Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: December 11, 2021

At least 50 dead after tornadoes strike several U.S. states, U.K. foreign secretary threatens 'severe consequences' if Russia invades Ukraine, and more


At least 50 dead after tornadoes strike several U.S. states

Tornadoes struck several Southern and Midwestern states Friday night. At least 50 people are confirmed dead in Kentucky alone, and that number is almost certain to rise as more bodies are discovered. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) has declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard. The tornadoes ripped a continuous path of destruction through over 200 miles of western Kentucky. The town of Mayfield — which had been home to over 10,000 people — has been almost completely destroyed. Tornadoes also touched down in Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, and Tennessee. Over 250,000 households across all five states are without power.


U.K. foreign secretary threatens 'severe consequences' if Russia invades Ukraine

Invading Ukraine would be a "strategic mistake" that would lead to "severe consequences for Russia," United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Friday ahead of a weekend G7 meeting in Liverpool. Around 94,000 Russian troops have massed on the Ukrainian border, and intelligence estimates suggest that the invasion could come as early as January 2022 and involve 175,000 troops. Truss urged European leaders to reduce their dependence on Russian natural gas and suggested that the U.K. might take steps to lock Russian money out of British financial markets. When asked if she could rule out a military response, Truss said the U.K. is working to bolster Ukraine's "defense and security capability."


Omicron reaches Taiwan and is on track to surpass Delta in Europe

Officials from Britain and Denmark said Friday that the new Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus is expected to become the dominant strain in their countries within the next week. According to the U.K. Health Security Agency, Omicron spreads more rapidly than Delta, which currently accounts for the greatest number of cases. Taiwanese officials announced Saturday that a woman returning from the small southern African country of Eswatini — also known as Swaziland — tested positive for the Omicron variant. This is Taiwan's first confirmed case of Omicron.


New Caledonia holds referendum on independence from France

Voters in the French territory of New Caledonia will vote Sunday on whether to remain a part of France. New Caledonia, an archipelago in the South Pacific with a population of around 250,000, became a French colony in 1853, gained equal citizenship for its native inhabitants in 1957, received a degree of autonomy in 1988, and rejected previous independence referenda in 2018 and 2020. Sunday's referendum is the last one permitted under the 1998 Nouméa Accord. France is eager to maintain its foothold in the South Pacific as Chinese influence in the region grows. The archipelago's pro-independence faction has announced that they will boycott the referendum after the French government refused requests to postpone it.


Inflation rate hits 39-year high

Consumer prices rose in November at an annual rate of 6.8 percent, the U.S. Labor Department reported Friday. This marks the most rapid rate of inflation since 1982. Wages rose only 4.3 percent last month. Inflation has been bad for the President Biden's poll numbers, and observers suggest this latest report could prompt him to agree to further cuts to his massive spending bill in order to get it passed by Christmas.


Palestinians vote in municipal elections as support for Abbas slips

Palestinians voted Saturday in municipal elections in the West Bank as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas grows increasingly unpopular. No elections were held for Palestine's legislature or presidency, and the last legislative elections were held in 2006. Abbas was elected to a four-year term in 2005 and has not faced voters since. Over 400,000 Palestinians in 154 villages were able to cast votes, but municipal elections were canceled in major West Bank cities. Hamas, which is feuding with Abbas' Fatah party, boycotted elections in Gaza. Hamas has seen a surge in support after fighting a brief war with Israel in May, and polling suggests that the Islamist faction is now more popular than Fatah.


Mexico announces crackdown on people smugglers after deadly crash

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebard announced the creation of a new working group to combat people smuggling after a truck crash on a Mexican highway killed more than 50 migrants Thursday. More than 150 people were packed into the tractor-trailer, which flipped when its driver attempted to take a turn too sharply. The migrants reportedly paid at least $2,500 each to be driven from southern to central Mexico, after which they would have had to hire other smugglers to complete their journey to the U.S. border.  The working group comprises Mexico, the U.S., Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has blamed the migrant crisis on poverty and a lack of jobs.


Bosnian Serbs vote for greater autonomy, stoking fears of renewed conflict

Lawmakers in the lower house of the Republika Srpska passed a non-binding resolution Friday that would decouple the semi-autonomous republic from Bosnia's tax system, military, and judicial system. The Republika Srpska — also known as the Bosnian Serb Republic — was set up under international auspices following the cessation of bloody ethnic strife in 1995. Lawmakers who opposed the measure warned that it was a step back toward the dark days of the Bosnian War. Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia's three-person interethnic presidency, favors removing the framework established by the 1995 Dayton Accords. "I don't believe [Bosnia] can survive because it does not have an internal capacity to survive," he said.


Supreme Court leaves Texas abortion law in place but allows challenges from clinics

The Supreme Court on Friday ruled that abortion providers can move forward with a challenge to Texas' extreme abortion law, S.B. 8, though the justices allowed the ban to remain in effect for now. In an 8-1 opinion, the court concluded that clinics who had sued the state over S.B. 8 "could proceed with at least part of their case," BuzzFeed News writes. It did not, however, "reach the core question of whether the Texas law is or is not constitutional." The justices also rejected a Department of Justice-led effort to challenge the ban and advised lower courts to consider the matter.


Prosecution rests in Ghislaine Maxwell trial

The prosecution rested Friday after two weeks of dramatic and emotional testimony in the sex-trafficking trial of former Jeffrey Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell. Four alleged victims, two of whom were underage at the time, took the stand to accuse Maxwell of grooming them for Epstein and pressuring them into unwanted sexual acts. The defense will begin to make its case Monday. So far, Maxwell's lawyers have attempted to poke holes in the witnesses' stories and suggested Maxwell is being made into a scapegoat for Epstein's crimes. Epstein was awaiting trial on federal sex trafficking charges when he died in prison in 2019 under suspicious circumstances. His death was officially ruled a suicide.


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