Meet ‘Turtwig,’ an ancient turtle species once thought to be a plant

Fossil jpg: The fossil that was originally interpreted to be a plant, but researchers have now discovered is the inside of the shell of a baby turtle. Photo by Fabiany Herrera and Héctor Palma-Castro.

Fossil image: Drawing highlighting the rib and back bones, superimposed onto the fossil. Photo by Fabiany Herrera and Héctor Palma-Castro; drawing by Edwin-Alberto Cadena and Diego Cómbita-Romero.

The fossil (left) was originally thought to be an extinct plant. New research has revealed the fossil shows the inside of an ancient baby turtle’s shell, including its rib and back bones as depicted in the drawing (right).Fabiany Herrera, Héctor Palma-Castro/Edwin-Alberto Cadena, Diego Cómbita-Romero

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Ancient plant fossils that puzzled scientists have turned out not to be plants after all, new research has revealed.

Instead, the small round shapes bearing a leaflike pattern were once the shells of baby turtles that lived during the time of dinosaurs. Scientists have nicknamed the turtle species “Turtwig,” after a Pokémon character that is half-turtle, half-plant.

The discovery marks the first time baby turtle carapaces have been found in northwestern South America, according to the study authors.

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The results of their research were published Thursday in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica.

“In the Pokémon universe, you encounter the concept of combining two or more elements, such as animals, machines, plants, etc.,” said lead author Héctor Palma-Castro, a graduate student of paleobotany at the National University of Colombia, in a statement.

“So, when you have a fossil initially classified as a plant that turns out to be a baby turtle, a few Pokémon immediately come to mind. In this case, Turtwig, a baby turtle with a leaf attached to its head.”

But it took some sleuthing to solve this paleontological mystery that began decades ago.

Wrong place, wrong time

It all started when Colombian priest Padre Gustavo Huertas discovered the fossils in the Paja Formation. The formation is part of one of Colombia’s geological heritage sites called the Marine Reptile Lagerstätte of the Ricaurte Alto.

Previous fossil discoveries from the site include dinosaurs, plesiosaurs, pliosaurs, ichthyosaurs, turtles and crocodile relatives called crocodylopmorphs dated from the Early Cretaceous Period, between 113 million and 132 million years ago.

Fossilized Trisauopodiscus tracks (left) and modern bird tracks (right).

Millions of years before the earliest birds appeared, mystery animals walked around on birdlike feet, study finds

Huertas collected fossils and rocks at the site, near the town of Villa de Leyva, from the 1950s to the 1970s. When he found the leaf-patterned rocks, he deemed them a fossil plant. Huertas went on to describe the specimens as Sphenophyllum colombianum in a 2003 study.

But other scientists were surprised to hear that the plant was discovered in northern South America and dated between 113 million and 132 million years ago. The now-extinct plant, once prevalent around the world, died out more than 100 million years earlier, according to the fossil record.

Previous research about the plant showed that its leaves were typically wedge-shaped with veins that radiated out from the base of the leaf.

The age and location of the fossils intrigued Palma-Castro and Fabiany Herrera, the assistant curator of paleobotany at the Negaunee Integrative Research Center at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.

Herrera collects and studies plants from the Early Cretaceous Period (100.5 million to 145 million years ago) in northwestern South America, a part of the continent where little paleobotanical research takes place.

Both fossils, about 2 inches (5 centimeters) in diameter, were housed in collections at the National University of Colombia’s department of geosciences. As Herrera and Palma-Castro examined and photographed the fossils, they thought something seemed strange.

“When you look at it in detail, the lines seen on the fossils don’t look like the veins of a plant — I was positive that it was most likely bone,” said Herrera, the study’s senior author, in a statement.

Solving a fossil mystery

Herrera contacted his colleague Edwin-Alberto Cadena, a senior lecturer and paleontologist who studies turtles and other vertebrates at Del Rosario University in Bogotá, Colombia.

“They sent me the photos, and I said, ‘This definitely looks like a carapace’ — the bony upper shell of a turtle,” said Cadena, a study coauthor, in a statement. “I said, ‘Well, this is remarkable, because this is not only a turtle, but it’s also a hatchling specimen, it’s very, very small.’”

An illustration of a sleeping alvarezsaurid dinosaur, Jaculinykus, like modern birds.

Dinosaur from newfound species died in a pose that sheds light on evolution of bird behavior

Cadena and one of his students, Diego Cómbita-Romero at the National University of Colombia, compared the fossils with the shells of other extinct and modern turtles.

“When we saw the specimen for the first time I was astonished, because the fossil was missing the typical marks on the outside of a turtle’s shell,” said study coauthor Cómbita-Romero in a statement. “It was a little bit concave, like a bowl. At that moment we realized that the visible part of the fossil was the other side of the carapace, we were looking at the part of the shell that is inside the turtle.”

During their analysis of the shells, the researchers determined that the turtles were about 1 year old at the most when they died.

As young turtles develop, their growth rates and sizes can vary, Cómbita-Romero said. But it’s rare to find remains of young turtles because the bones in their shells are so thin.

“These turtles were likely relatives of other Cretaceous species that were up to fifteen feet long, but we don’t know much about how they actually grew to such giant sizes,” Cadena said in a statement.

The researchers didn’t blame Huertas for mistakenly categorizing the fossils as plants. What he believed to be leaves and stems were the vertebrae and rib bones within a turtle’s shell.


Fossil unearthed in North Dakota could help solve an evolutionary mystery

“We resolved a small paleobotanical mystery, but more importantly, this study shows the need to re-study historical collections in Colombia. The Early Cretaceous is a critical time in land plant evolution,” Herrera said.

The research team next aims to uncover the forests that once grew in the region, he said.

“In paleontology, your imagination and capacity to be amazed are always put to the test,” Palma-Castro said. “Discoveries like these are truly special because they not only expand our knowledge about the past but also open a window to the diverse possibilities of what we can uncover.”

Infants found dead and decomposing in evacuated hospital ICU in Gaza. Here’s what we know

The bodies of decomposing babies are seen on hospital beds inside the Al-Nasr hospital ICU ward in northern Gaza, in this screen grab taken from a video filmed by Al Mashhad reporter Mohamed Baalousha, reportedly on November 27. The image has been blurred due to its graphic nature.

The bodies of decomposing babies are seen on hospital beds inside the Al-Nasr hospital ICU ward in northern Gaza, in this screen grab taken from a video filmed by Al Mashhad reporter Mohamed Baalousha, reportedly on November 27. The image has been blurred due to its graphic nature.Mohamed Baalousha/Al Mashhad

Editor’s Note: The following story includes graphic material. Audience discretion is advised.CNN — 

The scene inside the Al-Nasr hospital ICU ward is chilling. The tiny bodies of babies, several still attached to wires and tubes that were meant to keep them alive, decomposing in their hospital beds. Milk bottles and spare diapers still next to them on the sheets.

The video inside the hospital was filmed on November 27 by Mohamed Baalousha, a Gaza reporter for UAE-based news outlet Al Mashhad. He shared an unblurred version with CNN, which shows the remains of at least four infants.

Three of them appear to be still connected to hospital machines. The bodies of the babies appear to be darkening and disintegrating from decay, with little more than skeletons left in some of the beds. Flies and maggots are visibly crawling across the skin of one child.

The circumstances around one of the most horrifying videos to emerge from the war in Gaza remain unclear, but after days of piecing together available information, using interviews, published statements and video, a chaotic scene can been painted of hospital staff trying to protect their most vulnerable patients, caught in the middle of a raging battle – waiting for help that never arrived.

Here is what CNN found

CNN geolocated the video to Al-Nasr hospital in northern Gaza. This area has been largely unreachable to journalists in recent weeks due to the intensity of fighting but during the seven-day truce Baalousha says he was able to access the hospital to film what was left there.

From early November, the Al-Nasr and Al-Rantisi children’s hospitals, which form part of the same complex, had become the frontline of fighting between Israeli and Hamas forces.

In public statements and interviews, several medical staff and health officials from Al-Nasr said they had to hurriedly evacuate the hospital on November 10, under the direction of Israeli forces.

Medical staff described having to leave young children behind in the ICU because they had no means to safely move them.

A doctor associated with the hospital, who did not want to be named, told CNN that two of the children – a two-year-old and a nine-month-old baby – had died shortly before the evacuation but that three children were left alive still connected to respirators. One of those left alive was two months old. Several of the infants on the ICU had been suffering from genetic disorders, according to the doctor.

The condition of those left behind alive – both at the time the fighting reached the hospital and when the evacuation took place – remains unclear.

In a video on November 9, the head of Al-Nasr and Al-Rantisi pediatric hospitals, Dr. Mustafa al-Kahlout, said Al-Nasr hospital had been “struck twice” sustaining “a lot of damage.”

Kahlout warned oxygen to the ICU “was cut off” and reported at least one patient had died as a result, with others facing the risk of death.

It’s unclear whether oxygen cylinders, seen next to some of the beds in the video from the hospital, were functioning or whether supplies had run out.

“The situation is really bad, we are surrounded… ambulances cannot reach the hospital, and ambulances that tried to reach Al-Nasr were targeted,” Kahlout said, calling on international organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to intervene and save the medical staff and patients who remained in the ICU.

Video shared on social media on November 9, which CNN verified, was filmed from inside Al-Nasr hospital and appears to show the aftermath of the building being hit.

Another from November 10 showed an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) tank outside Al-Nasr, indicating the IDF was operating in the area. Another video from the same date showed civilians holding up makeshift white flags attempting to flee the hospital amid gunfire, then being forced to run back inside. It is not possible to tell from the video who is shooting.

Satellite imagery reviewed by CNN from November 11 shows large craters around the hospital complex, indicating the area had been under bombardment, making evacuation difficult.

But, in an audio recording of a conversation between a senior official at Al-Rantisi hospital and an officer from COGAT, which coordinates the Israeli government’s activities in the Palestinian territories and Gaza, it appears Israeli forces instructed hospital patients and staff to evacuate.

In the recording, released by the IDF on November 11, the Israeli officer assures the hospital official that ambulances will be arranged.

The hospital official tells the COGAT officer that ambulances cannot reach the hospital, and the officer replies: “I’ll arrange coordination with the primary aid center. Don’t worry, I’m near the army, it will be okay.”

“Will the ambulances take the patients and the medical staff?” the hospital official asks.

“No problem,” the COGAT officer responds, in the recording.

The hospital official then confirms that the COGAT officer is aware that people will be evacuating both Al-Nasr and Al-Rantisi hospitals, and the COGAT officer says “yes, yes.”

But hospital officials say the ambulances never arrived.

“Many of the patients were carried out by their families, ambulances couldn’t reach the hospital,” Kahlout said in a news conference on November 14, following the evacuation.

Three children were left in the ICU attached to hospital machines but without oxygen, Kahlout said.

In an audio recording from November 10 released by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) a nurse who the organization said was volunteering in a personal capacity, said the hospital had been shelled, hitting multiple floors, water tanks, and electricity and oxygen stations.

Palestinians stand by the building destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Deir al-Balah, south of the Gaza Strip, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

Amnesty investigation claims US-made weapon used in two Israeli airstrikes in Gaza that killed 43 civilians

The nurse – who CNN is not identifying for security reasons – said Al-Nasr staff were given 30 minutes to evacuate by the IDF, adding no ambulances were able to reach the hospital.

“We walked out a little bit there was shooting around us,” he said in the recording. Then he said someone from the IDF told him “I’ll give you safe passage, you have from 1130am until 12 noon.”

“So, we walked out with our hands up in the air carrying white flags and carrying families and children,” the nurse said in the recording.

He said he managed to carry one baby with him as he escaped and handed it to an ambulance headed for the Al-Shifa hospital. But four children were left behind in the ICU according to the nurse, in a discrepancy from the number given by Kahlout.

“To leave my patient dying in front of my eyes is the hardest thing I have ever experienced, it’s indescribable, they broke our hearts, we couldn’t help them, we couldn’t take them, we barely left ourselves with our children, we are civilians, we are a medical crew, we are displaced civilians,” he said in the recording.

Over the past week, CNN has tried to speak to medical staff and hospital officials from Al-Nasr, but all have either said they are too afraid to speak or cannot be reached.

The director of Gaza’s hospitals at the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health, Dr. Mohammad Zaqout, told CNN that people in the hospital were forced to leave by the IDF.

“We were forced to leave them behind to die because we didn’t have a safe medical evacuation… we informed them that these children were on beds and couldn’t be evacuated. We held other children in our arms while being forced to evacuate,” Zaqout said.

The IDF has strongly denied responsibility for the deaths of the children in Al-Nasr ICU. “Given that the IDF did not operate inside the Al-Nasr hospital, these allegations are not only false but also a perverse exploitation of innocent lives, used as tools to spread dangerous misinformation,” the IDF said in a statement to CNN.

Asked repeatedly by CNN why it hadn’t provided ambulances for the evacuation, as the COGAT officer had promised in the recorded conversation with the hospital official, and if they were aware of the presence of children left in the ICU, as Zaqout alleged, the IDF did not directly respond.

During an online Q&A for journalists Saturday, IDF spokesman Doron Spielman dismissed the story as merely a “rumor.”

“There were no premature babies that decomposed because of the IDF. There were probably no babies that decomposed whatsoever,” Spielman said. “But Hamas is in charge of Nasr hospital, we are not occupying Nasr hospital.”

Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of using hospitals as command centers and even as places to hold hostages.

Zaqout denies the allegation and has repeatedly called for “neutral entities, human rights organizations, and media outlets to enter the hospitals and verify for themselves that they are used solely for civilian and humanitarian purposes.”

CNN cannot independently confirm what state the children were in when they were left at the hospital. But Stefan Schmitt, a forensic scientist at Florida International University reviewed the video for CNN and said the level of decomposition of the infants was advanced.

Schmitt said he believed the room had not been disturbed since the children were left. “Those remains decomposed in situ, meaning they decomposed there on those beds,” he said. “You can see that from the bodily fluids that have leaked out over the time of decomposition.”

Schmitt also said one of the corpses appeared to be wrapped in fabric, possibly a shroud, noting there was no medical equipment attached to the body, suggesting the body may already have been dead or severely injured. The room appeared to have been abandoned in a hurry, Schmitt continued, noting the infant car seat and what appears to be a bag packed for one of the children next to its bed.

A statement from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Ministry of Health issued in response to the video of the babies’ remains said Al-Nasr nursing staff were ordered to leave by the IDF, who told them the ICRC was coming to evacuate the patients.

“Instead, their decomposed bodies were found in their beds,” reads the statement. “These babies drew their last breaths alone and died alone.”

The ICRC told CNN it received “several requests” for evacuation from hospitals in the north of Gaza, but due to the “security situation” it was “not involved in any operations or evacuations, nor did teams commit to doing so.” The ICRC added the footage of the deceased children was an “unspeakable tragedy.”

CNN’s Gianluca Mezzofiore, Nic Robertson, Celine Alkhadi, Katie Polglase, Mostafa Salem and Sahar Akbarzai contributed to this report

Russia’s Vladimir Putin says he will run for president again in 2024 election

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 30:  (RUSSIA OUT) Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the Kremlin on June 30, 2022 in Moscow, Russia. Indonesian President and current Chairman of G20 Widodo is visiting Ukraine and Russia this week. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)

The Russian presidential election is scheduled to be held in March 2024.Getty ImagesCNN — 

Vladimir Putin says he will run for president again in Russia’s elections in March 2024, in a move that could see him retain power until at least 2030.

Putin made the announcement Friday after a ceremony at the Kremlin, the official residence of the Russian president.

Putin will bid for his fifth presidential term at the elections, set to take place on March 17, 2024, as he aims to solidify his continuous hold on power as head of state or prime minister for more than two decades.

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The upcoming elections will also mark the first time that residents of the occupied Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, annexed by Russia during the conflict, will participate in the presidential elections.

Russia’s Central Election Commission said it would organize “house-to-house voting” in those four regions over three consecutive days on March 15, 16 and 17.

The international community previously condemned local elections in these regions, organized by Russian-backed officials, as a sham.

Putin became acting prime minister of Russia in August 1999, before unexpectedly being handed the presidency by then-President Boris Yeltsin on New Year’s Eve of that year.

AVDIIVKA, UKRAINE - DECEMBER 01: Ukrainian soldiers fire targets as Russia and Ukraine war continues in the direction of Avdiivka of Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on December 01, 2023. As Ukrainian tank troops deployed in the Avdiivka direction, where heavy clashes have been continuing due to the intensification of Russian attacks lately, play an important role in keeping the defense line standing. In some parts of the region, which has been covered in mud due to the bad weather conditions, tracked combat vehicles such as tanks can move. (Photo by Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu via Getty Images)

As Western unity on Ukraine falters, Putin eyes a slow-burn win

He served two four-year terms as president before stepping aside in 2008, as he was not constitutionally permitted to run for another presidential term. He endorsed Dmitry Medvedev, who replaced him as president, while Putin took the role of prime minister for a second time.

But he regained the presidency in 2012 and has not relinquished his grip on power since. After winning re-election in 2018, Putin then signed a law in 2021 which paved the way for him to run for two more six-year terms.

The changes to the law means that Putin, 71, could potentially extend his rule until 2036, by which time he will be in his mid-80s and his rule will be well into its third decade.

Russia's president-elect Vladimir Putin takes his oath of office in Moscow's Kremlin, on May 7, 2012.

Putin became president for a second time in 2012, a position he could hold until 2036.AFP/Getty Images

Putin is expected to face no more than token opposition in March. Under his authoritarian rule, opposition politicians have met similar fates: Exile, imprisonment or death in suspicious circumstances.

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who posed one of the most serious political challenges to Putin during his rule, was sentenced in August to 19 years in prison on extremism charges. Navalny and his supporters claim his arrest was politically motivated, intended to silence his criticism of Putin.

Navalny was immediately detained upon returning to Russia in 2021. He had been taken from Russian to Germany in 2020, after he was poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok. Navalny arrived comatose at a hospital in Berlin, following a medical evacuation flight from the Siberian city of Omsk. A joint investigation by CNN and the group Bellingcat implicated the Russian Security Service (FSB) in Navalny’s poisoning.

Russia denies involvement in Navalny’s poisoning. Putin said in December 2020 that if Russian security services had wanted to kill Navalny, they “would have finished” the job.

Putin’s war in Ukraine, initially expected by Russia to last just a few weeks, will likely have entered its second year by the time presidential elections are held in March. While accurately gauging public opinion in Russia is difficult, the war is still thought to command broad support among the public, despite the costs it has placed on Russian society.

Biden and Putin

Ukraine’s US lifeline is hanging by a thinning thread

The Kremlin tries to keep the Russian population isolated from the worst of the conflict, but Ukraine has repeatedly attempted to bring the war home to Russia, launching its own strikes on cities across the country – including on the Kremlin itself.

Russia has kept the casualty numbers from its war in Ukraine shrouded in secrecy. In September 2022, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said 5,937 troops had been killed in the war. The ministry has not published an update since.

But western intelligence assessments put the toll much higher. Western intelligence assessments put the toll much higher. The United Kingdom defense ministry said in October it is likely that Russia has suffered between 150,000 and 190,000 permanent casualties, meaning killed or permanently wounded, since February 2022.

Earlier this month, Russia announced it would increase its number of troops by 170,000, continuing to draw on its population as its invasion of Ukraine enters its 22nd month.

CNN’s Radina Gigova contributed reporting.

Tomato lost in space by history-making astronaut has been found

NASA astronaut Frank Rubio checks tomato plants inside the International Space Station in October 2022. The tomatoes were grown without soil using hydroponic techniques to demonstrate space agricultural methods.

NASA astronaut Frank Rubio checks tomato plants inside the International Space Station in October 2022. The tomatoes were grown without soil using hydroponic techniques to demonstrate space agricultural methods.Koichi Wakata/Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency/NASA

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Perhaps nowhere in the universe is a fresh, ripe tomato more valuable than on the International Space Station, where astronauts live for months at a time subsisting mainly on prepackaged, shelf-stable goods.

That’s why astronaut Frank Rubio became the central figure in a lighthearted whodunnit that has taken months to solve.

After Rubio harvested one of the first tomatoes ever grown in space earlier this year, according to the astronaut, he admitted he misplaced it.

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“I put it in a little bag, and one of my crewmates was doing a (public) event with some schoolkids, and I thought it’d be kind of cool to show the kids — ‘Hey guys this is the first tomato harvested in space,’” Rubio said during an October media event. “I was pretty confident that I Velcroed it where I was supposed to Velcro it … and then I came back and it was gone.”

In the microgravity environment of space, anything not anchored to a wall is at risk of floating away — destined to spend eternity hidden behind a nook or cranny within the football field-size orbiting laboratory and its labyrinthian passageways.

Rubio said he probably spent eight to 20 hours of his own free time just searching for that tomato.

iss068e017867 (Oct. 1, 2022) --- NASA astronaut and Expedition 68 Flight Engineer Frank Rubio is pictured inside the cupola, the International Space Station's "window to the world," as the orbiting lab flew 263 miles above southeastern England.

Astronaut Frank Rubio sets US record for longest trip in space

“Unfortunately — because that’s just human nature — a lot of people are like, ‘He probably ate the tomato,’” Rubio said. “And I wanted to find it mostly so I could prove like I did not eat the tomato.”

But he never found it.

Rubio returned to Earth on September 27 with the precious produce still lost aboard the space station.

It remained lost — until now.

During a Wednesday news conference, members of the seven-person crew remaining on the space station revealed they had finally located the tomato.

Rubio had “been blamed for quite a while for eating the tomato,” NASA astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli said. “But we can exonerate him.”

Tomato on top of a historic mission

The astronauts did not reveal where the tomato was or specify what state the produce was in when found.

Rubio surmised in October that it had probably already shriveled into an unrecognizable rot.

Due to the humidity at the space station, “it probably desiccated to the point where you couldn’t tell what it was,” Rubio said.

Case closed.

Rubio’s return to Earth in September was a historic moment. His stay on the space station — which lasted more than a year — set a record for the longest a US astronaut has ever spent in microgravity.

Rubio originally expected to spend only six months aboard the International Space Station. Instead, he logged 371 days following the discovery of a coolant leak coming from his original ride — a Russian Soyuz spacecraft — while it was docked to the orbiting outpost.

In his October interview, Rubio acknowledged how arduous moments of the journey were.

“I kind of allowed myself a day to feel sad and sorry for myself, and then I try to really make a conscious decision to say OK let’s have a good attitude and let’s just try to do the best job possible,” Rubio said of learning his stay would be extended by another six months.

Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted the percentage humidity on the space station.

Rishi Sunak is picking a fight on the migration issue that he probably cannot win

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hosts a press conference inside the Downing Street Briefing Room, in central London, on December 7, 2023, after Britain and Rwanda sign a new treaty to transfer illegal migrants to the African country. Britain and Rwanda signed a new treaty on Tuesday in a bid to revive a controversial proposal by London to transfer migrants to the East African country that was blocked by the UK courts. The agreement, which UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says is crucial to achieve his pledge of slashing irregular migration before a general election expected next year, was signed in Kigali. (Photo by James Manning / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JAMES MANNING/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this week announced a new deal with Rwanda to transfer asylum-seekers to the African country, in a bid to revive a controversial policy that has so far been thwarted by the courts.James Manning/AFP/Getty ImagesCNN — 

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has a major problem.

As his governing Conservative Party prepares to enter what will likely be an election year in 2024, it is languishing behind the opposition Labour Party in polls week after week.

The Conservatives have been in power since 2010, during which time they’ve gone through five prime ministers and virtually every possible iteration of conservatism imaginable. And after 13 years in power, it’s fair to say the party looks a little tired and out of ideas.

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This is why Sunak is leaning into the Conservatives’ historical trump card issue: immigration.

Sunak, himself the son of immigrants, is currently throwing absolutely everything he has at trying to bring down the UK’s net migration numbers – which reached a record high of 745,000 in 2022.

That high number exists for various reasons: The UK has had generous policies to welcome people fleeing Ukraine and Hong Kong in recent years.

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KIGALI, RWANDA - DECEMBER 5: Home Secretary James Cleverly at the Kigali Genocide Memorial during his visit to sign a new treaty with Rwanda on December 5, 2023 in Kigali, Rwanda. Cleverly is in Rwanda to sign a treaty that will address concerns by the Supreme Court, including assurances that Rwanda will not remove anybody transferred under the partnership to another country. (Photo by Ben Birchall - Pool/Getty Images)

UK home secretary signs new Rwanda treaty to resurrect asylum plan

Since leaving the European Union, the UK is no longer part of the Dublin Regulation, an EU law that is designed to share the burden of hosting asylum seekers across the bloc by allowing member states to return migrants to the EU country they first entered – something the UK used effectively and benefited from.

The implications of this can be seen most clearly in the number of people now crossing the English Channel in small boats.

The boats are largely run by criminal trafficking gangs who help migrants illegally enter the UK in unsafe, crowded vessels that have on multiple occasions led to people drowning.

While these small boats are not the chief reason for the UK’s immigration numbers, they arguably have the highest profile.

In 2018 , the number of people detected crossing the English Channel in small boats was 299, according to Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. In 2022, that number was 45,755.

Of course, 45,755 is a fraction of the 745,000 net immigration total. However, for the places that are most affected by these small boat landings, that enormous increase is very visible. For the people who live in areas where these migrants end up being housed while their asylum claims are processed, it is impossible not to notice the influx into local populations.

Politically, small boat crossings have become a touchstone issue for the next election – hence Sunak making stopping the boats one of his five key priorities at the start of this year.

In this June 2022 photo, migrants, picked up at sea attempting to cross the English Channel, are helped ashore from an Royal National Lifeboat Institution's lifeboat at Dungeness on the southeast coast of England.

Crossing the English Channel in small boats is a perilous journey and the vessels frequently get into difficulty.Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

He has inherited a controversial plan from his predecessors whereby the UK reached an agreement with Rwanda that refugees could be sent to that country instead of staying in the UK. To date, the UK has not sent a single person to Rwanda because courts have prevented them from doing so. Most notably, the European Court of Human Rights has blocked flights to Rwanda from taking off. In short, there are human rights concerns that people who are sent to Rwanda could still face oppression in Rwanda or be sent back to their country of origin.

Sunak this week unveiled a bill that was designed to block any legal reason that planes were not flying people to Rwanda. His immigration minister resigned hours later and it is possible that his government will lose a vote on the bill in parliament next week. Meanwhile it was revealed that the British government had paid the Rwandan government an additional £100m this year as part of the deal. It had already sent £140m to the country.

For a country that in 2016 voted to leave the European Union, a foreign court interfering with domestic law is something that creates political opportunities. Enter Nigel Farage.

Farage, one of the most high-profile Brexit campaigners, has been using his media profile and daily TV show to talk about small boats for a long time.

His tactic of attacking Sunak and the Conservatives from the right has over time forced some on the right of the Conservative Party to call for increasingly tough action on immigration. Some even think there is an argument for the UK leaving the ECHR. And with an election coming up, some are even wondering if promising some kind of referendum on the UK’s membership of the ECHR in the Conservative manifesto might be a way of keeping voters who are tempted to cast their ballots for smaller right-wing parties.

Indeed, Sunak’s recently-sacked home secretary said in a statement to parliament earlier this week: “The powers to detain and remove must be exercisable notwithstanding the Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Refugee Convention, and all other international law … it is now or never. The Conservative Party faces electoral oblivion in a matter of months if we introduce yet another Bill destined to fail. Do we fight for sovereignty or let our party die?”

If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it’s all happened before. It was Farage’s Euroskeptic rabble-rousing that forced former Conservative leader David Cameron to put a Brexit vote in his party’s 2015 manifesto. Cameron won that election, but was forced to resign a year later after losing the referendum. Sunak can at least ask Cameron for advice, having recently made him the UK’s foreign secretary.

A Boeing 767 sits on the runway at the military base in Amesbury, Salisbury, on June 14, 2022, preparing to take a number of asylum-seekers to Rwanda. - The British government was to send a first plane carrying failed asylum seekers to Rwanda on Tuesday despite last-gasp legal bids and protests against the controversial policy. A chartered plane will land in Kigali on Tuesday, campaigners said, after UK judges rejected an appeal against the deportations. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

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While Cameron has been publicly supportive of Sunak’s Rwanda plan and the bill introduced this week, it’s not hard to imagine him telling his boss that on Europe and immigration, the Conservatives simply cannot win.

The reality is that the bar set by Farage and some of his own MPs is so high that there is no way Sunak can clear it. Whatever he does, it will never be enough for the voters most-motivated by migration.

On the left – which in modern British politics can at times really mean center-right – Sunak risks looking cruel, kicking down at people who are fleeing war zones and trying to send them to a place where they are still not safe.

Sunak is desperate to flip the debate over to Labour, forcing them to take a position on immigration – but this issue is intensely toxic for Conservatives. There will always be people with the luxury of sitting outside of mainstream politics who can make noise.

And beside all of this, British attitudes to migration have evolved in the past few years – the idea of simply being strong on immigration winning votes for the Conservatives is not as true as it once was.

Some who saw it as a key issue now recognize that the health service benefited from migrant labor. Some feel post-Brexit that their concerns were addressed and that the country now has control over immigration. There are still people who care a lot about migration, of course, but the general direction of travel is that views are softening.

Given the difficult position he’s in, it’s no surprise that Sunak is looking for wedge issues ahead of the next election. But it might be that the PM has picked a fight he simply can’t win.

Egypt’s president expected to secure third term as the world’s eyes are fixed on Gaza

Motorists drive past campaign billboards of Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi along a street in Cairo on December 7, 2023, ahead of the country's presidential election. Egyptian citizens living abroad will cast early ballots on December 8 in a presidential election, in a vote all but certain to give incumbent Sisi a third term in office. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP) (Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Motorists drive past campaign billboards of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi along a street in Cairo on December 7.Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty ImagesCNN — 

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is expected to secure his third term in power in a Sunday presidential election that critics have called a sham, as global attention is focused on the bloody war in neighboring Gaza.

The 69-year-old president has enjoyed two months of a pause in criticism from Western allies over his authoritarian rule and heightened crackdown on dissent, experts say, attributing the shift to Sisi’s renewed diplomatic relevance on the international stage due to the Israel-Hamas war.

Several top Western officials have paid Sisi visits since the war began, including United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Palestinians cross to the Egyptian side of the border crossing with the Gaza Strip Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. in Rafah Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

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HA Hellyer, nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in London, said that Cairo has historically been “a critical interlocutor for the international community in general when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

“As the Israeli-Palestinian question diminished in importance in many policy arenas, which was clearly a fundamentally flawed approach, so did Cairo’s geopolitical weight,” Hellyer told CNN, adding that with the Palestinian issue now prominently back in discussions, “there is a new prioritization internationally for good and comprehensive contact with Egypt.”

Egypt controls the Rafah crossing, the sole remaining link between the Gaza Strip – which Hamas controls – and the outside world. Egyptian officials have played mediation roles in previous wars between Israel and Hamas, as Cairo maintains diplomatic ties with both sides. During the current conflict, Egypt’s good offices have been used to deliver crucial aid into Gaza and to help secure the release of some of the hostages held there by Hamas since its militants attacked Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people and abducting more than 240 others.

Egypt has also helped foreign nationals escape the carnage in Gaza, along with injured Palestinians. More than 17,000 Palestinians have so far been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, which cites sources from the Hamas-controlled enclave. Aid has also been able to trickle into Gaza through Rafah.

Supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi carry his posters during a march in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. Egypt will hold a presidential election over three days in December, with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi highly likely to prolong his stay in power until 2030. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi carry his posters during a march in Cairo, Egypt on October 2.Amr Nabil/AP

Meanwhile, Sisi is moving to quietly secure another presidential term with little to no opposition at home or abroad, critics say.

“There are no elections. There is electoral theater,” Timothy Kaldas, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC, told CNN, citing the lack of viable opposition to Sisi.

The former field marshal rose to power in 2013 after overthrowing Mohamed Morsy, Egypt’s only democratically elected president, in a military coup. Sisi ran for president in 2014 and 2018, winning both elections with a sweeping majority. In 2019, his government passed constitutional amendments that permitted him to run for a third term.

Protesters wave Palestinian flags during a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Amman, Jordan on Friday.

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“The terrible violence we’re witnessing (in Gaza) helped Sisi divide the attention of the public from their domestic concerns onto what’s happening, particularly the Palestinians in Gaza,” Kaldas said. “And as a result, somewhat reduce the level of focus on their own domestic plight, particularly their economic struggles.”

Egypt has also spent the past two months reminding its international partners of how “vitally important” it is, Kaldas said. Egypt can say: “See the useful role we play in negotiations and facilitation of the humanitarian assistance that needs to go to Gaza,” he added.

Sisi has appeared keen to capitalize on the crisis and present himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause. In a speech last month, the president repeated his call for a ceasefire, as well as his refusal of the “displacement of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip,” calling such a prospect a red line.

While diplomats have been focused on Gaza, critics and human rights groups have lambasted Egypt over the past two months for what they say is its suppression of political dissent and silencing of opposition candidates.

Ahmed el-Tantawy, a former member of parliament who belongs to the Civil Democratic Movement (CDM) and intends to become an opposition presidential candidate, speaks to the media during a press conference held by Egyptian opposition parties claiming that people trying to endorse candidates to stand against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in an election in December have been repeatedly obstructed from doing so, at headquarter of Conservative Party in Cairo, Egypt, October 13, 2023. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Ahmed el-Tantawy, a former member of parliament who tried to become an opposition presidential candidate, speaks to the media during a press conference held by Egyptian opposition parties in Cairo, Egypt on October 13.Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

Former lawmaker Ahmed el-Tantawy, who was the most prominent potential challenger to Sisi before he ended his campaign in October, said his supporters were restricted from registering their endorsements for him. He ended his campaign after failing to register the number of signatures required to run.

The Egyptian National Elections Authority (NEA) denied el-Tantawy’s claims, according to state media.

Three other candidates are running for president, with little support expected for each. These are the head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, Farid Zahran; Wafd party nominee Abdel Sanad Yamama; and Republican Peoples’ Party candidate Hazem Omar.

Rights watchdog Amnesty International said last month that “genuine opposition candidates (were) barred from running” in Sunday’s election, adding that since October 1, Egyptian authorities “have arrested and interrogated at least 196 individuals due to their participation in unauthorized protests, as well as on allegations of engaging in terrorism-related activities and spreading ‘false news.’”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends a press conference with his Russian counterpart (unseen) following their talks at the presidential palace in the capital Cairo on December 11, 2017. KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi Fast Facts

Amnesty also criticized Egypt’s prosecution of el-Tantawy, along with members of his campaign, which the rights group says are under fire “in retaliation for exercising their rights to political participation and to freedom of expression and association.”

El-Tantawy is accused of circulating election-related papers without the permission of the authorities. His trial date was pushed to January 9.

“Once more, the Egyptian authorities lay bare their utter intolerance for even the faintest whisper of dissent,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, as he urged the country to lift “sweeping restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”

The Egyptian government’s foreign press center did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

‘No one will come out to vote’

Just days before the election, streets in the capital, Cairo, were draped with large banners bearing Sisi’s portrait. An increased security presence is noticeable throughout the city, with officers and checkpoints dotting squares, highways and the entrances to bridges.

Among those boosting the pro-Sisi campaign is the Nation’s Future Party. “We are all with you” and “beloved of millions,” read the party’s pro-Sisi banners.

Despite the president’s high-profile election campaign, public sentiment is marked by frustration. Grievances regarding the economy are most evident.

Magdy Gerges, an Egyptian in his 50s who works as a driver, said economic hardships were painful, but that he feels a sense of security under Sisi’s rule.

“I’m one of those who suffer from the high prices, but this man (Sisi) gives me something more important than food; that I feel safe whenever my daughters go out,” Gerges told CNN. “By the end of the day, we will manage with our income, but what good is money if there is no security?” he said.

Egypt's president Abdul Fatah El-Sisi talks to the press after a meeting at the Palace in Cairo, part of a visit of both Belgian and Spanish Prime Ministers (incoming and outgoing presidency of Europe) to Egypt, in Cairo, Friday 24 November 2023. The two heads of government have visited Israel and Palestine yesterday, to hold talks with political leaders on the war in Gaza. In Egypt, Sanchez and De Croo will meet the Egyptian president and visit the border crossing to the Gaza strip in Rafah.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi speaks during a press conference in Cairo, Egypt on November 24.Nicolas Maeterlinck/BELGA MAG/AFP/Getty Images

Gerges noted however that there are no other viable alternative candidates for voters to choose from, especially given the region’s precarious security situation.

“Even if we want to choose someone else, we have no alternative,” he said.

Another citizen, who asked to remain anonymous fearing reprisal from Egyptian authorities, questioned the legitimacy of Sunday’s election, saying polling stations will be empty since Sisi’s victory is clear.

“No one will come out to vote. People know the result in advance, so why this farce?” the man told CNN, saying it might have been better to “save these huge sums of money in the difficult economic conditions we are living in.”

Hellyer, of the Carnegie Endowment, said that with the current crisis in Gaza, Cairo might even see “potential for substantial economic assistance” from foreign nations, given the role it has played.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi sits next to United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and other UAE officials at the World Government Summit 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on February 13.

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Egypt has been struggling to dig itself out of a debt hole that experts say requires structural reforms to avert economic collapse. Cairo’s allies in the Persian Gulf, who for years bailed out the most populous Arab nation, had in recent months criticized Egypt, saying the days of blank cheques are now over.

Egypt’s economic woes are far from resolved. Inflation is still high, and a foreign currency crisis remains unremedied. The country is also yet to meet the terms of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $3 billion loan secured in December 2022 but which is yet to be disbursed.

Kaldas, of the Tahrir Institute, said that the Egyptian pound is expected to devalue further. The dollar now trades officially at 31 Egyptian pounds, and if the government decides to further devalue the exchange rate after the elections, that will translate to higher inflation, a deepening of economic hardship for individuals and businesses, and a rise in poverty, he said.

“There is no short-term scenario that doesn’t mean more economic pain for the average Egyptian,” Kaldas added.

The election takes place from December 10 to December 12. Results are expected by December 18.

Drunk astronomers, monsters and red underwear: New book explores the myth and folklore of eclipses

A partial solar eclipse rises behind clouds on June 10, 2021, in Arbutus, Maryland.

A partial solar eclipse rises behind clouds on June 10, 2021, in Arbutus, Maryland.Julio Cortez/APCNN — 

An ancient Chinese story tells of two court astronomers, Hsi and Ho, who got drunk and failed to predict an eclipse of the sun. This grave oversight led to them being executed, off-with-their-heads-style, by the Emperor Chung K’ang.

Set sometime between 2159 and 1948 BC, the legend is thought to be the oldest recorded reference to a solar eclipse — and it’s just one of the interesting cultural anecdotes recounted in a new book called “Totality: The Great North American Eclipse of 2024” that was coauthored by Mark Littman, journalism professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and Fred Espenak, retired astrophysicist emeritus at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“I find the mythology and folklore of eclipses fascinating,” Littman said in an email. “To see how people long ago and people today reacted to a total eclipse of the Sun, a sight so unexpected, so dramatic, so surprising in appearance, and so unnatural even though it is utterly natural.”

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A total solar eclipse is seen on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017 above Madras, Oregon.

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Such enthusiasm and awe sets the tone for Littman and Espenak’s evocative book, which also explains the science behind eclipses and how to effectively photograph the upcoming total eclipse of the sun in April 2024 (Espenak is a well-known eclipse photographer who has witnessed more than 30 total solar eclipses). Additionally, the book includes tales from travelers who ventured to the United States from around the world to view the last total solar eclipse in 2017.

CNN spoke with Littman to learn more about how eclipses have been viewed throughout time, why it matters — and the reverence and superstition these celestial phenomena continue to evoke today.

This conversation has been condensed for length and clarity.

CNN: What do we know about the oldest known references in human history to eclipses? 

Mark Littman: The Chinese were recording eclipses on animal bones as early as 772 BC. By the first century BC, the Chinese had enough records that they realized there was a rhythm to eclipses and could use that rhythm to calculate accurately when a future eclipse would occur — even though most of the solar eclipses would not be visible from their location.

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What is a solar eclipse?

Similarly, from 750 BC on, the Babylonians recorded eclipses in their cuneiform writing on clay tablets.  By about 600 BC, the Babylonians noticed that eclipses were occurring at regular intervals, so they used that interval to predict when a future eclipse would take place. Their predictions were amazingly correct. Even today, if we add 18 years and 11⅓ days to the date of one eclipse, we will almost always find an eclipse of the same type occurring at the end of that period.

The Maya — living in Mexico and Central America as early as 2000 BC and flourishing from 250 to 900 AD — developed their own written language and recorded their astronomical observations in books. Alas, only four of those books survived the destruction of the Spanish conquest. One of them, the Dresden Codex, demonstrates that the Maya were able to predict eclipses of the sun by noticing the interval between their appearances.

Interestingly, the Chinese, the Babylonians and the Maya could predict eclipses but did not know what caused eclipses.

CNN: What are some of the most common myths cultures created to explain eclipses?

Littman: The mythology of eclipses most often involves a beast that tries to eat the sun for lunch. For the Chinese, that beast was a dragon or a dog. For Scandinavians, it was a wolf.

In India, a demon named Rahu lost his body when he tried to steal the nectar of immortality from the gods. But Rahu’s head lives on — and it is very angry. Whenever he can, Rahu chomps on and swallows the sun. But Rahu has no body, so the sun goes in his mouth and comes out his neck, returning brightness to the sky. Rahu never learns and continues pursuing and chewing the sun and moon, causing eclipses.

Not all cultures explained eclipses as a monster swallowing the sun or moon, however. Some peoples of northern South America said the sun and moon periodically fight one another, temporarily shutting off each other’s light.

Littman and Espenak's new book explores the myth, folklore and the science behind eclipses, as well as the most effective way to photograph these stunning natural phenomena.

Littman and Espenak’s new book explores the myth, folklore and the science behind eclipses, as well as the most effective way to photograph these stunning natural phenomena.Oxford University Press

But the violence of these stories was not always in the sky. Folklore from Transylvania (central Romania) says that from time to time the sun looks down on Earth and sees how vicious and corrupt human beings are. The sun turns away in disgust — and that’s a solar eclipse.

In at least one culture, eclipses were not acts of celestial or terrestrial violence at all. The Fon people of western Africa said that the male sun rules the day, and the female moon rules the night. They love each other, but they are so busy traversing the sky and providing light that they seldom get together. Yet when they do, they modestly turn off the light.

CNN: What modern day myths and superstitions still exist surrounding total eclipses? 

Littman: Myths from long ago show that most people thought eclipses were dangerous events, with Earth in peril of losing its light and warmth. Even in more modern times, if people don’t know what causes a total eclipse of the sun or when it will happen, the daytime disappearance of the sun evokes confusion and terror.

In 1918, 13-year-old Florence Andsager was playing with her brothers and sisters in the yard of their family’s farm in Kansas. In the middle of the day, the sky began to darken, even though the sky was clear. Their mother screamed for them to come into the house, and she, her husband and the kids huddled together. They thought the world was coming to an end. It was a total eclipse of the sun.

Balloon Fiesta Eclipse Thumb 2


Watch an eclipse pass over the world’s largest balloon festival

As recently as 2012, when an annular (not-quite-total “ring of fire”) eclipse of the sun was visible north of Sacramento, California, a pregnancy blog shared how some Hispanic mothers told their pregnant daughters that, in case of a solar eclipse, they should wear red underwear with a safety pin attached to it over their bellies to protect the fetus from birth defects. No red underwear? Any color underwear would do if the mother-to-be attached a red ribbon to it. The tradition also cautioned that pregnant women must not go outside during the eclipse.

CNN: How do the ancient traditions you’ve learned about regarding eclipses play into your personal experiences of seeing them today?

Littman: I keep asking myself: If I lived long ago, how would I react to a total eclipse of the sun if I didn’t know it was going to happen — and how would I go about trying to understand what I saw so I could pass that understanding on to others. I come away from that exercise with a greater appreciation of how ancient people coped with that experience.

Many of their stories told of some monster eating the sun, which is actually a very good description of what the partial phases of an eclipse look like. And such a description is hard to forget.

I’m amazed by the care and dedication of the ancient Babylonian, Chinese and Maya astronomers who observed and kept records of eclipses for generations even though their own lives would not be long enough to give them the answers they were seeking.

I’m in awe of the astronomer in each of those cultures who kept looking and looking at the records until, in an astounding flash of brilliance, that scientist discovered a rhythm in the eclipses, providing that culture with the ability to see into the future.

Terry Ward is freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida.