With Bonfires, Hope, Iran’s Minority Zoroastrians Mark Sadeh Holiday

TEHRAN, Iran — Lighting fires that brightened the night sky, followers of Iran’s minority Zoroastrian religion marked the Sadeh festival in several cities Tuesday, celebrating the end of the coldest winter days.

Every year on January 30, Zoroastrians gather after sunset to celebrate the 50 days and 50 nights remaining until spring. Sadah, which means “the 100,” is an ancient feast from when the religion was the dominant faith in the powerful Persian empire, which collapsed after the Arab invasion in the 7th century.

On the southwestern outskirts of Tehran, several Zoroastrian priests and priestesses, dressed in white from head-to-toe to symbolize purity, led young followers to light a giant bonfire in a joyful ceremony.

Around the fire, people listened to bands and theological lectures as they milled about while eating and celebrating.

In a rare move, the Islamic Republic’s air force band played the national anthem, among other tunes, to the excitement of the attendees.

Iran’s 85 million population is mostly Shiite Muslim. The country has been ruled by hardline clerics who preach a strict version of Islam since the 1979 Islamic revolution. They discourage people from following pre-Islamic feasts and traditions.

Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion that predates Christianity and Islam. It was founded 3,800 years ago by the prophet Zoroaster. It stresses good deeds, and fire plays a central role in worship as a symbol of truth and the spirit of God. Zoroastrians stress they are not fire worshippers but see fire as a symbol of righteousness.

Alongside other minorities, including Christians and Jews, they have one representative in parliament, Esfandiar Ekhtiari.

During Tuesday’s ceremny, Ekhtiari said the celebration belongs to everyone and is a symbol of “felicity, respect to humanity and nature as well as human beings.”

In 2023, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognized Sadeh for its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity from Iran and Tajikistan.

Although they have common elements, such as lighting fire, the Sadeh festival is different from Nowruz, which marks the Persian new year.

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Remote Washington State Town Becomes Hub for EV Battery Production

Moses Lake, Washington — It’s mid-winter in east Washington state, yet despite the chilly fog, two construction sites in the town of Moses Lake are brimming with activity. Several hundred workers are on an ambitious timeline to complete two new factories slanted to begin production of the next-generation components for electric vehicle batteries later this year.

Two American start-ups, backed by $100 million in federal grants each, in addition to commercial partnerships, are racing to secure the domestic supply chain with the next-generation battery materials for EV automakers.

“That’s going to go into everything from electric vehicles to IoT [Internet of Things] devices to smartphones and wearables and a lot of battery-based applications that we don’t even know exist yet,” explains Nik Anderson, director of program management with Group 14 Technologies, as he walks through the company’s vast construction site.

Washington is one of the American states planning to ban sales of new gasoline-powered vehicles starting in 2035.

For now, electric cars account for 8.6% of new vehicle sales in the United States. Affordable electric vehicles would require a significant scaling of domestic battery production, experts say. According to the Biden administration, affordable electric vehicles and reliable supply chain would require a significant scaling of domestic battery production and the national charging infrastructure.

Once fully operational, the two companies’ factories in Moses Lake will be able to annually produce enough material to make batteries for about 400,000 electric vehicles.

They also promise to produce a better battery, reducing the ‘charge anxiety’ of electric cars by replacing the graphite in conventional lithium-ion batteries with silicon-based components, which will allow for a faster charge.

“The thing that makes our battery better, that uses our SCC55 [silicon-carbon composite] versus traditional graphite, is that it can have up to 50% more energy density, it can allow for extremely fast charging,” said Grant Ray, vice president for global market strategy with Group 14.

“When we think about charge times, you know, right now we’re hearing 10% to 80% in ten minutes. Well, what if that changes and it comes down to five minutes? What if it starts to get closer to what it really is for, you know, the way we think about refueling a car?” he said.

One of the challenges for U.S. EV production with traditional lithium-ion batteries is the need to rely on imports. Daniel Schwartz, director of the Clean Energy Institute at the University of Washington, says the silicon-based component provides solutions for several challenges.

“The primary mineral for what’s going in Moses Lake is sand, silica — the most widely distributed mineral in the crust of the earth. Graphite is lower performance, and we are trade-exposed as a nation,” he said.

The Biden administration invested in domestic EV battery production as part of its ambitious clean energy agenda. Among the Republican presidential candidates, most reject the urgency surrounding EV adoption, with former President Donald Trump calling it an “all-electric car hoax.”

Last September, speaking in front of hundreds of people attending a rally in Clinton Township, Michigan, Trump called prioritizing EVs a “transition to hell,” telling auto workers that Democrats “want to go all electric and put you all out of business.”

Gene Berdichevsky, CEO of Sila Nanotechnologies, the second startup planning to start EV battery components production in Moses Lake, says the transition to electric vehicles is going to happen regardless of whether the U.S. is taking the lead in the process.

“Renewables and batteries are really going to form the basis of 21st-century energy,” he said. “It’s critical for the U.S. to build the capacity to be able to have battery production. Catching up to the world leaders in Asia is quite challenging. And so, the way to do that is not to build the same thing, it’s to build the next generation of battery technologies.”

In Moses Lake, a town of about 25,000 an hour and-a-half drive from the nearest city, all-electric cars are not a common sight. Berdichevsky is convinced that EV adoption in the area is just a matter of time.

“We have to recognize that consumers want choice, and some consumers are going to want electric cars with 500 miles (range),” he says. “What we need to do is increase the choices for folks, and the way you do that is through better batteries.”

Rosendo Alvarado, a Moses Lake native who took a job as a plant manager for Sila Nanotechnologies, says the remote town became an attractive spot for EV production thanks to the combination of several factors: cheap hydro power provided by local dams; existing manufacturing infrastructure and legacy companies, such as REC Silicon that could become a partner in the EV batteries production; and Washington state policies embracing clean energy initiatives.

The cutting-edge industry promises to bring hundreds of new jobs to Moses Lake. Alvarado says he saw the town transforming over time from traditional farming to an industrial community — and expects further change.

“We worked in the fields that this building is sitting on today,” he recalls. “It’s been fast paced, but super exciting — the opportunities that we are able to bring here for the community and for the EV market.”

He says the companies partnered with the local Columbia Basin Technical School and Big Bend Community College to start developing a new workforce as early as during high school classes.

“It’s a small, tight community. Kind of like everyone knows everyone type thing,” shrugs Nicholas Cruz, a young man out of school walking with his friend down the main street of Moses Lake, when asked about the EV projects coming to town.

“It’s gonna be exciting in the sense, like, there’s more job opportunities and new opportunities to go here because Moses Lake is small, there’s not much to it. I am not sure if it will impact me personally — I guess time will tell,” he said.

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Remote Washington Town Becomes a Hub for EV Battery Production

The Biden administration’s push for clean energy solutions has turned a rural Washington state town into a hub for electric vehicle battery production. VOA’s Natasha Mozgovaya reports from Moses Lake.

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Kimchi Consumption Grows, Thanks to K-Content, Health Claims

washington — South Korean kimchi exports hit a record high amid a global surge in the popularity of Korean culture, hitting 44,041 tons in 2023, a 7.1% increase from 42,544 tons exported in 2021. 

Kimchi, a traditional Korean dish made by fermenting cabbage or other vegetables, was exported to 92 countries from South Korea last year, with the United States and Japan being the top customers, according to BusinessKorea, a monthly magazine.  

The United States imported more than 10,000 tons of kimchi in 2023, and Japan imported more than 20,000 tons. Kimchi exports to the United States have grown significantly in the past few years, increasing from $14.8 million in 2019 to $29 million in 2022, according to The Korea Daily. 

Some experts see a connection between this rise in exports and the rising popularity of Korean entertainment content, such as K-pop and K-dramas. According to Forbes, U.S. viewership of Korean dramas rose 200% from 2019 to 2021, with TV shows like “Squid Game” topping the Netflix viewership charts in the United States.  

Others attribute the rising popularity of kimchi to its health benefits, as fermented foods expand the diversity of digestive tract microbes.  

Patrice Cunningham, founder and CEO of Tae-Gu Kimchi in Washington, spoke about the increase in popularity of kimchi in the United States. 

“Kimchi is a huge part of the Korean diet,” she said. “They eat it as a side dish with almost every meal. … In the states now, we’re kind of implementing that same style of eating.”  

Cunningham makes and distributes kimchi with her mother, selling both vegan and non-vegan varieties made from napa cabbage.  

“I always knew that my mom had a really great kimchi recipe, and I remember saying to myself for a while that I wanted to bottle it one day and sell it,” Cunningham said.  

She attends 15 to 16 farmers markets a week in the main season and has won multiple grants for her business, contributing to its growth. 

She said many of their customers focus on their “gut health … and so they buy our kimchi for that.”   

K-culture boosts popularity

Another Washington business that sells kimchi is Rice Market. Partner Sak Pollert said kimchi sales have increased significantly over the past two years.  

He said more customers come in “with recipes on their phone, looking for Korean and other Asian ingredients, too.”   

As to kimchi’s rise in popularity, particularly in the United States, Pollert said that many in Washington are world travelers already familiar with kimchi but don’t like the smell.  

“But now, they learned it’s probiotic foods that taste good and help with digestion,” he said. “It helps make other foods taste better, so they get over the smell quickly.”  

Pollert said he thinks that K-content has played an important role in bolstering kimchi’s global popularity. K-dramas “did a phenomenal job promoting kimchi and Korean food and drinks, especially soju,” a Korean grain-based alcohol.  

He noted that restaurant and dinner scenes in many K-dramas feature ajummas — Korean for married or middle-aged women — gathering around a table to gossip and make kimchi before winter.  

South Korea promotes its cuisine 

This rise in popularity of kimchi, though influenced by multiple factors, is a part of a broader plan by the South Korean government to push Korean cuisine worldwide.  

“South Korea’s government and corporations are thinking of ways to promote Korean food and profit from it,” National Public Radio’s Anthony Kuhn said in an interview with Yang Joo-Pil, an official at the South Korean Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.  

Yang said that each year, about 10 food items are chosen for product placement in popular dramas, and Korean foods are sold at K-pop concerts. 

In Washington, efforts to promote Korean food and spread Korean culture are evident in the work of the Korean Cultural Center. Last November, the center partnered with Tae-Gu Kimchi for “DC’s First Kimjang: Making and Sharing Kimchi.”  

Kimjang in Korea is an event that occurs once or twice a year “as a way for communities to collectively stock up on and share essential foods,” according to the Korean Cultural Center’s event page.  

At the kimjang event, participants had the opportunity to try kimchi over rice and make their own kimchi in a hands-on workshop. 

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Explorer May Have Found Wreckage of Amelia Earhart’s Plane in Pacific

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Oscar Nomination ‘Bittersweet,’ Says ‘20 Days in Mariupol’ Filmmaker

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African Small Businesses Turn to AI to Improve E-commerce

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development ranks Africa as the region with the lowest amount of e-commerce investment. UNCTAD says e-commerce is currently accessible to very few urban areas. An AI solution, however, aims to solve the problem. Senanu Tord reports from Accra, Ghana.

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Momaday, Pulitzer Prize Winner and Giant of Native American Literature, Dead at 89

NEW YORK — N. Scott Momaday, a Pulitzer Prize-winning storyteller, poet, educator and folklorist whose debut novel “House Made of Dawn” is widely credited as the starting point for contemporary Native American literature, has died. He was 89.

Momaday died Wednesday at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, publisher HarperCollins announced. He had been in failing health.

“Scott was an extraordinary person and an extraordinary poet and writer. He was a singular voice in American literature, and it was an honor and a privilege to work with him,” Momaday’s editor, Jennifer Civiletto, said in a statement. “His Kiowa heritage was deeply meaningful to him and he devoted much of his life to celebrating and preserving Native American culture, especially the oral tradition.”

“House Made of Dawn,” published in 1968, tells of a World War II soldier who returns home and struggles to fit back in, a story as old as war itself: In this case, home is a Native community in rural New Mexico. Much of the book was based on Momaday’s childhood in Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, and on his conflicts between the ways of his ancestors and the risks and possibilities of the outside world.

“I grew up in both worlds and straddle those worlds even now,” Momaday said in a 2019 PBS documentary. “It has made for confusion and a richness in my life.”

Despite such works as John Joseph Mathews’ 1934 release “Sundown,” novels by American Indians weren’t widely recognized at the time of “House Made of Dawn.” A New York Times reviewer, Marshall Sprague, even contended in an otherwise favorable review that “American Indians do not write novels and poetry as a rule, or teach English in top-ranking universities, either. But we cannot be patronizing. N. Scott Momaday’s book is superb in its own right.”

Like Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” Momaday’s novel was a World War II story that resonated with a generation protesting the Vietnam War. In 1969, Momaday became the first Native American to win the fiction Pulitzer, and his novel helped launch a generation of authors, including Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welch and Louise Erdrich.

His other admirers would range from the poet Joy Harjo, the country’s first Native to be named poet laureate, to the film stars Robert Redford and Jeff Bridges.

“He was a kind of literary father for a lot of us,” Harjo told The Associated Press during a telephone interview Monday. “He showed how potent and powerful language and words were in shaping our very existence.”

Over the following decades, he taught at Stanford, Princeton and Columbia universities, among other top-ranking schools, was a commentator for NPR, and lectured worldwide.

He published more than a dozen books, from “Angle of Geese and Other Poems” to the novels “The Way to Rainy Mountain” and “The Ancient Child,” and became a leading advocate for the beauty and vitality of traditional Native life.

Addressing a gathering of American Indian scholars in 1970, Momaday said, “Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves.” He championed Natives’ reverence for nature, writing that “the American Indian has a unique investment in the American landscape.” He shared stories told to him by his parents and grandparents. He regarded oral culture as the wellspring of language and storytelling, and dated American culture back not to the early English settlers, but also to ancient times, noting the procession of gods depicted in the rock art at Utah’s Barrier Canyon.

“We do not know what they mean, but we know we are involved in their meaning,” he wrote in the essay “The Native Voice in American Literature.”

“They persist through time in the imagination, and we cannot doubt that they are invested with the very essence of language, the language of story and myth and primal song. They are 2,000 years old, more or less, and they remark as closely as anything can the origin of American literature.”

In 2007, President George W. Bush presented Momaday with a National Medal of Arts “for his writings and his work that celebrate and preserve Native American art and oral tradition.” Besides his Pulitzer, his honors included an Academy of American Poets prize and, in 2019, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

Momaday was married three times, most recently to Barbara Glenn, who died in 2008. He had four daughters, one of whom, Cael, died in 2017.

He was born Navarre Scott Mammedaty, in Lawton, Oklahoma, and was a member of the Kiowa Nation. His mother was a writer, and his father an artist who once told his son, “I have never known an Indian child who couldn’t draw,” a talent Momaday demonstrably shared. His artwork, from charcoal sketches to oil paintings, were included in his books and exhibited in museums in Arizona, New Mexico and North Dakota. Audio guides to tours of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of the American Indian featured Momaday’s avuncular baritone.

After spending his teens in New Mexico, he studied political science at the University of Mexico and received a master’s and Ph.D. in English from Stanford. Momaday began as a poet, his favorite art form, and the publication of “House Made of Dawn” was an unintentional result of his early reputation. Editor Fran McCullough, of what is now HarperCollins, had met Momaday at Stanford and several years later contacted him and asked whether he would like to submit a book of poems.

Momaday did not have enough for a book, and instead gave her the first chapter of “House Made of Dawn.”

Much of his writing was set in the American West and Southwest, whether tributes to bears — the animals he most identified with — or a cycle of poems about the life of Billy the Kid, a childhood obsession. He saw writing as a way of bridging the present with the ancient past and summed up his quest in the poem “If I Could Ascend”: 

Something like a leaf lies here within me; / it wavers almost not at all, / and there is no light to see it by / that it withers upon a black field. / If it could ascend the thousand years into my mouth, / I would make a word of it at last, / and I would speak it into the silence of the sun.

In 2019, he was the subject of a PBS “American Masters” documentary in which he discussed his belief he was a reincarnation of a bear connected to the Native American origin story around Devils Tower in Wyoming. He told The Associated Press in a rare interview that the documentary allowed him to reflect on his life, saying he was humbled that writers continued to say his work has influenced them.

“I’m greatly appreciative of that, but it comes a little bit of a surprise every time I hear it,” Momaday said. “I think I have been an influence. It’s not something I take a lot of credit for.” 

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Somalia’s Traditional Archery Handed Down for Generations

In Mogadishu, the troubled capital of Somalia, elderly citizens gather every afternoon in the Bondere district for an archery contest. The activity is part of a deeper historical tradition. Jamal Ahmed Osman has more about this unique activity, in this story narrated by Kevin Enochs. Camera and video editing by Abdulkadir Zubeyr.

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Science Sleuths Are Using Technology to Find Fakery, Plagiarism in Published Research

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Revelers Pack Tampa, Florida, Waterfront for Gasparilla Pirate Fest

Tampa, Florida — Revelers clad in pirate finery packed Tampa’s waterfront this weekend as a flotilla of boats arrived for the city’s annual Gasparilla Pirate Fest.

Led by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the invading pirates docked to make a final demand for the key to the city. Once ashore, the festivities celebrating their annual invasion included a Saturday afternoon parade through downtown and live music and bead throwing that lasted well into the night.

A fixture nearly every year since 1904, the Gasparilla Pirate Fest is named for the mythical pirate Jose Gaspar. There’s not much evidence he actually existed, but according to legend he plundered ships and captured hostages in the Gulf of Mexico from the 1780s until around 1821.

The colorful account of his supposed life first surfaced in the early 1900s in an advertising brochure for the Gasparilla Inn, which was located south of Tampa in Boca Grande at the end of a rail line and in need of an exciting promotion to lure in guests.

Called the “Last of the Buccaneers,” Gaspar’s memory lives on in the name of Tampa Bay’s NFL team.

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New Orleans Thief Steals 7 King Cakes From Bakery in Very Mardi Gras Way

New Orleans, Louisiana — With their purple, gold and green colors and toy babies hidden inside, king cakes are staples of Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans, but apparently they’re also valuable enough to steal — at least this time of year during the Carnival season.

A thief stole seven king cakes — about as many as he could carry — during a break-in last week at a New Orleans bakery. The thief also took cash and a case of vodka from Bittersweet Confections last Wednesday, according to the New Orleans Police Department.

“Our king cakes are just that good,” the bakery wrote on social media. “But please come and purchase one during our regular store hours.”

While it’s a secular celebration, Carnival in New Orleans — and around the world — is strongly linked to Christian and Roman Catholic traditions. The season begins on Jan. 6, the 12th day after Christmas, and continues until Mardi Gras, known as Fat Tuesday, which is the final day of feasting, drinking and revelry before Ash Wednesday and the fasting associated with Lent.

King cakes are among the foods most associated with Carnival in New Orleans. The rings of pastry are adorned with purple, green and gold sugar or icing, and they often have a tiny plastic baby hidden inside as a prize.

One wisecracker responded to the bakery’s social media post with a tongue-in-cheek false admission that he was the thief.

“It was me. …I’m holding all seven babies hostage until I get a lifetime supply of King Cakes from you every year,” the man posted.

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Artist Who Performed Nude Sues Museum Over Sexual Assault Claims

albany, new york — A performer who appeared naked in a show by world-renowned performance artist Marina Abramovic at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art is suing the museum, saying it failed to take action after he was sexually assaulted multiple times by attendees during the performances nearly 14 years ago. 

The suit was filed in Manhattan on Monday under the New York Adult Survivors Act, a special state law that created a yearslong suspension of the usual time limit for accusers to sue. Although the law expired last year, the suit says the parties agreed to extend the window closing. 

John Bonafede alleges in the suit he was sexually assaulted by five public onlookers who attended a show he was hired by the museum to perform in as part of Abramovic’s retrospective “The Artist Is Present.” 

Email messages sent to the museum this week were not returned. Abramovic is not named as a defendant and did not immediately return a request for comment. 

The work, titled “Imponderabilia,” saw Bonafede and another performer standing face-to-face with each other in a doorway about 18 inches (45.7 centimeters) apart, fully nude, silent, and still. The exhibition, which ran from March 14, 2010, through May 31, 2010, was curated by the museum in a way that encouraged visitors to pass in between the performers as they went from one gallery to the next, the suit alleges. 

Mostly older men involved, says suit

The people who assaulted Bonafede were mostly older men, the suit says. One of the perpetrators was a corporate member of the museum, who was ultimately kicked out and revoked of his membership, according to the suit. 

During the final weeks of the exhibition, another attendee non-consensually groped Bonafede’s private areas three times before they were finally stopped by security, the suit said. 

Bonafede reported four of the individuals to the museum staff and security immediately, according to the suit, while the fifth was witnessed personally by the museum security staff. 

Female performer also assaulted, suit says

At one point, Bonafede also witnessed a public attendee sexually assault his female co-performer by kissing her on the mouth without her consent, the suit said. 

Prior to the exhibition, the performers had voiced their concerns about nude performers being subject to harassment in a letter to the museum during contract negotiations, the suit said. 

Once it began, several news outlets including The New York Times reported on the inappropriate behavior by visitors, and the sexual assaults on “Imponderabilia” were discussed within New York City’s art and performance communities, the suit says. 

Despite the museum having knowledge of the issue, it failed to take action to protect the performers and prevent further sexual assaults, such as telling visitors ahead of time that touching was not allowed, the lawsuit said. 

About a month into the exhibition, the museum created a handbook outlining protocols for the performers to alert museum staff if they felt unsafe or were inappropriately touched. 

Bonafede agreed to continue the performance after he was assaulted because of the “tough it out” culture of the exhibition, the suit says, but suffered for years from emotional distress, and his mental health, body image and career were damaged as a result. 

The Associated Press generally does not name people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they come forward publicly. Bonafede gave consent through his lawyer, Jordan Fletcher. 

Fletcher declined to comment further on the suit, but said they will be seeking a jury trial and compensatory damages. 

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Iran Launches 3 Satellites Into Space

JERUSALEM — Iran said Sunday it successfully launched three satellites into space, the latest for a program that the West says improves Tehran’s ballistic missiles.

The state-run IRNA news agency said the launch also saw the successful use of Iran’s Simorgh rocket, which has had multiple failures in the past.

The launch comes as heightened tensions grip the wider Middle East over Israel’s continued war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

While Iran has not intervened militarily in the conflict, it has faced increased pressure within its theocracy for action after a deadly Islamic State suicide bombing earlier this month and as proxy groups like Yemen’s Houthi rebels conduct attacks linked to the war.

Footage released by Iranian state television showed a nighttime launch for the Simorgh rocket. An Associated Press analysis of the footage’s details showed that it took place at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s rural Semnan province.

State TV named the launched satellites Mahda, Kayhan-2 and Hatef-1. It described the Mahda as a research satellite, while the Kayhan and the Hatef were nanosatellites focused on global positioning and communication respectively.

There have been five failed launches in a row for the Simorgh program, another satellite-carrying rocket. The Simorgh, or “Phoenix,” rocket failures have been part of a series of setbacks in recent years for Iran’s civilian space program, including fatal fires and a launchpad rocket explosion that drew the attention of former U.S. President Donald Trump.

The United States has previously said Iran’s satellite launches defy a U.N. Security Council resolution and called on Tehran to undertake no activity involving ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. U.N. sanctions related to Iran’s ballistic missile program expired last October.

The U.S. intelligence community’s 2023 worldwide threat assessment said the development of satellite launch vehicles “shortens the timeline” for Iran to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile because it uses similar technology.

The U.S. military and the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment. However, the U.S. military has quietly acknowledged a successful Iranian satellite launch from January 20 conducted by the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

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Some Mayan Ruin Sites Unreachable Because of Gangs, Land Conflicts, Mexico Says

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s government has acknowledged that at least two well-known Mayan ruin sites are unreachable by visitors because of a toxic mix of cartel violence and land disputes.

But two tourist guides in the southern state of Chiapas, near the border with Guatemala, say two other sites that the government claims are still open to visitors can only be reached by passing though drug gang checkpoints.

The explosion of drug cartel violence in Chiapas since last year has left the Yaxchilán ruin site completely cut off, the government conceded Friday.

The tour guides, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they must still work in the area, said that gunmen and checkpoints are often seen on the road to another site, Bonampak, famous for its murals.

They say that to get to yet another archaeological site, Lagartero, travelers are forced to hand over identification and cellphones at cartel checkpoints.

Meanwhile, officials concede that visitors also can’t go to the imposing, towering pyramids at Tonina, because a landowner has shut off across his land while seeking payment from the government for granting the right of way.

The cartel-related dangers are the most problematic. The two cartels warring over the area’s lucrative drug and migrant smuggling routes set up the checkpoints to detect any movement by their rivals.

Though no tourist has been harmed so far, and the government claims the sites are safe, many guides no longer take tour groups there.

“It’s as if you told me to go to the Gaza Strip, right?” said one of the guides.

“They demand your identification, to see if you’re a local resident,” he said, describing an almost permanent gang checkpoint on the road to Lagartero, a Mayan pyramid complex that is surrounded by pristine, turquoise jungle lagoons.

“They take your cellphone and demand your sign-in code, and then they look through your conversations to see if you belong to some other gang,” he said. “At any given time, a rival group could show up and start a gunbattle.”

The government seems unconcerned, and there is even anger that anyone would suggest there is a problem, in line with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s policy of playing down gang violence — even as the cartels take over more territory in Mexico.

“Bonampak and Lagartero are open to the public,” the National Institute of Anthropology and History said in a statement Friday.

“It is false, biased and irresponsible to say that these archaeological sites are in danger from drug traffickers,” added the agency, known as the INAH, which claimed it “retains control of the sites.”

Both guides stressed that the best-known Mayan ruin site in Chiapas, the imposing temple complex at Palenque, is open and perfectly safe for visitors. But starting around December, tourists have canceled about 5% of trips booked to the area, and there are fears that could grow.

Things that some tourists once enjoyed — like the more adventurous trip to ruins buried deep in the jungle, like Yaxchilán, on the banks of the Usumacinta river and reachable only by boat — are either no longer possible, or so risky that several guides have publicly announced they won’t take tourists there.

Residents of the town of Frontera Comalapa, where the boats once picked up tourists to take them to Yaxchilan, closed the road in October because of constant incursions by gunmen. 

Even the INAH admits there is no access to Yaxchilan, noting that “the institute itself has recommended at certain points that tourists not go to the archaeological site, because they could have an unsuccessful visit.” But it said that the problems there are “of a social nature” and are beyond its control.

Cartel battles started to get really bad in Chiapas in 2023, which coincides with the uptick in the number of migrants — now about a half-million annually — moving through the Darien Gap jungle from South America, through Central America and Mexico to the U.S. border.

Because many of the new wave of migrants are from Cuba, Asia and Africa, they can pay more than Central Americans, making the smuggling routes through Chiapas more valuable. The problem now seems to be beyond anyone’s control.

The National Guard — the quasi-military force that López Obrador has made the centerpiece of law enforcement in Mexico — has been pelted with stones and sticks by local residents in several towns in that region of Chiapas in recent weeks.

The other tour guide said that was because the two warring drug cartels, Sinaloa and Jalisco, often recruit or force local people to act as foot soldiers and prevent National Guard troopers from entering their towns.

In Chiapas, residents are often members of Indigenous groups like the Choles or Lacandones, both descendants of the ancient Maya. The potential damage of using them as foot soldiers in cartel fights is grim, given that some groups have either very few remaining members or are already locked in land disputes.

The guide said the ruin sites have the added disadvantage of being in jungle areas where the cartels have carved out at least four clandestine landing strips to fly drugs in from South America.

But the damages are mounting for the Indigenous residents who have come to depend on tourism.

“There are communities that sell handicrafts, that provide places to stay, boat trips, craftspeople. It affects the economy a lot,” said the first guide. “You have to remember that this is an agricultural state that has no industry, no factories, so tourism has become an economic lever, one of the few sources of work.”

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US to Announce Billions in Subsidies for Advanced Chips, WSJ Reports

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Sabalenka Overpowers Zheng to Retain Australian Open Crown

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — Aryna Sabalenka continued to be an irrepressible force at the Australian Open as she powered to a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Chinese 12th seed Zheng Qinwen on Saturday to successfully defend her title and add a second Grand Slam trophy to her cabinet. 

The Belarusian second seed has barely put a foot wrong as she became the first woman to retain the Melbourne Park crown since compatriot Victoria Azarenka in 2013. 

“It’s been an amazing couple of weeks, and I couldn’t imagine myself lifting this trophy one more time,” Sabalenka said. 

“I want to congratulate you, Qinwen, on an incredible couple of weeks here in Australia. I know it’s really tough to lose in the final, but you’re such an incredible player,” she said. “You’re such a young girl, and you’re going to make many more finals and you’re going to get it.” 

Sabalenka came into the match without dropping a set at the year’s first major. She remained perfect to join Ash Barty, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport in the elite club of players to have managed the feat since 2000. 

She unleashed monster groundstrokes to grab the final by the scruff of the neck with an early break, and thousands of Chinese supporters and millions back home watched Zheng fall behind 3-0. 

Sabalenka did not have her nation’s flags in the stands because of a ban over her country’s role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the charismatic 25-year-old has a big Melbourne fan base. She rode the Rod Laver Arena support to take the first set. 

Zheng, who had saved four set points, showed she was slowly growing in confidence in her second meeting with Sabalenka by firing up her own big forehand amid the rallying cry of “Jia You” from her compatriots in the crowd. 

The 21-year-old first-time finalist, bidding to match her idol Li Na — the Melbourne Park champion 10 years ago and first Chinese player to win a major — saw her hopes fade after two more errors on serve left her 4-1 down. 

Sabalenka shrugged off a shaky service game to close out the most one-sided final since Azarenka beat Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 in 2012. 

“It’s my first final and I’m feeling a little bit pity, but that’s how it is,” Zheng said. “I feel very complicated because I could have done better than I did in this match.” 

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