African Leaders Almost Demanded Apology From Trump for Crude Remarks

African leaders were very close to officially demanding President Donald Trump publicly apologize for reportedly crude remarks about the continent and immigration, but backed off, reports say.

The African Union drafted its response to the president at a summit this week.

The draft warned that Trump’s “racist and xenophobic behavior” puts the strategic partnership between the United States and Africa at risk.

It says African heads of state are “appalled” by the presidents’ apparent remarks and “dismayed and shocked by the increasingly consistent trend from the Trump administration to denigrate people of African descent and other people of color.” 

But the African Union decided not to release the draft. It pointed to a Jan. 25th letter from Trump in which he pledged his “deep respect” for Africa and announced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will make an “extended visit” to Africa in March.

Trump also met with Rwandan President Paul Kagame on the sidelines of the Davos economic forum last week.

Kagame is the current chair of the African Union. He says the AU will have to find a way to get along with Trump.

“When the United States decided to give us Trump as their president, we will deal with that president,” Kagame said.

Trump reportedly called Africa, Haiti, and El Salvador “s—hole countries” during a White House meeting on immigration earlier this month, and wanted to exclude Haiti from any immigration reform deal.

He denied using such crude language.

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Diaspora Voices Missing in South Sudan Dialogue, Activists Say

Activists are criticizing a South Sudan peace initiative for leaving a major group out of the discussions.

The initiative, known as the High Level Revitalization Forum, is aimed at reviving South Sudan’s stalled 2015 peace agreement, and it is supposed to draw together a wide range of voices, experiences and positions. 

Reuben Garang, a Canadian-South Sudanese and president of the Coalition of Advocates for South Sudan (CASS), said the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional trade group that endorsed creation of the forum, should include a representative from the South Sudanese diaspora in the next phase of the discussions in Addis Ababa.

“We need to be at the table. We have never been represented since the negotiations started,” said Garang.

The diaspora is the “sixth region” of the African Union, and its significance is written in the framework of the AU, which also endorsed the forum. The AU describes the diaspora as “peoples of African descent who live outside the African continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality, and who are willing to contribute to the development.”

That’s the idea that William Pay, a South Sudanese-American living in Minnesota, wants to foster at the forum on South Sudan. He said the diaspora’s contributions matter and its members’ pain is real.

“About 90 percent of my family are still in South Sudan or are pushed out of South Sudan because of this current conflict,” said Pay. “So directly I am affected. So there is no way that someone will say [to the diaspora] that your voice will not matter.”

Pay added that including members of the diaspora in talks could also help close the gap and foster dialogue among South Sudanese around the world who have often been criticized for furthering hate speech.

CASS, an umbrella group of South Sudan-focused nonprofits in the U.S. and Canada, sent letters to Workneh Gebeyehu, chairman of the IGAD Council of Ministers, and Ismail Wais, IGAD’s special envoy for South Sudan, seeking to make the case that the diaspora has a large influence and can positively influence the peace process.

Garang said he had received no reply to those letters.

The next round of the forum will be dominated by security concerns, Garang said. It is scheduled to begin February 5.

“That is going to be very contentious,” Garang said. Representatives of the diaspora will be “fighting to get positions.”

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US Officials: No Specific Threats to Pyeongchang Winter Olympics

The United States says it is not aware of any specific threats to the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month, despite nuclear tensions with neighboring North Korea.  

Senior State Department officials in charge of security for the U.S. Olympic team told reporters Wednesday they have been working closely with South Korea for two years to prepare for the 2018 Winter Games that begin with an opening ceremony February 9 in the town of Pyeongchang. 

Assistant secretary for diplomatic security Michael Evanoff says his team is well aware of the nuclear tensions with North Korea and has prepared for all contingencies.

“I mean, we’re only less than a hundred miles (160 kilometers) from North Korea, so we’ve planned for all contingencies.”

Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, had high praise for the South Korean government.

“Authorities of the Republic of Korea are responsible for the overall security of the games, and we’re confident in their ability to host a safe and successful event this year,” Goldstein said.

Diplomatic security chief Evanoff agreed, saying the U.S. working relationship with South Korea has been “exceptional.”

Senior State Department officials said about 100 diplomatic security agents will be deployed to Seoul and to Pyeongchang for the Winter Games and the Paralympics, roughly the same number that have been sent to previous Olympic games. 

The U.S. Olympic delegation will number about 275, and some 60,000 Americans are expected to attend the games, including Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence.  

North Korea is also sending athletes to the games. The North Korean government is planning a major parade or rally the day before the opening ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of its military. Goldstein said he hopes North Korea will embrace the Olympic spirit.

“While we would prefer that this parade not occur on Feb. 8, it is our hope, and I know the hope of South Korea, that the North Koreans who agreed to send people to the games to participate will join with all the nations of the world in celebrating the athletes.  

Goldstein said fundamentally, the Olympic Games are about the athletes.  

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‘Bikini Flight’ Scandal Mars Triumph of Vietnam Soccer Team

Ten years after the Vietnam Football Federation cut a deal with the British powerhouse Arsenal FC and opened the Hoang Anh Gia Lai Academy, Vietnam’s team emerged from training and underdog status to take second place with a heartbreaking overtime loss at the Under-23 Asian Cup.

Two days after that Jan. 27 game in a snowy Changzhou, China, Vietnam’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAC) fined VietJet 44 million VND, or about $2,000, because the Vietnamese soccer team’s special flight home included a show by bikini-clad women.

The women appeared on social media, as did the young players. Vietnam, traditionally a modest society, was not amused. Most people saw the players, who wore the country’s red and yellow colors as they competed, as national representatives on an international playing field.

Before the match, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told the team: “More than 90 million Vietnamese people are behind you, cheering and following your every step.” The words were matched in patriotic fervor after the game by football commentator Dang Gia Man who told AFP, “We are proud of the team. … They did a good job in uniting our countrymen.”

That unity was apparent Saturday night, as crowds waving the Vietnamese flag flooded into the streets throughout the nation to celebrate the hard-fought 2-1 loss to Uzbekistan. The game remained deadlocked 1-1 until the 119th minute and instantly gave Vietnam, not usually an international sports force, football credibility.

And by taking the long view, Vietnam’s national obsession with football, coupled with the Arsenal training deal, had turned a somewhat obscure event into a mini-World Cup as the Under-23 Asian Cup became a big deal.

The games

Vietnam, in a four-team group, placed second in the tournament’s initial phase, above higher-ranked Australia. Then, Vietnam defeated Iraq in the quarterfinals and Qatar in the semifinals — a Jan. 23 game so anticipated that many Vietnamese companies sent workers home to watch it, according to the Nikkei Asian Review.

“When we won the semifinal, my blood was boiling. I couldn’t believe that it really happened,” Nguyen Tung Duong, a small-business owner in Hanoi told Reuters. “In that moment, I felt undying love for our motherland.”

By Saturday, hundreds of Vietnamese had traveled to China to support the team in the final game against Uzbekistan, thanks to special fast-track visa processing. Many movie theaters decided to show the final match free for fans at home.

“Playing and defeating regional states enhances Vietnam’s self-perception of itself,” Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam at the Australian Defense Force Academy and former national secretary of the Australian Soccer Referee’s Federation, told Reuters.

“Winning at soccer is self-validating. Vietnam has broken out of its Cold War isolation as a member of the socialist camp and joined the Asian Confederation of soccer playing nations,” Thayer said.

The scandal

And with that came scandal.

In issuing the bikini show fines, the CAC noted that although the bikini show had not caused a safety hazard on the VietJet flight, it had “potentially threatened safety.”

“I found that reason completely unconvincing,” Vo Van Tao, a high-profile Vietnamese reporter, told VOA Vietnamese. “Safety had nothing to do with the show and bikini models.”

VietJet is so well known for its ad campaign featuring bikini models and “bikini flights” that many Vietnamese boycott the budget airline nicknamed “Vietsex.”

After the loss that was a victory, the Vietnam Football Federation (VFF) canceled the team’s 44 tickets on the state-owned Vietnam Airlines and booked a special VietJet flight as part of what state-owned media described as a last-minute “reward plan.”

Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, CEO of VietJet and the first Vietnamese female billionaire, apologized, saying the onboard performance was spontaneous and not included in the reward plan.

Unmoved, the CAC fined a VietJet executive and a flight attendant 4 million VND ($176) for “neglecting to inform the captain” of the incident.

Vo Van Tao suggested CAC’s decision to issue fines stemmed from pressure from the government, which lost revenue from the canceled seats, and social media. This forced authorities to do something about the in-flight antics that Tao described as “normal in other countries, but not normal in Vietnam.”

In the context of Vietnamese laws and practices, Tao added, “this case should be under the Ministry of Culture because [the bikini flight] is inappropriate by Vietnamese culture and not related to any aviation standards.”

Khanh An contributed to this report which originated on VOA Vietnamese. 

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Protests Subside in Senegal Following Shooting of Fisherman

Calm has returned to the city of Saint-Louis in northern Senegal, following violent protests and the looting of shops belonging to Mauritanian nationals on Monday.

The violence erupted after the death of a Senegalese fisherman, shot by members of the Mauritanian coast guard. The Senegalese government condemned the killing but called on protesters to stay calm, promising to address the issue with Mauritanian officials.

Since the non-renewal of a fishing agreement between the two West African countries in 2016, incidents involving Senegalese fishermen and the Mauritanian coast guard have been frequent. Moustapha Dieng, the secretary-general of the Senegalese union of artisanal fishermen, said this is not an isolated incident.

“This is the fourth incident in which fishermen have been shot dead. And there are others who have been injured and will never be able to fish again.”

In a written statement, the Mauritanian military said that “the unfortunate event” occurred because of “the provocative behavior of the fishermen who ignored the orders of the coast guard.” They said the coast guard members shot at the engine in an attempt to disable the canoe, but one of the nine fishermen was hit by a bullet. The statement added that coast guard vessels conducted 62 similar operations last year without incident.

In Mauritania, the issue is being discussed widely in both traditional and social media. Mohamed Diop, editor of the Alakhbar newspaper, said the issue is attracting a lot of attention.

“The Mauritanian media are very interested in the issue because the two heads of state have been informed and discussed it on the sidelines of the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa,” he said. “The Senegalese interior minister has said the two presidents decided to address the issue at the highest level to avoid a rift.”

Moustapha Dieng said his union members feel that the Senegal government is not taking the issue seriously.

“When [authorities] board a canoe involved in unlawful fishing, they are allowed by law to confiscate the material, but you have to let the fishermen go. We also want our government to send patrols to the border, just like Mauritania is doing.”

In Mauritania, many residents have denounced the destruction and looting of shops belonging to Mauritanians in Saint-Louis, but most seem to strike a conciliatory tone.

“There is a real attempt to appease the tension, and we can see it because today there was no looting reported in Senegal. And here, the media have been very conciliatory, except a few that are favoring the Mauritanian position in their coverage,” Diop said.

The fishermen’s union in Senegal is hoping discussions between the two governments will resume soon on a new fishing agreement. That would allow its members to conduct their activities in both countries’ territorial waters without fear, in exchange for an annual fee.

The two nations are seeking to avoid an escalation in tensions as they discuss another hot-button issue. Dakar and Nouakchott are hoping to partner to exploit an underwater natural gas field recently discovered at their common maritime border. The two countries severed ties in 1989 following violent incidents and mass repatriation of each other’s citizens. Diplomatic relations have since been restored.

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Eritrean Leader Criticizes Israel’s Migrant Deportation Plan

In a rare interview, Eritrea’s president has expressed his displeasure with Israel’s plan to deport tens of thousands of African migrants, saying they deserve far more than the $3,500 they were offered to leave.

President Isaias Afwerki’s interview on a government website Wednesday said the migrants from his country and Sudan paid a “high price” to human traffickers to reach Israel and deserve more like $50,000.

“They need fair compensation to start a new life in their home country,” Afwerki said in the interview with local reporters. He said all those who wish to return home “have every right to do so,” and that Eritrea has offered to register all of its roughly 20,000 migrants but Israeli authorities had refused.

Many Eritreans leaving the east African nation claim they fled a restrictive regime under Afwerki, where men are often forced into a military service with slavery-like conditions. They say they cannot return.

In the interview, Afwerki claimed instead that the Eritrean migrants were enticed abroad to organize an armed opposition but that the “subversive schemes” failed and the migrants now have become a burden.

Israel’s deportation plan has sparked protests by liberal Israelis who say the country should never turn away those in need. They note that of 15,000 African refugee status requests, only 11 have been approved.

On April 1, Israel plans to start expelling the African migrants, some of whom have been in the country for years. About 60,000 migrants crossed Israel’s previously porous desert border with Egypt before a barrier was completed in 2012 along the 130-mile (220-kilometer) frontier.

Since then about 20,000 migrants have left either voluntarily, via a U.N. program, or with the encouragement of the Israeli government, which offers each about $3,500 and a plane ticket to leave. Others have been locked up in a massive detention center in the remote southern desert.

Israel’s Cabinet recently voted to begin shipping out the remaining 40,000 migrants, even against their will, to an unnamed third African country with which it has reached a secret agreement. 

Israeli authorities said the migrants would be deported to Rwanda and Uganda, Afwerki said. 

“We are told they will be deported to any country that can accept them,” he said. “These are human beings, not livestock. No country can claim legal responsibility to receive our citizens.”

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Supporters, Critics React to Trump’s State of the Union Speech

Americans are responding to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, the annual report that the president makes to a joint session of Congress. Mike O’Sullivan reports that after one year in office, Trump prompted strong reactions in his speech Tuesday evening, reflecting divisions in the country.

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Strong Earthquake in Afghanistan Kills Girl in Pakistan

A young Pakistani girl was killed Wednesday by a strong earthquake that struck several thousand kilometers away in northeast Afghanistan.

The U.S. Geological Survey says the epicenter of the 6.1 magnitude quake was located about 35 kilometers south of Jarm in the Hindu Kush region near the border with Tajikistan, at a depth of 191 kilometers.

The fatality occurred in Pakistan’s Baluchistan’s province. The child was killed when the roof of her mud-walled house collapsed. At least nine other people were injured.

No reports of casualties or serious damage have come from Afghanistan. The quake was also felt in Islamabad, Peshawar and the Indian capital of New Delhi.

Large parts of the region are prone to frequent earthquakes due to the junction of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates. Thousands of people were killed in a 7.6 magnitude quake that hit northern Pakistan in 2005.

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Freed from Libyan Jails, Frustrated Migrants Pose Challenge to New Gambia

Jobless, restless and frustrated, 24-year-old Saikou Jammeh persuaded his father to sell the family home and give up his life savings to pay for the journey from Gambia to Europe.

Jammeh saw no future for himself in Gambia, a tiny impoverished country on West Africa’s coast, so he joined an exodus of young men willing to sacrifice everything to leave.

But after being robbed, beaten, and locked in a Libyan prison for several months, Jammeh found himself back where he started — in Gambia with no job prospects and empty pockets.

“I felt abandoned by the government,” he said on a busy street in Churchill’s Town, a suburb of the capital Banjul. “I was just sitting, wondering what to do.”

Thousands of thwarted migrants like Jammeh are returning to Gambia, straining its fledgling government as officials scramble to get European-funded reintegration projects up and running.

President Adama Barrow took office a year ago, ending former leader Yahya Jammeh’s 22 years of autocratic rule, and is under pressure to deliver on promises of sweeping economic reforms.

Nearly 2,500 Gambians were flown home by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) last year, most pulled out of prisons in Libya after reports emerged of Africans being sold in slave markets in the lawless country, the U.N. agency said.

The returnees are a noticeable presence in the nation of 2 million, posing a bigger threat to stability than in other West African countries wrestling with migration, experts said.

“We are not ready to receive all these people,” said Bulli Dibba, permanent secretary of Gambia’s interior ministry.

“We are very much concerned for domestic security,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

In November, a group of newly-returned migrants threw rocks at the IOM offices because they were unhappy with the support they had received, according to IOM spokeswoman Florence Kim.

“The government is already struggling to deal with unemployment,” added Dibba, a veteran Gambian civil servant. “If we have more people coming in, what will we do with them?”

Out of reach

Gambians have accounted for about one in 20 migrants arriving in Italy in recent years, making it the country with the highest number of migrants per capita reaching Europe.

Trying to stem the flow, the European Union is funding job training and youth empowerment programs across the continent with its 3.2 billion euro ($4 billion) Trust Fund for Africa.

While the fund was created in 2015, most of the programs in Gambia only started last year, according to the IOM.

“Thank god my life has grown into a plan,” said Saikou Jammeh, who did an EU-funded CCTV installation course after returning, and is now saving money for school.

But many young Gambians are missing out.

Of the 2,435 migrants who returned to Gambia in 2017, only 170 so far have received reintegration packages from the IOM, which consist of funding for education or business start-ups. The agency has received complaints, and is striving to avoid tensions and divisions within communities, said Kim of the IOM.

Give one former migrant more money than their peers and you create competition, she said. Offer returnees more support than their neighbors and it could spur others to leave for Europe.

Many of the returned migrants are traumatized, illiterate, or live in remote areas — making them difficult to assist.

“I know people who have ideas, but they don’t have any help,” said Donald Greywoode, 36, who quit his office job and set off for Europe on a route known locally as “the back way.”


When Greywoode came back, he found himself collecting trash.

Without education, training or job opportunities, boredom and resentment could boil over into conflict, analysts said.

“The stakes are very, very high,” said Franzisca Zanker, a researcher at Germany’s University of Freiburg, who has studied migration governance in Gambia.


Several returnees told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that they had not wanted to come home, but having been locked up, abused and starved in Libya, were left with no other choice.

“We don’t see ourselves as voluntary returnees,” said Mustapha Sallah, 26, who came back from Libya in April.

“They said if you don’t want to go home, you die here,” Sallah said. “Leaving was the only option.”

Coupled with the lack of opportunity, such frustration could drive people to migrate once more, experts warned. Others said broader economic changes would be needed to keep youth at home.

“Even after training all these people in all these skills, if the industry is not there, they will still struggle,” said Kebba Sillah, head of Sterling Consortium, a vocational training institute supported by the EU Trust Fund for Africa.

“I think the EU needs to encourage their businesses to come set up here, not just pump in money,” Sillah added.

While many returnees said they would never again attempt the treacherous journey through Libya, some still dream of Europe.

Jerreh Cham, 22, has received EU funding to complete a satellite installation course and attend business management school since returning from Libya in August.

But it is not enough to keep him at home.

“My plan is to get my qualification before reaching Europe,” said Cham, sitting in the yard outside his family’s small home. “If I go with my qualification and everything, I don’t think anybody will discount me. I think they will give me my respect.”


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After Trump’s Speech, Members of Congress Say Work Lies Ahead

Members of Congress reacted to U.S. President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech, with some praising its bipartisan tone and others wishing he had used the national address to more specifically discuss some of the issues facing the nation.

Republican Rep. Ryan Costello called it a positive speech that highlighted domestic priorities such as infrastructure and immigration, and said Congress needs to use the coming weeks and months to fill out Trump’s broad proposals with more detail.

“He also, I think, was very clear in terms of what we need to do to provide leadership around the globe, to support our allies, to encourage those dissenting voices against autocratic regimes around the [world]. I thought it was very good,” Costello said.

Democratic Sen. Chris Coons said he was hoping Trump would present a bipartisan message with concrete details about improving infrastructure, advancing American interests across the world and confronting North Korea, and that in some cases he delivered while on others he made little reference.

“We have an opioid addiction crisis here in the United States that is taking tens of thousands of lives. I had hoped that would be something more concretely addressed earlier in the speech with measure about how we could work together, because it is truly unifying, there is no one in congress who doesn’t need and want to address this together,” Coons said.

Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick said he thought Trump did succeed in striking a bipartisan tone.

“He talked about paid medical leave, infrastructure, he talked about opioids. These are all bipartisan issues,” Fitzpatrick said.

Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu told VOA’s Russian service that Trump hit high points in his speech with proposals for paid family leave, prison reform and $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending, while disappointing with an “un-American” call to limit family-based immigration.

“I’m pleased his State of the Union speech was less dark than his inaugural speech,” Lieu said. “I’m pleased he has taken a different path than when he was first inaugurated. Hopefully he sticks to it.”

US immigration laws

Immigration has been a major topic of late for lawmakers, with a failure to reach an agreement on undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children and a budget battle combining to bring a brief shutdown of the government.

Trump has advocated a much stricter system that includes boosting border security with a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and restricting the overall number of people who are allowed into the country.

Democratic Rep. Lou Correa was among those unhappy with a four-point immigration reform plan Trump discussed in his speech along with a highlight on gang violence the president blamed on faulty existing immigration policy.

“For many of us, building a wall is a symbol of division, of negativity, and that’s what he wants,” Correa said. “I think what we’re forgetting is this country is a country of immigrants. Whether you’re documented or not, you work really hard to enrich this country. And somehow that message, I never heard it.”

Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro also took exception to what he described as Trump’s equation of immigrants with criminals.

“I think people understand that there’s bad people in every batch, but they don’t do it, because they’re immigrants. If somebody is a murderer, it’s not because they’re white or black or brown, it’s because that person is a bad person. And he has continued to make that link, which is unfortunate,” Castro said.

Costello expressed support for Trump’s four-part plan, which also includes a path to citizenship for the young undocumented immigrants and moving away from the visa lottery system to one that is more merit-based.

Several groups of lawmakers have put forth their own immigration reform plans that include some of the same priorities, but so far none has emerged with enough consensus to become law.

​Fitzpatrick said a proposed measure he supports “strikes a right balance between border security and immigration reform.”

Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi said Trump did not put forth a package that balances Republican and Democratic priorities on immigration.

“The harsh rhetoric combined with that particular proposal, I don’t think it’s gonna move the ball,” Krishnamoorthi said. “I think we gotta get to the bargaining table and actually work together hash out a compromise.”

Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell said if Trump is serious about reaching out to both parties on immigration, “he should invite Democrats and Republicans to the White House tomorrow” to work on those policies.

Trump also used part of his speech to say he would not repeat mistakes of past administrations regarding North Korea and would keep up strong pressure on the country that has been making advances in ballistic missile technology.

Republican Rep. Steve Chabot said North Korea is a top foreign policy challenge facing the United States, and that it can not be ignored.

“We’re at the times that we were warned about,” Chabot said. “So I think that president, when he talked about North Korea tonight, set the right tone and it’s a serious, serious problem.”

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British Prime Minister Arrives in China to Forge Post-Brexit Trade Ties

British Prime Minister Theresa May arrived in China Wednesday on a visit aimed at boosting economic ties with the Asian giant ahead of her country’s exit from the European Union next year.

May began her three-day trip in the central industrial city of Wuhan, before heading to Beijing for talks with Premier Li Keqiang. She is accompanied by a large delegation of 50 British business leaders eager to expand their business in the world’s second largest economy.

The prime minister will meet with President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Thursday, before wrapping up her visit Friday in the financial hub of Shanghai.

The British leader says she is eager to use her trip to lay the groundwork for a so-called “golden era” between London and Beijing, a term which first surfaced in 2015 ahead of a state visit to Britain by President Xi. The Chinese leader is hoping Britain will endorse his flagship Belt and Road Initiative, a multi-billion dollar project aimed at reviving the ancient Silk Road trade routes between Asia and Europe. 

But Prime Minister May has been cautious in the past about embracing Chinese investment. She angered Beijing in 2016 when she temporarily delayed approval of Chinese-funded nuclear power plant in southwest England.

She has also expressed caution over the Belt and Road Initiative, saying that while the project holds promise, it is important the project meets “international standards.” 

In addition to trade, May is expected to discuss the escalating political tensions in Britain’s former colony, Hong Kong, which it ruled for more than 150 years before giving it back to China in 1997.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, wrote May this week warning that the semi-autonomous territory is facing “increasing threats to the basic freedoms, human rights and autonomy” that China agreed to observe under the handover agreement.

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Trump Condemns “Depraved” North Korea In State of the Union

Calling North Korea a “depraved” and “cruel dictatorship,” President Donald Trump, in his first State of the Union address, again promised to exert “maximum pressure” to prevent Pyongyang from developing nuclear missiles that can threaten the U.S. mainland. 

“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation. I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position,” said President Trump.

However he was more restrained than at times in the past when he called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “little rocket man.” He also did not mention the possible use of force, despite recent reports that the Trump administration is considering launching a limited military strike in response to a future provocation.

“I don’t know whether this is good news in terms of the Trump administration opting for more diplomatic engagement towards Pyongyang, or the Trump administration is getting more serious about taking different measures, including some kind of military options,” said Bong Young-shik, a political analyst with Yonsei University’s Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul.

In the last year, tensions between North Korea and the United States have escalated over Pyongyang’s efforts to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States. The Trump administration has led international efforts to impose harsh economic sanctions on North Korea, but has also emphasized that military force remains a viable option to deal with the growing threat to the U.S. mainland.

South Korea’s leadership has been advocating increased engagement to reduce tensions, and recently negotiated at least a temporary pause in North Korean missile and nuclear tests by persuading Pyongyang to participate in the upcoming PyeongChang Winter Olympics. The United States also agreed to postpone joint military exercises with South Korea until after the Olympic Games to accommodate the North’s peaceful participation. 

Depraved character

In his speech, Trump seemed to argue that there can be no compromise with the brutal and repressive Kim government. 

“We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies,” said President Trump.

The president recounted the tragic experience of Otto Warmbier, who died last year soon after being released from North Korea while in a comatose state. The American student was visiting North Korea in 2016, and was arrested for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster. He was sentenced to 15 years hard labor but soon fell into a coma from which he never awoke. Warmbier remained in prison for almost a year without adequate medical care as his condition continued to deteriorate.

His parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, who were invited by the president to attend the State of the Union, broke into tears when Trump pointed them out in the gallery as “powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world.” 

Trump also singled out another invited guest, North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, as “one more witness to the ominous nature of this regime.” In 1996, Ji lost a hand and a foot when he fell from a moving train while stealing coal to barter for food, during a famine in which millions of North Koreans starved to death. He endured painful amputations and later torture before escaping North Korea on crutches.

Ji is now a human rights activist with the group Now Action And Unity for Human Rights, and is involved in radio broadcasts into North Korea, where the state tries to restrict access to the outside world. 

“Today he lives in Seoul, where he rescues other defectors, and broadcasts into North Korea what the regime fears the most, the truth,” said Trump.

Victor Cha withdrawn

Also raising concerns that the United States may be preparing preventive military action to deal with the North Korean threat are reports that Victor Cha’s name was withdrawn as nominee for U.S. ambassador to South Korea. Cha is a Georgetown University professor and former National Security Council adviser on North Korean affairs during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Writing in the Washington Post on Tuesday, Cha said he shared his opposition to the preventive use of force against North Korea with White House officials while he was under consideration for a position.

Cha said he empathizes with the hope that “a military strike would shock Pyongyang into appreciating U.S. strength” but that “hope must give in to logic.”

Given North Korea’s missile and artillery capability, Cha argues, President Trump would put at risk the lives of millions in South Korea and Japan, “on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of U.S. kinetic power.”

Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.

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Trump Promotes Immigration Reforms, Democrats Reject His Policy as ‘Heartless’

U.S. President Donald Trump used a large chunk of his State of the Union address Tuesday to talk about the immigration reforms he wants to see.

He called his four-part plan one that would create a “safe, modern and lawful immigration system,” while Democrats described the president’s approach as “insulting” and “heartless.”

The first part of Trump’s proposal would create a path to citizenship for nearly 2 million immigrants who came to the country illegally when they were children. 

Nearly 800,000 of that group were protected under an Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that allowed them to live and work legally. But Trump ordered an end to DACA last year, giving Congress until early March to come up with a permanent solution for those it covered, sometimes referred to as “Dreamers.”

In explaining his desired reforms, Trump alluded to those immigrants while stating his desire to “focus on the best interests of American workers and American families.”

“My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans — to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too,” Trump said.

That line drew immediate reaction from many critics of Trump’s approach, including House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who wrote on Twitter, “Dreamers are Americans too.”

Democratic Congressman Joe Kennedy sent a further message of support to the young immigrants during the Democratic response to Trump’s address.

“You are a part of our story. We will fight for you. We will not walk away,” Kennedy said.

Trump said he is reaching out to both Democratic and Republican lawmakers in order to achieve his immigration goals.

Democratic Senator Mark Warner said he agrees there is a bipartisan deal to be found when it comes to the young undocumented immigrants and boosting funding for border security.

“But tonight President Trump showed that he is not willing to stop catering to the most heartless, extreme elements of his base who want to restrict nearly all forms of legal immigration,” Warner said.

Since launching his campaign for president, Trump has championed building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and in his immigration plan he wants to add to that an increase in the number of border security agents and to end what he calls “catch and release” policies for those caught trying to cross into the United States illegally. Trump says “deadly loopholes” have allowed gang members and other criminals into the country.

He is also calling for ending the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, or green card lottery, in favor of what he called a “more merit-based system” that would bring skilled workers who “contribute to our society and who will love and respect our country.”

The program is the immigration route for those who do not have family in the United States or an employer to sponsor them, and who are not refugees. It requires a high school diploma and two years of work experience. Each year, up to 50,000 people are selected.

In the final part of his plan, Trump wants to limit family-based immigration to spouses and minor children. 

The current system allows U.S. citizens and permanent residents to sponsor a wider range of family members, including parents, siblings, and adult children. For non-parent relatives, applications can include years of waiting and are subject to quotas for the number of immigrant visas that are granted.

A Democratic lawmaker from the state of Virginia, Delegate Elizabeth Guzman, rejected Trump’s immigration vision, saying he threatens to bring the country back to a time in which people are judged by the color of their skin and religion instead of their character.

“Immigrant families – who have given new life to the American dream through their arduous work and trust in American values – are facing uncertainty, anxiety and terror under President Trump,” she said, giving a response to Trump’s speech in Spanish. “He has replaced equality with intolerance, replaced mutual respect with racism.”

Guzman criticized Trump’s executive orders banning travelers from Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, plus North Korea and Venezuela as a “hateful, immoral ban against our Muslim brothers and sisters.”

The Trump administration says the ban is necessary to protect national security and has rejected those who say the policy, and another limiting refugee arrivals, target Muslims.

Guzman said Trump’s immigration plan would “fundamentally change the character of our country” and go against the ideals of the nation’s founders.

“We should not accept nor normalize the atrocious and insulting way in which this president characterizes our communities,” she said.

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US Says It is Not Changing Its Afghan Strategy

A top State Department official says there is no change in U.S. policy towards Afghanistan after President Donald Trump Monday ruled out for now negotiations with the Taliban. The U.S. official said the president was simply responding to a dramatic escalation in Taliban and other terrorist attacks on civilians. The Afghan government and the Taliban have also reacted to Trump’s comments, as VOA’s Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from the State Department.

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Protests Return To Barcelona As Standoff Over Catalan President Deepens

Protests broke out in the Spanish city of Barcelona Tuesday after Catalonia’s parliament postponed a vote on who should be president of the region. Pro-independence parties, which form a majority in the parliament, had nominated only one candidate – the exiled former leader Carles Puigdemont. The stand-off between Barcelona and Madrid looks set to deepen as parties on all sides of the debate harden their positions, as Henry Ridgwell reports.

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Media Blackout in Kenya as Odinga Takes Oath as ‘People’s President’

In Kenya, independent local broadcasters say the government orchestrated a media blackout Tuesday to prevent live TV coverage of opposition leader Raila Odinga swearing himself in as the so-called “people’s president.” 

Citizen TV was one of three major stations to go off the air in Kenya Tuesday. Citizen TV had announced that it would be broadcasting live from the site of the opposition’s rival presidential inauguration. 

In an interview with VOA, Wachira Waruru, the head of Royal Media Services, which owns Citizen TV and dozens of radio stations in Kenya, said the government was behind the shutdown.

“Officials from Communication Authority accompanied by police officers went to our transmission station in Limuru, and they disabled our transmission. So we have been off air since.”

Officials at the Communication Authority of Kenya declined to comment when reached by VOA.

 Also taken off air Tuesday were Nation Television and Kenya Television Network. Both had planned live coverage of Odinga’s swearing-in event.

Waruru said they did not see this coming.

“We were shocked and disappointed because we don’t believe there is anything we have done to warrant a shutdown. So we are very shocked and disappointed that this can happen with no explanation of any kind,” Waruru said.

Citizen TV and the others were able to live stream coverage Tuesday through the internet.

Speaking to the Kenya Television Network, Odinga condemned what he called an attack on the media.

“This is very unfortunate. Indeed it basically confirms that we have descended to the level of Uganda where in the last general elections all TV stations were shut off including also the social media network. We did not expect this will come to our country. It’s very unfortunate indeed, and it must be condemned by all civilized mankind,” Odinga said. 

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