‘Follow Your Dreams’ Says Afghan Women’s Volleyball Team

Afghanistan’s volleyball team hope their appearance at the Asian Games in defiance of the Taliban will encourage other women from the country “to follow their dreams.”

The players braved conflict, exile and threats to their family back home to compete in Hangzhou, they say.

Women’s sport in Afghanistan was effectively banned by the Taliban when they returned to power in 2021.

That meant no women traveling from the country in the delegation of more than 120 competitors, coaches and supervisors in China.

But with the help of overseas sports bodies, more than a dozen foreign-based Afghan women are taking part, with the volleyball squad comprising most of them.

“I think it’s a big hope for Afghan women, that they haven’t given up their dreams, they have to follow their dreams,” 25-year-old middle blocker Mursal Khedri told AFP after a 3-0 defeat to Japan on Sunday. 

The 12-member Afghan squad team also faced off against Kazakhstan over the weekend, staying in good spirits despite being soundly defeated by their more seasoned opponents.

Wearing headscarves and long leggings, the players high-fived each other as they ran onto the court at the start of the match.

Spectators erupted in cheers when the Afghans belatedly scored their first point against Japan.

And even though they went down 3-0 in both matches, there was a strong sense of pride at even getting this far.

“It was so hard for Afghan women to attend this Asian Games because it’s a difficult situation for us, all of the people know about the situation of Afghanistan,” Khedri said.

Some of the Afghan volleyball players in Hangzhou declined to be interviewed, fearing retaliation against family members still living in Afghanistan.

Following the return to power of the Taliban, hundreds of Afghan athletes, coaches and officials — both men and women — were evacuated on humanitarian visas obtained by National Olympic Committees from various governments. 

Olympic officials said they would have faced significant risks had they remained in Afghanistan. 

Under their austere interpretation of Islam, Taliban authorities have imposed a slew of restrictions on Afghan women, including banning them from higher education and many government jobs.

The team are set to play against Hong Kong on Monday, the last of their matches.

Despite losing both of their encounters so far, Khedri said it was “a good experience for our women’s team.” 

“It was our first experience to participate in the Asian Games,” she said. “I think we felt very nervous, but we tried our best.”

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New Gabon President Gets Show of Support in Congo Trip

Gabon’s transitional president, who ousted the leader of the central African country at the end of August, received a show of support from neighboring Republic of Congo after he met his counterpart Sunday, aiming to improve relations and ease Gabon’s isolation. 

General Brice Oligui Nguema overthrew Ali Bongo Ondimba, 64, who had ruled Gabon since 2009, moments after he was proclaimed the winner in a presidential election in late August.

The election result was branded a fraud by the opposition and the military coup leaders, who had also accused his regime of widespread corruption and bad governance.

Under the presidency of Ali Bongo, relations between Gabon and neighboring Congo were notoriously tense.

Oligui said his visit was aimed at improving the ties and easing Gabon’s international isolation following the coup.

“I have come to consult, to discuss, to exchange with (the president), who for us is a key in the region, who can relay to global authorities what we have done,” Oligui said after holding talks with Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso.

“It is also to ease the sanctions… we hope to once again take our place among the nations,” Oligui said.

Gabon was suspended from the African Union and the Economic Community of Central Africa States (ECCAS) after the change of government.

ECCAS has also ordered the immediate transfer of its headquarters from Gabon’s Libreville to the Equatorial Guinea capital Malabo.

The Congo president did not address reporters after the talks, but his Foreign Minister Jean-Claude Gakosso hailed Oligui as “a man of humility and reconciliation.”

“I think that the Gabonese should support him and aside from the Gabonese, the Congolese. Also, our brothers in central Africa,” he told reporters.

“We know that there was a change in Libreville,” Gakosso said. “The main thing is that there was no bloodshed.”

“We have rarely seen this, a forceful change of regime without bloodshed.”

“The Congo and Gabon are in reality the same country. We have to work tirelessly [to] have good relations,” he said.

The visit marked the second overseas trip by Oligui, who was sworn in last month as Gabon’s interim president.

The talks were held near Oyo, in central Congo.

Oligui, wearing green military fatigues and a beret, was greeted by the prime minister and a red carpet when he landed.

Many in Gabon saw Ali Bongo’s overthrow as an act of liberation rather than a military coup.

Oligui has promised to hold “free, transparent and credible elections” to restore civilian rule, but has not given a timeframe.

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NGOs Call for Action After Killing of Bangladesh Union Activist

Human Rights Watch and global workers’ rights organizations have intensified a call for action after the June killing of Bangladeshi union activist Shahidul Islam, urging the government to thoroughly investigate the death.

Islam, 45, a longtime Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation labor organizer, was beaten to death in Gazipur, a major garment industry hub on the outskirts of Dhaka. At the time, he was trying to intervene on behalf of workers in a factory dispute over unpaid wages. Colleagues allege he was killed by factory-hired goons.

“The motive was to prevent him from speaking on behalf of workers so that the factory management could get rid of him and not pay the workers,” union president Kalpona Akter told VOA.

Akter filed a police complaint. The Industrial Police Unit is currently investigating the case and has made a few arrests but has yet to file any charges.

An officer who is investigating the incident would not comment when contacted by VOA in early September, saying the case was still “being investigated.”

Akter said Islam was a target of threats and assaults by factory owners and law enforcement authorities in the past because of his labor rights work.

The Bangladesh government has a history of cracking down on trade union activists in the garment industry, and putting them behind bars, a move that has been criticized by human rights groups.

“Bangladesh authorities should ensure that an independent and thorough investigation is conducted to hold accountable all those involved in directing, planning, and executing the attack,” Human Rights Watch said in a September 14 statement.

Activists from Clean Clothes Campaign, a Netherlands-based workers’ rights organization, protested in Amsterdam last month at a Bangladesh garment industry exhibition to urge the Bangladeshi government, the employers’ association, and brands sourcing from Bangladesh to take immediate action regarding Islam’s killing.

Activists also demanded safeguards for the right to organize, and a new minimum wage in line with workers’ demands in Bangladesh.

Difficulties organizing

Labor activists say Bangladeshi factory owners block workers from forming unions, despite laws that in theory allow workers to organize.

Bangladeshi law requires at least 20% of a factory’s workforce in a factory to sign a petition if they want to form a union. However, union organizer Dolly Akhtar in Gazipur, told VOA that once signature collection starts, “the factory management finds out pretty soon, and they try everything in their power to foil the attempt to form a union in their factory.”

Factory owners commonly threaten workers and organizers with dismissal and blacklisting if they attempt to unionize, Akhtar said.

“I’ve received countless written and verbal threats for trying to organize workers and demand due payments, severances and better working conditions,” she said. “The factory authorities often use the thugs and goons, local political leaders to intimidate me. They have money and the means to make anyone dance to their tune. They filed bogus cases against me, and local goons stopped me on the road to threaten me at night when I come back home. Because I am a woman they think I’ll get scared easily,” Akhtar said.

Additionally, government bureaucracy and red tape remain significant obstacles to union formation. The law requires a lengthy and complex registration process, which can drag on for months or years.

As a result, only a small percentage of garment workers in Bangladesh, about 7%, are union members, according to a 2020 Cornell University report.

Workers’ rights groups have been advocating reforms to give workers more power and protect union organizers for a long time.

“It’s crucial to prioritize the safety of these dedicated organizers because they are the backbone of the labor movement. Their safety ensures the continued empowerment of workers and the protection of their rights. Without secure and protected organizers, the struggle for fair labor practices and workers’ rights would be significantly hampered,” said Sarwer Hossain, a grassroots union organizer in Savar of Bangladesh Textile and Garment Workers League.

Christie Miedema of Clean Clothes Campaign called on international brands to ensure that the factories they use follow ethical labor standards.

“It is of utmost importance that the government, factories and brands create an enabling environment for independent organizing – lowering hurdles for independent unions to register, allowing access to workers to independent union organizers, and for brands to clearly signal to factories that they value freedom to organize and to stop the downward price pressure,” Miedema told VOA through an email.

VOA contacted Bangladesh’s Ministry of Labor and Employment and its Department of Labor but was unable to obtain a comment.

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South Sudan Faces Growing Health and Hunger Crisis   

The World Health Organization warns that soaring rates of severe malnutrition, acute hunger, and deteriorating health conditions are threatening the lives and well-being of millions of people in South Sudan with the situation set to worsen as the climate crisis kicks in.

“South Sudan is a country where you see the overlap and compounding impact of conflict, climate crisis, hunger crisis, and disease outbreaks that have been going on for several years,” said Liesbeth Aelbrecht, WHO incident manager for the Horn of Africa. “Three in four South Sudanese need humanitarian assistance this year; two in three are facing crisis levels of hunger,” she said. “And these numbers are only getting worse.”

The United Nations reports 6.3 million South Sudanese are suffering from acute hunger and more than 9 million of the country’s population of 12 million people depend on humanitarian assistance.

As conditions continue to deteriorate, the World Health Organization reports 500,000 more people this year will need international aid. Among the most vulnerable are the children.

Aelbrecht said, “The numbers of children with severe malnutrition needing medical intervention have been higher this year than at any point in the last four years,” adding that almost 150,000 children had been treated for severe acute malnutrition so far this year.

She warned the humanitarian crisis facing South Sudan will worsen with the onset of El Niño, a climate phenomenon that can cause temperatures to rise and excess rains.

“Flooding and hunger and drought will increase hunger even further. But it is also very likely to increase the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, especially malaria and dengue and water-borne diseases,” she said, adding that malaria is one of the five main causes of death in South Sudan.

Aelbrecht recently returned from a mission to South Sudan, where she visited so-called stabilization centers for severely malnourished children in the capital, Juba, and in Bentiu, the capital of Unity State.

Speaking Friday from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, to journalists in Geneva, Aelbrecht said she watched doctors trying to resuscitate babies on life support. In one of these centers, she said she saw a baby pass away in her mother’s arms.

“I quote figures. I give you percentages, but behind those figures there are just faces. I am standing there as a bystander and watching this child die of hunger and of preventable diseases,” she said. “Even after doing humanitarian work for 25 years now, it does remain one of the most difficult things to do.”

She said the international community must not act as a bystander but help South Sudan during this time of immense need. Since conflict in Sudan erupted in April, she said there has been a large inflow of refugees and returnees from Sudan, putting an even greater strain on South Sudan’s overstretched health system.

“In fact, one out of four of all the people who had fled Sudan, 1.2 million people who fled Sudan are being hosted now in South Sudan,” she said.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, reports humanitarian operations in both Sudan and South Sudan are severely underfunded. It says lack of security in these countries is also a huge hindrance to the delivery of aid to the millions in need.

“South Sudan and Sudan are the world’s most dangerous countries for aid workers,” said Jens Laerke, OCHA spokesman.

Of 71 aid worker deaths recorded so far this year, he said 22 were in South Sudan and 19 in Sudan.

“The victims are overwhelming local humanitarians working on the front lines of the response,” he said.

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Mali Army Says New Fighting With Separatist Rebels in North

The Malian army said on Sunday that new fighting had broken out in the north between the military and armed rebel groups, the latest in a series of attacks on the army in the troubled West African country.

The army reported on social media “intense fighting” against “terrorists” in the early hours of the morning, in the area of Bamba which separatist rebels claimed to have taken control of.

The rebels said they had seized the northern locality in a social media message published on behalf of the Permanent Strategic Framework, which is dominated by the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA).

The CMA is an alliance of predominantly Tuareg groups seeking autonomy or independence from the Malian state.

No further details on the fighting were provided by either side.

Tuareg-dominated separatist groups said on Saturday that they had inflicted heavy losses on the Malian military in an attack in the centre of the country, claiming to have killed 81 soldiers.

Since the end of August, the north of Mali has seen a resumption of hostilities by the CMA and an intensification of jihadist attacks against the Malian army.

On September 7, the army was attacked in Bamba in an operation claimed by the Al-Qaeda-linked alliance, the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM).

The escalation in violence coincides with the ongoing withdrawal of the UN stabilisation force MINUSMA, which has been pushed out by the ruling junta.

Mali’s junta, which seized power in 2020, faces a multitude of security challenges throughout the poor and landlocked country.


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Libya’s Eastern Government Postpones Derna Reconstruction Conference

Libya’s eastern authorities Sunday announced the postponement of a reconstruction conference for the flood-hit city of Derna that had been planned for October 10 but was met with international skepticism.

The event was put off until November 1-2 to “offer time for the submission of effective studies and projects” for the reconstruction effort, the committee charged with planning the meeting said in a statement.

The divided country’s eastern administration last month invited the “international community” to attend the conference in Derna, the coastal city where a September 10 flash flood devastated large areas and killed thousands.

The authorities later said that the conference would draw in international companies, and on Sunday the committee said the postponed event would be held in both Derna and the eastern city of Benghazi.

The North African country has been wracked by fighting and chaos since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed veteran dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.

Libya is now divided between an internationally recognized Tripoli-based administration in the west, and the one in the disaster-stricken east backed by military strongman Khalifa Haftar.

‘Separate efforts’ 

The United States on Friday called on Libyans to set aside their political differences and agree on a framework to channel aid to eastern towns.

“We urge Libyan authorities now to form such unified structures –- rather than launching separate efforts –- that represent the Libyan people without delay,” US special envoy Richard Norland said in a statement. 

Despite a wave of nationwide solidarity since the flood, there has been no show of support for the proposed conference from the Tripoli-based government of interim Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah.

Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya specialist at the Royal United Services Institute, on Sunday said the eastern authorities were facing a “largely predictable setback”, adding that “they will have no choice but to somehow work with the Tripoli authorities”.

On Wednesday, the eastern authorities had announced the creation of a fund for the reconstruction of Derna and other areas affected by the flooding.

They did not indicate how the new fund would be financed, but Libya’s House of Representatives, also based in the east, has already allocated 10 million dinars ($2 million) for reconstruction.

On Friday, the eastern administration announced that they had begun compensating residents affected by the floods, distributing cheques to the mayors of the stricken towns.

During talks with the European Commission, UN envoy Abdoulaye Bathily on Thursday said he had called for funds delivered to Libya to be monitored.

“I… emphasized the need for a joint assessment of reconstruction needs of storm-affected areas to ensure the utmost accountability in the management of reconstruction resources,” he said.

According to the latest toll announced by the eastern authorities on Tuesday, at least 3,893 people died in the disaster. 

International aid groups have said 10,000 or more people may be missing.


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Climate Change, Poor Planning Make India’s Monsoon Season Devastating

Sanjay Chauhan witnessed monsoon rains lash down over his home and farm in the Indian Himalayas this year with a magnitude and intensity he’s never experienced before.

“Buildings have collapsed, roads are broken, there were so many landslides including one that has destroyed a large part of my orchard,” said the 56-year-old farmer, who lives in the town of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. “I have not seen anything like this.”

The devastation of this year’s monsoon season in India, which runs from June to September, has been significant: Local government estimates say that 428 people have died and Himachal Pradesh suffered over $1.42 billion worth in property damage since June.

Human-caused climate change is making rain more extreme in the region and scientists warn Himalayan states should expect more unpredictable and heavy seasons like this one. But the damage is also exacerbated by developers paying little mind to environmental regulations and building codes when building on flood- and earthquake-prone land, local experts and environmentalists say.

Damages to property in Himachal Pradesh this year were more than the last five years combined. Other regions also suffered heavy losses in terms of lives, property and farmland — including the neighboring state of Uttarakhand, Delhi and most northern and western Indian states.

In the second week of July, 22.4 centimeters of rainfall descended on the state instead of the usual 4.2 centimeters for this time of the year — a 431% increase — according to the Indian Meteorological Department. Then for five days in August, 11.2 centimeters poured down on Himachal Pradesh, 168% more than the 4.2 centimeters it would typically receive in that timeframe.

The rainfall spurred hundreds of landslides, with overflowing rivers sweeping vehicles away and collapsing multiple buildings, many of them recently constructed hotels. Key highways were submerged or destroyed and all schools in the region were shut. Around 300 tourists stranded near the high altitude lake of Chandratal had to be airlifted to safety by the Indian Air Force.

Jakob Steiner, a climate scientist with the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, said rising global temperatures from human-caused climate change means more water evaporates in the heat which is then dumped in heavy rainfall events.

And when all the water pours in one place, it means other regions are starved of rain.

In the south of the country, rain was so rare that the region had its driest monsoon season since 1901, the IMD said. The government of Karnataka in southern India declared drought conditions in most of the state.

Climate change compounds the phenomenon of weather extremes, said Anjal Prakash, a research director at the Indian School of Business, with both droughts and deluges expected to intensify as the world warms.

In the Himalayas, the problem of climate changed-boosted rain is worsened by unregulated development and years of devastation piling up with little time to adapt or fix the damage in between.

“Roads, dams and settlements have been built without proper environmental assessments or following building codes,” said Prakash. Unregulated development has also led to increased soil erosion and disrupted natural drainage systems, he said.

Y.P. Sundarial, a geologist with Uttarakhand-based HNB Garhwal University, agrees.

“People here are building six-floor buildings on slopes as steep as 45 degrees” in a region that is both flood and earthquake prone, Sundarial said. “We need to make sure development policies keep the sensitiveness of Himalayas in mind to avoid such damage in the future.”

When these structures almost inevitably topple year after year during monsoon rains, it creates a “cumulative impact” said local environmentalist Mansi Asher, meaning residents are now living with years of unaddressed devastation.

Ten years ago, an estimated 6,000 people died in flash floods caused by a cloudburst in Uttarakhand which destroyed hundreds of villages; between 2017 and 2022, around 1,500 people died in Himachal Pradesh from extreme rain-related incidents; and earlier this year at least 240 families were relocated away from the religious town of Joshimath after the ground caved in from over construction despite warnings from scientists.

Governments on the state and national level have been looking at how to address the destruction.

Himachal Pradesh’s government announced a $106 million disaster risk reduction and preparedness program with support from the French Development Agency this year to strengthen its response to extreme rainfall.

The state also published a comprehensive climate action plan in 2022 but many of the plan’s recommendations, such as creating a fund to research climate challenges or helping farmers in the region adapt to changing weather conditions, have not yet been implemented.

The Indian federal government meanwhile has set an ambitious target of producing 500 gigawatts of clean energy by 2030 and has installed 172 gigawatts as of March this year. India is currently one of the world’s largest emitters. The country also created a national adaptation fund for climate change, releasing just over $72 million for various projects since 2015.

But these initiatives are too little, too late for apple farmer Chauhan and others picking up the pieces after an especially catastrophic monsoon season.

Chauhan, who’s also the former mayor of Shimla, wants to see a firm plan that addresses climate change in the face of the region’s growing population and development needs.

“Those in power really need to step up,” he said.

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Afghan Embassy Closes in India , Citing Lack of Support

The Afghan Embassy said it is closing in New Delhi from Sunday due to a lack of diplomatic support in India and the absence of a recognized government in Kabul.

But it will continue to provide emergency consular services to Afghan nationals, it said in a statement.

“There has been a significant reduction in both personnel and resources available to us, making it increasingly challenging to continue operations,” the statement said.

India has not recognized the Taliban government, which seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021. It evacuated its own staff from Kabul ahead of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan two years ago and no longer has a diplomatic presence there.

The Afghan Embassy in New Delhi has been run by staff appointed by the previous government of ousted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, with permission from the Indian authorities.

There was no immediate comment by India’s External Affairs Ministry, but an official said last week that the Afghan ambassador left India several months ago and other Afghan diplomats have departed for third countries reportedly after receiving asylum.

India has said it will follow the lead of the United Nations in deciding whether to recognize the Taliban government.

The Afghan Embassy statement said that it wanted to reach an agreement with the Indian government to ensure that the interests of Afghans living, working, studying and doing business in India are safeguarded.

Afghans account for around one-third of the nearly 40,000 refugees registered in India, according to the U.N. refugee agency. But that figure excludes those who are not registered with the U.N.

Last year, India sent relief materials, including wheat, medicine, COVID-19 vaccines and winter clothes to Afghanistan to help with shortages there.

In June last year, India sent a team of officials to its embassy in Kabul.

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Canada’s Sikhs Grateful, and Afraid, After Trudeau’s India Allegations

Canadian Sikhs are grateful to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for giving voice to their fears and standing up to India at the risk of a severe backlash from New Delhi, which he said could be linked to the killing of a Sikh separatist leader.

The Indian government considered Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen who was shot to death in June in British Columbia, a terrorist because of his advocacy for Khalistan, an independent Sikh state.

India forcefully denied its involvement in Nijjar’s slaying, which took place in the parking lot of a Sikh temple in Surrey, B.C. But Canadian Sikhs are unconvinced, and the minority who are active proponents of Khalistan are afraid.

“There’s a lot of fear,” said Sentokh Singh, who was among the small group who protested in front of the Indian High Commission in Ottawa this week. “That’s why we are here today.”

Both countries expelled diplomats in a tit-for-tat retaliation after Trudeau’s bombshell announcement last week, but India has gone further, issuing a travel warning and halting visa issuance to Canadians.

Trudeau’s move risks derailing a strategic economic and political shift many Western countries are making toward India to counter China. It also distracted attention from his push to address cost-of-living concerns, which have weighed heavily on his popularity in opinion polls.

Canada is home to about 770,000 Sikhs, the highest population outside the northern Indian state of Punjab, and the Indian government has for decades expressed its displeasure with some community members’ outspoken support for Khalistan.

Sikhs punch above their weight in Canadian politics. They have 15 members in the House of Commons, more than 4% of the seats, mostly from key battlegrounds in national elections, while comprising only about 2% of the Canadian population.

Furthermore, one member is Jagmeet Singh, leader of the opposition New Democrats, a left-leaning party that is supporting the Trudeau’s minority government.

Trudeau’s “unsubstantiated allegations” seek to shift focus away from “Khalistani terrorists and extremists who have been provided shelter in Canada,” India’s foreign ministry said.

Canada says Sikhs have a right to peaceful protest and there has been no evidence of violence, terrorist activity or wrongdoing.

A friend of Nijjar’s, Gurmeet Singh Toor, is an active member of the same temple and a Khalistan supporter. He was told in August by the federal police that his life might be “in peril,” according to a document he was given by police that provided no details about the potential threat.

The RCMP would not corroborate the document, saying it could increase the risk to the individual who received it.

An insurgency seeking a Sikh homeland of Khalistan killed tens of thousands in the 1980s and 1990s and was crushed by India. It has almost no support in Punjab today.

However, on Friday hundreds of Sikh activists staged a demonstration outside the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in Punjab, demanding punishment for the Nijjar’s killers.

Mukhbir Singh, a member of the Ottawa Sikh Society, said Canadian Sikhs’ views on Khalistan vary and everyone should be able to express their own opinion. He said Trudeau is sticking up for Canadian democratic values.

“Prime Minister Trudeau has taken a stance” to make “paramount” the safety of its citizens, he said, even though the Canadian government does not support Khalistan. “In Canada, we have the right to express our opinions even if they don’t align with the opinions of the government.”

Trudeau, the longest serving progressive leader in the G7 group of wealthy nations, is trailing badly in opinion polls. As he rolls out a series of measures to address cost-of-living concerns and tries to claw back support, the tensions with India have interfered with attempts to communicate those new policies, senior officials in Ottawa said.

Suk Dhaliwal, a Sikh Liberal member of parliament for Surrey, told Reuters he is not a Khalistan separatist, but a Canadian, and Canadians have a right to protest peacefully. He said his constituents have suspected since June the involvement of the Indian government in Nijjar’s killing.

“The community feels a bit relieved now that at least there is someone who has shown leadership to bring this message forward,” Dhaliwal said.

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Maldives Opposition Candidate Mohamed Muiz Wins the Presidential Runoff, Local Media Say

Opposition candidate Mohamed Muiz won the Maldives presidential runoff on Saturday, securing more than 53% of the vote, local media reported.

The election had turned into a virtual referendum on which regional power — India or China — will have the biggest influence in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation.

Mihaaru News reported that incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih had received 46% of the vote and that Muiz had won by more than 18,000 votes. Official results were expected Sunday.

“With today’s result we have got the opportunity to build the country’s future. The strength to ensure the freedom of Maldives,” Muiz said in a statement after his victory. “It’s time we put our differences aside and come together. We need to be a peaceful society.”

Muiz also requested that Solih transfer former president Abdulla Yameen to house arrest from prison.

It was a surprise win for Muiz, who entered the fray as an underdog. He was named only as a fallback candidate closer to the nomination deadline after the Supreme Court prevented Yameen from running because he is serving a prison sentence for money laundering and corruption. Yameen’s supporters say he’s been jailed for political reasons.

“Today’s result is a reflection of the patriotism of our people. A call on all our neighbors and bilateral partners to fully respect our independence and sovereignty,” said Mohamed Shareef, a top official of Muiz’s party. He told The Associated Press that it was also a mandate for Muiz to resurrect the economy and for Yameen’s release.

Neither Muiz nor Solih got more than 50% in the first round of voting earlier in September.

Solih, who was elected president in 2018, was battling allegations by Muiz that he had allowed India an unchecked presence in the country. Muiz’s party, the People’s National Congress, is viewed as heavily pro-China.

Solih has insisted that the Indian military’s presence in the Maldives was only to build a dockyard under an agreement between the two governments and that his country’s sovereignty won’t be violated.

Muiz promised that if he won the presidency, he would remove Indian troops from the Maldives and balance the country’s trade relations, which he said were heavily in India’s favor.

Ahmed Shaheed, a former foreign minister of Maldives, termed the election verdict as a public revolt against the government’s failure to meet economic and governance expectations rather than concerns over Indian influence.

“I don’t think India was at all in the people’s minds,” Saheed said.

An engineer, Muiz had served as the housing minister for seven years. He was mayor of Male, the capital, when he was chosen to run for president.

Solih suffered a setback closer to the election when Mohamed Nasheed, a charismatic former president, broke away from his Maldivian Democratic Party and fielded his own candidate in the first round. He decided to remain neutral in the second round.

“Nasheed’s departure took the motherboard away from the MDP,” Shaheed said.

Yameen, leader of the People’s National Congress, made the Maldives a part of China’s Belt and Road initiative during his presidency from 2013-18. The initiative is meant to build railroads, ports and highways to expand trade — and China’s influence — across Asia, Africa and Europe.

Despite the rhetoric, Muiz is unlikely to change the foreign policy of affording an important place to India — rather, opposition to Chinese projects is likely to lessen, evening power balances out, Shaheed said.

The Maldives is made up of 1,200 coral islands in the Indian Ocean located by the main shipping route between the East and the West.

“These five years have been the most peaceful and prosperous five years we’ve ever seen. We have had political peace, opposition candidates are not jailed every day,” said Abdul Muhusin, who said he voted for Solih in the runoff on Saturday.

Another voter, Saeedh Hussein, said he chose Muiz because “I want the Indian military to leave Maldives.”

“I don’t believe the Maldivian military has any control. Only Muiz can change these things and make the Indian military leave Maldives,” he said.

There were more than 282,000 eligible voters and turnout was 78% an hour before the polling stations closed.

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Senegalese Navy Stops Two Migrant Boats Carrying 272 People

The Senegalese Navy said it had intercepted two wooden boats carrying 272 would-be migrants Friday 100 kilometers (60 miles) off the coast of the capital Dakar. 

Seven children and 16 women were among the passengers who were taken back to a navy base in Dakar, it said in an online post Saturday. 

It shared a photo of a brightly painted fishing vessel on the open ocean, overloaded with people with no shelter from the elements. 

Thousands of migrants brave the hundreds of miles of ocean separating Africa from Europe each year in a desperate search for a better life. Summer is the busiest period for crossings. 

At least 559 people died attempting to reach the Canary Islands in 2022, while 126 people died or went missing on the same route in the first six months of this year with 15 shipwrecks recorded, according to the International Organization for Migration. 

In August, only 37 survived after a migrant boat carrying 101 people from Senegal had been adrift in the ocean without fuel for weeks. 

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India’s Monsoon Rains at 5-Year Low Due to El Nino

India’s monsoon rainfall this year was its lowest since 2018 as the El Nino weather pattern made August the driest in more than a century, the state-run weather department said Saturday. 

The monsoon, which is vital for India’s $3 trillion economy, brings nearly 70% of the rain the country needs to water crops and replenish reservoirs and aquifers.  

Nearly half of the farmland in the world’s most populous nation lacks irrigation, making the monsoon rains even more vital for agricultural production. 

The summer rainfall deficit could make staples such as sugar, pulses, rice and vegetables more expensive and lift overall food inflation. 

Lower production could also prompt India, the world’s second-biggest producer of rice, wheat, and sugar, to impose more curbs on exports of these commodities. 

Rainfall over the country during June to September was 94% of its long period average, the lowest since 2018, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) said in a statement. 

The IMD had anticipated a rainfall deficit of 4% for the season, assuming limited impact from El Nino. 

El Nino is a warming of Pacific waters that is typically accompanied by drier conditions over the Indian subcontinent. 

The monsoon was uneven, with June rains 9% below average because of the delay in the arrival of rains, but July rains rebounding to 13% above average.  

August was the driest month on record with a 36% deficit, but again in September rainfall revived and the country received 13% more rainfall than normal, the IMD said.  

The erratic distribution of monsoon rains has led India, the world’s largest rice exporter, to limit rice shipments, impose a 40% duty on onion exports, permit duty-free imports of pulses, and could potentially result in New Delhi banning sugar exports. 

The country is expected to receive normal rainfall from October to December, the weather department said, adding that temperatures were likely to remain above normal in most of the country during October. 

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Report: Surge in Terrorism Kills More Than 700 Pakistanis

Militant attacks have surged in Pakistan, killing more than 700 security forces and civilians in the first nine months of the year, according to a report released Saturday.

The Islamabad-based independent Center for Research and Security Studies, or CRSS, published the report a day after suicide bombings and insurgent raids in southwestern Baluchistan and northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces killed at least 69 people. No group has claimed responsibility for Friday’s deadly violence.

The report noted that the number of fatalities from terrorist attacks this year has increased by 19 percent compared to 2022, with the two Pakistani provinces bordering Afghanistan suffering 92% of all fatalities.

“Pakistan’s security forces lost at least 386 personnel, 36% of all fatalities — including 137 army and 208 police personnel — in the first nine months of 2023, marking an eight-year high,” the CRSS said.

The report said 33 paramilitary forces, supervised by the army, also were among the fatalities.

The military, however, has confirmed the death of 214 of its soldiers and officers so far this year in counterterrorism operations and insurgent attacks, according to data compiled by VOA from official statements by the army’s media wing, Inter-Services Public Relations.

Deadly day

Friday’s attacks marked one of the deadliest days Pakistan has had in recent months. Most of the casualties occurred in Mastung, a volatile Baluchistan district, where a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd of devotees marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.

The powerful blast killed 59 people and injured dozens more. The rest of the deadly violence took place in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, targeting security forces.

The outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, the regional branch of the Islamic State terrorist group, known as the Islamic State-Khorasan, or IS-K, and separatist Baluch insurgents often claim or are blamed for the violence in Pakistan.

TTP claims many attacks

The TTP, a globally designated terrorist group, has primarily claimed recent attacks in Pakistan, targeting soldiers and police personnel. The group operates out of Afghanistan and has intensified attacks since the Taliban reclaimed control of the war-shattered neighboring country two years ago, according to Pakistani officials.

Commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban, the TTP is an offshoot and close ally of the Afghan Taliban. However, de facto Afghan rulers maintain they do not allow anyone to threaten Pakistan or other countries from their soil.

Islamabad has lately stepped-up diplomatic pressure on Kabul to prevent the TTP from staging cross-border terrorist attacks from Afghan sanctuaries.

Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani confirmed that Taliban authorities had arrested 200 TTP militants in Afghanistan for launching attacks against Pakistan. The Afghan side has so far not challenged the claims.

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Canada’s ReconAfrica Violated Namibia’s Laws

A parliamentary investigation in Namibia found that Canadian oil exploration company ReconAfrica violated several of the country’s laws and that its local partner deceived and misled the public about the value of its shareholdings on various international stock exchanges.

Despite the findings, ReconAfrica has been allowed to continue exploring for oil.

Vincent Marenga, a ruling party member of Namibia’s Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources, told VOA that the committee’s investigation found ReconAfrica did not secure the proper permits before it began its oil exploration activities. But he said the violations were minor.

“That is our argument,” Marenga said. “We are not saying that ReconAfrica is an angel that has been doing everything accordingly. They have violated [laws], but it was for permits. They drilled boreholes without permits, and on that one there will definitely be penalties against them.”

Nadia April, one of the petitioners who approached parliament to protest ReconAfrica’s presence in the Okavango Delta — a wilderness area in northeastern Namibia — said their opposition to the presence of Recon was based on the contamination the oil drilling could create, as well as the plight of the indigenous people.

She said the fact that the company was found in violation of the law but still allowed to proceed was a disappointment to her and the group she represents.

“The project started without the proper consultation within the region, and the consultations were done without the indigenous people,” April said. “We were referring to also the U.N. declaration on rights of indigenous people that says there has to be free, prior and informed consent … from indigenous people, so those consultations were not being done.”

Outside of Namibia, ReconAfrica is being sued in a U.S. court for having allegedly misled its shareholders. The Namibian parliamentary committee said it was concerned that ReconAfrica is seeking to raise money using Namibian resources on the basis of a 10% partnership with a local partner, the Namibia Petroleum Corp., or NAMCOR.

Rinaani Musutua, a trustee of the Economic and Social Justice Trust, opposed ReconAfrica’s presence in Namibia on the basis of environmental concerns, such as fracking and water pollution. 

“Some of the activists that are on the ground in the Kavango region have also told us that ReconAfrica has left, and it’s not a surprise to us at all that they have left,” Musutua said. “They have built up quite a bad reputation for themselves. In the end, they started getting sued by investors, first in the Unites States of America and now in Canada, for having given investors misinformation and provided them with information that wasn’t true.”

ReconAfrica’s spokesperson could not be reached despite various attempts by the Voice of America.

The parliament committee that investigated the petitioners’ concerns said the issues in their petitions were not serious enough to warrant the company’s expulsion from the country.

While the protesters want the company to be forced to leave, the parliament committee recommended the company stay but refrain from breaking Namibian laws.

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VOA Immigration Weekly Recap, Sept. 24-30

Editor’s note: Here is a look at immigration-related news around the U.S. this week. Questions? Tips? Comments? Email the VOA immigration team: ImmigrationUnit@voanews.com.

What Happens to Immigration if US Government Shuts Down?

With congressional leaders gridlocked over the nation’s budget and the deadline to pass spending bills fast approaching, the federal government could shut down on October 1. And that could affect some immigration services and visa programs. If the federal government closes, only essential personnel will be working. All other federal workers will not be allowed to work. So how will that affect immigration in the U.S.? VOA’s Immigration reporter Aline Barros.

Why Immigrants Are More Optimistic Than US-Born Americans

Despite any hardships they might face, immigrants in America are more optimistic than U.S.-born Americans, according to a new survey of 3,358 immigrant adults. “They said, ‘You know, I face challenges here in the U.S., but it’s far better than where I came from. And I have this belief that things will be better for my children,’” says Shannon Schumacher, a senior survey analyst at KFF, a nonprofit organization focused on health policy formerly known as the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Whether that’s their education, their safety, their economic opportunities — on a number of measures, they think that they’re better off and their children are better off.” Produced by Dora Mekouar.

After Lull, Asylum-Seekers Adapt to US Immigration Changes

A group of migrants from China surrendered to a Border Patrol agent in remote Southern California as gusts of wind drowned the hum of high-voltage power lines. They joined others from Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia and elsewhere in a desert campsite with shelters made from tree branches. The Associated Press reports.

Second Texas City at ‘Breaking Point’ as Migrants Flood Border, Mayor Says

The surge of migrants crossing the U.S. border from Mexico has pushed the city of El Paso, Texas, to “a breaking point,” with more than 2,000 people per day seeking asylum, exceeding shelter capacity and straining resources, its mayor said Saturday. “The city of El Paso only has so many resources and we have come to … a breaking point right now,” Mayor Oscar Leeser said. Reuters reports.

Eagle Pass, Texas, Sees Continuing Influx of Migrants

The Eagle Pass area in Texas continues to experience an influx of migrants — the majority from Venezuela, the largest displacement in the Western Hemisphere and the second-largest globally, trailing only behind the Syrian refugee crisis, per the U.N. refugee agency. U.S. border authorities said they are managing the situation, but the noticeable rise in migrant arrivals in Eagle Pass has strained local resources and overwhelmed already crowded facilities. VOA’s Immigration reporter Aline Barros.

VOA Day in Photos: Asylum-Seekers Journey through Mexico to Eagle Pass, Texas

Asylum-seekers waiting on the banks of the Rio Bravo River after crossing during their journey through Mexico to Eagle Pass, Texas, in Piedras Negras, Mexico, Sept. 26, 2023.

Immigration around the world

Illegal Migration to Greece Surges, Sparking Measures to Shield Borders

Thousands of migrants have made their way illegally into Greece from Turkey, using rickety rafts to cross the Aegean Sea, the narrow waterway between the two countries. United Nations data in September shows sea arrivals have already more than doubled the roughly 12,000 migrants who were caught trying to illegally enter Greece last year. Illegal entries along the land border and the massive Evros River, which snakes along the rugged frontiers of the two countries in the northeast, also count record increases of more than 65% in the last two months alone, police said. Produced by Anthee Carassava.

Australian Lawmakers Urge Outside Help for Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Refugees

Seven Australian lawmakers have toured a refugee camp in Armenia, as thousands of ethnic Armenians flee their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh. Forces from Azerbaijan took control of the contested region last week. The delegation of Australian lawmakers visited Armenia this week and toured a camp for those fleeing the unrest. Produced by Phil Mercer.

Pakistani Vocational School Helps Afghan Women Refugees Build Businesses

In a small workshop in the bustling northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, a dozen Afghan women sit watching a teacher show them how to make clothes on a sewing machine. Reuters reports.

Charity Urges Court to Force Australia to Repatriate Detainees in Syrian Refugee Camp

Australia’s decision not to repatriate more than 30 women and children from a detention camp in northeast Syria is facing a legal challenge. The women are the wives and widows of Islamic State fighters and have been held in custody for the past four years. Produced by Phil Mercer.

Medics: Hundreds Dead From Dengue Fever in War-Torn Sudan

Outbreaks of dengue fever and acute watery diarrhea have “killed hundreds” in war-torn Sudan, medics reported Monday, warning of “catastrophic spreads” that could overwhelm the country’s decimated health system. In a statement, the Sudanese doctors’ union warned that the health situation in the southeastern state of Gedaref, on the border with Ethiopia, “is deteriorating at a horrific rate,” with thousands infected with dengue fever. Produced by Agence France-Presse.

Violence, Human Rights Violations Risk Future Stability of Syria

United Nations investigators say that human rights violations and abuse in Syria are sowing the seeds for further violence and radicalization, despite diplomatic efforts to stabilize the situation in the country, including through its readmission to the League of Arab States. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

Senior US Officials Travel to Armenia as Karabakh’s Armenians Start to Leave

Senior Biden administration officials arrived Monday in Armenia, a day after ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh began fleeing following Azerbaijan’s defeat of the breakaway region’s fighters in a conflict dating from the Soviet era. Reuters reports.

Spain Turns to Tractors to Tackle Migrant Unemployment, Farm Labor Shortage

Spain’s agricultural sector is threatened by an aging population and a shortage of farm labor. Now a program in Catalonia is training migrants, largely from Africa, to operate tractors to help them gain meaningful employment. Elizabeth Cherneff narrates this report from Alfonso Beato in Barcelona. Videographer and Video Editor: Alfonso Beato.

News brief

— A government shutdown would affect the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s ability to respond to cyberattacks; protect and save lives on land, at sea, and in the air; secure the nation’s borders and critical infrastructure; deploy across the country to help Americans recover from disasters, among others.

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Maldivians Vote in Runoff Presidential Election

Maldivians were voting Saturday in the runoff presidential election which has turned into a virtual referendum on which regional power — India or China — will have the biggest influence in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation.

Neither main opposition candidate Mohamed Muiz nor incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih got more than 50% in the first round of voting earlier in September, triggering a runoff election.

Solih, who was first elected president in 2018, is battling allegations by Muiz that he had allowed India an unchecked presence in the country. Muiz’s party, the People’s National Congress, is viewed as heavily pro-China.

Muiz secured a surprise lead with more than 46% of votes in the first round, while Solih secured 39% votes.

Abdullah Yameen, leader of the People’s National Congress, made the Maldives a part of China’s Belt and Road initiative during his presidency 2013 to 2018. The initiative is meant to build railroads, ports and highways to expand trade — and China’s influence — across Asia, Africa and Europe.

The Maldives is made up of 1,200 coral islands in the Indian Ocean located by the main shipping route between the East and the West.

Muiz promised that if he won the presidency, he would remove Indian troops stationed in the Maldives and balance the country’s trade relations, which he said were heavily in India’s favor.

There are more than 282,000 eligible voters and the runoff result is expected Sunday.

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India Ready to Welcome Back Cricket World Cup After 12 Years

When 2019 finalists England and New Zealand meet again to open the Cricket World Cup next week, it will mark the tournament’s return to India after 12 years.

But preparations for this year’s tournament — in which the home side will start among the favorites and won the event when it was last played in India in 2011 — haven’t gone smoothly.

The event experienced numerous organizational and planning issues which the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the host body, often had difficulties dealing with them.

The 13th edition of the tournament was first scheduled for February-March 2023, but it was delayed to its current Oct. 5-Nov. 19 schedule after the COVID-19 pandemic caused a ripple effect for the hosting of 2021 and 2022 Twenty20 World Cups.

In the meantime, the BCCI delayed formalizing tax agreements with the Indian government — an issue that had plagued the 2011 ODI and the 2016 T20 World Cups, both hosted in India.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) usually receives a tax exemption benefit for its events, but that is in contravention of Indian laws. In March, the BCCI told he ICC that it would cover about $116 million in taxes out of its own pocket in lieu of the tax exemption from the Indian government.

It was, however, only the first of several stumbling blocks.

Most ICC event schedules are announced a year in advance. The BCCI only announced the World Cup scheduling on June 27. A month later, the original scheduling ran into problems when Ahmedabad police said they was unable to provide ample security for the high-profile India-Pakistan match on Oct. 15 because of already-planned festivities in the western India city.

The BCCI had to rework the schedule and a final version was released on Aug. 9 with the big India-Pakistan match now scheduled a day earlier on Oct. 14.

That caused further issues for ticketing and travel arrangements for fans across the world. Even before the final scheduling had been announced, hotel prices and airfares in major host cities shot up to exorbitant rates.

Ticketing has been another major issue in the build-up to this World Cup. After the scheduling was finally announced, tickets first went on sale as late as Aug. 30. Despite the staggered sale of tickets, Indian fans complained, and the BCCI released another 400,000 tickets to the general public on Sept. 6 in the second phase of ticketing.

BCCI secretary Jay Shah defended his group’s actions over the past few months.

“The scale and diversity of India require meticulous planning, coordination, and execution to ensure the tournament’s success and seamless experience for players, fans, and stakeholders,” Shah said in a statement.

With less than a week to go before the opening match, the tempo has gradually built up as fervent cricket loyalists in India — and there are millions— get ready to welcome the 10 teams.

All eyes will be on Rohit Sharma’s India as they look to emulate M.S. Dhoni’s team’s feat of winning the World Cup at home. India hasn’t won an ICC event since the 2013 Champions Trophy, and the 2011 triumph remains its last World Cup trophy.

Defending champion England and record five-time winners Australia, who play India in its first match on Oct. 8 in Chennai, are the other top contenders for the title.

Regional foe Pakistan’s challenge depends on the form and fitness of two players — skipper Babar Azam and pacer Shaheen Afridi. Pacer Naseem Shah has been ruled out of the World Cup due to a right shoulder injury.

Sri Lanka punched above its weight to reach the Asia Cup final. New Zealand — which lost to England in a controversial boundary countback in the 2019 final — South Africa, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and the Netherlands complete the 10-team lineup which will be expanded to 14 teams for the next Cricket World Cup in October-November 2027 co-hosted by South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

The round-robin format sees all 10 teams play each other once in a single group (45 matches). The top four teams advance to the semifinals on Nov. 16 and 17. The final is scheduled for Nov. 19.

In between, Sharma will try not to let the home-crowd hype get to him, although that might be easier said than done.

“For me, it is important how to keep relaxed and not worry about external factors that play a role, whether positively or negatively,” Sharma said. “It is about shutting out everything.”

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Food Prices Rising Due to Climate Change, El Nino, and Russia’s War

How do you cook a meal when a staple ingredient is unaffordable? 

This question is playing out in households around the world as they face shortages of essential foods like rice, cooking oil and onions. That is because countries have imposed restrictions on the food they export to protect their own supplies from the combined effect of the war in Ukraine, El Nino’s threat to food production and increasing damage from climate change. 

For Caroline Kyalo, a 28-year-old who works in a salon in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, it was a question of trying to figure out how to cook for her two children without onions. Restrictions on the export of the vegetable by neighboring Tanzania has led prices to triple. 

Kyalo initially tried to use spring onions instead, but those also got too expensive. As did the prices of other necessities, like cooking oil and corn flour. 

“I just decided to be cooking once a day,” she said. 

Despite the East African country’s fertile lands and large workforce, the high cost of growing and transporting produce and the worst drought in decades led to a drop in local production. Plus, people preferred red onions from Tanzania because they were cheaper and lasted longer. By 2014, Kenya was getting half of its onions from its neighbor, according to a U.N. Food Agriculture Organization report. 

At Nairobi’s major food market, Wakulima, the prices for onions from Tanzania were the highest in seven years, seller Timothy Kinyua said. 

Some traders have adjusted by getting produce from Ethiopia, and others have switched to selling other vegetables, but Kinyua is sticking to onions. 

“It’s something we can’t cook without,” he said. 

Tanzania’s onion limits this year are part of the “contagion” of food restrictions from countries spooked by supply shortages and increased demand for their produce, said Joseph Glauber, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. 

Globally, 41 food export restrictions from 19 countries are in effect, ranging from outright bans to taxes, according to the institute. 

India banned shipments of some rice earlier this year, resulting in a shortfall of roughly a fifth of global exports. Neighboring Myanmar, the world’s fifth-biggest rice supplier, responded by stopping some exports of the grain. 

India also restricted shipments of onions after erratic rainfall — fueled by climate change — damaged crops. This sent prices in neighboring Bangladesh soaring, and authorities are scrambling to find new sources for the vegetable. 

Elsewhere, a drought in Spain took its toll on olive oil production. As European buyers turned to Turkey, olive oil prices soared in the Mediterranean country, prompting authorities there to restrict exports. Morocco, also coping with a drought ahead of its recent deadly earthquake, stopped exporting onions, potatoes and tomatoes in February. 

This isn’t the first time food prices have been in a tumult. Prices for staples like rice and wheat more than doubled in 2007-2008, but the world had ample food stocks it could draw on and was able to replenish those in subsequent years. 

But that cushion has shrunk in the past two years, and climate change means food supplies could very quickly run short of demand and spike prices, said Glauber, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

“I think increased volatility is certainly the new normal,” he said. 

Food prices worldwide, experts say, will be determined by the interplay of three factors: how El Nino plays out and how long it lasts, whether bad weather damages crops and prompts more export restrictions, and the future of Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

The warring nations are both major global suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other food, especially to developing nations where food prices have risen and people are going hungry. 

An El Nino is a natural phenomenon that shifts global weather patterns and can result in extreme weather, ranging from drought to flooding. While scientists believe climate change is making this El Nino stronger, its exact impact on food production is impossible to glean until after it’s occurred. 

The early signs are worrying. 

India experienced its driest August in a century, and Thailand is facing a drought that has sparked fears about the world’s sugar supplies. The two are the largest exporters of sugar after Brazil. 

Less rainfall in India also dashed food exporters’ hopes that the new rice harvest in October would end the trade restrictions and stabilize prices. 

“It doesn’t look like [rice] prices will be coming down anytime soon,” said Aman Julka, director of Wesderby India Private Limited. 

Most at risk are nations that rely heavily on food imports. The Philippines, for instance, imports 14% of its food, according to the World Bank, and storm damage to crops could mean further shortfalls. Rice prices surged 8.7% in August from a year earlier, more than doubling from 4.2% in July. 

Food store owners in the capital of Manila are losing money, with prices increasing rapidly since September 1 and customers who used to snap up supplies in bulk buying smaller quantities. 

“We cannot save money anymore. It is like we just work so that we can have food daily,” said Charina Em, 32, who owns a store in the Trabajo market. 

Cynthia Esguerra, 66, has had to choose between food or medicine for her high cholesterol, gallstones and urinary issues. Even then, she can only buy half a kilo of rice at a time — insufficient for her and her husband. 

“I just don’t worry about my sickness. I leave it up to God. I don’t buy medicines anymore, I just put it there to buy food, our loans,” she said. 

The climate risks aren’t limited to rice but apply to anything that needs stable rainfall to thrive, including livestock, said Elyssa Kaur Ludher, a food security researcher at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. Vegetables, fruit trees and chickens will all face heat stress, raising the risk that food will spoil, she said. 

This constricts food supplies further, and if grain exports from Ukraine aren’t resolved, there will be additional shortages in feed for livestock and fertilizer, Ludher said. 

Russia’s July withdrawal from a wartime agreement that ensured ships could safely transport Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea was a blow to global food security, largely leaving only expensive and divisive routes through Europe for the war-torn country’s exports. 

The conflict also has hurt Ukraine’s agricultural production, with analysts saying farmers aren’t planting nearly as much corn and wheat. 

“This will affect those who already feel food affordability stresses,” Ludher said. 

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Shelters for Migrants Fill Up Across Germany as Attitudes Toward Newcomers Harden

Dozens of people from around the world lined up on a sunny morning this week in front of a former mental health hospital in Berlin to apply for asylum in Germany.

There were two older women from Moldova. A young man from Somalia sat next to them on a bench. A group of five young Pakistanis chatted loudly, standing behind two pregnant women from Vietnam.

The newcomers are among more than 10,000 migrants who have applied for asylum in the German capital this year, and are coming at a time when Berlin is running out of space to accommodate them.

“The situation is not very good at the moment,” Sascha Langenbach, the spokesperson for the state office for refugee affairs in Berlin, said in an interview this week. “This is much more than we expected last year.”

The former mental health hospital in Berlin’s Reinickendorf neighborhood was turned into the city’s registration center for asylum-seekers in 2019 and can house up to 1,000 migrants.

But it’s full.

Officials have put an additional 80 beds in a church on the premises. Beyond that, there are another 100 asylum shelters in Berlin, but those are at capacity too.

Berlin’s state government says it will open a hangar at the former Tempelhof airport to make space for migrants, put up a big tent at the asylum seekers’ registration center, and open a former hardware store and hotels and hostels in the city to provide another 5,500 beds for more migrants the city is expecting will come through the end of the year.

There are also not enough places in kindergartens and schools. In addition to the asylum seekers, Berlin has also taken in another 11,000 Ukrainian refugees this year who fled Russia’s war.

The lack of space and money for migrants and Ukrainian refugees isn’t unique to Berlin. It’s a problem across Germany, where local and state officials have been demanding more funds from the federal government without success.

More than 220,000 people applied for asylum in Germany between January and August — most of them from Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey, Moldova and Georgia. In all of 2022, 240,000 people applied for asylum in Germany.

That’s a far cry from the more than 1 million people who arrived in Germany in 2015-16. But Germany has also taken in more than 1 million Ukrainians since the outbreak of the war in 2022. Unlike others who arrive, Ukrainians immediately receive residency status in Germany and the 26 other European Union countries.

While Germans welcomed asylum seekers with flowers, chocolates and toys when they first arrived in 2015, and many opened their homes to house Ukrainians in 2022, the mood toward new arrivals has profoundly changed since then.

“After two years of the (coronavirus) crisis, then the Ukraine war with its increasing prices for basically everything — heating, gas, also food — it’s sometimes pretty tough to convince people that they have to share places and capacities with people who just arrived,” Langenbach said.

Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, has been successfully exploiting Germans’ hardening attitudes toward migrants. Polling now puts it in second place nationally with around 21%, far above the 10.3% it won during the last federal election in 2021.

AfD’s rise in the polls and the party leaders’ relentless anti-migrant rhetoric, including calls to close Germany’s borders to prevent migrants from entering, have put pressure on the national and state governments and other mainstream parties to toughen their approach toward migrants.

On Wednesday, Germany’s interior minister announced the country would increase border controls along “smuggling routes” with Poland and the Czech Republic to prevent irregular migrants from entering.

In June, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz defended plans to stop migrants from entering the EU altogether until their chances of getting asylum have been reviewed, arguing that the bloc’s existing arrangements on sharing the burden of asylum seekers among the different European countries is “completely dysfunctional.”

Germany has been taking in more migrants than most other European countries, but other countries such as Turkey and Lebanon, which shelter millions of migrants from Syria, have taken in more refugees as a percentage of their population.

Despite the changing sentiment toward migrants in Germany, those who make it and apply for asylum are generally grateful to be here.

Abdullah al-Shweiti, from Homs, Syria, recently arrived in Berlin and was waiting for the results of his medical checkup at the asylum welcome center. He said he was relieved to be “in a safe place.”

The 29-year-old said he had run away from home because his family’s house had been bombed in the war and he didn’t want to fight in the army. He said he’d paid 3,000 euros ($3,180) to smugglers who helped him get from Lebanon to Europe. He took the Balkans route, trekking with other young Syrians north via Bulgaria through forests. They traveled on foot, by taxi and by bus until smugglers dropped them off in the German capital.

Mirbeycan Gurhan, a Kurdish man from Bingol in eastern Turkey, said he’d fled suppression by Turkish authorities. He paid 6,000 euros ($6,360) for smugglers to arrange a flight from Ankara to Belgrade, Serbia, and then a car to Germany.

“I hope I will have a better future here. I hope I can find work,” the 24-year-old said with a shy smile as his uncle, who applied for asylum in Berlin four years ago, stood next to him and translated.

Michael Elias, head of the Tamaja company that runs the asylum registration center in Berlin, said the arrival of migrants from all over the world is simply a reflection of the many crises around the globe, such as climate change and wars, and that Germany needs to be prepared for even more people to arrive.

“Yes, a lot of people are coming here, but look at what’s going on in the world,” Elias said. “We must simply anticipate that we’re not an island of the fortunate here, that things will reach us too.”

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Four More Officials Held After Libya Flooding Disaster 

Libya’s prosecutor general has ordered the arrest of four more officials, bringing to 12 the number held as part of an inquiry into this month’s flood that killed thousands. 

Flooding caused by hurricane-strength Storm Daniel tore through eastern Libya on September 10, leaving at least 3,893 people dead and thousands more missing. 

The seaside city of Derna was the worst hit in the flash flood, which witnesses likened to a tsunami. The water burst through two dams and washed entire neighborhoods into the Mediterranean. 

The four additional suspects, including two members of the Derna municipal council, were arrested for suspected “bad management of the administrative and financial missions which were incumbent upon them,” said a statement issued overnight Thursday into Friday by the prosecutor general’s office in Tripoli, western Libya. 

On Monday, the office ordered the arrest of eight officials, including Derna’s mayor, who was sacked after the flood. 

Libya Prosecutor General Al-Seddik al-Sour belongs to the internationally recognized government in the country’s west. A rival administration in the flood-stricken east is backed by military strongman Khalifa Haftar. 

The eastern government has said it plans to host an international donors conference in Benghazi on October 10 to focus on the reconstruction of flood-ravaged areas, but its failure to involve the Tripoli government has drawn mounting criticism from donors. 

Libya has been wracked by division since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. 

‘Separate’ reconstruction plans 

The United States called on Libyans to set aside their political differences and agree a framework to channel aid to eastern towns. 

“We urge Libyan authorities now to form such unified structures — rather than launching separate efforts — that represent the Libyan people without delay,” U.S. special envoy Richard Norland said in a statement Friday.  

“A proposal to hold a reconstruction conference in Benghazi on October 10 would be much more effective if it were conducted jointly and inclusively,” he said. 

Norland echoed concerns expressed by the United Nations that mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure that foreign aid is spent accountably. 

“Libyans need to be assured public funds are used transparently, accountably, and that assistance goes to those in need,” the U.S. envoy said. 

On Thursday during talks with the European Commission, U.N. envoy Abdoulaye Bathily said he had called for funds to be monitored. 

“I … emphasized the need for a joint assessment of reconstruction needs of storm-affected areas to ensure the utmost accountability in the management of reconstruction resources,” he said. 

On Friday, the eastern authorities said they would begin paying compensation to people affected by the disaster, which a U.N. agency has said uprooted more than 43,000 people. 

People whose homes were destroyed would receive $20,500 in compensation, Faraj Kaeem, the eastern administration’s deputy interior minister, said separately. 

He said those with partially destroyed homes would get about half that amount and those who lost furniture or household appliances would be given one-fifth. 

The eastern administration announced on Wednesday the creation of a fund for the reconstruction of Derna. 

The authorities have yet to specify how the new fund will be financed, but the eastern-based parliament has allocated about $2 billion to reconstruction projects. 

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Appointment of Ambassador Signals China’s Ambition in Afghanistan, Experts Say

Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi attended talks Friday in the Russian city of Kazan, where he praised China for sending a new ambassador to Afghanistan and urged other countries to follow China’s example.

The newly appointed Chinese ambassador to Kabul signals China’s continued interest in Afghanistan, analysts say.

The Taliban’s deputy prime minister, Abdul Salam Hanafi, said the new development “will play an effective role in strengthening the relations between Afghanistan and China.”

During a meeting in Kabul last week, Hanafi and Chinese Ambassador Zhao Xing “exchanged views on enhancing bilateral relations and expanding practical cooperation,” stated the website of the Chinese Embassy in Afghanistan.

China’s ambassador is the first of any country to be appointed in this role since the Taliban takeover in 2021.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the appointment was “the normal rotation of China’s ambassador to Afghanistan” and Chinese policy is “clear and consistent.”

However, experts say the move signals China’s expanding influence in Afghanistan and the region.

By sending an ambassador to Afghanistan, China aims to “maintain and expand its influence” in the region, said Claire Chao, an analyst at The Asia Group. “China sees its long-term security and economic goals in Afghanistan hinge on security and stability in Afghanistan.”

Chao told VOA that China “knows that it needs to take a more active role to secure its interests,” though Beijing “will be careful about its economic involvement and security commitment in Afghanistan.”

China is one of the few countries that handed over the Afghan Embassy on its soil to the Taliban after the former government in Afghanistan collapsed in 2021.

China also kept open its embassy in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, but it has not yet recognized the group’s de facto government. No country has formally recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

China-Taliban relations

Officially, Beijing says it “hopes” that the Taliban will form an inclusive government, while it has called on the international community and regional countries for “coordination on the Afghan issue.”

A Chinese ambassador in Afghanistan “should not be seen as an immediate formal recognition of the Taliban government by China but rather indicates China’s intent to sustain diplomatic ties with the Taliban,” Chao said.

Considering it “a step towards recognition,” Afghan political analyst Haidar Adal, told VOA that the appointment at the ambassadorial level will not only help China expand its influence but also “boost” the Taliban’s position.

“It increases their [the Taliban’s] self-confidence, and they can now claim that ‘our relations have developed up to the level of ambassadors.’ They can say that their diplomacy is working.”

Human rights concerns

Adal added this “will make it more difficult for the international community to put pressure on the Taliban to respect the human rights, particularly women’s rights, in Afghanistan.”

“And those who suffer would be the people of Afghanistan, particularly,” he said.

The international community has called on the Taliban to honor their commitment to respecting women’s fundamental rights in Afghanistan before any talks about the recognition of their regime in Afghanistan.

Since coming to power in August 2021, the Taliban have imposed repressive measures on the women in the country. Women under the Taliban are not allowed to work, get secondary and university education or travel long distances without a close male relative.

Palwasha Hassan, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, told VOA that China’s move is concerning, but “does not surprise” her as “China’s priorities are not the human rights condition but security and economic considerations.”

“For China, security is more important. It wants the Taliban to curb militants who could cause problems in China,” said Hassan. “The economy is important too for China. These are the important issues, not human rights.” 

China is concerned about the presence in China of Uyghur separatists “who are trying to fight for the independence of Xinjiang in China,” said Barnett Rubin, a former State Department official.

He added that Beijing engaged with the Taliban to “pressure them to hand [Uyghur militants] over to China,” but the Taliban “have moved them away from the Chinese border.”

Rubin told VOA that the Taliban have also kept their ties with other extremist organizations, including Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which is accused of several deadly attacks on Chinese interests in Pakistan.

The Taliban, however, have said they will not allow any militant groups to use Afghanistan’s soil against any country.

Chinese investments

Although China prioritizes security, it agreed in May to expand the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan, a $60 billion connectivity project that is part of China’s globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative.

Some Chinese companies have recently shown interest in investing in Afghanistan.

In July, officials of Fan China Afghan Mining Processing and Trading Company announced an investment of $350 million in various sectors.

Earlier in January, the Taliban signed a contract with Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Company to extract oil in the north of the country by investing $150 million annually.

A Chinese company, Metallurgical Corporation of China, which signed a contract with the then-Afghan government in 2008 to extract copper from the Mes Aynak mine in the Logar province, has met with Taliban officials in recent months on how to start the extraction of the mine.

But the work has not yet started.

Rubin said although the Taliban hope China will invest in larger projects, the conditions “for a huge investment simply do not exist in Afghanistan.”

“The expectation that they [China] would come in with big projects and do a lot, I think was much exaggerated,” Rubin said.

This story originated in VOA’s Afghan Service.

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Suicide Bomber Hits Tea Shop in Mogadishu, Killing 5

A suicide bomber wearing an explosives vest hit a busy tea shop in Mogadishu on Friday, killing at least five people, a police spokesman told VOA.

Witnesses said the bomber targeted the tea shop inside an internally displaced persons camp, known as Dervish, in Mogadishu’s Wardhigley district, which is close to the premises of the country’s parliament.

“We were just in our daily routine. We were having tea and talking about sports when a man wearing an explosive vest rushed into the tea shop, shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ [God is great], then he blew himself up,” Mohamed Sheikh Abdi, an eyewitness who survived the attack, told VOA.

According to residents familiar with the area, the tea shop is frequented by some government soldiers and civil servants.

In an interview with VOA, Sadiq Adan Ali Dodishe, spokesperson for the Somali police, said civilians were the target of the attack and that no government soldier or staff was harmed.

“An al-Shabab suicide bomber targeted civilians chatting and enjoying at a tea shop, killing five people and six others wounded,” he said. “It is not new to us; it is something the militants have been doing for years.”

Friday’s attack came a day after militants killed at least six people and wounded more than 15 in a car bombing in Somalia’s central Hirshabelle state.

The perpetrator targeted a busy meat market in Bulobarde town, 220 kilometers north of Mogadishu.

In a separate incident on Thursday, security forces prevented double suicide car bomb attacks targeting Dhusamareb, a town 280 kilometers to the north, killing the drivers of two vehicles loaded with explosives, officials said.

Days before, an explosives-laden vehicle detonated at a security checkpoint in the central Somalia city of Beledweyne, killing at least 18.

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Nigerian Journalist Keeps Eye on Wagner Group Presence in Africa

For years, Nigerian journalist Philip Obaji Jr. has investigated the actions of Russian mercenary group Wagner in Africa. It’s a beat that comes with challenges. VOA’s Cristina Caicedo Smit reports.

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US Company Pays Hundreds of Millions After Alleged Bribery in Asia   

American chemical manufacturer Albemarle Corporation has agreed to pay more than $218 million to settle allegations of bribing officials at state oil refineries in three Asian countries, the U.S. Justice Department announced Friday.

The North Carolina company admitted to using “third-party sales agents” and foreign employees to bribe officials to win contracts with state refineries in India, Indonesia and Vietnam, the department said.

The department said Albemarle received nearly $100 million in profits from the corrupt scheme.

Under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the United States, it is illegal to bribe any foreign official in exchange for obtaining or retaining business. The FCPA is the main tool enforcement agencies use to police foreign bribery.

Both the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, the financial oversight body, were investigating the company for FCPA violations in connection with the bribery scheme.

“Corruption has no borders, but neither does justice,” Dena J. King, U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, said in a statement. “Companies are expected to adhere to the same ethical and legal standards whether they are doing business on U.S. soil or overseas.”

The Justice Department said it entered into a three-year nonprosecution agreement with Albemarle after the company voluntarily disclosed the alleged bribery to U.S. prosecutors.

Under a nonprosecution agreement, the Justice Department agrees not to prosecute a company in exchange for cooperation, payment of a fine and compliance with other requirements.

A spokesperson for Albemarle did not immediately return a request for comment.

According to the company’s admissions in connection with the settlement, the alleged bribery took place between 2009 and 2017, the Justice Department said.

In India, Albemarle used a third-party intermediary to do business with the country’s state-owned oil company by avoiding a blacklisting.

In Indonesia, the company enlisted another intermediary to do business with the state refinery even after being told Indonesian officials would have to be paid bribes.

And in Vietnam, Albemarle obtained contracts at two state-owned oil refineries through an intermediary sales agent, who requested increased commissions to pay bribes to officials.

As part of the nonprosecution agreement with the Justice Department, Albemarle agreed to pay a penalty of about $98 million and administrative forfeiture of about $99 million.  The Justice Department said it would credit about $82 million of the forfeiture to the SEC.

King said the agreement with Albemarle “underscores our commitment to fight corruption affecting the United States no matter where it occurs.”

Under the Biden administration, the Justice Department has prioritized fighting corporate corruption, announcing several major changes to beef up enforcement policies and practices.

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Somalia Arrests Suspected Al-Shabab Arms Dealer

Somali security forces on Friday arrested a man believed to be one of the country’s main illegal arms dealers suspected of supplying weapons to al-Shabab militants.

Zakariya Kamal, who is accused by Somali authorities of conspiracy to provide weapons, material support or resources to al-Shabab, a designated terrorist organization, was arrested in the early morning hours by Somalia’s National Intelligence Agency, or NISA.

An NISA statement said Kamal was preparing to go into hiding when he was intercepted by security forces.

“This notorious arms dealer, Kamal, was arrested as he was preparing to disappear and seek out the elusive hideouts of the al-Shabab within Somalia,” the statement said.

The 28-year-old Somali has been under surveillance since May, the statement said, shortly after the agency seized two illicit shipments of military hardware and explosive materials “that were apparently bound for the al-Shabab militant group.”

NISA said Kamal was the mastermind of the arms dealers’ network that arranged, procured and imported shipments from abroad. The military equipment was confiscated in multiple seizures at Mogadishu’s Aden Ade International Airport and the seaport.

According to NISA, an investigation relating to the illicit shipments led to the arrest of 10 individuals associated with a smuggling network. NISA did not provide further details on components of the seized shipments, where they were from or the identities of those involved.

It is also not clear if Kamal was a member of al-Shabab or if he only had a business relationship with the group, trafficking in illegal arms.

Arms embargo

The United Nations Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Somalia in 1992 because of civil war and factional violence.

The country has an unguarded coastline that’s more than 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) in length and open borders.

Following the establishment of a functioning transitional government in 2012, successive administrations have been working to rebuild stability, good governance and other benchmarks to help ease the country’s arms embargo.

In 2013, the U.N. Security Council unanimously voted to partially lift its ban on selling arms to Somalia for a year.

The resolution allowed Somalia’s government to buy small arms to help its security forces develop and fight Islamist militants but kept restrictions on heavy weapons.

The remaining sanctions, which require requests for certain weapons to be approved, are renewed annually, despite government objections that al-Shabab still poses a serious threat to peace and stability in the region and that sanctions are needed to degrade its activities.

The government’s stance is backed by Ethiopia and Uganda, both of which have suffered al-Shabab attacks.

The government of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has for months been engaged in an offensive against al-Shabab, including efforts to shut down its financial network and a campaign to counter the group’s ideology. Mohamud has urged the U.N. Security Council to lift the arms embargo, saying it no longer serves its purpose.

Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly last Saturday, Somali Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre also reiterated calls for the removal of the arms embargo, saying that Somalia had the necessary systems and competence to control the possession, use and storage of firearms.

“Lifting this embargo would allow us to combat terrorism even more effectively and build a peaceful and prosperous future in Somalia,” he said.

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Gabonese Press for Change as Military Junta Asks for Patience

September 30 marks exactly 30 days since Gabon’s military seized power and ended the nearly 60-year rule of the Bongo family. But the military junta is dealing with daily protests from disgruntled trade unions, workers and students who are now demanding better living conditions in the oil-producing West African country.

Gabon’s state TV on Friday reported people living with HIV or AIDS protesting at the Center for HIV/AIDS Treatment in the capital, Libreville, this week.

Alain Oyono, a spokesperson for the demonstrators, said patients are suffering from a drastic shortage of antiretroviral drugs and that people living with AIDS no longer receive regular funding from Gabon’s government.  Oyono also said people living with AIDS in Gabon want an end to the stigma and maltreatment they have been going through for several years, and that Gabon should pay attention to their plight because living with AIDS is not a death sentence.

Magistrates also protested this week, demanding an increase in pay.

Germain Nguema Ella, the president of the magistrates’ union, said military ruler General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema met with the striking magistrates this week.

Ella said that after an hour of negotiations, Nguema made commitments to improve the working conditions of magistrates within the shortest possible period of time, and Nguema asked them to exhibit patriotism by calling off the protest immediately.

Meanwhile, teachers, students, nurses and laboratory technicians, civil servants and hundreds of workers in Nkok, a special economic zone in Gabon, have also been protesting low pay and poor working conditions.

Several hundred youths this week stormed the presidential palace in Libreville asking to be recruited into the civil service. The military junta said in a statement that it is not planning to recruit for now.

Gabon’s military junta says their first 30 days in power have not been easy, but that the protests indicate how disgruntled civilians were under the rule of ousted president Ali Bongo, who led Gabon for the past 14 years, and his father Omar, who ruled for over 40 years before his death in 2009.

Since seizing power on August 30, the military junta has tried to convince civilians, the international community, the opposition and rights groups that the coup saved Gabon from a civil war.

It says the opposition was ready to take arms after ousted president Bongo falsely declared himself winner of the August 26 presidential election.

Prime Minister Raymond Ndong Sima said local businesses are asking military leaders to pay an internal debt of about $5 billion.

Sima said he is “pleading with Gabon citizens to be of good faith and stop exerting unnecessary pressure on the government.” He said civilians have a right to express their needs, but the military junta has limited resources. He says the next 24 months will be very delicate as the government will intensify its drive to recover ill-gotten wealth and attend to Gabon’s development needs.

The junta recently announced creation of a transitional constitutional council and the appointment of civilians to lead the nine provinces that make up Gabon. General Nguema also appointed a civilian as prime minister and new members of the National Assembly and Senate.

Gabon’s military junta says it needs time to restore stability and ensure sustainable economic development. So far, it has not said how long the process will take.

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