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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