February 22, 2021 – LONDON - HSBC is set to withdraw from U.S. retail banking, a source familiar with the matter told sources on Monday, as Europe's biggest bank seeks to dispose of a business that has long underperformed.
The exit from the U.S. consumer business will form part of the lender's strategy update due on Tuesday, as Chief Executive Noel Quinn seeks to cut costs, boost fee income and continue the lender's shift towards Asia.
The sale or closure of its around 150 remaining branches in the United States, after it shuttered 80 last year, would mark the end of HSBC's struggle to turn around a business which has struggled to make inroads against incumbent domestic rivals.
Ahead of the strategy update Quinn on Monday reshuffled several of his senior lieutenants.
HSBC appointed Nuno Matos as chief executive of its wealth and personal banking business, while chief compliance officer Colin Bell became head of HSBC's European business.
Michael Roberts was appointed CEO for the United States and Americas, while Stephen Moss will move to Dubai as head of the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey business, the bank said.
In moving Moss to Dubai HSBC said it is expanding its strategic ambitions in the Middle East, suggesting the region will be a big part of the new strategy alongside an existing plan to 'pivot' more to Asia.
The bank also said it is expanding the remit of Chief Financial Officer Ewen Stevenson, who will now also run the bank's transformation programme and its mergers and acquisitions plans.
HSBC on Tuesday is set to report an expected plunge in annual profits reflecting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
February 19, 2021 – LOS ANGELES - Reality star and businesswoman Kim Kardashian on Friday filed for divorce from her rapper husband Kanye West after almost seven years of marriage and months of rumors that their relationship had broken down.
Representatives for Los Angeles Superior Court and for Kardashian, 40, said she had filed the divorce papers.
Celebrity website TMZ cited unidentified sources as saying the split was amicable and that Kardashian had asked for joint custody of the couple's four children. The grounds for the divorce were not immediately known.
Representatives for West did not immediately return a request for comment.
The filing follows months of leaks and reports that the marriage between the two celebrities was on the rocks.
Kardashian, who made her name in the reality TV series "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," married West, 43, in May 2014, making them one of the biggest celebrity couples in Hollywood and popularly known as "Kimye".
The couple's already unconventional relationship became strained last year when West, who suffers from bipolar disorder, ran an unsuccessful campaign marked by erratic statements to be elected U.S. president under his self-styled Birthday Party.
Kardashian in July released a statement urging compassion for West's mental health struggles. But the couple appeared to grow further apart with the 21-time Grammy winner spending most of his time at his ranch in Wyoming and Kardashian remaining in their Calabasas mansion outside Los Angeles.
Both Kardashian and West are reported to be billionaires. West made his money through his music as well as his Yeezy fashion and sneaker line.
Kardashian, who is training to be a social justice lawyer, made her money through her TV series, as a social media influencer, and by developing a lucrative line of cosmetics and foundation garments.
TMZ reported that the couple had a prenuptial agreement and that discussions on a property settlement were well advanced.
The wedding was the first for West and the third for Kardashian after she had brief marriages with basketball player Kris Humphries and music producer Damon Thomas.
February 18, 2021 – WASHINGTON - The World Bank on Thursday said it had named Makhtar Diop as the new managing director of its private sector arm, the International Finance Corp, a position key to boosting the bank's efforts to fight climate change and inequality.
Diop, a Senegalese national and the former minister of economy and finance of the West African nation, is currently serving as the World Bank's vice president for infrastructure, where he oversees the bank's work across energy, transport, digital development and other sectors.
He also served as the bank's vice president for Africa for six years, where he oversaw a record-breaking $70 billion in commitments.
In a statement, World Bank President David Malpass praised Diop's experience in both the public and private sectors, saying he will help attract investment to low-carbon energy, transportation, clean water, digital services and other infrastructure.
"Makhtar’s skills at IFC will help the World Bank Group continue our rapid response to the global crisis and help build a green, resilient, inclusive recovery," Malpass said.
Diop replaces Philippe Le Houerou, who stepped down in September 2020 after more than four years as the IFC's CEO.
February 18, 2021 – LONDON - Tens of millions of workers in developed economies will have to retrain for secure careers in post-COVID labour markets reshaped by the pandemic and the remote working revolution, a report by consultancy McKinsey said on Thursday.
The analysis by MGI, McKinsey's economics research arm, concluded the pandemic’s biggest impacts will be concentrated in four work areas: leisure and travel venues; on-site customer interaction such as in retail and hospitality; computer-based office work; and production and warehousing.
Its scenarios suggested more than 100 million workers in the countries covered by the study - Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Spain and the United States - may need to switch occupations by 2030, up to 25% more than expected pre-pandemic.
"These workers will face even greater gaps in skill requirements," it warned, noting that job growth may concentrate more in high-wage jobs as middle- and low-wage jobs decline.
"Workers without a college degree, women, ethnic minorities, and young people may be most affected," it added .
Other types of work - such as medical care and personal care - may see less change because there is little alternative to the high level of proximity they require.
Overall, the study found that remote work and virtual meetings are likely to continue - less extensively than at the pandemic’s peak but still with considerable knock-on effects for real estate, business travel and urban centers.
While leisure travel and tourism are seen rebounding, McKinsey estimated some 20% of business travel may not return after the pandemic as companies and workers acknowledged a lot of earlier travel for face-to-face meetings was superfluous.
"This would have a significant knock-on effect on employment in commercial aerospace and airports, hospitality, and food service," it noted.
February 15, 2021 – KINSHASA - An Ebola vaccination campaign has begun in the city of Butembo, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a tweet on Monday.
Health workers at Matanda health centre, where the first Ebola patient was treated, were the first to be vaccinated, the WHO said.
Congo has confirmed four cases of Ebola since a resurgence of the virus was announced on Feb. 7 in Butembo, the epicentre of a previous outbreak that was declared over last June.
On Friday, 1,200 doses of Ebola vaccine and cold chain equipment arrived in the city, according to the WHO.
Separately, the West African country of Guinea declared a new Ebola outbreak on Sunday, with seven confirmed cases and three deaths.
The Ebola virus causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea and is spread through contact with body fluids. The new vaccines have greatly improved survival rates in recent years.
February 15, 2021 – CORTINA D'AMPEZZO, Italy - American Mikaela Shiffrin won a record-breaking ninth medal in world championships alpine skiing after an immaculate slalom run propelled her to gold in the women's combined event on Monday.
Shiffrin, who surpassed the record she had shared with compatriot Lindsey Vonn, won her sixth overall gold medal and the first in the 2021 championships after finishing 0.86 seconds ahead of Slovakian rival Petra Vlhova.
Michelle Gisin clocked third spot 0.89 seconds off the pace to underline Switzerland's prowess in Cortina D'Ampezzo, with her compatriots Corinne Suter and Lara Gut-Behrami already hauling in four medals between them including two golds.
Shiffrin gave herself a fighting chance of taking the combined honours after finishing the morning's super-G leg of the event in third place behind Italians Federica Brignone and Elena Curtoni.
But she still had it all to do on a hard and icy slalom course which saw Brignone suffer a heartbreaking exit almost straight out of the block, when she lost her balance at the second gate and then missed the third.
Next Curtoni completed the course with a smooth run before Shiffrin, who conceded last year's World Cup title to Brignone, stormed down the piste to leave the Italian and then the rest of her rivals trailing in her wake.
The 25-year old from Vail, Colorado, who claimed the bronze medal in Thursday's super-G, was elated after winning her first ever combined gold medal in the world championships.
"I am happy we decided to put the combined event in the plans for this world champs," she told Eurosport in a flash interview in the finish area.
"It was a really nice day, beautiful weather and really great tracks on both events. It's sometimes intimidating to go on that surface, it's like going into battle.
"You have to get yourself psyched up and give your very best skiing to be fast and even get to the finish."
Curtoni's fourth-place left a bitter taste for the Italians who are yet to enjoy a podium finish in either the men's or women's competition.
Later on Monday, the men will complete their combined event, with Canadian James Crawford the shock leader ahead of Frenchman Alexis Pinturault and Austrian Vincent Kriechmayr after the super-G leg.
Krichmayr is bidding for his third gold medal of the championships after clinching the super-G and downhill.
February 11, 2021 – WASHINGTON/BEIJING - U.S. President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping held their first phone call as leaders and appeared at odds on most issues, even as Xi warned that confrontation would be a "disaster" for both nations.
While Xi has called for "win-win" cooperation, Biden has called China America's "most serious competitor" and vowed to "out compete" Beijing.
On Thursday, Biden told a bipartisan group of U.S. senators at a meeting on the need to upgrade U.S. infrastructure the United States must raise its game in the face of the Chinese challenge.
Biden said he spoke to Xi for two hours on Wednesday night and warned the senators: "If we don't get moving, they are going to eat our lunch."
"They're investing billions of dollars dealing with a whole range of issues that relate to transportation, the environment and a whole range of other things. We just have to step up."
The White House said Biden emphasized to Xi it was a U.S. priority to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific, a region where the United States and China are major strategic rivals.
He also voiced "fundamental" concerns about Beijing's "coercive and unfair" trade practices, as well as about human rights issues, including China's crackdown in Hong Kong and treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang, and its increasingly assertive actions in Asia, including toward Taiwan.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Biden also expressed concern about China's lack of transparency over the coronavirus.
All the rights issues Biden mentioned were ones Beijing has explicitly told his administration it should stay out of.
Xi told Biden confrontation would be a "disaster" and the two sides should re-establish the means to avoid misjudgments, China's foreign ministry said.
Xi maintained a hardline tone on Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan, calling them matters of "sovereignty and territorial integrity" he hoped Washington would approach cautiously.
The call was the first between Chinese and U.S. leaders since Xi spoke with former President Donald Trump last March 27, nearly 11 months ago. Since then, relations between the world's two biggest economies have plunged.
Trump blamed China for starting the COVID-19 pandemic and launched a series of actions against China, including a trade war and sanctions against Chinese officials and firms considered security threats.
Xi congratulated Biden on his election in a message in November, even though Biden had called him a "thug" during the campaign and vowed to lead an international effort to "pressure, isolate and punish China."
OPEN LINE OF COMMUNICATION
The Biden administration has signaled it will maintain pressure on Beijing, and has endorsed a Trump administration determination that China has committed genocide in Xinjiang.
At the same time, it has pledged to take a more multilateral approach and is keen to cooperate with Beijing on issues like climate change and persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
Biden has stressed the relationship he established with Xi when vice president under Barack Obama, through more than 24 hours of private meetings and 17,000 miles of travel together.
On Thursday, he said he had a good conversation with Xi and knew him well. However, a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the call Biden would be "practical, hard-headed, clear-eyed" in dealings with Xi.
At the same time, the official said, Biden wanted to ensure they had the opportunity to have an open line of communication.
Chinese officials have expressed some optimism bilateral relations will improve under Biden and have urged Washington to meet Beijing halfway.
Readouts of the call from both sides mentioned areas for potential cooperation, honing in on climate change and fighting COVID-19.
China's foreign ministry said Xi had quoted back to Biden the U.S. president's saying that "America can be defined in one word: Possibilities."
"We hope the possibilities will now point toward an improvement of China-U.S. relations," it quoted Xi as saying.
The editor-in-chief of the Chinese Communist Party-backed tabloid, the Global Times, said in a tweet the fact that the call lasted two hours was "a very positive message" that showed "in-depth communication."
Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there was room for cooperation, but differences were wide.
"The concerns highlighted by President Biden are in essence all Chinese core interests. So narrowing differences is going to be very challenging," she said. "Xi did not suggest that there are preconditions for bilateral cooperation on issues such as climate change, so that is one positive takeaway."
Another CSIS expert, Scott Kennedy, said that while Xi had proposed extensive bilateral exchanges, things would take time, given Biden's plans for a thorough review of strategy.
"We may end up not far from where things are now, in terms of overall tone, but it’s also possible the two sides will find a pathway to stabilize their relationship, both the extent and manner of competition as well as areas of cooperation," he said.
A U.S. official said Washington was in a position of strength after consultations with allies and partners to lay out concerns about China's "aggressive activities and abuses."
He said the administration would look in coming months at adding "new targeted restrictions" on sensitive technology exports to China and also that there would be no quick moves to lift Trump administration tariffs on Chinese imports.
February 11, 2021 – CORTINA D'AMPEZZO, Italy - Swiss favourite Lara Gut-Behrami won the women's super-G gold medal as the Alpine skiing world championships started in Cortina d'Ampezzo on Thursday after a three-day weather delay.
Corinne Suter improved on her 2019 bronze to make it a Swiss one-two in the rescheduled race, her time 0.34 lower than Gut-Behrami's one minute 25.51 seconds down the glistening Olympia delle Tofane piste.
Mikaela Shiffrin, the defending champion from the United States, took bronze on a sunny morning after recent fog and snow in the Italian Dolomites. The race was held without fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The gold was a career first for Gut-Behrami, who had won four World Cup super-Gs in a row ahead of Cortina. The 29-year-old has three silvers and two bronzes from previous championships.
"In the past I always wanted to win gold and it never happened," said the Swiss when asked if she had realised her biggest dream.
"Today it was the first time that I knew my life wouldn't change if I won or not. I didn't ski to win the gold medal, I just skied to try to show what I can (do) and this was the big difference.
"I finally have a lot besides skiing," added the Swiss, who married national soccer player Valon Behrami in 2018.
"My life is not just about if I am skiing well or not...it's not if you win a gold medal your career is worth something and if you're not winning you are not worth anything."
She was the first Swiss skier to win a world championship super-G since Maria Walliser in 1987 and now has a record-equalling three medals in the discipline with a complete set of gold, silver and bronze.
Thursday was the first time in more than a year that Shiffrin had started a super-G and the medal was her eighth from five world championships starting in 2013.
The American had put in only four days of training for her first speed race since January 2020, having competed only in technical disciplines on the World Cup circuit so far this season.
Starting aggressively as the fourth out of the hut, she looked a little rusty and went slightly wide with an error that cost her some precious tenths on the final stretch.
Shiffrin was still fastest until Suter went down next and then Gut-Behrami, starting seventh, made sure of gold with a faultless run.
Olympic champion Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic finished fourth.
Italy's reigning overall World Cup champion Federica Brignone was the quickest of the home skiers, in 10th place with Marta Bassino 11th.
February 10, 2021 – JOHANNESBURG - South Africa's health minister said on Wednesday the government may sell doses of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine it may not need or swap for a different vaccine, as it scrambles to start inoculating its citizens with an alternative U.S. shot next week.
The unusual move comes just days after South Africa paused the rollout of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University following a small clinical trial that showed it offered minimal protection against mild to moderate illness from the 501Y.V2 variant dominant in the country.
One million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, produced by the Serum Institute of India, landed in the country last week, and another 500,000 are due to arrive in coming weeks. That's enough to inoculate 750,000 people.
South Africa was also expecting to receive AstraZeneca shots via the COVAX global vaccine distribution scheme co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and an African Union (AU) arrangement.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told a news conference the country would start vaccinating health workers with Johnson & Johnson's vaccine in the form of an "implementation study" with researchers sometime next week.
He said he would wait for advice from scientists before proceeding with the possible sale or switch of the British shot.
"Why not sell the AstraZeneca to other countries? Well it's an option ... we will consider it. First our scientists will tell us what we do with it. Can we use it within the time that's available ... before it expires?" Mkhize said.
"If not, can we swap it with anyone else, because we've discussed it with COVAX and with AVATT (the AU's vaccine task team), so we will see what we will do."
It is not clear how a sale or swap would work given the varying prices for vaccines around the world, or whether the British drugmaker would have to agree to such a move. The Serum Institute and AstraZeneca declined to comment.
Still, in a briefing to lawmakers later in the day, Mkhize said the government wanted to see whether it could swap AstraZeneca shots it had ordered from the Serum Institute for doses of a different vaccine available under the COVAX scheme run by the WHO and international vaccines alliance Gavi.
The move is the latest twist in a saga that has engulfed South Africa this week as it tries to tame the fast-spreading variant. The country's death toll is nearing 47,000 and infections have surpassed 1.47 million.
A WHO panel said on Wednesday that the AstraZeneca vaccine was safe and effective and should be deployed widely, including in countries where the 501Y.V2 variant could reduce its efficacy. Gavi said COVAX was exploring ways for countries participating in the facility to exchange vaccine doses with each other to optimise for their needs.
Turning to J&J for alternative supplies is another blow to AstraZeneca, whose vaccine is considered critical for poor nations because it is cheap and easy to store.
South Africa's Ministerial Advisory Committee should be able to give a considered view on how to deal with the AstraZeneca vaccine in the next week or two, Mkhize said, adding the government had also secured doses from Pfizer for health workers.
Negotiations with Moderna, China's Sinopharm and over Russia's Sputnik V vaccine are ongoing.
Mkhize referred to the first batch of J&J doses as "bridging stock" and said they could arrive next week.
Officials previously said the country had secured 9 million J&J single-dose shots, and Mkhize said a deal could be finalised soon.
Glenda Gray, Medical Research Council (MRC) president, said the government and the MRC aimed to immunise up to 500,000 health workers in the J&J study, with batches of around 80,000 doses arriving every seven to 14 days once the study is approved.
Eventually, most of the J&J supplies could come from local pharmaceutical company Aspen, which is due to bring production on stream around April, Mkhize said.
The J&J vaccine was 89% effective at preventing severe disease and 57% effective against moderate to severe disease in the South African leg of a large global trial. About 95% of infections in the local study were due to the 501Y.V2 variant.
The variant has alarmed health experts who have raised concerns about its ability to potentially evade the immune response generated by prior exposure to the coronavirus or vaccines.
South Africa's neighbour eSwatini said on Tuesday it would not use the AstraZeneca vaccine.
February 09, 2021 – Mary Wilson, a founding member of legendary Motown group The Supremes, died on Monday at the age of 76, her publicist said.
Wilson died suddenly at her home in Henderson, Nevada, according to her publicist. No cause of death was released.
A singer as well as a best-selling author, Wilson helped form female singing group The Primettes in Detroit in 1959, alongside Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Betty McGlown. The latter left the group and was replaced by Wilson. Wilson, Ross and Ballard went on to enjoy huge success as The Supremes.
Under the Detroit-based Motown Records label, the group scored 12 No. 1 hits with songs like "Baby Love" and "Stop! In the Name of Love," and remains influential decades later.
Wilson stayed on with The Supremes even after the original members left and new ones joined the lineup. The group split up in 1977, and she pursued a solo career.
"I have so many wonderful memories of our time together," Ross wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. "'The Supremes' will live on in our hearts."
Motown Records founder Berry Gordy said The Supremes "were always known as the 'sweethearts of Motown.'"
"I was always proud of Mary," Gordy said in a statement. "She was quite a star in her own right and over the years continued to work hard to boost the legacy of the Supremes. ... She was a trailblazer, a diva and will be deeply missed."
The Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. The 2006 film "Dreamgirls," starring Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson, was loosely based on their story.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, a funeral service for Wilson will be private, her publicist said. A celebration of her life is expected later in the year.
February 08, 2021 – LOS ANGELES - Barack and Michelle Obama's production company on Friday announced six new projects in development for Netflix Inc, including a love story with a supernatural twist and a young adult thriller.
The former president and first lady's Higher Ground Productions will adapt British-Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid's novel "Exit West" into a film, according to a statement from Netflix. The book tells the story of a young couple who find magical doors to transport them to other places and land in the middle of a global refugee crisis.
Other film projects include a science-fiction movie called "Satellite," which will be produced with T Street, a production company run by "Star Wars" director Rian Johnson and producer Ram Bergman. Another is "Tenzing," the story of the Nepalese-Indian man who first reached the summit of Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand.
"The Young Wife" is a feature film that follows a woman on the day of her wedding who feels out of sync as a storm approaches.
The company also is developing two TV series. "Firekeeper's Daughter" is a thriller based on a young adult novel by Angeline Boulley about an 18-year-old Ojibwe tribe member who reluctantly goes undercover in a police investigation on her reservation.
The other series is a nature documentary about national parks.
Netflix said the projects will be released over the next few years but did not give exact release dates.
The Obamas signed a multiyear production deal with Netflix in 2018. Their earlier Netflix projects include "American Factory," which won an Oscar in 2020 for best documentary.
February 04, 2021 – CANBERRA - A former Cook Islands prime minister was on Thursday named the new Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum after marathon talks that threaten to fracture the grouping that promotes regional peace, harmony and security.
Henry Puna was named after talks stretched for more than 12 hours. He eventually defeated Gerald Zackious, the Marshall Islands ambassador to the United States, by nine votes to eight.
Puna will now lead the region's push for more aggressive global action in tackling climate change.
The process, however, threatens to fracture the 50-year-old grouping, which includes Australia and New Zealand and 16 other mostly smaller island states dotted across the South Pacific.
Micronesian states said last year it was their turn to fill the post and threatened to leave the forum if they were not permitted.
"This has been an incredibly damaging 24 hours for Pacific regionalism and unity, the repercussions of which will be felt for years to come," said Jonathan Pryke, Director, Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank.
The sparsely populated Pacific island countries control vast swathes of resource-rich oceans, and their strategic locations have in recent years become battleground for influence between China and the United States and its allies.
February 03, 2021 – WASHINGTON - Microsoft Corp said on Wednesday it fully supported proposed new laws in Australia that would force internet giants Google and Facebook Inc to pay domestic media outlets for their content.
"While Microsoft is not subject to the legislation currently pending, we'd be willing to live by these rules if the government designates us," the software firm said in a statement.
"The code reasonably attempts to address the bargaining power imbalance between digital platforms and Australian news businesses."
Both Alphabet Inc's Google and Facebook have called the laws unworkable and said last month they would withdraw some key services from Australia if the regulations went ahead.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday Microsoft was ready to step in and expand its search product Bing in Australia if Google pulls its search engine, after he spoke with Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella last week.
Google's search engine has 94% of the country's search market, according to industry data.
Microsoft in its statement said it will offer small firms a chance to transfer advertising business to Bing with no costs and that it would invest further in the product to ensure it is competitive.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
February 02, 2021 – LOS ANGELES -"Black Panther" director and co-writer Ryan Coogler is developing a streaming television series set in the movie's fictional futuristic kingdom of Wakanda, Walt Disney Co said on Monday.
The new series for the Disney+ streaming service will be created as part of a five-year television deal with Coogler's Proximity Media production company, Disney said in a statement.
No release date was announced. Coogler is currently working on a movie sequel to 2018 blockbuster "Black Panther," which is scheduled to arrive in theaters in July 2022.
The original "Black Panther," the first Marvel Studios film with a predominantly Black cast and a Black director, took in $1.3 billion at box offices around the world and earned a best picture nomination at the Oscars.
The movie starred the late Chadwick Boseman as a proud leader in Wakanda. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has said the role will not be recast following Boseman's death in August 2020.
Disney said in December that it plans to release 10 new TV series each in the Marvel and Star Wars franchises as it competes for streaming viewers with Netflix Inc and others.
January 26, 2021 – WASHINGTON - U.S. President Joe Biden spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday for the first time since taking office and raised concerns about Russian activities including the treatment of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, the White House said.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki announced the phone call between the two leaders at her daily briefing. It came as Biden adjusts U.S. policy in a more robust way toward Russia after his predecessor, Donald Trump refused to take on Putin directly.
At the same time, Biden sought to repair the strained alliance between the United States and Europe by stressing in a phone call to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that Washington would abide by the NATO treaty's mutual defense pact.
"President Biden reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to collective defense under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and underscored his commitment to strengthening transatlantic security," a White House statement said.
In the Putin phone call, Psaki said, topics included Biden's proposal to extend the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia for five years and "strong (U.S.) support for Ukraine sovereignty" in the face of ongoing Russian aggression.
The arms control treaty, which is due to expire on Feb. 5, limits the United States and Russia to deploying no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads each.
Psaki said Biden also raised the case of Navalny, who was jailed after his return to Moscow last week in a case that has raised tension between Russia and the United States.
Biden also voiced concern about the massive Solar Winds cyber hack blamed on Russia and reports that Russians offered bounties to Taliban insurgents for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Biden's phone call with Stoltenberg came a day after he spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"The president thanked the (NATO) secretary general for his steadfast leadership of the alliance, and conveyed his intention to consult and work with allies on the full range of shared security concerns, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia," the White House statement said.
January 25, 2021 – JOHANNESBURG - The death toll from storm Eloise rose to at least 13 on Monday after heavy winds, rain and flooding destroyed buildings, drowned crops and displaced thousands in parts of southern Africa.
Eloise weakened from a cyclone to a tropical storm after making landfall in central Mozambique on Saturday, but continued to dump rain on Zimbabwe, eSwatini - formerly known as Swaziland - South Africa and Botswana.
Six people were killed in Mozambique, the country's National Institute for Disaster Risk Management and Reduction (INGD) reported, while the number of displaced people rose to more than 8,000, with thousands of homes wrecked or flooded.
A five-year-old child was killed in South Africa's eastern Mpumalanga province after being swept away, said George Mthethwa, head of communications for the provincial department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs.
In neighbouring Limpopo, fast-flowing rivers destroyed a makeshift bridge, leaving people hoping to cross stranded on either side. Others waded through the knee-high flood waters.
The death toll stood at two in eSwatini, according to police. Three people had been reported killed in Zimbabwe and one in Madagascar.
"Rainfall is starting to ease off slowly," said Puseletso Mofokeng, senior forecaster at the South African Weather Service, adding there was still a risk of localised flooding as more rain was expected on saturated ground.
Zimbabwe's national water authority also warned that dams were spilling over and could cause floods further downstream.
Following Cyclone Idai in 2019, rainwater flowed from Zimbabwe back into Mozambique causing devastating floods. Over 1,000 people died across the region, with the impoverished coastal nation bearing the brunt.
Eloise struck an area still recovering from that devastation and already flooded in parts.
Evacuations, warnings and higher community awareness have led to a much lower death toll, but some temporary camps, where evacuees were taken, have been cut off.
Sergio Dinoi, head of the advisory team in Mozambique for the U.N.'s humanitarian arm, said groups were venturing out, in some cases via boat, on Monday to assess the damage.
January 25, 2021 – A U.S. aircraft carrier group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt entered the South China Sea over the weekend to promote "freedom of the seas" at a time of U.S. concern about China-Taiwan tensions and Beijing asserting its maritime agenda.
Taiwan, meanwhile, reported an incursion of Chinese bombers and fighter jets into its air defence identification zone.
The patrol comes just days after Joe Biden was sworn in as U.S. president and follows a year of repeated demonstrations of military power by both Beijing and Washington.
China has complained about U.S. vessels in the South China Sea close to islands it controls, claims, or constructed and turned into military installations.
The Trump and Obama administrations carried out such patrols regularly, ostensibly to challenge China's "nine-dash line" claim to jurisdiction over almost the entire South China Sea, which an international arbitral tribunal ruled has no legal basis.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said Saturday's patrol was to "ensure freedom of the seas, (and) build partnerships that foster maritime security" suggesting Biden, as with the "pivot" strategy of the Obama administration he served as vice president, will pursue deeper engagement and alliance-building in Southeast Asia, to try to prevent China establishing regional hegemony.
Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, have territorial claims in the waterway and largely welcome the U.S. presence, mainly as a check on China's militarisation and its vast coastguard and fishing fleet.
Southeast Asian countries last year expressed worry that the escalating U.S.-China tensions could lead to military confrontation, with potential for big disruptions to a vital trade route, which would have devastating consequences for their economies.
The United States has accused China of bullying and attempting to build a "maritime empire", announcing several rounds of sanctions on Chinese state companies involved in the building of the artificial islands.
China sees the United States as an outsider interfering in a region in which it sees itself as a force for peace and stability.
"It's business as usual for strategic competition," said Renato de Castro, a defence expert at Manila's De La Salle University, adding the U.S. patrol was "both reassuring and concerning".
"The Biden administration cannot show weakness in foreign policy," he added.
Tensions have risen as a result of what the United States saw as underhanded tactics by China to advance its territorial claims while its neighbours were fighting coronavirus epidemics.
Vietnam and the Philippines have protested China's establishment of administrative districts in the disputed Paracel islands and in the Spratly islands. Protests also followed China's military drills near the Paracels, including the firing of ballistic missiles from several locations into waters nearby.
Chinese coastguard and survey vessels were repeatedly tracked in 2020 near energy exploration in offshore plots operated by Malaysia and Vietnam, disrupting activities and leading to weeks-long standoffs.
Though not directly linked, the U.S. patrol came a day after China passed a law allowing its coastguard to open fire on foreign vessels. That could increase the risk of conflict given the competing territorial claims and the vast distances travelled by China's coastguard fleet.
The bill, which China says is in line with international practices, also allows coastguard personnel to demolish other countries' structures on reefs it claims, and to board and inspect foreign vessels in China-claimed waters.
"The law heightens the risk of inducing unintended incidents at sea," said Ha Hoang Hop, a fellow at Singapore's ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, adding it could also be considered a warning to Washington.
Several analysts expect the United States to continue the patrols and firm up relations with littoral states, and for China to increase military exercises and disrupt any efforts to resume energy activities in waters it considers its own.
January 22, 2021 – WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate on Friday voted overwhelmingly to confirm retired Army General Lloyd Austin as President Joe Biden's defense secretary, making him the first Black American to serve in the role.
The vote was 93-2 in the 100-member chamber, far more than the simple majority needed.
Lawmakers from both parties said they were pleased that Austin would be installed to lead the Pentagon just two days after Biden was sworn in as president.
After a smooth transition to Biden's new administration was impeded by former Republican President Donald Trump's insistence that he had won the Nov. 3 election, Biden's fellow Democrats - and some Republicans - have been pushing to confirm the new president's national security team as quickly as possible.
Senator Jack Reed, the incoming Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted the wide range of challenges facing the country - including the coronavirus pandemic and competition with China and Russia.
"General Austin is an exceptionally qualified leader with a long and distinguished career in the U.S. military," Reed said before the vote.
"We have China and Russia out there with capabilities that we didn't really believe we would find ourselves with," said Senator James Inhofe, the outgoing Republican chairman of the armed services panel, also urging support for Austin.
Members of Congress on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a waiver allowing Austin to lead the Pentagon even though he had not cleared the required seven-year waiting period since leaving the uniformed services - a law intended to guarantee civilian control of the military.
Austin, 67, built a reputation as a razor-sharp leader who avoided the spotlight during his distinguished four-decade career in uniform, including time heading Central Command, which oversees U.S. troops across the Middle East.
He retired from the army in 2016.
Austin had a smooth Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday. Two weeks after rioters, some identified as white supremacists, stormed the Capitol in opposition to Trump's election defeat, Austin said he would work to get rid of "racists and extremists" from the military's ranks.
Officials have expressed dismay that several of those arrested and charged - some of whom used military tactics - have served in the armed forces.
Republican Senators Mike Lee and Josh Hawley were the only ones to vote against Austin's confirmation. Aides to the two senators did not immediately respond to requests for an explanation of their votes.
Hawley was involved in a Republican effort to block the certification of Biden's election victory. Some Democrats have called for an ethics investigation of his conduct in light of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters as Congress certified the results.
Lee was not part of the effort to block the certification.
Austin's nomination also prompted questions about his former position on the board of defense contractor Raytheon Technologies Corp . Austin has pledged to fully divest from Raytheon within 90 days of his confirmation.
January 22, 2021 – BUENOS AIRES - The German airline Lufthansa has asked the Argentine government for permission to overfly its country en route to the Falklands, Argentina said on Thursday, adding that the request implies recognition of Falklands "as part of Argentine territory," the Foreign Ministry said.
Lufthansa, separately, said it made the request for two flights supporting a polar research expedition because the normal route via Cape Town has been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Argentina and Britain have long disputed ownership of the Falklands, with Argentina for decades claiming sovereignty over the British-run islands it calls the Malvinas. The dispute led to a brief war in 1982.
The Argentine government said Lufthansa asked for permission for two flights that are due to carry scientists and logistical support staff from Hamburg to Mount Pleasant in the Falklands, where they will continue onboard the ship "Polarstern" to Antarctica to conduct climate change research.
Argentina said the German government also asked for its permission for the Polarstern research ship to dock in Port Stanley, the capital of the British-held territory.
The two, 15-hour flights are scheduled for Feb. 1 and March 30.
Argentina's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Lufthansa had asked its civil aviation authority and regional authorities to fly over Argentina and use the Argentine Patagonian town of Ushuaia as an alternative airport should it be unable to land in the Falklands.
The Foreign Ministry said the German Embassy also asked for authorization from the Argentine Naval Prefecture for the Polarstern ship to enter "Puerto Argentino," the Argentine name for the Falklands capital Port Stanley.
"The relevance of Lufthansa's request presented to the Argentine authorities is highlighted as it implies the recognition of the Malvinas Islands as part of Argentine territory," the Foreign Ministry said.
In the past year, Argentina has renewed its drive to reclaim the Falklands, appointing a Malvinas minister, saying it will redraw maps to emphasize its claim for use in schools and lobbying at the United Nations.
The German government did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Lufthansa announced the alternate route for the flight via the Falklands in a press release on Wednesday touting "the longest passenger flight in the history of its company, marking one of the most unique flights the airline has ever carried out."
Both passengers and crew at present are in a 14-day quarantine and their luggage sealed and decontaminated in a bid to try to keep COVID cases low in the remote region.
January 20, 2021 – SailGP's second season will feature eight teams participating in eight races, starting in Bermuda from April, the tournament organisers said on Wednesday.
The second season will begin with the Bermuda Grand Prix from April 24-25 this year, a month after the end of the 36th America's Cup, and conclude with the United States Grand Prix in San Francisco, scheduled for March 26-27 in 2022.
Season 2 was initially scheduled for 2020, but events were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the results from the opening race in Sydney in February were declared null and void.
SailGP was set up in 2018 by Oracle founder Larry Ellison and America's Cup veteran Russell Coutts and culminates in a winner-takes-all $1 million prize.
The championship has been billed as sailing's equivalent of Formula One and uses the F50 catamarans, which have hit speeds of 50 knots (93 kph).
The 2021-22 season has expanded from its five-race calendar last year, with races also to be held in Italy, England, Denmark, France, Spain and New Zealand.
"There's rarely been a time in my lifelong sailing career when I've been as enthusiastic as I am about our upcoming season," said SailGP CEO Coutts.
"In just over three months, we'll have the world's best sailors lining up in equally matched boats for what is shaping up to be some of the sport's most competitive racing yet."
The new season will feature Tom Slingsby's reigning champion Australian team, along with teams from Denmark, France, Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Spain and the U.S.
The championship last year was suspended after the first race in Sydney, which was won by a British team led by four-times Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie.
January 20, 2021 – An emotional Lady Gaga performed a dramatic version of the U.S. national anthem, Garth Brooks sang a cappella, and Jennifer Lopez gave a shoutout in Spanish at the inauguration of President Joe Biden on Wednesday, a ceremony that was marked by diversity and appeals for unity.
Gaga, known for her flamboyant outfits, wowed in a huge fuchsia Schiaparelli couture silk skirt and black top adorned by a large gold brooch of a dove carrying an olive branch as she stepped up to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Gaga turned at one point to gesture to the U.S. flag flying high over the Capitol, the seat of Congress that just two weeks ago was the scene of an attack by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump seeking to overturn Biden's election.
"She slayed it. I AM GAGA FOR GAGA!!!" actor Ed Helms wrote in a tweet.
Ahead of her performance, Gaga said on Twitter that she wanted to "acknowledge our past, be healing for our present, and be passionate for a future where we work together lovingly."
Country singer Brooks, a Republican, chose jeans and a black shirt and took off his black Stetson hat to sing an unaccompanied version of "Amazing Grace" and asked Americans at the ceremony and watching at home to sing along with him for the last verse.
Lopez, dressed in white pants and a long matching coat, performed a medley of "This Land is Your Land" and "America The Beautiful," interjecting in Spanish the part of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance that says, "One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
At just 22 years old, poet Amanda Gorman captured the mixed emotions of the past four years with a poem in which she referred to herself as a "skinny Black girl, descended from slaves and raised by a single mother (who) can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one."
The cultural celebrations will continue on Wednesday night with a two-hour special broadcast across six television networks and social media, hosted by "Toy Story" actor Tom Hanks, who is known as "America's Dad."
The events, bringing together some of the biggest white, Black and Hispanic celebrities, mark a sharp contrast with Trump's inauguration in 2017, which was low on star power.
Wednesday's TV special, called "Celebrating America," will feature appearances from stars including Bruce Springsteen, Katy Perry, Tim McGraw, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Justin Timberlake, Demi Lovato, and John Legend.
Biden's inaugural committee said the special will also feature teachers, delivery drivers, and healthcare workers, along with children who raised money to get food to people who have fallen on hard times because of the coronavirus pandemic.
January 20, 2021 – WASHINGTON - Kamala Harris made history on Wednesday when she was sworn in as Joe Biden's vice president, becoming the first woman, the first Black American and the first Asian American to hold the second highest U.S. office.
Looking ahead, Harris, 56, is seen as an obvious contender for the Democratic Party's 2024 presidential nomination should Biden, 78, decide not to seek a second term. Harris has yet to weigh in publicly on such speculation.
A U.S. senator from California the past four years, Harris has shattered many a glass ceiling. She served as San Francisco's first female district attorney and was California's first woman of color to be elected attorney general.
Harris has resigned her Senate seat, but she still will play a prominent role in the chamber. The U.S. vice president serves as Senate president, casting any tie-breaking votes in the 100-member chamber. With it split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, Harris gives her party control of the Senate.
Her background in criminal justice could help the new Biden administration tackle the issues of racial equality and policing after the country was swept by protests last year. She is expected to be a top adviser on judicial nominations.
Harris is the daughter of immigrants, with her mother coming to the United States from India and her father from Jamaica.
She had her sights set on becoming the first woman U.S. president when she competed against Biden and others for their party's 2020 nomination. Harris dropped out of the race after a campaign hurt by her wavering views on healthcare and indecision about embracing her past as a prosecutor.
Biden looked beyond some of the harsh words she had for him in that campaign to name Harris as his running mate last August. She has proven to be a valuable and polished stand-in, appealing especially to women, liberals and voters of color.
Harris developed a deep fundraising network during her Senate and White House bids. She was instrumental to Biden's raking in record sums of money in the closing months of the campaign against Republican incumbent Donald Trump. Her selection sparked a burst of excitement in the Democratic voter base and among the party's donors.
A TEAM PLAYER
Accusations from liberals that Harris did not do enough to investigate police shootings and wrongful conviction cases when she was California's attorney general helped doom her own presidential run but surfaced little during her time as Biden's running mate.
Harris defended her record, saying she had worked her whole career "to reform the criminal justice system with the understanding that it is deeply flawed and in need of repair."
Prior to her selection, several Biden aides said Harris was able to put to rest concerns among some in the former vice president's camp that she would be too personally ambitious to make a trustworthy partner.
"Joe and I were raised in a very similar way," Harris said of Biden at her October debate against then-Vice President Mike Pence. "We were raised with values that are about hard work, about the value and the dignity of public service and about the importance of fighting for the dignity of all people."
Harris juggled her running mate duties with her day job in the Senate. Befitting her background as a prosecutor, she was a deft cross-examiner of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett at Barrett's Senate confirmation hearing in October, weaving Biden's campaign message on healthcare and climate change into her line of questioning.
As the Senate's only Black woman, Harris emerged as a leading voice on racial justice and police reform after Minneapolis police killed African-American man George Floyd in May. She marched with protesters on the streets of Washington and won over some liberal skeptics.
Asked on the CBS program "60 Minutes" last year why, given Biden's age, he believed Harris would be ready to step into the presidency if something happened to him, Biden rapidly fired off five reasons.
"Number one, her values. Number two, she is smart as a devil, and number three, she has a backbone like a ramrod. Number four, she is really principled. And number five, she has had significant experience in the largest state in the union in running the justice department that's only second in size to the United States Justice Department. And obviously, I hope that never becomes a question," Biden said.
Harris is married to attorney Douglas Emhoff, who has adopted the Twitter handle @SecondGentleman. His two children from a previous marriage refer to their stepmother as "Momala."
January 20, 2021 – WASHINGTON - Democrat Joe Biden was sworn in as president of the United States on Wednesday, vowing to end the 'uncivil war' in a deeply divided country reeling from a battered economy and a raging coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Americans.
With the U.S. Capitol encircled by thousands of armed troops two weeks after a mob laid siege to it, Biden took the oath of office administered by U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts and became the oldest U.S. president in history at age 78.
"To overcome these challenges to restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity," he said in his inauguration speech.
"We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this - if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts."
The scaled-back inauguration ceremony was stripped of much of its usual celebratory spirit. The National Mall, typically packed with throngs of supporters, instead was filled with U.S. flags in a reminder of the pandemic Biden will confront as chief executive.
Speaking on the steps of the Capitol, where supporters of then-President Donald Trump clashed with police in a chaotic assault that left five dead and stunned the world on Jan.6, Biden cast his ascension as proof that the attackers had failed to disrupt the underpinnings of American democracy.
The violence prompted the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives to impeach Trump last week for an unprecedented second time, accusing him of incitement after he exhorted his backers to march on the building amid false claims of election fraud.
"Here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work on our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground," Biden said. "It did not happen; it will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever."
Biden's running mate, Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, became the first Black person, first woman and first Asian American to serve as vice president after she was sworn in by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court's first Latina member.
The norm-defying Trump flouted one last convention on his way out of the White House when he refused to meet with Biden or attend his successor's inauguration, breaking with a political tradition seen as affirming the peaceful transfer of power.
Trump, who never conceded the Nov. 3 election, did not mention Biden by name in his final remarks as president on Wednesday morning, when he touted his administration's record and promised to be back "in some form." He then boarded Air Force One for the last time and flew to his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida.
Top Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence and the party's congressional leaders, attended Biden's inauguration, along with former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Biden takes office at a time of deep national unease, with the country facing what his advisers have described as four compounding crises: the pandemic, the economic downturn, climate change and racial inequality. He has promised immediate action, including a raft of executive orders on his first day in office.
After a bitter campaign marked by Trump's baseless allegations of election fraud, Biden struck a conciliatory tone rarely heard from his predecessor, asking Americans who did not vote for him to give him a chance.
"I pledge this to you: I will be a president for all Americans," he said. "And I promise you I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did."
Although his remarks were directed primarily at problems at home, Biden delivered what he called a message to those beyond America's borders, promising to repair alliances frayed by Trump, lead and be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress and security. He made no specific mention of high-stakes disputes with North Korea, Iran and China.
'SOUL OF AMERICA'
Biden's inauguration is the zenith of a five-decade career in public service that included more than three decades in the U.S. Senate and two terms as vice president under Obama.
But he faces calamities that would challenge even the most experienced politician.
The pandemic in the United States reached a pair of grim milestones on Trump's final full day in office on Tuesday, reaching 400,000 U.S. deaths and 24 million infections - the highest of any country. Millions of Americans are out of work because of pandemic-related shutdowns and restrictions.
Biden has vowed to bring the full weight of the federal government to bear on the crisis. His top priority is a $1.9 trillion plan that would enhance jobless benefits and provide direct cash payments to households.
But it will require approval from a deeply divided Congress, where Democrats hold slim advantages in both the House and Senate. Harris was scheduled to swear in three new Democratic senators late on Wednesday, creating a 50-50 split in the chamber with herself as the tie-breaking vote.
Biden will waste little time trying to turn the page on the Trump era, advisers said, signing 15 executive actions on Wednesday on issues ranging from the pandemic to the economy to climate change.
The orders will include mandating masks on federal property, rejoining the Paris climate accord and ending Trump's travel ban on some Muslim-majority countries.
Although Biden has laid out a packed agenda for his first 100 days, including delivering 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations, the Senate could be consumed by Trump's upcoming impeachment trial, which will move ahead even though he has left office.
The trial could serve as an early test of Biden's promise to foster a renewed sense of bipartisanship in Washington.
Trump issued more than 140 pardons and commutations in his final hours in office, including a pardon for his former political adviser, Steve Bannon, who has pleaded not guilty to charges that he swindled Trump supporters as part of an effort to raise private funds for a Mexico border wall.
But Trump did not issue preemptive pardons for himself or members of his family, after speculation that he might do so.
January 15, 2021 – LONDON - As the rest of the world was shutting down to stave off COVID-19, U.S. star Anne Hathaway found herself starting up a whole new movie project - a rom-com heist caper set in the pandemic still raging around her.
"I don't think either of us quite know how we pulled it off," Hathaway told sources as she sat down with her co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor to talk about "Locked Down", the result of their labours that started streaming on HBO Max on Thursday.
The film tells the story of a couple on the verge of breaking up, until coronavirus restrictions leave them stuck together in London.
The frustration from their forced cohabitation and a series of plot twists boil over into a scheme to steal a diamond from Harrod's department store.
Shooting started in the autumn when Britain was ramping up restrictions again after a relative lull. The race was on to get everything done before the full shutters came down again, and to get the film out while the setting was current.
The two actors agreed to do the film after seeing only an incomplete script.
"It was one of those things that becomes a kind of blur, you know," said Ejiofor, the star of "12 Years a Slave", "Kinky Boots" and "Serenity".
"Maybe the first couple of days I was on top of the lines, you know, and then there was just the rest of the shooting schedule. And it was complex, but it was fun ... to kind of play in that and to be on edge."
The pandemic framed the plot, and had an equally strong influence behind the camera.
"It's a strange thing to make a film with everybody in masks," said Ejiofor. "There are people there that I did not see their full faces. I probably will pass them in the street one day and then they'll cover themselves and I’ll be like, oh, it’s you!"
January 15, 2021 – JAKARTA - A powerful earthquake killed at least 42 people and injured hundreds on Indonesia's island of Sulawesi on Friday, trapping several under rubble and unleashing dozens of aftershocks as authorities warned of more quakes that could trigger a tsunami.
Thousands of frightened residents fled their homes for higher ground when the magnitude 6.2-quake struck 6 km (4 miles) northeast of the town of Majene, at a depth of just 10 km, shortly before 1.30 a.m.
The quake and aftershocks damaged more than 300 homes and two hotels, as well as flattening a hospital and the office of a regional governor, where authorities told sources several people have been trapped under the rubble.
"Praise be to God, for now OK, but we just felt another aftershock," said Sukri Efendy, a 26-year-old resident of the area.
As many as 42 people have been killed, mostly in Mamuju and the rest in the neighbouring district of Majene, the country's national disaster mitigation agency said in a situation report on Friday evening. More than 820 people were injured, it said.
The heightened seismic activity set off three landslides, severed electricity supplies, and damaged bridges linking to regional hubs, such as the city of Makassar. Heavy rain was also worsening conditions for those seeking shelter.
No tsunami warning was issued but the head of Indonesia's Meteorology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), Dwikorita Karnawati, told a news conference that aftershocks could follow, with a possibility that another powerful quake could trigger a tsunami.
There had been at least 26 aftershocks, she said, with Friday's quake preceded by a quake of 5.9 magnitude the previous day.
Mamuju resident Muhammad Ansari Iriyanto, 31, told sources that everyone panicked and sought refuge in the nearby hills and mountains.
"Mamuju is now empty, everyone went to the mountains," he said. "Lots of buildings collapsed and people are afraid of a tsunami."
Another resident Syahir Muhammad said: “It’s raining and we need help.”
Videos shared on social media showed residents fleeing to higher ground on motorcycles, and a young girl trapped under rubble as people tried to shift debris with their hands. Rescue workers used cutting and lifting equipment to free survivors and find the dead.
President Joko Widodo offered condolences to the victims, urging people to stay calm and authorities to step up search efforts.
Emerging workers are now trying to restoring telecoms and bridge links and ensure the delivery of tents, food and medical supplies, said West Sulawesi provincial government spokesman Safaruddin.
About 15,000 people have fled their homes since the quake, the disaster agency has said, with the coronavirus pandemic likely to complicate the distribution of aid.
"It is certainly one of the most challenging, this (disaster) was one of our fears and now we are putting all of that planning and protocols into place," said Jan Gelfand, head of the International Federation of Red Cross in Indonesia.
Straddling the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia is regularly hit by earthquakes.
In 2018, a devastating 6.2-magnitude quake and subsequent tsunami struck the city of Palu, in Sulawesi, killing thousands.
A 9.1-magnitude quake off the north of Sumatra island triggered a tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004 that lashed coastal areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and nine other nations, killing more than 230,000 people.