Beijing 2022 Eases COVID Curbs for Games; China Warns on Pollution 

about 11 hours ago

Organizers of next month's Beijing Winter Olympics slightly eased the strict COVID-19 requirements for participants, a move that means fewer athletes are likely to be tripped up by positive tests, although authorities also warned about seasonal air pollution.  The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the changes on Monday, which included easing the threshold for being designated positive for COVID-19 from PCR tests and reducing to seven days from 14 days the period for which a person is deemed a close contact.  The changes, which take effect immediately and apply retrospectively, "have been developed in order to further adapt to the reality of the current environment and support the Games participants", the IOC said in a statement.  The slight relaxing of rules for Games participants comes despite China's scramble to contain local flare-ups of COVID-19, including in Beijing, with four more Chinese provinces finding infections linked to the Beijing cluster amid the Lunar New Year travel season.  Organizers also began reporting data on positive COVID-19 tests among Games-related personnel, with 177 confirmed cases found among 3,115 international arrivals from Jan. 4 to Jan. 23, just one of which was among an athlete or support staffer, according to Beijing 2022 data released Sunday and Monday.  China's strict COVID-19 protocols have led some team officials to express fear of athletes, including those who have recovered from coronavirus, being blocked from participating.  The changes mean that now only participants whose PCR results show a Cycle Threshold (CT) of less than 35 will be considered positive. Previously, the more sensitive CT of 40 was the threshold for designating those positive, the Games' medical chief, Brian McCloskey, said on Sunday.  The Games are set to take place from Feb. 4 to Feb. 20 inside a "closed loop" bubble separating all personnel from the public amid what is effectively a zero-tolerance COVID-19 policy in China that has led it to all but shut its border to international arrivals.  Final preparations are taking place amid the global surge in the highly infectious Omicron coronavirus variant. Organizers said last week that tickets would not be sold to the public.  Smog warning  Meanwhile, the Chinese capital's notorious smog, which has drastically improved in recent years, emerged as a potential Games irritant on Monday when China's Ministry of Ecology and Environment warned that winter weather was "very unfavorable" for efforts to keep the air clean.  Beijing has been enveloped for days in thick smog, with concentrations of hazardous airborne particles known as PM2.5 at 205 micrograms per cubic meter on Monday morning. The World Health Organization recommends levels of no more than 5.  Since China won the bid for the Winter Olympics in 2015, authorities have raised vehicle fuel standards, shut polluting firms and cut coal consumption in a bid to make the Games "green."  Authorities will take action against polluters in Beijing and neighboring Hebei province if there are warnings of heavy pollution during the Olympics to ensure that they will be held in a "good environment", environment ministry spokesman Liu Youbin said on Monday.  In addition to COVID-19 and pollution, preparations for the Games have been clouded by a diplomatic boycott by countries including the United States over China's human rights record. China says that betrays Olympic principles and denies rights abuses. 

Reports Say Burkina Faso President Kabore Has Been Detained by Mutinous Soldiers

about 12 hours ago

Reports out of the West African nation of Burkina Faso say embattled President Roch Marc Christian Kabore and members of his government have been detained by mutineering soldiers.    News outlets say there are reports of heavy fighting near the presidential palace in the capital, Ouagadougou.    Burkina Faso has been embroiled in a conflict with terror groups linked to al-Qaida and Islamic State since 2015. Rumors of a coup have been rife for weeks after a military base in the north of the country was overrun by terrorists killing 49 military members.   President Kabore fired members of his Cabinet and military leadership in December in response.  The current unrest began early Sunday when heavy gunfire was heard inside Ouagadougou’s largest military base, Camp Sangoule Lamizana. VOA journalist Henry Wilkins was temporarily detained inside the camp and spoke to one of the organizers of the mutiny, who relayed a list of demands from the mutineers, including “more money and more troops” to aid in the fight against terrorism, along with better training and the organization of a permanent military unit on the front lines. The mutineers also demanded the resignations of the military chief of staff and chief of the intelligence services, and better care of the wounded and families of soldiers who have died in the conflict.  The apparent coup in Burkina Faso is the third in West Africa in the last 18 months, following that of Mali and neighboring Guinea.    Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and  Agence France-Presse.  

UNESCO: World Failing to Provide Quality Education for Children

about 12 hours ago

A United Nations report released Monday said the world is failing to insure that by 2030 all children are receiving an “inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities.”  The indicators used to determine a participating country’s success included: early childhood education attendance; drop-out rates; completion rates; gender gaps in completion rates; minimum proficiency rates in reading and mathematics; trained teachers; and public education expenditure.  The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, said countries were already failing their children “even before taking into account the potential consequences of COVID-19 on education development.”   This failure “is a wakeup call for the world’s leaders,” UNESCO’s report said, “as millions of children will continue to miss out on school and high-quality learning.”  The education benchmarks are included in Sustainable Development Goal 4 – one of 17 goals set up in 2015 by the U.N. General Assembly. The goals are intended to be achieved by 2030. 

US Envoy: Iran Nuclear Agreement Unlikely without Release of US Prisoners

about 12 hours ago

The United States is unlikely to strike an agreement with Iran to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal unless Tehran releases four U.S. citizens Washington says it is holding hostage, the lead U.S. nuclear negotiator told Reuters on Sunday.  The official, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, repeated the long-held U.S. position that the issue of the four people held in Iran is separate from the nuclear negotiations.  He moved a step closer, however, to saying that their release was a precondition for a nuclear agreement.  "They're separate and we're pursuing both of them. But I will say it is very hard for us to imagine getting back into the nuclear deal while four innocent Americans are being held hostage by Iran," Malley told Reuters in an interview.  "So even as we're conducting talks with Iran indirectly on the nuclear file we are conducting, again indirectly, discussions with them to ensure the release of our hostages," he said in Vienna, where talks are taking place on bringing Washington and Tehran back into full compliance with the deal.  In recent years, Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards have arrested dozens of dual nationals and foreigners, mostly on espionage and security-related charges.  Rights groups have accused Iran of taking prisoners to gain diplomatic leverage, while Western powers have long demanded that Tehran free their citizens, who they say are political prisoners.  Tehran denies holding people for political reasons.  Message sent Malley was speaking in a joint interview with Barry Rosen, a 77-year-old former U.S. diplomat who has been on hunger strike in Vienna to demand the release of U.S., British, French, German, Austrian and Swedish prisoners in Iran, and that no nuclear agreement be reached without their release.  Rosen was one of more than 50 U.S. diplomats held during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis.  "I've spoken to a number of the families of the hostages who are extraordinarily grateful for what Mr. Rosen is doing but they also are imploring him to stop his hunger strike, as I am, because the message has been sent," Malley said.  Rosen said that after five days of not eating he was feeling weak and would heed those calls.  "With the request from Special Envoy Malley and my doctors and others, we've agreed (that) after this meeting I will stop my hunger strike but this does not mean that others will not take up the baton," Rosen said.  The indirect talks between Iran and the United States on bringing both countries back into full compliance with the landmark 2015 nuclear deal are in their eighth round. Iran  refuses to hold meetings with U.S. officials, meaning others shuttle between the two sides.  The deal between Iran and major powers lifted sanctions against Tehran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear activities that extended the time it would need to obtain enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb if it chose to. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons.  Then-President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the deal in 2018, reimposing punishing economic sanctions against Tehran. Iran responded by breaching many of the deal's nuclear restrictions, to the point that Western powers say the deal will soon have been hollowed out completely.    Leverage Asked if Iran and the United States might negotiate directly, Malley said: "We've heard nothing to that effect. We'd welcome it."  The four U.S. citizens include Iranian American businessman Siamak Namazi, 50, and his father Baquer, 85, both of whom have been convicted of "collaboration with a hostile government."  Namazi remains in prison. His father was released on medical grounds in 2018 and his sentence later reduced to time served.  While the elder Namazi is no longer jailed, a lawyer for the family says he is effectively barred from leaving Iran.  "Senior Biden administration officials have repeatedly told us that although the potential Iranian nuclear and hostage deals are independent and must be negotiated on parallel tracks, they will not just conclude the nuclear deal by itself," said Jared Genser, pro bono counsel to the Namazi family.  "Otherwise, all leverage to get the hostages out will be lost," he added.  The others are environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 66, who is also British, and businessman Emad Shargi, 57. 

Mexican Journalist Murdered in Tijuana, 2nd in a Week

about 13 hours ago

A journalist was killed Sunday, the second in a week's time in the northern Mexico border city of Tijuana, and the third in Mexico this month.  Lourdes Maldonado Lopez was found shot to death inside a car, according to a statement from the Baja California state prosecutor's office. Authorities had received a 911 call around 7 p.m. and found Maldonado dead on arrival.  In 2019, Maldonado came to President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's daily morning news conference and asked for his support, help and labor justice. “Because I fear for my life,” she said.   Maldonado had been locked in a years-long labor dispute with Jaime Bonilla, who was elected governor of Baja California later that year as a candidate from Lopez Obrador's Morena party. He left office late last year.  Maldonado had recently announced that she won her dispute with a media company Bonilla owned after nine years of litigation. Maldonado had collaborated with many outlets, but recently was doing a internet, radio and television show, “Brebaje,” focused on local news.  Last Monday, photographer Margarito Martinez was gunned down outside his home. He was well-known for covering the crime scene in violence-plagued Tijuana. He worked for the local news outlet Cadena Noticias, as well as for other national and international media outlets. 

More Women, Minorities Take Up Truck Driving Due to High Demand

about 13 hours ago

A shortage of truck drivers in the U.S. has led to all kinds of troubles for consumers and businesses. That has led to some trucking companies doing all they can to get new drivers on the road. VOA’s Aunshuman Apte has more from New York City. Camera: Aunshuman Apte                       Produced by: Aunshuman Apte 

UAE Says It Intercepted Two Missiles Targeting Abu Dhabi

about 16 hours ago

The United Arab Emirates said Monday it intercepted two ballistic missiles targeting Abu Dhabi.  The UAE defense ministry said in a statement the remnants of the missiles fell harmlessly and that no one was injured.  The ministry said the UAE is “ready to deal with any threats and that it takes all necessary measures to protect the state from all attacks.”  Last week, an attack claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels hit a fuel depot in Abu Dhabi, killing three people and wounding six others.  The UAE is part of a Saudi-led coalition that has carried out multiple airstrikes against Houthi positions in Yemen since last week’s attack.  Saudi state media also reported Sunday that a Houthi-fired ballistic missile fell in the southern part of Saudi Arabia, injuring at least one person.  Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. 

California Nursing Homes Use Robotic Pets to Help the Elderly

about 17 hours ago

In a California senior care community, very special pets are helping residents keep their spirits up, fight anxiety and feel loved. Officials say these animals are therapeutic, low-maintenance and never get moody. Angelina Bagdasaryan has the story, narrated by Anna Rice. Camera: Vazgen Varzhabetian             

Medal of Honor Monday: Marine Corps Capt. Robert Hanson > U.S. Department of Defense > Story

by Katie Lange, about 17 hours ago

Marine Corps Capt. Robert Hanson was a fearless fighter over the skies of the South Pacific during World War II. That bravery earned him a place as one of the war's great aces and led to a posthumous Medal of Honor.

How Russia conducts false flag operations

by Leigh Hartman, about 17 hours ago

Nations plant "false flags" to look like victims or justify war. Learn how Russia has used false flag operations to hide its aggression.

French Fashion Designer Thierry Mugler Dies Aged 73

about 20 hours ago

French designer Thierry Mugler, who reigned over fashion in the 1980s and died on Sunday, was as famous for his fantastical couture as for his blockbuster fashion shows. He was 73. Mugler's daring collections came to define the decade's power dressing, with his clothes noted for their structured and sophisticated silhouettes, showcased by his extravagant shows. "I always thought that fashion was not enough on its own and that it had to be shown in its musical and theatrical environment," he once said. In later years, he dressed Beyonce and Lady Gaga -- and in 2019 came out of retirement to create Kim Kardashian's Met Gala look. "We are devastated to announce the passing of Mr Manfred Thierry Mugler on Sunday January 23rd 2022," said a post on the designer's official Facebook account. His agent Jean-Baptiste Rougeot, who said the designer had died of "natural causes," added he had been due to announce new collaborations early this week. Born in Strasbourg in December 1948, as a young teen Mugler joined the Opera du Rhin's ballet company before studying at the School of Decorative Arts. From a young age he created his own clothes, adapting items bought at nearby flea markets. He moved to Paris aged 20, initially to work with another ballet company -- but was more successful with his own wardrobe. Mugler soon became a freelance stylist and worked for various fashion houses in Paris, London and Milan. In 1973, he took the plunge and created his own label "Café de Paris", before founding "Thierry Mugler" a year later. His designs exacerbated and celebrated women's forms: shoulders accentuated by padding, plunging necklines, constricted waists and rounded hips. "Dancing taught me a lot about posture, the organization of clothing, the importance of the shoulders, the head carriage, the play and rhythm of the legs," said Mugler. A showman at heart, he organized spectacular presentations of his creations pioneering the modern spectacle of the 21st century fashion show. "Today's fashion shows are a continuation of what Mugler invented. The collections were pretexts for fashion shows," recalled Didier Grumbach, former CEO of Thierry Mugler. He had showmanship in his blood: for the 10th anniversary of his label in 1984, he organized the first public fashion show in Europe with 6,000 attending the rock concert-like show. But nothing compared to the 20th anniversary celebration in 1995, staged at the Cirque d'Hiver. Models including Jerry Hall, Naomi Campbell, Eva Herzigova and Kate Moss paraded alongside stars such as Tippi Hedren and Julie Newmar with the spectacle culminating in a performance from James Brown. The 1992 launch of his company's first perfume "Angel" -- in collaboration with Clarins, which acquired a stake in the company before taking control in 1997 -- was a runaway success. Clarins shuttered Thierry Mugler ready-to-wear in 2003, a year after the designer reportedly left the brand, but continued the scent business with "Angel" rivalling Chanel's No.5 for the top spot in sales. Renowned for his work with celebrities, he counted Grace Jones and Hall among his muses, and had a long-running creative collaboration with David Bowie -- even dressing him for his wedding to Iman. Despite seemingly retiring from fashion's frontlines in the early 2000s, Mugler continued to impact culture and worked with Beyonce on her "I am..." world tour.  In later years the designer suffered a series of accidents requiring facial surgery and rebuilt his body with intensive bodybuilding while engaging in meditation and yoga.

US Orders Departure of Family Members of Ukraine Embassy Staff

about 21 hours ago

The State Department on Sunday ordered the departure of eligible family members from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and authorized the voluntary departure of U.S. direct hire employees due to the continued threat of Russian military action against Ukraine. The State Department also is asking U.S. citizens in Ukraine to consider departing the country now using commercial or other privately available transportation options. The State Department reissued its Level 4 Travel Warning for Ukraine, saying “Do not travel to Ukraine due to the increased threats of Russian military action and COVID-19.”  Previously, the travel warning had also been at Level 4, due to COVID-19. The State Department also reissued a travel advisory Sunday night regarding travel to Russia: "Do not travel to Russia due to ongoing tension along the border with Ukraine, the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens, the embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia, COVID-19 and related entry restrictions, terrorism, harassment by Russian government security officials, and the arbitrary enforcement of local law." Asked about the timing of these actions on Sunday evening in Washington, a senior State Department official told reporters they come against the backdrop of reports Russia is planning significant military action against Ukraine.  The State Department official said security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders, in Russia-occupied Crimea and in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and can deteriorate with little notice.  The official said President Joe Biden has said a Russian military invasion of Ukraine could happen at any time, and if there is an invasion, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv would have limited ability to assist Americans who might want to leave the country. The State Department officials who briefed reporters declined to give any estimates of the number of Americans working at the embassy in Kyiv or of the number of Americans living in Ukraine. The State Department officials said these orders are being taken as a “prudent precaution” that in no way undermines U.S. support for the government of Ukraine, and the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv will continue to operate. The State Department also asked all U.S. citizens in Ukraine to complete an online form so that the State Department may better communicate with them, saying this is especially important for citizens who plan to remain in Ukraine. Earlier Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russia that Washington knows “all of the tactics and techniques” that Moscow can deploy to undermine the Ukrainian government but will continue to engage in diplomatic talks in hopes of easing tensions in eastern Europe. Watch related video by Arash Arabasadi: “It is certainly possible that the diplomacy the Russians are engaged in is simply going through the motions and it won't affect their ultimate decision about whether to invade or in some other way intervene, or not in Ukraine,” Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” show. “But we have a responsibility to see the diplomacy through for … as far and as long as we can go because it's the more responsible way to bring this to a closure.”  In a separate interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” show, Blinken ruled out the United States immediately imposing severe economic sanctions on Moscow, which it has vowed to do if Russian President Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine. Russia has massed 127,000 troops just across its border with Ukraine, a former Soviet republic.  “If they’re triggered now,” Blinken said of the possible sanctions, “you lose the deterrent factor.”  Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, following Blinken on CNN, accused the administration of President Joe Biden of a “doctrine of appeasement” in dealing with Russia over threats to Ukraine.  “The sanctions need to be imposed now,” Ernst said. “President Putin only understands strength and power. We need to have firm resolve.”  Blinken declined to comment on a British intelligence report that Russia was seeking to replace Ukraine’s government with a pro-Moscow administration. Moscow rejected the claim.  “The disinformation spread by the British Foreign Office is more evidence that it is the NATO countries, led by the Anglo-Saxons, who are escalating tensions around Ukraine," Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on the Telegram messaging app. "We call on the British Foreign Office to stop provocative activities, stop spreading nonsense."  Blinken, on NBC, said that aside from the world’s awareness of Russia’s massive troop deployment near Ukraine, “It's also important that people around the world, whether it's in Europe, the United States or beyond, understand the kinds of things that could be in the offing: a false flag operation to try and create a false pretext for going in. It's important that people know that that's something that's in the playbook too,” as well as cyberattacks and other disruption targeting Ukraine.  The top U.S. diplomat said that aside from diplomatic engagement with Russia, “We are building up defense, we're building up deterrence; we've now provided to Ukraine more security assistance this year than in any previous year.”     Some material in this report came from the Associated Press. 

Burkina Soldiers Mutiny Over Anti-Jihadist Strategy

about 23 hours ago

Soldiers in Burkina Faso staged mutinies at several barracks to demand the sacking of the country's military top brass and allocation of more resources to a seven-year battle against Islamist insurgents. The authorities declared an overnight curfew from 8:00 p.m. local time (2000 GMT) "until further notice" and the education ministry said schools would be closed Monday and Tuesday across the poor landlocked country. Gunfire was reported Sunday morning at several army bases, prompting fears of yet another coup in a volatile West African country prone to military takeovers. Meanwhile, demonstrators protesting over the government's handling of the jihadist threat set fire to the headquarters of the ruling party. But the government quickly denied rumors of a putsch, and a list of demands presented by the rebellious troops made no mention of trying to oust President Roch Christian Kabore, while emphasizing the need for a better anti-jihadist strategy. "We want adequate resources for the battle" against Islamist extremists, a soldier from the Sangoule Lamizana base in Ouagadougou said in a voice recording received by AFP. The disaffected soldiers also wanted top generals to be "replaced," better care for injured troops and more support for the families of soldiers killed in battle, the spokesman for the mutinous troops added in the anonymous recording. The unrest comes a little over a week after 12 people, including a senior army officer, were arrested on suspicion of planning to "destabilize" Burkina's institutions. It also comes a day after police used tear gas to disperse banned rallies, arresting dozens.  Residents in the Gounghin district, where the Sangoule Lamizana base is situated, reported seeing soldiers firing in the air and sealing off the area around the barracks. Shots were also heard at the Baby Sy barracks in the south of the capital, as well as at an air base near the airport, which was also surrounded by soldiers wearing balaclavas, witnesses said.  There was also gunfire at bases in the northern towns of Kaya and Ouahigouya, residents there told AFP, and mobile internet services were cut. The government moved quickly to try to restore control. "Information on social media would have people believe there was an army takeover," government spokesman Alkassoum Maiga said in a statement.  "The government, while acknowledging that there was gunfire in some barracks, denies this information and calls on the public to remain calm." Defense Minister General Barthelemy Simpore said on nationwide TV that "none of the republic's institutions has been troubled" by the revolt. He added that there were "localized, limited" incidents "in a few barracks," and that he was investigating. Police fired tear gas to break up a rally by around 100 people who gathered at a square in central Ouagadougou to show support for the mutiny, an AFP correspondent reported. Sangoule Lamizana camp houses a military prison where General Gilbert Diendere -- a former right-hand man to deposed President Blaise Compaore -- is serving a 20-year term for an attempted coup in 2015.  He is also on trial for his alleged part in the 1987 assassination of the country's revolutionary leader, Thomas Sankara, during a putsch that brought Compaore to power. Compaore, who was overthrown by a popular uprising in 2014, fled to Ivory Coast, and is being tried in absentia for the assassination. The latest turbulence coincides with a jihadist insurgency that swept in from neighboring Mali in 2015, overwhelming Burkina's poorly trained and badly equipped armed forces. Around 2,000 people have died, according to an AFP tally, while around 1.5 million people are internally displaced, according to the national emergency agency CONASUR. Anger at Kabore's failure to stem the bloodshed has risen, spilling over into clashes with the security forces.  On November 27, dozens were wounded when hundreds turned out to protest. Among the soldiers arrested this month over the plot to "destabilize institutions" was Lieutenant-Colonel Emmanuel Zoungrana, who had been commanding anti-jihadist operations in the former French colony's badly hit western region. In a statement, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said it was very concerned at the situation and expressed its solidarity with President Kabore, the government and its people.

Taliban Talks in Norway Raise New Debate About Recognition

about 24 hours ago

A Taliban delegation led by acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi on Sunday started three days of talks in Oslo with Western officials and Afghan civil society representatives amid a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. The closed-door meetings were taking place at a hotel in the snow-capped mountains above the Norwegian capital and are the first time since the Taliban took over in August that their representatives have held official meetings in Europe. The talks were not without controversy, however, reigniting the debate over whether they legitimize the Taliban government, especially since they were being held in Norway, a NATO country involved in Afghanistan from 2001 until the Taliban take over last summer.  Speaking at the end of the first day of talks, Taliban delegate Shafiullah Azam told The Associated Press that the meetings with Western officials were "a step to legitimize (the) Afghan government," adding that "this type of invitation and communication will help (the) European community, (the) U.S. or many other countries to erase the wrong picture of the Afghan government." That statement may irk the Taliban's Norwegian hosts. Earlier, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks were "not a legitimation or recognition of the Taliban." On Sunday, 200 protesters gathered on an icy square in front of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry in Oslo to condemn the meetings with the Taliban, which has not received diplomatic recognition from any foreign government. "The Taliban has not changed as some in the international community like to say," said Ahman Yasir, a Norwegian Afghan living in Norway for around two decades. "They are as brutal as they were in 2001 and before." Taliban leaders met with some women's rights and human rights activists on Sunday, but there was no official word about those talks. Starting Monday, Taliban representatives will meet with delegations from Western nations and will be certain to press their demand that nearly $10 billion frozen by the United States and other Western countries be released as Afghanistan faces a precarious humanitarian situation. "We are requesting them to unfreeze Afghan assets and not punish ordinary Afghans because of the political discourse," said Shafiullah Azam. "Because of the starvation, because of the deadly winter, I think it's time for the international community to support Afghans, not punish them because of their political disputes." The United Nations has managed to provide some liquidity and allowed the Taliban administration to pay for imports, including electricity. But the U.N. has warned that as many as 1 million Afghan children are in danger of starving and most of the country's 38 million people are living below the poverty line. Faced with the Taliban's request for funds, Western powers are likely to put the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan high on their agenda, along with the West's recurring demand for the Taliban administration to share power with Afghanistan's minority ethnic and religious groups.  Since sweeping to power in mid-August, the Taliban have imposed widespread restrictions, many of them directed at women. Women have been banned from many jobs outside the health and education fields, their access to education has been restricted beyond sixth grade and they have been ordered to wear the hijab. The Taliban have, however, stopped short of imposing the burqa, which was compulsory when they previously ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s. The Taliban have increasingly targeted Afghanistan's beleaguered rights groups, as well as journalists, detaining and sometimes beating television crews covering demonstrations. A U.S. delegation, led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West, plans to discuss "the formation of a representative political system; responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises; security and counterterrorism concerns; and human rights, especially education for girls and women," according to a statement released by the U.S. State Department.

Groups Work to Eliminate, Diminish Barriers to Women's Military Service > U.S. Department of Defense > Defense Department News

by Jim Garamone, about 24 hours ago

Women are an integral part of the American military, and DOD officials are working to ensure their concerns are addressed.

Yellowstone Park Visits Hit Record in 2021, Straining Staff

1 day ago

A record number of visitors flocked to Yellowstone National Park last year despite fewer hotel rooms and campsites being available because of the coronavirus pandemic and construction projects. About 4.86 million visits were tallied in 2021, breaking the prior record set in 2016. It's a million more people than visited in 2020.  Known worldwide for its wolves, bears and other wildlife and thermal features such as the Old Faithful geyser, Yellowstone will mark its 150th anniversary in 2022. It straddles the borders of northwestern Wyoming, southern Montana and eastern Idaho. Visits to national parks across the U.S. have been trending up in recent years. Others such as Utah's Zion National Park also set new visitor records in 2021 as tourism bounced back from the shutdowns imposed during the early days of the pandemic. At Yellowstone, a rush of people from May through September last year strained employees and park services. It came as the park was understaffed through the summer because of worker housing caps and difficulty recruiting new employees, park officials have said. There were also 20% fewer campsites and hotel rooms in 2021 compared to previous years. That meant hundreds of thousands of visitors left the park at night and would re-enter after staying elsewhere. Each time they entered the park counted as a separate visit. Park officials said they are trying to find a way to differentiate between new visits and people who enter the park multiple times on the same trip. Yellowstone's road corridors and parking lots can get crowded, but they make up less than one-tenth of 1% of its 8,903 square kilometers (3,400 square miles) — an area about 150 times the size of New York's Manhattan Island.  Most visitors stay within a half-mile of those roads, according to park officials. Park crowds drop sharply during winter when much of it is inaccessible except by snowmobile or skiing.

Thousands March in Washington Against Mask, Vaccine Mandates

1 day ago

Thousands of anti-mask and vaccine mandate protesters rallied on the mall in Washington, D.C., on Sunday to voice opposition to the Biden administration's COVID-19 mask and vaccine policies. Gathering at the base of the Washington Monument, and then marching to the Lincoln Memorial, the protesters held signs saying, "Make Love Not Mandates!!" and "Coercion is Not Choice." COVID-19 has killed more than 860,000 people in the United States – and more than 5.5 million globally -- over the two-year-long pandemic and has weighed heavily on the economy. On January 13, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked President Joe Biden's COVID-19 vaccination-or-testing mandate for large businesses -- a policy the conservative justices deemed an improper imposition on the lives and health of many Americans -- while endorsing a separate federal vaccine requirement for health care facilities. Many U.S. companies have implemented mandatory mask-wearing policies to protect their workers, as have various municipalities and cultural organizations. Masks remain polarizing. Biden, a Democrat, recently urged people to wear masks and noted that about a third of Americans report they do not wear masks at all. Many Republican-leaning states have no mask requirements. Some Democratic-governed states such as California have reimposed indoor mask mandates.

Cruise Ship Changes Course After US Judge Orders Seizure

1 day ago

A cruise ship that was supposed to dock in Miami sailed to the Bahamas instead after a U.S. judge granted an order to seize the vessel as part of a lawsuit over unpaid fuel. Cruise trackers show Crystal Symphony currently docked in the Bahamian island of Bimini. Passengers were taken by ferry to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday. "We all feel we were abducted by luxurious pirates!" passenger Stephen Heard Fales posted on Facebook. It was unclear how many passengers were aboard, with one news outlet reporting 300 and another, 700. According to the company website, the vessel can carry up to 848 passengers. The ship was scheduled to land in Miami on Saturday. But a federal judge in Miami issued an arrest warrant for the ship on Thursday, a maritime practice where a U.S. Marshal goes aboard the vessel and takes charge of it once it enters U.S. waters. Passengers and entertainers said on social media they were surprised to find out about the legal case. One guest posted a letter on Facebook from Crystal Cruises Management that said the change in itinerary was due to "non-technical operational issues." The lawsuit was filed in a Miami federal court by Peninsula Petroleum Far East against the ship under a maritime procedure that allows actions against vessels for unpaid debts. The complaint says Crystal Symphony was chartered or managed by Crystal Cruises and Star Cruises, which are both sued for breach of contract for owing $4.6 million in fuel. Crystal Cruises announced earlier this week that it was suspending operations through late April. Besides Crystal Symphony, it has two other ships currently cruising, which end their voyages on Jan. 30 in Aruba and on Feb. 4 in Argentina.  "Suspending operations will provide Crystal's management team with an opportunity to evaluate the current state of business and examine various options moving forward," said the company in a statement earlier this week.

Armenian President Resigns Saying Constitution Doesn't Give Him Enough Influence 

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Armenian President Armen Sarkissian tendered his resignation on Sunday, saying he believes the country's constitution does not give him sufficient powers to influence events. Sarkissian, president since 2018, was in a standoff with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan last year over a number of issues, including the dismissal of the head of the armed forces. The role of prime minister is seen as more powerful than that of president. "I have been thinking for a long time, I have decided to resign from the post of the President of the Republic after working actively for about four years," Sarkissian said in a statement published on the president's official website. "The question may arise as to why the President failed to influence the political events that led us to the current national crisis. The reason is obvious again - the lack of appropriate tools ... - the Constitution. The roots of some of our potential problems are hidden in the current Basic Law." At a referendum in December 2015, Armenia became a parliamentary republic, while presidential powers were significantly curtailed. Sarkissian in his statement did not refer directly to any particular events or issues. Armenia agreed a ceasefire with Azerbaijan last November at their border, after Russia urged them to step back from confrontation following the deadliest clash since a six-week war in 2020 when Moscow also brokered a peace deal to end the hostilities. Prime Minister Pashinyan has since been under pressure, with regular street protests demanding he step down over the terms of the peace agreement. Under the 2020 deal brokered by Russia, Azerbaijan regained control of territory it had lost during a war in the early 1990s. Armenia seceded from the Soviet Union in 1991 but remains dependent on Russia for aid and investment. Many Armenians accuse the government of corruption and mishandling an economy that has struggled to overcome the legacy of central planning.

Cameroon: 17 Die in Capital City Explosion Caused by Fire 

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Cameroon says it has opened an investigation to find out the names and nationalities of 17 people who died Sunday in a fire that caused an explosion in the capital, Yaounde. The explosion in a popular nightclub also wounded eight people. The government is calling for calm as thousands of football fans visit Yaounde for the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations football tournament. Hundreds of people including Cameroonian government officials turned out in Bastos, a Yaounde neighborhood, on Sunday morning. They watched as neighbors and workers of Livs, a popular nightclub, and Cameroon's Military Fire Brigade, searched three torched buildings in the area.  Among the civilians helping to search for the injured was 27-year-old Gustav Lemaleu.  Lemaleu says civilians and the Fire Brigade of Cameroon's ministry have saved the lives of at least 40 people. He says it is difficult to know the names and nationalities of the injured and the dead because clients do not present identification documents before having access to Livs.  Lemaleu said he is certain that the victims include people visiting Cameroon for the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations.  In a statement, the government says an accidental fire at the nightclub spread to a cooking gas store. There were loud explosions from six gas canisters, causing panic in the neighborhood.  Public Health Minister Manaouda Malachie says President Paul Biya was informed of the incident as soon as it occurred. Manaouda says Biya has instructed health workers to transport the wounded to Yaounde Central Hospital.  He says Biya has asked the Public Health Ministry to treat the wounded free of charge and that arrangements be made for the dead to be buried in their places of origin after the investigation. He says Biya has instructed his ministry to give psychological assistance to traumatized family members of the injured whenever the traumatized relatives are identified.  Rene Emmanuel Sadi, Cameroon’s minister of communication, visited the site of the incident. He says it is too early to know the names and countries of origin of the dead and wounded.  "We are still at the level of inquiries [investigations]," he said. "The incident is quite serious. There are people who are dead. Others are injured and investigations are going on. I think when all these things are finished, I will be giving the exact information concerning this very serious incident."  Sadi said the death toll may increase.  President Biya has called for calm and assured football players, fans and match officials attending the Africa Cup of Nations in Yaounde of their safety.   Cameroon is hosting thousands of people for the tournament, which started on January 9th and will end on February 6.     

Afghan Students in the US Face Uncertain Future

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Afghan students studying at universities in the U.S. through scholarship programs face a more uncertain future since the Taliban took over and many say they cannot return to their home country because of concerns for their safety.   More than 100 Afghan students came to the United States through the Fulbright program last academic year, some of them only days before the Taliban took power in Afghanistan and the U.S. embassy in Kabul was abruptly shut.   Under the terms of the Fulbright scholarship program, recipients are required to return to their home countries at the end of their academic programs.   Several Afghan students interviewed by VOA said their status as students studying abroad in America endangers their lives under a Taliban regime in Afghanistan.   “I have come to terms with the reality that is going back to my beloved Afghanistan and working there is no longer possible,” said Maryam Rayed who left Afghanistan last August to pursue a master's degree in democracy and governance at Georgetown University in Washington.   The U.S. government has evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans who had worked for or had affiliation with the U.S. in Afghanistan out of fear that the Taliban will target them.   Immediately after seizing power on Aug. 15 last year, the Taliban announced a general amnesty for all Afghans who worked for the previous Afghan government and for the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan.   Human rights groups, however, accuse the Taliban of targeting and killing Afghans who had ties to the U.S. and to the former Afghan government. Before coming to the U.S. to study international affairs at the State University of New York in Albany, Ahmad Raheb Radfar worked as a foreign service officer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of what was until August 2021 the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.   “My plan was to return to Afghanistan and resume my work at the ministry upon the completion of my program. But now, given the current situation of Afghanistan, I cannot do that,” Radfar told VOA.   Hopes lost Since 2003, more than 950 Afghans have received Fulbright scholarships, mostly 2-year master's degree programs. Many others earned sponsored educational opportunities at undergraduate and graduate levels at various U.S. academic institutions. The expectation was that these highly educated Afghans would contribute to the building of a stable democratic system in Afghanistan. “The return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan has fundamentally altered my personal and professional trajectory and took all my hopes and plans and aspirations for the future,” said Rayed, adding that she wanted to serve as a governance specialist in Afghanistan after her U.S. education.   Under the Taliban, Afghan women have been effectively fired from all government jobs except those working in the health and education sectors.   The Taliban have institutionalized large-scale and systematic discriminatory policies which “constitute a collective punishment of women and girls,” a group of three dozen U.N.-appointed experts warned last week.   “Taliban deprive women of livelihoods and identity,” Human Rights Watch said in a joint report with the Human Rights Institute at San Jose State University on Jan. 17.   One former Fulbright scholar, who did not want to be named out of fear of Taliban reprisal, said she was fired from a prominent job at the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock because of her gender.   “My education, work experiences, skills and dedication to my country don’t matter for the Taliban. They’re only obsessed with my gender,” she said.   Respect for women’s rights, including the right to education and work, is a major condition set forth by the U.S. and many other countries for a possible recognition of the Taliban’s self-declared Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.   Taliban officials have said the regime is working to facilitate an “Islamic environment” for Afghan girls and women to return to schools and universities but have not committed to giving any representation to women in the government. The Taliban’s leadership, cabinet and senior government posts are entirely occupied by men.   Students in limbo The U.S. government has offered special immigration and entry procedures to help Afghans settle in the U.S., including a humanitarian parole program which allows individuals to enter the U.S. without travel documents.   Spokespeople at the Department of State and the Institute of International Education, which administers the Fulbright program, could not confirm to VOA whether there was a plan to waive the Fulbright requirement for the Afghan students to return to their home country after their studies are completed.   “We have been in touch with the [Fulbright] program administrators and have shared our concerns with them, but so far, they have not offered any assurance about our future,” said Radfar.    Two other students echoed similar concerns and added they were looking for an extension to their studies, primarily through PhD scholarships, in order to remain in the U.S.   “This ambiguity has affected our academic performance negatively and has taken any motivation from us,” said Rayed.   “We desperately need some clarity on what our future will be. This limbo status is hurting us,” said another student who did not want her name to be mentioned.   While the Afghan Fulbright scholars who made it to the U.S. in the past two years complain about their uncertain future, those selected for the 2022 scholarships are stuck in Afghanistan with no guarantees they will start their classes in the U.S. in the coming fall.   There is no U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan to process visas, and travel from the country is extremely restricted and complicated.   "We are reviewing the significant safety, logistical, and programmatic constraints which must be overcome to successfully implement the 2022-23 Fulbright Program. We are committed to remaining in communication with the semi-finalist group about the status of the program, understanding they must pursue the choices that make the most sense for themselves and their families,” a State Department of official told VOA.   It’s also unclear whether the Fulbright program will continue for Afghan students in the future because of the broken relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan’s de-facto Taliban rulers.   Until the U.S. and Taliban figure out what kind of relations, if any, they will have in the future, everything remains shrouded in uncertainty for Afghans who have studied or aspire to study in the U.S.   “I cannot foresee anything right now and like most Afghans, I am facing an uncertain future,” said 28-year-old Radfar.  Nike Ching contributed to this story.  

Think US Home Values Are Soaring? Talk to a Farmer

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Fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer Jeff Frank doesn't feel rich, but simply based on the skyrocketing value of his land in northwest Iowa, it's an apt way to describe him, even if he laughs at the idea. He lives in the same nearly century-old house, grows veggies in the family garden and shops at the same grocery store about 15 miles (24 kilometers) down the road. "We live the same way we have all of our lives," he said. Still, even if Frank's life hasn't changed, the several hundred acres he owns about 80 miles (129 kilometers) northwest of Des Moines have suddenly made him worth millions of dollars. It may come as a surprise to city dwellers excited by their home values that countless farmers like Frank are actually experiencing a real estate boom that makes residential prices pale in comparison. While median existing-home prices rose by 15.8% in the U.S. last year, farmland values went up about double that rate in places like Iowa. "I'm definitely surprised by the magnitude," said Wendong Zhang, an economist at Iowa State University who oversees an annual farmland value survey. The rising values, especially in the Midwest, are due to high prices being paid for the key commodity crops of corn and soybeans, plentiful harvests in recent years coupled with low interest rates and optimism the good times will continue. But they're a mixed blessing. They're enriching farmers who already have a lot of land, but making it much harder for small operators or younger farmers starting out to get land unless they happen to inherit it. Most purchases are by operations that see the value of larger scale, seizing the chance to buy nearby land. "If you miss this opportunity, you may not get another chance," Zhang said, describing the current mood. As for consumers, higher land costs typically don't affect grocery prices. Historically, farmland values rise and fall, but in the past couple decades they have mostly risen, and in the past year they have risen a lot — 33% in Frank's part of the state and 29% throughout Iowa, one of the nation's top agricultural states. Agricultural prices also have soared elsewhere in the Midwest and have climbed in most other parts of the country, too. Federal Reserve Banks in Chicago and Kansas City reported double-digit increases in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri and Nebraska. In Iowa, average farmland has risen from $7,559 an acre in 2020 to $9,751 an acre in 2021. Nationally, farmland was up an average of 7% but that doesn't include the last half of 2021, when prices really took off in many areas. Farmland prices have even climbed in California despite concerns about persistent drought. In 2021, the average prices of $10,900 an acre was up 9% from 2020. The land purchases augment an existing national trend of more agricultural production coming from ever-larger farms. Dan Sumner, an agricultural economist at the University of California-Davis, credits some of the rising value in switching to higher-value crops, such as replacing alfalfa with nut trees. Overall, though, Sumner said farmers are feeling good about their future. "It reflects confidence in the economics of agriculture," he said. The upswing follows tumultuous years of trade wars, market breakdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic and drought in much of the West. For individual farmers, the biggest benefit of rising values is that they can borrow money at better rates for annual needs like seed and fertilizer and longer-term investments like tractors and even more land. The high prices have prompted plenty of people to buy and sell land, leading to a record of $765 million in agricultural land sales last year overseen by Farmers National Company, one of the nation's largest landowner services companies. Randy Dickhut, a Farmers National real estate broker in Omaha, Nebraska, said a more typical year would see about $500 million in sales. "It's been very busy," Dickhut said. "It's certainly easy to sell." But Holly Rippon-Butler, who runs a dairy with her parents in upstate New York, called the farmland prices increases "just nuts." "The hard reality is, buying land is almost impossible unless you have some preexisting source of generational family wealth," said Rippon-Butler, who works with the National Young Farmers Coalition, an organization the among other priorities advocates for policy changes and public funding that would enable more people to have access to land. Given high land prices, Rippon-Butler said beginning farmers she encounters typically work as little as a quarter-acre of land and see 20 acres as a relatively large operation. Many farmers also rent land, and as values rise, so do rental rates. Frank, the farmer in northwest Iowa, said that even though he's technically wealthier now, it hard for him to expand his holdings as he prepares to pass along the property to the next generation. "I have a son who farms with me and of course he'd like to expand but buying farmland right now is a big undertaking," he said. "Even for a small farm you're talking about millions of dollars."

US Warns it Knows Russia’s Tactics to Undermine Ukraine

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russia on Sunday that Washington knows “all of the tactics and techniques” that Moscow can deploy to undermine the Ukrainian government but will continue to engage in diplomatic talks in hopes of easing tensions in eastern Europe.  “It is certainly possible that the diplomacy the Russians are engaged in is simply going through the motions and it won't affect their ultimate decision about whether to invade or in some other way intervene, or not in Ukraine,” Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” show. “But we have a responsibility to see the diplomacy through for … as far and as long as we can go because it's the more responsible way to bring this to a closure.”  In a separate interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” show, Blinken ruled out the United States immediately imposing severe economic sanctions on Moscow, which it has vowed to do if Russian President Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine. Russia has massed 127,000 troops just across its border with Ukraine, a former Soviet republic.  “If they’re triggered now,” Blinken said of the possible sanctions, “you lose the deterrent factor.”  Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, following Blinken on CNN, accused the administration of President Joe Biden of a “doctrine of appeasement” in dealing with Russia over threats to Ukraine.  “The sanctions need to be imposed now,” Ernst said. “President Putin only understands strength and power. We need to have firm resolve.”  Blinken declined to comment on a British intelligence report that Russia was seeking to replace Ukraine’s government with a pro-Moscow administration. Moscow rejected the claim.  “The disinformation spread by the British Foreign Office is more evidence that it is the NATO countries, led by the Anglo-Saxons, who are escalating tensions around Ukraine," Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on the Telegram messaging app. "We call on the British Foreign Office to stop provocative activities, stop spreading nonsense."  Blinken, on NBC, said that aside from the world’s awareness of Russia’s massive troop deployment near Ukraine, “It's also important that people around the world, whether it's in Europe, the United States, or beyond, understand the kinds of things that could be in the offing: a false flag operation to try and create a false pretext for going in. It's important that people know that that's something that's in the playbook too,” as well as cyberattacks and other disruption targeting Ukraine.  The top U.S. diplomat said that aside from diplomatic engagement with Russia, “We are building up defense, we're building up deterrence; we've now provided to Ukraine more security assistance this year than in any previous year.”  On Saturday, Blinken said he had authorized the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to send U.S.-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine.  “I expedited and authorized, and we fully endorse transfers of defensive equipment @NATO Allies Estonia Latvia Lithuania are providing to Ukraine to strengthen its ability to defend itself against Russia’s unprovoked and irresponsible aggression,” Blinken said in a post on Twitter.  “We are preparing massive consequences for Russia if it invades Ukraine again,” Blinken told NBC. “So, you have to do both at the same time. You build up your defense, you build up your deterrence on the one hand; you engage in diplomacy and dialogue on the other. That's the way that I think it makes the most sense to carry this forward. Ultimately, we’ve given Russia two paths; it has to choose.”  “The Russians have put concerns on the table that they say they have about their security,” Blinken said. “We've exchanged some ideas. We'll be sharing with the Russians in writing not only our concerns, but some ideas for a way forward that could enhance mutual security on a reciprocal basis.”  “So, look, that is clearly the preferable path forward for everyone,” he said. “It’s the responsible thing to do. And we'll pursue it as long as we can. At the same time, we'll continue to build up other defenses and deterrents that are necessary.”  Some material in this report came from the Associated Press. 

January 23, 2022

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A look at the best news photos from around the world.

UN Appeals for $60 Million for Victims of Violence in Cameroon

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UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, is appealing for nearly $60 million for tens of thousands of victims of intercommunal clashes over dwindling resources in Cameroon’s Far North region. The United Nations Refugee Agency Friday released an appeal for just under $60 million for support for those fleeing intercommunal violence in Cameroon’s Far North region. The appeal is aimed at helping UNHCR and its partners provide needed humanitarian aid for those displaced by the crisis during the next six months. An ongoing dispute over diminishing water resources between herders on one side and fishermen and farmers on the other last month erupted into a violent confrontation. The U.N. refugee agency says 44 people were killed, more than 100 injured, and 112 villages burned to the ground. In the space of two weeks, UNHCR spokesman Boris Cheshirkov said 100,000 people fled to neighboring Chad or elsewhere in Cameroon. “This has become a severe crisis because of the climate emergency. And the surface waters of Lake Chad shrinking and the Logone river, which runs along the border between Cameroon and Chad. It demarks the border and this is where the tensions began," he said. This crisis follows a previous deadly encounter in August. Some 45 people reportedly were killed, dozens injured, and more than 30 villages set ablaze. An estimated 23,000 fled to Chad or elsewhere in Cameroon. Cheshirkov said the appeal will provide critically needed relief over the next six months for both the displaced and those sheltering them in Chad and Cameroon. Priority needs, he said include shelter, blankets, mats, and mosquito mats. “The funds will also cover growing water, sanitation, and hygiene needs. Child protection, prevention, and response to gender-based violence, documentation, education—all of these are urgent priorities. We estimate that 9 out of 10 of the Cameroonian refugees that are now in Chad as a result of this crisis are women and children,” he said. Cheshirkov said the situation has calmed down in the last few weeks. He says security has been reinforced. He notes government-led reconciliation efforts, supported by the UNHCR are underway. He added urgent action is needed to address the root causes of the conflict.

Tonga eruption was so intense, it caused the atmosphere to ring like a bell

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French Soldier Killed After Attack on Mali Military Base 

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A French soldier has died after a rocket attack on the French army base in Gao, Mali.   The French Armed Forces Ministry released a statement Sunday morning saying the attack occurred on the Gao, Mali, Operation Barkhane military base on Saturday. The statement claimed the attack was carried out by “terrorists.”  Operation Barkhane, France’s counterinsugency military operation in the Sahel, has operated in Mali since 2014. It replaced Operation Serval, the French army’s operation to regain control of northern Mali, which had been taken over by Islamists in 2012. This year, after what French President Emmanuel Macron called a drawdown of the French military presence in Mali, Barkhane forces were withdrawn from northern Mali’s Tessalit, Kidal and Timbuktu military bases. The Gao base continues to serve as the center of Operation Barkhane. Popular opposition to the French military presence in Mali has increased dramatically in recent years. France has backed recent sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States that were imposed following a 2026 presidential election plan proposed by Mali’s current military government. Thousands of Malians took to the streets in cities across the country this month to denounce the sanctions, with most also denouncing France’s presence in Mali.  

UNESCO Lists Viking-Era Wooden Sailboats on Heritage List 

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For thousands of years, wooden sailboats allowed the peoples of Northern Europe to spread trade, influence and sometimes war across seas and continents. In December, the U.N.’s culture agency added Nordic “clinker boats” to its list of traditions that represent the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden jointly sought the UNESCO designation. The term “clinker” is thought to refer to the way the boat’s wooden boards were fastened together. Supporters of the successful nomination hope it will safeguard and preserve the boat-building techniques that drove the Viking era for future generations as the number of active clinker craftsmen fades and fishermen and others opt for vessels with cheaper glass fiber hulls. “We can see that the skills of building them, the skills of sailing the boats, the knowledge of people who are sailing … it goes down and it disappears,” said Søren Nielsen, head of boatyard at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, west of Copenhagen. The museum not only exhibits the remains of wooden vessels built 1,000 years ago, but also works to rebuild and reconstruct other Viking boats. The process involves using experimental archaeological methods to gain a deeper, more practical understanding of the Viking Age, such as how quickly the vessels sailed and how many people they carried. Nielsen, who oversees the construction and repair of wooden boats built in the clinker tradition, said there are only about 20 practicing clinker boat craftsmen in Denmark, perhaps 200 across all of northern Europe. “We think it’s a tradition we have to show off, and we have to tell people this was a part of our background,” he told The Associated Press. Wooden clinker boats are characterized by the use of overlapping longitudinal wooden hull planks that are sewn or riveted together. Builders strengthen the boats internally by additional wooden components, mainly tall oak trees, which constitute the ribs of the vessel. They stuff the gaps in between with tar or tallow mixed with animal hair, wool and moss. “When you build it with these overlaps within it, you get a hull that’s quite flexible but at the same time, incredibly strong,” explained Triona Sørensen, curator at Roskilde’s Viking Ship Museum, which is home to the remains of five 11th-century Viking boats built with clinker methods. Nielsen said there is evidence the clinker technique first appeared thousands of years ago, during the Bronze Age. But it was during the Viking Age that clinker boats had their zenith, according to Sørensen. The era, from 793 to 1066, is when Norsemen, or Vikings, undertook large-scale raiding, colonizing, conquest and trading voyages throughout Europe. They also reached North America. Their light, strong and swift ships were unsurpassed in their time and provided the foundations for kingdoms in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. If “you hadn’t had any ships, you wouldn’t have had any Viking Age,” said Sørensen. “It just literally made it possible for them to expand that kind of horizon to become a more global people.” While the clinker boat tradition in Northern Europe remains to this day, the ships are used by hobbyists, for festivities, regattas and sporting events, rather than raiding and conquest seen 1,000 years ago. The UNESCO nomination was signed by around 200 communities and cultural bearers in the field of construction and traditional clinker boat craftsmanship, including Sami communities. The inscription on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list obliges the Nordic countries to try to preserve what remains of the fading tradition. “You cannot read how to build a boat in a book, so if you want to be a good boat builder, you have to build a lot of boats,” the Viking Ship Museum’s Nielsen said. “If you want to keep these skills alive, you have to keep them going.”

Senegal Votes for Mayors in Litmus Test for President 

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Voters in Senegal went to the polls on Sunday to elect mayors and local representatives in a vote seen as a key test of support for President Macky Sall. The election is the first in the West African country since deadly riots erupted last year following the arrest of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko. The poll, which comes five months ahead of an eagerly awaited general election, is also the first since Sall won a second term in 2019. The president has come under increasing criticism since then, facing accusations of arranging court cases against his rivals and of planning a bid for a third presidential term in 2024. Long lines had formed outside polling stations before they opened at 8 am. Over six million Senegalese, around a third of the population, are eligible to cast votes for the mayors of more than 500 townhalls as well as the heads of 40 administrative areas known as "departments." Ibrahima Dieng, a 28-year-old mechanic, was among the first to cast his ballot at a primary school in the capital Dakar's Yoff district. "Voting is our only way of having a say in the running of the country," he said. Senegal was rocked by several days of clashes and looting in March 2021 after opposition leader Sonko was summoned to court to answer charges of rape in a case that he said was politically motivated. At least 12 people were killed nationwide, a toll that shocked a country considered a beacon of stability in a volatile region. Sall, 60, was first elected in 2012 on promises to help the poor in the nation of 17 million people. He is well respected on the international scene, but his critics view him as serving the business interests of Senegal's former colonial power France. The political opposition also fears that Sall will seek to exploit constitutional changes approved in 2016 to argue that a two-term limit for presidents does not apply, and run again. Several of his ministers are standing in Sunday's vote, including Health Minister Abdoulaye Diouf Sarr, who is running for mayor of Dakar. Sonko, a failed 2019 presidential candidate, is running for mayor in the southern city of Ziguinchor.

Malaysia’s Top Anti-Corruption Cop Sues Whistleblower for Defamation 

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Malaysia’s anti-corruption czar has sued a local journalist for defamation over articles questioning the legality of his past shareholdings in a case seen by some as a bellwether and test of the country’s rule of law.  Azam Baki, chief commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, filed suit against Lalitha Kunaratnam January 12 seeking some $2.38 million in damages and costs over a pair of articles first published in October by the Independent News Service, a local online news outlet. In them, Lalitha catalogues Azam’s alleged business interests and connections and questions whether they were properly declared or pose a conflict of interest. According to the reports, Azam held nearly 3 million shares in a pair of companies and over 2 million warrants in another over the course of 2015 and 2016 while director of investigation at the MACC, also in possible breach of legal limits for public servants. Azam’s brothers, the articles add, built up their own extensive business interests during his rise through the ranks at the commission.  Azam denied any wrongdoing at a January 5 press conference and said he no longer held shares in any company. He said his brother, Nasir Baki, had used his trading account to buy shares in 2015 and that those shares were transferred to his brother’s account later that year.  Hundreds of people rallied in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, Saturday calling on Azam to step down over the allegations. Police blocked off major roads and shut down metro stations around the rally site in advance in order, some protesters claimed, to curb the size of the crowd.  Rights groups say Azam’s lawsuit is in keeping with a shrinking space for the free press and growing harassment of journalists since the collapse of the progressive Pakatan Harapan coalition’s government in early 2020. Malaysia fell 18 spots in the Reporters Without Borders annual press freedom index from 2020 to 2021, the sharpest drop of any country that year.  “Definitely there’s been a worsening trend from the time of Pakatan Harapan [collapsing] to the current administration in terms of how the government engages with the press, in terms of how the government understands the role of the press,” said Alyaa Alhadjri, a representative for Gerakan Media Merdeka, known as Geramm, a local press freedom advocacy group.  “I think it [this lawsuit] is an example of that,” Alyaa said.  “In general, obviously it was an attempt to intimidate, to harass,” she added.  Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific chief Daniel Bastard said Azam’s suit was clearly aimed at silencing debate about his alleged business interests, and that there was more on the line than the free press.  He said the suit “manifestly violates the mandate of the MACC, an agency that is itself supposed to investigate corruption cases. The rule of law in Malaysia is at stake.”  Malaysia has been battling a reputation for rampant government corruption for years.  Corruption scandals involving the alleged embezzlement of billions of dollars in state funds helped bring down the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak at the polls in 2018. Najib, who remains in parliament, has since been convicted of abuse of power, breach of trust and money laundering and sentenced to 12 years in jail. He denies any wrongdoing and is out on bail pending appeal.  Najib’s tarnished party, the United Malays National Organization, has also managed to claw its way back to power without new elections through a series of political defections in parliament.  Azam’s defamation suit against Lalitha now puts the reputation of the country’s premier corruption-fighting body at risk as well, said Cynthia Gabriel, executive director of the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, a local nonprofit.  “He should not have taken legal action, but cleared his name with facts,” she said.  “As a central agency mandated to protect whistleblowers and improve its act, Azam has acted contrary to many efforts by the agency and has lent much disservice to the MACC,” she added.  In a joint statement, Geramm and the local nonprofit Center for Independent Journalism said Azam’s reaction to the allegations “calls into question the role of MACC and, ultimately, the State in eliminating corruption in Malaysia.”  Gabriel and others have been calling for reforms to the MACC and Malaysia’s Whistleblower Protection Act for years. Their proposals include creating a new commission voted in by parliament to oversee the MACC, whose members are appointed, and lifting restrictions in the Whistleblower Protection Act that limit protection only to those who report alleged abuses to enforcement agencies.  However, Gabriel said the current UMNO-led government has shown little interest in pursuing such reforms and that they were likely to gain traction only after Malaysians get another chance to vote on the government they want.  Neither the MACC nor the law firm representing Azam, Zain Megat & Murad, replied to VOA’s requests for comment or for an interview with the chief commissioner.  Lalitha refused VOA’s request for an interview.  In a January 9 statement through her own lawyer, Manjeet Singh Dhillon, Lalitha said she stood by her reporting and that the articles were based on public records, regulatory reports and corporate filings.   


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