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US plans diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics

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US plans diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics

By AAMER MADHANI and ALEXANDRA JAFFE

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. will stage a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing t o protest Chinese human rights abuses, the White House confirmed Monday, a move that China has vowed to greet with “firm countermeasures.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said U.S. athletes will continue to compete and will “have our full support,” but added “we will not be contributing to the fanfare of the games.”

“U.S. diplomatic or official representation would treat these games as business as usual in the face of the PRC’s egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang, and we simply can’t do that,” Psaki told reporters during Monday’s briefing.

“We have a fundamental commitment to promoting human rights. And we feel strongly in our position and we will continue to take actions to advance human rights in China and beyond,” Psaki added.

The announcement came as Biden prepares to host a White House Summit for Democracy, a virtual gathering of leaders and civil society experts from more than 100 countries that is set to take place Thursday and Friday. The administration has said Biden intends to use the meeting “to announce both individual and collective commitments, reforms, and initiatives to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., called such a diplomatic boycott “a necessary step to demonstrate our unwavering commitment to human rights in the face of the Chinese government’s unconscionable abuses.”

He called on “other allies and partners that share our values to join with the United States in this diplomatic boycott.”

Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, however, said the diplomatic boycott amounted to a “half measure.” American officials, including Biden, have criticized Beijing for human rights abuses against Uyghurs in northwest Xinjiang province, suppression of democratic protests in Hong Kong, military aggression against the self-ruled island of Taiwan and more. President Donald Trump’s administration in its final days declared the abuses in northwest China “genocide.”

“The United States should fully boycott the Genocide Games in Beijing,” Cotton said. “American businesses should not financially support the Chinese Communist Party and we must not expose Team USA to the dangers of a repugnant authoritarian regime that disappears its own athletes.”

Cotton appeared to be referring to former Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai, who dropped from sight after publicly accusing a former top Communist Party official of sexual assault. Concerns over her safety prompted the Women’s Tennis Association to suspend events in China and provided added fuel to opponents of China’s hosting of the games.

Psaki would not comment whether Biden weighed pulling athletes from the games — many of whom have been training for years for the moment to compete on the global stage. In 1980, in the midst of the Cold War, Jimmy Carter kept U.S. athletes home from the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

“I don’t think that we felt it was the right step to penalize athletes who have been training and preparing for this moment, and we felt that we could send a clear message by not sending an official U.S. delegation,” Psaki said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian accused U.S. politicians of grandstanding over the issue of not sending dignitaries to attend events that China hopes will showcase its economic development and technological prowess.

Speaking to reporters at a daily briefing, Zhao said such a move would be an “outright political provocation,” but gave no details on how China might retaliate.

Human rights advocates and lawmakers in the U.S. who support a boycott say it is a necessary step. They cite China’s poor record on human rights as justification, saying China is using the games to whitewash its ill treatment of civil rights activists, political dissidents and ethnic minorities.

“Without being invited, American politicians keep hyping the so-called diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which is purely wishful thinking and grandstanding,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing. “If the U.S. side is bent on going its own way, China will take firm countermeasures.”

The International Olympic Committee in a statement called the decision to keep dignitaries away from the game a “political decision for each government” that it “fully respects.”

“At the same time, this announcement also makes it clear that the Olympic Games and the participation of the athletes are beyond politics and we welcome this,” the IOC statement said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had been advocating for a diplomatic boycott for months, applauded Biden for taking the step. Still, she said the IOC “allowing a country notorious for its appalling human rights record to host the Olympics makes a mockery of the Olympic Charter, which states that the Games should seek to foster ‘respect for universal and fundamental ethical principles.’”

The dispatching of high-level delegations to each Olympics has long been a tradition among the U.S. and other leading nations. Then-President George W. Bush attended the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Summer Games. First lady Jill Biden led the American contingent to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo this year and second gentleman Doug Emhoff led a delegation to the Paralympic Games.

The diplomatic boycott comes as the U.S. attempts to stabilize turbulent relations with Beijing, even as it maintains a tough approach toward trade and conflicts over China’s actions on Taiwan, human rights, Hong Kong and the South China Sea. CNN was first to report that an announcement was expected this week.

Beijing has mounted a stiff response to all U.S. criticisms, denouncing them as interference in its internal affairs and slapping visa bans on American politicians it regards as anti-China.

It wasn’t clear whom the U.S. might have sent to Beijing for the games and Zhao’s comments appeared to indicate that China has not extended any invitations.

Australia, whose ties with China have nosedived over a range of disputes, has also raised the possibility of a diplomatic boycott.

Psaki said Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping did not discuss a potential diplomatic boycott of the games when they spoke last month. She said Biden’s decision to keep U.S. dignitaries home was conveyed to Beijing by aides before it was formally announced by the White House.

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U.S. draws down Ukraine embassy presence as war fears mount

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U.S. draws down Ukraine embassy presence as war fears mount

WASHINGTON — The State Department on Sunday ordered the families of all American personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine to leave the country amid heightened fears of a Russian invasion.

The department told the dependents of staffers at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv that they must leave the country. It also said that non-essential embassy staff could leave Ukraine at government expense.

The move came amid rising tensions about Russia’s military buildup on the Ukraine border that were not eased during talks Friday between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva.

State Department officials stressed the Kyiv embassy will remain open and that the announcement does not constitute an evacuation. The move had been under consideration for some time and does not reflect an easing of U.S. support for Ukraine, the officials said.

In a statement, the State Department noted recent reports that Russia was planning significant military action against Ukraine. However, the Russian Foreign Ministry has accused NATO countries of escalating tensions around Ukraine with disinformation.

The State Department added: “The security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders, in Russia-occupied Crimea, and in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and can deteriorate with little notice. Demonstrations, which have turned violent at times, regularly occur throughout Ukraine, including in Kyiv.”

The department’s travel advisory, which had warned against traveling to Ukraine because of COVID-19 as well as the tensions over Russia, was changed Sunday to carry a stronger warning.

“Do not travel to Ukraine due to the increased threats of Russian military action and COVID-19. Exercise increased caution in Ukraine due to crime and civil unrest. Some areas have increased risk,” the department advised.

The travel advisory for Russia was also changed: “Do not travel to Russia due to ongoing tension along the border with Ukraine, the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens, the embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia, COVID-19 and related entry restrictions, terrorism, harassment by Russian government security officials, and the arbitrary enforcement of local law.”

The State Department would not say how many Americans it believes are currently in Ukraine. U.S. citizens are not required to register with embassies when they arrive or plan to stay abroad for extended periods.

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Cruise ship heads to Bahamas after U.S. judge orders seizure

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Cruise ship heads to Bahamas after U.S. judge orders seizure

MIAMI — A cruise ship that was supposed to dock in Miami sailed to the Bahamas instead after a U.S. judge granted an order to seize the vessel as part of a lawsuit over unpaid fuel.

Cruise trackers show Crystal Symphony currently docked in the Bahamian island of Bimini.

Passengers were taken by ferry to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday.

“We all feel we were abducted by luxurious pirates!” passenger Stephen Heard Fales posted on Facebook.

It was unclear how many passengers were aboard, with one news outlet reporting 300 and another, 700. According to the company website, the vessel can carry up to 848 passengers.

The ship was scheduled to land in Miami on Saturday. But a federal judge in Miami issued an arrest warrant for the ship on Thursday, a maritime practice where a U.S. Marshal goes aboard the vessel and takes charge of it once it enters U.S. waters.

Passengers and entertainers said on social media they were surprised to find out about the legal case. One guest posted a letter on Facebook from Crystal Cruises Management that said the change in itinerary was due to “non-technical operational issues.”

The lawsuit was filed in a Miami federal court by Peninsula Petroleum Far East against the ship under a maritime procedure that allows actions against vessels for unpaid debts. The complaint says Crystal Symphony was chartered or managed by Crystal Cruises and Star Cruises, which are both sued for breach of contract for owing $4.6 million in fuel.

Crystal Cruises announced earlier this week that it was suspending operations through late April.

Besides Crystal Symphony, it has two other ships currently cruising, which end their voyages on Jan. 30 in Aruba and on Feb. 4 in Argentina.

“Suspending operations will provide Crystal’s management team with an opportunity to evaluate the current state of business and examine various options moving forward,” said the company in a statement earlier this week.

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Timberwolves are kings of the first quarter

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Timberwolves are kings of the first quarter

The Timberwolves remain the kings of the first quarter. They outscored Brooklyn 37-36 over the first 12 minutes on Sunday at Target Center, marking the 10th straight first quarter in which they’ve outscored their opponent.

Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said early in the season the team identified the value of getting off to strong starts in games. It’s been a focus ever since.

That’s why it made sense for Minnesota to put all of its eggs into the starting basket. That included pairing Patrick Beverley and D’Angelo Russell — the team’s two primary point guards — in the starting lineup to open contests. At times, finding a third point guard to fill the minutes where both guards are then off the floor has proven challenging, but the Wolves deemed that a problem worth having given the upside of the starters.

The five-man unit of Russell, Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns remains one of the best in basketball, statistically speaking. Yet the same group that starts the game so well has struggled at recent points to open third quarters. That suggests there’s something about the way the group starts that leads to early success.

For the season, the Timberwolves owned the second-best first quarter net rating in the entire NBA entering Sunday’s contest. They outscored opponents by 10.6 points per 100 possessions over the first 12 minutes.

Now the key is for Minnesota to sustain that success over 48 minutes.

BEVERLEY OUT

Beverley missed Sunday’s contest with a right ankle sprain suffered in Thursday’s loss to Atlanta. That marked the 14th game the veteran guard has missed this season due to a combination of injuries and illness.

VANTERPOOL RETURNS

Former Timberwolves assistant coach and defensive coordinator David Vanterpool returned to Target Center as a member of Brooklyn’s bench Sunday after spending the previous two years in Minnesota.

That tenure included the end of last season, in which Vanterpool worked under Chris Finch, who was tabbed as Minnesota’s new head coach over Vanterpool after the firing of Ryan Saunders.

Finch said he “enjoyed working with him very much.” The two sides parted ways at the end of the season.

“Obviously I came in in rough circumstances for everybody,” Finch said. “He was nothing but welcoming and very professional. … I didn’t have any prior relationship with DV, and through the remainder of that season, I really enjoyed working with him. We made some tweaks to our defense along the way, and he was instrumental helping implement those with an open mind.”

Finch told Vanterpool he is going to be an NBA head coach at some point.

“When you have that type of acumen and that type of experience, it’s only a matter of time,” Finch said. “Getting your opportunity is the hardest thing.”

WOLVES OWNER, PACKERS FAN?

Yes, that was new Timberwolves’ owner Alex Rodriguez at Lambeau Field on Saturday for the Packers’ divisional round loss to San Francisco. Rodriguez, who attends a number of big national events throughout the year as an avid sports fan, was sporting a Green Bay hat, which rubbed a few Minnesota sports fans the wrong way on social media.

Rodriguez was back on the Target Center sidelines Sunday, supporting the Timberwolves.

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