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Covering Gorbachev: AP remembers his wit, wisdom, warmth

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Covering Gorbachev: AP remembers his wit, wisdom, warmth

When news hit that Mikhail Gorbachev had died at age 91, Associated Press journalists around the world began sharing their “Gorby” stories from covering the last Soviet leader or interviewing him in Russia or abroad in the three decades that followed. They remember his temper and sense of humor, his sharp intellect even in his later years, when he was willing to talk at length about his hopes and his regrets.

That is if you could follow his long, rambling sentences in his southern Russian accent and his annoying tendency to refer to himself in the third person. For some of them, though, it was the warmth of an aging Gorbachev that they remember. The shared tea, the arm around the shoulder. Gorbachev was a man who changed the world, and the AP was there.

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Gorbachev came to power in 1985 with no less of a goal than to transform the Soviet Union and the lives of his fellow citizens, many still desperately poor. The obstacles he faced were monumental.

For AP correspondents in Moscow at the time, “it was like covering sports,” remembers Andrew Katell. “What was the score? Was the development we were reporting good or bad for Gorbachev, a win or a loss?”

It was hard for reporters in Moscow to get close enough to Gorbachev to ask those questions. When he traveled abroad, however, he was usually eager to press the flesh and talk to the press. So, when Katell was covering Gorbachev’s official trip to Madrid in 1989, he thought his chance had come.

He raised his hand repeatedly at a news conference, but was ignored. Afterward, he rushed the stage and asked the Soviet leader if he could ask one more question. Gorbachev “smiled, said nothing, extended his hand for a shake, then walked away.”

AP correspondent Brian Friedman also got the Gorbachev treatment. In summer 1992, less than a year after the Soviet Union disintegrated, Friedman trailed him as he left the Fourth of July party at the U.S. ambassador’s residence. Shorn of his security detail and big limousine, Gorbachev was carrying his suit coat over his shoulder as he walked back to a simple Volga sedan.

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“I tried to politely ask him a question about the upcoming court case the following week over the legacy of the banned Communist Party. I then extended my tape recorder to get his response,” Friedman said. “Gorbachev, the former president of the USSR, looked at me, looked at my tape recorder and said, ‘This we don’t need!’ and knocked my recorder out of my hand to the ground. He then stormed off.”

Friedman had seen a more amiable, if wistful, Gorbachev at a going-away party for his staff on Dec. 26, 1991, the day after his nationally televised address in which he announced his resignation as president.

“He held a small glass of lemon-flavored vodka. Known in his career as a teetotaler and for his anti-alcohol campaigns, Gorbachev said with a twinkle in his eye, ‘You think I can’t do it? Now I can afford to!’ And he then gulped it down.”

It was mostly the amiable Gorbachev who greeted correspondents in his years out of power.

In the early 1990s, he sent out a press release inviting journalists to a news conference at the airport before he embarked on one of his many international speaking tours. Larry Ryckman remembers that most everyone in the AP’s Moscow bureau rolled their eyes, busy with covering the emergence of a new chaotic Russia. But he was game and headed out to the airport. He was one of only a couple of journalists.

“Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, gave me a look that seemed to be a mix of gratitude that I had bothered to show up and embarrassment at the pitiful turnout,” Ryckman said. “We ended up sitting around a small table in the airport lounge chatting for a few minutes — with just Gorbachev, his wife and a couple of aides. He didn’t end up saying anything particularly newsworthy, but it’s one of my favorite memories from my time in Moscow.”

During the next few years, Gorbachev built his foundation, a think tank designed to defend his legacy, and he toured the world, often drawing huge enthusiastic crowds. At home he struggled to stay relevant.

For journalists working in Moscow, Gorbachev was of interest mainly as the anniversaries of the 1991 pivotal events rolled around. But even in August 1996, only five years after a failed coup mounted by a group of communist hardliners, the AP story quoted only two sentences from an interview with him.

“These five years have proved all that I said — that the breakup of the Soviet Union would bring grave calamity for Russia and all the other republics,” Gorbachev said. “I find myself in the role of a Cassandra.”

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His long-shot, comeback candidacy for the presidency had been crushed earlier that year. Julia Rubin, who interviewed him then, remembers him as genial and friendly, joking with the AP’s television camera operators about getting the angles right. But he was also a little testy about being sidelined politically. “He had strong opinions and still wanted to be part of the conversation” about where the countries of the former Soviet Union were headed.

He also wanted his voice heard on the dangers posed by the steadily deteriorating relations between Russia and the U.S.

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Russians called him the American Gorbachev because of his promises to bring change. Interested to hear what the real Gorbachev had to say, the AP sat down with him one evening at his foundation. And, yes, he agreed that America was ready for its own perestroika.

What interested him more was whether Obama would “muster his courage” to ease tensions with the Kremlin. Gorbachev was proud of his part in bringing an end to the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, and wanted that legacy preserved. At the end of the interview, Lynn Berry remembers that he mused about the possibility of a feature film to tell his story to coming generations. Perhaps he could be played by Leonardo DiCaprio?

“When we posed for a photograph before leaving, Gorbachev linked his arm around mine,” Berry said. “It was awkward and the picture shows my arm hanging limply by my side. Later, though, I really wished I had returned the kind gesture.”

While largely ignored in Russia, Gorbachev remained a figure of historical importance to the rest of the world. When he traveled to Berlin in 2011, David Rising leapt at the opportunity to interview him.

Gorbachev, then 80, talked animatedly about the Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. In a break with the Kremlin, he said the demonstrations seeking democratic reforms in Egypt and across the region were of “vital importance.” At the same time, he lamented the backsliding of democracy in his own country under Vladimir Putin.

“As genial as he was thoughtful, after our formal interview was over Gorbachev seemed in no hurry to wrap up, putting his arm warmly over my shoulder and continued to share his thoughts on the end of the Cold War and the current state of democracy in Russia,” Rising said.

Rising was struck that he was speaking to the last Soviet leader in an office in former East Berlin not far from where President Ronald Reagan in 1987 stood on the other side of the Berlin Wall and implored him to “tear down this wall.”

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“The privilege of talking with the man whose policies of perestroika and glasnost helped lead to the fall of that wall only two years later is one I’ll never forget,” Rising said.

The AP caught up with Gorbachev again in February 2014 in the city of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, where he was speaking at a conference. For Adam Schreck, as for Rising, this was a chance to talk to a man who had “earned a place solidly in the history books.”

The Moscow-friendly president of Ukraine had just been ousted after months of protests, which Gorbachev attributed to the president’s failure “to act democratically.” Over tea served with lemon in a darkened and ornate hotel room, Gorbachev shared his fears for Ukraine. He said the situation was “a real mess” and it was “important not to tear it apart.”

Schreck remembers thinking at the time that Gorbachev was hinting at something deeper, “that Ukraine’s future as an independent, democratic state might not be smooth. I’d return to those words on my way to Kyiv to cover the war earlier this year.”

Within days of the interview, Russia seized control of the Crimean Peninsula, helping lay the groundwork for the current conflict.

In December 2016, the 25th anniversary of the Soviet collapse, Gorbachev spoke bitterly of the West’s failure to provide vital aid in the 1990s, calling it a wasted chance to build a safer world. In a lengthy interview with the AP in Moscow, he made an urgent plea for Russia and the U.S. to work together. “Together, they could lead the world to a new path.”

By the time Russia invaded Ukraine in February of this year, Gorbachev’s health was too poor for him to tell the world what he thought.

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Israel hails ‘success’ after blocking unprecedented attack from Iran

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Israel hails ‘success’ after blocking unprecedented attack from Iran

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli leaders on Sunday credited an international military coalition with helping thwart a direct Iranian attack involving hundreds of drones and missiles, calling the coordinated response a starting point for a “strategic alliance” of regional opposition to Tehran.

But Israel’s War Cabinet met without making a decision on next steps, an official said, as a nervous world waited for any sign of further escalation of the former shadow war.

The military coalition, led by the United States, Britain and France and appearing to include a number of Middle Eastern countries, gave Israel support at a time when it finds itself isolated over its war against Hamas in Gaza. The coalition also could serve as a model for regional relations when that war ends.

“This was the first time that such a coalition worked together against the threat of Iran and its proxies in the Middle East,” said the Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari.

One unknown is which of Israel’s neighbors participated in the shooting down of the vast majority of about 350 drones and missiles Iran launched. Israeli military officials and a key War Cabinet member noted additional “partners” without naming them. When pressed, White House national security spokesman John Kirby would not name them either.

But one appeared to be Jordan, which described its action as self-defense.

“There was an assessment that there was a real danger of Iranian marches and missiles falling on Jordan, and the armed forces dealt with this danger. And if this danger came from Israel, Jordan would take the same action,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi said in an interview on Al-Mamlaka state television. U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Sunday.

The U.S. has long tried to forge a regionwide alliance against Iran as a way of integrating Israel and boosting ties with the Arab world. The effort has included the 2020 Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab countries, and having Israel in the U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and works closely with the armies of moderate Arab states.

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The U.S. had been working to establish full relations between Israel and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack sparked Israel’s war in Gaza. The war, which has claimed over 33,700 Palestinian lives, has frozen those efforts due to widespread outrage across the Arab world. But it appears that some behind-the-scenes cooperation has continued, and the White House has held out hopes of forging Israel-Saudi ties as part of a postwar plan.

Just ahead of Iran’s attack, the commander of CENTCOM, Gen. Erik Kurilla, visited Israel to map out a strategy.

Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, on Sunday thanked CENTCOM for the joint defensive effort. Both Jordan and Saudi Arabia are under the CENTCOM umbrella. While neither acknowledged involvement in intercepting Iran’s launches, the Israeli military released a map showing missiles traveling through the airspace of both nations.

“Arab countries came to the aid of Israel in stopping the attack because they understand that regional organizing is required against Iran, otherwise they will be next in line,” Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s military intelligence, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said he had spoken with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and that the cooperation “highlighted the opportunity to establish an international coalition and strategic alliance to counter the threat posed by Iran.”

The White House signaled that it hopes to build on the partnerships and urged Israel to think twice before striking Iran. U.S. officials said Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington would not participate in any offensive action against Iran.

Israel’s War Cabinet met late Sunday to discuss a possible response, but an Israeli official familiar with the talks said no decisions had been made. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing confidential deliberations.

Asked about plans for retaliation, Hagari declined to comment directly. “We are at high readiness in all fronts,” he said.

“We will build a regional coalition and collect the price from Iran, in the way and at the time that suits us,” said a key War Cabinet member, Benny Gantz.

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Iran launched the attack in response to a strike widely blamed on Israel that hit an Iranian consular building in Syria this month and killed two Iranian generals.

By Sunday morning, Iran said the attack was over, and Israel reopened its airspace. Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, claimed Iran had taught Israel a lesson and warned that “any new adventures against the interests of the Iranian nation would be met with a heavier and regretful response from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The foes have been engaged in a shadow war for years, but Sunday’s assault was the first time Iran launched a direct military assault on Israel, despite decades of enmity dating back to the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran said it targeted Israeli facilities involved in the Damascus strike, and that it told the White House early Sunday that the operation would be “minimalistic.”

But U.S. officials said Iran’s intent was to “destroy and cause casualties” and that if successful, the strikes would have caused an “uncontrollable” escalation. At one point, at least 100 ballistic missiles were in the air with just minutes of flight time to Israel, the officials said.

Israel said more than 99% of what Iran fired was intercepted, with just a few missiles getting through. An Israeli airbase sustained minor damage.

Israel has over the years established — often with the help of the U.S. — a multilayered air-defense network that includes systems capable of intercepting a variety of threats, including long-range missiles, cruise missiles, drones and short-range rockets.

That system, along with collaboration with the U.S. and others, helped thwart what could have been a far more devastating assault at a time when Israel is already deeply engaged in Gaza as well as low-level fighting on its northern border with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are backed by Iran.

While thwarting the Iranian onslaught could help restore Israel’s image after the Hamas attack in October, what the Middle East’s best-equipped army does next will be closely watched in the region and in Western capitals — especially as Israel seeks to develop the coalition it praised Sunday.

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In Washington, Biden pledged to convene allies to develop a unified response. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. would hold talks with allies. After an urgent meeting, the Group of Seven countries unanimously condemned Iran’s attack and said they stood ready to take “further measures.”

Israel and Iran have been on a collision course throughout Israel’s war in Gaza. In the Oct. 7 attack, militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, also backed by Iran, killed 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped 250 others. Israel’s offensive in Gaza has killed over 33,000 people, according to local health officials.

Hamas welcomed Iran’s attack, saying it was “a natural right and a deserved response” to the strike in Syria. It urged the Iran-backed groups in the region to continue to support Hamas in the war.

Hezbollah also welcomed the attack. Almost immediately after the war in Gaza erupted, Hezbollah began attacking Israel’s northern border. The two sides have been involved in daily exchanges of fire, while Iranian-backed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have launched rockets and missiles toward Israel.

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Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Michelle L. Price in Washington; Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; Samy Magdy in Cairo; Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan; and Giada Zampano in Rome contributed to this report.

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How to get rid of NYC rats without brutality? Birth control is one idea

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How to get rid of NYC rats without brutality? Birth control is one idea

New York lawmakers are proposing rules to humanely drive down the population of rats and other rodents, eyeing contraception and a ban on glue traps as alternatives to poison or a slow, brutal death.

Politicians have long come up with creative ways to battle the rodents, but some lawmakers are now proposing city and statewide measures to do more.

In New York City, the idea to distribute rat contraceptives got fresh attention in city government Thursday following the death of an escaped zoo owl, known as Flaco, who was found dead with rat poison in his system.

City Council Member Shaun Abreu proposed a city ordinance Thursday that would establish a pilot program for controlling the millions of rats lurking in subway stations and empty lots by using birth control instead of lethal chemicals. Abreu, chair of the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, said the contraceptives also are more ethical and humane than other methods.

The contraceptive, called ContraPest, is contained in salty, fatty pellets that are scattered in rat-infested areas as bait. It works by targeting ovarian function in female rats and disrupting sperm cell production in males, The New York Times reported.

New York exterminators currently kill rats using snap and glue traps, poisons that make them bleed internally, and carbon monoxide gas that can suffocate them in burrows. Some hobbyists have even trained their dogs to hunt them.

Rashad Edwards, a film and television actor who runs pest management company Scurry Inc. in New York City with his wife, said the best method he has found when dealing with rodents is carbon monoxide.

He tries to use the most humane method possible, and carbon monoxide euthanizes the rats slowly, putting them to sleep and killing them. Edwards avoids using rat poison whenever possible because it is dangerous and torturous to the rodents, he said.

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Some lawmakers in Albany are considering a statewide ban on glue boards under a bill moving through the Legislature. The traps, usually made from a slab of cardboard or plastic coated in a sticky material, can also ensnare small animals that land on its surface.

Edwards opposes a ban on sticky traps, because he uses them on other pests, such as ants, to reduce overall pesticide use. When ants get into a house, he uses sticky traps to figure out where they’re most often passing by. It helps him narrow zones of pesticide use “so that you don’t go spray the entire place.”

“This is not a problem we can kill our way out of,” said Jakob Shaw, a special project manager for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “It’s time to embrace these more common sense and humane methods.”

Two cities in California have passed bans on glue traps in recent years. On the federal level, a bill currently in committee would ban the traps nationwide.

“It ends a really inhumane practice of managing rat populations,” said Jabari Brisport, the New York state senator who represents part of Brooklyn and sponsored the bill proposing the new guidelines. “There are more effective and more humane ways to deal with rats.”

Every generation of New Yorkers has struggled to control rat populations. Mayor Eric Adams hired a “rat czar” last year tasked with battling the detested rodents. Last month, New York City reduced the amount of food served up to rats by mandating all businesses to put trash out in boxes.

While the war on rats has no end in sight, the exterminator Edwards said we can learn a lot from their resilience. The rodents, he said, can never be eradicated, only managed.

“They’re very smart, and they’re very wise,” he said. “It’s very inspiring but just — not in my house.”

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Coachella: Earthquake shakes SoCal desert during music fest

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Coachella: Earthquake shakes SoCal desert during music fest

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — A small earthquake shook the Southern California desert Saturday near Coachella, where the famous music festival is being held this weekend. No damage or injuries were reported.

The quake, with a preliminary magnitude of 3.8, hit at 9:08 a.m. about 8 miles (13 kilometers) northeast of Borrego Springs in Riverside County, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The epicenter was about 20 miles (32 kilometers) southeast of Coachella. It struck at a depth of about 7 miles (11 kilometers), the USGS said.

A dispatcher with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said there were no calls reporting any problems from the quake.

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