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Death Toll From Nepal Plane Crash Rises To At Least 67

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At least 67 people were confirmed dead Sunday after a plane with 72 on board crashed in Nepal, police said, in the Himalayan country’s worst aviation disaster in three decades.

Those on board the ATR 72 twin-engine turboprop aircraft that plummeted into a steep gorge, smashed into pieces and burst into flames in the central city of Pokhara included six children, officials said.

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As light faded late Sunday and soldiers extracted bodies with ropes and stretchers out of the 300-metre-deep (1,000-foot) ravine, there was no word on the fate of the five people still unaccounted for.

“We are actively working to retrieve and identify the bodies as soon as possible and hand (them) over to their families,” police official AK Chhetri told AFP at the crash site, which was still smouldering and strewn with aircraft debris, including the mangled remains of wings and passenger seats.

A local official had earlier said that “some survivors” had been taken to hospital, but this was not confirmed by the aircraft’s operator Yeti Airlines or other officials.

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Yeti spokesman Sudarshan Bartaula told AFP that 15 foreigners were on board, including five Indians, four Russians and two South Koreans, with one passenger each from Argentina, Australia, France and Ireland. The rest were Nepalis.

– ‘Like a bomb’ –
The flight from Kathmandu slammed into the gorge between Pokhara’s domestic and brand new international airport on Sunday, shortly before 11:00 am (0515 GMT).

An unverified clip shared on social media purportedly showed the plane flying low over a residential area before banking sharply to the left, followed by a loud explosion.

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“I was walking when I heard a loud blast like a bomb went off,” said witness Arun Tamu, 44, who was around 500 metres (yards) away and who posted live video of the blazing wreckage on social media.

“A few of us rushed to see if we can rescue anybody. I saw at least two women were breathing. The fire was getting very intense and it made it difficult for us to approach closer,” the former soldier told AFP.

It was unclear if anyone on the ground was injured.

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Rescue workers rushed to the site littered with debris, trying to put out several raging fires that were sending thick black smoke billowing into the sky.

– Poor record –
Nepal’s air industry has boomed in recent years, carrying goods and people between hard-to-reach areas, as well as ferrying foreign mountain climbers.

But it has been plagued by poor safety due to insufficient training and maintenance. The European Union has banned all Nepali carriers from its airspace over safety concerns.

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The Himalayan country also has some of the world’s most remote and tricky runways, flanked by snow-capped peaks with approaches that pose a challenge for even accomplished pilots.

The weather is also notoriously capricious and hard to forecast, particularly in the mountains, where thick fog can suddenly obscure whole mountains from view.

Last May, all 22 people on board a plane operated by Nepali carrier Tara Air — 16 Nepalis, four Indians and two Germans — died when it crashed.

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Air traffic control lost contact with that twin-propeller Twin Otter shortly after it took off from Pokhara and headed for Jomsom, a popular trekking destination.

Its wreckage was found a day later, strewn across a mountainside at around 4,400 metres (14,500 feet) above sea level.

After that crash, authorities tightened regulations, with planes to only be cleared to fly if there was favourable weather forecast throughout the route.

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Nepal’s deadliest aviation accident was in 1992, when all 167 people aboard a Pakistan International Airlines plane died when it crashed on approach to Kathmandu.

Just two months earlier, a Thai Airways aircraft had crashed near the same airport, killing 113 people.

AFP

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Foreign

US will act on China after balloon downing – Biden

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President Joe Biden vowed Tuesday he would not hesitate to defend United State interests against China after he ordered the downing of a suspected surveillance balloon but, delivering his State of the Union address, kept the door open to cooperation.

In the annual speech to assembled lawmakers, many of whom have pressed for a hard line on China, Biden called for US investment in the military, technology and alliances to take on the country widely viewed as the chief US competitor.

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“I’m committed to working with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world,” Biden said.

“But make no mistake about it — as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did,” he said to applause.

Biden said that “winning the competition” with China should unite Americans.

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“I will make no apologies that we are investing to make America stronger — investing in American innovation, in industries that will define the future that China intends to be dominating.”

But Biden steered clear of hawkish language as he mentioned by name his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, whom he met at length in November in Indonesia.

Biden said he told Xi that “we seek competition, not conflict.”

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China was one of the few foreign policy issues mentioned by Biden in a more than one-hour speech that comes as he prepares for a likely run for a second term.

He also promised long-term support for Ukraine but made no mention of Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, North Korea or this week’s devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria.

– Pentagon says China rejected talks –

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A US fighter jet on Saturday shot down what the Pentagon called a Chinese surveillance balloon after it crossed into the Atlantic Ocean, with the military saying it waited until a point when the debris could not hurt people on the ground.

The episode led US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to postpone a visit to Beijing aimed at reducing tensions as he accused China of violating US sovereignty.

Blinken said that he sought to maintain communication with China. But at the Pentagon, a spokesman said that China rebuffed a request to speak.

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin requested a secure call with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe immediately after the shootdown, Brigadier General Pat Ryder said.

“Unfortunately, the PRC has declined our request. Our commitment to open lines of communication will continue,” Ryder said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

China says the balloon was an errant weather observation aircraft with no military purpose. But Washington has described it as a sophisticated high-altitude spying vehicle which reportedly traversed over several top-secret military sites.

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Austin and Wei met in Cambodia in November as Washington and Beijing sought to lower the temperature after a visit to Taiwan by then-speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that enraged China.

General Glen VanHerck, head of the US Northern Command, said a naval ship would map the debris field left by the balloon, which is expected to measure about 1,500 by 1,500 meters (yards) in the Atlantic.

The balloon itself was up to 200 feet (60 meters) tall and carried a payload weighing several thousand pounds that were roughly the size of a regional jet aircraft, he said.

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VanHerck said the balloon debris would be carefully studied.

“I don’t know where the debris is going to go for a final analysis, but I will tell you that certainly, the intel community along with the law enforcement community that works this under counterintelligence will take a good look at it,” he said.

AFP

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Mother dies after giving birth under earthquake rubble in Syria

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By Francesca Iwambe

A pregnant woman who was trapped under the earthquake rubble in Syria has been delivered of her baby.

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In a video on Tuesday, a man was seen bringing the baby out while another man threw a dusty blanket in the direction of the baby.

Sadly, the mother of the child has reportedly lost her life.

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Google To Release ChatGPT-Like Bot Named Bard

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Google said Monday it will release a conversational chatbot named Bard, setting up an artificial intelligence showdown with Microsoft which has invested billions in the creators of ChatGPT, a language app that convincingly mimics human writing.

ChatGPT, created by San Francisco company OpenAI, has caused a sensation for its ability to write essays, poems or programming code on demand within seconds, sparking widespread fears of cheating or of entire professions becoming obsolete.

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Microsoft announced last month that it was backing OpenAI and has begun to integrate ChatGPT features into its Teams platform, with expectations that it will adapt the app to its Office suite and Bing search engine.

The potential inclusion in Bing turned the focus on Google and speculation that the company’s world-dominating search engine could face unprecedented competition from an AI-powered rival.

Media reports said the overnight success of ChatGPT was designated a “code red” threat at Google with founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page — who left several years ago — pulled back in to brainstorm ideas and fast-track a response.

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The pressure to act was heightened by the poor earnings posted last week by Google-parent Alphabet, which fell short of investor expectations. The company last month announced that it was laying off 12,000 people as it put more emphasis on AI projects.

Google’s announcement came on the eve of an AI-related launch event by Microsoft, further that the two tech giants will do battle over the technology, also known as generative AI.

“Generative AI is a game changer and much like the rise of the internet sank the networking giants that came before (AOL, CompuServe etc.) it has the potential to change the competitive dynamic for search and information,” said independent tech analyst Rob Enderle.

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“Google still largely lives off the fact their search engine is the most widely used, this could change that relegating them to history,” he added.

‘High-quality responses’
In his blog post on Monday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that Google’s Bard conversational AI was to go out for testing with a plan to make it more widely available to the public “in the coming weeks.”

Google’s Bard is based on LaMDA, the firm’s Language Model for Dialogue Applications system, and has been in development for several years.

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“Bard seeks to combine the breadth of the world’s knowledge with the power, intelligence, and creativity of our large language models,” Pichai said, referring to the technology behind ChatGPT-like AI.

“It draws on information from the web to provide fresh, high-quality responses,” he added.

Before the emergence of ChatGPT, which was released in late November, Google had been reluctant to launch its own language-based AI fearing the reputational risk of releasing technology that wasn’t ready.

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Pichai insisted that responses churned out by Bard would “meet a high bar for quality, safety and groundedness in real world information.”

And much like ChatGPT, Bard would also use a limited version of its base language model in order to reduce computing power and reach a wider audience.

Crucially for its looming duel with Microsoft, Google also said that users would soon see AI-powered features in its search engine.

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New-style responses would “distill complex information and multiple perspectives into easy-to-digest formats,” Pichai said.

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