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Submariners Set Record With Dive to World’s Deepest Shipwreck of Famed WWII Destroyer

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The WWII destroyer USS Johnston is famed for her heroic doomed rear-guard action on October 25 1944 during Battle of the Leyte Gulf, facing off against a far-larger Imperial Japanese Navy force including the world’s biggest battleship Yamato.

A team of deep-sea explorers from the US have set a new record by descending to the world’s deepest-known shipwreck for the first time.

Former US Navy commander Victor Vescovo, one of two ex-officers who funded the expedition, personally piloted the submersible DSV Limiting Factor on two separate eight-hour dives to the wreck site of the USS Johnston some four miles (6.5 km) below the surface of the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines.

The mariner said the ship was remarkably well-preserved after nearly 77 years. Her painted hull number 577 was still clearly visible on both sides of the bow.

“The wreck is so deep so there’s very little oxygen down there, and while there is a little bit of contamination from marine life, it’s remarkably well intact except for the damage it took from the furious fight,” Vescovo said.

The Second World War destroyer is famed for its crew’s sacrifice in fighting a rear-guard action against a far superior force of the Imperial Japanese Navy, including the world’s biggest battleship Yamato, on October 25 1944 during the battle of the Leyte Gulf. That allowed the small escort aircraft carriers the Johnston was escorting to escape destruction. She went down east of Samar island with the loss of 186 of her crew of 327.

“We could see the extent of the wreckage and the severe damage inflicted during the intense battle on the surface. It took fire from the largest warship ever constructed — the Imperial Japanese Navy battleship Yamato, and ferociously fought back,” said retired USN Lieutenant Command Parks Stephenson, who has extensively researched the ship’s history. “All of the accounts pay tribute to the crew’s bravery and complete lack of hesitation in taking the fight to the enemy, and the wreckage serves to prove that.”

“The gun turrets are right where they’re supposed to be, they’re even pointing in the correct direction that we believe that they should have been, as they were continuing to fire until the ship went down,” Vescovo said. “And we saw the twin torpedo racks in the middle of the ship that were completely empty because they shot all the torpedoes at the Japanese.”

The wreck of the USS Johnston, some four miles (6.5 km) below the surface of the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines

The location of the wreck was first discovered in 2019 by the late Paul Allen’s vessel R/V Petrel under the leadership of ocean wreck explorer Robert Kraft. That expedition filmed debris from the ship using a  remotely-operated vehicle (ROV), but most of the wreck was below the submersible drone’s depth limit.

The team were careful not to disturb the last resting place of many of the crew, and did not see any human remains or clothing during the dive.

“We have a strict ‘look, don’t touch’ policy but we collect a lot of material that is very useful to historians and naval archivists. I believe it is important work, which is why I fund it privately and we deliver the material to the Navy pro-bono,” Vescovo said.

DSV Limiting Factor crew including pilot and mission funder Victor Vescovo (centre).

Following the historic dives, the team laid a wreath on the naval battlefield in honour of the USS Johnston’s crew.

“In some ways we have come full circle. The Johnston and our own ship were built in the same shipyard, and both served in the US Navy,” Vescovo said. “As a US Navy officer, I’m proud to have helped bring clarity and closure to the Johnston, its crew, and the families of those who fell there.”



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Russian Intranasal Vaccine Effective Against All Coronavirus Strains – Developers

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MOSCOW (Sputnik) – The new Russian nasal vaccine against COVID-19 has demonstrated effectiveness against all variants of the coronavirus, Alexander Gintsburg, the director of Russia’s Gamaleya Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology, which developed the vaccine, told Sputnik.

“We’ve observed that the currently available and already registered intranasal vaccine is demonstrating high efficiency in protecting against all strains [of the coronavirus], forming mucosal immunity to the pathogen,” Gintsburg said.

The Russian Health Ministry registered the world’s first intranasal vaccine against COVID-19 in April.

Gintsburg told Sputnik in March that the new vaccine was effective against the Omicron variant. He said that the new vaccine was going to be used as a booster, in addition to the Sputnik V shots, until there was enough evidence that this new intranasal method gives the same level of protection as an injection.

In November of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to become a volunteer in the testing of the new vaccine and said that he felt no side effects after getting the procedure.

Russia became the first country in the world to register a vaccine against COVID-19, dubbed Sputnik V, in August 2020. The Russian Health Ministry has also registered a new, Sputnik M, vaccine for adolescents aged 12-17. Clinical trials of Sputnik shots for children aged 6-11 are currently underway in Moscow, according to Gintsburg.



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Nancy Pelosi: Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan revives the debate on international recognition of the island | International

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Nancy Pelosi’s brief and controversial visit to Taiwan could not have incited more contrasting reactions from the governments on either side of the Formosa Strait. President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration received the speaker of the United States House of Representatives with everything but a fireworks show, projecting flamboyant welcome messages on the island’s tallest building. Beijing, on the other hand, responded to what it considered a “blatant provocation” with a week of unprecedented military exercises. The superpower has also cut ties with Washington on key topics and recently published the first official report on Taiwan in two decades. Its aggressive reaction has brought to the forefront the debate about international recognition of the island, which functions as a state but is recognized by only 14 countries.

“My friends and I were very excited for a figure like this to come. It’s good to attract attention,” says Sun Hui’an by phone. “We are used to threats from China. We can’t let it dictate our lives,” adds the 29-year-old nurse.

Formosa was the place to which nationalist leaders and around a million people fled after the victory of the Communist Army in 1949 in the civil war. While in mainland China Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic, Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Kuomintang (the formation that had presided over the country between 1927 and 1949), established a government in exile in Taiwan. Not until the 1970s did the United Nations and most Western countries began to recognize Beijing as the legitimate government of China, to the detriment of Taipei.

Taiwan is not a special administrative region of China like Hong Kong and Macau. It has a democratic government, a constitution and an army of 300,000 soldiers. It ranks as the 21st largest economy in the world, and it is the leading producer in the semiconductor industry. In 2019, it became the first place in Asia to legalize marriage between same-sex couples.

For the Chinese government, the island is a headache. The Asian giant considers Taiwan an inalienable part of its territory, whose “reunification” is, in the words of President Xi Jinping, “a historic mission of the Communist Party.” In recent years, especially since Tsai Ing-wen assumed the presidency in 2016, Chinese authorities have spoken with increasing assertiveness about a future unification, for which they have not ruled out the use of force. The rapport between the Tsai Administration and the United States, as evidenced by the recent visit of the American politician, has infuriated Beijing. On Wednesday, China published the first white paper on Taiwan in 22 years, drawing far more red lines than previous publications from 1993 and 2000.

Beijing’s discourse has never quite caught on across the strait. The two main Taiwanese parliamentary groups hold two radically opposed ideas about nationalism. While the Blue Coalition, led by the Kuomintang (KMT), aspires to an eventual unification with the People’s Republic, the Green Coalition, led by the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP), prefers to distance the island from Beijing.

Xulio Ríos, director of the Chinese Policy Observatory, points out that, however, that “the nuances are important”: “In the KMT there is everything from an intense blue –which defends unification and the idea of China – to a sky-blue, which understands that there are two different realities on both sides of the strait. The PDP advocated for independence, but today it does not defend it so aggressively and is committed to maintaining the status quo.”

Although historically opposed, the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have sometimes found ways to collaborate and prevent secession. KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia is currently on a 17-day trip to the mainland to boost cross-border communication. “The cooperation between the KMT and the CCP really picked up momentum in 2008, with the victory of Ma Ying-jeou [KMT] in the elections. This made possible a rapprochement between the business and political elites of the mainland and Taiwan,” says Ríos.

Maintaining the status quo

That approach was cut short in 2014, when a group of protesters occupied parliament to denounce the approval, without bipartisan debate, of a controversial trade agreement with China. “The Sunflower Movement put the brakes on a whole process of rapprochement, which had generated the expectation of a possibility of peaceful unification through dialogue,” says Ríos. “After PDP’s victory with an absolute majority in 2016 is completely the opposite, a completely opposite path opened,” he adds.

Despite the two trends, the surveys carried out biannually by the Center for Electoral Studies of National Chengchi University (Taipei) since 1994 show that the vast majority of the 23 million Taiwanese are committed to maintaining the status quo. In its latest poll, from July, those in favor of unification are few (1.3%) and falling, while those in favor of declaring independence (5.1%) have also lost steam.

“My parents and I share the same opinion: we don’t care who rules Taiwan, but we don’t want to lose our freedoms. My grandparents and my parents had hopes for the principle of one country, two systems, but after what happened in Hong Kong we know that it is not viable,” says Wu, 32, who prefers to identify himself with a pseudonym.

Deng Xiaoping devised the one country, two systems model in the late 1980s. The goal was to ensure conformity to the idea that there is but one China, while ensuring that those areas that had developed their own economic systems could keep them under Chinese rule. The idea, originally conceived for Taiwan, has never been accepted by the island’s political parties.

Taiwanese fear that the idea’s acceptance will bring an erosion of democracy. China had agreed with the United Kingdom to guarantee Hong Kong’s system of freedoms until 2047. But after the 2019 protests, Beijing has become intransigent, with the approval of the draconian National Security Law and with an electoral reform that ended up placing Beijing-backed candidate John Lee as head of government in May.

“Once you visit the Chinese mainland, if you are green, you turn dark green. If you are blue, you go green,” Wu says, summarizing the Taiwanese’s misgivings. But given the obvious difference in opinion that has persisted in high political circles, the most intelligent response seems to be the one reflected by the polls. When asked what he would choose between preserving the status quo or moving towards complete autonomy from Beijing, Wu does not hesitate: “Independence does not deserve a war.”

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‘The Taliban no longer wanted to kill me. Now they wanted to marry me’ | Women’s rights and gender equality

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The day the Taliban entered my city last August, I started to receive renewed threats from Taliban commanders who wanted to punish me for my work as a news journalist. I was forced to leave my home that day, amid the loud explosions of an ongoing battle, hiding under a burqa, and praying to survive the journey.

What I did not know then was that this journey would continue for the next year.

Every few weeks, I moved from province to province, sometimes living in the heart of cities, other times hiding out in remote villages. In the first few days, I stayed at my uncle’s house in Sari Pul province, but once the local Taliban learned he was harbouring a fugitive, we had to leave in the middle of the night.

I went to Mazar-i-Sharif city in Balkh, and then took the road to Kabul, passing through Samangan, Baghlan and Parwan provinces. We were stopped at checkpoints in every province, and every time my heart would pound inside my chest. Luckily, I was under a chadari [the full Afghan burqa] and passed through checkpoints undetected.

In Kabul, the very air had shifted; there was fear and dread, alongside celebrations, as Taliban fighters from all over the country gathered in the capital. With the help of some friends, I was moved to a safe house, where I spent the next three months attempting to find ways to leave the country, but seldom even leaving the compound I was hiding in. The Taliban would launch random raids in the neighbourhood, looking for fugitives like me.

Somehow, our compound evaded suspicion, but when the number of raids increased, I knew I would have to leave Kabul soon.

In December 2021, I heard the news that my cousin had been killed by the Taliban. He was a policeman and often clashed with the Taliban during the years of conflict. Like me, he had been hiding for months, looking for a way to leave the country, but was caught and killed. I broke down, not just in grief over his loss, but also in incredible pain over what my life had turned into.

I decided to go back to my province, but did not go home because I didn’t want to risk my family’s lives. I hid at the home of another relative, but being so close to my family again made me homesick. I yearned for my mother’s embrace; I hadn’t seen her in months.

One day, I met my mother in a crowded marketplace. We hugged each other tight, and I cried, but she gave me strength. I knew I couldn’t give up now.

Over the next few months, I started weaving carpets to help support myself and my family. Since the Taliban takeover, we had not only lost income but my life in exile was costing my parents, who had already sacrificed so much to raise me and now had to support me. It was hard labour, and I developed rashes and sores on my hands, but it helped my family and took my mind off the threats I was still receiving.

Then the threats from the Taliban changed. They no longer wanted to kill me. They wanted me to marry one of their commanders. They reached out to my parents and community elders, pressuring them to give me away in marriage.

I couldn’t believe it was now happening to me. In the past, I covered stories of the Taliban imposing forced marriages on young girls. Now I was one of the women I had reported about last year.

When I refused, they sent me photos of AK-47s and pistols, threatening to kidnap me, and kill my parents. I blocked their numbers and deleted WhatsApp but they still found ways to send me threats. Eventually, I took out my sim card and broke it into pieces. I was terrified of what they would do to me, or worse, to my family.

So in July, with the help of friends, I made one more attempt to leave the country. First, with the help of my father, I moved to Mazar-i-Sharif, and then we took the road to Kabul again. I carried medical certificates, and every time we were stopped, we would say I was going to Kabul for treatment. I was nervous throughout the journey because the Taliban were more brutal than before.

Eventually we made it to Kabul, where I met with other women like myself. Together, under the pretext of seeking medical help, we were able to get on a flight leaving for a neighbouring country.

I am somewhat safer now, but not out of danger. I barely sleep because I fear for my family, who are still in Afghanistan. They are already being shamed because I ran away. A young unmarried daughter leaving by herself is considered very dishonourable in Afghan culture.

But I am fortunate in the support I have received from my parents, at great personal risk. They always prioritised my passion, my happiness, and now my security and future. Contrary to popular belief, many Afghan fathers would, like mine, rather face societal dishonour and threats than deny their daughters opportunities for a better future.

I appeal to our international allies to empower such Afghan families, particularly the women. We worked so hard to attain values of equality and freedom and have lost the most in the last year. But we are still resisting, and we are seeking allies to support us and amplify our voices.

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