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Three American Contractors Killed in Shooting at Afghanistan Airport

MatthewBrosseau/iStock/Thinkstock(KABUL, Afghanistan) -- Three American contractors were killed in a shooting incident at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Thursday that may have involved an Afghan security officer at the airport, U.S. military officials said.

“We can confirm that there was a shooting incident at North Kabul International Airport complex 29 January at approximately 6:40 p.m. [local time]," according to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. "Three coalition contractors were killed as was an Afghan local national."

The three contractors were Americans, a U.S. official said, noting that the shooter was wearing the uniform of an Afghan national policeman, but it was unclear if he was actually a member of the Afghan security forces or not.

The incident is under investigation, the official said, adding that it is also unclear if the Afghan listed as a fatality is someone other than the shooter who was shot dead by the security team at the airport.

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Weather Causes Course Change for Record-Seeking Balloon Pilots

Tsuyoshi Ogushi/Two Eagles Balloon Team(NEW YORK) -- On Thursday afternoon, the pilots aboard a gas balloon seeking to set records for distance and duration traveled while crossing the Pacific changed their strategy and their course by deciding to fly over Baja, Mexico, instead of Vancouver, Canada.

Pilots Leonid Tiukhtyaev and Troy Bradley remain on pace to set both of the records they targeted, but shifted course due to "changes in the weather pattern," a release said. The new course had been an option earlier, but was rejected due to concerns about storms in the area.

The release says that had they taken the southern route initially, they would have run into difficult weather. Now, however, after having taken a "detour" north, they anticipate good weather coming along the Mexican coast.

The two pilots are in "good shape" but are "understandably getting tired after nearly five days in the air," the release noted.

The pair initially set out to surpass the current records of 5,208 miles traveled and 137 hours and five minutes in the air.

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On Camera: Man Armed with Fake Gun Takes Over TV Studio, Surrenders to Police

Photo by Michel Porro/Getty Images(AMSTERDAM) --  A Dutch TV camera kept rolling as an armed man who had apparently stormed a television station paced back and forth, with what looked like a silenced pistol in hand, before surrendering to police.

The video, posted online by the Dutch outlet NOS shortly after the incident, shows the young man in a suit speaking to someone off camera for several minutes before police can be heard entering the room and yelling at the man. He calmly drops his weapon and police take him into custody.

Police in the Netherlands later said that the gun was fake.

Earlier NOS had reported that its newsroom had been evacuated. The man had demanded airtime, the station said. No shots were reportedly fired.

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British Fighter Jets Scrambled After Russian Planes Identified Near UK Airspace

Andy_Oxley/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(LONDON) -- British fighter jets were scrambled on Wednesday after Russian aircraft were identified flying near United Kingdom airspace.

Long-range search radar detected two unidentified jets flying in international airspace near the U.K. on Wednesday. The Royal Air Force says it scrambled Typhoon fighter jets from bases in Lossiemouth and Coningsby to intercept the Russian aircraft.

The British aircraft were directed into position to identify and escort  the Russian planes through the region. At no point did the Russian jets cross into U.K. sovereign airspace.

The Russian Embassy in London said Thursday that Russian Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko was summoned to the British Foreign and Commonwealth office to discuss the incident. The embassy says that the U.K. expressed concerns over the disruption to civil aviation caused by the incident, while the Russian side said their crafts were on "routine air patrol duty."

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US Military Classifies Information About Afghanistan's Troops

Scott Olson/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Citing security concerns, the U.S. military in Afghanistan has now deemed as classified specific statistics about Afghanistan’s security forces that for years it routinely provided for public release to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan says providing that kind of information could help the Taliban in planning attacks and creates security risks for the 10,600 U.S. troops serving as trainers in Afghanistan.

For six years, the SIGAR has produced regular reports that track the progress of the $65 billion the United States has spent to build Afghanistan’s infrastructure, development and security forces. Those reports have included information about the Afghan security forces such as troop numbers, attrition rates, salaries, training and equipment.

The latest quarterly report released on Thursday includes that information in a classified appendix available only to government officials with a high enough security clearance.

"I am deeply concerned with the implications of this sudden classification decision and have raised it with the appropriate officials," said John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.

Gen. John Campbell, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, explained his decision to classify the information in a letter to Sopko.

He wrote that while he could not comment “upon the precise reason why certain information was considered unclassified in the past, I can advise that given the risks that continue to exist to our forces and those of Afghanistan, I have directed that sensitive operational information or related materials, that could be used by those who threaten the force, or Afghan forces, be classified at an appropriate level.”

He added, “With lives literally on the line, I am sure that you can join me in recognizing that we must be careful to avoid providing sensitive information to those that threaten our forces and Afghan forces, particularly information that can be used by such opposing forces to sharpen their attacks.”

The 10,600 American troops remain in Afghanistan as part of a two-year training mission known as Resolute Support. U.S. troops will remain on their bases to continue training Afghan security forces though a portion of them are Special Operations forces able to conduct counter terrorism missions when needed.

Campbell wrote that he fully supports SIGAR’s role, “However, I am compelled to also protect the lives of those individuals who could be put at risk by the release of sensitive information."

According to SIGAR, Campbell’s command provided classified or restricted responses to 140 questions including some seeking definitions for the terms “unavailable” and “present for duty.”

Among other things it also sought the total amount of funding the U.S. has spent on food for the Afghan Army and on the salaries for Afghan National Police that came from a specially created fund.

Beginning in 2009, the Pentagon began providing twice a year reports mandated by Congress that tracked the overall security situation in Afghanistan as well as the progress of Afghan security forces. Those publicly available reports included similar information that had been provided publicly to SIGAR in the past.

However, the last of those reports was released in October with the pending end of the combat mission in Afghanistan in December.

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Mayor Lowers Death Toll to 2 in Mexico City Gas Explosion at Children's Hospital

iStock/Thinkstoc(MEXICO CITY) — A gas tank truck explosion collapsed large parts of a Mexico City children's hospital Thursday, leaving at least two reported dead and dozens more injured or believed trapped.

Earlier, officials including Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera and Fausto Lugo, the head of Mexico City Civil Protection, reported that seven people had been killed. They later revised the number down to two dead in the explosion and aftermath.

The explosion led to the collapse of 30 percent of the hospital building, according to Mayor Mancera.

Borough chief Adrian Rubalcava posted dramatic photographs of the scene on Twitter just after the explosion and called for more ambulances to help transport the injured to other hospitals. 

La situación está grave! Los servicios de emergencia locales y federales continúan trabajando en el punto!

— Adrián Rubalcava (@AdrianRubalcava) January 29, 2015

Rubalcava also posted pictures that appeared to show rescue teams with dogs arriving at the site of the explosion. 

El equipo de venteo, bomberos, personal militar, policía federal, Gobierno seguimos trabajando en el punto!

— Adrián Rubalcava (@AdrianRubalcava) January 29, 2015

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'Sunset' Deadline Looms for ISIS Prisoner Swap

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — As the shadows grow longer in the Middle East, the deadline for a prisoner swap that could save the life of a Japanese journalist in the hands of the terror group ISIS is fast approaching Thursday.

In an audio message uploaded online late Wednesday, allegedly made by captive Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, Goto says that if al Qaeda convict Sajida al-Rishawi “is not ready for exchange for my life at the Turkish border by Thursday sunset” then another hostage, Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, “will be killed immediately.” The recording refers to sunset in Mosul, Iraq, meaning mid-morning east coast time.

Earlier Wednesday Jordan’s government had said it would go through with a prisoner swap with the terror group ISIS in order to get its captured pilot back, but Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said then that the government has not received proof that al-Kaseasbeh is still alive. Goto’s message did not say the Jordanian pilot would be freed in the newly-proposed arrangement. Al-Kaseasbeh was captured by ISIS last December after his aircraft was shot down.

Al-Rishawi, the Iraqi woman ISIS is bent on freeing, has been on death row in Jordan since she confessed to her role as a would-be suicide bomber in a string of al Qaeda attacks in Jordan in 2005 that killed dozens.

Prior to reports of Jordan’s willingness to accept the trade, Middle East expert Jon Alterman told ABC News that by asking for, and potentially gaining al-Rishawi’s release, ISIS is attempting to bolster its long-held goal of being seen as a proper nation-state on a geopolitical scale.

“What it represents is ISIS again trying to act like a real country. It’s a small group of outlaws trying to engage in governments,” Alterman, head of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Tuesday.

ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has publicly beheaded dozens of captives, including a handful of Western journalists and aid workers, sometimes after making demands of their governments.

The Japanese hostage Goto was not mentioned in statements made by Jordanian officials about a potential deal Wednesday, despite comments overnight from top Japanese officials that they are working closely with Jordan to find ways to free both hostages.

“Please save Kenji’s life,” Goto’s mother said in her own video, released Tuesday. “Kenji has only a little time left.”

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Russian ‘Spy’ Arrested in NYC Denies Charges, Report Says

fotokon/iStock/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) -- A Manhattan banker who the U.S. says was really a secret agent for the Russian government “vehemently denies” the charges against him, according to a Russian report.

Evgeny Buryakov, who worked at the Russian bank Vnesheconombank, was arrested Monday and accused of being a “non-official cover” agent of the Russian foreign intelligence outfit SVR.

The Russian outlet TASS reported Thursday that Russian officials had been granted a consular visit to Buryakov in detention in New York.

A spokesperson for the Russian consulate general quoted by TASS said Buryakov “hopes that the lawyers, being currently selected by Vnesheconombank, will rebut unfounded and false accusations against him.” One of Buryakov’s lawyers confirmed the visit to ABC News.

Buryakov was arrested as part of an alleged spy ring that involved two other individuals, identified as Igor Sporyshev and Victor Podobnny, who had worked in the U.S. with a Russian trade delegation and with Russia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, respectively. The U.S. Department of Justice said those men were also undercover SVR agents, though they were not arrested because they were protected by diplomatic immunity and no longer live in the U.S.

Unlike Sporyshev and Podobnny, who had “official” covers,” as a “non-official cover” agent, or NOC, Buryakov operated in the U.S. under the guise of a private citizen.

“[I]n many cases, [NOCs] are never identified as intelligence agents by the host government,” court documents say. “As a result, a NOC is an extremely valuable intelligence asset for the SVR.”

The trio allegedly worked for Directorate ER and were tasked with stealing economic information from the U.S., including information about potential U.S.-led sanctions against Russia.

TASS itself was also embroiled in the spy scandal after court documents revealed that the Russian agents had been ordered to feed questions to an unidentified news organization for an upcoming interview. An official with knowledge of the case told ABC News the outlet was TASS, which a former CIA analyst said was long-known during the Cold War for working closely with Soviet intelligence.

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AirAsia Flight 8501: Co-Pilot Was Flying Plane at Time of Crash, Officials Say

iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(JAKARTA, Indonesia) — The AirAsia jet that crashed into the Java Sea in December, killing all 162 people on board, was being piloted by the plane’s co-pilot, not its captain, Indonesian officials said at a Thursday press briefing.

According to the National Transportation Committee chief investigator, Mardjono SiswoSumarno, French national Remi Emmanuel Plesel was in control of the plane while Capt. Iriyanto, who uses one name monitored the flight, as suggested on the cockpit’s voice recording.

Siswosuwarno said the plane was struggling to recover as stall warnings sounded until the end of the recording.

Radar data showed the plane was climbing at an abnormally high rate -- 3,000 feet in 30 seconds -- prior to the crash, before stalling and plunging into the Java Sea, authorities have said.

More than 70 victims’ bodies have been recovered from the wreckage of AirAsia Flight 8501. Earlier this week, Indonesia’s military halted its recovery efforts, including attempts to locate more bodies and raise the fuselage from the sea.

The Indonesian Search and Rescue Agency, however, is continuing to look for victims with its own ships and helicopters.

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Malaysia Officially Declares MH370 Disappearance an Accident

(KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia) — Malaysia has officially declared the disappearance of MH370 an accident, with the plane’s passengers and crew presumed dead, the country’s Department of Civil Aviation director-general said in a recorded statement carried on Malaysian television Thursday.

The declaration fulfills a legal obligation that will allow efforts to proceed with compensation claims -- but also marks a somber development for relatives of the plane’s passengers and crew, who’ve waited nearly 11 months for answers into the plane’s fate.

Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said the underwater search for the plane, which went missing 327 days ago, is ongoing, covering more than 7,000 square miles so far.

“With the heaviest heart and the deepest sorrow…we officially declare Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 an accident,” he said.

“It is nonetheless important that families try to resume normal lives, or as normal a life as may be possible after this sudden loss,” he said. “Without in any way intending to diminish the feelings of the families, it is hoped that this declaration will enable the families to obtain the assistance they need, in particular through the compensation process.”

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 was carrying 239 people, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, when it disappeared off radar after midnight on March 8. Authorities believe that the plane turned west and crossed Malaysia and then headed south, flying until its fuel was exhausted and crashing somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.

Search crews have scoured the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca, the Andaman Sea and southern Indian Ocean, but no physical evidence from the plane has emerged.

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Skull May Solve Mystery of First Humans in Europe

binagel/iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- A 55,000-year-old human skull discovered in Israel is offering new clues about when the first humans may have migrated to Europe.

The partial skull fragment, which is believed to be female, was excavated from a cave in western Galilea in the Middle East. Using shape analysis, scientists said the skull is similar to both recent African skulls from the time period and some European upper paleolithic fossils.

The finding sheds new light on when early humans left Africa and migrated through the Middle East before colonizing Europe.

It is believed to be the first proof of humans living in the Levant region during that time, according to findings published in the journal Nature. The Levant region is the area in the Middle East that encompasses modern-day countries including Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria.

While the skull fragment does not include facial features, scientists wrote that it is "unequivocally modern." The discovery supports the belief that modern humans (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthals may have lived side by side in the Levant around the time interbreeding is believed to have occurred.

Neanderthal remains have previously been excavated from areas near the cave also dating back to around the same time period.

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Thailand Tourists Get 'Massaged' by Three-Ton Elephants

MattiaATH/iStock/Thinkstock(CHIANG MAI, Thailand) -- Intense fear isn't an emotion typically associated with a massage. But then again, the masseuse isn't typically a three-ton elephant.

Tourists in Thailand -- a destination perhaps better known for illicit massages than animal ones -- can get the kinks worked out at an elephant camp in Chiang Mai. A mahout -- or elephant handler -- leads the elephant to the tourist and stands by.

The masseurs weigh thousands of pounds and use their feet and trunks to administer the pampering to visitors who lie on the ground, face down, with a towel on their backs.

The towel is not likely to offer much protection in the event the elephant decides to crush the guest; presumably it's there to keep clothes clean.

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Videos Capture US Nuclear Physicist Offering ‘Venezuelan Spy’ Nuke Info

Department of Justice(WASHINGTON) -- New videos released by the Department of Justice Wednesday show a former American nuclear physicist covertly meeting with a man who he believed to be a Venezuelan intelligence officer in order to sell his expertise, as well as classified information, to the South American nation.

“This is very dangerous and I am doing it for money…I am, I told you, I’m not an American anymore,” Pedro Mascheroni says in one of the videos, which was actually recorded as part of a government sting.

Mascheroni, who once worked in the X-Division of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1980s, was arrested in 2010 and accused of conspiracy to transmit restricted and classified data and attempting to “participate in the development of an atomic weapon.”

In 2013, he pleaded guilty to several of the counts involving transmitting restricted information and making false statements to federal agents. Mascheroni attempted to withdraw his guilty plea last summer, but the court denied the motion.

“[The] defendant’s aims were never noble, or part of some selfless journey that he had undertaken for the greater good of his fellow citizens,” the U.S. government wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “Rather, his actions were criminal to their core.”

The Department of Justice on Wednesday released several video clips of Mascheroni’s meetings with an undercover FBI agent posing as a Venezuelan intelligence officer. In one from 2008, Mascheroni says Venezuela could test a nuclear bomb in the Pacific.

“Everybody sees it. You don’t kill anybody. Now you tell the United States, ‘Not only do we have this, but we have [these] other designs…You have to come up and say to the other nations, ‘We are going to be, we’re going to have an umbrella for everybody. If any nation outside Latin America attacks any nation inside Latin America, we are going to retaliate with a nuclear bomb,” he says, according to court documents.

Mascherino is a naturalized American citizen from Argentina, according to court documents.

In response to the government’s stinging sentencing memorandum, Mascheroni’s defense argued that he was something of a mad scientist “entrapped” by the government.

“Anyone who has spent time with Dr. Mascheroni knows that he is completely and hopelessly obsessed with correcting the errors he perceives in the National Laboratories’ pursuit of nuclear fusion energy. This obsession has controlled his life since he lost his security clearance in 1988. Providing Dr. Mascheroni with a willing, receptive, well-funded, and non-critical audience for his scientific theories was the functional equivalent of providing crack to a cocaine addict,” the defense said in a motion last week.

Mascheroni’s wife, who also worked at LANL, pleaded guilty in 2013 to conspiracy and false statements.

Neither the Venezuelan government, nor any Venezuelan officials, were accused of any wrongdoing in the case.

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Amnesty International Claims Nigerian Authorities Failed to Act to Protect Civilians from Boko Haram Attacks

Pawel Gaul/iStock/Thinkstock(BAGA, Nigeria) -- Amnesty International claims that Nigerian authorities were warned of impending attacks by militant group Boko Haram and failed to take action to protect civilians.

Amnesty's Africa Director Netsanet Belay said in a statement on Wednesday that "Nigeria's military leadership woefully and repeatedly failed in their duty to protect civilians of Baga and Monguno despite repeated warnings about an impending threat posed by Boko Haram." He further called the attacks "an urgent wake-up call for the Nigerian leadership, the African Union and the international community."

According to Amnesty, Nigerian authorities "have a responsibility to take all feasible measures to protect the civilian population, including by assisting with an evacuation of those who wished to flee and transporting them to safer areas." The organization also claims the authorities "have a responsibility to inform civilians of risks and dangers."

Earlier this month, Boko Haram captured the town of Monguno and attack Maiduguri and Konduga, Amnesty says.

Amnesty has previously released satellite images showing thousands of structures damaged or destroyed in Baga following a Boko Haram attack.

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Cuban President Raul Castro Warns Normalization of Relations with US Not Possible While Blockade in Effect

RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Cuban President Raul Castro spoke at a meeting of the Community of Latin American & Caribbean States in Costa Rica on Wednesday.

Castro warned that normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States will not be possible while the U.S. blockade on Cuba remains in effect. Calling the blockade a violation of international law, Castro said that it causes large-scale damage to Cuba and must be ended.

He also said that the U.S. must return the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay.

The Cuban president said in his speech that President Obama could use his executive powers to modify the blockade without the approval of Congress.

Earlier this week, Raul's brother and former Cuban President Fidel Castro wrote a letter to communist newspaper Granma saying that he did not trust U.S. politics, and that while he supported his brother's actions in approaching the U.S. for a warming of the relations between the two nations, he had not spoken a word to U.S. officials.

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