claim accused Crikey of using the legal saga to drive subscriptions.

He has asked the court to permanently ban Crikey from publishing anything suggesting he "illegally conspired with Donald Trump" around the events of January 6.

The case will be heard by Justice Wigney, who has overseen several closely-watched defamation trials -- including actor Geoffrey Rush's successful suit against another Australian media outlet.

Wigney said Friday that before the trial begins, he would seek to have the parties enter mediation where "cool commercial minds may prevail".

Kremlin Dismisses Mass Burial Discoveries In Ukraine As 'Lies'

Kupiansk (Ukraine) (AFP) - The Kremlin on Monday denied its forces were responsible for large-scale killings in east Ukraine and accused Kyiv of fabricating its discoveries of mass graves in recaptured territory.

In the latest incident spurring fears of an atomic emergency, Ukraine said Russian rockets landed dangerously close to a nuclear power station in southern Ukraine.

Ukraine recaptured Izyum and other towns in the east this month, crippling Kremlin supply routes and bringing fresh claims of Russian atrocities with the discovery of hundreds of graves -- some containing multiple bodies.

"These are lies," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday. Moscow, he said, "will stand up for the truth in this story".

Fighting in the northeast has raged and AFP journalists heard artillery exchanges in frontline Kupiansk on Monday, as traumatised civilians headed out of the town now mainly in Ukrainian hands.

The streets were strewn with broken glass, spent cartridge casings and the discarded remains of ration packs issued by both forces.

Most of the fire was outgoing, with Ukrainian tanks and artillery targeting Russian positions on the west side of the town, over a mess of broken bridges. A column of smoke rose in the distance.

At the entrance to the town, cowering from the sounds of Ukrainian tank shells passing overhead towards Russian lines, civilians gathered to hitch rides or join buses to head out into safer Ukrainian territory.

"It was impossible to stay where we were living," said 56-year-old Lyudmyla, who braved the constant crack of shells to cross the Oskil river from the disputed east bank to the relative safety of the west.

"There was incoming fire not just every day, but literally every hour. It's very tough there, on the other bank of the river."

In his address to the nation on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the Russians were "panicking" as his forces held recaptured territory in the northeastern Kharkiv region.

'Lost A Lot Of Blood'

Russian-backed authorities in east Ukraine said a "punitive" strike by Kyiv's forces had killed more than a dozen people and wounded more in the separatist stronghold of Donetsk.

The rebel head of the region claimed the strike was "deliberate" and said it would "not go unpunished".

A court in the neighbouring rebel-held region of Lugansk meanwhile sentenced two employees of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to 13 years on treason charges.

OSCE chairman Zbigniew Rau condemned the "unjustifiable" detention of the mission's members since the outbreak of the war, calling it "nothing but pure political theatre... inhumane and repugnant".

Ukrainian civilians in the Kharkiv region have recounted months of brutality under Russian occupation.

In Kupyansk, Mykhailo Chindey told AFP he had been tortured on suspicion of supplying targeting coordinates to Ukrainian forces.

"One person was holding my hand and another one was beating my arm with a metal stick. They were beating me up two hours almost every day," he told AFP.

"I lost consciousness at some point. I lost a lot of blood. They hit my heels, back, legs and kidneys."

Ukraine's nuclear energy agency, Energoatom, said Russia struck the Pivdennoukrainsk nuclear power plant overnight, with a "powerful explosion" just 300 metres (985 feet) from its reactors.

The strike damaged more than 100 windows at the station, but the reactors were not damaged, Energoatom said, publishing photos of glass shattered around blown-out frames.

It also released images of what it said was a two-metre-deep crater from where the missile landed. No staff were wounded, it said.

'Russia Endangers The Whole World'

Attacks around Ukrainian nuclear facilities have spurred calls from Kyiv and its Western allies to de-militarise surrounding areas.

Europe's largest atomic facility -- the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Russian-held territory in Ukraine -- has become a hot spot for concerns after tit-for-tat claims of attacks.

The Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine, where the Pivdennoukrainsk plant is located, is close to the front line of a Ukrainian counter-offensive.

Russian forces have continued to shell Ukrainian-held towns near the front lines.

The UN's atomic agency deployed a monitoring team to the site in early September after new fighting.

"Russia endangers the whole world. We have to stop it before it's too late," Zelensky said early Monday.

Ukraine will be "very high on the agenda" when world leaders formally begin meeting in New York on Tuesday for the United Nations General Assembly, said the European Union's foreign policy chief.

"There are many other problems, we know, but the war in Ukraine has been sending shockwaves around the world," Josep Borrell said after meeting EU foreign ministers on the eve of the UN gathering, which Zelensky is to address by video.


'End Of An Era': Americans Mourn Death Of Queen Elizabeth II

New York (AFP) - The news of Queen Elizabeth II's death on Thursday at the age of 96 reverberated across the pond, with US flags lowered to half-staff in response, the Empire State Building illuminated in royal colors, and many Americans reflecting on her legacy.

"It’s the end of an era," remarked Jose Reyes, 37, in New York's bustling Time Square.

A large digital billboard nearby projected an image of a beaming queen, clad in one of her famous hats.

A few blocks away, the Empire State Building was illuminated after sunset in purple and silver to "honor the life and legacy of Her Majesty," the historic skyscraper's official Twitter account said.

The queen had stood at the top of the building over a half-century ago, when it was the tallest building in the world -- a reflection of her reign's historic 70-year length and the technological advances she's born witness to.

Downtown, close to where George Washington was inaugurated as the first US president following America's independence from Britain nearly 250 years ago, the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday afternoon observed a minute of silence.

In recognition of the "special relationship" between the United States and Britain, flags at federal buildings all across the country were ordered by President Joe Biden to be lowered to half-staff, where they will remain until the evening of the queen's burial.

In the US capital, at 5:00 pm local time, bells at the Washington National Cathedral chimed 96 times, one for every year of the queen's life.

Speaking to AFP in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, 26-year-old Drew said she saw the queen "in a positive view" due to her public appearances largely being "involved with charity," despite other "negative aspects to the monarchy."

"I definitely saw her as kind of a maternal figure" for her country," Drew added.

"For many people, she's the only Queen they've ever known their entire lives."

"A Star Is Dead"

Others were only slightly aware of the queen's story, or had just heard about her recent family woes, especially regarding Prince Harry and his wife Meghan, who have made California their new home.

On the West Coast, some remembered the monarch's trademark noble image, maintained with utmost precision.

"She was an admirable woman, with a real sense of humor. She was always perfect, despite her mobility problems or the arguments within the royal family" said 45-year-old freelance TV producer Corrine Smith, outside an English pub in Santa Monica, where dozens of Brits gathered Thursday evening.

"We're all gonna miss her," Smith said, noting that she watches the Netflix series "The Crown," which has played a major role in the revival of interest around the royal family in recent years.

"A star is dead," said Gregg Donovan, dressed as a royal valet and carrying flowers to lay beneath the queen's portrait at the pub.

The 62-year-old actor and tour guide said he thinks Queen Elizabeth II "should get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame."

"She was the most famous person in the world, after all."

Biden Slams Trump's 'Extremist' Assault On Democracy

Philadelphia (AFP) - President Joe Biden took fierce aim Thursday at Donald Trump and his "extremist" supporters, labeling them enemies of American democracy in a prime-time address that sought to fire up voters ahead of key midterm elections.

Speaking in Philadelphia, the cradle of American democracy, the president launched an extraordinary assault on those Republicans who embrace Trump's "Make America Great Again" ideology -- and urged his own supporters to fight back.

"Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic," thundered Biden, speaking near the spot where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were adopted more than two centuries ago.

"They embrace anger. They thrive on chaos. They live not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies."

"There is no place for political violence in America. Period. None. Ever," warned the 79-year-old Democrat -- in a reference to last year's assault on the US Capitol by hardline Trump supporters refusing to accept his defeat.

Citing the nationwide assault on abortion rights by hardline conservatives -- and fears for other freedoms from contraception to same-sex marriage -- the U.S. leader charged that "MAGA forces" were "determined to take this country backwards."

With control of Congress in the balance come November, Biden appealed directly to mainstream Republicans to join forces with Democrats and repudiate Trump's brand of politics -- which still holds sway over much of his party.

And he made it clearer than ever that Democrats intended to make the midterms a referendum on Trump, saying the Republican Party was wholly "dominated, driven and intimidated" by the former president and his MAGA agenda.

"And that is a threat to this country," he said, insisting American democracy had to be defended.

"Protect it. Stand up for it," Biden urged.

'Semi-Fascism'

Biden's speech -- billed as an address on the "battle for the Soul of the Nation" -- harked back to an article he published in The Atlantic magazine in 2017, after a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that he says spurred his presidential run.

"We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation," Biden wrote then.

After his election in 2020, the veteran politician initially planned to wage this battle through dialogue with moderate Republican lawmakers, and through economic and social policies aimed at the middle class.

But the talk of reconciliation has died down, as polls seem to indicate the Democratic leader is better served by being more aggressive.

Last week, Biden accused Trump's supporters of being consumed by "semi-fascism."

The term sparked indignation in conservative ranks -- with Republican Senate Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy charging that it "vilifies" millions of "hardworking, law-abiding citizens.

"With all due respect Mr President, there's nothing wrong with America's soul," retorted Republican senator and longtime Trump loyalist Lindsey Graham after Biden's speech. "The American people are hurting because of your policies."

A new poll published Thursday by The Wall Street Journal shows that if the midterm elections were held today, 47 percent of eligible voters would cast ballots for Democrats, and 44 percent would vote Republican.

In March, the Republicans had a five-point advantage.

The Democrats are hoping for an upset in November's elections, in which all of the seats in the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate seats are on the ballot. Traditionally, the midterms don't favor the ruling party.

Things have been going well for Biden lately, however, with inflation slowing, a series of his landmark reforms finally pushed through Congress and Trump fighting off a series of criminal investigations. Polls show widespread support for abortion rights, which could put many Republicans on the back foot.

This would be enough to give hope to the Democrats, who are battling to keep their hold on the House and preserve their Senate majority -- or even strengthen it.

And Pennsylvania will be crucial for any of that to happen.

Historically a key battleground state in US politics, the Keystone State will likely prove vital to both parties in the midterms -- and Biden will visit three times this week alone.

Trump is also planning an appearance in the state on Saturday to support his candidate in the Senate race, TV physician Mehmet Oz.

Justice Department: Documents 'Likely Concealed' To Obstruct Trump Probe

Washington (AFP) - Documents at former President Donald Trump's Florida home were "likely concealed" to obstruct an FBI probe into his potential mishandling of classified materials, the Justice Department said in a court filing Tuesday.

The filing provides the most detailed account yet of the motivation for the FBI raid this month on Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, which was triggered by a review of records he previously surrendered to authorities that contained top secret information.

Before the raid, the FBI uncovered "multiple sources of evidence" showing that "classified documents" remained at Mar-a-Lago, the filing says.

"The government also developed evidence that government records were likely concealed and removed... and that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government's investigation," the filing adds.

The DOJ said it provided the detailed background on the build-up to the raid "to correct the incomplete and inaccurate narrative set forth in (Trump's) filings."

The filing responds to Trump's request last week for an independent party, or "special master," to screen files seized in the FBI raid for materials protected by personal privilege.

Naming a special master could potentially block investigators' access to the documents, especially if he or she accepts Trump's claims that most were privileged.

The filing argues that the court should not appoint a special master, "because those records do not belong to (Trump)."

The "appointment of a special master is unnecessary and would significantly harm important governmental interests, including national security interests," the filing adds.

Trump, who is weighing another White House run in 2024, has accused the Justice Department under Democratic President Joe Biden of conducting a "witch hunt" and said the judge "should never have allowed the break-in of my home."

Senate Adopts Massive Climate And Health Plan In Big Win For Biden

The US Senate's passage of a major climate and health plan is a significnat victory for President Joe Biden ahead of midterm elections

Washington (AFP) - After 18 months of arduous negotiations and a marathon night of debate, the US Senate on Sunday passed Joe Biden's ambitious climate, tax and health care plan -- a significant victory for the president ahead of crucial midterm elections.

Voting as a unified bloc and with the tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Kamala Harris, Democrats approved the $430 billion spending plan, which will go to the House of Representatives next week, where it is expected to pass before being signed into law by Biden.

The plan, crafted in sensitive talks with members on the right wing of his Democratic Party, would include the biggest US investment ever on climate -- $370 billion aimed at effecting a 40 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

That would give Biden a clear victory on one of his top agenda items and go some way toward restoring US leadership in meeting the global climate challenge.

Biden hailed the passage of the bill, highlighting the work that went into it -- and acknowledging that not everyone is happy with the final result.

"It required many compromises. Doing important things almost always does. The House should pass this as soon as possible and I look forward to signing it into law," the president said in a statement.

Electric cars

The bill would provide ordinary Americans with a tax credit of up to $7,500 when purchasing an electric car, plus a 30 percent discount when they install solar panels on their roofs.

It would also provide millions to help protect and conserve forests -- which have been increasingly ravaged in recent years by wildfires during record heat waves that scientists say are linked to global warming.

Billions of dollars in tax credits would also go to some of the country's worst-polluting industries to help their transition to greener methods -- a measure bitterly opposed by some liberal Democrats who have, however, accepted this as a least-bad alternative after months of frustration.

Biden, who came to office with promises of sweeping reforms, has seen his hopes dashed, then revived, then dashed again.

Democrats' narrow edge in the Senate has given a virtual veto to moderates like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who earlier had used that power to block Biden's much more expansive Build Back Better plan.

But in late July, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer managed to engineer a compromise with the West Virginian, whose state's economy depends heavily on coal mining.

And on Saturday, senators finally opened their debate on the text.

'Vote-a-rama'

Late in the day, senators kicked off a marathon procedure known as a "vote-a-rama," in which members can propose dozens of amendments and demand a vote on each one.

That allowed both Republicans, who view Biden's plan as too costly, and liberal Democrats, who say it does not reach far enough, to make their opposition clear.

Influential progressive Senator Bernie Sanders used that platform through the evening to propose several amendments aimed at strengthening social planks in the legislation, which were considerably weakened during the months of negotiation.

The bill would provide $64 billion for health care initiatives and ensure a lowering of some drug costs -- which can be 10 times more expensive in the United States than in some other rich countries.

But progressive Democrats long ago had to give up their ambitions for free preschool and community colleges and expanded healthcare for the elderly.

"Millions of seniors will continue to have rotten teeth and lack the dentures, hearing aids or eyeglasses that they deserve," Sanders said from the Senate floor. "This bill, as currently written, does nothing to address it."

But fellow Democrats, eager to pass the legislation ahead of November midterms when control of Congress is at stake, have rejected any change in the text.

To help offset the plan's massive spending, it would reduce the US deficit through a new 15-percent minimum tax on companies with profits of $1 billion or more -- a move targeting some that now pay far less.

That measure could generate more than $258 billion in tax receipts for the government over the 10 next years, by some estimates.

Alex Jones Hit With $45 Million In Punitive Damages For Defamation

Washington (AFP) - A Texas jury ordered far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on Friday to pay $45.2 million in punitive damages for falsely claiming that the deadly 2012 Sandy Hook elementary shooting was a "hoax."

The verdict came a day after the same jury awarded a couple whose child died at Sandy Hook $4.1 million in compensatory damages for the emotional stress caused by Jones broadcasting falsehoods for years on his InfoWars online and radio talk shows.

The huge sum ordered from Jones, who for years gathered a sizable following for his often outlandish conspiracy claims, vindicated the lawsuits against him by families of some of the 20 schoolchildren and six adults killed by a 20-year-old man in one of the country's deadliest school shootings.

The $49.3 million total judgement was far less than the $150 million sought by the plaintiffs in the Texas case, Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose six-year-old son Jesse was killed.

Still, Lewis said that Jones had been "held accountable."

"Today the jury proved that most of America is ready to choose love over fear and I'll be forever grateful to them," Lewis tweeted.

Jones, a vocal supporter of former president Donald Trump, claimed for years on InfoWars that the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was "staged" by gun control activists.

He has since acknowledged it was "100 percent real," but the Sandy Hook families maintained that his denialism, coupled with his ability to influence the beliefs of thousands of followers, caused real emotional trauma.

He was also accused of pulling in massive profits from harmful lies and disinformation.

The judgment is not likely the end of legal woes for the 48-year-old Jones, who is also facing another defamation suit in Connecticut.

He has been found liable in multiple defamation cases brought by parents of the Sandy Hook victims, and the Texas case was the first to reach the damages phase.

He is also under scrutiny for his participation in the January 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol by Trump supporters.

During the hearing ahead of the decision Friday, Wesley Ball, attorney for the parents who brought the case, urged the jury to take a stand against misinformation.

"You have the ability to send a message for everyone in this country and perhaps this world to hear," he said.

"And that is stop Alex Jones. Stop the monetization of misinformation and lies," he added.

"Stopping Alex Jones stops the root of his message and the root of his message is fear and hate."

The $45.2 million was close to the maximum allowed in relation to the original compensatory damages.

InfoWars declared bankruptcy in April and another company owned by Jones, Free Speech Systems, filed for bankruptcy last week.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, which represented the staff at Sandy Hook, praised Friday's verdict.

"Nothing will ever fix the pain of losing a child, or of watching that tragedy denied for political reasons," she tweeted. "But I'm glad the parents of Sandy Hook have gotten some justice."

Senate Passes Aid For Veterans Injured By Exposure To Toxic Burn Pits

Washington (AFP) - US senators on Tuesday approved benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, which President Joe Biden, who believes his son Beau died of such exposure, has called a "decisive and bipartisan win."

Open trash fires have been commonly used by the US military in conflicts after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and are lit to get rid of everything from plastic bottles to human waste and old tires -- all incinerated with jet fuel.

But the fumes from these holes in the ground are suspected of causing a range of illnesses among soldiers, from chronic respiratory ailments to a variety of cancers.

Biden believes the pits are at the root of the brain cancer that claimed the life of his son Beau, who served in Iraq in 2008.

By 86 votes to 11, the Senate passed the PACT Act, which expands the window of eligibility for free medical care and ensures that, for certain respiratory illnesses and cancers, veterans will get disability benefits without having to prove they were made sick by exposure to the pits.

The passage came just days after Republican senators had rejected the bill, triggering withering condemnation from veterans groups and activists, including the outspoken comedian Jon Stewart, who had championed the cause.

Biden welcomed the approval of the act, saying, "While we can never fully repay the enormous debt we owe to those who have worn the uniform, today, the United States Congress took important action to meet this sacred obligation."

He said the new law would be "the biggest expansion of benefits for service-connected health issues in 30 years and the largest single bill ever to comprehensively address exposure to burn pits."

'Proper Care' For Exposure

Vice President Kamala Harris said that "too many of our veterans and their families have long waited for this day. With today's passage of the PACT Act, our veterans will finally see an expansion of their health benefits and proper care for burn pit exposure. They deserve it."

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that some 3.5 million US service members were exposed to toxic smoke in Afghanistan, Iraq or other conflict zones, and more than 200,000 veterans have registered on lists of people who came into contact with burn pits.

The Pentagon funded a $10 million study in 2018 that concluded there was "a potential cause and effect relationship between exposure to emissions from simulated burn pits and subsequent health outcomes."

Until now, nearly 80 percent of veterans' requests to have suspected burn pit ailments acknowledged by the government were rejected, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

A poll by the organization found that 82 percent of those questioned said they were exposed to burn pits or other airborne toxic chemicals.

Of these people, 90 percent said they are or may be suffering from symptoms linked to that exposure.

Pelosi Lands In Taiwan, Defying China's Threatened Military Action

Taipei (AFP) - US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan late Tuesday, defying a string of increasingly stark warnings and threats from China that have sent tensions between the world's two superpowers soaring.

Pelosi, second in line to the presidency, is the highest-profile elected US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years and Beijing has made clear that it regards her presence as a major provocation, setting the region on edge.

Live broadcasts showed the 82-year-old lawmaker, who flew on a US military aircraft, being greeted at Taipei's Songshan Airport by foreign minister Joseph Wu.

"Our delegation's visit to Taiwan honors America's unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan's vibrant democracy," she said in a statement upon her arrival, adding that her visit "in no way contradicts" US policy towards Taipei and Beijing.

Taiwan said the trip displayed "rock solid" support from Washington.

Pelosi is currently on a tour of Asia and while neither she nor her office confirmed the Taipei visit in advance, multiple US and Taiwanese media outlets reported it was on the cards -- triggering days of mounting anger from Beijing.

China's military said it was on "high alert" and would "launch a series of targeted military actions in response" to the visit.

It promptly announced plans for a series of military exercises in waters around the island to begin on Wednesday, including "long-range live ammunition shooting" in the Taiwan Strait.

"Those who play with fire will perish by it," Beijing's foreign ministry added.

Taiwan's defence ministry said more than 21 Chinese military aircraft had flown on Tuesday into Taiwan's air defence identification zone -- an area wider than its territorial airspace that overlaps with part of China's own air defence zone.

No Need For 'Crisis'

China considers self-ruled, democratic Taiwan as its territory and has vowed to one day seize the island, by force if necessary.

It tries to keep Taiwan isolated on the world stage and opposes countries having official exchanges with Taipei.

In a call with US President Joe Biden last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned Washington against "playing with fire" on Taiwan.

While the Biden administration is understood to be opposed to Pelosi's Taiwan stop, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said she was entitled to go where she pleased.

"There is no reason for this to erupt into conflict. There's no change to our policy," he told CNN shortly after Pelosi's arrival.

The last speaker of the US House of Representatives to visit Taiwan was Newt Gingrich in 1997.

Kirby reiterated that US policy was unchanged toward Taiwan.

This means support for its self-ruling government, while diplomatically recognising Beijing over Taipei and opposing a formal independence declaration by Taiwan or a forceful takeover by China.

Russia's foreign ministry called Pelosi's visit a "clear provocation," and said Beijing "has the right to take necessary measures to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity over the Taiwan issue."

China has refused to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine and has been accused of providing diplomatic cover for the Kremlin by blasting Western sanctions and arms sales to Kyiv.

All Eyes On Taiwan

Pelosi left Kuala Lumpur Tuesday after meeting Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri and Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah.

So many people were tracking the US military plane ferrying her on FlightRadar that the website said some users experienced outages.

The plane took a circuitous route that avoided the South China Sea -- which Beijing claims -- before heading up the east coast of the Philippines.

Press access around Pelosi has been tightly restricted and limited to a handful or short statements confirming meetings with officials.

Her itinerary includes stops in South Korea and Japan -- but the prospect of a Taiwan trip dominated attention.

Taipei's government had stayed silent on whether she would visit but news kept leaking out.

The capital's famous Taipei 101 skyscraper was illuminated with the words "Speaker Pelosi... Thank You" on Tuesday night an hour before Pelosi's plane arrived.

- 'Seek to punish Taiwan' -

Taiwan's 23 million people have long lived with the possibility of an invasion, but that threat has intensified under Xi, China's most assertive ruler in a generation.

"Beijing shouldn't get to decide who can visit Taiwan or how the US should interact with Taiwan," Wang Ting-yu, a lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, told AFP ahead of the visit.

"I think China's open intimidation is counter-effective."

Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia programme at the US-based German Marshall Fund think tank, said the probability of Beijing choosing war was "low".

"But the probability that... (China) will take a series of military, economic, and diplomatic actions to show strength & resolve is not insignificant," she wrote on Twitter.

Taipei's Council of Agriculture on Tuesday said China had suspended the import of some Taiwanese goods, including some fishery products, tea and honey. The council said China cited regulatory breaches.

Pelosi's potential visit has been preceded by a flurry of military activity across the region that highlights how combustible the issue of Taiwan is.

House Passes Abortion Rights Bills, But Senate Approval Unlikely

Washington (AFP) - The House of Representatives adopted two bills on Friday aimed at protecting access to abortion after the Supreme Court ruled that individual states can ban or restrict the procedure.

The legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled House is unlikely, however, to advance in the Senate, where 10 Republican votes would be needed to bring the measures to the floor.

"Just three weeks ago, the Supreme Court took a wrecking ball to fundamental rights by overturning Roe v. Wade," Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, referring to the landmark case that enshrined legal access to abortion.

"That is why today, our pro-choice, pro-women Democratic majority stands resolute," Pelosi said. "We will take further action to defend women's reproductive freedom."

The first bill, the "Women's Health Protection Act," adopted only with Democratic support, would legalize abortion throughout the United States.

The House passed a similar bill last year but it failed in the Senate.

The other bill adopted on Friday would provide legal protection to women who leave one state to undergo an abortion in another.

Several conservative states have already banned abortion since the Supreme Court ruling, and about half of the 50 US states are expected to impose near or total bans in weeks or months to come.

Democratic President Joe Biden denounced last month's abortion ruling by the conservative-dominated Supreme Court and has urged Americans to turn out in large numbers to vote in November's midterm elections.

The party in power tends to perform poorly in the midterms, however, and Democrats risk losing their majority in the House and their slim hold on the Senate.

Reaching Out Without Walking Back? Biden Prepares For Delicate Saudi Visit​​

Washington (AFP) - Having branded Saudi Arabia a "pariah" over the murder of a dissident, President Joe Biden is now readying to meet the country's leaders on a delicate visit to the Middle East.

Biden begins his tour in Israel on Wednesday, but all eyes are on his trip to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia on Friday.

Air Force One will make an unprecedented direct flight between the Jewish state and the conservative Gulf kingdom that does not recognize its existence. Donald Trump had made a historic trip, in 2017, in the other direction.

As a presidential candidate, Biden said the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi -- a Saudi-born US resident known for writing critical articles about the kingdom's rulers for The Washington Post -- had made the country a "pariah."

After winning the election, the Biden administration released US intelligence findings that identified the kingdom's de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS, as the mastermind of the operation.

'Blank Check'

But now Biden appears ready to re-engage with a country that has been a key strategic ally of the United States for decades, a major supplier of oil and an avid buyer of weapons.

"In Saudi Arabia, we reversed the blank-check policy we inherited" from former president Donald Trump, Biden wrote in an op-ed published Saturday in the Washington Post.

"From the start, my aim was to reorient -- but not rupture -- relations," he added.

"I know that there are many who disagree with my decision to travel to Saudi Arabia," the 79-year-old Democrat went on, promising "fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda" when he makes foreign visits.

Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, said the Biden administration "discovered what US administrations have discovered for decades: that doing a lot of things in the Middle East and around the world are much easier if the Saudis are trying to help you and much harder if they aren't."

In his op-ed, Biden said Saudi Arabia was "working with (his) experts to help stabilize oil markets."

Washington wants the world's largest exporter of crude to open the floodgates to bring down soaring gasoline prices, which threaten Democratic chances in November elections.

Strategic Interests Over Values?

"Strategic interests and the well-being of someone driving around in a Ford Expedition have always come first at the expense of brave activists in the region who want to live in more open and democratic systems," said Steven Cook, Middle East and Africa expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to gas-guzzling SUVs popular with Americans.

Saudi Arabia is also key to Washington's efforts to contain Iran.

Beyond possible announcements, the White House knows the stakes of Biden's trip are also about the optics of meeting with MBS, who will be part of the delegation when Biden sits down with King Salman.

Marti Flacks, human rights expert at CSIS, said the White House would have put a lot of time into orchestrating "how that interaction is staged" -- whether it's public or behind closed doors, a handshake or an exchange of pleasantries.

"The X factor is, of course, the other party can always disrupt those plans if they're determined to," Flacks added.

Biden doesn't want to appear as a cynic who reneges on principles for a few barrels of oil, but MBS may be tempted to turn the spotlight on his interaction with the "leader of the free world."

To counter accusations of horse-trading, the US president is trying to give himself an above-the-fray role, as he has so far been much less concerned with the Middle East than with Russia or China.

He presents himself as a facilitator of "promising trends" in the region and as a strategist in the face of challenges, such as Iran's nuclear program, the war in Yemen and upheavals in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Lebanon.

A Journalist's Killing

Biden aims in particular to "deepen and expand" the process of normalizing relations between Israel and Arab states, initiated under Trump.

Aside from the symbolic Air Force One flight, analysts anticipate announcements on Saudi-Israeli relations.

The Jewish state is keen to receive Biden with great pomp, even in the midst of political turmoil as Israel prepares to hold its fifth election in less than four years in November.

Biden is due to meet Prime Minister Yair Lapid, but his advisers insist he also meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, as Trump had more or less ignored the Palestinians during his term.

The recent death of another journalist will also cast a shadow over the visit: that of the American-Palestinian Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, killed in May in an Israeli raid.

Her family has asked to meet Biden. The White House has so far declined to comment on this request.

Is Musk A 'Libertarian,' A 'Socialist,' Or A Self-Serving Pragmatist?

Washington (AFP) - He has scorned organized labor, mocked political correctness and espoused small government -- so conservatives may be disappointed that he wants to pull out of his deal to buy Twitter.

Yet smoking marijuana during interviews, courting Hollywood with movie cameos and musing about nuking Mars make Elon Musk an improbable talisman for political traditionalists.

In polarized America, the 51-year-old triple divorcee's opposition to Covid-19 restrictions is often taken to demonstrate Republican sympathies, although his disdain for draconian immigration control suggests the opposite.

The world's richest man has berated President Joe Biden for proposing a tax credit for electric cars produced by unionized workers. He has even called for an end to all US federal subsidies.

Yet he has aggressively pursued government support himself, taking billions in handouts for his own companies.

James Hickman, founder of the libertarian-leaning Sovereign Man newsletter, sees Musk as a check on the "tyranny of the minority" -- a supposed cabal of elites in tech, media and academia who make decisions for the rest of us and "consistently get it wrong."

"What makes someone a true libertarian is an outright rejection of labels and being completely independent in one's thinking," Hickman told AFP.

"Musk clearly qualifies in this regard."

Other analysts have suggested that, as inconsistent as his political philosophy appears, Musk rarely diverges from his business interests.

Meanwhile his political donations don't cleave to one party or point of view either.

A self-styled "moderate" independent -- although he has described himself as a "socialist" too -- Musk ostentatiously moved to deeply conservative Texas from ultra-liberal California in 2020.

He has given donations to the governors of both states, despite criticizing Texas anti-abortion laws and a "complacent" business environment in California.

Free Speech, Or Not?

Other donations have gone to Democratic grandees Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, right-wing House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and the Republican Party itself.

He is also not averse to lashing out on social media at Washington establishment figures, from one-time presidential nominee Elizabeth Warren ("Senator Karen") to Biden himself.

And then there's the issue of free speech, which he has called "the bedrock of a functioning democracy."

Musk has complained that Twitter is too censorious, simultaneously illustrating and undermining his point in a tweet depicting the company's CEO Parag Agrawal as brutal Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Critics say his passion for unfettered conversation has often appeared less profound when his own interests are at stake.

Some media outlets have raised questions over Musk's reaction to journalists writing stories critical of Tesla.

Accused of unleashing his army of supporters on individual reporters, he once mulled creating a website for the profession as a whole called Pravda -- presumably a tribute to the Soviet propaganda outlet.

"Going to create a site where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication," he tweeted in 2018. Nothing came of it.

'Pragmatic' And 'Self-Interested'

Former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer Judd Legum has pointed to a tweet -- also 2018 -- in which Musk appeared to threaten to rescind employee stock options at Tesla if workers decided to join a union.

Critics say there is a pattern of suppressing less powerful voices that has also included forcing workers to sign restrictive non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

A Tesla NDA reportedly warned employees that "they were not allowed to speak with media without explicit written permission" -- but the company neglected to add that labor laws protected them from reprisals when discussing work conditions.

Baruch Labunski, an internet marketing expert and web consultancy CEO, says that, amid much "contradictory evidence," it's safest to describe Musk's politics as "pragmatic."

"He is frequently characterized as a libertarian but that designation doesn't accurately describe the man whose businesses have benefited from government tax breaks and business subsidies," Labunski told AFP.

Musk is a "fundamentally self-interested" celebrity, says Labunski.

"Musk gets to play in and around politics because he's rich and he's outspoken."

Inspector General To Probe IRS Audits Of Trump Critics Who Led FBI

Washington (AFP) - The Internal Revenue Service said Thursday it had asked for an independent investigation into rare, intrusive audits of two ex-FBI heads who were prominent adversaries of former president Donald Trump.

James Comey, the FBI director until he was sacked by Trump in 2017, and Andrew McCabe, Comey's deputy and temporary replacement, were both subjected to the Internal Revenue Service reviews while the Republican billionaire was in office.

Individuals are supposed to be picked at random for the IRS's National Research Program audits, making the chances of Comey being singled out in 2017 about one in 30,000, while McCabe's odds in 2019 were about one in 20,000.

The revelation, first reported by The New York Times, raised questions over how two men who ran the nation's premier domestic police agency and were seen by Trump as among his most high-profile foes could both have been selected.

Trump sacked Comey in 2017 and then called on him to be arrested for treason, angered by his investigation of the then-president's extensive ties to Russia.

McCabe, who became acting FBI director after Comey's dismissal, was fired by Trump's Justice Department over accusations of lying to investigators that were never followed up with charges.

Trump smeared McCabe, too, again with unfounded treason allegations, and relentlessly pushed for his prosecution.

"I don't know whether anything improper happened, but after learning how unusual this audit was and how badly Trump wanted to hurt me during that time, it made sense to try to figure it out," Comey said in a statement to the Times.

"Maybe it's a coincidence or maybe somebody misused the IRS to get at a political enemy. Given the role Trump wants to continue to play in our country, we should know the answer to that question."

'Political Targeting'

The IRS confirmed in a statement that its head Chuck Rettig -- appointed by Trump in 2018 -- had personally asked a Treasury Inspector General for a review.

"Audits are handled by career civil servants, and the IRS has strong safeguards in place to protect the exam process -- and against politically motivated audits," IRS spokeswoman Jodie Reynolds told AFP.

"It's ludicrous and untrue to suggest that senior IRS officials somehow targeted specific individuals for National Research Program audits."

The referral earned support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Rep. Richard Neal, the Democratic chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement the "political targeting" of Comey and McCabe marked "a crack in IRS's fragile credibility."

His Republican counterpart Rep. Kevin Brady said he supported "investigating all allegations of political targeting," adding that the IRS should never be used as a weapon against political opponents.

Trump's representatives did not respond immediately to a request for comment, although the Times reported that a spokesman said the ex-president had "no knowledge of this."

Comey's audit lasted more than a year, and he and his wife were found to have overpaid their 2017 federal income taxes and got a $347 refund.

McCabe told the Times he and his wife had paid a small amount they were found to be owing.

"I have significant questions about how or why I was selected for this," he said.

Six Killed By Sniper At July 4 Parade In Chicago Suburb

Highland Park (United States) (AFP) - A gunman armed with a high-powered rifle shot dead at least six people at a parade to mark US Independence Day in a wealthy Chicago suburb on Monday -- the latest in a series of shocking mass shootings, this time on a holiday celebrating all things American.

Emergency officials in Highland Park, Illinois said around two dozen people, including children, were wounded with some in critical condition, and a massive police manhunt was underway for the shooter, who was still on the loose.

Police said they had apprehended a 22-year-old suspect named Robert E Crimo III, warning that he was considered armed and "very dangerous." A Chicago musician of the same age and with the same name goes by the stage name "Awake the Rapper" online.

Firing into the holiday crowd from a nearby rooftop, the gunman triggered scenes of chaos as panicked onlookers ran for their lives, leaving behind a parade route strewn with chairs, abandoned balloons and personal belongings.

"Everyone thought it was fireworks," one parade-goer, identified only as Zoe, told CNN.

"My dad thought it was part of the show, and I'm like, 'Dad, no... something is wrong.' And I grabbed him. And I looked back at him, and then it was just a sea of panic, and people just falling and falling."

As they ran, she said that some 20 feet behind her, "I saw a girl shot and killed... saw her die."

Zoe said they first hid behind a dumpster before police pulled them into the basement of a sporting goods store with other parade spectators, several of whom were injured, including a man who appeared to have been shot in the ear and a girl who was shot in the leg.

When they were finally able to leave, she told CNN, the parade route resembled "a battle zone. And it's disgusting."

Police officials said the shooting began at 10:14 am, when the parade was approximately three-quarters of the way through.

"It sounds like spectators were targeted... So, very random, very intentional and very sad," said Lake County Major Crime Task Force spokesman Christopher Covelli.

Lake County coroner Jennifer Banek said five of the six people killed, all adults, had died at the scene. The sixth was taken to hospital but succumbed to wounds there.

Fire chief Joe Schrage said among the wounded was at least one child, in critical condition.

Dr Brigham Temple of Highland Park Hospital, where most of the victims were taken, said that it was treating 25 people with gunshot wounds aged eight to 85.

He said "four or five" children were among them, and that 16 people were later discharged.

Police said the shooter was using a "high-powered rifle," and "firearm evidence" had been located on the rooftop of a nearby business.

"All indications is he was discreet, he was very difficult to see," said Covelli.

From Celebration To Mourning

The shooting cast a pall over America's most patriotic holiday, in which towns and cities across the country hold parades such as the one in Highland Park while citizens -- many dressed in variations on the US flag -- hold barbecues and other celebrations.

"On a day that we came together to celebrate community and freedom, we're instead mourning the tragic loss of life and struggling with the terror that was brought upon us," Highland Park's mayor Nancy Rotering said.

President Joe Biden voiced his shock and vowed to keep fighting "the epidemic of gun violence" sweeping the country.

"I'm not going to give up," he said.

Last week, Biden signed the first significant federal bill on gun safety in decades, just days after the Supreme Court ruled that Americans have a fundamental right to carry a handgun in public.

The shooting is part of a particularly grim wave in the gun violence crisis in the United States, where approximately 40,000 deaths a year are caused by firearms, according to the Gun Violence Archive website.

The deeply divisive debate over gun control was reignited by two massacres in May that saw 10 Black supermarket shoppers gunned down in upstate New York and 21 people, mostly young children, slain at an elementary school in Texas.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 309 mass shootings carried out in the US so far in 2022 -- including at least three others on July 4, though without any fatalities.

Climate Envoy Kerry Vows US Will Meet Emissons Goal Despite Court Setback

Washington (AFP) - US climate envoy John Kerry vowed Friday the United States will meet goals it submitted to the United Nations on slashing greenhouse gas emissions, despite a Supreme Court ruling that curtailed the government's powers.

"We are determined to achieve our goals. We can achieve our goals," Kerry told AFP.

"But obviously it would help if we had a majority of the Supreme Court in the United States of America that actually understood the gravity of the situation and was more willing to try to be helpful rather than present a hurdle of one kind or another," he said.

President Joe Biden, after defeating the climate-skeptic Donald Trump, in April last year said the United States would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, dramatically increasing the climate ambitions of the world's largest economy.

He submitted the so-called nationally determined contribution to the UN climate body in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement, the landmark deal brokered by Kerry when he was secretary of state.

China, the world's largest carbon emitter, called Friday on all nations to live up to Paris commitments, with foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying of the United States, "it is not enough to just chant slogans."

Kerry, who has worked with Chinese officials in his climate role despite soaring tensions between Beijing and Washington, said that he was "not surprised by the messaging" from the Asian power.

"We will show China precisely how we're going to get the job done," Kerry said.

Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, called the Supreme Court decision "a setback in our fight against climate change."

Why Biden Proposes Drilling

Despite Biden's pledges to wean the United States off fossil fuels, the Interior Department on Friday released a five-year proposal that would authorize offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, although it would still ban drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The proposal comes amid soaring gas prices and as Biden seeks to woo Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from coal-producing West Virginia with the crucial vote, to back a package that would also boost clean energy.

Environmentalists see the legislation as a last hope amid expectations that Trump's Republican Party will make advances in November congressional elections.

The Supreme Court, finishing a term in which three justices nominated by Trump pushed it sharply to the right, on Thursday cut the wings off a key way in which the government could have tackled climate change without fresh legislation.

In a 6-3 ruling branded "devastating" by Biden, the top court said the Environmental Protection Agency did not have authority to order sweeping cuts on emissions from coal-fired power plants.

"I am convinced -- and our legal people are looking at it very carefully -- that this decision leaves plenty of latitude for us to be able to do a lot of things that we need to do," Kerry said.

Asked about calls by some lawmakers from his Democratic Party for Biden to declare a climate emergency, Kerry said, "I think the president needs to evaluate every option available."

'Pin Into Balloon'

Coal accounts for around 20 percent of US electricity generation -- still roughly on par with renewables. China, despite investing heavily in wind and solar, has also kept building coal production capacity.

But Kerry said that the marketplace showed that coal is not the future.

"Nobody's going to fund any new coal power in the United States -- no bank, no private lender. Coal is the dirtiest fuel in the world," he said.

Scientists warn that the world is far off track in avoiding the worst ravages of climate change including severe heatwaves, floods, droughts, rising sea levels and storm surges.

The Paris accord set the goal of limiting end-of-century warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels -- and preferably not beyond 1.5 degrees -- but the planet has already warmed by nearly 1.2 Celsius.

Ruth Greenspan Bell, a climate expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said it was difficult for the United States to show climate leadership while also fighting internally on whether it is a priority.

"It's kind of putting a pin into a balloon. There's a little bit less air in the balloon than there was before," she said of the court decision.

"The times call for a moonshot but imagine trying to pull off a moonshot when you are at the same time in a defensive crouch."