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Infinite Menus, Copyright 2006, OpenCube Inc. All Rights Reserved. Saturday, October 22, 2016
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iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) --  Patients with serious wounds and diseases that can’t be treated in the besieged part of Aleppo, Syria, were not able to leave the city Friday as planned.

Medical evacuations were supposed to begin Friday after Russia said it extended a “humanitarian pause” to allow patients, other civilians and rebels to leave the besieged city through corridors. Russian and Syrian officials have suggested that after the cease-fire, the Russian and Syrian armies will launch a new offensive on Aleppo to clear the area of the rebels fighting the Syrian government, which is besieging the eastern part of Aleppo. But the United Nations and medical sources in Aleppo said that the evacuations could not be carried out Friday because of lack of security assurances.

“We are in desperate need to evacuate injured and sick children, women and elderly, but there is no guarantee for their safety,” Mohamed Abu Rajab, a radiologist in the besieged part of Aleppo, told ABC News. “We don’t trust the Syrian government. How can people who are killing us guarantee our safety? We don’t want to cooperate with them. We want to cooperate with the world community and humanitarian organizations, but how can we cooperate with our killers?”

 After a U.S.-Russia brokered cease-fire collapsed on Sept. 19, the Syrian government launched an offensive on east Aleppo, which has killed at least 500 people and injured 2,000, with more than a quarter of all deaths being children, according to the U.N. Humanitarian organizations have criticized Russia and the Syrian government for using cluster bombs, chemical weapons and bunker-buster bombs, targeting civilians sheltering underground in the past month.

Among the patients who are in need of urgent evacuation out of east Aleppo are people who suffer from nerve injuries, renal fractures, eye wounds and heart diseases, as well as people in comas and malnourished children, said Abu Rajab. The besieged part of Aleppo has not received any aid since early July, according to the U.N., which means that the estimated 275,000 people who live there are in need of food, clean water, gas and health care.

“Unfortunately, medical evacuations were not able to commence in eastern Aleppo this morning as planned because the conditions to ensure a safe, secure and voluntary evacuation of those in need and their families were not in place. All parties to the conflict and those with influence over them need to ensure that all conditions are in place so we can proceed with this urgently needed medical evacuation as soon as possible,” David Swanson, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told ABC News.

Swanson and the U.N.’s spokesperson for the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria declined to comment on what security assurances it is waiting for before evacuations can take place, but they said that the U.N. and its partners are present and ready in west Aleppo to carry out a detailed operational plan as soon as conditions allow. If evacuations take place, the U.N. would start with evacuating a small number of urgent cases and their families from east Aleppo to either west Aleppo or to the Bab al-Hawa hospital in Idlib on Day 1. “That will allow us to test the safety and effectiveness of the operation,” said Swanson.

According to Physicians for Human Rights, 95 percent of medical personnel who were in Aleppo before the war have fled, been detained or were killed. Several health facilities have been bombed leaving only around five hospitals left functioning to service thousands of people, according to the U.N., which estimates that about 30 doctors are left in Aleppo.

Abu Rajab used to be the manager at one of the largest hospitals in Aleppo, which is now out of service after being bombed multiple times. At the hospital, Abu Rajab helped treat Omran Daqneesh, the boy whose photo of him sitting in an ambulance was seen by millions of people. A video showing Omran touching his wounded head and wiping away the blood without shedding a tear has come to symbolize the humanitarian suffering in Aleppo. In a recent interview with Swiss TV SRF1, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called the image of Omran fake. To Abu Rajab that is an example of why he doesn’t trust that the Syrian government will guarantee the safety of civilians leaving through the corridors, as Syria claims.

“You saw a Swiss journalist with the head of the government," Abu Rajab said. "When he saw the photo of Omran what did he say? He lied. Omran was at our hospital. We treated him. And he says 'this is fabricated.' How can we trust him when he doesn’t tell the truth?”

Thursday, medical sources in Aleppo said they treated 12 civilians who were wounded by gunfire as they tried to leave Aleppo through one of the corridors. Aleppo residents said that they heard the sound of clashes near a corridor in the Bustan al-Qasr area.

During an emergency session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva today, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief said that Aleppo has become a “slaughterhouse.”

“The ancient city of Aleppo, a place of millennial civility and beauty, is today a slaughterhouse -- a gruesome locus of pain and fear, where the lifeless bodies of small children are trapped under streets of rubble and pregnant women deliberately bombed,” the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a speech to the council.

Copyright © 2016, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


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iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The White House has responded to requests from Russian officials to observe U.S. polling stations on Election Day.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Friday it was “unclear what their intent [was]," and it was fair to be suspicious of Russia's intent.

"It’s appropriate that people might be suspicious of their motives, or at least their motives might be different from what they have publically stated, given the nefarious activities they have engaged in in cyber space," he said Friday.

At least three states-- including Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana-- have denied requests from the Russian consulate general in Houston to have a Russian officer view a polling station.

In a letter obtained by ABC News, consul general Alexander Zakharov asked Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos if a Russian officer could be "present (for a short period of time, when convenient) at one of the ballot station of Texas with the goal of studying the US experience in organization of voting process during the United States Presidential Elections on November 8th, 2016."

Cascos said in a response that the state was "unable to accommodate [his] request" and noted that "only persons authorized by law may be inside of a polling location during voting."

The U.S. has criticized Russia for trying to interfere with the country's election after Russian hackers were believed to have infiltrated emails of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign manager John Podesta, according to security officials. Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied the claims. This week, the White House said President Obama was considering a "proportional" response to Russia for the hacking.

Copyright © 2016, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


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DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images(LONDON) -- London City Airport was evacuated Friday after a suspected "chemical incident."

The east London airport said it was "believed to be a CS gas spray" that caused about 500 people to be evacuated. The airport said officials were "investigating whether it was the result of an accidental discharge."

At least 26 patients were treated for difficulty breathing at the scene and two people were taken to the hospital, according to a statement from the London Fire Brigade (LFB).

London City Airport has since been declared safe and reopened after a security sweep. LFB said there were no elevated readings found and the building was ventilated.

“We apologise to passengers for inconvenience caused today,” the airport said Friday.

Metropolitan Police said the incident was not being treated as "terrorist related."

Copyright © 2016, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


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iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- The Schiaparelli probe that was supposed to land on Mars Wednesday may have exploded prior to reaching the planet's surface, the European Space Agency said Friday.

Photos taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reveal two new black spots on the surface of the red planet near the designated landing site for the European-Russian module.

The ESA lost contact with the Schiaparelli probe shortly after it entered Mars' atmosphere. The ESA said it is still analyzing data in order to understand what went wrong. The Trace Gas Orbiter that the ESA sent along with the Schiaparelli probe, however, has successfully entered orbit around the red planet.

NASA's MRO snapped the photos Thursday of the site where the Schiaparelli probe was supposed to land and released the images Friday. The photos feature two new markings on the surface of the planet when compared to an image of the same area taken in May.

NASA said in a statement on its website accompanying the photos that one of the spots is likely the lander's parachute, which was deployed and released during the probe's descent, and the larger black spot was likely the lander itself.

The ESA said in a statement that the markings indicate that the lander most likely hit the surface of the planet "at a considerable speed."

"It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full. These preliminary interpretations will be refined following further analysis," the ESA added.

The lander and orbiter were a part of ExoMars, a joint mission between the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, that has the main goal of exploring "whether life has ever existed on Mars," according to the ESA.

The lander was intended to "test key technologies" in preparation for future Mars missions. Meanwhile, the orbiter's mission is to search for evidence of methane and other atmospheric gases that could indicate whether there was ever -- or is -- life on Mars, according to the ESA.

Settling in well to my new home in #Mars orbit! #ExoMars https://t.co/L61XqNXBGw

— ExoMars orbiter (@ESA_TGO) October 21, 2016

Copyright © 2016, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


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iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) --  The U.S. Defense Department has identified the service member killed by a roadside bomb north of Mosul on Thursday as Navy Chief Petty Officer Jason C. Finan, 34, of Anaheim, California. Finan, who belonged to an explosive-ordnance disposal unit, was serving alongside Iraqi troops as an adviser.

According to a defense official, Finan was killed Thursday when the armored vehicle he was traveling in struck an improvised explosive device and the vehicle rolled over.

Finan was traveling at the time with members of Iraq's elite counterterrorism unit northeast of Mosul. He was flown to the Kurdish capital of Erbil for treatment where he died of his injuries.

Finan was assigned to Navy explosive ordnance disposal mobile unit based in Coronado, California.

"The entire Navy expeditionary combat command family offers our deepest condolences and sympathies to the family and loved ones of the sailor we lost," said Rear Adm. Brian Brakke, commander of the expeditionary force.

Finan was the first American military fatality in Iraq since the start of the Mosul operation earlier this week. He is the fourth U.S. service member to die in combat in the fight against ISIS.

According to U.S. defense officials, more than 100 American military advisers are accompanying Iraq's elite counterterrorism force and Kurdish peshmerga fighters pressing toward Mosul. The advisers help the Iraqi and Kurdish forces with planning and battlefield assistance.

The U.S. advisers serve at the headquarters level and are not supposed to be on the front lines. But given the reality of how the fighting units operate on the battlefield, the American advisers may get closer to a combat environment.

Copyright © 2016, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


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Stockbyte/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) --  The United Nations is facing backlash after appointing the fictional superhero Wonder Woman as its new Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls.

A petition started by “concerned” U.N. staff members asks the intergovernmental organization to reconsider the choice, arguing that Wonder Woman’s “current iteration is that of a large breasted, white woman of impossible proportions, scantily clad in a shimmery, thigh-baring body suit with an American flag motif and knee high boots -– the epitome of a 'pin-up' girl.”

The petition adds that it was “disappointing” that the U.N. “was unable to find a real-life woman that would be able to champion the rights of ALL women on the issue of gender equality and the fight for their empowerment.”

Critics also say that they would be more than happy to come up with a list “of incredible extraordinary women that would formidably carry out this role.”

Appointing Wonder Woman as an Honorary Ambassador is part of a U.N. campaign meant to "highlight what we can collectively achieve if women and girls are empowered," according to a statement on the U.N.'s website on sustainable development goals, which states that Wonder Woman will be used in support of Sustainable Development Goal 5, "to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls."

The petition to reconsider Wonder Woman as the ambassador goes on to say, "at a time when issues such as gender parity in senior roles and the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls is at the top of the United Nations' agenda, including the 'He for She' campaign, this appointment is more than surprising."

 Life-size cutouts of the superhero have already appeared at the U.N. headquarters in New York, according to the petition.

The decision felt especially insensitive to some because of the recent U.N. decision to not appoint a female chief to replace Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when he steps down at the end of this year. The U.N. has never had a woman as secretary-general.

Anne Marie Goetz, an NYU professor and former U.N. adviser, called the move "disgusting" on Twitter, saying that it substituted a "sexualized fake" for a "real woman leader."

Disgusting that the UN substitutes sexualized fake for real woman leader. Hope Wonder Woman's lasso of truth reveals hypocrisy @riotwomennn https://t.co/h1V68jmMNB

— anne marie goetz (@amgoetz) October 15, 2016

Stéphane Dujarric, a U.N. spokesman for the secretary-general, defended the choice at a press briefing on Monday, saying "in order to reach young people, in order to reach audiences outside of this building, we need to be creative and have creative partnerships."

Dujarric continued: "I think this is a new and creative way for us to reach a different audience with critical messages about women's empowerment. ... The aim of using cartoon characters, whether it's Angry Birds, whether it's Wonder Woman, is not to reach people like you and I, or at least not to reach people like me."

Dujarric added that the vote on the next secretary-general and the launch of the Wonder Woman campaign are "clearly not related," and said that the aim of the Wonder Woman campaign is to "think of all the wonders" that "we can collectively achieve if women and girls are empowered."

Copyright © 2016, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


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ABC News(NEW YORK) --   Donald Trump's suggestion that the U.S. economy is "stagnant" because it is growing more slowly than the economies in India and China tells half a truth, economists said.

The Republican nominee said at Wednesday night’s debate that India's economy is “growing at 8 percent, China is growing at 7 percent, and that for them is a catastrophically low number.”

He said of the U.S. economy, “We are growing, our last report came out, and it’s right around the 1 percent level. And I think it's going down ... Our country is stagnant.”

Trump is right that the U.S. economy is expanding at a slower clip than India's, whose gross domestic product increased by 7.6 percent in 2015, or China's, which grew by 6.9 percent, according to World Bank figures. The U.S. economy by contrast expanded at a rate of 1.4 percent in the second quarter of this year, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis says.

Taken at face value, the comparatively low rate of growth in the U.S. compared to that in India and China could shock.

 The Republican candidate's concern about U.S. growth has some legitimacy.

In the first quarter of this year, the economy expanded at an anemic 0.8 percent though the rate increased in the second quarter.

The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment.

But several economists told ABC News that comparing an advanced economy like the United States' to developing economies doesn't paint a true picture.

“It's really not a fair comparison," Matthew Oxenford, a researcher at Chatham House, an independent policy institute in London, told ABC News. "Developing economies such as India generally grow significantly faster than developed countries such as the U.S.”

The reason is that generating growth in advanced economies is relatively difficult.

“Poor countries like India and China have massive catch-up growth to do, what economists call convergence,” William Cline, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, told ABC News.

 One economist gave the example of all the work that went into inventing the first airplane in the U.S.

“When America got its first aeroplane, it took real imagination, ingenuity, bravery and risk-taking entrepreneurship, and a lot of failures before the Wright brothers got it right," said John Nugée, a colleague of Oxenford’s at Chatham House.

In contrast, “when India got its first aeroplane, all it had to do was trot along to a manufacturer and say, ‘We would like one of those, please’.” Nugée said.

“That’s why it is easier for a poor country to catch up and converge than for a rich country to continue to progress, to push the envelope, to grow from being successful to even more successful,” he said.

Oxenford agreed that it's easier for economies in countries such as India and China to grow quickly.

“Basically, there's a lot of 'low-hanging fruit' in developing economies, such as moving people off farms and into cities, developing institutions of good governance, and adopting technological innovations that have already been adopted in advanced economies,” he said.

In the U.S. about 82 percent of the population already lives in urban areas, compared to just 33 percent in India and 56 percent in China.

A United Nations report in 2014 found that, India and China had the world's largest rural populations.

But they are moving off the farm and into the city at a rate of 2.38 percent in India and 3.05 percent in China, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The rate of people in the United States leaving rural settings for cities is l.02 percent.

When workers move "from the low-productivity traditional agricultural sector to the ‘modern’ sector in the cities, there is a big jump in productivity” in the economy, Cline said. “That is why India and China can grow for long periods of time at 6 to 8 percent, but advanced economies ‘at the technological frontier’ only grow at about 2 to 3 percent.”

 Another key factor in growth is the ability for business to operate in a stable political environment.

The U.S. enjoys less corrupt governance than China or India, placing it in the 89.9 percentile in the World Bank’s “control of corruption” indicator compared to 50 for China and 44.2 for India.

The United States also rates higher on political stability and the absence of violence and terrorism, placing in the 69.5 percentile compared to 27.1 for China and 16.7 for China.

Historical Perspective

Trump also said China and India's current growth is “catastrophically low” for them, and economic data shows their rates of expansion are a bit down but the situation is far from ‘catastrophic’.

China’s 6.9 percent growth in gross domestic product is down from an average expansion rate of 9.7 percent between 1990 and 2015, according to ABC News calculations of World Bank figures.

India's growth rate last year of 7.6 percent is lower than the rate of 6.5 percent over the same 15-year period.

The U.S. over the same period had a growth rate of 2.4.

Looking Ahead

 The good news is economists at Barclay’s Bank are projecting GDP in the U.S. to increase 2.5 percent in the third quarter, a solid figure for an advanced economy.

We’ll know if the predictions prove true when the new numbers come out Oct. 28.

Copyright © 2016, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


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iStock/Thinkstock(KIRKUK, Iraq) — ISIS suicide bombers and gunmen attacked several key targets in and around the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq on Friday, in a daring pre-dawn assault that is testing the Iraqi security forces' ability to respond on multiple fronts as the government concentrates its efforts on seizing the city of Mosul.

The ISIS militants struck three police stations, the headquarters of a Kurdish political party, and a power plant. Security forces continued to battle the attackers late into the morning.

Kirkuk sits about 100 miles southeast of Mosul, were 28,000 Iraqi troops are battling to take control of the city more that two years after it was overrun by ISIS.

ISIS said it was behind the attack in Kirkuk, claiming its fighters had broken into the headquarters of the PUK, a Kurdish political party, and taken control of a hotel. A curfew has been imposed in Kirkuk "until further notice," Iraqi media said. A local TV channel showed footage of black smoke rising over the Kirkuk, with automatic gunfire audible.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Security Forces continued to press closer to Mosul on Friday, taking control of the village of Nanaah, south of the city.

ISIS fighters were reported to have set fire to a chemical plant south of Mosul as they were retreating on Thursday. Sources say they started the fire at the sulfur plant in al-Mishraq deliberately when they were being pushed out of the area by the Iraqi security services during the ongoing offensive.

On Thursday, a U.S. service member was killed when the armored vehicle he was traveling in was struck by an IED and rolled over. He was traveling with Iraqi special forces northeast of Mosul. He was sent to Erbil for treatment and died of his injuries. The service member's name and branch of service has not yet been released as family is being notified.

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iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) --  After weeks of controversial comments about President Obama, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced Thursday that his country would separate itself from the United States and turn toward China and possibly Russia instead, sparking puzzlement from U.S. officials.

Duterte criticized the U.S.'s economy, military and general “discourteous” behavior in a meeting Thursday.

“Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also, America has lost,” he said to the crowd of over 200, later adding, “There are three of us against the world -- China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”

"I will not go to America anymore. We will just be insulted there. So time to say goodbye my friend," he declared.

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. was “baffled” by Duterte's declaration: “It’s not clear what [the separation] means in all its ramifications.”

He later backtracked, explaining, “I wasn’t trying to say we were surprised by these comments.”

Kirby said Daniel Russel, a U.S. diplomat for East Asian and Pacific affairs, will move ahead with long-scheduled plans to travel to Manila this weekend and meet with government officials.

The State Department isn’t panicking yet, Kirby said, adding that the alliance between the U.S. and the Philippines is "some 70 years old [and] has weathered all kinds of storms.”

"We remain rock solid in our commitment in the mutual defense treaty that we have with the Philippines,” he said.

The White House has taken a similar stance. “We have not received any official requests from Filipino officials to alter any of our many issues where we bilaterally cooperate," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Thursday.

Duterte has been a subject of criticism in recent weeks for calling President Obama "son of a b----" and telling him to "go to hell." Most recently, he's the subject of criticisms about possible human rights violations in his war on drugs via extrajudicial killings of Filipino drug addicts and dealers. Last week, the International Crime Court in The Hague announced that it would be closely monitoring the Philippines and that it was considering launching a full investigation.

What Does This Mean for U.S. Foreign Policy?

A prominent marker of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy has been the “Asia Pivot” – a shift from a focus on Middle Eastern and European foreign policy to one on East Asian and Southeast Asian policy. The Philippines, particularly Manila, has been key in this strategy.

In the struggle over the South China Sea, Manila’s proximity has made it an ideal hub for U.S. military operations. The U.S. has constantly used it for this reason in times of conflict, as in the Vietnam War, and in 2013 when it asked to base drone operations there in air strikes against Syria (and was denied).

"No other country in the region is willing to allow the basing rights the administration spent years negotiating," according to Steve Ganyard, a former deputy assistant secretary of state and ABC News consultant.

Ganyard also highlights the critical implications the move could have for the next presidential administration.

"Clinton will likely use the Philippines as an impetus to quickly set out her own differentiated Asia-Pacific policy early in her term," he said. "It will be much tougher than Obama's and include confronting China's aggressive and illegal regional behavior."

For China, a New Brotherhood

China and the Philippines seem firmly pleased with the decision.

Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed the Philippine leader today with a marching band and an elaborate ceremony, calling Duterte his “brother.”

In the business forum that was the focus of Duterte’s visit, China agreed to loan $9 billion to the Philippines, and 13 pacts were signed between the two nations, marking partnerships on maritime cooperation, financing, transport, drug-busting and more. Jinping has previously said that he admires Duterte's drug-fighting tactics.

In contrast, Jinping’s meetings with Obama are markedly less cordial. Obama was denied his usual red carpet arrival when Air Force One touched down in Beijing for the G20 Summit last month after Chinese and U.S. officials argued over which stairs the president would descend from. Obama ended up having to use a smaller door in the belly of Air Force One, while most other leaders arriving for the G20 Summit did not share the experience.

While there, White House press corps members were roped off and blocked from recording Obama’s arrival. The U.S. called the affair an accident and denied notions that it was a "snub," while the Chinese media declared that U.S. media had dramatized the interaction.

Despite subtle terseness and tension between the U.S. and China, U.S. officials “welcome a closer relationship between the Philippines and China,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said Thursday.

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cnrn/iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- An American service member died Thursday from wounds sustained in an IED explosion in northern Iraq, the U.S. military said. Further information was not immediately available.

Thursday marked the fourth day of the operation to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from the Islamic State group's control. About 18,000 Iraqi forces, 10,000 Kurdish forces known as peshmerga and a few thousand Iraqi federal police launched the massive military offensive on Monday. Roughly 100 American advisers are also involved in the mission, which is divided into two fronts -- one west of the Great Zab River and the other just north of Qayyarah.

Only a "small number" of the nearly 5,000 American troops stationed in Iraq could find themselves in what a Pentagon spokesman called "a combat environment" while they advise the Iraqi and Kurdish forces involved in the operation.

"Early indications are that Iraqi forces have met their objectives so far and that they are ahead of schedule for this first day,” said Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook at a briefing Monday. “This is going according to the Iraqi plan, but again, it's early and the enemy gets a vote here. We will see whether ISIL stands and fights."

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the operation is advancing “more quickly” than expected, as an Iraqi-led coalition of forces captured several more villages around Mosul today.

According to Kurdish peshmerga commanders, their forces have so far taken the towns of Barima, North Smaqa, South Smaqa, Fazilya, Nawaran, Imam Razil and the village of Dere. The troops are working to clear booby traps and IEDs from all the settlements under ISIS rule.

The peshmerga commanders told ABC News that Thursday morning’s operation aimed to clear more of the outlying villages around Mosul and to tighten the noose around the Islamic State's last major stronghold in Iraq.

Meanwhile, to the south of Mosul, the Iraqi army is carefully pushing forward today while encountering booby-trapped explosives and fierce resistance from ISIS militants in some villages on the outskirts.

Iraqi special forces joined the fight for Mosul this morning. Iraqi Army Maj. Gen. Maan al-Saadi said the elite troops, also known as counterterrorism forces, advanced on the town of Bartella with the aid of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and heavy artillery. The special forces are expected to carefully lead the way into Mosul.

"God willing, we will take this town today," he said of Bartella, which ISIS seized in 2014.

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AbdukadirSavas/iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin extended a brief "humanitarian pause" in fighting around the besieged city of Aleppo, Syria on Thursday, by adding another 24 hours to the initial 11-hour break in fighting, Russia's military said. The U.N. said Russia has promised to further lengthen the cease-fire by another four days, although that has yet to be confirmed by Russia.

And the rare sense of quiet in Aleppo is fraught by concerns that Russian and Syrian government forces will launch a new offensive once the temporary cease-fire ends. Feeding the fears are signs that Russia is preparing a major assault and using the break only to cover itself against any accusations that it showed insufficient concern for civilians.

A Russian naval fleet, accompanying the country’s only aircraft carrier, is currently steaming toward Syria in what observers says is Moscow’s largest naval deployment since the Cold War. A senior NATO diplomat told Reuters they believed the buildup is intended for a final assault on Aleppo within the next two weeks.

Russian and Syrian officials have suggested that after the cease-fire the Syrian army will clear Aleppo of the forces fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. “After the humanitarian pause, the clearing operation begins,” Franz Klintsevich, a senior member of Russia’s parliamentary defense committee told Russia’s chief state paper, Izvestia.

German leader Angela Merkel pressed anew for the brief halts in fighting to become a full-fledged cease-fire: “There must be work as soon as possible on achieving a cease-fire,” Merkel said at a European Union summit in Brussels. “Not just one over several hours per day, followed by many hours of bombing, but a lasting cease-fire."

For today at least there were none of the Russian and Syrian government airstrikes that have terrorized rebel-held areas in Aleppo in recent weeks. Syrian state media reported that corridors had opened to allow people to exit. And residents of the city said that the government was dropping leaflets urging them to leave.

“There are no warplanes, but we have been hearing the sound of a helicopter that has dropped leaflets from the government,” Mohamed Abu Rajab, a radiologist in Aleppo, told ABC News. He said he is hoping that patients in need of urgent medical care can be evacuated from Aleppo during the cease-fire.

“We are looking into evacuating the wounded and preparing a list of people who have serious injuries that we can’t treat inside, but so far no one has left,” he said.

Fewer than 30 doctors are left in Aleppo, according to the U.N, and only about five hospitals are left functional after others have been destroyed by airstrikes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin initially agreed to an 11-hour “humanitarian pause” in fighting to allow supplies to reach the estimated 250,000 people still living in the city.

A United Nations humanitarian adviser, Jan Egeland, said Russia has agreed to extend the pause and that the U.N. now had a “window from at least Friday till Monday” and is pushing for longer.

But Russia would not confirm that the cease-fire would go beyond 24 hours. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned reporters that any extension may be cut short if Syrian rebel forces appeared to be regrouping.

Rebel fighters and civilians in Aleppo meanwhile remained deeply skeptical about the pause with little sign today that many are heeding the calls to leave. After the past two weeks of Russian and Syrian airstrikes killing hundreds and targeting hospitals, schools and bakeries, some Aleppo call the cease-fire a “media stunt” and psychological tactic meant to force rebels' surrender.

Some mainstream rebel groups as well as a powerful jihadist organization have rejected the call to withdraw. The jihadist group, Fateh al-Sham, the al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, said in a statement to the BBC that it would fight on, pointing out previous occasions where rebels have been starved and bombed into surrendering.

As the cease-fire began Thursday morning, clashes erupted around one of the opened corridors by which people could leave. Small arm and artillery fire was exchanged around a crossing in Bustan al-Qasr, one of two corridors offered as a way for fighters to exit.

“I was in Bustan al-Qasr this morning and there were clashes,” Wissam Zarqa, a teacher who lives in al-Mashhad in the besieged part of Aleppo, told ABC News. He said the government and the Free Syrian Army were fighting in the area.

Zarqa said he does not want to leave his home and become a refugee and that he also doesn’t believe that leaving is safe, as the Syrian government claims. He said he had heard the government encourage people to cross the front lines and go back to “the lap of the homeland.”

ABC News has seen photos of leaflets locals say were dropped by the government. One shows a photo of a green bus that supposedly will take people out of the besieged area. Another photo on the same leaflet shows a man with what appears to be a head injury lying on the ground with the words “this will be the end” printed on top. Another says the safety of people who decide to leave is guaranteed.

Meanwhile, the Russian carrier group sailing toward Syria is apparently headed to reinforce Russia’s air campaign in Syria. A senior NATO diplomat told Reuters that the exceptional deployment suggested Russia was preparing to use it in a coup-de-grace as it launches a final assault on the city: "This is not a friendly port call,” the diplomat said. “In two weeks, we will see a crescendo of air attacks on Aleppo as part of Russia's strategy to declare victory there.”

That likelihood seemed to be echoed by the Russian defense committee official, Klintsevich. “After the pause, the clearing operation starts. But it will be difficult for anyone to say Russia is not concerned about the interests of the civilian population,” he told Izvestia.

Despite the grave signs, the pause has been accompanied by new stirrings of new diplomatic talks. A U.S. delegation met with Russian officials in Geneva to discuss how the two sides might agree on how to separate terrorist groups from the rebel opposition in Syria

Russia says the assault on Aleppo is justified by the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch that recently rebranded as Fateh al-Sham. The U.N. has called for the around 900 Nusra fighters it estimates to be in the city to leave.

Rebels and activists have criticized that as accepting Russia’s indiscriminate bombing as legitimate. But the U.N. mediator for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, appeared to push for the Russian plan, saying that nations backing Syria's rebels could apply pressure to have Nusra forced out of Aleppo.

“Important countries, like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, which have influence over the mainstream rebel groups, are in a position to suggest to those groups to tell the al-Nusra fighters that it is time to go to Idlib,” de Mistura told the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet. That would “take away any alleged justification, or alibi, for the heavy bombing of urban areas of eastern Aleppo.” Mistura said.

Analysts have said rebels could push Nusra out of Aleppo, but will not while engaged in a life-or-death battle with the regime.

Russia has implied it will halt the attack on Aleppo if Nusra can be removed. In practice Russia officials have rarely drawn a distinction between it and other rebel groups. Russian foreign ministry officials publicly only refer to the moderate opposition in quotation marks.

But following a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov over the weekend, the U.S. is now probing Moscow on this issue again.

“I urge Russia to sit at this table in Geneva and be serious about finding a simple way, which we are offering, to make sure that those who are genuinely terrorists are in fact separated out, isolated," Kerry said on Wednesday night.

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Romanista/iStock/Thinkstock(MOSUL, Iraq) -- The operation to liberate Iraq’s second largest city from the Islamic State is advancing “more quickly” than expected, Prime Minister Haider Alabadi said Thursday as an Iraqi-led coalition of forces captured several more villages around Mosul.

On the fourth day of the massive military offensive, Kurdish forces known as peshmerga bombarded ISIS positions in areas north and east of Mosul with artillery and mortar fire before launching a fresh ground assault at dawn this morning.

According to peshmerga commanders, their forces have so far taken the towns of Barima, North Smaqa, South Smaqa, Fazilya, Nawaran, Imam Razil and the village of Dere. The troops are working to clear booby traps and IEDs from all the settlements under ISIS rule.

The peshmerga commanders told ABC News that Thursday morning’s operation aimed to clear more of the outlying villages around Mosul and to tighten the noose around the Islamic State's last major stronghold in Iraq.

Meanwhile, to the south of Mosul, the Iraqi army is carefully pushing forward. They’re encountering booby-trapped explosives and fierce resistance from ISIS militants in some villages on the outskirts.

Iraqi special forces joined the fight for Mosul Thursday morning. Iraqi army Maj. Gen. Maan al-Saadi said the elite troops, also known as counterterrorism forces, advanced on the town of Bartella with the aid of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and heavy artillery. The special forces are expected to lead the way into Mosul.

"God willing, we will take this town today," he said of Bartella, which ISIS seized in 2014.

On Monday, about 18,000 Iraqi forces, 10,000 peshmerga and a few thousand Iraqi federal police launched the operation to free the strategic city from more than two years of ISIS control. Roughly 100 American advisers are also involved in the mission, which is divided into two fronts -- one west of the Great Zab River and the other just north of Qayyarah.

Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, the top U.S. military ground commander in Iraq, said 13 Iraqi villages were liberated from ISIS rule on Wednesday during the operation to retake Mosul.

“The Iraqis are ahead of where I thought they would be when this operation started,” Volesky told reporters at a press conference. “They want to get there quickly. But again, it's a hard fight.”

On the first day of the offensive, ISIS fighters used car and truck bombs to defend against Iraqi and Kurdish forces. On the second day, the militants used them to attack the forces to cover the pullback of their own fighters into Mosul’s urban areas -- a tactic that’s not been seen before, Volesky said.

As the fighting intensifies, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned that an “unprecedented humanitarian crisis” looms as up to a million civilians are expected to flee Mosul in the coming days and weeks.

“The challenges in this scenario are unprecedented. We don’t often have up to one million people potentially on the move; it’s very rare in scale and size,” said UNICEF regional emergency adviser Bastien Vigneau.

At least 200,000 people are expected to be displaced in the first two weeks of the operation to free Mosul and as many as 1.5 million civilians are estimated to remain in the city. Of the 1 million who could become displaced, approximately half are children.

The first trickle of people fleeing the fighting was spotted on Thursday. Mostly women and children were seen escaping towns and villages around Mosul as they picked their way across perilous battle lines while trying to evade ISIS fighters. Many of them carried a white flag as a sign of peace and waved it over their heads while crossing over no-man’s land, hoping it will identify them as unarmed civilians.

According to the International Rescue Committee, many refugees have told the aid agency stories about residents buying as much white cloth as they can find and preparing their escape plans for when the time comes. Many have also lost loved ones and are struggling to secure enough food to feed their families.

“People are very scared that they will be accidentally hit by missiles and many residents can’t sleep at night because of the noise of heavy bombardments in the city,” Paul Donohoe, senior media officer at International Rescue Committee, told ABC News.

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Amnesty International(LONDON) — International human rights group Amnesty International released dramatic drone footage and satellite imagery showing whole areas of the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo in ruins, in a plea to the United Nations and the international community to put a stop to the "bloodshed and destruction," it says is being wrought on the civilian population there.

“The world’s inaction in the face of the continuing carnage and blatant violations in Aleppo city must end," said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International’s Beirut regional office. "Syrian government forces, with the support of Russia, have launched relentless attacks that have flagrantly disregarded fundamental rules of international humanitarian law."

Calling the Russian and Syrian governments' self-imposed humanitarian pause in the bombings "woefully inadequate," Amnesty called for "impartial humanitarian relief and an end to unlawful attacks." Russia has said the rebel groups and civilians should evacuate the besieged area. The rebel groups have rebuked Russia's call to leave, saying it amounts to surrender.

The group released drone footage showing craters and large areas of the densely-populated city that have been leveled. At least 600 airstrikes targeted the city in the span of just three weeks after the collapse of the U.S.-Russia backed ceasefire on September 19, Amnesty said, resulting in at least 400 civilian deaths.

Some 90 separate locations were damaged or destroyed over a one-week period in an area roughly the size of Manhattan, New York City, the group said, adding that it documented a series of attacks that appear to have purposefully struck civilian targets such as residential homes, medical facilities, schools, markets and mosques.

Since Sept. 21, 14 medical facilities have been hit by airstrikes, putting many of them out of service, according to the Syrian American Medical Society.

“I arrived at al-Sakhour hospital three hours after the attack had happened," a witness to one of the strikes told Amnesty. "The closest front line is around 300 meters away.”

In some instances, Amnesty says, internationally-banned Russian-made cluster munitions were used in attacks.

“Syrian government forces claim to be attacking non-state armed groups but the real objective is clear: to inflict severe suffering on the civilian population in order to drive them out," Maalouf added.

Amnesty says that some 70 countries will call for a "clear message" to be sent in a meeting today to the United Nations Security Council, urging it to do everything in its power to "bring an end to the cycle of war crimes in Syria."

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Mahmud Rslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images(DAMASCUS, Syria) — A photo of a young Syrian boy covered in dust and blood in an ambulance that was viewed by millions and became the face of Aleppo's suffering is being called fake by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, a claim that contradicts numerous witness accounts on the ground in Syria.

The boy, five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, was pulled from a destroyed building in the besieged part of Aleppo's Qaterji neighborhood after a Syrian or Russian airstrike on Aug. 17, according to locals, including medical sources and the White Helmets, a volunteer civil defense group that rescued the boy. On social media, many users said that they were particularly moved by his photo because he looked dazed and confused and wasn't crying despite the obvious injury to his head.

A video showing Omran touching his wounded head and wiping away the blood without shedding a tear went viral and has come to symbolize the humanitarian suffering in Aleppo. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton mentioned the boy's story in two of the presidential debates, including last night's.

Now, the Syrian president has said that the photo of Omran is fake. When confronted with the photo in an interview with Swiss TV SRF1 and asked what he would say to Omran and his family, Assad responded: "We have real pictures of children being harmed, but this one specifically is a forged one.”

Assad makes the claim about nine minutes into the televised interview.

Medical sources in Aleppo confirmed to ABC News in August that they treated Omran following the airstrike.

“Omran was scared and dazed at the same time. He wasn’t crying at all. It seemed like he had been asleep when it happened,” Mohammad, a surgeon in Aleppo who treated him, told ABC News at the time. “He was very lucky. He only had a simple wound in the scalp. We cleaned and stitched the wound and cleaned his face and clothes. There was no brain damage, and he was discharged after two hours,” Mohammad said.

Mohamed Abu Rajab, a radiologist who treated the 5-year-old, told ABC News that “Omran looked very, very shocked and frightened. In the beginning, he didn’t speak at all. But after his treatment, he started crying and yelling, “father, mother.' His parents were very, very affected and scared for their son and crying. But we comforted them and told them that the wound was superficial. But he wasn’t speaking so it seemed like his condition was very serious. It seemed like he was unconscious and like the wound had affected his brain. But it turned out that he was fine."

Omran's older brother later died from his injuries from the same attack, according to monitoring groups, activists and doctors in Aleppo.

The hospital where he was treated has since been completely destroyed by repeated airstrikes and is now out of service, according to medical staff who worked there and the Syrian American Medical Foundation, which supported the hospital.

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Stocktrek/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — A Mars mission launched by the European and Russian space agencies successfully entered the red planet's orbit Wednesday, but scientists have lost the signal from a probe that was scheduled to land on the surface.

ExoMars, a joint mission between the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has the main goal of exploring "whether life has ever existed on Mars," according to the ESA.

The mission launched a trace gas orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli module toward Mars in March of this year, and the TGO began orbiting Mars Wednesday. The Schiaparelli module was expected to land on the planet's surface, but contact was lost after it entered the planet's atmosphere, officials said.

Scientists said they hoped to re-establish contact with the module.

The TGO's primary objective is to search for evidence of methane and other atmospheric gases that could indicate whether there was ever — or is — life on Mars, according to the ESA.

Schiaparelli's mission is to land on the planet and "test key technologies" in preparation for future ESA Mars missions.


Confirmed! @ESA_TGO has started its main manoeuvre for #Mars orbit insertion. The burn is expected to take ~139 mins #ExoMars pic.twitter.com/MMp4KtJdiV

— ESA (@esa) October 19, 2016


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