Fox News Host Taking Leave After Mocking School Shooting Survivor

Fox News show host Laura Ingraham announced on her show late Friday that she is taking next week off, after almost a dozen advertisers dropped her show after the conservative pundit mocked a teenage survivor of the Florida school massacre on Twitter.

Eleven companies so far have pulled their ads after a pushback by Parkland student David Hogg, 17, who called for a boycott of her advertisers.

A Fox News Channel spokeswoman said Ingraham was taking a pre-planned spring vacation with her children.

Hogg took aim at the host’s show, “The Ingraham Angle,” after she taunted him on Twitter on Wednesday, accusing him of whining about being rejected by four colleges to which he had applied.

Hogg is a survivor of the February 14 mass shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the Parkland suburb of Fort Lauderdale. He and other classmates have become the faces of a new youth-led movement calling for tighter restrictions on firearms.

Hogg tweeted a list of a dozen companies that advertise on “The Ingraham Angle” and urged his supporters to demand that they cancel their ads.

On Thursday, Ingraham tweeted an apology “in the spirit of Holy Week,” saying she was sorry for any hurt or upset she had caused Hogg or any of the “brave victims” of Parkland.

But her apology did not stop companies from departing.

The companies announcing that they are cancelling their ads are: Nutrish, the pet food line created by celebrity chef Rachael Ray, travel website TripAdvisor Inc, online home furnishings seller Wayfair Inc, the world’s largest packaged food company, Nestle SA, online streaming service Hulu, travel website Expedia Group Inc and online personal shopping service Stitch Fix.

According to CBS News, four other companies joined the list Friday: the home office supply store Office Depot, the dieting company Jenny Craig, the Atlantis, Paradise Island resort and Johnson & Johnson which produces pharmaceuticals as well as consumer products such as Band-Aids, Neutrogena beauty products

and Tylenol.

Hogg wrote on Twitter that an apology just to mollify advertisers was insufficient.

Ingraham’s show runs on Fox News, part of Rupert Murdoch’s Twenty-First Century Fox Inc.


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Scientists Track Chinese Space Station’s Final Hours in Orbit

Scientists are monitoring a defunct Chinese space station that is expected to fall to Earth sometime this weekend — the largest man-made object to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in a decade.

The head of the European Space Agency’s debris office, Holger Krag, says China’s Tiangong-1 space station likely will fall to Earth Sunday.

Krag said it still not yet known where the space station will hit Earth, but said it would be extremely unlikely for anyone to be injured when it does.

“Our experience is that for such large objects typically between 20 and 40 percent of the original mass, of 8.5 tons, will survive re-entry and then could be found on the ground, theoretically,” he said.

“However, to be injured by one of these fragments is extremely unlikely. My estimate is that the probability to be injured by one of these fragments is similar to the probability of being hit by lightning twice in the same year,” Krag added.

China’s first space lab, Tiangong-1 — or “Heavenly Palace 1″ — was launched in 2011 as a facility for testing docking capabilities with other Chinese spacecraft and to explore the possibilities for building a larger permanent space station by 2023.

Chinese astronauts visited it several times flying aboard the Shenzhou spacecraft.

It was scheduled for a controlled de-orbit and eventual crash into the Pacific Ocean, but in September 2016 China’s space agency conceded it had lost contact with the station.

Krag, says the 8-and-a-half ton craft will re-enter the atmosphere at a speed of 27,000 kilometers per hour.

He said the space station is expected to fall between the areas of 43 degrees south and 43 degrees north, and everything outside that zone is considered safe.

“Northern Europe including France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland are definitely on the safe side. Southern Europe, the southern part of North America, South Asia, Africa, Australia and also South America are still within the zone today,” he said.

The re-entry area covers huge parts of the Earth’s oceans, so any surviving pieces of the space station are most likely to end up at the bottom of the sea.


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Scientist, Pop Culture Icon Stephen Hawking Mourned at Cambridge Funeral

Crowds lined the streets of Cambridge, England, on Saturday for the funeral of one of the world’s most famous scientists: physicist Stephen Hawking, who died March 14 at age 76.

The scientist, confined for decades to a wheelchair and voice synthesizer because of the disease ALS, was known for his charisma, curiosity, and a crackling sense of humor. His science books and television cameos made him a pop-culture icon.

Hawking described his research as seeking “a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”

Hawking’s funeral was held Saturday at the Cambridge University church known as Great St. Mary’s. As the funeral procession arrived, bells rang 76 times — once for each year of Hawking’s life.

In addition to Hawking’s family members, caretakers, former students, and admirers, the ceremony was attended by a number of famous faces. Among them was actor Eddie Redmayne, who played Hawking in an award-winning film biography of his life called The Theory of Everything, released in 2014.

Redmayne’s co-star, Felicity Jones, model Lily Cole, Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May, and Britain’s Astronomer Royal, the Lord Rees of Ludlow (Martin Rees), were also there.

The eulogy, read by professor Faye Dowker, praised Hawking as someone “revered for his devotion as a scholar to the pursuit of knowledge.”

Hawking will be given one last high honor: his remains are to be interred in Westminster Abbey among some of Britain’s most legendary intellectuals. Hawking will take his place next to 17th-century mathematical scientist Isaac Newton and near 19th-century evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin.

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Russia’s World Cup Drives Some Students to Rare Protests

Many students would be delighted to have the World Cup in town, but not Maria Cheremnova.


The 20-year-old physics student in Moscow is one of thousands campaigning against the June 14-July 15 soccer tournament, which is set to disrupt academic life across the country.


There will be a 25,000-capacity fan zone outside the main building at Russia’s prestigious Moscow State University during exam season. In other cities, exams have been brought forward and thousands of police are set to move into dorm rooms.


The Moscow fan zone – a public viewing area with a big screen, beer and music – is on prime real estate near the vast Luzhniki arena, the river and the main university building, a Stalin-era colossus that ranks among the Russian capital’s most recognizable structures.


 The building is also home to around 6,500 students. Residents say it doesn’t have great soundproofing.


“I came to university to study, not to watch football and listen to that noise,” Cheremnova said. “Imagine 25,000 people and the events at night. It’ll all be visible, with lights, a big screen, music and fans, who aren’t very quiet guys. It’s going to stop people sleeping before their exams. It’s just awful.”


 It will also mean extra strain on already struggling transport networks – the fan zone is two subway stops from Luzhniki stadium – and fans could damage a nearby nature reserve, Cheremnova claimed.

A group of Moscow State University students and recent graduates has gathered more than 4,600 signatures demanding the fan zone be moved to another location. They said more students and staff would have signed but feared retaliation from the university administration. When attempting to deliver the petition to the rector’s office, security guards blocked the way and elevator access was cut to that floor only, supposedly for repair.


Russian universities have little tradition of student protest. While they were hotbeds of activism before the Russian Revolution of 1917, in Soviet times access to a college education was closely linked to political loyalty and membership of groups like the Young Communist League.


World Cup organizers have revised earlier plans for Moscow’s fan zone to be larger and closer to the university. FIFA said “to lessen the impact of the event on students and the adjacent infrastructure of the university, it was agreed to move the stage away from the main building by several meters, to reduce the capacity to 25,000 spectators and to change access flows.”


Opposition not only in Moscow

Across Russia, the tournament has brought upheaval for students.


The Russian academic year often runs well into the summer months, and late June is usually prime time for exams.


In most of the 11 host cities, university dorms are due to turn into temporary barracks for police and National Guard troops brought in from out of town for the tournament.


Many universities have brought forward examinations, often by more than a month, to avoid the World Cup and free up dorm space for security forces.


That means semesters have been cut short with little warning, forcing students to cram more studies into less time. Cheremnova said that some Moscow State University students were told to prepare for earlier examinations, only for the decision to be reversed.

At the Southern Federal University in Rostov-on-Don, semesters run back-to-back since “the winter vacation was postponed until the summer period,” according to spokesman Andrei Svechnikov.


What’s angering students more than anything else is the prospect of being forced to move out of rooms they’ve paid for.


Despite official denials from the Education and Science Ministry that any students will be kicked out to make way for security forces, more than 2,800 students have signed a petition against alleged removals.


“There will be no forced eviction of students under this process,” the ministry told The Associated Press, adding that security forces will “not disrupt the learning process.”


The AP contacted 17 universities cited in local media reports as planning to evict students for the World Cup. Of those, six said no students would be forced to move, one said a small number would be required to move to other dorms, and 10 failed to reply.


In many cities, students report mixed messages from university officials over accommodation and study schedules.


Zhokhangir Mirzadzhanov, a student in the western city of Kaliningrad, said his university initially offered to buy tickets for students to leave the city and free up dorm space for the tournament but details remained unclear.


“There are a lot of simple issues that they still can’t answer,” he said. “What comes next, no one knows.”

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Tibetans Mark 60th Year of Dalai Lama’s Arrival in India

As New Delhi seeks to revive its frayed ties with China, the Tibetan government-in-exile in India launched year-long celebrations Saturday to mark the 60th year of the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama’s arrival in India, in the hill town of Dharamsala — instead of the Indian capital, as originally planned.


Accusing the Chinese of destroying Tibetan civilization, culture and identity, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, urged Tibetans to strengthen efforts to make the return of the Dalai Lama to his native land a reality.


“Thousands and thousands of Tibetans have been killed and have died for the cause of Tibet. Many have burned themselves alive,” he said.  

Saying that he had fled Tibet under difficult circumstances, the Dalai Lama said it has been a time of mixed feelings of both sadness and happiness. “At the time, we had no idea what would happen in next 40 to 50 years. But today, we are commemorating 60 years in exile, so now we could see to a certain extent what would happen in the near future,” he said without elaborating.


The “Thank You India” event was moved out of the Indian capital to Dharamsala following a note by India’s top bureaucrat last month advising senior ministers and officials to stay away from the function, saying it coincided with a “very sensitive time” for relations with Beijing.


New Delhi’s caution toward a series of events planned by the Tibetans is seen as part of efforts to tone down its assertive stand toward China following a year when tensions between the Asian neighbors spiraled downward.  

‘Readjustment of China policy’

It marks a departure from India’s stance last year, when, ignoring strong protests from Beijing, New Delhi allowed the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh state, a territory disputed between the Asian giants.  


“These signals looked very hard line and hawkish,” says Manoj Joshi at the Observer Research Foundation. “I think there is a learning curve for the Modi government that one needs to be a bit careful in dealing with the Chinese on some of these issues. So there is a kind of readjustment of China policy.”


Besides moving the “Thank You India” function from New Delhi to Dharamsala, two other events have been scrapped — an interfaith prayer to be led by the Dalai Lama in New Delhi and a World Parliamentarians convention on Tibet.


Paying heed to Chinese sensitivities on the Dalai Lama, termed by Beijing a “dangerous separatist,” is a message from New Delhi to calm ties ahead of a series of meetings between Indian and Chinese officials, according to analysts.


India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, visits Beijing in April and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to meet with President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a regional summit in June.

Relations between India and China hit their lowest point when troops from both countries were locked in a 70-day standoff on their Himalayan borders. But of late, the tone has been more positive as they try to reset ties.

New Delhi, however, did not completely ignore the “Thank You India” event meant to show gratitude to the Indian government and its people for their support of Tibetan refugees.

Junior Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma and a senior leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Ram Madhav, attended the function as the exile community sang songs thanking India for providing a home to the more than 125,000 Tibetans that live in the country.


Madhav hoped that the Dalai Lama would be able to find a solution to the Tibetan issue “through peaceful and democratic means that will facilitate your honorable return to your homeland.”


The Dalai Lama crossed into India from Lhasa on March 31, 1959, and has made India his home ever since.


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Trump’s Talk of a Syria Pullout Nothing New

President Donald Trump’s unscripted remark this week about pulling out of Syria “very soon,” while at odds with his own policy, was not a one-off: For weeks, top advisers have been fretting about an overly hasty withdrawal as the president has increasingly told them privately he wants out, U.S. officials said.


Only two months ago, Trump’s aides thought they’d persuaded him that the U.S. needed to keep its presence in Syria open-ended – not only because the Islamic State group has yet to be entirely defeated, but also because the resulting power vacuum could be filled by other extremist groups or by Iran. Trump signed off on a major speech in January in which then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out the new strategy and declared “it is vital for the United States to remain engaged in Syria.”


But by mid-February, Trump was telling his top aides in meetings that as soon as victory can be declared against IS, he wanted American troops out of Syria, said the officials. Alarm bells went off at the State Department and the Pentagon, where officials have been planning for a gradual, methodical shift from a military-led operation to a diplomatic mission to start rebuilding basic infrastructure like roads and sewers in the war-wracked country.


In one sign that Trump is serious about reversing course and withdrawing from Syria, the White House this week put on hold some $200 million in U.S. funding for stabilization projects in Syria, officials said. The money, to have been spent by the State Department for infrastructure projects like power, water and roads, had been announced by Tillerson at an aid conference last month in Kuwait.


The officials said the hold, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, is not necessarily permanent and will be discussed at senior-level inter-agency meetings next week.


The officials weren’t authorized to comment publicly and demanded anonymity.


The State Department said it continually reviews appropriate assistance levels and how best they might be utilized. And the agency said it continues to work with the international community, members of the Coalition, and our partners on the ground to provide much needed stabilization support to vulnerable areas in Syria.


“The United States is working everyday on the ground and with the international community to help stabilize those areas liberated from ISIS and identify ways to move forward with reconstruction once there has been a peaceful political transition away from [Syrian President al-Bashar] Assad,” according to a statement from the State Department.

‘Very soon’

Trump’s first public suggestion he was itching to pull out came in a news conference with visiting Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on February 23, when Trump said the U.S. was in Syria to “get rid of ISIS and go home.” On Thursday, in a domestic policy speech in Ohio, Trump went further.


“We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon – very soon, we’re coming out,” Trump said.


The public declaration caught U.S. national security agencies off-guard and unsure whether Trump was formally announcing a new, unexpected change in policy. Inundated by inquiries from journalists and foreign officials, the Pentagon and State Department reached out to the White House’s National Security Council for clarification.


The White House’s ambiguous response, officials said: Trump’s words speak for themselves.


“The mission of the Department of Defense to defeat ISIS has not changed,” said Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman.


Still, without a clear directive from the president, planning has not started for a withdrawal from Syria, officials said, and Trump has not advocated a specific timetable.


For Trump, who campaigned on an “America First” mantra, Syria is just the latest foreign arena where his impulse has been to limit the U.S. role. Like with NATO and the United Nations, Trump has called for other governments to step up and share more of the burden so that Washington doesn’t foot the bill. His administration has been crisscrossing the globe seeking financial commitments from other countries to fund reconstruction in both Syria and Iraq, but with only limited success.


Yet it’s unclear how Trump’s impulse to pull out could be affected by recent staff shake-ups on his national security team. Tillerson and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, both advocates for keeping a U.S. presence in Syria, were recently fired, creating questions about the longevity of the plan Tillerson announced in his Stanford University speech in January. But Trump also replaced McMaster with John Bolton, a vocal advocate for U.S. intervention and aggressive use of the military overseas.


The abrupt change in the president’s thinking has drawn concern both inside and outside the United States.


Other nations that make up the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State fear that Trump’s impulse to pull out hastily would allow the notoriously resourceful IS militants to regroup, several European diplomats said. That concern has been heightened by the fact that U.S.-backed ground operations against remaining IS militants in Syria were put on hold earlier this month.

‘Serious and growing concern’

The ground operations had to be paused because Kurdish fighters who had been spearheading the campaign against IS shifted to a separate fight with Turkish forces, who began combat operations in the town of Afrin against Kurds who are considered by Ankara to be terrorists that threaten Turkey’s security.


“This is a serious and growing concern,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said this month.


Beyond just defeating IS, there are other strategic U.S. objectives that could be jeopardized by a hasty withdrawal, officials said, chiefly those related to Russia and Iran.


Israel, America’s closest Middle East ally, and other regional nations like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are deeply concerned about the influence of Iran and its allies, including the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah, inside Syria. The U.S. military presence in Syria has been seen as a buffer against unchecked Iranian activity, and especially against Tehran’s desire to establish a contiguous land route from Iran to the Mediterranean coast in Lebanon.


An American withdrawal would also likely cede Syria to Russia, which along with Iran has been propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and would surely fill the void left behind by the U.S. That prospect has alarmed countries like France, which has historic ties to the Levant.


In calling for a withdrawal “very soon,” Trump may be overly optimistic in his assessment of how quickly the anti-IS campaign can be wrapped up, the officials said. Although the group has been driven from basically all of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and 95 percent of its former territory in Syria, the remaining five percent is becoming increasingly difficult to clear and could take many months, the officials said.


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Pope Leads Good Friday Observances in Rome

Pope Francis presided over solemn Good Friday services amid tight security at Rome’s Colosseum for the Via Crucis procession. Italian police and army soldiers were on high alert, with Holy Week coinciding with a spate of arrests of suspected Islamic extremists around Italy.

Francis presided at a traditional candle-lit Way of the Cross procession around Rome’s ancient Colosseum. Some 20,000 people turned out to take part in the event with the pope on the most somber day in the Christian liturgical calendar, which commemorates the death of Jesus on the cross.

Rome authorities increased security this year with checks carried out as the faithful approached the area. Italian police carried out four raids against suspected supporters of Islamist terrorism, arresting seven people, including one man who was believed to have been planning a truck attack.

The Way of the Cross procession marks 14 events, called stations, beginning with Roman governor Pontius Pilate’s condemning Jesus to death, until his burial in a tomb. This year the meditations at each station were written by Catholic high school and college students in keeping with Francis’ decision to dedicate 2018 to addressing the hopes and concerns of young Catholics.

At the end, he delivered a meditation of his own, denouncing those who seek power, money and conflict. He prayed that the Catholic Church be always an “ark of salvation, a source of certainty and truth.”

Pope Francis also said many should feel “shame because our generations are leaving young people a world that is fractured by divisions and wars, a world devoured by selfishness where young people, children, the sick and the elderly are marginalized.”

The pope praised those in the Church who are trying to arouse “humanity’s sleeping conscience” through their work helping the poor, immigrants, and prison inmates.

Earlier, the pope presided over a solemn Passion of the Lord service in St. Peter’s Basilica which was kept open despite several pieces of plaster having come crashing down from a pillar of the church on Thursday. The damage was swiftly repaired.


Thousands of faithful filled the basilica. Francis lay prostrate in prayer on the marble pavement in front of the altar at the start of the chant-filled evening service. Later, the crucifix was carried in procession from the back of the basilica to the pope who then kissed it. The other concelebrants followed his example.

On Holy Saturday, in the evening, the pope will celebrate the solemn Easter Vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica, followed by the joyful Easter Sunday Mass marking what Christians observe as Christ’s resurrection.


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Australian Project to Probe Links Between Head Injuries in Sport, Disease

Researchers in Australia have begun an ambitious task to learn more about the long-term impacts of head injuries suffered by athletes. This week, the Australian Sports Brain Bank was launched in Sydney, and experts are encouraging players who have participated in all levels of sport – whether or not they’ve had a head injury – to donate their brains to the cause after they die.

The Brain Bank has been set up to investigate links between concussion, head injuries and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.  It is a neurodegenerative disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

The Australian study is being supported by American researchers, who set up a similar brain bank a decade ago.

Dr. Chris Nowinski, head of the Boston-based Concussion Legacy Foundation which has examined the brains of deceased National Football League players, says the presence of CTE among them is pervasive.

“Any contact sport where you receive repetitive brain trauma puts you at risk for this disease.  We do not know at what risk but we have seen CTE in 110 of the first 111 players that we have studied, which has really surprised us.”

Nowinski believes energy from blows to the head during competition causes brain tissue to move.  Symptoms of CTE include depression, aggression and memory loss, and can take years or decades to appear.

The cause of CTE has yet to be established, but the disease has prompted a class action lawsuit in the U.S.

Australia’s Brain Bank is a joint venture between Sydney University and the city’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.  It hopes to obtain 500 brains over the next 10 years.


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Fired for Liking a Tweet on Tibet, US Worker Feels China’s Reach

In early January, Roy Jones was making $14 an hour, $5 above Nebraska’s minimum wage as a representative dealing with customers on social media for Marriott International Group, the international hotelier.

For Jones, a 49-year-old Omaha resident, it was a dream job despite the bot-generated tweets that flowed unceasingly onto what he described as the company’s Tweetdeck-like interface January 9. Sometimes there were “more than 3,000 tweets in front of me, I’m just processing them,” Jones told VOA Mandarin earlier this week.

On what Jones called a hectic shift, there was a tweet from Friends of Tibet, a pro-Tibetan independence organization, congratulating Marriott for recognizing Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan as countries.

The company, which has more than 300 hotels in China, had named the three in a survey sent to customers that asked in which country they lived and gave options including Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

A Marriott social media account “liked” the Friends’ tweet, setting off an international incident that exemplifies the challenges Western companies such as Apple, Mercedes, Delta and Zara face as they do business with China.

Now, more than two months later, Jones told VOA Mandarin he is still not sure how or what he did or even if he was the employee who actually responded to that tweet.

WATCH: Florida Senator Marco Rubio on China, Tibet and American Companies

He was, however, the employee the hotel company fired almost immediately, and since January, his case has attracted the attention of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and who, as chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, spoke out in February on companies bowing to Beijing.

“Every week, it seems another major international company is publicly, and in some cases, shamelessly apologizing to the P.R.C. for some sort of ‘misstep’ related to Tibet … and otherwise sensitive issues,” Rubio said.

On March 25, although not mentioning Jones by name but calling out Marriott, Rubio tweeted: “This is the long arm of China. They can get an “American” company to fire an American worker in America.”

Last week at a Washington event, former U.S. Representative Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia who retired from Congress in 2015, took aim at the hotelier, saying, “There is cultural genocide taking place in Tibet. … I personally will never stay at a Marriott hotel unless Mr. Jones gets his job back.”

WATCH: Former Republican Congressman Frank Wolf Calls Out Marriott

On Friday, Marriott International Group did not respond to emails and phone calls from VOA asking for comment on the Jones case.

In January, soon after the “like” was registered on Twitter, Craig Smith, president of Marriott Asia Pacific Region, said in a statement quoted in the Wall Street Journal: “We made some mistakes in China earlier this year, which shows that some employees have poor understanding or insufficient attention to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity issues. These incidents are wrong and in no way represent the position of our company.”

Placing blame

What happened to Jones floored him. 

“My job is to help customers,” Jones told VOA earlier in this week. “Now that something went wrong, they want to push the blame on me.”

He’s not sure why. 

“My job isn’t to decide whether Tibet is a country,” he told his hometown newspaper.

Within 24 hours of the January 9 “like” going out, Chinese social media exploded even though Twitter is officially banned in China.

China’s netizens objected because, according to Beijing, Tibet is part of China. Supporters of Tibetan independence contend China occupies the area illegally.

Hong Kong, a British colony that reverted to Chinese control in 1997, retains its own government even though it is a special administrative region of China.

And Beijing considers Taiwan, a self-governing island, a wayward province and seeks the island’s reunification with China.

In that one survey, Marriott had touched on two of the so-called “Three Ts” — Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square, the site of June 1989 pro-democracy protests that ended with the deaths of hundreds of people — that are particularly sensitive topics in China.

On January 11, Marriott apologized to China’s government for referring to Tibet and Taiwan as countries.

That was when Jones learned that Marriott was suspending him. As he walked to his car after his meeting with the human resources department, Jones said his cellphone alerted him to a new story about Marriott.

That’s how he learned he was fired — a report he recalls as being in the China Daily, the state-run media — said that “termination proceedings are in process.”

His official termination letter stated January 14 as his last day with Marriott. It did not give a reason for his dismissal, Jones said.

The letter included a number to call about benefits and said any of his personal belongings at the office would be sent to his home. The box arrived the day before the letter, Jones said.

‘Surreal experience’

“It’s an absolute surreal experience. I feel like I’m in some kind of spy novel,” he told VOA.

Jones continues to be puzzled by the incident. He recalls that in school he learned “that people fought wars to keep the communist narrative at bay.”

Now, he admits he’s much more educated about China than he was before he was fired and feels that Beijing is “making a big push” to take its “narrative global.”

“There’s a bunch of stuff that China’s doing to the United States, and I don’t think that everybody’s putting the pieces together,” he told VOA.

“Somebody has to stand up and say something because obviously [what happened to me] this isn’t a right thing,” Jones said. “This is a wrong thing.”

“It’s just my idea,” he said with a sigh. “I’m just a guy who got fired. I used to make $14 an hour. What do I know?”

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Helping the Planet, One Burger at a Time

Chef Rob Morasco didn’t set out to make a planet-friendly burger.

But the 25 percent mushroom burger he created at food service company Sodexo not only has a lower carbon footprint, it’s also lower in calories, fat and salt.

It’s juicier, too.

“When you bite into it, it’s kind of like a flavor explosion,” Morasco said. “And you don’t taste the mushrooms, either.”

And because mushrooms are cheaper than beef, he could answer customer demand for antibiotic- and hormone-free burgers “without having to jack up the price,” he said.

Mushroom-blended burgers have been catching on among both chefs and environmentalists. In March, Sonic Drive-In became the first fast-food chain to offer them.

WATCH: These Burgers Are Better for the Planet, but You’d Never Know It

​2 million cars

Americans eat about 10 billion hamburgers each year, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI).

All those burgers take a toll on the planet.

Beef is “the most resource-intensive food that we commonly eat,” Richard Waite of WRI said.

Beef accounts for about half the greenhouse gases produced by the American diet, he added. Cows take far more feed, land and water than any other source of protein.

If every burger in America were blended with mushrooms, WRI estimates the greenhouse-gas savings would be like taking more than 2 million cars off the road.

It would save as much water as nearly 3 million American households use in a year. And it would reduce the demand for farmland by an area larger than the state of Maryland.

For the carnivore

Blended burgers are part of The Culinary Institute of America and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Menus of Change project, challenging chefs across the food industry to make their meals healthier and more sustainable.

Demand for meatless meals is growing along with rising health and environmental concerns. There are bean burgers, soy burgers, even beet-infused veggie burgers that “bleed.”

But it’s a limited market.

“The veggie burgers tend to cater to folks who identify as vegetarian or vegan, or actively want to be eating less meat,” Waite said.

On the other hand, blended burgers appeal to “the real carnivores, someone who really loves meat,” he added. “This is potentially a dish that could have broad mainstream appeal and also pretty big environmental benefits.”

Helps keep burgers juicy

Chefs say the mushrooms retain water, helping the burger stay juicy as it cooks.

Sonic Drive-In’s ads for its new Signature Slinger blended burger play up the juiciness and the lower calories.

“When you’re about something that is going to be better for you, it had better deliver the flavor first,” said Scott Uehlein, vice president for product innovation and development at Sonic Drive-In.

The company is piloting the burgers in a two-month trial run.

And the potential goes beyond burgers.

About 400 cafeterias, universities and hospitals are using Sodexo’s blended beef to prepare not only burgers, but lasagna, chili, meatballs, meatloaf and more. The company has adapted 30 popular recipes to use its mushroom blend.

“All those different things you can make with that product just like you would make with regular ground beef,” chef Morasco said.

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Mormon Conference Chooses New Leaders as Church Faces Scrutiny

A Mormon conference this weekend in Utah will usher in a new era of church leadership that comes as the faith grapples with heightened scrutiny about its handling of sexual abuse reports and one-on-one interviews between local lay leaders and youth.

Church President Russell M. Nelson will preside over the twice-annual gathering for the first time since taking office, and two new members will be chosen for an all-male top governing body.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints this week announced updated guidelines for the reporting of sexual abuse following news that a former prominent missionary leader was accused of sexually assaulting two women in the 1980s.

The new guidelines call on lay leaders to never disregard a report of abuse or encourage a person to stay in an abusive home. They also say children can bring a parent or other adult to one-on-one interviews with local church leaders. Parents previously were allowed only in a hallway or adjacent room. Youth can still go alone if they choose.

Some say the changes fall short.

On Friday, about 1,000 Mormons and ex-Mormons marched to the church’s Salt Lake City headquarters to deliver petitions demanding an end to the closed door, one-on-one meetings that start at age 12, along with the sexual questions they sometimes include.

Mormon spokeswoman Irene Caso said in a statement Friday the faith condemns any inappropriate behavior or abuse regardless of when or where it occurs, and that church leaders are given instructions for youth interviews.

The statement also seemed to express a willingness to change: “As with any practice in the Church, we continually look for ways to improve and adjust by following the Savior in meeting the needs of our members.”

Nelson is expected to speak at this weekend’s conference, but it’s unknown if he’ll address the issue or the larger topic of sexual misconduct that has been thrust into the national spotlight by the #MeToo movement. Church leaders usually focus their conference speeches on spiritual guidance and religious themes.

​Will Quorum diversify?

Nelson, a 93-year-old former heart surgeon, was appointed the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in January following the death of president Thomas S. Monson, who served for a decade.

Both Nelson and Monson rose up church leadership ranks after being named to a governing body called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, modeled after Jesus Christ’s apostles. Members of the all-male panel serve under the church president and his two counselors and remain on the panel until they die.

Church members and scholars will be closely watching Saturday to see if the Utah-based church adds diversity to its top leadership tier, which is made up entirely of white men from the U.S. with the exception of one German, Dieter Uchtdorf.

More than half of the religion’s 16 million members live outside the United States, and some Mormons would like to see the church’s global footprint represented in leadership.

The last time there were openings on the Quorum, in October 2015, the church chose three Utah men.

Women aren’t allowed on the religion’s highest leadership councils or in the faith’s lay clergy that lead local congregations. Church officials say their doctrine states men and women are equal, but only men are allowed in the lay priesthood because the religion follows the “pattern set by the Savior when it comes to priesthood ordination.”

Patriarchal structure

A contingent of Mormons have advocated for years for a change in doctrine to allow women in the priesthood, including large rallies outside church conferences in 2013 and 2014, but the Mormon church remains committed to its patriarchal structure. Nine highest-ranking women in the church oversee three organizations that run programs for women and girls. These councils sit below several layers of leadership groups reserved for men.

The new leaders are likely to come from next-tier of church leaders, which is called the Quorum of the Seventy, which is where the last 12 men chosen were working before their selections.

The new Quorum members will join a panel undergoing a substantial turnover following a string of deaths as previous leaders succumbed to the effects of aging.

After Saturday, five of the 12 panel members will have been appointed in the past three years. Before 2015, it had been six years since a new member was chosen, and more than a decade since the leadership council had two openings.

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Sierra Leone Presidential Runoff Calm; Low Turnout Reported

Voting in Sierra Leone’s presidential runoff election seemed peaceful Saturday during the Easter holiday weekend, as citizens hoped to complete a process started on March 7.

The current president, Ernest Bai Koroma, is stepping down this year after serving two five-year terms.

Voters Saturday are casting ballots for either the ruling All Peoples Congress Party’s presidential candidate Dr. Samura Matthew Wilson Kamara, or the Sierra Leone People’s Party presidential candidate, Julius Maada Bio.

This is the second time opposition candidate Bio has run for the country’s top government job. He lost the 2012 election to President Koroma.

Reports said turnout seemed lower than in the first round of voting, possibly because of heavy security precautions. Reuters news agency reports that driving is banned, forcing voters to walk to their polling stations.

Saturday’s runoff was delayed for four days by a court challenge to the first-round results. The challenge cited “irregularities” that resulted in a temporary injunction to give the election commission more time to prepare.

The new president will have to contend with issues such as rebuilding after the country’s devastating Ebola virus epidemic of 2014-2016, as well as a mudslide in August that killed an estimated 1,000 people in the nation’s capital, Freetown.


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US Seeks Prison Time for Macau Billionaire in UN Bribery Case

The U.S. government on Friday asked a judge to sentence Macau billionaire Ng Lap Seng to more than six years in prison, after his conviction last July for bribing two U.N. ambassadors to help him build a multibillion-dollar conference center.

Prosecutors made their request in a filing with the U.S. District Court in Manhattan and are also seeking a $2 million fine.

The request came four weeks after Ng’s lawyers urged that their 69-year-old client be sentenced to time served and allowed to return to his family in China.

Lawyers for Ng did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Ng’s sentencing by U.S. District Judge Vernon Broderick is scheduled for May 11. Probation officials recommended a six-year prison term.

Macau project never built

Ng was convicted on all six counts he faced, including bribery, money laundering and corruption, after a four-week trial and less than a day of jury deliberations.

Prosecutors accused him of paying more than $1 million of bribes to officials including the late former U.N. General Assembly President John Ashe.

They said Ng hoped the conference center, which was never built, would pave the way for luxury housing, hotels, a shopping mall, marinas and a heliport, turning Macau into the “Geneva of Asia” and winning himself fame and greater riches.

“The defendant, a sophisticated, international businessman, repeatedly used his wealth and power to seek to corrupt decision-making at the United Nations,” prosecutors said in Friday’s filing. “That was a choice. It warrants substantial and meaningful punishment.”

Defense seeks leniency

Defense lawyers have said Ng’s goals were consistent with the types of public-private partnerships that the United Nations favors, and that other diplomats abused Ng’s trust.

In their sentencing request, they called it “far more reasonable” to conclude that Ng’s motivations were patriotic and philanthropic.

They also said there was “no chance of recidivism,” and that Ng could assure the court that once in China, he would not seek to return to the United States or conduct business there.

Ng has been allowed to live in his Manhattan apartment under 24-hour guard on $50 million bail. He was arrested in 2015.

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1 Baton Rouge Officer Fired, 1 Suspended in Deadly 2016 Shooting

A Louisiana police chief said Friday that he had fired the white officer who fatally shot a black man during a struggle outside a convenience store nearly two years ago, a killing that set off widespread protests.

Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul announced Officer Blane Salamoni’s firing less than a week after Louisiana’s attorney general ruled out criminal charges in Alton Sterling’s July 2016 shooting death.

Paul also suspended Officer Howie Lake II, the other officer involved in the deadly confrontation, for three days. Lake helped wrestle Sterling to the ground but did not fire his weapon that night.

“My decision was not based on politics,” Paul said during a news conference. “It was not based on emotions. It was based on the facts of the case.”

Both officers had remained on paid administrative leave since the shooting.

Police also released body camera footage and other videos of the officers’ deadly encounter with Sterling.

In the body camera footage of the encounter, an officer can be heard repeatedly using profanity as he shouts at Sterling and at one point threatens to shoot him in the head as Sterling asks what he did.

When Sterling complains that the officers are hurting him, one of the officers says to use a Taser on him, and an electric buzzing can be heard. The officer believed to be Salamoni then runs at Sterling, tackling him as the camera footage blurs with motion.

Someone yells, “He’s got a gun,” then gunshots ring out.

Salamoni shot Sterling six times during a struggle outside the Triple S Food Mart, where the 37-year-old black man was selling homemade CDs. Lake helped wrestle Sterling to the ground but didn’t fire his weapon.

After the shooting — as Sterling lies on the ground — an officer can be heard using profanity to say Sterling was stupid.

Gun recovered

The officers recovered a loaded revolver from Sterling’s pocket. As a convicted felon, Sterling could not legally carry a gun.

L. Chris Stewart, an attorney representing two of Sterling’s five children, said the newly released videos showed that Salamoni attacked Sterling without provocation, “like a wild dog.”

“The most obvious thing that stands out is Alton wasn’t fighting back at all,” Stewart said. “He’s trying to defuse it the whole time.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry announced Tuesday that his office would not charge either officer with state crimes. The Justice Department ruled out federal criminal charges last May.

Sterling’s death inflamed racial tensions in the state’s capital and led to protests in which nearly 200 people were arrested.

In June 2017, Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome called on Paul’s predecessor, Carl Dabadie Jr., to fire Salamoni. Dabadie refused, saying it would be improper and premature because the shooting remained under investigation.

Paul said Tuesday that he and three deputy chiefs would preside over a disciplinary hearing — closed to the public — before imposing any punishment. He detailed the results of that hearing at a news conference.

Salamoni’s attorney, John McLindon, had said Tuesday that he expected the officer to be fired. He called it “grossly unfair” that a disciplinary hearing was planned less than a week after the end of the criminal investigations. Lake’s attorney, Kyle Kershaw, said his client’s actions complied with department procedures.

Salamoni had served as a Baton Rouge police officer for four years before the shooting; Lake was a three-year veteran of the force. 

Two cellphone videos of the incident quickly spread on social media after the shooting.

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Poll: Few Blacks Believe US Has Achieved Goals of Civil Rights Movement

A new poll shows that only 1 in 10 African-Americans thinks the United States has achieved all the goals of the civil rights movement, nearly 50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

The poll by the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released Friday shows that a majority of African-Americans believe there has been little or no progress on a range of civil rights issues, including fair coverage by the media, political representation and equal economic opportunities. 

The poll found that African-Americans were most pessimistic about the criminal justice system, with three-quarters saying there has been little or no progress on fair treatment by police. 

It found only one area — voting rights — where majorities of African-Americans believe a lot of progress or some progress has been made for racial equality since the civil rights movement. 

Thirty percent of Americans — 35 percent of whites and just 8 percent of blacks — said all or most of the goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved, according to the poll. Most of the remainder said partial progress has been achieved.

The poll shows that whites are more likely than blacks to think there has been progress in every area asked about in the poll.

Seventy-nine percent of African-Americans said blacks continue to face disadvantages to getting ahead in the United States, while only 44 percent of whites said the same. 

The poll also broke down the respondents by political party and found that 54 percent of Republicans compared to just 14 percent of Democrats think most or all of the goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved.

King was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, while he was at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Ray, a segregationist, pleaded guilty of the killing and spent his life in prison before his death in 1998. 

The AP-NORC poll contacted 1,337 adults for the survey on February 15-19. 

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Trump Supporter Malloch Says He Will Testify to Mueller Grand Jury

An American academic who supports U.S. President Donald Trump and is a strong advocate of Britain’s exit from the European Union will testify next month before the federal grand jury considering evidence in the

investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s 2016 election campaign and Russia.

Theodore Malloch, the author of a forthcoming pro-Trump book and an ally of Nigel Farage, a former leader of Britain’s UK Independence Party, said in a statement emailed to Reuters on Friday by the book’s publisher that he was questioned by FBI agents when he landed at Boston’s Logan International Airport on Tuesday after a flight from London and was served with a subpoena to appear before the grand jury.

Malloch “is scheduled to testify in Washington, D.C., on April 13th under Robert Mueller’s grand jury investigation,” Hector Carosso, a representative of Skyhorse Publishing, said in a separate email.

Malloch’s book, The Plot to Destroy Trump: How the Deep State Fabricated the Russian Dossier to Subvert the President, is scheduled for publication May 1.

Mueller is investigating possible illegal coordination between Trump and his 2016 campaign and Russia. Trump and Russia have denied any collusion.

The FBI and Mueller’s team had no comment on Malloch or events at the airport in Boston.

Cellphone taken

Malloch said in his email that the FBI presented him with a document authorizing the agents to seize his cellphone. He said he handed it over and later was told the FBI had to send it to Washington for a “full assessment.”

He also said the FBI questioned him for about an hour about his career, government security clearances, and academic credentials. He said the agents then asked him about his role in the Trump campaign, which he said was informal and unpaid.

He said they also questioned him about his contacts with Trump supporter and political consultant Roger Stone, the WikiLeaks website and Jerome Corsi, a contributor to conspiracy theory websites.

In his statement, Malloch said he knew nothing about WikiLeaks, which published emails that U.S. intelligence officials concluded last year had been hacked from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.

Sources familiar with Mueller’s investigation say one avenue of inquiry is how the hacked emails made their way to WikiLeaks from Russia, and whether any Trump allies ever handled them.

WikiLeaks did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Lawmakers in Gun-Friendly Vermont Pass Firearms Control Bill

Vermont lawmakers gave final legislative approval Friday to a bill that raises the legal age for buying firearms and expands background checks, becoming

the latest state poised to tighten gun restrictions after last month’s Florida school massacre.

The Democrat-controlled state Senate approved the measure, S55, in a 17-13 vote, according to the online legislative record. The bill passed the state House of Representatives this week.

The measure now goes to Republican Governor Phil Scott, who has shifted his stance and voiced support for some gun controls after the arrest in February of a Vermont teenager accused of threatening to shoot up a high school. The incident came two days after a former student killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14.

Scott’s support for gun controls marked a sharp switch for a governor with a 93 percent approval rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA) gun rights advocacy group in an otherwise politically liberal, largely rural state with a passion for hunting and a  reputation as a pro-gun stronghold.

The Vermont bill raises the age for gun purchases to 21 and expands background checks for private gun sales. It also bans magazines of more than 10 rounds for long guns and 15 rounds for pistols as well as rapid-fire devices known as bump stocks.

Two more bills

Vermont Public Radio reported that the Senate would take up two more gun-related measures next week. Both are aimed at removing guns from homes in cases of domestic violence or when someone is at risk of imminent harm from firearms, it said.

Gun control advocates say the turnaround in Vermont and as many as two dozen other states has been propelled in part by the groundswell of student-led lobbying efforts and protests calling for firearms restrictions.

After the Parkland massacre, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature swiftly passed a bill that raised the age requirement and set a three-day waiting period for gun purchases and allowed the arming of some school personnel. The measure was signed into law by another Republican with strong NRA credentials, Governor Rick Scott.

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Pippa Middleton’s Father-in-Law Is Subject of Rape Probe in France, Court Source Says

The father-in-law of Pippa Middleton, whose sister Kate is married to Britain’s Prince William, has been placed under formal investigation over suspected rape of a minor, a court source told Reuters on Friday.

David Matthews, who is the father of Pippa Middleton’s husband, James Matthews, was arrested Tuesday by the Juvenile Protection Brigade (BPM) and formally put under investigation for suspected rape of a minor under his authority, said the source, confirming a report on Europe 1 radio.

Paris prosecutors arrested Matthews during a visit to France, and later released him and placed him under judicial control, the source said. The source did not say when he was released. French police can hold suspects 24 or 48 hours in such cases.

The source said the alleged rape took place in 1998 or 1999. Europe 1 reported that a complaint was filed in 2017.

Reuters could not immediately reach Matthews nor any spokespeople or lawyers for him.

Being placed under judicial control means that prosecutors have attached certain conditions to his release or imposed certain limits on whom he can meet or where he can go. The source did not say what conditions had been attached in Matthews’ case.

Pippa Middleton came to national attention in Britain as the maid of honor at her sister’s royal wedding to William in 2011. Her own lavish wedding to James Matthews last May was one of the most widely reported social events of the year, attended by William and his brother Harry, grandsons of Queen Elizabeth.

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Could Enemies Target Undersea Cables That Link the World?

Russian ships are skulking around underwater communications cables, causing the U.S. and its allies to worry the Kremlin might be taking information warfare to new depths.

Is Moscow interested in cutting or tapping the cables? Does it want the West to worry it might? Is there a more innocent explanation? Unsurprisingly, Russia isn’t saying.

But whatever Moscow’s intentions, U.S. and Western officials are increasingly troubled by their rival’s interest in the 400 fiber-optic cables that carry most of world’s calls, emails and texts, as well as $10 trillion worth of daily financial transactions.

“We’ve seen activity in the Russian navy, and particularly undersea in their submarine activity, that we haven’t seen since the ’80s,” General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the U.S. European Command, told Congress this month.

Without undersea cables, a bank in Asian countries couldn’t send money to Saudi Arabia to pay for oil. U.S. military leaders would struggle to communicate with troops fighting extremists in Afghanistan and the Middle East. A student in Europe wouldn’t be able to Skype his parents in the United States.

Small passageways

All this information is transmitted along tiny glass fibers encased in undersea cables that, in some cases, are little bigger than a garden hose. All told, there are 620,000 miles of fiber-optic cable running under the sea, enough to loop around Earth nearly 25 times.

Most lines are owned by private telecommunications companies, including giants like Google and Microsoft. Their locations are easily identified on public maps, with swirling lines that look like spaghetti. While cutting one cable might have limited impact, severing several simultaneously or at choke points could cause a major outage.

The Russians “are doing their homework and, in the event of a crisis or conflict with them, they might do rotten things to us,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert at nonprofit research group CNA Corp.

It’s not Moscow’s warships and submarines that are making NATO and U.S. officials uneasy. It’s Russia’s Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research, whose specialized surface ships, submarines, underwater drones and minisubs conduct reconnaissance, underwater salvage and other work.

One ship run by the directorate is the Yantar. It’s a modest, 354-foot oceanographic vessel that holds a crew of about 60. It most recently was off South America’s coast helping Argentina search for a lost submarine.

Parlamentskaya Gazeta, the Russian parliament’s publication, last October said the Yantar has equipment “designed for deep-sea tracking” and “connecting to top-secret communication cables.” The publication said that in September 2015, the Yantar was near Kings Bay, Georgia, home to a U.S. submarine base, “collecting information about the equipment on American submarines, including underwater sensors and the unified [U.S. military] information network.” Rossiya, a Russian state TV network, has said the Yantar not only can connect to top-secret cables but also can cut them and “jam underwater sensors with a special system.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Preparing for sabotage

There is no hard evidence that the ship is engaged in nefarious activity, said Steffan Watkins, an information technology security consultant in Canada tracking the ship. But he wonders what the ship is doing when it’s stopped over critical cables or when its Automatic Identification System tracking transponder isn’t on.

Of the Yantar’s crew, he said: “I don’t think these are the actual guys who are doing any sabotage. I think they’re laying the groundwork for future operations.”

Members of Congress are wondering, too. 

Representative Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat on a House subcommittee on sea power, said of the Russians, “The mere fact that they are clearly tracking the cables and prowling around the cables shows that they are doing something.”

Democratic Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, an Armed Services Committee member, said Moscow’s goal appears to be to “disrupt the normal channels of communication and create an environment of misinformation and distrust.”

The Yantar’s movements have previously raised eyebrows.

On October 18, 2016, a Syrian telecom company ordered emergency maintenance to repair a cable in the Mediterranean that provides internet connectivity to several countries, including Syria, Libya and Lebanon. The Yantar arrived in the area the day before the four-day maintenance began. It left two days before the maintenance ended. It’s unknown what work it did while there.

Watkins described another episode on November 5, 2016, when a submarine cable linking Persian Gulf nations experienced outages in Iran. Hours later, the Yantar left Oman and headed to an area about 60 miles west of the Iranian port city of Bushehr, where the cable runs ashore. Connectivity was restored just hours before the Yantar arrived on November 9. The boat stayed stationary over the site for several more days.

Undersea cables have been targets before.

At the beginning of World War I, Britain cut a handful of German underwater communications cables and tapped the rerouted traffic for intelligence. In the Cold War, the U.S. Navy sent American divers deep into the Sea of Okhotsk off the Russian coast to install a device to record Soviet communications, hoping to learn more about the U.S.S.R.’s submarine-launched nuclear capability.

Eavesdropping by spies

More recently, British and American intelligence agencies have eavesdropped on fiber-optic cables, according to documents released by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor.

In 2007, Vietnamese authorities confiscated ships carrying miles of fiber-optic cable that thieves salvaged from the sea for profit. The heist disrupted service for several months. And in 2013, Egyptian officials arrested three scuba divers off Alexandria for attempting to cut a cable stretching from France to Singapore. Five years on, questions remain about the attack on a cable responsible for about a third of all internet traffic between Egypt and Europe.

Despite the relatively few publicly known incidents of sabotage, most outages are due to accidents.

Two hundred or so cable-related outages take place each year. Most occur when ship anchors snap cables or commercial fishing equipment snags the lines. Others break during tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

But even accidental cuts can harm U.S. military operations. 

In 2008 in Iraq, unmanned U.S. surveillance flights nearly screeched to a halt one day at Balad Air Base, not because of enemy mortar attacks or dusty winds. An anchor had snagged a cable hundreds of miles away from the base, situated in the “Sunni Triangle” northwest of Baghdad.

The severed cable had linked controllers based in the United States with unmanned aircraft flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions for coalition forces in the skies over Iraq, said retired Air Force Colonel Dave Lujan of Hampton, Virginia.

“Say you’re operating a remote-controlled car and all of a sudden you can’t control it,” said Lujan, who was deputy commander of the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group at the base when the little-publicized outage lasted for two to three days. “That’s a big impact,” he said, describing how U.S. pilots had to fly the missions instead.

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Air France, Lawyers Strike as Macron Labor Woes Grow

French lawyers staged a walkout Friday while Air France staff went on strike over pay, adding to a growing wave of industrial unrest that threatens to slow President Emmanuel Macron’s reform drive.

Air France canceled a quarter of the day’s flights as its pilots, stewards and ground crew press for a 6 percent pay rise.

And courts postponed hearings as hundreds of lawyers, clerks and magistrates stopped work across the country to protest judicial reforms, among a slew of changes by the ambitious 40-year-old president riling various sections of French society.

“The government’s plan at least has the benefit of being coherent — scrimping, cutting, sacrificing everything it can,” legal profession unions said in a joint statement ahead of protests Friday afternoon.

Law unions complain that the court shake-up, which aims to streamline penal and civil proceedings and digitize the court system, will result in courts that are over-centralized and “dehumanized.”

They particularly object to the scrapping of 307 district courts and their judges which they say will result in a judiciary that is “remote from the people.”

In the meantime, staff at state rail operator SNCF will begin three months of rolling strikes, two days out of every five, on Monday evening — just as many travelers are coming back from an Easter weekend away.

The next day, refuse collectors will strike demanding the creation of a national waste service, energy workers will strike urging a new national electricity and gas service, and Air France staff will walk out again.

“The cost of living goes up, but not salaries,” Francois, an Air France employee, told AFP during a demonstration at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, saying a six percent raise represents “barely a baguette a day for a month.”

Various universities across the country have, meanwhile, been disrupted for weeks by protests against Macron’s decision to introduce an element of selection to the public university admissions process.

‘Growth first, raise later’

Macron has so far avoided the mass industrial action suffered by his predecessor Francois Hollande.

But discord has been growing, with an estimated 200,000 taking to the streets last week in protests and walkouts by workers across the public sector angered by his reforms, including plans to cut 120,000 jobs.

Elected last May, the centrist ex-investment banker has pledged to shake up everything from France’s courts to its education system.

At Air France, 32 percent of pilots were set to join Friday’s walkout along with 28 percent of cabin crew and 20 percent of ground staff, according to company estimates.

But while just 20 to 30 percent of long-haul flights were cut at Charles de Gaulle and Orly in Paris, at other airports such as Nice, as many as half of Air France flights were cancelled.

The French state owns 17.6 percent of the carrier as part of the Air France-KLM group, Europe’s second-biggest airline, which has been plagued by strikes and labor disputes in its French operations in recent years.

Eleven trade unions have already staged two Air France strikes on February 22 and March 23 seeking a six percent salary hike, with two more planned on April 3 and April 7.

Unions argue the airline should share the wealth with its staff after strong results last year, but management insists it cannot offer higher salaries without jeopardizing growth in an intensely competitive sector.

“To distribute wealth we have to create it first,” chief executive Franck Terner told Le Parisien newspaper.

Air France is set to bring in a 0.6 percent pay rise from April 1 and another 0.4 percent increase from October 1, along with bonuses and promotions equivalent to a 1.4 percent raise for ground staff — seen by unions as grossly inadequate.

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Czech Republic Extradites Russian Alleged Hacker to US 

The Czech Republic has extradited to the United States a Russian citizen accused of hacking the LinkedIn website and stealing 117 million passwords.

Yevgeniy Nikulin arrived in the United States early Friday, according to U.S. officials, and is expected soon to appear before a judge in San Francisco.

The agreement to send him to the United States came even as Russia also requested his extradition, highlighting the chilly diplomatic situation between Washington and Moscow.

Russia accuses Nikulin of an alleged theft from an online money transfer company in 2009. It requested Nikulin’s extradition shortly after his arrest and the U.S. extradition request.

‘Easy decision’

Robert Pelikan, Czech Minister of Justice, told CNN that it was an “easy decision” to send Nikulin to America instead of Russia because the American charges were more serious. He said he made the decision a “long time ago” but waited to announce it until all the legal proceedings were finished. 

Czech Radio 7 reported that the justice minister waited until the Czech Republic’s top court rejected a last-minute appeal from Russia.

The case has been contentious in the Czech Republic, where President Milos Zeman is considered to be an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ryan visits Prague

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan visited Prague earlier this week and met with Prime Minister Andrej Babis. A spokesperson for the prime minister said the two discussed Nikulin’s extradition.

According to indictment documents, Nikulin was arrested in the Czech Republic after U.S. officials issued an international arrest warrant. He is charged with computer intrusion, aggravated identity theft and other offenses.

The indictment says Nikulin broke into the computers of the social network LinkedIn in March 2012 by stealing the username and password of an employee.

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Mugabe Critic Says He’ll Run in Local Harare Election

Zimbabwean Pastor Evan Mawarire was a vocal critic of former President Robert Mugabe. Now he has decided to run in local government elections this year and possibly land the job of mayor of Zimbabwe’s biggest city.

From pulpit to politics. Pastor Evan Mawarire is wading into the electoral fray in Zimbabwe.

He and other independent candidates have joined forces to run for local government posts in the coming elections. They call their coalition the People’s Own Voice.

Mawarire has his eye on the mayor’s spot in Harare should he win local government elections.

“Up to today, we still deliver dangerous and very dirty water to the residents of Harare,” he said. “We have potholes, our road network is completely dysfunctional, completely dilapidated and needs to be revived again. We have issues that have to do with refuse collection, we still don’t collect refuse for our people and that attracts all sorts of diseases. Those are things that my generation feels urgently [need attention].”

Mawarire rose to prominence in 2016 as the activist behind the #ThisFlag movement that organized protests against rights abuses by the government and former President Mugabe’s handling of the ailing economy.

He was jailed several times. He was later acquitted on some charges of subversion, while others are still pending in court.

The polls expected this July and August will be the country’s first without Mugabe, who resigned under military pressure last year.

Analysts say Mawarire’s entry into politics could spell trouble for the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. The MDC has struggled with internal divisions following the recent death of founder Morgan Tsvangirai.

Word is that the MDC has already reached out Mawarire for talks, though VOA could not confirm that information.

Sekai Holland, a former senior member of the MDC, welcomed Mawarire to politics. She did not indicate where her allegiances now lie.

“The effort that pastor Mawarire is launching with his colleagues, is very significant,” he said. “It’s middle-class African kids whose absence from politics has caused many problems. Their coming in strengthens the processes of development, and it is important that they themselves understand that they are part of the fabric, and not an independent formation. So they should dialogue with everybody.”

Last year, Kenya saw a surge in the number of independent candidates in its nationwide elections. Among them was the activist Boniface Mwangi who ran for parliament. He was in Harare for the launch of Mawarire’s movement.

“It is important because independent candidates do not carry any baggage, but they have a voice because they want to reclaim their country,” she said. “So it is very commendable that people have come together. The other thing is that when they’re independent, they do not support any side, especially presidential elections, which means they are able to get both votes from Chamisa and ‘Crocodile’ voters.”

He is referring to the two expected frontrunners in the coming presidential race.

Current President Emmerson Mnangagwa, or the “Crocodile” as he is known, will carry the mantle of the ruling ZANU-PF party.The MDC is expected to put forward its acting leader, Nelson Chamisa.

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Turkey Slams France’s Offer of Mediation Over Syrian Kurd Militia

Paris’s offer to mediate between Ankara and the YPG Syrian Kurdish militia has provoked outrage from the Turkish government.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said the move amounted to supporting terrorism, and could make France “a target of Turkey.”  President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described Paris’s move, as a “show of hostility against Turkey.”

French President Emmanuel Macron made the mediation offer after meeting a delegation of the Syrian Defense Force (SDF), which included prominent members of the YPG militia and its political wing, PYD. Ankara accuses the YPG of being affiliated to the PKK which is waging an insurgency inside Turkey. Friday the PKK was blamed for an attack on Turkish security forces that killed at least 5.

“We do not need a mediator. Since when has Turkey been sitting at a table with terrorist organizations? Where did you get this from? You can sit at the table with terrorist organizations. But Turkey fights against terrorist organizations in places like Afrin [in Syria],” said Erdogan Friday at a meeting of his supporters.


“France no longer has the right to complain about the actions of any terror organization on its soil after meeting with the representatives of the PYD and its armed wing, the People Protection Units (YPG),” Erdogan added.

In a statement, the French presidency said along with mediation, it was prepared to support the creation of a stabilization region to facilitate the SDF fight against Islamic State. The statement “paid tribute to the sacrifices and the determining role” of the SDF in fighting against the jihadist group. Ankara accuses the SDF of being a front for the YPG Kurdish militia.

Symbolic victory for YPG

Ankara’s fury appears to be exacerbated by claims by those attending the Paris meeting that France was ready to deploy forces to northern Syria as part of efforts to protect Kurdish forces. Paris has not confirmed those claims. France, like the United States, has provided arms to the SDF, including members of the YPG, as well as deploying special forces in the fight against Islamic State, much to Ankara’s anger.

But analysts suggest even if claims of a French military deployment prove unfounded, the symbolism of President Macron for the first time hosting members of the YPG at the Elysse Palace, is a significant victory for the militia.

“Well, it legitimizes people that Turkey calls terrorists,” points out political columnist Semih Idiz, of the al-Monitor website.  “And we may expect these same people now to appear in other European countries, Germany, Austria and other places. This has potential to add new higher-level tensions between Turkish European relations.”

Ankara’s strong pushback against Paris could also be a sign that Europe could be considering taking a more assertive stance towards Turkey.

“If you look at the way the European Union has closed ranks against Russia, we could end up with a similar situation with Turkey.  A block could be developing against Turkey centered on not so much the YPG but the Kurdish issue,” warns columnist Idiz.

European leaders, including Macron are facing growing domestic disapproval of what critics claim is the abandoning of Kurdish fighters, who had successfully fought Islamic State.

Ankara pushing ahead

Erdogan Friday announced preparations were underway for a new offensive in Syria against the Kurdish militia, promising to sweep across northern Syria to the Iraqi border. The next declared target of Turkish-led forces is the Syrian town of Manbij, where U.S. forces are deployed with the YPG.

Analysts suggests Erdogan will likely be emboldened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement Thursday he would pull U.S. forces from Syria. The U.S. State Department, however, said there was no change in Syrian policy, while the Pentagon reaffirmed support for the SDF in its fight against the Islamic State.

But Ankara’s strong pushback against Paris is indicative of what observers claim is Erdogan’s belief that none of its Western allies are ready to confront it over its Syrian intervention.

“This is what President Erdogan’s brinkmanship is based on, having had his way in Afrin, he is feeling rather bullish about this and he is going to press on,” warns columnist Idiz.

“We are heading for some confrontation, especially over Manbij. But it is true there seems to be very little that Europe and the West generally can do. Erdogan is set to continue on his path because he believes he can get what he wants.”


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Mauritania Jails Slave-Owner for 20 Years in Country’s Harshest Ruling

Two slave-owners in Mauritania face 10 and 20 years in prison after a court handed down the country’s harshest anti-slavery ruling yet, activists said Friday.

The West African country criminalized slavery in 2007 and this was the third-ever prosecution. In past cases, slave-owners were sentenced to two to five years.

“This is a big victory,” Jakub Sobik of Anti-Slavery International told Reuters. “The sentences are quite high and in line with the law, which is by no means a given.”

Mauritania has one of the highest rates of slavery in the world, with 1 in 100 people living as slaves, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index. Activists say that anti-slavery laws are rarely enforced.

The two cases were brought by former slaves in the city of Nouadhibou.

In one case, the verdict pronounced Wednesday was the result of a seven-year fight, said Salimata Lam of Mauritanian group SOS Esclaves, which assisted the victims.

A man who was sentenced to 20 years cannot be found, but a woman sentenced to 10 years was taken to prison, she said.

Slavery is a historical practice in Mauritania, which became the last country worldwide to legally abolish it in 1981.

Black descendants of certain ethnic groups are often born into slavery and spend their lives working as domestic servants or cattle herders for lighter-skinned Mauritanians.

Earlier this year, the African Union urged Mauritania to issue harsher sentences for the crime.

“I think the trend is irreversible. You can’t close your eyes to this situation,” said Lam.

But there is still a long way to go, she added. Anti-Slavery International has helped file at least 40 cases from former slaves that are lingering in courts, Sobik said.

Mauritania has jailed more anti-slavery activists than slave-owners, and the repression of organizations fighting to end slavery is growing, rights groups said this month.

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Mali’s Erratic Weather Pushes Girls into Risky Domestic Work

From sweeping to fetching water, washing children to cooking, Sitan Coulibaly’s day as a maid in Bamako begins at 6 a.m. and ends well after dusk.

The 17-year-old is used to hard work — but as a farmer, growing millet on her parents’ farm in Babougou, in central Mali.

“I haven’t been home in over five months,” she said, lowering her head as she spoke. “I left before the harvesting season even ended, because there was nothing to harvest.”

Longer droughts and other unpredictable weather are destroying an ever-larger share of crops across this country in Africa’s Sahel region.

That is leading more families to send their daughters to earn money in cities during the lean season, often as maids, while sons leave for seasonal jobs as street vendors or gold miners.

Around the world, migration is growing among families hit by shifting weather patterns, disasters, conflict and other pressures.

In some of the world’s poorest places, bad times mean children, as well as adults, may need to leave home to find work, sometimes leading to separation from their families, risks of abuse and disruption to their education.

In Bamako, the majority of migrant girls work as housekeepers from December to June before returning to the farm.

But a particularly poor harvest season last year meant many left home as early as September, farm families say.

Last year, rainfall “was worse than before,” said Baba Sogore, a rice farmer from Segou.

“The government even asked us to stop growing rice off season, because the river is too dry to water fields,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Agnes Dembele, the head of APAFE Muso Danbe, a Malian charity that seeks to improve migrant girls’ working conditions, said that farm girls heading to cities in search of housekeeping jobs “is nothing new.”

“But due to worsening weather we’re seeing more girls coming to big cities like Bamako from all over the country,” she added, estimating the number of migrant girls at tens of thousands.

Poor working conditions

While housekeeping jobs allow Malian girls to send cash to their families, they often trap them in abusive working conditions, said Dembele.

“Employers know the girls are desperate, so some take advantage of that to steal from, abuse or even rape them,” she explained.

Oumou Samake, who works as a maid in Badalabougou, a posh neighborhood in the Malian capital, said her boss regularly berates and insults her, and deducts money from her wages when he isn’t happy with her work.

“At least he hasn’t hit me yet,” she sighed, surrounded by a group of fellow maids meeting on the street at the end of their work day. “If I move to another family it will be the same, or even worse.”

Her family’s precarious situation doesn’t leave her with much of a choice, added Samake.

“I worry about my parents and seven brothers and sisters. I don’t know whether they eat, as they haven’t harvested anything,” the 16-year-old explained.

“That’s why I send them 10,000 CFA francs [about $20] each month, to buy a bit of rice and millet.”

Most girls like Coulibaly and Samake go back to their villages and are married by the age of 16, said Dembele, with some of their wages as maids going toward their dowry.

A Save the Children index from 2017 ranks Mali one of the three most-affected countries in the world — out of 172 nations assessed — in terms of children at risk from child marriage, teenage pregnancy, an early end to education and other threats.

Protecting girls

A lack of contacts in urban areas or a formal recruitment process makes migrant girls more vulnerable to exploitation, according to Dembele. Samake said she arrived in Bamako not knowing anyone, and went looking for jobs by knocking on doors.

“My boss said he would pay me 10,000 CFA francs as that’s what other girls get,” she explained.

To help girls negotiate a better salary and curb abusive practices, APAFE Muso Danbe acts as an intermediary to find them an employer from its database of 300 families. It also draws up a job contract.

“With a contract, the girls’ wages range from 10,000 to 50,000 CFA francs per month ($20-$100), instead of just 10,000 normally,” said Dembele, adding that the NGO gives them free cooking and cleaning training to make them more employable.

Both parties also sign a code of conduct, she added.

“The maids commit to reporting any broken items and not wasting food, while their employer renounces any physical or psychological violence,” Dembele explained.

The charity also alerts local authorities to cases of abuse or violence, and helps the victims bring their cases to court.

Thomas Martin Diarra, who also works at the nongovernmental organization, said it recently dealt with the case of a maid whose employer’s son knocked her head against a wall “simply because he didn’t like her.”

“We referred her case to the police,” he explained. “It is ongoing, but the girl has received treatment for her injuries.”

One of the team’s priorities is also to ensure the girls get an education, Dembele said. “We try to sign up those who have a basic level of education to further studies.”

“Ideally, they wouldn’t have to work as maids as well, but we at least make sure they don’t have to pay for their training or education.”

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South Sudan Dispute With Mobile Firm Disrupts Service

Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese remained without mobile phone service Friday, as network operator Vivacell continued a standoff with the government over a licensing dispute.

The government cut the network’s signal to its roughly 900,000 subscribers just after midnight Tuesday, alleging that Vivacell owed tens of millions of dollars in licensing fees.

The government’s information minister, Michael Makuei, told VOA earlier this week that Vivacell previously had been exempted from taxes and licensing fees. “We want them to pay a sum of up to $66 million for their license, and up to now they are dragging their feet,” he said.

The licensing fee dispute underscores the mounting financial pressures facing the government in a country ravaged by civil war since late 2013.

Ruling party holds Vivacell stake

Pagan Amum – the former secretary general of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the country’s ruling party – said Vivacell already pays for a valid license it has held for years. “There is no way Vivacell can be required to pay for another license,” he told VOA’s “South Sudan in Focus” radio program on Thursday.

Amum said that, as secretary general, he had helped negotiate the original deal with Lebanon’s Fattouch Investment Group – Vivacell’s majority owner – giving the SPLM party a minority share in the telecom firm. 

Vivacell has operated in South Sudan since 2008 under a license issued to the SPLM, Amum said. He added that, since 2012, the ruling SPLM has received $100,000 a month from Vivacell for licensing fees.

Vivacell officials went to Makuei’s office earlier this week in an attempt to negotiate, but he refused a meeting, the firm’s managing director, Jesus Antonio Ortiz Olivo, told Reuters on Wednesday. 

Makuei, in media interviews this week, has expressed a desire “to reorganize the telecommunications sector.” 

Low cellphone penetration rate

Mobile phone subscription rates have been falling in South Sudan, and telecom-sector operators “are placing themselves in survival mode and are hoping for a political settlement and a return to some degree of social stability,” the telecommunications research site BuddeComm reported in February.

BuddeCom said South Sudan has one of Africa’s lowest rates of cellphone penetration, at 21 percent, noting that recovery could bring “potentially many years of strong growth” to the sector.

South Sudan’s regulatory Communications Authority estimates the country’s entire telecom market – also served by South Africa’s MTN and Kuwait’s Zain – has fewer than 3 million subscribers, according to Reuters.

Complications for customers, clients

On Wednesday in the capital city, Juba, long lines formed at mobile phone stores where people waited to buy new subscriber identification module (SIM) cards from Vivacell competitors.

Vivacell subscriber Ever Fanusto said the sudden shutdown cut her off from friends and relatives, including those living overseas.

“I used to call my elder brother who is in America and now we have been disconnected with him,” Fanusto said. She added that it would be a challenge to retrieve her contacts’ information and load it onto a new SIM card.

In a notice published Wednesday, Vivacell informed its subscribers that the company was working with national authorities to resolve the matter and that it hoped to resume business soon in South Sudan. Otherwise, the company said it would set up “a clear mechanism” for reimbursing dealers, retailers and agents for their SIM card stocks.

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