South Africans Bid Farewell to Tutu on Eve of His Funeral 

South Africans took their last opportunity to pay their respects to Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Friday, the eve of the revered anti-apartheid fighter’s funeral.

Since Thursday, nearly 3,000 mourners have filed through Cape Town’s St. George’s Cathedral before the simple pine casket containing Tutu’s remains. 

Members of Tutu’s family hugged and consoled each other as the coffin returned for the second and final day to lie in state while a band, which included a preschooler trumpeter, played in his honor. 

The archbishop’s successor, Thabo Makgoba, waved a chalice of burning incense over the coffin before pallbearers, Anglican vicars, took the coffin from a silver Mercedes SUV hearse. 

They slowly walked up the stairs into the cathedral where Tutu had preached for a decade. 

The body will spend the night in the cathedral until the funeral, which will be presided over by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Tutu died peacefully Sunday at age 90. 

The funeral 

Tutu had carefully set down details for his funeral, insisting that his coffin be “the cheapest” available, and that it be adorned by a simple bunch of carnations. 

Mourners are being asked to donate money to his charitable foundations instead of sending flowers, and even the disposal of his remains is being conducted in an eco-friendly way. 

The dean of the cathedral, Michael Weeder, told AFP that Tutu had asked for “aquamation,” a process that supporters say releases one-tenth of climate-altering carbon dioxide gases compared with traditional cremation. 

In aquamation, bodies are dissolved in a heated solution of water and alkali in a stainless steel vessel, leaving behind the bones, which are then turned to ash by cremation. 

The ashes are to be interred at the cathedral. 

The burial “might be Sunday,” Weeder said in a text message, adding the “family will decide whether it will be private or open to others.” 

‘Moral compass’ 

Libane Serenji, an artist from Johannesburg, came to pay respects. He painted portraits of Tutu on a canvas and attached them to a tree outside the cathedral.

He said it was fitting “to come all the way and paint … because he played also a significant role in my life like everyone from Africa.”

Another mourner, Antonia Appels, had come from the capital, Pretoria, to stand in line. 

Tutu was a “moral compass” who had helped haul country out of the darkness of the apartheid era, she said. 

South Africa is marking a week of mourning for Tutu, with the country’s multicolored flag flying at half-staff nationwide and ceremonies taking place every day. 

The cathedral’s bells have been pealing in his memory for 10 minutes at midday. 

Tutu was for years the emblem of the struggle to end white-minority rule as Nelson Mandela and other leaders languished behind bars. 

After apartheid was dismantled and South Africa ushered in its first free elections in 1994, Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which exposed the horrors of the past in terrible detail. 

He would later speak out fearlessly against the ruling African National Congress (ANC) for corruption, incompetence and failures to tackle the country’s AIDS epidemic. 

Weakened by advanced age and prostate cancer, Tutu had retired from public life in recent years. 

He is survived by his wife, Leah; four children; and several grand and great-grandchildren.

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UK Honors COVID Scientists and Medics, Bond Actor Daniel Craig 

Britain recognized the scientists and medical chiefs at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19 in Queen Elizabeth’s annual New Year’s honors list, while James Bond actor Daniel Craig was given the same award as his famous onscreen character. 

Craig, who bowed out from playing the fictional British spy after five outings following the release of “No Time to Die” this year, was made a Companion in The Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG) in recognition of his outstanding contribution to film. 

Bond was also a CMG, so the honor means Craig has now matched all his titles, having been made an honorary Commander in the Royal Navy in September. 

There were also major honors for the high-profile officials and others involved in tackling the coronavirus pandemic. 

The chief medical officers for England, Scotland and Wales – Chris Whitty, Gregor Smith and Frank Atherton – were given knighthoods. There were also honors for the deputy medical officers for England, with Jonathan Van-Tam knighted and Jenny Harries made a dame. 

The government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, who had previously been knighted, was made a Knight Commander of The Order of The Bath. 

There were also awards for those involved in producing vaccines including Pfizer Chief Development Officer Rod MacKenzie, Sean Marett, the chief business and commercial officer at BioNTech, and Melanie Ivarsson, the chief development officer at Moderna. 

Cyclist Jason Kenny, who achieved his seventh gold medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games, more than any other Briton has won, was also knighted. His wife, Laura, who is the nation’s most successful female Olympic athlete and became the first to win gold at three successive Games, received a damehood. 

Among the 78 Olympian and Paralympians to be included in the list were gold medal winners swimmer Adam Peaty and diver Tom Daley, who received OBEs. 

Emma Raducanu, who stunned the tennis world by becoming the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam title with victory in the U.S. Open, was another sporting figure to be honored with an MBE. 

Songwriter Bernie Taupin, best known for his collaborations with Elton John including his 1997 reworking of “Candle in the Wind” that John sang at the funeral of Princess Diana, was awarded a CBE. 

There were also damehoods for veteran actresses Joanna Lumley and Vanessa Redgrave for their services to drama, entertainment and charity. 

The New Year’s honors have been awarded since Queen Victoria’s reign in the 19th century and aim to recognize not just well-known figures but people who have contributed to national life through often unsung work over many years. 

“These recipients have inspired and entertained us and given so much to their communities in the UK or in many cases around the world,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.


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Sudanese Block Streets After Day of Protest Violence 

Sudanese pro-democracy demonstrators blocked streets on Friday in Khartoum, protesting the violence a day earlier that left five people dead and sparked condemnation from the U.S. and others. 

Protesters barricaded roads in the east Khartoum district of Burri as well as in nearby Khartoum North using rocks, tree branches and tires, an AFP journalist said. 

Sudan has been gripped by turmoil since military leader General Abdel-Fattah Burhan launched a coup on October 25 and detained Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. 

Hamdok was reinstated on November 21, but mass protests have continued as demonstrators distrust Burhan’s promises of seeking to guide the country toward full democracy. 

As the authorities on Thursday cut off communications across the country, security forces clamped down on demonstrations, firing live rounds and tear gas as tens of thousands gathered in Khartoum, Khartoum North and nearby Omdurman. 

Five protesters killed 

Four protesters were fatally shot in the head or chest in Omdurman, according to the pro-democracy Sudan Doctors Committee, while a fifth succumbed to his wounds Friday after he was shot in central Khartoum. 

Protesters charge that the deal to reinstate Hamdok simply aims to give the cloak of legitimacy to the generals, whom they accuse of trying to continue the regime built by former autocratic President Omar al-Bashir, who was toppled in 2019 following mass protests. 

A civilian member recently appointed to the ruling Sovereign Council, Abdel Baqi Abdel Qader, announced Friday his intent to resign. 

He said he had sent a message to Burhan’s office requesting a meeting “to present to him my resignation … over the violence against demonstrators.” 

Journalists released 

Two journalists from Saudi Arabia’s Asharq television channel, Maha al-Talb and Sally Othman, were released after they and their crews were held for several hours, the channel said Friday. 

Police had also stormed the bureau of the Al-Arabiya television network funded by Saudi Arabia, which is seen as a traditional ally of Sudan’s military leaders. 

The violence and attacks on the media drew widespread condemnation. 

“Deeply troubled by reports that Sudanese security forces used lethal force against protesters, blacked out the internet, and attempted to shutdown media outlets,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted after Thursday’s events. 

The Doctors Committee has accused security forces of blocking ambulances and of forcibly removing at least one seriously injured protester from an ambulance. 

Videos have circulated on social media showing men in uniform beating protesters with sticks. 

The Sudanese Communist Party called for “urgent international solidarity to demand an end to the bloody repression in Sudan and the immediate release of all political detainees.” 

Protesters have renewed demands that the military “return to their barracks” as promised in 2019 when Bashir was toppled and the country came under the control of the Sovereign Council, a body composed of civilian and military figures, headed by Burhan. 

Demonstrations ‘waste of time’ 

A police spokesman had said four people died in Thursday’s unrest and 297 people were injured, “including 49 police officers.” 

He also said three police vans were set on fire and accused protest leaders of having sought to “turn a peaceful march into violence and confrontations with the security forces.” 

An adviser to Burhan told the state news agency on Friday that “the demonstrations are a waste of time and energy” and would not lead to a political solution. 

The violent crackdown since the October coup has claimed 53 lives and left hundreds wounded.



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Biden, Ukraine President to Speak Sunday Amid Tensions with Russia 

President Joe Biden plans to speak Sunday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a White house official said Friday, a day after Biden spoke with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on how to reduce tensions on the Ukraine-Russia border. 

Biden will reaffirm support for Ukraine, discuss Russia’s military build-up on its borders and review preparations for diplomatic efforts to calm the situation in the region, the official said Friday. 

The U.S. and Russian leaders exchanged warnings over Ukraine in Thursday’s call, but their countries voiced some optimism afterwards about planned security talks in January to address Russian military actions that drew the threat of sanctions from Washington and its allies. 

The leaders’ exchange set the stage for lower-level engagement between the countries that includes the U.S.-Russia security meeting on January 9-10, followed by a Russia-NATO session on January 12, and a broader conference including Moscow, Washington and other European countries on January 13. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to lay the groundwork for the talks Friday in calls with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and others, the State Department said. 

In conversations with the foreign ministers of Canada and Italy, Blinken discussed a united response to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine and their consensus to impose “severe costs” on Moscow for any such actions. 



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Former Afghan Female Soldier: ‘I Am So Afraid’ Under Taliban

Afghan women who served in the country’s military are speaking out about how their life has changed under the Taliban.

“I feel like I am in prison,” said Jamila, 28, a former Afghan military officer in the western city of Herat. “I have to be at home. I can’t work or go out. I am so afraid.” 

More than 6,300 women served in the former Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Now they face not only threats to their life as former members of the military but also the Taliban’s imposed restrictions on their gender. 

“We have no hope that things would change. I do not think that Afghan military women have any future under the Taliban,” said Jamila, who did not want her real name to be revealed for fear of reprisals.

The Taliban, who seized power after the Afghan government collapsed on August 15, have imposed repressive rules on women, including banning women from work, secondary education, and long-distance travel. 

Human Rights Watch and the United Nations accused the Taliban in November of the summary killing of more than 100 former Afghan security officials despite the group’s promise of general amnesty. 

Jamila served for 10 years in the 207th Zafar (Victory) Corps of the Afghan National Army, headquartered in Herat province. She says she now hears news every day of someone else who was killed or disappeared. 

“I fear that they (the Taliban) might find me and kill me,” she said. 

Despite assurances from senior Taliban leaders that the group plans no retribution killings, Jamila said their word cannot be trusted. 

The more than 6,300 women who served as security forces were a small fraction of the country’s 300,000-strong force, but their careers represented a significant cultural shift for the conservative country. 

Washington’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, reported in July that 4,253 women served in the police, 1,913 in the army and 146 in the air force.

Living in fear 

Now, some of them are on the run. 

“We have been moving from one place to another to avoid being identified,” Jamila said. 

Serving in the Afghan military was always a significant risk for the women, whose families sometimes opposed their work. 

“Despite the enormous obstacles,” said a SIGAR report in February 2021, Afghan women continued to join ANDSF “often at a great personal risk.”

Jamila, a mother of two, said that her family had opposed her joining the army. And, she said, they blame her for the hardships they now face. 

“They are telling me that you joined the army and that is why our lives are in danger.” 

Before the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, many women, government employees and social activists were killed in targeted attacks.

Of the seven Afghan women who were posthumously given the U.S. State Department’s 2021 International Women of Courage Award, three were working with Afghan security agencies.

A U.S. State Department press release issued in March 2021 stated that honorary awards were given “to seven leaders and activists from Afghanistan who were assassinated for their dedication to improving the lives of Afghans.”

Jamila said that after the Taliban takeover, some of her colleagues had escaped to Pakistan and Iran, but most of them remain in Afghanistan, living in fear. 

“The majority could not flee because they do not have money (or) passport, or (are) having other problems,” Jamila added. 

‘We fought them’ 

“I had no choice but to escape to Pakistan,” said a former Afghan army officer, 25, who did not want her identity to be disclosed for safety reasons.

The former officer, who was also posted in the Zafar Corps in Herat, said that she had to escape just after the fall of the city into the Taliban’s hands. “I went together with a family of my relatives and crossed to Pakistan.”

She said that most of the women who had served in the military in her province were in danger since “we fought them. They wanted to kill us, and we wanted to kill them.” 

She does not see any future for her fellow female veterans in Afghanistan, she said. “Forget about the idea that they will let us go to work. They do not even let girls go to school. They do not accept women to be part of the society.” 

The Taliban’s position on women’s rights had not changed from what she had heard about the group’s repressive rules in the 1990s, she added. 

Under the Taliban, in the late ’90s, women were denied education and employment. The militant group also forced women to cover themselves from head to toe and prevented women from leaving their houses without a male companion.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghan women made some achievements. About 3.5 million girls were going to schools. About 30 percent of the civil servants and around 28 percent of parliamentarians were women. 

Afghan women’s rights activists worldwide have been protesting the Taliban takeover, which has curbed the rights and freedoms that Afghan women achieved over the past 20 years.

On Tuesday, dozens of women took to the streets of Kabul, demanding work, food and education.

Call for help 

“No one cares about us right now,” said the former army officer, adding that “NATO was supporting us. We were encouraged to join the army, but now we are forgotten.” 

She called on the international community to help relocate those women whose lives are at risk under the Taliban.

Hosna Jalil, Afghanistan’s former deputy minister for women affairs who also served as deputy interior minister from December 2018 to January 2021, said that Afghan women who were working in the security sector are at great risk. 

“Women (in the security sector), because their number was low and they can be identified easily, I think they are more vulnerable,” she said. 

Initiatives are underway to relocate some of the former Afghan military women to a safer place, Jalil said, “but the process, to tell you honestly, is very scattered and slow.” 

“And this is the reason that we lose them one by one,” Jalil said, referring to the targeted killings of former Afghan military personnel. 


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Afghan Refugees in Turkey Make a Living as Shepherds

Some Afghan refugees living in Turkey are turning to the ancient practice of shepherding as a way to make a living. VOA’s Eyyup Demir has this report narrated by Sirwan Kajjo.

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Clashes With Militants Kill 4 Pakistani Troops Near Afghan Border

Pakistan confirmed Friday that four of its soldiers were killed in a gun battle with militants near the Afghan border.

The clash erupted when Pakistani troops raided a Pakistani Taliban hideout in the town of Mir Ali in the North Waziristan border district, according to a military statement.

The statement said security forces had captured “one terrorist along with weapons and ammunition” and lost four personnel in an intense exchange of fire that followed the raid.

Friday’s military statement did not share further details about the deadly encounter, which multiple sources said had occurred the day before.

The outlawed Pakistani Taliban, known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, confirmed in a Thursday statement that security forces had raided its base in the Waziristan area. It claimed the ensuing clashes had killed several Pakistani troops but did not inflict any TTP casualties.

Meanwhile, officials said Friday the death toll from an overnight roadside bombing in Quetta, the capital of southeastern Baluchistan province, had risen to at least six passersby.

There were no claims of responsibility for the attack that injured more than a dozen people, all civilians.

Baluchistan, the sparsely populated, natural resource-rich province, routinely experiences militant attacks against Pakistani security forces and civilians. The violence is often claimed by separatist Baluch militant groups, TTP and occasionally by extremists linked to the Islamic State group.

Authorities in Pakistan say TTP leaders plan anti-state activities from sanctuaries in Afghanistan after fleeing years of military operations against their strongholds on the Pakistani side.

Thousands of Pakistanis, including security forces, have been killed in TTP-claimed suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks over the past years.

The United States and the United Nations have listed TTP as a global terrorist group.

Pakistan recently engaged TTP militants in peace talks with the help of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, leading to a 30-day cease-fire.

The TTP, however, refused to extend the truce after it expired in early December, accusing Pakistani authorities of breaching terms of the deal. Since then, the group has resumed attacks on Pakistani troops and police forces, particularly in districts next to the Afghan border. 




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Pakistan: 70 Million Fully Vaccinated Against COVID-19

Pakistan says it has administered 155 million COVID-19 vaccine doses as of Friday, fully vaccinating 70 million people, or 30% of the country’s total population, since launching the inoculation drive in February.

The South Asian nation of about 220 million reported its first case in early 2020 and since then the pandemic has infected about 1.3 million people and killed nearly 29,000 people, keeping the situation largely under control.

“Of the total eligible population [age 12 and above], 46% is fully vaccinated and 63% has received at least one dose,” Planning and Development Minister Asad Umar who heads the National Command and Operation Center that oversees Pakistan’s pandemic response, tweeted.


The government had set the target in May and achieved it “with the help of countless workers, citizens and leadership across the country,” tweeted Faisal Sultan, the special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan on national health services.


Faisal advised Pakistanis to continue to use masks, avoid crowded places and ensure social distancing in the wake of rising cases of infection from the omicron variant.

Officials said Pakistan has received a total of 247 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to date. The government has purchased 157 million while 78 million arrived through the COVAX dose-sharing program, including 32.6 million donated by the United States, and nearly 9 million donated from China.


The United Nations and other global partners have acknowledged Pakistan’s effective response to the pandemic, citing the country’s success in vaccinating children against polio and other transmittable diseases through mass immunization campaigns.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the federal health ministry adapted its facilities to vaccinate adults, who make up about half of Pakistan’s population, according to a recent UNICEF statement. 

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Sahel Conflict Set to Worsen in 2022: Analysts

Islamist militant attacks increased this past year in the Sahel region, leading to political instability that saw a coup in Mali, an attempted coup in Niger, and calls for Burkina Faso’s president to resign. Burkina Faso experienced the deadliest terrorist attacks since the conflict began, but analysts say the worst could be yet to come. 

2021 marks the ninth year of conflict in Africa’s western Sahel, and in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, violence has only worsened.     

A video recently posted online purports to show an attack on a military base in northern Burkina Faso that killed almost 50 military police in November. Terrorists said to be linked to al-Qaida can be seen firing heavy weapons from the backs of pickup trucks before burning and looting the base. 

Across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, fatalities from clashes between state forces and armed groups linked to Islamic State, al-Qaida and criminal gangs are up 18% since last year, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.  

The humanitarian impact has been huge, with close to 3.4 million now displaced as a result of the conflict, according to the United Nations refugee agency.  

Amadou Agli, from Burkina Faso, fled the north of the country around three months ago after terrorists attacked nearby villages. He says he has a message for the world.  

Agli says his community is living through very hard times and appeals to any people, NGOs and governments around the world who can help them. He says they are suffering a food crisis, a housing crisis and that the children are unable to attend school.  

The year also saw a shift in the region’s military structure, says Paul Melly, an analyst with London-based Chatham House, a research institution.  

“The start of the process of moving towards a new pattern of French deployment where the Sahel armies in the G5 Sahel military structure are much more, the frontline face if you like, with the French in more of a backup and special forces role, air support, intelligence,” Melly said.  

France, which had 5,000 troops supporting Sahel security forces at the beginning of 2021, has said it will reduce that number to 3,000 by early 2022.


Escalating insecurity has also plunged Sahel governments into political turmoil. Mali saw a coup by military leader Assimi Goïta in May after street protests against insecurity. The West African political bloc, ECOWAS, along with France, have put pressure on Goïta to hold democratic elections in 2022.    

Protests against the government’s handling of security in Burkina Faso in November forced the government to reshuffle military leadership and the Cabinet.  

Andrew Lebovich is an analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations.   

“What people are concerned about is the ongoing insecurity and the state of security forces. So, if that doesn’t improve, then no, the change in government certainly will not be enough to appease the opposition,” Lebovich said. 

Lebovich says analysts are also keeping an eye on attacks in Burkina Faso’s border area with coastal West African states including Benin and Ivory Coast. 

“I do think, at a minimum, it’s something to be concerned about and something to watch out for and something to actively work against,” Lebovich said.  

Meanwhile in Niger, the emergence of civilian militia groups to fill the security gap could play a big role in 2022. In other Sahel countries they have been used to assist the military but have also been accused of human rights abuses, says Philippe M. Frowd, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. 

“We’ve seen this in southwestern Niger recently, kind of community violence spiraling and driven a lot by non-state armed groups. We see this in Burkina Faso as well where we have the state in fact relying on armed groups like this,” Frowd said.  

After a difficult 2021, the Sahel conflict looks set to worsen as the new year begins.   

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Sahel Conflict Set to Get Worse in 2022, Analysts Say

Islamist militant attacks increased this past year in the Sahel region, leading to political instability that saw a coup in Mali, an attempted coup in Niger, and calls for Burkina Faso’s president to resign.  Burkina Faso experienced the deadliest terrorist attacks since the conflict began, but analysts say the worst could be yet to come.  Henry Wilkins reports from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.  Camera: Henry Wilkins

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Biden, Putin Address Ukraine Tensions in High-Stakes Phone Call

For the second time in a month, US President Joe Biden has spoken directly to his Russian counterpart and urged him to de-escalate, as President Vladimir Putin continues to amass soldiers near the border with Ukraine. But administration officials said Putin provided no assurances of his intentions. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Washington.

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Taliban Call on Barbershops to Not Shave, Trim Beards 

Days after Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers imposed travel restrictions on women, a new decree is recommending that barbershops refrain from shaving or trimming beards, saying such actions are forbidden in Islam. 

VOA has received a copy of the instructions that the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued this week. 

A Taliban official shared the original order in the Pashto language; however, its authenticity has not been publicly confirmed by senior leadership.

When contacted by VOA, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid did not dispute the order’s authenticity but said he was still “trying to get information” about the decree.

The order cited several verses from the Quran and hadiths, or sayings, about following whatever the Prophet Muhammad has asked Muslims to do. 

“Growing a beard is a natural deed and the Sunnah [the way of life and legal precedent] of all Prophets and Islamic Sharia has repeatedly emphasized it,” according to the instructions.

The order was signed by the minister for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, Sheikh Muhammad Khalid Haqqani. 

“Shaving or trimming a beard is forbidden under a unanimous decision by the religious scholars. Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, their followers, their successors, Mujahideen [holy warriors] and other scholars do not agree on shaving or trimming the beard. So, it is understood that shaving or trimming a beard is against human nature and the action is against Islamic Sharia,” according to the order. 

“In view of the above all workers of the barbershops are informed to keep in mind Islamic Sharia and Islamic injunctions while cutting hairs and serving their customers.” 

The order appears to stop short of the outright ban on trimming beards that the Taliban issued during their last government from 1996 to 2001. Taliban officials have said the group is working to encourage Afghans to adopt their strict interpretation of Islam.

“All provincial departments under the ministry are directed that having beards is one of the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad and all Muslims should follow Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad. All barbershop workers in the provinces are also instructed to keep in mind the instructions while trimming the beards of customers.” 

“Officials should also try to implement the order politely and while speaking to the people so the countrymen bring their lives in conformity with their religion, Islamic obligations and Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad,” according to the order. 

“These instructions have been sent to you for implementation.” 

Barbers in Kabul said many people were not willing to shave their beards even before the Taliban issued the decree. 

A barber at a Kabul shop told VOA earlier in December that he has been doing only 20 percent of his previous business since the Taliban took over the city.

The Taliban seized control of the Afghan capital in mid-August. Since then, they have been introducing Islamic laws and banning mixed education of males and females. 

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Biden Affirms Sanctions Threat; Putin Says That Would Be ‘Colossal Mistake’

Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin spoke frankly for nearly an hour late Thursday amid growing alarm over Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine, a simmering crisis that’s recently deepened as the Kremlin has stiffened its demands for increased security guarantees and test-fired hypersonic missiles to underscore its demands. 

Putin’s foreign affairs adviser said Biden reaffirmed the U.S. threat of new sanctions against Russia in case of an escalation or invasion, to which Putin responded with a warning of his own: that such a U.S. move could lead to a complete rupture of ties. 

“It would be a colossal mistake that would entail grave consequences,” said Yuri Ushakov. He added that Putin told Biden that Russia would act as the U.S. would if offensive weapons were deployed near American borders. 

Putin requested the call, the second between the leaders this month, ahead of scheduled talks between senior U.S. and Russian officials set for January 10 in Geneva.

White House officials said that the call began at 3:35 p.m. EST and concluded 50 minutes later, after midnight in Moscow.

What Russia wants 

Russia has made clear it wants a written commitment that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO and that the alliance’s military equipment will not be positioned in former Soviet states, demands that the Biden administration has made clear are nonstarters. 

The White House said ahead of the call that Biden would tell Putin that a diplomatic path remained open even as the Russians have moved an estimated 100,000 troops toward Ukraine and Kremlin officials have turned up the volume on demands for new guarantees from the U.S. and NATO. 

Those demands are to be discussed during the talks in Geneva, but it remains unclear what, if anything, Biden would be willing to offer Putin in exchange for defusing the crisis. 

Draft security documents Moscow submitted demand that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back its military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe. 

The U.S. and its allies have refused to offer Russia the kind of guarantees on Ukraine that Putin wants, citing NATO’s principle that membership is open to any qualifying country. They agreed, however, to hold talks with Russia to discuss its concerns. 

Pretext to invade? 

The security proposal by Moscow has raised the question of whether Putin is making unrealistic demands in the expectation of a Western rejection that would give him a pretext to invade.

Steven Pifer, a career foreign service officer who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in the Clinton administration, said the Biden administration could engage on some elements of Russia’s draft document if Moscow was serious about talks.

Key NATO members have made clear there is no appetite for expanding the alliance soon. The U.S. and allies could also be receptive to language in the Russians’ draft document calling for establishing new consultative mechanisms, such as the NATO-Russia Council and a hotline between NATO and Russia. 

“The draft treaty’s proposed bar on any NATO military activity in Ukraine, eastern Europe, the Caucasus or Central Asia is an overreach, but some measures to limit military exercises and activities on a reciprocal basis might be possible,” Pifer, who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in an analysis for the Washington think tank.

Biden planned to tell Putin that for there to be “real progress” in the talks they must be conducted in “a context of de-escalation rather than escalation,” according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters before the call. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

Biden and Putin, who met in Geneva in June to discuss an array of tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship, are not expected to take part in the January talks. 

In the December 7 video call, the White House said, Biden put Moscow on notice that an invasion of Ukraine would bring sanctions and enormous harm to the Russian economy. Russian officials have dismissed the sanction threats. 

Last week, Russia test-fired Zircon hypersonic missiles, a provocative move that Peskov said was meant to help make Russia’s push for security guarantees “more convincing.” The test was the first time Zircon missiles were launched in a salvo, indicating the completion of tests before the new missile enters service with the Russian navy next year and arms its cruisers, frigates and submarines. 

U.S. intelligence earlier this month determined that Russian planning was underway for a possible military offensive that could begin as soon as early 2022, but that Putin had yet to determine whether to move forward with it. 

No immediate threat seen

Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council, said Thursday that his country believed there was no immediate threat of a major Russian invasion. 

“Our experts say that the Russian Federation just physically can’t mount a big invasion of our territory,” Danilov said. “There is a time period needed for preparations.” 

The U.S. military has flown surveillance flights in Ukrainian airspace this week, including a flight Thursday by an Air Force E-8C JSTARS aircraft, according to Chuck Pritchard, a spokesman for U.S. European Command. That plane is equipped to provide intelligence on ground forces. 

Pritchard said such flights are conducted with European allies routinely and the missions this week were “not in response to any specific event.” 

Moscow and NATO representatives are expected to meet in the days after the Geneva talks, as are Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which includes the United States. 

Russia has denied an intention of launching an invasion and, in turn, accused Ukraine of hatching plans to try to reclaim control of the territories held by Moscow-backed rebels by force. Ukraine has rejected the claim. 

‘Aggressive’ course by West seen

At the same time, Putin has urged the West to move quickly to meet his demands, warning that Moscow will have to take “adequate military-technical measures” if the West continues its “aggressive” course “on the threshold of our home.” 

As Biden prepared for the talks with Putin, the administration also sought to highlight the commitment to Ukraine and drive home that Washington is committed to the “principle of nothing about you without you” in shaping policy that affects European allies. 

Biden, who is spending the week in his home state of Delaware, spoke to Putin from his home near Wilmington. The White House distributed a photo of the president speaking to the Russian leader from a desk lined with family photos. 

Ahead of the call, Putin sent a telegram to Biden with New Year’s and Christmas wishes, which was posted on the Kremlin site on Thursday, along with other holiday messages to world leaders. 

“I am convinced that in the development of our agreements reached during the June summit in Geneva and subsequent contacts that we can move forward and establish an effective Russian-American dialogue based on mutual respect and in consideration of each other’s national interests,” Putin wrote. 

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Azerbaijan Passes Media Bill Despite Protests from Journalists 

Azerbaijan’s parliament on Thursday adopted a new media law despite concerns from journalists who said it could further limit independent journalism. 

The law, which is due to go into effect on January 1 after being signed by the president, includes a registry for journalists and will apply to media outlets in the country as well as those who broadcast or publish to an Azerbaijani audience. 

Dozens of journalists gathered in the capital Baku this week to protest the law. At least one reporter was injured during the rally, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). 

Local media and rights groups have said that the law could allow the government to determine who is officially recognized as a journalist, and raised concerns that the registry will include details about reporters and their work contacts. 

The law will also make it harder for media outlets that work in exile to continue to report without registering in the country, and includes provisions that ban disseminating information from unofficial sources, rights groups including RSF said.  

Alasgar Mammadli, a media law expert based in Baku, told VOA that despite serious objections from the media, the law was adopted unchanged, except for two minor details. 

“We said the document had many problems and we proposed that parliament amend up to 40 articles based on those issues. Unfortunately, those suggestions were not taken into account,” Mammadli said. “I think this step by the government will not improve the situation for journalism and media freedom in Azerbaijan, it will make it worse.” 

Mammadli believes that journalists will have to raise problems related to the new law in the courts as soon as possible and may have to seek support from the European Court of Human Rights. 

Mehman Aliyev, director of the independent news agency Turan, also said he believes the law will be used to restrict the media. 

“[The law] testifies to the strengthening of state control over the information community. The new law means toughening of information relations between the Azerbaijani government and society,” Aliyev said. 

Lawmaker Aydin Mirzazade, a member of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, dismissed the media’s concerns, saying that the bill was widely discussed and that media representatives contributed to it. 

“I think that the law will regulate relations between the media and state and media and society as a whole. In other words, the law protects media independence, freedom of speech and does not impose any sanctions or restrictions on it, especially on social networks,” he said. 

He also dismissed claims by some analysts who said the law contradicts Azerbaijan’s constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. 

“If they consider the law unconstitutional, they have the right to indicate to the court which articles of the law are contrary to the constitution. There is a very simple solution to the problem, ”Mirzazade said. “On the one hand, they say that the law is reactionary; on the other hand, they can openly express their views. That is, their actions contradict what they say.” 

One of the biggest concerns cited by journalists and rights groups is that the law will give authorities power to decide who can work in journalism. 

Those with a previous criminal record will not be eligible for accreditation, and publishers have to be citizens and full-time residents, Eurasianet reported. 

While the accreditation process is voluntary, the new regulations would exclude journalists like investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova, who spent over 500 days in prison on what rights groups say were bogus charges in retaliation for her reporting on corruption.

Without the official press pass, reporters could find it harder to gain access to officials and some events. 

“I can probably do my research. But they [officials] will not answer my journalistic questions,” said Ismayilova. 

Another regulation that troubled media was the requirement that publishers live in Azerbaijan. That could impact independent news outlets that were set up outside the country because of an already repressive environment, according to reports. 

“Peppered with imprecise wording and contradictions, this law aims to step up control over the media and legalize censorship,” said RSF’s Jeanne Cavelier in a statement. 

“The state is overstepping its powers by interfering in the professional activities of journalists, without any consultation with independent media or experts specializing in freedom of expression.” 

RSF and others believe the law will add to an already repressive environment. Azerbaijan ranks 167 out of 180 countries, where 1 is freest on the world press freedom index. 

This article originated in VOA’s Azeri Service. 

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South Africa Lifts Curfew, Says COVID-19 Fourth Wave Peaked

South Africa has lifted a midnight-to-4 a.m. curfew on people’s movement, effective immediately, saying the country has passed the peak of its fourth COVID-19 wave driven by the omicron variant, a government statement said Thursday. 

However, wearing a face mask in public places remains mandatory. Failure to wear a mask in South Africa when required is a criminal offense. 

The country made the curfew and other changes based on the trajectory of the pandemic, levels of vaccination in the country and available capacity in the health sector, according to a press release issued by Mondli Gungubele, a minister in the presidency. 

South Africa is at the lowest of its five-stage COVID-19 alert levels. 

“All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level,” a statement from the special cabinet meeting held earlier Thursday said. 

Data from the Department of Health showed a 29.7% decrease in the number of new cases detected in the week ending December 25 compared with the number of cases found in the previous week, at 127,753, the government said. 

South Africa, with close to 3.5 million infections and 91,000 deaths, has been the worst-hit country in Africa during the pandemic on both counts. 

Besides lifting the restrictions on public movement, the government also ruled that alcohol shops with licenses to operate after 11 p.m. local time may revert to full license conditions, a welcome boon for traders and businesses hard hit by the pandemic and looking to recover during the festive season. 

“While the omicron variant is highly transmissible, there have been lower rates of hospitalization than in previous waves,” the statement said.

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Mali Conference Recommends Election Delay of Up to 5 Years 

A conference in Mali charged with recommending a timetable for democratic elections following a military coup said on Thursday that polls scheduled for February should be delayed by six months to five years in part because of security issues. 

Mali’s transitional government initially agreed to hold elections in February 2022, 18 months after an army faction led by Colonel Assimi Goita overthrew President Boubacar Ibrahim Keita. 

But it has made little progress, blaming disorganization and Islamist violence in the north and central parts of the country. 

ECOWAS, West Africa’s main political and economic bloc, has imposed sanctions on the coup leaders and had promised more if Mali did not produce a plan for February elections by Friday. 

The government has said it will take the recommendations of the National Refoundation Conference and decide on a new election calendar by the end of January. 

A prolonged transition back to democracy could isolate Mali from its neighbors and from former colonial power France, which has thousands of soldiers deployed there against insurgents linked to al-Qaida and Islamic State. 

It could also undermine democracy in West and Central Africa, where military coup leaders in Chad and Guinea are also under pressure to organize elections and give up power. 

The proposed election timetable comes at a delicate time politically. France is reducing its military presence in the north, and Russia has sent private military contractors to train Malian troops, a move Western powers worry is the beginning of a wider Russian deployment.

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