Ghani Offers Conditional Legitimacy to Afghan Taliban

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered unconditional peace talks with the Afghan Taliban on Wednesday during the Kabul Process Conference in the nation’s capital, and he asked for a cease-fire. The Afghan leader also pledged to recognize the insurgent group as a legitimate political party if it agrees to give up violence. VOA’s Mohammad Habibzada reports.

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Trump to Senators: ‘You’re Afraid of the NRA’

U.S. President Donald Trump held a roundtable discussion on gun control Wednesday with a group of senators, during which he accused them of being “afraid” of the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun lobby.

At the bipartisan meeting, Trump said he would give “very serious thought” to a proposal to raise to 21 from 18 the age at which rifles such as the AR-15 — the gun used in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting — can be legally purchased.

WATCH: Trump Says He, NRA Don’t Have to Agree All the Time

“I can say that the NRA is opposed to it, and I’m a fan of the NRA. There’s no bigger fan,” Trump said. But, he added, he and the NRA don’t have to agree on “everything.”

The provision is included in a bill that would mandate background checks to include online sales and gun shows. Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, one of the bill’s authors, told Trump that legislators didn’t address the age question in recent discussions in the Senate.

Trump replied, “You know why? Because you’re afraid of the NRA.”

WATCH: Trump: ‘We Have to Confront Mental Health’

The bill, named for Toomey and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, failed to get the 60-vote minimum in the Senate in 2013 and again in 2015.

On Sunday, Toomey told NBC News that he was “skeptical” about the proposed change in the age limit “because the vast majority of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds are law-abiding citizens who aren’t a threat to anyone.”

In 2013, the NRA said the Toomey-Manchin bill would “not prevent the next shooting” and would not “solve violent crime.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, Trump called for “one great piece of legislation” to address the gun problem and asked whether various suggestions from senators could be added to the basic background check bill.

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Sixth Grader Pushes West Virginia Governor to Hike Teachers’ Pay

As thousands of teachers, staff and students head back to school across West Virginia on Thursday, they have a sixth-grader to thank for the end of a four-day walkout over pay and benefits.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jim Justice said teachers and other education-related employees would get a 5 percent pay raise in the first year.

At a press conference announcing the deal, the governor credited a 12-year-old boy for changing his mind on the issue.

Gideon Titus-Glover, who couldn’t attend his middle school because of the strike, had been joining the teachers, including his mother, on the picket line. On Monday, he joined them at a town hall meeting in Wheeling for a chance to speak directly to the governor.

When he got his turn at the microphone, he asked Justice why he thought it wise to increase the state’s tourism budget rather than school spending.

The governor tried to explain the idea of returns on investment to the boy, telling him turning one dollar into eight was a good investment.

He was not prepared for Titus-Glover’s response.

“Wouldn’t it be an investment to invest in smart teachers that would make me smart, and then I can in turn, turn around and do smart, good things for our state?” the boy replied.

Upon reflection, Justice said Titus-Glover was right.

“To be perfectly honest, in a lot of ways, I was looking at this maybe not correctly,” the governor told the news conference.

“I was looking at it as what the prudent thing was to do and not as investment.”

Philip Titus-Glover told CNN his son’s intervention at the town hall was “natural.” He is a critical thinker who feels “very strongly about injustice,” he said.

The family said they have no immediate plans of jumping into politics or advocacy.

Gideon Titus-Glover is just excited about heading back to school.

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Slain Journalist’s Investigative Report Published on Slovak Site

A Slovak website has published the unfinished investigative report on alleged government ties to the mafia written by slain journalist Jan Kuciak.

Kuciak and his girlfriend, Martina Kusnirova, were found dead Sunday in their home east of Bratislava. It was the first time a journalist’s death in Slovakia was linked to his or her work.

Kuciak’s story describes the alleged connection between a suspected member of the Italian ‘Ndrangheta organized crime family in Slovakia and two senior aides to Prime Minister Robert Fico.

The two aides — security council secretary Viliam Jasan and chief state adviser Maria Troskova — say they are shocked by the murders but deny any connection to the killings. They say they are stepping down from their posts until the investigation is complete.

Fico called the shootings an unprecedented attack on the freedom of the press and democracy in Slovakia. However, he warned newspapers against linking “innocent people” to a double slaying “without any evidence. Don’t do it.”

Slovak police chief Tibor Gaspar said Wednesday that Kuciak and Kusnirova were most likely killed because of Kuciak’s work as an investigative journalist. He said both were killed with the same weapon, which is missing.

The shootings have outraged Slovaks. More than a thousand people turned out for an opposition-sponsored protest, and student marches are planned across the country Friday.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. is “shocked and saddened” by the murders, and calls for a “swift, determined investigation” to bring the killers to justice.

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Montenegrin Defense Chief Says NATO Contributions on Target for 2024

Montenegrin Defense Minister Predrag Boskovic says the country is on target to spend 2 percent of annual economic output on defense by 2024, in keeping with a promise to expand military budgets as the United States offers an increase in its own defense spending in Europe.

Boskovic met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on Tuesday, his first visit to the Pentagon since Montenegro became the 29th member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in June 2017.

“Montenegro, as a new member, will reach that target by 2024,” Boskovic said in an interview with VOA’s Serbian Service, after meeting with Mattis. “We are spending 1.7 percent already this year, and I think we can reach 2 percent level without any great effort.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized NATO allies for not spending enough on defense, claiming it is unfair to taxpayers in the United States. Earlier this month in Brussels, Mattis pressed European allies to stick to a promise to increase military budgets in lockstep with increased U.S. spending.

Fifteen of 28 NATO countries, excluding the United States, now have a strategy to meet a NATO benchmark first agreed to in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, following years of cuts to European defense budgets.

​Afghanistan, Kosovo

Boskovic also announced that his country is planning to increase its troop presence in Afghanistan, where Montenegro currently has 18 soldiers participating in Operation Resolute Support, a NATO-led training and advisory mission with more than 13,000 soldiers.

The mission has been engaged in Afghanistan since 2015.

“We have already made a decision to increase the number of our soldiers in Afghanistan, which needs to be approved by the parliament, and I don’t doubt that by next rotation, we’ll have more troops in the country,” Boskovic told VOA.

Mattis, according to the readout of Tuesday’s meeting, praised the “significant contributions Montenegro has made to the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, and lauded the country’s plan to meet the Wales Summit defense spending pledge by 2024.”

Montenegro has also decided to send members of its armed forces to the NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, known as KFOR. Montenegro’s plan to participate in the KFOR mission in Kosovo has been criticized by some officials in Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Two officers are expected to join KFOR by the end of the year, Boskovic told VOA.

This story originated in VOA’s Serbian Service.

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White House Communications Director Hope Hicks Resigning

White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, who has been one of President Donald Trump’s closest confidantes since before his election, is quitting.

“Hope is outstanding and has done great work for the last three years,” Trump said in a statement issued late Wednesday afternoon. “She is as smart and thoughtful as they come, a truly great person. I will miss having her by my side, but when she approached me about pursuing other opportunities, I totally understood. I am sure we will work together again in the future.”

Hicks, 29, who is the youngest-ever White House communications director, refused to answer numerous questions Tuesday in a closed session of the House Intelligence Committee.

Hicks told the panel, according to lawmakers, she had occasionally been required to tell “white lies.” However, she insisted that she had never been untruthful about anything connected to the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, in which Republican nominee Trump defeated the Democratic contender, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Sources say that Hicks was nervous and shaken by the experience of Tuesday’s all-day grilling before the committee.

Hicks has also previously been interviewed by the special counsel’s team overseeing the Russia investigation.

“There are no words to adequately express my gratitude to President Trump. I wish the President and his administration the very best as he continues to lead our country,” Hicks said in a statement.

Although Hicks had a very low public profile in what normally is a high visibility position, she oversaw a press office with dozens of people, and for years has been seen constantly by Trump’s side.

The former model, who had no political experience before the presidential campaign, joined the Trump Organization in 2014 after modeling for the online store run by Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, in a statement released with Hick’s resignation announcement, praised her as “a trusted adviser and counselor, and did a tremendous job overseeing the communications for the President’s agenda, including the passage of historic tax reform.”

Kelly said Hicks “has served her country with great distinction. To say that she will be missed, is an understatement.”

Hicks is the fifth person to have held the title of White House communications director during the 14 months of the Trump administration.

Hedge fund millionaire Anthony Scaramucci, who was Hick’s predecessor, lasted just 10 days in the job. He was fired by Kelly after an expletive-laden interview was published in which Scaramucci criticized several other high-level White House officials.

Hicks, according to White House sources, had been considering departing for months, and her departure was not triggered by Tuesday’s congressional testimony or publicity about former White House aide Rob Porter, who had been in a romantic relationship with her.

Porter, who was White House staff secretary, became enmeshed in scandal after his two former wives accused him of physical abuse.  


Hicks “is the President’s longest-serving aide, having worked with him before he announced his candidacy, through the campaign and into the second year of his administration,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in a statement. “After three years, she approached the President and told him she wanted to leave, so she could start exploring opportunities outside of the White House.”

According to Sanders, Hicks’ precise departure date “is to be determined, but it will be sometime in the next few weeks.”

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Facebook: No New Evidence Russia Interfered in Brexit Vote

Facebook Inc has told a British parliamentary committee that further investigations have found no new evidence that Russia used social media to interfere in the June 2016 referendum in which Britain voted to leave the European Union.

Facebook UK policy director Simon Milner in a letter Wednesday told the House of Commons Committee on Digital, Culture Media and Sport that the latest investigation the company undertook in mid-January to try to “identify clusters of coordinated Russian activity around the Brexit referendum that were not identified previously” had been unproductive.

Using the same methodology that Facebook used to identify U.S. election-related social media activity conducted by a Russian propaganda outfit called the Internet Research Agency, Milner said the social network had reviewed both Facebook accounts and “the activity of many thousands of advertisers in the campaign period” leading up to the June 23, 2016 referendum.

He said they had “found no additional coordinated Russian-linked accounts or Pages delivering ads to the UK regarding the EU Referendum during the relevant period, beyond the minimal activity we previously disclosed.”

At a hearing on social media political activity that the parliamentary committee held in Washington earlier in February, Milner had promised the panel it would disclose more results of its latest investigation by the end of February.

At the same hearing, Juniper Downs, YouTube’s global head of public policy, said that her company had “conducted a thorough investigation around the Brexit referendum and found no evidence of Russian interference.”

In his letter to the committee, Facebook’s Milner acknowledged that the minimal results in the company’s Brexit review contrasted with the results of Facebook inquiries into alleged Russian interference in U.S. politics. The company’s U.S. investigation results, Milner said, “comport with the recent indictments” Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller issued against Russian individuals and entities.

Following its Washington hearing, committee chairman Damian Collins MP said his committee expected to finish a report on its inquiry into Social Media and Fake News in late March and that the report is likely to include recommendations for new British laws or regulations regarding social media content.

These could include measures to clarify the companies’ legal liability for material they distribute and their obligations to address social problems the companies’ content could engender, he said.

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US Lawmakers Face Pressure on Rohingya Crisis

With no end in sight to the Rohingya refugee crisis, faith leaders and advocacy groups fanned out across Capitol Hill on Wednesday to pressure U.S. lawmakers to fast-track legislation punishing Myanmar’s government and demanding better treatment of the country’s Muslim minority.

“America has the power and only America can stop the genocide,” said Karim Yakub, a Rohingya refugee who has lived in the United States since 2015.

“How can America not pressure?” Shala Shamim of the Islamic Center of Maryland said. “Stop the [U.S.] aid going to Burma, put sanctions on them. There are lots of ways of pressuring them.”

Similar bills before the House of Representatives and Senate would limit U.S. military aid to Naypyidaw and impose restrictions on jadeite and rubies originating in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

The bills demand that Myanmar complete a transition to democracy, allow displaced Rohingya people to return to their homes, allow humanitarian relief to affected regions, provide access to full citizenship for the Rohingya population, and hold accountable those responsible for ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and genocide.

“We are here because the Rohingya people are facing genocide, and we want Congress to know what is happening right now to the Rohingya people,” Yakub said. “The Burmese government forces are murdering, Rohingya houses are burned. So we are here today to stop the genocide, and for the United States of America to take stronger action with the Burmese government.”

Lawmakers of both political parties have condemned the slaughter and displacement of Rohingya Muslims and echoed calls for action. Few, however, believe Congress will act soon.

Looking at options

“I think at this point we are still examining options,” Republican Senator James Risch of Idaho, who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, told VOA. “What’s happened there is just despicable, and it needs to be addressed and it will be. But at this point, I can’t tell you where it’s going to land.”

Risch said America’s options are limited and anything Washington does to pressure Naypyidaw will take time.

“They [Rohingya Muslims] are there, we’re here. If you’re talking about military action, those things don’t happen instantly, and it’s unlikely there would be military action in any event. It would be other things such as sanctions and pressure on the government — they always take time,” the senator said.

News reports say efforts to repatriate Rohingya refugees have stalled, leaving hundreds of thousands who fled to Bangladesh last year in limbo as conditions worsen at sprawling camps.

Yakub said he witnessed Rohingya villages being razed and fears for family members who stayed behind in Myanmar.

“They burned down our villages, nobody helped,” he said. “My family is still in Burma. For them, life is like a prison and hell — nowhere to go, nothing to do, no citizenship. They are not safe in Burma. So I cannot be silent. I have to speak up for my family, for all the Rohingya people.”

The Rohingya are one of Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities in the Buddhist-majority nation. The Myanmar government considers the Rohingya to be economic migrants from Bangladesh and has never granted them citizenship, even though most can show their families have been in the country for generations.

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South Sudan Rebels: Government Forces Killed Rebel Base Commander

A commander allied to South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar was killed during clashes in Yei River state on Monday.

A rebel spokesman said Felix Likambu Faustino, the SPLA-IO base commander for Yankonye village, was killed when government forces attacked his troops.


Col. Lam Paul Gabriel, the deputy military spokesman of the Machar faction, said government forces attacked their positions along the Yei-Maridi road, leading to clashes that lasted several hours.

Government military spokesman Brig. Gen. Lul Ruai Koang denied that government forces attacked the rebels’ positions, saying the clashes were between rival opposition forces operating in the area.

“There was no engagement between SPLA forces and different rebel groups. The reports we have been getting for the last three days indicated that the rebel groups loyal to [Thomas] Cirilo and Riek Machar have been fighting among themselves,” Koang told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus.

Bishop Hillary Adeba of Yei Diocese of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan confirmed fighting occurred on the outskirts of Yei town.

“We are very shocked and worried, because we have been hearing violations of the [recent cease-fire] through gunshots around Yei. The warring parties should observe the cessation of hostilities agreement because people in the rural areas are very tired throughout the four years [of war],” Adeba told South Sudan in Focus.

Adeba said the civilians need peace so they can begin rebuilding their lives.

Gabriel said the SPLA-IO is committed to adhering to the cessation of hostilities agreement signed in December at a conference aimed at reviving the collapsed 2015 peace agreement.

Kuong also said his forces are committed to the cessation agreement.

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National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen Says Party Name Change Is ‘Suicide’

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s plan to change the National Front’s name amounts to political suicide, its founder, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen told Reuters, warning that his daughter was cutting herself off from the party’s roots.

Le Pen father and daughter have been at odds since she kicked him out of the party in 2015 in a bid to distance herself from his frequent inflammatory remarks, which put off a large part of the electorate.

Now she wants to go a step further and rebrand the 45-year-old party after she lost the presidential election last year to centrist Emmanuel Macron.

At a congress mid-March she will ask cardholders to agree to drop the National Front’s name, a trademark well known in France and abroad but which party insiders say puts off potential voters and is an obstacle to alliances with other groups.

“This initiative is suicidal. That would be so for a company, and that is obviously also the case in politics,” the 89-year old far-right veteran, who has been involved in French politics for over 60 years and is still an EU lawmaker, said in an interview in his mansion on the outskirts of Paris.

“It takes years, decades, to build a credible political name. Wanting to change it is … inexplicable,” he said.

Already a best seller

No names have been floated yet. Marine Le Pen said she would propose a name at the congress. All party members will be eligible to vote.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, who led the National Front (FN) for nearly four decades before passing on the leadership to his daughter in 2011, is publishing on Thursday the first volume of his memoirs, in which he writes that he pities his daughter for losing last year’s election to President Emmanuel Macron.

The memoirs, which can be pre-ordered online, are the top selling book on Amazon in France.

“Her failure comes from strategic and tactical errors … from pushing the fight against immigration aside and focusing on the fight against the euro and Europe,” Le Pen senior said in the interview.

Although she lost last year’s election, Marine Le Pen’s efforts to clean up the party’s image have paid off to some extent. She won a third of the vote in the run-off, almost double her father’s best showing in his 40 years at the party’s helm.

Jean-Marie Le Pen too made it once to the second round of the presidential election, but his surprise qualification for the run-off in 2002 triggered a huge backlash, and he won less than 18 percent of the vote.

Marine Le Pen watered down her anti-euro stance, which has proved unpopular beyond the party’s core fans, after the election, refocusing the party on migration and security as other far-right parties in Europe have done.

The March 10-11 congress in the northern France city of Lille is meant to back that change of focus and give her a new mandate at the helm of the party.

No regrets

While Jean-Marie Le Pen still has a loyal following among veteran party members, younger cardholders say they are more comfortable with his daughter’s less provocative brand of politics.

His memoirs dwell mostly on the first part of his life, before the FN was set up.

He rejects allegations that he practiced torture while a French soldier in Algeria during the north African country’s independence war, but says that beatings and electric shocks were carried out by others and were necessary to obtain information.

His expulsion from the FN came after he reiterated past comments that World War Two gas chambers were a “detail” of history. He has also defended France’s WWII leader Philippe Petain, who died in jail after being condemned for high treason for his collaboration with Nazi Germany.

Le Pen, who has been convicted several times for incitement to racial hatred, said in the interview that he had no regrets.

Describing himself as a whistleblower warning against immigration, he accused French judges of being politicised and said he stood by his remarks on Nazi gas chambers, for which he was also convicted.

“Why would I have any regret or any remorse when I’ve got nothing to be blamed for?” he said.

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Lion Kills Woman at Refuge of South African ‘Lion Whisperer’

A lion that mauled a young woman to death in South Africa was under the care of a man known as the “lion whisperer” for his close interactions with the predators.

Kevin Richardson, who keeps lions at his animal sanctuary in the Dinokeng Game Reserve, said on Facebook that he and an “experienced” colleague took three lions for a walk in the reserve on Tuesday and that one chased an impala, eventually encountering the 22-year-old woman at least two kilometers (1.2 miles) away.

Richardson said he followed procedure before the weekly excursion by assessing the area for other “big five” animals, a designation that includes rhino, elephant, buffalo, leopard and lion, and sending out a “notification” that he was walking with lions.

The woman died at a tented camp run by Richardson, who said he was “devastated” by the killing. 

“The young woman was not a guest at the camp, but had accompanied her friend to conduct an interview for an assignment with the camp’s manager,” he said. “Before leaving the reserve, the two visitors were taking photographs outside the camp where the attack occurred.”

A police investigation was under way. The victim had joined a friend who went to the camp for a “school project,” said spokeswoman Constable Connie Moganedi. “When they were about to leave, the lioness attacked the young lady.”

The victim’s family is “traumatized,” said Moganedi, who declined to provide details about the victim.

The “intimate glam camp” with five tents is an hour’s drive from Johannesburg’s main international airport, according to Richardson’s website.

The management of the Dinokeng reserve said the woman was killed “within a conservation section that is not accessible to the general public” but lies within the reserve’s boundaries.

“The lion that was involved with this fatality was not one of the wild free-roaming lions of the Dinokeng Game Reserve,” the management said.

‘Canned hunting’

Some conservationists say captive-bred lions lose their fear of people and should not be released into the wild, partly because they pose a heightened threat to humans.

In an interview with The Associated Press last year, Richardson said he does not breed lions and that those on his 1,300-hectare (3,200-acre) property feed on donated carcasses of cattle and antelope. He said he hoped his hands-on interaction with lions, including caressing and cavorting, would help to highlight the plight of Africa’s wild lions. Their numbers have plummeted over several decades.

Richardson campaigns against the South African industry in which customers kill captive-bred lions in relatively confined areas, and told the AP that many of the lions in his care were rescued from being transferred to facilities where the practice labeled by critics as “canned hunting” occurs.

“I have been accepted as part of the pride,” he said in the interview. “But I have to be very careful. They are large animals and are very good at telling you how they feel.”

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South Africa Explores Constitutional Change to Allow Land Seizures

South Africa’s parliament voted Tuesday to examine how to amend the constitution to allow land seizures without compensation, a move that resonates deeply in a nation where the white minority still controls much of the farmland.

But the strongest proponent of the motion immediately sought to reassure the nation that nothing too drastic would come of it.

“No one is going to lose his or her house, no one is going to lose his or her flat, no one is going to lose his or her factory or industry,” Julius Malema, who leads the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters party, said immediately following the vote. “All we are saying is they will not have the ownership of the land, they will have a lease, depending on what is the arrangement, particularly as it relates to the outcome of the Constitutional review process.”

​Another Zimbabwe?

There are fears the vote will put South Africa on the same path as neighboring Zimbabwe, where forceful, violent seizures of white-owned farms in the early 2000s were blamed for the nation’s economic freefall and political instability. 

The ruling African National Congress also supported Tuesday’s motion, but with the provision that land seizures cannot hurt agricultural production, economic stability or political stability — a fairly large and vague loophole, analysts say.

​The loudest group in support of land seizures, the Black First Land First Movement, has denounced the motion as nothing but an “electioneering gimmick” by the ANC.

“Black First Land First is concerned that the Economic Freedom Fighters and the African National Congress are not serious about land expropriation without compensation,” the group said in a statement.  

Painful history

But as Malema knows, South Africa’s soil is stained by hundreds of years of colonial exploitation, by the blood and sweat shed by underpaid, mostly black laborers working for white bosses. Today, black South Africans, who are the majority of the population, remain on average significantly poorer than white South Africans.

With a critical national election looming, Malema used this emotional pull to full effect when arguing in favor of the motion in parliament:

“The time for reconciliation is over,” he said. “Now is the time for justice. If the grandchildren of [early Dutch settler] Jan van Riebeeck have not understood that we need our land, that over and above it is about our humanity, then they have failed to receive the gift of humanity.”

The opposition Democratic Alliance voted against the measure, and blames the slow pace of land redistribution on the ANC, which has ruled since the end of apartheid in 1994, but now faces a tough election next year as it has slowly lost ground to the opposition. 

Democratic Alliance Shadow Deputy Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Ken Robertson, began his speech by exhorting in Zulu, “People are suffering.”

“The ANC government does not have a land problem, we have a problem with the way the ANC are handling land,” he said. “People were dispossessed of their land and their dignity by the discriminatory laws of the past, the painful past that can never be forgotten. The ANC’s call for expropriation without compensation is a lazy attempt to divert attention away from the real reasons that lie at the heart of the slow pace of meaningful land reform and restitution.”

​Missing facts

While this debate has no shortage of fiery rhetoric, what it lacks, says analyst Ebrahim Fakir, is any concrete details.

Because of a general lack of facts and an abundance of rhetoric, Fakir was one of several analysts who told VOA that recent developments have left them confused.

“At present, all bets are off,” he said. “No one knows how and what this could mean. Theoretically, it could even mean that it does actually end up denying a regime of protection of private property.”

No reliable figures on land ownership in South Africa exist, although a recent government study found that only a third of the nation’s land is privately owned.

Furthermore, it’s unclear how the constitution would be changed, if at all. Tuesday’s vote mobilized parliament’s Constitutional Review Committee to deliver a report on the topic by August 30. Any changes to the constitution require a 75 percent vote.

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Victims Group Shuns Indonesia Attacks Reconciliation Event

One of the main Indonesian groups for survivors of terror attacks has refused to participate in what it says is a flawed government-organized “reconciliation” meeting between former Islamic militants and victims.


The three days of meetings between dozens of ex-militants and victims has its finale on Wednesday with speeches by seven government ministers, the singing of the national anthem, prayers and the screening of videos showing parts of the previous two days, which were closed to the media.


Sucipto Hari Wibowo, co-founder of the Indonesian Survivors Foundation, said the government has good intentions but many survivors have yet to come to terms with what happened to them let alone face the people responsible.


The rights of victims are “more important than a reconciliation held under the spotlight,” he told The Associated Press.


Officials have billed the event as an important step in combating radicalism and fostering reconciliation.


Indonesia has imprisoned hundreds of Islamic militants in the years since the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people, mostly foreigners.


But its efforts at convincing them to renounce violence have had mixed results. In overcrowded and understaffed prisons, militants have been able to convert other prisoners to radicalism and communicate with supporters on the outside to encourage new attacks that they believe will advance their cause of transforming Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, into an Islamic state.


At least 18 former militant prisoners have been involved in attacks in Indonesia since 2010, including a January 2016 suicide bombing and gun attack in downtown Jakarta that killed eight people, including the attackers.


Wibowo, a survivor of the 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, said many of the people under the umbrella of his group, which goes by the Indonesian acronym YPI, are psychologically unprepared to meet attackers, particularly in the big numbers participating in the government event.


“A public reconciliation would definitely involve high emotional pressure for some victims,” he said. “Even though many of them (the militants) have shown and expressed deep remorse and want to change, they have caused these people’s disabilities and the loss of their husbands, wives, parents, children and siblings.”


“After a decade, perhaps we have finished reconciling with ourselves, we can accept what happened to us, but to reconcile with the attackers is a different matter, it needs a different process,” he said.


Jan Laczynski, an Australian who lost five friends to the bombing of the Sari Club in Bali and narrowly avoided being at the venue himself, said his 2015 meeting with one of the perpetrators was a frustrating experience because it didn’t provide any answers.


He doubts meetings with reformed militants can result in any release of pain or anger for victims.


“It’s going to reopen wounds,” he said of the Jakarta event. “The hurt is still there, the anger is still there, the pain is still there.”


A measure of that feeling, he said, was the overwhelming amount of thanks he received from Australians and Indonesians to a video of the 2015 meeting that showed him refusing to shake the hand of Ali Imron, the driver of a vehicle and its deadly payload that exploded outside the Sari Club.


Yet the co-founder of another victims group that is participating in the reconciliation meetings, the Indonesian Bombing Victims Association, said forgiveness had resolved an overwhelming anger that had hampered his recovery.


“We cannot force the victims to come as there are also some militants who are not willing to come,” said Febby Firmansyah Isran, who suffered burns to 45 percent of his body from the 2003 bombing of the J.W. Marriot hotel in Jakarta.


“For me, holding a grudge is just useless. It cannot change the impact I suffered, it’s better to accept it as destiny,” he told the AP earlier this week.


Speaking at the Jakarta event, the chief of Indonesia’s counterterrorism agency acknowledged criticism from survivors that the Indonesian government only gives attention to convicted militants it hopes to reform.


Suhardi Alius said there is no legal framework for providing compensation to victims who often also require costly long-term medical treatment.


Compensation is being discussed as part of amendments to the country’s counterterrorism law, he said. The draft law has been stalled in Indonesia’s parliament for several years, partly over fears it hands too much power to police.


“Some need medical treatment for a long time,” Alius said. “We are trying to make such treatment unlimited by time and done at maximum standards. Efforts to collect funds to compensate the survivors hopefully will not be hampered by bureaucracy in the future.”

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Maldives Denies Japan’s Allegation That it Breached North Korean Sanctions

Maldives on Wednesday denied a Japanese foreign ministry statement that said a Maldives-flagged vessel was used to illegally transfer goods from a North Korean-flagged tanker in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

The Japanese statement said the “Chon Ma San”, designated by the United States as a sanctions target, was spotted by a surveillance plane with the Maldivian-flagged tanker “Xin Yuan 18” some 250 km (160 miles) east of Shanghai on Saturday.

It said “Japan strongly suspects that the vessels conducted ship-to-ship transfers” banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Maldives government denied that Xin Yuan 18 is of Maldivian origin and said “no such vessel is registered in the country.”

“We condemn … the use of our national flag in a manner so as to tarnish the good standing and reputation of our nation,” the Maldives government said in a statement.

It said Maldives has prioritized the implementation of all U.N. Security Council resolutions including those on North Korea.

Authorities do not allow flags of convenience to foreign owned vessels to operate outside Maldivian waters, it said, adding that the government was investigating.

“The Maldives will pursue aggressive action against any such acts which affects the national identity in such a detrimental manner,” it said.

The Maldives is facing a political crisis that has hurt tourism, its main revenue source and any international action could hurt its economy further, analysts say.

It is the fourth time Japan has suspected such an illegal transfer in recent weeks and comes as Washington and key Asian allies prepare to expand the interceptions of ships suspected of violating North Korean sanctions.

North Korea last year conducted dozens of missile launches and its sixth and largest nuclear test as it pursues its goal of developing a nuclear missile capable of reaching the United States, triggering deeper U.N. Security Council sanctions.

Washington on Friday slapped sanctions on dozens more companies and vessels linked to North Korea’s shipping trade and urged the United Nations to blacklist some entities to shut down smuggling aimed at obtaining oil and selling coal.

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Artificial Intelligence Poses Big Threat to Society, Warn Leading Scientists

Artificial Intelligence is on the cusp of transforming our world in ways many of us can barely imagine. While there’s much excitement about emerging technologies, a new report by 26 of the world’s leading AI researchers warns of the potential dangers that could emerge over the coming decade, as AI systems begin to surpass levels of human performance.

Automated hacking is identified as one of the most imminent applications of AI, especially so-called “phishing” attacks.

“That part used to take a lot of human effort – you had to study your target, make a profile of them, craft a particular message – that’s known as phishing. We are now getting to the point where we can train computers to do the same thing. So you can model someone’s topics of interest or preferences, their writing style, the writing style of a close friend, and have a machine automatically create a message that looks a lot like something they would click on,” says report co-author Shahar Avin of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk at Britain’s University of Cambridge.

In an era of so-called “fake news,” the implications of AI for media and journalism are also profound.

Programmers from the University of Washington last year built an AI algorithm to create a video of Barack Obama, allowing them to program the “fake” former president to say anything they wished. It’s just the start, says Avin.

“You create videos and audio recordings that are pixel to pixel indistinguishable from real videos and real audio of people. We will need new technical measures. Maybe some kind of digital signatures, to be able to verify sources.”

There is much excitement over technology such as self-driving AI cars, with big tech companies alongside giant car makers vying to be the first to market. The systems, however, are only as secure as the environments in which they operate.

“You can have a car that is as good and better at navigating the world than your average driver. But you put some stickers on a ‘Stop’ sign and it thinks it’s ‘Go at 55 miles per hour.’ As long as we haven’t fixed that problem, we might have systems that are very safe, but are not secure. We could have a world filled with robotic systems that are very useful and very safe, but are also open to an attack by a malicious actor who knows what they are doing,” adds Avin.

The report warns that the proliferation of drones and other robotic systems could allow attackers “to deploy or re-purpose such systems for harmful ends, such as crashing fleets of autonomous vehicles, turning commercial drones into face-targeting missiles or holding critical infrastructure to ransom.”

He says AI use in warfare is widely seen as one of the most disturbing possibilities, with so-called ‘killer robots’ and decision-making taken out of the hands of humans.

“You want to have an edge over your opponent by deploying lots and lots of sensors, lots and lots of small robotic systems, all of them giving you terabytes of information about what’s happening on the battlefield. And no human would be in a position to aggregate that information, so you would start having decision recommendation systems. At this point, do you still have meaningful human control?”

There is also the danger of AI being used in mass surveillance, especially by oppressive regimes.

The researchers stress the many positive applications of AI; however, they note that it is a dual-use technology, and assert that AI researchers and engineers should be proactive about the potential for its misuse.

The authors say AI itself will likely provide many of the solutions to the problems they identify.


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Graham, Counselor to Presidents, Receives Capitol Salute

He felt stung by the politics that helped define his life — and resolved to keep a distance. But in death, the Rev. Billy Graham is getting a rare tribute from the nation’s top political leaders under Capitol Rotunda.

President Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are expected Wednesday to remember “America’s pastor,” who died a week earlier at age 99. Some 30 family members will accompany Graham’s casket to Washington, where he befriended presidents of both parties and counseled others over seven decades.

Graham is lying in honor beneath the iconic dome Wednesday and Thursday, before a funeral Friday near his home in Charlotte, North Carolina. “If there is any American whose life and life’s work deserves to be honored by laying in honor in the U.S. Capitol, it’s Billy Graham,” Ryan said.

Though he met every president since Harry Truman and counseled most, Graham grew wary of politics after Watergate. He was closest to Richard Nixon but later said he felt used by him.

Ministered to presidents

​Nonetheless, Graham ministered to other presidents until his health began to fail about 10 years ago.

Former President Bill Clinton recalled seeing one of Graham’s crusades as a child, a profound experience that became more amazing over his life. Graham counseled him as Arkansas governor, and later as president in the White House itself.

“In that little room, he was the same person I saw when I was 11 on that football field,” Clinton said Tuesday after viewing the casket at Graham’s home.

Former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, also visited Graham’s home on Tuesday.

Rare honor

In Washington, Ryan said there had been no doubt that Graham would receive the honor of a public viewing in the Rotunda. He told reporters that almost immediately upon hearing of Graham’s death he, Trump, McConnell and Rep. Patrick McHenry, who represents the Graham family’s district, agreed it would happen.

Graham shares the honor with 11 presidents and other distinguished Americans, starting with Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky in 1852 and, most recently, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii in 2012, according to the House and the Architect of the Capitol.

Graham is only the fourth private person to lie in honor since 1998. The others are two U.S. Capitol Police officers who died in the line of duty in 1998 and civil rights hero Rosa Parks in 2005.

Trump met Graham at the pastor’s 95th birthday party in 2013, but is closer to Franklin Graham Jr.

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UN: North Korea Shipped Banned Items to Syria, Myanmar

North Korea sent items used in ballistic missile and chemical weapons programs to Syria along with missile technicians in violation of U.N. sanctions — and sent banned ballistic missiles systems to Myanmar, U.N. experts said.

The panel of experts monitoring sanctions against North Korea said its investigations into Pyongyang’s transfer of prohibited ballistic missile, conventional arms and dual use goods found more than 40 previously unreported shipments to Syria between 2012 and 2017.

It said an unnamed U.N. member state also reported evidence of Myanmar’s receipt of a range of conventional weapons from North Korea including multiple rocket launchers and surface-to-air missiles in addition to ballistic missile systems.

The Associated Press reported Feb. 2 that according to the experts’ report, North Korea was flouting U.N. sanctions on oil and gas, engaging in prohibited ballistic missile cooperation with Syria and Myanmar, and illegally exporting commodities that brought in nearly $200 million in just nine months last year.

AP obtained details from the more than 200-page report late Tuesday, including the panel’s findings related to chemical weapons in Syria. The U.S. and other Western nations have accused Syria of using chemical weapons against rebel-controlled areas including recently in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta, which President Bashar Assad’s government denies.

​Ballistic missiles, chemical weapons

The report to the U.N. Security Council, which diplomats expect to be made public in mid-March, details “substantial new evidence” about North Korea’s dealings with Syria dating back to 2008.

According to an unidentified member state, the North’s Ryonhap-2 Corporation was involved that year in a Syrian ballistic missile program, the “maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MARV) Scud D (MD) project,” the report said.

More recently, it said the August 2016 visit by a technical delegation from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s official name, “involved the transfer to Syria of special resistance valves and thermometers known for use in chemical weapons programs.”

That information came from another member state, which also reported that North Korean technicians “continue to operate at chemical weapons and missile facilities at Barzeh, Adra and Hama,” the report said.

It quoted Syria’s reply to the panel about the reports: “There are no DPRK technical companies in Syria and the only presence of some DPRK individuals are confined in the field of sports under private individual contracts for training athletics and gymnastics.”

The experts added that they have not yet received a reply for documents supporting this claim and a list of all North Koreans who have traveled to Syria.

Chinese shipper

The panel said it also examined shipments interdicted by member states that were sent by the Chinese company Cheng Tong Trading Co. Ltd. to Damascus-based companies in 2016 and 2017.

The experts said 13 shipping containers were filled with “acid resistant tiles,” which would cover 5,000 square meters, enough for a large-scale industrial project.

One country’s analysis concluded that the tiles “were to be used for activities conducted at high temperatures,” the panel said, while another country said the material “can be used to build bricks for the interior walls of (a) chemical factory.”

North Korean arms dealer

The panel also said it continued its investigations into activities of Ryu Jin, a senior official in Syria for the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation known as KOMID, who is on the U.N. sanctions blacklist. He listed his rank as a major general in a letter with an official proposal to Syrian Major General Ali Salim of the Army Supply Bureau for “an air defense command and control system,” it said.

KOMID is the DPRK’s primary arms dealer and main exporter of goods and equipment related to ballistic missiles and conventional weapons.

The report said among other activities, Ryu Jin shipped ball bearings and fiber-optic cables to Syria and earned 56,000 euros and 48,000 euros respectively, which was transferred through Tanchon Commercial Bank.

The panel said its investigations into several cases of previously unreported arms shipments and cooperation with front companies for those under U.N. sanctions between 2010 and 2017 “showed further evidence of arms embargo and other violations, including through the transfer of items with utility in ballistic missile and chemical weapons programs.”

For many years, the panel said the DPRK Corst Company acted on behalf of the Second Economic Committee, which is under sanctions, to ship goods to Syria for use in prohibited programs.

The panel said it received documents in July 2017 showing Corst shipped banned goods to a researcher at Syria’s Scientific Studies Research Council, which the U.S. says is the government agency responsible for developing and producing non-conventional weapons and the means to deliver them.


As for Myanmar, the panel said an unnamed member state reported that its Directorate of Defense Industries “maintains a sophisticated global procurement network” and “is seeking equipment from overseas suppliers for its DPRK-linked missile program.”

The panel said it previously concluded that Myanmar’s So Min Htike Co. Ltd, “was the consignee in the attempted transfer of prohibited nuclear-related items in 2012.”

While Myanmar told the panel in 2015 that it only had “normal diplomatic ties” with the DPRK, it reported on July 26, 2017, that it expelled Kim Chol Nam, a DPRK diplomat “for acting on behalf or at the direction of KOMID.” And on Jan. 24, 2018, the panel said “Myanmar added that it was investigating the panel’s latest request for information.”

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Trump Urges Prison Reform, Not Sentencing Overhaul, After Pushback

The White House on Tuesday urged U.S. lawmakers to move ahead with legislation to help prisoners prepare for life after release, but he stopped short of calling for broader reforms such as changing mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.

Arguing that a wider overhaul lacks congressional support, the Trump administration recommended more prison work programs, more partnerships with businesses to help ex-prisoners find jobs and more funding for programs to reduce state prison recidivism.

No proposal was offered on sentencing reform, an issue that divides the Republican Party between law-and-order hardliners and moderates. That leaves Republican President Donald Trump stranded in the middle. 

“The sentencing reform part still does not have a pathway forward to getting done,” a White House official told reporters on a conference call. “By doing this in smaller bits and pushing prison reform now, this has a better chance of getting done.”

The final outlines of the legislation will ultimately be decided by the Republican-controlled Congress, which may have difficulty passing a politically sensitive bill in an election year.

​Second chances

In his State of Union address last month, Trump pledged to help give former prisoners a second chance, but he also consistently talks tough about handling drug dealers.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has balked at any moves to reduce sentences. He angered Senator Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, when he wrote a letter this month slamming a bill supported by Grassley that would reform sentencing.

“Chairman Grassley is focused on passing sound policy, not the path of least resistance,” committee spokesman Taylor Foy said in response to the White House comments on Tuesday.

Foy said Grassley’s office continues to have “productive” conversations with the White House on this issue.

Conservative interests, such as Koch Industries, and many of Trump’s evangelical Christian advisers support more expansive reforms, but have said they would back a narrower bill to help prisoners if that has a better chance of passing Congress.

The White House arrived at its compromise proposal after almost a year of talks with religious leaders, lawmakers and advocacy groups on criminal justice, according to Reuters interviews with nearly a dozen outside advisers and advocates.

​Kushner’s role

Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner led the effort.

“He’s really been the quarterback,” said Paula White, pastor of a Florida megachurch and longtime spiritual adviser to Trump.

At a White House dinner in May for religious leaders, Kushner talked with guests about criminal justice reform.

Johnnie Moore, a member of a White House evangelical advisory board, was seated at a table with Kushner and wife Ivanka Trump at the dinner.

“We all started talking about all these other issues we’re concerned about. And I think to Jared’s and Ivanka’s surprise and to our surprise, we found we all cared a ton about this issue,” Moore told Reuters.

Evangelicals, who view helping prisoners as a biblical mandate, have pressed the White House for action.

Sources familiar with the discussions said the White House is considering administrative proposals to help prisons partner with churches and other nonprofits on job, housing and mentorship programs to benefit inmates long before they are released.

The American Conservative Union Foundation, which supports criminal justice reform, said it was cautiously optimistic that Congress would move ahead with legislation to help prisoners.

“A lot of hard work has gone into this effort, and the White House principles on prison reform are a meaningful step,” said David Safavian, deputy director for the foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.

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Puerto Rico: Treasury Cuts $4.7B Disaster Relief Loan to $2B

Puerto Rico’s governor said Tuesday that the U.S. Treasury Department has cut a $4.7 billion disaster relief loan available to the U.S. territory by more than half, and he demanded help from Congress.

Governor Ricardo Rossello said federal officials reduced the amount to $2 billion without providing an explanation nearly five months after Congress approved the loan. He warned the move puts Puerto Rico in a “dangerous financial dilemma” and that his administration could be forced to cut some essential services as the island continues to struggle after Hurricane Maria.

“Any material interruption to Puerto Rico’s public services will only exacerbate outmigration of its population to the mainland and further deepen and prolong Puerto Rico’s decade-old fiscal and economic crisis,” he said.

Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans fled to the U.S. mainland after the Category 4 storm, which hit as the island was struggling to restructure a portion of its $73 billion public debt load amid an 11-year recession.

Rossello said it seems the Treasury imposed certain loan restrictions to make it “extremely difficult for Puerto Rico to access these funds when it needs federal assistance the most.” He also said Treasury officials told his administration last week that they do not intend to forgive the loan.

Congress had approved the loan in October to help Puerto Rico recover from the storm, which killed dozens of people and caused up to an estimated $94 billion in damage. Some 15 percent of power customers remain in the dark, and more than 700 families are still living in hotels across the island. Last week, Puerto Rico’s power company obtained a $300 million emergency loan that will help keep it operating through late March, according to a federal control board overseeing the island’s finances. The board said it plans to request more loans in upcoming weeks.

Reason unclear

It is unclear why the $4.7 billion federal loan was reduced.

The Treasury said late Tuesday that it discussed with federal officials and board members on Monday the terms and conditions under which the loans will be offered “to protect federal taxpayer investments while ensuring funding is available quickly when needed.”

It said Puerto Rico will be able to access funding quickly if its cash balance drops below $800 million, and that FEMA expects to soon loan $5 million per municipality.

In January, officials with the Treasury Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent Puerto Rico officials a letter stating they were temporarily withholding the loan because they did not believe the government was facing a cash shortage as it had previously warned. Federal officials said the money would be released via the Community Disaster Loan Program once the island’s central cash balance decreased to a certain level.

Rossello said talks with Treasury officials are ongoing even as he has asked Congress to intervene.

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US Calls Out Russia for Playing ‘Arsonist and Firefighter’ in Syria

A top U.S. general is accusing Russia of sowing the seeds of instability in Syria and across the greater Middle East, part of an ongoing attempt to expand its influence at the expense of the United States and the international community.

“Diplomatically and militarily, Moscow plays both arsonist and firefighter, fueling tensions among all parties in Syria,” the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, told lawmakers Tuesday.

Votel further accused Russia of then offering to serve as a mediator in an effort to “undermine and weaken each party’s bargaining position.”

The criticism, though worded more sharply than in the past, is in line with previous warnings from U.S. and Western intelligence officials, who have said Russia views Syria as an opportunity to reassert Moscow’s central place on the world stage.

It also echoes concerns laid out in the most recent U.S. National Security Strategy, which called Russia a “revisionist power” intent on tearing down the current international order.

“It is clear that Russia’s interests in Syria are Russia’s interests and not those of the wider international community,” Votel said. “Their role is incredibly destabilizing at this point.”

But the general’s words may also reflect a growing disconnect with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which has often sought to emphasize areas of cooperation.

While administration officials say there are areas in which Russian activity is impinging on U.S. interests, and in which the U.S. is pushing back, they say the Middle East is not one of them.

“Is there a threat to us, a direct threat to us from Russia emanating from the Middle East? Obviously, the threat there is the terrorist threat and Iran,” a senior administration official said recently on the condition of anonymity.

Blaming Russia

In Syria, the U.S. and Russia have found themselves on different sides of the ongoing Syrian conflict, with Moscow backing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the U.S. backing the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group of moderate rebels, who have until recently largely been focused on efforts to defeat the Islamic State terror group.

Both Washington and Moscow have made concerted efforts to avoid conflict, setting up a deconfliction line in order to make sure their forces on the ground in Syria did not engage each other by mistake.

Still, Central Command’s Votel said Russia’s actions in Syria are actively undermining efforts to roll back IS and, ultimately, find a political solution to the larger conflict. 

“Russia has placed this progress at risk with their activities which are not focused on defeating ISIS but rather on preserving its own influence and control over the outcome,” Votel said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Votel also criticized Russia for its failure to follow through on its self-declared “humanitarian pause” in Syria’s eastern region of Ghouta on Tuesday.

Residents said at least six civilians were killed after just a brief pause in fighting, when Syrian government warplanes resumed their bombing of the region.

Russian officials blamed the resumption of fighting on rebel groups, but the U.S. State Department put the blame on Moscow.

“They’re not adhering to the cease-fire because they continue to sponsor and back Bashar al-Assad’s government. That is tragic,” the State Department’s Heather Nauert told reporters.

In his testimony Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee, U.S. Central Command’s Votel was equally blunt.

“Either Russia has to admit it is not capable or that it doesn’t want to play a role in ending the Syrian conflict,” Votel said.

‘Clever game’

There are also concerns Russia is increasingly willing to use proxies and allies in Syria and across the Middle East to confront the U.S. as part of a larger, great power competition with the U.S.

Earlier this month, pro-Assad forces attacked U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in Syria. 

U.S. defense officials have refused to comment on who directed the attack. But audio recordings obtained from a source close to Kremlin by, a fact-checking project by Voice of America, indicate some of the forces were part of CHVK Wagner, a Kremlin-linked private military company.

Analysts also see Russia’s hand in Turkey’s decision to launch an incursion into the Afrin region of northern Syria last month.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the time that Ankara had a deal with Moscow, and Russian media reported Russian troops in the area had withdrawn prior to the incursion.

“Russia’s played a very clever game here by being the newfound friend of Erdogan,” said Luke Coffey, a former British defense adviser now with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. “Then, of course, you throw Iran into this and [Syria’s] Assad and you see this sort of deadly cocktail that is present that makes it more difficult for the U.S. to act and act in a coherent and strategic manner.”

Top U.S. defense officials, like Votel, worry that with Moscow’s help, the stage is being set for more and bigger problems.

“Russia is a party to this and they have responsibilities to ensure that the tractable partners that may be in this area are under control,” he said Tuesday. 

Still, there are those who worry that as long as Trump administration officials are more focused on terrorist groups like IS and al-Qaida, and on Iran, Russia has the upper hand.

“We never saw what’s happening in Syria as a [great power] competition, but [Russian President Vladimir] Putin always did,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow specializing in Russian Middle East policy at The Washington Institute.

“We basically ceded Syria to him without even realizing it,” she said. “With dictators, you always have to show strength. Putin will push until someone pushes back.”

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Nigeria Panel to Investigate Attack on Girls School

Nigeria’s government said Tuesday it had set up a panel to investigate the abduction of 110 girls from their school last week by suspected members of the extremist Boko Haram group.

Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed said a major general would head the panel of Nigerian security agencies that will examine what security was in place at the school and in its northern town, Dapchi in Yobe State, before the attack.

The military had withdrawn from Dapchi weeks before the February 19 attack, saying its troops were needed elsewhere and claiming that security was handed over to police.

Police deny that, saying the military never entrusted security to it.

Nigeria said the girls missing from the Government Girls Science and Technical College range in age from 11 to 19. 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for “the immediate and unconditional release of all missing girls and for their safe return to their families,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The U.N. chief urged Nigerian authorities to swiftly bring those responsible for their abduction to justice, Dujarric said, and he reiterated the U.N.’s support to Nigeria and countries in the region in their fight against terrorism.

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Vote in South Africa’s Parliament Moves Land Reform Closer

South Africa took a step Tuesday to hasten the transfer of land from white to black owners when parliament backed a motion seeking to change the constitution to allow land expropriation without compensation.

The ruling African National Congress has long promised reforms to redress racial disparities in land ownership, and the subject remains highly emotive more than two decades after the end of apartheid. Whites still own most of South Africa’s land following centuries of brutal colonial dispossession.

Tuesday’s motion was brought by the radical left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party but was supported by the ANC, which controls almost two-thirds of the parliament compared with EFF’s 6 percent.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said after his inauguration two weeks ago that he would speed up the transfer of land to black people, although he stressed that food production and security must be preserved.

Launching a debate on the motion in parliament, EFF leader Julius Malema said “it was time for justice” on the land issue.

“We must ensure that we restore the dignity of our people without compensating the criminals who stole our land,” he said.

The motion was passed 241-83. Parliament then instructed a committee to review the constitution and report back to it by August 30.

It was not clear when any change to Section 25 of the constitution to allow expropriation of land without compensation would take place. Together, the ANC, EFF and other small opposition parties could muster the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional change.

The ANC supported the motion with some amendments. Its deputy chief whip, Dorries Dlakude, said the party “recognizes that the current policy instruments … may be hindering effective land reform.”


The official opposition Democratic Alliance party (DA) opposed the motion, arguing that changes to Section 25 would undermine property rights and scare off potential investors.

The DA’s Thandeka Mbabama told parliament that expropriation without compensation was a way to divert attention from the failure by successive ANC-led governments to come to grips with the issue. Corruption and lack of farmer training and capacity remain obstacles to land redistribution.

“It is shocking that at the current rate it will take 35 years to finalize [land] restitution claims lodged before 1998,” said Mbabama, who is deputy shadow minister for rural development and land reform.

In his first state of the nation address two weeks ago, Ramaphosa appealed directly to poorer black voters — the core of the ANC’s electoral support base — saying he would aim to speed up the transfer of land to black people as a general election looms in 2019.

Ramaphosa said earlier Tuesday he would pursue expropriation of land without compensation, but reiterated that this should be done in a way that increases agricultural production and improves food security.

Among the main criticisms leveled at government’s land reform policy over the years has been that many farms transferred to emerging black farmers lay fallow and unproductive.

Land expropriations would trigger legal challenges, said Ralph Mathekga, an independent political analyst.

“This thing is going to court, make no mistake. The motion today means land has been elevated even higher as a political issue to code red from code amber,” he said.

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Ethiopia’s Huge Dam Causes Worry in Egypt

Egypt was once called the “gift of the Nile” by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. But today, more than 2,000 years later, Egyptians fret about the existential threat of a faraway dam to their water supply.

Nearly seven years after Ethiopia began construction of the Renaissance Dam on the Nile River, downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan worry about the structure’s impact on the river’s water levels and potential harm to agriculture and industry. 

Negotiations to reach a solution continue, but no agreement is in sight.

Ethiopia began building the Renaissance Dam in 2011, as Egypt was engulfed in political turmoil. As the dam nears completion, Egypt’s leaders are considering ways to cut back on water consumption. Government officials fear the dam will reduce their country’s share of Nile water allocated to it under a 1929 international accord.

During a visit to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi tried to appear conciliatory. But his worry was clear. He told his hosts that he was happy that the dam would bring “development and growth” to their country, but warned them that “the Egyptian people rely entirely on the water that comes from [the Nile].”


Guy Jobbins, a water research fellow at the British Overseas Development Institute, told VOA that Egypt’s concern is well-placed.

“The Nile is to all intents and purposes Egypt’s only significant water supplier,” he said. “It supplies about 99 percent of the water that Egypt uses each year,” a reliance he said makes it “extremely vulnerable to anything that influences that flow of water.”

Jobbins pointed out that water desalinization was “becoming more of a viable option in the Middle East,” and that prices “are becoming cheaper.” But he stressed it was expensive, and “with 100 million people living in Egypt, the cost of supplying more water by desalinization would be exorbitant.”

Jobbins calculated that the needed infrastructure could cost Egypt around $3 trillion.

No one is certain how much Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam will affect Egypt’s agriculture, or life in general. The completion of Egypt’s own Aswan High Dam in 1971 with the help of the former Soviet Union disrupted the normal flow of the Nile, reducing the amount of silt carried downstream and the vital nutrients it once provided to Sudan’s and Egypt’s fertile agricultural lands.

Some experts worry the new Ethiopian dam could also increase the concentration of agricultural and industrial pollutants if the flow of river water decreases.

Jobbins noted that the agricultural regions of Egypt’s Nile Delta in the north traditionally rely on “the river’s ability to flush [pollutants from] these places into the sea.”

The issue of long-term water quality, Jobbins argued, becomes more acute if the amount of water flowing into Egypt from the Nile is reduced.

Talks in Addis Ababa

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri met with Ethiopian and Sudanese officials at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa in late January.

Earlier this month, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who recently resigned, told Sissi during a visit to Cairo that the Nile must “provide an opportunity for cooperation” and “never become a source of competition, mistrust or conflict.”

Sissi agreed, saying the river should “not be a source of conflict.”

Veteran Egyptian editor and publisher Hisham Kassem said a key potential conflict hinges on whether Ethiopia will fill the reservoir behind the new Renaissance Dam over 12 years, or over just three, which could severely curtail the flow of Nile water to Egypt in the interim.

Kassem thinks the talks are “stalled,” and said “if no deal is reached, [the situation] could be catastrophic, because it could mean that a lot of existing agricultural land in Egypt will be [left without] water, and the drought will have a serious impact on it.”

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, ousted in 2011, told Egyptian media last year that he would have taken action to destroy any dam Ethiopia built on the Nile.

Kassem believes military action to resolve a dam dispute would not be a good option, especially in the longer term. 

“If there’s a diplomatic failure, and Egypt resorts to military force, it’s going to be the biggest diplomatic failure in the history of Egypt,” he said. “And it’s going to affect Egypt’s ability to acquire arms.”

In the meantime, Sissi insists there is no crisis, while diplomats continue to talk.

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Concerns Mount in Egypt as Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam Nears Completion

Five years after Ethiopia began construction of the Renaissance Dam on the River Nile, downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan worry about impact on the river’s water levels and potential harm to agriculture and industry. Negotiations continue, though as Edward Yeranian reports for VOA from Cairo, no agreement is in sight.

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Nigeria Gripped by Massive Lassa Fever Outbreak

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports it is teaming up with national and international health agencies to tackle what appears to be the largest outbreak of Lassa fever in Nigeria. The Latest figures show 1,081 suspected cases of the disease, including 90 deaths.

The WHO reports 317 of more than 1,000 suspected cases of Lassa fever have been confirmed during the past eight weeks.  It says the number is more than the 305 cases reported all of last year, making this the biggest Lassa fever outbreak to date.

While the disease is present in 17 Nigerian states, the WHO reports it is largely concentrated in the three southern states of Edo, Ondo and Ebonyi. Lassa fever is endemic in Nigeria, as it is in a number of West African States. WHO spokesman Tarek Jasarevic says investigations have been undertaken to find out why this year’s outbreak is so extensive.

“[The] WHO is helping to coordinate health actors and is joining rapid risk assessment teams traveling to hot spots to investigate the outbreak. [The] WHO is supporting the Lassa fever Emergency Operations Center that is led by the Nigeria Center for Disease Control to revise the Lassa fever incident Action Plan, and to strengthen surveillance, infection prevention control and treatment, as well as better coordination and conducting Lassa fever research and development,” Jasarevic said.

Lassa fever is an acute viral hemorrhagic illness that occurs in West Africa. The virus is transmitted to humans via contact with food or household items contaminated with rodent urine or feces. Jasarevic told VOA the virus also can be spread between humans.

“Once a person is infected, it can infect other people just like Ebola was through the body fluid. So, mainly that would be the health care workers who are not properly trained and who are not properly equipped who may then get infected inside the health care facilities,” Jasarevic said.  

The incubation period of Lassa fever ranges from six to 21 days. The WHO says the best way to prevent the disease is by promoting good community hygiene to discourage rodents that spread the disease from entering homes. Besides storing grain and other foodstuffs in rodent-proof containers, the WHO suggests keeping cats in the home is a good idea.

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Trial Begins for Masterminds of Burkina Faso Coup Attempt

The trial has begun for 84 people accused of masterminding a 2015 coup attempt in Burkina Faso, with the West African nation’s capital under tight security.


Former presidential aides Gen. Gilbert Diendere and Gen. Djibril Bassole are among those facing a military tribunal. Hundreds of security forces deployed around the court building.


Diendere briefly took power after the presidential guard under his command staged a coup of the transitional government in September 2015. He stepped down days later under pressure from the regional bloc, Burkina Faso’s military and protesting citizens. He and others now face life in prison for charges including conspiracy against the state, murder and beatings.


Bassole, a former Foreign Affairs minister, is accused of treason. Many of the others accused are former soldiers in the presidential guard.


“This trial is not only a historic event, it is truly another victory against the retrograde and anti-democratic forces who have always plotted to prevent truth to prevail,” said the civil society organization Citizen Broom, which played a key role in the resistance against the attempted coup.

The transition government was set up after President Blaise Compaore’s ouster in a public uprising in 2014, ending nearly 30 years in power. A year later, as Burkina Faso prepared to transfer power to an elected head of state, the former presidential guards arrested transitional President Michel Kafando and several other officials, unhappy that Compaore supporters couldn’t run in the election.


The unrest that quickly forced the coup leaders to surrender killed at least 15 people and wounded more than 200 others.


“There should not be revenge but only justice,” Prosper Farama, a rights activist and lawyer for some of the victims, said of the trial.


Many in Burkina Faso have questioned the military tribunal’s ability to deliver a fair trial since its members are appointed by the ministry of defense and head of state. The military courts are outside the control of the body responsible for overseeing the independence of the judiciary, rights group Amnesty International said.


“This is a real test for the credibility of the justice system in our country always accused of favoring the political system in place,” said Chrizogome Zougmore, chairman of a local human rights group.


Mathieu Some, one of Diendere’s lawyers, said: “I am asking everyone to come and hear what happened so that we do not have a parody of justice.”


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