Villages Evacuate After Ukraine Dam 'Partially Destroyed' By Russia

Villages Evacuate After Ukraine Dam 'Partially Destroyed' By Russia

Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) - A Russian-held dam in southern Ukraine was damaged on Tuesday, with Kyiv and Moscow accusing each other of blowing it up while locals were forced to flee rising waters.

The dam was partially destroyed by "multiple strikes", Moscow-installed authorities claimed just as expectations were rising over the start of Ukraine's long-awaited offensive.

Ukraine, however, accused Russia of blowing up the Kakhovka hydroelectric plant.

"The terrorists' goal is obvious -- to create obstacles for the offensive actions of the armed forces," Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky convened a meeting of his National Security Council over the Russian "war crime", said his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak.

Several villages have been "completely or partially flooded" following damage to the dam and evacuations from the area have begun, a Ukrainian official said.

"About 16,000 people are in the critical zone on the right bank of the Kherson region," Oleksandr Prokudin, head of the Kherson miliary administration, said on social media, adding that there was flooding in eight areas along the Dnipro River.

'Defensive Operations'

The Kakhovka dam, seized at the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, notably supplies water to the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014.

Built on the Dnipro River in 1956, during the Soviet era, the structure is partly made of concrete and partly of earth. It is one of the largest pieces of infrastructure of its kind in Ukraine.

News of the damage came after Zelensky praised his troops for advances claimed near the devastated city of Bakhmut, while Russia said it had repelled a large-scale attack.

"Well done, warriors! We see how hysterically Russia reacts to any step we take there, all positions we take. The enemy knows that Ukraine will win," Zelensky said in a video message published on social media.

Earlier, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Ganna Malyar had noted "some success" on the battlefield.

"The Bakhmut sector remains the epicenter of the hostilities. We are advancing there on a rather wide front," she said.

"The defensive operation includes counteroffensive actions. Therefore, in some sectors, we are conducting offensive actions," Malyar added.

In May, Russia said it seized the now-destroyed eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, the scene of the longest and one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

Ukraine says it has been preparing a major offensive to recapture territory lost to Russia, but that there would be no announcement about when it would start.

On Sunday, Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said words "can only do harm" and posted a cryptic tweet, quoting lyrics from the Depeche Mode song Enjoy the Silence.

US President Joe Biden wished Ukraine well on Monday in its expected counteroffensive.

Asked by AFP if he thought the expected Ukrainian pushback would work, the president answered by silently raising his hand and crossing his middle and index fingers.

The war has escalated in recent weeks, with increased attacks on both sides of the border with Russia.

Military experts expect Ukrainian forces to test Russian defences for weaknesses before starting a full-blown offensive.

'Large-scale Offensive'

Earlier on Monday, Russia's defense ministry said "the enemy launched a large-scale offensive in five sectors of the front" on Sunday in the south of the Donetsk region.

Moscow said it had thwarted the offensive, killing a total of "1,500 servicemen" and destroying more than 100 armoured vehicles.

But the claims were dismissed on Tuesday by the boss of Russian mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, as "wild fantasies".

Prigozhin has been embroiled in a public spat with Russia's regular army and has accused Moscow's military leadership of not supplying enough ammunition, among other criticisms.

Large parts of Donetsk have been held by pro-Moscow separatists since 2014.

It is one of four eastern Ukrainian territories that Russia formally annexed in September last year, along with Lugansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, despite never fully controlling them.

The ministry posted what it said was a video of the battle, showing Ukrainian armoured vehicles coming under heavy fire.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's top commander in Ukraine, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, "was at one of the advanced command posts", the ministry said.

The ministry later said it defeated "new attempts to pierce Russian defences" in southern Donetsk.

The Russian and Ukrainian claims could not be independently verified.

Oath Keepers Chief Sentenced To 18 Years In Prison For Capitol Insurrection

Oath Keepers Chief Sentenced To 18 Years In Prison For Capitol Insurrection

Washington (AFP) - The founder of the far-right Oath Keepers militia was handed an 18-year prison sentence Thursday for seditious conspiracy in the 2021 attack on the US Capitol, the toughest penalty given yet over the January 6, 2021 insurrection.

Elmer Stewart Rhodes was one of more than 1,000 people charged over the attack which, encouraged by then-president Donald Trump, aimed to block Congress from certifying Joe Biden as the winner of the November 2020 election.

"Seditious conspiracy is among the most serious crimes an American can commit," said Judge Amit Mehta in pronouncing the sentence.

"You present an ongoing threat and a peril to this country," Mehta told Rhodes, who led the Oath Keepers and organized their participation, with a stockpile of arms, in the attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters.

"You are smart, charismatic and compelling and that is frankly what makes you dangerous," Mehta said -- rejecting Rhodes' claim that he was a "political prisoner."

The sentence fell short of the 25 years the government had sought, although Mehta accepted the argument that the Oath Keepers' plan to violently block Biden from becoming president amounted to terrorism.

Just ahead of the sentence, Rhodes, wearing an eye patch and dressed in his orange prison jumpsuit, defiantly defended his group and their actions in support of Trump.

"My only crime is opposing those destroying our country," he declared, comparing himself to the famed Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Blame Trump

But his group's stockpiling weapons just outside the city and wearing combat-style gear in an organized push into the building showed a level of planning and preparation for violence not present with many of the others in the crowd.

Rhodes, 57, and Kelly Meggs, 53, leader of the Oath Keepers' Florida chapter, were convicted by a Washington jury in November of the rarely pursued charge of seditious conspiracy -- plotting to overthrow the government or unlawfully opposing its authority.

In the same trial, three other Oath Keepers were convicted of obstructing an official proceeding, as the rioters shut down the Congress and sent lawmakers and vice president Mike Pence fleeing to safety.

During the trial, prosecutors said the Oath Keepers "concocted a plan for an armed rebellion... plotting to oppose by force the government of the United States."

Rhodes' attorneys argued that he himself never entered the Capitol building and that he did not support others doing so.

But Mehta rejected that as mitigating the sentence.

Rhodes was unequivocally the leader of the group and summoned them to Washington with a cache of arms for the violent assault, Mehta said.

"Stewart Rodes is a Yale Law grad and a pretty smart guy," the judge said. "He was the one giving the orders... They were there because of him."

Rhodes' attorney Phillip Linder however said he should not be held responsible for the Capitol attack and pointed his finger at Trump.

"I think what happened on January 6 was deplorable," Linder told the court.

But Rhodes did not plan the uprising, he insisted.

"We need to look at what caused this... Who got the Million Maga rally started?... Who got January 6 started?" Linder said.

"He's not the one that started that rhetoric that got the people ginned up."

Biden Rebuffs 'Extreme' GOP But Expresses Optimism On Avoiding Default

Biden Rebuffs 'Extreme' GOP But Expresses Optimism On Avoiding Default

Washington (AFP) - Talks to avoid a US debt default were on a knife edge Saturday as President Joe Biden warned he would not accept "extreme" Republican demands but said he remained optimistic.

"I still believe we'll be able to avoid a default and we'll get something decent done," he told reporters at the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan.

With the Treasury Department warning that the US government could run out of money as early as June 1 -- triggering massive economic disruption in the world's biggest economy and likely around the globe -- the political battle in Washington has see-sawed without any clear sign of resolution.

Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, are demanding steep budget cuts as a price for allowing an extension of the government's borrowing authority. The White House is seeking to whittle down Republican demands, while arguing that the traditionally uncontroversial annual debt ceiling increase is being weaponized for political gain.

Hopes for a settlement took a blow Friday when Republicans walked out of negotiations, declaring a "pause."

However, the talks restarted hours later, leading White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre to say "we are indeed optimistic."

Biden, on the other side of the world for the gathering of rich democracies, was briefed on the situation early Saturday, which was still Friday night in Washington, the White House said.

Biden communications director Ben LaBolt said "Republicans are taking the economy hostage and pushing us to the brink of default, which could cost millions of jobs and tip the country into recession after two years of steady job and wage growth."

While Biden will not accept "extreme" Republican policies, "there remains a path forward to arrive at a reasonable bipartisan agreement if Republicans come back to the table to negotiate in good faith," LaBolt said.

Taxing And Spending

More borrowing is required by the US government just to meet expenditures already made, meaning that refusal by the Republicans to lift the debt ceiling would leave Washington unable to pay its bills, triggering an array of economic shockwaves.

Republicans argue that the more than $31 trillion in US national debt is too high to accept and that there should be agreement on getting the books more balanced, rather than simply authorizing a still-higher debt allowance. They passed three increases in the debt limit without dissent while Donald Trump was president.

Democrats say that they are willing to discuss the budget but that first the debt ceiling needs to be raised without condition so that the existing bills can be paid and US financial credibility preserved.

Briefly calling off the talks on Friday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said: "We've got to pause," because "we can't be spending any more money next year." He failed to acknowledge that Trump increased the debt by nearly $8 trillion -- an historic record.

Biden's team says the raft of spending cuts being demanded by Republicans are fueled by the agenda of the party's increasingly dominant hard-right wing.

In his statement, LaBolt said that the Republican budget cuts would lead to large-scale job losses and the weakening of social safety nets, while extending tax breaks for the wealthy. The counter-proposal from the White House is to raise taxes on the wealthy to improve revenue and to accept more limited spending cuts.

In his remarks to reporters, Biden expressed a willingness to be patient.

"It's a negotiation. It goes in stages," he said. Asked if he was worried, he replied: "Not at all."

The president leaves Japan for Washington on Sunday, cutting short a trip that had been set to take him to Papua New Guinea and Australia next week.

Biden Cuts Asian Trip Short To Deal With Republicans On Debt And Budget

Biden Cuts Asian Trip Short To Deal With Republicans On Debt And Budget

Washington (AFP) - President Joe Biden's departure Wednesday to the G7 in Japan was meant to launch a geostrategic masterclass on rallying the world's democracies against China. Instead, he will limp into an abruptly truncated journey facing concerns that the US debt ceiling row is about to tear up the global economy.

Biden arrives Thursday in Hiroshima, one of the two cities hit by US atomic bombs in 1945 -- a closing chapter to World War II and the start of an era of US leadership across the Pacific that Beijing now seeks to supplant.

He will meet leaders from the rest of the G7 club -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan -- that has been so crucial in the US-led drive to enforce unprecedented economic sanctions on China-ally Russia for invading Ukraine.

However, visits next week to Papua New Guinea and to a Sydney summit of the Quad, comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States, were canceled so that Biden can rush back Sunday and negotiate with Republican opponents on the debt ceiling.

For a president who often warns that democracies are in an existential fight to prove their viability against the world's autocracies, it's a sobering moment.

"It's extraordinarily hard... to go to the G7 and talk about economic unity against Russia, economic unity against China, when the dysfunction is coming from inside the house," Josh Lipsky, at the Atlantic Council, said.

Biden downplayed the reshuffling of his schedule, saying, "the nature of the presidency is addressing many critical matters all at once."

But Evan Feigenbaum, a former US diplomat with the Carnegie Endowment, was brutal.

"It's tough to 'compete with China' in the Pacific when you're busy sinking your own boat," he tweeted. "How do we think we look to the rest of the world?"

Candidate Biden Enters Furnace

For Biden, 80, the trip and the debt ceiling mess come at a crucial time. He has just launched his re-election campaign and Americans wary about his age are watching how he copes in the furnace of the presidency at home and abroad.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Biden can multi-task.

"He can travel overseas, and manage our foreign policy and our defense policy and look after our national security commitments in an important region like the Indo-Pacific, and also work with congressional leaders to do the right thing -- raise the debt ceiling, avoid default so that the United States credibility here at home and overseas is preserved," Kirby said.

The risks over the debt ceiling, however, are so huge -- global market panic would be just the beginning of the fallout from a default -- that Biden may spend much of his time trying to reassure fellow world leaders on the state of the US economy, rather than planning how to manage China.

Biden doesn't know whether the increasingly hard-right Republican Party will allow an increase to the debt in time to prevent default. And he also doesn't know whether the left of his own Democratic party will forgive him for the compromises he may have to make to save the situation.

Quad Consolation Prizes

Canceling the Papua New Guinea and Australia stops is a bitter pill for a president who has reinvigorated US diplomacy after the isolationist Trump years.

The Quad, an informal grouping of large democracies interested in restraining aggressive Chinese economic and military expansion across the Pacific, is one of Biden's priorities.

The White House was quick to point out that Biden will already be meeting in Japan on the sidelines of the G7 with his other Quad counterparts.

And a consolation prize for Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was extended in the form of an invitation to a state visit at the White House. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is already booked in for a state visit this June.

But Washington is likely to rue the missed opportunity in Papua New Guinea, where Biden would have been the first serving US president to visit. The symbolism, at a time when remote Pacific island territories and countries have become chess pieces in the geostrategic contest with China, would have been powerful

US-Mexico Border Remains Calm As New Asylum Rules Take Effect

US-Mexico Border Remains Calm As New Asylum Rules Take Effect

El Paso (United States) (AFP) - The US-Mexico border appeared calm on Friday as tough asylum rules come into force, with senior officials in Washington expressing confidence that the new system would work.

Thousands of people remained on the Mexican side of the frontier hoping to enter the United States, but the chaotic surge of migrants that right-wing politicians predicted failed to materialize.

"We are seeing people arrive at our southern border, as we expected, as we have been planning for," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Friday.

"We are screening and vetting them and if they do not have a basis to remain, we will remove them very swiftly."

Arrangements at the border changed at midnight, as the pandemic-era Title 42 -- a health provision that allowed for immediate expulsion -- expired.

In its place is a regularized immigration rule that threatens illegal border-crossers with five-year bans and possible criminal charges, and requires asylum-seekers to apply from outside the country.

"Our plan will take some time, but our plan will succeed," said Mayorkas.

Up to 10,000 people have tried to enter the country every day over the past week, border officials told the US media.

Many turned themselves in to US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) hoping to be registered and "paroled" -- let go because authorities did not have the capacity to house them or expel them.

At the airport in El Paso on Friday, Yoenny Camacaro was hunkered down waiting for a flight to Indiana to reunite with her cousin.

The 23-year-old, who has been granted an appointment with a judge in November 2024, said she was very happy to have arrived in the United States after a long and difficult journey from Venezuela through the jungle and by train.

"It's cold, you don't eat, you can't go to the bathroom, and we depended on food being thrown at us," she told AFP.

"But that's over. Now we're here, we've done it."

In among the relief, there was also tragedy.

US officials said a teenage boy had died in the custody of Health and Human Services, which takes care of children entering the country unaccompanied.

The department gave no details, but Honduran Foreign Minister Enrique Reina said a 17-year-old boy had died in an HHS facility in Florida.

'Calm And Normal'

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said the number of US-bound migrants crossing his country was ebbing.

He said around 26,500 migrants were waiting in Mexican cities along the long US frontier, and the situation was "calm and normal."

"The flux is dropping today. We have not had confrontations or situations of violence on the border," Ebrard told reporters.

Mexico's national immigration agency has ordered its offices to stop issuing documents authorizing migrants to transit through the country, officials said, in an apparent attempt to curb flows to the US border.

Edith Tapia of the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian nonprofit group, said the new policy limiting the ways in which vulnerable people could claim asylum in the United Sates left them prey to the criminal gangs that roam northern Mexico.

This "will continue to put migrants and asylum seekers at risk and (leave them) without the possibility of... protection," she told AFP in El Paso.

The border policy shift ordered by President Joe Biden has been controversial, with his supporters on the left saying new rules are too strict while opponents on the right have claimed, without evidence, that he is "opening the borders."

His new policy came under immediate legal attack.

In Florida, a federal judge agreed to a request from the state's Republican administration and ordered the border patrol to stop granting parole to border crossers and asylum seekers -- letting them remain in the United States while their cases are reviewed, a process that can take years.

And in Texas, 13 Republican-led states filed a suit declaring parole "illegal."

Parole "creates incentives for even more illegal aliens to travel to the southwest border," they said.

Washington says it is expanding legal pathways to asylum by setting up regional processing centers, bolstering guest worker programs, and granting more admissions for refugees from Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela and other troubled countries.

For asylum seekers, it has launched an app, CBP One, to arrange immigration interviews at the border.

While many have complained of glitches, Amadeo Diaz, 62, was in Tijuana, south of California, with his family for his asylum interview.

The family, from Arcelia in Mexico's south, said they faced kidnapping and other violence in the region where drug cartels wield great power.

"There is a lot of kidnapping, a lot of killing. Innocent people are being killed and that is why we decided to come here to ask for help," said Diaz.

Biden Will Meet With Republican Leaders Tuesday To Thwart Default Disaster

Biden Will Meet With Republican Leaders Tuesday To Thwart Default Disaster

Washington (AFP) - Washington's power brokers love playing chicken. But the rest of the world will watch in dread Tuesday when President Joe Biden and Republican leaders meet to negotiate the US debt ceiling -- praying that one side finally blinks.

The White House summit between Biden, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell sets in motion the deciding round of a power struggle whose outcome will impact the global economy and could upset the 2024 US presidential election.

The immediate issue is raising the debt ceiling, an arcane budgeting procedure that most years passes with little controversy. Basically, the US government always spends more than has been budgeted but, unlike in most countries, then requires congressional approval to borrow extra.

This year, McCarthy and his radicalized right-wing party have decided to say no, unless Democrats first agree to sweeping budget cuts, giving in to the Republican message that Biden has been profligate and irresponsible.

Biden, who will be joined in the White House talks by the Democratic minority leader in the House of Representatives, Hakeem Jeffries, and the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, accuses Republicans of "hostage" taking.

He insists that the debt ceiling first be raised -- as in other years -- and only then can he and the Republicans discuss cutting the budget to reduce that decades-old accumulated debt, currently the world's biggest at $31 trillion.

A dispute over sequencing might sound academic.

However, with both sides dug in and the deadline approaching, the debate has turned into a life-or-death test of political strength.

Fail to authorize more borrowing and the government will run out of money and default.

Cue worldwide panic.

Soaring interest rates, stock sell-offs, Treasury bond downgrades, and near certain US recession will be on the menu -- and that's before factoring in long-term harm to the US geopolitical brand.

"Even getting close to a breach of the US debt ceiling could cause significant disruptions," warned a White House analysis. "An actual breach of the US debt ceiling would likely cause severe damage."

When is doomsday? No one knows for sure.

But US coffers could run dry as early as June 1, according to the Treasury.

That's just over three weeks from the Tuesday sit-down.

Huge Divide

As the clock ticks away, the divide appears unbridgeable.

The White House is clinging to an "irrational, reckless" strategy and Democrats are "terrified" about allowing "clueless" Biden to negotiate, tweeted the Freedom Caucus -- the group of hard-right Republicans effectively controlling the razor-thin Republican majority in the House.

Biden is not budging.

A strong economic recovery from the Covid era is one of Biden's main cards in his bid for a second term next year. So the 80-year-old has all the more reason to steer the country clear of crisis.

Yet he's also adamant about not caving into the Republican attempt to link budget negotiations to the debt ceiling, saying this will transform a basic, fundamental obligation into a political football.

"They're trying to hold the debt hostage to (get) us to agree to some draconian cuts," he told advisors Friday.

Biden repeated one of his favorite stats, noting that Republicans had voted, without imposing any conditions, to extend the debt ceiling three times during the presidency of Republican Donald Trump.

"No one's ever not voted to increase the debt limit." he said. "I'm going to reiterate to congressional leaders that they should do what every other Congress has done -- that is, pass the debt limit, avoid the default."

Analysts say there are several potential exit ramps from imminent default.

The two sides could simply punt, extending the debt ceiling for a few weeks, while talks continue.

They could come to a messy compromise that resolves the issue by promising yet-to-be-determined budget cuts, but condemning the nation to repeat the whole drama in an election year.

Failing all else, the White House has not ruled out invoking a constitutional power to bypass Congress altogether and unilaterally authorize more borrowing -- except this would likely be challenged in court.

"I've not gotten there yet," Biden said late Friday in an MSNBC interview on use of the 14th Amendment.

Short of an unexpected political truce, however, there are no easy options.

And while much of the world looks on nervously, some countries are watching in glee, the Biden administration warns.

"They love to see chaos in the American system," White House budget director Shalanda Young said, referring to China and Russia. "They love to see that we can't do our basic jobs."

New York Judge Sets Trump Criminal Trial For February Or March

New York Judge Sets Trump Criminal Trial For February Or March

New York (AFP) - The New York judge presiding over Donald Trump's criminal case asked the prosecution and defense Thursday to agree a specific trial date for February or March next year.

The instruction means the historic trial over hush-money paid to a porn star will occur in the thick of the Republican primaries for the 2024 presidential race in which Trump is seeking to regain office.

Judge Juan Merchan said that once the date is fixed then all parties, including Trump, who is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, should not schedule other events.

"He cannot agree to any speaking engagements, appearances," during the trial, Merchan said at the Manhattan state court, where Trump was not present.

His comments came during the first hearing in the case since Trump was arraigned last month on 34 counts of falsifying business records.

Merchan heard arguments surrounding a request by prosecutors that Trump be prohibited from publicizing elements of the prosecution's case.

The judge said that once he makes a ruling Trump will be required to appear in court virtually via camera to be advised of it.

Trump denied the charges related to reimbursements to his then-lawyer Michael Cohen for the $130,000 payment to pornographic actress Stormy Daniels.

Prosecutors say the 2016 payments were intended to silence Daniels over sex she says she had with the ex-president years earlier.

Trump is the first former or sitting president to ever be charged with a crime.

The criminal case is one of several legal challenges facing Trump as the 76-year-old Republican seeks a return to the White House in next year's election.

He is being investigated over his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the southern state of Georgia, his alleged mishandling of classified documents taken from the White House and his involvement in the storming of the US Capitol by his supporters on January 6, 2021.

Police And Journalists Greet Trump -- But Most New Yorkers Don't Bother

Police And Journalists Greet Trump -- But Most New Yorkers Don't Bother

New York (AFP) - Hoards of reporters, police and barriers greeted Donald Trump when he arrived at his Manhattan residence Monday -- but only a small group of supporters.

Just before midday, authorities closed off Trump Tower to the public, as a heavy police presence and barricades surrounded the building situated on Fifth Avenue.

A tiny group of Trump supporters staged a demonstration that relied mostly on a large banner emblazoned with "Finish the Wall Trump 24," referring to the former president's bid to construct barriers on the US border with Mexico.

Among them was Vito Dichiara, 71, who resides in nearby suburban Long Island and told AFP he formerly worked for the right-wing outlet Fox News.

He accused New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg of engaging in a political conspiracy to prevent Trump from retaking the White House next year, and repeated long-debunked claims that the Democratic Party stole the election from Trump when Joe Biden upset him in 2020.

"I'm here to support Donald Trump, the former president of the United States and the next president of the United States," he said.

A couple of anti-Trump demonstrators also turned out, including Marni Halasa, who dressed as a devil.

Her red dress was covered with fake 100-dollar notes, she said to represent "the hush money" at the heart of the historic indictment against Trump over a payment to a porn actress.

But they were all outnumbered by journalists.

Despite the media excitement and small demonstrations, life went on in the city used to the gaze of outsiders.

Amid the towers adjacent to Manhattan's iconic Central Park, it was business as usual for the yellow taxis streaming by, as delivery cyclists and trucks skirted the hoopla.

A passerby smirked as he passed the crush of journalists who'd been at the ready for hours with cameras.

"It's the best show in town," he said before disappearing into the cityscape. "Even Shakespeare can't do that."

Trump is famously unpopular in Democratic-leaning New York, where he made his name as a brash real estate developer-turned reality TV star.

"It is kind of good to show that somebody isn't above the law, because Trump used to say he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and get away with it," 67-year-old retiree Nancy Andrews told AFP near Grand Central station.

"It's good to see that that mindset is being challenged," she added.

New Yorker Lea Sturley said: "I think the country is very divided at this point. So I think it's important that we understand that this is not about sides. It's about justice."

Bellicose Trump Depicts Himself As Victim Of Prosecutors At 'Low Energy' Waco Rally

Bellicose Trump Depicts Himself As Victim Of Prosecutors At 'Low Energy' Waco Rally

Waco (United States) (AFP) - Donald Trump staged his first presidential campaign rally in Texas Saturday, brushing off his potential indictment as he railed against multiple criminal probes threatening his bid for the White House.

The Republican leader addressed several thousand supporters in the conservative bastion of Waco as he braces for possible charges over a hush money payout to a porn star alleging a sexual encounter just days before the 2016 election.

Maintaining the investigation was over "something that is not a crime, not a misdemeanor, not an affair," Trump told supporters how he had been the victim of "one witch hunt and phony investigation after another."

The rally came amid a torrent of increasingly bellicose statements by the former president claiming "misconduct" by prosecutors he refers to as "human scum" who are pursuing cases against him in New York, Washington and Atlanta.

The 76-year-old -- who was impeached for inciting an insurrection -- called last weekend for protests against Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, and claimed falsely that he was about to be arrested. No significant protests occurred, however.

"This is really prosecutorial misconduct. That's what it's called. The innocence of people makes no difference whatsoever to these radical left maniacs," he told an enthusiastic crowd of thousands.

For loyal followers, the lines were likely familiar, with the appearance marking a thrilling opportunity finally to see the ex-president at a rally.

With Trump speaking in the background, Hungarian-American retiree Marianna Bodrogi told AFP the occasion marked "the first time I've seen Trump in person."

"I love him, he's our savior," the 69-year-old said.

Some of those arriving in Waco for the Trump rally came from other states, and said they were eager to see their candidate returned to the Oval Office, with many wearing MAGA caps or waving flags touting his campaign.

"We have huge power behind Donald Trump that has yet to be unleashed," said Kelly Heath, 49, who lives in Georgia. "You will be shocked."

Trump is believed to be the frontrunner to be the Republican nominee in the 2024 presidential election, as polls show him leading among his party's voters.

The chasing pack, led by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, was initially reticent in its criticism of the ex-reality TV star, but has recently begun criticizing his character and the constant whiff of scandal that surrounds him.

Physician Felicia Macik, a Waco resident in the crowd, told AFP "getting ready to move forward into the new election season, it's been just real inspiring."

The 54-year old said that among the rally's joys were "just seeing him in person and feeling his spirit and making our presence known here."

But The Texas Tribune quoted a "longtime rallygoer" who said the mood at Saturday's event was noticeably low-energy. The paper has also noted that most Texas Republican officials, including the governor and both U.S. senators, have declined to endorse Trump's 2024 candidacy so far.

“There’s just not that much excitement today,” said Samantha Drake, who told the paper she has sold Trump merchandise at hundreds of events across the U.S.. “The energy isn’t as high as I thought it would be.”

'Potential death & destruction'

Trump is under federal investigation for his efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat and inciting the deadly riot at the US Capitol that his supporters launched to halt the peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden.

Commentators noted that he pointedly neglected to call for protesters to be peaceful this time around.

In the early hours of Friday, Trump issued a dark warning about the consequences of an indictment, predicting "potential death & destruction" that "could be catastrophic for our Country."

He suggested that Bragg, who is leading the hush money probe, was a "degenerate psychopath that truly hates the USA."

Trump's choice of Waco for his rally was laden with symbolism -- the city is marking the 30th anniversary of a deadly 1993 standoff between an anti-government cult and federal agents and has become a touchstone for far-right fringe activists glorying in its history of government resistance. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Trump supporter who spoke at the rally, said he had chosen the city at the candidate's behest.

Some Trump supporters trickled into the Waco Siege Memorial on Friday to commemorate the 80 or so people who died in the 1993 standoff at the compound of the Branch Davidian sect, which was besieged by federal agents.

Trump, however, made no mention of the episode Saturday evening.

His spokesman was quoted by US media as pointing to the choice of the central Texas city for its ease of access to others across the state.

New York Prosecutors Offer Trump Chance To Testify Before Grand Jury Indicts

New York Prosecutors Offer Trump Chance To Testify Before Grand Jury Indicts

New York (AFP) - New York prosecutors have offered Donald Trump an opportunity to testify to a grand jury, signaling an investigation into hush money the former president allegedly paid a porn star may soon end in an indictment, media outlets reported on Thursday.

Trump was offered a chance to testify next week to a New York grand jury, whose investigation is said to involve a $130,000 payment made just before the 2016 presidential election to an adult film actress known as Stormy Daniels, The New York Times and The Washington Post reported.

Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has said she had an affair with Trump years before he became president.

The Times said that such offers to testify "almost always indicate an indictment is close."

Both papers quoted people with knowledge of the proceedings led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat who took office in January.

His predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr, also a Democrat, had launched an investigation into Trump's finances in 2019, which resulted in a years-long legal battle over the billionaire's tax documents.

If an indictment were to be filed, it would mark the first time a former US president has been charged with a crime.

The district attorney's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump, who has already declared another bid for the White House, is facing several criminal probes at the state and federal level over possible wrongdoing before, during and after his first term in office. He has not yet been charged in any of them.

Criminal Probes

In Georgia, a prosecutor is investigating Trump and his allies' efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the southern state.

The former president is also the subject of a federal probe into his handling of classified documents as well as his possible involvement in the January 6, 2021 assault on the US Capitol.

That investigation was handed to an independent special counsel shortly after Trump formally announced his new candidacy for the White House.

Trump lashed out Thursday evening on his Truth Social page, calling the New York investigation "a political Witch-Hunt, trying to take down the leading candidate, by far, in the Republican Party."

"I never had an affair with Stormy Daniels, nor would I have wanted to have an affair with Stormy Daniels," he said, without confirming that he had been offered the chance to testify.

The hush money payment, made two weeks ahead of the November 2016 election, was allegedly intended to stop Daniels from publicly disclosing her affair with Trump.

It was made by a close Trump aide, the lawyer Michael Cohen, who said he was later reimbursed.

The payment to Cohen, if not properly accounted, could result in a misdemeanor charge in New York, but that could be raised to a felony if the false accounting was to cover up a second crime, such as a campaign finance violation, the Times said.

Trump said on Truth Social that in the "Daniels matter," he had "relied on counsel in order to resolve this Extortion... which took place a long time ago." It was not immediately clear if he was admitting that the payment had been made.

At California Gun Fair, Recent Massacres Go Unmentioned Amid Brisk Sales

At California Gun Fair, Recent Massacres Go Unmentioned Amid Brisk Sales

Ontario (United States) (AFP) - With ammunition, rifles and bullet-proof vests on display, business is brisk at a Los Angeles area gun show -- so much so you'd never know a mass shooting unfolded nearby just days ago.

Thousands of people turned out this weekend in the city of Ontario in California to view dozens of stands at the trade fair called the Crossroads of the West Gun Show.

Women pushing baby strollers looked at small pistols while strapping young men examined military-style semi-automatic riles that can handle several calibers of ammo. The vibe is cheerful. Kids under 12 get in free.

Most people did not want to address the elephant in the room, though, even as the state mourns.

A mass shooting at a dance hall in Monterey Park, a 30-minute drive away, left 11 dead on September 21. Two days later, another shooter killed seven more people at farms in Half Moon Bay, near San Francisco. In both cases the shooters were elderly Asian men.

"Nobody talks about these incidents, but there is a spike in purchases this week," said a vendor at the show, Crystal Markanson.

"Every time that the media talks about a mass shooting, people buy guns because they're afraid that they'll get taken away."

'Crazy Psychos'

The latest chapter in America's relentless gun violence crisis reignited an old debate on firearms control.

Yet again, President Joe Biden called for a federal ban on military-style assault rifles, the kind of gun often used in these mass killings.

But with Republicans in Congress steadfastly opposed, the idea has no chance of becoming law.

"Targeting specific styles of guns is not the right answer," said Brett Reeves, a 34-year-old air conditioning salesman who wore a cowboy hat.

In California, which has some of the country's toughest gun laws, assault rifles have been banned for more than 30 years.

"And yet we keep hearing about mass shootings," Reeves added.

The self-described libertarian owns a dozen or so guns, from pump action rifles to pistols, and none of them are registered with authorities. He has built them himself with gun parts he buys at shows like this one he is taking in now.

Reeves said he was not surprised to learn the gun used in the Monterey Park shooting was illegal. That is because it is considered an assault weapon.

"Restrictions are only pushing people to go underground," said Reeves, who described himself as big on guns for self-defense.

"And crazy psychos are going to continue targeting innocent people," he added.

Texas is a lot safer than California because there in the Lone Star State, Reeves insisted, it is easier to carry a gun out in the open.

"You have to be able to protect yourself against those crazy people," said Reeves.

'Our Laws Are Working'

Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, said: "Our laws are working. California's rates of gun violence are much lower than in the rest of the country."

But he noted that the country is awash with 400 million guns. The US population is about 330 million.

Unlike other places in the US, you can't just buy a gun at the Ontario show and take it home.

Buyers must prove they are at least 21, undergo a background check and, if they clear, wait 10 days to take delivery of the weapon.

Thanks to restrictions like these, compared to citizens of other states, Californians are about 25 percent less likely to die in mass shootings, says the Public Policy Institute of California.

"These tragedies need to stop. People should be safe and not get shot," a man named Adolfo Garcia said as he left the fair after stocking up on bullets for his semi-automatic rifle.

Biden Seeks Action On 'Irregular' Migration And Fentanyl Smuggling In Mexico

Biden Seeks Action On 'Irregular' Migration And Fentanyl Smuggling In Mexico

Mexico City (AFP) - US President Joe Biden on Monday sought tougher action on illegal migration and drugs in talks with his Mexican counterpart Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, as strains showed in the neighbors' approach to tackling the crisis.

Biden is visiting Mexico for the first time as president to meet Lopez Obrador and also hold three-way talks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at what is dubbed the "Three Amigos" summit.

Biden said that one of his priorities was discussing "the plague of fentanyl, which has killed 100,000 Americans so far," referring to the often-deadly opioid smuggled across the border by Mexican drug cartels.

Another vital issue was "how we can tackle irregular migration, which I think we're well on our way to doing," he said at the start of the talks, calling Mexico a "true partner."

While Lopez Obrador gave Biden a warm welcome on his arrival at the presidential palace, his tone hardened at the formal talks, where the Mexican leader appealed for a change in US attitudes toward the region.

"It is time to end this oblivion, this abandonment, this disdain for Latin America and the Caribbean," Lopez Obrador said.

Biden defended Washington's record, saying it had spent "tens of billions of dollars" in the past 15 years alone that had benefited the region.

"The United States provides more foreign aid than every other country just about combined," he said.

"Unfortunately, our responsibility just doesn't end in the Western Hemisphere," Biden added.

The White House said after the meeting that the two leaders had discussed "increased cooperation to prosecute drug traffickers and dismantle criminal networks, disrupt the supply of illicit precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, shut down drug laboratories, and prevent trafficking of drugs, arms, and people across our shared border."

They also "reaffirmed their commitment to implement innovative approaches to address irregular migration... and to address the root causes of migration," a statement said.

'Where are our rights?'

On his way to Mexico, Biden made a politically charged visit to the southern US border for the first time as president.

He stopped for several hours in the border city of El Paso, Texas, meeting with US officials and inspecting a section of the tall fencing that snakes along the frontier.

"They need a lot of resources. We're going to get it for them," Biden told reporters after his visit to a customs post.

Just ahead of Biden's arrival in Mexico, a line of migrants, some with children in their arms, were deported from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez.

Venezuelan Jose David Melendez told AFP that he had been apprehended by border guards at a church where he was taking refuge.

"The police officers from the border patrol came and hit us, made us run, pointed guns at us, pointed at children with firearms. Where are our human rights?" the 25-year-old said.

On Thursday Biden announced an expansion of powers to expel people showing up at the border without clearance.

At the same time, a legal, strictly enforced pathway will be created for up to 30,000 migrants a month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Asked whether the quota could be increased, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Washington wanted to see how the changes unfold, adding: "I don't think we have a fixed number in mind."

Handshakes and Hugs

Lopez Obrador and his wife Beatriz Gutierrez greeted the US president and Jill Biden at the National Palace for a welcome ceremony notable for its smiles, enthusiastic handshakes and even hugs.

The first wives delivered a joint message in English and Spanish emphasizing the two countries' shared values.

In 2021, the United States and Mexico announced a revamp of their fight against drug trafficking to address the root causes of migration, encourage economic development and bolster curbs against cross-border arms smuggling.

Mexico is plagued by cartel-related bloodshed that has seen more than 340,000 people murdered since the government deployed the military in the war on drugs in 2006.

Days before Biden's visit, Mexican security forces captured a son of notorious drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who is serving a life sentence at a US prison.

Climate change and cooperation in clean energy technologies will also be on the summit agenda, with Mexico hoping to benefit from Washington's efforts to reduce its reliance on Asia-based manufacturers.

House Select Panel Will Vote Three Criminal Referrals Against Trump Today

House Select Panel Will Vote Three Criminal Referrals Against Trump Today

Washington (AFP) - After a year and a half of hearings and more than 1,000 depositions, the House Select Committee that investigated Donald Trump's responsibility in the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol and the attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election delivers its findings today.

In a public hearing scheduled for 1 pm ET , the elected members of the select committee will present the eight chapters of its long investigation and will vote to recommend prosecution of Trump and others.

The main elements of the investigation include:

'An Attempted Coup'

The committee, comprising seven Democrats and two Republicans, was tasked with shedding light on the former president's actions before and during January 6, 2021, the day that shook the pillars of American democracy.

The probe attempted to show that Trump's rejection of the November 2020 presidential election results was not simply a tantrum by a sore loser but a core part of a careful strategy to defy the constitution and retain power.

Trump was "at the center" of "an attempted coup," the committee chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MI) said of the events on January 6, 2021.

Pressure On The Vice President

In a series of high-profile hearings, the committee provided evidence that it was impossible for Trump not to know that he had lost the election to Joe Biden.

His "voter fraud" theories did not convince several members of his inner circle, including a series of advisers, his attorney general and even his own daughter Ivanka, who spoke in on-camera testimony.

In an attempt to invalidate the presidential election, Trump pressured election officials, particularly in Georgia and Arizona. The commission revealed the extent of this intimidation, inviting several of them to testify in person.

The Republican then called on his vice president, Mike Pence, to block the January 6, 2021, certification by Congress of his rival Joe Biden's victory.

"What the former president was willing to sacrifice -- potentially the vice president -- in order to stay in power is pretty jarring," Democratic panel member Pete Aguilar said at one of the hearings.

Trump's Passivity On January 6

Trump summoned his supporters to come to Washington on January 6, calling on them to "fight like hell."

In the crowd gathered a short distance from the White House, Trump knew that some of the protesters were armed and potentially dangerous, former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson told a hearing in June.

Trump nevertheless sought to join the throng on its way to Congress, attempting to grab the wheel of the presidential SUV from a Secret Service agent, according to Hutchinson's explosive testimony.

He then spent three hours watching television images of the unfolding violence on Capitol Hill without intervening.

The members of the committee deemed that he had, at the very least, engaged in "complete dereliction of duty" as commander in chief.

Recommending Charges Against Trump

The committee will conduct its final public hearing Monday, in which it will recommend charges over the insurrection, and issue its final report on Wednesday. The Washington Post and Politico report that the committee will vote on referring Trump for three charges: obstruction of an official proceeding of Congress, conspiracy to defraud the United States and insurrection.

Several legal experts said Trump could be criminally prosecuted for "obstructing an official government proceeding" or on a broader charge of "conspiracy to defraud" the government by disrupting the functioning of institutions.

The decision to press charges will ultimately rest with Attorney General Merrick Garland, who in mid-November appointed a special prosecutor to independently investigate Trump.

The commission may also make legislative recommendations to protect the process of certifying election results so that the events of January 6, 2021, can never happen again.

Can Musk Monetize Twitter Users To Replace Lost Ad Revenue?

Can Musk Monetize Twitter Users To Replace Lost Ad Revenue?

San Francisco (AFP) - Is it a pipe dream or possibility? Elon Musk wants to diversify Twitter's revenue stream beyond advertising, a feat none of the biggest social networks have yet pulled off.

Something of a gold standard, social media ads can be fine-tuned and tailored to individual users on a mass scale, and have been particularly lucrative for Meta's Facebook and Instagram, as well as Google.

"Facebook pretty much set the standard for having an ad model for social networks," said Jasmine Enberg, an analyst at Insider Intelligence. "But that doesn't necessarily have to be the way that social platforms monetize."

Social networks are facing budget cuts from inflation-afflicted advertisers and increased regulations on the use of lucrative personal data, so it makes sense for them "to be exploring new, non-ad monetization techniques," she said.

The issue is delicate for Twitter, whose turnover is 90 percent dependent on advertising. Advertisers, on the other hand, do not necessarily need Twitter and can turn to other social networks.

The advertising situation at Twitter has been particularly dire since Musk took over the company in late October.

In recent weeks, half of Twitter's 100 top advertisers have announced they are suspending or have otherwise "seemingly stopped advertising on Twitter," an analysis conducted by nonprofit watchdog group Media Matters found.

They fear being associated with toxic content as Musk, who describes himself as a "free speech absolutist," advocates for laxer moderation.

Alternate solutions

Social media sites are testing two alternate solutions in particular: charging everyday users and charging content creators.

The forum platform Reddit has deployed a hybrid model, making money via advertising, paid subscriptions and digital coins that allow users access to special privileges.

That said, "It's always hard to charge for something that used to be free," said Carolina Milanesi of research firm Creative Strategies.

"Unless you give something different or create a different product, you can't go from not charging to charging," she said.

While Twitter has been offering a paid subscription with additional features since last year, Musk aimed to raise the price to $8 a month and include account verification in the plan's perks.

A partial launch was chaotic, however, and prompted the proliferation of so many fake accounts that the rollout of so-called Twitter Blue has now been paused.

"Figuring out a way to charge users for premium features and make money off of users is not a bad idea," Enberg said.

But she said the benefits Twitter offered may not have been enticing enough, and that the verification aspect should be more of a security feature than a monetizable feature.

Finally, because paid subscribers -- arguably the most active on the network -- would see 50 percent less advertising than non-paying users, the plan would "dilute the quality and the size of the addressable audience for advertisers."

Some newer platforms are trying to do without advertising altogether, with no guarantee of long-term viability.

For example, on Discord, a live-discussion social network, subscribers have access to more emoticons.

And on the fledgling photo-sharing app BeReal, users can escape ads with in-app purchases for extra features, according to the Financial Times.

'Big-Name Influencers'

Twitter had some 230 million daily active users as of June, and Musk continues to congratulate himself on growing that number since taking over.

But increased users do not necessarily translate into dollars.

Snapchat, which also launched a paid version in June, has gained more and more users, but not necessarily money.

Faced with this reality, platforms are competing for content creators to attract and retain audiences -- and either taking commission or making them pay for the promotion of their messages and videos.

This represents "a really big opportunity" for Twitter, Enberg said.

Twitter "does have a lot of celebrities and big-name influencers, politicians and journalists" with whom it could form a mutually financially beneficial relationship, she said.

Milanesi added that while the network already offers some promotional tools, they are "quite expensive, and not very effective."

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

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

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'

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".