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Devils roaming Australia again

FILE - In this Dec. 21, 2012, file photo, Big John the Tasmanian devil growls from the confines of his tree house as he makes his first appearance at the Wild Life Sydney Zoo in Sydney. Tasmanian devils, the carnivorous marsupials whose feisty, frenzied eating habits won the animals cartoon fame, have returned to mainland Australia for the first time in some 3,000 years. Conservation groups have recently released some cancer-free devils in a wildlife refuge on the mainland, and they plan to release more in the coming years. Their hope is that the species will thrive and improve the biodiversity.  (AP Photo/Rob Griffith, File)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Tasmanian devils, the carnivorous marsupials whose feisty, frenzied eating habits won the animals cartoon fame, have returned to mainland Australia for the first time in some 3,000 years. “Seeing those devils released into a wild landscape — it’s a really emotional moment,” said Liz Gabriel, director of conservation group Aussie Ark, which led the release effort in partnership with other conservation groups. The 11 most recently released devils began exploring their new home once they were freed from round, white cages at the nearly 1,000-acre Barrington Tops wildlife refuge in New South Wales state, about 190 kilometers (120 miles) north of Sydney. Tasmanian devils, which were once called Sarcophilus satanicus or “Satanic flesh-lover,” went extinct in mainland Australia before the arrival of Europeans. Scientists believe the introduction of carnivorous dingoes, a surge in the indigenous human population, and a devastating dry season cause by a prolonged El Nino caused the devil to migrate to present-day Tasmania, said University of Tasmania ecologist Menna Jones. “I think any one of those three factors alone probably wouldn’t have caused extinction — but the three of them together likely caused the devil to become extinct on the mainland,” she said. Devils have been protected in Australia since 1941, and conservationists have worked to bolster their populations for years, citing their importance as top predators who can suppress invasive species — like foxes and feral cats — and in turn protect smaller species and biodiversity.

Two win Nobel chemistry prize

STOCKHOLM — The Nobel Prize in chemistry went to two researchers Wednesday for a gene-editing tool that has revolutionized science by providing a way to alter DNA, the code of life — technology already being used to try to cure a host of diseases and raise better crops and livestock. Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and Jennifer A. Doudna of the United States won for developing CRISPR-cas9, a very simple technique for cutting a gene at a specific spot, allowing scientists to operate on flaws that are the root cause of many diseases. “There is enormous power in this genetic tool,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. More than 100 clinical trials are underway to study using CRISPR to treat inherited diseases, and “many are very promising,” according to Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine. “My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind,” said Doudna, who is affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, and is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press’ Health and Science Department. The prize-winning work has opened the door to some thorny ethical issues: When editing is done after birth, the alterations are confined to that person. Scientists fear CRISPR will be misused to make “designer babies” by altering eggs, embryos or sperm — changes that can be passed on to future generations. Much of the world became aware of CRISPR in 2018, when Chinese scientist He Jiankui revealed he had helped make the world’s first gene-edited babies, to try to engineer resistance to infection with the AIDS virus. His work was denounced as unsafe human experimentation, and he has been sentenced to prison in China. In September, an international panel of experts issued a report saying it is too soon to try such experiments.

IS members charged in deaths

WASHINGTON — Two Islamic State militants from Britain were brought to the U.S. Wednesday to face charges in a gruesome campaign of torture, beheadings and other acts of violence against four Americans and others captured and held hostage in Syria, the Justice Department said. El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey are two of four men who were called “the Beatles” by the hostages because of the captors’ British accents. The two men were expected to make their first appearance Wednesday afternoon in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, where a federal grand jury issued an eight-count indictment that accuses them of being “leading participants in a brutal hostage-taking scheme” that resulted in the deaths of Western hostages, including American journalist James Foley. The charges are a milestone in a yearslong effort by U.S. authorities to bring to justice members of the group known for beheadings and barbaric treatment of aid workers, journalists and other hostages in Syria. Startling for their unflinching depictions of cruelty and violence, recordings of the murders were released online in the form of propaganda for a group that at its peak controlled vast swaths of Syria and Iraq. The case underscores the Justice Department’s commitment to prosecuting in American civilian court militants captured overseas, said Assistant Attorney General John Demers. He said other extremists “will be pursued to the ends of the earth.”

Jack has new master distiller

In a business where family tradition tends to matter, Chris Fletcher stepped up Wednesday to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps to lead production of the Jack Daniel’s whiskey brand. The Tennessee distillery introduced Fletcher as master distiller for the flagship brand of Kentucky-based Brown-Forman Corp. Fletcher spent six years as assistant master distiller and assumes the top role following Jeff Arnett’s departure after 12 years leading the distillery. Fletcher, 39, is the grandson of former Jack Daniel’s master distiller Frank Bobo, who served in the role for more than two decades until retiring in 1989. Fletcher’s boyhood home was about three miles from the distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, where Jack Daniel’s is produced. Fletcher sat at his grandfather’s desk while speaking to the media Wednesday. He recalled tagging along with his grandfather at the distillery as a boy and said his grandfather “will always be my vision of a true distiller.” “I couldn’t be more excited to be in this role,” Fletcher said. “It’s such a special place from a distilling and whiskey-making standpoint.”

Astronaut picks girl’s wedding

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The commander of Boeing’s first astronaut flight has pulled himself off the crew so he’s on Earth — not at the International Space Station — for his daughter’s wedding next year. It’s the second crew switch for Boeing’s Starliner capsule, grounded until the end of this year or early next because of software problems encountered during the first test flight last December. Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson announced his decision Wednesday. Last year, NASA astronaut Eric Boe stepped aside from the first Starliner crew for medical reasons. Both were replaced by experienced space station astronauts. In a video posted to his Twitter account, Ferguson said it was a difficult decision, but “next year is very important for my family.” He said he has several commitments “which I simply cannot risk missing.” A Boeing spokeswoman confirmed one is his daughter’s wedding. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m just not going into space next year,” Ferguson said. He stressed that he remains committed to the Starliner program and will continue to work for Boeing. The former NASA astronaut has flown in space three times, commanding the last shuttle flight in 2011. He has been replaced on the Starliner crew by NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore, who had been training as a backup for the test flight. Wilmore joins NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke, who replaced Boe. In December or early January, Boeing plans to repeat a Starliner test flight without a crew, in hopes of reaching the space station this time. If that goes well, Wilmore, Fincke and Mann will fly to the space station aboard a Starliner as early as June 2021, and remain in orbit anywhere between two weeks and six months.

Fire at Russian military arsenal

MOSCOW — A fire engulfed a military arsenal in western Russia on Wednesday, triggering huge explosions that injured at least six and prompted the evacuation of thousands of residents from nearby villages, officials said. Authorities said the fire at the arsenal in the Ryazan region that holds munitions had been sparked by burning grass. Television footage showed smoke rising high across the skies, and powerful blasts shook the area about 250 kilometers (155 miles) southeast of Moscow. Regional officials have ordered the evacuation of more than 2,300 people from 10 nearby villages. Six people have been hospitalized with injuries. The Defense Ministry said that 189 troops backed by four heavy firefighting planes, three helicopters and drones were deployed to help contain the blaze.

Bollywood actress out on bail

NEW DELHI — A Bollywood actress who was arrested by India’s narcotics agency, setting off a media frenzy that has gripped the nation, walked out of jail on Wednesday after being granted bail. Rhea Chakraborty was released from Bycula District Prison in Mumbai a month after being arrested for allegedly buying drugs for her boyfriend, popular movie actor Sushant Singh Rajput, who was found dead in a suspected suicide in June. India’s freewheeling TV news channels speculated that Chakraborty drove him to take his life and was part of a drug-dealing mafia in Bollywood, India’s Mumbai-based film industry. The court in Mumbai on Wednesday said the actress was not part of any drug syndicate and had no criminal record. It said Chakraborty could not have financed or supported illegal drug trafficking as alleged by the narcotics agency. The 28-year-old actress’ lawyer, Satish Maneshinde, said her arrest was “totally unwarranted and beyond the reach of law.” Chakraborty’s brother, who was arrested in the same case and has also denied the charges, however, remains in custody. Rajput’s suspected suicide in June initially triggered a debate over mental health. But his family disputed Indian media reports that he suffered from mental illness and lodged a police complaint accusing Chakraborty of abetment of suicide. She has denied the allegation. Many Indian television news channels then declared Chakraborty guilty of Rajput’s death and claimed she had overdosed him on drugs. The TV channels have since spent months obsessing over the case, at the expense of other issues such as India’s stalling economy, the government’s virus response and growing hostilities with China over a border dispute. Earlier this week, a panel of doctors examining Rajput’s autopsy reports at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, a leading public hospital in New Delhi, submitted a report to the Central Bureau of Investigation that ruled out murder as a cause of the actor’s death. Rajput, 34, was found dead in his Mumbai apartment on June 14. Police listed the cause of death as asphyxia by hanging and said he appeared to have taken his own life. The case is still being investigated.

Delta heads toward Louisiana

CANCUN, Mexico — Hurricane Delta emerged into the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday and headed toward Louisiana after making landfall just south of the Mexican resort of Cancun, toppling trees and cutting power to residents of the Yucatan peninsula’s resort-studded coast. The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the Category 2 hurricane was centered about 65 miles (110 kilometers) east-northeast of Puerto Progreso in the afternoon, just off the northern edge of the peninsula. Delta had maximum sustained winds of 100 mph (155 kph), but was expected to gain strength again before lashing the U.S. Gulf coast. Delta could make landfall, possibly as a Category 3 storm, sometime Friday south of Morgan City, Louisiana. The hurricane came ashore in Mexico around 5:30 a.m. Wednesday with top winds of 110 mph (175 kph). Officials said it caused no deaths or injuries, but did force hundreds of tourists to take refuge in storm shelters. It knocked out power to about 266,000 customers, or about one-third of the total on the Yucatan peninsula. There were no reports of any deaths or injuries, said Carlos Joaquin Gonzalez, the governor of the state of Quintana Roo. “Fortunately, the most dangerous part of the hurricane has passed,” Joaquin Gonzalez said, noting the big problem was downed trees that had knocked out power lines and blocked roadways. Civil defense official Luis Alberto Ortega Vazquez said about 39,000 people had been evacuated in the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan, and that about 2,700 people had taken refuge in storm shelters in the two states.

Stolen Mao scroll found cut in half

HONG KONG — A calligraphy scroll by former Chinese leader Mao Zedong estimated to be worth millions of dollars was cut in half after it was stolen last month in a high-profile burglary in Hong Kong, police said. The scroll was found damaged when police arrested a 49-year-old man in late September on suspicion of handling stolen property. The South China Morning Post, quoting an unidentified police source, reported that the scroll was cut in two by a buyer who had purchased it for 500 Hong Kong dollars ($65) and had believed the scroll to be counterfeit. “According to our investigation, someone thought that the calligraphy was too long,” Tony Ho, senior superintendent of the police Organized Crime and Triad Bureau, said at a news conference Tuesday. “It was difficult to show it, to display it, and that’s why it was cut in half.” Police said the scroll was part of a multimillion-dollar theft by three burglars from collector Fu Chunxiao’s apartment in September. Fu, who is well known for his collection of stamps and revolutionary art, was in mainland China at the time of the burglary and has not been in Hong Kong since January because of the coronavirus pandemic. The burglars took 24,000 Chinese postage stamps, 10 coins and seven calligraphy scrolls from Fu’s apartment, where he stored his collections. Fu estimated that the Mao calligraphy was worth about $300 million and that the theft totaled about $645 million. No independent appraisals of the collections were available. Police have arrested three men in relation to the burglary and on suspicion of providing assistance to criminals. At least two people connected to the burglary are still at large, Ho said. Although some of the stolen items have been found, the 24,000 stamps and six other calligraphy scrolls have not been recovered, police said.

5.3 quake in open water

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A 5.3-magnitude earthquake that struck in open water Wednesday was felt in several Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico. The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake occurred 42 miles east-southeast of Cruz Bay in the U.S. Virgin Islands at a relatively shallow depth of six miles. Erik Ackerson, spokesman for the Virgin Islands’ emergency management agency,said no damage had been reported by midafternoon. “It was a nice rolling shake.”The U.S. and British Virgin Islands are located between the North American and Caribbean plates, which have caused large earthquakes and deadly tsunamis.

Protests greet move to shutdowns

NEW YORK — A New York City neighborhood erupted in protests after Gov. Andrew Cuomo moved to shut down schools and businesses and restrict capacity at houses of worship in areas where coronavirus cases are spiking. Many areas that stand to be affected are home to large enclaves of Orthodox Jews, and community leaders have complained they are being unfairly singled out, though the Democratic governor insists the clampdown is based solely on coronavirus case clusters and science. The criticism sharpened Tuesday night, when videos posted on social media showed hundreds of Orthodox Jewish men gathered in the streets of Borough Park, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, in some cases setting bonfires by burning masks. Video posted on social media shows a crowd swarming and knocking down a man holding a camera. Police said there were no arrests.

Hawaii to restart tourism

HONOLULU — Despite increasing coronavirus cases across the U.S., Hawaii officials hope to reboot tourism next week by loosening months of economically crippling pandemic restrictions, including a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all arriving travelers. The plan, which was postponed after the virus surged in the summer, will allow Hawaii-bound travelers who provide negative virus test results within 72 hours of arrival to sidestep two weeks of quarantine. But the Oct. 15 launch of the pre-travel testing program is causing concern for some who say gaps in the plan could further endanger a community still reeling from summer infection rates that spiked to 10% after local restrictions eased.

Italy imposes mask mandate

ROME — Italy imposed a nationwide outdoor mask mandate Wednesday with fines of up to 1,000 euros ($1,163) for violators, as the European country where COVID-19 first hit hard scrambles to keep rebounding infections from spiraling out of control. The government passed the decree even though Italy’s overall per capita infection rate is among the lowest in Europe. But Premier Giuseppe Conte warned that a steady, nine-week rise in infections nationwide demanded new preventive measures to stave off economically-devastating closures and shutdowns. “We have to be more rigorous because we want to avoid at all cost more restrictive measures for production and social activities,” Conte said. The decree was passed on the same day that Italy added 3,678 new infections and 31 deaths to its official coronavirus toll, the highest increase in new cases since the peak of the outbreak in April. Both hard-hit Lombardy and southern Campania added more than 500 cases each. Italy has over 36,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, the second-highest number in Europe after Britain.

City apologizes for 1979 deaths

GREENSBORO, N.C. — A city council in North Carolina has approved a resolution which apologizes for the shooting deaths of five demonstrators at a 1979 rally against the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party. The Greensboro City Council voted 7-2 on Tuesday night to approve the resolution, which says in part that the city admits the police department neglected to act on knowledge it had that the Nazis and Klan were planning violence, the News & Record of Greensboro reported. “This apology is 41 years too late,” councilwoman Michelle Kennedy said. “On behalf of the 5-year-old kid I was then … I am sorry for what the city of Greensboro failed to do on that day and for the things that we did. There is nothing in my professional life or in my adult life that means more to me than saying what we are saying tonight and the only thing I regret is that it didn’t happen 41 years ago.” The resolution also creates a scholarship for five high school students in memory of the five who died. The demonstrators were shot and killed during the Nov. 3, 1979, rally at a low-income housing community in Greensboro. Juries acquitted several people of killing the protesters and wounding others. A subsequent civil case found six members of the Klan and Nazi party and two Greensboro police officers liable for wrongful death in what’s now known as the Greensboro Massacre.

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