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Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- In a bold step toward an uncertain future, the Kurdish people living in northern Iraq are heading to the polls today to cast their ballots in a referendum for independence.

Ironically, the vote has led to a rare moment of unity in the Middle East as every one of Kurdistan’s neighbors, plus some of the world’s leading nations including the United States and the United Kingdom, have condemned the referendum and urged Kurdish leaders in Erbil, Iraq, to call it off. Even bitter rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran are in agreement over this one.

What is it?

It’s a regionwide referendum in the northern Iraqi Kurdistan region to gauge national support for an independence movement from Iraq. The vote is nonbinding, meaning that even if the result is overwhelmingly in favor of splitting from Baghdad, there will be no legal requirement for Kurdish leaders to declare formal independence. However, independence movements have a way of building momentum, and many Kurds see this as their chance to finally get legitimacy. Many Kurds feel they were snubbed initially by British and French mapmakers who left them on the sidelines while drawing up national boundaries of the Middle East in the aftermath of World War I, and then let down again by the United States after they supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 but never got the nation-state they hoped for.

Why now?

Relations between the Kurds in northern Iraq and the rest of the nation have never been good, and there is a lot of pent-up hostility and resentment. Despite the recent facade of unity between Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi National Army in the battle against ISIS, sectarianism has spiked in Baghdad and Erbil recently, with grievances that had been shielded in recent months now on naked display. For Iraq’s Kurds, the memories are still fresh of Saddam Hussein gassing their countrymen at Halabja in 1988, killing as many as 5,000 people. They also point to Saddam’s attempts at ethnic cleansing after the First Gulf War, which were only averted when the U.S. instituted a no-fly zone over Kurdistan. Then there are financial disagreements. Ever since the price of oil bottomed out, Baghdad has slashed salaries of public servants in Kurdistan by up to 70 percent. With little financial benefit from Baghdad, many in Erbil are now wondering if striking out on their own could be any worse. Militarily, the Iraqi army took a real beating in the fight against ISIS while Kurdish Peshmerga troops for the most part watched from the sidelines. Ranks are depleted and morale stretched. Iraq’s army has not been this weak in a long time.

Why so much opposition?

The United States and the United Kingdom along with France, the Arab League, and the United Nations have warned that the ballot could have a destabilizing effect on an already volatile region. They say it could lead to a bloody breakup of Iraq and bring more harm than good. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is poised to take Iraq to an election next year. Being seen as a national leader who lost one third of the country is not something that he, or his backers, find palatable. Turkey to the north and Iran to the east both have significant ethnic Kurdish populations, and the thought of an emboldened, rising Kurdish freedom movement on their doorsteps fills them with dread. The last thing they want is independence fever spreading across their borders. One of the flashpoints is likely to be around the city of Kirkuk. In that oil-rich city claimed by Kurdistan but inhabited by many Iraqis of Arab descent, skirmishes between militias and armed gangs could be the spark that involves wider regional conflict.

What's next?

No one knows for sure what will happen after the referendum, but it’s certain that relations between Erbil and Baghdad will change forever. Opinion polls in Kurdistan are heavily tipped in favor of independence and, although voting stations only opened a short while ago, it’s expected to be a landslide for separation. Because the referendum is technically a gauge of public opinion and has no legal mandate, there will be no trigger for obliging Erbil to declare independence. But many are worried that a vote in favor of freedom will unleash unstoppable momentum, inflaming passions and leading to revolt and bloodshed. Tehran is clearly worried. Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard launched a military exercise on Sunday in its northwestern Kurdish region. Iran also closed its airspace on Sunday to flights taking off from Iraq’s Kurdish region following a request from Baghdad as punishment for the referendum. Turkey is holding military drills near its own border with Iraq too, yet Turkey engages in massive amounts of trade with Kurdistan and would be loathe to upset that financial relationship.

Polls close at 6 p.m. local time and the final result of the referendum is expected within 72 hours.

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Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images(BERLIN) -- German voters rewarded Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in national elections on Sunday, sending the chancellor to a record fourth term as one of Europe’s key leaders, while a far-right party in the country made some initial and possibly disruptive gains.

Exit polls conducted for public television channels ARD and ZDF suggest Merkel's conservative bloc finished first in Germany's election, with between 32.5 and 33.5 percent in Sunday's vote.

Polling indicates challenger Martin Schulz's Social Democrats trailed in second place, with between 20 and 21 percent support. The polls also suggested that the anti-migrant, nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party will enter the national parliament -- for the first time -- with 13 to 13.5 percent support.

The AfD party scored higher than expected results, with dozens of lawmakers from the party voted into the country’s national Parliament -- or Bundestag. The gains could potentially be disruptive to politics in Germany, the largest economy in Europe.

AfD head Alexander Gauland told supporters on Sunday that as the third largest party, the government should "dress warmly.”

“We will hunt them. We will hunt Mrs. Merkel, or whoever else. We will get our country and our people back,” he said.

A little over a year ago, few gave the AfD any chance of making a dent in German national elections. But the party saw growing support as election day neared.

"It's without question a significant achievement for a right-wing party when you view it historically,” said Karen Donfried, the president of the German Marshall Fund, referring to AfD. Because of its Nazi history, German voters have usually rejected right-wing parties in elections, she said. “But this is a significant shift for the German political landscape,” Donfried noted.

Founded in 2013 as an anti-European Union party, the AfD shifted its focus from the eurozone debt crisis to immigration after Merkel in 2015 opened the doors to over one million migrants, many of whom were fleeing war in the Middle East.

Since then, the party has increasingly found success by becoming the most visible anti-immigration party in Germany. It scored well in a series of regional elections thanks largely to a growing public anger over Merkel's welcoming policy toward refugees, particularly those from Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Gideon Botsch, a political scientist at the University of Potsdam just outside Berlin, said AfD's success is partly a result of the disillusionment voters feel with Germany's established political parties.

“Many voters, especially on the right, but also in the center, have felt that the two traditional parties have not addressed the issue of immigration and German cultural identity,” Botsch said. “And that has led them to consider voting for the AfD.”

Despite her party’s victory, the path ahead for Merkel and her party is fraught with challenges.

Leaders of the Social Democratic Party announced shortly after polls closed that they plan to go into the opposition after their second-place finish. The Social Democrats have been Merkel's junior coalition partner for the last four years.

That decision complicates the situation for Merkel, who will have to look to other parties to form a new government coalition.

“That is likely to have the biggest impact on Germany’s political direction for the next four years and shape what Merkel can or can’t do politically,” says Sudha David-Wilp, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.

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Subscribe To This Feed -- President Donald Trump continued to escalate threats to North Korea late Saturday as he responded to their foreign minister with a warning "they won't be around much longer" if the country continues provocation.

Trump took to Twitter just after 11 p.m. to respond to statements made earlier Saturday by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, who said bombing the U.S. mainland was "inevitable."

Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won't be around much longer!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017

Ri is currently in New York at the United Nations General Assembly and spoke on Saturday in a much-anticipated rebuttal to Trump's message delivered on Tuesday in which he said the U.S. would "totally destroy" North Korea if forced to defend itself or its allies.

"Due to his lacking of basic common knowledge and proper sentiment, he tried to insult the supreme dignity of my country by referring it to as a rocket," Ri said, referring to Trump's new penchant for referring to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as "Rocket Man." "By doing so, however, he committed an irreversible mistake of making our rockets' visit to the entire U.S. mainland inevitable all the more."

Kim and Trump have spent the better part of the last few months hurling insults back and forth at each other. Trump tweeted early Friday morning that Kim was "obviously a madman who doesn't mind starving or killing his people."

Ri referred to the president as "a mentally deranged person full of megalomania and complacency" in Saturday's address.

The war of words has continued to escalate as North Korea advances its development of a nuclear weapon. The country has fired three intercontinental ballistic missiles over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean in the past month. They also conducted a nuclear test on Sept. 3, with U.S. officials saying the country exploded a hydrogen bomb at an underground facility.

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South Korean Defense Ministry/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. flew bombers and fighter jets along the North Korean coast Saturday to send a message about the "military options" open to America in dealing with Kim Jong Un's regime, the Pentagon said.

U.S. B-1B Lancer bombers from Guam and F-15 fighter jets from Okinawa, Japan, joined in the exercise, which was in international airspace to the east of North Korea.

"This is the farthest north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) any U.S. fighter or bomber aircraft has flown off North Korea's coast in the 21st century, underscoring the seriousness with which we take DPRK's reckless behavior," Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said in a statement, using the acronym for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The show of strength comes days after President Donald Trump increased economic sanctions and threatened military action against the regime.

"The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea," Trump told the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Tuesday. "Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime."

Saturday's flight off the North Korean coast is a "demonstration of U.S. resolve and a clear message that the president has many military options to defeat any threat," the Pentagon said, adding, "We are prepared to use the full range of military capabilities to defend the U.S. homeland and our allies."

Kim Jong Un fired back in a statement Thursday responding to Trump's U.N. address. He called Trump "mentally deranged" and said the president was "playing with fire." The North Korean leader said Trump's speech convinced him that he's leading his nation down the right path.

"Now that Trump has denied the existence of and insulted me and my country in front of the eyes of the world and made the most ferocious declaration of a war in history that he would destroy the DPRK, we will consider with seriousness exercising of a corresponding, highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history," Kim said.

Trump's executive order, issued Thursday, expanded the authority to target individuals and companies that finance or facilitate trade with North Korea -- a move the U.S. president said will disrupt critical North Korean shipping and trade networks.

The North Korean regime has conducted 14 ballistic missile tests and one underground nuclear test since the beginning of the year.

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Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images(TORONTO) -- Prince Harry struck an inspirational tone at the Saturday opening of the Invictus Games in Toronto -- the sporting event he started three years ago to exclusively feature military veterans who were injured in combat.

"In a world where so many have reasons to feel cynical and apathetic, I wanted to find a way for veterans to be a beacon of light, and show us all that we have a role to play, that we all win when we respect our friends, neighbors and communities," Harry said in a speech delivered during the opening ceremonies.

Harry, a veteran of the British Army himself, started the games in London in 2014 as a way to honor injured servicemen and help them recover from their "physical and mental wounds."

"Invictus is about the families and friends who faced the shock of learning that their loved ones had been injured or fallen ill and then rallied to support them on their journey of recovery," he said.

"And above all, Invictus is about the example to the world that all service men and women -- injured or not -- provide about the importance of service and duty."

The youngest son of the late Princess Diana related a story of why he started the Invictus Games, referring to his return from service in Afghanistan in 2008 when he boarded a flight with a group of soldiers "all in induced comas, with missing limbs, and wrapped in plastic."

"The way I viewed service and sacrifice changed forever," Harry said. "And the direction of my life changed with it."

Athletes compete in 12 different categories, including wheelchair basketball, archery, cycling, golf, athletics, sitting volleyball, indoor rowing, driving, powerlifting, wheelchair rugby, swimming and wheelchair tennis. This year's event has the most athletes, countries and events ever, Harry said.

The first games were held in 2014 in London, and the second were held in 2016 in Orlando, Florida. This year's games were timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary celebration of the country of Canada.

The opening ceremonies garnered additional attention due to the appearance of Harry's girlfriend, Meghan Markle, who revealed she was dating the fifth in line to the British throne in a cover interview for Vanity Fair's October issue.

Harry served in the Army Air Corps in 2005-2015 and served two tours in Afghanistan in 2007-08 and 2012-13.

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iStock/Thinkstock(MEXICO CITY) -- A strong earthquake shook southern Mexico on Saturday morning, the third temblor to hit the country this month.

The latest quake sent shock waves hundreds of miles out from its epicenter to Mexico City, causing buildings to sway and raising alarm in the capital still reeling from Tuesday's 7.1 magnitude earthquake that Mexican officials say has killed 307 people.

Once the shaking stopped, rescuers in Mexico City resumed searches inside collapsed buildings where people may still be buried alive.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who declared three days of national mourning after the devastating seismic event, has said saving lives is the top priority, and search and rescue efforts will be ongoing as long as survivors are believed to be beneath the rubble.

The earthquake on Saturday morning occurred around 7:53 a.m. CT and had a 6.1 magnitude, according to the United States Geological Survey. It was centered about 11 miles south-southeast of Matias Romero in Oaxaca state, a region worst hit by the first earthquake this month -- an 8.1 magnitude temblor on Sept. 7 that killed at least 90 people.

So far, Saturday's quake caused the greatest damage to the Ixtaltepec bridge in Oaxaca, which needs to be rebuilt, as well to structures already damaged from previous quakes, according to Peña Nieto.

On Thursday, Peña Nieto said search and rescue efforts in Mexico City were ongoing at 38 buildings damaged from Tuesday's massive quake. But it was unclear on Saturday how many collapsed buildings may contain survivors.

The powerful quake struck Tuesday afternoon, just hours after the region engaged in earthquake drills on the 32nd anniversary of a 1985 temblor that claimed thousands of lives in Mexico. It was centered near Raboso in Puebla state, some 75 miles southeast of Mexico City, according to the United States Geological Survey.

The disaster caused extensive damage across Mexico, leveling at least 44 buildings in the capital alone, including homes, schools and office buildings. Further southwest, in the Santiago Niltepec municipality of Oaxaca, more than 1,600 homes sustained damage -- 1,000 of which will have to be rebuilt because they are uninhabitable, according to Peña Nieto.

In Mexico City alone, more than 1,900 people have been treated in health facilities since the quake, according to Peña Nieto.

Out of the 305 people confirmed dead so far from Tuesday's quake, 167 perished in Mexico City, National Civil Protection Chief Luis Felipe Puente announced on Twitter Saturday morning. The death toll is rising as rescuers continue to pull bodies from piles of debris.

Much of the rescue effort in Mexico City focused on the Enrique Rebsamen primary and secondary school, where officials offered conflicting information on the death toll and whether there were pupils trapped beneath the cinderblock and rebar that once made up a wing of the three-story building.

Rescuers spent days trying to tunnel inside the debris after Mexico's education minister said multiple students there -- including a 12-year-old girl -- were still alive within the pancaked piles of concrete slabs.

Then, in a stunning turn of events, Mexico's deputy minister of information told ABC News on Thursday afternoon that it appeared no children remain trapped inside after cross-referencing all of the names of students and speaking with parents. He couldn't explain the discrepancy.

Members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department trained and equipped for urban search and rescue missions were deployed to Mexico City on Thursday by the United States Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.

They swept through most of the collapsed school with canines and found no signs of life, though the team told ABC News they were only able to access about 75 percent of the rubble.

On Wednesday night, Mexico's president said 95 percent of electricity had been restored to the nearly 5 million customers in the country who lost power due to the huge temblor.

Mexico has accepted technical and specialized assistance from many countries, including the United States, Spain, Israel, Japan and several Latin American countries.

"We are all one when it comes to saving a life or helping a victim," Peña Nieto said.

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iStock/Thinkstock(LONDON) -- Several people were injured Saturday near the Stratford Center shopping center in Stratford, east London, after being sprayed with a "noxious substance," police said.

London police responded to reports of a "group of males" spraying what could be a "noxious substance," authorities said.

One male was arrested and officers remain on the scene, police said.

The incident is not being treated as terror-related, officials said.

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Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images(BARCELONA, Spain) -- It is not often that a plebiscite is banned in a democracy, but that is exactly what happened in the case of the upcoming Catalan independence referendum in Spain, set to be held on Oct. 1.

The vote has not only been deemed unconstitutional, but also illegal by the Spanish government, which has responded strongly to the independence movement. Government officials have taken control of Catalan finances and rescinded its autonomy.

Police have raided dozens of Catalan regional governments and detained 14 senior politicians over their support for the organization of the referendum. Police have also raided political parties' headquarters and seized material, including pamphlets and election materials. The government has threatened that anyone handling or supplying electoral material risks prosecution, and has instructed the police to stop the vote from going ahead in the region.

In response, thousands in the independence movement are now planning to stage long-term street protests, and thousands have demonstrated in Barcelona against the arrest of people associated with the independence vote, demanding their immediate release.

The vote is eight days away, and neither side looks like it is backing down.

Many are asking how this apparently anti-democratic activity could happen in democratic Spain. Here's what you need to know:

What and where is Catalonia?

Catalonia, located in northeastern Spain, is a semi-autonomous region with its own local parliament. Catalans, as the locals call themselves, have been part of a distinct entity since the 11th century and have their own language and traditions.

Catalonia has been a part of Spain since the 15th century. Its language and culture has remained over the centuries despite the region's closer integration into the Spanish nation state. The region was first given formal limited autonomy in the early 20th century. Catalan identity was brutally repressed under the fascist regime of Francisco Franco, who banned locals from speaking the regional language and giving children traditional Catalonian names. The pro-independence sentiment, however, remained strong in Catalonia.

After the death of Franco and the introduction of a democratic government, Catalonia's unique identity and culture has been formalized and flourishes in modern democratic Spain. There are regional elections for parliament with an executive and local government, and Catalan is the official language by law. The region has become one of the most prosperous and important in the country, with the city of Barcelona -- and its population of nearly 5 million people -- at its heart.

According to the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia, it is the richest region in Spain, accounting for nearly 25 percent of Spanish exports. Just 16 percent of Spain's population lives in the region.

Why is there a referendum?

The political push for Catalan autonomy has existed since the 20th century and accelerated with the establishment of democracy in the 1970s, but a full-blown Catalan independence movement evolved after the fallout from the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008.

Local Catalan political parties began to actively agitate for independence on the back of a failing national economy and a sense that the region was paying more in taxes than it was getting back in benefits.

"Spain convinced Catalans to become independent. They created this situation," said Marc Gafarot, a political analyst at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs. "Catalonia was simply asking for a reduction of participation in a Spanish tax system that transferred money from the richest regions to the poorest. It was clearly targeting and exploiting the Catalonian region."

The pro-independence movement held an earlier symbolic vote in 2014 in which Catalonia voted for independence; 2.25 million people voted -- a turnout of just 37 percent -- with 81 percent of the voters saying "yes" to independence.

The upcoming referendum is different, having been organized by the Catalan government and ratified by its parliament, which is dominated by Catalan separatist parties, lending it legitimacy. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said of the move, "Separatists invented a new legal order."

The question being put to Catalans is simple: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent country in the form of a republic?”

What has been the Spanish government’s response?

The Spanish government is not waiting for the result of the referendum to respond. The Spanish Constitutional Court has suspended the vote, though Catalonia's pro-independence government said it will be maintained and is challenging the order.

The suspension was requested by Rajoy, who argued that the referendum is illegal under the country's 1978 constitution. The Spanish public prosecutor's office asked the Catalonia Police -- including Mossos (Special Forces), Guardia Civil (Local Police) and Cuerpo Nacional de Policia (National Civil Police Forces) -- to confiscate any voting material used to organize the "crime" of the illegal referendum, including ballot boxes, electoral propaganda flyers and printers.

"It's not just about independence. Spain is making itself a fool with the international community," Raul Romeva, Catalonia's minister of foreign affairs, told ABC News, adding that there are only two possible paths for Spain to take: "Democracy or repression."

This past week, La Guardia Civil confiscated 10 million paper ballots, and Spain has detained 14 Catalan officials, including Josep Maria Jové, the secretary general of economic affairs. Potential polling locations in the region were raided.

Gafarot predicted Spain's actions could have an unintended consequence: "Because of all this buzz, the pro-Catalonia independence vote will probably be stronger than ever."

What happens next?

The Catalan separatists have accused the Spanish government of being heavy-handed and mounting "a coup against democracy." They are adamant that the vote will go ahead, even if it has to be as a clandestine plebiscite.

An anonymous militant organizer confirmed to ABC News that 6,000 ballot boxes have been stored in a secret location for the coming referendum, and ongoing street protests will be conducted as part of the campaign against what they see as interference by the Spanish government in their affairs.

"Spain now is showing his real face to the rest of the world," said the organizer.

"Spain let us vote in 2014. This time they refuse because they know it's happening," he continued, adding, "I hope it's the last battle."

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DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- It began on the 73rd anniversary of D-Day -- the U.S.-led Allied invasion of Normandy, France during World War II -- and now, less than four months later in ISIS's self-declared capital, "the end is now in sight," according to a top U.S. diplomat.

The fight for Raqqa has been bloody and prolonged, but Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, said Friday that the terror group is down to its last three neighborhoods in the north-central part of the city.

"It is a matter of time until the operation in Raqqa is finished," McGurk added.

There are still a host of ISIS fighters holed up in the city, but the U.S. has shot down speculation that they may be promised safe passage out of the city -- as they were in a deal with Lebanese terror group Hezbollah. That deal was vehemently opposed by Iraq and the U.S., leading to a standoff where American forces picked ISIS fighters off as they tried to escape.

A State Department official told ABC News they are not aware of any such arrangement or discussions and, "I can't predict every situation, but it is pretty hard to imagine such a scenario given previous comments by [Defense Secretary James] Mattis that we are not going to let them get out."

Enormous challenges remain even after Raqqa falls, though -- illustrated, McGurk said, by one statistic Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shared with the Global Coalition this morning. Tillerson chaired a summit Friday of the group and its top diplomats on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. At one water treatment facility outside the city, Tillerson told the assembled members, teams found 240 un-exploded ordinances left by ISIS -- a "salt the earth tactic ... when they know they're going to lose," McGurk said.

To address that, the State Department and its sister organization USAID have a small team of development experts in Syria -- now on their third month there -- who assist in "stabilization" efforts to restore basic necessities -- de-mining, water treatment, rubble removal, aid logistics, restoring electricity and more.

Raqqa's fall is crucial to disrupting the terror group's network, especially their ability to plan and coordinate attacks abroad, according to McGurk. The city was where ISIS launched attacks on Istanbul, Paris and Brussels.

ISIS was planning "major, significant terrorist attacks, the type of Sept. 11-type events that they aspire to" from the city, McGurk said. That capability, in at least this one ISIS stronghold, is now gone.

After Raqqa, the coalition will turn its attention to Deir al Zour and smaller outposts in the Euphrates River Valley in eastern Syria. There, the Syrian Democratic Forces and their U.S. backers have faced a delicate dance with the Assad regime, its Iranian militia allies and its Russian backers as they also make a play to disrupt ISIS from the city. The bulk of ISIS's foreign fighters and its leadership are believed to be holed up there.

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UlrikeStein/iStock/Thinkstock(MEXICO CITY) -- After a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck Mexico City Tuesday, a frantic search ensued for a 12-year-old girl believed to be trapped beneath the rubble of her collapsed school. But in a bizarre turn of events, officials now say she never existed.

Throughout much of Wednesday and into Thursday, Mexico and the world were transfixed on a pancaked pile of cinderblock and rebar that once made up a wing of the Enrique Rebsamen primary and secondary school.

Rescue workers gingerly pulled out some survivors and recovered bodies from the pile of debris, but Mexicans officials believed at least one student was still buried alive there. For some 48 hours, rescuers tried to reach the girl, who reportedly told them her name and said there were others trapped nearby.

ABC News and other media outlets reported about the search for the girl, based on interviews with Mexican officials and rescue workers at the scene who thought the story was true.

Here's a closer look at how it all unfolded:

Tuesday, Sept. 19

The earthquake hit central Mexico around 2:14 p.m. ET, just hours after the region engaged in earthquake drills on the 32nd anniversary of a 1985 earthquake that claimed thousands of lives in Mexico. Tuesday's quake was centered near Raboso in Puebla state, some 75 miles southeast of Mexico City, according to the United States Geological Survey.

The natural disaster caused extensive damage to the capital, cracking roads and leveling at least 44 buildings, including homes, schools and office buildings, according to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who did a flyover of the city Tuesday afternoon.

Mexico's education minister reported later Tuesday that 25 bodies -- 21 children and four adults -- had been recovered from the collapsed Enrique Rebsamen primary and secondary school in Mexico City.

Wednesday, Sept. 20

Search and rescue efforts were well underway at the school Wednesday as reports of the trapped girl began to emerge.

Mexico's education minister told ABC News on Wednesday morning that 11 people had been rescued so far. But three others -- two children and one adult -- were still missing.

Foro TV reported that rescue workers spotted a child amid the rubble and shouted to her to move her hand if she could hear them, and she wiggled her fingers. A search dog was sent in and confirmed she was alive, Foro TV reported.

On Wednesday night, the education minister said in an interview with Televisa that the girl's name was Frida Sofia and she was 12 years old. The minister said the girl was under a granite table or another piece of sturdy furniture that rescue workers believed was protecting her from the collapsed concrete slabs.

The girl told rescue workers two others were trapped near her, saying she could feel them but wasn't sure if they were alive. Rescue workers used a tube to pass the girl water and oxygen, the minister told Televisa.

Later, when the minister spoke to ABC News, he said he cannot confirm the girl's name, age or condition.

"Now, what we know by certain is apparently there is a girl that the rescue team, I told you, they made contact with her, they talked with her, and apparently there are two other people apparently with life," he told ABC News on camera. "But we don’t know, and we want to be very careful with information."

Thursday, Sept. 21

Adding to the mystery and the confusion, ABC News spoke to at least two rescuers -- medics caked with dust -- who said they had tunneled their way to within feet of where it was believed the girl was trapped. They said they’d heard a girl's voice and spoken to her. They also said they'd heard knocking. But that had faded by Thursday morning, they said.

That morning, the Mexican military earlier delivered an on-camera appeal to parents of children who are still missing to come to the school. Perplexed officials told ABC News no parents had reported their children missing.

Mexico's education minister told Televisa rescuers found another dead teacher inside the collapsed school. He also confirmed that they were still in contact with the girl, Frida Sofia. He said it was unclear how many other children were also trapped.

Then, Mexico's deputy minister of information told ABC News on Thursday afternoon it appeared no children remain trapped inside after cross-referencing all of the names of students and speaking with parents. He said 19 children and six teachers were killed inside the school when it buckled, while 11 others were hospitalized.

The deputy minister of information told ABC News the individual rescuers believed was the girl was possibly just a maintenance worker. But he couldn't explain the discrepancy.

Later, when asked whether there was ever a girl amid the rubble, Mexico's undersecretary of education told ABC News, "No, no, that's for certain."

Members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department trained and equipped for urban search and rescue missions were deployed to Mexico City on Thursday by the United States Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. They swept most of the collapsed school with canines and found no signs of life, though the team told ABC News that night they were only able to access about 75 percent of the debris.

"We want to emphasize that we have no knowledge about the report that emerged with the name of a girl," Navy Assistant Secretary Angel Enrique Sarmiento said Thursday. "We never had any knowledge about that report, and we do not believe -- we are sure -- it was not a reality."

Sarmiento told reporters a camera lowered into the debris showed blood tracks where an injured person apparently dragged himself or herself, and the only individual still listed as missing was a school employee.

Sarmiento later apologized for being so categorical, saying if a person remains trapped it could be a child or an adult.

"The information existing at this moment doesn't allow us to say if it is an adult or a child," he said. "As long as there is the slightest possibility of someone alive, we will continue searching with the same energy."

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ABC News(NEW YORK) -- If North Korea follows through on its latest threat of setting off a nuclear explosion over the Pacific Ocean, it will ultimately be up to President Trump whether the United States will respond with military action, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told ABC News on Friday.

ABC News Anchor David Muir asked Tillerson in an interview on Good Morning America about North Korea's warning that it could detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific in response to Trump's speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week.

"If we see this detonation of an H-bomb in the Pacific, what will the U.S. do?" Muir said. "Will there be military action?"

"That will be the president’s decision," Tillerson said. "There is, assembled on a standing basis, a National Security Council that meets on each of these issues to advise the president. Ultimately, it will be his decision."

The secretary of state defended Trump's blunt rhetoric in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, in which the president threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea if the United States is "forced to defend itself or its allies," prompting astonished gasps from some in the audience. Trump also mocked North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the speech, dubbing him "Rocket Man."

Kim responded in a statement Thursday saying Trump will "pay dearly" for his address to the U.N. and that North Korea is considering the strongest possible response to what he called the U.S. president's provocation.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, said Thursday evening that his country could detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean, but also told reporters, "We have no idea about what actions could be taken, as it will be ordered by leader Kim Jong Un."

Trump responded to Kim's threats on Twitter on Friday morning, calling him a "madman" who "will be tested like never before."

"Does it work?" Muir asked Tillerson about the "escalating rhetoric."

Tillerson said, "The president obviously takes the responsibility of the security of the American people very seriously."

"But we're not in this alone," he added. "We have developed strong allies and strong alliances internationally."

"We are engaging with North Korea's most important supporters; economic supporters; their friends, China and Russia, to have them also engage with Kim Jong Un on this issue," he said.

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump responded early Friday after North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un said the United States would "pay dearly" for new sanctions on his country and called Trump a "dotard."

Trump called the leader a "madman" and said he "would be tested like never before" in an early-morning tweet.

Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman who doesn't mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 22, 2017

“I will surely and definitely tame the deranged U.S. dotard with fire,” Kim said on Thursday, according to reports. Dotard is a word used to describe an elderly person in a state of senile decay, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

The latest war of words between the two leaders began when the United Nations passed new sanctions on North Korea unanimously earlier this week in response to the growing nuclear threat posed by the country.

In his address to the U.N. on Tuesday, President Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea.

“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” the president said in his address. “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself.”

Responding to the speech, Kim released a statement saying that Trump will “pay dearly” for his address to the U.N. and that North Korea is considering the strongest possible response to what he calls Trump’s provocation.

"I'd like to advise Trump to exercise prudence in selecting words and to be considerate of whom he speaks to when making a speech in front of the world," Kim said, according to reports.

North Korea Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, who is in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, said Thursday evening that North Korea could detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean, but also told reporters, "We have no idea about what actions could be taken, as it will be ordered by leader Kim Jong Un."

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STR/Getty Images(PYONGYANG) -- North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un said President Donald Trump will "pay dearly" for his address to the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week.

In the statement released Thursday, Kim also said North Korea is considering the strongest possible response to what he called Trump's provocation.

Trump responded to Kim's threats on Twitter Friday morning, saying he "would be tested like never before."

Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman who doesn't mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 22, 2017

On Tuesday, Trump threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea, referring to Kim as "Rocket Man."

"No nation on earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles," Trump said. "The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary."

Trump also called on all nations to isolate the Kim regime in light of its "reckless pursuit" of nuclear weapons and treatment of its citizens.

In his lengthy response, Kim slammed Trump as "mentally deranged" and said the American president had "made the most ferocious declaration of a war in history."

"I will make the man holding the prerogative of the supreme command in the U.S. pay dearly for his speech calling for totally destroying" North Korea, Kim said.

Kim added: "Whatever Trump might have expected, he will face results beyond his expectation.

"I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U. S. dotard with fire."

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Sarairis Aguilar/AFP/Getty Images(MEXICO CITY) -- Rescuers continue to frantically dig through the rubble of a collapsed school in Mexico City two days after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck, killing hundreds.

Officials offered conflicting information on how many died and who was still trapped inside the building. On Thursday, Mexico's deputy minister of information told ABC News that one maintenance worker was still stuck inside the school. He added that 19 children and six teachers were killed in the collapse, while 11 were hospitalized for treatment.

On Wednesday, however, Mexico's Education Minister Aurelio Nuno said that multiple students -- including a 12-year-old girl -- were still trapped alive under the rubble.

Nuno also said the bodies of 21 children and four adults had been discovered at the site.

The deputy minister of information couldn't explain the discrepancy but said that after cross-referencing all of the names of students and talking to parents, it appeared that no children were trapped inside.

The Mexican military earlier delivered an on-camera appeal to parents of children who are still missing to come to the school. Perplexed officials told ABC News on Thursday morning that no parents had reported their children missing.

A pediatrician who is caring for those extricated told ABC News hypothermia is the biggest threat that faced those beneath the rubble.

Earlier, a rescuer, who was caked with dust after emerging from a pile of cinderblock and rebar that once made up a wing of the Enrique Rebsamen primary and secondary school, told ABC News that rescuers were just 3 to 4 feet away from a victim trapped beneath the rubble but were blocked by a chunk of concrete. He's heard knocks and multiple voices, but the noise has grown fainter over the past 12 hours, he said.

The rescuer said he was tunneling inside when the pile began to collapse, triggering panic to get out. The crawl space for rescuers is only about 16 inches high. Rescue work was then temporarily suspended.

Rescue workers were seen rolling in a crane in an attempt to gingerly raise the roof of the collapsed school, hopefully enabling them to reach those still trapped inside.

Neighbors, police, soldiers and firefighters alike could be seen forming an assembly line, tirelessly clawing through the wreckage all day Wednesday. Rescue dogs and harnessed workers wearing helmets were on site to search for survivors.

At one point, the rescue crews dropped listening devices into a hole amid the rubble of the collapsed structure and attempted to send in a rescue dog to sniff for survivors.

Every few minutes, the near silence was punctuated by whistles demanding silence, the call for dogs and screams for doctors. The Herculean effort was being performed before hundreds of people thronged a block away.

In between the pockets of quiet, a generator's drone can be heard under the repetitive clanking of shopping carts caused by strangers delivering bottles of water and tortillas to rescuers.

A 13-year-old boy named Rogelio Heredia managed to claw his way out of the debris. He told Televisa it felt "like a dream" and described scaling a wall that had collapsed to get to safety on the street.

Meanwhile, video posted to social media showed young students being pulled from the rubble.

The school was among dozens of buildings in central Mexico leveled by the pulverizing power of the quake, which struck Tuesday afternoon some 75 miles from the capital. Mexico City's foundations were built on a lake bed, making many structures especially unstable during an earthquake.

The region was engaging in earthquake drills just hours before the quake hit on the 32nd anniversary of a 1985 earthquake that claimed thousands of lives in Mexico.

LANDED: Elite @USAID #mexicoearthquake disaster team incl >60 @LACo_FD #USAR members 5 canines. Their job: rescue survivors assess damage

— USAID/OFDA (@theOFDA) September 21, 2017

On Thursday, the United States Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance tweeted a photo of its Air Force plane arriving in Mexico. Onboard were more than 67 urban search-and-rescue members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department along with five canines and 62,000 pounds of specialized tools and medical equipment to conduct around-the-clock missions on the ground and assess damage, according to USAID Administrator Mark Green.

Green said the team from Los Angeles was sent because they have the heavy equipment needed in this natural disaster, particularly to deal with collapsed structures.

The United States and Mexico are closely coordinating to ensure crews and resources are deployed "in the right place at the right time applying their capacities," according to Green.

"America is and will remain the world's leading humanitarian donor," Green said. "Whether it's responding to an earthquake, drought or conflict, America is committed to standing shoulder to shoulder with people in their hour of need. It's who we are as Americans."

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ABC News (SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico) -- At least 15 people have died in the Caribbean island of Dominica and many homes are destroyed beyond repair after Hurricane Maria devastated the country this week, Dominica's prime minister said Thursday.

In an emotional interview with ABS Television, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said the death toll is likely to rise and search and rescue missions are ongoing. At least 16 others are missing in some communities, he said.

“We have many deaths, but it is a miracle that we do not have hundreds of deaths in the country,” Skerrit told ABS Television.

The storm has led to at least 18 deaths thus far, including 15 in Dominica, two in Guadeloupe and one in Puerto Rico.

El Nueva Dia quoted the mayor of Toa Baja, a town in northern Puerto Rico, saying that eight people drowned in the storm. The mayor also said 4,000 people had been rescued in Toa Baja.

After pummeling through the Caribbean, Maria restrengthened to a major hurricane early Thursday.

It had regained major hurricane status after moving back over warm, open waters in the Atlantic Ocean.

As of 11 p.m. ET, Maria's maximum sustained winds had increased to 125 mph, making it a major Category 3 hurricane, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm's massive eye was located about 65 miles east-southeast of Grand Turk Island in Turks and Caicos. Maria was traveling northwest at 8 mph, with Turks and Caicos in its path.

On Thursday afternoon, Turks and Caicos began experiencing tropical storm conditions as Puerto Rico continued to get hit by the storm's outer rain bands. The Dominican Republic will continue to see hurricane conditions through Thursday evening.

From there, Maria will likely weaken over the weekend as it moves between Bermuda and the eastern coast of the United States. The diminishing storm should move further east of the U.S. and out to sea sometime next week.

The storm's path is expected to steer clear of the U.S. mainland.

Maria leaves Puerto Rico in the dark

Even as Maria moved away from Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory was still being hit with strong wind and heavy rain. Storm surge was receding Thursday morning, but Puerto Rico was hit with 20 to 30 inches of rain in 24 hours, with some areas seeing 35 inches locally. The hurricane came ashore there as a powerful Category 4 with 155 mph wind -- the first Category 4 storm to hit the island since 1932.

A spokesperson with the Puerto Rico governor's office confirmed one person has died in the storm. The person was killed in Bayamon, just southwest of San Juan, after being hit in the head by a wooden panel.

Puerto Rico's emergency management agency confirmed on Wednesday afternoon that 100 percent of the island had lost power, noting that anyone with electricity was using a generator.

Telecommunications throughout the island have "collapsed," Abner Gomez Cortes, executive director of Puerto Rico's emergency management agency, told ABC News.

More than 12,000 people are currently in shelters, and hospitals are now running on generators, Cortes said. Two hospitals -- one in Caguas and one in Bayamon -- have been damaged.

Cortes described Maria as an unprecedented storm, adding that Puerto Rico had not seen a hurricane of that strength since 1928.

Multiple transmission lines sustained damage from the storm, according Ricardo Ramos, director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. Ramos said he hopes to begin launching helicopters by this weekend to begin inspecting the transmission lines.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello imposed a curfew on the island Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. ET through Saturday.

A spokesperson for Rossello said early Thursday he was with a National Guard unit in Levittown, a coastal suburb of San Juan, where as many as 80 percent of homes suffered damage and residents there had retreated to rooftops due to flooding.

Felix Delgado Montalvo, the mayor of Catano, some 7 miles southwest of San Juan, told ABC News on Wednesday there are hundreds of people in shelters and over 1,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in the communities of Juana Matos, La Puntilla and Puente Blanco. Most of the homes there are flooded and are missing roofs or have collapsed walls, he said.

About 80 percent of residences in the Juana Matos community were destroyed from storm surge and flooding. Homes there are filled with at least 3 to 4 feet of water, according to Montalvo.

Christy Caban of Nashville, Tennessee, rode out the storm with her husband and 13-month-old baby in their hotel room just east of San Juan.

"We don't have power, we don't have water," Caban told ABC News.

Meanwhile, ABC News correspondents observed widespread destruction in the town of Guaynabo, about 10 miles south of San Juan.

Trees and power lines were downed, and storefronts and building facades had crumbled. Neighborhoods in Guaynabo were filled with waist-deep floodwaters and destroyed homes that were clearly not built to any kind of code.

Guaynabo resident Ramon Caldero and his family hunkered down in their kitchen during the storm, which caused part of the ceiling to collapse in his sister's room.

"I was worried," Caldero told ABC News. "My sister was screaming."

Puerto Rico narrowly missed landfall by Hurricane Irma two weeks ago, with the Category 5 storm traveling just north of the U.S. territory. The island suffered heavy rain and wind, but nothing near the widespread damage incurred by Maria.

Governor @RicardoRossello-
We are with you and the people of Puerto Rico. Stay safe! #PRStrong

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2017



Thank you Mr. President @realDonaldTrump United, we stand! #USstrong #PRstrong

— Ricardo Rossello (@ricardorossello) September 21, 2017


Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Thursday, President Donald Trump said Hurricane Maria "absolutely obliterated" Puerto Rico and "totally destroyed" the U.S. territory's power grid, but that the recovery process will begin soon with "great gusto."

The island “got hit with winds, they say they’ve never seen winds like this anywhere," Trump added.

Trump also tweeted a message of support for Puerto Rico late Wednesday, which was reciprocated by the island's governor. Rossello also spoke to Vice President Mike Pence by phone Wednesday.

Other Caribbean islands devastated

Maria also did severe damage to multiple Caribbean islands, including Dominica, Guadeloupe and the Virgin Islands.

The U.S. Department of State sent a message of solidarity Wednesday to the people of Dominica and all across the Caribbean who were affected by Maria.

Hartley Henry, an adviser to Dominica's prime minister, told reporters via WhatsApp on Wednesday that his country has suffered a "tremendous loss of housing and public buildings" since the storm hit, ripping off roofs and tearing doors from hinges. Dominica's main general hospital "took a beating" and "patient care has been compromised," he said.

"The country is in a daze -- no electricity, no running water," Henry said via a WhatsApp message. "In summary, the island has been devastated."

In the interview with ABS Television on Thursday, Dominica's prime minister said the island has no electricity and only limited telecommunications have been restored since the storm. Some villages are now only accessible by sea or via helicopter, he said.

“It’s going to take us a very long time to get back,” Skerrit.

The prime minister told ABS Television that his home's roof was ripped off during the storm and he had to take cover under a bed to protect himself from falling debris.

While wiping away tears, Skerrit issued an urgent appeal for desperately needed relief aid, namely water, tarps and baby supplies.

The Ross University School of Medicine, based in Portsmouth, Dominica, announced Wednesday on Facebook that it is attempting to make contact with all of its students. More than 1,400 students and faculty have signed the registration sheet so far, and the school has reached out to the family members of more than 700 others, who informed them that they are safe.

In Guadeloupe, officials announced Wednesday two people were killed there and two others were missing due to the storm.

France's Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said some 80,000 people in Guadeloupe -- around 40 percent of the population -- were without electricity Wednesday. Many roads there are impassible due to flooding and French Navy planes have not been able to assess the damage on the island due to bad weather conditions.

In Martinique, about 70,000 homes were without electricity and 50,000 homes did not have access to safe drinking water Wednesday. Fallen trees and downed power poles have blocked many roads there, Collomb said.

Police and soldiers have been deployed in both Martinique and Guadeloupe to ensure security. More than 3,000 first responders are on the French Caribbean islands, according to Collomb.

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