First Thing: US and UK withdraw families from Ukraine embassies | US news


Good morning.

As fears of a Russian invasion are heightening in Ukraine, the US and UK are withdrawing diplomats’ families.

The US state department told the dependents of staffers at its embassy in Kyiv that they must leave the country. It also said non-essential embassy staff could leave Ukraine at government expense. The EU has said their dependents will stay put for now.

US officials said the embassy would remain open and Sunday’s announcement did not constitute an evacuation. The move had been under consideration for some time and did not reflect an easing of US support for Ukraine, they said.

  • What’s happening in Ukraine? There are rising tensions about Russia’s military buildup on the Ukraine border that have not been eased during talks between the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva.

  • What has the US embassy said? “Military action by Russia could come at any time,” a statement said. Officials “will not be in a position to evacuate American citizens in such a contingency, so US citizens currently present in Ukraine should plan accordingly”, it added.

Stormy Daniels and lawyer to face off at trial over allegations he defrauded her

Stormy Daniels and her then attorney Michael Avenatti in New York, 2018.
Stormy Daniels and her then attorney Michael Avenatti in New York, 2018. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP

Stormy Daniels, the porn actor who catapulted herself and the lawyer Michael Avenatti to fame with lawsuits against Donald Trump, will have a starring role in a court in Manhattan when prosecutors try to prove the attorney cheated her of $300,000 in book proceeds.

Daniels’ testimony in the federal court will be pivotal for prosecutors trying to prove Avenatti engaged in wire fraud and aggravated identity theft to keep from giving his client money he had received from her publisher.

Opening statements are to be made on Monday. Daniels is not expected to testify until Tuesday, at the earliest.

Avenatti has pleaded not guilty to the charges in what will be his third criminal trial in two years.

  • What has the once popular lawyer said? After his arrest, Avenatti stated in Twitter posts that no money related to Daniels was ever misappropriated or mishandled and that he mostly worked unpaid for Daniels with an agreement that he would receive a proportion of any book proceeds. He said he looked “forward to a jury hearing the evidence”.

How Tonga’s volcano and tsunami disaster unfolded

Destroyed buildings after the tsunami in Tonga.
Destroyed buildings after the tsunami in Tonga. Photograph: EyePress News/REX/Shutterstock

Tonga has previously been hit by several natural disasters but residents have never experienced anything like the last week.

On Saturday 15 January, at 5.10pm local time, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai undersea volcano erupted in a blast 600 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It could be felt as far as away as New Zealand and Alaska, and triggered a tsunami.

“We’ve experienced tropical cyclones but this is so new and no one will ever forget this, ever,” said Marian Kupu, a journalist for BroadCom Broadcasting FM87.5 in Tonga. “We didn’t know what to do or what to expect.”

There had been signs that something was wrong. All summer there was a stench of sulphur in the air across Tonga, signalling that the undersea volcano, which lies about 65km north-west of the country’s capital of Nuku’alofa, was active. There had been small eruptions, and on the Friday, the day before the eruption and tsunami, the water in Nuku’alofa’s harbor was spinning in eddies and whirlpools, something no one had seen before.

  • How many people have died? So far, three people have been reported dead in Tonga as a result of the tsunami, while two others drowned in Peru after abnormally big waves from the blast reached the coast of South America.

In other news …

A Moms for Liberty chapter in Tennessee with what they say is an inappropriate book for school students.
A Moms for Liberty chapter in Tennessee with what they say is an inappropriate book for school students. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters
  • Conservative groups across the US, often linked to deep-pocketed rightwing donors, are waging a campaign to ban books from school libraries, often focussed on works that address race, LGBTQ issues or marginalized communities. Librarians and teachers warn the trend is on the increase.

  • The trial of three former police officers involved in the George Floyd murder begins today. Tou Thao, J Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane face their turn in the courtroom after the former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd.

  • A senior French surgeon faces legal action after attempting to sell an X-ray of a victim shot during the Bataclan attack in Paris. The item was on sale for about $2,776 on the OpenSea website, which specializes in so-called NFT digital images. The surgeon, Emmanuel Masmejean, says the attempted sale was a mistake.

  • The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, is facing calls to launch an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the Tory party after the former minister Nusrat Ghani said she was told her “Muslimness” was making colleagues uncomfortable.

Stat of the day: More than 31,500 cases of Covid among nursing home residents

A nursing home in New York
A nursing home in New York. There were more than 31,500 cases among nursing home residents in the week ending 9 January. Photograph: Yuki Iwamura/AP

Covid cases are rising rapidly among US nursing home residents and staff, causing shortages in admissions, exacerbating bed shortages at hospitals, and in some cases requiring the national guard to be called in. There were more than 31,500 cases among nursing home residents in the week ending 9 January, nearly as many as last winter’s peak, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Cases among staff are even higher – more than double last year’s highest record, with more than 57,000 confirmed cases in the week of 9 January, a tenfold increase in three weeks.

Don’t miss this: Ozark’s Jason Bateman on Arrested Development, smiling villains and his lost decade

Jason Bateman
‘In a drama, I’m not the person with a knife, I’m the person getting chased,’ Jason Bateman says. Photograph: Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP

Forty years after his breakthrough role in Little House on the Prairie, Jason Bateman is thrilling TV audiences as a drug cartel money launderer. But he almost threw his career away by indulging in all-night booze and drug binges in the 90s. “Having thought, ‘This is really fun’, and staying at the party a little bit too long, I’d lost my place in line in the business; it was a case of trying to claw that back towards the end of the 90s, and not getting a lot of great responses.”

Climate check: the climate crisis could pose a greater threat to Nepal’s rhinos than poaching

The one-horned rhinoceros in Nepal’s Chitwan national park.
The one-horned rhinoceros in Nepal’s Chitwan national park. Photograph: Sergi Reboredo/Alamy

Before the 1950s, as many as 1,000 rhinos roamed the grasslands and forests of Nepal. But by 1965, rampant hunting, poaching and changes in land use brought the species close to extinction in the country. The national park was established in 1973 and thanks to concerted conservation efforts the rhino population began to bounce back. But a new threat has emerged.

Last Thing: Maryland man found dead amid collection of more than 125 snakes

A large snake
The reptiles were removed in the county animal control department’s largest rescue operation. Photograph: Christopher Bellette/Alamy

Police officers called to a Maryland residence by a concerned neighbour found a 49-year-old man dead – and surrounded by more than 125 venomous and non-venomous snakes held in tanks on racks. The discovery by Charles county sheriff’s deputies and emergency responders at the house in Pomfret became even more bizarre when they established that none of the reptiles, including a 4.3-metre (14ft) Burmese python, had escaped or were slithering free.

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