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David Degner/Getty ImagesBY: HATEM MAHER, ABC NEWS

(NEW YORK) — Egypt uncovered a funerary temple and the oldest coffins ever found in Saqqara, unlocking more secrets in the ancient burial site and marking another major discovery in the vast necropolis south of Cairo.

The country said a mission headed by prominent Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, the former minister of state for antiquities affairs, unearthed the funerary temple of Queen Nearit, the wife of King Teti -- the first pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty of Egypt.

The mission also unearthed 52 burial shafts with more than 50 wooden coffins found inside. They date back 3,000 years, the oldest sarcophagi found in Saqqara.

"These coffins are wooden and anthropoid … many of the gods that were worshiped during this period were represented on the surface of the coffins, in addition to various excerpts from the Book of the Dead that help the deceased pass through the journey of the other world," the Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities said in a statement.

In recent months, Egypt unearthed hundreds of coffins of top officials and priests in Saqqara, all dating back to the more recent Late and Ptolemaic periods.

The new discovery is distinguished because older New Kingdom sarcophagi were found, the ministry has said. The New Kingdom period lasted from the 16th century BC to the 11th century BC, covering the 18th, 19th and 20th Egyptian dynasties.

"The discovery confirmed that the Saqqara area was not used for burial during the Late Period only, but also during the New Kingdom," the statement read.

Another "luxurious, mud-brick shrine" was also uncovered at a depth of 24 meters below the ground level, the deepest shaft found yet. Hawass said digging work will continue until the burial chamber is discovered.

"Inside the shafts, the mission discovered large numbers of archaeological artifacts and a large number of statues that represents deities such as the god Osiris and Ptah-Soker-Osiris," the antiquities ministry added.

Egypt has carried out extensive digging operations in Saqqara in recent years, which resulted in a string of discoveries, including the unearthing of a 4,400-year-old tomb of royal priest Wahtye in 2018 and the discovery of hundreds of mummified animals and statues a year later.

Tourism & Antiquities Minister Khaled El-Enany said in November that Egypt can "find tombs and burial shafts in every single spot in this area," referring to Saqqara, which is also home to 13 pyramids.

Egypt is hoping the findings can help revive the vital tourism industry, which took a fresh blow because of the COVID-19 pandemic just when it had begun to recover from the aftermath of uprisings and civil unrest in 2011 and 2013.

Hawass said the latest discoveries in the ancient necropolis will "make Saqqara an important tourist and cultural destination."

"It will also rewrite the history of Saqqara during the New Kingdom," he added.

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ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty ImagesBy PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News

(MOSCOW) -- Russian authorities have extended the detention of opposition leader Alexey Navalny in a hastily organized court hearing on Monday despite growing international condemnation over his arrest a day earlier at a Russian airport.

Navalny was detained by police at passport control at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport as he landed in the country for the first time since his poisoning with a nerve agent last summer.

Navalny appeared in a court hearing organized inside a police station on the outskirts of Moscow. It was filmed and then posted online by his lawyers. The lawyers said they were informed about it just minutes before it began.

The judge ruled to satisfy a request by police to extend Navalny’s detention until Feb. 15, Navalny’s lawyer, Vadim Kobzev, wrote on Twitter.

Navalny and his colleagues denounced the hearing as a “mockery of justice” and called for his supporters to begin street protests. His team announced plans for a nationwide demonstration to start next Saturday.

“What’s happening here doesn’t have the smallest thing to do with the law of the Russian Federation,” Navalny said during the court hearing. What scared the authorities most were the protests, he noted.

“And so don’t be afraid -- go out onto the streets. Don’t do it for me, do it for yourself and for your future,” Navalny said.

A small crowd of a few dozen supporters of Navalny were outside the police station, chanting for his release, in temperatures around -11 degrees Fahrenheit. No reporters were allowed into the court hearing, except for a few journalists from pro-Kremlin channels who were already inside when the hearing began.

Russia's prison service has said it has detained Navalny for allegedly violating the terms of a suspended sentence from a 2014 trial where he was found guilty of embezzlement. The European Court of Human Rights has previously ruled that conviction was politically motivated.

Before Navalny returned, the prison service requested that his nearly four-year suspended sentence be converted into real prison time. A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 29.

Monday’s ruling means that Navalny will remain behind bars until the end of the month.

Navalny’s arrest has triggered a growing outcry from western countries, with some European countries calling for sanctions against Russia if he is not released. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s Commission, issued a statement condemning Navalny’s detention by Russian authorities.

“They must immediately release him and ensure his safety,” she said, adding that the EU would be monitoring the situation closely.

Joe Biden’s incoming national security adviser on Sunday night also demanded Navalny's release in a Twitter post, calling the attacks on Navalny an “affront to the Russian people.”

France, Britain, Germany as well as many other European countries also made calls for Navalny’s release.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, on Monday dismissed the demands, claiming that Western countries wanted to use Navalny’s arrest to distract attention away from problems at home. He accused Germany of inventing evidence that Navalny had been poisoned and said he was unconcerned by the criticism.

“We should probably think about our image, but we’re not young ladies going to a ball,” Lavrov told reporters.
Navalny says Russian agent accidentally admitted to poisoning him

Navalny had been recuperating in Germany following his poisoning with a Novichok nerve agent, a Soviet-developed chemical weapon used in the poisoning of the former Russian double agent Sergey Skripal in Britain in 2018.

Russian authorities took extensive measures ahead of Navalny’s arrival on Sunday. Moscow’s Vnukovo airport abruptly changed its rules restricting entry and a heavy police presence was deployed to prevent hundreds of Navalny’s supporters and journalists from meeting him. Police detained at least 40 people.

Navalny's commercial flight was abruptly diverted to Sheremetyevo, a different Moscow airport, away from the waiting crowd.

Navalny said the manner of his detention and the court hearing showed that the Kremlin was afraid of him and his supporters.

“Why is everything so fast, why did no one know about this hearing? Because their approval ratings are high? Because they’re strong? No, of course not!” Navalny told his supporters in his video. “They’re afraid. And they’re afraid of you!”

Navalny is Russia’s best-known opposition activist and has a grassroots following thanks to his investigations into alleged corruption by powerful Russians officials and business people around President Vladimir Putin.

In recent years he has succeeded in organising unusually large street protests in Russia, sometimes gathering several thousand people in Moscow despite tough efforts by police to block them.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement Navalny’s poisoning, which he has accused Putin of ordering.

But last month, the independent group Bellingcat published an investigation identifying members of an alleged FSB hit squad who were present in the Siberian city of Tomsk when Navalny was poisoned. Navalny also published audio where one of the alleged agents unwittingly admitted to the plot in a call with Navalny himself, who posed as a senior Russian official.

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Luis Vargas/Anadolu Agency via Getty ImagesBy CHRISTINE THEODOROU and JOSHUA HOYOS, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Thousands of migrants from Honduras fleeing violence, devastation caused in the aftermath of two devastating hurricanes and economic hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic are in Guatemala and moving towards Mexico, hoping to ultimately reach the U.S.

Calls were made on social media for groups to join together and leave from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on Jan. 15, according to the International Organization for Migration. Between Jan. 13 and 15, 3,500 people left from San Pedro Sula, and more people joined up with them in the following days. Between Jan. 15 and 16, 7,500 people crossed into Guatemala, the IOM said.

Guatemala's government has called on Honduras to contain the mass exit and is also calling on other Central American governments to take similar actions to prevent putting citizens at a health risk because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a statement, the government said that on Jan. 14, a "state of protection decree" was issued to control the flow of people at the Honduras-Guatemala border. But as of Saturday, they said "some groups have violated the surveillance regulations and managed to enter our territory in violation of legal provisions."

The Institute for National Migration in Honduras said on Facebook more than 200 members of the caravan returned to Honduras and that three border controls have been reinforced.

Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement praising Guatemala for taking steps to attend to the "irregular contingent" that entered its territory, adding that Mexico supports authorized movements, but irregular migrations threaten the lives and health of both the migrating group and host populations.

In June, President-elect Joe Biden promised to reverse many of President Donald Trump's immigration policies. Depending on how this situation develops, it may turn into one of the earlier immigration issues the Biden administration faces.

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WATTIE CHEUNG/POOL/AFP via Getty ImagesBy ANGELINE JANE BERNABE, ABC News

(LONDON) -- Prince William is taking part in the effort to get people vaccinated in the United Kingdom by joining its vaccination campaign.

In a video posted on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s social media accounts Saturday, Prince William joined a roundtable of frontline workers talking about the National Health Service’s vaccination effort, which is described by one health care worker in the video as “the biggest public health campaign that the U.K. has seen.”

So far, health care workers in the U.K. have administered more than 2.8 million vaccines.

“A huge congratulations to all of you for playing your part in such a monumental moment,” Prince William said in the video.

“This is because we have a world-leading NHS, this is because we have the right people, the right research and development here,” he added about the work that has been done so far.

💉🇬🇧 Thank you to all the staff and volunteers across the country working to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected from coronavirus 👏 pic.twitter.com/4gbXBligcp

— The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (@KensingtonRoyal) January 16, 2021

Britain was the first western country to begin a mass vaccination rollout against the coronavirus. In December, the country began administering the vaccine to its top priority groups, which included front-line health care workers, everyone over the age of 80 and health and social care workers who are at high risk.

Just over a week ago, Buckingham Palace announced that Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, received their COVID-19 vaccines, which were administered by a doctor at Windsor Castle.

In the video, Prince William commended his grandparents for getting the vaccine.

“My grandparents have had the vaccine, and I’m very proud of them for doing that,” William said. “It’s really important that everyone gets their vaccine.”

The British government is aiming to administer vaccine doses to 15 million people by mid-February.

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Maja Hitij/Getty ImagesBY: PATRICK REEVELL, ABC NEWS

(NEW YORK) — Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was detained by police at a Moscow airport minutes after returning to Russia for the first time since he was poisoned with a nerve agent this summer.

Navalny had pledged to return to Russia despite the assassination attempt and recent threats from Russian authorities that he would be jailed. On Sunday, he flew to Moscow on a commercial flight from Germany, where he had been recuperating from the poisoning.

The flight was diverted at the last minute to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport after authorities suddenly closed the airport where the plane had been scheduled to land and where hundreds of supporters and journalists were waiting for Navalny, along with dozens of riot police.

After he disembarked, Russian police approached Navalny while he was standing at passport control and detained him, which was filmed by a crowd of journalists that had flown with him from Berlin. After kissing his wife, Yulia, Navalny was led away.

Navalny had spent months recovering in Germany, where he was flown for treatment after falling critically ill in August while aboard a flight in Siberia. A German military lab later found he had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, a type of chemical weapon developed by the Soviet Union.

Days before his arrival, Russia’s prison service announced Navalny had been placed on a wanted list for allegedly violating the terms of a suspended sentence he received for a 2014 fraud conviction. The prison service recently requested that the suspended three and a half-year sentence be converted to real jail time. The 2014 trial where Navalny received the sentence was later ruled as politically motivated by the European Court of Human Rights.

The federal penitentiary service on Sunday said it had detained Navalny at the airport in relation to that warrant and that he would now be held until a court hearing, which is scheduled for Jan. 29.

Navalny is Russia’s best-known opposition leader and has built up a large grassroots following with his anti-corruption investigations into powerful figures around President Vladimir Putin.

Navalny had said the threats to arrest him were an attempt by the Kremlin to force him into exile after the attempt to kill him with the nerve agent failed.

After landing, Navalny told the journalists traveling with him that he was “completely happy” to be back and that he had no choice but to return.

“They ask me, am I afraid? I’m not afraid. I, with an absolutely normal feeling, will go up to passport control, go out and go home, because I know that I am right. I know that all the criminal cases against me are fabricated,” he said. Minutes later he was arrested.

Before flying, Navalny had called on his supporters to meet him at the airport, and authorities took elaborate steps to prevent images of a triumphant homecoming. Vnukovo International Airport, where Navalny’s flight had initially been due to arrive, abruptly introduced new rules restricting building entry to only those with a ticket, and a heavy police presence was deployed, with lines of police vans parked outside.

Several hundred people tried to gather at the airport. Inside, police officers in riot gear with helmets and batons shoved supporters and journalists out onto the street, and at least 37 people were arrested.

The flight was abruptly diverted as it approached the airport, leaving journalists and the supporters in the wrong place. Pobeda Airlines said the airport was closed due to sudden “technical reasons” and that two of its other flights had been forced to divert. After the diversion, police for a time blocked the road out of Vnukovo as journalists tried to reach the other airport.

Russia has denied any involvement in Navalny’s poisoning. But an investigation by the independent investigative journalism website Bellingcat last month published evidence that a team of alleged agents from Russia’s FSB intelligence agency had trailed Navalny for years and were present in the Siberian city of Tomsk when he was poisoned. Navalny also recorded one of the alleged agents unwittingly admitting to the plot to Navalny himself in a phone call where he posed as a senior Russian official.

Last month Putin confirmed that the FSB was following Navalny but denied they had poisoned him, saying if they had, “they would have finished the job.”

In addition to the 2014 suspended sentence, Russian prosecutors last month also opened a new criminal case against Navalny for alleged large-scale embezzlement that carries a possible 10-year prison sentence.

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CasPhotography/iStockBy IBTISSEM GUENFOUD, ABC News

(PARIS) -- Starting Thursday, people in Lebanon are asked to stay home, day or night, without exemptions for grocery shopping or exercising, to curb a new surge in coronavirus cases.

Lebanon has entered a national state of emergency, which includes a 24-hour curfew prohibiting citizens from leaving their home from Jan. 14 until the morning of Jan. 25, Brig. Gen Mahmoud al Asmar, spokesperson of the Lebanese Higher Defense Council, announced earlier this week.

Only a limited category of essential workers, such as health care workers and journalists, are allowed to venture outside. Travel in and out of the country is also heavily reduced and under further restrictions, including a minimum 72-hour quarantine upon arrival.

The government decided to confine the entire population as it faced the critical situation of the country’s hospitals running out of beds for patients.

The Beirut port explosion in August 2020 destroyed several hospitals, and two years of a dire financial crisis have already put pressure on a weak health care system. Now the country faces its highest daily death toll and highest daily case numbers, with an average of 5,000 COVID-19 cases a day.

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Public Health announced Caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan tested positive for COVID-19 and is being treated at the hospital.

"The whole health care system is on the brink of collapse," said Dr. Firass Abiad, surgeon and CEO of Beiruit's Rafik Hariri University Hospital, where he said the ICU is running at full capacity. "All hospitals in Lebanon are facing shortages because of the economic crisis and some medical supplies and medication. Unfortunately because of the surge, this situation has worsened at the moment."

Abiad said his hospital has not had to turn patients away yet, but it is something he worries about as emergency rooms fill up.

"We are hoping that the society will show a high compliance with these new measures," he said.

Gatherings over the holiday season are being held responsible for the current surge in cases. The Lebanese government eased measures against the spread of the virus over the holidays, allowing restaurants, hotels and even nightclubs to open up.

Lebanon leads the number of cases per million population in the Arab world, as COVID-19 infections hit new records after the holiday season, according to the Global Health Institute at the American University of Beirut. The country, which has a 6.8 million population, has one of the fastest increasing daily number of cases.

With a 70% increase in contaminations compared to the seven days preceding, the country is one where the epidemic is spreading fastest in the world, after Portugal, Nigeria and Ireland, according to data from Agence France-Presse.

Scenes of panic at grocery stores were plentiful in the last days before the complete closure of the country, as the Lebanese lined up in front of supermarkets to stock up.

However, in a country in the midst of an economic and financial crisis, food insecurity will likely rise under the new lockdown, Soha Zaiter, the executive manager of the Lebanese Food Bank, said.

"We have a lot of people working day by day, if they do not go out in the morning, they cannot buy food or pay the rent," Zaiter told ABC News. "People cannot afford to stay like this, yet the government is not making any plans to cover the expenses of people that are in need. The demand is getting higher and higher."

The Lebanese Food Bank is planning to distribute around 6,000 food boxes across Lebanon, in addition to blankets and heaters for the most in need.

"People need us more than ever before," Zaiter said.

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Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday answers questions during a press conference on June 19, 2020. - Department of Defense/Marvin LynchardBy ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- With tensions running high between Iran and the United States in recent weeks, the Navy's top admiral believes the U.S. has the right naval assets in the Middle East to deter Iranian aggression.

Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, told reporters during a trip to the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain, that the recent return of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to the waters of the Middle East was intended "to maintain stability, at a time when things could potentially become unstable."

Asked for his assessment of tensions in the region, Gilday said that "right now, things seem to be very stable in the region."

There had been some speculation that Iran might retaliate against U.S. forces in the region on the anniversary of the U.S. airstrike that killed senior Iranian general Qossem Soleimani on Jan. 3, 2020. And while the date has now passed, tensions between Iran and the U.S. still exist.

American B-52 bombers have recently carried out long-range missions to demonstrate the U.S. military's strategic capabilities and Iran has carried out large scale naval and drone exercises.

"We're sending a very clear signal to Iran and others that we have the capabilities in place to respond should we be required to," Gilday said.

Gilday said the Navy's presence in the region and cooperation with 33 coalition countries has deterred Iranian malign activity and reassured U.S. allies and partners in the region.

"We're not looking for trouble, we're not trying to instigate anything," he said. "Our focus is to maintain stability in the region and right now my assessment is that we have the right forces in place."

Two weeks ago, the USS Nimitz was abruptly ordered to return to the Middle East just days after the Pentagon announced it was headed back to the U.S. following a nine-month deployment.

The original plan to end the carrier's deployment was intended to send a message to Iran that the U.S. was de-escalating tensions ahead of the anniversary of Soleimani's death.

But threats from Iranian leaders aimed at President Donald Trump around the time of the announcement led Trump to reverse the Pentagon's decision and direct the carrier back to the region.

It is unclear how long the carrier will remain in the region after what was already a lengthy deployment.

The extension also means the Navy will have to delay scheduled maintenance to prepare the USS Nimitz for future deployments.

As for the crew of the Nimitz, "They're doing just fine," Gilday said, describing his videoconference with the ship's senior leaders.

"They understand the mission that they've been assigned to do," Gilday added. "Although they've been extended, they understand the importance of it."

During his two-day visit to Bahrain, Gilday said Navy sailors did not ask him about the situation in the U.S. following last week's assault on the U.S. Capitol.

His sense is that sailors are "well-informed" about what has been going in the country, but they understand their sworn mission to support and defend the Constitution.

"That's our job, and I think that we just need to keep our heads down and you would expect the American public would expect that we would be focused on mission, and that there would be nothing but stability in the United States military," he said.

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Tempura/iStockBy LIEZL THOM, ABC News

(PRETORIA, South Africa) -- The World Health Organization's emergency committee will meet two weeks early on Thursday to discuss the new coronavirus variants from South Africa and Britain that have rapidly spread to at least 50 countries and sparked widespread alarm.

The newly identified variants, which appear to be significantly more infectious than the strain that emerged in China in 2019, come as spiking virus numbers force many nations to enforce new lockdowns.

The committee normally gathers every three months but the WHO said the director-general pulled the meeting forward "to consider issues that need urgent discussion."

"These are the recent variants and considerations on the use [of] vaccination and testing certificates for international travel," the global body said Wednesday.

Mutations to Sars-CoV-2 are raising concerns among scientists who are scrambling to work out if they will respond to vaccines.

In particular, one mutation, detected initially in South Africa and on subsequent variants in Brazil and Japan, has raised alarm among researchers, who are studying the variant, known as 501Y.V2 to determine whether current vaccines will be effective.

Experts say the vaccines will very likely still work against the new variants. Studies to confirm are ongoing, but those experiments take time.

Professor of infectious diseases at the University of Cape Town, Marc Mendelson, told ABC News that it remains undetermined whether the South African variant is really more contagious. "Studies to date suggest that people infected with this variant have an increase in the viral load, which is likely to increase the ability of that person to transmit to others. The evidence is supported by the speed of increase numbers being infected during the second wave, both in South Africa and in the U.K., which has a separate variant which also carries the same mutation at position 501 in the spike protein," Mendelson, who is also the head of the Division of Infectious Diseases and HIV Medicine at Cape Town's Groote Schuur Hospital, told ABC News.

Mendelson said a lot of urgent work is underway to study the mutation and he's hopeful that some answers will be forthcoming within the next few weeks. "The most pressing question is around whether the mutations in the variant will affect vaccine responses. Then there's the question of whether the variant is associated with more severe disease? I am not seeing evidence of that on the ground (at my hospital), but subtle differences need a lot of data to pick it up, so that is anecdotal evidence. However at present, there is no signal that it causes more severe disease."

A preliminary study found that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine appears to work against the mutated virus, but more studies are needed because the South African variant has a number of additional mutations, including changes to some to the virus' spike protein.

According to Mendelson, the spike protein is not only vital for entry of the virus, but is also the site targeted by antibodies humans produce to control the viral infection. "Put simply, these antibodies neutralize the virus by binding to specific sequences of the spike protein, preventing it binding to a receptor on our cells and therefore preventing entry. If you can prevent entry of the virus into cells, you can prevent it replicating and inhibit it from causing an infection. The reason for concern is once again, a number of mutations in the genetic code of the virus that the variant has. The resulting changes in structure of the spike protein, could reduce the binding of antibodies to their recognition sites and therefore reduce the ability of our immune system to prevent the virus from entering cells and taking hold."

According to the WHO, the South African identified strain has been found in 20 countries, territories and areas after first being reported to the WHO on Dec. 18.

"From preliminary and ongoing investigations in South Africa, it is possible that the 501Y.V2 variant is more transmissible than variants circulating in South Africa previously," the agency's weekly report said.

"Moreover, while this new variant does not appear to cause more severe illness, the observed rapid increases in case numbers has placed health systems under pressure." The geographical spread of both variants is likely underestimated, said the WHO.

Fears over the increased transmissibility of the new variants are prompting fresh lockdowns and extra measures to contain COVID-19.

The South African strain is causing more concern, however, due to an additional mutation that has scientists on edge, one named E484K, which may render certain vaccines less effective.

The WHO also noted that a third new coronavirus variant "of concern," found in Japan, needs further investigation.

"The more the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to change. High levels of transmission mean that we should expect more variants to emerge," the WHO stated. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19 disease. Viruses constantly undergo minor changes as they spread from person to person.

More than 90 million COVID-19 infections have been recorded globally since cases first appeared in December 2019. The death toll from the pandemic is nearing two million people.

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MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty ImagesBy GUY DAVIES, ABC News

(LONDON) -- Hindu pilgrims in India have begun gathering along the Ganges River on the first day of Kumbh Mela, despite coronavirus restrictions in what is often described as the largest religious festival in the world.

Images from the northern town of Haridwar which is host to this year’s event taken on Thursday showed thousands gathering to take a dip in the Ganges on the first day of the festival.

Kumbh Mela takes place over a number of weeks and the pilgrims believe that submerging in the river will help absolve them of their sins.

Ordinarily tens of millions of Indians gather over the course of the festival which is famous for the colorful scenes and the presence of the Sadhus, or holy men.

However, India is still very much in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic and the numbers expected to travel from around the country has raised fears of more community spread.

In the early months of the pandemic, part of the spread of the virus around the country was attributed to day-laborers traveling long distances home to adhere to COVID-induced lockdowns.

"The pandemic is a bit of a worry, but we are taking all precautions," one organizer, who suggested that up to a million people could join at the festival on Thursday, was quoted as saying by Agence-France-Presse. "I'm sure Maa Ganga will take care of their safety."

This year’s festival will continue until April. The festival itself is celebrated at four different river banks considered to be holy, with this year’s host, Prayagraj, based on the river Ganges in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

India has so far had over 10.5 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with 151,727 recorded deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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Vladislav Zolotov/iStockBy GUY DAVIES, ABC News

(LONDON) -- The Tower of London’s ‘Queen raven,’ Merlina, is missing and presumed dead after not being seen for several weeks, Historic Royal Palaces said.

Legend has it that if there are less than six ravens at the Tower of London the “kingdom will fall,” but thankfully there are still seven ravens at the tower, despite Merlina’s absence.

“We have some really unhappy news to share,” a spokesperson for Historic Royal Palaces said in a statement. “Our much-loved raven Merlina has not been seen at the Tower for several weeks, and her continued absence indicates to us that she may have sadly passed away.”

We have some really unhappy news to share. Our much-loved raven Merlina has not been seen at the Tower for several weeks, and her continued absence indicates to us that she may have sadly passed away. (1/4) pic.twitter.com/ccwCIBfdlT

— The Tower of London (@TowerOfLondon) January 13, 2021

While the ravens are often known to roam outside the Tower of London, Merlina had always returned to the Ravenmaster, “with whom she shared a wonderfully close bond,” the spokesperson said.

There are now seven ravens at the Tower, which is one more than the usual six that is required to prevent the fall of the kingdom, so there are no immediate plans to replace Merlina.

The authorities are hopeful that a new chick will arrive soon as part of their breeding program and that the raven “will be up to the formidable challenge of continuing” the much-loved bird’s legacy.

“Since joining us in 2007, Merlina was our undisputed ruler of the roost, Queen of the Tower Ravens,” the spokesperson said. “She will be greatly missed by her fellow ravens, the Ravenmaster, and all of us in the Tower community.”

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bedo/iStockBy PETE MADDEN, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Turkish authorities have rebuffed a request from the United Nations for more information on the murders of Syrian-American journalist Halla Barakat and her mother, Orouba Barakat.

In a letter dated Oct. 7, published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard sought clarity on the depth of the investigation into the brutal 2017 killings, calling it a matter of "international concern."

"The political nature of the Barakats' work, and the death threats they received, make it imperative that a possible politically-motivated killing be considered and investigated and the evidence for and against that conclusion shared with the family and the public," Callamard wrote. "Such an investigation would make it more likely that all culpable parties are identified."

In response, Turkish officials defended their actions, declined to provide any further information and reasserted the "complete conscientious opinion" that the murders were committed over "family issues."

"As in all cases, the investigation and prosecution of the present case was carried out by Turkish authorities with utmost diligence," Turkish officials wrote on Dec. 2. "As the hearings were held openly, the Government is of the view that due transparency was provided in the process."

The exchange, sparked by an 18-month investigation of the killings by ABC News and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, represents the first official response to lingering questions about the case raised by the Barakat family allies, who contend that the motivations behind the murders -- and the possibility of a broader conspiracy -- were not adequately probed after Turkish authorities declined the FBI's offer of forensic assistance.

Callamard declined to comment beyond saying that she was "analyzing the situation to see what my next steps might be."

Rep. David Price, a North Carolina Democrat, had previously called on State Department officials to appeal to their Turkish counterparts to grant the authorization for "FBI work on the ground." He said he was encouraged that Callamard is seeking answers but disappointed in the lack of engagement from Turkish authorities.

"Unfortunately, the Turkish government was not detailed or comprehensive in its response, leaving many loose ends in the investigation," Price told ABC News and Reveal in a statement. "My hope is that the UN special rapporteur will continue seeking the truth – Halla and Orouba Barakat deserve justice. I support the U.S. government using its diplomatic tools to help ensure this case is given every possible consideration."

Suzanne Barakat, a family member in San Francisco who has led the effort to bring further scrutiny to the case, responded to the Turkish letter by renewing her demand for U.S. and Turkish law enforcement to cooperate in reexamining the evidence.

"If they think this was all done well, there shouldn't be any concern with us all collaborating and getting the evidence we have and corroborating all the different pieces," Suzanne told ABC News and Reveal. "If they are in fact aligned in seeking justice in Halla and Orouba's names, then I don't see why there would be any issue about collaborating."

The Barakats were fierce critics of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and members of the Istanbul-based opposition to his regime. Their brutal double murder in September 2017 in Istanbul sparked headlines around the world, and a suspicion among their family, friends and colleagues that their work may have threatened powerful figures with the motive and means to silence them.

The crime scene, to many observers, suggested the work of a professional. Halla was an American citizen -- born in North Carolina while Orouba was visiting relatives there -- who had worked for a U.S. media outlet. So two U.S. lawmakers from the state, Sen. Thom Tillis and Rep. Price, soon called for a thorough investigation. H.R. McMaster, then a senior member of the Trump administration, even invited Suzanne Barakat to the White House, where, she said, intelligence officials and diplomats assured her that the case was a priority.

By then, Turkish authorities had arrested and secured a confession from a distant relative named Ahmed Barakat, who had been working for Orouba since arriving in Turkey from Syria six months earlier. Orouba owed him money, Ahmed told prosecutors, according to court documents, claiming that when he confronted her in the apartment she shared with her daughter Orouba refused to pay and attacked him with a kitchen knife, which he then used to kill her. When Halla screamed, he said, he killed her, too.

After a brief trial, Ahmed was convicted and given two life sentences. The case, as far as prosecutors were concerned, was closed.

But questions about the case lingered, so in the three years since the murders, a trans-Atlantic team of journalists -- some based in Turkey, others in the United States, some of whom knew Halla and Orouba personally -- sought answers to those questions. That reporting, led by ABC News, where Halla briefly worked in the months before her death, and Reveal, was featured in a special edition of Nightline and an episode of the Reveal podcast in October.

ABC News and Reveal obtained hundreds of pages of documents from the investigation led by the Turkish National Police -- including police statements, autopsy reports, witness testimony, evidence inventories and court transcripts. Coupled with more than a dozen interviews with family members, friends, colleagues, government officials and outside experts familiar with the case, the documents reveal several inconsistencies and outright contradictions in the official narrative. And records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, filed by Reveal, show that despite assurances from officials at the White House National Security Council and U.S. Department of State to the contrary, the FBI never opened a case.

Those findings prompted Callamard, the human rights and international law expert who determined in June 2019 that Saudi Arabia was responsible for the premeditated killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, to launch her own inquiry.

Citing a "presumption that crimes committed against journalists are in relation to their work and reporting until proven otherwise," Callamard questioned whether Turkish authorities had adequately examined that possibility.

"It is unclear whether the investigative authorities consider if [Ahmed] acted in concert with or at the direction of others," Callamard wrote, "such as representatives of the Syrian Government, or of an armed group such as ISIL."

She posed many of the same questions raised by the ABC News and Reveal reports about the effectiveness of the Turkish investigation, the level of transparency provided the family, and the apparent lack of international cooperation in pursuing the evidence. Then she echoed the call from the Barakat family and U.S. lawmakers to permit the involvement of U.S. law enforcement.

"Given Ms. Halla Barakat's US citizenship, would your Excellency's Government reconsider receiving assistance from the FBI," Callamard wrote, "particularly with respect to investigating aspects of the case relating to social media?"

Suzanne Barakat hopes that fresh scrutiny will change the official narrative. Shortly after ABC News and Reveal's investigation aired, Suzanne and her attorney met with officials at an FBI field office to present their case for further investigation.

"What we're looking for is just answers and the truth," Suzanne told ABC News and Reveal. "The Turks have some answers."

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nycshooter/iStockBy JULIA JACOBO, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- A potential silver lining of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, a drop in greenhouse gas emissions because of the massive reduction in ground and air travel during lockdowns, may not be as drastic as previously thought, new research shows.

Researchers in the U.K. from the University of Birmingham looked at 11 large cities -- Beijing, Wuhan, Milan, Rome, Madrid, London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles and Delhi -- and discovered that although air quality did improve, it was by less than expected. Their findings were published Wednesday in Science.

When scientists separated the effects of the lockdown restrictions from weather and business-as-usual events, they found that clearing the air of secondary pollutants such as ozone and fine particulate matter may prove more complicated than reducing precursor emissions, such as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that result from chemical processes in the atmosphere.

But while recent studies have explored the air quality impacts of the early 2020 lockdowns, many have not accounted for weather, which can moderate pollutant concentrations, according to the study.

Jason Smerdon, a climate scientist for Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, told ABC News last month that transportation saw the largest reductions in emissions in 2020, accounting for about 40% of all reductions.

The study's authors found that reductions in automobile traffic led to an immediate decline in nitrogen oxide levels across all cities. However, less than 30% of the shift could be attributed to lockdown effects in most cases, in part due to continued emissions from other sources.

Ozone concentrations actually increased during the lockdown, the researchers found. Additionally, sudden decreases in particulate matter, isolated from weather and business trends, were not observed immediately after lockdowns began.

The research shows that massive drops in transportation-linked emissions are not a single solution to improving air quality but perhaps part of a larger, systemic overhaul, especially in cities, that takes into account "both primary emissions and secondary processes to maximize the overall benefits to air quality and human health."

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MaRabelo/iStockBy PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News

(DUBLIN) -- Ireland’s prime minister on Wednesday made a solemn state apology to the women and children that suffered in church-run homes for unmarried mothers and their babies, as the country confronts a landmark report documenting decades of abuse at the institutions, where thousands of infants reportedly died.

The report presents the findings of a public inquiry into the so-called Mother and Baby Homes that during the 20th Century, generations of unmarried women in Ireland were forced into after becoming pregnant and then often forcibly separated from their children.

The report, published on Tuesday, and the apologies were presented as a moment of national reckoning and atonement for an extraordinarily dark piece of Ireland’s history, one that again forces it to grapple with the role of the Catholic Church.

“On behalf of the Government, the State and its citizens, I apologize for the profound generational wrong visited upon Irish mothers and their children who ended up in a Mother and Baby Home or a County Home," Prime Minister Micheál Martin said during a speech to Ireland’s parliament the Dáil on Wednesday.

“We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy, and young mothers and their sons and daughters were forced to pay a terrible price for that dysfunction," Martin said. “As the Commission says plainly – ‘they should not have been there.’”

The Catholic Church in Ireland and some of the religious orders that ran the homes, also issued apologies in response to the report. Archbishop Eamon Martin, the leader of the Church in Ireland, on Tuesday said he “unreservedly” apologized to survivors.

The report from the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, which runs around 3,000 pages, provides a detailed anatomy of institutions—bleak, usually gated places where life was strictly regimented and often resembled a prison.

In testimonies, survivors describe intense stigma and callous treatment. Some women described being kidnapped and forcibly taken by their families to the homes.

The report found the homes featured an exceptionally high infant mortality rate, recording that 9,000 children died at 18 homes between 1922 and 1998. That was 15% of all the institutions' children, almost double the national rate of infant mortality.

Around 56,000 unmarried mothers and about 57,000 children were kept in the homes, according to the report, which said Ireland likely had the highest proportion of women admitted to such institutions in the world in the 20th Century.

It blamed the homes' existence on a toxic alignment between the Catholic Church, the state and an extremely conservative, misogynistic society.

Despite often being aware of the appalling death rates and conditions in the homes, the report said the Irish state did almost nothing to intervene. There was “little evidence that politicians or the public were concerned about these children,” the report said.

Martin acknowledged that, saying the state “failed you, mothers and children.”

Campaigners and survivors of the institutions described mixed feelings, though, with some saying the report failed to convey what they endured and warning it ignored some key issues such as forced adoption.

Catherine Corless, a local historian who helped first trigger an intense public examination of the homes' history, told Irish media on Tuesday she was “deflated” by the report and felt it let down survivors.

Corless, in 2014, uncovered death certificates for nearly 800 children who died at the former Bon Secours home in Tuam in western Ireland, but only found a burial record for just one child. Investigators then found a mass grave containing the remains of babies and young children in an underground sewage structure on the grounds of the home. The provoked horror in Ireland and around the world set off a national discussion that led to the report.

Martin held a webinar with Corless and other survivors on Tuesday ahead of his apology in parliament. Afterward, Corless and others said they had been upset by his comments.

“The survivors are well-used to the government making promises but what disturbed them mostly was that Micheál Martin put the blame back onto society,” Corless told the public broadcaster RTE.

While critical of the state and church, the report said the mistreatment of the women was fundamentally a product of a bigoted Irish society, where ordinary people cast out unmarried mothers and ‘illegitimate’ children.

“Responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families,” an opening passage of the report reads. “It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches. However, it must be acknowledged that the institutions under investigation provided a refuge - a harsh refuge in some cases - when the families provided no refuge at all.”

Catherine Conolly, an opposition MP, heavily criticized the report, saying it was “incomprehensible” that it had concluded there was no evidence the church and state had forced women into the institutions.

“All the evidence given confirms this,” she told parliament. “I find the whole thing actually repulsive to tell you the truth.”

Although they appreciated the apology, several survivors said they wished it had come once they had had time to digest the huge report.

“It’s too early and too late,” Anna Corrigan, whose two brothers are believed to have died in Tuam, told The Irish Independent Tuesday. “The apology should actually wait until people have sight of the report and can settle.”

Martin pledged to fulfill the report’s recommendations and outlined a series of measures that would be taken to redress the victims, including financial compensation and access to medical care. The government said it would also bring legislation that would give survivors the right to access their records, including adoption records.

That is a key demand of survivors, many of whom don't know their relatives' fate or who their parents are.

“An apology on its own is not enough,” Martin told parliament. He noted how many former residents described feeling shame about their situation.

“The shame was not theirs,” Martin said. “It was ours. It remains our shame.”

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Oleksii Liskonih/iStockBy VICTOR ORDONEZ, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday it will detain all cotton and tomato products produced in China’s Xinjiang province.

The Withhold Release Order (WRO) issued by CBP is based on information that “reasonably indicates” the use of forced labor within China’s so-called “re-education” camps. CBP also claims China is oppressing its Muslim population in that region.

“The goal isn’t just to interdict shipments ... that's actually the fallback plan,” Acting DHS Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told reporters Wednesday. “The goal of the WRO is that they stop and that the shipments never arrive -- the ultimate goal is that China abandons these horrific practices.”

This is the fourth WRO that CBP has issued in 2021 and the second on products originating in Xinjiang. China’s Xinjiang province accounted for eight of the 13 WROs that CBP issued in 2020 -- all stemming from allegations of forced labor.

CBP officials and human rights experts estimate that somewhere between 1 million to 3 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and others are being detained in what U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has dubbed "internment camps" throughout China's Xinjiang province. There are about 1,300 of these facilities scattered throughout the region and they've allegedly forced detainees to work without compensation in nearby factories, according to those same officials.

Evidence from Chinese government documents and media reports indicate that hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in Xinjiang are forced to pick cotton by hand via state-mandated labor, according to a report by the Center for Global Policy published last month. The Chinese government strongly denies all claims of forced labor in Xinjiang.

“I've said this before and I'll say it again: Made in China does not just indicate a country of origin,” said Cuccinelli. “It's a warning label.”

Cotton is Xinjiang's largest export; cotton exports from China are approximately a $9 billion industry. Last month, CBP issued a WRO on Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which had accounted for 17% of those cotton exports.

CBP has not yet quantified Xinjiang’s tomato export output, but China’s overall output of tomatoes is a $10 million industry, according to export data from 2019.

CBP officials emphasized on the call Wednesday that most of the onus falls on importers and consumers -- urging them to diligently research their supply chains prior to purchasing items from China in general.

“If you're buying apparel and it's considerably lower than the fair market value everywhere else, there's a reason for that,” said CBP Acting Commissioner Mark A. Morgan. “Take a few minutes, understand where it's coming from -- is it coming from this region?”

Human rights coalitions have praised the action taken from the U.S. against Beijing’s alleged abuses.

“CBP’s action is a high-decibel wakeup call to any apparel brand that continues to deny the prevalence and problem of forced-labor produced cotton from the Uyghur region,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium, a member of the coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour. “The days when any major apparel brand can safely profit from Xinjiang cotton are over.”

Scrutiny against China’s actions in Xinjiang has mounted in recent months over allegations of forced sterilization of their Uighur population that surfaced last summer.

The scrutiny made its way to social media last week, when Twitter removed a controversial tweet by the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. In the tweet, the embassy shared an unsubstantiated report on population growth in Xinjiang and wrote that Muslim women in the province were "no longer baby-making machines," adding that the decrease in population growth had led to a drop in terrorism.

“After further review we have taken action on this tweet for violating our rules against dehumanization,” a Twitter spokesperson said.

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Adam Smigielski/iStockBy PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News

(MOSCOW) -- The Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has said he will return to Russia this week for what could be a dramatic homecoming following his poisoning with a nerve agent this summer.

Navalny has been in Germany since August where he was treated for the poisoning and had pledged to return home despite the attempt to kill him and recent threats from Russian authorities to jail him.

In a social media post on Wednesday he wrote he has a bought a plane ticket to arrive in Moscow this Sunday.

“The question ‘to return or not’ never stood before me. Sunday, January 17, I will return home on the Pobeda flight. Come meet me,” Navalny wrote on Twitter Wednesday, referring to a flight with a budget Russian airline.

Navalny spent weeks recovering in a Berlin hospital where he was airlifted after suddenly falling critically ill on a flight in Siberia in August.

A German military lab later found he had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, a chemical weapon developed by the Soviet Union and used in a 2018 assassination attempt against the Russian former double agent Sergey Skripal in the U.K.

Navalny’s poisoning has since been linked to a hit squad from Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service or FSB.

Navalny is Russia’s most prominent opposition leader and has long been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side, publishing high-profile investigations into alleged corruption among powerful officials and building a grass-roots protest movement.

Almost since the moment he emerged from a coma caused by the poisoning, Navalny pledged the assassination attempt would not dissuade him from going back to Russia, prompting speculation on whether the Kremlin might seek to stop him.

In recent weeks, Russian authorities have abruptly moved to change a previous suspended jail sentence against Navalny to real prison time and opened a new criminal case against him that carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.

Navalny has said the cases are politically motivated and are intended to deter him from returning to Russia and to force him into exile now that the effort to kill him has failed.

On Tuesday, it emerged Russia’s prison service has requested a Russian judge to jail Navalny in absentia for allegedly violating the terms of a suspended sentence handed to him years earlier.

Navalny was given the suspended sentence in 2014 in a trial for fraud that he said was politically motivated and that the European Court of Human Rights later ruled had been unjust. The ruling at the time was widely interpreted by independent observers as an attempt to block Navalny’s political activities and prevent him from running for office.

Court documents published Tuesday showed Russia’s federal penitentiary service has asked a court to convert Navalny’s suspended sentence to real jail time, even though the suspended sentence had already expired on Dec. 30.

Russian prosecutors last month also announced they were bringing “large-scale fraud” charges against Navalny and some of his colleagues for allegedly embezzling donations from their activist organizations.

The moves raise the prospect that Navalny could face arrest once he returns to Russia.

The Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said there are no obstacles to Navalny returning to Russia and told reporters to address questions about his sentencing to the penitentiary service.

Navalny has faced a campaign of physical and legal harassment over the years, targeted by police as well as pro-Kremlin activists. He has blamed his poisoning directly on President Vladimir Putin.

Putin and Russian officials have denied any involvement.

But an investigation by the independent group Bellingcat last month presented evidence identifying several members of an alleged FSB hit squad that had followed Navalny since at least 2017 and were present in the city of Tomsk when he was poisoned.

Navalny himself later called one of the alleged agents and recorded him apparently unwittingly admitting to the plot to kill him.

Speaking to an audience last month Putin did not dispute the FSB had followed Navalny but denied they would have poisoned him, saying if they had “they would have finished the job.”

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