Bidens Pack Carrots, Apples Into Boxes During Food Bank Stop

11 months ago

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden packed carrots and apples into food boxes for the hungry and chatted with volunteers Sunday at a food bank as part of a day of service for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  The couple traveled about a half-hour from their Wilmington, Delaware, residence to Philabundance, a hunger relief organization in Philadelphia that serves about 140,000 people a week in the Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey region. Before heading to the warehouse floor where conveyor belts carried cardboard boxes full of donated food, Biden said the child tax credit needed to be renewed. The traditional day of service is on the holiday, Monday, but a bad winter storm was heading for the area and events were being rescheduled around the region. The monthly credits were part of Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package — and the president had proposed extending them for another full year as part of a separate measure focused on economic and social programs. The added boost was used by families to buy food and other supplies.  But Democratic Senator Joe Manchin objected to extending the credit out of concern that the money would discourage people from working and that any additional federal spending would fuel inflation that has already climbed to a nearly 40-year high.   "The child tax credit was really helpful. We've got to get it renewed," Biden said.  They walked out to the warehouse floor as "Wish I Didn't Miss You" by Angie Stone played softly, donned some gloves and got to work. Jill Biden wore a Philadelphia Eagles T-shirt under her blazer in a nod to the team's playoff game Sunday afternoon against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Biden chatted with volunteers, including one man standing near a crate of macaroni and cheese who told the president his daughter was a teacher. Biden spoke of the first lady's teaching career and then asked the man for his daughter's number and said he'd give her a ring.  The food boxes contained spices, fruits, vegetables, noodles, tea and juice boxes plus peanut butter and chickpeas.  Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the Senate will take up voting rights legislation on Tuesday, missing a deadline he initially set for action by Monday, which is MLK Day.  Biden spoke forcefully of the need to pass the legislation, likening the modern concerns over election subversion and increasing voting restrictions in states to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.  Biden last week said he supported changing Senate rules to allow the slim Democratic majority to push the package through, though he later acknowledged uncertainty it can pass Congress this year following objections from Manchin and Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema.

US Synagogue Hostage Taker Identified as British National

11 months ago

U.S. authorities on Sunday identified a 44-year-old British national as the man who took four people hostage at a Texas synagogue for 10 hours before law enforcement commandos stormed the building Saturday night and ended the standoff.  The hostages at Congregation Beth Israel near Fort Worth, Texas, were freed and an FBI strategic weapons team shot and killed Malik Faisal Akram. U.S. President Joe Biden praised the “courageous work” of the law enforcement agents and said antisemitism represented by the attack would not be tolerated. “There is more we will learn in the days ahead about the motivations of the hostage taker,” Biden said. “But let me be clear to anyone who intends to spread hate -- we will stand against antisemitism and against the rise of extremism in this country.” The FBI said in a statement there was no indication that anyone else was involved in the attack, but it didn't provide a possible motive. Akram was heard ranting on a Facebook livestream about the religious services and demanding the release of a Pakistani neuroscientist who was convicted of trying to kill U.S. Army officers in Afghanistan. Video from Dallas TV station WFAA showed people running out a door of the synagogue, and then a man holding a gun opening the same door just seconds later before he turned around and closed it. Moments later, several rounds of gunfire could be heard, followed by the sound of an explosion. During a visit to a food pantry in Philadelphia on Sunday morning, Biden told reporters, “Rest assured, we are focused." He said Attorney General Merrick Garland “is focused and making sure that we deal with these kinds of acts." The Associated Press reported that investigators told it that Akram demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist suspected of having ties to al-Qaida and who is in a federal prison in Texas. Akram also said he wanted to be able to speak with her, according to the officials. Siddiqui earned advanced degrees from Brandeis University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before she was sentenced in 2010 to 86 years in prison on charges that she assaulted and shot at U.S. Army officers after being detained in Afghanistan two years earlier.  The punishment sparked outrage in Pakistan among political leaders and her supporters, who viewed her as victimized by the American criminal justice system. During the incident, Marwa Elbially, her attorney, issued a statement condemning the hostage-taking.  Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Twitter that he had been monitoring the situation closely.  "This event is a stark reminder that antisemitism is still alive and we must continue to fight it worldwide," he wrote. Bennett said he was "relieved and thankful" that the hostages were rescued.  Ayaz Gul in Islamabad contributed to this report. Some material came from The Associated Press.

Pioneering Tuskegee Airman Charles Mcgee Dies at 102

11 months ago

Retired Brigadier General Charles McGee, part of the pioneering all-Black Tuskegee Airmen during World War II and one of its most decorated pilots, died on Sunday at the age of 102, his family said in a statement. McGee, who flew 409 combat missions spanning World War II, Korea and Vietnam, died in his sleep Sunday morning, a family spokesperson said. "He had his right hand over his heart and was smiling serenely," his youngest daughter Yvonne McGee said in a statement released by the spokesperson. "Today, we lost an America hero," Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said on Twitter. "While I am saddened by his loss, I'm also incredibly grateful for his sacrifice, his legacy and his character. Rest in Peace, General." McGee was born Dec. 7, 1919, in Cleveland, Ohio. His plane was hit twice in combat, once during the Korean conflict and again years later near Laos, both times on his right wing. McGee battled racism and segregation during his military career. He was called to service in 1942 at age 23 and became one of the first Black military aviators known as the Tuskegee Airmen. "Being brought up, they say African-American or Black, but we're American and our country was at war," McGee told Reuters in 2016. "We were just as interested in supporting that effort as anybody else at that time and so we turned our back on the fact that there was segregation, if you will, and took advantage of the opportunity to prove that we can fly airplanes," he added. The Tuskegee Airmen's success helped lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement and influenced then-President Harry Truman's decision to desegregate the armed forces in 1948. Then-President George Bush honored the Tuskegee Airmen in 2007 with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by Congress. After flying as a Tuskegee Airman in World War II, he built a legacy for the next three decades as an Air Force pilot during the North Korea and Vietnam wars. He retired about 50 years ago. "We're saddened by the loss of Brigadier General Charles McGee, a trailblazer who served as a Tuskegee Airman and flew 409 combat missions," NASA also said in a tweet on Sunday after his death was announced. After his military career, McGee worked as a business executive and an airport manager in Kansas City, Missouri. He also served as president of the Tuskegee Airmen association. McGee is survived by his three children, 10 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

Snow, Ice Blasts Through US South With Powerful Winter Storm

11 months ago

A dangerous winter storm combining high winds and ice was sweeping through parts of the U.S. Southeast on Sunday, knocking out power, felling trees and fences and coating roads with a treacherous, frigid glaze. Tens of thousands of customers were without power in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida. Highway patrols were reporting hundreds of vehicle accidents, and a tornado ripped through a trailer park in Florida. More than 1,200 Sunday flights at Charlotte Douglas International were cancelled – more than 90% of the airport's Sunday schedule, according to the flight tracking service flightaware.com.  By noon Sunday, between 20 and 30 centimeters of snow had fallen in some counties of North Carolina, while significant icing was causing problems in the central part of the state. First Sgt. Christopher Knox, a spokesman for the North Carolina Highway Patrol, said that by mid-afternoon, the agency had responded to 300 car crashes and nearly 800 calls for service. Transportation Secretary J. Eric Boyette said many roads in the central and western part of the state were covered with ice. He said the eastern part of the state was being hit with high winds and rain. Kristen Baker Morrow's 6-year-old son made snow angels after their home in Crouse, North Carolina, got 10 centimeters of snow Sunday morning, but she said they couldn't stay outside long because of the uncomfortable wind chill. "It took 30 to 45 minutes to get everything on for about 10 minutes in the snow, but it was definitely worth it for him, to get our pictures and make some memories," said Morrow, a 35-year-old registered nurse. More than 260,000 customers were without power by midafternoon Sunday, according to poweroutage.us. Especially hard hit was North Carolina, with 90,000 outages. The remaining outages were in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. The National Weather Service confirmed that a tornado struck southwest Florida. Officials in Lee County say 27 mobile homes were destroyed and 24 incurred major damage. There were no reports of serious injuries. Edward Murray, 81, told the Naples Daily News in southwest Florida that he was inside his mobile home Sunday morning when a tornado picked it up and tossed it on top of his neighbor's home. "That's my house that's turned upside down," he told the newspaper. "The tornado took me off my feet, blew me toward the east wall and buried me under the sink, refrigerator, kitchen chairs and everything else." Murray and his daughter, Cokie, escaped unharmed, crawling from the wreckage. "I was so happy when I saw the sky," Murray told the newspaper. "I said to the devil, 'it's not going to be today.’" Virginia State Police said traffic came to a standstill Sunday afternoon on Interstate 81 in Roanoke County after a tractor-trailer jackknifed and the cab of the truck disconnected from the trailer in the northbound lanes. Two additional accidents occurred in the traffic backup, one with minor injuries. The Virginia Department of Transportation said a detour was being set up. "Please stay off the roads if possible. Begging again! Hazardous conditions," read a tweet from VDOT's Salem office. From midnight to 12:45 p.m., Virginia state troopers responded to 142 traffic crashes and 162 disabled vehicles. No traffic fatalities were reported. The West Virginia Department of Homeland Security tweeted photos of snow-covered roads in the southern part of the state and advised residents to "keep calm and hunker down." The agency says the storm is moving north and most areas of the state are expected to have accumulations of at least 10 centimeters, with up to 30 centimeters possible in the mountains.  In Tennessee, there were multiple reports of abandoned and wrecked cars on snow-covered roads. After lashing the South, the storm was expected to bring frigid and snowy conditions to the Northeast. New York City was expected to be spared from most, if not all, of the snowfall, but Long Island and Connecticut coastal areas were expecting gale conditions. Upstate New York was projected to get hit with up to 30 centimeters of snow to go along with high winds.  Fifteen to 33 centimeters of snow was expected in parts of east-central Ohio and western Pennsylvania from Sunday afternoon.  Frigid temperatures lingered across New England on Sunday, with wind chills in northern Vermont reported at -33 Celsius. In Boston, where a cold emergency was declared on Saturday, wind chills remained below zero (-17 C) even as the region started the thaw.

Ex-President Poroshenko to Return to Ukraine to Face Treason Charges

11 months ago

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says he is returning to Ukraine to fight treason charges — even though he views them as politically motivated — because he believes that fighting them is part of his defense of national unity. Poroshenko spoke Sunday at a news conference in Warsaw hours before he is to fly Monday from the Polish capital to Kyiv, Ukraine, where he is to face the allegations in court. A prosecutor has alleged that Poroshenko, one of Ukraine's richest businessmen, was involved in the sale of large amounts of coal that helped finance Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014-15. He is owner of the Roshen confectionery empire. The Kyiv court has already frozen Poroshenko's assets as part of its investigation into the allegations of high treason. Poroshenko insists that he is innocent. He accuses his successor, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, of seeking to discredit him politically to distract from Ukraine's widespread problems, including economic woes and rising deaths from COVID-19. "I will return to Ukraine to fight for Ukraine," Poroshenko said, adding that he considers fighting the "politically motivated" charges to be part of his patriotic fight for the nation. Despite the seriousness of the charges, Poroshenko seemed upbeat Sunday. When asked by a reporter if he expects to be arrested upon his return home, he answered, "Definitely not." The charges are the latest in a string of accusations leveled against Poroshenko since he was defeated by Zelenskiy in 2019. The allegations have generated concerns of undemocratic score-settling in Ukraine and alarmed Ukraine's allies. They come as Russia has built up troops along the Ukraine border and the United States has voiced concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be planning an invasion of Ukraine. Poroshenko said he sees charges he faces as harmful for the country at such a time. He said Ukraine's leadership is responsible for national unity, and what "Russia is really looking for is disintegration and conflict inside the country."  "I think this is a very irresponsible action of the current leadership to disintegrate the country and ruin the unity," he said.  Poroshenko was defeated by voters following a corruption scandal and a mixed record on reforms, but he emerged with strong credentials a patriot for his work in rebuilding the Ukrainian army as it fought Russia-backed insurgent fighters in the east. For his part, Zelenskiy says he is waging a fight against oligarchs that is aimed at reducing their influence in Ukraine's political and economic life. Poroshenko has been outside of Ukraine for weeks, meeting with leaders in Brussels, Berlin and other European capitals.

Huge Tonga Volcanic Eruption Caused 'Significant Damage'

11 months ago

A massive volcanic eruption in Tonga that triggered tsunami waves around the Pacific caused "significant damage" to the island nation's capital and smothered it in dust, but the full extent was unclear with communications still hampered Monday. The eruption on Saturday was so powerful it was recorded around the world and heard as far away as Alaska, triggering a tsunami that flooded Pacific coastlines from Japan to the United States. The capital Nuku'alofa suffered "significant" damage, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, adding there had been no reports of injury or death but a full assessment was not yet possible with communication lines down. "The tsunami has had a significant impact on the foreshore on the northern side of Nuku'alofa with boats and large boulders washed ashore," Ardern said after contact with the New Zealand embassy in Tonga. "Nuku'alofa is covered in a thick film of volcanic dust but otherwise conditions are calm and stable." Tonga was in need of water supplies, she said, as "the ash cloud has caused contamination." There has been no word on damage in the outer islands and New Zealand will send an air force reconnaissance aircraft "as soon as atmospheric conditions allow", the country's Defense Force tweeted. Tonga has also accepted Canberra's offer to send a surveillance flight, Australia's foreign office said, adding it is also immediately prepared to supply "critical humanitarian supplies." The United States and the World Health Organization have also pledged support, while the United Nations children's agency said it was preparing emergency supplies to fly in. A 1.2-meter wave swept ashore in the Tongan capital with residents reporting they had fled to higher ground, leaving behind flooded houses, some with structural damage, as small stones and ash fell from the sky.  "It was massive, the ground shook, our house was shaking. It came in waves. My younger brother thought bombs were exploding nearby," resident Mere Taufa told the Stuff news website Saturday. She said water filled their home minutes later and she watched the wall of a neighboring house collapse. "We just knew straight away it was a tsunami. Just water gushing into our home," Taufa said. "You could just hear screams everywhere, people screaming for safety, for everyone to get to higher ground." Tonga's King Tupou VI was reported to have been evacuated from the Royal Palace in Nuku'alofa and taken by police convoy to a villa well away from the coastline. Dramatic satellite images showed the long, rumbling eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano spew smoke and ash in the air, with a thunderous roar heard 10,000 kilometers away in Alaska. The eruption triggered tsunamis across the Pacific with waves of 1.74 meters measured in Chanaral, Chile, more than 10,000 kilometers away, and smaller waves seen along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Mexico. Two women drowned on a beach in northern Peru due to "anomalous waves" caused by the eruption, authorities said Sunday, and dozens of people required rescue from flooding in the south of the country. In California, the city of Santa Cruz was hit by flooding due to a tidal surge generated by the tsunami, while waves of around 1.2 meters hit along Japan's Pacific coast. The U.S. Geological Survey recorded Saturday's eruption as equivalent to a 5.8-magnitude earthquake at zero depth. The volcano's eruption lasted at least eight minutes and sent plumes of gas, ash and smoke several kilometers into the air.  New Zealand scientist Marco Brenna described the impact as "relatively mild" but said another eruption with a much bigger impact could not be ruled out. The eruption was so powerful it was even heard in Alaska, the UAF Geophysical Institute tweeted, saying the fact it was audible was "fairly unique." It cited Alaska Volcano Observatory scientist David Fee as recalling "only a couple other volcanic eruptions doing something like this" -- namely, the 19th-century eruption of Indonesia's Krakatau, and Alaska's Novarupta, the most powerful volcanic eruption of the 20th century. The Fife weather station in Scotland tweeted it was "just incredible to think of the power that can send a shockwave around the world" after the eruptions produced a jump in its air pressure graph. Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha'apai, which lies about 65 kilometers north of Nuku'alofa, has a history of volatility. In recent years, it breached sea level during a 2009 eruption while in 2015 it spewed so many large rocks and ash into the air that when they settled, a new island had formed two kilometers long by one kilometer wide and 100 meters high.

French Parliament Approves COVID Vaccine Pass

11 months ago

France's parliament gave final approval on Sunday to the government's latest measures to tackle COVID-19, including a vaccine pass contested by anti-vaccine protesters. Lawmakers in the lower house of parliament voted 215-58, paving the way for the measure to enter force in the coming days. The new law, which had a rough ride through parliament with opposition parties finding some of its provisions too tough, will require people to have a certificate of vaccination to enter public places like restaurants, cafes, cinemas and long-distance trains. Currently, unvaccinated people can enter such places with the results of a recent negative COVID-19 test. Nearly 78% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the Health Ministry on Saturday. President Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to seek a second term in an April election, told Le Parisien paper this month that he wanted to irritate unvaccinated people by making their lives so complicated they would end up getting the COVID vaccine. Thousands of anti-vaccine protesters demonstrated in Paris and some other cities on Saturday against the law, but their numbers were down sharply from the week before, just after Macron's remarks. France is in the grips of its fifth COVID-19 wave with daily new cases regularly hitting record levels over 300,000. Nonetheless the number of serious cases putting people in ICU wards is much lower than the first wave in March-April 2020.

Ukraine Blames Russia for Cyberattack

11 months ago

Ukraine Sunday blamed Russia for the defacement of government websites, contending it was part of Moscow’s “hybrid war” against the former Soviet republic. With Russia already massing 100,000 military troops along Ukraine’s eastern flank, Ukrainian officials said, "All evidence indicates that Russia is behind the cyberattack.” “Moscow continues to wage a hybrid war and is actively building up its forces in the information and cyberspaces," the ministry statement said, after Microsoft said dozens of computer systems at various Ukrainian government agencies had been infected with destructive malware disguised as ransomware. Russia has repeatedly denied Ukrainian accusations of hacking. The cyberattack comes amid the threat of a Russian invasion, eight years after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.   Diplomatic talks to resolve the tense standoff appear to be at a stalemate after several meetings in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna last week did not result in any resolution. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CBS News’s “Face the Nation” show that the United States remains ready for further diplomatic talks with Russia over its troop deployment but will respond with significant economic sanctions against Moscow if President Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine. Microsoft said Saturday that it first detected the malware on Thursday, coinciding with the attack that simultaneously took about 70 Ukrainian government websites offline temporarily.  Some material in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

Outpouring of Grief as Victims of Bronx Fire Laid to Rest 

11 months ago

A Bronx community gathered Sunday to pay its final respects to perished loved ones, a week after a fire filled a high-rise apartment building with thick, suffocating smoke that killed 17 people, including eight children.  The mass funeral capped a week of prayers and mourning within a close-knit community hailing from West Africa, most with connections to the tiny country of Gambia.  Amid the mourning, there was also frustration and anger as family, friends and neighbors of the dead tried to make sense of the tragedy.  "This is a sad situation. But everything comes from God. Tragedies always happen, we just thank Allah that we can all come together," said Haji Dukuray, the uncle of Haja Dukuray, who died with three of her children and her husband.  The dead ranged in age from 2 to 50. Entire families were killed, including a family of five. Others would leave behind orphaned children.  There were 15 caskets in all that lined the front of the prayer hall. They ranged in size — some no bigger than small coffee tables, containing the bodies of the youngest souls who died. "One week they were with us ... now they're gone," said Musa Kabba, the imam at the Masjid-Ur-Rahmah mosque, where many of the deceased had prayed.  Earlier in the week, burial services were held for two children at a mosque in Harlem.  After Sunday's services in New York City, 11 caskets were to be transported to a cemetery in New Jersey for burial. Four of the victims were expected to be repatriated to Gambia, as requested by their families, a Gambian government official attending the service said.  All week, family members had been anxious to lay their loved ones to rest to honor Islamic tradition, which calls for burial as soon after death as possible. But complications over identifying the victims delayed their release to funeral homes. All of the dead collapsed and died after being overcome by smoke while trying to descend down the stairway, which acted as a flue for the heavy smoke.  The funeral was held at the Islamic Cultural Center, 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the 19-story apartment building where New York City's deadliest fire in three decades unfolded.  Parts of the service was delivered in Soninke, a language spoken in Gambia and other parts of West Africa.  Hundreds filled the mosque and many hundreds more filled tents outside or huddled in the cold to pay their respects. The services were beamed onto jumbo screens outside and in other rooms of the mosque.  Because of the magnitude of the tragedy, funeral organizers insisted on a public funeral to bring attention to the plight of immigrant families across New York City.  "There's outcry. There's injustice. There's neglect," said Sheikh Musa Drammeh, who was among those leading the response to the tragedy,  Officials blamed a faulty space heater in a third-floor apartment for the blaze, which spewed plumes of suffocating smoke that quickly rose through the stairwell of the 19-story building.  Some residents said space heaters were sometimes needed to supplement the building's heat and that repairs weren't always timely.  "We want the world to know that they died because they lived in the Bronx," Drammeh asserted. "If they lived in midtown Manhattan, they would not have died. Why? Because they wouldn't need to use space heaters. This is a public outcry. Therefore, there has to be responsibility from the elected officials to change the conditions that causes death every single day."  New York City Mayor Eric Adams, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, as well as two officials representing the Gambian government, attended the funeral services.  "When tragedies occur, we come together," Schumer said.  "I am here to express the pain all New Yorkers are experiencing," Adams later added.  New York Attorney General Letitia James vowed to investigate, saying "there were conditions in that building that should have been corrected."  The investigation into the fire is ongoing.  Much of the focus centers on the catastrophic spread of the smoke from the apartment. The fire itself was contained to one unit and an adjoining hallway, but investigators said the door to the apartment and a stairway door many floors up had been left open, creating a flue that allowed smoke to quickly spread throughout the building.  New York City fire codes generally require apartment doors at larger apartment developments to be spring-loaded and slam shut automatically.  In the wake of the deaths, a coalition of officials, including federal, state and city lawmakers announced a legislative agenda they hoped would stiffen fire codes and building standards to prevent similar tragedies from happening.  The proposals range from requiring space heaters to automatically shut off and mandating that federally funded apartment projects install self-closing doors on units and stairwells that would have to be inspected on a monthly basis.  As families bid farewell to their loved ones, others remained in hospitals, some in serious condition, because of smoke inhalation.  Fundraisers have collected nearly $400,000 thus far. The Mayor's Fund, Bank of America and other groups said 118 families displaced by the fire would each get $2,250 in aid. 

January 16, 2022

11 months ago

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

Iran Confirms Again Imprisoning French-Iranian Academic 

11 months ago

Iranian authorities confirmed that they have re-incarcerated French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah for breaking house arrest restrictions.  The judiciary news website Mizan.news on January 16 quoted the deputy head of the judiciary, Kazem Gharibabadi, as saying Adelkhah, who had been furloughed with an electronic-monitoring bracelet, violated judicial restrictions “dozens of times.”  The official claimed that Adelkhah, 62, violated the limits of her house arrest “despite repeated warnings from judicial authorities.”  On January 12, the French Foreign Ministry condemned Adelkhah's new imprisonment and demanded her immediate release, saying her case has negative consequences on the relationship between Paris and Tehran.  She holds both Iranian and French passports, but Iran doesn’t recognize dual nationality. Iranian officials insist that Adelkhah is an Iranian citizen and have denied French consular staff access to her.  Adelkhah, an expert on Iran and Shi’a Islam at France's prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies, was arrested on June 5, 2019, at Tehran airport.  Adelkhah was given a five-year sentence for conspiring against national security. Iranian authorities have not provided any solid evidence to back the charges.  In October 2020, she was allowed to live under house arrest at her sister’s home in Tehran, wearing an electronic-monitoring bracelet.  Adelkhah is one of at least a dozen Western nationals believed to be held in Iran. Rights groups accuse Iran of using foreign detainees as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West.  Iran denies it, though there have been such prisoner exchanges in the past. In March 2020, Iran released Adelkhah's French colleague and partner, Roland Marchal, in a prisoner exchange with France.  Marchal, who was arrested in June 2019 alongside Adelkhah, was swapped for Iranian engineer Jalal Ruhollahnejad.  Information from AFP and AP was used in this report 

US Surgeon General: ‘Tough Few Weeks’ Ahead Combating Omicron

11 months ago

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy Sunday said, “It’s going to be a tough few weeks” for the United States in confronting the omicron variant of the coronavirus.  “The cases numbers are high, hospitals are struggling,” Murthy told ABC’s “This Week” show.  But he also voiced optimism, saying, “We’re going to get through this. We’re pulling out the stops on testing,” soon making test kits available to Americans who want them.  He described as “very disappointing” and a “setback for public health” a recent Supreme Court decision blocking President Joe Biden’s mandate that 84 million workers at large businesses be vaccinated or tested frequently. The court, however, let stand an order requiring 17 million health care workers to be inoculated against the infection.  Murthy said the Biden administration is still “encouraging companies to impose mandates” on their workers, as many companies have done so while others have decided otherwise. The Supreme Court order does not block individual companies from ordering such mandates, although some Republican state governors have been trying to stop any mandates from taking effect in their states.  “One of the lessons we’ve learned about vaccines is that they are working,” Murthy said, while acknowledging that even those who have been fully vaccinated and received a booster shot still stand about a 20% chance of being infected with the omicron strain.  Overall, the U.S. is currently recording about 800,000 new coronavirus cases a day and nearly 2,000 deaths, although there are early indications that the surge in omicron cases has reached a peak in some parts of the country and leveled off.  Still, the number of new cases has, as Murthy said, overwhelmed hospitals in some states. Biden last week dispatched military medical personnel to six of the country’s 50 states to assist health care workers at hospitals there. 

UN Grants $150 Million in Aid for 13 Underfunded Crises 

11 months ago

The United Nations is allocating $150 million from its Central Emergency Response Fund to support seriously underfunded humanitarian operations in 13 countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Middle East. Topping the list of underfunded crises are Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan. These countries will receive between $20- and $25 million each to help them implement life-saving humanitarian operations.  International support for Syria has all but dissipated after more than a decade of conflict. Some 13 million refugees and internally displaced Syrians are living in a state of destitution, with little recourse to basic relief.  The DRC is one of the longest and most complex humanitarian crises. Millions of people are suffering from conflict, displacement, epidemics, and acute hunger.  The United Nations warns the humanitarian crisis in Sudan is deepening, as political instability grows and the country contends with flooding, rising food prices and disease outbreaks.  Jens Laerke, the spokesman for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, says the distribution of funds made by Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths is the largest ever. He says it beats last year’s $135 million by $15 million.  “This announcement of funding will help the prioritization of life-saving projects to respond to for example food security, nutrition, health, and protection needs. More detailed strategies are expected from these countries later this month,” he said. Other recipient countries include Myanmar, where the U.N. is providing aid to some three million people suffering from conflict, COVID-19, and a failing economy. U.N. aid also will go to Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger, three countries in Africa’s central Sahel that are struggling with mass displacement because of armed attacks.  Laerke says these countries as well as six others in dire straits in Africa, the Middle East and the Americas, including Haiti and Honduras, will receive between $5- and $12 million each from the U.N. fund to help them tackle their emergency needs.  “These allocations happen twice a year to countries selected because of their low level of funding, severity of humanitarian needs, and vulnerability," he said. "These countries have just entered a new cycle of humanitarian fundraising and program implementation on the back of underfunded appeals from last year, all below 50 percent covered at year’s end.” Humanitarian needs are growing across the world. The United Nations says it expects at least 274 million people will need humanitarian assistance in 2022 and it will require $41 billion to assist the most vulnerable.  Afghanistan is the world’s largest humanitarian appeal. The U.N. recently launched a record $4.5 billion appeal to assist 22 million Afghans, more than half the country’s population. 

Texas Hostage-Taking Draws Attention to Pakistani Woman Imprisoned in US

11 months ago

Aafia Siddiqui, a U.S.-educated-Pakistani neuroscientist serving an 86-year sentence in the United States for trying to kill Americans in Afghanistan, is the person whose release was sought by the hostage-taker at a Texas synagogue on Saturday. U.S. authorities said the hours-long standoff ended with all captives safe and the man holding them dead. Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist, is being held at a federal prison in Texas. Marwa Elbially, her attorney, issued a statement condemning the hostage-taking. "Whoever the assailant is, we want him to know that his actions are condemned by Dr. Siddiqui and her family," Elbially told CNN. Siddiqui’s case continues to draw attention ever since she was arrested in the eastern Afghan province of Ghazni in 2008 under suspicion of being in possession of notes on how to make “dirty bombs” and plans to attack U.S. cities. Her family and lawyers have denied the charges. Siddiqui was immediately flown to the U.S., where two years later a federal court found the 49-year-old mother of three guilty of attempted murder and assault of U.S. officials during interrogation in Ghazni. The neuroscientist studied at two prestigious U.S. institutions — Brandeis University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology — between 1991 and 2002 before moving back to Pakistan. The Pakistan-born Siddiqui disappeared from her native Karachi a year later and her whereabouts was not known until she surfaced in neighboring Afghanistan and detained. Analysts say most Americans are unaware of Siddiqui’s case, but militant groups have been seeking her release and using the case to gain more recruits. In 2014, Islamic State sent an email to the family of American journalist James Foley, who was kidnapped in Syria, offering to release him in exchange for Siddiqui. Foley was later beheaded. “Siddiqui isn’t well known in the U.S., but in Pakistan she’s a big name — many view her as an innocent victim. Also, at one point, ISIS had demanded that she be released in exchange for ISIS captives,” Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia program at Washington’s Wilson Center, wrote on Twitter in response to Saturday’s hostage-taking. The 2010 conviction of Siddiqui sparked outrage in Pakistan, where thousands took to the streets to denounce the U.S. The Pakistani Senate unanimously passed a resolution in 2018, dubbing Siddiqui as “Daughter of the Nation” and urged the government to take “concrete steps” for her repatriation. Prime Minister Imran Khan suggested in media interviews after meeting at the White House in 2019 with then-U.S. President Donald Trump that his government could consider the possibility of releasing Pakistani doctor Shakeel Afridi in exchange for Siddiqui. In 2018, a Pakistani court sentenced Afridi to 33 years in prison for organizing a fake vaccination campaign to help the CIA locate and kill al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. Afridi’s appeal against the verdict is still pending. In July 2021, Siddiqui suffered serious injuries after an inmate attacked her. The Foreign Ministry in Islamabad immediately took up the matter with U.S. authorities through its embassy in Washington. “We lodged a formal complaint with the relevant U.S. authorities to thoroughly investigate the matter and ensure the safety and well-being of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui,” the ministry said at the time. The attack prompted protests by human rights activists and religious groups in the U.S., calling for improved prison conditions and Siddiqui’s repatriation to Pakistan. 

Mali's Ousted President Keita Dies at 76 

11 months ago

Former Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was ousted by the military in 2020 after a turbulent seven-year rule, has died, officials said on Sunday. He was 76. Known by his initials IBK, Keita ran the West African country from September 2013 to August 2020, when Islamist insurgents overran large areas, draining his popularity. Disputed legislative elections, rumors of corruption, and a sputtering economy also fueled public anger and drew tens of thousands of people onto the streets of the capital Bamako demanding his resignation in 2020. He was eventually forced out by a military coup, the leaders of which still rule Mali despite strong international objections. "Very saddened to learn of the death of former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita," tweeted Mali's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdoulaye Diop. "It is with great emotion that I bow before his memory." The cause of death was not yet clear. A former advisor said he died at home in Bamako. Keita, who frequently traveled abroad for medical attention, was detained and put under house arrest during the coup but restrictions were lifted amid pressure from the West African political bloc ECOWAS.  Known for his white flowing robes and a tendency to slur his words, Keita won a resounding election victory in 2013. He vowed to take on the corruption that eroded support for his predecessor Amadou Toumani Toure, also toppled in a coup. He had a reputation for firmness forged as a prime minister in the 1990s when he took a hard line with striking trade unions. But his tenure was marred from the start by a security crisis in which al Qaeda-linked jihadists swept across the desert north. French forces had intervened in January 2013 to drive back the insurgents who had hijacked an ethnic Tuareg rebellion. But the groups bounced back. In the nine years since, they have killed hundreds of soldiers and civilians and in some areas created their own systems of government. Attacks by jihadists stoked ethnic clashes between rival herding and farming communities, claiming hundreds more lives and underscoring the government's lack of control. Allegations of corruption dogged Keita's presidency from the start. In 2014, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund froze nearly $70 million in financing after the IMF expressed concern over the purchase of a $40 million presidential jet and a separate loan for military supplies.

UN Agency Calls for International Action to End Sahel Conflict 

11 months ago

UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency is calling for international action to end the armed conflict in Africa’s Central Sahel region, a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced more than 2.5 million over the last decade. Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project finds violence in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger caused more than 4,660 deaths in the first six months of 2020. Statistics from other international monitoring groups and U.N. agencies show internal displacement in Africa’s Central Sahel region has increased tenfold since 2013, from 217,000 to 2.1 million by late 2021.    U.N. refugee spokesman Boris Cheshirkov says displacement continues to grow across the Sahel, as civilians flee violent attacks. “Armed groups reportedly carried out over 800 deadly attacks last year. Such violence uprooted 450,000 people within their countries and forced a further 36,000 to flee to a neighboring country as a refugee," he said. "Women and children are often the worst-affected and disproportionately exposed to extreme vulnerability and the threat of gender-based violence.” Cheshirkov says conditions across the region continue to deteriorate. He says host communities and government authorities are buckling under increasing pressure despite their commitment to help the displaced. He says humanitarian agencies are finding it increasingly difficult and dangerous to deliver assistance and protection. He says humanitarians risk road attack, ambush, and car jacking.  “What we have been calling for and we repeat this call again now is for a unified, a strategic, a substantial intervention in the Sahel that will make sure that international efforts are supporting the governments and host communities … and a security response cannot prevail on its own. It needs to be hand-in-glove with humanitarian and development action,” he said. Cheshirkov says the UNHCR is leading an effort by United Nations and private agencies to provide shelter and protection services, including combating gender-based violence. 

Netanyahu Negotiating Plea Deal in Corruption Trial 

11 months ago

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is negotiating a plea deal in his corruption case, a person involved in the talks said Sunday.  The deal, which could be signed as early as this week, could usher Netanyahu off the Israeli political stage for years, paving the way for a leadership race in his Likud party and shaking up Israel's political map.  Any deal would also absolve Netanyahu of an embarrassing and protracted trial that has gripped the nation and risks tarnishing his legacy.  A spokesman for Netanyahu declined to comment.  Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate cases. The former premier, now opposition leader, denies wrongdoing.  The person involved in the negotiations said the plea deal would drop the bribery and fraud charges and scrap one case entirely. The person asked for anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the details of the talks. He said a plea deal would likely be announced in the coming days.  The person said a number of elements remained unresolved, including the inclusion of the charge of ``moral turpitude,'' which under Israeli law would ban Netanyahu from politics for seven years. They were also deliberating whether Netanyahu would be forced to do community service under the deal.  Including ``moral turpitude'' would challenge Netanyahu's vows to return to lead the country after his 12-year reign was ended last year by a coalition of ideologically disparate parties with little in common other than its opposition to his leadership. But Netanyahu, dubbed a political wizard for his ability to survive repeated attempts at ending his rule, could make a comeback when the ban expires. He would be nearly 80.  His departure from the political scene would set off a leadership race in the Likud party, with several lawmakers already promising to run. Likud isn't expected to remain as dominant without Netanyahu, but would still be a major force under a new leader.  With Netanyahu gone, the more nationalist elements of the coalition could decide to break off from the fragile union and opt to join forces with their ideological brethren. Netanyahu is charged in three separate cases. The first alleges that Netanyahu received gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from wealthy associates.  In the second case, Netanyahu is accused of orchestrating positive coverage in a major Israeli paper in exchange for promoting legislation that would have harmed the news outlet's chief rival, a free pro-Netanyahu daily.  The third, nicknamed Case 4000, alleges that Netanyahu promoted legislation worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the owner of Israeli telecom giant Bezeq in exchange for positive coverage on its Walla news site. 

Ethiopian Diaspora Torn by Ethnic Tensions in Tigray War 

11 months ago

Thousands of miles away from the war in Ethiopia, the ethnic cracks have started to show in an Ethiopian church in Ohio, in a lawsuit between trustees and clergy. The original trustees of the Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Columbus have accused its clergy of switching the language of services from Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, to Tigrinya, the language of the Tigray region. They say the clergy is taking sides in a war between Tigray leaders and the Amhara, allied with the Ethiopian government, with an estimated tens of thousands of dead. The clergy in the church in Columbus, which is home to about 40,000 Ethiopian Americans, says Tigrinya was added on as a language rather than replacing Amharic to better reach the congregation. Church leaders say the changes weren’t political in nature. The tensions in the church reflect how the war in Ethiopia has fueled divides across the more than 3 million members of the diaspora. “The Ethiopian social fabric ... has been torn apart,” said Tewodros Tirfe, chairman of the Amhara Association of America, based in North Carolina. The war started a little over a year ago, when a political dispute between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray leaders erupted into violence after a dispute over elections. It has now spiraled to the point where some Tigrayans are starving under a government blockade and atrocities have been reported on all sides, with the worst and most to date reported against Tigrayan civilians. The conflict entered a new phase in late December when the Tigray forces withdrew into the Tigray region after approaching the capital, Addis Ababa, but are being pushed back by a drone-supported military offensive. Deep disagreements about the nature and even the facts of the conflict are splintering families, friends and communities in the diaspora. Some consider themselves supporters of Tigray or of its political leaders, who belong to a party called the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF. They argue that Tigrayans are being threatened with genocide — profiled, persecuted and killed for their ethnicity. Saba Desta, who works in health insurance in New York, worries that ordinary people are being forgotten. Desta said she’s tried to get her parents out of the northern city of Shire in Tigray, but her father is ill and unable to leave without a nurse’s assistance. “It’s been breaking me, reading the reports of closing of hospitals and health centers, the restricted access to medicine,” she said. “I can only believe that he’s OK, that he’s alive. I only have this hope to bank on.” Desta said five of her cousins, all brothers, were shot to death in front of their elderly mother by the military from neighboring Eritrea, which has been in Tigray alongside Ethiopian soldiers. Their mother died shortly after “from heartbreak,” she said. “I’m so numb,” she said. “I can’t even cry anymore.” Other Ethiopians see this as a necessary war against Tigray leaders, who once ruled Ethiopia and were accused of human rights abuses while growing the country’s economy. The former ruling coalition, dominated by Tigray leaders representing 6% of the nation, appointed Abiy as prime minister in 2018, a choice largely celebrated by Ethiopians across the globe as a step towards peace and unity. Abiy transformed the federal coalition into a single Prosperity Party, and Tigrayan leaders later withdrew. Many Ethiopians feel that Tigray leaders are angry because Abiy leads with more than Tigray’s interests in mind as he seeks to centralize power. “I had been there since they were established and I had seen their plans when I was very young, and that never changed,” said Teferi Zemene, a Toronto-based union organizer who grew up watching the TPLF rise to power three decades ago. Zemene returned to Canada recently after 2½ months in Ethiopia. He visited his hometown of Dabat, about 75 kilometers from the northern Amhara city of Gondar, and asserted that it was destroyed by Tigray forces. “If you see Dabat now, you would cry. They devastated the place. There’s no place to even rest,” he said. Zemene said he lost relatives in the war and that he felt “the need to fight.” He and other Ethiopians who oppose the Tigray forces have expressed concern that the international community and even foreign media are bent on promoting intervention by the U.S. “We should be able to solve our problems ourselves,” he said. “We didn’t ask for any help.” The complexity of the war has made some rethink their position on it. Ethiopian American journalist and activist Hermela Aregawi advocated for humanitarian work to help Tigray in the early days, but eventually distanced herself from those fundraising efforts when she felt they became politically motivated in favor of Tigrayan leaders. “I’m Tigrayan, I care about Tigrayans, I care about Ethiopians as a whole,” Aregawi said. Negasi Beyene, a biostatistician and human rights activist in Washington, feels similarly. “My motto is, ‘humanity before ethnicity,’” he said. Growing up in Mekele, the capital of Tigray, during an earlier war, Beyene felt pressured to choose between the TPLF and other political groups when he was just 17 years old and kids his age were either killed or recruited to fight. He ultimately sided against the TPLF, and holds what he considers a minority view among Tigrayans that they started the current war. “My sister, brother, I don’t talk to them,” he said. “Because they think TPLF is doing good … Maybe the TPLF idea — if you’re not with us, you’re against us — has penetrated all of society.” A year into the war, there’s no clear end in sight. Some support the independence of Tigray, while others don’t want to see Ethiopia torn apart. Adem Kassie Abebe, a program officer at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in the Netherlands, said that for each side, the anger and longtime grievances are real. “Saying ‘I understand you’re angry,’ that would go a long way [for] both sides,” he said. “That opens a channel.” Tirfe of the Amhara Association of America blames the war on a federalist governing system that ties the country’s dozens of ethnicities to land and power, pitting them against each other. So long as Ethiopia has this system, he said, “there will be another war.” What he and others note, though, is that more Ethiopians are now determined to be heard. “It’s good to see so many Ethiopians actively involved,” he said. “We’re not coming [together] as one, but hopefully one day. We’ll be a force.” 

Government Spokesperson, Former Journalist Injured in Somalia Bombing

11 months ago

A suicide bomber in the Somali capital has injured government spokesman and former journalist Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimuu. Witnesses told VOA Somali that a suicide bomber ran toward Moalimuu’s vehicle in central Mogadishu and detonated an explosive vest. Moalimuu sustained injuries to the hand and leg from shrapnel from the device. The Somali militant group al-Shabab immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. Moalimuu has survived at least three previous al-Shabab attacks, and tweeted “It was a lucky escape” after surviving one in 2016. Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble has condemned the “odious terrorist attack” that targeted Moalimuu. Roble said Moalimuu is in stable condition and wished him a quick recovery. Moalimuu is a former journalist for the BBC Somali Service. He also led the Federation of Somali Journalists a national union of professional journalists in Somalia, before joining the government. A person-borne homemade bomb, used increasingly in recent months by al-Shabab, targeted Moalimuu, according to security sources. On November 20, a similar device killed journalist and director of Somali government radio Abdiaziz Mohamud Guled “Abdiaziz Africa” in Mogadishu. Today’s attack appeared to use the same technique.

Third Blow for Millions in India’s Vast Informal Sector as Cities Impose Curbs

11 months ago

On a cold winter afternoon in the Indian capital, New Delhi, a group of auto rickshaw drivers huddled outside a metro station hoping to pick up passengers. Since the city shut schools, colleges, restaurants and offices to cope with a third wave of the pandemic fueled by the omicron variant, though, they know their wait could be long and probably futile. “We work on the streets and depend on people being out,” Shivraj Verma said. “Now I will not be able to earn enough to even buy food in the city. We get crushed when the city closes.” This is the third consecutive year that tens of millions of workers in India’s vast informal economy are confronting a loss of livelihoods and incomes as megacities such as New Delhi and Mumbai, which are the epicenter of the new wave, partially shutter.   While India has not enforced a stringent nationwide lockdown as it did in 2020, Delhi has closed offices, imposed a weekend and night curfew and restricted large gatherings. In the business hub of Gurugram, markets shut early as part of measures to curb the spread of coronavirus. For those that work on the street, though, contracting the virus is of little concern -- their masks hang loosely on their faces, only to be pulled up when a policeman, who might impose a fine, passes by. Their pressing problem is to earn enough money to feed families, send children to school and pay rent for their tiny tenements. In the lives-versus-livelihoods debate that has posed one of the pandemic’s greatest dilemmas, their vote is squarely with the latter. “We don’t worry about the virus, we worry about how to take care of our families. I will have to return again to my village if the situation stays the same,” auto rickshaw operator Mohammad Amjad Khan said. Khan was among millions of migrants returned to their villages when India witnessed a mass exodus in 2020. He only picked up the courage to return to Delhi after a year and a half in September. At that time India had recovered from its devastating second wave. Its cities were humming, restaurants and markets were packed, and businesses saw a revival. As India’s economy picked up pace briskly, Khan made a decent living from the auto rickshaw he took on hire to ferry customers and could send some money home. The pandemic appeared to have become a distant memory.   The good times lasted for four months. From less than 7,000 new cases a day in mid-December, India has been counting more than a quarter million in recent days. As cities like Delhi hunker indoors, earnings have again plummeted. “Now I don’t even make enough money to pay for the daily hire of this vehicle. It’s really tough,” Khan said with a despondent shrug. Indian policymakers have underlined the need to protect jobs. At a meeting with chief ministers this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that there should be minimal loss to the ordinary people’s livelihoods and related economic activity as the country battles the latest wave. “We have to keep this in mind, whenever we are making a strategy for COVID-19 containment,” he said. Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has reassured migrant labor that a lockdown will not be imposed. On the ground however, even partial curbs hit hard the tens of thousands of vendors who line Indian streets – vegetable and fruit sellers, small kiosks selling chips, soft drinks and cigarettes, and food carts. Anita Singh is allowed to operate her street cart that sells hot meals and snacks till 8 p.m., but in the last two weeks, there have been very few customers to serve.   “Most of my sales were to college students or in the late evening when people left offices. Now they are shut,” she said. Employment has not returned to its pre-pandemic level since the Indian economy was battered by COVID-19 lockdowns, according to a recent report by the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy. The report said that there are fewer salaried jobs, whereas daily wage work and farm labor has increased – a sign of economic distress. “There has been a drop in average wages and daily earnings across sectors because of COVID stipulations,” said Anhad Imaan, a communication specialist with several nonprofit organizations working with migrant labor. “Even in the construction and manufacturing sectors which have remained open, there is less work available per worker.” That means the quality of lives of those in the informal sector has taken a huge hit. “They used to spend much of what they earned on food and a place to stay and sent home whatever they saved,” he said, “Now they are down to subsistence levels.” Although estimates vary widely, studies say millions in India have slipped below the poverty line during the pandemic. A study by Pew Research Center in March pegged the number at 75 million. Another one by the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University in May after India experienced a second wave put it at 230 million due to “income shocks.” Whatever the numbers, it is a reality that the group of auto rickshaw drivers waiting for passengers knows too well. As they talked to each other, their top concern was whether there will be a lockdown and whether they should be heading home for a third time.  

COVAX Delivers Billionth Vaccine

11 months ago

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center said early Sunday 326.2 million people around the world have been infected with the coronavirus, while 5.5 million deaths have been recorded. More than 9 billion vaccines have been administered, the center reported. UNICEF’S executive director said Saturday’s shipment of 1.1 million COVID vaccines to Rwanda “included the billionth dose supplied to COVAX.” Henrietta Fore said, “With so many people yet to be offered a single dose, we know we have much more to do.” COVAX is the international alliance working to ensure the equitable allotment of COVID vaccines to low- and medium-income countries. One case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has been detected in Beijing -- a rare breach of the city’s strict containment measures -- as Chinese authorities battle outbreaks elsewhere before the February opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing and the start of the Lunar New Year. A locally transmitted omicron infection was discovered in Beijing’s Haidaian district Saturday morning, Beijing disease prevention and control official Pang Xinghuo said at a news conference.   Pang said other occupants in the patient’s residential building and an office building were being tested and that access to 17 locations linked to the patient had been restricted. Officials in the southern city of Zhuhai suspended the city’s bus service after uncovering seven cases of the highly contagious variant and advised residents to stay home. Authorities in China are also trying to contain a series of outbreaks, including from the omicron variant, in the port city of Tianjin, the central city of Anyang and in other smaller cities, keeping millions of people in lockdown across the country. Additionally, China’s National Health Commission spokesperson, Mi Feng, warned Saturday that China is facing "severe" challenges before the Feb. 1 beginning of the Lunar New Year amid the spread of omicron and delta variants. "The Lunar New Year travel rush is about to start," Mi noted. "The migration and gathering of people will increase significantly." In the next week or two, Americans will begin receiving free rapid home coronavirus tests from the U.S. government. Residents will have to request the tests on a designated website. The tests have been almost impossible to find in stores.   The Russian government on Friday delayed approving unpopular legislation that would have restricted access to public places without proof of COVID-19 vaccination, amid a surge in new infections. The Associated Press reports the bill would have required Russians seeking to enter certain public places to have a QR code either confirming vaccination, recent recovery from COVID-19 or a medical exemption from immunization. Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said the measure was pulled due to uncertainty regarding its effectiveness as it was drawn up in response to the delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. The omicron variant is currently driving a surge in new infections in the country. Meanwhile, a French court suspended an outdoor mask requirement in the streets of Paris. The requirement had been imposed Dec. 31 in an effort to suppress the spread of the omicron variant. A court in Versailles on Wednesday suspended a similar outdoor masking requirement for the Yvelines region. Some information for this report came from Agence France-Presse.       

Climate Change: Thawing Permafrost a Triple Threat 

11 months ago

Thawing Arctic permafrost laden with billions of tons of greenhouse gases not only threatens the region's critical infrastructure but life across the planet, according a comprehensive scientific review. Nearly 70% of the roads, pipelines, cities and industry — mostly in Russia — built on the region's softening ground are highly vulnerable to acute damage by mid-century, according to one of half-a-dozen studies on permafrost published this week by Nature.  Another study warns that methane and CO2 escaping from long-frozen soil could accelerate warming and overwhelm global efforts to cap the rise in Earth's temperature at livable levels.  Exposure of highly combustible organic matter no longer locked away by ice is also fueling unprecedented wildfires, making permafrost a triple threat, the studies report. Blanketing a quarter of the northern hemisphere's land mass, permafrost contains twice the carbon currently in the atmosphere, and triple the amount emitted by human activity since 1850.  By definition, it is ground that has been at temperatures colder than zero degrees Celsius (32F) for more than two years, though much permafrost is thousands of years old.  Temperatures in the Arctic region have risen two to three times more quickly over the last half-century than for the world as a whole — two to three degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The region has also seen a series of freakish weather anomalies, with temperatures in winter flaring up to 40C above previous averages. Permafrost itself has, on average, warmed nearly 0.4C from 2007 to 2016, "raising concerns about the rapid rate of thaw and potential old carbon release," note researchers led by Kimberley Miner, a scientist at the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  Zombie fires  Their study projects a loss of some four million square kilometers of permafrost by 2100 even under a scenario in which greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced in the coming decades.  Rising temperatures are not the only driver of accelerated melting.  Arctic wildfires rapidly expand the layer of permafrost subject to thawing, the researchers point out.  As the climate warms, these remote, uncontrolled blazes are projected to increase 130% to 350% by mid-century, releasing more and more permafrost carbon.  Indeed, thawing renders buried organic carbon more flammable, giving rise to "zombie fires" that smolder throughout frigid winters before igniting again in Spring and Summer.  "These below-ground fires could release legacy carbon from environments previously thought to be fire-resistant," Miner and colleagues warn.  The most immediate threat is to the region's infrastructure. Northern hemisphere permafrost supports some 120,000 buildings, 40,000 kilometers (25,000 miles) of roads and 9,500 kilometers of pipelines, according to another study led by Jan Hjort, a scientist at Finland's University of Oulu.  "The strength of soil drops substantially as temperatures rise above the melting point and ground ice melts," the study noted.  No country is more vulnerable than Russia, where several large cities and substantial industrial plant sit atop frozen soil. Some 80% of buildings in the city of Vorkuta are already showing deformations caused by shifting permafrost.  Nearly half of oil and gas extraction fields in the Russian Arctic are in areas with permafrost hazards threatening current infrastructure and future developments.  Sudden collapse  In 2020, a fuel tank ruptured after its supports suddenly sank into the ground near the Siberian city of Norilsk, spilling 21,000 tons of diesel into nearby rivers.  Thawing permafrost was blamed for weakening the plant's foundation.  North America does not have large industrial centers built on permafrost, but tens of thousands of kilometers of roads and pipelines are increasingly vulnerable too.  While scientists know far more than a decade ago, basic questions remain unanswered as to how much carbon may be released as Arctic soil warms.  As a result, "permafrost dynamics are often not included in Earth system models," which means their potential impact of Earth's rising temperature are not adequately taken into account, Miner and colleagues note.  This is especially true, they warn, for the sudden structural collapse of permafrost, a process known as thermokarst.  It is also still an open question as to whether climate shifts will cause the Arctic region to become drier or wetter. The answer has huge implications.  "In a greener, wetter Arctic, plants will offset some or all permafrost carbon emissions," the authors note.  In a browner, drier Arctic, however, CO2 emissions from decomposing soils and the amount of ever-more flammable fuels for wildfires will increase.  Permafrost covers 30 million square kilometers, roughly half of it in the Arctic, and a million km2 across the Tibetan Plateau. Most of the rest was covered when seas rose at the end of the last ice age.

MLB's First Female Minor-league Manager Living 'American Dream'

11 months ago

Rachel Balkovec is aware of the negativity in her social media feeds and tries to leave it there. Her sisters see it, too, and can't help but pass along certain disparaging reactions to her barrier-breaking journey. "It's hilarious to me," Balkovec said. "Because it's the American dream." In the clubhouse? She hasn't seen any of that toxicity there. Balkovec was introduced Wednesday as manager of the New York Yankees' Low A affiliate in the Florida State League. In taking over the Tampa Tarpons, Balkovec will become the first female manager in the history of affiliated baseball, an appointment 10 years in the making for the former college softball player. "If you know my story and you have a pulse, I think it's pretty hard not to get behind what's going on here," she said. Nearly a decade after changing her name on resumes to disguise her gender and break into baseball, the 34-year-old has smashed several barriers en route to this title. She was the first woman to serve as a full-time minor league strength and conditioning coach, then the first to be a full-time hitting coach in the minors.   This promotion — a year after former Yankees employee Kim Ng became the majors' first female general manager with the Miami Marlins — is different. Balkovec will run the clubhouse in Tampa, charged with overseeing the development of future big leaguers for one of the most famous sports franchises in the world. "The players that I've worked with, whether they like me, they don't like me, they like what I'm saying, they don't like what I'm saying, I do feel like they respect me," she said. It's a trust she's earned via an unusual route — one that didn't exist 20 years ago, but not just because of her gender. A former softball catcher at Creighton and New Mexico, Balkovec has a master's degree in kinesiology from LSU and another in human movement sciences from Vrije University in the Netherlands. She's worked in strength and conditioning with the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros since first breaking into pro ball in 2012, and also spent time at Driveline Baseball, a data-driven center that has trained numerous major leaguers. She's an expert in performance science, precisely the expert teams are coveting. When the Yankees hired her as a minor league hitting coach in 2019, she was at the forefront among women breaking into uniformed jobs, but she was hardly the only coach without a traditional playing background. Hitting 95 mph isn't the same skill as teaching someone else to, and as teams have shifted their focus in the hiring process to reflect that, it's created a pathway for women like Balkovec or Alyssa Nakken, part of the San Francisco Giants' major league coaching staff since 2020. "There wasn't a ton of debate as to whether baseball was ready or the world was ready," said vice president of baseball operations Kevin Reese, who made the decision to promote Balkovec. "We're trying to find the best people and put them in the best position to have an impact here." Reese, introduced Wednesday under a new title after being promoted from senior director of player development, helped hire Balkovec in 2019 and has been overwhelmingly impressed with her expertise and ability to lead, including with young Latin American players. The Nebraska native taught herself Spanish after becoming Houston's Latin American strength and conditioning coach in 2016, and some of her most notable work has been with New York's Spanish-speaking players, including top prospect Jasson Dominguez.   General manager Brian Cashman has had a woman as an assistant general manager since hiring Ng in 1998. When she left in 2001, Jean Afterman was appointed to the role and has been there since. Balkovec has expressed interest in one day working in the front office and potentially becoming a GM herself. "The sky's the limit," Cashman said. "She's determined. She's strong. She's got perseverence." She's needed it. After serving her temporary role with St. Louis in 2012, she began applying for baseball jobs with what she knew was a rock-solid resume. And yet, only one team responded. Her point of contact with that club said his bosses wouldn't let him hire a woman in a strength and conditioning role. Even worse, that person called around to other teams with vacancies, and they all told him the same. "In that very moment, my level of naivete went from a 10 to a zero," she said. One of her sisters suggested changing her name to "Rae Balkovec" on her resume, and the tactic worked to at least get hiring managers on the phone. The Cardinals brought her back as a full-time strength and conditioning coordinator in 2014. She's seldom had issues with players related to her gender — "so little it's hardly worth mentioning," she said. Being the only woman in that trail-blazing role was lonely, though.   Now, she believes there will be 11 women with on-field jobs in affiliated ball next year, and she's able to compare experiences with them. Tennis great Billie Jean King was among the many who congratulated her on the Tampa job, and she's developed a network of support that's reinforced her confidence that she's ready for the role. "On behalf of Major League Baseball, I congratulate Rachel on this historic milestone," Commissioner Rob Manfred said. "As manager of the Tampa Tarpons, she will continue to demonstrate her expertise and leadership in the Yankees' organization. We wish Rachel well in this new capacity and appreciate her mentorship to the growing network of women in baseball operations and player development roles." The job ahead of her, though, is the same as any other skipper — get the most out of the players in her clubhouse. "My goal is really to know the names of the girlfriends, the dogs, the families of all the players," she said. "My goal is to develop them as young men and young people who have an immense amount of pressure on them. My goal is to support the coaches that are on the staff. "We're going to be talking more nuts and bolts of pitching and hitting with them, and defense. It's really just to be a supporter, and to facilitate an environment where they can be successful."

Garbage and Recyclables Pile Up as Omicron Takes its Toll

11 months ago

The omicron variant is sickening so many sanitation workers around the U.S. that some cities have had to delay or suspend garbage or recycling pickup, angering residents shocked that governments can't perform this most basic of functions. The slowdowns have caused recycling bins full of Christmas gift boxes and wrapping paper to languish on Nashville curbs, trash bags to pile up on Philadelphia streets, and uncollected yard waste — grass clippings, leaves, branches — to block sidewalks in Atlanta. "It's just a shame," said Madelyn Rubin, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where officials have halted recycling. "You know that they could find the money to do it if they wanted to," she said. "If it was a business that wanted to come in here, they would dump money in to make it happen." Cities including Atlanta, Nashville and Louisville are so shorthanded they have temporarily stopped collecting things like recyclable bottles, cans, paper and plastic, yard waste or oversized junk to focus on the grosser, smellier stuff. The delays are more than annoyance to residents, creating problems such as clogged storm drains and blocked sidewalks. Nashville City Council member Freddie O'Connell was just as surprised as his constituents when he received notice before Christmas that the city was halting curbside recycling. "I was just stunned there wasn't an alternative or a back-up plan," he said. "No hot line for people who are mobility impaired or don't have reliable access to a car" to carry their recyclables to a central drop-off site. "It feels like a failure of governance," he added. The garbage crisis is actually the third of the pandemic. The first happened in the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 took hold in the U.S. Problems arose again as the delta variant spiked over the summer. The Solid Waste Association of North America warned government officials and trash haulers in December to "plan now for staffing shortages."   The highly contagious variant hit just when Americans were generating a lot of trash — over the Christmas holidays. Combine that with a relatively low vaccination level among front-line sanitation workers and you have a "perfect storm for delayed collection," the association's executive director, David Biderman, said this week. In some communities, up to a quarter of the waste-collection workforce is calling in sick, Biderman said. Garbage collection has become just another of the many basic services disrupted by omicron. Around the U.S., teachers, firefighters, police officers and transit workers have been out sick in large numbers. "We're getting calls, emails, everything. People are understandably frustrated," said Atlanta City Council member Liliana Bakhtiari. Atlanta officials said Monday that because of the worker shortage, recycling and yard waste will be picked up "as staffing allows." Los Angeles said delays in the collection of recyclables could continue through the month. In Louisville, Kentucky, sanitation workers stopped picking up yard waste in early January until further notice. Residents can drop off branches and clippings at Christmas tree collection sites. New York City, which boasts the largest municipal sanitation force in the world, had around 2,000 of its 7,000 workers out because of the latest round of the coronavirus, but the rest are working long hours to clear a backlog of waste. They city has not suspended any services. Harry Nespoli, president of the union local representing the city's sanitation workers, said some are coming back after quarantining, while others are testing positive for the virus: "Right now it's a swinging door." In Philadelphia, sometimes called Filthadelphia because of the condition of its streets, around 10% to 15% of the 900-person sanitation workforce is out on any given day, leading to delays in waste collection, according to Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams. "When people are out, we can't just hire to replace them," he said. "We have to give them time to get well." To keep the trash from piling up, some municipalities are hiring temporary workers or contracting with private haulers. Some are offering signing or retention bonuses or pay raises. Chattanooga, Tennessee, increased starting wages for drivers by more than 40%, from just over $31,500 to $45,000. That allowed the city to restore recycling collection in November after halting it in July and continue routine pickups despite the omicron surge, said spokesperson Mary Beth Ikard.

Afghan Tradition Allows Girls to Access the Freedom of Boys

11 months ago

In a Kabul neighborhood, a gaggle of boys kick a yellow ball around a dusty playground, their boisterous cries echoing off the surrounding apartment buildings. Dressed in sweaters and jeans or the traditional Afghan male clothing of baggy pants and long shirt, none stand out as they jostle to score a goal. But unbeknown to them, one is different from the others. At not quite 8 years old, Sanam is a bacha posh: a girl living as a boy. One day a few months ago, the girl with rosy cheeks and an impish smile had her dark hair cut short, donned boys' clothes and took on a boy's name, Omid. The move opened up a boy's world: playing soccer and cricket with boys, wrestling with the neighborhood butcher's son, working to help the family make ends meet. In Afghanistan's heavily patriarchal, male-dominated society, where women and girls are usually relegated to the home, bacha posh, Dari for "dressed as a boy," is the one tradition allowing girls access to the freer male world. Under the practice, a girl dresses, behaves and is treated as a boy, with all the freedoms and obligations that entails. The child can play sports, attend a madrassa, or religious school, and, sometimes crucially for the family, work. But there is a time limit: Once a bacha posh reaches puberty, she is expected to revert to traditional girls' gender roles. The transition is not always easy.   It is unclear how the practice is viewed by Afghanistan's new rulers, the Taliban, who seized power in mid-August and have made no public statements on the issue. Their rule so far has been less draconian than the last time they were in power in the 1990s, but women's freedoms have still been severely curtailed. Thousands of women have been barred from working, and girls beyond primary school age have not been able to return to public schools in most places. With a crackdown on women's rights, the bacha posh tradition could become even more attractive for some families. And as the practice is temporary, with the children eventually reverting to female roles, the Taliban might not deal with the issue at all, said Thomas Barfield, a professor of anthropology at Boston University who has written several books on Afghanistan. "Because it's inside the family and because it's not a permanent status, the Taliban may stay out (of it)," Barfield said.   It is unclear where the practice originated or how old it is, and it is impossible to know how widespread it might be. A somewhat similar tradition exists in Albania, another deeply patriarchal society, although it is limited to adults. Under Albania's "sworn virgin" tradition, a woman would take an oath of celibacy and declare herself a man, after which she could inherit property, work and sit on a village council - all of which would have been out of bounds for a woman. In Afghanistan, the bacha posh tradition is "one of the most under-investigated" topics in terms of gender issues, said Barfield, who spent about two years in the 1970s living with an Afghan nomad family that included a bacha posh. "Precisely because the girls revert back to the female role, they marry, it kind of disappears." Girls chosen as bacha posh usually are the more boisterous, self-assured daughters. "The role fits so well that sometimes even outside the family, people are not aware that it exists," he said. "It's almost so invisible that it's one of the few gender issues that doesn't show up as a political or social question," Barfield noted. The reasons parents might want a bacha posh vary. With sons traditionally valued more than daughters, the practice usually occurs in families without a boy. Some consider it a status symbol, and some believe it will bring good luck for the next child to be born a boy. But for others, like Sanam's family, the choice was one of necessity. Last year, with Afghanistan's economy collapsing, construction work dried up. Sanam's father, already suffering from a back injury, lost his job as a plumber. He turned to selling coronavirus masks on the streets, making the equivalent of $1-$2 per day. But he needed a helper. The family has four daughters and one son, but their 11-year-old boy doesn't have full use of his hands following an injury. So the parents said they decided to make Sanam a bacha posh. "We had to do this because of poverty," said Sanam's mother, Fahima. "We don't have a son to work for us, and her father doesn't have anyone to help him. So I will consider her my son until she becomes a teenager." Still, Fahima refers to Sanam as "my daughter." In their native Dari language, the pronouns are not an issue since one pronoun is used for "he" and "she." Sanam says she prefers living as a boy. "It's better to be a boy...I wear (Afghan male clothes), jeans and jackets, and go with my father and work," she said. She likes playing in the park with her brother's friends and playing cricket and soccer. Once she grows up, Sanam said, she wants to be either a doctor, a commander or a soldier, or work with her father. And she'll go back to being a girl. "When I grow up, I will let my hair grow and will wear girl's clothes," she said. The transition isn't always easy.   "When I put on girls' clothes, I thought I was in prison," said Najieh, who grew up as a bacha posh, although she would attend school as a girl. One of seven sisters, her boy's name was Assadollah. Now 34, married and with four children of her own, she weeps for the freedom of the male world she has lost. "In Afghanistan, boys are more valuable," she said. "There is no oppression for them, and no limits. But being a girl is different. She gets forced to get married at a young age."   Young women can't leave the house or allow strangers to see their face, Najieh said. And after the Taliban takeover, she lost her job as a schoolteacher because she had been teaching boys. "Being a man is better than being a woman," she said, wiping tears from her eye. "It is very hard for me. ... If I were a man, I could be a teacher in a school." "I wish I could be a man, not a woman. To stop this suffering."

Microsoft Discloses Malware Attack on Ukraine Government Networks

11 months ago

Microsoft said late Saturday that dozens of computer systems at an unspecified number of Ukrainian government agencies have been infected with destructive malware disguised as ransomware, a disclosure suggesting an attention-grabbing defacement attack on official websites was a diversion. The extent of the damage was not immediately clear. The attack comes as the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine looms and diplomatic talks to resolve the tense stand-off appear stalled. Microsoft said in a short blog post that amounted to the clanging of an industry alarm that it first detected the malware on Thursday. That would coincide with the attack that simultaneously took some 70 government websites temporarily offline. The disclosure followed a Reuters report earlier in the day quoting a top Ukrainian security official as saying the defacement was indeed cover for a malicious attack. Separately, a top private sector cybersecurity executive in Kyiv told The Associated Press how the attack succeeded: The intruders penetrated the government networks through a shared software supplier in a so-called supply-chain attack in the fashion of the 2000 SolarWinds Russian cyberespionage campaign targeting the U.S. government. Microsoft said in a different, technical post that the affected systems “span multiple government, non-profit, and information technology organizations.” It said it did not know how many more organizations in Ukraine or elsewhere might be affected but said it expected to learn of more infections. “The malware is disguised as ransomware but, if activated by the attacker, would render the infected computer system inoperable,” Microsoft said. In short, it lacks a ransom recovery mechanism. Microsoft said the malware “executes when an associated device is powered down,” a typical initial reaction to a ransomware attack. Microsoft said it was not yet able to assess the intent of the destructive activity or associate the attack with any known threat actors. The Ukrainian security official, Serhiy Demedyuk, was quoted by Reuters as saying the attackers used malware similar to that used by Russian intelligence. He is deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council. A preliminary investigation led Ukraine's Security Service, the SBU, to blame the web defacement on “hacker groups linked to Russia's intelligence services.” Moscow has repeatedly denied involvement in cyberattacks against Ukraine. Tensions with Russia have been running high in recent weeks after Moscow amassed an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine's border. Experts say they expect any invasion would have a cyber component, which is integral to modern “hybrid” warfare. Demedyuk told Reuters in written comments that the defacement “was just a cover for more destructive actions that were taking place behind the scenes and the consequences of which we will feel in the near future.” The story did not elaborate and Demedyuk could not immediately be reached for comment. Oleh Derevianko, a leading private sector expert and founder of the ISSP cybersecurity firm, told the AP he did not know how serious the damage was. He said also unknown is what else the attackers might have achieved after breaking into KitSoft, the developer exploited to sow the malware. In 2017, Russia targeted Ukraine with one of the most damaging cyberattacks on record with the NotPetya virus, causing more than $10 billion in damage globally. That virus, also disguised as ransomware, was a so-called “wiper” that erased entire networks. Ukraine has suffered the unfortunate fate of being the world's proving ground for cyberconflict. Russia state-backed hackers nearly thwarted its 2014 national elections and briefly crippling parts of its power grid during the winters of 2015 and 2016. In Friday's mass web defacement, a message left by the attackers claimed they had destroyed data and placed it online, which Ukrainian authorities said had not happened. The message told Ukrainians to “be afraid and expect the worst.” Ukrainian cybersecurity professionals have been fortifying the defenses of critical infrastructure since 2017, with more than $40 million in U.S. assistance. They are particularly concerned about Russian attacks on the power grid, rail network and central bank.    

N.Korea Train Makes First Crossing Into China Since Border Lockdown, Reports Say

11 months ago

A North Korean cargo train pulled into a Chinese border town on Sunday, in what would be the first confirmed crossing since anti-coronavirus border lockdowns began, media reports said. North Korea has not officially reported any COVID-19 cases and has imposed strict anti-virus measures, including border closures and domestic travel curbs since the pandemic began early 2020. A North Korean freight train crossed the Yalu River railway bridge to arrive in the Chinese town of Dandong on Sunday, Yonhap said, citing multiple unnamed sources. Yonhap said it marks the first time that North Korea has formally opened its land border with China. It was unclear whether the train was carrying any cargo into China, but was likely to return to North Korea on Monday with a load of "emergency materials," the sources told Yonhap, without elaborating. Japan's Kyodo news agency also reported the train's arrival, citing an informed source. While Chinese data show some limited trade has continued, most shipments appear to be using North Korean seaports, not trains across its land borders. Officials in Seoul said late last year they were watching closely for a resumption in cross-border rail traffic as a signal that restrictions might be loosening. After nearly two years of border closures, some humanitarian aid is trickling into the country, though shipments of key supplies including food remain blocked, according to United Nations organizations. Several shipments of nutrition and medical aid have entered the country after up to three months of quarantine at Nampo sea port, but there had been no confirmation of major shipments being transported by train.     

Djokovic Out of Australian Open as Court Upholds Deportation

11 months ago

Tennis star Novak Djokovic loses chance to defend Australian Open title as court upholds deportation. This story will be updated.

Roman Villa Housing Caravaggio up for Auction Amid Legal Dispute

11 months ago

A Roman villa housing the only mural by Caravaggio and at the center of a legal battle between a former Playboy model and the sons of her late husband, an Italian prince, will go up for auction Tuesday. The sprawling property, valued at 471 million euros (almost $540 million), is a Baroque jewel with gorgeous gardens and a valuable art collection that also includes frescoes by Guercino. Art lovers are demanding the Italian state step in to buy the spectacular property, arguing that artistic treasures should be protected and available for public viewing. But the government might not have enough to pay for it -- the auction is only open to those who can put up 10% of the starting price of 353 million euros -- and rumored buyers include Bill Gates and the Sultan of Brunei. The auction was ordered by a Rome court following a dispute among the heirs of Prince Nicolo Ludovisi Boncompagni, the head of the family who died in 2018. The dispute is between the prince's third and final wife, Rita Jenrette Boncompagni Ludovisi, a 72-year-old American former real estate broker and actor who once posed for Playboy, and the children from his first marriage. Auction of the century The residence of the noble Ludovisi Boncompagni family for hundreds of years, the 2,800-square-meter Casino dell'Aurora is located in central Rome between the Via Veneto and the Spanish Steps. Its sale is being held behind closed doors and has been dubbed by Italian media as the "auction of the century" in its breathless reporting on the legal wrangling around it and who could buy it. There are those who believe the cultural gem should be preserved for the nation. Almost 35,000 people have called on the Italian government to exercise "its pre-emptive right" to buy the building and the Caravaggio, which alone is valued at 350 million euros, according to a petition on change.org. "Sign this petition to prevent another piece of Italy, such a beautiful one, from being sold off," it said. However, the estimated price of the villa represents a quarter of the annual budget of the culture ministry. Culture Minister Dario Franceschini wrote this month to Prime Minister Mario Draghi and the finance minister to raise the issue of the sale, according to reports. Under Italian law, the government can only exercise its pre-emptive rights after the sale to a private individual, and then within 60 days of the sale's competition -- and for the same price. 'Beautiful, important building' The oil mural by Caravaggio -- real name Michelangelo Merisi -- dates to 1597 and is located on the ceiling in a corridor on the first floor of the palace. It depicts Jupiter, Pluto and Neptune with the world at the center, marked by signs of the zodiac. "It's certainly one of his earliest (works) and is very interesting because the subject is a mythological subject, and Caravaggio painted almost only sacred works," art historian Claudio Strinati told AFP. The palace was originally an outbuilding in the grounds of the Villa Ludovisi, of which nothing remains today. Its name comes from a Guercino fresco depicting the goddess Aurora, or Dawn, on her chariot. "It is a very beautiful, very important building, with some very beautiful paintings," said Strinati, a former museum curator in Rome. "It would certainly be a positive thing if it became public property, it could become the home of a museum or particularly important cultural activities." The auction is due to start Tuesday at 3:00 p.m. (1400 GMT) and will last 24 hours.    

Migrant Caravan from Honduras Stopped in Guatemala

11 months ago

Several hundred migrants who had departed from the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on Saturday in hopes of reaching the United States entered Guatemalan territory where they were intercepted by authorities who began talks on returning them to their homelands. Some 300 migrants, mainly Hondurans and Nicaraguans, arrived in Corinto, Honduras Saturday afternoon and crossed into the Guatemalan border province of Izabal, where they were met by hundreds of anti-riot agents from the national police and army. The Guatemalan Migration Institute said it was in talks with the migrants on returning them to their countries of origin. Those who wish to remain in Guatemala must present their personal identification document, vaccination card and a negative test for the coronavirus. “People are being returned, everything in order, humanely,” said institute general director Carlos Emilio Morales. “We are protecting our borders; we are protecting the health of all Guatemalans.” Guatemala's government said 36 people were deported to Honduras because they did not meet the requirements and a group of 10 who met immigration and health requirements were allowed to continue. The migrants had begun their journey toward the U.S. from San Pedro Sula shortly after dawn Saturday, walking to the Guatemalan border in hopes that travelling in a group would be safer or cheaper than trying to hire smugglers or trying on their own. They were joined by a second smaller group. Fabricio Ordonez, a young Honduran laborer, said he had joined the group in hopes of “giving a new life to my family.” “The dream is to be in the United States to be able to do many things in Honduras,” he said, adding he was pessimistic that left-leaning President-elect Xiomara Castro, who takes office on Jan. 27, would be able to quickly solve the Central American nation's economic and social problems after 12 years of conservative administrations plagued by scandal. “They have looted everything,” he said. “It is going to be very hard for this government to improve things.” Nicaraguan marcher Ubaldo Lopez expressed hope that local officials would not try to hinder this group, as they have in the past. “We know this is a very hard road and we ask God and the Honduran government to please accompany us to the border with Guatemala and not put more roadblocks,” he said. He said he hoped that Guatemala and Mexico also would allow the group to pass and that the U.S. government “will open the doors to us” -- despite repeated recent examples of regional governments, often under U.S. pressure, trying to halt such caravans. The caravan, which is the first to be registered this year, originally had about 600 members but divided into several groups to try to evade the control of the Guatemalan authorities and go through the different border crossings and illegal routes. Large numbers of migrants, many from Central America and Haiti, have reached the U.S. border over the past year, creating a headache for the administration of President Joe Biden. In December, 56 migrants died when a truck carrying more than a hundred foreigners overturned on a highway in southern Mexico. The U.S. Border Patrol has said it had more than 1.6 million encounters with migrants along the Mexican border between September 2020 and the same month in 2021, more than four times the total of the previous fiscal year. Biden has backed proposals for $7 billion in aid to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in hopes improved economic conditions will slow migration. At the end of last year, the U.S. government reactivated an immigration policy that forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their hearings. Mexico's foreign ministry confirmed the reactivation of the U.S. program and said it would temporarily not return migrants to their countries of origin for humanitarian reasons. The government of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has indicated that Washington has accepted its humanitarian concerns with the program, including the need for “greater resources for shelters and international organizations, protection for vulnerable groups, consideration of local security conditions” as well as vaccines and anti-COVID-19 measures from migrants.    


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