Stampede at Liberia Church Gathering Kills 29 

4 days ago

A stampede at a church gathering in Liberia's capital Monrovia killed 29 people overnight, the deputy information minister told state radio on Thursday.  The incident occurred during an all-night Christian worship event at New Kru Town, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital, Jalawah Tonpo said.  "The doctors said 29 persons died and some are on the critical list," Tonpo said, calling into state radio from a nearby hospital. "This is a sad day for the country."  Exodus Morias, a resident who attended the event, told Reuters the stampede began after a group of armed men rushed the crowd in an attempt to stage a robbery.  "We saw a group of men with cutlasses and other weapons coming toward the crowd," Morias said. "While running, some people dropped and others fell on the ground and walked over them."  Bands of Liberian street gangs known as Zogos commonly commit robberies with machetes and other small weapons.  Police spokesman Moses Carter declined to comment on what caused the incident. He said an investigation is under way.  President George Weah, who is expected to visit the site on Thursday afternoon, declared a three-day period of national mourning and said the Liberian Red Cross and Disaster Management Agency had been called in to assist victims, his office said. 

On-again-off-again love can bring you down

by Pate McCuien-U. Missouri, 4 days ago

Return to an old flame? Watch out. New findings link on-and-off romance, or relationship cycling, with anxiety and depression.

International Aid Starts to Arrive in Tsunami-Hit Tonga

5 days ago

An aid flight landed in Tonga on Thursday, the first since an undersea volcano triggered devastating tsunami waves. A New Zealand military Hercules brought water containers, temporary shelters and generators. Australian planes will also deliver essential supplies. So far, just three fatalities have been reported after Saturday’s disaster in Tonga, a South Pacific archipelago that lies about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand. The damage to property and infrastructure is reported to be immense, though. Aerial pictures taken by the New Zealand air force show several villages have been wiped out on some islands. Hundreds of volunteers and members of the Tongan defense force have been clearing ash and other debris from the runway at the main airport, allowing international aid to arrive. Satellite communications have been restored, but other telephone and internet networks could take up to a month to repair because of damage to an undersea communications cable. Speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corp., Rachael Moore, Australia’s high commissioner to Tonga, assessed the impact of the disaster. “These places are devastated,” she said. “They are described as a moonscape, and you might have seen some photos of that. So, the fact that the Tongan government was able to support the people and the Tongan people knew what to do in the case of a tsunami has meant that the loss of life and the number of serious injuries is small. But the loss to property is catastrophic.” Two New Zealand navy ships are due to arrive Friday carrying water and other essential supplies, as well as engineers and helicopters. Distributing supplies is further complicated by the need to maintain COVID-19 protocols. Tonga has recorded just a single case of coronavirus. Tongan and New Zealand officials have been working out how foreign assistance can be delivered in a contactless way. Tonga has an estimated population of 100,000. There are large expatriate communities in Australia and New Zealand.     

British Police Arrest 2 in Texas Synagogue Attack Investigation

5 days ago

British police on Thursday arrested two men as part of an investigation into a hostage taking at a synagogue in Texas. “Two men have been arrested this morning in Birmingham and Manchester,” counter terrorism police said. The daylong siege at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, about 16 miles northeast of Fort Worth, Texas, ended in gunfire on Saturday night with all four hostages released unharmed and the death of the suspect.    

Security Scanners Across Europe Tied to China Government, Military

5 days ago

At some of the world’s most sensitive spots, authorities have installed security screening devices made by a single Chinese company with deep ties to China’s military and the highest levels of the ruling Communist Party. The World Economic Forum in Davos. Europe’s largest ports. Airports from Amsterdam to Athens. NATO’s borders with Russia. All depend on equipment manufactured by Nuctech, which has quickly become the world’s leading company, by revenue, for cargo and vehicle scanners. Nuctech has been frozen out of the U.S. for years due to national security concerns, but it has made deep inroads across Europe, installing its devices in 26 of 27 EU member states, according to public procurement, government and corporate records reviewed by The Associated Press. The complexity of Nuctech’s ownership structure and its expanding global footprint have raised alarms on both sides of the Atlantic. A growing number of Western security officials and policymakers fear that China could exploit Nuctech equipment to sabotage key transit points or get illicit access to government, industrial or personal data from the items that pass through its devices. Nuctech’s critics allege the Chinese government has effectively subsidized the company so it can undercut competitors and give Beijing potential sway over critical infrastructure in the West as China seeks to establish itself as a global technology superpower. “The data being processed by these devices is very sensitive. It’s personal data, military data, cargo data. It might be trade secrets at stake. You want to make sure it’s in right hands,” said Bart Groothuis, director of cybersecurity at the Dutch Ministry of Defense before becoming a member of the European Parliament. “You’re dependent on a foreign actor which is a geopolitical adversary and strategic rival.” He and others say Europe doesn’t have tools in place to monitor and resist such potential encroachment. Different member states have taken opposing views on Nuctech’s security risks. No one has even been able to make a comprehensive public tally of where and how many Nuctech devices have been installed across the continent. Nuctech dismisses those concerns, countering that Nuctech’s European operations comply with local laws, including strict security checks and data privacy rules. “It’s our equipment, but it’s your data. Our customer decides what happens with the data,” said Robert Bos, deputy general manager of Nuctech in the Netherlands, where the company has a research and development center. He said Nuctech is a victim of unfounded allegations that have cut its market share in Europe nearly in half since 2019. “It’s quite frustrating to be honest,” Bos told AP. “In the 20 years we delivered this equipment we never had issues of breaches or data leaks. Till today we never had any proof of it.” ‘It’s not really a company’ As security screening becomes increasingly interconnected and data-driven, Nuctech has found itself on the front lines of the U.S.-China battle for technology dominance now playing out across Europe. In addition to scanning systems for people, baggage and cargo, the company makes explosives detectors and interconnected devices capable of facial recognition, body temperature measurement and ID card or ticket identification. On its website, Nuctech’s parent company explains that Nuctech does more than just provide hardware, integrating “cloud computing, big data and Internet of Things with safety inspection technologies and products to supply the clients with hi-tech safety inspection solution.” Critics fear that under China’s national intelligence laws, which require Chinese companies to surrender data requested by state security agencies, Nuctech would be unable to resist calls from Beijing to hand over sensitive data about the cargo, people and devices that pass through its scanners. They say there is a risk Beijing could use Nuctech’s presence across Europe to gather big data about cross-border trade flows, pull information from local networks, like shipping manifests or passenger information, or sabotage trade flows in a conflict. A July 2020 Canadian government security review of Nuctech found that X-ray security scanners could potentially be used to covertly collect and transmit information, compromise portable electronic devices as they pass through the scanner or alter results to allow transit of “nefarious” devices. The European Union put measures in place in late 2020 that can be used to vet Chinese foreign direct investment. But policymakers in Brussels say there are currently no EU-wide systems in place to evaluate Chinese procurement, despite growing concerns about unfair state subsidies, lack of reciprocity, national security and human rights. “This is becoming more and more dangerous. I wouldn’t mind if one or two airports had Nuctech systems, but with dumping prices a lot of regions are taking it,” said Axel Voss, a German member of the European Parliament who works on data protection. “This is becoming more and more a security question. You might think it’s a strategic investment of the Chinese government.” The U.S. — home to OSI Systems, one of Nuctech’s most important commercial rivals — has come down hard against Nuctech. The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the U.S. National Security Council, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, and the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security all have raised concerns about Nuctech. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration told AP in an email that Nuctech was found ineligible to receive sensitive security information. Nuctech products, TSA said, “are not authorized to be used for the screening of passengers, baggage, accessible property or air cargo in the United States.” In December 2020, the U.S. added Nuctech to the Bureau of Industry and Security Entity List, restricting exports to them on national security grounds. “It’s not just commercial,” said a U.S. government official who was not authorized to speak on the record. “It’s using state-backed companies, with state subsidies, low-ball bids to get into European critical infrastructure, which is civil airports, passenger screening, seaport and cargo screening.”   In Europe, Nuctech’s bids can be 30-50% below their rivals’, according to the company’s competitors, U.S. and European officials and researchers who study China. Sometimes they include other sweeteners like extended maintenance contracts and favorable loans. In 2009, Nuctech’s main European competitor, Smiths Detection, complained that it was being squeezed out of the market by such practices, and the EU imposed an anti-dumping duty of 36.6% on Nuctech cargo scanners. “Nuctech comes in with below market bids no one can match. It’s not a normal price, it’s an economic statecraft price,” said Didi Kirsten Tatlow, and co-editor of the book, China’s Quest for Foreign Technology. “It’s not really a company. They are more like a wing of a state development drive.” Nuctech’s Bos said the company keeps prices low by manufacturing in Europe. “We don’t have to import goods from the U.S. or other countries,” he said. “Our supply chain is very efficient with local suppliers, that’s the main reason we can be very competitive.” Nuctech’s successes abound. The company, which is opening offices in Brussels, Madrid and Rome, says it has supplied customers in more than 170 countries and regions. Nuctech said in 2019 that it had installed more than 1,000 security check devices in Europe for customs, civil aviation, ports and government organizations. In November 2020, Norwegian Customs put out a call to buy a new cargo scanner for the Svinesund checkpoint, a complex of squat, grey buildings at the Swedish border. An American rival and two other companies complained that the terms as written gave Nuctech a leg up. The specifications were rewritten, but Nuctech won the deal anyway. The Chinese company beat its rivals on both price and quality, said Jostein Engen, the customs agency’s director of procurement, and none of Norway’s government ministries raised red flags that would have disqualified Nuctech. “We in Norwegian Customs must treat Nuctech like everybody else in our competition,” Engen said. “We can’t do anything else following EU rules on public tenders.” Four of five NATO member states that border Russia — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland — have purchased Nuctech equipment for their border crossings with Russia. So has Finland. Europe’s two largest ports — Rotterdam and Antwerp, which together handled more than a third of goods, by weight, entering and leaving the EU’s main ports in 2020 — use Nuctech devices, according to parliamentary testimony. Other key states at the edges of the EU, including the U.K., Turkey, Ukraine, Albania, Belarus and Serbia have also purchased Nuctech scanners, some of which were donated or financed with low-interest loans from Chinese state banks, according to public procurement documents and government announcements. Airports in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Athens, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Zurich, Geneva and more than a dozen across Spain have all signed deals for Nuctech equipment, procurement and government documents, and corporate announcements show. Nuctech says it provided security equipment for the Olympics in Brazil in 2016, then President Donald Trump’s visit to China in 2017 and the World Economic Forum in 2020. It has also provided equipment to some U.N. organizations, procurement records show. Rising concerns As Nuctech’s market share has grown, so too has skepticism about the company. Canadian authorities dropped a standing offer from Nuctech to provide X-ray scanning equipment at more than 170 Canadian diplomatic missions around the world after a government assessment found an “elevated threat” of espionage. Lithuania, which is involved in a diplomatic feud with China over Taiwan, blocked Nuctech from providing airport scanners earlier this year after a national security review found that it wasn’t possible for the equipment to operate in isolation and there was a risk information could leak back to China, according to Margiris Abukevicius, vice minister for international cooperation and cybersecurity at Lithuania’s Ministry of National Defense. Then, in August, Lithuania approved a deal for a Nuctech scanner on its border with Belarus. There were only two bidders, Nuctech and a Russian company — both of which presented national security concerns — and there wasn’t time to reissue the tender, two Lithuanian officials told AP. “It’s just an ad hoc decision choosing between bad and worse options,” Abukevicius said. He added that the government is developing a road map to replace all Nuctech scanners currently in use in Lithuania as well as a legal framework to ban purchases of untrusted equipment by government institutions and in critical sectors. Human rights concerns are also generating headwinds for Nuctech. The company does business with police and other authorities in Western China’s Xinjiang region, where Beijing stands accused of genocide for mass incarceration and abuse of minority Uyghur Muslims. Despite pressure from U.S. and European policymakers on companies to stop doing business in Xinjiang, European governments have continued to award tens of millions of dollars in contracts — sometimes backed by European Union funds — to Nuctech. Nuctech says on its Chinese website that China’s western regions, including Xinjiang, are “are important business areas” for the company. It has signed multiple contracts to provide X-ray equipment to Xinjiang’s Department of Transportation and Public Security Department. It has provided license plate recognition devices for a police checkpoint in Xinjiang, Chinese government records show, and an integrated security system for the subway in Urumqi, the region’s capital city. It regularly showcases its security equipment at trade fairs in Xinjiang. “Companies like Nuctech directly enable Xinjiang’s high-tech police state and its intrusive ways of suppressing ethnic minorities. This should be taken into account when Western governments and corporations interface with Nuctech,” said Adrian Zenz, a researcher who has documented abuses in Xinjiang and compiled evidence of the company’s activities in the region. Nuctech’s Bos said he can understand those views, but that the company tries to steer clear of politics. “Our daily goal is to have equipment to secure the world more and better,” he said. “We don’t interfere with politics.” Complex web of ownership Nuctech opened a factory in Poland in 2018 with the tagline “Designed in China and manufactured in Europe.” But ultimate responsibility for the company lies far from Warsaw, with the state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council in Beijing, China’s top governing body. Nuctech’s ownership structure is so complex that it can be difficult for outsiders to understand the true lines of influence and accountability. Scott Kennedy, a Chinese economic policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that the ambiguous boundaries between the Communist Party, state companies and financial institutions in China — which have only grown murkier under China’s leader, Xi Jinping — can make it difficult to grasp how companies like Nuctech are structured and operate. “Consider if the roles were reversed. If the Chinese were acquiring this equipment for their airports they’d want a whole variety of assurances,” Kennedy said. “China has launched a high-tech self-sufficiency drive because they don’t feel safe with foreign technology in their supply chain.” What is clear is that Nuctech, from its very origins, has been tied to Chinese government, academic and military interests. Nuctech was founded as an offshoot of Tsinghua University, an elite public research university in Beijing. It grew with backing from the Chinese government and for years was run by the son of China’s former leader, Hu Jintao. Datenna, a Dutch economic intelligence company focused on China, mapped the ownership structure of Nuctech and found a dozen major entities across four layers of shareholding, including four state-owned enterprises and three government entities. Today the majority shareholder in Nuctech is Tongfang Co., which has a 71% stake. The largest shareholder in Tongfang, in turn, is the investment arm of the China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC), a state-run energy and defense conglomerate controlled by China’s State Council. The U.S. Defense Department classifies CNNC as a Chinese military company because it shares advanced technologies and expertise with the People’s Liberation Army. Xi has further blurred the lines between China’s civilian and military activities and deepened the power of the ruling Communist Party within private enterprises. One way: the creation of dozens of government-backed financing vehicles designed to speed the development of technologies that have both military and commercial applications. In fact, one of those vehicles, the National Military-Civil Fusion Industry Investment Fund, announced in June 2020 that it wanted to take a 4.4% stake in Nuctech’s majority shareholder, along with the right to appoint a director to the Tongfang board. It never happened — “changes in the market environment,” Tongfeng explained in a Chinese stock exchange filing. But there are other links between Nuctech’s ownership structure and the fusion fund. CNNC, which has a 21% interest in Nuctech, holds a stake of more than 7% in the fund, according to Qichacha, a Chinese corporate information platform. They also share personnel: Chen Shutang, a member of CNNC’s Party Leadership Group and the company’s chief accountant serves as a director of the fund, records show. “The question here is whether or not we want to allow Nuctech, which is controlled by the Chinese state and linked to the Chinese military, to be involved in crucial parts of our border security and infrastructure,” said Jaap van Etten, a former Dutch diplomat and CEO of Datenna. Nuctech maintains that its operations are shaped by market forces, not politics, and says CNNC doesn’t control its corporate management or decision-making. “We are a normal commercial operator here in Europe which has to obey the laws,” said Nuctech’s Bos. “We work here with local staff members, we pay tax, contribute to the social community and have local suppliers.” But experts say these touchpoints are further evidence of the government and military interests encircling the company and show its strategic interest to Beijing. “Under Xi Jinping, the national security elements of the state are being fused with the technological and innovation dimensions of the state,” said Tai Ming Cheung, a professor at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy. “Military-civil fusion is one of the key battlegrounds between the U.S. and China. The Europeans will have to figure out where they stand.”     

CIA Says ‘Havana Syndrome’ Not a Foreign Power Campaign: Reports

5 days ago

The CIA has concluded that U.S. diplomats suffering mysterious headaches and nausea in what has been dubbed “Havana Syndrome” were not targeted in a global campaign by a foreign power, reports said Wednesday. NBC News, The New York Times and Politico cited multiple officials briefed on a CIA intelligence assessment on the incidents that first surfaced among diplomats in 2016 in the Cuban capital, in which U.S. and Canadian officials complained of severe headaches, nausea and possible brain damage after hearing high-pitched sounds. Since then, diplomatic and intelligence officials have reported similar experiences in countries including Australia, Austria, China, Colombia, Germany and Russia. The reports said the CIA did not rule out foreign involvement in about two dozen cases that remain unexplained, which continue to be investigated. “In hundreds of other cases of possible symptoms, the agency has found plausible, alternate explanations,” the NBC sources told the network. Some U.S. officials previously alleged the cases could have been caused by Russian microwave attacks, but scientists expressed doubts about the theory and said there was not one affliction or cause of the reported cases. The reports said the CIA document reported interim findings. “The interim report was not a final conclusion of the broader Biden administration or the full intelligence community,” NBC reported, citing U.S. officials. The findings elicited frustration from some of those who fell ill, with a group of people saying the CIA assessment “cannot and must not be the final word on the matter,” according to a statement cited by the Times. “While we have reached some significant interim findings, we are not done,” William J. Burns, the director of the CIA, said in a statement quoted by the Times. “We will continue the mission to investigate these incidents and provide access to world-class care for those who need it.”   

Muslims on Edge as Ethnic Group Bids for Power in Rakhine State

5 days ago

With Myanmar’s ruling military preoccupied elsewhere, leaders of a Buddhist ethnic minority in western Rakhine state are establishing themselves as the effective government and security force in the state and persuading at least some Muslims that they are a better alternative than the junta. But the development is worrying other Muslims in the state, the scene of a murderous 2017 rampage by government troops that left thousands dead and drove more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to safety in neighboring Bangladesh. For them, a recent series of ethnically charged incidents — including the murder of a local official — is bringing back memories of conflict between the two communities in 2012, when people were killed, houses and religious buildings were set on fire, and more than 30,000 people were forced from their homes. In recent months, Rakhine has remained relatively peaceful despite rising violence elsewhere in Myanmar, where the military – known as the Tatmadaw – is facing popular resistance to its seizure of power in a Feb. 1, 2021, coup. That has left an opening for a bid for power by a mainly Buddhist ethnic group known as Rakhines or Arakans, led by an armed militia known as the Arakan Army which has been fighting the central government since 2009, demanding self-determination for the Rakhine people. Since the middle of last year, the Arakan Army has been establishing itself as an alternative government in Rakhine, inviting the public to come to it with complaints and to settle legal issues including theft, robbery and land disputes. “We are running a sort of administration in Rakhine. Our judicial system has also been built up there. We have established a tax system,” said Arakan Army chief General Twan Mrat Naing during a Dec. 19 interview published in the Bangladeshi news outlet Prothomalo Alo. “This is nothing new in Burma,” he added using an alternative name for Myanmar. “Almost all the ethnic groups involved in armed struggle run their own administration in their respective areas.” Khaing Kaung San, executive director of the Wan Lark Foundation, which works to improve relations among groups in Rakhine, said the Arakan Army has been able to take advantage of a lack of effective rule in the province by the junta, made up mainly of the nation’s ethnic majority Burmese. “No one trusts them. So most people rely on AA when something goes wrong. AA is also capable of controlling different communities to prevent getting worse when having an issue among them,” he said. The Arakan Army is increasing efforts to gain credibility with locals. In the Prothomalo Alo interview, Twan Mrat Naing, discussing the Rohingyas and the Buddhist Rakhines, said the Arakan Army’s position is “as we are all on one side against the Burmese, we want all in Arakan to remain together.” Most Rakhines are optimistic about the Arakan Army’s performance in Rakhine state, but some Muslims say they do not fully trust it and are concerned about a power struggle between the Arakan Army and the junta.   Village administrators and village elders from Muslim villages have been warned by the junta not to deal with the Arakan Army. Locals say the military council often arrests locals for suspected links to the insurgent force and prosecutes them under anti-terrorism laws. Many Muslims are also worried by a wave of recent incidents, including the murder of a local government official for which a 14-year-old Muslim boy is being held. Other incidents include allegations of a plot by two Muslims to rape a Rakhine woman, and destruction of property of both Rakhines and Muslims in November and December. In November, an Islamic school and a dormitory inside a school were burned down. According to official figures, 13 fires broke out in Maungdaw district, which borders Bangladesh and has a large Rohingya population, between January and Nov. 25 last year. Eleven of those were in Muslim villages. “Rakhine state seems stable. In reality, it is like a bomb that can explode at any time. There are a lot of invisible problems,” said Phone Pyae Phyo, who chairs the Arakan Students' Union. He spoke to VOA from Sittwe township. The violence has sparked memories of clashes between the two communities in 2012 after three Muslim men raped a Burmese woman, Thida Htwe, in the town of Kyaukphyu. Violence and vandalism spread throughout the state, including the capital, Sittwe.   Leaders of the Arakan Army and its political wing, the United League of Arakan, have denounced the recent violence as “an attempt to create fears and anxieties among people.” In a formal statement, the group did not assign blame for the incidents, but promised to investigate and provide security for locals. A similar note was sounded by U Tun Aung Kyaw, a member of central executive committee of another Rakhine-based group, the Arakan National Party.  “People from both sides are on high alert not to have sectarian violence like that in 2012. No one wants to get into trouble again,” he told VOA. “Now, unscrupulous people are using incidents to try to cause trouble again. Fortunately, leaders of both communities have tried to maintain stability.” Despite the recent friction, for many Muslims the greater threat is from the Tatmadaw, which perpetrated the 2017 massacres and still strictly limits their movements. They say the military has set up checkpoints at township entrances and exits and requires government permission slips, with multiple approvals, to travel beyond their townships. Muslims also say they are barred from traveling to other states and regions. "So far, we have spent at least 250,000 kyats [$141] to get permission to go to another township in Rakhine state. We are being blocked from visiting other places,” said Maw Lawi Tun, a Muslim resident of the state capital, Sittwe. Adul Malein, a Muslim living in Buthidaung township, said Muslims’ living conditions were deteriorating year by year. Many cannot find work and have relied heavily on International Committee of the Red Cross food assistance. "AA came to our village and persuaded us to cooperate with them. They told us that if they succeed and completely control the state, we would have a chance and would enjoy equal rights,” Adul Malein said. “Many are still watching the situation, even if we do not fully trust the Arakan Army,” he said, adding that they will go with the side that can create a better situation for them. “We are afraid of both sides [AA and junta] and follow their orders because we have nowhere to go,” Adul Malien said.     

U.S. census puts small Missouri town in an important spot

by ShareAmerica, 5 days ago

Hartville, Missouri, was named the geographic population center of the country. Learn more about how it was chosen and what it means.

Report: China's Worldwide Dragnet Forces Fugitives to Return Home

5 days ago

"China's long arm is everywhere in its own society, and it's now coming abroad," said Li Gang, a former real estate developer in China's central city of Wuhan. Involved in planning disputes with local authorities, Li told VOA Mandarin that the Wuhan officials accused him of corruption and threatened him with prison. The disputes, starting in 2002, lasted five years, and in 2009, Li moved to an undisclosed location in the United States with his family. In 2017, Chinese authorities formally charged him with corruption and inciting subversion of state power, a move that required him to return to China to stand trial. Li refused. And once the charges had been filed, men claiming to be from the FBI showed up at his home. Li told VOA Mandarin in a 2020 interview that FBI officials had told him they had done no such thing. Li is one target of Sky Net, Beijing's global crackdown on Chinese officials suspected of corruption, financiers suspected of wrong dealings and citizens suspected of money laundering. Beijing launched Sky Net in 2015, and according to China's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the number of "voluntarily returned" people has increased annually, from 1,023 in 2015 to 1,229 in 2020. A new report says Sky Net uses methods outside the international legal framework to identify and repatriate individuals targeted by Chinese authorities. The report, titled Involuntary Returns: China's Covert Operation to Force 'Fugitives' Overseas Back Home, was published Tuesday by Safeguard Defenders, a Madrid-based group focused on promoting human rights in Asia. Last year, the nongovernmental organization spoke out against China's airing of forced confessions on TV. 'Involuntary returns' China claims that from 2014-21, more than 10,000 "fugitives" have "voluntarily returned" to China from 120 countries, according to the Safeguard Defenders report. In its Sky Net campaign, Beijing almost never uses formal legal procedures, such as requesting extradition. "Instead, these involuntary returns (IR) account for the vast majority of Sky Net's track record: in 2018, IR stood for some 64% of the claimed successful returns, while extradition — the appropriate judicial channel for such returns — represented but 1%," the report said. As used in the report, the term "involuntary returns" refers to people who have been forced through nontraditional means to come back to China. And although Sky Net's official targets are businesspeople and officials suspected of economic crimes, the report said it found many cases of Beijing using extrajudicial tactics to repatriate dissidents and human rights defenders. China's tactics are like those used by the U.S. During the 1980s, U.S. officials "developed an alternative approach to circumvent the proper diplomatic channels" to accomplish renditions, according to the Human Rights Policy Lab at the University of North Carolina School of Law. After the 9/11 attacks, the practice transformed "into what is now referred to as the extraordinary rendition program," which has drawn international condemnation. Russia also operates a rendition program. Preferred strategies China favors three tactics: threatening family in China, targeting victims outside China by using threatening agents in the target's country, and kidnapping the people it wants repatriated, according to Safeguard Defenders, whose report examined 62 cases of attempts, successful and unsuccessful, to engineer involuntary returns. Chen Yen-Ting, an author of the report, told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview on Monday that these tactics might be carried out separately or together to pressure the targeted individual. "In some cases, the Chinese government sends agents to the host country and at the same time puts pressure on the targeted individual's family in China," he said. The report cited the case of Xie Weidong, a onetime Supreme Court judge who resigned in 2000 and ended up in Canada in 2014, the year the Huanggang Municipal Public Security Bureau charged him with accepting a bribe of 1.4 million yuan ($221,000) to settle a 1999 civil case in favor of a particular company, according to a 2019 article by Canada's National Post. Xie claimed Beijing targeted him "when he failed to abide by government interventions in cases he heard. Then after leaving China he spoke out about problems in its legal system," according to an Interpol ruling dismissing China's request. The Post reported that Interpol found China's request for Xie's arrest was politically motivated. To persuade Xie to return to China voluntarily, Chinese police detained his sister and then his son, according to the Safeguard Defenders report. Chinese authorities also contacted his ex-wife and his former business partner, hoping to use them as leverage. Li Jinjin, a New York-based lawyer who represents some targets of the Sky Net operation, told VOA Mandarin on Monday that the Chinese government often freezes the property in China of the target's family members. In other cases, Li said, Beijing will send its police or hire agents to visit an overseas target. Using promises or threats, their goal is to force the target to return to China. In 2020, this tactic backfired when the U.S. Justice Department charged eight people with conspiring to act as illegal agents for the Chinese government and force U.S. residents to return to Beijing. These people were "allegedly acting at the direction and under the control of PRC (People's Republic of China) government officials, conducted surveillance of and engaged in a campaign to harass, stalk, and coerce certain residents of the United States to return to the PRC," the Justice Department said. Safeguard Defenders expect China will intensify its Sky Net efforts in 2022 if the Western governments fail to act against Beijing, Chen told VOA Mandarin. "It will be a significant obstacle to legitimate judicial cooperation to counter cross-border crime," he said. The Chinese government has hailed Sky Net's success. The Xinhua News Agency, a state-controlled news outlet, published on Saturday a piece saying that the operation was recovering people and stolen goods, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. "The legal net is vast, you can escape the country, but you can't escape the law," Xinhua said. Li Gang decided to talk to the media to counter reports on Beijing-controlled outlets. "I used to be very fearful of the Chinese government's retaliation, so I refused all media interviews before," Li said told VOA Mandarin in 2020. "But now I realize the more fearful I am, the more power they have on me," he said. "So that's why I decide to stand out and tell my story."       

Analysis: Why North Korea’s Hypersonic Missile Test Is Troubling

5 days ago

Experts say North Korea’s hypersonic missile is hard to track and intercept because of its ability to maneuver, leaving South Korea vulnerable to North Korea’s missile attacks. According to Jeffrey Lewis, a missile expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, the missiles’ capabilities may leave South Korea with little choice but to launch preemptive strikes on North Korea’s leadership before the regime orders the firing of missiles. Despite the focus of attention on the missile’s speed, the real danger comes from the missile’s ability to maneuver, Lewis said. He added that what North Korea tested earlier this month were maneuvering reentry vehicles (MaRV). A MaRV is a detachable gliding warhead that can change its course of flight. “It’s just not right to say that this represents a shorter time of flight,” Lewis said. “What it represents is the ability to maneuver. So, the value of the maneuvering reentry vehicle is not that it would get to its target faster because it will get there slower.” Hard to intercept Lewis said the maneuverability of the missiles make them difficult to detect and intercept once they are in flight using missile defense systems. He also said using preemptive strikes to destroy the missiles or launchers as they are being prepared to take off is equally difficult because locating where North Korea would fire them is hard to assess and target. “It’s almost impossible to go out and find and destroy the launchers and so the only viable strategy South Korea has ever had has been to target the North Korean leadership before it can give the order.” Lewis said, adding, “That is extremely escalatory and dangerous in a crisis.” North Korea said it successfully test-fired hypersonic missiles on Jan. 5 and Jan. 11. “The test launch clearly demonstrated the control and stability of the hypersonic gliding warhead,” said North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Jan. 6, referring to the test conducted Jan. 5. On Jan. 12, KCNA said, “The test-fire was aimed at the final verification of overall technical specifications of the developed hypersonic weapons system,” regarding the test conducted Jan. 11. Bruce Bechtol, a former intelligence officer at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and now a professor at Angelo University in Texas, said the hypersonic missiles that North Korea tested appear to “have evade abilities better than anything [the regime] tested thus far,” being able to dodge “ballistic missile defense and anti-aircraft fire.” Bechtol also said the missiles seem to have “more pinpointed accuracy than most of other” North Korean missiles. Raising stakes Ankit Panda, a senior fellow for the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, cautioned against South Korea using preemptive strikes. “There’s a big risk brewing on the Korean Peninsula in that both Koreas are building large missile arsenals that they anticipate using first in a crisis,” said Panda. “The pressures to preempt are strong on both sides, and this can lead to a war that neither side intends through miscalculation.” Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation research center, said South Korea should consider destroying North Korea’s missiles before they are launched because of the risk associated with relying only on missile defense systems designed to intercept missiles during flight. “Your missile defenses can’t do the whole job” because “missile defense systems aren’t everywhere in South Korea” leaving too many targets unprotected and because of the brief flight time from North Korea, Bennett said. “You’ve got to have capabilities to destroy these missiles as part of the Kill Chain, essentially.” The Kill Chain is a part of South Korean strategy to identify and preemptively strike key North Korean missiles and nuclear sites if threats appear imminent. Return to brinkmanship According to David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, North Korea’s recent missile tests show regime leader Kim Jong Un “is executing a political warfare strategy and developing the capabilities to fight and win a war” that “relies heavily on its blackmail diplomacy – the use of increased tension, threats and provocations to gain political and economic concessions.” Bennett said Pyongyang’s reference to the missiles it conducted as “hypersonic” should not be taken at face value. “They’re not what the U.S. or the Russians or the Chinese call a hypersonic missile,” Bennett said. “North Korea tends to exaggerate what it’s got.” In response to North Korea’s supersonic missile tests, the U.S. imposed unilateral sanctions on the regime’s weapons program on Jan. 12. On the same day, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield called for more international sanctions on North Korea. Following the U.S. sanctions, North Korea conducted two more tests of what it called tactical guided missiles on Jan. 14 and 17. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on Tuesday condemned North Korea’s missile tests during her phone conversation with Choi Jong-kun, South Korea’s first vice foreign minister, as the two discussed their efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

Republican Filibuster Blocks US Voting Bill

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Voting legislation that Democrats and civil rights groups argued is vital for protecting democracy was blocked Wednesday by a Republican filibuster, a setback for President Joe Biden and his party after a raw, emotional debate. Democrats were poised to immediately pivot to voting on a Senate rules change as a way to overcome the filibuster and approve the bill with a simple majority. But the rules change was also headed toward defeat, as Biden has been unable to persuade two holdout senators in his own party, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to change the Senate procedures for this one bill. "This is not just another routine day in the Senate, this is a moral moment," said Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. The initial vote was 49-51, short of the 60 votes needed to advance over the filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., voted no for procedural reasons so Democrats can revisit the legislation. The nighttime voting capped a day of piercing debate that carried echoes of an earlier era when the Senate filibuster was deployed in lengthy speeches by opponents of civil rights legislation. Voting rights advocates are warning that Republican-led states nationwide are passing laws to make it more difficult for Black Americans and others to vote by consolidating polling locations, requiring certain types of identification and ordering other changes. Vice President Kamala Harris presided, able to cast a potentially tie-breaking vote in the 50-50 Senate. Democrats decided to press ahead despite the potential for defeat at a tumultuous time for Biden and his party. Biden is marking his first year in office with his priorities stalling in the face of solid Republican opposition and the Democrats' inability to unite around their own goals. But the Democrats wanted to force senators on the record — even their own party's holdouts — to show voters where they stand. "I haven't given up," Biden said earlier at a White House news conference. Sinema and Manchin have withstood an onslaught of criticism from Black leaders and civil rights organizations, and they risk further political fallout as other groups and even their own colleagues threaten to withdraw campaign support. Schumer contended the fight is not over and he ridiculed Republican claims that the new election laws in the states will not end up hurting voter access and turnout, comparing it to Donald Trump's "big lie" about the 2020 presidential election. The Democrats' bill, the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, would make Election Day a national holiday, ensure access to early voting and mail-in ballots — which have become especially popular during the COVID-19 pandemic — and enable the Justice Department to intervene in states with a history of voter interference, among other changes. It has passed the House. Both Manchin and Sinema say they support the legislation but are unwilling to change Senate rules. With a 50-50 split, Democrats have a narrow Senate majority — Harris can break a tie — but they lack the 60 votes needed to overcome the GOP filibuster. Instead, Schumer put forward a more specific rules change for a "talking filibuster" on this one bill. It would require senators to stand at their desks and exhaust the debate before holding a simple majority vote, rather than the current practice that simply allows senators to privately signal their objections. But even that is expected to fail because Manchin and Sinema have said they are unwilling to change the rules on a party-line vote by Democrats alone. 

Biden Sums Up First Year; Ukraine Is Among Prime Topics 

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During his first press conference of the year, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke candidly at the White House on Wednesday about the possibility of a Russian invasion in Ukraine. "My guess is he will move in — he has to do something," Biden said of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He warned that such an invasion would be met with the harshest measures. "He has never seen sanctions like the ones I promise will be imposed if he moves,” Biden said. “What I'm concerned about is this could get out of hand,” he said on the potential confrontation between Moscow and NATO countries bordering Ukraine. In an interview with VOA earlier Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized the administration’s message. “We've equally made clear that if Russia chooses to renew its aggression against Ukraine, we — and not just we, the United States, we, many countries, throughout Europe, and even some beyond — will respond very forcefully and resolutely,” Blinken said in Kyiv, where he met with Ukrainian leaders. But some analysts said Biden has ceded too much ground to Putin. “For all his talk about these being unprecedented sanctions, we have yet to see sanctions change the Kremlin's calculus,” Brett Bruen told VOA. Bruen was director of global engagement during the Obama administration and is president of the consulting firm Global Situation Room. Biden stressed the importance of managing the brewing conflict that stems from Russia’s displeasure that Ukraine, a former Soviet country, may someday join NATO. But Bruen said the president spoke too openly about doubts and divisions within the NATO alliance. “This is really unfortunate and only helps Russia,” he added. Biden repeated that he did not think Putin had made up his mind about invading Ukraine, and he continued to offer a diplomatic path out. “I am hoping that Vladimir Putin understands that short of a full-blown nuclear war, he is not in a very good position to dominate the world,” he said. On Iran, Biden said his administration planned to continue diplomatic talks in Vienna to try to revive the Iran nuclear deal. “It’s not time to give up,” he said, arguing that progress was being made. For months, the Biden administration has tried to reach a deal with Iran after former President Donald Trump in 2018 withdrew from the 2015 agreement to curb Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. On China, Biden said he did not believe this was the right time to lift tariffs on Chinese goods that were placed during the Trump administration. First anniversary On the eve of his first anniversary in office, Biden took questions for almost two hours, mostly on domestic concerns, including inflation that is dragging economic recovery, and confusion on the latest health protocols to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. It was his first news conference of 2022 and the ninth since he came into office. Biden was defiant in the face of journalists grilling him on whether he overpromised on his campaign pledge to control the pandemic and rebuild the American economy. “I didn’t overpromise. But I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen,” Biden said. “You'd have to acknowledge we’ve made enormous progress.” Before the press conference, Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, released a statement lambasting Biden’s record. “Since President Biden was sworn in a year ago, he’s presided over the worst inflation in four decades and record-breaking increases in crime, failed to shut down COVID or handle the crisis at the southern border, and ordered a calamitous and shameful withdrawal from Afghanistan,” the statement said. Biden pledged to continue to take steps to get the pandemic under control and acknowledged the frustration many Americans say they are feeling. "Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes. But we're doing more now," he said, outlining his administration’s efforts to make free COVID-19 tests more widely available. Biden acknowledged that he might not be able to pass Build Back Better, his $1.9 trillion signature social safety net and climate change plan that is stuck in the Senate, in its current form. “I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now, come back and fight for the rest later,” he said. Biden pointed to obstructionism from the Republican Party on why progress has been limited. “I did not anticipate that there'd be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn't get anything done,” he said. In his remarks before taking questions, Biden urged the U.S. Federal Reserve to take action to address inflation. Consumer prices jumped 7% in December compared with a year earlier, the highest inflation rate in 40 years. It has dampened economic recovery in a year that the administration says has shown the biggest job growth in American history. Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump released his own statement, complaining about what he called preferential treatment by the press. “How come Biden picks a reporter off a list, in all cases softball questions, and then reads the answer? I would never have been allowed to get away with that, nor would I have to!” Trump said. Low poll numbers Biden’s sunny demeanor belies the fact that his standing in voter opinion surveys has steadily fallen since the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan last September. Less than half of Americans approve of Biden, according to the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll. The national poll, conducted January 12-13, found that 45% of U.S. adults approved of Biden’s performance in office. Biden’s approval numbers have hovered below 50% since August. “Generally speaking, the mood in the country is tough,” Mallory Newall, vice president of public affairs at Ipsos, told VOA, pointing to recent polls that suggest Americans’ behavior of bunkering at home is translating into dissatisfaction into other areas. “The collective mood is one of questioning and frustration,” Newall said. “And I think that does spill over into issues related to the economy, getting back to work, curbing inflation, dealing with other domestic policies.” This is particularly the case when getting a grip on the pandemic was the number one issue that Biden campaigned on, she added. Some analysts said Biden performed well during his question-and-answer session with the press. “He showed stamina, he showed commitment, he showed energy. No one can argue he's wasting away or that he's ill-informed about what is going on,” said Jeremi Suri, a professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Suri told VOA that Biden showed how deeply committed he is to his legislative agenda. “I think he moved the needle, at least persuading people that this is an agenda of his that he's not going to abandon,” Suri added. “He did not, however, provide a clear pathway for how he's going to go forward with it.”  Anita Powell and Myroslava Gongadze contributed to this report.

Haitian Wanted in President's Killing Extradited to US

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A Haitian wanted in the assassination of the country's president was arrested in Miami, Florida, on Wednesday after being extradited from the Dominican Republic, a U.S. Justice Department official said. Rodolphe Jaar will be the second person to stand trial in the United States in the death of Jovenel Moise in July last year. A retired Colombian soldier, Mario Palacios, was charged on Jan. 4 for his alleged role in the killing. Jaar fled from Haiti after the attack at the presidential palace and was arrested in the neighboring Dominican Republic on Jan. 7, exactly six months after the assassination. Jaar is to make an initial court appearance Thursday to hear the charges against him, the Justice Department official said. The department has not explained why Jaar or Palacios is being charged in the United States rather than in Haiti. The Miami Herald said Jaar is a businessman who served jail time in the United States for cocaine trafficking a decade ago. Last Friday, police in Jamaica arrested a former Haitian senator, Jean Joel Joseph, also wanted in his country in connection to Moise's killing. More than 40 people have been arrested in connection with the attack, but much remains unknown, especially who ordered it. The assassination deepened a dramatic crisis in Haiti, which is suffering from a lack of security, soaring gang violence and a spate of kidnappings. 

North Korea Hints at New Nuclear, ICBM Tests

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North Korea is hinting it will resume long-range missile and nuclear tests in response to what it calls the "intensifying hostile moves" of the United States. Any such test would significantly escalate U.S.-North Korea tensions, which have already been heightened because of Pyongyang's six ballistic missile tests to start the new year. At a Politburo meeting Wednesday attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, officials said they would "reconsider all the confidence-building measures previously and voluntarily taken by our state and rapidly examine the issue on resuming all actions which had been temporarily suspended," according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). That is an apparent reference to Kim's 2018 announcement that he would voluntarily suspend nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. North Korea has not conducted a nuclear or ICBM test since 2017, during the height of tensions between Kim and former U.S. President Donald Trump. After subsequent Kim-Trump negotiations broke down in 2019, North Korea resumed launching short-range ballistic missiles. Already this year, North Korea has conducted two tests of what it described as a hypersonic missile, launched a pair of ballistic missiles from a train, and fired a pair of tactical guided missiles from an airport in Pyongyang. North Korea was especially angered when the U.S. this month imposed unilateral sanctions against five North Koreans linked to Pyongyang's weapons program. In the official Politburo readout released Thursday, North Korean officials blasted the "recent indiscreet moves" by the United States, which it accused of trying to "emasculate our rights to self-defense." It also complained about recent U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises. "The meeting reconfirmed the tasks of defense policy to strengthen and develop without delay more powerful physical means to definitely overpower the daily intensifying hostile moves of the United States," KCNA added. It's not clear whether an ICBM or nuclear test is imminent. At the end of 2019, Kim also said he "no longer felt bound" by his moratorium. He has since failed to follow through on that threat. Many analysts say the latest threat may be more urgent, in part because North Korea appears to be working through a checklist of weapons developments that Kim laid out in a speech about a year ago. That list includes not only weapons that were recently tested, including the North's self-proclaimed hypersonic missiles, but also technology that could be tested in the future, including ICBMs that are propelled with solid fuel or that could carry multiple warheads. North Korea is banned from any ballistic missile activity, including launches of any range, by a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions.   North Korea's political calendar may also be a factor. In the coming months, the country plans to hold major celebrations for the birthdays of deceased leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. "It's a milestone year for the Kim family, and Kim Jong Un is on a mission to unveil new weapons during the big celebrations we can expect in 2022," said Jean Lee, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based research organization. According to the readout issued by KCNA, the Politburo meeting discussed the need to "grandly" celebrate the two leaders' birthdays, which are major holidays in North Korea. "Reading between the lines, I think we can assume Kim Jong Un has told the Politburo that he may rescind his promise to then-President Donald Trump to refrain from testing nuclear bombs and long-range ballistic missiles," Lee said. "He has a short time frame to perfect these new weapons and is looking to raise tensions with North Korea's archenemy, the United States, in order to create the impression that the Korean Peninsula is on the verge of war," she added. "Tensions help justify carrying out further testing."

Are Inbound Parcels Bringing COVID to China?

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Chinese health officials are warning the public to minimize orders from overseas during the COVID-19 pandemic and wear protective gear when handling inbound packages, measures that followed a suspected transmission of the virus from North American parcels to two domestic patients. When asked whether the virus could be transmitted via surfaces, however, two U.S. experts told VOA that it was unlikely. People in Beijing and Shenzhen became infected with the omicron variant of COVID-19 after touching the parcels, the Chinese government's National Health Commission said on its website this week. According to the website, the Shenzhen patient, a worker in a low-temperature-controlled supply chain, also known as a cold chain, came into contact with packages from North America on January 12. The Beijing patient touched the outer surface of a package and the top page of an enclosed document. The package was sent from Canada January 7 via Hong Kong. According to the commission, Pang Xinghuo, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention, on Monday "reminded the public not to buy things too frequently from overseas during the pandemic and wear masks and disposable gloves when receiving mail from abroad." Surface-to-human coronavirus transmission is improbable, researchers say. "I feel that the emphasis on cold chains and international mail means that the investigators are not looking at [the] correct place," said Alina Chan, a molecular biologist and postdoctoral associate at the Broad Institute, which is backed by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Scientific literature written over the past two years points entirely to airborne transmission, Chan said. "I think it is a mistake to tell people all these things and make them worry about the wrong things," Chan said. "You have people cleaning and scrubbing all the international mail instead of thinking properly for themselves, like, 'Should I be going to places where there might be a lot of travelers, a lot of tourists or people just come back from a business trip?' " Emanuel Goldman, professor of microbiology, biochemistry and molecular genetics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, agreed. Some "artificial" lab experiments have implicated surfaces as a transmission source because "they used huge amounts of virus not related to the real-world levels that you would see," Goldman said. He described the coronavirus as "fragile," meaning that "it dies quickly in the environment." People spread it by breathing, he added. The National Health Commission of the People's Republic of China said close contacts of the two patients exposed to packages had tested negative for the coronavirus. Inspectors in China, however, will intensify the disinfection of inbound packages, domestic news website Caixin Global reported Tuesday. That process will become the "latest in a long line of supply chain disruptions" for China, Caixin Global said. Outside threat mentality Leaders in China often blame outside factors for domestic issues, the Harvard Business Review said in a May 2021 report. The "threat from foreign powers" has been a theme over much of the nation's modern history, it said, and China's leaders "still blame foreign interference for many of their misfortunes." Chinese officials are aiming for a country free of COVID-19, especially before the Beijing Winter Olympics February 4-20. Since December, they have locked down three cities to contain the spread. According to China, it throttled the world's first COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020 and remained largely free of the disease until December 25 last year. The country's health commission reported 87 cases on Tuesday, following daily counts as high as 231 over the past three weeks. Wang Yinan contributed to this report.

Biden: Federal Reserve Should 'Recalibrate' Policy as Prices Rise 

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U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday said it was appropriate for the Federal Reserve to recalibrate the support it provides to the U.S. economy, in light of fast-rising prices and the strength of recovery.  "Given the strength of our economy and recent price increases, it's appropriate, as ... Fed Chairman [Jerome] Powell has indicated, to recalibrate the support that is now necessary," Biden told a news conference.  "The critical job of making sure that the elevated prices don't become entrenched rests with the Federal Reserve, which has a dual mandate: full employment and stable prices," the president said.  At the same time, he said, the White House and Congress could help contain inflation by moving to fix supply chain failures, encourage competition, and pass his Build Back Better spending bill that he says would cut child care and other costs for families.  Fed policymakers have signaled they will raise interest rates several times this year, likely starting in March, to try to rein in inflation that's rising at its fastest pace in nearly 40 years. A reduction in the Fed's $8 trillion balance sheet could soon follow.  At his renomination hearing earlier this month, Powell told lawmakers that he would not allow inflation to become entrenched and said a tighter policy stance was necessary to keep the economy growing.  Biden also called on the U.S. Senate to confirm his recent nominations for key roles on the Federal Reserve Board "without any further delay."  Biden earlier this month nominated former Fed Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin for the Fed's top regulatory post and two Black economists, Lisa Cook and Philip Jefferson, to round out the Fed's seven-member board.  Late last year Biden renominated Powell to lead the Fed for another four years and nominated Fed Governor Lael Brainard to serve as Fed vice chair. The picks would remake the Fed Board to be the most diverse in the central bank's 108-year history.

Bugs ‘next big thing’ in culinary world

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Scientists and chefs collaborate to find creative ways to package insects.

Q&A: Urban farms, insects, key in battle against hunger

by Michael Kaloki, 5 days ago

Making the most of small spaces is the essence of urban farming, says insect specialist.

Reporter Kidnapped, Beaten in Northeast Syria

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Tuesday started like any other day for Jindar Barakat. The reporter, who works part time at a currency exchange, was opening up the store in the northeastern Syrian city of Al-Hasakah. But instead of customers, masked men in military uniform filled the store. "They were probably five men, all masked up," Barakat said. "Two of them captured me, while the rest started to search the store, seizing my cellphone and other personal belongings."  The 33-year-old was confused, but as he was blindfolded and bundled into a nearby vehicle, he suspected he was being targeted for his reporting for Yekiti Media. The news website is affiliated with the Kurdish Yekiti Party in Syria, one of several political parties that oppose the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the de facto ruling party in northeast Syria. The PYD and its affiliated military force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), control large parts of north and eastern Syria. The SDF has been a major U.S. partner in the fight against the Islamic State terror group. Barakat's reporting focuses on abuses carried out by the local authorities, including the arrests of activists, recruitment of children by local military forces, and corruption. As he was driven away, Barakat tried to make sense of what was happening. "I asked them to identify themselves, but they were very harsh with me. I knew they were affiliated with the PYD because of their uniforms and also because they didn't stop on checkpoints," Barakat told VOA. "I was blindfolded and handcuffed, and they kept beating me and insulting me," he said. About an hour later, the vehicle stopped, and Barakat said he was taken to what felt like an empty room. "They kept me blindfolded and tied my already cuffed hands to a rope and pulled it upward," he said. "They beat me on my back, neck and the back of my hands." As he was being beaten, Barakat said his captors told him they didn't like his media work and Facebook posts. But "they didn't point to a particular article or post," he said.  Neither the press office at the PYD-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) nor the local security service known as Asayish responded to VOA's requests for comment.  After several hours, Barakat was dropped without his phone at the side of the road, about 15 kilometers from his home. The journalist walked to a nearby house to borrow a phone to call a cab. Images he shared with VOA showed bruising to his hands, the back of his neck, and his stomach.  "Their objective was to intimidate me and deter me in my work as a journalist," he said. But "I won't be afraid of them."  Risky beat  Since the beginning of Syria's conflict in 2011, the PYD-run semiautonomous region has largely been seen as friendly to international journalists. But it's a different story for local reporters, who can be detained, harassed or attacked for coverage deemed too critical of local authorities. Red lines for media often include major corruption cases, oil deals made by the local administration and military matters, particularly those related to terrorism. Security forces in the northeastern city of Qamishli last month briefly detained eight reporters and personnel from international and regional news organizations who were covering a demonstration against the recruitment of children by local military forces. History of harassment  Barakat was first harassed over his reporting in 2015. It was the first of at least three occasions where he has been detained or taken for questioning by different security agencies, local news reported. Last month, a stun grenade was thrown at the balcony of his apartment. He believes those responsible are part of the local security apparatus. The incident was widely reported in Kurdish and regional media. The regional AANES security forces did not comment publicly on the incident.  Tuesday's beating was condemned by the General Union of Kurdish Writers and Journalists in Syria.  In a statement, the union demanded that "the perpetrators be brought to a fair trial by independents, and in the presence of independent human rights organizations." Radwan Badini, a professor of politics and journalism at Iraq's Salahaddin University-Erbil, said the violence against journalists in northeast Syria is alarming.  "This is increasingly becoming a regular occurrence, which will necessarily threaten the margin of press freedom that journalists in northeast Syria enjoy," he told VOA. While the northeast generally has a better climate for media than the rest of Syria, the country as a whole has a poor media freedom record. It ranks 173 out of 180 countries, where one is freest, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).  "The risk of arrest, abduction or death makes journalism extremely dangerous and difficult," according to RSF's World Press Freedom Index.

Biden Confirms Harris Would Be Running Mate in 2024 

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U.S. President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that Vice President Kamala Harris would be his running mate in the 2024 presidential election if he stood for office again. "She's going to be my running mate," Biden said of Harris during a press conference held to mark the first year of his presidency. In mid-December, Harris said she and Biden had not yet discussed the 2024 election, amid speculation she might not be in the running for the White House if Biden chose not to stand again. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, when asked about the possibility of Biden, 79, running again, Harris said: "I don't think about it, nor have we talked about it." Harris, the first woman and first Black and Asian American person ever sworn in as vice president, initially seemed to be the heir apparent. But her halo has slipped amid negative press alleging dysfunction among her staff, doubt on her standing within the administration and her frustrations over thorny assignments, such as minority voting access and the migration crisis at the southern border. Biden defended Harris' record on tackling voting rights, saying, "I did put her in charge. I think she's doing a good job."  Biden is pressing Congress to pass two major bills broadening access to the ballot box, placing more onerous conditions on states attempting to change voting laws and protecting election officials from undue influence. Democrats and voting rights activists have championed the measures as a necessary response to Republican efforts to restrict voting, especially among Black and Latino Americans.

State Department Recap: January 13-19, 2022

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Here's a look at what U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top diplomats have been doing this week: US, Russia, Ukraine The United States will continue relentless diplomatic efforts to prevent Russia from further military aggression against Ukraine while providing defensive security assistance to Kyiv, Blinken said Wednesday. "We've offered Russia a clear choice, a choice between pursuing dialogue and diplomacy on the one hand or confrontation and consequences on the other hand," Blinken told VOA in an interview. Standing with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba at a press conference, Blinken added that U.S. security assistance deliveries to Ukraine were ongoing and that more were scheduled "in the coming weeks."   VOA Interview: Blinken Warns Russia of Action Should Moscow Invade Ukraine After Ukraine, Blinken heads to Berlin on Thursday and then to Geneva, where he will hold talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday. Blinken will urge Russia to "take immediate steps to de-escalate" tensions along its border with Ukraine. The hastily arranged trip for the top U.S. diplomat comes one week after U.S.-Russia talks in Geneva reached an impasse. Blinken, Lavrov to Meet in Geneva Friday to Continue Diplomacy Over Ukraine US-North Korea In response to North Korea's recent missile launches, the United States called on Pyongyang to "cease its unlawful and destabilizing activities." In a call with South Korean and Japanese officials, Sung Kim, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, "expressed concern" about the missile launches and urged Pyongyang to return to dialogue "without preconditions." North Korea’s launch on Monday, which South Korea said involved short-range ballistic missiles, marked North Korea's fourth weapons test this month as Pyongyang flexes its military muscle while ignoring the United States' offers of talks.  North Korea Confirms Latest Missile Test US-Iran  U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley will meet with Barry Rosen, an American who was taken hostage in Iran in 1979, while giving "full attention" to and seeking the release of all wrongfully detained American citizens in Iran, a State Department spokesperson told VOA. Rosen began a hunger strike in Vienna on Wednesday to press U.S. and Iranian officials to come to an agreement about the release of Americans and other Westerners of Iranian origin jailed by Tehran. He hopes the move will help to break a monthslong stalemate in indirect talks between the two sides. Former US Hostage in Iran to Begin Hunger Strike to Press for Prisoner Deal Humanitarian assistance to Afghans  The United States said it would continue to support the people of Afghanistan, as Washington delivers more doses of COVID-19 vaccine and provides humanitarian funds. He highlighted the United States' latest contribution of more than $308 million toward humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people during a virtual meeting with U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths. The U.N. said it is "in a race against time" to prevent millions of Afghans from falling deeper into a severe economic and humanitarian crisis. UN Chief: ‘Race Against Time’ to Save Afghan Economy

Biden Will Try to Pass ‘Build Back Better’ Elements Piecemeal

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U.S. President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that he would need to shed some key elements of his signature $1.8 trillion Build Back Better legislation to get support from U.S. Senator Joe Manchin.  Biden made a big push in December to win passage in Congress of the spending bill. It would provide billions of dollars to tackle climate change along with money for universal preschool, paid family leave and other social safety nets.  However, Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, pulled his support after citing concerns about the deficit and inflation.  "I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now, and come back and fight for the rest later," Biden said at a news conference.  Biden said it was clear that there was support for climate change provisions, such as production tax credits for a range of industries, and Manchin supported early childhood education.  Biden also said he does not have to scale down his priorities to get them passed.

Biden: 'Not There Yet' on Easing of Tariffs on Chinese Goods 

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President Joe Biden on Wednesday said that it was too soon to make commitments on lifting U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods, but that his chief trade negotiator, Katherine Tai, was working on the issue.  "I'd like to be able to be in a position where I could say they're meeting their commitments, or more of their commitments, and be able to lift some of them, but we're not there yet," Biden told a news conference at the White House.  He was referring to China's commitments under a Phase 1 trade deal signed by his predecessor, Donald Trump.  China has fallen far short of its pledge under the two-year Phase 1 trade agreement to buy $200 billion in additional U.S. goods and services during 2020 and 2021, and it remains unclear how the shortfall will be addressed.  Chinese purchases reached about 60% of the target through November 2021, according to data compiled by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The U.S. Census Bureau is expected to release December data next week.  Biden said he was aware that some business groups were clamoring for him to start unwinding U.S. tariffs of up to 25% imposed by Trump on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese imports, and that was why Tai was working on the issue.  But he said it was too soon to move forward given China's failure to boost its purchases.  China last week said it hopes the United States can create conditions to expand trade cooperation.

Simplified Human/Machine Interfaces Top List of Critical DOD Technologies > U.S. Department of Defense > Defense Department News

by C. Todd Lopez, 5 days ago

Development of more efficient human/machine interfaces and directed energy weapons are top priorities for the Defense Department.

CDC: Prior Infection Plus Vaccines Provide Best COVID Protection

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A new study in two states that compares coronavirus protection from a prior infection and vaccination concludes that getting the shots is still the safest way to prevent COVID-19.  The study examined infections in New York and California last summer and fall and found people who were both vaccinated and had survived a prior bout of COVID-19 had the most protection. But unvaccinated people with a past infection were a close second. By fall, when the more contagious delta variant had taken over but boosters weren't yet widespread, that group had a lower case rate than vaccinated people who had no past infection.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released the study Wednesday, noted several caveats to the research. And some outside experts were cautious of the findings and wary of how they might be interpreted.  "The bottom-line message is that from symptomatic COVID infection you do generate some immunity," said immunologist E. John Wherry of the University of Pennsylvania. "But it's still much safer to get your immunity from vaccination than from infection." Vaccination has long been urged even after a case of COVID-19 because both kinds of protection eventually wane — and there are too many unknowns to rely only on a past infection, especially a long-ago one, added immunologist Ali Ellebedy at Washington University in St. Louis.  "There are so many variables you cannot control that you just cannot use it as a way to say, 'Oh, I'm infected, then I am protected,' " Ellebedy said. Other studies The research does fall in line with a small cluster of studies that found unvaccinated people with a previous infection had lower risks of COVID-19 diagnosis or illness than vaccinated people who were never before infected.  The new study's findings do make sense, said Christine Petersen, a University of Iowa epidemiologist. She said a vaccine developed against an earlier form of the coronavirus is likely to become less and less effective against newer, mutated versions.  However, experts said, there are a number of possible other factors at play, including whether the vaccine's effectiveness simply faded over time in many people and to what extent mask wearing and other behaviors played a part in what happened.  Another thing to consider: The "staunchly unvaccinated" aren't likely to get tested and the study only included lab-confirmed cases, Wherry said.  "It may be that we're not picking up as many reinfections in the unvaccinated group," he said.  CDC officials noted other limitations. The study was done before the omicron variant took over and before many Americans received booster doses, which have been shown to dramatically amplify protection by raising levels of virus-fighting antibodies. The analysis also did not include information on the severity of past infections or address the risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.  'Safest strategy' The study authors concluded vaccination "remains the safest strategy" to prevent infections and "all eligible persons should be up to date with COVID-19 vaccination."  The researchers looked at infections in California and New York, which together account for about 18% of the U.S. population. They also looked at COVID-19 hospitalizations in California.  Overall, about 70% of the adults in each state were vaccinated; another 5% were vaccinated and had a previous infection. A little less than 20% weren't vaccinated; and roughly 5% were unvaccinated but had a past infection.  The researchers looked at COVID-19 cases from the end of last May until mid-November and calculated how often new infections happened in each group. As time went on, vaccine-only protection looked less and less impressive.  By early October, compared with unvaccinated people who didn't have a prior infection, case rates were:  — Sixfold lower in California and 4.5-fold lower in New York in those who were vaccinated but not previously infected.  — 29-fold lower in California and 15-fold lower in New York in those who had been infected but never vaccinated.  — 32.5-fold lower in California and 20-fold lower in New York in those who had been infected and vaccinated.  But the difference in the rates between those last two groups was not statistically significant, the researchers found.  Hospitalization data, only from California, followed a similar pattern. 

US Democrats' Push for Voting Law Changes Likely to Fail

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U.S. Democrats' yearlong effort to overhaul the country's voting rules comes to a head Wednesday night in the Senate, but indications are their quest likely will fail. As debate began in the politically divided 100-member chamber, there was no sign that any Republicans would support the plan, which would allow for national oversight of elections to override new voting rules enacted by 19 Republican-controlled state legislatures.  There also was no indication that two key centrist Democrats — Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin — would drop their opposition to altering the Senate legislative rules so the election law legislation could be enacted without Republican support.  Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sparred at the outset over the necessity of enacting the voting measures, one of the key pieces of President Joe Biden's legislative agenda. The legislation would set uniform voting rules throughout the country, rather than leave in place state-by-state measures. It would, among other provisions, declare early November election days for congressional seats and the presidency as national holidays, require two weeks of early voting hours, and mandate new federal reviews of voting law changes made by states that have a history of discriminating against minority citizens.  Schumer referenced the election of 1868, the first time that newly freed African American slaves could vote, and suggested that the question before the Senate was whether it would roll back Black voting rights first secured more than 150 years ago.  McConnell scoffed at Democrats' complaints about the newly enacted state laws tightening voting rules. Democrats contend the rules will curtail the voting rights of Black voters, who have over past elections overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates. McConnell described worries over the state laws as Washington Democrats' "fake panic ... that seems to exist only in their own imaginations." He contended that the new measures would not suppress voting.  Aside from the unified Republican opposition to the election law changes, Sinema and Manchin remained opposed to changing the Senate's long-standing filibuster rule that gives the minority party — Republicans or Democrats — the right to demand that a supermajority of 60 votes be amassed to move to a vote on contentious legislation.  The two Democrats, to the disdain of many of their fellow Democrats in the Senate, have said the filibuster should not be narrowly erased so the voting rights legislation can be approved by a simple majority vote.  Sinema and Manchin have said use of the filibuster in the Senate protects minority views in the chamber and promotes bipartisanship in American democracy by forcing compromises on legislation.  Democratic leaders had hoped to pass the election legislation on a 51-50 vote, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaker.

DOD Hopes for Legislative Action on Product, Services Pricing Policy > U.S. Department of Defense > Defense Department News

by David Vergun, 5 days ago

Pricing of contracts for military materiel and services at a reasonable cost was the topic of a congressional hearing.

How the pandemic's unequal toll on people of color underlines US health inequities – and why solving them is so critical

5 days ago

UN Appeals for $1.6 Billion to Aid Palestinian Refugees

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The United Nations Relief and Works Agency is appealing for $1.6 billion to provide life-saving assistance for more than five million Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and countries across the Middle East. The request covers the increased needs of Palestinian refugees in the face of skyrocketing unemployment and poverty. U.N. officials say an estimated 2.3 million refugees across the Middle East are living in poverty, with many struggling to survive on less than $2 a day.  In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic is posing serious health risks and worsening the economic hardships. UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said the agency's humanitarian operations are a lifeline for the most destitute.  "UNRWA prevents them from falling deeper into poverty and from resorting to negative coping mechanisms, such as child labor, early marriage, migration through dangerous routes or, at times, radicalization," he said. "It is also an investment in regional stability."  The Palestinian refugees are one of the most vulnerable communities in a highly volatile region, Lazzarini said, adding that UNRWA is, at times, the only predictable and reliable source of basic services for the refugees.  The agency provides education to a half-million girls and boys, and primary health care for two million people. In addition, Lazzarini said, millions of refugees suffering from the ongoing humanitarian crises in the Palestinian territories, in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon receive cash and food assistance.  However, Lazzarini warned, these vital services are hanging by a thread. Over the last decade, UNRWA has been expected to deliver services to millions of refugees, while the resources needed to do so have been withering away.  "We have been able to handle this tension first by using our financial reserves, then through austerity measures and finally through increased liabilities," he said. "Today, we have reached our limit. If this tension is not addressed, the agency faces the risk of collapsing like a 'house of cards.'"  UNRWA has enough money to operate for the next two to three months, Lazzarini said, after which its ability to provide essential relief to millions of Palestinian refugees will be open to question.   

US Billionaire Opens COVID, Cancer Vaccine Plant in South Africa

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South African-born U.S. billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa have cut the ribbon Wednesday at a new vaccine manufacturing plant. It is hoped the facility will soon start making Africa’s first locally produced COVID-19 vaccines, as well as cancer vaccines and other pharmaceuticals. A crowd of ceremony participants cheered as Dr. Soon-Shiong and President Ramaphosa took the stage at the NantSA vaccine manufacturing campus at a business park in Cape Town.  Soon-Shiong, 69, left South Africa after doing his internship to become a medical doctor. Today, he is number 89 on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans with an estimated fortune of $7.5 billion. A transplant surgeon by profession, he became known for inventing the cancer treatment drug Abraxane.  He says the COVID-19 vaccine he has developed is second generation and will stop the transmission of the virus. However, he emphasized the vaccines currently available are effective and necessary. “It is so important for you to be vaccinated. These vaccines that were there played a very important role as I would say, not a stopgap measure because it’s first generation, but it did absolutely reduce death and it does continue to do so. So, I want to make sure that people understand that you need to be vaccinated,” Soon-Shiong said. However, he said today’s vaccines aren’t the final answer to the pandemic.  "Unfortunately, two things happen: the antibodies wane and the viruses mutate and you get yourself into a spiral, which then opens up the opportunity for the second-generation vaccine. So, the first-generation vaccine was absolutely not a waste of time. However, we needed to, in parallel, I believe, focus on the second-generation vaccine so that we stop the transmission," Soon-Shiong said. Ramaphosa, who has been campaigning for vaccine manufacturers to give up their patent rights so that all countries can produce COVID-19 vaccines, said discussions with the World Trade Organization on this continue.  “The demand that we have been making, initiated by both India and South Africa is that we want the world, or those who have the capacity to manufacture the drug substance to transfer their technology so that we are able to manufacture ourselves the drug substance. And this is where the real challenge has been. We want to migrate from just doing fill and finish and be able to manufacture the drug substance ourselves,” Ramaphosa said. The president and Soon-Shiong also launched the Coalition to Accelerate Africa’s Access to Advanced Healthcare, known as the AAAH Coalition. It aims to hasten domestic production of pharmaceuticals and vaccines that will reach patients across the African continent. The Africa Regional Director for the World Health Organization, Matshidiso Moeti, congratulated Ramaphosa and Soon-Shiong on the launch, saying it was a proud day for Africa. “This new vaccine manufacturing campus will be an important space contributing to the eco system for manufacturing capacity. It will contribute positively to Africa’s response to COVID-19, as well as cancer, HIV, childhood preventable diseases, neglected tropical diseases and other diseases," Moeti said. Soon-Shiong said it will cost about 196 million dollars to complete the plant. He says once it is fully operational, his company hopes to produce about 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses by 2025.

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