GENEVA (AP) — The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is accelerating and could grow six times larger to infect as many as 20,000 people, the World Health Organization said Thursday. The U.N. health agency unveiled a new road map for containing the virus, and scientists are fast-tracking efforts to find a treatment or vaccine.
Ebola has menaced Africa for 40 years, but previously struck in remote villages and was contained fairly quickly. This time, it has spread to major cities in four countries, provoking unrest as whole neighborhoods and towns have been sealed to the outside.
An experimental vaccine developed by the U.S. government and GlaxoSmithKline will be tested on humans starting next week, the U.S. National Institutes of Health announced Thursday. The NIH trial will use healthy adult volunteers in Maryland, and British experts will simultaneously test the same vaccine in healthy people in the U.K., Gambia and Mali.
Preliminary results on the vaccine's safety — not its effectiveness — could be available in months.
Scientists also announced that they have mapped the genetic code of this strain of Ebola to better understand how it kills. In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, researchers traced an explosion of cases in this outbreak to a single funeral in Guinea in May.
They hope to use the genetic mapping to track mutations that could become more worrisome the longer the outbreak lasts, and make a difference in how doctors spot and fight the disease as vaccines are developed.
The outbreak has now killed at least 1,552 people among 3,069 reported cases in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria, and the real caseload in urban areas could be two to four times higher. Meanwhile, an entirely separate Ebola outbreak has killed 13 of 42 people sickened in a remote area of Congo, in Central Africa, the agency said.
With about a 50 percent mortality rate among those known to be infected, the overall death toll could reach 10,000 in the worst-case scenario.
"I think that's completely unacceptable," said the agency's emergency operations director, Dr. Bruce Aylward.
The WHO's new plan would cost $489 million to support 750 international health workers and 12,000 national ones. It aims to:
— stop Ebola transmission in affected countries within six to nine months
— prevent the spread of any new infections within eight weeks of a case being identified anywhere in the world
— and improve the public health responses to Ebola in any nation with major transportation hubs or borders shared with affected countries.
With the world's support, medical workers hope to take "the heat out of this outbreak" within three months, Aylward said.
The U.N. agency's announcement was immediately criticized by Doctors Without Borders, a medical charity running many of the treatment centers in West Africa.
"The WHO road map is welcome, but it should not give a false sense of hope. A plan needs to be acted upon. Huge questions remain," the charity's operations director, Bruce de le Vingne, said in a statement. "States with the capacity to help have the responsibility to mobilize resources to the affected countries, rather than watching from the sidelines with a naive hope that the situation will improve."
Containment is key, but it has to be done carefully, in ways that don't cause panic or hamper the response, the agency said.
The WHO has supported the quarantine of sick people, and said cordoning off entire neighborhoods can be useful, as long as civil rights are respected. But it has called on airlines to resume flights to affected countries, since Ebola is unlikely to spread through air travel. Health checks at airports should provide sufficient protection while still enabling humanitarian workers to get in.
"Right now there is a super risk of the response effort being choked off, being restricted, because we simply cannot get enough seats on enough airplanes to get people in and out, and rotating, to get goods and supplies in and out and rotating," Aylward said.
Ebola and the measures used to control it are making it harder for some of the world's poorest people to feed themselves and seek medical care. Many thousands of people have been cut off from markets; food prices have soared and farmers are separated from their fields. People now fearing hospitals are going without treatment for other diseases, like malaria, which kills around 600,000 each year, 90 percent of them in Africa.
The World Food Program says it needs $70 million immediately to help feed 1.3 million people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in the coming months because control measures have threatened food supplies.
Nigerian authorities, meanwhile, confirmed their first fatality outside the commercial capital of Lagos, where a dying Liberian-American airline passenger infected others in late July. They said a man sickened after coming into contact with the passenger had evaded surveillance and infected a doctor in southern Nigeria, who later died.
BEIRUT (AP) — The Islamic State group killed more than 160 Syrian government troops seized in recent fighting, posting pictures Thursday of terrified young conscripts stripped down to their underwear before meeting their deaths in the arid Syrian countryside.
The slayings were the latest massacre attributed to the extremist group, which has terrorized rivals and civilians alike with widely publicized brutality in Syria and Iraq as it seeks to expand a proto-state it has carved out on both sides of the border.
In southern Syria, meanwhile, gunmen detained 43 U.N. peacekeepers during fighting on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, the United Nations said. It added that another 81 peacekeepers were trapped in the area by heavy clashes between rebels and Syrian troops.
The mass killing of Syrian soldiers is part of a stepped up campaign by Islamic State militants targeting President Bashar Assad's forces. Until recently, the group had been focused on eliminating rivals among the rebels fighting to topple him, systematically routing Western-backed opposition fighters and other Islamic factions from towns and villages in northern and eastern Syria as it expands.
More recently, the jihadists have turned their attention to Assad's forces, seizing a series of military bases in northeastern Raqqa province. In the process, they have killed hundreds of pro-government forces, beheading some and later displaying their severed heads on poles and fences and posting the pictures online.
Most of the dozens killed over the past 24 hours were rounded up Wednesday near the Tabqa airfield three days after Islamic State fighters seized the base. The government troops were among a large group of soldiers from the base who were stuck behind front lines after it fell to the jihadi fighters.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said around 120 captive government troops from Tabqa were killed near the base. Islamic State fighters also killed at least another 40 soldiers, most of whom were taken prisoner in recent fighting at other bases in the Hamrat region near Raqqa city, the group's stronghold.
A statement posted online and circulated on Twitter claimed the extremists killed about 200 government prisoners captured near Tabqa. It also showed photographs of what it said were the prisoners: young men stripped down to their underwear marching in the desert, some with their hands behind their heads. The photos could not immediately be verified, but correspond to other AP reporting.
The group also posted a video showing Islamic State fighters forcing the barefoot men to march through the desert. Another video later showed dozens of bodies piled in the desert, alongside others lying motionless — apparently dead — in a row in the sand.
While the videos could not be independently confirmed by the AP, they appeared to illustrate the claims made online by the Islamic State group and Syrian opposition activists about the mass killing.
There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government, which has been tight-lipped on the massive death toll incurred by its soldiers at the hands of Islamic State fighters in the past two months.
In its rise to prominence over the past year, the extremist group has frequently published graphic photos and videos of everything from bombings and beheadings to mass killings and images of jihadis taunting and humiliating terrified troops or other opponents.
In Iraq, the group killed nearly 200 men — most of them Iraqi soldiers — in late June near the northern city of Tikrit, human rights groups and Iraqi officials say. It published photos online showing dozens of men dressed in civilian clothing lying face down as militants aimed rifles at their backs. A final set of photos showed their bloodied bodies.
Earlier this month, Islamic State fighters shot hundreds of tribesmen in eastern Syria who had risen up against the group. Some were beheaded. Last week, they posted a video showing the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley.
The release of gruesome photos and videos documenting the slayings underscores how the extremist group uses violence — and images of violence — to instill fear in its opponents at home and win recruits abroad.
In Washington, President Barack Obama played down the prospect of imminent U.S. military action against strongholds of the Islamic State group in Syria, saying "we don't have a strategy yet" for confronting the militants.
Briefing reporters at the White House shortly before convening a meeting of his national security advisers to consider options on the issue, the president urged a regional approach that includes support from other Mideast nations.
It's time to "stop being ambivalent" about the aims of extremist groups like the Islamic State, Obama said. "They have no ideology beyond violence and chaos and the slaughter of innocent people."
A U.N. commission accused the Islamic State group Wednesday of committing crimes against humanity in Syria — echoing U.N. accusations against the group in Iraq.
The U.S. has been conducting airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq, and is now considering extending its campaign to Syria, home to the group's declared capital of their self-styled caliphate.
The Islamic State group's surge is one aspect of Syria's multi-layered civil war, a bloody conflict that has killed more than 190,000 people and destabilized the region.
The 43 U.N. peacekeepers were detained by an armed group early Thursday on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, where fighting has raged this week between Syrian rebels and government forces.
The U.N. said another 81 peacekeepers were being "restricted to their positions" in the vicinity of Ruwaihaniyeh and Burayqa.
The office of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did not identify the armed group that was holding the peacekeepers. Several rebel groups operate in the Golan, while the Islamic State group has no known presence there.
"We are dealing with non-state armed actors," the spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters in New York.
"We're not in a position to confirm who is holding whom. Some groups self-identified as being affiliated with al-Nusra, however, we are unable to confirm it," Dujarric said, referring to the al-Qaida-linked group, al-Nusra Front.
He said the 43 detained peacekeepers were from Fiji while 81 troops from the Philippines have had their movements restricted.
The Syrian government denounced the "kidnapping" of the U.N. peacekeepers and called for their immediate release.
The peacekeepers are part of UNDOF, the mission that has been monitoring a 1974 disengagement accord between Syria and Israel after their 1973 war. As of July, UNDOF had 1,223 troops from six countries: Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines.
Syrian rebels briefly abducted U.N. peacekeepers twice in 2013 before eventually releasing them unharmed.
Heavy fighting has engulfed the Syrian side of the Golan since Wednesday, when rebels captured a crossing on the disputed frontier with Israel. A rebel spokesman said the militants are focused on fighting Assad, and pose no threat to Israel.
On Thursday, government warplanes targeted several rebel positions in the area, including in the village of Jaba, Syrian activists said.
White plumes of smoke set off by exploding mortar rounds could be seen Thursday from the Israeli side of the Golan as the sound of small arms fire echoed in the background.
WASHINGTON (AP) — With a self-imposed deadline looming, President Barack Obama said Thursday he still intends to act on his own to change immigration policies but stopped short of reiterating his past vows to act by end of summer.
Obama raised the slim hope that Congress could take action on a broad immigration overhaul after the midterm elections in November. He said that if lawmakers did not pass an overhaul, "I'm going to do what I can to make sure the system works better."
But for the first time since pledging to act by summer's end, he signaled that such a target date could slip. He said that the administration had been working to reduce the flow of unaccompanied minors attempting to cross the border and noted that the number of apprehensions at the border had fallen in August.
"Some of these things do affect time lines and we're just going to be working through as systematically as possible in order to get this done," he said in a news conference where he also addressed Russian aggression in Ukraine and action against Islamic State militants.
Two months ago, Obama angrily conceded that the House did not intend to take up immigration legislation this year and ordered Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder to come up with actions the president could take on his own.
"I expect their recommendations before the end of summer and I intend to adopt those recommendations without further delay," he said at the time.
Since then, the administration was forced to deal with the sharp rise of young migrants from Central America who were crossing the southwest border. Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion to deal with the flow, a request that Republican lawmakers rejected.
At the same time, some Democrats worried that if Obama took action on his own to reduce deportations it would mobilize Republican voters in hotly contested Senate races.
Frank Sharry of the pro-immigrant group America's Voice said there were no indications the White House planned to delay the announcement, and lots of evidence Obama is preparing for an announcement in September.
"If for whatever reasons they decide to delay, it's going to be a huge problem for an immigration reform movement that has worked tirelessly for years and been promised action for years," Sharry said. "I don't think people are going to take a delay without a big response."
Obama said Thursday that addressing the inflow of unaccompanied minors has not stopped the process of looking into "how do we get a smart immigration system in place while we're waiting for Congress to act.
"And it continues to be my belief that, if I can't see the congressional action, that I need to do at least what I can in order to make the system work better."
The most sweeping, controversial step under consideration involves halting deportation for millions, a major expansion of a 2012 Obama program that deferred prosecutions for those brought here illegally as children.
Roughly half a million people have benefited from that program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
In a sign of how heated the demands on Obama to act have become, 145 protesters were arrested midday Thursday in front of the White House in an act of civil disobedience. Demanding a halt to deportations, protesters draped themselves in American flags and held signs saying "I am a witness for justice" as onlookers cheered them on. The U.S. Park Police said the protesters were charged with blocking the sidewalk.
Republicans are already hinting they'll consider legal action to thwart what they've denounced as a violation of the separation of powers. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a conference call this month with GOP House members, accused Obama of "threatening to rewrite our immigration laws unilaterally."
"If the president fails to faithfully execute the laws of our country, we will hold him accountable," Boehner said, according to an individual who participated in the call.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., predicted Thursday that Congress would not tackle an immigration overhaul before the fall elections.
"There are too many members of the House that are scared of the tea party, and they are afraid to death that they won't get the extremist support in the election," Nelson told reporters in Orlando, Florida. "There is nothing being done on immigration until after the election, and probably not until we get a better sense of where we're going into next year."
The House has passed legislation to block Obama from expanding DACA and, through its power of the purse, could attempt to cut off the funds that would be needed to implement the expansion. House Republicans could also consider widening or amending their existing lawsuit against Obama over his health care law, a case both parties have suggested could be a prelude to impeachment proceedings.