Defense secretary remains hospitalized as details emerge about delays in notification, even to Biden

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin looks on during a joint press conference with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at Israel’s Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv. (File/AFP)
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Updated 08 January 2024
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Defense secretary remains hospitalized as details emerge about delays in notification, even to Biden

  • Austin, 70, remained hospitalized due to complications following a minor elective medical procedure

WASHINGTON: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin remained in the hospital Sunday as more details emerged about key decision-makers, even President Joe Biden, being kept in the dark for days that the Pentagon chief had been in the intensive care unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The Pentagon’s failure to disclose Austin’s hospitalization reflects a stunning lack of transparency about his illness, how serious it was and when he may be released. Such secrecy, at a time when the United States is juggling myriad national security crises, runs counter to normal practice with the president and other senior US officials and Cabinet members.
A senior defense official said Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks was not notified until Thursday that Austin had been hospitalized since Jan. 1. Once notified, Hicks began preparing statements to send to Congress and made plans to return to Washington, the official said. Hicks was in Puerto Rico on leave but had communications equipment with her to remain in contact and had already been tasked with some secretary-level duties on Tuesday.
The Pentagon did not say if Hicks was given an explanation on Tuesday for why she was assuming some of Austin’s duties, but temporary transfers of authority are not unusual and the official said it is not uncommon for authorities to be transferred without a detailed explanation. Hicks decided not to return after she was informed that Austin would resume full control on Friday. The official was not authorized to provide details of the transfer of authority and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Biden also was not told of Austin’s hospitalization until he was informed on Thursday by his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. That’s according to three people with knowledge of the hospitalization who were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
In a statement issued Saturday evening, Austin took responsibility for the delays in notification.
“I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better,” said Austin, acknowledging the concerns about transparency. “But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”
Austin, 70, remained hospitalized due to complications following a minor elective medical procedure, his press secretary said, as it became increasingly clear how closely the Pentagon held information about his stay at Walter Reed. In his statement, Austin said he is on the mend and is looking forward to returning to the Pentagon soon, but he provided no other details about his ailment.
Sen. Roger Wicker, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the episode erodes trust in the Biden administration and called on the department to provide lawmakers with a “full accounting of the facts immediately.”
“I am glad to hear Secretary Austin is in improved condition and I wish him a speedy recovery. However, the fact remains that the Department of Defense deliberately withheld the Secretary of Defense’s medical condition for days. That is unacceptable,” Wicker said in a statement.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced support for Austin at a news conference in Qatar on Sunday.
“He is an extraordinary leader in this country, in uniform and now out of uniform. And it’s been a highlight of my service to be able to serve alongside him,” Blinken said. “And I’m very much looking forward to see him fully recovered and working side by side in the year ahead.”
The Pentagon Press Association, which represents journalists who cover the Defense Department, sent a letter of protest on Friday evening, calling the delay in alerting the public “an outrage.”
“At a time when there are growing threats to US military service members in the Middle East and the US is playing key national security roles in the wars in Israel and Ukraine, it is particularly critical for the American public to be informed about the health status and decision-making ability of its top defense leader,” the PPA said in its letter.
Other senior US leaders have been much more transparent about hospital stays. When Attorney General Merrick Garland went in for a routine medical procedure in 2022, his office informed the public a week in advance and outlined how long he was expected to be out and when he would return to work.


China says conducting joint military drills with Russia

Updated 12 July 2024
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China says conducting joint military drills with Russia

  • China and Russia have drawn closer in recent years and tout their friendship as having ‘no limits’

BEIJING: China said Friday it was conducting joint military drills with Russia along its southern coast, after a US-led Western defense alliance met in Washington and Japan warned of a growing threat from Beijing’s strong ties with Moscow.
China’s defense ministry said the two militaries had begun the exercises, called Joint Sea-2024, in “early July” and they would last until the middle of this month.
The drills in the waters and airspace around Zhanjiang, a city in southern Guangdong province, are “to demonstrate the resolve and capabilities of the two sides in jointly addressing maritime security threats and preserving global and regional peace and stability,” the ministry said.
It added that the exercises “will further deepen China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for the new era.”
They were taking place in accordance with Beijing and Moscow’s annual plan for military engagement, according to the ministry.
The announcement came in the same week that NATO leaders convened in Washington to reaffirm support for Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion.
China and Russia have drawn closer in recent years and tout their friendship as having “no limits,” and both share hostile relations with NATO.
NATO leaders said in a declaration on Wednesday that China had “become a decisive enabler” of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, prompting Beijing to warn NATO against “provoking confrontation.”
China maintains that it is not a party to the Ukraine conflict but has been criticized by Western leaders for giving political and economic support to Russia, including in the trade of goods with both civilian and military uses.
Chinese forces are also staging drills this week with Belarus, another Russian ally, on NATO’s eastern border.
And Japan said Friday that joint China-Russia activities near its territory pose a “grave concern from the perspective of national security.”


Covid still kills 1,700 a week: WHO

Updated 12 July 2024
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Covid still kills 1,700 a week: WHO

  • More than seven million Covid deaths have been reported to the WHO, though the true toll of the pandemic is thought to be far higher

Geneva: Covid-19 is still killing around 1,700 people a week around the world, the World Health Organization said Thursday, as it urged at-risk populations to keep up with their vaccinations against the disease.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sounded a warning on declining vaccine coverage.
Despite the continued death toll, “data show that vaccine coverage has declined among health workers and people over 60, which are two of the most at-risk groups,” the UN health agency’s chief told a press conference.
“WHO recommends that people in the highest-risk groups receive a Covid-19 vaccine within 12 months of their last dose.”
More than seven million Covid deaths have been reported to the WHO, though the true toll of the pandemic is thought to be far higher.
Covid-19 also shredded economies and crippled health systems.
Tedros declared an end to Covid-19 as an international public health emergency in May 2023, more than three years on from when the virus was first detected in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.
The WHO has urged governments to maintain virus surveillance and sequencing, and to ensure access to affordable and reliable tests, treatments and vaccines.


Four people die in attempt to cross the English Channel — French coast guard

Updated 12 July 2024
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Four people die in attempt to cross the English Channel — French coast guard

  • A total of 67 people were aboard the boat off the coast of Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France

Boulogne-sur-Mer: Four migrants who tried to reach Britain died in the night from Thursday to Friday after their boat capsized in the Channel, a French coast guard spokesperson said on Friday, confirming earlier media reports.
A total of 67 people were aboard the boat off the coast of Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France, the spokesperson said, adding that 63 of them were rescued by an operation involving four ships and one helicopter.
Several thousand people have arrived in Britain this year via small, overloaded boats — usually flimsy inflatable dinghies — that risk being lashed by the waves as they try to reach British shores.


Biden says during press conference he’s going to ‘complete the job’ despite calls to bow out

Updated 12 July 2024
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Biden says during press conference he’s going to ‘complete the job’ despite calls to bow out

  • Biden holds highly anticipated news conference to deliver forceful defense of foreign and domestic policies
  • Insists his support among the electorate was strong and he would stay in the race and would win

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden used his highly anticipated news conference Thursday to deliver a forceful defense of his foreign and domestic policies, and batted away questions about his ability to serve another four years even as he flubbed a reference to Donald Trump in one of his first answers.
“I’m not in this for my legacy. I’m in this to complete the job I started,” Biden said as he insisted his support among the electorate was strong and he would stay in the race and would win.
Fumbles notwithstanding, the president pushed back at every suggestion that was slowing down or showing noticeable signs of decline, or that he was not in command of the job. But he was facing a growing chorus of calls from lawmakers, celebrities and other prominent Democrats to step aside from the 2024 race.
“My schedule has been full bore,” he declared. “So if I slow down and I cant get the job done, that’s a sign that I shouldn’t be doing it. But there’s no indication of that yet — none.”
Democrats are facing an intractable problem. Top donors, supporters and key lawmakers are doubtful of Biden’s abilities to carry on his reelection bid after his disastrous June 27 debate performance, but the hard-fighting 81-year-old president refuses to give up as he prepares to take on Trump in a rematch.
“I’m determined on running but I think it’s important that I allay fears — let them see me out there,” he said.
The first questioner of Biden’s press conference asked about him losing support among many of his fellow Democrats and unionists, and asked about Vice President Kamala Harris. Biden was at first defiant, saying the “UAW endorsed me, but go ahead,” meaning the United Auto Workers. But then he mixed up Harris and Trump, saying, “I wouldn’t have picked Vice President Trump to be Vice President if she wasn’t qualified.”
Trump weighed in live on Biden’s news conference with a post on his social media network of a video clip of the president saying “Vice President Trump.”
Trump added sarcastically, “Great job, Joe!”
Most of the hourlong press conference was vintage Biden: He gave long answers on foreign policy and told well-worn anecdotes. He used teleprompters for his opening remarks on NATO, which ran about eight minutes. Then the teleprompters lowered and he took a wide range of questions from 10 journalists about his mental acuity, foreign and domestic policy and — mostly — the future of his campaign.
“I believe I’m the best qualified to govern. I believe I’m the best qualitied to win,” Biden said, adding that he will stay in the race until his staff says, “There’s no way you can win.”
“No one’s saying that,” he said. “No poll says that.”

Earlier, Biden’s campaign laid out what it sees as its path to keeping the White House in a new memo, saying that winning the “blue wall” states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan is the “clearest pathway” to victory. And it declared no other Democrat would do better against Trump.
“There is also no indication that anyone else would outperform the president vs. Trump,” said the memo from campaign chair Jen O’Malley Dillon and campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez that was obtained by The Associated Press.
The memo sought to brush back “hypothetical polling of alternative nominees ” as unreliable and it said such surveys “do not take into account the negative media environment that any Democratic nominee will encounter.”
Meanwhile, the campaign has been quietly surveying voters on Harris to determine how she’s viewed among the electorate, according to two people with knowledge of the campaign who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to talk about internal matters.
The people said the polling was not necessarily to show that she could be the nominee in Biden’s place, but rather to better understand how she’s viewed. The research came after Trump stepped up his attacks against Harris following the debate, according to another person familiar with the effort. The survey was first reported by The New York Times.
While Biden has expressed confidence in his chances, his campaign on Thursday acknowledged he is behind, and a growing number of the president’s aides in the White House and the campaign privately harbor doubts that he can turn things around.
But they’re taking their cues from Biden, expressing that he is in 100 percent unless and until he isn’t, and there appears to be no organized internal effort to persuade the president to step aside. His allies were well aware heading into the week there would be more calls for him to step down, and they were prepared for it.
But in announcing a compact that would bring together NATO countries to support Ukraine, Biden referred to the nation’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky as “President Putin” to audible gasps in the room. He quickly returned to the microphone: “President Putin — he’s going to beat President Putin ... President Zelensky,” Biden said.
Then he said, “I’m so focused on beating Putin,” in an effort to explain the gaffe.
“I’m better,” Zelensky replied. “You’re a hell of a lot better,” Biden said back.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer invited Biden’s team to meet with senators privately at the lunch hour to discuss concerns and the path forward, but some senators groused they would prefer to hear from the president himself. In the Senate, only Peter Welch of Vermont has so far called for Biden to step out of the race.
The 90-minute conversation with the president’s team, which one person said included no new data, polling or game plan on how Biden would beat Trump, did not appear to change senators’ minds. The person was granted anonymity to discuss the closed door session.
The meeting was frank, angry at times and also somewhat painful, since many in the room know and love Biden, said one senator who requested anonymity to discuss the private briefing. Senators confronted the advisers over Biden’s performance at the debate and the effect on Senate races this year
One Democrat, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, said afterward, “My belief is that the president can win, but he’s got to be able to go out and answer voters’ concerns. He’s got to be able to talk to voters directly over the next few day.”
At the same time, influential senators are standing strongly with Biden, leaving the party at an impasse.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, told the AP he thinks Biden “is going to win this election. I think he has a chance to win it big.”
Sanders said he has been publicly critical of the campaign, and said Biden needs to talk more about the future and his plans for the country. “As we come closer to Election Day, the choices are very clear,” he said.


Billionaire bash: India’s lavish Ambani nuptials

Updated 12 July 2024
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Billionaire bash: India’s lavish Ambani nuptials

  • Ambani, 67, chairman of Reliance Industries, has a fortune of more than $123 billion, and is the 11th wealthiest person in the world
  • His younger son Anant and fiancee Radhika Merchant, both 29, are set to marry in three-day Hindu ceremony in Mumbai starting Friday

MUMBAI: Billionaire Indian tycoon Mukesh Ambani celebrates the lavish finale of his son’s wedding this week, highlighting his staggering wealth, as well as India’s rapid economic growth and stark financial inequalities.
Ambani’s younger son Anant and fiancee Radhika Merchant, both 29, are set to marry in a three-day Hindu ceremony in India’s financial capital Mumbai starting Friday.
Asia’s richest man is no stranger to throwing a costly wedding.
He held the most expensive wedding in India to date for his daughter in 2018, which reportedly cost up to $100 million and saw US singer Beyonce perform.
This week’s opulent celebrations are set to raise the bar, with celebrities, politicians and business elite jetting into the monsoon-hit megacity of Mumbai.
Pre-wedding parties for his son included multi-day galas, a European cruise for 1,200 guests, a specially built Hindu temple and entertainment provided by pop stars ranging from Rihanna to Justin Bieber.
Ambani, 67, the chairman of Reliance Industries, has a fortune of more than $123 billion, and is the 11th wealthiest person in the world, according to the Forbes billionaires list.
He is a key ally of India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Ambani inherited a thriving industrial enterprise spanning oil, gas and petrochemicals.

Billionaire and Chairman of Reliance Industries Mukesh Ambani (R) with his wife Nita Ambani attends a mass wedding ceremony of underprivileged couples ahead of their son Anant Ambani’s wedding to Radhika Merchant, at Reliance Corporate Park in Navi Mumbai on July 2, 2024. (AFP)

He grew it into a commercial behemoth with lucrative interests in retail, telecommunications and an Indian Premier League cricket team.
Ambani’s family home Antilia is one of Mumbai’s most prominent landmarks. The 27-floor building reportedly cost more than $1 billion to erect and has a permanent staff of 600 servants.
Merchant is the daughter of pharmaceutical moguls.
Wedding celebrations began in March with a three-day gala for 1,500-plus guests in Gujarat state.
Rihanna performed her first concert since last year’s Super Bowl for wedding guests including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and ex-US president Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka.
David Blaine did magic tricks.
Festivities also involved a trip to the Ambani’s “animal rescue center” housing exotic animals, and a specially built Hindu temple complex.
A second leg in June was a four-day Mediterranean cruise with 1,200 guests, Merchant told Vogue.
Singer Katy Perry performed at a masquerade ball at a French chateau in Cannes, while the Backstreet Boys and US rapper Pitbull also provided entertainment.
DJ David Guetta played at a toga party at sea.
The cruise ended in Italy’s Portofino, where tenor Andrea Bocelli serenaded the party in the town square.
The wedding invitation was an intricate chest incorporating a mini silver temple.
Merchant’s multiple dresses have been as elaborate.

Radhika Merchant (R) and her fiancé Anant Ambani, son of Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani, pose for a picture during their sangeet ceremony in Mumbai on July 5, 2024. (AFP)

They have included custom designs from Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, and a vintage Yves Saint Laurent for Dior, she told Vogue.
Another was a sweeping chiffon dress printed with a love letter from her fiancee, the magazine reported.
“I want to be able to show it to my kids and grandkids, and say that ‘this is what our love was’,” Merchant said.
India is the fastest-growing major economy, and the world’s fifth largest.
But despite massive advances, the world’s most populous country has a jobs crisis to match.
National per capita income is just $1,174, according to government data.

Nita Ambani (L), wife of Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani and chairperson of the Reliance Foundation, greets underprivileged couples during a mass wedding ceremony ahead of her son Anant Ambani’s wedding to Radhika Merchant, at Reliance Corporate Park in Navi Mumbai on July 2, 2024. (AFP)

India was ranked 111 of 125 countries in the Global Hunger Index report last year, a peer-reviewed measure calculated by European aid agencies.
One percent of India’s 1.4 billion people earn more than a fifth of its wealth, according to the World Inequality Lab, an income share “among the very highest” in the world — greater than South Africa, Brazil or the United States.
Perhaps to preempt criticism, Ambani provided a feast for 50,000 people in his hometown of Jamnagar in Gujarat during the first round of parties.
Ambani also organized a mass wedding for 52 “underprivileged” couples near Mumbai, promising to support “hundreds more such weddings” across India.