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TikTok chief cancels meetings with US lawmakers

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Alex Zhu, founder of Musical.ly Inc., poses for a photograph in Shanghai, China, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016.

Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The head of TikTok, which is facing scrutiny over its ties with China, is postponing meetings with U.S. lawmakers that were originally expected for this week, the social media site said.

“TikTok has no higher priority than ensuring Congress Members’ questions are addressed fully and transparently. To ensure these conversations are as productive as possible, we’re looking forward to holding these meetings after the holidays,” a spokesperson said in a statement late Monday.

TikTok had requested meetings with lawmakers who suspect the company censors content in line with Chinese officials’ preferences and that user data could be accessed by the Chinese government.

TikTok has repeatedly denied the allegations. In his first interview as chief of TikTok last month, Alex Zhu rejected all allegations of political censorship on the app. He told The New York Times that if Chinese President Xi Jinping asked him to remove a video or hand over user data, “I would turn him down.”

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., tweeted Monday night that TikTok canceled the meeting scheduled for this week. He also implied that the company was taking orders from its Chinese parent company not to meet with U.S. lawmakers.

The U.S. Army has barred soldiers from using the app following a national security concern, and TikTok’s Chinese parent ByteDance faces a national security review from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. over its 2017 acquisition of TikTok precursor Musical.ly, a person familiar with the matter previously told CNBC.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., requested the review, claiming in a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that there is “ample and growing evidence that TikTok’s platform for Western markets, including the U.S., is censoring content that is not in line with the Chinese Government and Communist Party directives.”

Rubio’s office declined a meeting that TikTok had requested, a congressional aide said. Zhu was scheduled to meet with Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., her office told CNBC. Blackburn wrote Zhu last month that she feared the app, popular with youngsters, “is paving the way for the Chinese government to gain unfettered and unsupervised access to our children’s lives.”

Despite TikTok’s claims that it does not allow Chinese officials access to user data or censor content in line with the Chinese government’s views, recent controversies have opened room for doubt. In a class-action suit filed last month, for example, a California student accused the company of secretly collecting data on users and transferring private user data to China.

Also last month, head of safety at TikTok Eric Han apologized to a 17-year-old user in New Jersey after the company disabled access to her account and briefly removed one of her viral videos in which she discussed China’s mistreatment of the Uighur ethnic minority. Critics seized upon the move as evidence of the app’s censorship on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.

Han said TikTok was reviewing the procedure that led to the removal and said the company would create “carve-outs for things like education and satire, as other platforms do.”

Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube.

WATCH: TikTok sued in California for accusations of data transfer to China

Correction: An earlier version misstated the day of Hawley’s tweet. It was Monday.

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Mauritius declares emergency as stranded ship spills fuel

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Bystanders look at MV Wakashio bulk carrier that had run aground and from which oil is leaking near Blue Bay Marine Park in south-east Mauritius on August 6, 2020.

Dev Ramkhelawon | AFP | Getty Images

The Indian Ocean island of Mauritius declared a “state of environmental emergency” late Friday after a Japanese-owned ship that ran aground offshore days ago began spilling tons of fuel.

Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth announced the development as satellite images showed a dark slick spreading in the turquoise waters near environmental areas that the government called “very sensitive.”

Mauritius has said the ship was carrying nearly 4,000 tons of fuel and cracks have appeared in its hull.

Jugnauth earlier in the day said his government was appealing to France for help, saying the spill “represents a danger” for the country of some 1.3 million people that relies heavily on tourism and has been been hit hard by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our country doesn’t have the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships, so I have appealed for help from France and President Emmanuel Macron,” he said. Bad weather has made it impossible to act, and “I worry what could happen Sunday when the weather deteriorates.”

Jugnauth shared a photo of the vessel, the MV Wakashio, tilted precariously. “Sea rough beyond the reefs with swells. Ventures in the open seas are not advised,” according to the Mauritius Meteorological Services.

Video posted online showed oily waters lapping at the shore as people murmured and peered at the ship in the distance. Online ship trackers showed the Panama-flagged bulk carrier had been en route from China to Brazil.

The French island of Reunion is the closest neighbor to Mauritius, and France’s Foreign Ministry says France is Mauritius’s “leading foreign investor” and one of its largest trading partners.

“We are in a situation of environmental crisis,” the environment minister of Mauritius, Kavy Ramano, said, calling the Blue Bay Marine Park and other areas near the leaking ship “very sensitive.”

After the cracks in the hull were detected, a salvage team that had been working on the ship was evacuated, Ramano told reporters Thursday. Some 400 sea booms have been deployed in an effort to contain the spill.

Government statements this week said the ship ran aground July 25 and the National Coast Guard received no distress call. The ship’s owners were listed as the Japanese companies Okiyo Maritime Corporation and Nagashiki Shipping Co. Ltd.

A police inquiry has been opened into issues such as possible negligence, a government statement said.

Tons of diesel and oil are now leaking into the water, environmental group Greenpeace Africa’s climate and energy manager Happy Khambule said in a statement.

“Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d’Esny and Mahebourg are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius’ economy, food security and health,” Khambule said.

A government environmental outlook released nearly a decade ago said Mauritius had a National Oil Spill Contingency Plan but equipment on hand was “adequate to deal with oil spills of less than 10 metric tonnes.”

In case of major spills, it said, assistance could be obtained from other Indian Ocean countries or from international oil spill response organizations.

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Lebanon to examine possible ‘external interference’ in port blast

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Lebanese President Michel Aoun (2nd L) inspects the site after a fire at a warehouse with explosives at the Port of Beirut led to massive blasts in Beirut, Lebanon on August 5, 2020.

Lebanese Presidency | Handout | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Lebanon’s president said on Friday its investigation into the biggest blast in Beirut’s history would examine whether it was caused by a bomb or other external interference, as residents sought to rebuild shattered homes and lives.

Rescuers sifted rubble in a race to find anyone still alive after Tuesday’s port explosion that killed 154 people, injured 5,000, destroyed a swathe of the Mediterranean city and sent seismic shockwaves around the region.

“The cause has not been determined yet. There is a possibility of external interference through a rocket or bomb or other act,” President Michel Aoun told local media.

Aoun, who had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port, said the investigation would also weigh if the blast was due to negligence or an accident. Twenty people had been detained so far, he added.

One source said an initial probe blamed negligence.

While the United States has said it did not rule out an attack, Israel, which has fought several wars with Lebanon, has denied any role. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the cause was unclear, but compared the blast to a 2005 bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s powerful Shi’ite group Hezbollah, denied what he said were “preconceived” comments both domestically and abroad that the Iran-backed group had arms stored at the port.

He called for a fair investigation and strict accountability for anyone responsible without any political cover.

“Even if a plane struck, or if it was an intentional act, if it turns out this nitrate had been at the port for years in this way, it means part of the case is absolutely negligence and corruption,” he said.

The customs director and a predecessor were arrested later on Friday.

At Beirut’s Mohammad Al-Amin mosque, next to Hariri’s grave, chief cleric Amin Al Kurdi told worshipers in a Friday sermon that Lebanese leaders bore responsibility.

“Who is the criminal, who is the killer behind the Beirut explosion?” he said. “Only God can protect, not the corrupt … The army only protects the leaders.”

Security forces fired tear gas at a crowd in Beirut on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the ruling elite, who have presided over an economic collapse. The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.

‘Where is the state?’

“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” said Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old.

His family home is in Gemmayze, a district a few hundred metres from the warehouses where 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored for years near a densely populated area.

A security source and local media previously said the fire that caused the blast was ignited by welding work.

Volunteers swept up debris from the streets of Beirut, which still bears scars from a 1975-1990 civil war.

“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by wreckage as he was about to get in. “There is no way to make money anymore.”

For many, the explosion was symptomatic of years of neglect and corruption. “The problem is this government and all governments before it,” said Dr. Mohammed Kalifa, 31.

Officials have said the blast, whose impact was recorded hundreds of miles away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion. That is a bill Lebanon cannot pay after already defaulting on a mountain of debt — exceeding 150% of economic output — and with talks stalled on a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund.

Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and ceilings, have been overwhelmed.

“I lived through part of the civil war. I saw people being shot in front of me. But never has there been such a horror,” said Dr. Assem Al Hajj at Beirut’s Clemenceau hospital, which he said had treated 400 victims.

Hunting the missing

As exhausted rescuers combed wreckage to find any survivors, grieving families camped outside the port where their loved ones were last seen. Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.

“We would like to go inside the port to look for my son but we can’t get permission,” said Elias Marouni, describing his son George, a 30-year-old army officer.

One weeping mother called a prime-time TV program to plead with authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found hours later: dead.

Dozens are still unaccounted for.

In Beirut’s Karantina district, a Polish rescue team took a break near a once three-store building that was completely flattened. One woman and her two teenage daughters were killed, a neighbor said.

Charbel Abreeni, who trained port employees, showed Reuters pictures on his phone of killed colleagues. He was sitting in a church where the head of a Virgin Mary statue was blown off.

“I know 30 port employees who died, two of them are my close friends and a third is missing,” said the 62-year-old, whose home was wrecked and his shin wrapped in a bandage.

“I have nowhere to go except my wife’s family,” he said. “How can you survive here? The economy is zero.”

After the blast destroyed Lebanon’s only major grain silo, U.N. agencies helped provide emergency food and medical aid.

Aid offers have also poured in from Arab states, Western nations, the Vatican and beyond. But none, so far, addresses the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.

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Venezuelan court sentences 2 former Green Berets to 20 years in prison

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ID cards of people linked to an operation denounced by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro are displayed during a meeting with members of the Armed Forces in Caracas, Venezuela on May 4, 2020. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro confirmed the detention of two US “mercenaries” among 13 attackers involved in Sunday’s two failed maritime raids.

Miraflores Presidential Palace | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

A Venezuelan court sentenced two former U.S. special forces soldiers to 20 years in prison for their part in a failed beach attack aimed at overthrowing President Nicolas Maduro, prosecutors announced late Friday.

Former Green Berets Luke Denman and Airan Berry admitted to taking part in the May 4 operation orchestrated by a third ex-U.S. soldier who remains in the United States, Venezuelan’s chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab announced on Twitter.

“THEY ADMITTED THEIR RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE FACTS,” Saab wrote, adding that the case will continue for dozens of other defendants. He did not offer details.

“Operation Gideon” was launched from makeshift training camps in neighboring Colombia and left at least eight rebel soldiers dead while a total of 66 were jailed. Former Green Beret Jordan Goudreau, who operated a private, Florida-based security firm called Silvercorp USA, claimed responsibility for the failed attack.

Venezuelan prosecutors announced that Denman and Berry, both decorated former U.S. service members, were found guilty of conspiracy, trafficking in illegal arms and terrorism.

The two Americans arrested in the coastal fishing community of Chuao have ever since been widely displayed by officials on Venezuelan state TV as proof of their long-held claims that the United States is set on overthrowing Maduro’s socialist government.

The incident also unleashed claims that U.S. backed opposition leader Juan Guaido had authorized Goudreau through a signed agreement to carry out the attack, executed by two of Guaido’s former political advisors.

Guaido and U.S. officials have denied any role in the attack. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington would use all possible means to win the freedom of Denman and Berry.

A day before authorities announced that the two ex-Green Berets were sentenced, Venezuelan authorities opened the trial of six American executives of the Houston-based Citgo company. The six men were arrested over two years ago in Venezuela on corruption charges.

The case had lingered for months until former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson met personally in July with Maduro in Caracas to urge they be released so they could return home to the United States.

Both play out amid hostility between Washington and Caracas. The Trump administration last year threw its support behind opposition leader Guaido, who declared he was Venezuela’s legitimate president, vowing to oust Maduro.

Guaido blames Maduro for the once wealthy nation’s economic and social collapse, while the socialist leader says Washington is manipulating Guaido to steal the nation’s vast oil wealth.

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