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US Navy Chief: Aircraft Carrier Could Pass Through Taiwan Strait

The U.S. Navy has not ruled out sending an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait, despite military technology advances by China that pose a greater threat to U.S. warships than ever before, the chief of U.S. naval operations said Friday.

Washington sent ships through the strategic waterway three times last year as it makes more frequent transits of the strait that separates Taiwan from the Chinese mainland, but it has not dispatched a carrier in more than 10 years.

During that time, China has modernized its forces with missiles designed to strike enemy ships.

“We don’t really see any kind of limitation on whatever type of ship could pass through those waters,” Admiral John Richardson told reporters in the Japanese capital, when asked if more advanced Chinese weapons posed too big a risk. “We see the Taiwan Strait as another (stretch of) international waters, so that’s why we do the transits.”

Chinese intentions

Aircraft carriers, typically equipped with about 80 aircraft and crews of about 5,000, are key to the U.S. military’s ability to project power globally.

On Tuesday, a U.S. official told Reuters the United States was closely watching Chinese intentions toward Taiwan as advances in military technology give Beijing’s forces greater capability to occupy an island it considers a breakaway province.

In a report, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency called Taiwan the “primary driver” for China’s military modernization.

Richardson, who visited China before traveling to Japan, said he told his Chinese counterparts the United States was opposed to any unilateral action by Beijing or Taipei.

Unplanned encounters

He also urged China to stick to international rules during unplanned naval encounters at sea.

That request came after a Chinese destroyer approached the USS Decatur in October and forced it to change course as it challenged Chinese territorial claims in the contested South China Sea with a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP).

“We have made this very clear that this was an excursion, a departure from the normal adherence to those rules and we would hope that behavior in the future would be much more consistent,” Richardson said. “We should not see each other as a threatening presence in these waters.”

The U.S. Navy continues to pass through waters in the South China Sea that Beijing considers its territory.

On Jan 7, a U.S. guided-missile destroyer sailed within 12 miles of a Chinese-occupied island, prompting Beijing’s rebuke that it had “gravely infringed upon China’s sovereignty.”

China, which claims almost all of the strategic waterway, says its intentions are peaceful. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims.

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Biggest Great White Shark on Record Thrills Divers off Hawaii

The biggest great white shark on record is visiting the American island state of Hawaii, divers say.

A group of divers monitoring the carcass of a sperm whale off the coast of Oahu say they have gone swimming with the massive predator, and that based on the size and the markings, the shark is known as “Deep Blue,” one of the largest great whites on record.

“She was just this big, beautiful gentle giant wanting to use our boat as a scratching post,” diver Ocean Ramsey told The Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Deep Blue is believed to be 6 meters long and at least 50 years old. The Smithsonian says the average female great white shark measures just less than 5 meters, while males measure just less than 4 meters.

Diver Mark Mohler said in a post on Instagram that he and fellow diver Kimberley Jeffries had confirmed the identity of the shark as Deep Blue. [[ https://www.instagram.com/markshark808/?utm_source=ig_embed ]]

The Instagram post shows a diver swimming alongside Deep Blue.

Ramsey told the newspaper that the shark was “shockingly wide” and could be pregnant. She said hunger and the need for added nutrients might have brought Deep Blue to Hawaii, where the waters are usually too warm for great whites.

“Big pregnant females are actually the safest ones to be with — the biggest, oldest ones — because they’ve seen it all, including us,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey studies sharks, advocates for their conservation and leads cage-free shark diving tours. Ramsey and her team observe and identify sharks, and share that data with state and federal partners.

The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources warned people to stay away from the area where the carcass and Deep Blue have been seen.

“We don’t want anyone to get hurt if a shark swimming around the carcass mistakes them as food. Understandably, some people want to get into the water either out of fascination or to get photographs, but it is truly dangerous to be around this carcass with so much shark activity,” agency official Jason Redull said.

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Storm Batters California for 3 Days, Causes 6 Deaths

The storm that pummeled much of California for three days began moving east Thursday after causing at least six deaths, forcing wildfire victims threatened by floods to flee their homes and plunging nearly 300,000 utility customers into darkness.

The winter storm is forecast to bring heavy rain, snow and high winds to Colorado and “will be slamming the East Coast by Sunday,” National Weather Service forecaster Steve Anderson said. “From Maine to Florida.”

Anderson said most of California should be dry and sunny by Friday.

Three days of rain dent drought

The three-day drenching put a dent in California’s drought. Government and university researchers who maintain the U.S. Drought Monitor map now classify most of the state as abnormally dry or in moderate drought. Only about 6 percent is in severe or extreme drought, compared to nearly a quarter of the state last September.

Rain and snow fell from one end of the state to the other, canceling flights, uprooting trees, knocking down power lines and causing localized flooding.

In Malibu, a 57-year-old woman was in critical condition after authorities say a boulder struck her while she was hiking Thursday.

In Orange County, firefighters rescued 12 homeless people stranded on an island in the Santa Ana River bottom, while 25 other transients were evacuated from the riverbanks.

Falling trees deadly

In San Francisco, fallen trees blocked the city’s iconic cable car tracks for hours Thursday and similarly delayed other commuter trains in region.

A 200-year-old oak tree towering 100 feet (30 meters) over James Holmes’ suburban San Francisco home toppled over in the wind Wednesday night.

“My family lived under it in our house for 70 years,” he said.

In the Marin County community of Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco, a man was killed when he jumped into the street to dodge a falling tree Wednesday night and was struck by a van, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Earlier Wednesday, a branch from a falling tree killed a 42-year-old homeless man in Oakland. The man may have been “just trying to stay dry” under the tree, CHP officer Herman Baza said.

CHP reported that four people were killed in separate Northern California crashes caused by rain-slickened roads this week, including a 1-year-old who was among three people in a vehicle who died Tuesday from a crash in the Sierra Nevada foothill town of Placerville.

Evacuations after wildfires

Southern California authorities concerned with rising streams and excessive runoff ordered evacuations in parts of Malibu and other areas scarred by wildfires. Malibu schools canceled classes. Santa Anita racetrack canceled its slate of horse races Thursday.

In the Southern California hillside community of Oak Park, where residents used pumps and sandbags to hold off rushing storm water, longtime resident Diane Starzak said her neighborhood “kind of dodged the bullet” as the storms began to taper off.

“We actually had our suitcases in the car and were ready to leave,” said Starzak, who is volunteer coordinator for Oak Park’s community’s emergency response team.

Instead the family used pumps to divert water cascading down a hillside behind their home. 

“We are really, really happy, really excited,” she said.

Authorities warned of possible floods and debris flows in the wildfire-ravished city of Paradise and the surrounding region denuded of protective trees and vegetation.

Snow in the high Sierras

Meanwhile, blizzard conditions blanketed the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada and the region’s ski resorts with as much as 4 feet (1.2 meters) of snow just in time for the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

So much snow accumulated on the tail of an executive jet parked at the Tahoe Truckee Airport that it caused the plane’s nose to tilt skyward in a stationary wheelie.

Pacific Gas & Electric said 280,000 customers lost power at some point since Wednesday. PG&E spokeswoman Mayra Tostado said 26,432 customers remained without power Thursday afternoon.

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US Lawyer Who Represented Saudi Men Who Fled Facing Threats

The Oregon attorney who represented Saudi nationals who fled the country after their government paid their bail has temporarily closed her law practice because of threats made since the cases were detailed by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Ginger Mooney, of Hood River, told the newspaper she has received dozens of terrifying emails and calls with violent and virulent anti-Muslim messages.

Mooney has handled at least nine criminal cases involving Saudi students across Oregon who were accused of crimes including sex abuse and harassment.

Most ended with the charges dropped or reduced. In at least four of those cases, the men fled the country before trial or completing their jail sentence. The Saudi government paid for the bail in three of those cases.

Mooney’s lawyer said Mooney acted ethically in her representation of the men. She says the cases represent a fraction of her overall practice.

      

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US Alarmed as Zimbabwe Targets, Beats Activists Amid Unrest

The U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe said Thursday it is “alarmed” by credible reports that security forces are targeting and beating activists and labor leaders after a local doctors’ rights group said it had treated 68 gunshot cases and scores of other cases of assault.

The U.S. also urged Zimbabwe’s government to restore access to social media as the country faces its worst unrest since deadly post-election violence in August. Zimbabweans this week heeded a nationwide stay-at-home call after the government dramatically increased fuel prices, making gasoline in the economically shattered country the world’s most expensive.

 

Hungry residents of the capital, Harare, on Wednesday reported being tear-gassed by police as they ventured out to seek food. “Are we at war?” one resident asked. The city was quiet on Thursday as people stayed home, with schools and many shops closed and soldiers controlling long lines at the few gas stations open.

Zimbabwe’s state security minister late Wednesday said more than 600 people have been arrested. Prominent pastor and activist Evan Mawarire was in court in Harare on Thursday, accused of inciting violence online. Police added a charge of subverting a constitutional government, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said.

 

President Emmerson Mnangagwa while traveling overseas has denounced what he called “wanton violence and cynical destruction” but appeared to side with authorities who blame the opposition for the unrest. He had announced the more than doubling of fuel prices shortly before leaving the country.

 

Zimbabweans had briefly rejoiced when Mnangagwa succeeded longtime leader Robert Mugabe, who was forced out in late 2017, thinking the new president would deliver on his refrain that the country “is open for business.” But frustration has risen over the lack of improvement in the collapsed economy, which doesn’t even have a currency of its own.

 

While Mnangagwa makes an extended overseas trip that will include a stop at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to plead for more foreign investment, former military commander and Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, a hardliner, is in charge at home.

 

In a grim recounting of alleged police violence this week, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights said late Wednesday it had treated 68 cases of gunshot wounds and 100-plus other cases of “assaults with sharp objects, booted feet, baton sticks” and more.

 

It noted bites from the alleged unleashing of police dogs, and the “dragging of patients with life-threatening conditions” to court.

 

Death tolls this week have varied. Eight people were killed on Monday when police and military fired on crowds, Amnesty International said. Zimbabwe’s government said three people were killed, including a policeman stoned to death by an angry crowd.

 

The demonstrations amount to terrorism,'' Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said, blaming the opposition. In announcing the hundreds of arrests, State Security Minister Owen Ncube thanked security forces forstanding firm.”

 

Some Zimbabweans said the lack of social media meant they didn’t know the situation and preferred to stay in their homes.

 

“I can’t tell whether it’s safe or not, why should I take a risk?” said Elsy Shamba in Harare’s Kuwadzana suburb, one of the areas where residents said soldiers indiscriminately assaulted people earlier in the week.

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Chinese Trade Negotiator to Visit US in Late January

China’s economic czar, Vice Premier Liu He, will travel to the United States later this month for the second round of negotiations aimed at resolving the ongoing trade war between the global economic giants.

Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng told reporters in Beijing Thursday that Liu will visit Washington on January 30-31. He was invited by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

U.S. negotiators were optimistic after the first round of talks in Beijing last week that the two sides would be able to resolve tariff disputes that have upset global markets.

The trade talks are the result of an agreement last month between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to stop the tit-for-tat tariff conflict between the two countries for 90 days starting on New Year’s Day.

The United States has long complained about access to the vast Chinese market and Beijing’s demands U.S. companies reveal their technology advances.

If no deal is reached by March 2, U.S. tariffs on $200 billion Chinese goods will rise from 10 percent to 25 percent.

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US Federal Workers Take On Odd Jobs to Make Ends Meet

When her paychecks dried up because of the partial government shutdown, Cheryl Inzunza Blum sought out a side job that has become a popular option in the current economy: She rented out a room on Airbnb.

Other government workers are driving for Uber, relying on word-of-mouth and social networks to find handyman work and looking for traditional temp gigs to help pay the bills during the longest shutdown in U.S. history.

The hundreds of thousands of out-of-work government employees have more options than in past shutdowns given the rise of the so-called “gig economy” that has made an entire workforce out of people doing home vacation rentals and driving for companies like Uber, Lyft and Postmates.

Blum decided to capitalize on the busy winter travel season in Arizona to help make ends meet after she stopped getting paid for her government contract work as a lawyer in immigration court in Tucson. She says she has no choice but to continue to work unpaid because she has clients who are depending on her, some of whom are detained or have court hearings.

But she also has bills: her Arizona state bar dues, malpractice insurance and a more than $500 phone bill for the past two months because she uses her phone so heavily for work. Blum bills the government for her work, but the office that pays her hasn’t processed any paychecks to her since before the shutdown began. So she’s been tapping every source she can to keep herself afloat — even her high school- and college-aged children — and is even thinking about driving for Uber and Lyft as well.

“So after working in court all day I’m going to go home and get the room super clean because they’re arriving this evening,” she said of her Airbnb renters.

“I have a young man who’s visiting town to do some biking, and he’s going to come tomorrow and stay a week,” she added. “I’m thrilled because that means immediate money. Once they check in, the next day there’s some money in my account.”

The shutdown is occurring against the backdrop of a strong economy that has millions of open jobs, along with ample opportunities to pick up Uber and Lyft shifts.

The Labor Department reported that employers posted 6.9 million jobs in November, the latest figures available. That’s not far from the record high of 7.3 million reached in August.

Roughly 8,700 Uber driver positions are advertised nationwide on the SnagAJob website, while Lyft advertises about 3,000.

But the gig economy doesn’t pay all that well — something the furloughed government workers are finding out.

Pay for such workers has declined over the past two years, and they are earning a growing share of their income elsewhere, a recent study found. Most Americans who earn income through online platforms do so for only a few months each year, according to the study by the JPMorgan Chase Institute.

Chris George, 48, of Hemet, California, is furloughed from his job as a forestry technician supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture forest service. He’s been driving for Lyft but has only been averaging about $10 for every hour he drives. Paying for gas then eats into whatever money he has made.

He just got word that he’ll be getting $450 in weekly unemployment benefits, but hadn’t received any money as of Monday. In the meantime, he’s taking handyman or other odd jobs wherever he can.

“I’ve just been doing side jobs when they come along,” he said Monday. “I had two last week, and I don’t know what this week’s going to bring.”

George Jankowski is among those hunting around for cash. He’s getting a $100 weekly unemployment check, but that’s barely enough to pay for food and gas, he said.

On Monday, he made $30 helping a friend move out of a third-floor apartment in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Jankowski is furloughed from a USDA call center and does not expect to get back pay because his job is part-time and hourly.

Jankowski, an Air Force veteran, calls the situation “grueling.”

“It’s embarrassing to ask for money to pay bills or ask to borrow money to, you know, eat,” he said.

Some employers were looking at the shutdown as a way to recruit, at least temporarily.

Missy Koefod of the Atlanta-based cocktail-mixer manufacturer 18.21 Bitters said the company needs temporary help in the kitchen, retail store and getting ready for a trade show, and decided to put out the word to furloughed federal workers on social media that they were hiring.

“I can’t imagine not getting paid for a couple of weeks,” Koefod said.

American Labor Services, a staffing agency that employs 500 people a week in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, sent out an appeal to furloughed federal workers on Monday, asking them to get in touch for clerical or light-industrial work.

“Some might not realize that they could get something temporary, it could last for a short period,” said Ben Kaplan, the company’s president and CEO.

Israel Diaz sought out an Uber job and applied to be a security guard after he was furloughed from his Treasury Department job in Kansas City. He said federal work has become increasingly demoralizing and that he and many of his co-workers are considering quitting.

“In the old days, you work for the federal government, you get benefits, great,” said Diaz, a Republican and Marine Corps veteran. “Now, it’s not even worth it.”

 

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After Crossing into Guatemala, Migrants Set Sights on Mexico

More than 1,000 Hondurans were walking and hitchhiking through Guatemala on Wednesday, heading toward the Mexico border as part of a new caravan of migrants hoping to reach the United States.

Guatemala’s migration authority said just over 1,300 people were able to register at the border and pass through frontier controls under the watchful eyes of about 200 police and soldiers at the Agua Caliente crossing. Some migrants told The Associated Press that they crossed informally elsewhere.

Miria Zelaya, who left the Honduran city of Colon and was traveling with 12 relatives, said she did not know what sort of work she hopes to find in the United States but was not dismayed by tougher immigration policies under President Donald Trump.

“That does not discourage me,” Zelaya said. “The need is greater.”

Migrants leaving Central America’s Northern Triangle nations of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala routinely cite widespread poverty, lack of opportunity and rampant gang violence as their motivation.

Many in the group registered for 90-day visas in Guatemala, saying they felt it would offer peace of mind on the 300-mile (540-kilometer) trek to Mexico’s southern border.

Hector Alvarado, a 25-year-old announcer, said he had been shut out of job opportunities for belonging to the political opposition and felt forced to leave to find work. He learned about the caravan on Facebook, said goodbye to relatives and hit the road.

“My loved ones have already cried over of my leaving,” Alvarado said. “Now I have to press on.”

Previous caravans

The latest trek north comes as Trump has been working to convince the American public that there is a crisis at the southern border to justify construction of his long-promised border wall. Trump’s demand for billions of dollars to that end has resulted in a standoff with Congress that has forced a partial government shutdown.

The fate that awaits the migrants at the Mexico-U.S. border is uncertain. Previous caravans that were seized upon last year by Trump in the run-up to the 2018 midterm election have quietly dwindled, with many having gone home to Central America or put down roots in Mexico. Many others — nearly half, according to U.S. Border Patrol arrest records — have sought to enter the U.S. illegally.

About 6,000 Central Americans reached Tijuana in November amid conflict on both sides of the border over their presence in the Mexican city across from San Diego. As of earlier this week, fewer than 700 remained at a former outdoor concert venue in Tijuana that the Mexican government set up as a shelter to house them.

Mexico has issued humanitarian visas to about 2,900 migrants from last fall’s caravan, many of whom are now working legally there with visas.

Hope amid dangers

Also Wednesday about 100 migrants set out as a group from the capital of El Salvador, hoping to join the larger group from Honduras. Their numbers represent less than a third of the estimated 350 migrants who leave El Salvador each day.

“I can’t stay. I’m leaving because the gangs have threatened me — either I join them, or they’ll kill me,” said Adonay Hernandez, 22, who was carrying just $20 in his pocket but was confident he will make it to relatives in North Carolina. “God is my shield.”

Others hoped to find a better life in Mexico, where they have options for applying for refuge and work permits.

“I know that in Mexico they are helping us,” said Franklin Martinez, a 34-year-old traveling with his partner and their 2-year-old daughter. “We are going to ask for refuge and we are going to stay and work. After we have saved enough, perhaps we will go to the United States, but our goal is to make it to Mexico.”

Liduvina Margarin, vice minister for Salvadorans abroad, met with the migrants before they left a downtown plaza to warn them about the dangers of the northward route. She told them that more than half the Salvadorans who left in caravans have returned to the country.

“Our duty is to say to you that you are never going to be better off than in your homeland, in your communities of origin,” Margarin said.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Wednesday that Mexico has been monitoring the latest caravan closely.

He said the best option is for Central American governments to persuade their citizens to stay. Those who don’t will be allowed to enter Mexico in an orderly fashion and presented with options, and their human rights will be respected, Lopez Obrador added.

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