California Wildfire Insurance Claims Top $3.3B

Property damage claims from a series of deadly October wildfires now exceed $3.3 billion, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said Tuesday.

The figure represented claims for homes and businesses insured by 15 companies and was more than triple the previous estimate of $1 billion. Jones said the number would continue to rise as more claims were reported.

The amount of claims now reported means that the fires caused more damage than California’s 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which was previously the state’s costliest, with $2.7 billion in damage in 2015 dollars, according to the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Forty-three people were killed in the October blazes that tore through Northern California, including the state’s renowned winemaking regions in Napa and Sonoma counties. They destroyed at least 8,900 buildings as more than 100,000 people were forced to evacuate. It was the deadliest series of fires in California history.

Several dozen buildings were also damaged or destroyed in fires in Southern California’s Orange County.

“Behind each and every one of these claims … are ordinary people, Californians who lost their homes, lost their vehicles, in some cases whose family members lost their lives,” said Jones, a Democrat who is running for attorney general.

Jones said there were just over 10,000 claims for partial home losses, more than 4,700 total losses and about 700 for business property. There were 3,200 claims for damaged or destroyed personal vehicles, 91 for commercial vehicles, 153 for farm equipment and 111 for watercraft.

The figures do not reflect uninsured losses, including public infrastructure and the property of people who were uninsured or underinsured.

Arson suspect’s warning

Meanwhile, a man facing arson charges for a wildfire that destroyed two homes south of the San Francisco Bay Area had an ominous message for a prosecutor during a court hearing Tuesday: “You’re next.”

Marlon Coy, 54, uttered the words while glaring at Santa Cruz County District Attorney Jeffrey Rosell while he explained four of the felony charges Coy is facing, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported.

Coy pleaded not guilty to charges of arson of a nondwelling, arson causing bodily injury and being a felon in possession of a firearm, the newspaper reported.

Witnesses saw Coy start the fire on October 16 near a property in Santa Cruz County connected to someone with whom he had a dispute, sheriff’s officials said.

Coy was arrested in possession of jewelry and a bicycle taken from a home that had been burglarized while under evacuation, according to sheriff’s officials.

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Immigrants From Honduras, Nicaragua Face US Deadline

Immigrants from Honduras and Nicaragua who have Temporary Protected Status in the United States will learn by Monday whether that status is to be extended.

If the Department of Homeland Security does not extend TPS for the two countries by November 6, permission to live and work in the U.S. will expire for thousands of Hondurans and Nicaraguans on January 5.

Honduras and Nicaragua became TPS-designated countries in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch cut a swath of devastation through them. In Honduras, “the hurricane killed 5,657 people and displaced approximately 1.1 million people,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says on its website. The storm also destroyed about 70 percent of the country’s infrastructure.

Nicaragua fared no better. USCIS says 3,045 people were killed and 885 were reported missing.

“Landslides and floods destroyed entire villages and caused extensive damage to the transportation network, housing, medical and educational facilities, water supply and sanitation facilities, and the agricultural sector,” the agency says.

Since then, TPS status has been renewed several times for the two countries on the ground that they were racked by subsequent environmental disasters and had not fully recovered from Mitch.

Miami immigration attorney Stephanie Green told VOA’s LatAm service the main argument for renewal this time around was economic. “The economy of those countries is not strong,” she said. “They’re among the poorest countries in the hemisphere.”

Meant to be temporary

The Trump administration has indicated it will take a harder line on TPS than previous ones. TPS allows citizens of countries hit by natural disasters or war to live and work in the U.S. until their homelands have recovered.

“We’re looking at the fact that TPS means temporary,” DHS spokesman David Lapan said about two weeks ago. “It has not been temporary for many years, and we have created a situation where people have lived in this country for a long time.”

In September, acting DHS Director Elaine Duke ended TPS status for Sudan, while extending it for South Sudan.

In May, then DHS Secretary John Kelly extended TPS status for Haiti for only six months, not the year Haiti’s government had requested.

Kelly indicated another extension was unlikely. He said the six months “should allow Haitian TPS recipients living in the United States time to attain travel documents and make other necessary arrangements for their ultimate departure from the United States, and should also provide the Haitian government with the time it needs to prepare for the future repatriation of all current TPS recipients.”

Haiti’s TPS designation expires in January, and DHS will have to decide on an extension by a November 23 deadline. “They usually decide on extensions right before a reregistration period occurs. If you get a work permit that’s good for a year, maybe three months before the work permit expires, they’ll decide whether they are going to extend TPS or not,” Green said.

According to the Congressional Research Service, about 50,000 Haitians have TPS status as well as 57,000 Hondurans and 2,550 Nicaraguans.

After TPS

To people who have lived and worked in the U.S. for years, returning home could be a shock.

“None of the countries that currently have TPS in this hemisphere are ready to receive all of the people that might be returned,” Green said. “They don’t have the resources. They don’t have the employment. They don’t have the housing. They don’t have medical facilities. They don’t have educational facilities.”

Yet, going home voluntarily may be the best of the choices available to people who lose TPS status. If they try to stay in the U.S., they do so without “legal authority to be here,” Green said.

And anyone who participated in TPS would be easy for immigration officials to track down, simply because of all the information they would have provided on their TPS applications.

“They want to know your name, your date of birth. Of course, they want to know your country of birth. They want to know your telephone number. They want to know where you work. They want to know where you were educated. They want to know everything about you. And, yes, they will have all of your information,” Green said.

She added, “They are already deporting thousands of people. There is nothing to stop them from deporting thousands more.”

After Honduras and Nicaragua, TPS for El Salvador expires March 9. El Salvador got a TPS designation after earthquakes in 2001. The Congressional Research Service said 195,000 Salvadorans have TPS. A decision on whether to extend the program is due January 8.

Ten countries currently have TPS benefits: El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Nepal and Yemen.

VOA’s Latin American service contributed to this report.

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House GOP Leaders Delay Tax Plan Release Amid Changes

House Republicans, straining to make last-minute changes to their far-reaching tax proposal, on Tuesday delayed the rollout by a day after they failed to finalize the details.

The plan pushed by President Donald Trump and Republican leaders in Congress is a top legislative priority. The details originally were to be unveiled on Wednesday, but that was delayed until Thursday, a senior GOP aide said Tuesday night. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the individual wasn’t allowed to publicly discuss the schedule.

The tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee had worked throughout the day and evening to produce a plan for the first overhaul of the nation’s tax code in three decades.

 

Although they had settled on some key details — such as a cut in the corporate tax rate to 20 percent and maintaining the top personal income tax rate for the wealthy of 39.6 percent — other elements still had to be resolved.

 

Trump has intensified his lobbying for the nearly $6 trillion tax overhaul plan, seeking a major legislative achievement after the collapse of the health care repeal. The president predicted a grand signing ceremony before Christmas at “the biggest tax event in the history of our country.”

 

The plan originally unveiled by Trump and congressional Republicans called for shrinking the number of tax brackets from seven to three, with respective tax rates of 12 percent, 25 percent, 35 percent. That plan drew immediate criticism from Democrats, who complained it was too favorable to the wealthy and undermined Trump’s rhetoric about it benefiting the middle class.

The head of the House tax-writing committee, Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, did not answer directly when he was asked — while leaving House Speaker Paul Ryan’s suite Tuesday — whether the drop in the corporate tax rate would happen immediately. But, he said: “I want as much growth right from Day One as I can.”

 

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Gunfire, Protests Reported in Eritrea’s Capital

Demonstrations in Eritrea’s capital Asmara have drawn a violent crackdown with reports of gunshots.

The U.S. Embassy reported the protests and gunshots, although the source of the gunfire is unknown. Multiple videos shared via Facebook and Twitter and uploaded to YouTube show demonstrators fleeing along Asmara’s downtown streets with sounds of gunshots audible.

Unverified reports state the protests began in the city’s predominantly Muslim Akriya neighborhood. There, an Islamic school, Diaa Islamic School of Asmara, had been ordered by the government to change its curriculum. The school’s board — including an elderly board member, Hajji Muasa Mohamed Nur — refused and some were arrested, according to a report by Awate.com, an Eritrean news website that is opposed to the government and its policies. The arrests prompted students and others sympathetic to the cause to take to the streets to demonstrate.

According to Radio Erena, a radio station run by Eritrean diaspora journalists in Paris, more than 100 students from the school protested on Oct. 31 following an order by the government to shut down the school. Within an hour, government forces armed with sticks and firearms dispersed the crowd, Radio Erena reported.

Eritrea’s Minister of Information Yemane Gebremeskel took to Twitter to downplay the importance of the protests, calling it a “small demonstration by one school in Asmara dispersed without any casualty hardly breaking news.” 

Protests are exceedingly rare in the Eritrean capital where free speech and political demonstrations are severely curtailed.

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Ukraine Official: US Should Demand Access to Yanukovych in Manafort Case

A top Ukrainian official says Russia should provide U.S. investigators with access to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after his rule was toppled in Ukraine’s Maidan revolution of 2014.

Dmitry Shymkiv, the deputy head of the administration of President Petro Poroshenko, said access to Yanukovych could prove vital to an understanding of the work done for Ukraine by indicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Shymkiv, whose role is similar to that of deputy chief of staff in the United States, spoke to VOA in response to comments made Tuesday by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said Washington should further investigate Ukrainian links to Manafort.

Kyiv “has information” about the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Lavrov told a news briefing, according to reports by Russian news outlet RIA.

U.S. investigators probing Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election — which Moscow denies having made — charged Manafort and a business associate on Monday with conspiracy to launder money and other crimes. The charges, some going back more than a decade, center on Manafort’s work in Ukraine, specifically for Yanukovych’s pro-Russian Party of Regions.

Yanukovych, who fled to Crimea just before it was annexed by Russian forces in February 2014, was not seen again until he held a news conference three weeks later in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.

Ukrainian TV channel TSN has reported that Yanukovych lives in the Rostov region, although Russian officials have never confirmed this.

“We need to understand … how all of the [ties between Manafort and top Ukrainian officials] took place,” said Shymkiv, secretary of the National Reform Council to the president of Ukraine and deputy head of Poroshenko’s administration.

Russia, however, has not cooperated with a Ukrainian government arrest warrant for Yanukovych, who stands accused of the “mass murder of peaceful citizens” during the uprising against his administration. Similarly, Shymkiv suggested in a Skype interview with VOA’s Ukrainian service, Russian officials would be unlikely to accommodate a U.S. request for Yanukovych to testify in the Manafort trial.

“I believe Yanukovych should be interrogated by the U.S. government, but I don’t think the Russians would let the Americans do that,” he said, laughing. “But it is absolutely a valid claim, because Yanukovych was the leader of Ukraine’s oligarchical structure, the leader of the corrupted vertical that was built in Ukraine since his rise to power in 2012 and up to the 2013 revolution of dignity.”

In his remarks Monday, Lavrov suggested that the charges over Manafort’s work for Ukraine indicated that the U.S. investigators had so far been unable to make a case against Russia, which has been the main focus of the probe headed by special counsel Robert Mueller.

“He has been working for several months. Accused two former Trump campaign managers of what they were doing on behalf of Yanukovych. Even though they were looking for a Russian trace,” Lavrov said, according to the Russian news outlet Sputnik International.

Lavrov also hinted at a Ukrainian role in last year’s U.S. presidential election, saying Ukrainian officials “can say a lot about their position toward the candidates during the 2016 presidential campaign.”

Shymkiv said U.S. investigators should explore whether Manafort was connected to the confiscation of revenue from some Ukrainian businesses while he was serving as a consultant to Yanukovych’s party.

“There was very aggressive behavior toward Ukrainian business people, and there was a strong extraction of money from different industries, so [Yanukovych] should be interrogated in this case, or at least be a subject of the case, because Paul Manafort was hired by the Party of Regions, which represented Mr. Yanukovych,” said Shymkiv.

Ukraine focus on lobbying

Asked for his reaction to the Manafort indictment, Shymkiv, who is tasked with overseeing post-Maidan reforms under Poroshenko’s administration, said that while U.S. news coverage has been dominated by the money-laundering and tax-evasion charges, Ukrainians are focused on U.S.-based lobbying groups in the employ of various Ukrainian politicians.

“[The Manafort trial] puts a significant light on a lot of lobbying activities in the U.S. from international governments or some political forces,” he said. “We’ve seen many Ukrainian politicians hiring lobbyists for different activities — creating, for example, fake hearings in the Congress.

“We appreciate American journalists who investigated it and showed how fake it is. But it is important that through the interrogation of Manafort by U.S. law enforcement agencies, we might get some additional insight into corruption practices, or other similar activities, which were happening in Ukraine during the Yanukovych regime,” Shymkiv added. “This can help Ukrainian law enforcement agencies build stronger cases on convicting some Ukrainian individuals.”

Ukrainian prosecutors, he noted, are willing to remain in touch with U.S. Justice Department officials.

“As this Manafort case evolves, there will be more stories and more disclosures taking place,” he said.

Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign manager for about two months in the summer of 2016, was forced to resign after reports surfaced about his financial relationship with Yanukovych.

This story originated in VOA’s Ukrainian service.

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Britain Accelerates Brexit Plans; Talks Also to Speed Up

Britain is accelerating preparations for “all eventualities” when it leaves the European Union, but both sides are hopeful an agreement on stepping up talks to unravel more than 40 years of partnership will be sealed soon.

With only 17 months remaining until Britain’s expected departure, the slow pace of talks has increased the possibility that London will leave without a deal, alarming business leaders who say time is running out for them to make investment decisions.

British and EU negotiators met in Brussels on Tuesday to try to agree a schedule for further divorce talks, with an initial proposal from the bloc to hold three more rounds before the end of the year not winning instant approval from London.

The pressure has spurred the British government to step up its Brexit plans, employing thousands more workers and spending millions to make sure customs posts, laws and systems work on day one of Brexit, even without a deal on a future relationship.

At a meeting with her ministers Tuesday, Prime Minister Theresa May was updated on plans for the tax and customs authority to add 3,000 to 5,000 workers next year and for spending of 500 million pounds ($660.45 million) for Brexit.

Domestic preparations

“Alongside the negotiations in Brussels, it is crucial that we are putting our own domestic preparations in place so that we are ready at the point that we leave the EU,” May’s spokesman told reporters.

“The preparatory work has seen a significant acceleration in recent months. Departments are preparing detailed delivery plans for each of the around 300 programs underway across government.”

May wants to silence critics in her ruling Conservative Party who are pressing her to walk away from talks, which have faltered over how much Britain should pay to leave the bloc.

Brexit campaigners are demanding that Britain leave with no deal if the talks do not move on beyond a discussion of the divorce settlement on a so-called Brexit bill, EU citizens rights and the border with EU member Ireland by December.

Brexit minister David Davis said Tuesday that he thought Britain would agree on some kind of basic deal with the European Union, even in the “very improbable” eventuality that they failed to agree on a trade deal.

Better tone

In a sign that an improved tone between the two sides, struck at a summit earlier this month, was continuing, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier reaffirmed his message in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, that he was ready to “speed up negotiations.”

May’s government has also long said it would welcome an acceleration in the talks. But the sides have yet to agree on how to do that following a top-level meeting in Brussels on October 19-20.

Barnier has proposed three rounds — one that did not take place last week, and two more in the weeks starting November 16 and December 4. London prefers continuous talks.

“We are ready to accelerate, but we must have something to talk about,” said an EU official.

This was what Britain’s Oliver Robbins and Barnier’s deputy, Sabine Weyand, were seeking to agree on in Brussels on Tuesday.

Before leaving the EU, May faces a struggle to get parliamentary support for a law to sever political, financial and legal ties with the bloc — the EU Withdrawal Bill, for which lawmakers have proposed hundreds of amendments.

Asked whether May was preparing to offer a concession over a final vote on any deal struck with the EU, her spokesman said there was “lots of speculation in relation to Brexit.”

“We’ve always said that we’ll do whatever is necessary,” he said.

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