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Flights restart at Hong Kong airport as protesters apologize

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Hong Kong airport

HONG KONG — Flights resumed at Hong Kong’s airport Wednesday after two days of disruptions marked by outbursts of violence that highlight the hardening positions of pro-democracy protesters and the authorities in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.

About three dozen protesters remained camped in the airport’s arrivals area a day after a mass demonstration and frenzied mob violence forced more than 100 flight cancellations. Additional identification checks were in place, but check-in counters were open and flights appeared to be operating normally.

Protesters spread pamphlets and posters across the floor in a section of the terminal but were not impeding travellers. Online, they also circulated letters and promotional materials apologizing to travellers and the general public for inconveniences during the past five days of airport occupations.

“It is not our intention to cause delays to your travels and we do not want to cause inconvenience to you,” said an emailed statement from a group of protesters. “We ask for your understanding and forgiveness as young people in Hong Kong continue to fight for freedom and democracy.”

The airport’s management said it had obtained “an interim injunction to restrain persons from unlawfully and wilfully obstructing or interfering” with airport operations. It said an area of the airport had been set aside for demonstrations, but no protests would be allowed outside the designated area.

The airport had closed check-in for remaining flights late Tuesday afternoon as protesters swarmed the terminal and blocked access to immigration for departing passengers. Those cancellations were in addition to 200 flights cancelled on Monday.

Hong Kong police said they arrested five people during clashes with pro-democracy protesters at the airport Tuesday night.

Assistant Commissioner of Police Operations Mak Chin-ho said the men, aged between 17 and 28, were arrested for illegal assembly. Two were also charged with assaulting a police officer and possessing offensive weapons as riot police sought to clear the terminal.

More than 700 protesters have been arrested in total since early June, mostly men in their 20s and 30s, but also including women, teenagers and septuagenarians.

Mak gave no further details, but said additional suspects were expected to be arrested, including those who assaulted an officer after stripping him of his baton and pepper spray, prompting him to draw his gun to fend them off.

Hong Kong law permits life imprisonment for those who commit violent acts or acts that might interfere with flight safety at an airport.

More than 74 million travellers pass through Hong Kong’s airport each year, making it “not an appropriate place of protest,” Mak said.

“Hong Kong police have always facilitated peaceful and orderly protests over the years, but the extremely radical and violent acts have certainly crossed the line and are to be most severely condemned,” he said. “The police pledge to all citizens of Hong Kong that we will take steps to bring all culprits to justice.”

That was backed up by a statement on a newly launched government website set up to provide the latest information on the crisis, which said, “The police will take relentless enforcement action to bring the persons involved to justice.”

Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific said in a statement it had cancelled 272 flights over the past two days, affecting more than 55,000 passengers, while 622 departures and arrivals went ahead.

Cathay also said it has fired two pilots, in an apparent response to their involvement in activity related to pro-democracy protests.

They included one pilot who is “currently involved in legal proceedings.” The airline said earlier this week one of its pilots has been charged with rioting after being arrested during a protest.

It said the second fired pilot “misused company information,” but gave no further details. The Hong Kong Free Press reported that the pilot posted a photo of a cockpit screen on an online forum used by protesters.

The airport disruptions have escalated a summer of demonstrations aimed at what many Hong Kong residents see as an increasing erosion of the freedoms they were promised in 1997 when Communist Party-ruled mainland China took over what had been a British colony.

While Hong Kong’s crucial travel industry suffers major losses, the city’s reputation as a well-regulated centre for finance is also taking a hit. Some 21 countries and regions have issued travel safety alerts for their citizens travelling to Hong Kong, saying protests have become more violent and unpredictable.

The demonstrators are demanding Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam step down and scrap proposed legislation under which some suspects could be sent to mainland China, where critics say they could face torture and unfair or politically charged trials.

Lam has rejected calls for dialogue, saying Tuesday the protesters were threatening to push their home into an “abyss.”

In a statement Wednesday, the Chinese Cabinet’s liaison office in Hong Kong said the protesters had “entirely ruptured legal and moral bottom lines” and would face swift and severe repercussions under Hong Kong’s legal system.

“Their behaviour shows extreme contempt for the law, seriously damages Hong Kong’s international image and deeply hurts the feelings of the broad masses of their mainland compatriots,” the statement said.

Most of the protesters left the airport Tuesday after officers armed with pepper spray and swinging batons tried to enter the terminal, fighting with demonstrators who barricaded entrances with luggage carts. Riot police clashed briefly with the demonstrators, leading to several injuries and prompting at least one officer to draw a handgun on his assailants.

The burst of violence included protesters beating up at least two men they suspected of being undercover Chinese agents. Airport security appeared unable to control the crowd, and paramedics later took both men away. Police have acknowledged using “decoy” officers, and some protesters over the weekend were seen being arrested by men dressed like demonstrators — in black and wearing face masks.

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, identified one of the men as a journalist at the nationalistic Chinese tabloid.

“Fu Guohao, reporter of GT website is being seized by demonstrators at HK airport,” Hu wrote on his Twitter account. “I affirm this man being tied in this video is the reporter himself. He has no other task except for reporting.”

Protesters on Wednesday apologized that some of them had become “easily agitated and over-reacted.” On posters, the demonstrators said they have been “riddled with paranoia and rage” after discovering undercover police officers in their ranks.

Earlier this week, the central government in Beijing issued an ominous characterization of the protest movement as something approaching “terrorism” — a label it routinely applies to nonviolent protests of government policies on the environment or in minority regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet.

President Donald Trump tweeted that U.S. intelligence believes that the Chinese government is moving troops to its border with Hong Kong and that, “Everyone should be calm and safe!”

While China has yet to threaten using the army — as it did against pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989 — recent police exercises across Hong Kong’s border with mainland China were a sign of its ability to crush the demonstrations, even at a cost to Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe haven for business and international exchange.

Images on the internet showed armoured personnel carriers belonging to the People’s Armed Police driving in a convoy Monday toward the site of the exercises.

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Associated Press video journalist Katie Tam in Hong Kong and writer Kelvin Chan in London contributed to this report.

Vincent Thian And Yanan Wang, The Associated Press
































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Biden health pick taking heat for support of abortion rights

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s pick for health secretary is taking heat from Republicans for his actions in support of abortion rights. They want to define him — and the new administration — as out of the mainstream.

The nomination of Xavier Becerra faces a key vote Wednesday in the Senate Finance committee. It’s a test, too, for national groups opposed to abortion, trying to deny a president who favours abortion rights his choice to run the Department of Health and Human Services.

Becerra is paying a price for defending, as California attorney general, some of the nation’s most liberal laws and policies on abortion rights.

“It goes to show that California abortion policies are progressive enough that being associated with them is something that anti-abortion lawmakers want to make disqualifying for a Cabinet position,” said Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University, who specializes in the legal history of reproduction.

Nationally, the abortion issue appears in flux. Lawmakers in 19 state legislatures have introduced almost 50 bills this year to ban most or all abortions, according to the nonpartisan Guttmacher Institute. In South Carolina, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster signed a measure banning most abortions, though it was almost immediately suspended by a federal judge.

Abortion opponents are hoping that litigation over a state law will reach the Supreme Court, now clearly leaning to the right. It could serve as a vehicle for overturning the Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion. Yet despite the surge of state activity, the underlying political reality is tricky.

During the 2020 election, about 6 in 10 voters said abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to VoteCast, an in-depth survey of the U.S. electorate conducted by NORC at The University of Chicago for The Associated Press. Roughly the same percentage of Republicans said abortion should usually be legal, the survey showed.

Becerra, 63, was a reliable Democratic vote for abortion rights during more than 20 years representing a Los Angeles-area district in the U.S. House. But he wasn’t a leading voice. His issues were immigration, access to health care and education.

Perceptions changed after Becerra was appointed California attorney general in 2017. He sued the Trump administration over its restrictions on abortion, although his office says that only four of the 124 lawsuits Becerra filed against the previous administration dealt with abortion, birth control or conscience rights — key issues for religious conservatives. Becerra went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend a California law that required crisis pregnancy centres to provide information about abortion — and lost.

His legal advocacy grated on abortion opponents. “What I just see is his getting involved in way too many abortion cases,” said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America. “He just made it part of his foundation. Yes, the laws were bad in California, but he has an abortion agenda.”

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., echoed those views. “It does seem like as attorney general you spent an inordinate amount of time and effort suing pro-life organizations,” he said, questioning Becerra recently. “If confirmed, how do you assure us? Because I think the majority of the American people would not want their secretary of Health and Human Services focused or fixated on expanding abortion when we got all of these public health issues to deal with.”

“I understand that Americans have different deeply held beliefs on this particular issue,” Becerra responded, adding that “it’s my job to defend the rights of my state.” He has also pointed out that his wife, Dr. Carolina Reyes, is an obstetrician recognized for caring for women with high-risk pregnancies.

The chairman of the Finance Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., accused some Republican senators of ignoring the coronavirus pandemic “to peddle misleading or demonstrably false attacks on Attorney General Becerra’s record defending access to reproductive health care.”

There doesn’t seem to be much room for dialogue. “It’s really hard to see where he is going to find, or be willing to find, any common ground with pro-lifers,” Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, said of Becerra.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., told Becerra that “I’ve got serious concerns with the radical views that you’ve taken in the past on the issue of abortion.” And Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., accused Becerra of “targeting religious liberty” when he sued the Trump administration over its rules giving employers with religious or moral objections more leeway to opt out of covering birth control.

How far the Biden administration will get in expanding access to abortion is questionable. Democrats in Congress don’t appear to have the votes to overturn the Hyde Amendment, the term for a series of federal laws that bar taxpayer funding of abortion except in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the woman. Biden, who supported Hyde restrictions throughout his congressional career, flipped his stance as a presidential candidate. Becerra has told senators he’ll follow the law.

Abortion rights opponents say they do not trust Becerra. “He has credentialed himself to be an abortion absolutist — it’s just who he is,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which backs female office-seekers opposed to abortion.

But Becerra has received the backing of a prominent Catholic, Sister Carol Keehan, the retired head of the Catholic Health Association of the United States. She disagrees with his support for abortion rights, but finds common ground elsewhere.

“He’s got a heart for making sure that people have the ability to access health care in this country,” said Keehan. “I happen to believe the way you reduce abortion is by giving people decent health care.”

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Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar And Thomas Beaumont, The Associated Press

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National security officials to testify on Jan. 6 mistakes

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WASHINGTON — Federal national security officials are set to testify in the second Senate hearing about what went wrong on Jan. 6, facing questions about missed intelligence and botched efforts to quickly gather National Guard troops that day as a violent mob laid siege to the U.S. Capitol.

Senators are eager Wednesday to grill the officials from the Pentagon, the National Guard, and the Justice and Homeland Security departments about their preparations as supporters of then-President Donald Trump talked online, in some cases openly, about gathering in Washington and interrupting the electoral count.

At a hearing last week, officials who were in charge of security at the Capitol blamed each other as well as federal law enforcement for their own lack of preparation as hundreds of rioters descended on the building, easily breached the security perimeter and eventually broke into the Capitol itself. Five people died as a result of the rioting.

So far, lawmakers conducting investigations have focused on failed efforts to gather and share intelligence about the insurrectionists’ planning before Jan. 6 and on the deliberations among officials about whether and when to call National Guard troops to protect Congress. The officials at the hearing last week, including ousted Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, gave conflicting accounts of those negotiations. Robert Contee, the acting chief of police for the Metropolitan Police Department, told senators he was “stunned” over the delayed response and said Sund was pleading with Army officials to deploy National Guard troops as the rioting rapidly escalated.

Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar, one of two Democratic senators who will preside over Wednesday’s hearing, said in an interview Tuesday that she believes every moment counted as the National Guard decision was delayed and police officers outside the Capitol were beaten and injured by the rioters.

“Any minute that we lost, I need to know why,” Klobuchar said.

The hearing comes as thousands of National Guard troops are still patrolling the fenced-in Capitol and as multiple committees across Congress are launching investigations into mistakes made on Jan. 6. The probes are largely focused on security missteps and the origins of the extremism that led hundreds of Trump’s supporters to break through the doors and windows of the Capitol, hunt for lawmakers and temporarily stop the counting of electoral votes. Congress has, for now, abandoned any examination of Trump’s role in the attack after the Senate acquitted him last month of inciting the riot by telling the supporters that morning to “fight like hell” to overturn his defeat.

As the Senate hears from the federal officials, acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman will testify before a House panel that is also looking into how security failed. In a hearing last week before the same subcommittee, she conceded there were multiple levels of failures but denied that law enforcement failed to take seriously warnings of violence before the Jan. 6 insurrection.

In the Senate, Klobuchar said there is particular interest in hearing from Maj. Gen. William Walker, the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, who was on the phone with Sund and the Department of the Army as the rioters first broke into the building. Contee, the D.C. police chief, was also on the call and told senators that the Army was initially reluctant to send troops.

“While I certainly understand the importance of both planning and public perception — the factors cited by the staff on the call — these issues become secondary when you are watching your employees, vastly outnumbered by a mob, being physically assaulted,” Contee said. He said he had quickly deployed his own officers and he was “shocked” that the National Guard “could not — or would not — do the same.”

Contee said that Army staff said they were not refusing to send troops, but “did not like the optics of boots on the ground” at the Capitol.

Also testifying at the joint hearing of the Senate Rules Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committees are Robert Salesses of the Defence Department, Melissa Smislova of the Department of Homeland Security and Jill Sanborn of the FBI, all officials who oversee aspects of intelligence and security operations.

Lawmakers have grilled law enforcement officials about missed intelligence ahead of the attack, including a report from an FBI field office in Virginia that warned of online posts foreshadowing a “war” in Washington. Capitol Police leaders have said they were unaware of the report at the time, even though the FBI had forwarded it to the department.

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the report was disseminated though the FBI’s joint terrorism task force, discussed at a command post in Washington and posted on an internet portal available to other law enforcement agencies.

Though the information was raw and unverified and appeared aspirational in nature, Wray said, it was specific and concerning enough that “the smartest thing to do, the most prudent thing to do, was just push it to the people who needed to get it.”

“We did communicate that information in a timely fashion to the Capitol Police and (Metropolitan Police Department) in not one, not two, but three different ways,” Wray said, though he added that since the violence that ensued was “not an acceptable result,” the FBI was looking into what it could have done differently.

Mary Clare Jalonick And Eric Tucker, The Associated Press

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