U.S. defense chief in Afghanistan for look at war

KABUL, Afghanistan | Mark Esper sought a firsthand assessment Sunday of the U.S. military’s future role in America’s longest war as he made his initial visit to Afghanistan as Pentagon chief. Stalled peace talks with the Taliban and unrelenting attacks by the insurgent group and Islamic State militants have complicated the Trump administration’s pledge to withdraw more than 5,000 American troops.

Esper told reporters traveling with him that he believes the U.S. can reduce its force in Afghanistan to 8,600 without hurting the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. But he said any withdrawal would happen as part of a peace agreement with the Taliban.

The U.S. has about 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan as part of the American-led coalition. U.S. forces are training and advising Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism operations against extremists. President Donald Trump had ordered a troop withdrawal in conjunction with the peace talks that would have left about 8,600 American forces in the country.

Qantas completes

longest non-stop flight

SYDNEY | Australia’s Qantas on Sunday completed the first non-stop commercial flight from New York to Sydney, which was used to run a series of tests to assess the effects of ultra long-haul flights on crew fatigue and passenger jetlag.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner touched down in Sydney early Sunday morning after a flight of 19 hours and 16 minutes — the world’s longest.

Qantas said tests ranged from monitoring pilot brain waves, melatonin levels and alertness to exercise classes for passengers. A total of 49 people were on board, in order to minimize weight and give the necessary fuel range.

“Overall, we’re really happy with how the flight went and it’s great to have some of the data we need to help assess turning this into a regular service,” said Capt. Sean Golding, who led the four pilots.

Italian experts defuse WWII bomb in northern city

MILAN | Italian authorities evacuated 4,000 people from the center of the northern city of Bolzano on Sunday to defuse a World War II bomb found during construction.

Three experts defused the 500-pound American bomb during a three-hour operation that also forced 60,000 people to stay in their homes and closed sporting complexes and churches, the news agency ANSA reported.

An alarm signaled the all-clear to reopen the city center just before noon, as well as a nearby north-south highway and rail line both connecting Italy with Austria and Germany.

The bomb was found close to the city’s central cathedral and not far from the train station — the likely wartime target — during excavation work for a new shopping center.

The online news site Neue Suedtiroler Tageszeitung said after being defused, the bomb was brought to a secure site nearby for a controlled explosion.

Leaning cranes toppled

at partly collapsed hotel

NEW ORLEANS | Thundering explosions toppled two cranes Sunday that had loomed precariously for days over a partially collapsed hotel in New Orleans, in what city officials hailed as a success and said efforts now would focus on retrieving two bodies still inside the ruined building.

The fiery afternoon explosions sent up massive clouds of dust and sent one crane crashing to the street while the second fell in a way that left much of it resting atop the hotel where officials said it was “stable” and could be removed piecemeal.

“We know that we are safer now than we have been in the past eight days,” said Mayor LaToya Cantrell, speaking at a news conference after the explosions roared through the city’s downtown.

It was a little more than a week ago — Oct. 12 — that the Hard Rock Hotel that was under construction near the historic French Quarter partially collapsed. Three workers died that day when several floors of the multistory building pancaked. Only one body has been removed so far.

— From AP reports