UN Welcomes Moves to Restart Negotiations on Western Sahara

The U.N. Security Council has approved a resolution welcoming stepped up efforts to try to restart negotiations to end the 42-year conflict over the mineral-rich Western Sahara between Morocco and the Polisario Front.

Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975 and fought the Polisario Front until the U.N. brokered a cease-fire in 1991. A peacekeeping mission established to monitor it was also mandated to help prepare a referendum on the territory’s future that has never taken place.

Wednesday’s vote on the U.S.-sponsored resolution extending the mission’s mandate until April 30, 2019, was 12-0 with Russia, Ethiopia and Bolivia abstaining.

Bolivia’s U.N. Ambassador Sasha Llorentty Soliz welcomed an upcoming roundtable of key parties but complained that the resolution neglected the crucial issue of self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.

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Machar Returns to Juba for Peace Celebrations

President Salva Kiir publicly apologized to South Sudanese citizens Wednesday for the devastation the past five years of conflict has caused and announced the release of rebel leader Riek Machar’s former spokesman James Gatdet, who had been sentenced to death, along with South African citizen William John Endley, Machar’s former security advisor, who was sentenced to death by hanging on spying charges.

“As your president I want to apologize on behalf of all the parties to the conflict as leadership requires acceptance of responsibility,” Kiir told a large crowd gathered at the John Garang Mausoleum for celebrations marking the signing of a revised peace deal last month.

“Those of us who considered ourselves leaders must accept the blame collectively and solemnly promise our people never to return them back to war again,” said Kiir.

The president told the thousands gathered for the party in Juba that he would release Machar’s former spokesman and Machar’s former security advisor.

“One of them is called James Gadtet. We will release him although he was condemned in court,” said Kiir of his former deputy’s spokesman.

Kiir also promised to free South African citizen William John Endley, who was charged with spying, illegal entry into South Sudan, and conspiracy to overthrow Kiir’s government. Kiir said Endley would be released shortly and deported to South Africa.

Regional leaders including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni and newly elected Ethiopian President Sahle Work Zewd attended the celebrations.

Kiir called on citizens and all security agencies to welcome Machar and all other opposition leaders back to the country.

“In the spirit of promoting peace and stability in our beloved nation I ask you all in welcoming and congratulating Dr. Riek Machar and all the opposition leaders who have shown their commitment to the peace agreement by coming to celebrate with us here today in Juba.”

Kiir said their presence “is very strong testimony and proof to all that war is ending and a new era for peace and prosperity is breaking.”

Machar told the jubilant crowd that the SPLM-IO (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement In Opposition) is serious about the Sept. 12 peace deal signed in Khartoum last month and his presence in Juba is a sign that he wants true peace.

“Why are we here today? If we come after eight months, some of you will say we don’t want peace. We want peace. Our heart is on peace like you,” said Machar.

Wednesday marked the first time Machar has returned to Juba since he fled the country in July 2016 after fighting broke out between his body guards and government soldiers in the capital. Machar is to be reinstated as first vice president in South Sudan’s next government.

Reverend Abraham Nyari of the Pentecostal church of Juba said the faithful are praying for peace.

“We as the church people are praying for peace and we are praying for our leaders, especially the president, to bring peace to South Sudan,” Nyari told South Sudan in Focus.

Beatrice Abe, a member of parliament, said both Kiir and Machar must keep their promises to end the war.

“Let them not break what they put together. Remember, they fought together in the bush and brought this nation [together] and it should not be them to break it apart,” Abe told South Sudan in Focus.

But Abe remains skeptical about the amount of progress being made in forming the transitional government.

“The country is already economically unstable and people go for months without salary and it will take a while for this country to establish. We now have a small government but later we are going to have a bigger government and the resources will all go to maintain the bigger government with little to go for the citizens,” Abe told VOA.

Dusman Joyce, chairwoman of the Women’s Caucus in the National Parliament, said the leaders must show a real commitment to ending the war.

“After this celebration, in a few months we need to see that there is free movement of people and humanitarian aid, we need to see the return of the refugees and people are given freedom of speech so that people see that this peace is signed in spirit and letter,” Joyce told South Sudan in Focus.


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CAR Defense Minister: Efforts to Rebuild National Army Continue

Throughout nearly six years of civil war, the Central African Republic’s military has struggled to restore peace. Fighting with rebels and militias has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, while accusations of human rights abuses and ethnic bias have left some civilians in fear of their protectors.

The CAR minister of defense, Marie-Noëlle Koyara, hopes to change course. She’s leading efforts to rebuild the military’s reputation and restore the country’s security.

“We want a professional army that will truly be of service to the people,” Koyara told VOA’s French to Africa service in a recent interview.

Koyara said the country is working on various reforms: background checks on soldiers, training, and troop deployments across the country. Military leaders also plan to establish four garrisons in key areas of the CAR.

“For there to be a return to security, it is necessary for our security forces, of which the Central African Armed Forces are part, to be reconstructed, because we have experienced the highs and the lows with this army,” Koyara said.

International players

Much of the rebuilding of the Central African Armed Forces, or FACA, has been supervised by the U.N. Mission in the CAR (MINUSCA) and the European Union.

The United Nations has helped vet soldiers, create a biometric database, and rebuild a military camp in Kassai, near the capital, Bangui.

The European Union has trained more than 3,000 security forces in the CAR since 2016 and has recently moved to increase funding for training in the country, the Wall Street Journal reported  this month.

The United States says it is focusing on improving food security for the CAR’s displaced people and providing employment opportunities that make young people less vulnerable to recruitment by militias or extremist groups.

“We need to create a partnership where peace is more profitable than conflict for the people of the Central African Republic,” said Elizabeth Fitzsimmons, the U.S. State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs. “That’s our goal, and we’ll work on a variety of fronts to see how we can accomplish that.”

Russian presence

One country has played a more active role in CAR’s conflict. Russia has donated weapons and sent about 500 military trainers to the country. As of September, they have trained more than 1,000 soldiers. Russia is also flexing its diplomatic muscles by working with Sudan to mediate a peace deal among CAR rebel groups.

But Russia’s involvement in the CAR has drawn criticism from the international community, which has accused Moscow of destabilizing the CAR and seeking access to its abundant natural resources.

“I think any country that wants to play a constructive role, a law-abiding role, is understandably welcome,” Fitzsimmons said.

“Where I see concern is if we have countries that want to come in and exploit the natural resources, that want to try and run a parallel peace process to the one… under the auspices of the African Union,” she added. “If those partners are not going to be constructive, they aren’t going to be true partners. Potentially they’re going to exploit the resources and continue divisions.”

Russian mercenaries in the CAR have also grabbed headlines in recent months. In July, three documentary filmmakers were ambushed and killed in the CAR while investigating the activities of the Russian military firm Wagner.

Koyara said she was saddened by the loss of life and is anxious to see the results of an inquiry into their deaths. She called on the international community to help the CAR track and remove mercenaries from the country.

“If you look among the armed groups who come to our country, there are mercenaries there also among these armed groups,” she said. “We need to have the means to follow and identify who are the people who come to destroy or destabilize our country. We are a country who has endured a grave crises, and we are returning with great difficulty because we don’t have the means to control everything that happens in our territory.”

This story originated in VOA’s French to Africa service. Idrissa Fall sat down for a studio interview with the Central African Republic Minister of Defense Marie-Noëlle Koyara and Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs Elizabeth Fitzsimmons in Washington at VOA headquarters. Salem Solomon wrote the story based on the interviews.

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Hidden Secrets of America’s Ghost Towns

Clues to America’s past can be found in its ghost towns, once bustling communities that have been abandoned.

The deserted communities show us how the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars shaped the history of the United States, according to Geotab, a telematics company (think global positioning and vehicle tracking), which developed an interactive map showcasing more than 3,000 abandoned towns across America.

Ghost towns are often associated with the Wild West and Texas does have the most ghost towns with 511 abandoned communities. California follows with 346, and Kansas with 308.

Most of the Texas towns were established during the frontier era, from the early to mid-1800s. Mining towns sprang up around rich mineral deposits while the Mexican government’s favorable terms — a promised 4,000 acres per family for a small fee — attracted settlers.

“In the end, some Texas towns were destroyed by natural disasters and droughts, while others failed once the railroad and highway system reshaped transportation routes,” Geotab’s Kelly Hall told us via email.

Towns founded around particular mineral resources were abandoned when demand dried up.

“Once the need declined or resources were scarce, it caused the population or entire town to vanish,” said Hall. “Others were economically overpowered by neighboring towns, the Great Depression or frontier settlements that simply died down.”

Sixty structures still survive in Bannack, Montana, which was founded in 1862. The town flourished when thousands descended on the area with hopes of making their fortune in gold. By 1860, the gold was harder to reach and, despite a brief resurgence in the 1890s, the town was abandoned by the 1940s.

Natural disasters could also wipe out a town. That’s what happened to Fort Jefferson in Monroe County, Florida.

Built starting in 1846, the fort once helped defend the state against pirates, became a prison during the Civil War, was once used as a quarantine station, and then a refueling station for the U.S. Navy. But Fort Jefferson was abandoned in 1906 after it was damaged by a hurricane.

“With limited access to technology and without today’s emergency management advancements, a hurricane, a tornado or an earthquake could mean the total devastation of an entire community,” Hall said.

But some of these ghost towns, such as Fort Jefferson, have gotten a second life as tourist attractions. The residents are long gone, but the buildings, and the unique history of each town, remain.

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Austria Will Not Join Global Migration Agreement

Austria said Wednesday it will join the United States and Hungary in not signing a global agreement meant to minimize the factors that push migrants to leave their home country, while boosting safety, access to services and inclusion for those who are compelled to go.

Nations are due to gather in early December in Morocco to adopt the non-binding Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which was negotiated through a U.N.-led process during the past two years.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said his government fears the agreement would pose a threat to its national sovereignty and that it would blur the lines between legal and illegal migration.

Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache said there is not and should not be a human right to migration.

Hungary also cited concerns about the agreement going against national interests when it announced in July it would not be part of the pact.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told reporters that contrary to his government’s policies, the agreement would promote migration as “good and inevitable,” and “it could inspire millions” of migrants.

The United States was the first to step away from the negotiations, deciding in December of last year that the proposed agreement was “inconsistent with U.S. immigration and refugee policies.”

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States supports international cooperation on migration issues, “but it is the primary responsibility of sovereign states to help ensure that migration is safe, orderly, and legal.”

The Global Compact features 23 objectives, including boosting access to basic services, strengthening anti-smuggling and anti-trafficking efforts, eliminating discrimination, safeguarding conditions that ensure decent work, and facilitating safe and dignified return for those who are sent back home.

The United Nations estimates there are about 258 million migrants in the world — or just over three percent of the world’s population. The world body considers a migrant to be anyone who changes their country, regardless of the reason. It expects the number of migrants to increase due to factors such as population growth, trade, rising inequality and climate change.

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S. Korean Voting Machines at Center of DRC Election Dispute

As elections approach in the central African nation the Democratic Republic of Congo, concerns have been raised over the integrity of electronic voting machines being used in the national poll that were made by South Korea’s Miryu Systems. VOA’s Steve Miller reports from Seoul on the risks.

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Underwater Wreckage of Downed Indonesian Jetliner May Have Been Located

Search and rescue crews may have located the wreckage of an Indonesian jetliner that crashed into the Java Sea just minutes after taking off from Jakarta early Monday morning.

Military chief Hadi Tjahjanto said Wednesday that authorities “strongly believe” they have pinpointed the resting place of Lion Air Flight JT610, which disappeared from radar screens after taking off on a flight to nearby Bangka-Belitung island. Navy officer Haris Djoko Nugroho told an Indonesian television station that a 22-meter long object was discovered late Tuesday night. Nugroho said divers will be sent to inspect the object after they conduct a side-scan sonar to get more detailed images. 

Locating the wreckage will put search crews one step closer to recovering the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorders, known as the “black boxes,” which will provide crucial information on why the pilots asked to return to the airport shortly after takeoff.

All 189 passengers and crew were killed in the crash. Divers taking part in the search and recovery efforts have recovered enough human remains from the crash site to fill as many as 48 body bags. 

The crash is the first one involving the Boeing 737 MAX 8, a new fuel-efficient version of the legendary passenger jet. Representatives with the U.S.-based aviation company are flying to Indonesia to meet with officials with budget airline Lion Air, which has ordered 50 of the new 737 MAX 8 planes at a cost of $6.2 billion. Lion Air chief Edward Sirait told reporters Monday that the aircraft — which had only been in service for two months — suffered a technical problem during a flight from the resort island of Bali to Jakarta the night before, but was resolved according to procedure. 

Indonesia’s transport ministry has ordered an inspection of all the new 737 MAX 8 jets.

Monday’s crash is another black mark on Indonesia’s fast-growing aviation sector, which has acquired a reputation for poor safety oversight. The country’s airlines have previously been banned from operating in the United States and European Union.

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Plane Crash Refocuses Discussion on Indonesian Air Security

The crash of a Lion Air jet carrying 189 people in Indonesia is again raising discussions about the country’s air safety, which once had a poor reputation but has improved markedly in recent years. 

Just 13 minutes after taking off from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta to the city Pangkal Pinang in the Bangka-Belitung province, the Boeing 737 Max 8 — operating since August with an 800-hour airtime — went missing from the radar after the pilot requested to return to base. The plane crashed into the Java Sea Monday near Karawang, West Java. 

Search and rescue team has been deployed in the waters, having found debris, belongings and 48 body bags containing body parts. The search for the black box, deemed to be the key element in looking for the reason why the plane crashed, is still underway, with ships and sonar system already deployed. 

Data shown by the flight tracking service FlightRadar24 showed that the airplane had shown irregularities, noting “an increase of speed,” a “decrease in altitude and a “high rate of descent.” 

The government wouldn’t directly comment for this story, but at a press conference Tuesday the Transport ministry said it has conducted an inspection on Lion Air’s eight other Boeing 737 Max 8 planes. “This is a form of a sanction, we’re inspecting the planes for clarification purposes to determine whether they’re good or faulty,” said Budi Karya, Indonesia’s transportation minister, in a press conference Tuesday.

According to Daniel Putut, Lion’s Air Managing Director, the investigation will perhaps take a week to complete and Lion Air is ready to “receive any sanction that’s given,” he said Tuesday in a press conference.

The crash is the worst since 1997 when a Garuda Indonesia airplane crashed into the mountains and killed 234 in total, leaving no survivors behind. An AirAsia flight went down in 2014, killing 162.

The latest tragedy has again brought to the fore questions on Indonesia’s aviation security.

Most of the problems, according to Geoffrey Thomas, the administrator of the website Airline Ratings, boil down to infrastructures. In 2004, a Lion Air airplane skidded off and overran the runway, killing 25, according to the Aviation Safety Network. “The safety of the infrastructure itself needs to be improved,” he said. 

But aviation observer Alvin Lie says Indonesia has already had several improvements that qualify its air space for international standardization. It wasn’t always like this. In 2007, the European Union barred most Indonesia’s airlines from entering their soil, a ban that was partially lifted in 2009 and only fully lifted last June. 

In 2016, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lifted its 2007 ban and bumped Indonesia into category 1, allowing its airlines to enter the U.S..

Lie said Indonesia has reached international standards, including the quality of human resources, navigation infrastructures, quality of airports and search and rescue management. 

“In the last four years, we have improved our air security,” he said.

The recent accident could be treated as “a mar on an otherwise better track record,” said observer Dudi Sudibyo. Sudibyo also referred to the International Civil Aviation Organization’s 2017 recognition of Indonesia’s achievements in “resolving safety oversight deficiencies and improving the effective implementation of ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs).”

But more improvements are still necessary according to Lie. 

Indonesia’s domestic traffic has ballooned from 30 million in 2005 to almost 97 million last year according to the consultancy group CAPA-Center for Aviation. Though noting that Indonesia is the world’s fifth largest domestic aviation market, it is still plagued by an “unfavorabl[e] regulatory environment and overcapacity.” 

“Right now, airspace in Indonesia is overloaded, especially in Java,” Lie said. “We have to improve the capacity of our air navigation service. One more problem we have is on our technology.” In spite of all this, Lie also noted that “compliance [from airlines] is another matter.”

Lie said what is needed is a “Commitment from the government—many of the regulations have to be up to international par.”

Indonesia’s The National Transportation Safety Commission (KNKT) noted that the average of number of plane accidents every year in Indonesia is 28. According to its findings from 2007-2017, 572 fatalities were recorded. In 2016, the commission said that more than two-thirds of the accidents were caused by human error. The other causes included runway excursion, ground collision and more.

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Mattis Says Afghan Forces Suffered 1,000 Casualties in August and September

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis provided a rare look into the ground situation for Afghans fighting the Taliban, revealing late Tuesday that Afghan forces had suffered more than 1,000 casualties in August and September of this year.

“The Afghan lads are doing the fighting, just look at the casualties…over 1,000 dead and wounded in August and September, and they stayed in the field fighting,” Mattis said during a discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Despite the high casualty numbers, Mattis praised the Afghan forces for preventing the Taliban from taking and holding district and provincial centers and stopping them from disrupting the recent Afghan election.

U.S. defense officials stopped providing the public with the number of Afghan security force casualties in late 2017. 

General Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. general, told military reporters at a conference outside Washington on Friday that this change was because Afghan President Ashraf Ghani did not want those details publicly available. 

“I’m not blaming him. That’s where it came from,” Dunford said. “They (Afghan officials) were incredibly sensitive about those numbers. We don’t own the numbers anymore.”

Last month, the governor of Baghlan province, north of Kabul, told the New York Times the Taliban was inflicting heavy casualties on Afghan security forces.

“The Taliban don’t want peace, because they think they can win the war,” Governor Abdul Hai Nimati said. “If it goes on like this, they are going to win.”

Dunford and Mattis both asserted that the regional strategy for political reconciliation with the Taliban is making progress. 

“it is working from our perspective, but what is heartbreakingly difficult to accept is that progress and violence can be going on at the same time,” Mattis said.

According to Dunford, while the number of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan has dropped from 140,000 to 15,000 since 2013, the security situation has not become markedly worse.

“This is about making incremental progress over time,” the general said.

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China Steps Up VPN Blocks Ahead of Major Trade, Internet Shows

Chinese authorities have stepped up efforts to block virtual private networks (VPN), service providers said Tuesday in describing a “cat-and-mouse” game with censors ahead of a major trade expo and internet conference.

VPNs allow internet users in China, including foreign companies, to access overseas sites that authorities bar through the so-called Great Firewall, such as Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google.

Since Xi Jinping became president in 2013, authorities have sought to curb VPN use, with providers suffering periodic lags in connectivity because of government blocks.

“This time, the Chinese government seemed to have staff on the ground monitoring our response in real time and deploying additional blocks,” said Sunday Yokubaitis, the chief executive of Golden Frog, the maker of the VyprVPN service.

Authorities started blocking some of its services on Sunday, he told Reuters, although VyprVPN’s service has since been restored in China.

“Our counter measures usually work for a couple of days before the attack profile changes and they block us again,” Yokubaitis said.

The latest attacks were more aggressive than the “steadily increasing blocks” the firm had experienced in the second half of the year, he added.

The Cyberspace Administration of China did not respond immediately to a faxed request from Reuters to seek comment.

Another provider, ExpressVPN, also acknowledged connectivity issues on its services in China on Monday that sparked user complaints.

“There has long been a cat-and-mouse game with VPNs in China and censors regularly change their blocking techniques,” its spokesman told Reuters.

Last year, Apple Inc dropped a number of unapproved VPN apps from its app store in China, after Beijing adopted tighter rules.

Although fears of a blanket block on services have not materialized, industry experts say VPN connections often face outages around the time of major events in China.

Xi will attend a huge trade fair in Shanghai next week designed to promote China as a global importer and calm foreign concern about its trade practices, while the eastern town of Wuzhen hosts the annual World Internet Conference to showcase China’s vision for internet governance.

Censors may be testing new technology that blocks VPNs more effectively, said Lokman Tsui, who studies freedom of expression and digital rights at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“It could be just a wave of experiments,” he said of the latest service disruptions.

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Zimbabwe’s President Assures Nation Economy Will Recover

Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa met with business leaders Monday to discuss ways of boosting the country’s troubled economy. He suggested companies are contributing to shortages by holding back essential goods, but one of the businessman said the accusation is not true. Columbus Mavhunga reports for VOA News from Harare.

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11 Dead in Italy as Storms Batter Europe

The death toll from flooding and gale-force winds battering Italy rose to 11, authorities said Tuesday as storms raged across Europe.

Roads were reported blocked and thousands were left without power in southern and central Europe, where fierce winds and rain felled trees.

Venice flooded to a level seen few times before in the lagoon city’s history, with tourists and residents holding bags above their heads as water sloshed above their knees.

Debris from pulverized yachts filled the harbor of Rapallo near Genoa after a dam broke under the pressure of flood waters.

Heavy snow trapped many in their cars and hotels in the mountainous intersecting border regions of Italy, Switzerland, and France. 

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Trump, First Lady Heading to Pittsburgh Amid Grieving Over Synagogue Massacre

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump are heading to Pittsburgh on Tuesday to offer condolences to the families of 11 members of a Jewish synagogue who were massacred last week in an anti-Semitic rampage, even as some Jewish leaders are demanding the president stay away until he denounces white nationalism.

The White House announced the trip Monday, saying the president and first lady will visit the city to “express the support of the American people and to grieve with the Pittsburgh community.”

Trump told Fox News, “I’m just going to pay my respects. I’m also going to the hospital to see the officers and some of the people that were so badly hurt. … I really look forward to going,” he said. “I would have done it even sooner, but I didn’t want to disrupt any more than they already had disruption.”

Pittsburgh’s Democratic mayor William Peduto said the Republican president should stay away from the city while families are holding funerals, the first of which are being held on Tuesday before Trump’s arrival. Several leaders of the Pittsburgh chapter of Bend the Arc, an activist Jewish organization that lobbies against Trump’s policies, called on the president to cancel his visit, saying he was not welcome until he denounced white nationalism. A letter they issued was signed by tens of thousands of people nationwide.

 “If the president is looking to come to Pittsburgh,” Peduto said, “I would ask that he not do so while we are burying the dead.” Peduto’s office said the mayor does not plan to meet with Trump.

Top congressional leaders from both political parties declined invitations from Trump to join him in visiting, while the family of one of the victims is declining to meet the president. The family said it felt Trump’s statement suggesting that an armed guard stationed at the synagogue might have prevented the attack was inappropriate.

Peduto told CNN a presidential visit would strain police and other law enforcement officers while they also are providing security for the funerals.

But Rabbi Jeffrey Myers at the Tree of Life synagogue where the mass killing occurred said the president is “certainly welcome” to visit Pittsburgh.

In the U.S. political debate, the term nationalist has often been equated with white nationalism and as denigrating to minorities.

In the Fox interview, Trump said that to him, there are no racial overtones to declaring himself a nationalist, as he did at a recent political rally.

“It means I love the country. It means I’m fighting for the country,” Trump said. “I look at two things, globalists and nationalists. I’m somebody that wants to take care of our country, because for many, many years, you know this better than anybody — our leaders have been more worried about the world than they have about the United States, and they leave us in a mess — whether it’s the wars, whether it’s the economy, whether it’s debt, whether it’s all of the things that they’ve done, including putting in the wrong Supreme Court Justices. And we’re — we’ve really put two great ones in. No, I’m proud of this country, and I call that ‘nationalism.'”

Robert Bowers, the 46-year-old truck driver accused of carrying out the attack, made his first appearance before a federal judge Monday.

Authorities accuse Bowers of carrying out the rampage out of vitriolic hatred of Jews, posting anti-Semitic tirades online and screaming “All Jews must die” as he opened fire.

Bowers faces 29 federal charges, including some federal hate crimes. He could face the death penalty if he is convicted.

The Anti-Defamation League, which has tracked hatred and violence against Jews since the 1970s, said the Pittsburgh mayhem was the worst attack against the Jewish community in U.S. history.



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Concerns Growing Over Rejections of Vote-by-Mail Ballots

Drawing on her years of military experience, Maureen Heard was careful to follow all the rules when she filled out an absentee ballot for the 2016 election.

She read the instructions thoroughly, signed where she was supposed to, put the ballot in its envelope and dropped it off at her county elections office in New Hampshire. She then left town to return to a temporary federal work assignment in Washington, D.C.

“I have learned over the years, many years in the military of filling out forms, how to fill out forms — and I was very intimidated by the process,” said Heard, who served in the Air Force and as a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to make sure I get it absolutely right.’ And then it didn’t count.”

Heard, 57, discovered last year that she was among roughly 319,000 voters across the country whose absentee ballots were rejected during the last presidential election. The reasons varied, ranging from missing deadlines to failing to sign their ballot.

Heard’s ballot was tossed out because the signature did not match the one on file at her local election office.

More people than ever are returning their ballots by mail or dropping them off at a local election location rather than voting in a booth on Election Day. Those developments make it easier to cast ballots and are designed to boost turnout.

The trend also is raising concerns about whether voters can be assured their ballots will count or be notified in time if there is a problem. Voting rights activists want to ensure that voters are given a reasonable chance to fix any problems.

Earlier this month, the ACLU and other groups filed lawsuits in Georgia after an Atlanta-area county reported a comparatively high rate of rejected absentee ballots during the start of early voting. Those actions followed similar lawsuits in New Hampshire and California.

“It’s hard to see what is missing,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, which advocated for changes to California law. “People are all focused on what is the vote count. They are not focused on what ballots weren’t counted.”

Nearly one of every four ballots cast in 2016 came through the mail or was handed in at a drop-off location, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The commission’s data show that 99 percent of completed absentee and mailed ballots are eventually counted.

Election officials use signature matching to verify a person’s identity, but advocates say many election offices lack training and standards. Matching signatures is particularly fraught because a person’s handwriting can change over time and be affected by age or disability.

In August, a federal judge ruled that New Hampshire’s signature-matching process was “fundamentally flawed” because voters are not given notice if it’s the reason a ballot was rejected. She also said the election office workers inspecting the signatures did not receive training in handwriting analysis or signature comparisons.

“For the most part, signature variations are of little consequence in a person’s life,” U.S. District Judge Landya McCafferty wrote. “But in the context of absentee voting, these variations become profoundly consequential.”

A judge in California sided with the ACLU in a similar lawsuit in March.

Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the “Every Vote Counts Act,” which requires local election officials to notify voters of mismatched signatures at least eight days before election results become certified. Voters then have several days to resolve the issue.

In Georgia, the ballot rejections in Gwinnett County were running well ahead of the other large counties ringing Atlanta. Gwinnett County had rejected 9.6 percent of all absentee mail ballots as of October 12, while DeKalb County had rejected 1.9 percent and Fulton County had rejected none, according to court filings.

Candice Broce, spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, said state officials were aware of the concerns and opened an investigation.

Georgia law requires voters to be told “promptly” of a problem, but does not specify a time period. In Gwinnett County, this means sending a voter notice in the mail within three days, according to county officials.

Voters who are notified of a problem can request a new ballot or vote in person, but the law does not provide time after the election to resolve the problems. That potentially affects voters who drop off their ballots on or near Election Day.

A federal judge ruled last week that Georgia election officials cannot reject ballots for a signature mismatch without providing voters an opportunity to verify their identity; they would have almost a week to do so under the ruling. The state plans to appeal.

“We’re not attacking signature-matching as a way to do something, as a tool for confirming identity,” said Sophia Lakin, a staff attorney with the ACLU. “We are concerned about making sure that it’s not something that prevents someone from voting. It all depends on how it’s being implemented.”

Three states — Colorado, Oregon and Washington — send ballots in the mail to all registered voters.

Oregon allows voters 14 days after an election to resolve a signature mismatch and provides training to local election officials about how to verify signatures.

Part of the training includes an acknowledgement that signatures can change over time, said Nancy Blankenship, clerk of Deschutes County in Bend, Oregon. Any time voters correspond with her office, their signatures are added to their file so election workers have a history of signatures to use for comparison.

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UN: Congolese Children Deported From Angola Face Humanitarian Crisis

The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that more than 80,000 children are among 330,000 Congolese migrants expelled by the Angolan government since the start of October. The migrants were sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s volatile Kasai Province, where ethnic tensions triggered a brutal conflict in 2016.

According to UNICEF, the migrant children, many of whom lived most of their lives in Angola, are dealing with dire conditions. Thousands of them are walking long distances in bad weather with little to eat or drink, and are exposed to violence.

UNICEF spokesman Christophe Boulierac said there is a rising fear of disease, and that the agency is very worried about the health of the children and their families.

“There was a very, very serious crisis of malnutrition in Kasai and these children are coming in a very bad situation, very bad conditions from Angola,” he told VOA. “Some of them are suffering from hypoglycemia. And, there might be an increase of malnutrition, acute malnutrition, which makes a child more vulnerable to all kinds of disease.”

Boulierac said cholera, measles, and malaria are of particular concern and measures are being taken to try to prevent the spread of these illnesses. He said UNICEF is installing chlorination points, hand washing stations, and emergency latrines.

He said efforts are also underway to reunite children separated from their families and to provide those who are traumatized by their experience with psycho-social counseling.

The Congolese migrants, forcibly expelled by Angola, had been working in the country’s informal mining sector. UNICEF reports children as young as 13 and 14 were part of the illegal work force.

Angola’s government has reportedly cracked down on the activity with the aim of reducing diamond smuggling and making the mining industry more transparent. But it has also denied allegations of mass expulsions and brutality, maintaining the migrants returned home voluntarily.

The U.N. human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, called the mass movement an expulsion. She said the influx of migrants could trigger a renewal of inter-ethnic violence in Kasai Province.

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Democrats Gain Steam in Analyst Forecasts for US House Races

As of Tuesday, there were 65 U.S. House of Representatives races widely seen as competitive or leaning against the incumbent party.

The outlook for Democrats had improved in 48 of them during the seven weeks since early September in the eyes of at least one of a trio of political forecasting groups: Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Only seven Republicans saw improved ratings among the competitive races. Those congressional districts are Minnesota-8, Illinois-12, Virginia-2, Ohio-1, West Virginia-3, Texas-23 and Nevada-4.

In two of those races – Virginia-2 and Ohio-1 – one of the three groups saw improved chances for the Republican candidate and another saw odds improving for the Democrat.

An improvement in the odds for a party does not necessarily mean its candidate is now favored to win. Some candidates went from being seen slightly or solidly ahead to being in a race seen as a “toss up.”

Following are the competitive races where analysts upgraded the odds of winning for Democrats and Republicans, together with the number of forecasting groups upgrading each party’s chances.

District               Party with improved chances

(incumbent party)            (number of handicappers

                                     seeing improved odds)     


         Arizona-2 (R)                    Democrat (2)

       California-10 (R)                  Democrat (1)

       California-25 (R)                  Democrat (1)

       California-45 (R)                  Democrat (2)

        Californa-48 (R)                  Democrat (1)

       California-49 (R)                  Democrat (1)

       California-50 (R)                  Democrat (1)

         Colorado-6 (R)                   Democrat (3)

         Florida-15 (R)                   Democrat (3)

         Florida-26 (R)                   Democrat (3)

         Florida-6 (R)                    Democrat (3)

         Georgia-6 (R)                    Democrat (2)

         Georgia-7 (R)                    Democrat (3)

           Iowa-1 (R)                     Democrat (1)

           Iowa-3 (R)                     Democrat (1)

        Illinois-12 (R)                  Republican (2)

        Illinois-14 (R)                   Democrat (2)

         Illinois-6 (R)                   Democrat (3)

          Kansas-2 (R)                    Democrat (1)

            Kansas-3                      Democrat (3)

          Maine-2 (R)                     Democrat (1)

        Michigan-11 (R)                   Democrat (2)

         Michigan-8 (R)                   Democrat (1)

        Minnesota-2 (R)                   Democrat (3)

        Minnesota-3 (R)                   Democrat (3)

        Minnesota-8 (D)                  Republican (3)

     North Carolina-13 (R)                Democrat (2)

      North Carolina-2 (R)                Democrat (2)

      North Carolina-9 (R)                Democrat (1)

       New Jersey-11 (R)                  Democrat (1)

        New Jersey-2 (R)                  Democrat (1)

        New Jersey-3 (R)                  Democrat (1)

        New Jersey-7 (R)                  Democrat (1)

        New Mexico-2 (R)                  Democrat (3)

          Nevada-4 (D)                   Republican (2)

        New York-11 (R)                   Democrat (2)

        New York-19 (R)                   Democrat (1)

        New York-22 (R)                   Democrat (1)

        New York-24 (R)                   Democrat (3)

        New York-27 (R)                   Democrat (3)

           Ohio-1 (R)            Republican (1) / Democrat (1)

          Ohio-12 (R)                     Democrat (2)

       Pennsylvania-1 (R)                 Democrat (2)

      Pennsylvania-10 (R)                 Democrat (2)

      Pennsylvania-17 (R)                 Democrat (2)

       Pennsylvania-6 (R)                 Democrat (1)

       Pennsylvania-7 (R)                 Democrat (1)

          Texas-23 (R)                   Republican (2)

          Texas-32 (R)                    Democrat (1)

           Utah-4 (R)                     Democrat (2)

         Virginia-2 (R)          Republican (1) / Democrat (1)

         Virginia-7 (R)                   Democrat (1)

      West Virginia-3 (R)                Republican (1)


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Russian Investigative Journalists Take on Intimidation, Threats

Recent allegations that an oligarch with close personal ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin is behind several attacks and at least one killing has compelled some journalists and free speech advocates to take a stand against intimidation tactics in Russia.

An October 22 Novaya Gazeta article by reporter Denis Korotkov, who just days prior to publication received a funeral wreath bearing an anonymous threat at his private residence and a severed goat’s head in a basket outside his newsroom, says billionaire businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin has directed clandestine hits on multiple continents.

Prigozhin, who is known as “Putin’s Chef” for catering presidential events and sometimes personally waiting on important guests, has been indicted by American investigators for allegedly trying to interfere with the 2016 U.S. election.

In the investigative report about Prigozhin, headlined “The Chef Likes It Spicy,” Valery Alemchenko, a former convict who worked for Prigozhin, details physical attacks on Prigozhin’s opponents, as well as the killing of an opposition blogger in northwest Russia, all at the mogul’s behest.

Alemchenko also says several Prigozhin employees traveled to Syria last year to test an unknown poison on Syrians who refused to fight for President Bashar al-Assad’s government, an allegation Novaya Gazeta corroborated with two other sources.

Alemchenko disappeared shortly after meeting with the reporter and is now on a Russian police list of missing persons.

Danger of inaction

For Novaya Gazeta contributor Boris Vishnevsky, the latest threats and disappearances have taught him one thing: the greatest threat to his own colleagues and sources is their own inaction.

“I believe that the information published by Novaya Gazeta cannot remain only within the circle of its readers,” Vishnevsky told VOA’s Russian Service, explaining why he has called upon Russia’s prosecutor general and federal legislators to conduct an investigation of the latest allegations surrounding Prigozhin, and the threats against those who reported them.

“These are very serious suspicions of involvement in crimes, including the murders of people who, to put it mildly, are connected to Mr. Prigozhin and his structures,” said Vishnevsky, who is also a deputy in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly. “This evidence should be checked, and I think there is enough – names are named, quotes are quoted. And to leave it unheeded seems to me quite impossible.”

Vishnevsky’s appeal coincided with a statement by the Union of Journalists of the St. Petersburg and Leningrad region, who expressed concerns about the threats directed at Korotkov.

Asked whether Russian investigators would actively probe any of Putin’s closest associates, Vishnevsky said that’s beside the point.

“I’m not inclined to have big illusions about its results, especially about the conclusions that will be made,” he said. “Nevertheless, I want to see official explanations from the prosecutor general’s office and the investigative committee on the reports of crimes contained in Denis Korotkov’s article.

“I understand that everything will be done to, in simple terms, cover up for Mr. Prigozhin,” he added. “But if a verification is not demanded, then you cannot expect anything at all.”

Because Article 144 of the Russian Criminal Code says crimes reported in the media require the consideration of federal prosecutors and investigators, Vishnevsky said he expects that some sort of investigation will be carried out.

‘Second wave’ of investigative reporting

Roman Zakharov of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a non-governmental organization that advocates press freedom, said the threats against Korotkov are extremely serious, and that they come amid a “second wave” of hard-hitting investigative journalism occurring in Russia.

“The first surge of this genre was during the years of democratic development of Russia, but then it seemed to us to be something taken for granted,” Zakharov told VOA. “And now there is a second wave of investigations, and they are being conducted by many young journalists who write about economic crimes, about corruption, about the Mafia’s links with politicians.”

With a surge in investigative reporting, he said, comes a surge in threats to reporters and editors behind the stories.

“Of course editors try to protect [their reporters], but, as we see from practice, the powers of the editors themselves are limited,” he said, referring to the assassinations of Russian reporters stretching over decades. “But all joking aside, it’s impossible to oppose the Mafia, much less the state steamroller.”

As widely reported in Western media, some of Prigozhin’s privately owned enterprises, such as the Concord catering company, were used to bankroll disinformation campaigns designed to interfere with U.S. elections. Earlier this month, U.S. officials brought charges against Prigozhin employee Elena Khusyaynova for helping oversee the finances of the St. Petersburg-based “Internet Research Agency,” the so-called troll farm that aimed to influence American voters through social media postings.

Activities of Prigozhin’s private security-contracting firm, Wagner – a mercenary outfit that has conducted operations in Ukraine, Syria, the Central African Republic and Sudan – are well documented.

‘Don’t touch journalists’

Another member of Prigozhin’s security detail, Oleg Simonov, who is suspected of attacking the husband of an opposition activist and injecting him with poison, died last year under murky circumstances.

“Behind it all – written messages, funeral wreaths and a severed sheep’s head – as we know from past investigations, these are people who will stop at nothing and shrink from nothing,” Zakharov said, emphasizing that they “aren’t even averse to murdering their own associates.”

“There is the need to gather the entire journalistic community and citizens and say ‘No, Mr. Prigozhin! Don’t touch journalists, don’t threaten them,'” Zakharov said. “If you do not agree with the publications, sue them in court. Act by legal means, even if the Kremlin and the authorities are on your side.

“We hope that due to these public disclosures, there will be none of the excesses that have occurred with some other journalists,” Zakharov added, referring to “assault and battery … and also murders.”

Russia is currently ranked 148 out of 180 countries profiled in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index by international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service. Some information for this report was provided by AP.


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Nigerian Crackdown on Shi’ite Group Sparks Fears of Escalation

Nigerian police fired shots and tear gas at thousands of supporters of an imprisoned Shi’ite cleric in Abuja on Tuesday, just a day after three people were killed in similar clashes that sparked warnings to the government that a heavy-handed crackdown could radicalize the group.

At least six Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) supporters have now been killed since Saturday during protests calling for the release of Ibrahim Zakzaky, who has been in custody since December 2015.

Several thousand IMN members were marching peacefully in central Abuja but then armed police fired into the crowd to disperse the procession, said AFP reporters at the scene.

At least six injured IMN members were taken away in cars while the area was patrolled by dozens of police, they added.

“A lot of our people had been injured, so far we don’t have any record of death,” IMN spokesman Ibrahim Musa told AFP.

Nigeria’s military said three IMN supporters were killed during another protest on the outskirts of Abuja on Monday.

The army said troops and police “repelled the attack” and that IMN “fired weapons” and threw stones and Molotov cocktails.

AFP photographs of the aftermath showed several bodies of civilians on the ground near police but it was unclear whether they were dead or injured.

On Saturday, three other IMN members were killed during protests in Abuja.

The army claimed the protesters attacked a military convoy and tried to steal weapons and ammunition — an account the IMN “categorically” denies.

IMN spokesman Musa claimed 27 people have been killed since Saturday and that the death toll could be higher since “scores” of people were injured and troops took away others.

“We are working towards their release to us for burial,” Musa said.

Long-running opposition

Human rights group Amnesty International said on Monday that reports that troops fired live bullets at protesters were “very disturbing” and would be unlawful if they were unarmed.

The IMN has staged a series of demonstrations demanding the release of leader Zakzaky, who has been detained since bloody clashes broke out in the northern city of Zaria in 2015.

Then, the military was accused of killing more than 300 IMN supporters and burying them in mass graves.

Zakzaky has been at loggerheads with Nigeria’s secular authorities for years because of his calls for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution. Northern Nigeria is majority Sunni Muslim.

The cleric, who is in his mid-sixties and lost the sight in one eye during the 2015 clashes, has been seen in public only twice since he was detained.

Nigeria’s government has previously ignored a court order to release Zakzaky and his wife.

In April, at least 115 IMN supporters were arrested during protests in Abuja during which police used tear gas and water cannon.

IMN processions for the annual Ashura festival have frequently been flashpoints. In November 2016, at least 10 people were killed when police opened fire near the northern city of Kano.

Radicalization warning

Sustained clashes and the military’s use of deadly force have raised fears of a repeat of the 2009 crackdown on the Islamist group Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria.

Then, some 800 people, including Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf, were killed in the Borno state capital Maiduguri, forcing the group underground.

They then re-emerged a more deadly force under Yusuf’s deputy, Abubakar Shekau. The insurgency since then has killed more than 27,000 people and displaced more than two million others.

Amaechi Nwokolo, a security analyst at the Roman Institute for International Studies in Abuja, said: “It appears we are not learning from our past mistakes.”

He said the security forces had “no right to use that maximum force” on unarmed protesters, warning that it might “motivate others to radicalize”.

“If we go back to the formative days of Boko Haram, it was the killing of some innocent people that actually galvanized recruitment. That’s how terrorism works.”

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, was elected in 2015 on a promise to defeat Boko Haram and bring greater security.

But although weakened, Boko Haram has persisted in its attacks. In addition, there has been a resurgence of violence in the long-running resources conflict between sedentary farmers and nomadic herders.




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Bangladesh, Myanmar Agree to Repatriate Rohingya

Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to repatriate Rohingya refugees back to the country they fled, in the midst of a U.N warning that genocide was still being committed against them.

Myanmar Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Win Myat Aye told VOA Burmese that the date to begin the repatriation is tentatively set for November 15. He also added that more than 5,000 refugees have been verified for return.

Over 720,000 of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority fled Rakhine State in August of last year after Rohingya militant attacks inspired a military crackdown from the government. Refugees and journalists have reported widespread killings, rape and the burning of villages.

This is not the first attempt the governments have made to repatriate the Rohingyas, whose presence in Bangladesh has gone from welcomed to controversial as they strain the impoverished country’s resources. A similar attempt almost a year ago failed after hitting insurmountable logistical roadblocks.

“We can’t stress enough that returns cannot be rushed or premature,” U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said of the announcement, “and the decision on whether or not for a refugee to return should be determined by refugees themselves, when they feel the time and circumstances right.”

Last week, the chair of the U.N. fact finding mission in Myanmar warned that thousands of Rohingyas were still fleeing to Bangladesh, and that those who remained “continue to suffer the most severe” limitations and repression.

Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding last month agreeing to meet certain conditions before beginning repatriation, including guaranteed security and a pathway to citizenship. The Rohingya have been technically stateless since a 1982 law stripped them of their citizenship.

It is not clear where the Rohingyas would be relocated to, as most of their villages have been burned. The government has built new housing in Rakhine State since, but human rights groups have expressed concern that these could become guarded prisons.

Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.

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Russia’s Only Aircraft Carrier Damaged After Crane Falls on It

Russia’s only aircraft carrier was damaged while undergoing repairs in the north of the country after the floating dock holding it sank in the early hours of Tuesday and a crane crashed onto its deck, tearing a gash up to 5 meters wide.

The Admiral Kuznetsov has seen action in Russia’s military campaign in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad with its planes carrying out airstrikes against rebel forces.

It was being overhauled on one of the world’s biggest floating docks in the icy waters of the Kola Bay near Murmansk close to where Russia’s Northern Fleet is based and was due to go back into service in 2021.

Maria Kovtun, Murmansk’s governor, said in a statement that a rescue operation had been launched and 71 people evacuated after the floating dock holding the ship had begun to sink.

The warship had been successfully extracted from the dock before it completely sank, she said.

Investigators, who said they had opened a criminal investigation into the incident that would look at whether safety rules had been violated, said one person was missing and four others were being treated for hypothermia after being plucked out of the water.

Alexei Rakhmanov, head of Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation, told the TASS news agency that the ship’s hull and deck had been damaged, although what he called the vessel’s vitally important parts had not been harmed.

“There is a jagged hole 4-5 meters wide,” Rakhmanov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

“It’s obvious that when a 70-ton crane falls onto the deck, it’s possible that there could be such damage. We consider the damage to be insignificant.”

Yevgeny Gladyshev, a spokesman for the shipbuilding factory which operated the floating dock, told the RIA news agency that unspecified equipment had been damaged but that much of the deck had been spared because it had been removed during the refit.

The floating dock had been hit by a power outage which had caused its ballast tanks to fill up rapidly, prompting it to sink, the factory said.

The Admiral Kuznetsov gained notoriety in Britain when then Secretary of Defense Michael Fallon dubbed it the “ship of shame” in 2017 when it passed through waters close to the English coast on its way back from the Mediterranean belching black smoke.


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Australia’s Ex-PM Warns Jerusalem Move Would Worry Indonesia

A former Australian prime minister has warned the government to expect a negative reaction from Indonesia if Australia follows the United States by shifting its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke to reporters after meeting Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on the tourist island of Bali on Monday to discuss a bilateral free trade deal.


“The president expressed to me… the very serious concern held in Indonesia about the prospect of the Australian Embassy in Israel being moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Turnbull told Australian Broadcasting Corp. in an interview aired on Tuesday. “There’s no question that were that move to occur, it would be met with a very negative reaction in Indonesia.”


“This is after all the largest… majority-Muslim country in the world, so we have to be very clear-eyed about that and we have to take into account Australia’s national interest and our interests in the region when we… consider decisions like this,” he added.


Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday no decision had been made yet on the embassy’s location.


Morrison sent his predecessor to represent Australia at a climate change conference in Bali because of Turnbull’s close personal rapport with the Indonesian leader, who had been disappointed that Turnbull’s government colleagues replaced him in August in response to poor opinion polling.


Turnbull said he was confident that the free trade deal between Australia, a nation of 25 million people, and Indonesia, a near-neighbor with a population of more than 260 million people, would be signed within weeks.


Turnbull also said Australia should stick with a policy of more than 40 years that its embassy should be in Tel Aviv.

Morrison, a long-time ally of Turnbull who had argued against replacing him in a leadership ballot of government lawmakers, floated the idea of shifting the embassy days before a by-election in a Sydney electorate with a large Jewish population.


The government lost the by-election, forced by Turnbull’s resignation from Parliament, and its single-seat majority in the House of Representatives.


“Australia will always make our decisions on our foreign policy based on our interests and we’ll do that as a sovereign nation,” Morrison told reporters.


We’ll consult, we’ll listen to others, but at the end of the day… I will always put our interests first,” he added.


The Trump administration turned its back on decades of U.S. policy last December by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and in May, it moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv. The decision angered the Muslim world and was a setback for Palestinian aspirations for statehood. Palestinians see east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as the capital of a future independent state.


Morrison said Australia remained committed to finding a two-state solution.


When Morrison became prime minister, he made his first overseas trip to Indonesia, an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause, in a sign of the importance Australia places on the bilateral relationship.



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Conservationists Alarmed as China Eases Ban on Tiger, Rhino Parts

China unveiled new rules on Monday that would allow the use of rhino horn and tiger parts for some medical and cultural purposes, watering down a decades-old ban in a move conservation group WWF said could have “devastating consequences.”

China’s State Council issued a notice replacing its 1993 ban on the trade of tiger bones and rhino horn. The new rules ban the sale, use, import and export of such products, but allow exceptions under “special circumstances,” such as medical and scientific research, educational use, and as part of “cultural exchanges.”

Horns of rhinos or bones of tigers that were bred in captivity could be used “for medical research or clinical treatment of critical illnesses,” it said.

Rhino horn and tiger products classified as “antiques” could be used in “cultural exchanges” with the approval of culture authorities, although they still may not be sold on the market or exchanged via the internet.

The new rules came into effect Oct. 6.

WWF said in a statement that Beijing’s move would have “devastating consequences globally” and be “an enormous setback to efforts to protect tigers and rhinos in the wild.”

“Even if restricted to antiques and use in hospitals, this trade would increase confusion by consumers and law enforcers as to which products are and are not legal, and would likely expand the markets for other tiger and rhino products,” WWF said.

Beijing banned trade in tiger bones and rhino horns, both prized in traditional Chinese medicine, 25 years ago as part of global efforts to halt declining animal stocks. But illegal poaching has continued, driven by demand in an increasingly affluent country.

Commercial tiger farms in China are legal, and although using tiger bones in medicine was banned, tiger parts from these farms often end up being made into tonics or other medicines, animal rights groups say.

Conservation groups say Chinese traditional medicine recipes can make use of substitutes for products from wild animals. Some Chinese officials have in the past said full bans on the use of wild animal parts would threaten traditional Chinese medicine.

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US Restricts Exports to Chinese Semiconductor Firm Fujian Jinhua

Opening a new front in its trade and technology disputes with China, the Trump administration on Monday took action to cut off a Chinese state-backed semiconductor maker from U.S. exports of components, software and technology goods.

The Commerce Department said it has put Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit Co Ltd on a list of entities that cannot purchase such products from U.S. firms, citing a “significant risk” that the Chinese firm’s new memory chip capacity will threaten the viability of American suppliers of such chips for military systems.

It said in a statement that Fujian Jinhua “poses a significant risk of becoming involved in activities that are contrary to the national interests of the United States.”

The action is similar to a Commerce Department move that nearly put Chinese telecommunications equipment company ZTE out of business earlier this year by cutting it off from U.S. suppliers.

ZTE, which had violated a deal to settle violations of sanctions on Iran and North Korea, was allowed to resume purchases of U.S. products after a revised settlement and payment of a $1 billion fine.

The action against Fujian Jinhua is likely to ignite new tensions between Beijing and Washington since the company is at the heart of the “Made in China 2025” program to develop new high-technology industries.

The world’s top two economies are already waging a major tariff war over their trade disputes, with U.S. duties in place on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods and Chinese duties on $110 billion of U.S. goods.

Fujian Jinhua, which is starting up a new $5.7 billion chip factory in Fujian province, is linked to the Trump administration’s accusations that China has systematically stolen and forced the transfer of American technology.

Fujian Jinhua and Taiwanese partner United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC) were accused last December by U.S. memory chip maker Micron Technology Inc of stealing Micron chip designs through poached employees, a case still under way in a California court.

UMC countersued in a Chinese court, accusing Micron of infringing its patents, leading to a temporary ban in July on sales of Micron’s main products in China.

It was not immediately clear what effect the Commerce Department action will have on Fujian Jinhua’s operations.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement that the Chinese firm’s new plant likely was the beneficiary of “U.S.-origin technology” and its additional production would threaten the long-term viability of U.S. chipmakers.

“When a foreign company engages in activity contrary to our national security interests, we will take strong action to protect our national security,” he said. “Placing Jinhua on the Entity List will limit its ability to threaten the supply chain for essential components in our military systems.”

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UN Human Rights Expert Urges States to Curb Intolerance Online

Following the shooting deaths of 11 worshippers at a synagogue in the eastern United States, a U.N. human rights expert urged governments on Monday to do more to curb racist and anti-Semitic intolerance, especially online.

“That event should be a catalyst for urgent action against hate crimes, but also a reminder to fight harder against the current climate of intolerance that has made racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes and beliefs more acceptable,” U.N. Special Rapporteur Tendayi Achiume said of Saturday’s attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Achiume, whose mandate is the elimination of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, noted in her annual report that “Jews remain especially vulnerable to anti-Semitic attacks online.”

She said that Nazi and neo-Nazi groups exploit the internet to spread and incite hate because it is “largely unregulated, decentralized, cheap” and anonymous.

Achiume, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law, said neo-Nazi groups are increasingly relying on the internet and social media platforms to recruit new members.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are among their favorites.

On Facebook, for example, hate groups connect with sympathetic supporters and use the platform to recruit new members, organize events and raise money for their activities. YouTube, which has over 1.5 billion viewers each month, is another critical communications tool for propaganda videos and even neo-Nazi music videos. On Twitter, according to one 2012 study cited in the special rapporteur’s report, the presence of white nationalist movements on that platform has increased by more than 600 percent.

The special rapporteur noted that while digital technology has become an integral and positive part of most people’s lives, “these developments have also aided the spread of hateful movements.”

She said in the past year, platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have banned individual users who have contributed to hate movements or threatened violence, but ensuring the removal of racist content online remains difficult.

Some hate groups try to get around raising red flags by using racially coded messaging, which makes it harder for social media platforms to recognize their hate speech and shut down their presence.

Achiume cited as an example the use of a cartoon character “Pepe the Frog,” which was appropriated by members of neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups and was widely displayed during a white supremacist rally in the southern U.S. city of Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

The special rapporteur welcomed actions in several states to counter intolerance online, but cautioned it must not be used as a pretext for censorship and other abuses. She also urged governments to work with the private sector — specifically technology companies — to fight such prejudices in the digital space.

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Report: Pompeo to Meet with N. Korean Counterpart Next Week

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency says U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is likely to meet with his North Korean counterpart in the United States next week.

The news agency reports that the two sides are trying to arrange a meeting shortly after the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 6.

Pompeo told VOA contributor Greta Van Susteren in an interview on Oct. 19 that he hoped the meeting would take place “in the next week and a half or so.”

Yonhap reported Monday that a South Korean diplomatic source with knowledge of U.S.-North Korea negotiations said, “At the time of Secretary Pompeo’s remarks, [the meeting] was being planned for the end of October, but I understand that it was delayed by a couple days due to circumstances on the U.S. side.”

“The location will probably be the U.S. East Coast,” the source said.

Pompeo has met during previous talks with Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee. However, the Nikkei Asian Review is reporting that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong could also join the talks. Kim Yo Jong is said to have a close relationship with her brother.

The meeting between Pompeo and the North Korean delegation is expected to focus on continuing discussions about North Korea denuclearization, as well as another potential summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader.

Pompeo told VOA this month that a date for that summit has not yet been set, but said Trump is “committed” to it. “We’re working on finding dates and times and places that will work for each of the two leaders,” he said.

Earlier this month, the United States and South Korea suspended another major military exercise in a continued push for diplomacy.

The two countries have suspended several military exercises since an unprecedented June summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore, where Trump announced the U.S. would stop what he called “provocative” and “expensive” “war games” with South Korea.

He said the move was as an act of good faith and in response to North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization, and its continued suspension of nuclear and missile tests.

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Film Raises Funds for Isolated Hospital in Sudanese War Zone

With the unrelenting violence in places such as South Sudan and Somalia, the world seems to have overlooked the people of Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, where for several years President Omar al-Bashir waged war against his own people.

A few years ago on a near-daily basis, Russian-made Antonov planes bombed unarmed civilians, injuring and killing them, as well as burning small, thatched-roof houses and crops that would have fed the Nuba people in this remote region.

Most of the medical staff of international aid agencies left the mountain region, but one doctor stayed.

Dr. Tom Catena, who came from upstate New York, is a surgeon, pediatrician and an obstetrician-gynecologist at Mother of Mercy Hospital, which is the only major hospital in the Nuba Mountains for hundreds of kilometers.  He first trained in Kenya before landing in Sudan’s South Kordofan state.

Catena does what he can to save the lives of hundreds of men, women and children caught up in the battle between President Bashir and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, rebel fighters who fought alongside South Sudanese secessionists.

Catena’s story is being told to the world by a close friend from Brown University, filmmaker Ken Carlson.

“I found out that he was in great need in the Nuba Mountains five-six years ago, in need of aid.  We raised $102K ($102,000), put a truckload together of vaccines and supplies and I realized it was a great story to tell,” Carlson told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus.

That visit eventually resulted in a documentary, The Heart of Nuba, which Carlson has been showing around the United States and abroad to raise money for Mother of Mercy Hospital.  To date, the screenings have pulled in $500,000, according to Carlson.

From engineer to humanitarian

Catena graduated from Brown in 1986 with a degree in mechanical engineering, and despite high-paying job offers in his field, he felt a different calling.

“I turn to my brother Felix and I’m like, ‘Felix, I should go to medical school.’  He’s like, ‘Tom, what are you talking about?  You’re an engineer.  What are you talking about?’  And I said, ‘No, I think I should do it,'” Catena said in the film.

Carlson said he was drawn to find out why Catena was so committed to the people of the Nuba Mountains, so he flew to the region for several weeks in 2014 and again in 2015 to film Catena in action for his documentary.

The documentary captures Catena, who awakens each day at 5:50 a.m. without an alarm, marches to the chapel where he says a rosary, drinks tea, then walks straight to the hospital for another long day.  In one scene, Catena tends to a man who has just had his nose blown off by shrapnel.

Carlson said of Catena, “He’s furious!  These families are being destroyed for no reason.”

The documentary was shown Oct. 20 at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., for a screening that drew dozens of donors, activists and Diaspora.  

Nathaniel Nyoke, a lost boy from South Sudan who ran barefoot for five days to escape the fighting in Bor more than 20 years ago, says one part of the film gave him chills.

“Seeing the kids running from the Antonovs and then jumping in one hole to hide.  That’s what I used to do,” Nyoke told South Sudan in Focus.

Sudanese nurse Nasima Catena, who is married to Tom Catena, described what it’s like to be in the operating room when you come under attack.

“No one comes out, but people always run to the foxhole with patients who are able to go, who are able to run,” Catena said.

In January, President Bashir signed a four-month cease-fire with the SPLM-North rebels, but rebel ground attacks continue in the area.  The International Criminal Court charged Bashir with war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2009 and 2010, but he has eluded arrest.

Carlson said The Heart of Nuba has more screenings coming up in Los Angeles, New York, Miami and several U.S. universities, including Princeton, Columbia and Duke.

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