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Court's Abortion Ruling Forces Companies To Make A Choice

New York (AFP) - Several large US companies have pledged to provide health coverage for out-of-state abortions, with a few also slamming the Supreme Court decision nullifying federal abortion rights.

But the issue remains a hot potato, requiring companies to navigate dynamic political terrain with potential legal liability at stake.

"Today's Scotus [Supreme Court of the United States] ruling puts women's health in jeopardy, denies them their human rights, and threatens to dismantle the progress we've made toward gender equality in the workplace since Roe," said Yelp Chief Executive Jeremy Stoppelman on Twitter.

"Business leaders must speak out now and call on Congress to codify Roe into law."

But few other CEOs of large US companies joined Stoppelman Friday in condemning the decision.

More common were statements from companies announcing or reiterating intention to reimburse employees if they need to travel for an abortion.

Friday's ruling overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision enshrining a woman's right to an abortion, saying individual states can restrict or ban the procedure themselves.

The decision is expected to result in patchwork legal rights across the United States, with abortion legal in progressive states like California and New York and barred in more conservative states like Texas.

Yelp and Airbnb were among the companies to announce such benefits last September following a Texas law banning abortion after six weeks, or before many women know they are pregnant.

Others, including Citigroup, Tesla, and Amazon, had also announced the benefit in following months.

More companies came forward after a draft version of Friday's abortion ruling was published in a press leak in May; this group included Starbucks, Levi Strauss, and JPMorgan Chase.

On Friday, Disney added its name to the list, assuring employees of access to reproductive care benefits "no matter where they live," according to a memo reported by CNBC.

But many other large companies have avoided publicly discussing the topic, a dynamic that Wharton business school professor Maurice Schweitzer considers unsurprising.

Cautionary Tale

"I think we'll see more companies' statements. But companies are facing a challenge. On the one hand, they want to be active, be involved, make a statement, lead on this issue, because particularly for some companies, their employees value this," Schweitzer said.

"But it's a complicated issue, because the legal landscape will change," opening companies up to possible litigation, he added.

Schweitzer pointed to Disney's recent difficulties in Florida as a cautionary tale.

The entertainment giant found itself between a rock and a hard place as Florida's legislature advanced what critics have called the "Don't Say Gay" law, which bans lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary schools.

After initially staying quiet on the proposal, Disney finally spoke out on the measure, enraging far right Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who ultimately signed a second law specifically punishing Disney over the row by eliminating the company's special status surrounding its Orlando theme park.

Disney "ended up frustrating employees by not speaking out early enough, but also incurring costs from a political fight."

Schweitzer noted that more companies have spoken out in recent years, such as Apple CEO Tim Cook on gay rights and Dick's Sporting Goods on gun control. On Friday, Dick's announced that it will provide up to $4,000 for employees, their spouses, or their dependents who have to travel for an abortion.

But the procedure is "more fraught" than many issues, Schweitzer said.

"It's easier for companies to try to be silent than to wade into it," he said.

Supreme Court Strikes Down Constitutional Right To Abortion

Washington (AFP) - The US Supreme Court on Friday ended the right to abortion in a seismic ruling that shreds half a century of constitutional protections on one of the most divisive and bitterly fought issues in American political life.

The conservative-dominated court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade decision that enshrined a woman's right to an abortion, saying that individual states can now permit or restrict the procedure themselves.

"The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion; Roe and Casey are overruled; and the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives," the court said.

In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said "abortion presents a profound moral issue on which Americans hold sharply conflicting views.

"The Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion," he said.

Dissenting were the three liberals on the court.

The ruling will likely set into motion a cavalcade of new laws in roughly half of the 50 US states that will severely restrict or outright ban and criminalize abortions, forcing women to travel long distances to states that still permit the procedure.

The opinion shredded the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling by the nation's highest court that said women had the right to abortion based on the constitutional right to privacy over their own bodies.

Alito's opinion largely mirrors his draft opinion that was the subject of an extraordinary leak in early May, sparking demonstrations around the country and tightened security at the court in downtown Washington.

Barricades have been erected around the court to keep back the protesters gathered outside -- after an armed man was arrested on June 8 near the home of conservative justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The court's ruling goes against an international trend of easing abortion laws, including in such countries as Ireland, Argentina, Mexico and Colombia where the Catholic Church continues to wield considerable influence.

Victory For Religious Right

It represents a victory of 50 years of struggle against abortion by the religious right but the anti-abortion camp is expected to continue to push for an outright nationwide ban.

The ruling was made possible by the nomination of three conservative justices to the court by former Republican president Donald Trump -- Neil Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

The case before the court was a Mississippi law that would restrict abortion to 15 weeks but during the hearing of the case in December several justices indicated they were prepared to go further.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 13 states have adopted so-called "trigger laws" that will ban abortion following the move by the Supreme Court.

Ten others have pre-1973 laws that could go into force or legislation that would ban abortion after six weeks, before many women even know they are pregnant.

Women living in states with strict anti-abortion laws will either have to continue with their pregnancy, undergo a clandestine abortion or obtain abortion pills, or travel to another state where the procedure remains legal.

Several Democratic-ruled states, anticipating an influx, have taken steps to facilitate abortion and clinics have also shifted their resources.

Travel is expensive, however, and abortion rights groups say abortion restrictions will severely impact poor women, many of whom are Black or Hispanic.

Senate Advances Bipartisan Breakthrough Legislation On Gun Safety

Washington (AFP) - The United States Senate advanced a bipartisan bill late Thursday addressing the epidemic of gun violence convulsing the country, approving a narrow package of new firearms restrictions and billions of dollars in mental health and school security funding.

The reforms -- which are almost certain to be rubber-stamped by the House of Representatives on Friday -- fall short of the demands of gun safety advocates and President Joe Biden, but have been hailed as a life-saving breakthrough after almost 30 years of inaction by Congress.

"This bipartisan legislation will help protect Americans," Biden said in a statement shortly after the Senate vote. "Kids in schools and communities will be safer because of it."

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which was backed by all 50 Democratic senators and 15 Republicans, includes enhanced background checks for buyers under the age of 21, $11 billion in funding for mental health and $2 billion for school safety programs.

It also provides funding to incentivize states to implement "red flag" laws to remove firearms from people considered a threat.

And it closes the so-called "boyfriend" loophole, under which domestic abusers could avoid a ban on buying firearms if they were not married to or living with their victim.

"Tonight, the United States Senate is doing something many believed was impossible even a few weeks ago: we are passing the first significant gun safety bill in nearly 30 years," Senate Democratic majority leader Chuck Schumer said after the legislation passed.

"The gun safety bill we are passing tonight can be described with three adjectives: bipartisan, common sense, lifesaving."

His Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell said the legislation would make America safer "without making our country one bit less free."

"This is a common-sense package. Its provisions are very, very popular. It contains zero new restrictions, zero new waiting periods, zero mandates and zero bans of any kind for law-abiding gun owners."

The National Rifle Association and most Republicans in both chambers of Congress opposed the bill but it is endorsed by advocacy groups working in policing, domestic violence and mental illness.

The Senate and House are on a two-week recess starting next week but the Democratic-controlled House is expected to approve the Senate's bill with little drama before members leave town on Friday night.

'Historic Day'

The breakthrough is the work of a cross-party group of senators who have been hammering out the details and resolving disputes for weeks.

The lawmakers had been scrambling to finish the negotiations quickly enough to capitalize on the momentum generated by the fatal shooting of 19 children in Uvalde, Texas and of 10 Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, upstate New York, both last month.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who led negotiations for the Democrats, hailed a "historic day."

"This will become the most significant piece of anti-gun-violence legislation Congress has passed in three decades," he said on the Senate floor.

"This bill also has the chance to prove to the weary American public that democracy is not so broken, that it is able to rise to the moment."

The last significant federal gun control legislation was passed in 1994, introducing a national background check system and banning the manufacture for civilian use of assault rifles and large capacity ammunition clips.

But it expired a decade later and there has since been no serious movement on reform, despite rising gun violence.

Biden had pushed for more substantial reforms, including a reinstatement of the ban on assault rifles -- which were used in both the Texas and New York shootings -- and high-capacity magazines.

But the political challenge of legislating in a 50-50 Senate, where most bills require 60 votes to pass, means that more wide-ranging reforms are unrealistic.

"The morning after the tragedy in Uvalde, the United States Senate faced a choice," Schumer added.

"We could surrender to gridlock... Or we could choose to try and forge a bipartisan path forward to pass a real bill, as difficult as that may have seemed to many."

The vote came as a boon for gun safety activists hours after they were dismayed by a Supreme Court ruling that Americans have a fundamental right to carry a handgun in public.

The 6-3 decision struck down a more than century-old New York law that required a person to prove they had a legitimate self-defense need to receive a permit to carry a concealed handgun outside the home.

Watergate Anniversary Arrives As Trump Scandal Eclipses Nixon

Washington (AFP) - Fifty years since it ignited Washington, the Watergate affair remains a cautionary tale on the threat of untrammeled presidential power and the yardstick against which all other political scandals are judged.

Yet some historians believe its architect, Richard Nixon, risks being displaced as the norm-breaking exemplar of presidential corruption by Donald Trump and the firestorm over his role in the 2021 US Capitol assault.

Nixon's underlying crime was covering up a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington's Watergate complex to steal documents that might have helped him in an election he would ultimately win by a landslide anyway.

The accusations against Trump -- that he incited a deadly riot to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power as part of a conspiracy to overturn an election -- appear "far more serious," says history professor Michael Green.

Nixon "already has been knocked off his perch, frankly," Green, of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, told AFP.

"One of the ironies is that Nixon did not need to order a break-in to win that election," he said. "And there is no evidence, even with all of the tapes, that there was ever a discussion or thought of overturning the result if it went against him."

Five Watergate burglars were caught red-handed on June 17, 1972 and it quickly emerged that some were linked to the Nixon campaign and the White House.

The ensuing probe eventually opened a Pandora's box of abuses and dirty tricks that included political spying, the forgery of correspondence and even the theft of a pair of shoes to intimidate a Nixon rival.

But the cover-up was initially so successful that Nixon won 49 of the 50 states in his landslide victory over Democrat George McGovern in that year's presidential election.

'The First Seditious President'

The whitewash might have succeeded were it not for the chance discovery in the summer of 1973 that the president had secretly recorded all of his White House meetings.

They included a "smoking gun" tape in which Nixon could be heard ordering that the FBI, which was set to investigate the Watergate break-in, be told to "stay the hell out of this."

Nixon resigned after a delegation of Republican elders, led by ultra-conservative Barry Goldwater, came to the White House in 1974 to tell him he was likely to be impeached and the jig was up.

He was ultimately pardoned but many of his top aides went to jail.

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the reporters who played a pivotal role in bringing down Nixon, have written a new foreword for their iconic book All the President's Men drawing parallels to Trump.

Their comparison offers an insight into a pair of outsiders who felt besieged by enemies in the media and institutions of state.

But they suggest that Trump's incitement of a mob to march on the Capitol constituted "a deception that exceeded even Nixon's imagination."

"By legal definition this is clearly sedition... thus Trump became the first seditious president in our history," they say.

Analysts interviewed by AFP pointed to the vastly different political and media landscape Nixon and Trump faced when it came to consequences for their actions.

The Goldwater intervention, for example, would be inconceivable among the vast majority of today's serving Republicans, who have stuck by Trump through two impeachments and numerous other controversies.

'Just Another Story'

And while the Senate voted unanimously to set up a cross-party investigative committee on Watergate, the Republicans of the 2020s vetoed a bipartisan commission and punished two members who joined the Democratic-led House committee investigating January 6.

Some 80 million Americans -- considerably more than a third of the population -- tuned in to White House counsel John Dean's televised testimony against Nixon at the Watergate hearings.

Around 20 million -- just six percent of Americans -- watched the blockbuster first hearing put on by the January 6 panel.

For David Greenberg, author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image, the Watergate hearings were "instrumental" in bringing down a president attempting to subvert democracy.

"The difference, however, is that in 1973 and 1974 a great many Republican congressmen and senators loyal to Nixon ended up admitting that he was engaged in criminal activity," he told AFP.

"Today, only a few... have been willing to acknowledge Trump's complicity. Our polarized, partisan environment may prevent the January 6 hearings from achieving all they should."

Meanwhile Trump's impeachment for inciting the insurrection -- and the apparent cover up of almost eight hours of his phone calls on January 6 -- have not significantly eroded his support base.

"At the time of Watergate, Americans were united and trusted their media sources as part of one national conversation. Today that is impossible," former CNN anchor Rick Sanchez told AFP.

If the right-wing cable news outlets that dominate current conservative discourse had been around in the 1970s, argues Sanchez, Watergate would have been "just another story in the 24-hour news cycle of America."

Senate Gun Measures Gaining Support Despite Limited Scope

Washington (AFP) - Two horrific massacres in recent weeks have succeeded in bringing Democrats and Republicans close to the most significant federal legislation addressing US gun violence in three decades.

Twenty senators -- 10 from each party -- reached a deal Sunday to put through legislation that would tighten some rules on gun sales and put more resources toward mental health treatment.

The 10 Republicans are just enough to ensure that the legislation could overcome Senate rules that have allowed the party since the 1990s to block almost every single measure aimed at controlling the flood of personal firearms on the US market.

Their agreement comes less than a month after two shocking mass shootings: first, when 10 African Americans were killed on May 14 at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and then less than two weeks later when 19 children and two teachers were shot and killed at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

Those tragedies also brought into focus smaller, but more frequent instances of gun violence across the United States.

Chris Coons, a Senate Democrat who led the chamber's bipartisan effort, said the legislation could be introduced within days and possibly passed in early July.

"In the wake of the horrifying recent shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde, and across the country, Americans have demanded that the Senate take meaningful steps forward on this issue," said Coons.

"This framework will save lives. If it becomes law, it will lower the risks of mass shootings, of lethal domestic violence incidents, of violence we see too frequently on our streets."

Modest Measures

The senators' agreed measures are modest, and far short of what US President Joe Biden called for following last month's tragic killings.

They include:

  • Enhanced background checks for people under 21 buying a gun, allowing a review of juvenile crime and mental health records
  • Funding and incentives for states to pass "red flag" laws to keep guns out of the hands of people deemed a danger to themselves or society, and perpetrators of domestic abuse
  • Tougher penalties for "straw purchasers" of guns for others that feed illegal firearms trafficking
  • Closing loopholes on gun dealer regulations
  • Federal support for state investments in school security and mental health programs

But they did not approach demands from gun control advocates, including an outright ban on assault rifles, as was in place from 1994 to 2004, a ban on gun sales to people under 21, mandatory waiting periods in all gun purchases, and bans on high-capacity magazines.

Both the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings were by 18-year-olds using high-powered AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles.

Moreover, whatever gains that come with the legislation could be dealt a setback by a Supreme Court ruling due this month that could overturn state restrictions on carrying guns in public.

  • 'Breaking the logjam' -

Even so, gun control advocates cheered the measures, recognizing the potential for a significant shift towards breaking the gun industry's stranglehold.

"We applaud this historic step forward for gun violence prevention -- one born out of the recognition that this nation needs change and action to save American lives from preventable gun violence," said Kris Brown, president of the Brady: United Against Gun Violence group.

"We're breaking the logjam in Congress and proving that gun safety isn't just good policy -– it's good politics," said Shannon Watts, founder of the group Moms Demand Action.

Narrow Political Margin

Yet supporters were not fully confident the measures will pass, knowing that the legislation could be blocked if fewer than 10 of the Senate's 50 Republicans support it.

Working in their favor is that none of the 10 Republicans who agreed to the deal Sunday are standing for reelection in November. Four are retiring, and five won't face reelection until 2026; one other faces reelection in 2024.

The 20 senators "are committed to each other and to this project," said Coons.

But the National Rifle Association, which has wielded powerful influence over Republicans for decades, made clear their fundamental opposition.

"NRA will continue to oppose any effort to insert gun control policies, initiatives that override constitutional due process protections and efforts to deprive law-abiding citizens of their fundamental right to protect themselves into this or any legislation," the group said.

David Hogg, leader of anti-gun violence group March For Our Lives and himself a school shooting survivor, called for action to counter the NRA's political pressure.

"We're going to need a lot of gun owners to speak out and let these Republican senators know that they are supported, that the NRA speaks only for the NRA and not the majority of responsible, voting gun owners," he said.

House Select Panel Warns Conspiracy Behind Violence Is 'Not Over'

Washington (AFP) - The conspiracy that drove a mob to attack the US Capitol in January 2021 still poses a threat to American democracy, the head of the congressional committee tasked with investigating the deadly riot warned on Thursday evening at the panel's first public hearing.

In a live prime-time presentation, the committee offered the first conclusions from a year-long probe into the assault -- and outlined a deep-rooted and ongoing plot to undermine the US Constitution and overturn Donald Trump's election defeat.

The hearing served as an "opening statement" on the January 6 insurrection, laying out for the American public the causes of one of the darkest days in the history of US democracy.

The committee's Democratic chairman Bennie Thompson will said that his panel's work is about more than looking backwards, as US democracy "remains in danger."

"The conspiracy to thwart the will of the people is not over," warned Thompson.

"There are those in this country who thirst for power but have no love or respect for what makes America great: devotion to the Constitution, allegiance to the rule of law, our shared journey to build a more perfect Union."

Vice-chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) laid out in detail the coming weeks of hearings -- including Trump's "seven-part plan" to overturn the 2020 presidential election -- and offered a specific warning to the House Republicans who ousted her from leadership. "I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible. There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain,"

The panel began to demonstrate that the violence was part of a broader conspiracy by Trump and his inner circle to illegitimately cling to power, tearing up the Constitution and more than two centuries of peaceful transitions from one administration to the next.

"We will be revealing new details showing that the violence of January 6 was the result of a coordinated multi-step effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election and stop the transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden," a select committee aide said.

"And indeed that former president Donald Trump was at the center of that effort."

A slickly-produced two hours of television -- and five subsequent hearings over the coming weeks -- focused on Trump's role in the multi-pronged effort to return him to the Oval Office as an unelected president by disenfranchising millions of voters.

Trump has defiantly dismissed the probe as a baseless "witch hunt" -- but the public hearings were clearly on his mind Thursday as he launched into a largely false tirade on his social media platform, defending the insurrection as "the greatest movement in the history of our Country to Make America Great Again."

The case the committee began to make is that Trump laid the groundwork for the insurrection through months of lies about fraud in an election described by his own administration as the most secure ever.

His White House is accused of involvement in several potentially illegal schemes to aid the effort, including a plot to seize voting machines and another to appoint fake "alternative electors" from swing states who would ignore the will of their voters and hand victory to Trump.

'Chilling' Conspiracy

The committee is presented live testimony Thursday from Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards and filmmaker Nick Quested, who interacted with members of the neofascist organization the Proud Boys on January 6 and in the days leading to the violence.

The hearing featured previously unseen video clips of the violence itself and excerpts from a trove of 1,000 interviews, including a "meaningful portion" of discussions with Trump's senior White House and campaign officials -- as well as members of his family. The committee played clips of Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner and former Trump aides who admitted that the president had been informed he lost the election.

Quested will testify Thursday about his experience shadowing members of the Proud Boys in the days leading up to January 6 and his interactions with them on the day itself.

The Emmy Award-winning director's evidence was crucial, said a committee aide, because he was on the scene during the first moments of violence against the Capitol Police and "all the chaos that ensued."

Court Of Public Opinion

Edwards, who was present at the breach of the first barricade, testified emotionally about sustaining head injuries in clashes with the far-right group, which saw its leader and four lieutenants charged on Monday with seditious conspiracy.

Outside the hearing, a number of Trump's most loyal counter-punchers are expected to circle the wagons on Capitol Hill, questioning any damning testimony and challenging the validity of the investigation.

"It is the most political and least legitimate committee in American history," the leader of the House Republican minority, Kevin McCarthy, told reporters at the Capitol.

In fact, Congress has wide-ranging oversight powers, and a Trump-appointed federal judge last month emphatically rejected Republicans' arguments that the committee is illegitimate and overtly partisan.

The committee has not confirmed its plans for after the initial slate of hearings, but at least one more presentation and a final report are expected in the fall.

Underground Abortion Group In Spotlight As GOP Threatens Women's Rights

Washington (AFP) - Heather Booth was a student in Chicago in 1965 when she received a call from a friend in need. His sister, he said, was pregnant but not ready to have a child. She was "nearly suicidal."

Drawing on her contacts in the city, Booth helped the young woman find a doctor willing to perform an illegal abortion -- in what she believed would be a one-off "act of goodwill."

"But word must have spread," the 76-year-old said in an interview from her home in Washington, more than half a century later.

That one act would grow into an underground network of women called "Jane," whose members helped end thousands of unwanted pregnancies, safely and without stigma -- eventually performing 11,000 abortions themselves.

By January 22, 1973 -- when the US Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision created a nationwide right to abortion -- seven "Jane" members were awaiting trial.

One of them was Martha Scott, who at the age of 80 -- and with the court now expected to repeal that right -- looks back defiantly on her decision to break the law many years ago.

"I felt very strongly... that we are doing this illegal thing because it is important to do, because it can't be done legally," Scott said in a video interview from her home in Chicago.

"We were just ladies down the street," she said, but "bad laws require you to choose to act in ways that may be a little risky."

'Caring Community'

Booth and Scott, whose journey with the "Janes" is spotlighted in an upcoming HBO documentary, have stark memories of the time before Roe -- when desperate women would harm themselves attempting to end their pregnancies.

"Some were taking lye (a caustic ingredient in soap), some were using a coat hanger," said Booth. "Some were doing damage to themselves, throwing themselves down stairs or off a rooftop."

Without alternatives, women sought out abortions from illegal providers, many of whom were motivated by profit or unscrupulous in other ways, with little concern for women's health.

Eleanor Oliver, another former member of the network, said when she sought an illegal abortion in Washington, she was told the doctor might want her to be "a little cozier and friendlier than just a patient."

Fortunately, said the now-84-year-old Oliver, "he was very businesslike, very official."

As word got out that Booth could help women get a safe abortion, more and more began contacting her -- and she recruited others to help.

To be discreet, they told callers to leave a message for "Jane" -- and the group, established as a "caring community," was born.

After some time, the group discovered their abortionist was not a licensed doctor -- a shock that led some members to leave.

But others, said Scott, realized that if a man without professional training could learn how to safely perform abortions, so could they.

'Just Furious'

In May 1972, the police barged into the apartment where the "Jane" collective was operating.

"They kept saying 'So where's the doctor?'...'‘Where's the guy who's doing abortions?'" recalled Scott, who was in one of the bedrooms-turned-surgeries.

"Well, of course, it wasn't any guy who was doing abortions… we were doing abortions."

She and six others were rounded up and taken to jail, where they spent the night -- before being released pending trial.

In the wake of Roe v. Wade, the charges against the "Janes" were dropped, and the group disbanded.

Half a century later, though, their work appears relevant all over again, after a leak revealed that the Supreme Court is seriously considering a full reversal of Roe.

Scott was "furious, just furious" at the news -- but "not surprised" either, in light of former president Donald Trump's nomination of three anti-abortion conservative justices, tilting the bench decisively to the right.

If the nationwide right to abortion is struck down -- leaving states free to enact "dangerous" restrictions -- Scott expects a new generation of activists will need to step up.

"What we need to do is use every tool at our disposal," echoed Booth.

While conservative-led states are expected to drastically curb abortion rights if given free rein, it would remain legal in many other states -- "islands in the storm," as Booth calls them.

Some, like Illinois, have already moved to loosen their abortion restrictions in anticipation of the Supreme Court decision.

The poorest women -- less able to travel out of state -- will be the hardest-hit, as seen in Texas where abortions after six weeks have already been effectively banned.

But new medication can safely induce abortions up to 10 weeks into a pregnancy and -- though it would still be illegal -- can easily be sent through the mail.

And so, Scott and Booth hold out hope that the United States will not be going back to the dark days of back-alley abortions.

"The abortions won't stop," Booth said, citing data that shows one in four American women will terminate a pregnancy at some point in their lifetime.

"It's not rare, and it needs to be safe."

Again: Gunman Kills Four At Tulsa Hospital In Latest Mass Shooting

Washington (AFP) - A gunman killed at least four people Wednesday at a hospital campus in Tulsa, Oklahoma, police said, the latest mass shooting to convulse America coming as Texas families bury their dead after a school massacre barely one week ago.

The suspect, who was armed with a rifle and a handgun, was also killed in the attack at the St. Francis Health System hospital campus, police said.

"Right now we have four civilians that are dead, we have one shooter that is dead, and right now we believe that is self-inflicted," Tulsa Police Department Deputy Chief Eric Dalgleish.

He said officers responded immediately after emergency calls came in that a shooter had stormed into the second floor of a clinic attached to St. Francis. Police went floor by floor, room by room in an effort to clear the building during what authorities described as an active shooter situation.

Earlier, Tulsa police Capt. Richard Meulenberg said officers were treating the scene as "catastrophic," with "several" people shot and "multiple injuries."

It was not clear how many other people might have been injured.

Dalgleish said the entire assault from the moment emergency calls came in to the time officers engaged the shooter lasted about four minutes.

President Joe Biden was briefed on the Tulsa shooting, the White House said in a statement, adding that the administration has offered support to local officials.

Uvalde Funerals

Elizabeth Buchner, a legal assistant who lives behind the clinic where the shooting occurred, said she rushed out of her house when she heard helicopters and more loud commotion coming from the direction of the hospital.

"It was the most law enforcement I've ever seen at one place in my entire life," Buchner, 43, told AFP by telephone.

She said she witnessed a tactical team rush inside one of the buildings, part of a response that she described as "fast and strong," with "no hesitation."

The shooting is the latest in a string of deadly assaults by gunmen that have rocked the United States in the past month.

On May 14 a white supremacist targeting African Americans killed 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. The shooter survived and is facing charges.

Ten days later an 18-year-old gunman armed with an AR-15 burst into an elementary school in the small Texas town of Uvalde and killed 21 people -- 19 of them young children -- before being shot dead by law enforcement.

On Wednesday one of the two teachers killed in that attack was laid to rest in Uvalde, a day after the first funerals for the children.

Gun regulation faces deep resistance in the United States, from most Republicans and some rural-state Democrats.

But Biden -- who visited Uvalde over the weekend -- vowed earlier this week to "continue to push" for reform, saying: "I think things have gotten so bad that everybody is getting more rational about it."

Some key federal lawmakers have also voiced cautious optimism and a bipartisan group of senators worked through the weekend to pursue possible areas of compromise.

They reportedly were focusing on laws to raise the minimum age for gun purchases or to allow police to remove guns from people considered a threat to themselves or others -- but not on an outright ban on high-powered rifles like the weapons used in Uvalde and Buffalo.

Debunked 'Big Lie' Documentary Draws Aging Trumpists To Theatres

Washington (AFP) - A new movie that pushes dubious and widely debunked conspiracy theories to bolster Donald Trump's claim that he was robbed of a second term as president has become a surprise hit at the US box office.

Despite warnings by experts, "2000 Mules," a film by Dinesh D'Souza -- who was convicted of violating campaign finance laws before being pardoned by the former president -- has garnered more than $1.2 million at the box office since its release in late May.

With large buckets of popcorn in hand, a group of elder moviegoers crowd into a matinee screening in a cinema in a commercial district in Virginia.

Passing by theaters showing the adventures of "Doctor Strange" or the latest "Sonic the Hedgehog" movie, the senior citizens settle down in front of the documentary promising to "expose widespread, coordinated voter fraud in the 2020 election, sufficient to change the overall outcome."

'Lifeblood Of Democracy'

The film opens with footage of anonymous voters enthusiastically slipping their ballots into boxes stamped with the American flag, while D'Souza tells the audience that "elections are the lifeblood of our democracy."

But, he says as the background darkens, the 2020 election "haunts the American mind."

Like millions of Americans, including former president Trump, D'Souza voices the debunked belief that the Democrats rigged the result of the last presidential election, relying on the widespread use of mail-in ballots during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We can't move on unless we know the truth," the director says in his voiceover.

'Proof' That Proves Nothing

In an attempt to prove his theory, which has been rejected by all relevant US authorities of both parties, D'Souza shows himself, leaning on a kitchen counter and phoning a group based in Texas called True the Vote, which claims to "support election integrity." A meeting is arranged.

In a kind of hangar packed with computer servers, two members of the group claim to have proof of the existence of a well-planned operation which, "like a cartel," hired "mules" to stuff ballot boxes in a series of states that were key to Joe Biden's victory in 2020.

To validate their hypothesis, they rely on vast troves of anonymous location data from smartphone apps, which they claim show the comings and goings of these "mules" between the headquarters of various NGOs and ballot boxes.

It's a "heist" and "a crime," says the outraged D'Souza.

In the theater in Virginia, the audience is sold.

"It's like a nuclear bomb," says one man.

The theories pushed in the movie have been seriously questioned by multiple disinformation experts.

They say that a delivery man, a taxi driver, or a postman working in the neighborhood could easily have been mistaken for people making such nefarious trips.

But for Trump and his supporters, this is the ultimate proof of the fraud they have been decrying for a year and a half.

"They rigged and stole the 2020 election, we cannot be okay with this, we cannot simply move on," says D'Souza as the film ends.

And as the first notes of the American national anthem play, he issues a call to action: "The America we love needs us now more than ever."

Key US Lawmakers Offer Guarded Hope For Gun Safety Reforms

Washington (AFP) - Key US lawmakers expressed guarded optimism Sunday that the shocking school shooting in Texas might lead to at least small steps against gun violence.

"There are more Republicans interested in talking about finding a path forward this time than I have seen since Sandy Hook," Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said on ABC, referring to the 2012 school shooting in his home state of Connecticut that claimed 26 lives.

Since the shooting Tuesday in the town of Uvalde, Texas left 19 children and two teachers dead, Murphy has been a leader in talks with Republicans -- who have long resisted gun-control measures -- about potential steps.

Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, said Sunday that compromise would not come easily, but that after Uvalde, he sensed "a different feeling among my colleagues."

"The real challenge is whether the Republicans will step forward and show courage, political courage, in a very tough situation," he told CNN.

But, he added, "There will be some."

One moderate House Republican, Adam Kinzinger, told CNN that Uvalde might have opened him up to greater gun control measures.

Kinzinger, a military veteran, said he had opposed the idea of a ban on assault-style weapons until "fairly recently."

But, he added, "I think I'm open to a ban now," or at least to imposing training or certification requirements on potential buyers.

"We have to be coming to the table with ways to mitigate 18-year-olds buying these guns and walking into schools," he said. "My side's not doing that."

Opposition to gun control runs deep among Republicans and some Democrats representing rural states.

In the wake of the Uvalde shooting, several Republican lawmakers have advocated improved school security or additional mental health support.

Durbin acknowledged the difficulty of achieving real reform in a country where guns outnumber people.

"The AR-15 that was used by this individual in Uvalde, there are now 20 million of those owned by Americans across the nation, just to put it in perspective," he said.

"So we have got to be realistic about what we can achieve."

Ukraine Doing 'Everything' To Defend Donbas From Russian Onslaught

Lysychansk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Ukraine has pledged to do "everything" to defend Donbas, where an intensifying Russian offensive is prompting Kyiv's forces to consider a strategic retreat from some key areas to avoid being surrounded.

Russia is waging all-out war for the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions that make up Donbas -- the country's industrial heartland -- where Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Moscow of carrying out a "genocide".

In his daily address to Ukrainians, Zelensky said the Russians had "concentrated maximum artillery, maximum reserves in Donbas."

"There are missile strikes and aircraft attacks -- everything," he said.

"We are protecting our land in the way that our current defense resources allow," he added. "We are doing everything to increase them."

Pro-Russian separatists said Friday they had captured the town of Lyman between Severodonetsk and Kramatorsk, on the road leading to the key cities still under Kyiv's control.

Russian forces are also closing in on Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in the Lugansk province, with conflicting reports about the extent of their advance.

Regional governor Sergiy Gaiday insisted that the Russian forces would not be able to seize the entire region within two to three days -- but said that Ukraine's troops may have to withdraw from some areas to avoid being surrounded.

"Most probably they will not seize (Lugansk), because there's enough strength and means to hold the defense," he said on Telegram.

"Maybe even to avoid encircling there might be a command to our troops to retreat."


A Lugansk police official, cited by Russia's state news agency RIA Novosti, said Severodonetsk was "now surrounded" and Ukrainian troops could no longer leave the city.

That was denied by senior city official Oleksandr Stryuk, though he acknowledged the situation was "very difficult" with incessant bombing.

"People are willing to risk everything to get food and water," said the head of the main aid distribution centre in Lysychansk, Oleksandr Kozyr.

"They are so psychologically depressed that they are no longer scared. All they care about is finding food."

Three months after Russia launched its invasion on February 24, leaving thousands dead on both sides and forcing 6.6 million people out of the country, Moscow has gained control over swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine, including port cities Kherson and Mariupol.

"Russian forces have made steady, incremental gains in heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine in the past several days, though Ukrainian defenses remain effective overall," said the US-based Institute for the Study of War.

To further help Ukraine fight back against the invasion, Washington was preparing to send advanced long-range rocket systems, according to US media reports.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby did not confirm the plans to deliver the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) to Ukraine, a highly mobile system that can fire up to 300 kilometres (186 miles) which Kyiv has said it badly needs.

"We are still committed to helping them succeed on the battlefield," he said.

Mykhaylo Podolyak, an adviser to President Zelensky, referring to the rocket systems, said on Twitter that some of the country's partners "avoid giving the necessary weapons because of fear of the escalation. Escalation, really?"


In a historic move against Russia's spiritual authorities, the Moscow branch of Kyiv's Orthodox Church said Friday it was cutting ties with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, declaring "full independence"

A church council that focused on Russia's "aggression" condemned the pro-war stance of Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church.

"Not only did he (Kirill) fail to condemn Russia's military aggression but he also failed to find words for the suffering Ukrainian people," church spokesman Archbishop Kliment told AFP.

Ukraine has been under Moscow's spiritual leadership since at least the 17th century, but part of its Orthodox Church broke with Moscow in 2019 over Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Donbas.

Seeking to build on the international pressure on Russia, Zelensky will speak with EU leaders at an emergency summit Monday as they try to agree on an embargo on Russian oil, which is being held up by Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Rather than continue trading with (Russia), we need to act until they stop their policy of aggression," Zelensky told a think tank in Indonesia.

But in Moscow, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said the country expects to receive one trillion rubles ($15 billion) in additional oil and gas revenues this year, a windfall from the sharp rise in oil prices caused in part by its invasion of Ukraine.

As his navy blockades Ukrainian ports, Putin also rejected accusations that he was using food shortages as a weapon. Russia and Ukraine supply some 30 percent of the wheat traded on global markets.

Russia has tightened its own exports and Ukraine has vast amounts stuck in storage, driving up prices and cutting availability for importers across the globe.

In a call Friday with Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, Putin put the blame on "anti-Russian sanctions by the United States and the European Union, among other things," according to the Kremlin.

He also accused Kyiv of "sabotaging" negotiations and urged Ukraine to de-mine ports "as soon as possible" to allow the passage of grain-carrying vessels, the Kremlin said.

Stoking Fear At The Root Of America's Deadly Gun Culture

Washington (AFP) - It was 1776, the American colonies had just declared their independence from England, and as war raged the founding fathers were deep in debate: should Americans have the right to own firearms as individuals, or just as members of local militia?

Days after 19 children and two teachers were slaughtered in a Texas town, the debate rages on as outsiders wonder why Americans are so wedded to the firearms that stoke such massacres with appalling frequency.

The answer, experts say, lies both in the traditions underpinning the country's winning its freedom from Britain, and most recently, a growing belief among consumers that they need guns for their personal safety.

Over the past two decades -- a period in which more than 200 million guns hit the US market -- the country has shifted from "Gun Culture 1.0," where guns were for sport and hunting, to "Gun Culture 2.0" where many Americans see them as essential to protect their homes and families.

That shift has been driven heavily by advertising by the nearly $20 billion gun industry that has tapped fears of crime and racial upheaval, according to Ryan Busse, a former industry executive.

Recent mass murders "are the byproduct of a gun industry business model designed to profit from increasing hatred, fear, and conspiracy," Busse wrote this week in the online magazine The Bulwark.

Guns And The New Nation

For the men designing the new United States in the 1770s and 1780s, there was no question about gun ownership.

They said the monopoly on guns by the monarchies of Europe and their armies was the very source of oppression that the American colonists were fighting.

James Madison, the "father of the Constitution," cited "the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation."

But he and the other founders understood the issue was complex. The new states did not trust the nascent federal government, and wanted their own laws, and own arms.

They recognized people needed to hunt and protect themselves against wild animals and thieves. But some worried more private guns could just increase frontier lawlessness.

Were private guns essential to protect against tyranny? Couldn't local armed militia fulfill that role? Or would militia become a source of local oppression?

In 1791, a compromise was struck in what has become the most parsed phrase in the Constitution, the Second Amendment guaranteeing gun rights:

"A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

1960s Gun Control

Over the following two centuries, guns became an essential part of American life and myth.

Gun Culture 1.0, as Wake Forest University professor David Yamane describes it, was about guns as critical tools for pioneers hunting game and fending off varmints -- as well as the genocidal conquest of native Americans and the control of slaves.

But by the early 20th century, the increasingly urbanized United States was awash with firearms and experiencing notable levels of gun crime not seen in other countries.

From 1900 to 1964, wrote the late historian Richard Hofstadter, the country recorded more than 265,000 gun homicides, 330,000 suicides, and 139,000 gun accidents.

In reaction to a surge in organized crime violence, in 1934 the federal government banned machine guns and required guns to be registered and taxed.

Individual states added their own controls, like bans on carrying guns in public, openly or concealed.

The public was for such controls: Pollster Gallup says that in 1959, 60 percent of Americans supported a complete ban on personal handguns.

The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, brought a push for strenuous regulation in 1968.

But gunmakers and the increasingly assertive National Rifle Association, citing the Second Amendment, prevented new legislation from doing more than implement an easily circumvented restriction on direct mail-order gun sales.

The Holy Second Amendment

Over the next two decades, the NRA built common cause with Republicans to insist that the Second Amendment was absolute in its protection of gun rights, and that any regulation was an attack on Americans' "freedom."

According to Matthew Lacombe, a Barnard College professor, achieving that involved the NRA creating and advertising a distinct gun-centric ideology and social identity for gun owners.

Gun owners banded together around that ideology, forming a powerful voting bloc, especially in rural areas that Republicans sought to seize from Democrats.

Jessica Dawson, a professor at the West Point military academy, said the NRA made common cause with the religious right, a group that believes in Christianity's primacy in American culture and the constitution.

Drawing "on the New Christian Right's belief in moral decay, distrust of the government, and belief in evil," the NRA leadership "began to use more religiously coded language to elevate the Second Amendment above the restrictions of a secular government," Dawson wrote.


Yet the shift of focus to the Second Amendment did not help gunmakers, who saw flat sales due to the steep decline by the 1990s in hunting and shooting sports.

That paved the way for Gun Culture 2.0 -- when the NRA and the gun industry began telling consumers that they needed personal firearms to protect themselves, according to Busse.

Gun marketing increasingly showed people under attack from rioters and thieves, and hyped the need for personal "tactical" equipment.

The timing paralleled Barack Obama becoming the first African American president and a rise in white nationalism.

"Fifteen years ago, at the behest of the NRA, the firearms industry took a dark turn when it started marketing increasingly aggressive and militaristic guns and tactical gear," Busse wrote.

Meanwhile, many states answered worries about a perceived rise in crime by allowing people to carry guns in public without permits.

In fact, violent crime has trended downward over the past two decades -- though gun-related murders have surged in recent years.

That, said Wake Forest's Yamane, was a key turning point for Gun Culture 2.0, giving a sharp boost to handgun sales, which people of all races bought, amid exaggerated fears of internecine violence.

Since 2009, sales have soared, topping more than 10 million a year since 2013, mainly AR-15-type assault rifles and semi-automatic pistols.

"The majority of gun owners today -- especially new gun owners -- point to self-defense as the primary reason for owning a gun," Yamane wrote.

As America Mourns Gun Victims, Republicans Block Domestic T​​error Bill

Washington (AFP) - Republicans in the US Senate prevented action Thursday on a bill to address domestic terrorism in the wake of a racist massacre at a grocery store in upstate New York.

Democrats had been expecting defeat but were seeking to use the procedural vote to highlight Republican opposition to tougher gun control measures following a second massacre at a Texas elementary school on Tuesday.

There was no suggestion of any racial motive on the part of the gunman who shot dead 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

But the shock of the bloodshed, less than two weeks after the May 14 murders in Buffalo, New York, has catapulted America's gun violence crisis back to the top of the agenda in Washington.

"The bill is so important, because the mass shooting in Buffalo was an act of domestic terrorism. We need to call it what it is: domestic terrorism," Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer said ahead of the vote.

The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act would have created units inside the FBI and Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to combat domestic terror threats, with a focus on white supremacy.

A task force that includes Pentagon officials would also have been launched "to combat white supremacist infiltration of the uniformed services and federal law enforcement."

Schumer had urged Republicans Wednesday to allow the chamber to start debate on the bill, offering to accommodate Republican provisions to "harden" schools in the wake of the Texas murders.

Just ahead of the vote, Schumer said he had wept while studying pictures of the young victims, calling the state's pro-gun governor, Greg Abbott, "an absolute fraud."

Abbott has made efforts to loosen gun restrictions in Texas, including signing into law a measure last year authorizing residents to carry handguns without licenses or training.

The domestic terrorism bill's 207 co-sponsors included three moderate Republicans in the House.

But there was not enough support in the evenly split 100-member Senate to overcome the Republican filibuster -- the 60-vote threshold required to allow debate to go forward.

Republicans say there are already laws on the books targeting white supremacists and other domestic terrorists, and have accused Democrats of politicizing the Buffalo massacre, in which 10 Black people died.

They have also argued that the legislation could be abused to go after political opponents of the party in power.

Democrats are looking for Republicans to support a separate gun control bill, and said Wednesday they would work over the coming days to see if they could find common ground with enough opposition senators to circumvent a filibuster.

"Make no mistake about it, if these negotiations do not bear fruit in a short period of time, the Senate will vote on gun safety legislation," Schumer said

Kyiv Court Convicts Russian Sergeant Of War Crimes And Orders Life Sentence

Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) - A Ukrainian court found a young Russian soldier guilty of war crimes Monday for killing a civilian and handed him a life sentence, in the first verdict of its kind since Russia's invasion three months ago.

The judgement came in as President Volodymyr Zelensky took to the virtual stage in Davos, urging political and business elites at the World Economic Forum to end all trade with Russia and keep supplying his country with weapons.

Russian attacks are pummeling eastern Ukraine, but all eyes Monday were on the capital Kyiv, in the landmark trial against 21-year-old Russian serviceman Vadim Shishimarin.

Shishimarin, a shaven-headed sergeant from Siberia, had admitted in court to killing a 62-year-old civilian, Oleksandr Shelipov, in the village of Chupakhivka in northeast Ukraine.

He claimed he shot Shelipov under pressure from another soldier as they tried to retreat and escape back into Russia in a stolen car on February 28, the fourth day of Moscow's invasion.

Shishimarin had apologised and asked Shelipov's widow for forgiveness, adding: "I was nervous about what was going on. I didn't want to kill."

But prosecutors claimed he shot between three and four bullets with the intention of killing the civilian.

"The court has found that Shishimarin is guilty (of war crimes) and sentences him to life imprisonment," Judge Sergiy Agafonov announced on Monday, as the Russian looked on from the glass defense box.

He was also found guilty of premeditated murder, which Agafonov said was "committed with direct intent."

Stop Russia Trade

Shishimarin's lawyer Viktor Ovsyannikov said he will appeal the verdict, calling it "most severe", adding that "you can feel societal pressure" on the decision.

The landmark ruling is expected to be followed by others, with Ukraine opening thousands of war crimes cases since Moscow's invasion.

International institutions are simultaneously investigating abuses allegedly committed by Russian forces in cities like Bucha and Mariupol, which have become emblematic of the destruction and suffering of the three-month-old war.

As the verdict was read out in Kyiv, Zelensky continued his attempts to maintain Western support with a video address at the Davos summit, which this year is dominated by the fall-out of the war -- and from which Russians have been barred.

He highlighted the cost to his people of the war, revealing that 87 people were killed in a Russian attack earlier this month on a military base in northern Ukraine.

Zelensky insisted that tens of thousands of lives would have been saved if Kyiv had received "100 percent of our needs at once back in February", when Russia invaded.

"This is why Ukraine needs all the weapons that we ask (for), not just the ones that have been provided," said Zelensky, flanked by Ukrainian flags and wearing an olive-green T-shirt.

He also called for an oil embargo on Russia, punitive measures against all its banks and the shunning of its IT sector, adding that all foreign companies should leave the country.

'Scorched-Earth Tactics'

Shishimarin's lawyer Viktor Ovsyannikov said he will appeal the verdict, calling it "most severe", adding that "you can feel societal pressure" on the decision.

The landmark ruling is expected to be followed by others, with Ukraine opening thousands of war crimes cases since Moscow's invasion.

International institutions are simultaneously investigating abuses allegedly committed by Russian forces in cities like Bucha and Mariupol, which have become emblematic of the destruction and suffering of the three-month-old war.

After failing in its initial goal of capturing Kyiv, Moscow's forces are now squarely focused on securing and expanding their gains in the Donbas region and on Ukraine's southern coast.

In the eastern city of Severodonetsk, a focus of recent fighting, regional governor Sergiy Gaiday accused Russian forces of "using scorched-earth tactics, deliberately destroying" the city.

Gaiday said Russia was repositioning forces from the Kharkiv region, others involved in Mariupol's siege, pro-Russian separatist militias, and even troops freshly mobilised from Siberia to concentrate their firepower on the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.


More than six million people have fled Ukraine and eight million have been internally displaced since the war broke out, according to the United Nations.

For the civilians left behind near the front, prayer is often the only comfort left.

Southwest of Severodonetsk, in the city of Bakhmut, Maria Mayashlapak scanned the devastation of her home, where a missile imploded her kitchen and cratered her vegetable garden.

"I was reciting my morning prayer for God to keep me from getting hurt," the 82-year-old recalled, as the family's kitten mewed from somewhere in the rubble.

Sunday's bombardment of the Donetsk region killed at least seven civilians and wounded eight others, according to the Ukrainian army.

Shelling and missile strikes also continued to pound Kharkiv in the north, as well as Mykolaiv and Zaporizhzhia in the south, Ukrainian officials said.

The effects of the war are also being felt far beyond Ukraine, particularly the impact of a Russian blockade that has left one of the world's breadbaskets unable to export its grain.

"It's savagery for one country to have food spoiling like this and for other people to be left poor and hungry," said Dmitriy Matulyak, a farmer near the Black Sea port of Odessa.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been unequivocal on the matter, saying last week that the war "threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity".


Finland, Sweden Ask To Join NATO As Ukraine War Crimes Trial Begins

Brussels (AFP) - Finland and Sweden on Wednesday submitted a joint application to join NATO as Russia's invasion of Ukraine forces a dramatic reappraisal of security in Europe.

The reversal of the Nordic countries' longstanding policy of non-alignment came as Ukraine opened the first war crimes trial of a Russian soldier since the invasion began.

Vadim Shishimarin, 21, from Irkutsk in Siberia, pleaded guilty to killing an unarmed 62-year-old man in Ukraine's Sumy region on February 28 -- four days into the invasion.

"By this first trial, we are sending a clear signal that every perpetrator, every person who ordered or assisted in the commission of crimes in Ukraine shall not avoid responsibility," prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova said.

Russia's government has no information on Shishimarin, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, adding that many such cases reported by Ukraine are "simply fake or staged".

Peskov further accused Kyiv of a "complete lack of will" towards peace talks, after Ukrainian negotiator Mykhaylo Podolyak said stop-start dialogue was "on hold", having failed to yield any breakthroughs.

The Kremlin also intensified a tit-for-tat round of diplomatic expulsions against European countries, ordering out dozens of personnel from France, Italy and Spain.

At NATO headquarters in Brussels, alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg formally received the applications from the Finnish and Swedish ambassadors, calling them "an historic step".

"All allies agree on the importance of NATO enlargement. We all agree that we must stand together and we all agree that this is an historic moment which we must seize," he said.

The membership push could represent the most significant expansion of NATO in decades, doubling its border with Russia, and President Vladimir Putin has warned it may trigger a response from Moscow.

But the applications face resistance from NATO member Turkey, which accuses the Nordic neighbours of harbouring anti-Turkish extremists.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded "respect" from NATO over his government's concerns.

Western allies remain optimistic they can overcome Turkey's objections and for now, several including Britain have offered security guarantees to Finland and Sweden to guard against any Russian aggression.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Nordic applications would not have been expected a short time ago, "but Putin's appalling ambitions have transformed the geopolitical contours of our continent".

Mediators for Azovstal

On the ground, in Ukraine's ruined port city of Mariupol, a unit of soldiers had been holding out in the Azovstal steelworks, but Moscow said Wednesday that 959 of the troops had surrendered this week.

Kyiv's defence ministry said it would do "everything necessary" to rescue the undisclosed number of personnel still in the plant's tunnels, but admitted there was no military option available.

"The evacuation mission continues, it is overseen by our military and intelligence," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address.

"The most influential international mediators are involved."

Those who have left Azovstal were taken into Russian captivity, including 80 who were heavily wounded, the Russian defence ministry said.

The ministry, which published images showing soldiers on stretchers, said the injured were transported to a hospital in the eastern Donetsk region controlled by pro-Kremlin rebels.

The defence ministry in Kyiv said it was hoping for an "exchange procedure... to repatriate these Ukrainian heroes as quickly as possible".

But their fate was unclear, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refusing to say whether they would be treated as criminals or prisoners of war.

Putin had "guaranteed that they would be treated according to the relevant international laws", Peskov said.

'My war is not over'

Despite their last-ditch resistance in places such as Mariupol, and their successful defence of Kyiv, Ukrainian forces are retreating across swathes of the eastern front.

White smoke from burning fields marks the pace of Russia's advance around the village of Sydorove, on the approaches to the militarily important city of Slovyansk and Ukraine's eastern administrative centre in Kramatorsk.

Army volunteer Yaroslava, 51, sat on a slab of concrete jutting out from the remains of a school in Sydorove where her husband's unit had set up camp before it was hit by a Russian strike.

She stared at a spot where rescuers and de-miners had spotted a motionless hand reaching out from the rubble.

"We had settled in London before the war but felt like we had no choice but to come back," Yaroslava said.

"My two sons have just signed three-year contracts with the army. We will fight. We will still fight," she said without moving her eyes.

"My war is not over."

The war crimes trial in Kyiv, expected to be followed by several others, posed a test of the Ukrainian justice system at a time when international bodies are also conducting their own investigations.

Shishimarin faces a possible life sentence. Prosecutors said the sergeant was commanding a unit in a tank division when his convoy came under attack.

He and four other soldiers stole a car and encountered the man on a bicycle, shooting him in cold blood, according to the prosecutors.

The International Criminal Court said Tuesday it was deploying its largest-ever field team to Ukraine, with 42 investigators, forensic experts and support staff being sent into the field to gather evidence of alleged atrocities.

The US State Department also announced it was creating a special unit to research, document and publicise Russian war crimes.

Ukraine To Hold First War Crimes Trial Of Russian Soldier ​​

Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) - Ukraine announced it will hold its first war crimes trial over the Russian invasion, as Moscow accused Kyiv of shelling a Russian city in the war's latest flashpoint.

The conflict has devastated cities and displaced millions, with fears also growing of its broader international impact as gas supplies to Europe were disrupted by a halt in Russian flows through Ukraine.

Kyiv has repeatedly accused Russian troops of committing atrocities since the invasion began on February 24, and Ukrainian authorities said Wednesday they would launch the first war crimes trial of the conflict.

The prosecutor general's office said Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old Russian service member, is accused of killing an unarmed 62-year-old civilian as he fled with four other soldiers in a stolen car.

"The man died on the spot just a few dozen metres from his home," said a statement from prosecutor Iryna Venediktova's office.

Shishimarin faces possible life imprisonment if found guilty.

Venediktova's office has said it has received reports of more than 10,000 alleged war crimes, with 622 suspects identified.

The Russian invasion has sparked an exodus of nearly six million civilians, many of whom bear accounts of torture, sexual violence and indiscriminate destruction.

The UN Human Rights Council is due to hold a special session on Ukraine on Thursday.

Moscow has focused on eastern and southern Ukraine since it failed to take Kyiv in the first weeks of its campaign.

Ukraine's forces were boosted by what Kyiv described as the recapture of four villages around the northeastern city of Kharkiv, close to the border with Russia.

In the Russian city of Belgorod, around 43 miles from Kharkiv, authorities said one person was killed and six injured by Ukrainian shelling.

Belgorod governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said it was "the most difficult situation" facing the border region since Russia sent its troops into Ukraine 11 weeks ago.

Authorities in Russian regions bordering Ukraine have repeatedly accused Ukrainian forces of launching attacks.

In April, Gladkov said Ukrainian helicopters carried out a strike on a fuel storage facility in Belgorod.

'They Come In Waves'

In southern Ukraine, the pro-Kremlin authorities in the city of Kherson urged Putin to annex the region.

Kherson was the first major Ukrainian city to fall in the current conflict. It lies north of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of Kherson's Moscow-installed administration, said there would be a "request to make Kherson region a full subject of the Russian Federation".

The Kremlin replied it was up to the residents of Kherson to "determine their own fate".

Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said Kherson would be liberated and "the invaders may ask to join even Mars or Jupiter".

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has framed his nation's resistance to the Russian invasion as a "war against tyranny", but the fierce fightback has carried a heavy cost.

In a rare release of battle casualty figures, Ukraine's National Guard said Wednesday that 561 of its members have been killed and nearly 1,700 wounded since the invasion began.

Neither the defence ministry in Kyiv nor its counterpart in Moscow has provided official death counts, but in mid-April, Zelensky said between 2,500 and 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed.

Ukraine's effort to hold the Russian-speaking Donbas region in the east has also become increasingly desperate.

"They come in waves," volunteer fighter Mykola said of the repeated Russian attempts to push past a strategic river near a rural settlement called Bilogorivka.

NATO Decision By Finland, Sweden

Much of the world has moved to isolate Putin as punishment for the invasion.

Russia "is today the most direct threat to the world order with the barbaric war against Ukraine," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in Tokyo Thursday after meeting Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Kishida, whose government joined the tough measures against Moscow, added: "Russia's invasion of Ukraine is not just a matter for Europe, but it shakes the core of the international order including Asia. This must not be tolerated."

Russia has been hit with a wave of punishing economic sanctions that have started to take a toll on its foreign exchange reserves.

Zelensky said Wednesday that he had spoken with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz about boosting penalties on Moscow.

"Step by step we are doing everything to make the aggressor feel the biggest pain from the aggression," the Ukrainian leader said.

But ramping up the embargoes has not been straightforward, with concern among some nations in Europe that rely on Russian gas.

Kyiv said Wednesday that Russia had halted gas supplies through a key transit hub in the east.

The stoppage caused supplies to plunge by 25 percent in Germany, which is dependent on Russia for its energy and has rejected an immediate full embargo on Russian gas.

The invasion of Ukraine has also prompted Sweden and Finland to consider NATO membership.

Finland was due to reveal its position on joining the bloc on Thursday.

A Mother Mourns

A Ukrainian commander in Mariupol appealed directly to Elon Musk on Wednesday, asking the world's richest man to intervene on behalf of those trapped by Russian forces in the southern port city.

The war has devastated Mariupol, where Ukrainians have sustained a pocket of resistance at a steel factory.

Iryna Yegorchenko, 43, learned Wednesday that her soldier son Artem had died protecting the Azovstal plant.

"I suddenly felt relieved," she told AFP.

The 22-year-old was crushed during the collapse of a structure and "quickly went to God", said Yegorchenko, who lives in Kyiv.

"He decided to defend his homeland, his people... I have nothing to be ashamed of as a mother."

After Long Silence, US Corporations Speak Up On Abortion Rights

New York (AFP) - After carefully avoiding the taboo topic for decades, more and more US companies are taking a stand on the right to abortion, a sign of a new generation with growing influence and very different expectations than their predecessors.

Mere hours after the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion indicating the national right to abortion would be overturned, a variety of American businesses began to react publicly.

"Given what is at stake, business leaders need to make their voices heard and act to protect the health and well-being of our employees," Levi Strauss said in a statement. "That means protecting reproductive rights."

Like the iconic denim brand, Apple has also pledged to cover costs for employees who have to travel to another state to get an abortion.

Revoking the nationwide right to abortion "will jeopardize the human rights of millions of women," the review platform Yelp told AFP, saying it would have "a seismic impact on our society and economy" and urging other companies to "step up to safeguard their employees."

Since Texas in September implemented a law banning abortion after six weeks -- before many women even know they are pregnant, and with no exceptions for rape or incest -- the stigma on speaking out has started to break.

Amazon, Uber, and even the bank Citigroup have all announced they will cover the additional costs that the Texas legislation might cause for their employees.

"We're in a very unusual political time where this issue's come back up as a pressing political issue, and it will force companies to take a stand," said Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school.

"Businesses that are located in states that might overturn (abortion access), they have to make a decision one way or the other: Are they going to offer that benefit in terms of travel to a location where those services could be accessed? Or are they not?" said Neeru Paharia, a professor at the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business.

"It kind of forces a lot of these (companies) to take a stand on this issue."

According to The New York Times, Tesla, which moved its headquarters from California to Texas, has also pledged to cover its employees' abortion-related expenses.

'New Generational Thing'

The newfound boldness of US businesses is also tied to the fact that "in this country, people who are pro-choice are larger in number than people who are anti-abortion," said Paharia.

The announcements by several leading companies are part of a "general trend" that has been developing for the past decade and "picked up steam" under former US president Donald Trump, she said.

Immigration, LGBT rights, gun regulations, the Black Lives Matter movement, voting rights -- hot-button issues keep coming up, in a climate of heightened polarization, and many companies have been pressured to respond by their employees.

"This is a new generational thing," explained Mark Hass, a journalism and communication professor at Arizona State University. "The millennial generation, Gen Z are... increasingly concerned about who they work for, the values of those companies."

"Companies like Apple, companies like Amazon, companies like Uber... rely on having the best employees," he said. "So their employees are sort of their North Star," or guiding force.

Paharia agreed: "It's a tight labor market, and certain kinds of job skills are hard to come by."

In a country where public confidence in elected officials has been eroding for many years, employees are also expecting more from their employers, she said.

Schweitzer made a distinction between the new economy's flagship companies, whose employees are better educated than average and often able to work anywhere, and more traditional companies, which are sometimes located in more conservative regions of the United States.

The latter often have less mobile and less skilled workers, with a more limited influence on their employer.

"That's going to be a big part of why tech companies, for example, are going to react more strongly to this than other companies who would rather stay out of it," he said.

Unlike before, firms that have taken sides publicly have generally avoided backlash, calls for boycotts, or smear campaigns.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio did introduce a bill Tuesday that would prevent companies from receiving tax breaks on expenses tied to covering abortion-related travel, but the bill is unlikely to pass.

However, "the groups that are interested in restricting abortion access, they're a minority. And they seem to be winning on this issue right now," said Schweitzer. "So I'm not surprised that they're being a little bit quiet."