High Alert: NATO Sends Troops, Warplanes East to Counter Russian Threat

Several NATO member states are sending troops and hardware to allies in Eastern Europe as tensions with Russia escalate. The United States has put several thousand troops on alert. Moscow has over 100,000 troops amassed on the Ukraine border, and the West fears an imminent Russian invasion, which the Kremlin denies. Henry Ridgwell looks at what NATO’s military response means.
Camera: Henry Ridgwell

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Kenya Government Fighting Vaccine Hesitancy

While Kenya has seen the percentage of people fully vaccinated against the coronavirus gradually increase to 19%, some people – like nomadic herders – have been harder to reach.  So, Kenyan authorities offered an incentive – herders who get the jab can also get routine vaccinations and medicines for their livestock. For VOA, Brenda Mulinya reports from Isiolo, Kenya.

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High Alert: NATO Sends Troops, Warplanes East to Counter Russian Threat 

NATO member states are sending thousands of troops, warplanes and ships to allies in eastern Europe as tensions with Russia escalate over Moscow’s deployment of more than 100,000 troops to its border with Ukraine. The West fears an imminent Russian invasion, which the Kremlin denies.

Four Danish F-16 fighter jets landed in Lithuania last week to bolster NATO’s air policing mission in the Baltic. Since Russia’s 2014 forceful annexation of Crimea, NATO has deployed between 4,000 and 5,000 troops in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in what the alliance terms an “enhanced forward presence.”

US troops 

The United States has put 8,500 troops on standby. “I’ll be moving U.S. troops to eastern Europe and NATO countries in the near term,” U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters Friday. 

The U.S. already has tens of thousands of troops stationed in Europe, mostly in Germany and Britain. One scenario could see some of those personnel gradually shifted to eastern NATO allies. 

NATO allies 

France has announced plans to deploy hundreds of troops to Romania. “As President Macron recalled last week, we have sizably contributed to the security of our European partners in NATO missions in Baltic states and we will continue to do so,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly said during a visit to Bucharest on January 27.

“In the same spirit, he indicated our availability to go further and within the NATO framework to engage in new EFP (enhanced forward presence) missions, particularly in Romania, if NATO decides it,” Parly added. 

Spain, the Netherlands and Germany are also considering sending troops, aircraft and warships to eastern European allies. 

Anti-tank weapons 

Britain has supplied about 2,000 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine and is expected to offer further deployments to NATO allies this week, potentially doubling its current commitment of about 1,150 troops. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to visit Ukraine this week and hold talks on the phone with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. 

British Defense Minister Ben Wallace said the deployments are intended to send a message to Moscow. 

“I think it is important when it comes to military deployment that we signal to President Putin that the very thing he fears, which is more NATO closer to Russia, would be the consequence of a strategic error of invading a sovereign country such as Ukraine,” Wallace told reporters Monday following talks with his Hungarian counterpart in Budapest. 


However, NATO has no plans to deploy combat troops to Ukraine, notes security analyst Julie Norman of University College London. 

“Those NATO troops that are in those border states are really there more for preparedness and for a defensive and deterrence capability, rather than expectation for direct conflict or direct combat.” 

Norman says the NATO deployments could be rapidly strengthened. “If there is indeed a conflict … those border states will be reinforced further than what they currently have. There’s already NATO troops in most of those states, but this would bolster them by about double the amount, to start,” Norman told VOA. 

NATO says it is responding to Russian aggression. Moscow has labelled the Western response “hysteria” and denies it has any plans to invade Ukraine, instead claiming that NATO’s expansion into former Soviet-bloc countries poses a security risk.

Belarus threat 

Russia has about 100,000 troops deployed close to the Ukrainian border. Thousands more arrived in Belarus for joint military exercises this week. 

Evelyn N. Farkas, a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, says Western allies had to respond. 

“NATO itself has had to respond to a new threat Russia posed by putting additional forces into Belarus, which of course shares a border with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, which are NATO allies,” Farkas told a recent panel discussion hosted by London-based Chatham House. 

NATO’s deployments in eastern Europe could ratchet up tensions with Russia’s president, says Norman. 

“Putin’s key demand in all of this is the drawdown of NATO troops and weaponry from those same eastern states. So, the fact that there is more buildup, that is going to be seen not as an act of defense, but an act of offense and provocation by Russia.” 


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Mali Orders Expulsion of French Ambassador

Mali said it is expelling the French ambassador because of “hostile and outrageous” comments by former colonial power France about Mali’s transitional government.

A statement read on national television Monday said French Ambassador Joel Meyer has been given 72 hours to leave the country. 

“This measure follows the hostile and outrageous comments made recently by the French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs and the recurrence of such comments by the French authorities with regard to the Malian authorities, despite repeated protests,” the statement said. 

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said last week that Mali’s junta was “illegitimate and takes irresponsible measures.” He also described the junta as “out of control.” 

The French Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday that it would recall Meyer from Mali. 

Relations between Mali and France deteriorated this month after the junta went back on an agreement to organize elections in February. Instead, the junta has proposed staying in power for up to another five years. 

European nations have also expressed concern that Mali’s interim government has accepted private Russian security contractors. 

France has had troops in Mali since 2013 when it sent forces at the request of Malian leaders to stop Islamist militants who were advancing on the capital. The latest dispute raises questions about whether French troops will remain in the country. 

Last week, Mali’s junta demanded that Denmark withdraw its newly arrived contingent of soldiers to Mali. The junta accused Denmark of deploying without authorization, a charge Copenhagen denied. 

Denmark’s foreign minister said Friday that it supports France in the latest diplomatic dispute. 

“Reports the French Ambassador has been declared Persona Non Grata by Mali transitional authorities are unacceptable. Denmark stands in full solidarity with France,” Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said in a tweet on Friday. 

Mali’s interim leader Assimi Goita seized power in August 2020 citing widespread popular dissatisfaction toward elected leader Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. However, less than a year later in May 2021, Goita overthrew the transitional government that he helped set up, citing a Cabinet reshuffle that excluded two key military leaders.

Goita claimed the move violated the terms of the new government. French President Emmaneul Macron called the action “a coup within a coup.” 

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse. 

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Turkish-Made Drones in Ukraine Pose Challenge for Turkey-Russia Ties

With Russian forces poised to attack Ukraine, Turkish-made drones are set to face a big test in battle as well as a challenge to Turkey’s relations with Russia. Despite warnings from Moscow, Turkish firms have continued to supply Kyiv with armed drones. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

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UK’s Johnson Apologizes Following Release of ‘Partygate’ Report

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologized before Parliament Monday following the release of a report concluding that parties held at the prime minister’s official residence during the country’s COVID-19 lockdown represented “serious failures” to observe the standards set by the government.

The report, conducted by senior civil servant Sue Gray, examined a series of gatherings that had been held at No. 10 Downing St. in 2020 and 2021 when much of Britain was under strict pandemic restrictions.

“The gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of government, but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time,” Gray said in the report.

She also made note of “excessive consumption of alcohol” at the gatherings, which she said “is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time.”

Gray said some of the gatherings “should not have been allowed to develop as they did,” and others should not have been held at all. She looked specifically at four gatherings, saying she withheld comment on 12 other events that the metropolitan police were investigating to determine if laws were broken.

In his comments to Parliament, Johnson apologized for “the things we simply didn’t get right” and “for the way that this matter has been handled.” He said he understood people’s anger and accepted Gray’s findings “in full,” as well as “her recommendation that we must learn from these events and act now.”

Johnson had previously said that no rules had been broken. He has dismissed calls from lawmakers — even those in his own party — to resign.

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press and Reuters. 

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Southeastern Africa Cleans Up From Tropical Storm Ana

Rescue efforts continued across southeastern Africa Monday for thousands of people cut off by flooding from last week’s Tropical Storm Ana. The storm killed at least 90 people across Madagascar, Mozambique and Malawi.  Experts say a fresh cyclone forming near the island nation of Mauritius could hamper rescue efforts and worsen damage in the region.

The storm damaged public infrastructures, including health care facilities and roads, and interrupted medical services to people affected by the storm.

The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the storm killed 20 people in Mozambique and displaced 121,000 others. In Madagascar, according to the Africa CDC, 48 people were killed and 148,000 others left homeless.  

In Malawi, the Department of Disaster Management Affairs says Tropical Storm Ana killed 32 people and displaced 188,000 from their homes across 17 districts.

“For Chikwawa alone, [a] total of 44 camps have been set to accommodate the displaced. But the figures might rise, as the council is still conducting some assessment, and the general public will be updated on any development,” said Chipiliro Khamula, the department’s spokesperson.

On Thursday, Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera declared a national disaster in areas hard-hit by Tropical Storm Ana and called for urgent assistance for the flood victims.

In a statement Sunday, the Department of Disaster Management said relief assistance is reaching some areas, although efforts to access others are hampered by impassable roads.

The countries affected by Tropical Storm Ana are concerned by reports of a fresh tropical cyclone, known as Batsirai, is forming near the island nation of Mauritius.

However, weather experts in the region have downplayed those fears.  

Yobu Kachiwanda, the spokesperson for Malawi’s’ Department of Meteorological Services, said Tropical Cyclone Batsirai is currently still in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar.

“And at this stage, the track is not very certain. So, more of its possible track will be observed in the next three days, but otherwise for now, there is no threat to Malawi weather. But if there [will] be any cause of threat to Malawi weather, Malawians will be informed accordingly,” Kachiwanda said.

If it does approach Malawi, he advised people in flood-prone areas to take heed of any warnings from weather experts and officials. 

“If they are saying move to higher ground, they should act immediately, because these threats are there, and climate change is with us,” Kachiwanda said.

President Chakwera offered similar advice Monday when he visited flood victims in the Chikwawa and Nsanje districts in southern Malawi.

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US Hits Myanmar with Sanctions on Anniversary of Military Coup

On the first anniversary of the February 1 military coup in Myanmar, the United States announced more sanctions on individuals and entities associated with the regime, the Treasury Department said Monday.

The UK and Canada also announced sanctions.

“One year after the coup, the United States, along with allies in the United Kingdom and Canada, stands with the people of Burma as they seek freedom and democracy,” said Brian Nelson, the Treasury undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence in a statement. “We will continue to target those responsible for the coup and ongoing violence, enablers of the regime’s brutal repression, and their financial supporters.”

Among those sanctioned were Union Attorney General Thida Oo, Supreme Court Chief Justice Tun Tun Oo, and Chairman of the Anti-Corruption Commission Tin Oo.

Two entities sanctioned are KT Services & Logistics Company Limited and the Directorate of Procurement of the Commander-In-Chief of Defense Services, which the U.S. says support the military regime.

“The United States will continue to work with our international partners to address human rights abuses and press the regime to cease the violence, release all those unjustly detained, allow unhindered humanitarian access, and restore Burma’s path to democracy,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, using an older name for the country.

The individuals and entities targeted will have any assets in the U.S. restricted or blocked.

The military seized power in a February 1, 2021 coup, overthrowing the civilian government and detaining de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other high-ranking officials.

The U.S. has accused the regime of engaging in “brutal acts of violence against pro-democracy protesters.” An estimated 1,500 people have been killed in violent protests.

The U.S. government has called for the immediate release of Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy Party, ousted President Win Myint, and protesters, journalists and human rights activists it says have been unjustly detained since the coup.

Military officials claimed widespread fraud in the November 2020 general election, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won in a landslide, as justification for the February takeover. The fraud allegations have been denied by Myanmar’s electoral commission.

The political unrest on top of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have caused economic hardship in Myanmar with rising food prices and increasing unemployment. 

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Britain Promises to Target Assets of ‘Putin’s Oligarchs’ 

President Joe Biden and other Western leaders have repeatedly warned they will impose swift and punitive economic sanctions against Moscow in the event Vladimir Putin orders an invasion of Ukraine. British ministers announced Sunday they plan new legislation to make it easier to impose sanctions on “Putin’s oligarchs” and Russian officials who have investments and assets in Britain.

Russians have invested about an estimated $2 billion in the London property market alone, according to Transparency International, an anti-corruption lobbying and research organization in Berlin.

And the House of Commons’ own research library noted in a report last year: “For some time the UK has been accused of being a hub for dirty money — especially London’s prime property market.”

The British move is in response to frustration in Washington, where officials have complained that the government of Boris Johnson has not done enough to stop London from being used as a destination, and also a way station, for the profits of the Russian mega-rich.

The Britain problem 


Last week, analysis by the Center for American Progress, an influential Democratic-aligned think tank, outlined the challenges the White House will face making economic sanctions bite. It suggested that the “economic domain will be the primary theater for U.S.-Russia confrontation,” but noted “expectations for what imposing economic costs can achieve must be kept in check.”

The think tank singled out Britain as a problem. “The United Kingdom, in particular, has become a major hub for Russian oligarchs and their wealth, with London gaining the moniker ‘Londongrad,’” Max Bergmann, author of the report noted. “Uprooting Kremlin-linked oligarchs will be a challenge given the close ties between Russian money and the United Kingdom’s ruling Conservative Party, the press and its real estate and financial industry,” he concluded.

Britain’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, is outlining legislative proposals to British lawmakers, which she says will make it easier to freeze the assets of Russians with financial links to Putin and his government.

Britain’s sanctions regime currently only covers assets lodged in Britain that can be tied to businesses or individuals who can be linked to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

“There will be nowhere to hide” for Putin’s oligarchs, Truss told Britain’s Times Radio on Sunday. Truss said new legislation would widen the scope of sanctions.

Bill Browder, a British-American financier who has long campaigned to expose high-level corruption in Russia, has been urging British authorities for years to target Putin-connected oligarchs. In 2018, in the wake of the poisoning on English soil of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, he told British lawmakers that Western weakness only emboldens the Kremlin. The British government blamed the Kremlin for attempted assassination of Skripal and his daughter, something Russia denies.

“The Achilles heel of the Putin regime is to go after Putin-connected oligarchs in the UK by seizing their assets,” he argued. He told a British parliamentary panel approximately $800 billion worth of Russian state-backed assets, mostly real estate, are held outside Russia and could be targeted. About $300 billion in cash and assets are estimated to be in the United States.

According to a 2018 report by Transparency International, large amounts of the Russian state-backed money controlled by Putin-connected oligarchs flow through British Crown dependencies and British Overseas Territories in the Caribbean and then are transferred to the British capital. 

“London has certain advantages and Russians have always found London particularly attractive,” according to Robert Barrington of Transparency International. “It has these historic links with the Crown dependencies and overseas territories, so it is very easy to be part of that global laundering system. It is also a huge market in itself, so if you want to hide dirty money, it is easier to do,” he said.

Anti-corruption campaigners say there was a huge jump in Russian money flows to London after the 2008 financial crash, partly because Britain courted foreign money and offered easy-to-get investor visas with very few questions being asked. An estimated 500 Russian multimillionaires live in Britain.

Their cash has driven up real estate prices and helped fuel the profits of expensive private schools and exclusive shops as well as providing a large share of the incomes of British bankers, fund managers, lawyers, and PR executives. More than 10,000 properties in Westminster, a central London borough, are owned by anonymous companies; some are thought to be Chinese or Gulf Arab in origin, but many are Russian.

The British government announced new asset-seizure powers in 2017 known as unexplained wealth orders, allowing for the confiscation of property without proving criminality and placing the burden of proof on the owners to explain their wealth. Britain’s i newspaper reported last week that officials were looking to issue more unexplained wealth orders in the event Russia invades Ukraine, forcing those suspected of having tight links to President Putin to explain the origins of their wealth.



But some skeptics harbor doubts about the determination of the authorities to move against Russian wealth. They note since 2017 only five such orders have been issued. “No one has done more to channel the flood of money out of Russia than London’s army of lawyers, bankers, and accountants; no one has been more accommodating of Putin’s oligarchs than Britain’s politicians,” wrote Oliver Bullough in Britain’s Sunday Times this week.

Author of “Butler to the World: How Britain Became the Servant of Tycoons, Tax Dodgers, Kleptocrats and Criminals,” Bullough says: “If the government really wants to help Ukraine, it should force Putin’s oligarchs to take their cash home.”

Critics also say the government needs to insist that so-called crown dependencies in the Caribbean need to introduce rigorous transparency rules for stashed overseas money. And they worry that Russian oligarch money and properties are well concealed behind shell companies.

In December, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to force offshore companies that own British property to declare their ownership, and to tackle criminals who abuse UK-registered shell companies. He made the promise at the US-convened Summit for Democracy, a virtual conference that explored how to strengthen the world’s democracies.

The chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, Tom Tugendhat, said he plans to hold a new set of new hearings to discuss the assets and investments of Russian oligarchs in London. His committee did the same thing in 2018 and recommended several steps, but the recommendations languished.

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Turkey Orders TV Programs to Protect Family Values

Turkey’s president has ordered that steps be taken against media like TV programs that are deemed contrary to Turkey’s “fundamental values.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a circular posted Saturday on the Official Gazette, said the decision aims to eliminate the harmful effects of television programs with foreign content that have been adapted in Turkey and to protect Turkish culture.

All precautions would be taken against productions that negatively affect the family, children and youth, through Turkish laws and the constitution. Children and youth will be protected from “messages conveyed through certain symbols,” the decision stated, without elaborating.

Turkey’s media watchdog, the Supreme Council of Radio and Television, already has wide-ranging powers, and can fine media or order temporary blackouts for television channels that are mostly critical of the government for violating Turkish values. It has also fined channels for erotic or LGBT content.

Ilhan Tasci, a member of the media watchdog from the main opposition party, called the move “the censorship circular” and said it violates the constitution that promises to protect press freedom.

The majority of media companies in Turkey are already owned by businesses close to the conservative and nationalist government and closely follow government lines.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey at 153 out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index of 2021. At least 34 media employees are currently behind bars, according to Turkey’s Journalists Union. 

Last week, well-known journalist Sedef Kabas was arrested pending trial for insulting Erdogan, after citing a proverb on Tele 1 television and social media referring to an ox. Tens of thousands of people in Turkey have been prosecuted for allegedly insulting Erdogan.

The circular follows the launch of Fox TV’s Turkish adaptation of the international show “The Masked Singer,” where celebrities perform in costume to hide their identities. The show has been criticized online for alleged Satanic and pagan content.

Elsewhere in the region, Netflix’s first Arabic movie has sparked intense debate in Egypt and other Middle East countries, with critics denouncing it as a threat to family and religious values that encourages homosexuality.

Others have rallied to the film’s defense. They say detractors are in denial about what happens behind closed doors in real life and say that those who don’t like the movie titled “Ashab Wala A’azz,” (“No Dearer Friends”) can simply not subscribe to Netflix.

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Kenya’s Mixed Reception of Chinese and Their Food

Nairobi, known as a cosmopolitan and culturally diverse African capital, boasts a thriving assortment of Chinese restaurants. It is a testament to China’s cultural and financial influence in Kenya, embraced by some, while bringing uncertainty critique for other native Kenyans.

Mbathi Kimani, a local, owns Hong Kong Kitchen, a joint tucked away in Safi Soki mall in south Nairobi. The hole-in-the-wall restaurant flanks a recently completed section of Ngong Road, a major construction project done in collaboration with Chinese firms.

The road is a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to create infrastructure to enhance land and sea trade routes from Asia to Africa.

Belt and Road projects have brought a new wave of Chinese immigrants to Nairobi in recent years, some of whom have opened local restaurants.

“The Chinese restaurant competition here is tough. There are quite a number of us for a rather niche market, but I wanted to give it a try,” Kimani told VOA.

He owns three Chinese restaurants inspired by his travels to Hong Kong in the 90s and 2000s. He was so impressed by the efficiency and organization he witnessed in Hong Kong and thinks Kenya can benefit from that model.

He also enjoyed the food there and is replicating Hong Kong’s Cantonese food at his Nairobi restaurants. Kimani found while some local Kenyans like Chinese food, others don’t embrace it.

He tried opening a Hong Kong Kitchen along Mombasa Road, where the population has a lower concentration of expatriates than the other locations. “After just one month, it wasn’t doing great––people in that area weren’t as keen to try the food,” Kimani explained. They’ve closed that restaurant for the time being, but business is steady at the other three locations across town.

Kenyans’ mixed appetite for Chinese cooking parallels the locals’ relationship and perception of Chinese presence in their country. While some Kenyans welcome the benefits of jobs and roads created through Chinese investments, others are more cautious and even critical of the the cost of doing business with China, in terms of debts.

Co-existing in Kenya

Kenyan’s mixed perception of the Chinese and Chinese food in Nairobi also comes from how the two cultures co-exist.

Marvin Akinyi, a 29-year-old Kenyan who works as a biology lab assistant, said he finds it strange how workers from mainland China tend to keep to themselves but attributes it to the language barrier.

“Perhaps, if I had more Chinese friends, I’d have more chances to try the food,” he said in an interview with VOA.

Akinyi gave Hong Kong Kitchen a try once. “It was good,” He continued, “but just very different from what I’m used to. I’m not sure I would try it again, especially since most of my friends are Kenyan. We are used to getting nyama choma [grilled meat] at the same bars rather than trying new places.”

Fusion of flavors and cultures

In the kitchen and the dining rooms, some Kenyans are experimenting with fusing traditional Kenyan cuisine with Chinese ingredients and flavors, and liking what they taste.

A 29-year-old Kenyan chef, Malachi Mwaniki, has also worked in upscale Nairobi restaurants such as Hemingway’s.

“Common Kenyan foods are simple and hearty, but relatively bland compared to the range of spices used across Chinese cooking. Stir-fries have become very popular. Young people in particular are keen on trying new foods and flavors,” he tells VOA.

He is on a journey to explore international foods and makes barbecued brisket, cold-smoked salmon, Chinese bao buns, and even Cantonese dim-sum.

Moses Kulavi, who has worked at the popular Kenyan chain Java Coffeehouse and upscale Hemingway Hotel, attended a culinary course at Kenya’s Tsavo Park Institute of Technology, where he learned the fundamentals of intercontinental cooking.

“Many of the ingredients that we used were local.” Kulavi said, “but we also learned how to use things like bok choy and soy sauce. Overall, I would say that Chinese dishes are spicier.”

Many base ingredients like chicken, beef, and eggs translate across Kenyan and Chinese cuisines. The Kenyan culinary tradition, of cooking meat “wet fry” and “dry fry” — meaning with or without stew or broth — also has similar Chinese cuisine counterparts.

Kulavi now caters private events for clients, mostly middle class and local. He created his version of an African beef dry fry paired with Chinese fried rice.

“It’s been a big hit and is commonly requested by my clients,” Kulavi told VOA in a phone interview.

One of the main differences in the two cuisines is in preparation. For instance, both pilau and fried rice are staple rice dishes. For the former, a coastal Kenyan comfort food, all the ingredients are boiled together in the same pot, while in Chinese-style fried rice, the ingredients are sauteed separately––developed as a way to use up leftovers and odds and ends in the kitchen.

Hong Kong Kitchen’s Kimani appreciates the beauty and diversity of an international palate. However, he recognizes that the situation is different for those who lack firsthand experience in seeing and tasting for themselves.

“Kenyans come into Hong Kong Kitchen with all sorts of stereotypes,” Kimani said. “Some expect to find snakes or things like that. We have to show them that it’s largely the same ingredients, just cooked differently. It’s just food!” 

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Ahead of Key Polls, India’s Ruling Party Revives Hindu-Muslim Dispute 

In the streets around a revered religious site in the Indian city of Mathura where a temple and mosque stand side-by-side, the handful of Muslim restaurants that remain are mostly empty or shuttered. 

A ban on meat last year by the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, a Hindu monk who issued the order on religious grounds, has decimated their trade. 

Now the saffron-clad Yogi Adityanath, up for re-election in key state polls next month, has turned his attention to the temple itself, suggesting he will champion the Hindu cause in a long-running dispute with Muslims over who owns the site.   

The issue has become a central part of the ruling party’s campaign to extend its grip on power in Uttar Pradesh, home to 200 million people and the bellwether of national politics. 

Hindus and Muslims have argued for decades over who should control the site, echoing other disputes in India that have, on occasions, flared into deadly riots between the two communities. 

While communal violence in India is sporadic, clashes erupted across the country in early 2020 over a citizenship law that Muslims said was discriminatory. Dozens of people died. 

Now mention of the Mathura dispute during campaign rallies and on social media has the city’s Muslims worried, according to interviews with more than 20 residents.   

“An old case which has been settled … is being revived because we have a new, triumphalist Hinduism,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of several books on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalist movement. 

“There is a greater emphasis on playing the temple card.” 

Opinion polls suggest that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to which Adityanath belongs, will win the vote in Uttar Pradesh, despite broad discontent over the economy and the government’s handling of the pandemic.   

The chief minister, seen by some analysts as a potential successor to Modi, has cast the ballot as “80% versus 20%”, figures he did not fully explain. The percentages closely match the Hindu and Muslim share of the population across the state. 

Adityanath’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the situation in Mathura.   

‘Nothing to fear’ 

The BJP swept to power in Uttar Pradesh on a Hindu-first agenda in 2017 and did not field a single Muslim candidate. 

Indians vote for powerful state legislatures separately from nationwide parliamentary elections. 

That victory reflected the party’s dominance nationally, since Modi stormed to power in 2014 after appealing to the Hindu majority. 

The main opposition Congress party complains that by putting Hindus first, he and the BJP discriminate against minorities and risk stoking violence. Modi has defended his record and says his economic and social policies benefit all Indians. 

Jamal Siddiqui, head of the BJP’s minority commission, said the party was working to increase the number of minority candidates in Uttar Pradesh and the four other states going to the polls next month. 

“I hope the minority community will participate both in elections and in government,” he told Reuters. “The Modi government has protected religious sites for all religions. Now, 

instead of being afraid of saffron, Muslims are coming closer.” 

Suspicion of the BJP among Muslims in Mathura had been caused by misleading claims from opposition parties, Siddiqi added.   

‘No compromise’ 

Among the holiest cities in Hinduism, Mathura, some 150 km south of New Delhi, is believed to be the birthplace of Krishna, one of the most important Hindu deities. 

A temple standing on the reputed site of his birth was razed and replaced by a mosque, known as the Shahi Eidgah, in the 17th century during the Islamic Mughal empire. A Hindu temple complex built in the 1950s now backs on to the mosque. 

An agreement was brokered in 1968 to settle the use of the land, and the two structures stood like “two sisters” until legal action to demolish the mosque began in 2020, said Z. Hassan, president of the trust that runs the Eidgah. 

“I have been here for 55 years. I have not felt tension between Hindus and Muslims,” he said. “Only in the last few years this idea has come that there are two communities.”

The case, brought to a local court by several Hindu priests, says the 1968 agreement was fraudulent. 

“This land is very important to us,” said Vishnu Jain, the lawyer acting for the petitioners. “I don’t believe in any kind of dialogue. There is only one compromise which can happen — that they will be out of this property.” 

Both sides expect the case to last for years. 

The local dispute has been taken up by Adityanath and several other BJP leaders during campaigning. 

He told a rally last month that work on constructing a temple in Mathura, along the lines of a similar development in Ayodhya, was “in progress”, without giving more detail. 

Ayodhya was the scene of communal violence in 1992 and 1993 in which more than 2,000 people died, after a mob demolished the 16th century Babri Masjid mosque that many Hindus claimed was on the birthplace of Lord Rama —another important deity. 

A court ruling allowing the construction of a temple on the site of the Babri Masjid was a major campaign issue in the 2019 general election, when the BJP increased its majority.   

‘The land is ours’

Many Hindu residents of Mathura support plans to reclaim the land from the mosque. 

“The land is ours and should be given back,” said Bipin Goswami, an 19-year-old with his face daubed saffron with sandalwood paste. 

Local authorities mobilized thousands of security personnel in December after fringe Hindu groups announced an attempt to place a statue of Krishna inside the mosque on the anniversary of the Babri Masjid’s destruction.   

The attempt failed, but at the mosque, ringed with barbed wire and lookout towers since the early 1990s, police now check the ID cards of everyone entering the complex. 

Aved Khan, a 30-year-old Muslim who has a food cart in Mathura, said he changed the name of his business from Srinath Dosa to American Dosa Corner after a group of men demanded that he stop using a Hindu name. 

“You are Muslim, how can you have this name?” one of the men asked, tearing down the stall’s signs, according to a police report of the incident in August. 

Rajesh Mani Tripathi, national president of the Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi Mukti Dal — a hardline Hindu group that was also behind the attempt to install the statue — told Reuters he was one of the men involved in the altercation. 

“If he was Muslim then he should write his name on the banner and should not cheat people by mentioning a Hindu name,” he said. 

Muslims in Mathura also complained about Adityanath’s decision in September to ban meat within a 3 km radius of the temple. 

At the empty Royal Restaurant, one of the few in the area remaining open, cooks fashion traditional lamb kebabs and chicken tikka out of soya. 

“Before the BJP there was no tension here,” said Sajid Anwar, standing before his shuttered Labbaik Restaurant. 

Anwar said there was no demand for vegetarian food among Muslims. He is waiting for the election results before deciding  whether to close permanently. 

“If Yogi returns, I will have to find another trade.” 


(Reporting by Alasdair Pal in Mathura and Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow; Editing by Mike Collett-White) 

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UN Says Over 100 Former Afghan, International Forces Killed

The United Nations has received “credible allegations” that more than 100 former members of the Afghan government, its security forces and those who worked with international troops have been killed since the Taliban took over the country Aug. 15, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says.

In a report obtained Sunday by The Associated Press, Guterres said that “more than two-thirds” of the victims were alleged to result from extrajudicial killings by the Taliban or its affiliates, despite the Taliban’s announcement of “general amnesties” for those affiliated with the former government and U.S.-led coalition forces.

The U.N. political mission in Afghanistan also received “credible allegations of extrajudicial killings of at least 50 individuals suspected of affiliation with ISIL-KP,” the Islamic State extremist group operating in Afghanistan, Guterres said in the report to U.N. Security Council.

He added that despite Taliban assurances, the U.N. political mission has also received credible allegations “of enforced disappearances and other violations impacting the right to life and physical integrity” of former government and coalition members.

Guterres said human rights defenders and media workers also continue “to come under attack, intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest, ill-treatment and killings.”

Eight civil society activists were killed, including three by the Taliban and three by Islamic State extremists, and 10 were subjected to temporary arrests, beatings and threats by the Taliban, he said. Two journalists were killed — one by IS — and two were injured by unknown armed men.

The secretary-general said the U.N. missions documented 44 cases of temporary arrests, beatings and threats of intimidation, 42 of them by the Taliban.

The Taliban overran most of Afghanistan as U.S. and NATO forces were in the final stages of their chaotic withdrawal from the country after 20 years. They entered Kabul on Aug. 15 without any resistance from the Afghan army or the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, who fled. 

The Taliban initially promised a general amnesty for those linked to the former government and international forces, and tolerance and inclusiveness toward women and ethnic minorities. However, the Taliban have renewed restrictions on women and appointed an all-male government, which have met with dismay by the international community.

Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy was already stumbling when the Taliban seized power, and the international community froze Afghanistan’s assets abroad and halted economic support, recalling the Taliban’s reputation for brutality during its 1996-2001 rule and refusal to educate girls and allow women to work.

Guterres said: “The situation in Afghanistan remains precarious and uncertain six months after the Taliban takeover as the multiple political, socio-economic and humanitarian shocks reverberate across the country.”

He said Afghanistan today faces multiple crises: a growing humanitarian emergency, a massive economic contraction, the crippling of its banking and financial systems, the worst drought in 27 years, and the Taliban’s failure to form an inclusive government and restore the rights of girls to education and women to work.

“An estimated 22.8 million people are projected to be in crisis' andemergency’ levels of food insecurity until March 2022,” the U.N. chief said. “Almost 9 million of these will be at `emergency’ levels of food insecurity -– the highest number in the world. Half of all children under five are facing acute malnutrition.”

On a positive note, Guterres reported “a significant decline” in the overall number of conflict-related security incidents as well as civilian casualties since the Taliban takeover. The U.N. recorded 985 security-related incidents between Aug. 19 and Dec. 31, a 91% decrease compared to the same period in 2020, he said.

The eastern, central, southern and western regions accounted for 75% of all recorded incidents, he said, with Nangarhar, Kabul, Kunar and Kandahar ranking as the most conflict-affected provinces. 

Despite the reduction in violence, Guterres said the Taliban face several challenges, including rising attacks against their members.

“Some are attributed to the National Resistance Front comprising some Afghan opposition figures, and those associated with the former government,” he said. “These groups have been primarily operating in Panjshir Province and Baghlan’s Andarab District but have not made significant territorial inroads” though “armed clashes are regularly documented, along with forced displacement and communication outages.”

Guterres said intra-Taliban tensions along ethnic lines and competition over jobs have also resulted in violence, pointing to armed clashes on Nov. 4 between between Taliban forces in Bamyan city.

In the report, the secretary-general proposed priorities for the U.N. political mission in the current environment, urged international support to prevent widespread hunger and the country’s economic collapse, and urged the Taliban to guarantee women’s rights and human rights.

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UN Security Council to Meet on Russia-Ukraine Tensions

The United Nations Security Council meets Monday to discuss Russia’s buildup of more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border. Western and Ukrainian officials continue to be on alert for a possible invasion. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi has more.

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Taliban: Afghan Public Universities to Begin Reopening Wednesday

The Taliban announced Sunday they would start reopening all public universities in Afghanistan from this week, more than five months after the Islamist group retook control of the war-torn country.

Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the minister for higher education, said by video that students in Afghan provinces with a warm climate would return to classes on Wednesday, while universities in the colder areas, including Kabul, will reopen February 26.

Haqqani did not elaborate, but in his earlier statements the minister had announced that gender segregation would be enforced in public universities in line with Sharia or Islamic law before reopening them. He also said at the time that hijabs would be mandatory for female students.

Sunday’s announcement comes as the Taliban face pressure from the international community to respect the human rights of all Afghans, especially those of women, and allow all girls to receive an education. 

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres renewed his call for the Taliban earlier on Sunday to uphold pledges to respect human rights. 

“In Afghanistan, women & girls are once again being denied their rights to education, employment & equal justice,” Guterres tweeted on Sunday. “To demonstrate a real commitment to be a part of the global community, the Taliban must recognize & uphold the basic human rights that belong to every girl & woman.”

In mid-September, the Taliban allowed female students to resume classes in some 150 private universities under a strictly gender-segregated classroom system.

Afghan public and private universities were co-educational before the Taliban takeover, with males and females studying side by side, and women didn’t have to abide by a dress code. In elementary and high schools, however, girls and boys were taught separately until the Islamist group regained power last August. 

“Co-education is in conflict with the principles of Islam and with national values and it is against the traditions of Afghans as well,” Haqqani said in a September news conference in Kabul.

While the Taliban’s male-only caretaker government opened secondary schools for boys in early September, most girls across Afghanistan are still waiting for official permission to continue their education. 

The Taliban have pledged that all girls will be allowed to go back to the classroom in March when the new school year begins in the country.

Leaders of the ruling Islamist group have repeatedly rejected as false propaganda that they oppose education for women, saying financial constraints and a lack of an “Islamic environment” in educational institutions were preventing them from letting women resume their studies.

No country has yet recognized the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. 

The global community has been watching closely to see whether the Islamist group might rule the country differently from its first time in power in the late 1990s, when girls were banned from attending schools and women from leaving home unless accompanied by a close male relative.

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From Kabul, Pregnant Reporter Fights New Zealand Government to Return Home

She reported on the difficult conditions mothers and babies face just to survive in desperate Afghanistan. Now, a pregnant New Zealand reporter has chosen Kabul as a temporary base for her uphill fight to return home because of her country’s strict COVID-19 entry rules.

Charlotte Bellis, 35, is expecting her first child with her partner, freelance photographer Jim Huylebroek, a Belgium native who has lived in Afghanistan for two years. Bellis, who is 25 weeks pregnant with a daughter, told The Associated Press on Sunday that each day is a battle. 

She said she has been vaccinated three times and is ready to isolate herself upon her return to New Zealand. “This is ridiculous. It is my legal right to go to New Zealand, where I have health care, where I have family. All my support is there,” she said.

Bellis first wrote about her difficulties in a column published in The New Zealand Herald on Saturday. New Zealand’s COVID-19 response minister, Chris Hipkins, told the Herald his office had asked officials to check whether they followed the proper procedures in Bellis’s case, “which appeared at first sight to warrant further explanation.”

Bellis had worked as an Afghanistan correspondent for Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite station. In November, she resigned from Al Jazeera which is based in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar, because it is illegal to be pregnant and unmarried in Qatar. Al Jazeera did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bellis then flew to Belgium, trying to get residency there, but said the length of the process would have left her in the country with an expired visa. She said she could have hopped from country to country on tourist visas while she waited to have her baby. She said this would have meant spending money on hotels without support or health care, while she fought to return to New Zealand.

In the end, she and her partner returned to Afghanistan because they had a visa, felt welcome and from there could wage her battle to return to her home. They have a house in Afghanistan and after “evaluating all of our options,” returned to Kabul, she said.

Bellis said she has set herself a deadline of leaving Afghanistan once she is 30 weeks pregnant, to protect the health of herself and her baby. “I am giving myself to the end of February,” she said. At that time, she will still have more than a month left on her Belgium visa so that she can re-enter the country, if she fails to get back to New Zealand by that time.

She said she tries to stay calm as she wages a paper war with New Zealand’s quarantine system, but that she worries about how the stress she has been under will impact her baby.

“I am very concerned about a premature birth and . . . also the implication of stress,” she said. 

Bellis has found an Afghan gynecologist, who promised she could call her if she wakes up in the night with a problem. Bellis toured the doctor’s clinic which has basic facilities, including one incubator. The doctor told her the incubator is often occupied.

Bellis has found a lawyer who is handling her case pro bono and has submitted more than 60 documents to the New Zealand government, answered countless questions, only to be rejected twice for entry to her home country. 

On Sunday, she received her most recent email from the New Zealand government, this one telling her to apply as a person in danger and that this will get her home, she said. Bellis said she was rejected earlier because her pregnancy didn’t meet the criteria of “threshold of critical time threat.”]

“If I don’t meet the threshold as a pregnant woman then who does?” she asked.

Bellis said that prior to returning to Afghanistan, she sought permission from the Taliban. She said she had feared arriving “with a little bump and not married” could be problematic.

Instead, the Taliban response was immediate and positive.

“I appreciate this isn’t official Taliban policy, but they were very generous and kind. They said, ‘You are safe here, congratulations, we welcome you,’ ” said Bellis.

As she ponders her next move, Bellis said she is contemplating whether to take the latest option offered by New Zealand — applying as a person in danger — because it would exonerate the government of responsibility for her earlier rejections.

“It gives them an opportunity to deny any responsibility and frankly that is not true,” she said. The government’s current COVID-19 policy has left “how many stranded around the world with no pathways to get home.”

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