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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