Sailors assigned to the USS Carl Vinson had the opportunity to show their true colors during a recent paint night aboard the aircraft carrier as it traveled in the Sulu Sea.
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A court in Uzbekistan has refused to release from house arrest Miraziz Bazarov, a blogger and rights activist arrested who was severely beaten by unknown attackers in March last year. The Mirobod district court in the Uzbek capital Tashkent rejected a motion by Bazarov's lawyer to free the blogger during his trial, which started on January 20. Journalists say they were not allowed to be present at the trial because they did not provide PCR tests to prove they did not have the coronavirus, adding that they had not been told that such tests were required. Representatives of foreign embassies and officials from the European Union and United Nations were allowed in the courtroom. Bazarov's lawyer, Sergei Mayorov, told RFE/RL the judge ordered all people present at the trial to refrain from commenting to the media about the proceedings or to reveal the process in any way until the trial is over. Bazarov was hospitalized in March 2021 after he was brutally attacked by unknown men hours after a public event he had organized in Tashkent for fans of Korean pop music and Japanese anime was disrupted by dozens of aggressive men. He suffered an open leg fracture, a severe concussion, and multiple internal and external injuries. Later, he became a suspect in a slander case. A religious cleric, two pro-government bloggers, and a schoolteacher filed a lawsuit against Bazarov, accusing him of lying about them on his blogs. Bazarov has been known for criticizing the Uzbek government on his Telegram channel. Among other issues, Bazarov also has publicly urged the government to decriminalize same-sex sexual conduct, which remains a crime in Uzbekistan. Bazarov has openly said that he is not an LGBT activist but believes that being gay is a personal issue and therefore no laws should consider it a crime. Bazarov also has criticized President Shavkat Mirziyoev for insufficient anti-corruption efforts and has questioned the efficacy of ongoing restrictions to battle the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, Bazarov was questioned by State Security Service investigators after he called on the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank on Facebook not to provide loans to Uzbekistan without strict control over how the funds are used. Bazarov told RFE/RL he received many online threats before the attack, which he told police about, but he said law enforcement did not take any action. If convicted, Bazarov may face up to three years of parole-like restricted freedom.
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President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida began their first formal talks on Friday as they face fresh concerns about North Korea's nuclear program and China's growing military assertiveness. The virtual meeting comes after North Korea earlier this week suggested it might resume nuclear and long-range missile testing that has been paused for more than three years. North Korea's Kim Jong Un on Thursday presided over a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers' Party at which officials set policy goals for "immediately bolstering" military capabilities to counter what were described as the Americans' "hostile moves," according to the Korean Central News Agency. Both the U.S. and Japan also are concerned about China's increasing aggression toward Taiwan. China claims self-governing Taiwan as its own territory, to be annexed by force if necessary. In recent months, it has stepped up military exercises near the island, frequently sending warplanes near Taiwan's airspace. Japan remains concerned about China intentions in the South China Sea, where it has stepped up its military presence in recent years, and the East China Sea, where there is a long-running dispute about a group of uninhabited islets administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing. White House officials said the two leaders were also expected to discuss ongoing efforts in the COVID-19 pandemic and the brewing crisis in eastern Europe, where Russia has massed some 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine. Biden earlier this week said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to order a further invasion of Ukrainian territory but he did not think Putin wanted an all-out war. Japanese officials said Kishida, who is from Hiroshima, on which the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb at the end of the World War II, is eager to discuss a "world without nuclear weapons" during the summit. Biden and top aides have sought to rally the support of NATO partners and other allies to respond with harsh sanctions against Russia if it moves forward with military action. On Thursday, in preparation for the leaders' call, Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Japanese counterpart, Takeo Akiba, held their own call to discuss North Korea, China and "the importance of solidarity in signaling to Moscow the strong, united response that would result from any attack" on Ukraine, according to the White House. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also held virtual talks earlier this month with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, where China's military maneuvering and North Korea's nuclear program were discussed. Friday's virtual meeting is the first substantial exchange between the leaders since Kishida took office in October. The leaders had a brief conversation on the sidelines of a climate summit in Glasgow in November. Biden was the first leader to call Kishida, on the morning of his first full day in office. Biden, who has sought to put greater focus on the Indo-Pacific amid China's rise as a world power, had built a warm relationship with Japan's last prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, and is hoping to build a similar rapport with Kishida.
The Taliban Friday sharply criticized U.S. President Joe Biden for declaring Afghanistan “not susceptible to unity,” and questioning the competence of the Islamist group’s ability to govern, asserting the humanitarian and economic crisis in their country had been precipitated by the U.S. sanctions. Speaking to reporters during his Wednesday news conference at the White House, Biden said he makes “no apologies” for his August withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. "It's been the graveyard of empires for a solid reason: It is not susceptible to unity," he said. Biden argued that Washington was spending a billion dollars a week in Afghanistan for 20 years and nobody thought U.S. involvement would ever be able to unite Afghanistan. “Not divided, but only ‘united’ nations cause the fall of invaders and great empires,” the Taliban foreign ministry responded Friday. “Discord is an external phenomenon instigated by foreign invaders for their survival, however, Afghans defeated them with their shared Islamic beliefs, homeland & celebrated history, & are now taking strong leaps towards becoming an equal nation,” the statement read. Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s permanent representative-designate to the United Nations, told VOA he concurs with Biden’s view of Afghanistan being the graveyard of empires. However, the rest of the assertions made by the U.S. president are distant from the ground reality, he said. “Afghanistan has always been and is united. Afghans across the country speak with one voice when it comes to supporting national interests and national unity,” Shaheen argued. Biden expressed regret, however, for changes that have taken place in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover five months ago. "Now, do I feel badly [about] what's happening as a consequence of the incompetence of the Taliban? Yes, I do," the U.S. president said on Wednesday. Michael Kugelman, the deputy Asia program director at the Wilson Center, described Biden’s comments about Afghanistan as “both defensive and defiant, and clearly meant to emphasize that withdrawal was the right decision despite how bad conditions have become in Afghanistan since the completion of the pullout.” “What was striking is that the reasons he gave for the withdrawal were different from those - a need to focus on higher priority issues, the achievement of U.S. goals - that he cited when he first announced his decision to depart [Afghanistan],” Kugelman said. Shaheen said the current economic crisis and other upheavals facing Afghanistan stem not from the Taliban’s governance but from the financial sanctions the United States and other foreign entities have imposed, including the freezing of billions of dollars in Afghan central bank’s assets. The international withdrawal led to the immediate suspension of the nonhumanitarian funding that made up more than 75% of the deposed Western-backed Afghan government’s national budget. “The sanctions are hurting ordinary Afghans not our government. Today, if they release our more than $9.6 billion assets, if they lift the sanctions on our banking system to allow our traders to use routine financial channels for imports and exports, and money starts flowing the way it happens in America, it will pave the way for our economic recovery,” Shaheen said. “If those sanctions are removed and the crisis still persists, it will certainly be our incompetence and inability to govern,” he added. Since returning to power, the Taliban have reinstated social restrictions on women, barring most female government employees from returning to work, requiring women to wear hijabs and undertake long road trips only with a male relative. While secondary schoolboys were allowed to resume classes in September, most girls’ schools across Afghanistan remained shuttered. Shaheen defended the Taliban government, saying it has brought peace and stability to the country in a short period and with limited resources. The economic challenges have deepened an already bad humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, which is blamed on years of conflicts and natural disasters. The United Nations estimates more than 24 million Afghans, or 55% of the country’s population, face acute food shortages, with 9 million people one step away from famine. Former Afghan diplomat Omar Samad viewed Biden’s assessment of Afghanistan as flawed because of his misreading of the ground situation and competing U.S. domestic and foreign policy agendas. “The reality is that the U.S. is still responsible for the unfolding humanitarian disaster and needs to do its part to prevent chaos and instability by pushing for a new political arrangement and lifting of sanctions,” Samad, a senior fellow at Washington’s Atlantic Counci, said. The U.N. and the United States have pledged to organize, together with partners, the delivery of humanitarian aid to millions of Afghans who aid workers say are threatened with starvation. "We see assignment of blame between President Biden and Taliban. Clearly that is rhetorical talk for the political needs of each side,” said Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan official. “But in all honesty, the people of Afghanistan didn't have a say in these political games; why would they have to pay the heavy price of crippling sanctions on their livelihoods,” asked Farhadi. No country has yet recognized the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. Foreign governments have pledged to send urgent relief aid to Afghans but at the same time they want to make sure it does not end up with the Taliban rulers.
Efforts to aid the tens of thousands of people affected by Tonga’s disastrous volcanic eruption are beginning to gather momentum, with the first arrivals of aid by plane and boat from New Zealand and Australia. The full scope of damage and needs is still unknown. However, humanitarian agencies say about 87 percent of the South Pacific island’s 100,000 people have been affected by the volcanic ash and tsunami triggered by the underwater eruption. Assessments of the damage from government and international sources are slowly trickling in. They find the biggest priorities to be that of restoring telephone and internet links, as well as the provision of safe drinking water for about half of the population. The World Food Program warns of potential food shortages because all agricultural sectors have been badly affected, from crops to livestock and fisheries. WFP spokesman Tomson Phiri says initial estimates show up to 12,000 agricultural families have been affected. “Roughly 60 to 70 percent of livestock-rearing families are estimated to have been affected," said Phiri. "Given the enormity of the eruption, it is likely most families could do nothing to protect or save their livestock from perishing and for those that survived, there may be very little grazing pasture and uncontaminated water supplies left.” While a large-scale aid operation is finally getting underway, the United Nations warns the volcano is still active and Tonga is not yet out of danger. Another concern is that Tonga, which is free of COVID-19, remain so and not have the coronavirus enter the country during the delivery of aid. The spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Jens Laerke, says the first rule of humanitarian action is to do no harm. He says very strict protocols are in place to prevent that from happening. He says all agencies will abide by what he calls a no-contact delivery. “The pilot staying in the cockpit. A grand crew of local folks unloading the plane and the pilots taking off without exiting the plane," said Laerke. "It could also be ships going to port and being offloaded by cranes. So, also so that the ship crew do not actually get into the island.” The World Health Organization says all medical and health care facilities on the island are operational. It notes the air is toxic because of the ash and dust raised by the volcanic eruption and says it is urging people on the island to stay indoors and wear masks when they venture out.
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A "horrific" air strike on a Yemeni prison has left many dead or missing, aid workers said on Friday after a night of deadly bombing that underlined a dramatic escalation in violence. Gruesome scenes came to light in Saada, heartland of the Houthi rebel movement, as rescue workers pulled bodies from destroyed prison buildings and piled up mangled corpses, according to footage released by the insurgents. Further south in Hodeida, video footage showed bodies in the rubble and dazed survivors after an air attack from the Saudi Arabia-led pro-government coalition took out a telecommunications hub. Yemen suffered a nationwide internet blackout, a web monitor said. Saada's hospital has received about 200 people wounded in the prison attack and "they are so overwhelmed that they cannot take any more patients", said Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF. "There are many bodies still at the scene of the air strike, many missing people," Ahmed Mahat, MSF head of mission in Yemen, said in a statement. "It is impossible to know how many people have been killed. It seems to have been a horrific act of violence." The strikes come five days after the Iran-backed Houthis claimed a drone-and-missile attack on the United Arab Emirates that killed three people and prompted warnings of reprisals. The United Nations Security Council is due to meet at 1500 GMT on Friday in an emergency session on the Houthi attacks against the UAE, at the request of the Gulf state, which has occupied one of the non-permanent seats on the council since January 1. The UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting the rebels since 2015, in an intractable conflict that has displaced millions of Yemenis and left them on the brink of famine. The coalition claimed the attack in Hodeida, a lifeline port for the shattered country, but did not say it had carried out any strikes on Saada. Saudi Arabia's state news agency said the coalition carried out "precision air strikes... to destroy the capabilities of the Houthi militia in Hodeida". Global internet watchdog NetBlocks reported a "nation-scale collapse of internet connectivity". AFP correspondents in Hodeida and Sanaa confirmed the outage. 'Right to defend' Yemen's civil war began in 2014 when the Houthis descended from their base in Saada to overrun the capital Sanaa, prompting Saudi-led forces to intervene to prop up the government the following year. Tensions have soared in recent weeks after the UAE-backed Giants Brigade drove the rebels out of Shabwa province, undermining their months-long campaign to take the key city of Marib further north. On January 3, the Houthis hijacked a United Arab Emirates-flagged ship in the Red Sea, prompting a warning from the coalition that it would target rebel-held ports. And on Monday, they claimed a long-range attack that struck oil facilities and the airport in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, killing two Indians and a Pakistani, and wounding six other people. The attack -- the first deadly assault acknowledged by the UAE inside its borders and claimed by the Houthi insurgents -- opened up a new front in Yemen's war and sent regional tensions soaring. In retaliation, the coalition carried out air strikes against rebel-held Sanaa that killed 14 people. Yemen's civil war has been a catastrophe for millions of its citizens who have fled their homes, with many close to famine in what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The UN has estimated the war killed 377,000 people by the end of 2021, both directly and indirectly through hunger and disease. UAE presidential adviser Anwar Gargash warned the country would exercise its right to defend itself after the Abu Dhabi attack. "The Emirates have the legal and moral right to defend their lands, population and sovereignty, and will exercise this right to defend themselves and prevent terrorist acts pursued by the Houthi group," he told US special envoy Hans Grundberg, according to the official WAM news agency.
French oil giant TotalEnergies on Friday said it would withdraw from Myanmar over "worsening" human rights abuses committed since the country's military took power in a February 2021 coup. "The situation, in terms of human rights and more generally the rule of law, which have kept worsening in Myanmar... has led us to reassess the situation and no longer allows TotalEnergies to make a sufficiently positive contribution in the country," the company said. Total will withdraw from its Yadana gas field in the Andaman Sea, which provides electricity to the local Burmese and Thai population, six months at the latest after the expiry of its contractual period. The company said it had not identified any means to sanction the military junta without avoiding stopping gas production and ensuing payments to the military-controlled Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). Around 30% of the gas produced at Yadana is sold to the MOGE for domestic use, providing about half of the largest city Yangon's electricity supply, according to Total. International diplomatic pressure and sanctions have been building against Myanmar's military junta since last year's coup ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The European Union has imposed targeted sanctions on the Myanmar military, its leaders and entities, while Norwegian telecoms operator Telenor this week sold its stake in a Burmese digital payments service over the coup. More than 1,400 civilians have been killed as the military cracks down on dissent, according to a local monitoring group, and numerous anti-junta militias have sprung up around the country. Suu Kyi this month was convicted of three criminal charges and sentenced to four years in prison and now faces five new corruption charges.
Spain's foreign minister Jose Manuel Albares said on Friday that Europeans have a united position on the crisis over the Russian military build-up on the Ukrainian border and that Spain is pushing for dialogue. Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops on its borders with Ukraine in what Western states fear is the precursor to a new assault on the former Soviet republic. Russia denies it is planning an attack, but says it could take unspecified military action if a list of demands is not met. Spain has sent warships to join NATO naval forces in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea as tension in the region rises, Defense Minister Margarita Robles said on Thursday. "Let's give dialogue a chance. That is what Spain is pushing for. If dialogue does not bear fruit, of course, Spain will stand with its European partners and its NATO allies united in deterrence," he said Friday in Madrid.
Gunmen from the Islamic State extremist group attacked an army barracks in a mountainous area north of Baghdad early Friday, killing 11 soldiers as they slept, Iraqi security officials said. The officials said the attack occurred in the Al-Azim district, an open area north of Baqouba in Diyala province. The circumstances of the attack were not immediately clear, but two officials who spoke to The Associated Press said Islamic State group militants broke into the barracks at 3 a.m. local time and shot dead the soldiers. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to issue official statements. The brazen attack more than 120 kilometers north of the capital Baghdad was one of the deadliest targeting the Iraqi military in recent months. The Islamic State group was largely defeated in the country in 2017, although it remains active through sleeper cells in many areas. Militants from the Sunni Muslim extremist group still conduct operations, often targeting security forces, power stations and other infrastructure. In October, IS militants armed with machine guns raided a predominantly Shiite village in Diyala province, killing 11 civilians and wounding several others. Officials at the time said the attack occurred after the militants had kidnapped villagers and their demands for ransom were not met. The officials said army reinforcements were sent to the village where Friday's attack occurred, and security forces deployed in surrounding areas. More details were not immediately available, and the Iraqi military did not immediately comment. IS attacks have been on the rise in recent months in both Iraq and neighboring Syria, where the group once set up a self-styled Islamic caliphate before being defeated by an international coalition. On Thursday evening, IS militants mounted a complex attack on a detention facility in northeast Syria to try and free fighters from the group incarcerated there. Kurdish-led forces who control the Gerwan Prison in the city of Hassakeh, which houses about 3,000 inmates, said prisoners rioted and tried to escape while a car bomb went off outside the prison as gunmen clashed with security forces. The U.S.-led coalition carried out an airstrike after reported casualties among the Syrian-led Kurdish forces. On Friday, the Syrian Kurdish force said two militants who escaped were arrested. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported six militants, two Kurdish security members and one civilian were killed in the overnight clashes. The Kurdish force had no reports of casualties. In 2014, IS established a self-declared Islamic caliphate that covered large parts of Iraq and Syria. The ensuing war against them lasted several years and left large parts of the two neighboring countries in ruins. It also left U.S.-allied Kurdish authorities in control of eastern and northeastern Syria, with a small presence of several hundred American forces still deployed there.
Israel on Thursday launched an investigation into allegations police used the controversial Pegasus spyware on the country's citizens. In a letter sent to police commander Koby Shabtai, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit asked to receive all wiretapping and computer spying orders from 2020 and 2021 in order to "verify allegations made in the media.” The Israeli business daily Calcalist reported Thursday that Israeli police used Pegasus software to spy on an Israeli they considered a potential threat and attempt to gather evidence that could be used as leverage in future investigations. According to the newspaper, which did not cite any sources, the police action represents a "danger to democracy.” Police commissioner Yaakov Shabtai, reacting to the story, said that "the police have not found any evidence to support this information.” "The Israeli police are fighting crime with all the legal means at their disposal," Shabtai added in a statement. Israeli security forces have wide leeway to conduct surveillance within Israel with judicial approval. On Wednesday, Israel's justice ministry pledged a full investigation into allegations that Pegasus spyware was used on Israeli citizens, including people who led protests of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Pegasus, a surveillance product made by the Israeli firm NSO that can turn a mobile phone into a pocket spying device, has remained a source of global controversy following revelations last year it was used to spy on journalists and dissidents worldwide. Once installed in a mobile phone, Pegasus allows access to the user's messaging and data, as well as remote activation of the device for sound and image capture. NSO would neither confirm nor deny it sold technologies to Israeli police, stressing that it does "not operate the system once sold to its governmental customers and it is not involved in any way in the system's operation.” "NSO sells its products under license and regulation to intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent terror and crime under court orders and the local laws of their countries," it said in a statement sent to AFP. Israel's defense ministry, which must approve all exports of Israeli-made defense industry products, has also opened an investigation into sales of Pegasus overseas.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Geneva, where he meets Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the fourth time in the last week that U.S. and Russian officials have engaged in direct talks. The West is demanding that Russia pull its troops and weapons away from the Ukraine border while Moscow is pushing for NATO to curtail its operations in eastern and central Europe and insisting that the Western military alliance reject Ukraine’s membership bid. Blinken vowed Thursday that the United States and its allies would inflict “swift and massive” costs on Russia if it invades Ukraine but said Russian President Vladimir Putin can still opt for a diplomatic solution to rising tensions in eastern Europe. Blinken said the U.S. has been "very clear throughout" that if any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border “that they will be met with a swift, severe united response from the U.S, and our allies and partners." After meeting with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in Berlin, Blinken said Putin has a choice between “dialogue and diplomacy on the one hand and conflict and consequences on the other hand. He has to decide which course to take.” Blinken said, “We’re at a decisive juncture,” referring to the standoff between Western countries and Moscow over Putin’s massing of 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern flank. While the U.S. has been resolute in saying that a Russian military invasion of Ukraine would draw swift and significant economic sanctions, but no U.S. or NATO military response, it has been less clear what the West might do in the event of Russian cyberattacks or other actions against the Kyiv government. At his news conference Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden made confusing remarks about the West’s response to what he called a “minor incursion.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki later said Biden “knows from long experience that the Russians have an extensive playbook of aggression short of military action, including cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics. And he affirmed today that those acts of Russian aggression will be met with a decisive, reciprocal, and united response.” Biden’s comment about a “minor incursion” drew a sharp retort from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who said on Twitter, “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the president of a great power.” Biden hedged on whether Putin will invade Ukraine, saying, “I’m not so sure he [is] certain what he’s going to do. My guess is he will move in. He has to do something.” The U.S. leader said he does not believe Putin wants a “full-blown war” but does want to test the resolve of the United States and NATO. Russia has denied it has intentions of invading Ukraine, while it seeks security guarantees, such as Ukraine not joining the NATO, the seven-decade-old military alliance formed after World War II. On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova alleged that Ukrainian and Western claims of an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine were a "cover for staging large-scale provocations of their own, including those of military character." "They may have extremely tragic consequences for the regional and global security," Zakharova said. She pointed to Britain delivering weapons to Ukraine in recent days, claiming that Ukraine perceives Western military assistance as a "carte blanche for a military operation” in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Some material in this report came from the Associated Press.
Elza Soares, one of the most revered singers in Brazilian samba music, died at her home in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, aged 91. She died of natural causes, her press representative said in a statement. "An icon of Brazilian music, considered one of the best artists in the world, the singer chosen as Voice of the Millennium [by the BBC] had a tremendous, intense life, who moved the world with her voice, her strength and her determination," said the statement. Born in a favela slum in Rio de Janeiro to a washerwoman and a factory worker in 1930, Soares rose from poverty to record 36 albums and perform at the 2016 Olympic opening ceremony in Rio. The mayor of Rio has declared three days of mourning for the legendary singer. Her raspy voice struck a chord with audiences around the world in concert hall performances of songs that touched on the hardship of life in Rio, justice for women and racism in Brazilian society. She became a fierce champion of Black feminism and an outspoken voice against violence against women. "Racism still continues, but we are going to fight it and we will make progress. Racism is a sickness," Soares told Reuters in an interview last year. In 1966, Soares married soccer star Mane Garrincha, a striker who helped Brazil win the 1958 and 1962 World Cups along with the legendary Pele. Their tumultuous 17-year relationship ended when Soares left Garrincha after he struck her during an argument. He died of cirrhosis in 1983. She died on the same day 39 years later.
The top U.S. spy agency has concluded a mysterious illness plaguing American diplomats and other officials around the world is not nearly as widespread as initially feared and is most likely not the work of a foreign adversary. But the Central Intelligence Agency also cautioned that a smaller number of cases continue to defy explanation, with one official warning that in those cases, “We have not ruled out the involvement of a foreign actor.” Since 2016, when it was first reported by diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, hundreds of U.S. personnel have reported getting sick, with symptoms ranging from nausea and dizziness to debilitating headaches and memory problems. Suspected cases of so-called Havana syndrome were reported in Russia, China, Poland and Austria, and the sickness affected some U.S. officials so badly their careers derailed. Yet an interim report Thursday by the CIA finds that most of the illnesses, also known as anomalous health incidents, or AHI, are not a mystery at all. "We assess that the majority of the reported AHI cases can be reasonably explained by medical conditions or environmental and technical factors, including previously undiagnosed illnesses," a CIA official told VOA on Thursday on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the report. The official declined to say exactly how many cases the agency investigated, describing the number as "dynamic," and noted that reports increased dramatically once the government encouraged workers to report any symptoms that could be connected to Havana syndrome. Various unofficial accounts have put the number anywhere from several hundred to as many as 1,000. Unsolved cases However, there are "a couple of dozen cases" for which there are still no answers, the official said. "There is a subset of cases, including some of our toughest cases, that remain unresolved," the official said. The location of many of the first-reported cases — Havana, Russia and China — gave rise to speculation that Havana syndrome was not so much an illness as it was an effort to harm U.S. diplomats and intelligence personnel. A 2020 report by the National Academy of Sciences further fueled such concerns, concluding that "directed, pulsed radio frequency energy appears to be the most plausible mechanism in explaining" the growing number of cases. The CIA interim report, while not ruling out that someone or something may be causing Havana syndrome in the unexplained cases, called the use of a weapon unlikely. "We assess that it is unlikely that a foreign adversary, including Russia, is conducting a sustained worldwide campaign harming U.S. personnel with a weapon or mechanism," the official said. "We have so far not found evidence of state actor involvement in any incident." Despite the findings of the interim report, U.S. officials said Thursday that they continue to take the reports of illnesses among U.S. government employees seriously, and that making sure medical care was available remains a top priority. "I have no higher priority as secretary than the health and safety of all of our colleagues and their families," Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Thursday during a news conference in Berlin. "When you talk to people, when you hear them, when you hear what they've been through, there is no doubt in my mind but that they have had real experiences, real symptoms, and real suffering," he said. "We are going to continue to do everything we can with all the resources we can bring to bear to understand, again, what happened, why, and who might be responsible. And we are leaving no stone unturned." CIA Director William Burns also emphasized the need to care for those who have been ill, and for any personnel that could be affected in the future, describing their suffering as real. "While we have reached some significant interim findings, we are not done," Burns said in a statement. "We will continue the mission to investigate these incidents and provide access to world-class care for those who need it." Lawmakers' response Some U.S. lawmakers praised the efforts of the CIA to determine the cause of the ailments but said more still needs to be done. "Reports of anomalous health incidents among intelligence, diplomatic and military personnel emerged as early as 2016 but were not always taken seriously," the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Democrat Mark Warner, said in a statement. "I am heartened that there are now procedures in place to ensure that those who are affected by these anomalous health incidents finally have access to the world-class care that they deserve," he said, adding, "The Senate Intelligence Committee will continue pressing for answers." Republican Marco Rubio, the Senate Intelligence Committee's vice chair, was equally adamant that lawmakers would keep pressing U.S. intelligence officials for answers. "The CIA must continue to make this issue a priority," Rubio said, noting the possibility that the unresolved cases could still be "the work of a foreign government or a specific weapon or device." U.S. lawmakers, led by Warner, Rubio and Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins, passed the Helping American Victims Afflicted by Neurological Attacks Act, or HAVANA Act, last year, when it was signed by President Joe Biden. The law provides financial support for U.S. government employees suffering from symptoms attributed to Havana syndrome.
Hing Pal Singh is among dozens of patients with daily appointments at the Oriental Chinese Herbal Clinic in Nairobi. Singh, 85, has been suffering from spinal problems for five years and is now trying herbal remedies. “There is a slight difference," Singh said. " ... It's only a week now. It will take at least another 12 to 15 sessions. Then we see how it goes.” Traditional Chinese medicine is becoming more popular in Africa, according to a 2020 study by Development Reimagined, a Beijing international consulting firm. A February 2020 op-ed written by a Beijing think tank researcher and published in the state-run China Daily said such traditional medicine would “boost the Chinese economy, contribute to global health and prove to be a shot in the arm for China's soft power.” Potential harm Conventional medical doctors such as Sultan Mantendechere, though, say patients are overlooking the potential harm that some herbal remedies can cause, especially if used too frequently or at too high a dosage. “They do work in quite a number of circumstances," Mantendechere said. "Having said that, our main worry as practitioners, the medical practitioners, is that the use of herbal medicine is not as regulated as we would want it to Although the safety and effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine is still debated worldwide, herbal practitioners such as Li Chuan continue to gain popularity among those seeking alternative medication. Li said some of his patients were benefiting from purported COVID-19 remedies, although there is scant scientific evidence that they can help against the disease. “Many people buy our herbal tea to counter COVID-19," Li said. "The results are good.” Environmentalists fear the growth of traditional Chinese medicine will encourage poachers to go after endangered wildlife such as rhinos and some types of snakes used in making the potions. Daniel Wanjuki, an environmentalist and the lead expert at Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority, said that "with people saying that the rhino horn may actually be used as an aphrodisiac, this has led to almost the complete eradication of the rhino species in Kenya and in Africa in general.” Economical — if effective Kenya spends an estimated $2.7 billion each year on health care, according to national statistics. Kenyan economist Ken Gichinga said herbal medicine could significantly lower African medical expenses if proven effective. “Africans spend quite a lot of money traveling to countries such as India and the UAE to get treatment" and would benefit if herbal medicine "can provide more natural, cost-effective health care,” he said. In 2021, Kenya’s national drug regulator, the Pharmacy and Poisons Board, approved the sale of Chinese herbal health products in the country. Practitioners such as Li hope that more nations will give approval to Chinese herbal medicine in the future.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom is promising statewide coordination as law enforcement and prosecutors go after thieves who have been raiding cargo containers aboard trains near downtown Los Angeles for months, leaving the tracks blanketed with discarded boxes. The governor on Thursday joined a cleanup crew from the state Department of Transportation filling dozens of trash bags with crushed cardboard from packages stolen on their way from retailers to people across the U.S. Last week TV news stations aired overhead video showing thousands of boxes strewn by thieves along a Union Pacific rail line northeast of downtown in the Lincoln Park area. Footage from NBC4 showed two men, one holding what looked like bolt cutters, walking along the tracks. “It looked like a third world country, these images, the drone images that were on the nightly news,” Newsom told reporters gathered Thursday along the cleaned-up tracks. The governor said his new budget proposal includes funds to expand the Organized Retail Theft Task Force created last year when Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities saw organized groups of roving thieves carrying out smash-and-grab robberies at retail stores. The train thieves are equally organized and need to be prosecuted as such, Newsom said. “These folks are arrested as if they are individuals that are not going connected to the whole, and we need to change that,” he said. At least 280 arrests have been made in connection with the train thefts, the governor said. But he didn't know over what period the arrests occurred or where they are in the prosecution process. In December, Union Pacific sent a letter to LA County District Attorney George Gascon's urging more aggressive prosecutions for cargo thieves and calling for an end to a no-bail policy for some defendants aimed at reducing overcrowding at jails during the coronavirus pandemic. “These individuals are generally caught and released back onto the streets in less than 24 hours. Criminals boast to our officers that charges will be pled down to simple trespassing -- which bears no serious consequence,” the letter said. A statewide policy of imposing $0 bail for misdemeanors and lower-level felonies ended in 2020, but it was kept in place within the LA County Superior Court system. Republicans have repeatedly called for an end to zero-bail. “Criminals know how to exploit California's policies for their gain,” said state Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk, whose district includes northern LA County. Gascon's office said it was “committed to working with law enforcement to ensure collective safety across Los Angeles County's sprawling infrastructure, whether it's at our ports or on railroad tracks.” “Some cases presented to our office by Union Pacific have been filed, such as burglary and grand theft, while others have been declined due to insufficient evidence. We make charging decisions based on the evidence. Our office takes Union Pacific's concerns seriously and hopes to discuss this issue more in the coming weeks,” said Alex Bastian, special adviser to Gascon. A group of Republican U.S. Representatives on Thursday sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland calling for federal assistance in cracking down on thefts that have disrupted the supply chain. The California Highway Patrol said it was expanding its own retail theft task force that will allow it to beef up patrols and better coordinate with police, the sheriff's department and Union Pacific's security force. Union Pacific and other railroad firms employ their own police forces accredited by the state to protect its rail lines. CHP Captain Charlie Sampson said the task force's expansion will allow for more patrol officers and investigators. “We've already assigned the personnel for it, and the commander that's going to oversee it,” Sampson said. “And it's going to be a full-time effort.” On Wednesday, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said a specialized unit within his department that focused on cargo thefts was eliminated because of funding cuts. He said his office, along with Union Pacific and federal agencies, is working on a plan to add more security and patrols along the tracks.
Iran, Russia and China on Friday began a joint naval drill in the Indian Ocean aimed at boosting marine security, state media reported. Iran's state TV said 11 of its vessels were joined by three Russian ships including a destroyer, and two Chinese vessels. Iran's Revolutionary Guard will also participate with smaller ships and helicopters. The report said the maneuvers would cover some 17,000 square kilometers in the Indian Ocean's north, and include night fighting, rescue operations and firefighting drills. This is the third joint naval drill between the countries since 2019. It coincided with a recent visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Russia that ended Thursday. “Improving bilateral relations between Tehran and Moscow will enhance security for the region and the international arena,” Raisi said upon returning from Russia on Friday, the official IRNA news agency reported. Tehran has sought to step up military cooperation with Beijing and Moscow amid regional tensions with the United States. Visits to Iran by Russian and Chinese naval representatives have also increased in recent years. Iran has been holding regular military drills in recent months, as attempts to revive its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers flounder. Russia is also at loggerheads with the U.S. and the West over its neighbor Ukraine, where it has sent some 100,000 troops that Washington, Kyiv and their allies fear will be used to invade the country. Russia on Thursday announced sweeping naval maneuvers in multiple areas involving the bulk of its naval potential — more than 140 warships and more than 60 aircraft — to last through February. The exercises will be in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the northeastern Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, in addition to the joint exercise with Iran in the Indian Ocean.
The U.N. General Assembly approved an Israeli-sponsored resolution Thursday condemning any denial of the Holocaust and urging all nations and social media companies “to take active measures to combat antisemitism and Holocaust denial or distortion.” The 193-member world body approved the resolution by consensus -- without a vote -- and with a bang of a gavel by Assembly President Abdulla Shahid who met with a group of Holocaust survivors before the assembly meeting. Israel's No. 1 enemy, Iran, “disassociated” itself from the resolution. The ambassadors of Israel and Germany, which strongly supported the resolution, stressed the significance of the resolution's adoption on Jan. 20: It is the 80th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference where Nazi leaders coordinated plans for the so-called “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” at a villa on the shores of Berlin's Wannsee Lake in 1942 during World War II. The result was the establishment of Nazi death camps and the murder of nearly 6 million Jews, comprising one-third of the Jewish people. In addition, millions of people from other nationalities, minorities and targeted groups were killed, according to the resolution. “We now live in an era in which fiction is becoming fact and the Holocaust is becoming a distant memory,” Israel's U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan told the assembly in urging support for the resolution. “And as this happens following the greatest crime in human history, now comes the greatest cover-up in human history.” Erdan, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, said the resolution preserves the memory of the 6 million victims and is a commitment to make sure that Holocaust distortion and denial “will be tolerated no more.” He said social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and You Tube are spreading the “pandemic of distortions and lies” about the Holocaust. “Social media giants can no longer remain complacent to the hate spread on their platforms” and must take action now, the Israeli ambassador said. The resolution, cosponsored by 114 nations, commends countries that have preserved Nazi death camps and other sites from the Holocaust and urges the 193 U.N. member states “to develop educational programs that will inculcate future generations with the lessons of the Holocaust in order to help to prevent future acts of genocide.” It requests the U.N. and its agencies to continue developing and implementing programs aimed at countering Holocaust denial and distortions and to mobilize civil society and others to provide facts about the Holocaust. Currently, the U.N. has an outreach program on the Holocaust and the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, has a program on Holocaust education and combatting antisemitism. Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock issued a joint statement welcoming the resolution and expressing extreme concern at the “dramatic increase in Holocaust denial, distortion and revisionism.” They said the phenomenon of comparing current political disputes to the Holocaust is “deeply troubling” and “a perversion of history” and injustice to Holocaust victims. “We carry an obligation to remember, to learn and to challenge the growth of Holocaust revisionism, denial and distortion both on and offline,” the ministers said. Iran accused Israel of being “the only apartheid regime in the world” whose ideology is based on the two main drivers of World War II, “racism and expansionism.” In a statement read by a junior diplomat, it also accused Israel of attempting “to exploit the sufferings of the Jewish people in the past as a cover for the crimes it has perpetrated over the past seven decades against the regional countries, including all its neighbors without exception.” Unlike Security Council resolutions, General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding but do reflect global opinion. The General Assembly designated Jan. 27 -- the day the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated by the Soviet army -- as the annual International Day of Commemoration in memory of victims of the Holocaust in 2005. The resolution underlines that remembrance “is a key component to the prevention of further acts of genocide.” It says Holocaust denial “refers to discourse and propaganda that deny the historical reality and the extent of the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis and their accomplices during World War II” and “any attempt to claim that the Holocaust did not take place” or call into doubt that gas chambers, mass shooting, starvation, and intentional genocide were used against the Jewish people. The resolution says distorting or denying the Holocaust also refers to “intentional efforts to excuse or minimize” the role of Nazi collaborators and allies, “gross minimization” of the number of victims, “attempts to blame the Jews for causing their own genocide,” statements casting the Holocaust as a positive event, and attempt to “blur the responsibility” for establishing concentration and death camps “by putting blame on other nations or ethnic groups.”
Austria's lower house of parliament passed a bill Thursday making COVID-19 vaccinations compulsory for adults as of Feb. 1, bringing Austria closer to introducing the first such sweeping coronavirus vaccine mandate in the European Union. Faced with a stubbornly high number of vaccine holdouts and a surge in infections, the government said in November it was planning the mandate. Since then it has raised the age as of which the mandate will apply, to 18 from 14. The bill must now pass the upper house and be signed by President Alexander Van der Bellen, steps which will be largely formalities. Roughly 72% of Austria's population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe. After a fourth national lockdown ended last month, the extremely contagious omicron variant has pushed infections to record levels, but the government wants to avoid another lockdown. "Making COVID-19 vaccination compulsory is an emergency exit ... out of the constant restrictions on our personal and fundamental rights like the ones we have had to endure in the past two years," the leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, who is also a doctor, told parliament. Many lawmakers from her party and the liberal Neos backed the bill, joining the government coalition of conservatives and Greens, meaning it cleared its main hurdle easily with 137 votes for to 33 against. The bill imposes fines of up to $680 on holdouts once checks begin on March 15. Those who challenge that initial fine unsuccessfully face a maximum fine of $4,080. Italy has made COVID-19 vaccinations compulsory for those 50 and older, while Greece has done the same for over-60s, and various European countries have done so for some professions like medical staff. "This vaccine mandate strips people of their rights. In one move, millions of Austrians will be downgraded," said Herbert Kickl, leader of the far-right and anti-vaccine Freedom Party. He added that the mandate would make holdouts "second-class citizens" and his party would challenge it in the courts.