Poland Expects to Sign Patriot Missile Deal With US Firm

Poland’s defense minster said Friday that he expected to sign a multibillion-dollar deal with U.S. firm Raytheon to buy eight Patriot missile defense systems this year.

Antoni Macierewicz told reporters in Warsaw that the $7.6 billion deal was necessary in light of what he called “a growing threat from the East.” Poland has increased efforts to modernize its military since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine three years ago.

“Those systems allow us to guarantee the security of the Polish state,” Macierewicz said.

Deputy Defense Minister Bartosz Kownacki said the missile system would help protect against Russian missiles based in Kaliningrad, an enclave of Russian territory between Poland’s northeastern border and Lithuania.

Raytheon also expressed satisfaction that the deal was moving forward. Congress must approve any contract for the sale of advanced U.S. military technology.

Macierewicz said the Polish government and Raytheon “concluded a very important stage of our discussions on the acquisition of medium-range missile systems to ensure Poland’s security.” He said that some issues were still outstanding, but that the deal could be signed by the end of 2017 if all conditions were agreed upon.

The defense minister acknowledged the talks were sometimes difficult and said Raytheon’s earlier price estimate for the missile systems, $12.7 billion, was “unacceptable.”

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Tibet Supporters Converge on Capitol Hill to Lobby Congress

More than 130 people from 23 states converged on Capitol Hill to lobby for Tibet the week before Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida on April 6.

Although the leaders’ meeting is expected to focus on trade and the need for China to do more to rein in the nuclear and missile programs of its neighbor and ally North Korea, Tibet remains a contentious issue between the two nations. 

“Congress has shown a strong interest in Tibet since the 1980s, passing dozens of laws and resolutions related to Tibet, speaking out about conditions in Tibet, and welcoming visits by the Dalai Lama,” according to a 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service. “Such actions have long been a source of friction in the U.S.-China relationship. China charges that they amount to support for challenges to Chinese rule in Tibet.”

Bhuchung Tsering of the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, which organized Tibet Lobby Day, said, “Looking at the meeting of President Xi of China and President Trump, we want to send a message to President Trump, through Congress and to Trump directly, that there is traditional bipartisan support for dialog with China on Tibet,” he said, adding “Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson says he is committed to promoting dialogue on Tibet and receiving the Dalai Lama.”

Tibet Lobby Day was held simultaneously in Washington, Brussels and Canberra, Australia, March 27-29.

“U.S. policy has not changed,” Anna Richey-Allen, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s East Asia and Pacific Bureau, said Friday, adding that the U.S. recognizes the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan autonomous prefectures to be a part of the People’s Republic of China.

“We remain deeply concerned about human rights abuses and restrictions, including those imposed on religious freedom, in the TAR and elsewhere in China,” she said. “We remain committed to supporting meaningful autonomy for Tibetans and the preservation of their unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions. 

“The United States encourages the People’s Republic of China to engage with the Dalai Lama and his representative without preconditions.”

Ngawang Norbu of Boston, Massachusetts, was one of the Tibetan-Americans and Tibet supporters who spoke with more than 250 members of Congress and their staffs during Tibet Lobby Day.

The activists asked them to continue funding Tibet programs and to promote efforts to gain access to Tibetan areas for U.S. officials, citizens and journalists. They also want the Trump administration to implement the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 (TPA), which has the stated purpose of supporting “the aspirations of the Tibetan people to safeguard their distinct identity.”

“The important thing today is that there’s a new administration in America and, along with that, the exile Tibetan administration in India has declared 2017 to be a year of action for Tibet, and so that’s why I’m here,” Norbu told VOA on Wednesday. “It’s our responsibility and obligation to lobby for Tibet, and whether our requests are responded to or not is, of course, up to the leadership here, but in our mind we think our objectives and efforts will bear fruit.”

Bhuchung expects to see the reintroduction of the proposed Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act by Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts; Representative Randy Hultgren, a Republican from Illinois; Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican; and Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat.

North Carolinian Marah Litchford, who has expressed concern about religious freedom in Tibet, participated in the Washington movement. “They listen,” she said. “You just have to talk loudly.”

Nike Ching and Steven Herman contributed to this report, which originated with reporting by Dondhon Namling of the VOA Tibetan service.

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Extra Portion of SpaceX Rocket Recovered from Launch, Musk Says

Elon Musk’s SpaceX on Thursday salvaged half of the $6 million nosecone of its rocket, in what the space entrepreneur deemed an important feat in the drive to recover more of its launch hardware and cut the cost of space flights.

Shortly after the main section of SpaceX’s first recycled Falcon 9 booster landed itself on a platform in the ocean, half of the rocket’s nosecone, which protected a communications satellite during launch, splashed down via parachute nearby.

“That was the cherry on the cake,” Musk, who serves as chief executive and lead designer of Space Exploration Technologies, told reporters after launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Measuring 43 feet (13 meters) long and 17 feet (5 meters) in diameter, the nosecone is big enough to hold a school bus. It separates into two pieces, exposing the satellite, about 4 minutes after liftoff.


As a test, SpaceX outfitted the fairing with thrusters and a steerable parachute.

“It’s its own little spacecraft,” Musk said. “The thrusters maintain its orientation as it re-enters and then … the parachute steers it to a particular location.”

SpaceX has focused most of its efforts and more than $1 billion into developing technologies to recover the Falcon 9’s main section, which accounts for about 75 percent of the $62 million rocket. Musk’s goal is to cut the cost of spaceflight so that humanity can migrate beyond Earth.

“I hope people will start to think about it as a real goal to establish a civilization on Mars,” he said.

Landing on ‘bouncy castle’

After some debate about whether the nosecone could be recovered, Musk said he told his engineering team, “Imagine you had $6 million in cash on a pallet flying through the air that’s just going to smash into the ocean. Would you try to recover that? Yes, you would.”

Musk envisions deploying a kind of “bouncy castle” for the fairing to land on so it can be recovered intact and reused.

The company plans up to six more flights of recycled boosters this year, including two that will strapped alongside a third, new first stage for the debut test flight of a heavy-lift rocket.

Originally slated to fly in 2013, Falcon Heavy is now expected to fly late this summer.

“At first it sounded easy: We’ll just take two first stages and use them as strap-on boosters,” Musk said. “It was actually shockingly difficult to go from single core to a triple-core vehicle.”

SpaceX also may try to land the rocket’s upper-stage section, a feat the company has never attempted. “Odds of success low, but maybe worth a shot,” Musk wrote Friday on Twitter.

Privately owned SpaceX also is developing a commercial space taxi to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, a venture to send two space tourists on a trip around the moon and a Mars lander that is slated to launch in 2020.

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Cholera Spreads in Famine-threatened Somalia

Deadly cholera is spreading through drought-ravaged Somalia as clean water sources dry up, a top aid official said, deepening a humanitarian crisis in a country that is on the verge of famine.

The Horn of Africa nation has recorded more than 18,000 cases of cholera so far this year, up from around 15,000 in all of 2016 and 5,000 in a normal year, Johan Heffinck, the Somalia head of EU Humanitarian Aid, said in an email on Thursday.

The current strain of the disease is unusually deadly, killing around 1 in 45 patients.

Somalia is suffering from a severe drought that means more than half of its 12 million citizens are expected to need aid by July. Families have been forced to drink slimy, infected water after the rains failed and wells and rivers dried up.

“We are very close to famine,” Heffinck said.

The Security Information Network (FSIN), which is co-sponsored by the United Nations food agency, said in a report on Friday Somalia was one of four African countries at high risk of famine.

Somalia’s rainy season normally runs from March to May, but there has been no rain this month.

The drought has hit particularly hard in the breakaway northern region of Somaliland, where the rains began to fail in 2015, killing off animals that nomadic families rely on to survive.

‘This is the last bottle’

Listless, skinny children last week lay in crowded wards in the main hospital in the regional capital Hargeisa.

Three-year-old Nimaan Hassid had diarrhea for 20 days before his mother brought him to hospital. He weighs only 6.5 kilograms, less than half the normal weight for his age.

Doctors say he is suffering from severe malnutrition but his grandmother, 60-year-old Fadumo Hussein, told Reuters the family has no money for food or clean water.

“We don’t have mineral water to give to the sick child. This is the last bottle,” she said, carefully pouring it into a feeding tube inserted through his nose.

In the malnutrition ward in the general hospital of Somaliland’s second city Burao, Doctor Hamud Ahmed said children were also being hit hard by diseases like tuberculosis, meningitis and measles.

Children’s admissions reached almost 60 in March, up fourfold from October.

“This is due to the drought,” Ahmed said. “When families lose all their livestock and children do not get milk, this is the famine that causes the children to suffer.”

If the rains fail, the country could tip into famine.

Somalia’s last famine, in 2011, killed more than 260,000 people. Heffinck said aid agencies were working overtime to try to prevent a similar disaster, trucking in clean water and stepping up the distribution of food and cash.

“The big difference this time is that we have started the preparation and scaling up of the relief operations earlier,” he said.

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Rebels Vow to Stop South Sudan Oil Production

The main rebel group in South Sudan is threatening to disrupt oil production in the country, a day after it released three foreign oil workers it kidnapped earlier in the month.

An official of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM IO) said the government is using oil revenue to purchase weapons and kill civilians.

“People in South Sudan are not receiving their money (from oil revenue). This money is going to their pocket (of government officials) and for buying arms for killing our people. If we have chance to stop the oil production, we will do it,” said Dak Duop Bichok, the head of the SPLM IO’s committee for energy and mining

Oil workers released

Duop confirmed the rebel group has released three foreign oil workers it abducted in the Adar fields of oil-rich Upper Nile State earlier in March.

VOA’s South Sudan In Focus obtained a letter dated March 28 ordering the release of two Indians, Muthu Vijaya Boopathy and Ayaz Hussein Jamali, who work with a Chinese-led consortium, and Ambrose Edward, a Pakistani employed by a South Sudanese company.

Duop said the three were released after officials from their countries spoke with rebel leader Riek Machar.  He said the freed oil workers were flown to Khartoum via Addis Ababa on Thursday and taken to their countries’ embassies in Khartoum.

Ransom demand denied

South Sudan’s Information Minister Michael Makuei said early this month the government received reports that rebel forces were demanding a $1 million ransom for the oil workers. He said South Sudan’s Transitional Government of National Unity does not deal with what he called terrorists.

Duop denied his group demanded ransom for the oil engineers.  “We didn’t demand anything, we released them without any deal,” he told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus.

Duop said the SPLM IO is not a terrorist group, but fights for the rights of South Sudanese.

Repeated warnings

At the same time, he said the SPLM IO has given repeated warnings to national and international oil companies to abandon the oil fields.

“You please, evacuate the place. The government is producing oil, and is getting money and is buying (arms),” he said.

South Sudan’s Minister for Petroleum, Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth said early this month that his government has learned a lesson and will increase measures to protect oil workers in the area.

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Father of UN Expert Killed in Congo Wants Son’s Work to Continue

For the last five years, Michael J. Sharp lived in one of the most dangerous countries in Africa, trying to broker peace between armed groups.

“He was following his passion and mission to make peace in the world — a very broken and violent world,” his father, John Sharp, told VOA in an interview late Thursday.

That mission ended when Sharp, Swedish colleague Zahida Catalan and their interpreter, Betu Tshintela, were killed after being abducted in Kasai Central province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo earlier this month. Their bodies were found March 28 in a shallow grave next to the Moyo River.

The fate of a Congolese driver, Isaac Kabuayi, and two motorcycle drivers who were also kidnapped remains unknown.

Sharp, also known as MJ, and Catalan were working as experts for the United Nations, investigating funding and weapons sources for militia groups in the DRC. Their goal was to determine whether U.N. Security Council sanctions against the groups are effective, and if they stop militias and members of the Congolese military from running illegal mines for profit.

Now, John Sharp said, “We are waiting for the Congolese government to give their permission to ship the body back to the U.S.” Michael Sharp’s body was found intact; Catalan’s was decapitated.

The father believes his son’s work to promote lasting stability in the troubled province should continue. “Let’s let Zahida’s and MJ’s work continue in other hands. There’s much more work to be done. Peace has not yet been negotiated,” he said.

Passionate pacifist

A devout member of the Mennonite church — a branch of Christianity that emphasizes pacifism — Michael Sharp first went to the DRC as a volunteer with the Mennonite Central Committee, doing humanitarian work.

He spoke Spanish, German and French, and was learning Swahili. “He developed his passion for peacebuilding and peacemaking in a violent world from his family, his theology, his church because Mennonites have a theology of peacebuilding and nonviolence and he seemed to take that on,” his father said.

Sharp collaborated with the Congolese Protestant Council of Churches, which was working to persuade rebel fighters to abandon violence and give up arms. His efforts were bearing fruit, with about 1,600 fighters in January 2015 laying down arms.

His father said Michael Sharp was willing to expose himself to risks in order to understand the causes of conflict, and he strived to build relationships with those involved.

“He was most passionate about something he initiated, I believe, and that is working to build relationships with militia group leaders, so he would travel unarmed through the forest and sit down and talk with them,” his father said.

Sharp also earned the admiration of prominent DRC expert Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group and senior fellow at New York University.

The DRC is home to dozens of small militia and rebel groups who hide out in its jungles and make a living mining the country’s abundant natural resources, including copper, gold and diamonds.

One of the most prominent is the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), led by Rwandan Hutus fighting against what they say is a Tutsi influence in the region. 

In a blog post this week, Stearns said the FDLR is “one of the most brutal and reclusive armed groups in the region.” However, that didn’t deter Sharp from entering into their territory unarmed, learning about their families, listening to their pleas and “trying to gain their trust and to project empathy. Not an easy feat for a committed pacifist,” Stearns wrote.

Stearns said he has always been skeptical of foreigners coming in the country, but Sharp showed him that it is possible to do genuine work on behalf of the Congolese people.

“I am always wary of researchers and activists who come to the Congo for adventure and self-legitimation rather than out of solidarity with the local population,” he wrote. “But Michael was no such thing — he was self-effacing, devoted, and empathetic.”

Last mission

Sharp and his colleagues went to Kasai Central in early March to investigate widespread human rights abuses near the remote village of Bunkonde, south of the provincial capital, Kananga. Violence driven by political and tribal rivalries has killed hundreds in the province since last August, and several mass graves have been found.

The U.N. team disappeared March 12. The next day, the DRC government said that Sharp and Catalan had “fallen into the hands of unidentified negative forces.”

Quickly, the U.N. mission in Congo, MONUSCO, began a search-and-rescue effort that ended Wednesday with the discovery of the bodies.

The eastern DRC has been plagued with violence since the mid-1990s, with millions killed and more than 2 million displaced in what is sometimes called Africa’s World War. Much of the country remains beyond the reach of the central government and is controlled by militia groups.

Sharp’s father wants to see Congo’s perpetual conflict brought to an end, and thinks the loss of his son could trigger more attention to the cause of the conflict.

He urged the U.N. not to give up on its mission, and said more experts are needed to monitor sanctions and bring justice to the area. 

“As my son said, nothing is acceptable until there is true peace and complete peace,” John Sharp said. “Congolese people deserve peace, they deserve to live in harmony with their neighbors and we should make all efforts possible to make that happen and to stop believing in the myth of redemptive violence.”

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Zimbabwe Helps Drought-stricken Farmers Grow More Maize

In Zimbabwe, a tractor loaded with tobacco arrives at an auction floor in Harare driven by farmers from Hurungwe area, about 300 kilometers north of the capital. One of them is Felix Tarutsvira.

“I prefer [to sell] tobacco because when we compare prices, maize [corn] prices are lower than tobacco’s,” Tarutsvira said. “So as farmers want money quickly, they tend to grow tobacco.”

But maize remains the country’s staple crop and, in an effort to recover from drought-induced food shortages, the government is encouraging farmers to grow more of it.

One strategy has been pegging the buying price of maize at $390 per ton, among the highest prices in the world. But the government rarely pays farmers in a timely manner, said Paul Zacharia, executive director of the Zimbabwe Farmers Union.

“By default many, many farmers would be producing maize,” he said. “But if … tobacco gives you three-four times over what maize is giving you, go for that which gives you money. Out of the proceeds of that high-value crop you buy grain, feed your family.” 

Zacharia points out Zimbabwe could use the profit from tobacco crops to import maize that is more affordable.

“Even as a nation, we could put high-value crops in our fields, make the money that you require, import the grain. It [is] much, much cheaper than the current $390 that we buy it locally,” he said.

However, that approach can leave the country vulnerable in times of crisis.

The El-Nino-induced drought in 2015 and 2016 left Zimbabwe with serious food shortages. The government could not afford to import grain on short notice and ended up relying on aid agencies. An estimated four million Zimbabweans currently rely on food handouts from international organizations until this year’s harvest starts in April, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. 

Ahead of the 2016-2017 planting season, the government launched the “Targeted Command Agriculture” policy. The goal is ensuring food self-sufficiency. The government gave participating farmers maize seeds and supplies.

In return, the farmers will give the government five tons of maize per hectare at harvest time. The farmers keep the rest of the yield for themselves.

So far, the rains have been good this year, and Zimbabwe’s minister of agriculture, Joseph Made, said that, thanks to the initiative, the country is on track to harvest enough maize for local consumption — as much as two million tons.

Bishow Parajuli, the U.N. resident coordinator in Zimbabwe, says recovery is under way.

“[In] Zimbabwe, we were facing lots of challenges when the drought came in,” said Parajuli. “But the proactiveness of the government and the strong partnership we did have addressed all issues of famine and hunger. Of course, there is food insecurity, malnutrition issues, and that is what we are working on at the moment.”

Next month, the Zimbabwe Agricultural Society will gather to figure out other incentives for farmers to plant maize crops in the hopes of easing the country’s perennial food shortages.

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Report: Two Democrats Will Vote to Confirm Supreme Court Nominee

Two Democrats facing tough re-elections in GOP states said Thursday they will vote for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, even as the Senate Democratic leader strongly warned Republicans against changing Senate rules to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch.


Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York had tough words for his Republican counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in an interview with The Associated Press.


“He’s bound and determined to change the rules and trample on Senate tradition” in order to get a conservative justice approved, Schumer said of McConnell. “Let the public judge whether that is a good thing.”


Schumer spoke shortly after Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota became the first Democrats to announce their support for Gorsuch, a Denver-based appellate judge. They join all 52 Senate Republicans, who argue Gorsuch is impeccably qualified to join the high court and accuse Democrats, and Schumer in particular, of playing politics by opposing him.

The Senate confirmation vote is expected late next week. Unless 60 senators support Gorsuch, which would require six more Democrats to join Heitkamp and Manchin, Republicans would have to unilaterally change Senate rules to allow Gorsuch to be confirmed with a simple majority vote in the 100-member Senate.


That scenario is looking increasingly inevitable, even though it is known on Capitol Hill as the “nuclear option” because it would amount to a dramatic departure from Senate norms of bipartisanship and collegiality. Although McConnell has yet to formally announce plans to take the step, Republican senators fully expect it and are prepared if regretful.


Schumer conducted back-to-back interviews with several major news outlets Thursday to argue that it will be the fault of Republicans, not Democrats, if the rules change happens.


“Senate Republicans are acting like if Gorsuch doesn’t get 60 votes they have no choice but to change the rules,” Schumer said. “That is bunk.” He claimed that Trump should produce a more mainstream nominee, instead.


As for Manchin and Heitkamp, Schumer said: “I’ve made my arguments to every member, including them, and each member is going to make his or her own decision.”

In all, 34 Democrats and counting have said they will oppose Gorsuch.

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Indonesia Arrests Islamic Activists Before Jakarta Protest

Indonesian police arrested the leader of a hard-line Muslim group and several other activists for suspected treason ahead of a blasphemy protest in the capital Jakarta Friday.


Jakarta police spokesman Argo Yuwono said Muhammad Al Khathath, leader of the Muslim Peoples Forum umbrella group, was suspected of involvement in a conspiracy to commit treason and was arrested at a hotel early Friday.


The forum, which includes the Islamic Defenders Front vigilante group, has been behind a series of huge protests against the minority Christian governor of Jakarta, who is on trial for allegedly blaspheming the Quran.

The blasphemy case and the ease with which hard-liners attracted several hundred thousand to protest against Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama have undermined Indonesia’s reputation for practicing a moderate form of Islam and shaken the secular government as well as mainstream Muslim groups.

Yuwono said four other Islamic activists were also arrested early Friday. Local media said one of those men was the deputy coordinator for Friday’s protest.

Ahok will compete in a run-off election for governor next week against a former Cabinet minister backed by conservative Muslim clerics.

After Friday prayers, protesters planned to march from Istiqlal Mosque in central Jakarta to the nearby presidential palace. 

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EU Commission Chief Warns Against Championing Brexit, Populist Movements in Europe

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has criticized those, including U.S. President Donald Trump, who praise Britain’s secession from the European Union (EU), and champion similar movements in other member nations. Leaders of the European People’s Party met on Malta Thursday, a day after Britain triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, officially starting the process known as Brexit. Zlatica Hoke has more.

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China Poised to Close Ivory Factories

China is preparing to shut down ivory factories March 31. It is the first phase of the government’s plan to end domestic ivory trade this year. Kenyan conservation group Save the Elephants says that commitment has had some impact. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf reports from Nairobi, where Save the Elephants released its new findings this week.

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Washington’s Famous Cherry Trees Blossom

It’s a springtime tradition in Washington, before the leaves appear on the trees, the city’s well-known cherry blossoms make their arrival. But this year unseasonably cold temperatures froze many of the buds as they were about to bloom. More than half survived, and as the delicate flowers came out this week, so did the visitors. VOA’s Deborah Block went to Washington’s Tidal Basin where people are enjoying the lovely views.

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Cargo Vessels Evade Detection, Raising Fears of Trafficking Operations

Hundreds of ships are switching off their tracking devices and taking unexplained routes, raising concern that the trafficking of arms, migrants and drugs is going undetected. New technology enables authorities to follow the routes of suspect vessels, but security experts say taking on the smugglers will require greater coordination. Henry Ridgwell reports.

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Russian Election Meddling Tactics Exposed at Senate Hearing

Russia pulled off an unprecedented and wildly successful campaign to influence America’s political conversation during last year’s presidential campaign, according to experts who testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports the testimony directly contradicted the latest denial by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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Putin Wants to Meet with Trump in Finland

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday he would be willing to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Speaking at an Arctic forum, Putin and Finland’s president, Sauli Niinisto, said they were open to the idea of such a meeting, and Niinisto said he would be honored to host the summit in his country.

Putin said Russia has many friends in Washington and relations between the two countries would get better at some point.

He denied involvement in any efforts to influence the U.S. presidential election last year and called the allegations of Russian meddling “lies” and “provocations.”

Putin said any contacts Russian diplomats had in the U.S. were part of routine work. He said Russia proposed a joint cyber security effort with the U.S. long ago, but it was refused by Washington.

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US Pulling Out From Uganda LRA Mission; AU Mulls Drawdown

The Ugandan military says an aide to Lord’s Resistance Army chief Joseph Kony has surrendered, a day after the United States said it will withdraw from the task force chasing the notorious rebel group.

Ugandan military officials said Thursday that Michael Omona, Kony’s chief communications officer, gave himself up in the Central African Republic.  Omona was part of the LRA for 23 years after being kidnapped by the group in 1994.

On Wednesday, the U.S. military said it will remove its forces from Operation Observant Compass, the task force established in 2013 to hunt down bands of LRA fighters roaming across Central Africa and bring Kony and other LRA leaders to justice.

In a statement, the U.S Africa Command said the task force has “dramatically weakened the LRA in numbers and overall effectiveness.”  It said the LRA has shrunk from 2,000 to under 100 fighters, and noted that four of the five key LRA leaders have been captured.

Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, remains at large.  A former LRA senior commander, Dominic Ongwen, is currently on trial at the ICC in The Hague.

The African Union Peace and Security Council met in Addis Ababa Thursday to discuss the future of the anti-LRA task force.  The council said on Twitter that it may recommend the force be increased, decreased, shut down or left as is.

“Though weakened, LRA remains a security threat,” the council said.

A self-styled prophet, Kony launched a brutal rebellion in Uganda that displaced more than 1.5 million people before taking his group into Sudan, the CAR and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  

The United Nations estimated in 2013 that the LRA had killed more than 100,000 people and kidnapped more than 60,000 over the previous quarter-century.

Both numbers have likely increased since then, as the group has continued to attack villages in remote areas.

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Famed Lawyer Says Trump ‘Clearly’ Endorsed Palestinian State

Prominent U.S. lawyer Alan Dershowitz said in an interview Thursday that President Donald Trump spoke to him “clearly” about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suggesting a shift in Trump’s stance.

Trump broke with longtime U.S. policy last month when he withheld clear support for an independent Palestine, saying he could endorse a one-nation solution to the conflict. “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” Trump said in a February press conference at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Dershowitz, who is Jewish and close to the Israeli prime minister, told Israel Army Radio that he discussed the matter with Trump during a meeting on March 18, and that Trump endorsed two states in their conversation.

“Clearly he was talking about a two-state solution. He was not in any way suggesting, at least in his conversation with me, a one-state solution,” Dershowitz said. He said Trump is “anxious to convey the message that he really wanted to have a peace agreement” and believes that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “is anxious to make a deal,” Dershowitz said.

Nabil Shaath, Abbas’ foreign affairs adviser, confirmed that Abbas is “anxious” to reach a peace agreement with Israel and said it was “important” that Trump reportedly lent his support to the two-state solution.

Netanyahu’s bureau and Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined comment on Dershowitz’s interview.

For nearly a half-century, the Israeli military has occupied the West Bank, land Palestinians want for an independent state. Over the past two decades, the international community has overwhelmingly backed the idea of a two-state solution as the best way of reaching peace in the region.

But Trump’s campaign platform made no mention of a Palestinian state, and his appointed ambassador to Israel has expressed skepticism about a two-state solution in the past. Trump’s inner circle includes aides with ties to the West Bank settler movement, which objects to the creation of an independent Palestine.

Netanyahu has not formally abandoned his stated support for the two-state solution, but has stopped mentioning it in his speeches since Trump was elected. Instead, he has made vague statements about seeking a region-wide peace agreement.

Dershowitz said he was “pleasantly surprised” by Trump’s knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying Trump spoke to him about the main issues that would need to be solved in a two-state approach: competing claims to Jerusalem, security concerns, demilitarization of a Palestinian state, and Palestinian refugees’ demands to return to land they fled or were expelled from during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that led to Israel’s independence.

The White House has been holding intensive talks with Israel in recent weeks about an agreement concerning Israel’s future settlement building policy, but the sides have not come to an agreement yet.

Netanyahu said reaching an understanding with Washington on the settlements would be “good for Israel.” But he has also pledged to honor a promise to build a new settlement to replace Amona, an illegal settlement outpost built on private Palestinian land that was dismantled following an Israeli Supreme Court ruling.

“I promised from the beginning that we would create a new settlement,” Netanyahu said Thursday. “I believe I gave the first commitment in December and we will fulfill (the commitments) today. There are a few more hours and you will know all of the details later.”

According to Israeli media, Netanyahu will convene his Security Cabinet late Thursday and is expected to hold a vote to approve a replacement settlement in the West Bank.


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Ethiopia Extends National State of Emergency by 4 Months

Ethiopian lawmakers on Thursday extended the country’s six-month state of emergency for an additional four months. The widely expected move came amid reports of continued violence and anti-government activities in some remote, restive areas.

The state of emergency, called after months of sometimes deadly protests demanding wider political freedoms, has hurt one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies.

“We still have some anti-peace elements that are active and want to capitalize on disputes that arise among regional states in the country,” Ethiopia’s defense minister, Siraj Fegessa, told lawmakers. “In addition, some leaders of the violent acts that we witnessed before are still at large.”

More than 25,000 people suspected of taking part in protests were detained under the state of emergency. Several thousand have been released. The government has indicated that a “few thousand” others will face justice for their role in organizing the protests.

Hundreds died in the protests that first ignited in the Oromia region in November 2015 and spread into the Amhara region, with people also demanding the release of political prisoners.

Ethiopia’s security has improved but the extension of the state of emergency is needed to bring a “lasting peace,” said the defense minister, who cited a government-conducted nationwide poll in which he said the public “significantly” demanded the extension.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in a recent address to parliament said 82 percent of Ethiopians want a partial or full continuation of the state of emergency. However, opposition figures and parties say it is used to clamp down on their activities, especially in rural regions.

Ethiopia’s parliament is 100 percent controlled by the ruling EPRDF party.

Some parts of the state of emergency recently were removed, including arbitrary arrests without court orders and restrictions on radio, television and theater.


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Senate Panel to Focus on Russian Influence, Cyber Campaigns

The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee is focusing Thursday on Russia as it holds an open hearing as part of its probe into Russian meddling in the November presidential election and any possible collusion by President Donald Trump’s inner circle.

The committee described Thursday’s session as a primer on the history and characteristics of “Russian active measures and influence campaigns,” and the country’s cyber capabilities.

Ahead of the closely watched public hearings, the committee’s Republican chairman and top Democrat pledged an exhaustive and impartial probe of Russian efforts during last year’s campaign.

“This investigation’s scope will go wherever the intelligence leads it,” Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said at a news conference Wednesday.

“We will get to the bottom of this,” concurred Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee’s ranking Democrat.

Burr said an “unprecedented amount of documents” have been received, and the committee is in “constant negotiation” with the intelligence community to gain access to additional material. He added that there will be at least 20 interviews to conduct, including with President Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who volunteered to speak with the panel.

“The committee will conduct an interview with Mr. Kushner when the committee decides that it’s time for us to set a date,” the chairman said.

Neither Burr nor Warner revealed any conclusions reached so far, except Russia’s aims.

“Vladimir Putin’s goal is a weaker United States,” Warner said. “Weaker economically, weaker globally. And that should be a concern to all Americans regardless of party affiliation.”

House Intel probe in disarray

Until now, the House Intelligence Committee had taken the lead in the Russia probe. But that committee canceled open hearings this week amid a firestorm surrounding its chairman, Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, who personally briefed President Trump on classified material he had not yet shared with the committee.

With the House panel seemingly in disarray, its Senate counterpart is now in the spotlight. Burr said he cast his ballot for Trump last November, but he denied that party loyalty would color his work.

Even so, a growing number of Democrats say the full truth may never come to light in Republican controlled legislative committees.

“I believe we also should be open to an independent, non-partisan commission designed solely to investigate what happened,” said Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, who also serves on the Intelligence Committee. “We cannot allow political pressure or unsubstantiated distractions to get in the way of simply following the facts.”

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona echoed the call.

“I think it’s reached a new level where it requires a select committee,” McCain said on Fox News’ “America’s Newsroom” television program. “There’s too many unanswered questions out there.”

Smear campaign

The White House has complained of a smear campaign against the president’s team, but acknowledged the need for investigations to proceed.

“We want this over as much as, I think, some of you. But we recognize that there’s a process that has to take place,” said White House spokesman Sean Spicer.

That process could resound far beyond Washington. Chairman Burr said Russia is “actively involved” in upcoming elections in France.

Congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson contributed to this report

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Chinese Tourism Ban Over THAAD Impacting South Korea

Beijing’s reported economic retaliation against South Korea for deploying the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system continues to target certain sectors, like imports of Korean cosmetics, cancelling K-pop concerts, and a ban on Chinese tour groups to South Korea.  VOA’s Brian Padden reports the sudden absence of Chinese visitors is being felt in Seoul’s main tourist districts.

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Trump to Host Chinese President at Mar-a-Lago Next Week

The White House confirmed Thursday that Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit the United States for talks with President Donald Trump on April 6.

President Trump will host Xi for two days at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

A White House statement said the agenda will include “global, regional, and bilateral issues of mutual concern,” without giving any specifics.

During his campaign for president, Trump complained frequently about China’s trade practices, threatening to impose tough import tariffs on Chinese goods and promising to label the country a currency manipulator.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited China earlier this month to lay the groundwork for Xi’s visit.  

In his own meeting with the Chinese president, Tillerson told Xi that President Trump looks forward to enhancing the understanding between the two countries.

In February, Trump reaffirmed Washington’s long-standing “One China” policy in a call with Xi, in an apparent move to ease concerns in China that he might use Taiwan as leverage in negotiations over trade, security and other sensitive issues. The policy in place since 1979 requires Washington to maintain only unofficial ties with Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory. 


Relations between China and the U.S. under President Barack Obama were strained by issues including China’s island-building in waters that straddle the international shipping lanes in the South China Sea, allegations of cyber hacking and a U.S. policy rebalance to Asia. 


One bright spot touted by both sides was their cooperation, as the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, on tackling climate change. Lu said Wednesday that China would stick to its climate commitments after Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, this week rescinded measures enacted by Obama to reduce coal and oil use. 

Information from AP was used in this report

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Basketball Gives Somali Youth in Minnesota a Positive Outlet

Somali groups in Minnesota are trying to give young people a positive outlet to keep them away from negative influences such as drugs, violence and extremism. One such effort is a basketball tournament that is bringing together several mosques from the Twin Cities. Abdi Mahamud attended the tournament and spoke with participants. Salem Solomon narrates his report.

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Congo, Sweden, UN to Investigate Deaths of UN Experts in Congo

Congo’s government said Wednesday it will investigate the deaths of an American and a Swedish expert for the United Nations and their interpreter, whose bodies were found in a shallow grave Monday after the team disappeared more than two weeks ago.

Sweden said it was opening a murder investigation, and the U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the killings.

American Michael Sharp, Swedish national Zaida Catalan and their interpreter Betu Tshintela went missing March 12 along with driver Isaac Kabuayi and two motorbike drivers in Central Kasai province while looking into recent large-scale violence and alleged human rights violations by the Congolese army and local militia groups.

A U.N. Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the experts were investigating alleged mass graves.

Many deaths in Kasai provinces

It was the first recorded disappearance of international workers in the once-calm Kasai provinces, where the Kamwina Nsapu militia has been fighting security forces since last year. More than 400 people have been killed and more than 200,000 displaced since government troops killed the militia’s leader in August, according to the United Nations.

The U.N. Security Council issued a statement Wednesday night saying its members condemned the killings “in the strongest terms” and also expressed concern at “the unknown status of the Congolese nationals accompanying them.”

Council members called on the Congolese government “to swiftly and fully investigate these crimes and bring the still unidentified perpetrators to justice” and backed a U.N. inquiry, stressing that attacks targeting civilians “may constitute war crimes under international law.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said the world body would conduct an inquiry into the deaths, saying the cause had not yet been determined. He called on Congo to do the same.

U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters the U.N. hopes the cause of death of the two experts “will be determined following a more thorough examination.”

“Given that they have been found dead, we believe that there’s likely grounds that this was a form of criminal act, but we need to determine cause of death,” he said.

Haq said the U.N. will look into “what their security conditions had been, what might have happened to them, as well as, of course, to the four Congolese nationals … for whom we are continuing to search.”

He said there were other remains found at the site that still need to be analyzed.

Other violence to be investigated

Sharp, from western Pennsylvania, and Catalan were “killed senselessly,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, said in a statement.

Sweden’s national police said it has initiated a murder investigation into Catalan’s death, and Sweden’s prime minister urged Congo to investigate.

Congo government spokesman Lambert Mende said authorities would look into the deaths and seek the U.N. experts’ missing Congolese colleagues.

Mende also said Congolese authorities also will look into other recent violence in Central Kasai province, including the deaths of 39 police officers who had been killed by militia forces.

The U.N. last week reported the discovery since January of more than two dozen mass graves in three Kasai provinces. And five videos have emerged in recent weeks that appear to show Congolese soldiers firing on militia members.

While the violence is linked to local power struggles, there are also clear ties to Congo’s current political crisis, according to Human Rights Watch.

Anger has been growing in the country at long-delayed presidential elections, and dozens were killed in December amid protests as President Joseph Kabila stayed on past the end of his mandate. A deal reached between the ruling party and opposition to hold elections by the end of this year, without Kabila, remains fragile as the U.N. urges its implementation.

Security forces have been known to back local leaders seen as loyal to Kabila, while militia groups support those who are believed to support the opposition, the rights group said.

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Meningitis Outbreak Kills 269 in Nigeria

Meningitis has killed 269 people in Nigeria in recent weeks, the country’s Center for Disease Control said, as Africa’s most populous country and aid organizations try to tackle the surge in infections.

As of Monday, 1,828 suspected cases of meningitis had been reported, with deaths recorded in 15 of the country’s 36 states, the center said late Tuesday on Twitter.

The center said on its website that 33 people died of meningitis in 2016.

More than 2,000 people died from an outbreak of the disease in Nigeria in 2009, with basic health care limited in rural parts of the country. Most rural residents live on less than $2 a day, despite the country’s huge oil resources.

Meningitis is the inflammation of tissue surrounding the brain and spinal cord, which can be caused by viral or bacterial infections. It spreads mainly through kisses, sneezes and coughs, and in close living quarters.

The center said it was working with the World Health Organization, the U.N. children’s fund and Doctors Without Borders to try to control the outbreak.

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Moody’s Sees Egypt’s Economy Growing but Reforms Slipping

The economic picture for Egypt is improving, ratings agency Moody’s said on Wednesday, but a public backlash will likely lead the Mideast country to slow reforms undertaken to secure a bailout from the international Monetary Fund.

The group forecasts that the Arab world’s most populous country will reduce its fiscal deficit to 11 percent of GDP for the fiscal year 2017, higher than the IMF’s forecast of 10 percent, because of lower growth forecasts and “potential fiscal slippage.”

The statement comes as the Cabinet released its draft budget for the upcoming year, targeting a deficit of only 9 percent. The budget now goes to a vote in parliament but will still require final approval by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

“The implementation of the IMF program’s targets, including reductions in fiscal deficits and government debt levels, as well as improvements in Egypt’s external liquidity position, will help address Egypt’s key credit challenges,” said Steffen Dyck, a co-author of the report.

“However, ambitious fiscal consolidation targets will be challenging to achieve and could face implementation risks in a scenario of mounting public discontent,” he added.

Egypt secured a $12 billion loan from the IMF last November, for which it imposed a set of tough economic measures that included reduced subsidies and the devaluation and subsequent flotation of its local currency in order to qualify for the loan.

The moves were hailed by the IMF and economist but caused price hikes for an already frustrated cash-strapped population, with el-Sissi risking a serious political backlash.

The government expects a team from the IMF to visit Cairo for an evaluation at the end April to approve the payment of the loan’s second tranche.

Egyptians have been hit with the worst inflation in a decade, cutting spending as much as possible as prices surge by over 30 percent on basic food items, transport, housing, and even some essential medicines.

Nearly half of the country’s 92 million-strong population earns below or near the U.N. poverty line of $1.9 a day. While salaries have remained largely the same, the price hikes had a heavy impact on millions of Egyptians.


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