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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