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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Attacks in Lebanon and Iran this week are raising fears that the war in Gaza is already widening.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

At least 84 people were killed yesterday in bombings near the grave of a prominent Iranian general. It's still not clear who's behind those blasts. The night before, a suspected Israeli drone strike in Beirut killed a senior leader of the militant Palestinian group Hamas, along with six other people.

FADEL: NPR's Jane Arraf is in Lebanon's capital, Beirut, and joins us now. Good morning, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So help us untangle this. Is there any connection between the attack in Iran yesterday and the war in Gaza?

ARRAF: Well, it was certainly a devastating attack.

FADEL: Yeah.

ARRAF: That bombing in Iran was the deadliest since the 1979 Islamic revolution. And Iran, although not a direct participant, is - in the war in Gaza - is an integral part of a lot of the militia activity against Israel and the U.S., which is Israel's biggest backer. Iran says Israel and the U.S. are behind the attack, but security analysts and U.S. officials don't see Israeli ties to those blasts. They believe it's much more likely to be an anti-Shia, Sunni militant group linked to ISIS or even domestic opposition.

It is relevant, though, because Iran has been convulsed by internal protests for two years since the death of a young woman in security custody, and that's part of the reason that most analysts and officials believe Iran doesn't want a wider war with Israel breaking out - because it's already got a lot on its plate.

FADEL: Yeah, but the tensions are rising. Let's get to the attack in Beirut, where you are right now. The Lebanese government and Hamas say it was an Israeli drone strike that killed a senior Hamas official and six others, although Israel has not taken responsibility. So I think the big question is, will these killings open a new front in the war?

ARRAF: There's a lot of worry here. It's - the Lebanese government is complaining to the U.N. Security Council over the breach of sovereignty, and the country is kind of holding its breath over what Hezbollah is going to do. Hezbollah is the Iran-backed Lebanese militia that's more powerful than the Lebanese army. It's been fighting Israel across the Israeli-Lebanese border. But this attack in the country's capital, in a crowded neighborhood - that's a whole new ballgame. It killed one of the founders of the Hamas military wing, Saleh al-Arouri, and Hezbollah has made clear that it will retaliate.

FADEL: And what form could that retaliation take?

ARRAF: We're still waiting to hear. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech yesterday in which he made clear that Hezbollah would retaliate, and he said he'd have more to say in another speech tomorrow. So the big fear here, of course, is that all-out war along the border could destroy Lebanon, which is already extremely fragile. And Nasrallah laid out a devastating scenario of what Hezbollah would do in the name of defending Lebanon. Let's listen to a bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HASSAN NASRALLAH: The war with us will be very, very, very costly. If we are considering the Lebanese situation and the Lebanese national interests now, if war is launched on Lebanon, then Lebanese national interest is for us to go to war to the maximum, without limitations.

FADEL: OK, fiery rhetoric there - break it down for us.

ARRAF: Well, Hezbollah, in fact, has been launching what are considered calibrated attacks, limited mostly to the border zone - so relatively contained. But now, Leila, it faces the dilemma of how to be seen to respond to those assassinations without sparking a massive Israeli retaliation that would lead to a wider war.

FADEL: NPR's Jane Arraf in Beirut. Thank you, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBTIE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: A federal judge in Manhattan released a trove of documents yesterday, naming, for the first time, dozens of powerful men who allegedly had ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein before his death by suicide in 2019.

MARTÍNEZ: They include politicians such as Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, the actor Kevin Spacey and magician David Copperfield, among many others. Now, to be clear, the fact that these men are named doesn't mean they did anything wrong or face criminal allegations. These documents also include testimony and eyewitness accounts that claim to paint a more detailed portrait of Epstein's secretive world - a world where women were allegedly exploited, sexually assaulted and raped.

FADEL: For more, we're joined by NPR's Brian Mann. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: OK, so you've been digging through these documents with a team of our reporters. What have you found?

MANN: So these documents, compiled as part of a civil case, show that Epstein, a registered sex offender, continued to move for years in elite circles, associating with people like Prince Andrew, you know, the prominent attorney Alan Dershowitz. The musician Michael Jackson is named here, a former U.S. senator from Maine believed to be George Mitchell, also former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and, as you mentioned, Donald Trump, and also former Vice President Al Gore. Former President Bill Clinton's name comes up frequently in these documents. And, again, being named here doesn't reflect wrongdoing. Most of these people, including Clinton, have said they had no awareness of Epstein's alleged crimes. But the documents also include repeated claims that these social gatherings of powerful men included young women, some of them minors, arranged by Epstein and by his accomplice, Ghislaine Maxwell. Maxwell, of course, is now serving a 20-year prison sentence on federal sex trafficking charges linked to her work for Epstein.

FADEL: And what do the documents tell us about what was happening at these gatherings?

MANN: So Epstein hosted people for these really lavish gatherings at his homes in New York City and Palm Springs and at his mansion on a private island in the Virgin Islands. There are hundreds of pages here, Leila, of previously redacted depositions from Ghislaine Maxwell and others employed by Epstein that offer really salacious details of conversations where powerful men allegedly express interest in young women. One witness claims Britain's Prince Andrew groped her breast. There are also police records here in these documents detailing investigations into Epstein after young women claimed he coerced them into sexual acts and prostitution. Over the years, dozens of women have come forward claiming Epstein sexually assaulted and exploited and raped them. Some say they were minors when these alleged crimes happened. Epstein took his own life in prison while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.

FADEL: Wow. I mean, you mention he took his life. That was four years ago. Why are we just learning of these details and these names now?

MANN: Yeah. One thing these documents show is it took a really long time to hold Epstein accountable. He was first investigated in 2006, but was allowed to plead to relatively minor state prostitution charges. At that time, after lengthy negotiations with Epstein's powerful team of attorneys, federal investigators decided not to prosecute him, and the DOJ has since acknowledged that decision reflected poor judgment. Epstein then went on leading this lifestyle, hanging out with the rich and powerful, often with young women in tow, for years and years. And he might very well have gotten away with all of this, and the public would never have learned of his alleged crimes, except that the Miami Herald published an expose that finally led to federal charges. The newspaper also fought for five years in court to have these documents made public. One of his victims said on social media this week that this moment and the release of these names finally brings some transparency and accountability.

FADEL: NPR's Brian Mann talking about new court disclosures in the Jeffrey Epstein case. Thanks, Brian.

MANN: Sure. Glad to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Cities along the border are experiencing a surge of migrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico. In fact, border crossings have hit record numbers this season.

MARTÍNEZ: That's why Republican members of Congress toured the southern border this week, calling on President Biden to crack down on the flow of migrants. A similar dynamic is playing out in Mexico, where authorities have broken up a migrant caravan in their southern border.

FADEL: NPR's Eyder Peralta has been traveling with the caravan, and he joins us now from the road. Hi, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning. So what have you been seeing and hearing as you make this journey?

PERALTA: Well, I heard a lot of hope, and then I heard a lot of that hope turn into agony. This big caravan left from Tapachula, which is a city near the Guatemalan border, on Christmas Eve. Some of the migrants had spent months in southern Mexico, hoping that authorities would give them permits to move through the country. They were frustrated, so a good 5,000 of them started walking north to pressure the government. And Tuesday, it looked like the government had caved. The government started sending a bunch of buses over and said - and told them, we'll take you to a nearby town and process you, so get on the buses. But it wasn't long before the migrants found out that immigration officials were lying...

FADEL: Wow.

PERALTA: ...About where they were sending them, and authorities also started separating families. So the migrants started trying to get off the buses, and it was chaos. Let's listen to Gabriela Fernandez Rivero, who was separated from her boyfriend.

GABRIELA FERNANDEZ RIVERO: (Through interpreter) We have no idea where they're taking us. We have no idea what they're going to do. They don't give us any answers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: So that man at the end is shouting, "they're separating kids."

He was angry. He was calling immigration authorities killers.

FADEL: Do we know what ultimately happened to those people?

PERALTA: I mean, this caravan of migrants has been a headache for the president of Mexico. He said President Biden called him to tell him that he was worried about how many migrants were crossing the U.S. border, and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he had taken care of it. And now, what was a very visible migrant caravan is no more. That woman and a good two or three thousand migrants were put on buses, and they ended up in a bunch of little towns across southern Mexico. We managed to track down a group that was left in a tiny town near Tuxtla, and I found Maria Isabel Tovar, who was desperately looking for her son. He had just turned 18. And she says the bus that they were on made a sudden stop. And authorities told her son to get off, and they told her to stay on. Let's listen.

MARIA ISABEL TOVAR: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: And she's been traveling for months from Venezuela. "It's been so hard," she says - "traveled through so many countries, and just to lose my son this way." "I don't know," she keeps repeating - "I don't know."

FADEL: I mean, is this normal to move migrants, separate them this way?

PERALTA: It is. And it gives you a glimpse at Mexican immigration policy. What authorities are doing is trying to make it harder and harder for migrants to reach the border within the U.S. And migrants rights advocates here say that the U.S. has actually managed to build a wall on its southern border, and they say that that wall is Mexico.

FADEL: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta, reporting from Tuxtla in southern Mexico. Thank you, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.