Four soldiers and 63 jihadists have been killed in fighting between Niger's army and heavily armed extremists in the nation's west, the government said Friday.
Extremists on motorcycles fought the army Thursday in the Tillaberi region near the border with Mali before being forced to flee, according to a defense ministry statement. The army was able to recover dozens of weapons and motorcycles, it said.
Since December, at least 174 soldiers have been killed in Niger in several attacks. At least two were claimed by fighters linked to the Islamic State group.
Extremism has grown in West Africa's Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert, with attacks increasing near the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, where many jihadists linked to al-Qaida or IS operate.
No one stands in line to embrace the widow and share memories of her husband of 50 years. No rows of family and friends file toward the flag-draped coffin to pay their last respects. No symphony of sniffles is heard across the room as the minister gives a final prayer.
Instead, a handful of people are scattered across one chapel row as if they're strangers, not blood. White roses are pinned to empty chairs, representing those who couldn't be there. An iPad on a tripod livestreams the service for people stuck at home across state lines.
"This is going to be a different experience for all of us," the minister tells the half-dozen people gathered at a South Carolina funeral home to celebrate the life of J. Robert Coleman, an Army veteran, husband to Gloria, father to three sons and grandfather to three children. "But one thing that will be common is that as we conduct this service today, we're going to open with a prayer."
Unspoken was the reason this funeral, and untold others across the world, is different: The coronavirus outbreak, stay-at-home orders and the rules of social distancing are dramatically altering the way families and communities mourn the passing of loved ones.
"It's hard enough to lose a loved one, but then to have the traditions that usually bring comfort at a time like this seemingly not available just kind of compounds the grief that families feel," said Justin Baxley, of Woodridge Memorial Park & Funeral Home.
Like most funeral homes, Woodridge is limiting the number of people allowed for services. Many families find it hard to choose which loved ones will be invited to the in-person gathering and which will be relegated to watch via livestream, if at all.
But Coleman's family said in their case, travel restrictions due to the virus and the nature of their small, close-knit family made following the fewer-than-10-people mandate simple. John Coleman said those who mattered most to his dad were there - his wife, Gloria, and his sons. The only one missing was his beloved dog, Bandit.
"That's the most important," Coleman said. "We weren't brought up to care if we were around a big group."
Robert Coleman died suddenly last week. One of his sons found him at home in Columbia. The family said he went peacefully, possibly of a heart attack, but because the 69-year-old had complained of chest pain the day before, he was tested for COVID-19.
Days later, the test came back negative. But regardless of the cause of death, funerals still must abide by rules aimed at preventing any possible exposure to the virus.
At Woodridge Memorial Park, a bottle of hand sanitizer and a sign asking guests to kindly refrain from handshaking now sits beside the guestbook. Chairs are spaced apart. Much of the funeral planning among family and staff is done via video chat. And the demand for livestreaming services has skyrocketed.
At Coleman's funeral, most of his family chose to sit in the front row, but a sister-in-law, citing social distance, made her way alone to the back. During the service, Gloria Coleman cried and pulled down her sunglasses, hiding her eyes. With the chairs separated, her sons couldn't reach out to comfort her.
"Your husband, your father, a model of faithfulness for you," Pastor Brett DeYoung said in his brief remarks. "Now it's time for you to continue that legacy by modeling that integrity and faithfulness to your family and friends."
The family followed the casket outside, where two uniformed soldiers waited to honor Coleman's service to his country — a ritual usually held inside, but moved to follow guidelines. A bugler played taps, and Gloria accepted a folded American flag.
John Coleman's wife and kids didn't make the trip from their Florida home. They were able to watch the livestream to say goodbye. Coleman said the family had to plan the funeral while watching headlines about the novel coronavirus, and he doesn't want to live in fear - that's why he invited The Associated Press to document their grieving.
He'll send the recording of the service to his dad's buddies from working for decades in the aerospace industry. And he'll head back home to his family.
"We'll say a prayer with them, and it will be what it is for the moment."
Americans are seeking unemployment benefits at unprecedented levels due to the coronavirus, but many are finding more frustration than relief.
State websites and phone lines across the country have been overwhelmed with applicants — causing sites to crash, phone lines to ring busy and much-needed payments to be delayed. While many states are doing their best to respond — adding staff, updating technology and streamlining the process — it's tough to keep up with the pace of demand.
About 10 million people applied for unemployment benefits in the two weeks ended March 27.
"There's no hospital system in the world that's designed to handle what we're dealing with," Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted told reporters. "Our unemployment compensation system's the same way."
Ohio handled twice as many claims in the past two weeks than it had over the past two years. The state has increased its online capacity for processing claims 20 times, added hundreds of workers, yet users might still encounter delays.
New York's Department of Labor said its phone system recorded more than 8.2 million calls last week, compared with 50,000 in a typical week. Its online filing system received 3.4 million visits during that time, compared to the usual 350,000. The site has crashed several times in recent weeks under the burden.
To handle the influx, New York has added 20 servers, hundreds of staff and expanded its hours of operations. It's also trying to reduce the surge— as are Colorado, Kentucky and Michigan — by asking people to file on different days based on the first letter of their last name.
"It is not working as smoothly as I would like to see it," Governor Andrew Cuomo said. "It's compounding people's stress."
It's a problem playing out across the nation.
"Financially stressed Americans should not have to spend hours on the phone waiting for someone to process their application or answer their questions," Senators Chuck Schumer, Ron Wyden and Bernie Sanders said in a letter Monday to the U.S. Department of Labor.
They urged Secretary Eugene Scalia to ensure states get funding quickly for administrative support that they've been granted under recent legislation. The Department of Labor did not comment in response.
Congress has passed a massive relief package that expanded who is eligible for unemployment benefits — adding gig, contract and other part time workers who wouldn't normally qualify. Benefits are open to others who've been impacted, such as workers who were quarantined, left work due to risk of exposure or to care for a family member.
It's welcome aid for suffering Americans, but it adds to the volume and confusion for administering benefits.
New Mexico's Workforce Solutions Department said that is was deluged with more than a half-million calls in one day — in a state of 2 million residents — as the government began expanded eligibility guidelines, but it was too soon at that time for the state to process those claims.
The crush on the system is leaving some Americans in need frustrated and empty handed for now.
Duane Shepherd, 53, tried to file for unemployment for this week after getting laid off from his oil-and-gas servicing job in rural Vernal, Utah. He gave up after the online system barred him from backing up to fix a minor error. The online-chat function was unavailable and phone calls were rejected because of high volume. He considered visiting a local office in person, but heard he'd be routed back to the phone system. Shepherd plans to try to file again, and hopes to live on his small savings as he looks for work.
"The system is broken, it's absolutely broken. I don't know how people aren't climbing the walls with frustration," he said.
Those filing for unemployment are being encouraged to keep at it and be patient.
It takes time to process an application, typically two to three weeks, said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project. But benefits are retroactive — meaning people will be reimbursed for the full period of unemployment, not just from when their claim is approved.
"The unemployment lines (although virtual) now are like the lines for toilet paper have been," Evermore said. "People are just going to have to keep trying for a while."
The eligibility and process varies by state so workers should check the local rules. In general though, applicants should try to file online unless they must call. And consider trying websites at off-hours when traffic is lower.
Be prepared with contact information for all their employers for the past 18 months, as well as proof of income. Double-check all your information as even minor errors can slow a claim.
Keep track of your efforts and if you are denied, you can appeal.
With air raid sirens wailing and flags at half-staff, China held a three-minute nationwide moment of reflection on Saturday to honor those who have died in the coronavirus outbreak, especially "martyrs" who fell while fighting what has become a global pandemic.
Commemorations took place at 10 a.m. in all major cities, but were particularly poignant in Wuhan, the industrial city where the virus was first detected in December.
Wuhan was placed under complete lockdown on Jan. 23 in an effort to stem the spread of the virus and has been lauded as a "heroic city" by the nation's communist leadership for the sacrifices made by its 11 million citizens.
People have gradually been allowed to travel in and out of Wuhan under strict conditions. The quarantine in the city is to be formally lifted on Wednesday.
In Beijing, President Xi Jinping led other top officials, all dressed in black suits with white carnations, as they bowed before a flag at half-staff in the leadership compound of Zhongnanhai.
On Saturday, China reported one new confirmed case in Wuhan and 18 among people arriving from abroad, along with four new deaths, all in Wuhan. China now has recorded a total of 81,639 cases and 3,326 deaths, although those figures are generally considered to be understated because of a lack of testing and a reluctance to report the scale of the original outbreak.
China's slow, cautious emergence from the global pandemic comes as the U.S. is struggling to deal with an outbreak that has taken more than 1,860 lives in New York City alone. Hard-hit European nations Italy, Spain and France are also seeing rising numbers of cases and deaths, although strict social distancing measures such as those adopted by China appear to be having an effect.
The State Council, China's Cabinet, ordered that national flags be flown at half-staff around the country and at Chinese embassies and consulates abroad, and the suspension of all public recreational activities.
The horns of automobiles, trains and ships joined in what China's official Xinhua News Agency called a "wail in grief" for three minutes. China has held such moments of silence in the past, often to mark World War II-era atrocities by Japan, but rarely on a national scale.
The commemoration also comes on the traditional Qingming festival, when Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors. Officials have banned such observances this year to avoid large gatherings that might contribute to a feared second wave of infections.
More than 3,000 health care workers contracted COVID-19 and the government says 14 died of the disease. Among them was Dr. Li Wenliang, who was threatened with punishment by police after publicizing news of the outbreak but has since been listed among the national "martyrs."
Air raid sirens sounded across China and flags flew at half staff in a tribute Saturday to victims of the coronavirus pandemic including the health care "martyrs" who have died while fighting to save others. Elsewhere, 15 medics in Egypt's main cancer hospital tested positive for the virus, underlining the risks faced by those on the front lines of the outbreak.
As the number of people infected has grown to more than 1.1 million worldwide, health care systems are straining under the surge of patients and a paucity of medical equipment like ventilators as well as protective masks and gloves, giving rise to growing concerns about the exposure of hospital personnel.
Italy and Spain, the two worst-hit countries in Europe with combined deaths of more than 25,000 and nearly a quarter-million infections, have reported a high percentage of infections among their health care workers.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced late Friday he would prevent the export of N95 protective masks and surgical gloves in a move he said was necessary to ensure they are available in the U.S. — but the prime minister of neighboring Canada suggested it was counterproductive, noting cross-border aid goes well beyond supplies.
"I think of the thousands of nurses who cross the bridge in Windsor to work in the Detroit medical system every day," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said. "These are things Americans rely on."
The number of people infected in the U.S. has now exceeded a quarter-million, with the death toll climbing past 7,000. New York state alone accounts for more than 2,900 dead, an increase of over 560 in just one day. Most of the dead are in New York City, where hospitals are swamped with patients.
In China, where the novel coronavirus was first detected in December, the country has cautiously lifted restrictions amid dropping numbers of infections. On Saturday it reported just one new confirmed case in the epicenter of Wuhan and 18 others among people arriving from abroad. There were four new deaths for an official total of 3,326.
In the nationwide tribute to the victims, the government singled out the more than 3,000 health care workers who contracted COVID-19 and the 14 reported to have died from the disease. Among them was doctor Li Wenliang, who was threatened with punishment by police after publicizing news of the outbreak but has since been listed among the national "martyrs."
As the outbreak spreads in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, the news that three doctors and 12 nurses tested positive for the virus at the National Cancer Institute raised fears of what the virus might do to the country's health care system, with an eye on what has happened elsewhere.
The institute was partly closed for three days to be sterilized, with only the emergency ward remaining open.
Egypt has reported around 1,000 confirmed cases and 66 fatalities from the global pandemic. Authorities have closed schools and mosques, banned public gatherings and imposed a nighttime curfew to prevent the virus from spreading among the population of 100 million, a fifth of whom live in the densely populated capital, Cairo.
In Italy, more than 11,000 medical personnel have been infected — just under 10% of the official total — and some 73 doctors have died, according to the National Institutes of Health and the association of doctors, which has kept a running tally of the dead.
Significantly, not all the doctors were working in hospitals. Many were general practitioners. Other non-hospital practitioners were dentists, who were believed to have been exposed given the transmission of the virus via respiratory droplets.
Carlo Palermo, head of Italy's hospital doctors' union, said a key reason for the high contagion rate among general practitioners was that the common flu was raging at the same time in the early part of the year.
"The epidemic was superimposed on top of the normal course of influenza, which didn't allow us to discriminate between the two," he said Saturday.
"A patient with a fever or cough or unspecific symptoms would go to his doctor, who would see him at home or in his office, and that's where the contagion happened. That's why there are so many family doctors who are infected."
Spain's health workers have been contracting the COVID-19 virus at a faster rate than any other country, with around 15% of its almost 125,000 total cases being doctors, nurses and other medical staff. Its health workers have been exposed to contagion due to a shortage of medical supplies, with nurses and doctors being forced in some cases to patch together makeshift protection suits using plastics such as garbage bags.
After seeing commercial shipping lines break down, the government has started to fly in medical products from suppliers in China on military cargo planes. Private Spanish companies have also helped by chartering planes to ship in supplies. Meanwhile, local industry is shifting to produce masks, suits, and breathing machines for its crammed intensive care units.
Worldwide, confirmed infections rose past 1.1 million and deaths approached 60,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Experts say both numbers are seriously undercounted because of the lack of testing, mild cases that were missed and governments that are underplaying the crisis.
At the same time, more than 220,000 people have recovered from the virus, which causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying health problems, including cancer patients.
The shortage of supplies has led to fierce competition among buyers from Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere and aggressive measures such as New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan to take ventilators that aren't being used. Cuomo says New York, the nation's worst hot spot, could run out of ventilators next week.
"If they want to sue me for borrowing their excess ventilators to save lives, let them sue me," Cuomo said. He promised to eventually return the equipment or compensate the owners.
The search for supplies and bidding wars among buyers have created what Valerie Pecresse, president of France's battered Île-de-France region, called a "worldwide treasure hunt."
Along with blocking mask exports, Trump announced new guidelines that call for everyone to wear makeshift face coverings such as T-shirts and bandannas when leaving the house, especially in areas hit hard by the pandemic, like New York. But the president said he had no intention of following the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"It's a recommendation, they recommend it," Trump told reporters. "I just don't want to wear one myself."