Buddhist Chaplains on Rise in US, Offering Broad Appeal

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Wedged into a recliner in the corner of her assisted living apartment in Portland, Skylar Freimann, who has a terminal heart condition and pulmonary illness, anxiously eyed her newly arrived hospital bed on a recent day and worried over how she would maintain independence as she further loses mobility. There to guide her along the journey was the Rev. Jo Laurence, a hospice and palliative care chaplain. But rather than invoking God or a Christian prayer, she talked of meditation, chanting and other Eastern spiritual traditions: "The body can weigh us down sometimes," she counseled. "Where is the divine or the sacred in your decline?" An ordained Sufi minister and practicing Zen Buddhist who brings years of meditation practice and scriptural training to support end-of-life patients, Laurence is part of a burgeoning generation of Buddhist chaplains who are increasingly common in hospitals, hospices and prisons, where the need for their services rose dramatically during the pandemic. In a profession long dominated in the U.S. by Christian clergy, Buddhists are leading an ever more diverse field that includes Muslim, Hindu, Wiccan and even secular humanist chaplains. Buddhist chaplains say they're uniquely positioned for the times due to their ability to appeal to a broad cultural and religious spectrum, including the growing number of Americans — roughly one-third — who identify as nonreligious. In response, study and training opportunities have been established or expanded in recent years. They include the Buddhist Ministry Initiative at Harvard Divinity School and the Buddhism track at Union Theological Seminary, an ecumenical Christian liberal seminary in New York City. Colorado's Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired liberal arts college, recently launched a low-residency hybrid degree chaplaincy program. Nonaccredited certifications such as those offered by the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care or the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, are also popular. "The programs keep expanding, so it seems clear that there's a growing demand from students. And the students appear to be finding jobs after graduation," said Monica Sanford, assistant dean for Multireligious Ministry at Harvard Divinity School and an ordained Buddhist minister. In the past, Buddhist chaplains were often hired by the likes of hospitals and police departments specifically to minister to Asian immigrant communities. During World War II, they served Japanese American soldiers in the military. Today, however, they are more mainstream. In a first-of-its-kind report published this month, Sanford and a colleague identified 425 chaplains in the United States, Canada and Mexico representing all major branches of Buddhism, though the researchers say there are likely many more. More than 40% work in health care, the Mapping Buddhist Chaplains in North America report found, while others serve in schools, in prisons or as self-employed counselors. Two-thirds of respondents reported holding a Master of Divinity, another graduate degree or a chaplaincy certificate. Most of those working as staff chaplains also completed clinical pastoral education internships and residencies in health care and other settings. Maitripa College, a Tibetan Buddhist college also in Portland, has seen increased interest in its Master of Divinity track since its launch 10 years ago, said Leigh Miller, director of academic and public programs. It appeals to a broad range, from older Buddhists with 20 years of practice to new college graduates who just started meditating, from spiritual seekers to people with multiple religious belongings. Hospitals and other institutions are eager to hire Buddhist chaplains, Miller said, in part to boost staff diversity and also because they are adept at relating to others using inclusive, neutral language. "Buddhist chaplains are in the habit of speaking in more universal terms, focusing on compassion, being grounded, feeling at peace," she said. "A lot of Christian chaplains fall back on God language, leading prayers or reading Bible scriptures." Meanwhile, training in mindfulness and meditation, as well as beliefs regarding the nature of self, reality and the impermanence of suffering, give Buddhists unique tools to confront pain and death. "The fruit of those hours on the (meditation) cushion really shows up in the ability to be present, to drop one's own personal agenda and to have a kind of awareness of self and other that allows for an interdependent relationship to arise," Miller said. Buddhist chaplaincy also faces challenges, including how to become more accessible to Buddhists of color. The Mapping Buddhist Chaplains in North America report found that most professional Buddhist chaplains today are white and have a Christian family background, even though nearly two-thirds of the faith's followers in the U.S. are Asian American, according to the Pew Research Center. Traditional Buddhist communities tend to be small and run by volunteers, so they often lack the resources to offer endorsements to chaplains — a necessary step for board certification, which is often required for employment. And non-Christian chaplains can struggle with feelings of isolation and a need to code-switch in Christian-founded health care institutions where crosses hang on walls, prayers are offered at staff meetings and Jesus and the Bible are regularly invoked. Providence Health & Services, a Catholic nonprofit based in Washington state that runs hospitals in seven Western states, is one Christian health care system seeking to change that. Mark Thomas, a chief mission officer in Oregon, said the system employs 10 Buddhist chaplains not despite but precisely because of its Catholic identity. The aim is to ensure patients get good spiritual care however it best suits them. "Many patients resonate with some aspect or even just a perception of Buddhism," said Thomas, citing practices like meditation and breathing that can help them cope with suffering. "These tools have been enormously valuable." Laurence, the hospice chaplain at Portland's Providence Home and Community Services, grew up in London and felt called to Buddhism after witnessing poverty, violence and racism as a caregiver in Mississippi. She said that as more people become unchurched, many patients don't have a language for their spirituality, or it's tied up with religious trauma. Laurence supports them in whatever way they need, be it through Christian prayer, the comfort of a cool washcloth on a forehead or a Buddhist-inspired blessing. "For some people the language of Buddhism is a respite," she said. "It doesn't have the baggage, and it feels so soothing to them." Freimann, her patient, said she has practiced Eastern spiritual traditions and therefore was delighted to receive Laurence. "I don't think of God the way traditionally religious people do," Freimann told her during the visit. "What a joy you're here. … It would be so much harder to talk with a Christian chaplain."

Murder of Nigerian Student Over Alleged Blasphemy Triggers Protests, Curfew

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Authorities in Nigeria’s Sokoto state are enforcing a 24-hour curfew, imposed Saturday to quell protests demanding the release of suspects in the killing of college student Deborah Yakubu. Yakubu was beaten and burned by fellow students Thursday for alleged blasphemous comments about the Muslim Prophet Muhammad in a WhatsApp group. The curfew imposed by state authorities held firm Sunday. Major streets in Sokoto state were calm and deserted. Churches and businesses were also closed. Police and military patrols were on the streets to enforce the curfew. The curfew followed Saturday’s protests at which hundreds of residents demanded the release of two suspects arrested by the police the day before in connection with the murder of Yakubu. The protesters attacked two Catholic churches, destroyed vehicles and damaged many shops in the metropolis before security officials dispersed them with tear gas. Yakubu was a 200-level student of the Shehu Shagari College of Education. She was stoned to death and her body was burned near the school Thursday amid accusations of blasphemy by fellow students. The killing has since been criticized by many religious and rights groups, including Amnesty International which described the incident as "sad and very disturbing." It highlights division along religious lines in Africa’s most populous country, which strikes a delicate balance between its Christian and Muslim populations. "When impunity continues in a country, you'll definitely see a repeat of such crimes or acts and conducts," said Seun Bakare, an Amnesty International spokesperson. “This is not the first time that we've read or heard that things like this continue to happen in the 21st century." Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has strongly condemned the murder of Yakubu and demanded an impartial probe into her death.  Yakubu was buried Saturday in her hometown of Tunga Magajiya in Nigeria's Central Niger state. But security intelligence groups are warning of a possible spike in violence across many more northern states. Authorities in faraway Kaduna State prohibited protests in relation to religious activities Saturday to prevent the violence from escalating. On Sunday, the security consulting group EONS Intelligence warned of possible protests in northeastern Borno state over another alleged blasphemous comment posted on Facebook. The group advised residents to avoid travel within the state. Martin Obono, a human rights lawyer, faults the Nigerian penal code which criminalizes blasphemy. "One of the things causing religious crisis in Nigeria is the fact that people feel that blasphemy is a criminal offense, and they also feel like the law is slower to take its cause,” he said. “If we expunge that from our laws, people will begin to think and realize that Nigeria is a secular state and people have the freedom to express themselves." Nigeria’s secular law punishes blasphemy by up to two years in prison under the section known as religious insult.   But in the north, where a more conservative population favors the religious or Sharia law, blasphemy is punishable by death.

US Set to Remove 5 Groups From Foreign Terrorism Blacklist

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The United States is poised to remove five extremist groups, all believed to be defunct, from its list of foreign terrorist organizations, including several that once posed significant threats, killing hundreds if not thousands of people across Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Although the groups are inactive, the decision is politically sensitive for the Biden administration and the countries in which the organizations operated and could draw criticism from victims and their families still dealing with the losses of loved ones. The organizations include the Basque separatist group ETA, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, the radical Jewish group Kahane Kach and two Islamic groups that have been active in Israel, the Palestinian territories and Egypt. The U.S. State Department notified Congress on Friday of the moves, which come at the same time as an increasingly divisive but unrelated debate in Washington and elsewhere about whether Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard should or can be legally removed from the U.S. list as part of efforts to salvage the languishing Iran nuclear deal. That designation, which was imposed by the Trump administration, was not mentioned in Friday's notifications. In separate notices to lawmakers, the State Department said the terrorism designations for the five groups will be formally removed when the determinations are published in the Federal Register, which is expected this coming week. Copies of the notifications, all of which were signed by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday, were obtained by The Associated Press. The general reason for the removals is identical in each of the cases: Blinken asserting that they were based on an administrative review of the designations, which by law is required every five years. The reviews take into account whether designated groups are still active, whether they have committed terrorist acts within the previous five years and whether removal from or retention of the list would be in U.S. national security interests. Under the law that created the list, the secretary of state can remove groups that he or she deems no longer to fit the criteria. "Based on a review of the Administrative Record assembled in this matter and in consultation with the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Treasury, I determine that the circumstances that were the basis for the designation ... have changed in such a manner to warrant revocation of the designation," Blinken wrote in each notice. Removing the groups from the list has the immediate effect of rescinding a range of sanctions that the designations had entailed. Those include asset freezes and travel bans as well as a prohibition on any Americans providing the groups or their members with any material support. In the past the material support provision has been broadly defined to encompass money or in-kind assistance, in some cases even medical care. All but one of the five groups were first designated a foreign terrorist organization in 1997 and have remained on the list for the past 25 years. U.S. officials familiar with the matter said the decisions were made only after consulting lawmakers several months ago about whether the latest five-year reviews should proceed. Before now, only 15 groups have been removed from the list. The specific reasons for each of the removals are included only in classified sections that accompanied the notifications, which are not classified on their own. These sections are labeled "SECRET/NOFORN," which means their contents can only be shared among U.S. officials with proper clearances and not with foreign governments. The groups to be removed are: —Aum Shinrikyo (AUM), the Japanese "Supreme Truth" cult that carried out the deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed 13 people and sickened hundreds more. The group has been considered largely defunct since the executions of its top echelons, including leader Shoko Asahara, in 2018. It was designated a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. — Basque Fatherland and Liberty, or ETA, which ran a separatist campaign of bombings and assassinations in northern Spain and elsewhere for decades that killed more than 800 people and wounded thousands more, until declaring a cease-fire in 2010 and disbanding after the arrests and trials of its last leaders in 2018. It was designated a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. —Kahane Chai, or Kach. The radical Orthodox Jewish group was founded by ultranationalist Israeli Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1971. He led the group until his assassination in 1990. Members of the group have killed, attacked or otherwise threatened or harassed Arabs, Palestinians and Israeli government officials, but the organization has been dormant since 2005. The group was first designated in 1997. —The Mujahidin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, an umbrella group of several jihadist organizations based in Gaza that has claimed responsibility for numerous rocket and other attacks on Israel since its founding in 2012. The council was first designated in 2014. —Gama'a al-Islamiyya, or Islamic Group–IG, an Egyptian Sunni Islamist movement that fought to topple Egypt's government during the 1990s. It conducted hundreds of deadly attacks against the police and security forces as well as tourists. The group was first designated in 1997.

US Automakers Reinstate Mask Mandate at Some Michigan Facilities

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General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler parent Stellantis said on Sunday they are reinstating a requirement that employees wear masks in southeastern Michigan where there are high levels of COVID-19. The Detroit Three automakers said in early March they would allow auto workers to stop wearing masks at workplaces where U.S. health officials said it was safe to do so. That month, the automakers said they would adopt revised guidance by the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) allowing workers at U.S. facilities to not wear masks regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status, if those facilities were not in high-risk counties. The masking guidelines issued in February shifted from a focus on the rate of COVID-19 transmission to monitoring local hospitalizations, hospital capacity and infection rates. Six counties in southeastern Michigan - including Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw - are again listed by the CDC as having high COVID-19 levels. The CDC recommends wearing masks indoors in public settings in those counties. Ford said it was temporarily reinstating a face mask requirement at all of its plants located in areas deemed high-risk by the CDC. Stellantis said that starting on Monday, "company-issued face masks will again be required for employees, contractors and visitors at all Stellantis facilities" in those Michigan counties. The company added, "it is expected that the requirement will be in place for the next two weeks." GM said it "will be implementing COVID protection measures at our facilities in Oakland, Wayne, Livingston and Macomb counties given the CDC has now listed them as high risk." The United Auto Workers union said Sunday if "a facility is located in high-risk counties as identified by the CDC, they will require masking and physical distancing." GM and Ford both have their headquarters in Wayne County, while Stellantis' North American headquarters is in Oakland County, while all three have numerous factories in southeastern Michigan. The CDC says 4.25% of U.S. counties are currently listed as having high levels of COVID-19.

Eurovision Win in Hand, Ukraine Band Releases New War Video

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Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra, fresh off its Eurovision victory, released a new music video Sunday of its winning hit "Stefania" that features scenes of war-ravaged Ukraine and women in combat gear, as the annual song contest took on ever more political tones given Russia's war. "This is how we see Ukrainian mothers today," Kalush frontman Oleh Psiuk said of the video, which had already racked up millions of views within hours of its release. "We were trying to deliver the message of what Ukraine looks like today." The video was released hours after Kalush Orchestra brought Ukraine its third Eurovision win, pulling ahead of Britain in the grand finale thanks to a surge of popular votes from some of the estimated 200 million viewers from 40 participating countries. The win buoyed Ukrainian spirits and represented a strong affirmation of Ukrainian culture, which Psiuk said was "under attack" by Russia's invasion. Band members posed for photos and signed autographs outside their three-star Turin hotel Sunday, packing their own luggage into taxis en route to an interview with Italian host broadcaster RAI before heading home. They must return to Ukraine on Monday after being given special permission to leave the country to attend the competition; most Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are barred from leaving in case they are needed to fight. That stark reality made for a bittersweet moment Sunday in Turin, as Kalush vocalist Sasha Tab had to say goodbye to his wife Yuliia and two children, who fled Ukraine a month ago and are living with a host Italian family in nearby Alba. She and the children were at the band's hotel and she wept as Tab held his daughter in his arms before getting into the cab. Russia was banned from the Eurovision Song Contest this year after its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, a move organizers said was meant to keep politics out of the contest that promotes diversity and friendship among nations. But politics nevertheless entered into the fray, with Psiuk ending his winning performance Sunday night with a plea from the stage: "I ask all of you, please help Ukraine, Mariupol. Help Azovstal right now!" he said, referring to the besieged steel plant in the strategic port city. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed the victory, saying he hoped Ukraine would be able to host the contest next year and predicting the "victorious chord in the battle with the enemy is not far off." "Stefania" was penned by lead singer Psiuk as a tribute to his mother, but since Russia's invasion it has become an anthem to the motherland, with lyrics that pledge: "I'll always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed." The new music video features women soldiers carrying children out of bombed-out buildings, greeting children in shelters and leaving them behind as they board trains. The video credits said it was shot in towns that have seen some of the worst destruction of the war, including Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka and Hostomel. The video was clearly made before the band left Ukraine as it features band members and — presumably — actors performing in the rubble. "Dedicated to the brave Ukrainian people, to the mothers protecting their children, to all those who gave their lives for our freedom," it said. Ukrainians cheered the victory Sunday as a much-needed boost, and the national rail operator announced that the train that passes through Kalush, the birthplace of Psiuk, will be renamed the "Stefania Express." "Every little victory is important for every Ukrainian, for our Ukraine, for each one of us," Kyiv resident Svitlana Nekruten said. Albert Sokolov, an evacuee from Mariupol, said he had no doubt Ukraine would emerge victorious. "I listened to this song in Mariupol when we were being bombed so I was sure that they would win," he said Sunday in Kyiv. Russians said the vote was ultimately political, but also showed that Kalush Orchestra and Ukraine had support. "Eurovision is always about politicized choices; some situations call for a certain choice," Moscow resident Olga Shlyakhova said. "Of course, I think most people support Ukrainians. They can't think differently, because they understand it's a tragedy. That's why they chose (the winners) with their hearts." Anastasiya Perfiryeva, another Moscow resident, noted the popular vote that was so decisive in the victory. "It was ordinary people who voted. They supported (the winners). Well done. I think that in any case the team was strong, and the support from outside is always pleasant." Kalush Orchestra includes folklore experts and mixes traditional folk melodies and contemporary hip hop in a strong defense of Ukrainian culture that has taken on added meaning as Russia has sought falsely to assert that Ukraine's culture is not unique. Psiuk, in his trademark pink bucket hat, said the band isn't trying to be "cool" with its unusual blend of old and new, but that clearly it hit a chord and found broad popular support that pushed Ukraine to victory. "We are not trying to be like an American hip-hop band," he said. "We are trying to present our culture, slightly mixed."

Independent Probe Points to Israeli Fire in Journalist Death

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As Israel and the Palestinians wrangle over the investigation into the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, several independent groups have launched their own probes. One open-source research team said its initial findings lent support to Palestinian witnesses who said she was killed by Israeli fire. The outcome of these investigations could help shape international opinion over who is responsible for Abu Akleh's death, particularly if an official Israeli military probe drags on. Israel and the Palestinians are locked in a war of narratives that already has put Israel on the defensive. Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American and a 25-year veteran of the satellite channel, was killed last Wednesday while covering an Israeli military raid in the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. She was a household name across the Arab world, known for documenting the hardship of Palestinian life under Israeli rule, now in its sixth decade. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday said he had spoken to Abu Akleh's family to express condolences and respect for her work "as well as the need to have an immediate and credible investigation" into her death. Palestinian officials and witnesses, including journalists who were with her, say she was killed by army fire. The military, after initially saying Palestinian gunmen might have been responsible, later backtracked and now says she may also have been hit by errant Israeli fire. Israel has called for a joint investigation with the Palestinians, saying the bullet must be analyzed by ballistics experts to reach firm conclusions. Palestinian officials have refused, saying they don't trust Israel, and have invited other countries to join the investigation. Human rights groups say Israel has a poor record of investigating wrongdoing by its security forces. With the two sides at loggerheads over the Abu Akleh probe, several research and human rights groups have launched their own investigations. Over the weekend, Bellingcat, a Dutch-based international consortium of researchers, published an analysis of video and audio evidence gathered on social media. The material came from both Palestinian and Israeli military sources, and the analysis looked at such factors as time stamps, the locations of the videos, shadows and a forensic audio analysis of gunshots. The group found that while gunmen and Israeli soldiers were both in the area, the evidence supported witness accounts that Israeli fire killed Abu Akleh. "Based on what we were able to review, the IDF (Israeli soldiers) were in the closest position and had the clearest line of sight to Abu Akleh," said Giancarlo Fiorella, the lead researcher of the analysis. Bellingcat is among a growing number of firms that use "open source" information, such as social media videos, security camera recordings and satellite imagery, to reconstruct events. Fiorella acknowledged that the analysis cannot be 100% certain without such evidence as the bullet, weapons used by the army and GPS locations of Israeli forces. But he said the emergence of additional evidence typically bolsters preliminary conclusions and almost never overturns them. "This is what we do when we don't have access to those things," he said. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said it too is conducting its own analysis. The group last week played a key role in the military's backtracking from its initial claims that Palestinian gunmen appeared to be responsible for her death. The Israeli claim was based on a social media video in which a Palestinian gunman fires into a Jenin alleyway, and then other militants come running to claim they have shot a soldier. The army said that because no soldiers were hurt that day, the gunmen might have been referring to Abu Akleh, who was wearing a protective helmet and flak jacket. A B'Tselem researcher went to the area and took a video showing that the Palestinian gunmen were some 300 meters (yards) away from where Abu Akleh was shot, separated by a series of walls and alleyways. Dror Sadot, a spokeswoman for the group, said B'Tselem has begun gathering testimonies from witnesses and may attempt to reconstruct the shooting with videos from the scene. But she said at this point, it has not been able to come to a conclusion about who was behind the shooting. Sadot said any bullet would need to be matched to the barrel of the gun. The Palestinians have refused to release the bullet, and it is unclear whether the military has confiscated the weapons used that day. "The bullet on its own can't say a lot" because it could have been fired by either side, she said. "What can be done is to match a bullet to the barrel," she said. The Israeli military did not respond to interview requests to discuss the status of its probe. Jonathan Conricus, a former Israeli military spokesman and expert on military affairs, said reconstructing a gunfight in densely populated urban terrain is "very complex" and said forensic evidence, such as the bullet, is crucial to reach firm conclusions. He accused the Palestinian Authority of refusing to cooperate for propaganda purposes. "Without the bullet, any investigation will only be able to reach partial and questionable conclusions," Conricus said. "One might assume that the strategy of the Palestinian Authority is exactly that: to deny Israel the ability to clear its name, while leveraging global sympathy for the Palestinian cause." Meanwhile, Israeli police over the weekend launched an investigation into the conduct of the officers who attacked the mourners at Abu Akleh's funeral, causing the pallbearers to nearly drop her coffin. Newspapers on Sunday were filled with criticism of the police and what was portrayed as a public relations debacle. "The footage from Friday is the very opposite of good judgment and patience," commentator Oded Shalom wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. "It documented a shocking display of unbridled brutality and violence." Nir Hasson, who covers Jerusalem affairs for the Haaretz daily, said the problems run much deeper than Israel's image. "This was one of the most extreme visual expressions of the occupation and the humiliation the Palestinian people experience," he wrote.

Biden Balances Anti-Crime, Reform Agendas in Message to Police

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U.S. President Joe Biden said Sunday that police officers must deliver both effective crime deterrence and equal justice in a message that balanced two fraught political priorities as his law enforcement reforms have stalled. Speaking at a memorial service at the U.S. Capitol for 563 officers who died in the line of duty over the prior year, Biden offered no new indications over how he would resolve a delay in police reform aimed at holding officers to a higher standard after high-profile killings of unarmed Black people. Instead, he answered swirling concerns about rising street violence in an election year by saying there was no tension between reforming law enforcement and deterring crime. "Folks, the answer is not to abandon the streets; it's not to choose between safety and equal justice," Biden said. "And we should agree it's not to defund the police - it's to fund the police. Fund them with the resources, the training they need to protect our communities and themselves and restore trust." The remarks came as authorities investigated the shooting deaths of 10 people in a Black neighborhood grocery store in Buffalo, New York, as a hate crime. “We must all work together to address the hate that remains a stain on the soul of America," Biden said. It is also just two years shy of the anniversary of George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis police custody on May 25, 2020, which inspired mass protests around the country. Biden promised Floyd's family - and voters - that he would take action, but bipartisan congressional talks on a bill stalled last year. A Democrat-backed bill named for Floyd that passed the House of Representatives in 2020 would have limited officers' use of chokeholds and held them to higher legal standards for rights violations. "We haven't gotten there yet," Biden said. "We must get there to strengthen public trust and public safety.” He said police groups have played a "constructive" role in reform discussions and said he is "committed to being your partner, as I always have." The remarks showed the balancing act faced by Biden as the country heads into November's election for control of Congress. His party needs strong support from communities outraged by police violence and those frightened by crime. Biden aides are drafting a narrower executive order on policing that the president hopes to sign soon, officials have said, after months of internal negotiations. Biden has been a loyal ally to law enforcement, dating back to his days in the Senate when he crafted a 1994 crime bill with their help. But his support for broad reforms following the 2020 murder of Floyd by an officer created some tension with police unions opposed to some of the reforms promoted by Democrats. Those groups include the National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which sponsored Sunday's event. The National Peace Officers' Memorial Service began in 1982 as a small gathering of approximately 120 survivors and supporters of law enforcement. It has since turned into a series of events, attracting thousands of officers and the families of victims to the nation's capital each year. The number of officers dying at work has increased sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic, data from police groups shows.

African Union Chief Wants Pan-African Credit Ratings Agency

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Senegal President Macky Sall called Sunday for the creation of a pan-African credit ratings agency, saying that the "very arbitrary" nature of the system of assessment by international organizations made it more expensive for African countries to borrow on global debt markets. Sall, who is currently head of the African Union, told private radio RFM that there was a need — "given the injustices, the sometimes very arbitrary ratings" by international agencies — "to have a pan-African" body.   His comments came on the eve of the Dakar Economic Conference 2022, organized by African economists.  "In 2020, when all economies were suffering fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, 18 of the 32 African economies rated by at least one of the big agencies saw their ratings downgraded," he said. That meant that 56% of African countries saw their credit ratings downgraded, compared with 31% of countries globally over the same period, Sall argued. "Studies show that at least 20% of the ratings criteria for African countries are based on more subjective factors, cultural or linguistic ones for example, which bear no relation to the parameters used for measuring economic stability," he said.  As a result, "the perception of investment risk in Africa is always much higher than the real risk. That means our insurance premiums are higher and that makes our credit more expensive."  African countries continued to pay much higher interest rates as a result of this unfair system, Sall said.

Egypt to Privatize Key State Companies as Inflation Surges

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Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli announced Sunday a string of planned privatizations of state-owned companies, as Cairo grapples with an economic crisis and inflation at almost 15%. Following years of accusations of state companies crowding out private investments, the government announced a roadmap to more than double the private sector's share in the economy. Madbouli laid out plans for 10 state-owned companies and two army-owned companies to be listed on the stock market later this year. Two new holding companies, to incorporate "the seven largest ports" and "Egypt's top hotels" will also be formed, percentages of which "will be listed on the stock exchange," he told reporters. By 2025, the government hopes to see "private sector contribution in investment grow to 65%," up from 30% today. President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi last month announced plans to "double its support to the private sector" in a program aimed to attract $10 billion annually over the next four years. Earlier this month, American firm S&P Global released its latest Egypt Purchasing Manager's Index, which showed the state's non-oil private sector economy contracting for the 17th straight month. Inflation hit a three-year high of 14.9% in April, a month after the Egyptian pound lost 17% of its value overnight. The state's grip on the Egypt's economy has been criticized as creating unfair competition. Business magnate Naguib Sawiris last year warned of the effects of an unfair playing field, arguing that "the state has to be a regulator, not an owner" of economic activity. Madbouli on Sunday said there was "no alternative" to the state's involvement in the economy, considering the "instability" of recent years, alluding to security concerns surrounding Sissi's rise to power, and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic. Since Sissi became president in 2014, the former army general has embarked on massive national infrastructure projects, where the key but opaque role the army has played in Egypt's economy for decades took center stage. Although no official figures are published about the army's financial interests, the new push for privatization of military-owned companies could seek to correct a skewed investment environment. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in late February sent global commodity prices soaring, Egypt -- the world's largest importer of wheat -- has been reeling from mounting economic pressures, pushing the country to apply for a new loan from the International Monetary Fund.

COVID-Hit Shanghai Announces Gradual Reopening of Businesses

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Shanghai announced a gradual reopening from Monday of businesses, although it remains unclear when the millions of people still locked down in China's economic capital will finally be allowed out of their homes. Confronted with its worst COVID-19 outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic, China -- the last major economy still closed off to the world -- put the city of 25 million under heavy restrictions in early April. The rigid strategy to root out cases at all costs has wreaked havoc on supply chains, crushed small businesses and imperiled the country's economic goals.  For many Shanghai residents, some of whom were already confined to their homes even before April, the frustrations have included problems with food supplies, access to non-COVID medical care and spartan quarantine centers, and many are venting their anger online. Shanghai Vice Mayor Chen Tong on Sunday announced a reopening of businesses "in stages" from May 16. Chen, however, did not specify if he was referring to a gradual resumption of activity in the city or if it was conditional on certain health criteria. Under China's zero-COVID strategy, any lifting of restrictions is generally conditional on seeing no new positive cases for three days, outside of quarantine centers.  Shanghai authorities were aiming for this goal by mid-May. Infections appear to be on the decline, with 1,369 new cases reported on Sunday in Shanghai, way down from more than 25,000 at the end of April. In some areas of the city, however, restrictions have been tightened in recent days. Some 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) north, residents of Beijing fear they could face a similar lockdown after more than a thousand cases were recorded in the capital since the end of April. Beijing has repeatedly tested its residents and locked down buildings with positive cases and closed metro stations and non-essential businesses in certain neighborhoods. In an attempt to curb the outbreak, Fangshan district in the southwest of Beijing, which has 1.3 million residents, suspended taxi services from Saturday.  Apart from a few neighborhoods which are under restrictions, the majority of Beijing's 22 million inhabitants can still leave their homes.  But many public places are closed and residents are forced to work from home, especially in the populous Chaoyang district, where many multinationals are based.

Egypt’s Journalists Up Againsts ‘Comprehensive Repression Machine’ 

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Egyptian authorities in recent weeks have released several journalists, including Mohamed Salah and Abdo Fayed among others. Salah had been detained without trial since November 2019, while Fayed was jailed for nearly two years. But at least 20 other journalists are still being held by the Egyptian government, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Egypt is considered to be one of the world’s foremost jailers of journalists. In the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, released by the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on May 3, Egypt ranked 168th out of 180 countries and territories rated. The hostile environment for independent reporting in Egypt follows a global decline in press freedom, as indicated by RSF’s latest ratings. In Egypt, the situation has worsened under President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who came to power in a military coup in 2013. To discuss how the Egyptian government uses prolonged pre-trial detentions to silence independent journalists and critical voices, VOA interviewed Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa coordinator. The following text is edited for length and clarity. VOA: Several journalists have been released from prison by the Egyptian government. How do you assess this development? Mansour: We have certainly seen more releases than arrests since last year in Egypt. But there are still high-profile cases that the government has used for over 10 years to send a message and build a comprehensive oppression machine. There are dozens of journalists in abusive pretrial detention, some for two years and others for even more than that, like the case of journalist Alaa Abdelfettah. In many ways this has been the point for the government; using pretrial detention and terrorism-related charges not only to keep people from doing their job, but also use them as an example for others so that they do not criticize the government or write independently about what is happening in the country. VOA: Could the recent releases of journalists be seen as a sign of improvement for press freedom in Egypt? Mansour: The Egyptian government has been sensitive to criticism of aid conditionality, which is essentially a decision by the [U.S. President Joe] Biden administration to make part of U.S. military aid to Cairo conditional upon improvement its human rights record. Additionally, the Biden administration has not given el-Sissi a Washington reception, or even an in-person meeting. And that is not unique to Washington; other Western capitals have made resolutions about this. The U.N. has spoken out specifically about these abusive detentions, even giving an award to someone like Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan. The CPJ also gave him an award. This is a photojournalist who was held and was sentenced to death, but then released under another abusive condition, which he still faces. Every day at 6 p.m., he must go and spend the night in the police station. Even after spending five years in custody, he still has to spend every night in custody. So, I believe it is this pressure from the international community that forces the Egyptian government to take some steps. VOA: But targeting critical voices remains widespread in Egypt. What are some of the tactics that authorities use to go after critical journalists? Mansour: The government has made sure that there are other ways to go after journalists, including pressuring them into self-censorship and threatening their families. Many journalists have moved into exile since 2013. In terms of imprisonment, the government has established vague terrorism charges and extended the pretrial detention to two years. But in practice, even those laws meant nothing, because for many people after two years, the government would extend their pretrial detention again under a new case number but with the same charges, so they would hold them outside of the law. They own the book, so they design laws in any way they wish to. For example, in the case of Alaa Abdelfettah, he has been in and out of jail for the last 10 years. Sometimes he would be found guilty for one case, and other times he would be taken after serving time in prison and then he would be going into the nightly detention routine. In many ways, the government is just trying to make sure that they make an example out of you for others not to cross the line. This is basically how censorship in Egypt happens.

More mass shootings are happening at grocery stores – 13% of shooters are motivated by racial hatred, criminologists find

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May 15, 2022

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

More mass shootings are happening at grocery stores — 13% of shooters are motivated by race, criminologists find

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Background of US Teenage Shooter Probed in Mass Killing 

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Law enforcement officials in the northeastern U.S. city of Buffalo, New York, worked Sunday to piece together the background of the teenage gunman who opened fire in a grocery store, killing 10 people and wounding three in what authorities described as “racially motivated violent extremism.” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown told CBS’s “Face the Nation” show that police “are going through every element, every detail in this shooter's background to piece together why this happened, how this happened, and the reason that this person came to the city of Buffalo to perpetrate this horrific crime.” The shooter was identified as Payton Gendron, of Conklin, a New York state community about 320 kilometers southeast of Buffalo. He is white and 11 of the 13 shooting victims were Black. Authorities say he carried out the mayhem mid-Saturday afternoon while wearing military gear and livestreaming it with a helmet camera. He eventually dropped his weapon and surrendered to police inside the Tops Friendly Market, located in a predominantly Black neighborhood in the city of 278,000 people. “We are certainly saddened that someone drove from hundreds of miles away, someone not from this community that did not know this community that came here to take as many Black lives as possible, who did this in a willful, premeditated fashion, planning this,” said Brown, who is Buffalo’s first Black mayor. “But we are a strong community and we will keep moving forward,” he said. “This is a community that is experiencing development. People have been hoping and waiting for investment and growth and opportunity. We won't let hateful ideology stop the progress that we are seeing and experiencing in the city of Buffalo.” As is often the case after mass shootings in the United States, Brown called on Congress to enact tougher gun control laws, saying, “We have to put more pressure on lawmakers in Washington, those that have been obstructionists, to sensible gun control, to reforming the way guns are allowed to proliferate and fall into the wrong hands in this country.” Such pleas after past mass shootings have mostly gone unheeded, with scant changes in gun control laws. Gun ownership in America is codified in the U.S. Constitution. Wearing a hospital gown, Gendron was arraigned in court Saturday night on first-degree murder charges and ordered detained without bail. Another court hearing is scheduled in the coming days. At an earlier news briefing, Erie County Sheriff John Garcia pointedly called the shooting a hate crime. "This was pure evil. It was straight up racially motivated hate crime from somebody outside of our community, outside of the City of Good Neighbors … coming into our community and trying to inflict that evil upon us," Garcia said. Investigators said they are reviewing a lengthy statement that they suspect was posted online by the gunman describing his white-supremacist motivations and ideology. The 180-page document details the author’s radicalization on internet forums, as well as a plan to target a predominantly Black neighborhood. The author described himself as a white supremacist, fascist and antisemite. The statement repeats a far-right conspiracy theory that baselessly argues that the white population in Western countries is being reduced — or “replaced” — by non-white immigrants. Mayor Brown said the combination of guns and such ideology is combustible. “It's not just Buffalo, New York. It's communities in every corner of this country that are unsafe with guns and with the hateful ideology that has been allowed to proliferate on social media and the internet,” he told CBS. “That has to be reined in. That has to be stopped. It's not free speech. It's not American speech. It's hate speech. And it must be ended.”

World Leaders Pay Respects in UAE after Death of Pro-West President

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World leaders descended on the United Arab Emirates on Sunday to offer condolences to new leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan on the death of his half-brother President Khalifa bin Zayed in a show of support to a key regional player. Sheik Mohammed, now ruler of wealthy Abu Dhabi emirate, steered the Western-allied Gulf state, an OPEC oil producer and regional business hub, for years before being named the UAE's third president by a federal supreme council on Saturday. French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country holds lucrative business and military ties with the UAE, told Sheikh Mohammed in Abu Dhabi that the UAE could "count on France's friendship" and discussed the Ukraine conflict, the Elysee said. Israeli President Isaac Herzog said before heading to the Emirati capital that the establishment of ties between the UAE and Israel two years ago was an asset for the whole region built by "bold and groundbreaking leaders," including Khalifa. The UAE, along with Bahrain, upended decades of Arab consensus by forging relations with Israel, creating a new anti-Iran axis in the region and drawing Palestinian ire. The Palestinian president was also due in Abu Dhabi on Sunday as was Britain's prime minister. U.S. President Joe Biden, whose administration has had fraught ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, will be represented by Vice President Kamala Harris, due to visit on Monday. Several Arab leaders paid respects on Saturday. Saudi Arabia's crown prince, whose father King Salman entered hospital a week ago, sent a delegation. Sheik Mohammed, known as MbZ, has been a driving force in Middle East politics, championing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the West as he rose to power and combating political Islam, seen as a threat to Gulf dynastic rule, around the region. MbZ deepened ties with Russia and China as Gulf states increasingly questioned the regional commitment of traditional security guarantor the United States. Strains in U.S.-Emirati ties were highlighted by the Ukraine conflict as Gulf states refused to side with Western allies in isolating Russia. After years of enmity Abu Dhabi has also moved to engage with Iran and Turkey as the UAE doubles down on economic growth amid rising regional competition and a global push away from hydrocarbons, the lifeblood of Gulf economies.

Neutral Switzerland Leans closer to NATO in Response to Russia 

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Switzerland's fabled neutral status is about to face its biggest test in decades, with the defense ministry tilting closer to Western military powers in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The defense ministry is drawing up a report on security options that include joint military exercises with NATO countries and "backfilling" munitions, Paelvi Pulli, head of security policy at the Swiss defense ministry told Reuters. The details of the policy options under discussion in the government have not been previously reported. "Ultimately, there could be changes in the way neutrality is interpreted," Pulli said in an interview last week. On a trip to Washington this week, Defense Minister Viola Amherd said Switzerland should work more closely with the U.S.-led military alliance, but not join it, Swiss media reported. Neutrality, which kept Switzerland out of both world wars during the 20th century, was not an objective in itself, but was intended to increase Swiss security, Pulli said. Other options include high-level and regular meetings between Swiss and NATO commanders and politicians, she said. Moving so much closer to the alliance would mark a departure from the carefully nurtured tradition of not taking sides that its supporters say helped Switzerland prosper peacefully and maintain a special role as intermediary, including during the West's standoff with the Soviet Union. The idea of full membership of NATO has been discussed, but whereas Sweden and Finland — countries that also have a history of neutrality - are on the verge of joining, Pulli said the report was unlikely to recommend Switzerland take that step. The report is due to be completed by the end of September when it will go to the Swiss cabinet for consideration. It will be submitted to parliament for discussion and serve as a basis for possible decisions on the future direction of Swiss security policy. The report itself will not be submitted to a vote. The defense ministry will also contribute to a broader study being prepared by the foreign ministry. That project will look at the adoption of sanctions, weapons, munitions exports and the relationship with NATO from a neutrality perspective, the foreign ministry said. Revives Swiss neutrality debate Switzerland nation has not fought in an international war since 1815, when it adopted neutrality at the Congress of Vienna which ended the French Revolutionary Wars. The 1907 Hague Convention establishes Switzerland will not take part in international armed conflicts, favor warring parties with troops or armaments, or make its territory available to the warring sides. Neutrality, included in the constitution, does allow Switzerland the right to self-defense and scope on how to interpret the political aspects of the concept not covered by the legal definition. It was last updated in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to allow a foreign policy based on cooperation with other countries in areas like humanitarian aid and disaster relief. The Ukraine conflict has revived the debate, now centered on the government's decisions to impose sanctions on Russia but to stop short of allowing the re-export of Swiss-made ammunition to Ukraine. "There is a lot of uneasiness that Switzerland cannot contribute more to help Ukraine," Pulli said. Backfilling — where Switzerland supplies munitions to other countries to replace those sent to Ukraine — is another potential measure, Pulli said, in a shift from the government's policy until now, although direct supply is likely a step too far. President Ignazio Cassis has ruled out arms deliveries to third countries in support of Ukraine, but, possibly showing a more expansive view of the issue, he has also said that neutrality is not a "dogma" and that failure to respond with sanctions "would have played into the hands of the aggressor." Growing support for NATO  Switzerland already has some ties to NATO, while last year it decided to buy Lockheed Martin LMT.N F-35A fighters which are being purchased or already used by some NATO members. Switzerland "cannot join any alliance because of neutrality. But we can work together and the systems we are buying are a good basis for that," defense minister Amherd told broadcaster SRF. The measures under consideration would be a significant move closer for a country that did not join the United Nations until 2002 and produces many of its own weapons. Vladimir Khokhlov, spokesman for the Russian embassy in Bern, said such measures would amount to a radical change of policy for Switzerland. Moscow would "not be able to ignore" an eventual renunciation of neutrality, which would have consequences, Khokhlov said. He did not provide further details. The Swiss military favors greater cooperation with NATO as a way to strengthen national defense, while public opinion has undergone a sea-change since the Ukraine invasion. More than half of respondents — 56% - supported increased ties with NATO, a recent poll found —well above the 37% average in recent years. Support for actually joining the treaty remains a minority view, but has grown significantly. The April poll by Sotomo showed 33% of Swiss people supported joining the alliance, higher than the 21% long term view in a separate study by ETH university in Zurich. "Clearly the Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed a lot of minds. This is seen an attack on our western democratic values," said Michael Hermann of Sotomo. Thierry Burkart, leader of the right-of-center Liberal Democratic Party, part of the governing coalition, described a "seismic shift" in how people feel about neutrality. Neutrality "has to be flexible," he told Reuters. "Before Ukraine, some people thought there would never be another conventional war in Europe," he said, adding that some had advocated for disbanding the army. "The Ukraine conflict shows we cannot be complacent." Burkart said he supported higher military spending and a closer relationship with NATO, but not full membership. However, Peter Keller, general secretary of the far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP) told Reuters a closer relationship with NATO was incompatible with neutrality. The SVP is also part of the governing coalition and is the biggest party in the Swiss lower house of parliament. "There is no reason to change this successful foreign policy maxim. It has brought peace and prosperity to the people," Keller said. The defense ministry disagrees. During her visit to Washington, Amherd said the framework of the neutrality law "allows us to work more closely together with NATO and also with our European partners," Tagesanzeiger newspaper reported.  

Radio Station Elevates Voices of Hungary’s Roma Minority

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Intellectuals, broadcasters and cultural figures from Hungary’s Roma community are using the airwaves to reframe narratives and elevate the voices of the country’s largest minority group. Radio Dikh — a Romani word that means “to see” — has broadcast since January on FM radio in Hungary’s capital, Budapest. Its 11 programs focus on Roma music, culture and the issues faced by their community, and aim to recast the way the often disadvantaged minority group is perceived by broader society. “Roma people in general don’t have enough representation in mainstream media … and even if they do, it’s oftentimes not showing the right picture or the picture that is true to the Roma community,” said Bettina Pocsai, co-host of a show that focuses on social issues. Radio Dikh, she said, aims to “give voice to Roma people and make sure that our voice is also present in the media and that it shows a picture that we are satisfied with.” Some estimates suggest that Roma in Hungary number nearly 1 million, or around 10% of the population. Like their counterparts throughout Europe, many of Hungary’s Roma are often the subjects of social and economic exclusion, and face discrimination, segregation and poverty. Adding to their marginalization are stereotypes about Roma roles in society, where they are often associated with their traditional occupations as musicians, dancers, traders and craftspeople that go back centuries. These expectations have limited the opportunities for Roma people — especially Roma women — to participate and develop their skills in other fields, said Szandi Minzari, host of a women’s radio program. “We are stereotyped by the majority because they tend to believe that we are very good at singing, dancing, speaking about girly subjects and raising the kids, and that’s us. But it’s much more,” Minzari said. Programming specifically for women runs for two hours every day, and Minzari’s show “Zsa Shej” — which means “Let’s go, girls” in the Romani language — focuses on current events and global topics like climate change and other social issues.   Many women in traditional Roma families are highly dependent on male family members, Minzari said, and including them in conversations about topics of public interest is meant to serve as an inspiration for them to engage with a different world. “We find it very important to speak about heavy subjects … because we are much more than speaking about nail polish and hairdos and Botox,” she said, adding that she would like female listeners to conclude that “The problem is not me. I want more from life and these girls are doing it, and I can do the same.” Radio Dikh’s motto, “About Roma, not just for Roma,” reflects the conviction of the hosts that the station can act as a bridge between Roma and non-Roma Hungarians and can break narratives that tend to associate their community with poverty and other social problems. In addition to co-hosting her own show, Pocsai in her free time guides informative tours in Budapest that aim to correct misconceptions about Roma people to both Hungarians and foreign tourists. In the city’s 8th district, which has a high concentration of Roma residents, Pocsai gave a presentation to a group of visitors from the United States. In introducing the Roma’s more than 600-year history in Hungary and challenging preconceptions, Pocsai said she aimed to make sure that future generations of Hungarian Roma will not have to go through the challenges she faced as a child.   “I want to change how the Roma people are viewed in society,” Pocsai said. “I want to make sure there is enough light on the values that the Roma community provided through history to the non-Roma society.”

NATO Talks for Finland, Sweden on 'Good Track'

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Talks to overcome Turkey's misgivings about the expected NATO membership bids of Finland and Sweden were on a "good track," Croatia said Sunday, as several members of the alliance eye swift accession for the Nordic states. "I think the discussion is on the good track and today I hope we will have a final fruitful discussion and a good outcome to show solidarity and to speak with one voice," said Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Grlic Radman as he arrived for talks with NATO counterparts in Berlin. The day before, the foreign ministers of Finland and Sweden had joined in talks with counterparts of the defense alliance, including Turkey, in an opportunity to directly discuss Ankara's opposition to their bids. Turkey has long accused Nordic countries, especially Sweden, which has a strong Turkish immigrant community, of harboring extremist Kurdish groups as well as supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based preacher wanted over a failed 2016 coup. At the same time, Ankara had signaled readiness to discuss the issues with the would-be NATO candidates. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn acknowledged that "Turkey is sometimes difficult," but said "the signs don't look bad" for overcoming their differences vis-a-vis the Nordic nations. Slovakia's Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok was even more confident, saying he was "absolutely certain that we will find a solution that will meet concerns of the two countries that obviously want to join the alliance." For the NATO members, ensuring security of the would-be applicants during the so-called "grey period" -- when the application has been filed and before accession is complete -- was also key. "They should not be any in-between phase, no grey phase where it is unclear what the status actually is. And therefore the German government is making all preparations for a very rapid ratification process," said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. Moscow's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 has swung political and public opinion in Finland and neighboring Sweden in favor of NATO membership as a deterrent against Russian aggression. Underlining the tense situation, Finland's Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto had stressed on Saturday that it was critical for as many NATO members as possible to "announce clear support" for Finland's security from when it files its application to its final accession.

Suicide Blast, Gunmen Kill 8 People in Pakistan

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Pakistani officials said Sunday militant attacks in the country’s northwest had killed at least eight people, including security force members, children and members of the minority Sikh group. The deadliest attack occurred in North Waziristan, a volatile district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, killing three soldiers and three children, according to a military statement. It said the children were aged between 4 and 11 years. The Pakistani district borders Afghanistan and was a hub of terrorist groups until recently. “Intelligence agencies are investigating to find out about suicide bomber and his handlers / facilitators,” said the military’s media wing, the Inter Services Public Relations. Separately, police and witnesses said unknown gunmen shot dead two Sikh shopkeepers in a drive-by shooting in the provincial capital, Peshawar. The assailants managed to flee after the shooting. There were no immediate claims of responsibility for either attack. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif condemned the militant violence in a statement. The Islamic State group has previously claimed attacks on the majority-Sikh community. The outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, known as the Pakistani Taliban, routinely claims attacks against security forces in the Waziristan district and elsewhere in the country. Pakistani authorities say fugitive TTP leaders direct deadly raids from their sanctuaries across the Afghan border. Islamabad has been urging Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban to rein in the terrorist group’s activities. Pakistan and the United States list the TTP as a terrorist organization.

Israel Reopens Gaza Crossing After Nearly 2 Weeks

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Israel reopened on Sunday its only crossing with the Gaza Strip to Palestinian workers nearly two weeks after closing it over unrest, the defense ministry said. "Following an assessment of the security situation, it has been decided ... to open Erez Crossing for passage of workers and permit holders from the Gaza Strip into Israel, beginning Sunday," said COGAT, a unit of the Israeli defense ministry responsible for Palestinian civil affairs. The crossing is used by 12,000 Palestinians with permits to enter Israel for work. Israel had closed the crossing on May 3 ahead of Israel's national memorial and independence days, and amid Palestinian violence in the occupied West Bank, although the Gaza front was quiet. Israel and Hamas, the militant rulers of the impoverished coastal enclave, have fought repeatedly over the last 15 years, most recently in May last year. Israeli authorities feared tensions and violence in and around Jerusalem during April, when Muslims observed the holy fasting month of Ramadan, would bring another conflict with Gaza, but that did not happen. A recent World Bank report put the unemployment rate in Gaza, a Palestinian territory of some 2.3 million people, at nearly 48%, with work in Israel a vital lifeline to the enclave's economy.

No Sea Serpents, Mobsters But Tahoe Trash Divers Strike Gold

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They found no trace of a mythical sea monster, no sign of mobsters in concrete shoes or long-lost treasure chests. But scuba divers who spent a year cleaning up Lake Tahoe's entire 72-mile (115-kilometer) shoreline have come away with what they hope will prove much more valuable: tons and tons of trash. In addition to removing 25,000 pounds (11,339 kilograms) of underwater litter since last May, divers and volunteers have been meticulously sorting and logging the types and GPS locations of the waste. The dozens of dives that concluded this week were part of a first-of-its-kind effort to learn more about the source and potential harm caused by plastics and other pollutants in the storied alpine lake on the California-Nevada line. It's also taken organizers on a journey through the history, folklore and development of the lake atop the Sierra Nevada that holds enough water to cover all of California 14 inches (36 centimeters) deep. The Washoe Tribe fished the turquoise-blue Tahoe for centuries before westward expansion in the mid-1800s brought railroads, timber barons and eventually Gatsby-like decadence to what became a playground for the rich and famous. Tahoe's first casino was built in 1902 by Elias J. "Lucky" Baldwin, who owned a big chunk of east Los Angeles and built the prominent Santa Anita horse track in 1907. Massive lakefront estates followed for decades, including one used for the filming of "Godfather II." Cleanup organizers say one of the things locals ask most is whether they've found any gangsters' remains near the north shore. That's where Frank Sinatra lost his gaming license for allegedly fraternizing with organized crime bosses at his Cal-Neva hotel-casino in the 1960s. The recovered debris mostly has consisted of things like bottles, tires, fishing gear and sunglasses. But Colin West, founder of the nonprofit environmental group that launched the project, Clean Up the Lake, said there have been some surprises. Divers think they spotted shipwreck planks near Dead Man's Point, where tribal tales tell of a Loch-Ness-Monster-like creature — later dubbed "Tahoe Tessie″— living beneath Cave Rock. They've also turned up a few "No Littering" signs, engine blocks, lamp posts, a diamond ring and "those funny, fake plastic owls that sit on boats to scare off birds," West said. "It's shocking to see how much trash has accumulated under what appears to be such a pristine lake," said Matt Levitt, founder and CEO of Tahoe Blue Vodka, which has contributed $100,000 to the cleanup. His businesses is among many — including hotels, casinos and ski resorts — dependent on the 15 million-plus people who visit annually to soak up the view Mark Twain described in "Roughing It" in 1872 as the "fairest picture the whole earth affords." "It is our economic engine," Levitt said. And while most contributors and volunteers were motivated primarily to help beautify the lake, it's what happens once the litter is piled ashore that excites scientists. Shoreline cleanups have occurred across the nation for years, from Arizona to the Great Lakes, Pennsylvania and Florida. But that litter goes into recycle bins and garbage bags for disposal. Each piece from 189 separate Tahoe dives to depths of 25 feet (8 meters) was charted by GPS and meticulously divided into categories including plastic, metal and cloth. Plastics are key because international research increasingly shows some types can break down into smaller pieces known as microplastics. Scientists are still studying the extent and human harm from the tiny bits. But the National Academy of Sciences said in December the U.S. — the world's top plastics-waste producer — should reduce plastics production because so much winds up in oceans and waterways. Zoe Harrold, a biochemist, led scientists at the Desert Research Institute in Reno that first documented microplastics in Tahoe in 2019. She was the lead author of Clean Up the Lake's 2021 report on a 6-mile (10-kilometer) pilot project. "If left in place, the ongoing degradation of submerged litter, particularly plastic and rubber, will continue to slowly release microplastics and leachates into Lake Tahoe's azure waters," Harrold wrote. The cleanup comes a half-century after scientists started measuring Tahoe's waning clarity as the basin began to experience explosive growth. Most credit, or blame, completion of the interstate system for the 1960 Winter Olympics near Tahoe City. The first ever televised, it introduced the world to the lake surrounded by snow-covered peaks. From 1960-80, Tahoe's population grew from 10,000 to 50,000 — 90,000 in the summer, the U.S. Geological Survey said. Peak days now approach 300,000. "The majority of what we're pulling out is a result of basically just the human impact of recreating, living and building a community here in the Lake Tahoe region," West said. His group plans dives this year at other Sierra lakes, including June Lake east of Yosemite National Park, and will expand future Tahoe searches to deeper depths. The non-profit Tahoe Fund, which also helped raise $100,000 for the cleanup effort, is commissioning artists to create a sculpture made from Tahoe's trash at an events center being built in Stateline, on the lake's south shore. "Our hope is that it will inspire greater environmental stewardship and remind those who love Lake Tahoe that it's up to all of us to take care of it," Tahoe Fund CEO Amy Berry said.

Pricey Tortillas: Latin America's Poor Struggle to Afford Staples

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No item is more essential to Mexican dinner tables than the corn tortilla. But the burst of inflation that is engulfing Latin America and the rest of the world means that people like Alicia García, a cleaner at a restaurant in Mexico City, have had to cut back. Months ago, García, 67, would buy a stack of tortillas weighing several kilograms to take home to her family every day. Now, her salary doesn't go so far, and she's limiting herself to just one kilogram (2.2 pounds). "Everything has gone up here," she told The Associated Press while standing outside a tortilla shop. "How am I, earning minimum wage, supposed to afford it?" Just as inflation isn't limited to tortillas, whose prices in the capital have soared by one-third in the past year, Mexico is hardly alone. Latin America's sharpest price spike in a generation has left many widely consumed local products suddenly hard to attain. Ordinary people are reckoning with day-to-day life that has become a more painful struggle, without any relief in sight. Countries had already been absorbing higher prices because of supply chain bottlenecks related to the COVID-19 pandemic and government stimulus programs. Then Russia's invasion of Ukraine in late February sent fertilizer prices sharply higher, affecting the cost of agricultural products including corn. Global fuel prices jumped, too, making items transported by truck to cities from the countryside costlier. In Chile, annual inflation was 10.5% in April, the first time in 28 years the index has hit double digits. Colombia's rate reached 9.2%, its highest level in more than two decades. In Argentina, whose consumers have coped with double-digit inflation for years, price increases reach 58%, the most in three decades. In beef-crazy Buenos Aires, some households have started seeking alternatives to that staple. "We never bought pork before; now, we buy it weekly and use it to make stew," Marcelo Gandulfo, a 56-year-old private security guard, said after leaving a butcher's shop in the middle-class neighborhood of Almagro. "It's quite a bit cheaper, so it makes a difference." Last year, the average Argentine consumed less than 50 kilograms of beef for the first time since annual data were first collected in 1958, according to the Argentine Beef Promotion Institute. Over the past few months, prices have been "increasing a lot more than normal," said Daniel Candia, a 36-year-old butcher. "I've been in this business for 16 years, and this is the first time I've seen anything like this," he said. Latin America as a whole is suffering from "sudden price spikes for necessities," the World Bank's President David Malpass said during an online conference Thursday. He noted that energy, food and fertilizer prices are rising at a pace unseen in many years. Across the world, central banks are raising interest rates to try to slow inflation. Brazil's central bank has undertaken one of the world's most aggressive rate-raising cycles as inflation has topped 12% — its fastest pace since 2003. Besides the factors that are stoking regional inflation, Brazil's agricultural products have become costlier because of drought and frost. The price of tomatoes, for example, has more than doubled in the past year. Higher rates are a government's primary tool to fight high inflation. But jacking up rates carries the risk of weakening an economy so much as to cause a recession. Last year, the World Bank estimated that the region's economy grew 6.9% as it rebounded from the pandemic recession. This year, Malpass said, it's projected to grow only 2.3%. "That's not enough to make progress on poverty reduction or social discontent," he added. Brazilian newspapers are telling their readers which foods they can substitute for their usual products to help stretch family budgets further. But some items, like coffee, are irreplaceable — especially in the nation that produces more of it than any other in the world. Ground coffee has become so expensive that shoplifters have started focusing their sights on it, said Leticia Batista, a cashier at a Sao Paulo supermarket. "It breaks my heart, but I told many of them to give the powder back," Batista said in the upscale neighborhood of Pinheiros. In her own humbler neighborhood, she said, the cost of coffee "is a big problem." On the more upscale end of the java spectrum, Marcelo Ferrara, a 57-year-old engineer, used to enjoy a daily espresso at his local bakery. Its cost has shot up 33% since January, to 8 reais ($1.60). So he's cut his intake to two each week. "I just can't afford too many of these," Ferrara said as he gulped one down. It has been decades since the region's countries simultaneously suffered soaring inflation. A key difference now is that the global economies are much more interconnected, said Alberto Ramos, head of Latin America macroeconomic research at Goldman Sachs. "Interest rates will need to go up; otherwise, inflation will run wild and the problem will get even worse," Ramos said. "Governments cannot be afraid of using rates. It is a proven medicine to bring inflation down." So far, though, higher rates aren't providing much hope that inflation will decline significantly in the near term. The International Monetary Fund last month projected that average inflation in the region, excluding Venezuela, will slow to 10% by year end. That's not much below the 11.6% rate registered at end-2021 and still more than twice the 4.4% expected for advanced economies, according to the IMF's World Economic Outlook. "It will take at least a couple of years of relatively tight monetary policy to deal with this," Ramos said. That means belt-tightening and going without some consumer staples, for now, is likely the new norm for the poorest members of society in the notoriously unequal region. More than one-quarter of Latin America's population lives in poverty — defined as living on less than $5.50 a day — and that's expected to remain unchanged this year, according to a World Bank study published last month. Sara Fragosa, a 63-year-old homemaker in Mexico City, didn't hide her anger at rising prices during an interview at one market's stall. "Those who are the poorest are the worst off, while the rich only rise," said Fragosa, who said she has replaced her regular beef purchases with quinoa and oats. "You're not used to it," she said, "but you don't have a choice."

Renovated NYC Museum Hall Showcases Indigenous Perspectives

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In his first visit to the American Museum of Natural History, Morgan Guerin had a list. Not of things he wanted to check out, though — a list of things that he hated. It started with seeing certain regalia from his Musqueam Indian Band — sacred objects not intended for public display — in the museum's Northwest Coast Hall. This wasn't just any visit. Guerin was there at the museum's invitation in 2017 for the start of a project to renovate the hall, incorporating Indigenous perspectives. For him and representatives of other Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada, the 5-year, $19-million renovation of the Northwest Coast Hall, which reopened to the public Friday, was an opportunity to tell their stories themselves. "Our people are very, very tired of being 'studied,' because the misconception of who we are has always been the outside community's downfall," he said. "We have always been here, ready to tell people who we are." The hall was the museum's first gallery, opened in 1899 under the auspices of Franz Boas, an anthropologist who was deeply interested in the Indigenous cultures of the Northwest and western coastal Canada. Boas was also a proponent of what was then a revolutionary idea that different cultures should be looked at in their own right and not on some kind of comparative scale. It had largely remained unchanged, though, since the early 1900s. When museum officials decided it was time to renovate, they knew they couldn't do it without input from the people whose cultures are on display. "A lot of what we did was trying to bring this historic collection to the 21st century, and that's by telling new stories with active voices in all of these communities and nations," said Lauri Halderman, vice president for exhibition. The museum brought together the representatives of the Indigenous communities to talk about what the gallery should contain and what it should look like for the showcase of 10 Pacific Northwest tribal nations. It wasn't a simple process, made even less so by the impact of the pandemic with its forcing of remote instead of in-person collaborations. The hall includes some iconic pieces that anyone who has been to the museum will remember - including a massive 63-foot-long canoe that for decades was placed outside the hall but has now been brought in and suspended from the ceiling as well as several giant carvings. But its new exhibit, items are accompanied by text in both English and Indigenous languages and includes a gallery section showing how younger Indigenous artists are using motifs and designs from prior generations. There was also, and continues to be, the fundamental question of whether museums should be holding these collections and trying to tell these stories in the first place, given the role that theft and colonialization has played in building them, and the way Indigenous communities have been treated. Museums "seem to function as very expensive, and in the case of the American Museum of Natural History, maybe the most expensive, trophy cases in the world," said Haa'yuups, co-curator of the hall, who is Head of the House of Taḳiishtaḳamlthat-ḥ, of the Huupa'chesat-ḥ First Nation. He said, "They seem to have a meta language about them or a meta message, 'Aren't we powerful? Don't we go forth and dominate the world?'" He saw his involvement as a way to help spur a difference, to get people thinking about whether the items on display would be better served by being with the people they came from. "Does it make sense to have a bunch of people who have nothing to do with objects, to have them spend their lives managing them?" he said. "Or does it make sense to send those treasures back to the communities where they come from?" It's an issue the museum has and is continuing to grapple with, said Peter Whiteley, curator of North American ethnology. He said the institution, which has repatriated items over the years, had decided through the renovation process that it was willing to do some additional limited repatriation and develop greater collaboration between the museum and the native tribes. Deeper questions notwithstanding, those who took part in the process, both from the Indigenous nations and the museum staff, said it was a valuable one in terms of showing what is possible in terms of collaboration and listening to Indigenous voices. "The best thing about this, the result of these consultants from the different native tribes," said David Boxley, representing the Tsimshian tribe, "is that it's our voice speaking."

Russia Artist is 76-year-old Voice of Protest on Ukraine

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Yelena Osipova barely slept ahead of Russia's pomp-filled Victory Day celebrations on May 9. The 76-year-old artist was up late, making placards to protest about the conflict in Ukraine. But the moment she stepped out of her home in St. Petersburg on her way to demonstrate, two unknown men snatched the work from her and ran off.  "It was upsetting. I'd worked half the night and really liked those placards," the white-haired painter told AFP.  "It's obvious that it was an organized attack." Indefatigable as ever, within an hour, the tiny, stooped woman, who moves with difficulty, already had a new poster and was heading out again to protest. Osipova is well-known in her hometown. She has been called the "conscience of St. Petersburg," Russia's second city, after two decades spent publicly opposing the rule of President Vladimir Putin. Since the Kremlin's forces rolled into Ukraine, she has also become a symbol of Russians standing up against the conflict. Footage of her frequent detentions by riot police has been widely circulated on social media. "The main thing is that people should say these forbidden words today: 'No to war,'" said the former art professor. But in Russia that is a risky prospect. Protests have been ruthlessly stamped out and those criticizing the campaign -- a "special military operation" in official parlance -- risk a 15-year jail term. 'Silence means agreement' Osipova first started taking to the streets two years after former KGB agent Putin took power in 2000. She has been demonstrating ever since against what she says are the crimes committed by the Russian authorities. She protested in 2014 when Moscow seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and against the fighting sparked in the east of the country. Now she is focused on Putin's full-fledged offensive against Russia's pro-Western neighbor. "If people accept all this, then it means they are not thinking about their children," she said as she showed AFP her work in her flat. "I'm dedicating my placards to this idea: what world are we leaving to our children?" She shows off one poster with the face of a young girl shouting "No to war" on a yellow and blue background, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.  Another of a child has the slogan "What world are we leaving behind us?" "Since 2002 I haven't been able to stay silent, because silence means agreement with what is happening in my country," she said. "That's why I go to protest." Her flat with its decrepit vaulted ceilings is in the heart of Russia's former imperial capital and has been home to her family for three generations. Its two rooms are cluttered with pictures and posters with pacifist and anti-Kremlin messages. "I don't want to serve as cannon fodder," reads one poster of a soldier. "Wives and mothers, stop the war," says another. A third proclaims: "We are all hostages of the provocative politics of imperial power." On one wall hangs a large photo of a young man: her only son, Ivan, who died of tuberculosis in 2009 at 28. Osipova has been frequently detained by the police, but they now know her so well that they sometimes just take her straight home rather than to the station. "I've long ago stopped being scared for myself," she said defiantly. "In your own homeland you should not be afraid, but if you love it you should feel that you are the one in charge." 

Lebanon Votes in First Election Since Crisis

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Lebanon headed to the polls Sunday for its first election since multiple crises dragged it to the brink of failed statehood, with the ruling elite expected to comfortably weather public anger. The parliamentary election is a first test for opposition movements spawned by an unprecedented anti-establishment uprising in 2019 that briefly raised hopes of regime change in Lebanon. Yet observers have warned not to expect any seismic shift, with every lever of power firmly in the hands of traditional sectarian parties and an electoral system rigged in their favor. After an underwhelming campaign stifled by the nation's all-consuming economic predicament, 3.9 million Lebanese will be eligible to vote when polls open at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT). Independents can hope for more than the lone seat they clinched in 2018 but most of parliament's 128 seats will remain in the clutches of the very political class that is blamed for the country's woes. The outgoing chamber was dominated by the Iran-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah and its two main allies: the Shiite Amal party of Speaker Nabih Berri and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun. "It seems almost impossible to imagine Lebanon voting for more of the same -- and yet that appears to be the likeliest outcome," said Sam Heller, an analyst with the Century Foundation. Since the last election, the country has been mutilated by a blast at the Beirut port that went down as one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and deepened one of the most spectacular economic downturns of our time. Corruption The Lebanese pound has lost 95% of its value, people's savings are blocked in banks, minimum wage won't buy a tank of petrol and mains electricity comes on only two hours a day. More than 80% of the population is now considered poor by the United Nations, with the most desperate increasingly attempting perilous boat crossings to flee to Europe. Once described as the Switzerland of the Middle East, Lebanon ranked second-to-last behind Afghanistan in the latest World Happiness Index released in March. Numbed by the daily hardships of the economic crisis, many registered voters have seemed indifferent to an election that they doubted would even be held until a few days ago. Despite international pressure to reform Lebanese politics, the corruption that sank the country is still rife, including in the electoral process. The crisis has only widened the gap in purchasing power between the politicians who buy votes and the electorate that sells them. At one candidate's rally in the northern city of Tripoli, some well-wishers disappointed by the lack of cash handouts made off with the plastic chairs. Low hopes While Sunday's election might not topple their reviled leadership, some Lebanese see the vote as an important test for the principles that arose during the October 2019 uprising. For Marianne Vodolian, the cataclysmic August 2020 explosion that disfigured Beirut and killed more than 200 people makes voting an even more sacred duty. "We are against the regime that ruled us for 30 years, robbed us and blew us up," said the 32-year-old, a spokesperson for the families of blast victims. Opposition parties, many of which emanated from the now-defunct protest movement supporting secular and democratic change, have struggled to mount a united challenge but could secure a stronger voice in parliament nonetheless. "The elections are an opportunity to change the system and hold it accountable in a way that makes this country livable," Vodolian said. Top political barons have stalled an investigation into the explosion -- two of the main suspects are even running for a seat -- and legal proceedings against the Central Bank governor over financial crimes are equally floundering. One of the most notable changes in the electoral landscape is the absence of former prime minister Saad Hariri, which leaves parts of the Sunni vote up for grabs by new players.

Latest Developments in Ukraine: May 15

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For full coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, visit Flashpoint Ukraine. The latest developments in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. All times EDT: 12:02 a.m.: CNN reports that the Indian Embassy will return to Kyiv on Thursday. It had relocated to Warsaw in March amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

Rebels Kill 10 Civilians in Central African Republic, UN Says

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Rebels killed 10 civilians during an attack hundreds of kilometers northeast of the Central African Republic capital of Bangui, the spokesperson for the U.N. peacekeeping force in the country told AFP. "Armed elements of the Union for Peace in Central Africa (UPC) have committed abuses on populations, killing 10 people" in the village of Bokolobo last Monday, said Lieutenant Colonel Abdoul Aziz Ouedraogo, spokesman for the Minusca force. They had previously attacked security force positions, he added, without elaborating. "In response to these atrocities, the force immediately deployed Mauritanian blue helmets to protect the populations," Ouedraogo added. He said a second patrol from the Nepalese contingent had been dispatched to the scene, which is more than 400 kilometers northeast of Bangui. In a statement released on Friday, Ali Darassa, military leader of the UPC and chief of staff of the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), an alliance of rebel groups created in December 2020 to overthrow President Faustin Archange Touadera, condemned a massacre on Monday in the same village of "30 civilians of the Muslim faith, including 27 Fulani … by (Russian) mercenaries from the Wagner company, the FACA and the anti-balaka militia of the Touadera wing." The Central African Republic, the second least developed country in the world, according to the U.N., has been the scene of a civil war since 2013. At the end of 2020, the most powerful of the many armed groups that then shared two-thirds of the territory had launched an offensive on Bangui shortly before the elections and Touadera sought help from Moscow for his impoverished army. Hundreds of Russian paramilitaries then joined hundreds present since 2018 and made it possible, in a few months, to repel the rebels' offensive and then to push them back from a large part of the territories and cities they controlled. But they were unable to re-establish the authority of the state everywhere. On March 30, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, condemned "serious human rights violations" in CAR including "murders and sexual violence" against civilians, committed by the rebel groups but also the armed forces of the regime and their Russian allies. 

Rajapaksa Swears in 4 Cabinet Members Amid Sri Lanka Crisis

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Sri Lanka's president swore in four new Cabinet ministers Saturday in an effort to ensure stability until a full Cabinet is formed in the island nation engulfed in a political and economic crisis. The appointment of four ministers came two days after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reappointed five-time former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, after his predecessor — the president's brother Mahinda Rajapaksa — resigned Monday in the wake of violent attacks by his supporters on peaceful anti-government protesters. His resignation automatically dissolved the Cabinet, leaving an administrative vacuum. In an effort to bring back stability, the president reappointed Wickremesinghe on Thursday and swore in four Cabinet ministers Saturday until a full Cabinet is appointed. Rajapaksa swore in ministers of foreign affairs, public administration and home affairs, urban development and power and energy, said a statement Saturday from the president's office. All four ministers belong to the president's Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party. Lawmakers from the SLPP party met with the president on Saturday, after which the party's spokesperson, Sagara Kariyawasam, told members of the media that the SLPP lawmakers would extend their support to Wickremesinghe, who belongs to the United National Party. Rajapaksa sought a unity government in early April but the largest opposition political party, the United People's Force, rejected the proposal. The Indian Ocean island nation is on the brink of bankruptcy and has suspended repayment of its foreign loans pending negotiations on a rescue package with the International Monetary Fund. It needs to repay $7 billion in foreign debt this year out of $25 billion due by 2026. Its total foreign debt is $51 billion. The Finance Ministry says the country currently has only $25 million in usable foreign reserves. For several months, Sri Lankans have endured long lines to buy fuel, cooking gas, food and medicine, most of which come from abroad. Shortages of hard currency have also hindered imports of raw materials for manufacturing and worsened inflation, which surged to 18.7% in March. Sri Lanka's economic woes have brought on a political crisis, with the government facing widespread protests for several weeks. Authorities on Wednesday deployed armored vehicles and troops in the streets of the capital after attacks on protesters triggered a wave of violence across the country. Nine people died and more than 200 were injured. Security forces have been ordered to shoot people deemed to be participating in the violence as sporadic acts of arson and vandalism continued despite a strict nationwide curfew that began Monday evening. Protesters have been occupying the entrance to the president's office in the capital Colombo for over 30 days, demanding that Rajapaksa resign. Rajapaksa family members have been in power for most of the past two decades. So far, the president has resisted calls for his resignation. In his meetings with the envoys of 19 nations since taking office, Wickremesinghe has discussed the possibility of forming a consortium of nations to help Sri Lanka recover from the economic crisis, a spokesperson said Saturday. During his meetings with diplomats from countries including the Unites States, China, India, Japan, Germany and the European Union, Wickremesinghe briefed them on the country's economic situation and the talks were used to "introduce the idea (of an aid consortium) officially," said Dinouk Colambage, a spokesperson for the prime minister's private staff. Wickremesinghe said the next two to three weeks are going to be the worst for the country economically, especially in terms of fuel and fertilizer shortages, but he hoped mid-term positive results may start to come in two to three months if international assistance is received.

Former Test Cricketer Andrew Symonds Dies in Auto Accident

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Former Australian test cricketer Andrew Symonds has died after a single-vehicle auto accident near Townsville in northeast Australia. He was 46. Cricket Australia reported Symonds' death on its website on Sunday, citing a police statement with details of the accident late Saturday night. It described Symonds as "a cult hero during the peak of his international playing career and one of the most skilled all-rounders Australian cricket has seen." "The Queenslander was a larger-than-life figure who drew a widespread fan base during his peak years for not only his hard-hitting ways but his larrikin persona." Symonds played 26 test matches for Australia and posted two centuries, but he was better known as a limited-overs specialist. He played 198 one-day international for Australia and won two World Cups. After retiring as a player, Symonds became a popular commentator for cricket broadcasters. Queensland Police said the accident occurred at Hervey Range, about 50 kilometers from Townsville. "Early information indicates, shortly after 11 p.m. the car was being driven on Hervey Range Road, near Alice River Bridge when it left the roadway and rolled," a police statement said. "Emergency services attempted to revive the 46-year-old driver and sole occupant. However, he died of his injuries." Symonds' family appealed for privacy. Former Australian captain Allan Border was among those to pay tribute to Symonds on Sunday. Border said Symonds "hit the ball a long way and just wanted to entertain. "He was, in a way, a little bit of an old-fashioned cricketer," Border told the Nine Network. "He was an adventurer, loved his fishing, he loved hiking, camping. People liked his very laid-back style." That style brought Symonds into conflict with authority late in his career. In 2008 he missed Australia's one-day series against Bangladesh after going fishing when he was required to attend a team meeting. He also was disciplined before the 2009 Twenty20 World Cup for breaching team rules around alcohol. With dreadlocks and his face daubed with zinc cream, Symonds always cut a flamboyant figure in the Australian team. His loss is another bitter blow for Australian cricket after the death in Thailand in March of legendary leg-spinner Shane Warne. Wicketkeeper Rod Marsh also died in March aged 74. 


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