Pakistan approves new operation to root out terrorism  

Islamabad — Pakistan’s top civilian and military leadership has decided to launch a new multi-faceted nationwide counterterrorism campaign amid the country’s deteriorating security situation.

A high-powered meeting chaired by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif gave the go ahead for operation “Azm-e-Istehkam,” or Resolve for Stability, to “combat the menaces of extremism and terrorism in a comprehensive and decisive manner,” said a statement issued by the prime minister’s office.

The announcement came as Pakistan faces near daily attacks targeting security personnel and amid mounting pressure from China to ensure the security of its workers. Several Chinese nationals were killed in an attack earlier this year.

“The fight against extremism and terrorism is Pakistan’s war and is absolutely essential for the nation’s survival and well-being,” the official statement said.

Along with an intensified military push, Azm-e-Istehkam will have a diplomatic push.

“In the politico-diplomatic domain, efforts will be intensified to curtail the operational space for terrorists through regional cooperation,” said the statement after the Apex Committee on the National Action Plan reviewed the ongoing counterterrorism campaign and internal security in the country.

Pakistan has a history of courts freeing terror attack suspects because of a lack of evidence. The new campaign aims to counter that through legislative actions.

“The renewed and full-blown kinetic efforts of the armed forces will be augmented by full support from all Law Enforcement Agencies, empowered by effective legislation to address legal voids that hinder effective prosecution of terrorism-related cases and award of exemplary punishments to them,” according to the statement.

Chinese concerns

The new counterterrorism operation comes as Islamabad attempts to convince Beijing it is taking the security of Chinese nationals extremely seriously.

“The forum also reviewed measures to ensure foolproof security for Chinese nationals in Pakistan.” Saturday’s statement said. “Following the Prime Minister’s approval, new Standard Operating Procedures [SOPs] were issued to relevant departments, which will enhance mechanisms for providing comprehensive security to Chinese citizens in Pakistan.”

This comes after Liu Jianchao, minister of the Central Committee of the International Department of the Communist Party of China, told a bilateral political forum in Islamabad last week that Pakistan’s poor security was a hurdle in bringing Chinese investment to the cash-strapped South Asian nation.

“As people often say confidence is more precious than gold, in the case of Pakistan, the primary factor shaking the confidence of Chinese investors is the security situation,” Liu told a gathering that representatives from major Pakistani political parties attended. It was held as part of the third meeting of the Pakistan-China Joint Consultative Mechanism of Political Parties on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The corridor, commonly known as CPEC, is a flagship project of Beijing’s global Belt and Road Initiative and focuses primarily on energy and infrastructure.

Five Chinese nationals working on the China-funded Dasu hydropower project and their Pakistani driver were killed in March when a suicide bomber rammed the convoy with an explosives-laden vehicle.

At least a dozen more Chinese nationals have been killed in Pakistan in targeted attacks in the last few years.

After the March attack, Pakistan ramped up efforts to enhance the protection of Chinese nationals, including the formation of a new security unit in the capital. A special military unit already exists for the protection of Chinese projects in Pakistan. It is supported by local law enforcement agencies.

Terrorism landscape

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal that maintains data on terror attacks in the region, Pakistan has witnessed over 300 terrorism-related deaths so far this year.

Dozens of Pakistani security personnel, including officials, have died in the first half of 2024 in militant attacks and counterterrorism operations. On Friday, five Pakistani soldiers were killed when an improvised explosive device blew up their vehicle in the Kurram tribal district near Afghanistan.

Last year, Pakistan recorded a six-year high in terrorism fatalities with most of the attacks concentrated in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces that border Afghanistan.

Islamabad blames the rise in terror attacks on Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan that it says has sanctuaries in neighboring Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban have rejected evidence of cross-border terror attacks provided by Pakistan as an effort to malign Kabul.

Reports gathered by the United Nations and research groups based in the United States indicate the Afghan Taliban have maintained ties with foreign militants.

Past operations

Pakistan launched massive military operations against terrorists between 2009 and 2017 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. While the operations managed to kill and flush thousands of militants to Afghanistan and dismantle their cells within Pakistan, they also caused a mass displacement of citizens and millions of dollars in damage to property and infrastructure.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has lately seen a wave of Jirga, or consultative public gatherings, where locals have expressed serious concerns over growing militant violence and frequent counterterrorism operations.

Pakistani military spokesperson Major General Ahmed Sharif Chaudhry told the media last month that security forces had conducted more than 13,000 intelligence-based operations this year, mostly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

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Kenya’s Ruto ready for ‘conversation’ with protesters

Nairobi — Kenya’s President William Ruto said Sunday that he was ready for “a conversation” with thousands of “peaceful” young protesters who held nationwide demonstrations this week to oppose proposed tax increases.

Organized on social media and led largely by Gen-Z Kenyans who have livestreamed the demonstrations, the protests have caught Ruto’s government off-guard, as discontent mounts over his economic policies.

“I am very proud of our young people… they have stepped forward peaceful and I want to tell them we are going to engage them,” Ruto said in his first public comments on the protests.

“We are going to have a conversation so that together we can build a greater nation,” Ruto said during a church service in the Rift Valley town of Nyahururu.

His characterization of the protests as “peaceful” came after rights campaigners reported two deaths following Thursday’s demonstrations in Nairobi.

There was no immediate response from the protesters, who have called for a national strike on June 25.

The demonstrations were mostly peaceful, but officers fired tear gas and water cannon throughout the day to disperse protesters near parliament.

According to a Kenya Human Rights Commission official, 21-year-old Evans Kiratu was “hit by a tear gas canister” during the protests and died in hospital.

On Friday, a police watchdog said it was investigating allegations that a 29-year-old man was shot by officers in Nairobi after the demonstrations.

The Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) said it had “documented the death… allegedly as a result of police shooting” on Thursday.

Several organisations, including Amnesty International Kenya, said that at least 200 people were injured in the protests in Nairobi, as thousands of people take to the streets across the country.

Cash-strapped government

Ruto’s administration has defended the proposed levies as necessary for filling its coffers and cutting reliance on external borrowing.

Following smaller-scale demonstrations on Tuesday, the cash-strapped government agreed to roll back several tax hikes laid out in a new bill.

But Ruto’s administration still intends to increase some taxes, defending the proposed levies as necessary to raise money.

Kenya has a debt mountain, and servicing costs have ballooned due to a fall in the value of the local currency over the last two years, leaving Ruto with few options.

The tax hikes will pile further pressure on Kenyans, with many already struggling as the cost of living surges and well-paid jobs remain out of reach for young people.

“Tuesday 25th June: #OccupyParliament and Total Shutdown Kenya. A national strike,” read a poster shared widely online, adding that “Gen Z are granting all hard working Kenyans a day off. Parents keep your children at home in solidarity.”

After the government agreed to scrap levies on bread purchases, car ownership as well as financial and mobile services, the treasury warned of a 200-billion-shilling ($1.5-billion) shortfall.

The government has now targeted an increase in fuel prices and export taxes to fill the void left by the changes, a move critics say will make life more expensive in a country already saddled with high inflation.

Kenya is one of the most dynamic economies in East Africa but a third of its 51.5 million people live in poverty.

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Niger planned on China-backed oil pipeline — then troubles began

ABUJA, Nigeria — A China-backed pipeline that would make Niger an oil-exporting country is being threatened by an internal security crisis and a diplomatic dispute with neighboring Benin, both a result of last year’s coup that toppled the West African nation’s democratic government.

The 1,930-kilometer pipeline runs from Niger’s Chinese-built Agadem oil field to the port of Cotonou in Benin. It was designed to help the oil-rich but landlocked Niger achieve an almost fivefold increase in oil production through a $400 million deal signed in April with China’s state-run national petroleum company.

But it has been stalled by several challenges, including the diplomatic disagreement with Benin that led to the pipeline’s closure last week. There also has been an attack this week by the local Patriotic Liberation Front rebel group, which claimed to have disabled a part of the pipeline and is threatening more attacks if the $400 million deal with China isn’t canceled.

The group, led by Salah Mahmoud, a former rebel leader, took up arms after Niger’s junta came to power, posing further security threats to the country, which is already struggling with a deadly security crisis.

Analysts say the crises could further hurt Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries which funds most of its budget with now-withheld external support in the aftermath of the coup.

Niger currently has a local refining capacity of only 20,000 barrels per day (bpd) for local demands while the pipeline is to export up to 90,000 barrels daily — a feat officials and analysts have said would help the country shore up its revenue and emerge from the coup sanctions that had isolated it from regional neighbors and hurt its economy and people.

“It is a completely messy situation and the only way for a resolution is if both administrations directly engage and resolve issues,” said Ryan Cummings, director of Africa-focused security consulting company Signal Risk.

One major concern is how the stalled pipeline operation might impact Niger’s overall economic growth. The World Bank had projected that the West African nation’s economy would rebound and grow the fastest in Africa this year at a rate of 6.9%, with oil exports as a key boost.

The diplomatic tensions with Benin date back to July when Niger’s president, Mohamed Bazoum, was deposed in a coup, resulting in West African neighbors closing their borders with Niger, and in the formation of the so-called local liberation group now threatening more attacks on the oil project.

Benin, alongside other neighbors, has reopened its border with Niger, but Nigerien officials have refused to open theirs, accusing Benin of hosting French troops that pose a threat to the country after Niger severed military ties with France. That has led Benin’s president, Patrice Talon, to make the oil exportation through its port conditional on the reopening of the border.

Both countries are losing out economically, with Benin also being deprived of millions of dollars in transit fees. Observers say the impasse is worsening regional tensions since the coup, which came after a string of other military takeovers. It has pitched Niger against the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, which usually mediates on such issues.

With Niger tilting towards Russia in its diplomatic shift and Benin aligned with France and the West African bloc, China has tried to step in and resolve the impasse and benefit from its investment in the project.

But even Beijing’s efforts, which resulted in the first lifting of oil from the Agadem field in May, collapsed as the diplomatic spat escalated further.

Benin this week convicted and imprisoned three of five Nigerien oil workers it recently arrested at the Beninise port after they crossed from the border and were accused of “use of falsified computer data.” Their arrests prompted Niger to shut the pipeline last week, with a senior government official alleging that their oil is being “stolen by other people.”

A big concern for Niger’s military government at this stage is “whether they have the requisite fiscal capacity to keep paying for public services” following the coup, which has made it unable to meet some of its financial obligations such as debt repayment and infrastructural funding, Cummings said.

The junta in Niger “definitely have to be more cautious in handling the financial position of the country” amid the ongoing crises, he said.

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In South Africa, traditional healers join fight against HIV

BUSHBUCKRIDGE, South Africa — The walls of Shadrack Mashabane’s hut in the rural South African town of Bushbuckridge are covered with traditional fabrics, with a small window the only source of light. What stands out among the herbs and medicines in glass bottles is a white box containing an HIV testing kit.

Mashabane is one of at least 15 traditional healers in the town who, in a pilot study, have been trained by University of Witwatersrand researchers to conduct HIV testing and counseling in an effort to ensure as many South Africans as possible know their status.

It’s part of the largest known effort in the country to involve traditional healers in a public health goal and study the results. Later this year, at least 325 other healers will undergo the training and become certified HIV counselors. Researchers will compare rates of HIV testing by healers and clinics.

Most traditional healers were already knowledgeable about HIV — some from personal experience — and were eager to get involved, researchers said.

South Africa has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world. Stigma remains in many communities around the disease and its treatment — even though HIV antiretroviral medication and pre-exposure prophylaxis are free. Concern about privacy at clinics also keeps people from seeking help.

Many people in rural areas see traditional healers as their first point of contact for illnesses, and the project hopes they can help change attitudes.

South Africa’s large younger population is a special concern. A government study released in December showed that people living with HIV had fallen from 14% in 2017 to 12.7% in 2022, but HIV prevalence rose among girls between 15 and 19, a phenomenon largely attributed to older men sleeping with them.

Around 2,000 traditional healers operate in the Mpumalanga province town of Bushbuckridge, home to about 750,000 people, providing traditional and spiritual services.

Mashabane said patients at first found it difficult to believe he was offering HIV testing — a service they had long expected to be available only at health clinics.

“Many were not convinced. I had to show them my certificate to prove I was qualified to do this,” he said.

The process includes the signing of consent forms to be tested, along with a follow-up with Mashabane to ensure that patients who test positive receive their treatment from the local clinic.

He said breaking the news to a patient who has tested positive for HIV is not that difficult because the illness can be treated with readily available medication. But in many cases, he has to accompany the patient to the clinic “to make it easier for them.”

Florence Khoza is another traditional healer who has been trained to test for HIV. She said risky sexual behavior is common. She often dispenses traditional herbs and medication to treat gonorrhea, but now she goes further by advising patients to test for HIV.

“I tell them it is in their best interest,” she said.

Khoza said many patients fear going to the clinic or hospital and having other community members see them collecting HIV treatment.

“In many cases I collect the HIV medication on their behalf,” she said.

Ryan Wagner, a senior research fellow with the study, said testing and treating via traditional medicine practitioners could “ultimately lead to the end of new HIV cases in communities such as rural Mpumalanga, which has some of the largest HIV burden globally.”

Researchers hope their findings will inspire South Africa’s government to roll out such training across the country. 

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India makes 196 and beats Bangladesh by 50 at Twenty20 World Cup

NORTH SOUND, Antigua — Hardik Pandya blasted Bangladesh with a 27-ball half-century and Kuldeep Yadav’s three wickets finished off India’s win at the Twenty20 World Cup on Saturday.

Pandya struck four boundaries and three sixes in an unbeaten 50 to lead India to 196-5.

Yadav then took 3-19 in four overs to limit Bangladesh to 146-8.

India moved to the top of Group 1 in the Super Eight with two wins from two matches. Afghanistan moved to two points after it beat Australia by 21 runs later Saturday, but stay behind Australia in third place on net run rate. Bangladesh remained winless.

Put into bat, India started quick as captain Rohit Sharma scored 23 off 11 balls. Virat Kohli added 37 off 28, hitting three sixes. The duo put on 39 off 22 balls for India’s best opening stand in the tournament.

Sharma was caught in the fourth over off Shakib al Hasan, while Kohli put on another 32 off 27 balls with Rishabh Pant for the second wicket.

Tanzim Hasan Sakib struck twice in the ninth over, getting Kohli and Suryakumar Yadav for 6 as India slumped to 77-3.

But Rishabh Pant anchored one end with 36 off 24, including four fours and two sixes, putting on 31 off 19 balls with Shivam Dube.

Despite Pant’s dismissal in the 12th over, Dube’s prowess against spin came in handy — he hit three sixes, scoring 34 off 24 balls.

But it was Pandya who took charge in the death overs. India scored 62 runs in the last five overs.

Pandya was named player of the match.

“We have played some really good cricket (to win five straight games),” he said. “We have executed our plans well, but as a group we can still improve. We sometimes lose wickets in a bunch, but apart from that things are looking good.”

Bangladesh’s reply made a steady start. Openers Litton Das (13) and Tanzid Hasan (29) added 35 off 27 until Pandya got the breakthrough in the fifth over.

The Tigers were at 66-2 in the 10th over and scoring slower. The chase unravelled when Yadav came on to bowl. He trapped Hasan lbw, and dismissed Towhid Hridoy for 4 and claimed the big wicket of Shakib for 11.

Bangladesh lost three wickets for 32 runs across 24 balls and didn’t recover.

Pace bowlers Jasprit Bumrah (2-13) and Arshdeep Singh (2-30) helped to seal India’s fifth win over Bangladesh in the T20 World Cup.

Afghanistan stuns Australia

Afghanistan kept its Twenty20 World Cup semifinal hopes alive by stunning previously unbeaten Australia by 21 runs in a thrilling encounter at St. Vincent later on Saturday.

Despite a second successive hat-trick by Australian bowler Pat Cummins, Afghanistan posted 148-6 after being asked to bat first on a tricky pitch at the Arnos Vale Ground.

Afghanistan pair Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Ibrahim Zadran put on 118 for the highest opening partnership against Australia in a T20 match before Australia’s bowlers rallied late, including Cummins’ second career hat-trick — just two days after his first.

Australia then stumbled with the bat and were all out for 127, with only Glenn Maxwell (59 off 41 balls) coming to grips with the superb Afghanistan bowling attack and the deteriorating wicket.

Man of the match Guldabin Naib took four wickets in an inspired spell in the middle overs to stall Australia’s chase before Azmatullah Omarzai had final wicket Adam Zampa caught in the deep in the final over to complete a stunning win amid jubilant celebrations among the Afghan players and team management.

The victory moves Afghanistan to two points in Group 1 and level with Australia, but behind on net run rate. India leads the group on four points, with Bangladesh bottom on zero points but still with a chance of qualifying for the semifinals.

The final group standings will be decided on Monday when Afghanistan plays Bangladesh at St. Vincent and Australia play India Monday at St. Lucia.

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Taiwan detects 41 Chinese aircraft around island

taipei, taiwan — Taiwan’s defense ministry said Saturday it had detected 41 Chinese military aircraft around the island in a 24-hour window, a day after Beijing said “diehard” advocates of Taiwan’s independence could face the death penalty.  

China claims self-ruled democratic Taiwan as part of its territory and has said it would never renounce the use of force to bring it under Beijing’s control. 

It has stepped up pressure on Taipei in recent years and held war games around the island following last month’s inauguration of new Taiwanese leader Lai Ching-te. 

On Saturday, Taipei’s defense ministry said it had detected 41 Chinese military aircraft and seven naval vessels operating around Taiwan during the 24-hour period leading up to 6 a.m. (2200 GMT). 

“Thirty-two of the aircraft crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait,” the ministry said in a statement, referring to a line bisecting the 180-kilometer (110-mile) waterway that separates Taiwan from China. 

The ministry added that it had “monitored the situation and responded accordingly.” 

The latest incursion came after China published judicial guidelines Friday that included the death penalty for “particularly serious” cases of “diehard” supporters of Taiwanese independence, state media reported. 

On May 25, Taiwan detected 62 Chinese military aircraft around the island in a 24-hour window, the highest single-day total this year, as China staged military drills following the inauguration of Lai, who Beijing regards as a “dangerous separatist.” 

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CAR charges European aid worker with terrorism, security issues

BANGUI, Central African Republic — Authorities in the Central African Republic charged a European aid worker who was arrested last month with terrorism and undermining state security, the public prosecutor’s office said.

Martin Joseph Figueira, a Belgian-Portuguese consultant for the American nongovernmental organization FHI360, has been accused of being in communication with armed groups to plot a coup, thereby jeopardizing national security.

On Friday, the prosecutor charged him with six crimes, including undermining the internal and external state security, as well as terrorism. If found guilty, he faces a sentence of forced labor for life.

Among Figueira’s alleged crimes, the prosecutor’s office listed “the existence of several contracts with the leaders of armed groups, supply of strategic information on the different positions of the Central African Armed Forces, money and weapons, being identified as an alleged employee of an American nongovernmental organization carrying out research on Fulani herders.”

Figueira also allegedly “defended war crimes and crimes against humanity; the propaganda of armed groups while encouraging them to create an international terrorist branch like the Islamic State,” the statement said.

Figueira holds Belgian and Portuguese passports. On his Belgian passport he goes under the name of Martin Joseph Edouard.

FHI360, a public health organization that manages projects related to family planning and reproductive health, confirmed that one of its workers is in custody in the Central African Republic.

Figueira was arrested last month in Zemio, a town in southeastern Central African Republic that has been plagued by fighting between local ethnic militias and anti-government rebels for over a decade.

“We are working to secure our consultant’s immediate release,” FHI360’s spokesperson Jennifer Garcia told The Associated Press immediately after his arrest.

So far, The Associated Press has not been able to contact Figueira, and none of his lawyers commented on Friday’s statement.

Mohamed Ag Ayoya, deputy special representative of the U.N. secretary-general in charge of humanitarian action, told the AP he was monitoring the situation.

“We learned of the news and the prosecutor’s press release through the press,” Ayoya said. “We have no comment to make. But what I can tell you at this level it is his embassy in Bangui which is managing the file.”

Authorities have warned foreign charity workers against taking part in activities that could jeopardize national security or they could face judicial proceedings.

Following Figueira’s arrest, the military was deployed to Zemio, after more than six years of absence from the town. The Russian mercenary group Wagner, which for years has had a significant a presence in the Central African Republic, was also deployed there at the same time to train local militias and recruit them for the army. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Wagner forces were still present in the city.

The Central African Republic has been in conflict since 2013, when predominantly Muslim rebels seized power and forced then-president Francois Bozize from office. Mostly Christian militias fought back. A 2019 peace deal helped slow the fighting, but six of the 14 armed groups that signed later left the agreement.

A U.N. peacekeeping mission and Rwandan troops are currently deployed in the Central African Republic to try to quell the violence and protect civilians.

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2 dead in Kenya youth protests

Nairobi, Kenya — A 21-year-old man died after being hit by a tear gas canister during protests in Kenya this week, a human rights official and the victim’s relative said Saturday, in the second fatality in connection with the youth-led demonstrations. 

Led largely by Gen-Z Kenyans who have livestreamed the demonstrations against tax increases, the protests have been galvanized by widespread anger over President William Ruto’s economic policies. 

Thursday’s demonstrations in Nairobi were mostly peaceful, but officers fired tear gas and water cannons throughout the day to disperse protesters near parliament. 

According to a Kenya Human Rights Commission official, 21-year-old Evans Kiratu was “hit by a tear gas canister” during the demonstrations. 

“He was rushed to hospital around 6 p.m. on Thursday … and died there,” Ernest Cornel, a spokesperson at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, told AFP. “It is tragic that a young person can lose his life simply for agitating against the high cost of living.” 

The victim’s aunt told national broadcaster Citizen TV that her nephew had died in the hospital before she was able to see him. 

“We are demanding justice for my nephew,” she said. 

The rallies began in Nairobi on Tuesday before spreading across the country, with protesters calling for a national strike on Tuesday. 

Kiratu’s death comes on the heels of another fatality reported Friday, when a police watchdog group said it was investigating allegations that a 29-year-old man was shot by officers in Nairobi after the demonstrations. 

The Independent Policing Oversight Authority said it had “documented the death … allegedly as a result of [a] police shooting” Thursday. 

According to a police report seen by AFP, a 29-year-old man was taken to the hospital in Nairobi around 7 p.m. Thursday, “unconscious with a thigh injury” before “succumbing” to his injuries, without giving further details. 

Several organizations, including Amnesty International Kenya, said that at least 200 people were injured in Nairobi after Thursday’s protests, which saw thousands of people take to the streets across the country.

Following smaller-scale demonstrations in Nairobi earlier in the week, the cash-strapped government agreed to roll back several tax increases laid out in a new bill. 

But Ruto’s administration still intends to increase some taxes, defending the proposed levies as necessary for filling its coffers and cutting reliance on external borrowing. 

The tax increases will pile further pressure on Kenyans, with many already struggling to survive as the cost of living surges and well-paid jobs remain out of reach for young people. 

Organized largely through social media, the protests have caught the government by surprise, with demonstrators now calling for a nationwide shutdown. 

“Tuesday 25th June: #OccupyParliament and Total Shutdown Kenya. A national strike,” read a poster shared widely online, adding that “Gen Z are granting all hard-working Kenyans a day off. Parents keep your children at home in solidarity.” 

After the government agreed to scrap levies on bread purchases and car ownership as well as financial and mobile services, the treasury warned of a 200 billion shilling ($1.5 billion) shortfall. 

The proposed taxes were projected to raise 346.7 billion shillings ($2.7 billion), equivalent to 1.9% of GDP, and reduce the budget deficit from 5.7% to 3.3% of GDP. 

The government has now targeted an increase in fuel prices and export taxes to fill the void left by the changes, a move critics say will make life more expensive in a country battling high inflation. 

Kenya is one of the most dynamic economies in East Africa, but a third of its 51.5 million people live in poverty. 

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India, Bangladesh boost defense ties to counterweigh China

NEW DELHI — India and Bangladesh on Saturday moved to bolster their defense relationship and signed agreements for expanding cooperation in maritime security, ocean economy, and space and telecommunication sectors, as New Delhi presents itself as a regional power and a counterweight to China.

The agreements were signed during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India, the first foreign leader to visit New Delhi since Narendra Modi became the country’s prime minister for a third term two weeks ago.

Modi welcomed Bangladesh’s decision to join his Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative to expand and facilitate regional cooperation of India’s maritime neighbors. He said the deals with Dhaka were part of his country’s pursuit of a neighborhood-first approach.

Bangladesh also enjoys good ties with China, its major trade partner mostly for raw materials. But maintaining a close relationship with Beijing is challenging for Bangladesh, which also balances diplomatic and trade relationships with India and the United States, China’s main rivals.

Bangladesh’s garment industry, which brings in more than 80% of foreign currency from exports, is heavily dependent on China for raw materials.

Hasina told reporters in New Delhi that the two countries decided to boost the sharing of river waters and cooperation in the power and energy sectors.

She also met Indian industry leaders and invited them to invest in Bangladesh, which plans to develop bigger ports, waterways rail, and road connectivity. India loaned Bangladesh $8 billion in the last eight years, to help expand that infrastructure.

Since Hasina’s Awami League party came to power in 2009, she has acted to address New Delhi’s concern about Indian militant groups taking shelter in Bangladesh.

However, an agreement on sharing the waters of the River Teesta remains elusive. The question of illegal immigration from Bangladesh to India also has dogged bilateral ties for years.

India is Bangladesh’s largest export destination in Asia. Trade between the two countries touched $15.9 billion in the financial year 2022-23.

New Delhi mainly exports cotton, motor vehicles, sugar, iron, steel, aluminum, electrical and electronic equipment to Bangladesh. It imports cereal, pulp paper and board, cement and raw hides from Bangladesh.

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Kazakhstan needs to overhaul labor, poverty statistics, experts say

ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN — Economic analysts in Kazakhstan say the government is using a formulation for setting the poverty line that fails to capture the number of people living below a humane standard of living. The result, they say, lowers the amount of assistance provided to the poor.

Kazakhstan sets the poverty line at about $70 a month, slightly over $2 a day. That results in an official poverty rate of 5.1% of the population. The World Bank, in a March report, More, Better and Inclusive Jobs in Kazakhstan, said that using its poverty line of $3.65 a day for lower middle-income countries (although the World Bank actually classifies Kazakhstan as upper middle-income) puts the poverty rate at about 10% in 2018.

Meruert Makhmutova, an economist and director of the Almaty-based Public Policy Research Center, said Kazakhstan should adopt the World Bank standard, which she said would result in more people receiving government assistance.

“The switch to $3.65 a day would automatically increase the number of the poor and the government would have to provide targeted social assistance to a greater number of people,” Makhmutova said. “As a result, the government, failing to admit the real scale of poverty, reduces budget spending on social assistance to poor citizens.”

The official Kazakh poverty level is close to the World Bank’s extreme poverty line of $2.15 a day, but Andrey Chebotarev, an Almaty-based economist and director of the Alternativa center for topical research, told VOA that figure is not applicable in Kazakhstan because of climate.

“It’s hard to just survive on the street in Kazakhstan in winter because the weather and climate make it impossible,” he told VOA, referring to winter temperatures that could drop to minus 30 degrees Celsius.

“We need to assess poverty differently,” he said.

Makhmutova also disputed methods authorities use to set the minimum wage and gauge the unemployment level.

Until recently, the minimum wage has been set arbitrarily without consideration of personal incomes or the real cost of living in the country. It was set around $190 a month for 2024, even though the average monthly wage was $890 at the end of last year.

“The government doesn’t use the average wage for setting the minimum wage, that’s why the minimum wage doesn’t grow substantially and its growth in the past few years doesn’t even match the inflation rate,” Makhmutova said.

Baglan Kasenov, the head of the Kazakh Labor and Social Protection Ministry’s department for labor and social partnership, told VOA the Kazakh government had adopted a new methodology to set the minimum wage starting next year. It conforms to International Labor Organization recommendations, he said, and will be based on the median wage and productivity, reaching 50% of the median wage in future. The median wage, where half of workers receive less than that and half receive more, was about $560 a month last year.

The joblessness rate is another contentious issue in Kazakhstan, as authorities, Chebotarev said, now categorize people, for example, farming their kitchen gardens and working without pay in family businesses as “self-employed,” which is new.

Makhmutova said the move “masks unemployment”; the number of jobless has been constant at around 450,000 people or under 5% in the past few years, whereas the number of self-employed is around 2.1 million, according to the government.

“As for unemployment, it’s a Kazakh invention of global scale because we have invented 2 million self-employed and blame everything on them,” Chebotarev said. “Our estimates of unemployment should be revised … but no one in government wants to consider self-employed as jobless.”

World Bank report questioned

Use of the government figures has resulted in criticism of the World Bank report, which claimed that despite declining economic growth, Kazakhstan’s poverty rate had dropped.

Makhmutova questioned the World Bank’s report because it based its analysis on “irrelevant” official Kazakh income and unemployment statistics – figures that are derived from the wrong method to assess poverty as well as being out of date.

She told VOA the report “is not objective in the first place because it relies on statistics provided by the labor ministry which avoids the assessment of the real scale of poverty and unemployment.”

In addition, although the report was published this year, “the latest statistical data on poverty is from 2018, which is why it is irrelevant for the assessment of the current situation,” she said, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and high inflation after Russia invaded Ukraine as having worsened living standards and increased poverty in Kazakhstan since 2018.

In response to Makhmutova’s criticism, the World Bank said it welcomes “critique and debate” over its reports, adding that the report “used the latest available data as is standard in World Bank reports for analysis.”

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Floods kill 21, wreck homes as rainy season arrives in Niger

NIAMEY, Niger — Floods in mostly arid Niger have killed 21 people and affected more than 6,000 others during just the first few weeks of the African country’s rainy season that runs through September, a government official said.

Thirteen people were killed when their homes collapsed and eight died by drowning following heavy rains, Colonel Boubacar Bako, the director-general of civil protection, said on national TV on Thursday evening.

From the Maradi region of south-central Niger, 35-year-old resident Ali Abdou told The Associated Press by phone that heavy rains destroyed houses in his community.

“It is only the first rain of the season, and our houses are already down,” Abdou said.

The rainy season, which lasts from June to September, regularly claims many lives in Niger, including in desert areas.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that floods and heavy rains hitting the country in recent years are the result of climate change. Last year, 52 people died and 176,000 were affected by floods in Niger, the Interior Ministry said.

Niger’s population struggles with periodic droughts and heat waves during the dry season.

The Maradi region has been most affected by the floods so far this year, accounting for 14 of the 21 deaths, Bako said during his televised announcement.

Niger’s capital, Niamey, and its 2 million inhabitants, usually hit by deadly floods, have been spared so far.

But in a suburb of Niamey, the mud-brick house of resident Maiga Harouna, 56, collapsed during the torrential rain.

“We desperately need help from the government before the second rain arrives,” Harouna said.

The government has not yet announced any plans for relocating people who lost homes because of the floods.

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UN confirms Doha talks with Taliban will exclude Afghan rights defenders

islamabad — The United Nations confirmed Friday that a rare meeting of global envoys with Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers this month will not address concerns about Afghan civil society and women human rights defenders.

  

Roza Otunbayeva, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA, emphasized the importance of the world community opening a direct dialogue with the Taliban, suggesting it could create opportunities for Afghan women to participate in future talks.

“This is what is possible today. … It is a process. Let’s start to speak,” she told reporters in New York after briefing a U.N. Security Council meeting on the Afghan situation.  

  

The two-day U.N.-hosted meeting will commence in Doha, Qatar, on June 30. It will be the third session of what is referred to as the “Doha process,” and the Taliban have agreed to attend for the first time. 

  

“For the first time, special envoys of all the countries would meet face to face with the Taliban. They would tell them that, ‘Look, it doesn’t work like this, and we should have women around the table, and also provide them with access to the business,’ ” Otunbayeva said.  

  

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched and hosted the Doha process in May 2023 to establish a coherent and unified global approach to engagement with the Taliban government, which has yet to be formally recognized by the world. 

Guterres did not invite de facto Afghan authorities to the first meeting. The Taliban refused an invitation to the second round of talks in February unless their delegates could be accepted as the sole representatives of Afghanistan. 

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have criticized the U.N. for inviting the Taliban to the Doha huddle rather than holding them accountable for “crimes” against Afghan women and girls. 

  

Otunbayeva responded to the criticism Friday, saying the U.N. would consult civil society representatives from inside and outside Afghanistan before the June 30 meeting. They also will speak to special international envoys on July 2, a day after the meeting with the Taliban ends, she noted.

Help for businesses, farmers

The UNAMA chief explained that discussions at the third Doha meeting will focus on helping Afghan private businesses, addressing financial and banking sector issues, and finding alternate livelihoods for farmers affected by the Taliban’s nationwide ban on opium poppy cultivation.

She said all these issues are related to women: “There are 5 million addicted people in Afghanistan. More than 30% [of them] are women.”

Otunbayeva said the Taliban expect international assistance and capacity building in the security, agriculture and health sectors.  

  

“What do we need [in return]? We need them to change their minds and let girls go to school. I don’t understand what is the reason why they don’t let girls go to school. There is no Islamic country out of 57 where girls don’t go to schools.”  

  

The Taliban regained power in Kabul in August 2021 as U.S.-led NATO troops withdrew from the country after nearly 20 years of involvement in the Afghan war. The fundamentalist authorities have since barred girls aged 12 and older from attending secondary school and have suspended female students from universities as well as other higher education.  

  

Most Afghan women are prohibited from public and private employment, including the U.N., and they are not allowed to visit public places such as parks, gyms and bathhouses. Women are required to undertake road or air trips only when accompanied by a male relative.

The Taliban dismiss criticism of their policies, insisting they are aligned with Afghan culture and Islamic law.

Agnes Callamard, the secretary-general at Amnesty International, said in a statement Friday that the credibility of the Doha meeting “will be in tatters if it doesn’t adequately address” the Afghan human rights situation and fails to engage Afghan women rights defenders. 

  

“Sidelining critical discussions on human rights would be unacceptable and set a deeply damaging precedent,” Callamard said. She urged the international community to adopt a clear and united stance to protect the rights of Afghan women.   

  

“Caving into the Taliban’s conditions to secure their participation in the talks would risk legitimizing their gender-based institutionalized system of oppression — a system that has sought to erase women and girls from society by callously stripping them of their most fundamental rights,” she said.

Tirana Hassan, the executive director at Human Rights Watch, described the exclusion of Afghan women from the upcoming Doha talks as shocking. 

  

“Excluding women risks legitimizing the Taliban’s abuses and triggering irreparable harm to the U.N.’s credibility as an advocate for women’s rights and women’s meaningful participation,” Hassan said in a statement issued Friday.

VOA U.N. Correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.

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UN agency: Foreign investment in Africa drops; energy sector receives biggest deals 

nairobi, kenya — Africa became less attractive to foreign investors last year and finance deals declined by 50 percent to $64 billion, according to a new report.  

 

The World Investment Report, released Thursday by the U.N. Trade and Development, said foreign investment remains subdued by the global economic slowdown and rising geopolitical tensions.  

 

On the continent, central African countries recorded the largest drop in foreign investment, 17 percent, and West Africa recorded the lowest dip, 1 percent. 

  

Bruce Nsereko-Lule, a general partner at Seedstars Africa Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in high-growth companies, said conditions in Western economies have contributed to the reduction in foreign direct investment in Africa.

“We have seen very high interest rates in Western economies,” he said. “With the devaluation of the currency, we saw this is partially driven by the same factor. Investment in these developing markets, emerging markets, even became less attractive as the companies effectively had to work significantly hard to generate a return that would make a good return for Western investors.”

Researchers say that the lack of financial inflows to Africa and other countries affected sustainable development, with new funding dropping by 10 percent globally. Lack of financing for development programs will hinder countries from achieving the 2030 agenda, which covers economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection.

The reduction of foreign investments is also blamed on protectionist policies by African governments and on regional realignments, which investigators say are disrupting the world economy, fragmenting trade networks, regulatory environments and global supply chains.

Some governments’ actions have undermined the stability and predictability of global investment flows, creating obstacles and isolating opportunities.  

 

Samuel Nyandemo, economics lecturer at the University of Nairobi, said the behavior of some African governments is turning away investors.

“There is corruption, there is bureaucracy in investments, the red tape bureaucracies, and then the marginal rates of returns from investments are not forthcoming,” he said.

The fall of foreign direct investment in Africa is blamed on insecurity in some African countries, the weakening of local currencies, a harsh business environment, corruption and political uncertainty. 

  

However, Africa has received investment in a growing share of greenfield mega projects worth $5 billion, plus wind and solar energy production worth $10 billion. And Morocco, a North African nation, is getting $6.4 billion to manufacture electric vehicle batteries.

Nyandemo said Africa needs to create an environment where investors feel safe with their businesses. 

“They need to have investor confidence, create a conducive macroeconomic environment for investments and enable investors to repatriate their profits appropriately without any bureaucratic procedures, and minimize taxation,” he said. “Create a tax regime which is conducive for investment.”

The U.N. report predicted that despite challenges, financial conditions in Africa are expected to improve. Governments can address low investments by creating transparent and streamlined business environments.

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