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In a horrific instant, a burst of power that ravaged Beirut

BEIRUT (AP) — As black smoke billowed into the sky, Shiva Karout stepped out of his gym with his colleagues and customers to watch. His gym, Barbell House, sits just across the coastal highway from Beirut’s port where a fire raged. They were curious.

Then a first boom shook them, and curiosity turned to fear realizing how close they were. “We got a bit scared, and we all went back in,” Karout recounted. Tense moments passed, waiting inside, and one of his customers panicked and ran out. Karout went after him.

That was when hell erupted. A gigantic explosion threw up a towering mushroom cloud and sucked out the air, and a wave of destructive energy shot across Lebanon’s capital.

The force threw Karout to the ground. He was cut and bruised, his full arm and leg tattoos of the Hindu god Shiva, after whom he is named, were punctured with lacerations and clotted blood.

But his gym — and everyone still in it — took the brunt of the blast. It smashed out the windows, knocked holes in the walls. Blood now stains the welcome counter. One of his clients took a major head injury and lies in a coma in a hospital and nearly a dozen others sustained medium to serious injuries.

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Negligence probed in deadly Beirut blast amid public anger

BEIRUT (AP) — Investigators probing the deadly blast that ripped across Beirut focused Wednesday on possible negligence in the storage of tons of a highly explosive fertilizer in a waterfront warehouse, while the government ordered the house arrest of several port officials.

International aid flights began to arrive as Lebanon’s leaders struggled to deal with the widespread damage and shocking aftermath of Tuesday’s blast, which the Health Ministry said killed 135 people and injured about 5,000 others.

Public anger mounted against the ruling elite that is being blamed for the chronic mismanagement and carelessness that led to the disaster. The Port of Beirut and customs office is notorious for being one of the most corrupt and lucrative institutions in Lebanon where various factions and politicians, including Hezbollah, hold sway.

The investigation is focusing on how 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, came to be stored at the facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it.

Losses from the blast are estimated to be between $10 billion to $15 billion, Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud told Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath, adding that nearly 300,000 people are homeless.

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‘We don’t seem to learn’: Beirut explosion echoes US tragedy

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The staggering videos from the Lebanese capital are grimly familiar to Tommy Muska thousands of miles away in Texas: a towering blast, a thundering explosion and shock waves demolishing buildings with horrifying speed.

It is what the mayor of West, Texas, lived seven years ago when one of the deadliest fertilizer plant explosions in U.S. history partly leveled his rural town. On Wednesday, Muska also couldn’t shake a familiar feeling — that yet again, no lessons will be learned.

“I don’t know what people were thinking about storing that stuff,” Muska told The Associated Press. He was a volunteer firefighter at the time of the West explosion.

The 2013 disaster at the West Fertilizer Co. was a fraction of the size of Tuesday’s explosion at Beirut’s port that authorities say killed least 135 people and wounded about 5,000. Both blasts involved massive stockpiles of ammonium nitrate, a common but highly explosive chemical, and swift allegations that negligence and weak government oversight were to blame.

Few significant crackdowns on chemical storage came in the wake of the West explosion, which killed 15 people. President Donald Trump scaled back industrial safety and disaster regulations enacted in direct response to the tragedy in Texas.

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Virus testing in the US is dropping, even as deaths mount

U.S. testing for the coronavirus is dropping even as infections remain high and the death toll rises by more than 1,000 a day, a worrisome trend that officials attribute largely to Americans getting discouraged over having to wait hours to get a test and days or weeks to learn the results.

An Associated Press analysis found that the number of tests per day slid 3.6% over the past two weeks to 750,000, with the count falling in 22 states. That includes places like Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri and Iowa where the percentage of positive tests is high and continuing to climb, an indicator that the virus is still spreading uncontrolled.

Amid the crisis, some health experts are calling for the introduction of a different type of test that would yield results in a matter of minutes and would be cheap and simple enough for millions of Americans to test themselves — but would also be less accurate.

“There’s a sense of desperation that we need to do something else,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute.

Widespread testing is considered essential to managing the outbreak as the U.S. approaches a mammoth 5 million confirmed infections and more than 157,000 deaths out of over 700,000 worldwide.

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No hoopla: Virus upends Trump, Biden convention plans

WASHINGTON (AP) — At the last minute, President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, are searching for places to impressively yet safely accept their parties’ presidential nominations as the spread of the coronavirus adds fresh uncertainty to the campaign for the White House.

Trump said Wednesday he’s considering giving his Aug. 27 acceptance speech on the grounds of the White House, a move that could violate ethics law. Biden, meanwhile, scrapped plans to accept the Democratic nomination on Aug. 20 in Milwaukee, where the party has spent more than a year planning a massive convention.

Presidential conventions are a staple of American politics and have played out against national traumas as significant as the Civil War and World War II. But the pandemic’s potency is proving to be a tougher obstacle, denying both candidates crucial opportunities to connect with supporters in the final stretch before the Nov. 3 election.

The campaigns are looking for alternative ways to deal with the virus and still reach millions of Americans through television and virtual events. Longtime convention attendees say they’ll miss the traditional festivities even as they acknowledge public health priorities.

“I was looking forward to going to Milwaukee and having a lot of beer and other snacks,” said Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s campaign in 2000 and served as Democratic National Committee chair in 2016. But “if you ask a majority of voters, they’d tell you they’re more anxious about when the NFL season starts. … What’s best for the public should be best for the politicians at this point.”

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Facebook, citing virus misinformation, deletes Trump post

Facebook has deleted a post by President Donald Trump for violating its policy against spreading misinformation about the coronavirus.

The post in question featured a link to a Fox News video in which Trump says children are “virtually immune” to the virus.

Facebook said Wednesday that the “video includes false claims that a group of people is immune from COVID-19 which is a violation of our policies around harmful COVID misinformation.”

A few hours later, Twitter temporarily blocked the Trump campaign from tweeting from its account, until it removed a post with the same video. Trump’s account retweeted the video. The company said in a statement late Wednesday that the tweet violated its rules against COVID misinformation. When a tweet breaks its rules, Twitter asks users to remove the tweet in questions and bans them from posting anything else until they do.

Twitter has generally been quicker than Facebook in recent months to label posts from the president that violate its policies against misinformation and abuse.

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State Dept.: Russia pushes disinformation in online network

CHICAGO (AP) — The State Department says Russia is using a well-developed online operation that includes a loose collection of proxy websites to stir up confusion around the coronavirus by amplifying conspiracy theories and misinformation.

The disclosure on Wednesday was rare for the Trump administration, which has been cautious about blaming the Kremlin for disinformation campaigns, especially around the U.S. election. Despite evidence that Russia launched a divisive disinformation operation on social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the State Department’s report did not examine how — if at all — Russia is waging another online influence campaign in this year’s election.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did, however, announce Wednesday that the U.S. would offer a reward of up to $10 million for information that identifies people working with foreign governments to interfere in the U.S. election through illegal cyber activity.

The department detailed a Russian-backed misinformation cycle that spreads false information online through state officials and state-funded media reports, by infiltrating U.S. social media conversation, and leveraging a deceptive internet framework of websites. The Kremlin’s efforts have most recently focused on conspiracy theories around the pandemic, the report found.

“Russia is playing a significant role in creating and spreading misinformation and propaganda around many topics,” said Lea Gabrielle, head of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center.

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Survivors mark 75th anniversary of world’s 1st atomic attack

HIROSHIMA, Japan (AP) — The dwindling witnesses to the world’s first atomic bombing marked its 75th anniversary Thursday, with Hiroshima’s mayor and others noting as hypocritical the Japanese government’s refusal to sign a nuclear weapons ban treaty.

Mayor Kazumi Matsui urged world leaders to more seriously commit to nuclear disarmament, pointing out Japan’s failures.

“I ask the Japanese government to heed the appeal of the (bombing survivors) to sign, ratify and become a party to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” Matsui said in his peace declaration. “As the only nation to suffer a nuclear attack, Japan must persuade the global public to unite with the spirit of Hiroshima.”

His speech highlights what survivors feel is the hypocrisy of Japan’s government, which hosts 50,000 American troops and is protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Tokyo has not signed the nuclear weapons ban treaty adopted in 2017, despite its non-nuclear pledge, a failure to act that atomic bombing survivors and pacifist groups call insincere.

The U.S. dropped its first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, destroying the city and killing 140,000 people. The U.S. dropped a second bomb three days later on Nagasaki, killing another 70,000. Japan surrendered Aug. 15, ending World War II and its nearly half-century of aggression in Asia.

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Joe Arpaio clings to relevancy in what’s likely his last run

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona has grown more politically moderate in the past five years, but Republican primary voters haven’t entirely abandoned Joe Arpaio, the six-term sheriff of metro Phoenix who lost the job in 2016 amid voter frustration over his legal troubles and headline-grabbing tactics.

The 88-year-old Republican lawman — known for launching immigration crackdowns — was locked in a tight primary race for sheriff as he tries to remain politically relevant in the state that now has a majority-Democratic congressional delegation, its first Democratic U.S senator since the mid-1990s and a growing Latino population.

In what Arpaio acknowledges could be his last political race, he was trailing Jerry Sheridan, his former second-in-command, by 541 votes as the count continued Wednesday.

Mike O’Neil, a longtime Arizona pollster who has followed Arpaio’s career, said the lawman remains in contention because he has strong name recognition and is still popular in some Republican circles — even though he was trounced in 2016 and finished third in the 2018 U.S. Senate primary.

“It’s no longer the large swell of people it once was, but there are folks who still get worked up over immigration,” O’Neil said.

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Not easy eating green: Herbivores most at extinction risk

Although scientists often worry most about the loss of the world’s predators, a comprehensive new study finds that plant-eating herbivores are the animals most at risk of extinction.

About one in four species of herbivores, 25.5%, are considered threatened, endangered or vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s scientific authority on extinction risk, according to a study in Wednesday’s journal Science Advances.

By comparison, 17.4% of the predators and 15.8% of omnivores were at risk, said study lead author Trisha Atwood, an ecologist at Utah State University.

Researchers analyzed data for 22,166 species of animals with backbones, including the type of animal (reptile, bird or mammal), geographic location, habitat and size. And in just about every way examined, they found plant-eaters were the most at risk, especially in forest ecosystems.

“The implications for this are huge,” Atwood said. “We need to think about herbivores as being kind of the poster child of extinction.”