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Cost of US Airstrikes Targeting ISIS Surpasses $1 Billion

pablographix/iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The cost of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria has surpassed $1 billion, the Pentagon said Friday.

The U.S. has been conducting airstrikes targeting ISIS in Iraq since Aug. 8. Strikes in Syria began in September.

The Pentagon said Friday that the total cost of operations has reached $1.02 billion as of Dec. 11. The average daily cost is $8.1 million.

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These American Fugitives May Be Hiding Out in Cuba

FBI(NEW YORK) -- Former prisoner Alan Gross was thrilled to return to America from Cuba earlier this week but there are dozens of other Americans who are in the country for other reasons -- and probably don't plan on leaving.

Cuba has been a haven for American fugitives for decades, but now that the two countries are restoring diplomatic relations their hideout might not be an option much longer.

"We will continue to press for the return of U.S. fugitives in Cuba to pursue justice for the victims of their crimes in our engagement with the Cuban government," the Department of Justice said in a statement emailed to ABC News.

There is no official number of Americans who have fled to Cuba, but reports suggest there could be dozens.

Federal officials have publicly placed at least one fugitive, Joanne Chesimard, in Cuba. However, they did not immediately respond to requests for confirmation on the whereabouts of the other fugitives named below.

Here are some of the most notorious Americans who have been reported as possibly hiding in the island nation just 90 miles off the coast:

1. Joanne Chesimard

Joanne Chesimard has been living in Cuba under the name Assata Shakur since 1984.

She was a member of the Black Liberation Army in 1973 when she shot and killed Trooper Werner Foerster during a traffic stop. She was convicted in 1977 and escaped prison two years later.

Chesimard, who became the first woman on the FBI's Most Wanted list last year, hid in a series of safe houses in New Jersey and Pennsylvania before fleeing to Cuba.

Anyone who helps bring Chesimard, now 66, into custody stands to get $2 million in rewards, according to the FBI.

2. Guillermo Morales

A bomb maker who fought for Puerto Rican independence is one of the American fugitives who has been living in Havana.

Guillermo "William" Morales was sentenced to 99 years in prison after being linked to two explosions in New York City -- one in 1975 that killed four and injured 60, and a second in 1977 that killed one, The New York Post reported.

Morales escaped from the prison ward of Bellevue Hospital in 1979 and, though he was reportedly held in a Mexican prison for several years in relation to a different crime, he fled to Cuba after his release in 1988.

"The U.S. press looks at me one way, but the press in Puerto Rico looks at me in a positive way because I’m a person that defends their homeland," he told The Post in 1999.

3. Victor Manuel Gerena

Victor Manuel Gerena fled custody in the United States following a 1983 robbery in Connecticut.

Gerena, now 56, allegedly robbed a security company of $7 million and "took two security employees hostage at gunpoint and then handcuffed, bound and injected them with an unknown substance in order to further disable them," according to the FBI.

A representative from the New Haven branch of the FBI confirmed to ABC that Gerena is still considered a fugitive but would not comment on his suspected whereabouts.

Published reports suggest that he could be in either Mexico or Cuba.

4. Charlie Hill

Like Chesimard, who was publicly praised by Fidel Castro, not all of the fugitives are trying to hide their whereabouts.

Charlie Hill is wanted by New Mexico officials after he allegedly killed a state trooper and hijacked a plane in 1971.

Hill, a native of Illinois, spoke to The New York Times in 2007 and discussed what he thought would happen to him if his longtime protector, Castro, died.

"I don’t think there will be much change if Fidel dies," Hill told The Times in 2007. "There might be, but I think it’s 60-40 that not much will happen. If it does, well, what can I do?"

5. Ishmael LaBeet

Ishmael LaBeet reportedly has been hiding in Cuba, though his troubles stem from a different island.

LaBeet and others were charged in the murder of eight people in St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, in 1973.

According to The St. Thomas Source, LaBeet was being flown to the mainland U.S. in 1984, got control of one of the armed guards escorting him, and forced the commercial plane -- full of other passengers -- to Cuba.

After the plane landed in Cuba, LaBeet reportedly was welcomed to his new country. The plane then was allowed to fly back to the U.S.

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How Scientists Found Deepest-Ever Fish 5 Miles Down

University of Aberdeen(NEW YORK) -- An underwater voyage has found an unidentified species of fish more than 5 miles down -- deeper than any other fish has ever been found before.

The white, translucent fish, found in early December in the Mariana Trench below the Pacific Ocean, was 8,145 meters, or about five miles, below the surface, breaking the previous record of 7,700 meters set in 2011 by the pink gelatinous snailfish in the Japan Trench of the Pacific Ocean by almost 500 meters, or 1,640 feet. The species has not yet been identified.

"We're pretty confident it's a snailfish," Dr. Alan Jamieson from the Oceanlab at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland told ABC News. "Not that we know. It's a new species."

The Ocean Schmidt Institute and Oceanlab carried out the 30-day voyage on the ocean vessel, the Falkor, as part of the Hadal Ecosystem Studies (HADES), an international project funded by the National Science Foundation that explores trench and hadal ecosystems.

The Falkor, using unmanned landers, encountered the critter with two or three other new species of fish while recording 104 hours of footage at depths as low as 10,990 meters.

The fish is 20 centimeters in length, with a distinct snout similar to that of a cartoon dog. It also has long and very thin and fragile fins described as "tissue paper underwater," though scientists will not be able to identify it until a physical sample is captured, according to Jamieson.

"If you don't have a sample, a physical sample in your hand, you cannot do it," he told ABC News. "Which is why we can't do it for the fish."

Fish contain osmolyte, a protein that allows their cells to function under high pressures, allowing them to thrive at low depths. Scientists theorize that the lowest level at which a fish can survive at is 8,200 meters below the surface.

Timothy Shank, the director of the program and an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said the program hopes to capture a physical sample in the near future.

"Absolutely. No doubt," Shank said. "We put out fish traps. We put out landers that have baited traps on them. We very much want to capture these deep-sea living fish."

Other voyages in the Mariana Trench through HADES will continue, with one set in the coming weeks on the Falkor again, according to Shank. The current voyage took one physical sample of another, unidentified species of snail fish. It will take approximately one year to formally declare a name for that species.

Jamieson told ABC News that deep-sea exploration is important and necessary for learning more about fish life and the depths at which they can thrive.

"There are still things to find because we weren't expecting that," Jamieson said. "And it shows that complex animals such as fish can exist much deeper than we thought."

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Putin Opposition Leader Facing 10-Year Prison Term

Sean Gallup/Getty Images(MOSCOW) — The day after President Vladimir Putin insisted Russia was not repressing his political opponents, Putin’s biggest critic is facing a lengthy prison term. Russian prosecutors announced Friday they are seeking a 10-year prison term for opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Navalny and his brother are on trial for what he says are trumped up corruption charges aimed at silencing Putin’s opponents.
On Thursday, Putin denied there is any campaign in Russia to repress political opposition.
Navalny was the ringleader of the massive protests against Putin back in the winter of 2011. After Putin returned to the Kremlin that spring, he started to crack down on his opponents, and Navalny soon found himself in court for another charge. Navally was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, but the sentence was quickly commuted.
Navalny ran for mayor of Moscow where he won a surprising 27 percent of the vote. For the past year, however, he’s been under house arrest for this case.
In court on Friday, Navalny was defiant, saying lies are the essence of today’s Russian government.
Sentencing for Navalny is scheduled for Jan. 15.

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Kim Jong-un Invited to Russia for Victory Day Celebration

KNS/AFP/Getty Images(MOSCOW) — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been invited to Moscow, the Kremlin confirmed to Russian media.

Kim has been invited to attend the Victory Day celebration in Red Square in May, which next year will honor the 70th anniversary of the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany, TASS reported.

If he accepts, it would be Kim’s first trip abroad since taking power after his father’s death in 2011. North Korea recently declared the end to a three-year mourning period for former leader Kim Jong Il’s death.

The invitation comes as Russia and North Korea have strengthened ties over the past year, and as Russia’s relationships with the United States and Europe have become strained.

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NASA Can See Christmas Lights from Space

NASA's Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen(NEW YORK) — Those twinkling holiday lights illuminating suburban streets can even be seen from space.

Using data from a satellite run by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, researchers determined that patterns of light intensity changed during the major holidays.

In the United States, that means the lights shine brightest between Black Friday and New Year's, while in the Middle East they're most visible during Ramadan.

The data was crunched after filtering out moonlight, clouds and airborne particles, NASA scientists said.

Researchers found that light intensity increased by as much as 50 percent in suburban areas during the Christmas season, while urban areas were more illuminated by 20 to 30 percent, according to the findings, which were released on NASA's website.

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NASA's Kepler Finds New Planet Outside Our Solar System

NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle(NEW YORK) -- The Kepler space telescope has discovered a planet outside our solar system more than a year after its mission came to an end because of a technical failure.

The new "exoplanet," which means it doesn't orbit Earth's sun, is 2.5 times the diameter of the Earth. The planet is named HIP 116454b, NASA said Thursday.

Kepler's mission came to an end in May 2013 with the failure of the second of four reaction wheels, which are used to stabilize the spacecraft. But a team of scientists and engineers crafted a solution by using pressure from sunlight as a "virtual reaction wheel" to help control the spacecraft, NASA said.

"Last summer, the possibility of a scientifically productive mission for Kepler after its reaction wheel failure in its extended mission was not part of the conversation," said Paul Hertz, NASA's astrophysics division director at the agency's headquarters in Washington, in a statement. "Today, thanks to an innovative idea and lots of hard work by the NASA and Ball Aerospace team, Kepler may well deliver the first candidates for follow-up study by the James Webb Space Telescope to characterize the atmospheres of distant worlds and search for signatures of life."

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Pope Francis Celebrates Birthday by Donating 400 Sleeping Bags

iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(ROME) -- After Pope Francis got a cake and an impromptu tango flash mob for his 78th birthday Wednesday, he made sure Rome’s homeless got a gift, too -- sleeping bags emblazoned with the papal coat of arms.

The pontiff donated 400 of the sleeping bags to homeless people in the Italian capital, the Vatican said, continuing his tradition of helping the poor on his birthday.

Members of the pope’s famed Swiss Guard and volunteers handed out hundreds of the sleeping bags Wednesday evening, stopping at railway stations and an area near a cemetery frequented by the homeless.

“This is a gift for you from the pope on the occasion of his birthday,” they said as they passed out the sleeping bags, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

Pope Francis also received a gift of 800 kilograms of chicken meat for the poor.

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The Slow Process Towards ‘Normalization’ with Cuba Begins

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — President Obama's announcement Wednesday for a new chapter in diplomatic relations with Cuba is just the beginning of a slow process towards “normalization,” according to the State Department.

Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will be traveling with a team to Havana in January to discuss the details.

Jacobson says the process of restoration of diplomatic relations begins with an exchange of letters or notes stating the desire to establish ties. “It doesn't require a formal legal treaty or agreement,” says Jacobson.

To do that, the United States has to end its agreement with the Swiss government, which has protected U.S. officials in Cuba for 53 years.

Among other things, the U.S. will ease restrictions on travel and banking business, although the trade embargo with Cuba will remain in effect. The president expressed hope that trade relations will also resume, but that will take an act of Congress.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis congratulated the United States and Cuba on Thursday for agreeing to establish diplomatic ties after more than half a century of frozen relations.

The historic thaw in relations between the two countries came about after a year of secret talks in Canada that directly involved the pope.

The Vatican says Pope Francis wrote letters to Cuban President Raúl Castro and President Obama to urge them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest. Those included the situation of certain prisoners who have been released.

The Vatican said it received American and Cuban delegations to the Vatican in October, providing space for the two sides to negotiate diplomatic solutions to the decades-long standoff.

It turns out that President Obama capped off Wednesday, the day he announced the change in relations with Cuba, with a cigar.

When a guest at one of two White House Hanukkah receptions handed the cigar to Obama, he gave it a sniff.

“I had the unique distinction of gifting the president of the United States with one of Cuba’s finest cigars, a Montecristo Series at the White House...after a ceremony in which a Menorah was lit,” John Berzner told ABC News.

Berzner didn’t know that Wednesday would be a landmark day in U.S.-Cuba relations.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement tells ABC News that, technically, possession of a Cuban cigar would be a violation of federal law.  But they are quick to add that such a case would never be prosecuted because it would be near impossible to prove the origin of the tobacco, when it was imported and from where.

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Boko Haram Suspected of Kidnapping 200 Villagers in Nigeria

KNS/AFP/Getty Images(GUMSURI, Nigeria) — The Islamic militant group Boko Haram reportedly kidnapped nearly 200 Nigerian villagers and killed dozens more this week.

A witness and a local vigilante group said Thursday that the village of Gumsuri had been raided two days earlier by insurgents driving pickup trucks and firing heavy machine guns, according to the Wall Street Journal.

According to the report, one vigilante said 191 women, girls, and young boys had been kidnapped, and 31 villagers killed.

The Nigerian government said Thursday it was trying to confirm the kidnapping. “In this regard, the government has not given up and will not give up in the search and rescue efforts” for all Boko Haram captives, said government spokesman Mike Omeri.

The village of Gumsuri is on the same road that leads to Chibok, the village where Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls back in in April.

Meanwhile, a Nigerian military court on Wednesday sentenced 54 soldiers to death for mutiny after they reportedly refused to participate in an operation against Boko Haram.

Femi Falana, a human rights lawyer representing the men, said five other soldiers tried in the court-martial had been acquitted.

The convicted soldiers are to be executed by firing squad.

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Australia Police Investigating After Eight Children Found Dead

Global_Pics/iStock/Thinkstock(CAIRNS, Australia) -- Police are investigating after eight children were found dead in a home in Manoora, Australia, Friday morning.

Police were called to the home at about 11:20 a.m. local time after receiving reports of a woman with serious injuries. When they arrived at the scene, they found the children, ages 18 months to 15 years old, dead. The woman, believed to be in her 30s, was treated for her injuries and was assisting police in their investigation.

According to BBC News, police did not say whether they had made any arrests in the case.

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Obama Signs Bill Containing Russia Sanctions, Won't Implement Them Right Away

Credit: The White House(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama has signed a bill that gives him the power to impose new sanctions against Russia should he decide to do so.

A White House statement says that while Obama signed the legislation on Thursday, it "does not signal a change in the Administration's sanctions policy." That policy "has been carefully calibrated in accordance with developments on the ground and coordinated with our allies and partners," the statement continues.

"At this time," it concludes, "the Administration does not intend to impose sanctions under this law, but the Act gives the Administration additional authorities that could be utilized if circumstances warranted."

Obama again called for Russia to "end its occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea, cease support to separatists in eastern Ukraine, and implement the obligations it signed up to under the Minsk agreements."

The U.S. hopes to foster a lasting, diplomatic solution, though the legislation authorizes both lethal and non-lethal assistance for Ukraine. President Obama would have the opportunity to decide what assistance would be sent.

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Three Senior ISIS Leaders Killed in US Airstrikes in Iraq

Stocktrek Images/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Three senior ISIS leaders have been killed in recent weeks by U.S. airstrikes inside Iraq, including the terror group’s right-hand man, the Pentagon confirmed.

The news comes as the American commander leading the U.S. effort against ISIS in Iraq and Syria says coalition efforts are having a “significant impact” on the terror group’s operations.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disclosed the strikes against the ISIS leaders in an interview Thursday with the Wall Street Journal.

“It is disruptive to their planning and command and control,” Gen. Dempsey said. “These are high-value targets, senior leadership.”

“I can confirm that since mid-November, targeted coalition airstrikes successfully killed multiple senior and mid-level leaders within the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL),” said Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby, who used another name for ISIS.

“We believe that the loss of these key leaders degrades ISIL's ability to command and control current operations against Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), including Kurdish and other local forces in Iraq,” said Kirby.

U.S. officials said that among the two ISIS leaders killed in early December was Haji Mutazz, who is described as a “deputy wali” or “governor.” They describe Mutazz as being the right-hand man to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.

Also killed in December was Abd al Basit, whom the officials described as the head of ISIS military operations in Iraq.

Another strike in late November also resulted in the death of Radwin Talib, who is described as having been the wali, or governor, in Mosul.

One official said that the targeting of senior-level leaders is being done to set the conditions for an eventual Iraqi military offensive into Mosul. U.S. officials have said that the Mosul offensive could occur late in 2015, though the Iraqi military seems intent on a faster timeline.

Lt. Gen. James Terry, the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing that the U.S. and its coalition partners have conducted 1,361 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

“Combined efforts like these are having a significant effect on Daesh's ability to command and control, to resupply, and to conduct maneuvering,” said Terry.

Terry said that ISIS “has been halted and transitioned to the defense and is attempting to hold what they currently have.” He would not provide a timeline for a potential Iraqi counterattack in Mosul, but said in the meantime Iraq’s military will conduct local counteroffensives.

On Tuesday, the Kurdish Peshmerga launched a counteroffensive in northwestern Iraq to retake areas near Sinjar and Zumar. The coalition has launched 53 airstrikes since Tuesday night in support of the Kurdish operation that Terry said had led to the seizure of 100 square kilometers of territory.

The U.S and five Arab nations have also conducted hundreds of airstrikes inside Syria, namely the city of Kobani along the border with Turkey. The airstrikes in that city have blunted an ISIS offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters.

At a congressional hearing last week, Brett McGurk, one of the administration’s point men in building the coalition against ISIS, said the airstrikes there have “resulted in nearly 1,000 ISIL fighters killed, including many leaders.”

“We will continue to be persistent in this regard and we will strike Daesh at every possible opportunity,” said Terry, who used the Arabic term to describe the ISIS acronym.

Terry explained that Gulf allies have asked the United States to refer to the group by this Arabic term because the English variant legitimizes “a self-declared caliphate." The general said “Daesh” also sounds like another word “that means to crush underneath the foot.”

Terry said there have now been 53 airstrikes since Tuesday to support the Peshmerga effort to retake Sinjar and Zumar, with Kurdish forces having retaken 100 square kilometers of territory.

He said that so far his forces have not had to investigate reports of civilian casualties from the airstrikes. He noted that targeting from the air requires a lot of work because of the negative impact a strike on civilian casualties could have on the operation.

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Companies Suspend Sales, Shipments Due to Falling Value of Russian Ruble

blinow61/iStock/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) -- Following this week's drop in the value of the ruble, numerous companies are taking action to avoid losing money in sales in Russia.

IKEA Russia said Thursday that it would suspend sales of kitchen furniture and appliances until Saturday. The company cited a large number of orders and the need to update prices throughout the store.

Meanwhile, automakers including Audi, General Motors and Jaguar/Land Rover have suspended shipments to Russia for the same reason.

The ruble dropped violently earlier this week; at one point on Tuesday it had fallen about 20 percent, despite attempts from the Russian central bank to prop it up by raising interest rates.

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Pope Francis Congratulates Developments in US-Cuba Relations

iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(ROME) -- Pope Francis congratulated the United States and Cuba on Thursday for agreeing to establish diplomatic ties after more than half a century of frozen relations.

The historic thaw in relations between the two countries came about after a year of secret talks in Canada that directly involved the pope.

The Vatican says Pope Francis wrote letters to Cuban President Raúl Castro and President Obama to urge them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest. Those included the situation of certain prisoners.

The Vatican said it received American and Cuban delegations to the Vatican in October, providing space for the two sides to negotiate diplomatic solutions to the decades-long stand off.

The Vatican added that it will continue to provide support for both countries as they move toward strengthening their ties.

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