In our news wrap Thursday, the COVID-19 death toll topped 327,000 as California becomes the first state to surpass 2 million infections, a powerful winter storm barrels toward the East Coast, Ethiopian forces killed 42 armed men accused of massacring a village, at least 20 African migrants trying to reach Europe have died off the coast of Tunisia, and a Christmas Eve celebration amid the pandemic.
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In the day's other news: The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. topped 328,000, as California became the first state to surpass two million infections.
Even so, millions of Americans are traveling this Christmas, in spite of warnings from public health experts. Delta and United Airlines announced passengers flying to the U.S. from the U.K. must present a negative COVID test before departing to prevent the spread of a new highly contagious COVID variants in Britain. Those airlines don't have similar test requirements for flights within the U.S.
A powerful winter storm in the Midwest is barreling toward the East Coast today, bringing heavy snow, damaging winds, and dangerously low temperatures. Blizzard conditions in Minnesota, Nebraska, and the Dakotas closed highways and grounded flights on this busy holiday travel day. Forecasters warned parts of that region could see wind chills plunge to 40 degrees below zero.
Ethiopian forces killed 42 armed men accused of massacring a village in the western part of their country yesterday. State-affiliated media reported the military also seized bows and arrows, as well as other weapons from the attackers, who had torched homes and killed more than 100 villagers yesterday. The government also deployed more troops to the area to reestablish calm amid rising ethnic tensions.
At least 20 African migrants trying to reach Europe by boat have died off the coast of Central Tunisia. Their boat sank in the Mediterranean Sea while en route to Italy. Crews rescued five survivors. The Tunisian navy is searching for as many as 20 other missing passengers.
A provincial court in Pakistan has ordered the release of the key suspect in the 2002 murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl. Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheik, a British-born Pakistani man, was acquitted of killing Pearl earlier this year. But he was held while Pearl's family appealed that ruling. Now, the family's attorney said Sheik will return to prison if his acquittal is successfully overturned by Pakistan's Supreme Court next month.
Back in this country, stocks managed modest gains on Wall Street in today's shortened holiday trading session. The Dow Jones industrial average climbed 70 points to close at 30200. The Nasdaq rose more than 33 points, and the S&P 500 added 13.
And a number of traditional Christmas Eve religious services and celebrations were far more subdued this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the Vatican, Pope Francis celebrated mass in the nearly empty Saint Peter's Basilica with some 200 faithful, a much different scene from the thousands who usually attend.
And in the West Bank, a lockdown in Bethlehem muted festivities at Manger Square in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Anton Salman (through translator):
Christmas is a holiday that renews hope in the souls. And, therefore, despite all the obstacles and challenges due to the coronavirus and due to the lack of tourism, the city of Bethlehem is still looking forward to the future with optimism and will celebrate Christmas in all its human and religious meanings.
Some churches around the world were forced to hold their midnight masses earlier in the day to abide by local pandemic curfews.