Lebanon's Poorest Scavenge Through Trash to Survive

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In the dark streets of a Beirut now often without electricity, sometimes the only light that shines is from headlamps worn by scavengers, searching through garbage for scrap to sell. Even trash has become a commodity fought over in Lebanon, mired in one of the world's worst financial crises in modern history. With the ranks of scavengers growing among the desperately poor, some tag trash cans with graffiti to mark their territory and beat those who encroach on it. Meanwhile, even better-off families sell their own recyclables because it can get them U.S. dollars rather than the country's collapsing currency. That's left the poor even poorer and fearful for their futures. "There's a lot of poor people like me," said Hoda, a 57-year-old Lebanese mother who has been reduced to scavenging. "But people don't know it. They know what they see, but not what's hidden." The fight for garbage shows the rapid descent of life in Beirut, once known for its entrepreneurial spirit, free-wheeling banking sector and vibrant nightlife. Instead of civil war causing the chaos, the disaster over the past two years was caused by the corruption and mismanagement of the calcified elite that has ruled Lebanon since the end of its 1975-90 conflict. More than half the population has been plunged into poverty. The Lebanese pound has nose-dived. Banks have drastically limited withdrawals and transfers. Hyperinflation has made daily goods either unaffordable or unavailable, forcing those coming back from abroad to fill their suitcases with everything from baby food to heart medication. Trash had been a problem even before the crisis, with major protests in past years against neglect by authorities who sometimes allowed garbage to pile up in the streets. Now, teenagers carrying giant plastic bags roam the streets looking through dumpsters for scraps they can sell.   The trade once used to be the realm of Syrians who fled their own country's grinding civil war. "Nowadays, we go to the dump where we sell what we collect, only to find Lebanese people getting out of their cars to sell their recyclables," said one Syrian, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "Restaurant employees and building janitors also started to sort trash in order to sell it before throwing the rest out." Hoda, who gave just her first name for fear of trouble with authorities, turned to scavenging to support her six daughters, ranging from ages nine to 22, and two grandchildren. She used to sell vegetables on a cart, but police confiscated her wares six different times. She sold tissue boxes, but the currency collapse left her unable to afford them. Then her son Mohammed asked her to join him in scavenging for garbage. Hoda goes to her spot in Beirut's relatively upscale Hamra neighborhood daily and works sometimes until 2 a.m. gathering plastics, cans and anything else she thinks she can sell or use. Once a week, Mohammed takes everything they collect to sell to dealers who specialize in the trade. One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of plastic bags goes for 20 U.S. cents, other plastics for 30 cents, while each kilo of aluminium gets $1. While that doesn't sound like much, the collapse of the Lebanese pound means $1 goes much farther. That access to dollars makes scavenging even more dangerous now. Mohammed said he was beaten up once for crossing into another's scavenger's territory and collecting from a marked dumpster. "When dollars started to rise, people couldn't afford to eat and they started scavenging, and each started to have their own bin," Mohammed said. "If one is standing by a bin and another scavenger comes, a fight will break out." "One of the reasons I asked my mother to join me doing this work is hoping that they wouldn't beat me up when they find my mother with me," he said. Thugs roaming the streets on motorcycles sometimes target scavengers at the end of day to steal the recyclables they collected. "They are ready to kill a person for a plastic bag," Mohammed said. Recyclables aren't the only items Hoda picks up. In her dark room with no windows and no electricity, Hoda keeps scavenged goods that pile up on the floor. A bucket of white paint to maybe use for her room. A light bulb she hopes to use if she ever gets power. On a recent day, Hoda's 16-year-old daughter was struggling with her 2-month-old baby's diarrhea and asked for baby diapers, milk, and bottle nipples. Hoda's eyes sunk in sadness and she shook her head. "My only dream is to have a house for my family and me, where I live like a mother, where I live like a human being." Hoda said, her face wet with tears. "I always laugh and joke around with people, but the inside of my heart is black. I don't let them sense that I am upset. I keep it to myself, keep it inside my heart." Her most treasured item is a tent she received from protesters during Lebanon's 2019 protests. She hopes she'll be able to use it in future protests against the country's rulers. "The politicians who rule us deserve to be burned, they are the reason why we are here," Hoda said. "They eat with spoons of gold while we search for a piece of bread to eat from the floor."

New Approach to Teaching Race in School Divides New Mexico 

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A proposal to overhaul New Mexico's social studies standards has stirred debate over how race should be taught in schools, with thousands of parents and teachers weighing in on changes that would dramatically increase instruction related to racial and social identity beginning in kindergarten.  The revisions in the state are ambitious. New Mexico officials say they hope their standards can be a model for the country of social studies teaching that is culturally responsive, as student populations grow increasingly diverse.  As elsewhere, the move toward more open discussion of race has prompted angry rebukes, with some critics blasting it as racist or Marxist. But the responses also provide a window into how others are wrestling with how and when race should be taught to children beyond the polarizing debates over material branded as "critical race theory."  The responses have not broken down along racial lines, with Indigenous and Latino parents among those expressing concern in one of the country's least racially segregated states. While debates elsewhere have centered on the teaching of enslavement of Black people, some discussions in New Mexico, which is 49% Hispanic and 11% Native American, have focused on the legacy of Spanish conquistadors.  "We refuse to be categorized as victims or oppressors," wrote Michael Franco, a retired Hispanic air traffic controller in Albuquerque who said the standards appeared aimed at categorizing children by race and ethnicity and undercutting the narrative of the American Dream.  The New Mexico Public Education Department's proposed standards are aimed at making civics, history, and geography more inclusive of the state's population so that students feel at home in the curriculum and prepared for a diverse society, according to public statements. "Our out-of-date standards leave New Mexico students with an incomplete understanding of the complex, multicultural world they live in," Public Education Secretary Designate Kurt Steinhaus said. "It's our duty to provide them with a complete education based on known facts. That's what these proposed standards will do."  The plan calls for students to learn about different "identity groups" in kindergarten and "unequal power relations" in later grades. One part of the draft standards would require high school students to "assess how social policies and economic forces offer privilege or systemic inequity" for opportunities for members of identity groups. In a first for the state, ethnic studies and the history of the LGBT rights movement also would be introduced into the curriculum.  An Albuquerque pastor, Rev. Sylvia Miller-Mutia, welcomed the change in her written comment, arguing children see race early, and that learning about it in school can dismantle stereotypes early. When her eldest child was 3, she said that her Filipino dad wasn't American because he has dark skin, while her mother was American because she has light skin.  "Already, a cultural script that said to be American is to be light-skinned had somehow seeped into my preschooler's consciousness," Miller-Mutia said in an interview.  Many Democratic-run states across the country are looking to diversify those cultural scripts, while Republican-run ones are putting up guardrails against possible changes. California was among the first states last year to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement. Texas passed a law requiring teachers to present multiple perspectives on all issues and one Indiana lawmaker proposed that teachers be required to take a "neutral" position.  The education department in New Mexico is reviewing over 1,300 letters on the proposed standards along with dozens of comments from an online forum in November. The standards were written with input from 64 people around the state, mostly social studies teachers, and are to be published next spring with revisions.  Among the authors was Wendy Leighton, a Santa Fe middle school history teacher. As a leader of the revisions for the history section of the standards, she said the goal was to take marginalized groups like indigenous, LGBTQ and other people "that are often not in textbooks or pushed to the side and making them kind of more closer to the center."  Identity was the center of a class she taught in December, where students learning about the Salem witch trials identified which groups were at the center of power — clergy, men — and which were on the margins — women, servants.  "What's a marginalized group in America today?" she asked the class.  State Republicans have argued that parents should teach their children sensitive topics like race and that there are bigger priorities in a state that ranks toward the bottom in academic achievement.  "The focus that I feel is urgent is math, reading and writing. Not social studies standards," said state Rep. Rebecca Dow, one of six candidates for the Republican nomination for governor next year, hoping to unseat Democratic incumbent Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.  Some parents who wrote public comments said they would rather homeschool their children than have them learn under the proposed standards.  "Struggle and adversity have never been limited to one specific race or ethnicity. Neither has privilege," wrote Lucas Tieme, a father of five public school students, who are white.  Tieme, a bus driver for Rio Rancho public schools, said his wife was homeschooled so they'd be ready to take their kids out of school if it came to that.  Some parents who support the changes generally are skeptical of introducing race for the youngest students.  Sheldon Pickering, 41, has two adopted children who are Black, and has seen casual racism against his kids escalate as they reach adolescence in Farmington, near the southeast corner of Utah and the eastern part of the Navajo Nation. He has had "the talk" with his Black son, instructing him how to interact with police. But Pickering, who is white, worries about schools introducing too much too soon.  "If we start too early, we rob kids of this rare time in their life that they have just to be kids," said Pickering, a cleaning business owner. "They just get to be these amazing little kids and enjoy life without preconceived notions, without context." 

Uzbeks Perplexed as US Veterans Link Illnesses to Air Base

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Residents living near Karshi-Khanabad harbor have fond memories of the American soldiers who served at the Uzbek air base widely known as K2 between 2001 and 2005, describing the period as one of their happiest times. But for many of the Americans, lingering affection for the residents is outweighed by persistent debilitating ailments that they attribute to toxic and radioactive waste at the base.  "The American period was a wonderful time," said Oysaot Toparova, a resident now in her late 70s who served for many years as a politician in the adjacent village of Khanabad. "U.S. military visiting our schools, meeting the community, we loved it. I think Uzbekistan and the U.S. got the best out of that cooperation."  Mark Jackson, board chairman of the Stronghold Freedom Foundation,  which represents retired and active American military personnel, also describes "wonderful memories of Uzbekistan." He says he interacted with locals daily, went to homes, enjoyed tea and meals, and traveled across the country. He is still fascinated with its history and culture.  But, he told VOA, his time at K2 has left him with another legacy, one of relentless illness and pain that he blames on environmental hazards left over from the Soviet era in Uzbekistan, a connection he has found frustratingly difficult to substantiate.  "I cannot provide you with hard facts," he said in an interview. "The facts I have are my body and the tombstones. We were ignored for 20 years until we made enough noise to force Washington to acknowledge that people went to a place that the government itself admitted in 2001 and 2004 was environmentally degraded and polluted." The membership of his organization includes "some profoundly ill people," Jackson said.  "Wars are fought with bullets and bombs. This is a very slow-moving bullet, moving through my body. I'll give myself an injection in the belly every day for the next two years, because I have the bones of an 80-year-old woman, on top of a dying thyroid and a gastrointestinal tract that mimics that of an 80-year-old man."  Recently revealed U.S. documents confirm that the Pentagon suspected K2 could have hazardous chemicals left over from its days as a Soviet military facility. Now, Johns Hopkins University is conducting an 18-month long longitudinal epidemiological study among K2 veterans, following on an executive order by former U.S. President Donald Trump.    'Nothing of concern'  But during a recent visit to Khanabad by VOA, residents said they were perplexed by the American complaints. They noted that thousands of Uzbek air force members and civilian workers still work at the site, and about 10,000 people live nearby.  "We live next to the base," said Dostmurod Odayev, a community leader in his 60s who describes K2 as an integral part of life in the region. "Our people work there. We have military residents serving there. I've never heard of anyone getting sick because of environmental issues or radiation at K2."  Zoyir Mirzayev, who until last month governed the Kashkadarya region, which includes the air base, told VOA that local authorities had not found evidence that would back up Jackson's complaints.  "We are aware of these American claims," he said. "We looked at environmental and health data but found nothing of concern and don't believe K2 has radiation or deadly chemicals." Odayev pointed out that the area around the base is prime farmland, and families were wrapping up the harvest beneath the constant roar of aircraft when VOA visited. While access to the base was not permitted, there was no visible evidence of a toxic environment amid the scent of fresh roses blooming in winter and livestock enjoying the surrounding pastures.  Ovul Nazarov, 61, said "they seemed to enjoy their time in Uzbekistan, so these claims sound strange to us," he said. Quvvat Khidirov, another retired Uzbek officer, with nearly 30 years of service at K2, also does not understand "American complaints." "I worked in a really old building at K2 for more than two decades. If the site were toxic with all those chemicals we've been hearing about from American colleagues, I should know many sick people here, but I don't. I'm in good health myself."  Misqol Polvonova, 62, calls herself a K2 neighbor. She raised six children across the street from the base. "We used to watch American jets flying low. You know, we spend a lot of time outside. We sleep in the open air all summer. All my children are healthy. I have 15 grandkids."  Such accounts do not convince Jackson, who doubts that Uzbeks can speak freely about an issue as sensitive as hazardous waste at a strategic military facility. His group has set up a private Facebook page where Uzbeks are invited to share their experiences and connect with American K2 veterans.  "Maybe they know somebody who died of a very strange cancer or brain disorder, or maybe they have chronic gastrointestinal issues or some of their other organs are failing, or they have anemia. And these have just become part of life, as they're part of mine," he said.  Jackson argued that without the results of the ongoing longitudinal study as well as testing of air and soil, an objective review of historical records, and permission for scientists to report without interference, Uzbekistan has no credibility. He said the point is not to bring shame upon Uzbeks. "The shame belongs to the Soviets who destroyed the environment, dumping petroleum products and radiation and asbestos into the soil." US government's response  Since Jackson's movement started, some things have changed. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has surveyed military exposures on K2, outlining potential threats including jet fuel, which "may have occurred as a result of a leaking Soviet-era underground jet fuel distribution system," and volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and dust.  The VA also mentions depleted uranium, noting that "Soviet missiles were destroyed there, contaminating some areas of surface dirt with low-level, radioactive, depleted uranium." Asbestos and lead are listed as having been present at K2 structures while Americans were there.  Stronghold Freedom Foundation highlights that 15,000-16,000 military personnel were deployed to K2, with about 1,300 service members present at any time. The group argues, based on its findings, findings (((https://strongholdfreedomfoundation.org/k2-facts/#documents-facts))) that at least 75% of those deployed only to Uzbekistan have developed serious illnesses.  Yet veterans complain of "endless paperwork" required to get proper treatment. They want recognition that their illnesses are connected to their service in K2.  U.S. Representative Mark Green, a K2 veteran and Republican from Tennessee, co-sponsored a bipartisan bill in February 2020 directing the U.S. secretary of defense to recognize K2 veterans' "severe and deadly service-connected illnesses."  That and other legislative efforts in 2021 did not move forward, but the veterans still hope for congressional action. They note that their cause has support from lawmakers as ideologically opposed as Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican Senator Marco Rubio.  Gillibrand and Rubio "could not be farther apart politically yet stood together on K2. They know what's right," Jackson said.  One of the biggest gains for K2 veterans has been a House Oversight committee decision to declassify about 400 pages of information on the base. "This will never be about money, but if money comes from recognition for the few that deserve it, so be it," Jackson said.  "Every single person who knows anything about Capitol Hill told us it was too expensive," said Jackson, who spoke at hearings and engaged lawmakers. His response: "If you build two less F-35s, we'll be good." Jackson also said his grandfather served as a colonel in the Korean War and his father was a Vietnam veteran.  "I remember their complaints about how the government treated them. … We've been in armed conflict with somebody since before we were a country. But we consistently forget the people who fought those wars."      

Norway Killer Breivik Tests Limits of Lenient Justice System

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Convicted mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik spends his days in a spacious three-room cell, playing video games, exercising, watching TV and taking university-level courses in mathematics and business.  Halfway through a 21-year sentence and seeking early release, Breivik, 42, is being treated in a way that might seem shocking to people outside Norway, where he killed eight in an Oslo bombing in 2011, and then stalked and gunned down 69 people, mostly teens, at a summer camp.  But here — no matter how wicked the crime — convicts benefit from a criminal justice system that is designed to offer prisoners some of the comforts and opportunities of life on the outside.  Still, Breivik's extreme case is testing the limits of Norway's commitment to tolerance and rehabilitation.  "We have never had anyone in Norway who has been responsible for this level of violence before. And there has been debate here about whether part of the justice system should be changed for someone like him," said Erik Kursetgjerde, who survived the slaughter on Utoya island as an 18-year-old. However, he advises a slow approach that does not bend to Breivik's desire to subvert the system.  Nazi salute During a three-day parole hearing this week that was broadcast to journalists, Breivik renounced violence, but also flashed a Nazi salute and espoused white supremacy, echoing ideas in a manifesto he released at the time of his killing spree. The outburst was familiar to Norwegians who had watched him deliver rambling diatribes during his partially televised criminal trial. "Obviously this has been extremely trying for survivors, the bereaved and Norwegian society as a whole," said Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, professor of law at the University of Oslo, adding that there is debate in Norway over whether parole regulations should be overhauled in a bid to prevent this type of grandstanding.  In 2016, Breivik successfully sued the Norwegian government for human rights abuses, complaining about his isolation from other prisoners, frequent strip searches and the fact that he was often handcuffed during the early part of his incarceration. He also complained about the quality of the prison food, having to eat with plastic utensils and not being able to communicate with sympathizers. While Breivik's human rights case was ultimately overturned by a higher court, the episode showed just how far the Norwegian criminal justice system could bend in favor of prisoners' rights and living conditions. "His conditions according to Norwegian standards are excellent," said his prison psychiatrist, Randi Rosenqvist. She testified at the parole hearing that Breivik is still a public threat.  Even after Breivik's outbursts at this week's parole hearing, Norwegian authorities show no sign of wavering from treating him like any other inmate at Skien prison. 'Deprivation of liberty' "In a Nordic prison sentence, the main punishment is deprivation of liberty. All the Nordic countries have systems based on a lenient and humane criminal policy that starts from the mutual understanding that punishment should not be any stricter than necessary," said Johan Boucht, a professor from the University of Oslo Department of Public and International Law, who has also worked in Sweden and Finland. "The second aspect is rehabilitation, and the principle that it is better in the long run to rehabilitate the inmate than create a factory for criminals." Until about 50 years ago, Norway's justice system focused on punishment. But in the late 1960s there was a backlash to the harsh conditions of prisons, leading to criminal justice reforms that emphasized kinder treatment and rehabilitation.  Norwegian sentencing and prison conditions are sharply at odds with those of other European countries such as France, where the worst criminals can face life imprisonment, with the possibility of an appeal only after 22 years.  Relatively few French defendants get the longest sentence, but among those facing it are Salah Abdeslam, who is the only surviving member of the Islamic State cell that attacked Paris in November 2015. Abdeslam has complained bitterly about his conditions in the Fleury-Mérogis prison, where he is under 24-hour surveillance in solitary confinement, the furniture is fixed to the floor of his tiny cell and he can exercise for one hour daily. Breivik's comparatively lenient treatment inside prison does not mean he'll get out anytime soon, or even in 2032, when his sentence ends.  While the maximum prison sentence in Norway is 21 years, the law was amended in 2002 so that, in rare cases, sentences can be extended indefinitely in five-year increments if someone is still considered a danger to the public. Let him prove he's reformed, lawyer urges Breivik's lawyer, Øystein Storrvik, said in his closing arguments at the parole hearing that Breivik should be released to prove that he is reformed and no longer a threat to society. It's not possible, while he is in total isolation, to prove that, the lawyer said.  But Breivik's behavior during this week's parole hearing was proof enough to some that he should never again see freedom. Kristine Roeyneland, who leads a group for the families of Breivik's victims and survivors, said his comfortable prison conditions and ability to spread extremist views through publicized parole hearings are reprehensible. Whatever the outcome of Breivik's request for early parole, which will be decided by a three-judge panel in coming weeks, some take an enlightened view of the Norwegian government's apparent commitment to treat him like any other prisoner.  "People might be afraid that he's using the law as a stage," said Sandvik, the law professor. "But you can also say that, you know, he is being used by the law. He's a megaphone for the rule of law." 

Cameroon Hosts Influx of Football Fans from Neighboring Gabon, Equatorial Guinea

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Cameroon says that within four days, at least 1,500 football supporters have entered the country from neighboring Equatorial Guinea and Gabon to support their teams that have advanced to Round 16 in the Africa Football Cup of Nations, or AFCON. Gabon battles Burkina Faso Sunday, while Equatorial Guinea plays against Mali Wednesday. Tournament organizers require all fans to have COVID-19 tests before entering stadiums.] Cameroon's immigration police said Saturday that buses carrying at least 900 football fans from Gabon and Equatorial Guinea have entered the central African state within 48 hours. Gabon and Equatorial Guinea are Cameroon's southern neighbors.  The immigration police said about 600 other football fans from Gabon and Equatorial Guinea arrived in Cameroon by sea and by air this week. Cameroon says the influx came after Gabon and Equatorial Guinea qualified for the knockout stage of the Africa Football Cup of Nations, or AFCON, in Cameroon. Gabon played a 2-2 draw Tuesday against Morocco in Yaoundé, and both teams advanced. Equatorial Guinea sealed their place after a 1-0 win against Sierra Leone in a group  match played at Limbes Omnisport Stadium in Cameroon’s English-speaking South West region Thursday.  Thirty-year-old Prosper Ebang is among the 1,500 supporters from Gabon and Equatorial Guinea Cameroon police say have entered Cameroon. Ebang says he wants to be part of a continental soccer event in which his country's national football team, the Panthers of Gabon, are doing well. Ebang says no citizen who loves Gabon can be indifferent when the Panthers are making Gabon proud with the excellent football exhibited in Cameroon during AFCON. He says he is certain that Gabon will reach the AFCON final if Cameroon continues providing a conducive environment for the games. Felix Nguele Nguele is the governor of Cameroon's South region that borders Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. He says Gabon and Equatorial Guinea officials have informed him that hundreds of other supporters are still on their way to Cameroon. Ngueles says he has asked police and military in Cameroon's southern border to ensure the safety of football fans and supporters from Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. He says he knows that people with evil intentions may want to disturb the visiting supporters since tensions mounted between Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea in November. On November 30, 2021, Cameroon said Equatorial Guinea was deporting thousands of Cameroonians who were living in the neighboring state illegally, citing national security concerns. Authorities in the capital, Malabo, said the Cameroonians fled conflict in western Cameroon, where government troops have been fighting anglophone separatists. Videos from Cameroonians deported from Equatorial Guinea flooded social media platforms including Facebook and WhatsApp. In the video, Cameroonians claiming to have been forcibly sent out of Equatorial Guinea promised to chase football fans from the neighboring country visiting Cameroon for AFCON from January 9 to February 6. Kisito Esua is president of the nongovernmental organization South West Youth League, headquartered in Limbe, an English-speaking southwestern town. Esua says the league is teaching youths to be hospitable to fans coming to Cameroon to support their football teams. He spoke via a messaging app from Limbe. "The influx of fans and supporters from Gabon and Equatorial Guinea is so massive," said Esua. "The fans have been coming in in their numbers by air, land and sea and we think that the turnout tomorrow will be something spectacular. So, we have made sure that the environment is so friendly, convivial and conducive." Cameroon’s Public Health ministry says the supporters who have arrived within the past 48 hours must respect COVID-19 restriction guidelines imposed by the Confederation of African Football. CAF says people must provide negative COVID-19 test results that are not more than 24 hours old as well as proof they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 to gain access to stadiums for AFCON matches. The embassies of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea in Yaoundé say all the visiting fans have agreed to respect Cameroonian laws and COVID-19 restrictions instituted by Cameroon and CAF during their stay.  

Sudan Deputy Leader Meets Ethiopia Defense Minister on Rare Visit

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Sudan's second most powerful leader met with Ethiopia's defense minister Saturday on a rare visit to Addis Ababa by an official from Khartoum, which comes amid border tensions, officials said. Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, widely known as Hemeti, who is number two in Sudan's ruling council, will be in Ethiopia for two days to meet "several Ethiopian officials," Sudan's state news agency SUNA reported. He was met at Addis Ababa airport by Ethiopian Defense Minister Abraham Belay, a statement from Sudan's ruling council said. He also was welcomed by senior officials from Ethiopia' government and intelligence services, it added. Daglo is head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a much feared and powerful paramilitary unit that is accused of atrocities in the western region of Darfur. Relations between Khartoum and Addis Ababa deteriorated due to a territorial conflict over the disputed Al-Fashaqa border region, where Ethiopian farmers cultivate fertile land claimed by Sudan. There have been sporadic deadly clashes between the two sides in recent years. Al-Fashaqa also borders Ethiopia's troubled Tigray region, and tens of thousands of Ethiopian refugees have crossed into Sudan fleeing fighting. In November, Sudan's armed forces said six soldiers were killed in an attack by armed groups and militias linked to the Ethiopian military, a report denied by Addis Ababa, who blamed rebels from Tigray. Sudan, along with Egypt, also is locked in a bitter dispute over Ethiopia's mega-dam on the Blue Nile. The two downstream countries, dependent on the river for most of their water, see Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam as an existential threat. Both Khartoum and Addis Ababa are mired in crises. Sudan has been rocked by weeks of mass demonstrations since an October 25 military takeover that derailed the country's fragile transition to civilian rule, with at least 73 anti-coup protesters killed in a bloody crackdown. Ethiopia still seeks to end a conflict that broke out in November 2020 following months of mounting rancor between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government and the former ruling party of the northernmost Tigray region, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). The fighting has displaced millions, and according to U.N. estimates, has driven hundreds of thousands to the brink of starvation.

Deadly Fighting Continues Between IS, Kurd Forces in Syria

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Fighting raged for a third day Saturday between the Islamic State group and Kurdish forces in Syria after IS attacked a prison housing jihadists, in violence that has claimed more than 70 lives, a monitor said. The assault on the Ghwayran prison in the northern city of Hasakeh is one of IS's most significant since its "caliphate" was declared defeated in Syria nearly three years ago. "At least 28 members of the Kurdish security forces, five civilians and 45 members of IS have been killed" in the violence, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. IS launched the attack Thursday night against the prison housing some 3,500 suspected members of the jihadist group, including some of its leaders, said the Observatory. The jihadists "seized weapons they found" in the detention center, said the Britain-based monitor, which relies on sources inside war-torn Syria for its information. Hundreds of jihadist inmates had since been recaptured but dozens were still believed to be on the loose, the Observatory said. The prison was surrounded by Kurdish forces with the support of the international coalition, it added. "Fighting is taking place on the northern side of the prison," Farhad Shami, spokesperson for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said, calling the situation "exceptional." The jihadist group said in a statement released Friday by its Amaq news agency that its attack on the jail aimed to "free the prisoners." Fat target IS has carried out regular attacks against Kurdish and government targets in Syria since the rump of its once-sprawling proto-state was overrun in March 2019. Most of their guerrilla attacks have been against military targets and oil installations in remote areas, but the Hasakeh prison break could mark a new phase in the group's resurgence. It was not immediately clear Friday whether the prison break was part of a centrally coordinated operation -- timed to coincide with an attack on a military base in neighboring Iraq -- or the action of a local IS cell. Analyst Nicholas Heras of the Newlines Institute in Washington said the jihadist group targeted the prison to bolster its numbers. The Islamic State group "wants to move beyond being the terrorist and criminal network that it has devolved into, and to do that it needs more fighters," he told AFP. "Prison breaks represent the best opportunity for ISIS to regain its strength in arms, and Ghwayran prison is a nice, fat target for ISIS because its overcrowded," he said, using another acronym for IS. The prospect of a repeat of the attack remains very real, said Colin Clarke, research director at the New York-based Soufan Center think tank. "The SDF needs a comprehensive strategy to deal with this threat," he said. The Kurdish authorities have long warned they do not have the capacity to hold, let alone put on trial, the thousands of IS fighters captured in years of operations. According to Kurdish authorities, more than 50 nationalities are represented in a number of Kurdish-run prisons, where more than 12,000 IS suspects are now held. The war in Syria broke out in 2011 and has since killed close to half a million people and spurred the largest conflict-induced displacement since World War II. 

India Reports More Than 300,000 Daily COVID Cases

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India’s health ministry reported 337,704 new COVID-19 cases Saturday. Public health officials have warned that India’s tallies are likely undercounted. Ireland lifts most of its COVID restrictions Saturday, as the country prepares to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in March, for the first time in two years. Irish Prime Minister Michael Martin said, “Spring is coming, and I don’t know if I have ever looked forward to” a St. Patrick’s Day celebration “as much as this one.” A face mask mandate, however, currently remains in effect. Anti-vaccine activists are set to rally Sunday in Washington at the Lincoln Memorial. The anti-vaccine propaganda 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. Meanwhile, former Polish President Lech Walesa has announced that he has contracted COVID-19, even though he has been fully vaccinated. “After this lesson, I will not part ways with a mask,” he posted on Facebook. The omicron variant in Japan has resulted in a record-high COVID case count in the capital. On Saturday, Tokyo reported 11,227 new daily infections, the highest daily total in four consecutive days. Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported early Saturday that it has recorded 346.5 million global COVID cases and 5.6 million global COVID deaths. Almost 10 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide.         

Some Money Services Reopen in Tonga, Drinking Water the Priority

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Tongans queued for limited money services that were restored in the Pacific island's capital Saturday, as the cleanup continued a week after a devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami. Tonga's government said drinking water was the priority, and a national emergency team had already distributed 60,000 liters of water to residents. A desalination plant on a New Zealand naval ship that arrived Friday, capable of producing 70,000 liters a day, has started drawing seawater from Tonga's harbor. Residents who had lost homes on outlying islands when a tsunami reaching up to 15 meters crashed over the South Pacific archipelago would be relocated to the main island, Tongatapu, because of water and food shortages, the Tongan prime minister's office said in a statement distributed to Tongan officials. Volcanic fallout on the surface of the ocean was damaging boats and making marine transport between the islands challenging, and domestic flights were suspended, it said. Ash fall and the tsunami had affected 84% of the population, and inter-island communications remain an "acute challenge" with limited satellite and radio links, it said. Burials were held earlier in the week for a Tongan man and a woman who had died when the tsunami hit the outlying Ha'apai islands. The official death toll is three. A field hospital has been set up on Nomuka Island after the health center there was swept away. Faka'iloatonga Taumoefolau, the coordinator for the project to rebuild Tonga's parliament, said the restoration of international money transfer services, for limited hours on Saturday, was important for people to be able to buy essential goods. "Tongans have demonstrated their resilience in this calamity and will get back on their feet," he said, speaking to Reuters from Tongatapu. More naval vessels from Australia, New Zealand and Britain are en route to Tonga to deliver aid. Two aid flights, from Japan and New Zealand, arrived Saturday with humanitarian supplies, after two flights from Australia on Friday evening. COVID precautions The Tongan government has implemented a strict COVID-19 policy that means people, including aid workers, cannot enter the country unless they have undergone a three-week isolation period. Aid deliveries have been contactless, with pallets quarantined for 72 hours after arrival at the airport before being distributed by Tongan authorities. One Australian aircraft returned to Brisbane midflight Thursday after being notified of a COVID-19 case among the crew. An aid delivery expected from China would also be contact-less to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the government said. Taumoefolau said Tonga had done a good job in avoiding a pandemic outbreak, recording only one case so far, and the border policy would not hinder aid reaching communities. "It is doable to get the aid in without compromising efforts on keeping COVID out," he said. An Australian navy vessel, HMAS Adelaide, was expected to arrive in Tonga on Wednesday with more bulk water and a 40-bed field hospital, Australia's minister for international development and the Pacific, Zed Seselja, told reporters in Canberra on Saturday. The Tongan government was doing "an extraordinary job on the ground," he said. Australia and New Zealand were coordinating an international aid effort with support from Britain, France, the United States, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, he said, and the Tongan government had asked for support to be paced so the small airport was not overwhelmed. Asked by reporters about China's aid program in the Pacific, Seselja said: "We welcome offers of support from anyone, including the Chinese government.” Sione Hufanga, the resident United Nations country coordination specialist, told Reuters that the agency is assisting the government in relief work as more people arrive at shelters and seek food and other supplies. "Almost all crops in the country have been badly affected. Farmers have lost their homes and livelihood," he told Reuters by phone from Tonga's capital, Nuku'alofa. "The country will be heavily relying on aid food for some time." The agricultural sector contributed nearly 14% of Tonga's GDP in 2015-16 and represented more than 65% of exports. The Tongan government said it is "deeply appreciative to the international community" for its assistance, which included $8 million in funding from the World Bank and $10 million from the Asia Development Bank. Reliance, a repair ship due to reconnect the undersea cable that links Tonga to international telecoms networks, left its Port Moresby mooring and was expected in Tonga on Jan. 30, according to Refinitiv data on shipping movements. The vessel was expected to arrive "in the next few days" to repair the fiber-optic cable, the Tongan government said.     

‘Impunity Persists’ in Case of Slain Turkish-Armenian Journalist

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Thousands gathered in Istanbul this week to demand full justice for high-profile Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was killed 15 years ago. Placards reading “We are all Hrant, We are all Armenian” and “For Hrant, For Justice” were waved as the crowd gathered outside the building where a teenage gunman in 2007 shot Dink. Candles and red carnations were placed next to a commemorative plaque, and Turkish and Armenian songs played in the background. The facade of the building, which was once home to Dink’s media outlet, was covered with a large poster of the journalist and the words: “15 missing years.” "The beautiful thing is that after 15 years, so many people do not forget Hrant Dink and the message he gave,” Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told VOA. Peace advocate As the founder and editor-in-chief of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos, Dink was a leading advocate for peace between the Turkish and Armenian communities.  But his writing and speeches on Armenian identity and calls for reconciliation made him a target of nationalists in Turkey. He was prosecuted several times during his journalism career, including a lawsuit in 2005 in which Dink was convicted of “publicly insulting and degrading Turkishness.” At the time of his death, Dink was awaiting trial as part of a lawsuit over his use of the word “genocide” to describe attacks in 1915 that Armenia says left 1.5 million dead. The U.S. and some other countries recognize it as a genocide. Turkey acknowledges killings during the Ottoman Empire but denies any genocide. In early January, special envoys from Turkey and Armenia met in Moscow to try to normalize an otherwise strained relationship. Search for justice In 2011, Ogun Samast was sentenced to nearly 23 years in prison by a juvenile court on charges including premeditated murder for shooting Dink. Since then, 76 other suspects accused of involvement in Dink’s killing have been tried. In March 2021, a court in Istanbul sentenced several former high-ranking public and police officers to life in prison for convictions on several charges, including premeditated murder and violating the constitution. The Turkish government believes a network linked to Fethullah Gulen was behind the attack and that those involved have been brought to justice. The U.S.-based Gulen, whom Turkey also accuses of being behind a failed attempted coup, denies the accusations. Omer Celik, spokesperson for the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), paid tribute to Dink on Twitter, saying: “Hrant defended brotherhood in this country and resisted those who tried to bring hostility to this country from outside.” Dink’s family and colleagues, however, believe a wider network was involved in the killing and do not believe everyone has been brought to justice. Lawyers for the family appealed the March 2021 court decision and asked for further investigation. “Impunity still persists,” said RSF’s Onderoglu, who followed the trial closely. “The Hrant Dink case is not out of our agenda, even if it is out of the hands of the court.” “We will continue our struggle until the end, until those who targeted Hrant Dink, those who incited them, and the structures that killed him are brought to justice,” he added. ‘15 missing years’ In a column published the day he died, Dink said he felt “dovelike disquiet” because of the death threats and legal cases he faced. “Doves live their lives in the hearts of cities, amid the crowds and human bustle. Yes, they live a little uneasily, a little apprehensively — but they live freely too,” Dink wrote. Images of doves were projected onto the building facade a night before the commemoration. The memorial shows Dink’s lasting impact on the Turkish-Armenian community, even on those who were too young at the time to understand what was happening. Sila Pakyuz, 20, a Turkish-Armenian university student, told VOA she came to the commemoration with her non-Armenian friends. "Hrant was shot when we came out of kindergarten. I am an Armenian from Turkey, and I was unaware that I was the ‘other’ in Turkey. I was only a child who spoke Armenian,” Pakyuz said. “When I got home, my grandmother was crying, ‘Hrant was killed.’ As I got older, I understood what it means to be an Armenian in Turkey. I was living in a bubble,'' she said. At the memorial, Dink’s widow, Rakel, addressed the crowd, speaking about the detention of lawyers, journalists and Kurdish politicians in Turkey. “Let us not dash any hopes,” Rakel Dink said. “The voice of indignation, rebellion and objection that roared up right from here as we buried you has never kept silent, and it shall never remain silent.” This story originated in VOA’s Turkish Service.

Omicron Spike Tests COVID Prevention Efforts at Immigration Facilities 

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The rapidly spreading omicron variant is testing the ability of U.S. authorities to keep tens of thousands of migrants healthy at crowded detention centers, where COVID-19 prevention measures were virtually nonexistent at the beginning of the pandemic but have since improved. More than 2,540 people tested positive for COVID-19 Friday in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 198 immigration detention centers nationwide, according to ICE data, an increase of more than 792% from 285 cases reported on January 3. The surge comes amid a nationwide increase in infections because of the more transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus. Even so, ICE officials say they have come a long way since 2020 with COVID-19 protection for migrants in their custody. “In terms of improvement, the agency is more communicative than they were before. But honestly, we are still seeing apprehensions and detentions in the same way that we saw at the beginning of the pandemic. … There's more procedures put in place [such as] request releases, which wasn't the case before,” said Elena Noureddine, who heads the detention program at PAIR, a Boston-based nonprofit that provides free legal representation for asylum-seekers and detained immigrants. 2020 to 2022 In March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, ICE would not say whether detainees were being tested for COVID-19. There were few if any opportunities for social distancing, no masks were given to detainees, and vaccines were yet to be available. At that time, an ICE spokesperson said there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those held in its network of detention centers, for-profit prisons and county jails. Confirmation of COVID-19 infections was challenging, with testing in its infancy. In January 2022, an ICE official told VOA that the agency is now testing all migrants for COVID-19 during the intake screening process. After testing, they are housed separately from the general population for 14 days and monitored for symptoms. Those with symptoms are isolated and given the “appropriate medical care to manage the disease,” ICE said, in accordance with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. “New arrivals who have negative test results and remain symptom-free can join the general detained population after the 14-day intake period,” ICE told VOA via email. Staff and detainees are required to wear masks even after vaccinations, per ICE pandemic response rules. As for vaccines, 48,246 detainees had each received at least one dose of vaccine as of January 5, according to the agency’s spokesperson, and 671 had received boosters. ICE has offered vaccines to migrants since July, when 27,670 migrants were in detention, and boosters since November, when 21,462 were in detention. At-risk releases Since the pandemic began, the American Civil Liberties Union has been working to make sure detained immigrants are protected from COVID-19, according to Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “We filed lawsuits arguing for the release of people — especially those who are medically vulnerable to COVID-19 — to be released from detention so that they could actually be in their homes and have safe social distancing,” she added. The University of California-Davis estimated in March 2021 that 42.5% of ICE-detained immigrants had at least one chronic medical condition and that 95.6% had access to a stable home. Cho told VOA that thousands of people who were medically vulnerable to COVID-19 were released from detention to family members in the U.S. as a result of ACLU litigation. VOA requested more specific numbers on medically vulnerable migrant releases but hasn’t heard back. As of late December, an estimated 5,200 medically vulnerable immigrants remained in detention, according to reporting by CBS News. ICE told VOA it “continues to evaluate its detained population … to determine whether continued detention is appropriate.” Problems remain Cho of the National Prison Project said that the government has acted during the pandemic to protect detainees from COVID-19 infections, but that work remains. “People report having difficulty getting masks, getting tested for COVID-19. They report difficulty with getting vaccines. … They are describing conditions where people, especially those medically vulnerable, don't feel safe. They're describing conditions where in some detention facilities they get one disposable mask a week to wear the entire week,” Cho said. In most cases, an ICE official told VOA, each migrant receives a vaccine in custody. But the average stay in ICE custody was 37 days during fiscal 2021, meaning most migrants were no longer in custody to receive their second shots. The ICE spokesperson told VOA that the agency encourages migrants to be vaccinated and boosted. But in July, Axios reported that three in 10 detainees declined the COVID-19 vaccine when asked to sign consent forms. Noureddine of Boston-based PAIR said part of the explanation of the skepticism among detainees is a fear that the government is asking them to sign documents as a way to get them deported. “I’ve had clients call me saying, ‘I was presented with a document. I think it was about the vaccine. I'm not sure.’ [Then] I check with ICE and they told me it was to get the vaccine, but there was a lot of confusion,” she added. 

Putin, Following in Steps of Peter the Great?

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Three hundred and forty kilometers east of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, lies the city of Poltava.  At its heart is a semi-circular square with a cast-iron column and nearly two dozen eighteenth-century Swedish cannons captured in the 1709 Battle of Poltava, a decisive encounter in the Great Northern War, waged between Russia's Peter the Great and Sweden's Charles XII for supremacy in eastern Europe.  Russia's tsar won.  Nearly four centuries later, the Ukrainian town located on a bank of the Vorskla River could soon find itself making history again. That is if Russia's Vladimir Putin decides to mount a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and orders Russian forces to drive deep into the country, as some Western leaders fear he might.  Poltava lies across the route to Kyiv and may become a factor if Putin opts to punch out from the Russian-controlled oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, and has other forces cross the border near Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine, said Robert Fry, a former commandant general of Britain's Royal Marines. It was at Poltava in 1709 that "Peter made the first step towards the sobriquet 'Great' — a path the Russian president may have ambitions to follow," the retired British general noted in a military assessment for The Article, a British commentary site.    Fry, though, suspects Putin will be in no hurry to forgo the advantages he has in continuing with hybrid warfare, extracting the Western concessions he has demanded and not courting the dangers of a full-scale invasion with the risks of having to pacify Europe's second-largest country and counter a likely Ukrainian insurgency.  "The dexterity with which Russia manipulates the threat of escalation has become one of the defining characteristics of its military/diplomatic playbook and it is yards ahead of the West in this respect. If the mortgage was at stake, I would put it on a ferment of sub-threshold activity backed up by lots of conventional military posturing, stopping short of live conflict," he wrote.  Russian officials say they have no plans to attack Ukraine once again, and armed forces chief Valery Gerasimov has denounced reports of a planned invasion as a lie. NATO's secretary general has warned the risk of conflict is real and U.S. President Joe Biden this week said his guess is Russia will move in, either with an invasion or a more limited assault. But what any "move in" might entail is unclear and many Russia watchers suspect Putin has not made up his mind. Ukrainian leaders say it is unhelpful to distinguish between a full-bore invasion and a more limited land grab in eastern and southeastern Ukraine, perhaps with Russia seizing Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and Odessa on the Black Sea. "Speaking of minor and full incursions or full invasion, you cannot be half-aggressive," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday. Whatever Putin decides to do, he has the forces in place for a major attack and could quickly ramp up his forces for a deeper assault on Ukraine, say Western officials. Russia began massing troops along the borders with Ukraine last year and by December around 100,000 had been deployed, according to U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence assessments.    Artillery, advanced weapons systems and armor have also been deployed, and so, too, have field hospitals and the logistics needed to support tactical battle groups.  Western military officials estimate Russia would need around 175,000 troops to mount a huge assault and some Ukrainian intelligence officials suggest that number may have been reached. Their U.S. counterparts say the force numbers are still below 175,000. But Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, said Thursday that Putin had "plans in place to increase that force even more on very short notice."    Midweek the Kremlin was reported to have moved some forces within 30 kilometers of Ukraine's border in Belarus. The Kremlin says the forces are taking part in joint military drills with their Belarusian allies, but that places a sizable Russian force just 80 kilometers from the Ukrainian capital. It is large enough to cut off the bulk of Ukraine's land forces, which are stationed along the frontlines in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.  The Russian military has overwhelming superiority over Ukraine's armed forces. Ukraine has around 209,000 troops on active service compared to Russia's 900,000; and Ukraine's reserve forces number 900,000, while Russia has 2 million.    Ukraine's annual military expenditure is $4.3 billion, while Russia's spending is $43.2 billion. Russia has 2,840 tanks compared to Ukraine's 858; and 4,648 artillery pieces compared to 1,818. The massive advantage continues when it comes to combat aircraft — 1,160 compared to 125. All the figures come from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British-based research organization that publishes an annual report on the composition of global military forces.  If the Kremlin does decide to attack, the operation at its most limited would likely be a repeat of 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and seized Donetsk and Luhansk, using mainly armed proxies. "Russian forces could expand the fighting in Donbass to draw Ukraine into a conventional conflict," warned Neil Melvin of the Royal United Services Institute, a defense policy group in London. Others assess Putin's ambitions may be bigger. "Putin has begun exploring coercive options beyond the annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbass, neither of which has given him what he wants," according to Michael Kimmage and Liana Fix of the German Marshall Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization. Their assessment: "Perhaps war is the course Putin has already chosen. If so, it cannot be a minor war. A minimal objective would be to topple the Ukrainian government — not necessarily through overt military force — and to install a puppet leader. A more ambitious objective would be to divide the country in two, with the line between Russia and a rump Ukrainian state one of Putin's choosing. The most expansive goal would be to conquer Ukraine entirely and then either to occupy it or to demand that its independence be negotiated on Putin's terms." 

Twitter Suspends Hundreds of Accounts Promoting Philippines' Marcos Jr.

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Twitter has suspended hundreds of accounts reportedly linked to supporters of Philippine presidential frontrunner Ferdinand Marcos Jr., which the social media giant said had violated its rules on manipulation and spam. The son and namesake of the country's former dictator is drawing support from a massive social media campaign seeking to get him elected in May, which critics say is attempting to rewrite the family's history. Twitter said it had reviewed the accounts and hashtags identified in a recent article by Philippine news site Rappler. More than 300 accounts had been removed "for violating our platform manipulation and spam policy," Twitter said in a statement sent to AFP on Saturday. Most of them had been taken down before the Rappler article was published on Tuesday and an investigation was ongoing, it said. Filipinos are among the world's heaviest users of social media, and the country has become a key battleground for fake news. "With the Philippine elections taking place this May, we remain vigilant about identifying and eliminating suspected information campaigns targeting election conversations," Twitter said. Marcos Jr.'s spokesperson Vic Rodriguez said there was "no certainty" that all the suspended accounts belonged to supporters of the presidential hopeful. Election victory for Marcos Jr. would mark the ultimate political comeback for the family, which was chased into exile in the United States after its patriarch's humiliating downfall in 1986. Marcos Sr. and his wife, Imelda, were accused of massive corruption while in power. Recent voter surveys show Marcos Jr. holding a huge lead over his nearest rival and nemesis Leni Robredo, who is the incumbent vice president. Rappler said Marcos Jr. supporters were "looking to dominate Twitter" and that many of the accounts it investigated were created around the time he announced his bid for the presidency in October. The accounts pushed the narrative that the Marcoses were "victims" of the 1986 revolt and their return to Malacanang presidential palace is "long overdue," it added. Twitter said sharing political content on an account or rallying people do so via hashtags was allowed, "unless the accounts are inauthentic, compensated or automated, which we see no clear evidence of in this case." On Monday, the social media giant said it was expanding a test feature that will allow users in Brazil, Spain and the Philippines to report misleading content.   

Brawl in Honduras Congress Ahead of New President's Inauguration

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Lawmakers exchanged blows in the Honduran Congress on Friday as a dispute among members of president-elect Xiomara Castro's party turned violent. Legislators from her leftist Libre party protested after 20 rebel members proposed Jorge Calix, one of their cohorts, as provisional congress president. The Castro loyalists claimed this violated a pact with Libre's coalition partner. Amid cries of "Traitors!" and "Xiomara!" angry Libre legislators forced their way to the podium while Calix was being sworn in, causing him to flee under a hail of punches and much pushing and shoving. It was the first sitting of the 128-member Congress since it was elected in November. The crisis started late Thursday when Castro called her party's 50 legislators to a meeting to ask them to support Luis Redondo of the Salvador party of Honduras (PSH) as congress president. The 20 rebel members did not attend. On Friday, Libre leader Gilberto Rios told AFP that the 20 are backed by groups that wish to stop Castro's promised anti-corruption campaign, including people in "organized crime" and "drug trafficking." Castro won elections on Nov. 28 to become Honduras's first woman president and end 12 years of National Party rule. She won in an alliance between Libre and the PSH, to which the presidency of Congress was promised. Castro accused the dissidents of "betraying the constitutional agreement" and "making alliances with representatives of organized crime, corruption and drug trafficking." Senior Libre party member Manuel Zelaya, Castro's husband and a former president ousted in a coup in 2009, tweeted that those who "betrayed" the agreement would be expelled. Castro is to be sworn in Jan. 27 along with other senior officials, including the congress president, at a ceremony attended by international guests including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.   

'Minor Incursion' Into Ukraine by Russia Could Complicate West's Response

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Short of an all-out invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin could take less dramatic action in Ukraine that would vastly complicate a U.S. and allied response. He might carry out what President Joe Biden called a "minor incursion" — perhaps a cyberattack — leaving the U.S. and Europe divided on the type and severity of economic sanctions to impose on Moscow and ways to increase support for Kyiv. Biden drew widespread criticism for saying Wednesday that retaliating for Russian aggression in Ukraine would depend on the details. "It's one thing if it's a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do," he said. Biden and top administration officials worked Thursday to clean up his comments. Biden stressed that if "any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion" and it would be met with a "severe and coordinated economic response." But even if the "minor incursion" remark was seen as a gaffe, it touched on a potentially problematic issue: While the U.S. and allies agree on a strong response to a Russian invasion, it's unclear how they would respond to Russian aggression that falls short of that, such as a cyberattack or boosted support for pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was among those expressing concern about Biden's "minor incursion" remark. "We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones," he tweeted. 'Deeply troubling' Complaints came quickly that Biden had made clear to Putin where and how to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies, by using only a portion of the large military force he has assembled near Ukraine's borders to take limited action. Russian officials have said they have no intention of invading Ukraine, but the deployment of a large combat force along its borders, estimated at 100,000 troops, has raised fears of a crippling land war. "Deeply troubling and dangerous," Representative Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican and a crucial ally of Democrats on some issues, tweeted about Biden's remark.   "A green light for Putin," said Republican Representative Mike Garcia of California, one of many to use that phrase. Among the possibilities for limited Russian military action: Putin could move much of the Russian ground force away from the border but further bolster the separatists who control the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. That conflict has killed more than 14,000 people in nearly eight years of fighting. Biden noted Thursday that "Russia has a long history of using measures other than overt military action to carry out aggression — paramilitary tactics, so-called gray zone attacks and actions by Russian soldiers not wearing Russian uniforms." European allies have largely been united with the United States in demanding that Putin not move farther into Ukrainian territory and promising a tough response if he does. But the allies appear not to have united on what political and financial penalties to enact, or even what would trigger a response. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said "any kind of incursion into Ukraine on any scale whatever" would be a disaster for Russia and for the world, but he didn't specify a Western response. Likewise, his defense minister, Ben Wallace, told Parliament, "There is a package of international sanctions ready to go that will make sure that the Russian government is punished if it crosses the line," but he didn't define that line, other than warning against "any destabilizing action" by Russia in Ukraine.   Asked Thursday about Biden's comment on a "minor incursion," a French diplomat insisted it didn't prompt any rethinking of the "European consensus" that any new attack on Ukrainian sovereignty would have "massive and severe consequences." But the diplomat, commenting after meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken as he conferred with European counterparts on the Ukraine crisis, wouldn't elaborate on those consequences or what would constitute such an attack. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss his government's take. Putin faced limited international consequences after he seized control of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula in 2014 and backed the separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. His central demand to the West is that NATO provide a guarantee that Ukraine never be allowed to join the alliance — a demand that Washington and its allies have roundly rejected. Sanctions come with risks Biden on Wednesday noted that coordinating a sanctions strategy is further complicated by the fact that penalties aimed at crippling Russian banking would also have a negative effect on the economies of the United States and Europe. "And so, I got to make sure everybody is on the same page as we move along," he said. Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the leaders of a bipartisan congressional delegation that visited Ukraine last weekend, said she had seen no signs of a rift with the Europeans over how far Russia would have to go to trigger a response. In an analysis of the Ukraine crisis, Seth Jones, a political scientist, and Philip Wasielewski, a former CIA paramilitary officer, cited several possible scenarios short of an all-out Russian invasion. This could include Putin sending conventional troops into the Donbass breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as "peacekeepers" and refusing to withdraw them until peace talks end successfully, they wrote in their analysis last week for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "All other options bring major international sanctions and economic hardship and would be counterproductive to the goal of weakening NATO or decoupling the United States from its commitments to European security," they wrote. Among those other options: seizing Ukrainian territory as far west as the Dnieper River, which runs south through Kyiv to the Black Sea near the Crimean Peninsula. Putin might seek to use this as a bargaining chip or incorporate this territory fully into the Russian Federation, Jones and Wasielewski wrote. 

Arkansas Professor Pleads Guilty to Lying About China Patents

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A University of Arkansas professor pleaded guilty Friday to lying to the FBI about patents he had for inventions in mainland China. Simon Saw-Teong Ang pleaded guilty in federal court in Fayetteville, Arkansas, to one count from a 58-count federal indictment. Prosecutors say that 24 patents bearing Ang's name were filed with the Beijing government but that he failed to report the patents to the university and denied having them when questioned by the FBI. The university requires disclosure of all faculty patents, which the university would own. The plea deal calls for a one-year prison sentence, but the crime could be punishable by up to five years in prison. The 64-year-old Fayetteville resident was suspended from the university faculty when he was initially indicted in July 2020. The university website no longer lists him on its faculty directory.   

Climate, COVID, China: Takeaways from Online Davos Event 

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Government and business leaders have urged cooperation on the world's biggest issues — climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and the economic recovery — at the World Economic Forum's virtual gathering.  Speeches and discussions from the likes of Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres moved online this week after COVID-19 concerns delayed the forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Critics regularly fault the Davos event for hosting elites touting high-minded but often empty goals deemed out of touch with regular people.  As usual, big ideas were debated, but no concrete deals emerged. The forum announced Friday that it plans to have its in-person gathering May 22-26 after two years of delays.  Here are some takeaways from the online event:  Climate change  German Chancellor Olaf Scholz vowed to use his country's Group of Seven presidency to have industrial nations lead a "paradigm shift in international climate policy."  The new head of Europe's biggest economy said Wednesday that the "climate club" would agree on "joint minimum standards." Its goals are already part of the Paris climate accord, including limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.  Scholz said the club could seek to achieve those goals "by pricing carbon and preventing carbon leakage" — designed to stop companies from shifting carbon-heavy industries to countries with looser emissions rules.  Others urged help for developing nations. Guterres called for debt relief to wean them off coal, and Latin American leaders said funding for green agendas is critical. Saying Africa is "the most negatively affected" by climate change though the continent contributes "the least" to it, Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo asked Friday for developed nations to remain committed to their pledge of providing $100 billion annually to support climate efforts in developing countries.  Meanwhile, a panel with U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and billionaire Bill Gates touted that innovations not invented or used widely yet would help slash emissions. That idea is popular in some circles but also divisive because technologies like carbon capture are expensive and energy intensive.  COVID-19 Pandemic  The World Health Organization's head of emergencies said that quickly addressing huge inequities in vaccinations and medicines could mean the worst of the pandemic — deaths, hospitalizations and lockdowns — would end soon.  Dr. Michael Ryan said the virus may never be over, but "we have a chance to end the public health emergency this year if we do the things that we've been talking about."  WHO has called the COVID-19 vaccination imbalance between rich and poor countries a catastrophic moral failure. Just more than 10% of Africa's population is fully vaccinated.  Limited resources would mean the full rollout of vaccines "may take several years," Nigeria's vice president said Friday, and support is needed for donations and local production of doses.  China's president announced plans Monday to send an additional 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine to other countries, including a donation of 600 million doses to Africa.  In another panel, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said the vaccine maker was working on a single-shot booster for both COVID-19 and the flu, saying it could be ready in some countries next year. The global economy  Top economic issues were rising consumer prices and likely interest rate hikes by the U.S. Federal Reserve this year, which would have ripple effects worldwide because of the role played by the U.S. dollar. Many of the poorest countries face debt trouble as their economic recovery lags that of the developed world, International Monetary Fund managing director Kristalina Georgieva warned in a panel discussion Friday. The Fed's moves could strengthen the dollar, making debts bigger in local currencies. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a separate address that the Biden administration's pandemic relief and infrastructure plans have boosted economic growth. She underlined the necessity of a global minimum corporate tax that more than 130 countries have backed at a time when tax burdens have shifted to middle-class workers.  European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde said the 19 countries using the euro were at a different stage of recovery than the U.S. and suggested temporary factors like high energy costs may be fueling inflation in Europe.  During the economy panel, she said the bank was "trying to figure out how long it will last" and that it would act to counter high inflation, including through interest rate hikes, once certain "criteria are satisfied."  The bank plans to phase out its efforts to boost the pandemic-hit economy in March. Compared with the U.S., Europe lacks "excessive demand" following major lockdowns that would push up prices longer term, she said.  China's talking points  While urging the world to share vaccines, fight climate change and promote development, Xi also took a veiled swipe at the United States in a recorded speech. "We need to discard Cold War mentality and seek peaceful coexistence and win-win outcomes," Xi said through a translator. "Protectionism and unilateralism can protect no one. … Even worse are the practices of hegemony and bullying, which run counter to the tide of history." Those are terms Beijing has used to describe U.S. policy and actions amid tensions over Taiwan, human rights and other issues. Xi touched on standard themes, including responding to trading partners' complaints by promising to open China's state-dominated economy wider to private and foreign competition. He also said China "stands ready to work with" other countries on climate change but announced no new initiatives and offered no resources. He said it was up to developed countries to provide money and technology. 

Latin America, Asia Latest to Be Hit With Omicron Surge

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In Costa Rica, officials are encouraging those infected with the coronavirus to skip voting in upcoming national elections. On the other side of the world, Beijing is locking down residential communities as the country anxiously awaits the start of the Winter Olympics on Feb. 4. In Latin America and Asia, where the omicron variant is making its latest appearance, some countries are imposing such restrictions while others are loath to place new limits on populations already exhausted by previous constraints. Omicron quickly swept through the places it first hit, such as South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, pushing daily cases far higher than at any time during the pandemic. The Americas reported nearly 7.2 million new COVID infections and more than 15,000 COVID-related deaths over the past week, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said Wednesday. Coronavirus infections across the Americas almost doubled between Jan. 1 and Jan. 8, from 3.4 million cases to 6.1 million, PAHO said. Infections are accelerating in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Peru, and hospitalizations are rising in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, said PAHO Director Carissa Etienne. The Caribbean islands are experiencing their steepest increase in COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, Etienne noted. "Although omicron infections appear to be milder, we continue to urge caution because the virus is spreading more actively than ever before," Etienne said. Infections are also increasing in Asia, including in the Philippines, which has seen its worst coronavirus outbreak in recent weeks.   Countries in both regions are searching for a mix of restrictions that their exhausted populations will accept and that won't inflict undue damage on their economies. "We're already going on three years of the pandemic and the population is tired," said Brazil's president of the Council of State Health Secretariats, Carlos Lula. "There is no space for many restrictions. We're going to have to face a third wave with precautions like masking, distancing and vaccination." Argentina and Mexico also have largely ruled out imposing any national restrictions, instead banking on their vaccination campaigns and the apparently less severe symptoms of the omicron variant. Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, having just emerged from a week of isolation after his second coronavirus infection in the past year, downplayed the threat. "It is demonstrable that this variant does not have the same seriousness as the earlier, the delta," López Obrador said this week. Antonio Pérez, 67, runs a small stand in a Mexico City market selling notebooks, pens and other school supplies. He was forced to shutter his shop for three months early in the pandemic, rocking him financially. But he agreed with the government's decision then — a time when little was known about the virus's spread and no one was vaccinated — and with the hands-off approach now, when most of the population is vaccinated and there is less pressure on hospitals. Immunization, masks and social distancing are the way to go now, he said, speaking through his own N95 mask. "I don't think you can do anything else."   Some states in Brazil have reimposed restrictions but stopped short of closing down businesses as they did last year. Peru, however, has revived a nationwide curfew, and Ecuador has banned public and private events or large gatherings of any kind. In Costa Rica, public health concerns are colliding with constitutional guarantees for the Feb. 6 presidential and congressional elections. Authorities concede they can't stop people from voting, but Eugenia Zamora, president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, recently told news outlets that those who test positive for coronavirus should "abstain" from going out to vote. Demographer Luis Rosero said that according to his projections, the new wave of infections could peak right around election day. Under current health protocols, those who test positive in Costa Rica are obligated to isolate. Costa Rica's daily confirmed infection totals have increased from fewer than 100 in December to more than 5,000 this month. So far, however, the government has imposed few restrictions, such as requiring soccer clubs to play without fans. Two other Central American countries, Panama and Honduras, have not imposed any restrictions despite seeing their cases more than double during the past week. Puerto Rico, among the hardest-hit places in the Caribbean amid the region's current surge, tightened restrictions again this month after the U.S. territory saw its COVID-19 test positivity rate jump from 5% late last year to more than 40% in recent weeks. Governor Pedro Pierluisi has required that those working in the health, food, education, tourism and entertainment sectors get their booster shots, as well as public school students 12 and older. He also reinstated a ban on alcohol sales from midnight to 5 a.m. and prohibited most businesses from operating during those hours. In Chile, infections grew 151% in one week, but the only restriction the government has imposed so far is to lower the capacity limit for public spaces. The country has a high vaccination rate, with more than 92% of those 18 and older and 78% of minors having received two doses. The government started offering a fourth dose this month. Still, in some South American countries, omicron is having a dire effect. A major hospital in Bolivia's largest city stopped admitting new patients because of a lack of personnel, and one of Brazil's most populous states canceled scheduled surgeries for a month. Argentina's federation of private health care providers estimates about 15% of its workers currently have the virus.   In Asia, South Korea actually eased its restrictions on gatherings slightly this week. But officials have expressed concern about a surge in infections over the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins at the end of the month, when millions of people usually travel across the country to meet relatives. In China, Beijing has moved classes online and locked down some office buildings. Japan, meanwhile, is maintaining strict border controls as infections surge but otherwise doing little more than shortening business hours for restaurants and bars. Hong Kong authorities have banned indoor dining after 6 p.m. and ordered certain businesses, such as museums and gyms, to close until at least early February. The city is also culling small animals including hamsters and chinchillas and halting their import and sales after several hamsters in a pet shop tested positive for the coronavirus. In the Philippines, officials this week started banning commuters who have not been fully vaccinated from riding public transportation in greater Manila, a region of more than 13 million people. The move sparked protests from human rights groups. Daily confirmed infections soared from a few hundred last month to more than 30,000 in recent days. Roman Catholic Church leaders in the Philippines capital were forced to cancel the Jan. 9 procession of the Black Nazarene, a centuries-old black statue of Jesus, for a second year. Because the event is one of Asia's biggest religious festivals, drawing millions of mostly barefoot pilgrims, officials feared it could become a superspreader event during the omicron surge. Warning that the sometimes-weaker omicron variant can still kill, President Rodrigo Duterte implored people to get fully immunized. "If you're vaccinated, you have a fighting chance. If not, we'll be burying, filling our cemeteries," Duterte said in televised remarks.

Ukraine: What We Know

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The latest developments Friday in the growing conflict between Russia and Ukraine:  * U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met for about 90 minutes in Geneva Friday to discuss the increasingly high-stakes standoff over Ukraine. Both officials, refusing to budge on core demands, left the talks promising only to keep talking. * 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. Russia also insists that the Western defensive alliance reject Ukraine’s membership bid, a move the U.S. calls a “non-starter.”  * U.S. officials say Russia has amassed nearly 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, including in Belarus and in occupied Crimea. * U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be against international law and appealed for calm. "I'm convinced it will not happen and I strongly hope to be right," he said.  * U.S. officials announced large-scale NATO naval exercises starting Monday in the Mediterranean, adding that the maneuvers had nothing to do with the situation in Ukraine. * The announcement came after Russia announced its own sweeping naval maneuvers, which will last through the end of February. The exercises will be held in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the northeastern Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, in addition to a joint exercise with Iran and China in the Indian Ocean.  VOA’s Margaret Besheer contributed to this report. Some material for this article came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. 

UN Weekly Roundup Jan. 15-21, 2022

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Editor's note: Here is a fast take on what the international community has been up to this past week, as seen from the United Nations perch.  UN chief calls for action in 2022 on urgent challenges  Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Friday that the world is facing “a five-alarm fire” that requires urgent and united global action to be extinguished.  Guterres sees opening in resolving Ethiopia conflict  Secretary-General Guterres expressed hope that there could be an opening to resolve the more than year-long conflict in northern Ethiopia, which has left millions on the brink of starvation.  Concerns grow over Taliban treatment of Afghan women  A group of United Nations human rights experts alleged the Islamist Taliban government was attempting to steadily erase Afghanistan’s women and girls from public life.  In brief  The U.N. Security Council met January 20 to discuss North Korea’s recent missile launches, which violate council resolutions. Among the rockets fired, Pyongyang says it successfully test-fired some hypersonic missiles. Read more about these sophisticated rockets here:  The South Pacific island nation of Tonga was hit by a tsunami on January 15, after an underwater volcanic eruption. The United Nations and neighboring countries have been trying to assess the population’s needs and send aid but are facing challenges.  The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution on January 20 against Holocaust denial. The resolution calls on states as well as social media companies to take active measures against denial and distortion of the Holocaust. Israel and Germany worked together to draft and guide the resolution through the assembly, where 114 countries co-sponsored it. It was adopted on the 80th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, the gathering of Nazi government officials that planned the rounding up and extermination of Jews and other minorities.  The General Assembly also adopted a call for an Olympic truce. The winter Olympics get under way next month in Beijing, but the Games have been controversial because of China’s dismal human rights record against Uyghur and other minorities. Despite that, U.N. chief Guterres has said he will attend the opening ceremony at the invitation of the International Olympic Committee, saying the Games “must be an instrument of peace in the world.”  Some good news  COVAX delivered its 1 billionth global dose of COVID-19 vaccine as part of a shipment of 1.1 million doses that arrived in Rwanda this week.  Quote of note “I am convinced it will not happen, and I strongly hope to be right.”  U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at a news conference on January 21, when asked about rising tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border and whether he thinks Moscow will invade.  What we are watching next week  The mandate for the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) will expire on January 31, when a four-month technical extension agreed to by the Security Council runs out. Decisions need to be made about the mission’s mandate and leadership in order to help the country hold postponed elections later this year. But council unity is lacking, and negotiations for a new resolution could be difficult.  Did you know?  The U.N. Security Council met for the first time on January 17, 1946, in London:     

Experts: Facing Few Options, Biden Should Change Course on North Korea 

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Experts say the Biden administration faces limited options for dealing with North Korea unless it drastically changes its course as Pyongyang considers the resumption of nuclear and long-range missile tests. Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, said, “The only way out of a crisis would be for [President] Joe Biden to give an address on North Korea and lay out a more coherent policy [other] than, ‘Let’s talk.’ ” He continued, “Biden would have to lay out a vision for what a new relationship with North Korea could look like, but more importantly, what the DPRK would get in a potential deal, or at least what both sides would be bartering over in talks.” The DPRK refers to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Earlier this week, regime leader Kim Jong Un suggested the possibility of ending a moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that North Korea imposed in 2018 when Pyongyang was engaged in talks with Washington. Kim, gathered with officials at the regime’s Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party on Wednesday, said the country will “examine the issue of restarting all temporally-suspended activities,” according to a statement released by state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Thursday. Kim made a similar announcement in 2019, stating he was no longer bound by the moratorium, but did nothing. Experts, however, think this time North Korea is likely to restart nuclear and ICBM tests. Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the announcement “appears a clear indication that [Pyongyang] is gearing up for ICBM and/or nuclear tests.” Limited options Evans Revere, a former State Department official who has extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said, “The Biden administration has little choice but to make clear to North Korea that there would be severe consequences if Pyongyang resumes nuclear and long-range ballistic missile testing.” The U.S. responded to North Korea’s recent threat of resuming the tests by stating it is committed to dialogue with North Korea while at the same time calling for international sanctions on the regime. Talks between Washington and Pyongyang have remained deadlocked since October 2019. A spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council told VOA’s Korean Service on Thursday that the U.S. “remains prepared to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy without preconditions” to achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The same day, at a U.N. Security Council closed-door meeting, the U.S. proposed that international sanctions be placed on North Koreans whom the U.S. unilaterally sanctioned last week for assisting in development of the country’s weapons program. The proposal is being held up by China and Russia. Experts think the dual measures of pursuing dialogue and calling for U.N. sanctions have run their course and mean little to North Korea. North Korea has largely ignored the U.S. offer to talk as it ratcheted up tension by testing two rounds of what it called hypersonic missiles on January 5 and 11 and two rounds of short-range ballistic missiles on January 14 and 17. Time to change course Revere said there is “little prospect for a diplomatic dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang” as “Pyongyang has no interest in such a discussion” on denuclearization. Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, said the resumption of North Korea’s border crossings with China this week would render U.S. efforts to place U.N. sanctions on the regime ineffective. After virtually sealing the border in January 2020 to contain the spread of COVID-19, Pyongyang’s freight trains have made multiple trips to Dandong, China, since Sunday, apparently transporting goods into North Korea amid shortages of food and other supplies. Gause said as the North Koreans “build up their cross-border relationship, it does alleviate some of the economic pressure that they would have to face if there are additional sanctions.” At the same time, China and Russia are unlikely to support U.N. sanctions on North Korea because, according to Gause, their “relationship with the U.S. right now is in a very adversarial state, in terms of the great power competition.” Hyeongjoo Park contributed to this report.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Poetic Peace Activist, Master of Mindfulness, Dies at 95

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Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk, poet and peace activist who in the 1960s came to prominence as an opponent of the Vietnam War, died Saturday at 95 surrounded by his followers in the temple where his spiritual journey began. "The International Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism announces that our beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hanh passed away peacefully at Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam, at 00:00hrs on 22nd January, 2022, at the age of 95," said his official Twitter account. In a majestic body of works and public appearances spanning decades, Thich Nhat Hanh spoke in gentle yet powerful tones of the need to "walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet." He suffered a stroke in 2014 that left him unable to speak and returned to Vietnam to live out his final days in the central city of Hue, the ancient capital and his place of birth, after spending much of his adult life in exile. As a pioneer of Buddhism in the West, he formed the "Plum Village" monastery in France and spoke regularly on the practice of mindfulness – identifying and distancing oneself from certain thoughts without judgment – to the corporate world and his international followers. "You learn how to suffer. If you know how to suffer, you suffer much, much less. And then you know how to make good use of suffering to create joy and happiness," he said in a 2013 lecture. "The art of happiness and the art of suffering always go together." Born Nguyen Xuan Bao in 1926, Thich Nhat Hanh was ordained as a monk as modern Vietnam's founding revolutionary Ho Chi Minh led efforts to liberate the Southeast Asian country from its French colonial rulers. Thich Nhat Hanh, who spoke seven languages, lectured at Princeton and Columbia universities in the United States in the early 1960s. He returned to Vietnam in 1963 to join a growing Buddhist opposition to the U.S.-Vietnam War, demonstrated by self-immolation protests by several monks. "I saw communists and anti-communists killing and destroying each other because each side believed they had a monopoly on the truth," he wrote in 1975. "My voice was drowned out by the bombs, mortars and shouting." Like a pine tree Toward the height of the Vietnam War in the 1960s he met civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., whom he persuaded to speak out against the conflict. King called Thich Nhat Hanh "an apostle of peace and non-violence" and nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. "I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam," King wrote in his nomination letter. While Thich Nhat Hanh was in the United States to meet King a year earlier, the South Vietnamese government banned him from returning home. Fellow monk Haenim Sunim, who once acted as Thich Nhat Hanh's translator during a trip to South Korea, said the Zen master was calm, attentive and loving. "He was like a large pine tree, allowing many people to rest under his branches with his wonderful teaching of mindfulness and compassion," Haemin Sunim told Reuters. "He was one of the most amazing people I have ever met." Thich Nhat Hanh's works and promotion of the idea of mindfulness and meditation have enjoyed a renewed popularity as the world reels from the effects of a coronavirus pandemic that has killed over a million people and upended daily life. "Hope is important, because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear," Thich Nhat Hanh wrote. "If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. "If you can refrain from hoping, you can bring yourself entirely into the present moment and discover the joy that is already here." 

US Suspends 44 Flights by Chinese Carriers After Beijing Action

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The U.S. government said Friday it would suspend 44 China-bound flights from the United States by four Chinese carriers in response to the Chinese government's decision to suspend some U.S. carrier flights over COVID-19 concerns. The suspensions will begin Jan. 30 with Xiamen Airlines’ scheduled Los Angeles-to-Xiamen flight and run through March 29, the Transportation Department said. The decision will cut some flights by Xiamen, Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines. Since Dec. 31, Chinese authorities have suspended 20 United Airlines, 10 American Airlines and 14 Delta Air Lines flights, after some passengers tested positive for COVID-19. As recently as Tuesday, the Transportation Department said the Chinese government had announced new U.S. flight cancellations. Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said Friday the policy for international passenger flights entering China has "been applied equally to Chinese and foreign airlines in a fair, open and transparent way." He called the U.S. move "very unreasonable" and added, "We urge the U.S. side to stop disrupting and restricting the normal passenger flights" by Chinese airlines. Airlines for America, a trade group representing the three U.S. carriers affected by China's move, along with others, said it supported Washington's action "to ensure the fair treatment of U.S. airlines in the Chinese market." The Transportation Department said France and Germany have taken similar action against China’s COVID-19 actions. It said China's suspensions of the flights "are adverse to the public interest and warrant proportionate remedial action." It added that China's "unilateral actions against the named U.S. carriers are inconsistent" with a bilateral agreement. China has also suspended numerous U.S. flights by Chinese carriers after passengers later tested positive. The department said it was prepared to revisit its action if China revised its "policies to bring about the necessary improved situation for U.S. carriers." It warned that if China cancels more flights, "we reserve the right to take additional action." China has all but shut its borders to travelers, cutting total international flights to just 200 a week, or 2% of pre-pandemic levels, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) said in September. The number of U.S. flights being scrapped has surged since December, as infections caused by the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus soared to record highs in the United States. Beijing and Washington have sparred over air services since the start of the pandemic. In August, the U.S. Transportation Department limited four flights from Chinese carriers to 40% passenger capacity for four weeks after Beijing imposed identical limits on four United Airlines flights. Before the recent cancellations, three U.S. airlines and four Chinese carriers were operating about 20 flights a week between the countries, well below the figure of more than 100 per week before the pandemic.

Patent-free Corbevax promises vaccine equity

by Ranjit Devraj, 3 days ago

Corbevax, the new kid on the vaccine block, promises vaccine equity with US and Indian support.

Haiti's Allies Need to Help Tackle Violence, Canada’s Trudeau Says

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Haiti's allies must act immediately to help tackle a spike in violence that is worsening a precarious humanitarian situation, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday.  The international community also needs to address deep governance problems that are fueling a political and security crisis in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, he told a group of foreign ministers during a day of virtual talks to discuss the crisis.  Canada, which hosted the meeting, announced C$50.4 million ($40 million) in aid to Haiti for health services, security and infrastructure. A senior U.S. State Department official also said the United Nations was organizing a donor conference for February at which the United States could provide "significant additional resources" beyond what it has already given.  Gangs have extended their control over territory in Haiti since the assassination in July of President Jovenel Moise. One gang coalition in October created a nationwide fuel shortage by blocking access to storage terminals, and kidnappings are rife.  "In order to address Haiti's humanitarian needs, we must also address the challenging security situation. The increase in violence is only worsening the already precarious humanitarian situation," Trudeau said.  "This will require immediate action to mitigate violence. ... We must also address the deep governance problems that are fueling the current political and security crisis. That includes taking action against corruption."  A rise in kidnappings, added to worsening economic conditions, has prompted a growing number of Haitians to seek better opportunities in other countries.  The number of asylum applications in Mexico nearly doubled in 2021 from two years earlier, with most applications from Haitian and Honduran migrants.  Ottawa said the meeting included representatives of the United Nations, the Caribbean Community and the Organization of American States.

CDC Says Studies Show Boosters Offer Increased Protection Against Omicron 

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it has evidence COVID-19 vaccines work against the omicron variant.  Citing three studies, the CDC said the vaccines appear to work particularly well for those who received booster shots. The U.S. studies are the first to examine the effectiveness of the vaccines on the omicron variant.  One study said it found that vaccines were effective in lowering hospitalizations and urgent care center visits after three doses of Pfizer or Moderna.   The study said three shots were 90% effective in preventing hospitalizations during both the delta and omicron surges.   It said protection against urgent care center visits fell from 94% during the delta wave to 82% during the omicron wave.  Another study focused on deaths and found those who had received boosters had the highest protection against infection from both delta and omicron.  The third study looked at those who had been vaccinated and then tested positive with COVID-19. It said three shots of Pfizer or Moderna were 67% effective against symptomatic cases of omicron compared with unvaccinated people.   Two of the studies found the protection offered by the vaccines wanes to varying degrees as time goes on.  "If you are eligible for a booster and you haven't gotten it, you are not up to date and you need to get your booster," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing Friday.  Also during the briefing, Walensky said the average number of omicron cases was down nationally by about 5%, mostly in areas where it began to surge. She said there were about 744,600 cases per day on average in the past seven days.   She warned that some parts of the country could still see an increase in infections.   "In some parts of the country we are seeing the number of daily cases caused by the omicron variant beginning to decline," she said. "The surge in cases started at different times in different regions and [we] may continue to see high case counts in some areas of the country in the days and weeks ahead."  ​ Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.

Thich Nhat Hanh, who worked for decades to teach mindfulness, approached death in that same spirit

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Little Progress Apparent in Ukraine Standoff, but Talks to Continue

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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 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 Antonio 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.”  VOA's Margaret Besheer and Wayne Lee contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

Armed Services Blood Program Urges Donors to Step Up > U.S. Department of Defense > Defense Department News

by Claudia Sanchez-Bustamante, MHS Communications, 3 days ago

Donations are down, and the Armed Services Blood Program is encouraging volunteers to step up and donate blood to replenish the supply.

Biden Pushes Expansion of Domestic Semiconductor Manufacturing

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U.S. President Joe Biden touted a $20 billion investment by American technology company Intel to build a semiconductor factory in Ohio to address a global shortage that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S.-China trade war. In a speech from the White House on Friday, Biden said the Intel factory, part of the administration’s effort to work with the private sector, would create thousands of jobs. He urged Congress to pass legislation to further expand domestic chip manufacturing, framing it in the context of strategic competition with China. “Today 75% of the production takes place in East Asia; 90% of the most advanced chips are made in Taiwan,” Biden said. “China is doing everything it can to take over the global market so they can try to outcompete the rest of us.” Semiconductor chips function as the brains of cars, medical equipment, household appliances and electronic devices. The $20 billion factory is an initial investment, said Patrick Gelsinger, chief executive officer of Intel, at the White House event. “This site alone could grow to as much as $100 billion of total investment over the decade,” he said. The White House pointed to other investments in semiconductor manufacturing in the United States earlier this year by Samsung, Texas Instruments and Micron. “Congress can accelerate this progress by passing the U.S. Investment and Competition Act, also known as USICA, which the president has long championed and which he called for action on today,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, referring to legislation that aims to strengthen research, development and manufacturing for critical supply chains to address semiconductor shortages. Driven by Washington’s desire to retain an edge over China’s technological ambitions, USICA was passed with rare bipartisan Senate support in June but still needs to be passed by the House of Representatives. It includes full funding for the CHIPS for America Act, which provides $52 billion to catalyze more private sector investments in the semiconductor industry. “The Chinese have been really clear. They want an indigenous chip industry. They want to be globally dominant, and that means displacing the U.S. and others,” James Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA. The U.S. share of global semiconductor production has fallen from 37% to 12% over the past 30 years, according to government data. Pandemic impact The COVID-19 pandemic and extreme changes in consumer demand during lockdowns have exacerbated fragility in the global semiconductor supply chain. “Consumer demand increased rapidly for items such as home computers, while supply could not keep up and many Chinese manufacturers were locked down,” Nada Sanders, professor of supply chain management at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, told VOA. Meanwhile, the U.S.-China tariff war that began under the Trump administration and geopolitical conflicts between the two global rivals have made the environment even less conducive for cooperation, Sanders said. The Intel factory will not be operational until 2025, but analysts say the initiative will still be effective to secure the supply of chips in the long run. “You cannot underestimate demand for this stuff. It grows at about 10% a year,” Lewis said. As the U.S. expands its domestic chip manufacturing capacity, analysts say a key component is working with international partners, including South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, to fill in the supply gap. Earlier Friday, Biden discussed semiconductor supply chain resilience in his virtual summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. “The leaders did discuss the importance of cooperation on supply chain security, including semiconductors, and the president described what we are doing at home and underscored the importance of working together on it,” a National Security Council spokesperson told VOA. The spokesperson added that the two countries have been working closely in this area bilaterally through the Quad, a security dialogue forum involving the U.S., Australia, India and Japan. “The new ministerial-level Economic Policy Consultative Committee (the Economic '2+2') established by the leaders today will also cover this important issue,” the spokesperson said. Taiwan, home to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and the leading producer of advanced chips in the world, is another key partner. “If China was to take over Taiwan, and use TSMC as a leverage point, that would be hugely disruptive,” Lewis said. “Taiwan and its proximity to China and China's hostility drives a lot of the concern.” The global chip shortage has pushed up inflation rates and hamstrung the administration's economic recovery efforts. It contributed to the sharp increases in the price of new and used automobiles, which account for one-third of the annual price increases in the consumer price index. Biden’s approval in the polls has been lagging recently, partly driven by inflation. Consumer prices jumped 7% in December compared with a year earlier, the highest inflation rate in 40 years. It has dampened economic recovery in a year that the administration says has shown the biggest job growth in American history.


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