The Pandemic Missing: Some US Kids Didn't Go Back to School

4 months ago

She'd be a senior right now, preparing for graduation in a few months, probably leading her school's modern dance troupe and taking art classes. Instead, Kailani Taylor-Cribb hasn't taken a single class in what used to be her high school since the height of the coronavirus pandemic. She vanished from Cambridge, Massachusetts' public school roll in 2021 and has been, from an administrative standpoint, unaccounted for since then. She is among hundreds of thousands of students around the country who disappeared from public schools during the pandemic and didn't resume their studies elsewhere. An analysis by The Associated Press, Stanford University's Big Local News project and Stanford education professor Thomas Dee found an estimated 240,000 students in 21 states whose absences could not be accounted for. These students didn't move out of state, and they didn't sign up for private school or home-school, according to publicly available data. In short, they're missing. "Missing" students received crisis-level attention in 2020 after the pandemic closed schools nationwide. In the years since, they have become largely a budgeting problem. School leaders and some state officials worried aloud about the fiscal challenges their districts faced if these students didn't come back. Each student represents money from the city, state and federal governments. Gone is the urgency to find the students who left — those eligible for free public education but who are not receiving any schooling at all. Early in the pandemic, school staff went door-to-door to reach and reengage kids. Most such efforts have ended. "Everyone is talking about declining enrollment, but no one is talking about who's leaving the system and why," said Tom Sheppard, a New York City parent and representative on the city's Panel for Educational Policy. "No one," he said, "is forthcoming." A problem not discussed The missing kids identified by AP and Stanford represent far more than a number. The analysis highlights thousands of students who may have dropped out of school or missed out on the basics of reading and school routines in kindergarten and first grade. That's thousands of students who matter to someone. Thousands of students who need help re-entering school, work and everyday life. "That's the stuff that no one wants to talk about," said Sonja Santelises, the chief executive officer of Baltimore's public schools, speaking about her fellow superintendents. "We want to say it's outside stuff" that's keeping kids from returning to school, she said, such as caring for younger siblings or the need to work. But she worries teens sometimes lack caring adults at school who can discuss their concerns about life. "That's really scary," Santelises said. Discussion of children's recovery from the pandemic has focused largely on test scores and performance. But Dee says the data suggests a need to understand more about children who aren't in school and how that will affect their development. "This is leading evidence that tells us we need to be looking more carefully at the kids who are no longer in public schools," he said. Over months of reporting, the AP learned of students and families avoiding school for a range of reasons. Some are still afraid of COVID-19, are homeless or have left the country. Some students couldn't study online and found jobs instead. Some slid into depression. During the prolonged online learning, some students fell so far behind developmentally and academically that they no longer knew how to behave or learn at school. Many of these students, while largely absent from class, are still officially on school rosters. That makes it harder to truly count the number of missing students. The real tally of young people not receiving an education is likely far greater than the 240,000 figure calculated by the AP and Stanford. In some cases, this wasn't sudden. Many students were struggling well before the pandemic descended. Kailani, for one, had begun to feel alienated at her school. In ninth grade, a few months before the pandemic hit, she was unhappy at home and had been moved to a different math class because of poor grades. Kailani has ADHD and says the white teaching assistant assigned to help her focus in her new class targeted her because she was Black, blaming Kailani when classmates acted up. She also didn't allow Kailani to use her headphones while working independently in class, something Kailani says was permitted in her special education plan to help her focus. After that, Kailani stopped attending math. Instead, she cruised the hallways or read in the library. Ultimately, the pandemic and at-home education relieved the anxiety Kailani felt from being in the school building. Kailani preferred online school because she could turn off her camera and engage as she chose. Her grades improved. When the school reopened, she never returned. A Cambridge schools spokesperson looked into Kailani's complaints. "Several individuals demonstrated great concern and compassion towards her and the challenges she was facing outside of school," Sujata Wycoff said. She said the district has a "reputation of being deeply dedicated to the education and well-being of our students." Losing the physical connection To assess just how many students have gone missing, AP and Big Local News canvassed every state in the nation to find the most recently available data on both public and non-public schools, as well as census estimates for the school-age population. Overall, public school enrollment fell by 710,000 students between the 2019-20 and 2021-22 school years in the 21 states plus Washington, D.C., that provided the necessary data. Those states saw private-school enrollment grow by over 100,000 students. Home-schooling grew even more, surging by more than 180,000. But the data showed 240,000 students who were neither in private school nor registered for home-school. Their absences could not be explained by population loss, either — such as falling birth rates or families who moved out of state. States where kindergarten is optional were more likely to have larger numbers of unaccounted-for students, suggesting the missing also include many young learners kept home instead of starting school. California alone showed over 150,000 missing students in the data, and New York had nearly 60,000. Census estimates are imperfect. So AP and Stanford ran a similar analysis for pre-pandemic years in those two states. It found almost no missing students at all, confirming something out of the ordinary occurred during the pandemic. The true number of missing students is likely much higher. The analysis doesn't include data from 29 states, including Texas and Illinois, or the unknown numbers of ghost students who are technically enrolled but rarely make it to class. For some students, it was impossible to overcome losing the physical connection with school and teachers during the pandemic's school closures. José Escobar, an immigrant from El Salvador, had only recently enrolled in the 10th grade in Boston Public Schools when the campus shut down in March 2020. His school-issued laptop didn't work, and because of bureaucratic hurdles, the district didn't issue a new one for several weeks. His father stopped paying their phone bills after losing his restaurant job. Without any working technology for months, he never logged into remote classes. When instruction resumed online that fall, he decided to walk away and find work as a prep cook. "I can't learn that way," he said in Spanish. At 21, he's still eligible for school in Boston, but says he's too old for high school and needs to work to help his family. Another Boston student became severely depressed during online learning and was hospitalized for months. Back home, he refuses to attend school or leave his room despite visits from at least one teacher. When his mother asked him about speaking to a reporter, he cursed her out. These are all students who have formally left school and have likely been erased from enrollment databases. Many others who are enrolled are not receiving an education. In Los Angeles last year, nearly half of students were chronically absent, meaning they missed more than 10% of the school year. For students with disabilities, the numbers are even higher: According to district data, 55% missed at least 18 school days. It's not clear how many students were absent more than that. The city's Unified School District did not respond to requests for this data. When schools don't come through Los Angeles officials have spoken openly about attempts to find unschooled students and help remove obstacles that are preventing them from coming to school. Laundry services have been offered, as has help with housing. But for some students and their parents, the problem sits within a school system they say has routinely failed their children. "Parents are bereft," said Allison Hertog, who represents around three dozen families whose children missed significant learning when California's physical classrooms closed for more than a year during the early pandemic. Ezekiel West, 10, is in fourth grade but reads at a first grade level. Before the pandemic shutdowns, he was shuffled from school to school when educators couldn't address his impulsive behavior. During online learning, his mother couldn't get home internet and struggled with the WiFi hotspots provided by the school. She worked as a home health aide and couldn't monitor Ezekiel online. When he returned to school in fall 2021 as a third grader, he was frustrated that his classmates had made more progress as the years passed. "I did not feel prepared," he said in a recent phone interview. "I couldn't really learn as fast as the other kids, and that kind of made me upset." An administrative judge ruled Los Angeles' schools had violated Ezekiel's rights and ordered the district to give him a spot at a new school, with a special plan to ease him back into learning and trusting teachers. The school didn't follow the plan, so his mother stopped sending him in October. "I can't trust them," Miesha Clarke said. Los Angeles school officials did not respond to requests for comment on Ezekiel's case. Last month, Ezekiel signed up for a public online school for California students. To enroll him, his mother agreed to give up his special education plan. His attorney, Hertog, worries the program won't work for someone with Ezekiel's needs and is looking for yet another option with more flexibility. At least three of the students Hertog has represented, including Ezekiel, have disappeared from school for long periods since in-person instruction resumed. Their situations were avoidable, she said: "It's pretty disgraceful that the school systems allowed this to go on for so long." When Kailani stopped logging into her virtual classes during the spring of her sophomore year, she received several emails from the school telling her she'd been truant. Between two to four weeks after she disappeared from Zoom school, her homeroom advisor and Spanish teacher each wrote to her, asking where she was. And the school's dean of students called her great-grandmother, her legal guardian, to inform her about Kailani's disappearance from school. They didn't communicate further, according to Kailani. She went to work at Chipotle, ringing up orders in Boston's financial district. In December, Kailani moved to North Carolina to make a new start. She teaches dance to elementary school kids now. Last month, she passed her high school equivalency exams. She wants to take choreography classes. But she knows, looking back, that things could have been different. While she has no regrets about leaving high school, she says she might have changed her mind if someone at school had shown more interest and attention to her needs and support for her as a Black student. "All they had to do was take action," Kailani said. "There were so many times they could have done something. And they did nothing."

UN Eyes Revival of Millets as Global Grain Uncertainty Grows

4 months ago

While others in her Zimbabwean village agonize over a maize crop seemingly headed for failure, Jestina Nyamukunguvengu picks up a hoe and slices through the soil of her fields that are lush green with a pearl millet crop in the African country's arid Rushinga district. "These crops don't get affected by drought, they are quick to flower, and that's the only way we can beat the drought," the 59-year old said, smiling broadly. Millets, including sorghum, now take up over two hectares of her land — a patch where maize was once the crop of choice. Farmers like Nyamukunguvengu in the developing world are on the front lines of a project proposed by India that has led the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization to christen 2023 as "The Year of Millets," an effort to revive a hardy and healthy crop that has been cultivated for millennia — but was largely elbowed aside by European colonists who favored corn, wheat and other grains. The designation is timely: Last year, drought swept across much of eastern Africa; war between Russia and Ukraine upended supplies and raised the prices of foodstuffs and fertilizer from Europe's breadbasket; worries surged about environmental fallout of cross-globe shipments of farm products; many chefs and consumers are looking to diversify diets at a time of excessively standardized fare. All that has given a new impetus to locally-grown and alternative grains and other staples like millets. Millets come in multiple varieties, such as finger millet, fonio, sorghum, and teff, which is used in the spongy injera bread familiar to fans of Ethiopian cuisine. Proponents tout millets for their healthiness — they can be rich in proteins, potassium, and vitamin B — and most varieties are gluten-free. And they're versatile: useful in everything from bread, cereal and couscous to pudding and even beer. Over centuries, millets have been cultivated around the world — in places like Japan, Europe, the Americas and Australia — but their epicenters have traditionally been India, China, and sub-Saharan Africa, said Fen Beed, team leader at FAO for rural and urban crop and mechanization systems. Many countries realized they "should go back and look at what's indigenous to their agricultural heritage and what could be revisited as a potential substitute for what would otherwise be imported — which is at risk when we had the likes of pandemic, or when we have the likes of conflict," said Beed. Millets are more tolerant of poor soils, drought and harsh growing conditions, and can easily adapt to different environments without high levels of fertilizer and pesticide. They don't need nearly as much water as other grains, making them ideal for places like Africa's arid Sahel region, and their deep roots of varieties like fonio can help mitigate desertification, the process that transforms fertile soil into desert, often because of drought or deforestation. "Fonio is nicknamed the Lazy Farmers crop. That's how easy it is to grow," says Pierre Thiam, executive chef and co-founder of New York-based fine-casual food chain Teranga, which features West African cuisine. "When the first rain comes, the farmers only have to go out and just like throw the seeds of fonio ... They barely till the soil." "And it's a fast growing crop, too: It can mature in two months," he said, acknowledging it's not all easy: "Processing fonio is very difficult. You have to remove the skin before it becomes edible." Millets account for less than 3% of the global grain trade, according to FAO. But cultivation is growing in some arid zones. In Rushinga district, land under millets almost tripled over the past decade. The U.N.'s World Food Programme deployed dozens of threshing machines and gave seed packs and training to 63,000 small-scale farmers in drought-prone areas in the previous season. Low rainfall and high temperatures in recent years in part due to climate change, coupled with poor soils, have doused interest in water-guzzling maize. "You'll find the ones who grew maize are the ones who are seeking food assistance, those who have grown sorghum or pearl millet are still eating their small grains," said Melody Tsoriyo, the district's agronomist, alluding to small grains like millets, whose seeds can be as fine as sand. "We anticipate that in five years to come, small grains will overtake maize." Government teams in Zimbabwe have fanned out to remote rural regions, inspecting crops and providing expert assistance such as through WhatsApp groups to spread technical knowledge to farmers. WFP spokesman Tatenda Macheka said millets "are helping us reduce food insecurity" in Zimbabwe, where about a quarter of people in the country of 15 million — long a breadbasket of southern Africa — are now food insecure, meaning that they're not sure where their next meal will come from. In urban areas of Zimbabwe and well beyond, restaurants and hotels are riding the newfound impression that a millet meal offers a tinge of class, and have made it pricier fare on their menus. Thiam, the U.S.-based chef, recalled eating fonio as a kid in Senegal's southern Casamance region, but fretted that it wasn't often available in his hometown — the capital — let alone New York. He admitted once "naively" having dreams making what's known in rural Senegal as "the grain of royalty" — served to honor visiting guests — into a "world class crop." He's pared back those ambitions a bit, but still sees a future for the small grains. "It's really amazing that you can have a grain like this that's been ignored for so long," Thiam said in an interview from his home in El Cerrito, Calif., where he moved to be close to his wife and her family. "It's about time that we integrate it into our diet."

Spain’s Matador Suit Makers Face Uncertain Future   

4 months ago

When Enrique Vera opens the door to his workshop, an array of gleaming gold and silver matadors’ jackets shine in the sun. “It is little bit like a cave full of treasure,” he says. Vera painstakingly fashions the brilliant trajes de luces (suits of lights) which are worn by bullfighters when they face half-ton bulls in the ring. One of only seven sastres (bullfighting tailors) in the world, he used to be a matador. But he swapped the sword used to kill the bull for a needle and followed a family tradition to become a tailor. The iconic status of the matador’s suit has meant it has passed from the bullring to mainstream popular culture. Vera and his mother, Nati, also a seamstress, were called on to make matadors suits for films and the catwalk, working with Pink Panther star Peter Sellers, designer John Paul Gaultier and the late ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. From the moment a matador steps through the door into Vera’s office in Seville, southern Spain, it sets in motion an intricate process of measuring, sewing, ironing, and finally fitting the suits which can cost as much as $6,000 each. Meticulous process Vera’s team of 15 specialist seamstresses spend a-month-and-a-half making each suit, which is made to measure. Up to 300 drawings are made before a suit is finished. The golden, blue or red jackets, trousers and capotes de paseo — the huge cape which the bullfighter carries when he emerges into the ring — are filled with rhinestones, beads and gold or silver thread. One essential quality is all Vera’s suits must withstand bloodstains — from the bull or the matador. “It is like drawing a work of art. You must capture the vision of the bullfighter for his suit, then make it a reality. It must be like a second skin,” Vera says in an office filled with photographs of famous bullfighters wearing his creations. Ancient art dying? But as attitudes toward bullfighting change in Spain, confecting these suits, whose design has remained the same for the past 150 years, is an art in decline. Some Spaniards consider bullfighting to be an essential part of the culture, while others say it is a cruel spectacle. In recent years, the number of bullfights has declined partly because of the pandemic, but also because Spaniards have a raft of different ways to amuse themselves and the animal rights movement is on the rise. “The problem is that we have changed the concept of animals to humanize them. There is no one more environmentally conscious than breeders of fighting bulls,” Vera told VOA. “The bulls spend three or four years living free. They are not being slaughtered for meat. But there are plenty of bullfights in Spain, Latin America, and France.” He was not so sure, however, about his own job. “There are less sastres because it takes a lot of time. The older ones are retiring and not being replaced,” he admitted. He hopes his 14-year-old son will follow him into the trade. Polls show less support for bullfighting in recent years. Some 46.7% of Spaniards were in favor of prohibiting bullfighting, while 18.6% backed the tradition and 34.7% had no opinion, according to a 2020 survey for Electomania, a polling company. The number of bullfights fell from 1,553 in 2017 compared to 824 in 2021, according to government figures. Only 8% of the population attended bullfights in 2018-2019, compared to 45% who said they went to the theater or 70.3% who said they spent spare time reading. The first bullfight in Spain was held in 711 A.D. in honor of King Alfonso VIII. Originally, the pastime was reserved for the nobility and took place on horseback. The present version of bullfighting started in Ronda at the start of the 19th century. A bill to end bullfighting in France failed last year after a member of parliament withdrew the proposed legislation. Portugal allows fights where the bull does not die. In Latin America, the tradition has been banned in some Mexican states, but is still legal in Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. Tradition breaking Paco Ramos, who runs, which sells second-hand suits of lights, fears a younger generation of tailors may not emerge to replace the likes of Vera. “For younger people it takes too long to make each suit and is too much work. But for now, there are not many tailors and there is enough demand,” he told VOA. However, he was confident there was no chance bullfighting would be banned any time soon. In 2013, the then conservative government introduced a law which declared bullfighting part of the national heritage which should be protected throughout Spain, effectively preventing any attempts to ban the practice. Animal rights groups are planning to challenge the legal protection of bullfighting by introducing a bill through a people’s petition. Marta Esteban, president of Torture Is Not Culture, an animal rights collective, told VOA she believed that public opinion was behind banning bullfighting. “There is no doubt that it is coming to an end, but governments are not willing to give it a coup de grace,” she said. Aldara Arias de Saavedra, a tour guide who grew up within the shadow of La Maestranza bullring in Seville, has never been to a bullfight. “I can understand why some people like it. My father did. But it is not for me. You have to kind of grow up with it to be into it. It is like football, I suppose,” she told VOA. Walk around the narrow streets near the bullring and there is a mini-economy which depends on this pastime, from bars to restaurants to those selling souvenirs like fake suits of lights. “I think down here in the south, not everyone will go to bulls, but it is so associated with the big ferias and smaller ones in villages that it is not going to be banned soon,” said Marcos Alvarez, a cinematographer.  

Kashmir Registers Highest Number of Internet Restrictions Globally

4 months ago

Residents in Indian-administered Kashmir experienced more internet shutdowns and restrictions than any other region in 2022, including Iran and Russia, a new report found. More than a fifth of all web blackouts took place in Kashmir, according to Surfshark, a virtual private network company headquartered in Lithuania. Its global report on internet censorship in 2022 — released mid-January — found 32 countries were hit by a total of 112 restrictions. Nearly all came during times of protest or unrest. Kashmir ranked alongside Russia — where Moscow moved to cut access to social media and news amid its invasion of Ukraine; Iran, where blocks came amid mass protests that started in September; and India, where Surfshark documented cuts in service at times of unrest. Overall, Asia led the world for internet disruptions, accounting for 47% of all global cases. An estimated 4.2 billion people experienced internet censorship throughout the year, Surfshark found. The company’s Internet Censorship Tracker analyzes reports from the news media and digital rights organizations such as Netblocks and Access Now, and collects data from social media companies to document cases. Surfshark spokesperson Gabriele Racaityte-Krasauske told VOA that in Kashmir, the internet was shut down for a total of 456 hours in 2022. “All were cases of full internet restrictions on a local level,” she said. Kashmir has experienced restricted and blocked internet regularly since 2019, when Indian authorities revoked the region’s special autonomous status. Data from the Home Department of Jammu and Kashmir show 49 internet suspension orders were issued last year. Authorities have said the blocks were intended to prevent the spread of “misinformation and maintain public order” in the wake of security-related incidents and political unrest in Kashmir. But local journalists and analysts have said the blocks are also used to prevent critical reporting in the region. In its 2022 report Suspension of Telecom/Internet Services and Its Impact, India’s parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology said that guidelines on internet blocks needed to be established and noted that no database currently exists in the country to track such orders. Media obstructed The Surfshark report says that internet censorship can result in “damaging and dangerous consequences” and is an “attack” on freedom and democracy. “When people are cut off from the internet, they can’t speak up for themselves, so it’s up to the people who have free and undisturbed internet access to let the world know about what’s happening,” Racaityte-Krasauske said. “We want our [tracker] to help raise awareness on this troubling issue and build international pressure to stop such policies.” Journalists in Kashmir have previously told VOA that the communication blocks — along with new media policies imposed since 2019 — make it hard to cover breaking news and get access to information or official responses. They added that the outages ultimately foster an atmosphere where misinformation and rumors flourish. The region’s longest internet shutdown lasted from Aug. 5, 2019, to Jan. 25, 2020: the months after Delhi revoked the region’s status. Independent journalist Sumayyah Qureshi, told VOA that the 2019 shutdown made it difficult to report on what was happening inside the region at that time. “I am sure if we had internet, I could have done better work. In the absence of the internet and calling facility, how is one supposed to call up sources or talk to victims or people?” he said. “I couldn’t read [news] and know what was being published in Kashmir. I couldn’t even read my own stories,” said Qureshi. “The easiest way to muzzle voices is to shut the internet.” The journalist said such blocks infringe on rights to freedom of expression and access to information. The internet is a lifeline in an age of globalization, says Uttar Pradesh-based academic Tarushikha Sarvesh. The assistant professor at the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies at Aligarh Muslim University has researched experiences of women in Jammu and Kashmir. “Many people’s livelihoods are dependent on [the internet], especially in the case of Kashmiri women. We saw that the internet shutdown led to a major loss of livelihood for them and their support system due to adverse effects on their businesses,” Sarvesh said. The cost of internet shutdowns overall in India was estimated to be $184.3 million in 2022, according to Top10VPN, a global digital privacy and research organization. The frequent and prolonged shutdowns significantly impacted livelihoods, particularly in business, education, and healthcare. Companies were unable to access online markets, and students were unable to access online resources and attend virtual classes. One local entrepreneur in Srinagar, Irfan Mushtaq, told VOA that prolonged and frequent shutdowns forced him to close his software development firm and move into a new trade. Even ordinary users in Kashmir express frustration. One resident, Ajaz Ahmad, told VOA that if the government orders an internet shutdown, they should also instruct the telecom companies not to charge consumers for the services they are unable to use.

Latest Developments in Ukraine: Feb. 11

4 months ago

For full coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, visit Flashpoint Ukraine. The latest developments in Russia's war on Ukraine. All times EST. 12:02 a.m.: Poland on Friday proposed including Russian and Belarusian athletes opposed to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in the Refugee Team for the 2024 Paris Olympics, Agence France-Presse reported. The International Olympic Committee said last month it was exploring a way to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in Paris, under a neutral flag, prompting a furious reaction from Ukraine. Ukraine, supported most fervently by some Nordic and eastern European nations in the debate, has threatened to pull out of the Games. Polish Sports Minister Kamil Bortniczuk said the "compromise solution" would avert a situation where some countries boycott the Olympics over the potential inclusion of Russians and Belarusians under a neutral banner. Speaking after a virtual summit of sports ministers in London on Friday, he said the proposal was "the only possibility" for Russians and Belarusians to compete in Paris. The group would not be a neutral team, but one made up of dissidents opposing the regimes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, Bortniczuk said.  Some information in this report came from Agence France-Presse.

South Sudan Accuses Kenya of Border Encroachment

4 months ago

South Sudan has accused Kenya of trying to steal disputed territory along their border after communal clashes left at least eight people dead. Parliamentarians are piling pressure on South Sudanese President Salva Kiir to recall the house from recess so they can discuss the simmering border dispute. Fighting occurred last weekend in the area, in and around the town of Nakodok, a few miles from an oil field on the Kenyan side of the border. South Sudan says Kenyan troops tried to take control of Nakodok, an area of Kapoeta East County. Abdullah Angelo Lokeno, the county commissioner, said eight people were reported to have been killed from the Kenyan side. He said the situation was now calm, and that he had urged the government of South Sudan "to return the people of Kenya to their place so that citizens can get to rest. The government should come and control the situation." In 2009, Kenya and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement — the ruling party of what was then southern Sudan — signed an agreement to establish a temporary border control post at Nadapal to facilitate cross-border movement of people, goods and services. The meeting was held in Nairobi with representatives from both sides, according to documents seen by VOA. Juol Nhomngek, a South Sudanese lawmaker, said the agreement no longer holds, as it is not anchored in any legislation passed since South Sudan won independence from Sudan in 2011. “Even if there were an agreement, it could not be given without the consent of the parliament that represents the people,” Nhomngek said. On Thursday, Kiir dispatched his special adviser to Nairobi, a move seen as an effort to ease the tension between the two countries. The mission came a day after Kenya sent Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria to Juba to deliver a message from President William Ruto. South Sudan Foreign Affairs Minister Mayiik Ayii Deng said the government hopes to use diplomatic means to resolve the impasse. Kiir is under immense pressure to reconvene the national assembly to discuss the matter. Bol Joseph Agau, a member of parliament and a member of the National Democratic Movement Party under the South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA), said, "We need the parliament to be recalled by the head of the state. His excellency, the President Salva Kiir, needs to see that we have a big need for the parliament to be reopened.” Some leaders said South Sudan would not cede even an inch of territory. Dau Deng Dau, deputy minister for foreign affairs, said South Sudan "is called a country because of a defined territory and population, and we want to inform our youths to be calm, be patient, your country is addressing all these matters.” The deputy foreign affairs minister said South Sudan had several other areas that, in his words, had been entered by neighboring countries, specifically Kenya and Uganda. He said South Sudan’s border commission was working with both countries to resolve the issues.

Chinese Balloon ‘Egregious Violation’ of US Airspace, White House Says

4 months ago

President Joe Biden ordered the Pentagon to shoot down an unidentified object over Alaska on Friday, less than a week after a U.S. fighter jet fired a missile to take down a Chinese surveillance balloon over the Atlantic Ocean. John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, confirmed the Alaska incident in answer to VOA’s question during the White House news briefing Friday. While the U.S. still does not know details about the object’s “capabilities, purpose or origin,” according to officials, the unidentified high-altitude object again brought into focus the frayed relationship between Washington and Beijing following the Chinese surveillance balloon revelation. Earlier Friday, VOA Mandarin White House Correspondent Paris Huang spoke with Kirby on U.S.-China relations, as well as the latest developments in Russia’s war on Ukraine. This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. VOA: China still denies the balloon is for spying. How do you read China’s handling of the whole situation? John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications: I don't think that we're particularly surprised necessarily by Chinese denials. Look, we had time to collect information about this, to survey this device. We're confident in what we've been saying – that it was in fact a surveillance balloon, that it is not uncommon for the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] to contract out for these kinds of capabilities. We know that they have flown them over 40 to 50 other countries, we're reaching out to those countries as we speak, and now we're going to recover the remains, the debris that's on the bottom of the, off the coast of the Carolinas, and we'll learn even more. VOA: Will the U.S. advise countries to shoot down the balloons that show up in their territories? Kirby: We're spending time and energy notifying these countries of the forensic work that we have done and what we know this particular spy balloon program by the PLA is up to, that's the focus of those conversations. VOA: During the State of the Union, President Biden said, ‘Name me a global leader who would change places with Xi Jinping.’ What does he mean by it? Kirby: His point is that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is not 10 feet tall. That this is a country, large and vast though it is, it's having struggles economically, he's got domestic problems as well at home. They haven't been totally transparent about COVID, but they're still in the throes of some of the pandemic’s aftereffects. And I think the president's point was, in this strategic competition of ours, the United States is uniquely poised to succeed. VOA: The Wagner Group claims to have stopped recruiting Russian convicts for the war in Ukraine. Can U.S. intelligence confirm this? Kirby: I'll let Mr. [Yevgeny] Prigozhin speak for his recruiting tactics. Perhaps one of the reasons he's not, maybe not recruiting out of prisons is because he's already emptied all of them. We know that he's been throwing a lot of convicts into this fight. And that he has a personal stake here in trying to upstage the defense ministry, and probably has a personal stake in some of the economic gains. The larger point is that Mr. [Vladimir] Putin, after repeatedly failing to achieve any strategic objectives inside Ukraine, is now increasingly relying on others to prop up his effort. He's going into Iran to buy drones. He's venturing out to North Korea to get artillery shells, and now he's using a guy like Mr. Prigozhin, a private military contractor, to actually conduct military operations on the battlefield. I think that says a lot about how much Mr. Putin realizes his own military has been failing. VOA: Ukraine said it had intercepted plans by Russia to destroy Moldova. Can you confirm? Kirby: I’m not able to confirm that reporting. VOA: Russia launched a fresh wave of missile attacks across Ukraine today. What can the U.S. do to help Ukraine defend its skies more effectively? Kirby: We’ve prioritized air defense in many of the recent security assistance packages that we've been giving Ukraine. As you know, we also announced that we're going to be providing a whole Patriot battery. In fact, the training for Ukrainian soldiers to use that Patriot battery is going on right now in Oklahoma. We've prioritized air defense, whether it's short-, medium-, or long-range for much of the last few weeks and months, and we're going to continue to do that going forward. VOA: Moscow announced Chinese President Xi Jinping will be visiting Russia, probably at the anniversary of the invasion. Your reaction? Kirby: I’ll just say this, without confirming this trip or what Russia's motivations for speaking to it are. Mr. Putin is isolated; he has made his country even more of a pariah than it already was after they invaded Ukraine the first time in 2014. And he's desperate for assistance, because the exports and export controls and the sanctions have taken a big bite out of his defense industrial progress. He's having trouble supplying microelectronics for cruise missiles. He’s reaching out to Iran for drones, reaching out to North Korea for ammunition, and he’s relying on private military contractors. This is a man who does not have a lot of friends in the world. VOA: How much goodwill is left between the U.S. and China, and how confident are you that it can be rebuilt? Kirby: We don't seek conflict with China. And we do want to keep the lines of communication open, especially at a time like this. But we do seek a strategic competition that the president believes that the United States is well poised to come out on top. Now's not the appropriate time for the secretary of state to go to Beijing. When it is the appropriate time, we’ll be willing to have those discussions with Beijing. The whole world is expecting that these two countries are going to manage this most consequential of bilateral relationships in a responsible, forthright, prudent manner. That is where President Biden still is. That's where he wants to take it. And his ability to do that is not helped by this egregious violation of our airspace.

VOA Interview: Head of the Supreme Court of Ukraine

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Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin, who has called for the creation of an ad hoc international tribunal to investigate and prosecute Russian aggression in Ukraine, has registered 65,000 war crimes committed by Russian forces. Vsevolod Knyazev, the head of Ukraine’s Supreme Court, calls it a necessary step — one that should also target Russian leaders who ordered the invasion. “Putin will not come to the court voluntarily, and Russia will not pay voluntarily,” Knyazev tells VOA’s Ukrainian Service. The following has been edited for length and clarity: VOA: Ukraine is an EU candidate country. Judicial reform is considered to be an important step on the way to EU membership. How would you assess the progress in unveiling this reform? Head of the Supreme Court of Ukraine Vsevolod Knyazev: Indeed, the tasks No. 1 and 2 on the list of European commission’s requirement for Ukraine’s EU integration are about the judicial reform. These are the most important issues for our EU partners. The first one is about the constitutional court reform that is underway. Ukraine has already adopted the legislation on the competitive selection to the judges. However, the Venice Commission has criticized the legislation. According to the bill that was signed into law, the advisory group consists of three Ukrainian and three international members, and the Venice Commission urges Ukraine to increase the number of the members representing the international community to four. If we are pursuing European integration, we shall start doing everything for our key institutions to meet European standards. The second issue is the judicial system reform, creation of the High Council of Justice and High Qualification Commission for Judges [to approve the composition of the courts and rid them of dishonest judges]. We have already made progress here. This shall become a key element in completing the key task for us and the whole of Ukraine, which is fighting against corruption and forming a strong democratic and powerful country. VOA: The Prosecutor General office of Ukraine registered at least 65,000 cases of war crimes allegedly committed by Russian soldiers. While Ukrainian and international courts are investigating those, there is so far no institution to investigate and prosecute the Russian leaders for the crime of aggression. Prosecutor General Kostin during his visit to Washington called on the world to create a special ad-hoc international tribunal. What is your take on such an initiative? Knyazev: The International Criminal Court and this special tribunal shall be addressing the case against highest political and military elites [in Russia]. I fully support the idea of creating a special ad-hoc international tribunal. The international community—all the countries of the world—shall say “no” to leaders of countries that committed aggression or are intending to commit aggression. They shall be held responsible for the crime of aggression. There is no such mechanism today. Creation of such an ad-hoc international tribunal is not only important for Ukraine, there shall be some preventative mechanism. One of the goals of prosecution is prevention. VOA: You mentioned the harm that Russia has done to Ukraine during this war of aggression. Will Ukrainian courts be addressing the issue of Russian reparations for Ukraine? Knyazev: This is being discussed domestically in Ukraine and internationally. There are different thoughts on the mechanism through which Ukrainian citizens can get compensations for the harm done by Russia. It looks like Canada and the United States have advanced the most in this direction. Both countries have adopted the legislation, allowing to seize assets of the Russian oligarchs and then to use these funds to compensate for the harm done by Russia in Ukraine. We have a good example of that in the U.S. Putin will not come to the court voluntarily, and Russia will not pay voluntarily. The only option is to seize all these assets located abroad. These are big assets of both Putin and those oligarchs who help him wage an aggressive war. And then these assets will be used to repay the damage to Ukraine. VOA: A Supreme Court ruling from April 14, 2022, states that Ukrainian victims of Russia’s invasion can sue Russia for the damage despite its sovereign immunity. Where does the decision stand in the balance between sovereignty and human rights? Knyazev: Well, it's a very interesting question and a question of a great discussion inside and outside of Ukraine, because it shows that the current system of international law is not ideal. [As it now stands], one state can begin a war of aggression …. and then the victim of the war [is expected to] just respect the immunity of the [aggressor]. Our courts think that if one state starts an aggressive war, it should not expect the victim to respect that immunity. That's why [the] Supreme Court introduced a new doctrine in this part of international law. And even now in Ukraine, we are preparing to adopt ... amendments to international law to make it possible to recover losses using the Russian assets and funds which are [recovered] inside Ukraine. VOA: Under international law President Vladimir Putin and Russian leadership are immune and cannot be tried in Ukrainian court. Do you agree with this interpretation, and is the Supreme Court of Ukraine planning on taking this up in the future? Knyazev: I think a very important thing is that those criminals from Russian leadership like Putin and his ministers and generals should be condemned by international bodies—should be condemned by international society to prevent starting an aggressive war in the future. The case of Putin and his highest leadership should be adjudicated by the ICC or the special international tribunal to show the world community that starting the aggressive war in modern Europe by the leadership of any country would be impossible in the future and will be punished. This interview originated in VOA's Ukrainian Service.

Spain Offers Freed Nicaraguans Citizenship; Bishop Who Stayed is Jailed

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The Spanish government offered citizenship to more than 200 Nicaraguan political prisoners who were freed and flown to the United States on Thursday, Spain's top diplomat said Friday. Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares made the announcement to Servimedia news agency, following the surprise release of 222 Nicaraguan prisoners later expelled to the United States. After their release, lawmakers loyal to authoritarian President Daniel Ortega voted to strip them of their Nicaraguan citizenship, which could thwart plans to return home someday. But since it requires a constitutional change, a second vote is needed, likely not until 2024. In the interview, Albares hailed Ortega's decision to free his jailed critics, many of them prominent opposition politicians, journalists and religious figures. One of Ortega’s critics, Catholic Bishop Rolando Alvarez was sentenced on Friday to more than 26 years prison by a Nicaraguan court. Alvarez was convicted on charges of undermining national integrity and spreading false news, and during Friday's court hearing it was also announced that he would be fined and stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship. Last August, police arrested Alvarez, bishop of the Matagalpa diocese, after dislodging him from church property where he had barricaded himself for several weeks along with other priests. Alvarez was included in the political prisoner release but refused to board the plane destined for Dulles International Airport near Washington. Spanish authorities will contact the 222 prisoners, who were allowed into the United States under a temporary humanitarian visa, so they can formally apply for citizenship. Several opposition presidential candidates were among the released political prisoners, including several who sought to challenge Ortega in a 2021 election only to be arrested and detained in an unprecedented dragnet and criminalizing of political dissent. Most international observers declared the 2021 vote a sham. On Thursday, Ortega described the prisoner release as a push to expel criminals who sought to harm Nicaragua, while the United States referred to the move as a "constructive step" that could lead to further dialogue between Washington and Managua. Prominent Nicaraguan cultural figures were quick to praise Spain's offer. In a post on Twitter, renowned novelist and essayist Sergio Ramirez who decades ago served as Ortega's vice president, described it as a "beautiful gesture," adding that those released "will have a homeland as long as Nicaragua does not recover its freedom and democracy.” 

US Adds 6 Chinese Entities From Balloon Program to Blacklist 

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The Biden administration Friday added six Chinese entities connected to Beijing's suspected surveillance balloon program to an export blacklist.  The new restrictions came after the White House said it would consider broader efforts to "expose and address" China's larger surveillance activities that threaten U.S. national security and allies.  The Commerce Department said the five companies and one research institute were supporting "China's military modernization efforts, specifically the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) aerospace programs including airships and balloons."  The spectacle of the Chinese balloon drifting over the United States last week caused political outrage in Washington and brought into sharp focus the challenge that China poses to the United States and its allies.  It prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a trip to Beijing that both countries had hoped would patch up frayed relations.  Being added to the entity list makes it hard for targeted companies to obtain U.S. tech exports. Both U.S. President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump have used the list to punish Chinese companies viewed as a threat to national security and to keep Beijing from advancing militarily.   "Today's action demonstrates our concerted efforts to identify and disrupt the PRC’s use of surveillance balloons, which have violated the airspace of the United States and more than 40 countries,” said Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Enforcement Matthew Axelrod.  Two of the entities listed were Beijing Nanjiang Aerospace Technology and China Electronics Technology Group Corporation 48th Research Institute.  The Biden administration also added Dongguan Lingkong Remote Sensing Technology, Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group, Guangzhou Tian-Hai-Xiang Aviation Technology and Shanxi Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group.   The Chinese Embassy in Washington, Guangzhou Tian-Hai-Xiang Aviation Technology and China Electronics Technology Group Corporation 48th Research Institute did not immediately respond to requests for comment.   Beijing Nanjiang, Dongguan, Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group, and Shanxi Eagles Men Aviation Science and Technology Group could not be reached.   Washington has said it was confident the manufacturer of the Chinese balloon, which the U.S. military shot down last weekend off the U.S. east coast, has a "direct relationship" with the PLA.  The U.S. Air Force downed the balloon off South Carolina on Saturday, a week after it entered U.S. airspace. China's foreign ministry has said it was a weather balloon that had blown off course, and it accused the United States of overreacting.

Wife of North Korean Diplomat: From Pyongyang to Seoul Seeking Freedom for Kids

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"I can see your son has a bright future ahead of him," a schoolteacher in London told Oh Hye Son. Oh, 55, is the wife of Thae Yong Ho, a member of the South Korean National Assembly. He defected from North Korea with Oh and their sons in 2016 while serving as the deputy ambassador to the U.K. The teacher's comments about the couple's younger son, Kum Hyok, brought Oh to tears. Her husband, Thae, was a counselor at the North Korean Embassy in London, a post he held from 2004 to 2008. "There was no bright future for him in North Korea when we return," Oh recalled thinking at the time about her then-third grader. Oh returned to Pyongyang with her husband, younger son, and elder son Ju Hyok when the government summoned them in 2008. Oh spoke with the VOA Korean Service on February 3 at the Korea Press Center in Seoul soon after the release in South Korea of her memoir, A Pyongyang Woman from London. The book traces her life as an elite member of North Korean society in Pyongyang and London before the family defected, and Seoul, where she has been living since the family defected. The book is available only in Korean. Back in Pyongyang The decision to defect came about slowly, with Oh asking herself, "When did North Korea go wrong?" during her family's time in London. Upon the family's return to Pyongyang, Oh enrolled Kum Hyok in a school attended by children from wealthy families who bribed teachers for good grades, according to Oh. Schoolyard bullies targeted Kum Hyok, who returned home with a knife stuck in his thigh after one brawl, his mother recalled. "I thought it'd be difficult for my kids to live in North Korea with a normal, healthy state of mind," Oh said. "I made a decision then that I didn't want to come back to North Korea if we had a chance to leave next time." They returned to London in 2013 when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assigned Thae to the North Korean Embassy as its deputy ambassador, a promotion from his previous posting. Over time, during their pre-dinner routine strolls in London, Oh persisted in telling Thae why they needed to flee. She told him she would rather die than return to North Korea. For several years, Thae remained silent, but then he asked Oh, "Are you sure you want to defect? You won't miss your mother?" Oh responded, "Later, the children will resent us not taking a chance." She continued, "I told him that I can leave North Korea and risk being cut off from my family as long as our kids can have freedom." Oh, Thae and their two sons defected in 2016. At the time, Thae told South Korean officials one of the reasons he defected was due to concern over his children's future. Elite life Oh came from an elite family in North Korea. She is related to Oh Paek Ryong, who fought against the Japanese occupying army in the 1930s alongside Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founding leader and the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un. That kind of family history guarantees a privileged life in North Korea. "When I lived in my father's house, we received food like … cooking oil, eggs and sugar each month," Oh said. "But common people didn't receive them." Thae, however, came from an ordinary family. With high scores on college entrance exams, he gained admission to the prestigious Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, where Oh also matriculated. He continued his education at Beijing Foreign Studies University and rose through the ranks of North Korea's diplomatic corps. Oh's marriage to Thae changed her life. "When I came to live with Thae's family after marriage, rice was the only ration that the family received," she said. "There was no oil, no candy, no snacks. People might ask what difference did that make? But I felt a lot of difference." When a hairdryer she brought from her father's house broke, Thae's family did not have access to the U.S. currency needed to buy a hairdryer, an item that was imported as North Korea did not manufacture them. Oh spotted wild ginseng in a cupboard at Thae's family home, took it to one of the few stores that dealt in foreign currency, sold the prized root, and with the $50 she received, bought a Toshiba hairdryer for $40. "I was so upset because I couldn't buy it with money my husband earned," said Oh. While it was difficult to live as an ordinary North Korean, Oh said her concept of "elite" changed when she went to South Korea and realized that by comparison, "North Korea's standard of living is so low." Defunct systems When she saw how South Korean women lived, she realized they had more rights than she had imagined. "North Korean policy says it guarantees women's rights," Oh said. "But in reality, women face disadvantages in society and at home." Oh said women are the main breadwinners in North Korea as men must work for the regime for low wages paid in currency or rations. Women meet household needs by selling and buying goods — homemade items and household necessities imported or smuggled from China — at the market, she said. "All economic activities are led by women," she added, describing the situation before pandemic border closures that further limited trade with China. Outsiders looking in Oh said scholars from South Korea and elsewhere who study North Korea at times describe the country inaccurately because they lack direct experience there. Oh supports her husband in advocating for the South Korean government to lift its ban on North Korea's government-controlled media. "The South Korean public are capable of discerning what's true or fake," said Oh. "They will come to realize North Korea is a place where people cannot live." Oh said North Korea is often better understood by those outside South Korea who have greater access to information about the Pyongyang regime. To dispel misconceptions about North Korea, Oh decided to write her book. "I wanted to tell the truth because I lived it." Oh said that while living in London, a city with a large community of North Korean defectors, she secretly envied those who protested in front of the embassy where her husband worked. "I don't envy them anymore," said Oh. "I have freedom now. I can change anything through my will and efforts. I can have dreams."

Schools Ban ChatGPT Amid Fears of Artificial Intelligence-Assisted Cheating 

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Since its release in late 2022, an artificial intelligence-powered writing tool called ChatGPT has won instant acclaim but has also raised concerns, especially on school campuses. High school senior Galvin Fickes recently demonstrated how entering a short command can generate a summary of Jane Eyre, a book she was assigned to read. “I think it did a pretty good job, honestly,” said Fickes, who has used the software to help with studying. Across the U.S., school districts are choosing to restrict access to ChatGPT on their computers and networks. Developed by San Francisco-based OpenAI, ChatGPT is trained on a vast amount of language data from the internet. When prompted, the AI generates a response using the most likely sequence of words, creating original text that mimics human thought. Some teachers like LuPaulette Taylor are concerned that the freely available tool could be used by students to do their homework and undermine learning. She listed the skills she worries will be affected by students having access to AI programs like ChatGPT. “The critical thinking that we all need as human beings, and the creativity, and also the benefit of having done something yourself and saying, ‘I did that,’” said Taylor, who teaches high school English at an Oakland, California, public school. Annie Chechitelli, who is chief product officer for Turnitin, an academic integrity service used by educators in 140 countries, said AI plagiarism presents a new challenge. “There's no, what we call, ‘source document,’ right?” she said. “Or a smoking gun to look to, to say, ‘Yes, this looks like it was lifted from that.’” Turnitin’s anti-plagiarism software checks the authenticity of a student paper by scanning the internet for possible matches. But when AI writes text, each line is novel and unique, making it hard to detect cheating. There is, however, one distinguishing feature of AI writing, said Eric Wang, vice president for AI at Turnitin. “They tend to write in a very, very average way,” he said. “Humans all have idiosyncrasies. We all deviate from average one way or another. So, we're able to build detectors that look for cases where an entire document or entire passage is uncannily average.” Turnitin’s ChatGPT detector is due out later this year. Wang said keeping up with AI tools will be an ongoing challenge that will transform education. “A lot of things that we hold as norms and as status quo are going to have to shift as a result of this technology,” he said. AI may become acceptable for some uses in the classroom, just as calculators eventually did. Computer science teacher Steve Wright said he was impressed when his student used ChatGPT to create a study guide for her calculus class. “You know, if ChatGPT can make us throw up our hands and say, ‘No longer can I ask a student to regurgitate a process, but now I'm going to have to actually dig in and watch them think, to know if they're learning’ — that's fantastic,” said Wright. In schools and elsewhere, it seems clear that AI will have a role in writing the future.

UN Weekly Roundup: February 4-10, 2023 

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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. More Than 22,000 Dead in Earthquakes  Two devastating earthquakes, one a 7.8 magnitude and the other a 7.5 magnitude, struck parts of Turkey and Syria in the early hours of Monday, as many families slept. The tremors were felt in the region and as far away as Greenland. Four days after the earthquakes, hope was fading for finding many survivors. The United Nations was focused on the relief response, particularly to Syria, where millions in the war-torn country were already in need before the disaster.  First UN Aid Convoy Reaches Quake-hit Northern Syria  Guterres Bleak on State of World U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Monday that the world needed to wake up and take urgent action to change the trajectory of conflicts and geopolitical divisions, the climate crisis and economic inequality. He told the General Assembly, “We need a course correction,” as he laid out his priorities for the year.  UN Chief: World Needs 'Wake-Up Call' Somalia Still at Risk of Famine The U.N. resident coordinator for Somalia said there was still a “strong possibility” of famine in Somalia this year if the spring rains underperformed. The organization appealed for $2.6 billion this year to assist 7.6 million of the most vulnerable Somalis who are facing acute hunger from conflict, high food prices and unprecedented drought. UN Appeals for $2.6 Billion to Ease Hunger Crisis in Somalia  US Antisemitism Campaign Comes to UN Second gentleman Doug Emhoff urged the international community Thursday to speak out against antisemitism and called out those who do not, saying silence is not an option. “This moment requires bold collective action and urgency, not just concepts,” Emhoff, the husband of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, told a gathering at the United Nations. US Second Gentleman Calls for ‘Bold Collective Action’ to Curb Antisemitism  In Brief —  U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said 17.6 million people needed humanitarian assistance in Ukraine — nearly 40% of the population. Griffiths told the Security Council on Monday that the U.N. and its agencies had provided 15.8 million people with assistance, including more than 1.3 million people in areas outside Kyiv’s control. But he called for better and more frequent access, especially to areas under Russia’s military control, where he said it had become increasingly unpredictable and impeded. — The U.N. children’s agency estimated that 1 million children were out of school in Haiti because of social unrest, insecurity, the high costs of education and lack of educational services. UNICEF said Thursday that armed violence against schools, including shooting, ransacking, looting and kidnappings, was nine times higher than in the past year. Gangs control more than a third of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and are terrorizing the population. In October, the government requested that the U.N. Security Council authorize the immediate deployment of an international specialized armed force to help stop the armed groups, but the raising of the troops and leadership for the mission has been slow. Haiti’s gangs are seeking to exploit the political vacuum left by the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moise. — The World Health Organization said Thursday that Africa was witnessing a rapid rise in cholera as cases surge globally. They noted that cases recorded on the continent in January alone had already risen by more than 30% of the total cases in 2022. WHO said an estimated 26,000 cases and 660 deaths had been reported as of the end of January in 10 countries. —  On Sunday, a helicopter that was part of the peacekeeping mission in eastern DR Congo was shot down while traveling in North Kivu province. One South African peacekeeper was killed, and another was severely injured. The crew managed to land the helicopter in Goma. The incident was under investigation. — The U.N. condemned last weekend’s decision by Mali’s junta to declare the U.N. human rights representative, Guillaume Ngefa, persona non grata and ordered him to leave the country within 48 hours. A U.N. spokesperson said the doctrine of “persona non grata” was not applicable to U.N. personnel and Mali's move violated its obligations under the U.N. Charter regarding the privileges and immunities of the U.N. and its personnel. Quote of Note “It’s a crisis on top of a crisis.” – U.N. resident coordinator for Syria El-Mostafa Benlamlih, briefing reporters on Wednesday, speaking of the 10.9 million Syrians affected by Monday’s earthquakes in a country where 15.3 million already needed humanitarian assistance because of more than a decade of civil war. Next Week As the devastation from Monday’s earthquakes becomes clearer, the U.N. will be focused on working to gain access to victims in parts of Syria beyond government control. If the Damascus government refuses, the Security Council will likely take up the issue. 

US Announces Biden Visit to Poland After Russian Onslaught on Ukraine

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The White House announced on Friday that President Joe Biden will travel to Poland on February 20 to meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda and Eastern European allies. Coming just before the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Biden’s visit “will make it very clear that the United States will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes," said John Kirby, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council. The announcement came after Russia’s massive strikes Friday morning across Ukraine. Heavy shelling targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure and caused new power outages. According to VOA’s Anna Chernikova, who is in Kyiv, Ukraine’s energy minister, Herman Halushchenko, confirmed there were strikes at thermal and hydro-generation facilities, as well as at high-voltage infrastructure in six regions. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Russia’s massive strikes “a challenge to NATO, collective security. This is terror that can and must be stopped,” he said in a video address. The most difficult situations are in the Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv and Khmelnytskyi regions. Ukraine’s air defense downed 61 of the 71 Russian missiles launched, according to the Ukrainian Air Force. “Unfortunately, there were hits. Unfortunately, there are victims,” Zelenskyy said. The Ukrainian president said several Russian missiles flew through the airspace of Moldova and Romania. “Another proof that terror does not know and will never know any borders. Another proof that the protection of Ukraine is the protection of the whole of Europe and the world, of every country that simply wants to live,” he added. Moldova air space Moldova acknowledged that Russian missiles had flown through its air space and summoned Moscow's ambassador to complain. In a published statement, Romania's Defense Ministry denied Ukrainian reports that a missile had also flown through Romanian air space but acknowledged the missile did enter Moldova’s airspace, reportedly passing just 35 kilometers beyond the Romanian border on its way to Ukraine. During a press conference, Ukraine's Air Force spokesman Yurii Ihnat said Ukrainian radar systems recorded two Russian Kalibr cruise missiles flying into Romanian and Moldovan airspace during Russia's 14th mass missile attack on Ukraine. Reacting to Ukraine’s claims, U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel said Friday there’s no indication of a direct military threat by Russia to Moldova or Romania at this time. Speaking to European Union leaders in Brussels on Thursday, Zelenskyy warned that his country has intercepted plans by Russian secret services to destroy Moldova, and Moldovan intelligence confirmed the claim. His warnings were echoed by a member of the Moldovan parliament, Sinchevici Eugeniu, who told VOA’s Eastern European Division chief Myroslava Gongadze the sudden change in Moldovan government Friday reflects the need for fresh defense measures in Moldova. “We need to put a big focus on security in our government, which was one of the factors that motivated us to change the government," Eugeniu said, pointing to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s recent comments on state-owned the Russian news network TASS that the actions of Western nations could soon turn Moldova into the “next Ukraine.” Additional weaponry The attacks on Ukraine Friday renewed calls for more weapons aid to Ukraine. European Council President Charles Michel said the missile barrage constituted war crimes. "The EU and its member states stand by Ukraine and all Ukrainians. And will further speed up the provision of military equipment, including air defense," he tweeted. Western countries that have provided Ukraine with arms have so far refused to send fighter jets or long-range weapons capable of striking deep inside Russia. However, Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger announced Friday that Slovakia can start talks on delivering MIG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. Zelenskyy said he heard from several European Union leaders at the summit that they were ready to provide aircraft, hinting at what would be one of the biggest shifts yet in Western support for Ukraine. "Our MIGs can save innocent lives in Ukraine,” Heger said. In an interview with VOA on Friday, Kirby said Washington has “prioritized air defense whether it’s short-, medium- or long-range” and it will continue to do so. Kirby did not answer, though, whether the U.S. will provide fighter jets to Ukraine. “I am not going to get ahead of decisions that haven’t been made yet. We continue to evolve our contributions as the war evolves itself,” he said, noting the U.S. is “in lockstep, talking to the Ukrainians almost every day.” Ukraine has been promised tanks from the U.S., Germany, and other NATO allies, but it does not yet have enough tanks to launch a counteroffensive against Russia. Britain’s Defense Ministry said Friday Russian forces “have likely made tactical gains” in two key locations in Ukraine — on the northern outskirts of the Donbas town of Bakhmut and around the western edge of the town of Vuhledar. The ministry said that on the northern outskirts of Bakhmut, Wagner Group forces have pushed 2 to 3 kilometers further west, controlling the area near the main route to town. The report said Russia likely has suffered heavy casualties, however, because of the “inexperienced units” deployed there. “Russian troops likely fled and abandoned at least 30 mostly intact armored vehicles in a single incident after a failed assault,” the ministry said. 'Mixed picture' In a briefing Friday at U.S. the Center for a New American Security, Celeste Wallander, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said Russia's military overall "is a mixed picture." She said as Russia continues to suffer losses in Ukraine, it is also learning both tactically, operationally and somewhat strategically how to adapt. The U.S. is seeing Russia apply lessons learned from previous losses and failures in Ukraine. "We're seeing some of those play out in how Russia's conducting, for example, the operations right now in Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine," she said. Wallander emphasized that Russia has “a deep bench of personnel” it can draw upon, and she said the Russian Federation “will remain a militarily capable adversary that we have to right size our plans, our operations and our capabilities to cope with." She expressed confidence that “Russia will not achieve its strategic or even its operational objectives, and we are confident that the Ukrainian armed forces are up to the task of defending its country." VOA’s Eastern European Division Chief Myroslava Gongadze in Kyiv, Ukraine, and VOA’s National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin in Washington contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

US Shoots Down Mysterious High-Altitude Object Over Alaska 

4 months ago

A U.S. fighter jet shot down a mysterious, high-altitude object that traveled into American airspace Friday, acting on orders from President Joe Biden after it was determined the object posed a potential threat to commercial aviation. According to the Pentagon, the object first moved into U.S. airspace late Thursday and was tracked by U.S. Northern Command as it moved over the skies of northeastern Alaska, staying consistently at about 12,000 meters (40,000 feet). Pentagon and White House officials said U.S. planes approached the object, said to be the size of a small car, and determined that no human was in it before one of two F-22 fighter jets sent on an intercept course shot it from the skies with an AIM-9x Sidewinder missile. Officials at both the Pentagon and the White House defended the decision to shoot down the object, saying that at 12,000 meters it “posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight.” 'Object,' not an aircraft There was “no indication, at this time, that it was maneuverable,” said the Pentagon press secretary, Air Force Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, speaking less than two hours after the object had been brought down. "This was an object ... it wasn't an aircraft per se,” Ryder said, briefing Pentagon reporters. “We have no further details about the object at this time, including any description of its capabilities, purpose or origin.” U.S. officials said recovery efforts for what remained of the object were underway with a variety of aircraft. “We do expect to be able to recover the debris since it fell on our territorial space but on what we believe is frozen water,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said during a separate White House briefing. “We’re hopeful that we’ll be successful and then we can learn a little bit more about it." “We're calling this an object because that's the best description we have right now,” Kirby added. "We do not know who owns it. … We don't have any information that would confirm a stated purpose for this object." A Federal Aviation Administration notice issued earlier Friday put the location of the object in the vicinity of Deadhorse, Alaska, and warned pilots to stay clear of the area. The area is also near Prudhoe Bay, the largest oil field in North America and the 18th-largest oil field in the world. The U.S. has also used Deadhorse and the north slope of Prudhoe Bay for training helicopter pilots and other personnel in an arctic environment. U.S. Navy submarines conduct training in the area as well. Chinese balloon The incursion into U.S. airspace of the high-altitude object came less than a week after a Chinese surveillance balloon was shot down off the coast of the U.S. state of South Carolina, after it had traveled over much of the country. U.S. officials, who said they were able to learn a lot about China’s spy balloon program by allowing it to traverse the U.S., even as it sought out sensitive locations, defended the decision to shoot down this latest object just about a day after it was first spotted. They said that unlike the Chinese surveillance balloon, which was traveling at more than 18,000 meters (60,000 feet) and above the level of commercial air traffic, this object was 6,000 meters lower and likely to fall into the path of commercial planes. The officials also said that unlike the Chinese surveillance balloon, this high-altitude object was at the mercy of the winds, making its flight path unpredictable and therefore more dangerous to air traffic. Also, unlike the Chinese surveillance balloon, which was described as the size of two to three buses, the White House’s Kirby said this new object over Alaska “had no significant payload.” VOA's Patsy Widakuswara and Steve Herman contributed to this report.

Air Force Shoots Down 'High-Altitude Object' off Alaskan Coast > U.S. Department of Defense > Defense Department News

by Jim Garamone, 4 months ago

An Air Force F-22 shot down a "high-altitude object" off the northern coast of Alaska that posed a threat to civilian airliners, Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said.

China Calls US House Resolution 'Political Manipulation'

4 months ago

China on Friday dismissed a U.S. House of Representatives resolution condemning Beijing over a suspected Chinese spy balloon shot down above U.S. waters as "purely political manipulation and hyping up."  "China is strongly dissatisfied with this and firmly opposes it," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters at a daily briefing.  "The resolution by the U.S. Congress was purely political manipulation and hyping up," Mao said.  The resolution, which passed unanimously Thursday, condemned China for a "brazen violation" of U.S. sovereignty and efforts to "deceive the international community through false claims about its intelligence collection campaigns."  Republicans have criticized the Biden administration for not acting sooner to shoot down the balloon, but both parties' lawmakers came together on the vote, 419-0.  China insists the object was a civilian weather balloon that had been blown off course, but it has not said whom it belonged to or offered other details.  Meanwhile, China's Defense Ministry said it refused a call from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin following the downing of the balloon because the U.S. had "not created the proper atmosphere" for dialogue and exchange.  The U.S. action "seriously violated international norms and set a pernicious precedent," ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei said in a statement issued late Thursday.  "Given that this irresponsible and seriously wrong approach by the U.S. did not create the proper atmosphere for dialogue and exchanges between the two militaries, China did not accept the U.S. proposal for a phone call between the two defense ministers," Tan said.  China, Tan added, "reserves the right to use necessary means to deal with similar situations."  After initially expressing "regret" over the incident, China's rhetoric has hardened in recent days as the FBI gathers debris from the site of the downing in U.S. territorial waters off the coast of South Carolina and sends it to the FBI's lab in Quantico, Virginia, for investigation.  Beijing said the U.S. "overreacted" by shooting it down. The Foreign Ministry has labeled the action "irresponsible" and calls U.S. claims it was spying "part of the U.S. side's information warfare against China."  Austin had sought on Saturday to discuss the balloon issue with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, but was refused, the Pentagon said.  In the wake of the incident, Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a planned trip to Beijing this week that some had hoped would help stabilize bilateral relations, which have tumbled to their lowest level in decades over trade, human rights, China's threats against Taiwan and the Chinese military's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea.  The U.S. has flatly contradicted China's version of events, saying that imagery of the balloon collected by American U-2 spy planes as it crossed the country showed that it was "capable of conducting signals intelligence collection" with multiple antennas and other equipment designed to upload sensitive information and solar panels to power them.  The U.S. says the balloon was part of a huge aerial surveillance program that targeted more than 40 countries under the direction of the People's Liberation Army. Similar balloons have sailed over five continents, according to the administration.  A State Department official said the U.S. has confidence the manufacturer of the balloon has "a direct relationship with China's military and is an approved vendor" of the army. The official cited an official PLA procurement portal as evidence.  Publicly available records show several Chinese companies have been developing balloons for military use, with some openly touting their connections with the PLA, advertising airships bristling with surveillance and communications gear.  Such high-tech balloons are often far larger than the hot air balloons used for recreational purposes. The one shot down by the U.S. was 60 meters (200 feet) tall.  State-owned defense contractor China Electronics Technology Group boasted in 2021 that its JY400 balloon could be equipped with radar and equipment to eavesdrop and interfere with telecommunications.  An email sent to the company bounced back because the inbox was full. A man who picked up the telephone at a number listed for it declined to answer questions and said email was the only way to send requests for comment.  Two balloon companies in the southern province of Hunan also tout military connections.  The Zhuzhou Rubber Research and Design Institute makes the rubber pouches that fill with helium, making balloons lighter than air, and works with the PLA, according to procurement notices, job advertisements and a now-deleted description on its company website.  The deleted description said it is one of only two weather balloon makers in China, and a "military rubber products research and production unit."  The company, a subsidiary of a state-owned enterprise, the China National Chemical Corp., did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.  The website of the second company, Hunan Aerospace, says it makes balloons that can float 3 kilometers high for 21 days at a time. It also produces balloons called "elite scouts" able to hover in place for long periods, according to, a state-backed media outlet in Hunan province.  A woman answering a number listed for Hunan Aerospace denied any connection with the spy balloon incident. Its parent company, state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp., which also builds missile systems, did not immediately respond to a fax and email requesting comment.  In 2020, the Chinese Academy of Sciences broke ground on an experimental base dedicated to developing high-altitude balloons in a remote desert site in Inner Mongolia, where analysts suspect the balloon shot down in the U.S. took flight.  The academy has built an airship, Jimu-1, capable of flying at an altitude of 7 kilometers, according to  A number listed for the academy's Institute of Optics and Electronics rang unanswered, and an email sent to an address on its website bounced.  For the military, the strategic value of these balloons is high.  "In the future, balloon platforms may become like submarines in the deep sea, a silent killer that brings terror," said an article in the PLA Daily, a newspaper published by the ruling Communist Party's Central Military Commission.  Balloons have been used in war for centuries. The French used balloons to spot enemy troop movement as early as the late 1700s, as did soldiers during the American Civil War.  In 1956, Chinese authorities intercepted American spy balloons and displayed remnants at an exhibition in Beijing, accusing the U.S. of violating their airspace. 

What to watch for when you are watching the Super Bowl: 5 essential reads

4 months ago

New Classified Document Found in FBI Search of Pence Home

4 months ago

The FBI discovered an additional document with classified markings at former Vice President Mike Pence's Indiana home during a search Friday, following the discovery by his lawyers last month of sensitive government documents there. Pence adviser Devin O'Malley said the U.S. Department of Justice completed "a thorough and unrestricted search of five hours" and removed "one document with classified markings and six additional pages without such markings that were not discovered in the initial review by the vice president's counsel." The search, described as consensual after negotiations between Pence's representatives and the Justice Department, comes as he has been subpoenaed in a separate investigation into efforts by former President Donald Trump to overturn the 2020 election and as Pence contemplates a Republican bid for the White House in 2024. Pence is now the third current or former top U.S. official, joining Trump and President Joe Biden, to have their homes scoured by FBI agents for classified records. The willingness of Pence and Biden to permit the FBI to search their homes, and to present themselves as fully cooperative, reflects a desire by both to avoid the drama that enveloped Trump last year and resulted in the Justice Department having to get a warrant to inspect his Florida property. FBI said to have unrestricted access Police blocked the road outside Pence's neighborhood in Carmel, just north of Indianapolis, on Friday afternoon as the FBI was inside the home. Pence himself was out of state, visiting family in California after the birth of a grandchild. A member of Pence's legal team was at the home, according to one of the people familiar with the situation who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. That person said the FBI was given unrestricted access. The FBI had already taken possession of what Pence's lawyer previously described as a "small number of documents" that had been "inadvertently boxed and transported" to Pence's Indiana home at the end of the Trump administration. The Justice Department did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Separate special counsels have been investigating the discovery of documents with classification markings at Biden's home in Delaware and his former Washington office, as well as Trump's Florida estate. Officials are trying to determine whether Trump or anyone on his team criminally obstructed the probe in refusing to turn over the documents before the FBI seizure. The FBI recovered more than 100 documents marked classified while serving a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago last August. Pence: 'I take full responsibility' The circumstances of the Biden and Pence cases are markedly different from that of Trump. Pence, according to his lawyer Greg Jacob, had requested a review by his attorneys of records stored at his home "out of an abundance of caution" during the uproar over the discovery of classified documents at Biden's home and former private office. When the Pence documents were discovered, Jacob said, they were secured in a locked safe and reported to the National Archives. FBI agents then collected them. Material found in the boxes came mostly from the Naval Observatory residence where Pence lived while he was vice president. Other material came from a West Wing office drawer. Pence has said he was unaware the documents had been in his possession. "Let me be clear: Those classified documents should not have been in my personal residence," Pence said recently at Florida International University. "Mistakes were made, and I take full responsibility." "We acted above politics and put national interests first," he said. The National Archives last month asked former U.S. presidents and vice presidents to recheck their personal records for any classified documents following news of the Biden and Pence discoveries. The Presidential Records Act states that any records created or received by the president while in office are the property of the U.S. government and will be managed by the Archives at the end of an administration.

Canada, U.S. Support NORAD Modernization > U.S. Department of Defense > Defense Department News

by David Vergun, 4 months ago

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand discussed modernization of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and military assistance for Ukraine's defense at a meeting at the Pentagon.

Iran Releases Emaciated Dissident After Hunger Strike

4 months ago

Iran on Friday released dissident Farhad Meysami — jailed for protesting Iran's requirement that women wear hijabs — a week after supporters warned he risked dying during a hunger strike, the Iranian judiciary said. Images on social media of an emaciated Meysami, who had been in jail since 2018 for supporting women activists protesting Iran's headscarf policy, had gone viral and caused outrage among social media users and international rights groups. "Following the approval by the leader of the revolution (Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) of the recent … amnesty, Farhad_Meysami was included in this amnesty and was released from prison hours ago," the judiciary said on Twitter. On Sunday, Ayatollah Khamenei issued an amnesty covering several prisoners — including some arrested in recent anti-government protests — after a deadly state crackdown helped quell the nationwide unrest. The order coincided with events marking the anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. Protests across the country Iran has been rocked by nationwide unrest following the death of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian Kurdish woman, on September 16, 2022, in police custody, one of the strongest challenges to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution. Morality police arrested Amini for flouting the hijab policy, which requires women to dress modestly and wear headscarves. Women have played a prominent role in the protests, with many waving or burning their headscarves. Rights groups say more than 500 protesters have been killed and nearly 20,000 arrested. At least four people have been hanged, according to the judiciary. 'Contempt for human rights' Images shared via social media showed Meysami curled up on what looks like a hospital bed, and another standing, his ribs protruding. "Shocking images of Dr. Farhad Meysami, a brave advocate for women's rights who has been on hunger strike in prison,” tweeted Robert Malley, Washington's special envoy for Iran. "These images (of Meysami) are a shocking reminder of the Iranian authorities’ contempt for human rights," said Amnesty International. In a letter, Meysami had made three demands: an end to executions, the release of political-civil prisoners, and an end to “forced-hijab harassment.”

Key neurons in mice 'learn' to sniff out threats

by Kelsie Smith-Hayduk - U. Rochester, 4 months ago

Researchers are finding out more about how smell affects threat assessment in two new studies with mice.

Defense Official Says Allies, Partners Are Key to Defense > U.S. Department of Defense > Defense Department News

by Jim Garamone, 4 months ago

The assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs said allies and partners are an integral part of the U.S National Defense Strategy.

Don't Feed the Bears! But Birds OK, US Research Shows 

4 months ago

Don't feed the bears!  Wildlife biologists and forest rangers have preached the mantra for nearly a century at national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, and for decades in areas where urban development increasingly invaded native wildlife habitat.  But don't feed the birds? That may be a different story — at least for one bird species at Lake Tahoe.  Snowshoe and cross-country ski enthusiasts routinely feed the tiny mountain chickadees high above the north shore of the alpine lake on the California-Nevada border. The black-capped birds of Chickadee Ridge will even perch on extended hands to snatch offered seeds.  New research from University of Nevada scientists found that supplementing the chickadees' natural food sources with food provided in feeders or by hand did not negatively impact them, as long as proper food is offered and certain rules are followed.  "It's a wonderful experience when the birds fly around and land on your hand to grab food. We call it 'becoming a Disney princess,'" said Benjamin Sonnenberg, a biologist/behavioral ecologist who co-authored the six-year study.  But he also recognized "there's always the question of when it is appropriate or not appropriate to feed birds in the wild."  State wildlife officials said this week that they generally frown on feeding wildlife. But Nevada Department of Wildlife spokeswoman Ashley Sanchez acknowledged concerns about potential harm are based on speculation, not scientific data.  The latest research project under the wings of professor Vladimir Pravosudov's Chickadee Cognition Lab established feeders in the Forest Service's Mount Rose Wilderness and tracked populations of mountain chickadees at two elevations — both those that did and didn't visit feeders.  'No effect' "If we saw increases in the population size or decreases in the population size, that could mean we were hurting the animals by feeding them," co-author Joseph Welklin said. "Our study shows that feeding these mountain chickadees in the wild during the winter has no effect on their population dynamics." Sonnenberg said he understood concerns about supplementing food for wild creatures at Tahoe, where bears attracted to garbage get into trouble that sometimes turns fatal. The bears may ultimately be killed because they no longer fear people.  "Should you feed the bears? Of course not," Sonnenberg said. "But given the millions of people that are feeding birds around the world, understanding the impact of this food on wild populations is important, especially in a changing world."  Mountain chickadees are of particular interest because they're among the few avian species that hunker down for the cold Sierra winters instead of migrating to a warmer climate. They stash away tens of thousands of food items every fall, then return to the hidden treasure throughout the winter to survive.  "When they come to your hand and grab a food item," Sonnenberg said, "if they fly away into the woods and you can't see them anymore, they are likely storing that food for later."  Sanchez said the Nevada Department of Wildlife's concerns include observations that the chickadees are exhibiting a level of tameness around potential predators — humans — which could make them more susceptible to other predators in nature.  She also said in an email the number of people hand-feeding the birds at Chickadee Ridge has increased significantly in recent years, "which means the odds that somebody will feed them inappropriate food items or handle them inappropriately has also increased." Only food that's suitable  Sonnenberg added in an email that the researchers are "not directly advocating for or against the feeding of chickadees at Chickadee Ridge."  But "what our results do show is that this extra food does not cause chickadee populations in the Sierra Nevada to boom (increase to densities that could be harmful) or bust (decrease dramatically due to harmful effects)," he wrote.  Anyone feeding the birds should only provide food similar to what is found in their natural environment such as unsalted pine nuts or black-oil sunflower seeds, never bread or other human food, he said.  "And always be respectful of the animal," Sonnenberg said. "Behave like you're in their house and you're visiting them."

Lack of diversity in clinical trials is leaving women and patients of color behind and harming the future of medicine – Podcast

4 months ago

Iran Makes Arrests in Attack on Military Site, Blames Israeli 'Mercenaries' 

4 months ago

Iran's security forces have arrested the "main perpetrators" of a drone attack on a military site in the central city of Isfahan, in which Israeli "mercenaries" were involved, state media reported Friday.  Iran has blamed Israel for the January 29 drone attack, vowing revenge for what appeared to be the latest episode in a long-running covert war.  The attack came amid tension between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear activity and its supply of arms – including long-range "suicide drones" – for Russia's war in Ukraine, as well as months of anti-government demonstrations at home.  "The main perpetrators of the unsuccessful attempt to sabotage a Defense Ministry industrial center in Isfahan … have been identified and arrested," the state news agency IRNA said. "So far, the involvement of mercenaries of the … Zionist regime [Israel] in that act has been proven."  Arch-foe Israel has long said it is willing to strike Iranian targets if diplomacy fails to curb Tehran's nuclear or missile programs but does not comment on specific incidents.  "Due to the ongoing interrogations of the accused who are in custody, additional information will be published at the appropriate time," said a statement issued by Iran's security agencies.  Iran has accused Israel in the past of planning attacks using agents inside Iranian territory.  In July, Tehran said it had arrested a sabotage team of Kurdish militants working for Israel who planned to blow up a "sensitive" defense industry center in Isfahan.  Several nuclear sites are located in Isfahan province, including Natanz, the centerpiece of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, which Iran accuses Israel of sabotaging in 2021.   There have been a number of explosions and fires around Iranian military, nuclear and industrial sites in recent years.

Conservationists Skeptical of India's African Cheetah Introduction Plan

4 months ago

The Indian government’s plan to introduce African cheetahs into the wild in India after relocating them from the African continent has been criticized by many conservationists who call the idea "ecologically and scientifically flawed." On January 27, South Africa signed an agreement to send dozens of African cheetahs to India over the next decade. The first batch of 12 cheetahs, seven males and five females, is expected this month, according to the agreement. They will be released into India’s Kuno National Park (KNP) in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where eight African cheetahs are living. “Following the import of the 12 cheetahs in February, the plan is to translocate a further 12 annually for the next eight to 10 years,” said a statement issued by the Indian government the last week of January. The first batch of eight African cheetahs was airlifted from Namibia and released in the park in September 2022, marking the beginning of the Indian government’s ambitious Cheetah Introduction Project (CIP) to reintroduce the big cats to India. Asiatic cheetahs in India became extinct over seven decades ago. When the first group of African cheetahs arrived, S.P. Yadav, head of Project Tiger, said that the extinction of the cheetah in the country was a massive loss of biodiversity. “It is our moral and ethical responsibility to bring back the cheetah to India,” he said. ‘Ecologically unsound project’ However, conservationists are divided over the Indian government’s current plan to introduce African cheetahs in India. In an opinion piece published in Nature Ecology and Evolution in October, a group of wildlife scientists from India, South Africa and other countries said that India’s current Action Plan for Introduction of Cheetah in India (APICI) — a plan prepared by CIP experts — was “ecologically unsound, costly and may serve as a distraction rather than help global cheetah and other science-based conservation efforts.” The CIP of the Indian government estimates that a maximum of 21 cheetahs can reside in the 748-square-kilometer KNP. Wildlife biologist Ravi Chellam, one of the authors of the opinion piece, told VOA that the KNP is too small to host a viable population of the big cats. “Average cheetah density in the best of the habitats in Africa is 1 per 100 square kilometers. Based on an extrapolation using the density data from Africa, science informs us that seven to eight cheetahs, to a maximum of 10 cheetahs can reside within the 748-square-kilometer KNP,” Chellam said. “With an area of only 748 square kilometers, KNP is just too small to host a viable population — estimated at about 50 adults — of the introduced cheetahs.” Echoing Chellam’s views, South Africa-based large carnivore expert Michael G.L. Mills said that the KNP is not suitable for India’s cheetah action plan. “The range quality is also important for maintaining a viable cheetah population, with a need for open or semi-open habitat, with sufficient, suitable wild prey, free from anthropogenic (made by humans) pressure and free-ranging dogs,” Mills told VOA. Mills said Kuno National Park, which is 748 square kilometers in area, is unfenced, harbors about 500 feral cattle and is surrounded by a forested landscape with 169 human settlements is not the size and quality to permit self-sustaining and genetically viable cheetah populations. Nor are other landscapes, he said. “Adopting such a speculative and unscientific approach, as seems to be the case in this venture, will likely lead to human-cheetah conflicts, death of the introduced cheetahs or both, and will undermine other science-based species recovery efforts for the cheetah, both within India and globally,” Mills added. ‘Cheetahs will do very well’ However, experts involved in India’s cheetah program disagree. Yadvendradev Jhala, dean of the Wildlife Institute of India and lead scientist of the CIP, said that he “totally disagrees” with those who are critical of the APICI action plan. “The cheetah reintroduction project is about the restoration of functional ecosystems. I am amazed to see how learned wildlife biologists could be blind or, choose to be blind, to the conservation importance of this project,” Jhala told VOA, noting that the real challenge begins when cheetahs are released as free ranging. Since they were translocated to India five months ago, all eight cheetahs are still in fenced enclosures at the KNP to help them acclimatize to their new home. “Their survival will depend on how safe the national park and its surroundings are made from poachers and their snares,” Jhala said. “As a species, the cheetah from Africa will adapt and do very well in the Indian habitat, climate and with predators and prey.” Conservationist M.K. Ranjitsinh, a member of a court-appointed committee advising the government on the cheetah introduction project, said that apart from the KNP, there are three other sites being readied where African cheetahs would be introduced. “All the selected sites, including KNP, do have sufficient prey base, as of now, to support a certain number of cheetahs and what we hope to do is to conserve the areas so that the prey base goes up,” Ranjitsinh told VOA. “Scientists have found that these sites have the potential presently and in the future. We are prepared to take a few losses, which are bound to happen in any translocation and any reintroduction of this kind.” According to the estimate by the APICI, with the introduction of around 100 African cheetahs over the next decade, after 15 years, the KNP is expected to have an established population of 21 cheetahs. Conservationist Chellam said, “Twenty-one cheetahs just doesn't constitute a viable population. As a result, there is no question of the introduced African cheetahs playing any other larger conservation role in India.”

Rock ant meandering is actually methodical

by Daniel Stolte-Arizona, 4 months ago

Ants may appear to wander aimlessly, but some actually search for food and shelter in a more methodical way.

Giving affection comes with heart health benefits

by Alexis Blue-U. Arizona, 4 months ago

Just in time for Valentine's Day, new research finds that affectionate communication is linked to better heart health outcomes.

February 10, 2023

4 months ago

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

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