UNESCO Lists Viking-Era Wooden Sailboats on Heritage List 

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

Senegal Votes for Mayors in Litmus Test for President 

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

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

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

Talks with Taliban Begin in Norway

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A Taliban delegation led by acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi on Sunday started three days of talks in Oslo with Western government officials and Afghan civil society representatives amid a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. The closed-door meetings are taking place at a hotel in the snow-capped mountains above the Norwegian capital. The first day will see Taliban representatives meeting with women’s rights activists and human rights defenders from Afghanistan and from the Afghan diaspora. Before the talks, the Taliban’s deputy minister of culture and information tweeted a voice message he said was from Muttaqi, expressing hope for “a good trip full of achievements” and thanking Norway, a country he said he hopes will become “a gateway for a positive relationship with Europe.” The trip is the first time since the Taliban took over the country in August that their representatives have held official meetings in Europe. Earlier, they traveled to Russia, Iran, Qatar, Pakistan, China and Turkmenistan. During the talks, Muttaqi is certain to press the Taliban’s demand that nearly $10 billion frozen by the United States and other Western countries be released as Afghanistan faces a precarious humanitarian situation. The United Nations has managed to provide for some liquidity and allowed the new administration to pay for imports, including electricity, but warned that as many as 1 million Afghan children are in danger of starving, and most of the country’s 38 million people are living below the poverty line. The Norwegian Foreign Ministry said the Taliban delegation would also meet with Afghans in Norway, including “women leaders, journalists and people who work with, among other things, human rights and humanitarian, economic, social and political issues.” “Norway continues to engage in dialogue with the Taliban to promote human rights, women’s participation in society, and to strengthen humanitarian and economic efforts in Afghanistan in support of the Afghan people,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. A U.S. delegation, led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West, plans to discuss “the formation of a representative political system; responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises; security and counterterrorism concerns; and human rights, especially education for girls and women,” according to a statement released by the U.S. State Department. On Friday, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the visit was “not a legitimation or recognition of the Taliban. But we must talk to those who in practice govern the country today.” “We are extremely concerned about the serious situation in Afghanistan,” Huitfeldt said, noting that economic and political conditions have created “a full-scale humanitarian catastrophe for millions of people” facing starvation in the country. The Scandinavian country, home to the Nobel Peace Prize, is no stranger to sensitive diplomacy and has in the past been involved in peace efforts in several countries, including Mozambique, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Colombia, the Philippines, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Syria, Myanmar, Somalia, Sri Lanka and South Sudan.

US Anti-Vaccine Activists to Rally at Lincoln Memorial

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 Anti-vaccine activists are set to rally Sunday in Washington at the Lincoln Memorial.The anti-vaccine argument has taken hold among various American groups, including politicians, school officials, professional athletes and health care workers. Public health officials say about 20% of U.S. adults are unvaccinated. COVID vaccine passport protests were held in several European capitals Saturday. Thousands of people turned out in Stockholm to demonstrate against the vaccine passes needed to go to indoor sites where there are 50 or more people. Protesters took to the streets of Paris to demonstrate against the new COVID pass set to go into effect Monday that will curtail the activities of the unvaccinated, restricting their ability to travel and go to entertainment sites, including bars, movie theaters and sports events. Demonstrators in Helsinki protested the vaccination passes that can be required to enter restaurants and other events. The protesters in Finland’s capital also demonstrated against the Finnish government’s move giving local and regional authorities the ability to enact wide-ranging measures to combat the omicron variant, according to The Associated Press. Meanwhile, in the U.S. state of Virginia, a woman has been charged with a misdemeanor after threatening to bring guns to her children’s school because of a school board’s continued school mask mandate. Amelia King said Thursday at a school board meeting, “My children will not come to school on Monday with a mask on, all right? . . . That’s not happening, and I will bring every single gun loaded and ready . . .I’ll see you all on Monday.” School officials alerted authorities about King’s comments. Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported early Sunday that it was recorded 349.3 million COVID infections, 5.6 million deaths. The center said nearly 10 billion COVID vaccines have been administered. Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.     

Migrants At Hungary Border Become Part Of Election Campaign

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A group of migrants huddles beside a small, smoky fire inside an abandoned building in northern Serbia, the last moments of warmth before they set out into the driving snow toward the razor wire, cameras and sensors of Hungary's electrified border fence. A few hours later, they return, their efforts to cross through Hungary and toward Western Europe thwarted by the 3-meter fence and heavy Hungarian police patrols which, after intercepting them, escorted them back across the border into Serbia. “I’m going to Austria, I’m going to Germany, I’m going to the Netherlands," says Muhtar Ahmad, a 26-year-old from Aleppo, Syria, who is squatting with around 35 other migrants in the makeshift camp outside the Serbian village of Majdan, less than 2 kilometers from the Hungarian border. “I’m not staying in Hungary. What’s the problem?” As migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries embark on the last stretch of their long journeys toward Europe's wealthier nations, their efforts to cross irregularly into the European Union through Hungary — and the country's contentious practice of returning them to Serbia when they are caught — have made them part of a political campaign with which Hungary's nationalist leader hopes to win an upcoming general election. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who polls suggest will face his closest election in more than a decade in April, is campaigning on a strict anti-immigration platform and is keen to use the prospect of a wave of migrants amassing at Hungary's border as a means to mobilize his conservative voter base. “Just this year we stopped and detained ... more than 100,000 people,” Orban claimed at a rare appearance before journalists in December. "If the Hungarian fence had not stood there, more than 100,000 more illegal migrants would be now first in Austria, then in Germany.” One of the most outspoken opponents of immigration in Europe, Orban has said that migration threatens to replace the continent's Christian culture, and that illegal migrants are responsible for bringing infections like COVID-19 variants into his country. "We do not want to be an immigrant country,” Orban said during an interview with state radio this week. As the April 3 election approaches, he has portrayed current migration pressures as higher than in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of refugees came into the EU fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere, and when he ordered the construction of the country's border barrier. But figures released by Serbian officials and the EU's border and coast guard agency suggest that far fewer individuals are attempting to enter Hungary than the right-wing leader claims.   “It’s a little bit bigger number than, let’s say, two years ago, but these are not big numbers. It’s a small rise,” said Nemanja Matejic, chief officer at a migrant reception center in the northern Serbian city of Subotica, of the current level of migrants along Hungary's border. While Hungarian police put the number of migrants intercepted by Hungarian authorities at more than 122,000, data from EU border agency Frontex showed that there were 60,540 illegal border crossing attempts last year on the Western Balkan migration route, which includes the Hungary-Serbia border. What's more, since most migrants are making repeated attempts to cross, the number of individuals involved is far smaller still. Serbia's Commissariat for Refugees and Migration reports that there are 4,276 migrants residing in reception centers in Serbia and another 1,000 sleeping rough. Frontex has noted that most Western Balkan crossings “can be traced back to people who have been in the region for some time and who repeatedly try to reach their target country in the EU." Hikmad Serat, 20, from Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, took shelter in a remote abandoned building near the Serbian border town of Horgos this month as a cold snap brought temperatures to -10 C.   Serat said he has been in Serbia for 15 months and has lost count of the number of times he has crossed into Hungary and been returned by police. “Many times I try, 100 times, more than 100 times … Every time, police arrest me and deport back to Serbia,” Serat said. This practice — where police deny migrants the right to apply for asylum and escort them back across national borders — is known as a “pushback.” It has been declared unlawful by the EU’s top court and is in violation of international asylum treaties. Matejic, the chief of the reception center, said that migrants making dozens of crossing attempts is “typical.” “Sometimes a guy tries one time and goes, he has luck … Sometimes they try over 50 times ... They try and try again,” he said. Many migrants have reported abuse by police after they leave Serbian territory for Hungary, or for Croatia or Romania. This includes having mobile phones destroyed or stolen, being made to sit or kneel in the snow for hours and receiving beatings — allegations which are very difficult to independently confirm. Romanian police didn't respond to questions from The Associated Press. But Hungary's National Police Headquarters wrote in an email that they “strongly reject unsubstantiated allegations” of abuse of migrants. Yet Matejic said 150 cases of broken limbs were recorded by the Subotica reception center in 2019. “Sometimes they break their phones, the police. Sometimes they take their money. Sometimes they break their legs. It’s a different experience for everybody,” Matejic said. Orban has asked the EU to reimburse Hungary for at least half of the costs related to building, maintaining and patrolling its border fence, which he has said have amounted to $1.9 billion over the past six years. Ever at odds with the EU's more liberal member states, he has also threatened to “open up a corridor along which migrants can march up to Austria, Germany and Sweden and whoever needs them.” Despite the dangers, Faris al-Ibrahimi, a Moroccan migrant in the Subotica reception center who intends to travel on to Spain, said he was undeterred after being pushed back 27 times by Hungarian police. “I’m still going to try. I will not give up now … I will try until I succeed," he said. “It’s an adventure. We cross, we go, they catch us, we come back, we go again. It’s like a game for us."   

Seoul Says It Paid Iran's Delinquent UN Dues to Restore Vote

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Using Iranian bank funds freed from American sanctions, South Korea has paid Iran's $18 million in delinquent dues owed to the United Nations, Seoul said Sunday. The step was apparently approved by Washington to restore Tehran's suspended voting rights at the world body. Iran's mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But the South Korean Foreign Ministry said Seoul had paid the sum using Iranian assets frozen in the country after consulting with the United States Treasury -- a potential signal of flexibility amid floundering nuclear negotiations. The ministry said it expected Iran's voting rights to be restored immediately after their suspension earlier this month for delinquent dues. The funds had been impounded at a Korean bank under sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump after he withdrew the U.S. from Tehran's landmark nuclear deal with world powers. The U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control must grant a license for these transactions under the American banking sanctions imposed on Iran. The Treasury did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the unfrozen funds. The Biden administration wants to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, which granted Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. Diplomats are now engaged in delicate negotiations to revive the accord in Vienna, although a breakthrough remains elusive as Iran abandons every limitation the deal imposed on its nuclear enrichment. The country now enriches a small amount of to 60% purity -- a short, technical step away from weapons grade levels -- and spins far more advanced centrifuges than allowed. Under the United Nations Charter, a nation that owes the previous two full years' worth of dues loses its voting rights at the General Assembly. A letter from Secretary-General Antonio Guterres circulated earlier this month revealed that Iran was among several delinquent countries on that list, which also includes Venezuela and Sudan. The General Assembly can make exceptions to the rule, determining that some countries face circumstances “beyond the control of the member.” According to the secretary-general's letter, Iran needed to pay a minimum of $18.4 million to restore its voting rights. Iran also lost its voting rights in January of last year, prompting Tehran to lash out at the U.S. for imposing crushing sanctions that froze billions of dollars in Iranian funds in banks around the world. Tehran regained voting rights last June after making the minimum payment on its dues. Iran over the past few years has pressured Seoul to release about $7 billion in revenues from oil sales that remain frozen in South Korean banks since the Trump administration tightened sanctions on Iran. The frozen funds hang in the balance as diplomats struggle to revive the nuclear deal. Senior South Korean diplomats including Choi Jong Kun, the first vice foreign minister, flew to Vienna this month to discuss the fate of the assets with their Iranian counterparts.     

Syrian Kurdish Forces Tighten Siege After Islamic State Prison Break

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Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) troops aided by U.S. troops tightened their siege of a prison housing Islamic State suspects after inmates took over the facility, residents and officials said Sunday. At least 70 inmates were killed in the attack on the prison in northeastern Syria, which began on Thursday. Militants detonated a car bomb near the prison gates, helping dozens of inmates and flee to the neighboring Ghweiran district of al-Hasaka, witnesses and officials said. The SDF initially said it had thwarted the breakout and arrested 89 militants sheltering nearby, but later acknowledged that inmates had taken over parts of the facility. It said Sunday that 17 of its forces were killed in the deadliest rioting in detention centers holding thousands of suspected militants arrested after they were defeated with U.S. support in north and east Syria. The Pentagon confirmed the U.S.-led coalition had carried out air strikes in support of the SDF as it sought to end the prison break. Arab tribal figures in touch with residents in the area said U.S. coalition troops had taken over positions around the prison and planes were seen flying overhead. It was not clear how many inmates were in the prison, the biggest facility where the SDF has kept thousands of detainees. The relatives of many inmates say they are young children and others arrested on flimsy charges or for resisting the SDF's forced conscription. Most Arab inmates have been held without charges or trial, fueling resentment by tribal members who accuse the Kurdish forces of racial discrimination, a charged denied by the Kurdish led forces. The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch says the SDF holds about 12,000 men and boys suspected of Islamic State affiliation, including 2,000-4,000 foreigners from almost 50 countries. Thousands of others are held in secret detention centers where torture is rife, civic groups say. The Syrian Kurdish forces deny the accusations. The inmates are held in overcrowded prisons where conditions are inhumane in many cases, according to Human Rights Watch and other rights groups. Some Arabs, who form a majority of the inhabitants of the areas under the control of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, accuse the Kurds of discrimination, an allegation rejected by Kurdish officials. Local elders say support for Islamic State, which has resorted to guerrilla attacks since losing its last significant piece of territory in Syria in 2019, has grown with rising local resentment against the Kurdish-led rule.   

'Game Changer' E-moped Batteries Spread from Taiwan Across Asia

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Every day, Aiden Lee joins the hundreds of thousands of people getting around Taipei on two wheels. But when most of his fellow riders head to a petrol pump to refuel, he takes his e-motorbike to one of Taiwan's increasingly commonplace battery-swapping stations -- tech its creators say could supercharge the shift from fossil fuels. "Honestly, if it weren't for battery swapping -- which by the way is even faster than filling up at a petrol station -- I wouldn't use an electric bike," the marketing executive said. "I don't think I have the time to wait for the battery to charge." Lee has used the rechargeable batteries provided by Taiwanese startup Gogoro since 2015, putting him among the 450,000 subscribers who swap an average of 330,000 batteries each day, according to company figures. He says it costs about 10 percent more than buying petrol each month. Now eyeing regional expansion and a New York listing, Gogoro has more than 2,300 stations outside convenience stores or in car parks across Taiwan, where e-moped riders stop to exchange depleted batteries for freshly charged cells.   Quick swap Previous attempts to roll out battery swaps have proved tricky, especially for electric cars. Companies in China, the United States and Israel have struggled to provide easy access to swappable batteries for e-cars, in part because of the high cost of building charging facilities and the time needed to charge much larger cells. But the tech works better for mopeds, said Gogoro founder and chief executive Horace Luke, as the batteries and stations need not be so large. "Instead of the four-wheeler infrastructure that needs to be built, our system is really like a vending machine that goes into different locations based on where the consumer goes and where the consumer needs energy," he said. The facilities already outnumber petrol stations in four major Taiwanese cities, the company said, and vice-president Alan Pan told a news conference last week that the firm's goal for 2022 was to "surpass the number of petrol stations island-wide". With more than 240 million battery swaps since 2015, Gogoro says it has kept about 360,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. "We are working on solutions that... create a new industry as the world looks now to sustainability and how to curb global warming and climate change," Luke told AFP in an interview. According to government sales figures, e-bikes make up 21 percent of all motorbikes in Taiwan, with sales of traditional petrol models in double-digit decline annually.   India, China, Indonesia Luke said that, through local partnerships, Gogoro was moving to expand into the world's largest motorbike markets: China, India and Indonesia -- all countries with smog-choked cities. The company has teamed up with top players in the industry, including Hero MotoCorp in India, the world's biggest motorcycle maker, China's world-leading e-bike maker Yadea and, most recently, Indonesian ride-hailing firm Gojek. In China its battery-swapping system was launched in October in the city of Hangzhou, with plans to expand to other places this year. The push could benefit from major government incentives for e-vehicles in the giant Asian countries. Last year, India rolled out $3.5 billion in incentives for the auto sector to boost production of electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, while Indonesia has offered tax perks for manufacturers, transport companies and consumers. Gogoro plans to list on the Nasdaq in the first quarter of this year through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, establishing an entity valued at $2.35 billion. Global sales of electric motorbikes, scooters and mopeds are estimated to have topped 25 million units in 2020, or 35 percent of total sales of two-wheeled vehicles, according to BloombergNEF. And market research firm Guidehouse Insights says "battery swapping has become a legitimate technology platform solution that is being exported to original equipment manufacturers in foreign markets". Countries in Southeast Asia "with strong two-wheeler cultures, high urban density rates, supportive policy frameworks for EVs, and a strong desire to reduce urban air pollution will likely be next in line", it said in a report. Luke added: "I think battery swapping was a real game changer and is a real game changer."

Blockbuster Television Series ‘Yellowstone’ Stokes Debate on Native American Casting, Spirituality

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Native Americans have long been misrepresented in film and television. The successful television series Yellowstone, which recently concluded its fourth season on the Paramount+ network, promised to be "an authentic portrayal of Native life in America." Some Native Americans say the show didn't go far enough in its mission, while others say it went too far. Casting draws criticism Yellowstone is a modern Western drama. Created by Taylor Sheridan and starring Kevin Costner, the series focuses on the lengths to which ranchers, Native Americans, energy companies, environmentalists, bureaucrats and developers are willing to go to retain, regain, use or misuse the land and its resources.   Sheridan is known in Native communities for his 2017 film Wind River, which brought attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women. He is also known for hiring Native American actors to play Native roles. In 2017, he told The New York Times he had instructed casting directors to always "vet the authentic nature of their ancestry." Yellowstone does feature two well-known Native actors: Gil Birmingham, of Comanche descent, plays Thomas Rainwater, the Harvard-educated chairman of the fictional "Broken Rock" tribe who aims to buy back ancestral lands now owned by wealthy Montana cattleman John Dutton, played by Kevin Costner. Mo Brings Plenty plays Rainwater's aide-de-camp and spiritual adviser. But most Native Americans aren't happy with the casting of Kelsey Asbille as a Native woman married into the Dutton clan.    Asbille, who formerly used her Chinese father's surname of Chow, worked with Sheridan in Wind River, playing a young Native woman found dead in the snow, a role, she told the Times, that was "in (her) blood," as she was descended from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina (ECBI). The ECBI subsequently denied that claim in a letter published by Buzzfeed. 'Yellowstone' a 'step backward' Hollywood has long history of hiring non-Native actors in Native roles, but the 1990 Costner film Dances With Wolves was a game-changer, casting dozens of Native American actors, including Graham Greene, an Oneida member of the Six Nations in Canada; Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman, of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate and Wes Studi, Cherokee. Since then, filmmakers have upped the Native presence in films, such as Hostiles and The Revenant, and TV shows, such as Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs. But there is room for improvement. The University of California, Los Angeles 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report showed Native representation to be less than 1% in films and "virtually nonexistent" on TV. Craig Falcon, a citizen of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, acted in and served as a cultural adviser for the 2015 film The Revenant.  He is disappointed in Yellowstone, calling it a "step backward." "We have a giant full-blood Native population here, but casting people and movie directors aren't tapping into that population," Falcon told VOA. "We're right back where we started, back in the days of Iron Eyes Cody, where you hire non-Natives and put them in braided wigs." He refers to a 1970s "Keep America Beautiful" public awareness advertisement that featured a traditional American Indian paddling a canoe through polluted modern waterways. As it turned out, the actor playing the part had fabricated his Native ancestry. Commercializing the sacred? Some Natives say miscasting is the lesser of the blunders in Yellowstone. In a recently aired episode, Dutton's son Kayce, husband to Asbille's character, Monica, reveals to Chief Rainwater and Mo that he is being followed by a lone wolf.  They explain it is his spirit animal and guide him through a "vision quest." Alone on a hilltop, Kayce must go without food or water for four days in the hopes that he will come to understand his "purpose in life." Philimon Wanbli Nunpa is executive director of the Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council on the Rosebud Reservation, which works to assert tribal treaty rights and advocates for a return to traditional government and spirituality. He told VOA he was appalled by Yellowstone's depiction of the Hanbleceya, or "crying for a vision," one of seven sacred ceremonies the Lakota have practiced for centuries. "The Hanbleceya is a rite of passage ceremony for our young warriors," he said. "Or when one of our relatives gets sick, someone who is worthy will go on the hill to pray for their healing." The ceremony entails "crossing into the spirit world," Wanbli Nunpa said. "It's certainly not made for cameras." "Whoever authorized this will need to be addressed in front of our medicine men," he added.  He and Falcon also take exception to the idea of a non-Native undergoing a vision quest. The issue taps into old wounds: In 1883, as part of its effort to exterminate Native American culture and spirituality, the U.S. government enacted a Code of Indian Offenses that criminalized "heathenish" ceremonies with punishments ranging from withholding food rations or imprisonment up to 30 days." This forced Natives to take their ceremonies underground, where they remained even after some restrictions were lifted in the 1930s. Later, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 decriminalized ceremony and was later amended to allow the use of peyote in religious rites. The birth of the counterculture and "New Age" in the 1960s through 1980s saw vast numbers of non-Natives turn to Indigenous cultures for spiritual answers, and this led to a rise in self-styled "shamans" who appropriated and marketed what a group of Lakota activists in 1998 billed as "intolerable and obscene imitations of sacred Lakota rites." It is little wonder that many Native Americans prefer to keep their ceremonies private.  Proponents of sharing knowledge VOA reached out to Yellowstone cast member Mo Brings Plenty, who participated in planning the vision quest scene. He is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. "I'm not a spiritual adviser or anything like that, but I have had great educators," Brings Plenty said. He named several spiritual leaders, including Sicangu Lakota activist/spiritual leader Leonard Crow Dog, who in the 1970s helped revive the Hanbleceya and other ceremonies. "Crow Dog said these were meant for all human beings," Brings Plenty said. "He believed the more non-Native people understand us, the better the chances are that we will gain support and save ourselves from extinction." He said Sheridan and the crew approached the scene carefully.  "We knew, 'Here's what we can do, and here's what we can't do," he said. "We have not given anything away. If you go on Google, you will find a whole lot more about ceremony than what we revealed." That said, he understands why the scene touched some nerves. "Society forced us to be ashamed of who we are and hide our identities," he said. "It's just sad that today, some of our own are telling us to keep on hiding our identities."

San Francisco’s Chinatown Opens for Cautious Lunar New Year Revelry Despite Omicron 

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George Chen’s high-end China Live restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown has lost 90% of its Lunar New Year bookings made by company parties and big families fearing the spread of COVID-19 as the omicron variant rampages across the United States. Three of his 100 employees have gotten the disease since the omicron surge began.    But his three-floor restaurant is not turning away dine-in customers like a year ago. No state or local government has ordered shutdowns. Smaller parties can still come in for informal, private meals, and Chen hopes to see more of those gatherings ahead of the global Chinese population’s major annual holiday, which falls on February 1 this year.    “Last year I think we were in the middle of a shutdown – during that time we couldn’t even [be] allowed to do outdoor seating, forget indoors,” Chen told VOA on Tuesday. “This year is tough. … We’ll keep our fingers crossed and hopefully people will feel more comfortable, get vaccinated and come out and enjoy themselves.”    The 64-year-old career restaurateur’s story serves as a microcosm for San Francisco, keeper of the best-known Chinatown in the United States, as the Year of the Tiger approaches.  Countless individuals have decided on their own to stay home, auguring thin crowds, but San Francisco’s signature Chinese New Year Festival and Parade are scheduled to roll floats and feature lion dances in densely populated hilly streets lined with red-festooned Chinese-owned shops. The city's annual Chinese New Year street fairs are on, as well.    “This year because of the vaccinations, because we have a better understanding of the variants and the pandemic, we are cautiously optimistic to proceed forward with a live parade,” parade organizer spokesperson William Gee said. “We’re hoping to bring back a lot of the iconic memories and performances that people remember by just coming out and watching the parade.”    Event organizers ask that everyone there be vaccinated or come with proof of a negative COVID-19 test a few days ahead.    Locals told VOA say they’ve had enough of staying indoors.    Lin Wei, 50, for example, says he plans to go out. The sanitation worker came from Guangdong province 11 years ago for work and misses the energy of a live Lunar New Year celebration. Lunar New Year in China involves large, extended family reunions, weeks of fireworks and the equivalent of a formal spring cleaning for each household.    “The last two years (the celebrations) stopped, so this year there might be a bit more, and if I’ve got time I’ll show up,” Lin said. On the chance of catching COVID-19, he said, “I’ve grown numb to that over the past two years.”    But Lin said he would avoid taking his family to the festivities as a health precaution.    Sherwin Won, 69, a retired university clinical lab scientist, plans to shun the traditional large family reunion and focus on spring cleaning. As a family, the San Francisco native said, “we talked about it and discussed it and said, ‘we’re going to celebrate it six months later.’”   Like Chen’s restaurant, open events and spaces in San Francisco’s Chinatown generally are expected to draw thin crowds as people decide to stay home and avoid the risk of contagion. Chen estimates that 50% of the district’s stores have closed during the pandemic, possibly for good.    Paper goods and variety stores in San Francisco did only sporadic business this week as supplies of holiday decorations became sparse. Holidaymakers normally buy Lunar New Year paper scrolls to hang on their front doors and red envelopes for cash that will be gifted to children in the family.    The Buddha Exquisite Corp. paper goods shop has turned to airmail to import most of its made-in-China 2022 supplies because normal marine shipping takes “a lot longer than usual,” store operator Rebecca Cheung said, adding that prices on such goods have risen.    COVID-19 restrictions and rising consumer demand have snarled marine shipping in much of the world.  Elsewhere in the United States, Chicago’s Chinatown is ready for an annual Lunar New Year parade and lion dances. The Seattle Chinatown International District has postponed its Lunar New Year celebration event until April 30.    Events in Los Angeles and Houston are expected as well, while Washington, D.C., canceled its 2022 program.  Michelle Quinn, Matt Dibble, Michael O'Sullivan contributed to this report.

Heavy Gunfire Heard at Military Camp in Burkina Faso Capital

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Heavy gunfire could be heard from the main military camp in Burkina Faso's capital of Ouagadougou early Sunday morning, a Reuters witness said. The gunfire at the Sangoule Lamizana camp, which houses the army's general staff, began at least as early as 5 a.m. (0500 GMT) and could still be heard as of 6:30. A government spokesperson said he also heard gunfire and was seeking information. Burkinabe authorities arrested at least eight soldiers earlier this month on suspicion of conspiring against the government.     

Comoros Loses Both Goalkeepers as COVID Sweeps Through Squad

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Comoros, the surprise package of the Africa Cup of Nations, is struggling to put a team together for their last-16 game against host nation Cameroon after 12 players and management tested positive for COVID-19, their federation announced Saturday. The 12 positive tests include both of the Coelacanths' fit goalkeepers, with the third goalkeeper, Salim Ben Boina already injured. Comoros is due to face Cameroon on Monday. "The Coelacanths affected by COVID … include coach Amir Abdou, our only two goalkeepers, Moyadh Ousseini and Ali Ahamada," the federation tweeted two days before a historic match for the Comoros who qualified for the last 16 in their first appearance at the tournament. In a video posted on the account, general manager El Hadad Hamidi also named five outfield players who have tested positive: midfielders Nakibou Aboubakari, Yacine Bourhane, striker Mohamed M'Changama and defenders Kassim Abdallah and Alexis Souahy. With no goalkeepers currently available for the game, the Comoros are in serious trouble. Confederation of African Football rules for the tournament dictate that teams must play games as long as at least 11 players test negative for the coronavirus. If no goalkeeper is available, an outfield player must stand in. "We are trying to do everything in our power to find alternative solutions" but "without the coach, without major players and especially without our only two goalkeepers who remained, the situation is quite complicated," admitted Hamidi. The Comoros, representing a tiny island nation off the southeast coast of Africa, snatched their qualification to everyone's surprise by beating Ghana 3-2 and advancing as one of the best third-placed sides.   

Myanmar Court Sentences 2 Prominent Activists to Death

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Two prominent political activists in military-ruled Myanmar have been sentenced to death for alleged involvement in terrorist activities, an army television station reported Friday. Myawaddy TV said on its evening news broadcast that Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Ko Jimmy, and Phyo Zeyar Thaw, also known as Maung Kyaw, were convicted under the country's Counterterrorism Law. They were found guilty of offenses involving explosives, bombings and financing terrorism. Both have been detained since their arrests, unable to comment on the allegations, and no lawyer ever emerged to comment on their behalfs. Min Yu's wife, Nilar Thein, in October denied the allegations lodged against her husband. Details of their trials were unavailable because the proceedings were carried out in a closed military court. It was unclear if their two cases were linked. Modern-day Myanmar has a record of rarely carrying out death sentences. The two are among the most prominent activists to be given death sentences since the military in February last year seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Its takeover sparked wide-scale popular protests, which have since turned into a low-level insurgency after nonviolent demonstrations were met with deadly force by the security forces. Almost 1,500 civilians are estimated to have been killed, and more than 11,000 arrest carried out for political offenses. Some resistance factions have engaged in assassinations, drive-by shootings and bombings in urban areas. The mainstream opposition organizations generally disavow such activities, while supporting armed resistance in rural areas, which are more often subject to brutal military attacks. Kyaw Min Yu is one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group, veterans of the popular uprising that failed to unseat a previous military government. He has been active politically ever since then and has spent more than a dozen years behind bars. His Oct. 23 arrest in Yangon was originally reported by his wife, an activist who also has been jailed in the past. Both went into hiding after the February takeover and she is believed to still be in hiding. Two weeks after his arrest, a statement from the military-installed government accused Kyaw Min Yu, of "conducting terrorism acts including mine attacks to undermine the state stability" and alleged he headed a group called “Moon Light Operation” to carry out urban guerrilla attacks. He had already been on the wanted list for social media postings that allegedly incited unrest. Phyo Zeyar Thaw is a former lawmaker with Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party. He was a hip-hop musician before becoming a member of Generation Wave, a political movement formed in 2007. He was arrested on Nov. 18 in possession of weapons and ammunition, according to a statement at the time from the ruling military. That statement also said he was arrested on the basis of information from people arrested a day earlier for carrying out the shootings of security personnel. Other statements from the military accused him of being a key figure in a network of dozens of people who allegedly carried out what the military described as “terrorist” attacks in Yangon. 

Humanitarian Aid Tops Agenda as Taliban Meet Western Officials

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Human rights and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where hunger threatens millions, will be in focus at talks opening Sunday in Oslo between the Taliban, the West and members of Afghan civil society. In their first visit to Europe since returning to power in August, the Taliban will meet Norwegian officials as well as representatives of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and the European Union. The Taliban delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi. On the agenda will be "the formation of a representative political system, responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises, security and counter-terrorism concerns, and human rights, especially education for girls and women," a U.S. State Department official said. The hardline Islamists were toppled in 2001 but stormed back to power in August as international troops began their final withdrawal. The Taliban hope the talks will help "transform the atmosphere of war... into a peaceful situation," government spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP on Saturday. No country has yet recognized the Taliban government, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks would "not represent a legitimization or recognition of the Taliban." "But we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster," Huitfeldt said. 'Have to involve the government' The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated drastically since August. International aid, which financed around 80% of the Afghan budget, came to a sudden halt and the United States has frozen $9.5 billion in assets in the Afghan central bank. Unemployment has skyrocketed and civil servants' salaries have not been paid for months in the country already ravaged by several severe droughts. Hunger now threatens 23 million Afghans, or 55% of the population, according to the United Nations, which says it needs $4.4 billion from donor countries this year to address the humanitarian crisis. "It would be a mistake to submit the people of Afghanistan to a collective punishment just because the de facto authorities are not behaving properly", U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated Friday. A former U.N. representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, told AFP: "We can't keep distributing aid circumventing the Taliban." "If you want to be efficient, you have to involve the government in one way or another." The international community is waiting to see how the Islamic fundamentalists intend to govern Afghanistan, after having largely trampled on human rights during their first stint in power between 1996 and 2001. While the Taliban claim to have modernized, women are still largely excluded from public employment and secondary schools for girls remain largely closed. 'Gender apartheid' On the first day of the Oslo talks held behind closed doors, the Taliban delegation is expected to meet Afghans from civil society, including women leaders and journalists. A former Afghan minister for mines and petrol who now lives in Norway, Nargis Nehan, said she had declined an invitation to take part. She told AFP she feared the talks would "normalize the Taliban and ... strengthen them, while there is no way that they'll change.” "If we look at what happened in the talks of the past three years, the Taliban keep getting what they demand from the international community and the Afghan people, but there is not one single thing that they have delivered from their side," she said. "What guarantee is there this time that they will keep their promises?" she asked, noting that women activists and journalists are still being arrested. Davood Moradian, the head of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies now based outside Afghanistan, meanwhile criticized Norway's "celebrity-style" peace initiative. "Hosting a senior member of the Taliban casts doubt on Norway's global image as a country that cares for women's rights, when the Taliban has effectively instituted gender apartheid," he said. Norway has a track record of mediating in conflicts, including in the Middle East, Sri Lanka and Colombia. 

Sherpa Siblings Aim for Explorers Grand Slam

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Two Sherpa brothers have proudly returned home after becoming the first Nepalis to reach the South Pole, part of their mission to achieve the hallowed Explorers Grand Slam. This holy grail of adventuring involves climbing the highest peaks in the seven continents — Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Vinson, and Puncak Jaya — and reaching both poles. "We saw flags of many countries, but the flag of our country was not there," Chhang Dawa Sherpa said after returning from Antarctica where they also ticked off the 4,892-meter Mount Vinson. "We felt very happy to add Nepal's flag there," he told AFP on Friday. Sherpa and his elder sibling Mingma, due back in Nepal in the coming weeks, already hold the record for the first siblings to climb the 14 highest mountains in the world. Their little brother, Tashi Lakpa Sherpa, holds the crown as the youngest person, at 19, to climb Everest without using supplementary oxygen. For the Explorers Grand Slam, the siblings still must climb another five peaks and reach the North Pole, but they are confident they can complete it within a year. The brothers run the aptly named Seven Summit Treks in Kathmandu, the largest expedition organizer in Nepal, taking hundreds of climbers up Himalayan peaks every year. Nepali guides, usually ethnic Sherpas from the valleys around Everest, are considered the backbone of the climbing industry in the Himalayas for bearing huge risks to carry equipment and food, fix ropes and repair ladders. Long under the shadow as supporters of foreign climbers, Nepali mountaineers are slowly being recognized in their own right. Last year, a team of Nepali climbers made the first winter assent of K2, the world's second-highest peak — the notoriously challenging 8,611-meter "savage mountain" of Pakistan — shining a much-deserved spotlight on their own climbing prowess. 

New Zealand PM Ardern Cancels Her Wedding Amid New Omicron Limits

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has canceled her wedding as the nation imposes new restrictions to slow the community spread of the COVID-19 omicron variant, she told reporters. New Zealand will impose mask rules and limit gathering from midnight on Sunday after a cluster of nine cases of the omicron variant showed community transmission from the North to South islands after a wedding. A family traveled by plane from the North Island capital of Auckland to a wedding in the South Island attended by 100 people. The family and a flight attendant tested positive. New Zealand would move to a red setting under its COVID-19 protection framework, with more mask wearing, and a cap of 100 customers indoors in hospitality settings and events such as weddings, or 25 people if venues are not using vaccine passes, Ardern said. "My wedding will not be going ahead," she told reporters, adding she was sorry for anyone caught up in a similar scenario. Asked by reporters how she felt about her wedding cancellation, Ardern replied: "Such is life." She added, "I am no different to, dare I say it, thousands of other New Zealanders who have had much more devastating impacts felt by the pandemic, the most gutting of which is the inability to be with a loved one sometimes when they are gravely ill. That will far, far outstrip any sadness I experience." 

Turkey Detains TV Journalist, Accuses Her of Insulting President

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Turkey has detained a well-known television journalist for comments she made on air about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, her lawyer said Saturday. Police detained Sedef Kabas at her home at 2 a.m. Saturday, just hours after she aired the comments and then posted them on Twitter to her 900,000 followers. She was formally arrested after appearing in court. The crime of insulting the president carries a jail sentence of one to four years in Turkey. "A so-called journalist is blatantly insulting our president on a television channel that has no goal other than spreading hatred," Erdogan's chief spokesperson, Fahrettin Altun, said on Twitter. "I condemn this arrogance, this immorality in the strongest possible terms. This is not only immoral, it is also irresponsible," Altun said. But the Turkish journalists union called Kabas' arrest a "serious attack on freedom of expression." Rights groups routinely accuse Turkey of undermining media freedom by arresting journalists and shutting down critical media outlets, especially since Erdogan survived a failed coup in July 2016. Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 153rd out of 180 in its 2021 press freedom index. 

Houthis, Aid Group: Death Toll from Yemen Prison Airstrike Hits 82

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The death toll from a Saudi-led coalition airstrike that hit a prison run by Yemen's Houthi rebels has climbed to at least 82 detainees, the rebels and an aid group said Saturday. Internet access in the Arab world's poorest country meanwhile remained largely down as the coalition continued airstrikes on the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, and elsewhere.  The airstrike in the northern Saada province Friday was part of an intense air and ground offensive that marked an escalation in Yemen's yearslong civil war. The conflict pits the internationally recognized government, aided by the Saudi-led coalition, against the Iranian-backed rebels.  The increase in hostilities follows a Houthi claim of a drone and missile attack that struck inside the United Arab Emirates' capital earlier in the week. It also comes as government forces, aided by UAE-backed troops and coalition airstrikes, have reclaimed the entire Shabwa province from the Houthis and pressured them in the central Marib province. Houthis have for a year attempted to take control of its provincial capital.  Ahmed Mahat, head of Doctors Without Borders's mission in Yemen, told The Associated Press his group counted at least 82 dead and more than 265 wounded in the airstrike.  The Houthis' media office said rescuers were still searching for survivors and bodies in the rubble of the prison site in Saada on the border with Saudi Arabia. Saudi coalition spokesperson Brig. Gen. Turki al-Malki said the Houthis hadn't reported the site as needing protection from airstrikes to the U.N. or the International Committee of the Red Cross. He claimed the Houthis' failure to do so represented the militia's "usual deceptive approach" in the conflict.  The Houthis used the prison complex to hold detained migrants, mostly Africans attempting to cross through the war-torn country into Saudi Arabia, according to the humanitarian organization Save the Children.   But Mahat, of Doctors Without Borders, said the airstrike hit a different part of the facility, and no migrants were killed. Al-Malki said reports that the coalition targeted the prison were inaccurate and that the coalition would correspond "facts and details" to the U.N. and the ICRC, according to Saudi state-run television. The Saada attack followed another Saudi-led coalition airstrike Friday at the Red Sea port city of Hodeida that hit a telecommunications center key to Yemen's connection to the internet. Access to the internet has remained "largely down for more than 24 hours" in the country, advocacy group NetBlocks said Saturday. The Saada airstrike, one of the deadliest of the war, was not the first to hit a Houthi-run prison. A September 2019 airstrike hit a detention center the southwestern Dhamar province, killing more than 100 people and wounding dozens. Rights groups have previously documented that the Houthis place civilian detention centers near military barracks under constant threat of airstrikes. Friday's airstrikes have renewed criticism of the coalition from the United Nations and international aid and rights groups, who just days previous had criticized the Houthis for the attack on the Emirates. The coalition continued its airstrikes on Sanaa and elsewhere Saturday, targeting a Houthi-held military facility and an abandoned headquarters of Yemeni state TV in the capital. The coalition said airstrikes also targeted the Houthis in the contested Harib district in Marib. And Yemeni forces closely allied with the UAE, known as the Giants Brigades, said they shot down three drones carrying explosives launched by the Houthis on government-held areas in Marib and Shabwa provinces. The rebels, meanwhile, held a funeral procession in Sanaa for a senior military official killed along with family members in a coalition airstrike last week. Hundreds of Houthi supporters attended the military funeral of Gen. Abdalla Kassem al-Junaid, who headed the Air Academy. U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken urged the warring parties to stop the escalation. "We urge all parties to commit to a peaceful, diplomatic solution to ending the conflict. The Yemeni people deserve to live in peace and determine their own future," he wrote on Twitter. The latest escalation comes almost a year after President Joe Biden's administration announced an end to U.S. support for the coalition and removed the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group as part of American efforts to end the grinding war. he Houthi-claimed attack on the UAE on Monday prompted Biden to say that his administration would consider restoring the status of the Iranian-backed rebels as terrorists. 

Hundreds March in Street Protests in Burkina Faso

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In conflict-stricken Burkina Faso, hundreds marched in cities across the country to protest insecurity and show solidarity for Mali, recently placed under sanctions by the West African political bloc ECOWAS. On Saturday morning, just before 9 a.m., around 300 protesters gathered in downtown Ouagadougou, some to show their anger toward the government’s handling of security, others to show solidarity with protests that took place in neighboring Mali last weekend. Ali Sankara, owner of a shop in the neighborhood of Koulouba, where the protests took place, told VOA, “We are here to protect our property and people, and now [police] are shooting tear gas all over the place. If they cause a fire here, who's going to pay the price? We only came out to protect our property.” On Thursday, authorities had banned the protests. As a result, the police Saturday were quick to enforce the restrictions after protesters began erecting blockades on one of the city’s main roads. The police detonated a flashbang as they began to use force to break up the crowd. Since Jan. 10, the government has blocked access to Facebook throughout the country in an apparent effort to prevent protesters from communicating and turning out in large numbers. Ibrahima Maiga of the Movement to Save Burkina Faso, one of the organizations behind the protests, told VOA, “I think the fact they banned the protests is something that gives us more reason to protest. It is something that should not happen in a country where people claim to be elected. This kind of behavior should happen only in a country where there is no freedom.” Two of the protest organizers were detained Thursday by authorities. Burkina Faso’s government has been under pressure from protesters since November. Demonstrations swept the country after an attack on a military base, which had not been supplied with food for two weeks, by terrorists linked to al-Qaida, killing at least 49 military personnel. In response, President Roch Kabore fired his Cabinet and formed a new one in December. He also fired many of the military’s top commanders to appease critics. Meanwhile, in neighboring Mali, thousands of citizens turned out last weekend to protest sanctions placed on the country by the West African political bloc ECOWAS. The country’s president, Assimi Goita, took power in a coup last year and is refusing to hold democratic elections for at least another five years, drawing pressure from the international community. Some of the protesters in Burkina Faso wore T-shirts with images of Goita and expressed solidarity with recent protests in Mali. Like Mali, Burkina Faso has been embroiled in a six-year conflict with terrorist groups linked to Islamic State, al-Qaida and local banditry. As he clean the tear gas from his eyes with water, protester Amidou Tiemtore told VOA, “What is happening now in our country is sad … And now, with all that’s happening we are told now is not the time to take to the streets. If this is not the time to march, then when is the time?” he asked. A government spokesperson was not immediately available to comment on the protests.    

UK Accuses Kremlin of Trying to Install Pro-Russian Leader in Ukraine

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Britain on Saturday accused the Kremlin of seeking to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine and said Russian intelligence officers had been in contact with several former Ukrainian politicians as part of plans for an invasion.  The British foreign ministry declined to provide evidence to back its accusations, which came at a time of high tension between Russia and the West over Russia's massing of troops near its border with Ukraine. Moscow has insisted it has no plans to invade.  The British ministry said it had information the Russian government was considering former Ukrainian lawmaker Yevheniy Murayev as a potential candidate to head a pro-Russian leadership.  'Deeply concerning,' US says "We will not tolerate Kremlin plot to install pro-Russian leadership in Ukraine," British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Twitter. "The Kremlin knows a military incursion would be a massive strategic mistake & the UK and our partners would impose a severe cost on Russia."  The British statement was released in early Sunday, Moscow and Kyiv time, and there was no immediate statement from the Kremlin.  A foreign ministry source said it was not the usual practice to share intelligence matters, and the details had only been declassified after careful consideration to deter Russian aggression.  "This kind of plotting is deeply concerning,” U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement. “The Ukrainian people have the sovereign right to determine their own future, and we stand with our democratically elected partners in Ukraine."  Unpopular politicians Murayev, 45, is a pro-Russian politician who opposes Ukraine's integration with the West. According to a poll by the Razumkov’s Centre think tank conducted in December 2021, he was ranked seventh among candidates for the 2024 presidential election with 6.3% support.  "You’ve made my evening. The British Foreign Office seems confused," Murayev told Britain's Observer newspaper. "It isn’t very logical. I’m banned from Russia. Not only that but money from my father’s firm there has been confiscated."  Britain, which this week supplied 2,000 missiles and a team of military trainers to Ukraine, also said it had information that Russian intelligence services were maintaining links with "numerous" former Ukrainian politicians, including senior figures with links to ex-President Viktor Yanukovich.  Yanukovich fled to Russia in 2014 after three months of protests against his rule and was sentenced in absentia to 13 years in jail on treason charges in 2019.  "Some of these [former Ukrainian politicians] have contact with Russian intelligence officers currently involved in the planning for an attack on Ukraine," the British foreign office statement said.  British pressure Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Downing Street office also said the British leader was planning to ramp up pressure on Russia this week by calling for European counterparts to come together with the United States to face down Russian aggression.  Earlier, RIA news agency reported that Truss would visit Moscow in February to meet her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, while Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his British counterpart Ben Wallace have also agreed to hold talks.

Peru Declares 'Environmental Emergency' Along Coast Hit by Oil Spill 

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Peru on Saturday declared an "environmental emergency" along a stretch of coast hit by an oil spill caused by freak waves from a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific.  With the 90-day decree, the government said it plans "sustainable management" of 21 beaches tarred by 6,000 barrels of oil that spilled from a tanker ship unloading at a refinery last Saturday.  That accident followed the stunningly powerful eruption of an undersea volcano near the nation of Tonga, unleashing tsunami waves around the Pacific and as far away as the United States.  In Peru, the oil spill near Lima has fouled beaches, killed birds and harmed the fishing and tourism industries.  Refinery asked to pay The government is demanding payment of damages from the Spanish energy giant that owns the refinery.  The environment ministry said 174 hectares, the equivalent of 270 football fields, of sea, beaches and natural reserves were affected by the spill.  Crews are working to clean up the spill.  In declaring the emergency Saturday, the environment ministry said: "The spill amounts to a sudden event of significant impact on the coastal marine ecosystem, which has major biological diversity."  It said that over the short term Repsol is responsible for emergency cleanup operations.  Its refinery is in the town of Ventanilla near Lima.  Spill  Repsol has said the spill occurred because of the tsunami caused by the eruption in the Pacific.  The company is arguing that it is not responsible for the spill because it says the government gave no warning that there might be rough waters from that undersea blast halfway around the world.  Last week fishermen and other local people who live off the sea and tourism staged protests over the sudden loss of their livelihood. 

German Navy Chief Resigns Over Putin, Ukraine Remarks 

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Germany's navy chief stepped down on Saturday after drawing criticism for saying Russian President Vladimir Putin deserved respect and that Kyiv would never win back annexed Crimea from Moscow.  "I have asked Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht to relieve me from my duties with immediate effect," Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach said in a statement. "The minister has accepted my request."  Schoenbach made the remarks to a think-tank discussion in India on Friday, and video was published on social media. The comments came at a sensitive time as Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine's borders.  Diplomatic efforts are focused on preventing an escalation. Russia denies it is planning to invade Ukraine.  Speaking in India In New Delhi, Schoenbach, speaking in English, said Putin seeks to be treated as an equal by the West.  "What he (Putin) really wants is respect," Schoenbach said.  "And my God, giving someone respect is low cost, even no cost. … It is easy to give him the respect he really demands, and probably also deserves," Schoenbach said, calling Russia an old and important country.  Schoenbach conceded Russia's actions in Ukraine needed to be addressed. But he added that "the Crimea Peninsula is gone, it will never come back, this is a fact," contradicting the joint Western position that Moscow's annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 cannot be accepted and must be reversed.  Before Schoenbach's resignation, the defense ministry publicly criticized his remarks, saying they did not reflect Germany's position in either content or wording.  Schoenbach apologized for his comments.  "My rash remarks in India … are increasingly putting a strain on my office," he said. "I consider this step (the resignation) necessary to avert further damage to the German navy, the German forces, and, in particular, the Federal Republic of Germany."  Ukraine rejects comments The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry had called on Germany to publicly reject the navy chief's comments. Schoenbach's comments could impair Western efforts to de-escalate the situation, Ukraine said in a statement.  "Ukraine is grateful to Germany for the support it has already provided since 2014, as well as for the diplomatic efforts to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict. But Germany's current statements are disappointing and run counter to that support and effort," Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said separately in tweet. 

China's Success Taming Virus Could Make Exit Strategy Harder

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The sweeping "zero-tolerance" strategy that China has used to keep COVID-19 case numbers low and its economy functioning may, paradoxically, make it harder for the country to exit the pandemic.  Most experts say the coronavirus around the world isn't going away and believe it could eventually become, like the flu, a persistent but generally manageable threat if enough people gain immunity through infections and vaccines.  In countries like Britain and the U.S., which have had comparatively light restrictions against the omicron wave, there is a glimmer of hope that the process might be underway. Cases skyrocketed in recent weeks but have since dropped in Britain and may have leveled off in the U.S., perhaps because the extremely contagious variant is running out of people to infect. Some places already are talking about easing COVID-19 precautions.  China, which will be in the international spotlight when the Beijing Winter Olympics begin in two weeks, is not seeing the same dynamic.  Find and isolate The communist government's practice throughout the pandemic of trying to find and isolate every infected person has largely protected hospitals from becoming overwhelmed and staved off the deaths that have engulfed most of the world.  But the uncompromising approach also means most people in China have never been exposed to the virus. At the same time, the effectiveness of China's most widely used vaccines has been called into question. New studies suggest they offer significantly less protection against infection from omicron, even after three doses, than people get after booster shots of the leading Western vaccines.  Together, those factors could complicate China's effort to get past the pandemic. Experts say if the country of 1.4 billion people were to relax restrictions, it could face a surge similar to what Singapore or Australia experienced, despite a highly vaccinated population.  "China's susceptibility to outbreaks is likely to be more because most people have not been exposed to the virus due to the stringent measures that were put in place, thus lacking hybrid immunity, which is supposed to prove better protection than vaccination alone," said Dr. Vineeta Bal, an immunologist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research. "It is risky for China to reopen right now because omicron is spreading globally, and even if the variant doesn't cause major illness, it'll spread like wildfire," she added.  Dali Yang, a professor who studies Chinese politics at the University of Chicago, said, "It's a big challenge, for leaders, especially their rhetoric on saving lives. How do you justify opening up and then having tens of thousands of people dying in the process?"  Tough-minded strategy Chinese President Xi Jinping has cited China's approach as a "major strategic success" and evidence of the "significant advantages" of its political system over Western liberal democracies.  The world's most populous nation was the only major economy to grow in 2020, and it accounted for a fraction of global deaths and infections. As part of the country's tough-minded strategy for keeping the virus at bay, residents in Chinese cities must display their infection status on a government-monitored app to enter supermarkets, offices or even the capital.  But weeks ahead of the Olympics, omicron is testing this approach with outbreaks in the southern province of Guangdong, as well as Beijing.  Organizers of the Olympics announced they will not sell tickets locally and will allow only select spectators in. Foreign fans are not allowed.  Stay home for the new year Authorities have also asked people to not visit their hometowns around the Lunar New Year at the start of February, a move that will dampen spending during China's most important family holiday. And the major city of Xi'an in the west and parts of Ningbo, a busy port south of Shanghai, are under lockdown.  With the Communist Party gearing up for a major meeting this fall, at which Xi is expected to be appointed to a third term as party leader, China is unlikely to relax its policies in a major way any time soon.  "If the numbers from COVID start to skyrocket to big levels, then this will reflect badly on his leadership," said Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese political leadership at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.  China relies heavily on its own Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, along with several others made domestically. It has not approved the Pfizer shot, even though a Chinese company bought distribution rights in 2020.  Instead, the focus is on developing China's own mRNA vaccines, like the Pfizer and Moderna formulas. One such vaccine is in late trials.  Another option for China may be to track how the virus is evolving and put off opening its borders until it becomes even milder. But it's anyone’s guess when or if that might happen.  "What will the next variant be? How serious will it be? You can't tell," Bal said. 

Stray Bullet Kills English Astrophysicist Visiting Atlanta 

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A stray bullet struck and killed an English astrophysicist while he was inside an Atlanta-area apartment, authorities say.  Matthew Willson, 31, of Chertsey, Surrey, England, was visiting his girlfriend in the United States when he was hit by a bullet that pierced the wall of the apartment. The shooting happened early Sunday morning, only three days into his visit.  "He was supposed to be here for three months because we've been long distance for a while," Katherine Shepard, his girlfriend of three years, told WSB-TV. "I picked him up from the airport, took him to his favorite eating location, and the next day, he's gone."  Gunshots nearby Shepard, whose apartment is in the Atlanta suburb of Brookhaven, who told the television station that the couple woke up on January 16 to the sound of more than 30 gunshots coming from an apartment complex directly behind Shepard's. A bullet traveled through Shepard's wall, hitting Willson, she said. "I held him for another 20 minutes while we waited for the ambulance," she said. "And while we were waiting, there were more gunshots fired."  Police were in the vicinity pursuing reports of gunfire when the 911 call from Shepard came in. Sgt. Jake Kissel of the Brookhaven criminal investigations division said that once officers arrived at the scene, they rendered aid until paramedics arrived.  "Dr. Willson was transported to a local trauma center where he succumbed to his injuries," Kissel said in a statement. The shooting appeared to be a "random act involving individuals participating in the reckless discharge" of firearms.  Family, friends mourn Willson was being mourned by family, friends and his alma mater, the University of Exeter.  "Matthew Willson was a former Ph.D. student at the University of Exeter and much-loved member of our astrophysics team," a university spokesman said in a statement.  No arrests have been announced. Brookhaven police have asked for witnesses or anyone with information about the shooting to contact them. 

Wildfire Along California's Big Sur Forces Evacuations

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A wind-driven wildfire broke out late Friday in the rugged mountains above Big Sur, forcing residents to evacuate from their homes and authorities to shut down a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. The fire started in a canyon and was pushed by 35 mph (56 kph) winds to the sea, jumping the highway and burning on the west side. It burned at least 2.3 square miles (6 square kilometers) and was 5% contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Saturday.   The Monterey County Sheriff's office ordered evacuations in a sparsely populated area between Carmel and Big Sur and shut down a stretch of Highway 1.   Evacuees shared on social media dramatic images of burning flames behind iconic Bixby Bridge. The concrete bridge spans the deep and wild canyon along the highway and has been the backdrop of many car commercials, movies and TV shows, most recently the HBO drama "Big Little Lies."   Strong winds were recorded across the San Francisco Bay Area and a swath of the Sierra Nevada overnight, knocking down trees and power lines and causing outages in numerous neighborhoods.   Many areas were subject to wind advisories. In Sonoma County, firefighters extinguished a 5-acre fire on Geyser Peak, where gusts above 90 mph (145 kph) were recorded.   The National Weather Service said a similar windy event happened in the region nearly a year ago on the night of Jan. 18. A red flag warning of extreme fire danger was issued then due to the strong winds and much drier conditions. This time, the region was still moist after December storms dumped heavy snow in the mountains and partially refilled parched reservoirs, providing some relief from what had been an exceptionally dry year. Warnings of gusts from 50 mph to 70 mph (80-113 kph) were set to go into effect in much of Southern California by midafternoon Saturday.

Italy's Berlusconi Decides Against Running for President

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Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi decided against running for president, he said in a statement on Saturday, removing an obstacle to cross-party negotiations ahead of the vote in parliament beginning January 24. The nomination of Prime Minister Mario Draghi is seen as the most probable outcome, but it is still unclear whether the broad sweep of parties that support his coalition will endorse him for fear his departure could trigger an early national election. Berlusconi said he wanted the former European Central Bank president to remain at the helm of the government until the natural end of the legislature in 2023. "I have decided to take another step on the road to national responsibility, asking those who proposed it to renounce indicating my name for the presidency of the republic," Berlusconi said. The rightist coalition had asked Berlusconi to run for president, but his bid was unlikely to be successful because of the difficulties in mustering the broad support traditionally needed among the more than 1,000 lawmakers and regional delegates involved. Berlusconi is a highly divisive figure in Italy, and the center-left camp had ruled out backing him. He was temporarily barred from public office after a conviction for tax fraud in 2013 and is still on trial in the latest of a series of instances for bribing witnesses in an underage prostitution case tied to his infamous "Bunga Bunga" sex parties of more than a decade ago. The Italian president has many ceremonial duties, but is also responsible for resolving political crises, making it a key role in a country where governments survive just one year on average. The winner of the secret parliamentary vote needs a two-thirds majority in any of the first three rounds of voting. An absolute majority is sufficient thereafter. Neither the center-right nor the center-left bloc have enough votes to impose a candidate from their own camp, meaning some sort of compromise is needed to prevent prolonged stalemate. "We will work with the leaders of the center-right ... to agree on a name that can gather a broad consensus in Parliament," Berlusconi's statement said. Berlusconi's rightist allies, Matteo Salvini's League and the Brothers of Italy, said they appreciated his decision. In a statement, Salvini said the center-right bloc was united and ready to make several "high-profile" proposals.

In Hong Kong, 'Normal Journalism' Doesn't Work Anymore

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"In the face of a bleak winter of a political purge … we refuse to remain silent." These words greet readers of Flow HK, a news magazine with a self-styled mission to fill the news void of Hong Kong's depleted media scene. Launched in January last year amid concerns about the possible effect Hong Kong's new national security law might have on the media, Flow HK has headquarters in Taiwan and a team of 10 publishing content online and via a quarterly print edition. "So many things cannot be discussed and deliberated (in Hong Kong); so many things are so sensitive that people in Hong Kong cannot discuss, and that is why our magazines have 100% press freedom. We have 100% freedom of speech; we allow any form of discussion," said chief editor Sunny Cheung. Flow HK takes on political topics such as pro-democracy activism overseas and discussions about boycotts of legislative council elections in December, subjects that have become sensitive since the national security law was enforced.  Cheung, 25, is a pro-democracy activist who ran in a Legislative Council election and spoke to the U.S. Congress about the crackdown on activism in Hong Kong. He left the city in August 2020 because of an outstanding arrest warrant. Now in Washington, Cheung told VOA he believes he is facing several charges but didn't go into further detail.  Reporting at the time said Cheung had been due to stand trial for allegedly taking part in an unauthorized vigil. When it came to deciding on a base for Flow HK — made up of journalists and writers from Hong Kong —Taiwan was the preferred place because of its similar culture, Cheung said.  But, he added, the "deteriorating environment" in Hong Kong was also a factor. It is vital that media continue to monitor the government, Cheung said. "We operate (in Taiwan) and hope to maintain our daily Hong Kong diaspora there." Cheung believes more media will look to operate outside the city to avoid the risk of legal action.  Media outlet closures In the past year, at least four news outlets have been forced to close, including the pro-democracy Apple Daily and Stand News, both of which shuttered after authorities launched legal investigations against staff. "Without Apple Daily, without Stand News, without Citizen News, there is very limited authentic pro-democracy news that can be read by people on a daily basis," Cheung said. The risks for pro-democracy media in the city are becoming untenable, said Keith Richburg, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.  "Anything with a pro-democracy stance is going to be taken out," Richburg told VOA. Speaking metaphorically, he added, "They're doing drive-by shootings against anybody who takes a stance that's pro-democracy or anything against the so-called 'patriots' of Hong Kong." "I think it's inevitable you're going to see a lot more reporting done about Hong Kong from outside of Hong Kong just because the restrictions are too great and the risks are too great." Some established news outlets have already started to move staff out. The New York Times reported in 2020 that it was shifting some staff to Seoul, South Korea. In a memo, senior managers cited visa and work permit issues and said the national security law had created "uncertainty about what the new rules will mean to our operation and our journalism." In a similar move, local media outlet Initium Media announced in August it had relocated its headquarters to Singapore.  Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam has dismissed concerns that media freedom is in decline in the city.  At a press briefing earlier this month, Lam said she "strongly refute(s) allegations" that the closure of media outlets was "related to the implementation of the national security law."   New ventures emerging Some staff from shuttered outlets are banding together to start new ventures. Commons Hong Kong, an online news platform based in Britain and Taiwan, started in October. It has a team of eight, including journalists who worked at Apple Daily. The Chinese-language site covers news from Hong Kong and international reporting. Stories this week included a report on kung fu master and film producer Checkley Sin Kwok-Lam, who announced a plan to run for the city's chief executive, and updates on a cull of hamsters because of a coronavirus outbreak. The website's editor in chief, who goes by the pseudonym "J," is based in Taiwan. He told VOA that reporting freely outside of Hong Kong is an advantage. "We're trying to find many foreign Hong Kongers in the U.K. and Taiwan for some profile interviews; we're trying to find some interesting stories from them. We're also writing some international news for Hong Kongers as well," J said, adding that he had seen a gap in the amount of available news from Hong Kong.  "Normal journalism doesn't work anymore in Hong Kong. You can be arrested or jailed for saying something the government doesn't like," he added. So far, Commons Hong Kong has made a good start. Its reach on social media in the past 28 days rose to over 900,000, and it has 7,382 Facebook followers. In her briefing this month, Lam said that since June 2020, Hong Kong had seen an increase in local and foreign media outlets registered in the city. Richburg disputed that figure, saying the requirement that foreign media register with the government started only after Hong Kong authorities switched the press guidelines in September 2020. "For any of those foreign media in town, they were already here, so they just decided to go register with the government and information department. That doesn't mean they just moved to Hong Kong." VOA contacted Hong Kong's Inland Revenue Department for a list of registered media, but the request was denied under the Business Registration Ordinance. A government fact sheet from November states that citizens are well informed and the media industry "enjoys complete freedom of expression" with 94 daily papers, including 61 in Chinese and 13 in English. While outlets such as Flow HK and Commons Hong Kong are trying to keep independent news and debate available, it can be a struggle.  Covering Hong Kong overseas isn't easy, Cheung said. "There will be limitations. After all, we don't have our own journalists and correspondents in Hong Kong."

Blinken Authorizes Baltic Countries to Send US Weapons to Ukraine

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday he authorized the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to send U.S.-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, a move that comes amid Ukraine’s rising tensions with neighboring Russia. “I expedited and authorized, and we fully endorse transfers of defensive equipment @NATO Allies Estonia Latvia Lithuania are providing to Ukraine to strengthen its ability to defend itself against Russia’s unprovoked and irresponsible aggression,” Blinken said in a post on Twitter.  Blinken also thanked the former Soviet Republics and NATO members, “for their longstanding support to Ukraine.” Blinken’s announced approval of the arms shipments came one day after the U.S. and Russia appeared to make little progress in the increasingly high-stakes standoff over Ukraine, each side leaving the latest round of high-level talks Friday promising only to keep talking. Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met for about an hour and a half in Geneva, with both officials refusing to budge on core demands. The United States and Russia appeared to make little progress in the increasingly high-stakes standoff over Ukraine, each side leaving the latest round of high-level talks Friday promising only to keep talking. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met for about an hour and a half in Geneva, with both officials refusing to budge on core demands. Blinken, in particular, described the impasse in stark terms. “If any of Russia’s military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion. It will be met with a swift, severe and a united response from the United States and our partners and allies,” Blinken told reporters after the meeting. The West is demanding that Russia pull its troops and weapons away from the Ukraine border while Moscow is pushing for NATO to curtail its operations in eastern and central Europe and insisting that the Western military alliance reject Ukraine’s membership bid. Blinken said the U.S. and its allies are prepared to address Russia’s concerns, though not without conditions. “The United States, our allies and partners are prepared to pursue possible means of addressing them in a spirit of reciprocity, which means simply put that Russia must also address our concerns,” Blinken said. “There are several steps we can take, all of us, Russia included, to increase transparency, to reduce risks, to advance arms control, to build trust,” Blinken added. U.S. officials say Russia has amassed nearly 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, including in Belarus and in occupied Crimea. Blinken warned earlier this month that Moscow could “mobilize twice that number on very short order." “They have a significant force posture there and that hasn't decreased. In fact, it has continued to increase. And we remain concerned about that,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Friday. Despite such concerns from the U.S. and its allies, Lavrov on Friday sought to paint Ukraine as the aggressor. “No one is hiding the fact that weapons are being handed over to Ukraine, that hundreds of military instructors are flocking to Ukraine right now,” Lavrov said. Still, the Russian foreign minister called the talks “constructive and useful.”  Lavrov also said talks would continue over the Kremlin’s security demands and that both Russia and the U.S. had committed to put their concerns in writing for further discussion. Both Lavrov and Blinken said there is a possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden could talk, if both sides feel it might be helpful. However, some of Russia’s renewed demands drew a sharper response from U.S. allies and partners, including NATO. “NATO will not renounce our ability to protect and defend each other, including with the presence of troops in the eastern part of the alliance,” spokesperson Oana Lungescu said in a statement Friday, rejecting demands that NATO pull troops from Bulgaria and Romania. “We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense,” she said.  The U.S. also sought to reassure allies, including Kyiv. Blinken “reaffirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” in a phone call Friday with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, the State Department said. Amid the tensions and ongoing political maneuvering, the head of the United Nations appealed for calm. “It is clear that my message is that there should not be any military intervention in this context,” said Secretary-General António Guterres. “I hope that this, of course, will not happen in the present circumstances. I am convinced it will not happen and I strongly hope to be right.” But in a joint statement late Friday, the defense ministers of the three Baltic states said they “stand united in our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in face of continued Russian aggression.” The statement said Estonia would provide Ukraine with anti-tank weapons, while Latvia and Lithuania were transporting anti-aircraft missiles and other equipment to strengthen Ukraine’s defensive military capabilities. It was not immediately clear when the weapons and equipment would arrive in Ukraine. The German government said Friday it was considering Estonia’s request to send Ukraine Soviet-made howitzers that East Germany once owned. Estonia acquired them from Finland, which purchased them from Germany's military surplus in the 1990s. Margaret Besheer at the UN in New York, Wayne Lee in Washington contributed to this report. Some material in this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters.

UN Says Thousands of Eritrean Refugees in Tigray Dying as Access to Aid Remains Blocked

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The United Nations Refugee Agency says thousands of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia’s embattled northern Tigray province are living under life-threatening conditions because they have no access to humanitarian aid. U.N. refugee staff members say they were shocked by what they saw when they visited the Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps for Eritrean refugees in southern Tigray for the first time in three weeks.  Intense fighting and security concerns have prevented them from going there until now. Boris Cheshirkov, a spokesman for UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency, says the team found refugees scared and struggling to get enough to eat.  He says they lacked medicine and had little or no access to clean water. “Refugees told UNHCR of increasing preventable deaths—more than 20 over the last six weeks—linked to the overall decline in conditions and in particular the lack of medicine and health services," Cheshirkov said. "The clinics in the camps have been essentially closed since early January, when they finally completely ran out of medicine.”    Conditions in Tigray have seriously deteriorated since the Ethiopian military incursion into the province in November 2020.  The civil conflict since has spread to other regions in northern Ethiopia.   An effective blockade has prevented humanitarian aid, including fuel, from reaching the area since mid-December.  Cheshirkov says extreme hunger is rising because supplies cannot be moved into the region.  He says food is running out in the two camps and refugees have been selling their clothes and few belongings to get food. “If food, medicine, fuel, and other supplies cannot be immediately brought in, and if we continue to be unable to relocate refugees out of harm’s way to where we can provide them with life-saving assistance, more refugees will die," Cheshirkov said. The UNHCR says it wants to relocate the more than 25,000 Eritrean refugees remaining in the two camps to a new site provided by the Ethiopian government in the neighboring Amhara region.  The agency is calling on all parties for a cease-fire and guarantees of safe passage to allow the operation to go ahead.


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