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Russian Counteroffensive 'Likely Under Way' in Eastern Ukraine, State Department Says


iStockphoto/Thinkstock(DONETSK, Ukraine) -- Recent Russian activity in eastern Ukraine is concerning to the U.S. State Department, spokesperson Jen Psaki said on Wednesday.

Psaki mentioned the presence of Russian troops pushing into Ukraine, recent reports of shelling towns near the border and heavy fighting near the Donetsk Airport during Wednesday's briefing. "These incursion -- incursions -- indicate a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely under way in Donetsk and Luhansk. Clearly, that is of deep concern to us," Psaki said.

The U.S. is also worried that Russia is "sending its young men into Ukraine," according to Psaki, "but...are not telling them where they're going or telling their parents what they're doing."

"These are not steps that, certainly, you take when you are operating in a transparent manner," Psaki said of the Russian activity.

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USAID Pledges Additional $5 Million to Combat Spread of Ebola


iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. Agency for International Development on Wednesday pledged an additional $5 million to help fight the continuing outbreak of Ebola in West Africa.

In total, USAID has committed approximately $19.6 million since the outbreak began in March. Jeremy Konyndyk, director of USAID's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, said in Monrovia, Liberia, on Wednesday that "it will take a coordinated effort by the entire intentional community to contain the spread of Ebola." The U.S. has worked closely thus far with the World Health Organization and the governments of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria, the countries impacted by the disease.

Also on Wednesday, the World Health Organization confirmed that the disease has spread to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

USAID funding will be used to provide equipment and supplies as well as training for additional health care workers. The most recent shipment from USAID to Liberia included 16 tons of medical supplies and emergency equipment.

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New Ebola Outbreak Emerges in Congo


iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Two dozen suspected Ebola cases have emerged hundreds of miles from West Africa in what health officials are calling a second “unrelated” outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The virus has already killed more than 1,427 people in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, according to the World Health Organization.

In fact, nearly half of all Ebola deaths recorded since the virus's discovery in 1976 have occurred in the last five months, according to WHO data.

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UN Details War Crimes in Syria


iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- In ISIS controlled territory, Friday is the day for public beheadings and amputations for people who violate its strict Islamic rule, and whippings for women if their clothing offends ISIS' sense of propriety.

In some areas under ISIS rule, children as young as 10 are being recruited and trained as fighters for the group.

The grim picture of life under the Islamic group was described by a United Nations report that accused the group as well as other fighters in Syria of carrying out war crimes. While the Syrian regime and other militias were also suspected of violations, the U.N. report singled out ISIS for its alarming and at times ghoulish policies.

"In areas of Syria under ISIS control, particularly in the north and northeast of the country, Fridays are regularly marked by executions, amputations and lashings in public squares," the report said.

The punishments are carried out in a manner to maximize the psychological impact.

"Civilians, including children, are urged to watch. Bodies of those killed are placed on display for several days, terrorizing the local population," according to the U.N. report.

Women and children are particularly vulnerable to ISIS enforcers.

"Women have been lashed for not abiding by ISIS’s dress code. In Ar-Raqqah, children as young as 10 are being recruited and trained at ISIS camps," the report states. It also found that journalists and other media workers are targeted.

"Members of ISIS have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity ... including acts of torture, murder, enforced disappearances and forcible displacement," the report states.

ISIS has galvanized international opposition with its brutal threats to Kurds, Christians and Yazidis, ordering them to convert or be killed, and the U.N. said it "poses a clear and present danger to civilians, and particularly minorities, under its control in Syria and in the region."

The report was based on 480 interviews as well as documentary material. Combining the brutality of ISIS with that of Syrian government and other militias in the Syrian civil war, the U.N. report said it "chronicles the unimaginable brutality and human cost of the Syrian conflict."

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Thousands of Wasps Found Nesting in UK Home


John Birkett, Longwood Services Pest Control(LONDON) -- A home in the U.K. was invaded by a monstrous colony of wasps, and the infestation was like a scene out of a 1960s Hitchcock movie, a local pest controller said.

"I couldn't believe my eyes," John Birkett, an employee at Longwood Services Pest Control, told ABC News on Wednesday, referring to the nest of an estimated 5,000 wasps. "It was like the horror film Birds but [with] wasps."

Birkett said he got a call from the homeowner’s son on Sunday about a nest that had taken over a bed in a spare bedroom in the home in Worchester, Hampshire. The colony was devouring the bedding.

In more than 40 years of working in the pest control business, Birkett said this was the largest nest he had ever seen.

"I got dressed up looking like Batman and Robin and went into the little tiny bedroom. I was spraying them left right and center," Birkett said.

After two hours of swatting and spraying, Birkett said he was able to get rid of the wasps and even salvage the crocheted blanket they were nesting on.

The nest had grown so large because the family rarely uses the room on the second floor of their five-bedroom home, he said.

The wasps snuck in through an open window and used the bed as their home for nearly three months, chewing through eight inches of the mattress and two pillows, according to Birkett.

The family most likely didn’t hear the wasps accumulating because they are silent while nesting, he said.

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Mother of American Hostage Pleads with ISIS 'Caliph' for Mercy


Obtained by ABC News(NEW YORK) -- The mother of an American writer being held hostage by ISIS pleaded directly with the leader of the Iraqi terror group in a new video, begging him to “please, release my child.”

“As a mother, I ask you justice be merciful and not [to] punish my son for matters he has no control over,” Shirley Sotloff says, speaking directly to the camera in the new video and addressing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the “caliph.” “I ask you to use your authority to spare his life.”

“I want what every mother wants, to live to see their children’s children. I plead with you to grant me this,” Shirley Sotloff says.

The new video appeared Wednesday on the Middle Eastern news outlet Al Arabiya and was obtained by ABC News.

Freelance reporter Steven Sotloff, 31, was last seen alive at the end of the disturbing video, which showed the beheading of American journalist James Foley. The black-hooded ISIS militant in the video spoke directly to President Obama, calling on him to end American airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq.

“The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” the masked man says, holding Sotloff by the collar of his shirt.

Despite the shocking video and strongly-worded message from Sotloff’s captors, the U.S. has not yet halted the air strikes.

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Russian and Ukrainian President Discuss Crisis in Eastern Ukraine


iStock/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) -- Amid news that 10 Russian paratroopers had been captured in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met for the first time since the conflict between the two countries began last winter.

Neither side spoke about what happened during the two-hour session following an economic summit in Minsk although Putin told reporters beforehand that both he and his Ukrainian counterpart feel that hostilities can't be solved militarily.

Putin's press secretary also mentioned that the president would bring up the "Ukrainian domestic crisis and the terrible humanitarian disaster in the east of the country, as well as the need for a ceasefire."

Poroshenko has accused Moscow of both encouraging and supplying separatists with arms in eastern Ukraine's bid to join the Russian Federation. The crisis was spurred by the ousting of Ukraine's pro-Russian president last February and the decision by Crimea to secede from the central government in Kiev.

Since then, more than 2,000 deaths have been reported with hundreds of thousands of people displaced as the Ukraine military has stepped up attacks on rebels in the east.

Adding to the tensions was the capture Monday of Russian paratroopers near the Russian border in the Donetsk region. They were seen being interrogated on a website.

The Russian government said the soldiers accidentally strayed into Ukrainian territory while Kiev accused them of being on "a mission."

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Family Finds 10-Foot Python in Their Home


BananaStock/Thinkstock(MIDLAND, Ontario) -- For weeks Rachel Leck and Stephen Sagar feared their family's home was being haunted.

They came to this conclusion after finding that objects had been moved from their original positions. Other items, including wine glasses and decorations, had been knocked over.

Sagar told CTV he and his wife thought there was a ghost in their home in Midland, Ontario.

The reality turned out to be not so supernatural but no less scary: a very large snake had taken up residence.

Rachel Leck and her son, Xavier, 10, eventually spotted the uninvited guest near the sofa.

"I saw it because it was dangling down as I was about to sit down on the couch," Leck said. "I jumped up, grabbed my kid and ran out of the house screaming."

It was the snake -- a 10-foot long reticulated python -- that had been knocking over items in the home. The reticulated python is the longest snake in the world. It can grow up to 30 feet in length and 300 pounds.

Police and animal control officers came to the home and removed the reptile.

Police found the owner of the python -- a neighbor of Leck and Sagar -- and discovered he had a second snake -- an anaconda -- in his home. The man was cooperative and received a $100 fine for owning exotic pets, which is illegal, police said.

Both snakes were released to a local zoo.

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American Jihadi Killed in Syria Fighting, White House Says


iStockphoto/Thinkstock(ALEPPO, Syria) --  A Chicago-born jihadist has been killed while fighting in Syria, the White House said Tuesday -- purportedly for the terrorist group ISIS.

Douglas McArthur McCain, a 33-year-old rapper, was among several ISIS militants the Free Syrian Army claimed on Twitter had been killed over the weekend in fighting for the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo. Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, said the administration was “aware” McCain was in Syria and “can confirm” his death.

“We continue to use every tool we possess to disrupt and dissuade individuals from traveling abroad for violent jihad and to track and engage those who return,” Hayden said.

The McCain family had been notified of the death by the State Department Monday, CNN reported. Jen Psaki, a State Department spokesperson, declined to comment on the matter earlier Tuesday “out of respect for the family,” telling reporters, “There’s typically a process that needs to be gone through before any confirmation can be made.”

"I really don’t understand why and how and I have no words," says a Facebook post by Lisa Roland, who identifies herself as McCain’s sister. "I never thought this will be the way we say goodbye… This is absolutely unreal to me I love you big brother."

McCain was born in Chicago, and spent many years in Minnesota before moving to San Diego, according to public records. More than a decade ago, McCain shared a Minnesota home address with a classmate, Troy Kastigar. A young man by the same name reportedly was killed in 2009 in Somalia while fighting with an al-Qaeda group there.

“If you guys only knew how much fun we have over here – This is the real Disneyland. Come here and join us,” Kastigar said in a recruitment video for the terror group al-Shabab before his death. On Facebook in 2013, McCain paid tribute to Kastigar.

A Twitter feed attributed to McCain says that he converted to Islam a decade ago, which he called the “best thing that ever happened to [him].” In June, the account retweeted another ISIS supporter who said, “It takes a warrior to understand a warrior. Pray for ISIS.”

NBC News first reported McCain’s purported death in the conflict, citing the FSA as well as pictures posted on Twitter that appear to show McCain after he was killed. The FSA tweet claimed two Americans had been killed in the same bout of fighting, but the second American has not been identified.

McCain is not the first American to die in the brutal fighting in Syria. U.S. officials say Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha blew himself up in a coordinated suicide attack in Syria in May. Abu-Salha was reportedly fighting for al-Nusra, a rival rebel group to ISIS.

More troubling to U.S. officials, Abu-Salha was able to return to the U.S. for months after receiving training in Syria, before he went back to the front lines.

U.S. and European security officials have been sounding the alarm for months over their citizens traveling to the conflict in Syria and Iraq, receiving terror training and potentially returning home to wreak havoc. U.S. officials have estimated more than 12,000 foreign fighters have joined extremist groups in Syria, some 100 of them Americans.


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Israel Accepts Cease-Fire Plan to End War Against Hamas


iStock/Thinkstock(JERUSALEM) -- After 50 days of fighting in Gaza, both Israel and Hamas have agreed to a new open-ended cease-fire that began at noon eastern time on Tuesday.

Shortly after the truce began at 7 p.m. local time, a number of rockets were fired onto Southern Israel, but now the attacks have stopped and Israeli is holding its fire.

The strongest indication that this conflict may have finally ended is the reaction on the streets of Gaza -- thousands of Palestinians have poured into the streets, singing, and waving flags, celebrating what Hamas is calling its "victory."  

At the State Department, spokesperson Jen Psaki says the United States "strongly supports" the move.

"We call on all parties to fully and completely comply with its terms," Psaki said. "We hope very much that this ceasefire will prove to be durable and sustainable. That it will put an end to rocket and mortar attacks and that it help to bring about an enduring end to the conflict."

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UK Police Ask Public to Help Identify Potential Homegrown Terrorists


iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(LONDON) -- Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley of the Metropolitan Police Service in London said on Tuesday that there have been five times as many terrorism-related arrests made in the U.K. in 2014 than at this point last year.

In an appeal to the public to "help identify aspiring terrorists" who may be traveling abroad, returning, or "showing signs of becoming radicalised," Rowley referenced the death of American journalist James Foley -- the video of which was posted on the Internet earlier this month -- noting the apparent British nationality of Foley's killer.

The MPS is working to identify individuals who may be susceptible to radicalization and also hopes to have extremist material removed from the Internet when found.

In addition to the terror arrests, high-priority operations -- particularly those involving potential attack plans -- have "increased greatly," while port stops and cash seizures have jumped by about 50 percent, Rowley said.

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Pentagon Confirms Incident Between US Coast Guard and Iranian Fishing Boat


Digital Vision/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby confirmed on Tuesday that the U.S. Coast Guard had fired a single shot at a small Iranian fishing boat.

Kirby said at Tuesday's briefing that the Iranian boat, a small dhow, had been the subject of a brief incident. The crew of a U.S. Coast Guard boat, which regularly patrols the Persian Gulf, spotted the dhow, and saw a "machine gun or small arms weapon" pointed at the Coast Guard boat, Kirby said.

The Coast Guard then fired a single shot at the dhow in response. Kirby could not confirm whether the shot was a warning shot or if it hit the vessel, but said that the Iranian boat "pulled away" and that "nobody was hurt."

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US Military Conducts Two More Airstrikes Against ISIS in Iraq


iStockphoto/Thinkstock(ERBIL, Iraq) -- U.S. military forces conducted a pair of airstrikes against militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on Tuesday, bringing the total number of strikes in Iraq since Aug. 8 to 98.

The strikes were confirmed by U.S. Central Command on Tuesday evening. Centcom says that the two strikes utilized attack aircraft and destroyed two of ISIS' armed vehicles and damaged a third.

The latest strikes were part of the ongoing effort to support Iraqi security forces and Kurdish defense forces. Centcom also says that the strike also served to protect critical infrastructure, U.S. personnel and facilities.

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Hagel Announces Increased International Aid to Kurdish Forces in Iraq


iStockphoto/Thinkstock(BAGHDAD, Iraq) -- On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that a number of nations, in addition to the U.S., will commit to providing aid to Kurdish forces in need of arms and equipment in the battle against militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Hagel commissioned a working group about two weeks ago in an effort to resupply the Kurdish forces in northern Iraq. Among the foreign nations now committed to supplying aid are Albania, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Italy, France and the United Kingdom.

Operations involving aid from those seven nations "have already begun," Hagel said Tuesday, "and will accelerate in the coming days with more nations also expected to contribute."

Hagel also praised "the determination of the Iraqi people and the international community to counter the threat posed by [ISIS]."

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ISIS Demands $6.6M Ransom for 26-Year-Old American Woman


iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A third American hostage held by ISIS has been identified as a 26-year-old American woman who was kidnapped a year ago while doing humanitarian relief work in Syria. The terror group is demanding $6.6 million and the release of U.S. prisoners for the life of the young woman, who the family requested not be identified.

She is the third of at least four Americans who were known to be held by ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. American journalist James Foley was executed by the group in a video that appeared online last week. Another writer, Steven Sotloff, was seen alive but under duress in the same footage.

In addition to the multi-million dollar ransom, the terror group has also demanded that the U.S. release Aafia Siddiqui, an MIT-trained neuroscientist who was convicted by the U.S. in 2010 of trying to kill U.S. officials two years before, according to a supporter of Siddiqui who has been in contact with the hostage’s family.

Siddiqui’s release has been a regular demand of groups critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, but on Monday, Siddiqui’s family spoke out through supporters to say they were “very distraught” Siddiqui’s name was invoked with the ransom request and sought to distance themselves from ISIS.

“If the issue is true, we would like to state that our family does not have any connections to such groups or actions,” reads a letter written by Siddiqui’s family. “We believe in a struggle that is peaceful and dignified. Associating Aafia’s name with acts of violence is against everything we are struggling for.”

“While we deeply appreciate the sincere feelings of those who, like us, wish to see the freedom of our beloved Aafia, we cannot agree with a ‘by any means necessary’ approach to Aafia’s freedom. Nor can we accept that someone else’s daughter or sister suffer like Aafia is suffering,” the letter says.

The Siddiqui family has been “traumatized by the thoughts that someone else could be harmed in the name of Aafia,” said Mauri Saalakhan of the Peace and Justice Foundation, who held a sparsely attended press conference Monday and spoke on behalf of the Siddiqui family.

“They’re opposed to it. In their letter to ISIS they made it very clear, this is not the way, these are not the conditions under which we want our loved ones released,” Saalakhan said. “Nor did they want harm to come to anyone else’s loved one in the name of Aafia…They conveyed that message loud and clear.

“The most important message that I could convey to ISIS or whoever it is that’s holding these innocent people captive abroad is that at the end of the day, this type of approach in response to an injustice that you feel, is not only not the inappropriate way to go, but, properly understood, it is a violation of the tenets of the faith that we claim to believe in,” he said. “We just have to do the right thing because it is the right thing, without any strings attached. And the right thing would be to let this young woman go back to her family, go back to her life. And the right thing for America to do, for our government… would be to do the same with Dr. Aafia Siddiqui.”

The details of the ISIS ransom demand and the abduction of the young aid worker were disclosed by Saalakhan and a close friend of the unnamed hostage family in statements to ABC News Monday.

Each of the three known surviving American hostages in ISIS’ hands have been threatened with death since Foley’s execution, sources have told ABC News. In the video that showed Foley’s death, a masked militant said that Sotloff’s fate rested in President Obama’s hands -- an apparent demand that the U.S. stop airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq.

The day after Foley’s execution video emerged online, the U.S. military announced it had continued bombing runs against ISIS in Iraq and overnight, The New York Times reported President Obama has approved surveillance flights over Syria, what the paper called a potential precursor to airstrikes there.

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