Chemical weapons experts collect samples from Syrian city

April 21 (UPI) — International chemical weapons inspectors retrieved samples Saturday from a Syrian town two weeks after the suspected attack.

The fact-finding team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons left Damascus for the nearby town of Douma. In a release, OPCW said the samples collected will be transported to its lab in Rijswijk, Netherlands, and then dispatched to the OPCW’s designated labs for further analysis.

The OPCW, which has been investigating use of toxic chemicals in Syria’s civil war since 2014, said it will decide whether to return to Douma for additional samples. Its report will be submitted to the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Syria and Russia have denied they were responsible for the attack, which killed more than 80 people. On April 13, the United States, Britain and France fired 105 missiles at three Syrian government sites in retaliation.

“Early on April 21, a special OPCW mission for finding traces of chemical weapons left for the city of Douma to the place of suspected use of toxic chemicals on April 7,” Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement. “We consider such delays in a notable case like that, for whatever reasons, to be unacceptable, since the security of the OPCW staff was ensured not only by the Syrian side, but also by the command of the Russian military forces in the Syrian Arab Republic.”

The nine-member OPCW team had been waiting in the Syrian capital for clearance to visit the town. They were supposed to enter the town on Wednesday but the visit was delayed because U.N. risk assessment team came under fire while checking sites Tuesday.

“We appeal to western colleagues to refrain from actions obstructing efforts to establish the truth regarding the provocation in Eastern Ghouta on April 7,” Zakharova said.

Jaish al-Islam group controlled the city on the day of the suspected chemical attack.

After the attack, the rebels withdrew under a deal with the Russian military.

Zakharova said Moscow expects OPCW’s investigation to be impartial.

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Trump to skip White House Correspondents dinner for 2nd time

April 6 (UPI) — President Donald Trump has decided again to skip what has traditionally been one of the year’s most humorous events in Washington, D.C. — the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the organization said Friday.

Trump chose not to attend last year’s event, his first in office, and became the first president since Ronald Reagan to decline the invitation.

Reagan skipped the 1981 event because he was recovering from an assassination attempt. He did, however, telephone well wishes and a few jokes during the dinner.

“The White House has informed us that the president does not plan to participate in this year’s dinner but he will actively encourage members of his executive branch to attend,” WHCA President Margaret Talev said Friday.

Talev said Trump’s press officer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, instead will represent the White House at the head table.

The dinner, an annual feature in Washington since 1921, is billed as a celebration of the First Amendment. It includes acknowledgement of award-winning reporting and the presentation of journalism scholarships.

Traditionally, the event is attended by the president and vice president — and typically features self-satirizing skits and speeches. The WHCA is an organization of journalists assigned to cover the president of the United States.

Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush appeared alongside impersonators, with Obama’s serving as his “anger translator.”

Trump had told a New York City radio station Friday he probably would not attend this year’s dinner.

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Poisoned Russian spy Skripal no longer critical, 'improving rapidly'

April 6 (UPI) — Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, who was attacked with a nerve agent in Britain last month, is now “improving rapidly,” officials said Friday.

An update on Skripal’s condition came one day after his daughter, Yulia Skripal, said she also is improving by the day.

“He is responding well to treatment, improving rapidly and is no longer in a critical condition,” Christine Blanshard, medical director at Salisbury District Hospital, said in a statement.

Britain, the United States and other nations have blamed Russia for the attack, while the Kremlin has denied responsibility. The row has inflamed tensions and led to the expulsions of diplomats from a number of countries.

British scientists said this week they can’t prove Russia definitively manufactured the nerve agent used to poison the Skripals.

The Russian Embassy in Britain again denied involvement in a tweet about Skripal’s progress.

“We welcome the news of progress in Sergei Skripal’s recovery,” it said. “We are grateful to the medical staff treating him and his daughter Yulia and wish them to get well soon.”

“We hope the improvement of Sergei and Yulia Skripal’s health will contribute to the investigation of the crime perpetrated against them. We are confident that an objective probe will ultimately establish that the claims against Russia by U.K. government are null and void,” it added.

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'Affluenza teen' Ethan Couch released from jail

April 2 (UPI) — A Texas man responsible for the deaths of four people in a drunk-driving accident five years ago was released from jail Monday, after serving two years.

Ethan Couch, dubbed the “Affluenza Teen” in news media for his defense’s argument, was released from a jail in Texas.

“Couch will now serve the remaining six years of his period of community supervision under the terms and conditions imposed by the court,” Couch attorneys Scott Brown and Reagan Wynn said in a statement. “From the beginning, Ethan has admitted his conduct, accepted responsibility for his actions, and felt true remorse for the terrible consequences of those actions.

“Now, nearly five years after this horrific event, Ethan does not wish to draw attention to himself and requests privacy so he may focus on successfully completing his community supervision and going forward as a law-abiding citizen.”

Couch, now 20, was given a 720-day sentence for violating his probation conditions set after the deadly 2013 accident.

Couch’s case gained national attention after a psychologist testified the then-16-year old’s inability to know right from wrong was a product of his affluent upbringing and irresponsible lifestyle.

Couch had a blood-alcohol content three times Texas’ legal limit when he hit two vehicles parked on the side of the road and a group of people standing nearby. He killed four and injured nine, including two passengers in his own truck.

The teen was sentenced to 10 years probation and was ordered to stay away from drugs and alcohol.

Couch fled to Mexico with his mother after a video surfaced supposedly showing him drinking at a party, a possible parole violation. Couch and his mother, Tonya Couch, were ultimately found in Puerto Vallarta after a two-week search.

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Boeing awarded $1.1B for Super Hornets for Kuwait

April 2 (UPI) — Boeing was awarded a contract from the U.S. Navy for production and services on F/A-18 Super Hornet variants for the government of Kuwait.

The deal, announced Friday by the Department of Defense, is valued at more than $ 1.165 billion under the terms of an undefinitized contract action.

The agreement enables Boeing to provide engineering services, along with radar warning receivers and aircraft armament equipment for the production and delivery of 22 F/A-18E Hornets and 6 F/A-18F Super Hornets.

Work on the contract will occur in multiple locations in the United States and is expected to be complete in September 2022.

More than $ 275.8 million will be obligated to Boeing at time of award from foreign military sales funds, the Department of Defense said.

The Pentagon says that none of the obligated funds will expire at the end of the current fiscal year.

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Judge allows emoluments lawsuit against Trump to proceed

March 28 (UPI) — A judge allowed a case against President Donald Trump, accusing him of profiting from his Washington hotel while president, to proceed on Wednesday.

U.S. District Court Judge Peter Messitte rejected a Justice Department request to dismiss the case, in which the plaintiffs argue that Trump is violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause by earning profits from the Trump International Hotel.

Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution states, in part, that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” Critics say Trump is violating the clause and presenting a conflict of interest by not divesting himself of his businesses, including the Washington, D.C., hotel.

Watchdogs insist that Trump is violating the Constitution whenever his hotels or golf courses receive a payment from a foreign government. The ruling is a setback for Trump, who broke with precedent after his 2016 election by refusing to divest his businesses. He instead placed his assets in a trust, controlled by his two adult sons.

Messitte, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, sided with the attorneys general of Maryland and Washington, D.C., who argued that the suit has merit, and they have standing to sue, because other local hotels must compete with Trump’s hotel.

“A large number of Maryland and District of Columbia residents are being affected and will continue to be affected when foreign and state governments choose to stay, host events, or dine at the Hotel rather than at comparable Maryland or District of Columbia establishments, in whole or in substantial part simply because of the president’s association with it,” Messitte wrote in his ruling.

The Justice Department may still seek to have the case rejected on other grounds.

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