Seven Killed in Sudan as Protesters Rally on Uprising Anniversary

Seven protesters were shot to death in Sudan on Thursday, medics said, as large crowds took to the streets despite heavy security and a communications blackout to rally against the military leadership that seized power eight months ago.   

In central Khartoum, security forces fired tear gas and water cannons in the afternoon as they tried to prevent swelling numbers of protesters from marching toward the presidential palace, witnesses said.  

They estimated the crowds in Khartoum and its twin cities of Omdurman and Bahri to be at least in the tens of thousands, the largest for months. In Omdurman, witnesses reported tear gas and gunfire as security forces prevented protesters from crossing into Khartoum, though some later made it across.  

The protests in the capital and other cities marked the third anniversary of huge demonstrations during the uprising that overthrew long-time autocratic ruler Omar al-Bashir and led to a power-sharing arrangement between civilian groups and the military.   

Last October, the military led by General Abdel-Fattah Burhan toppled the transitional government, triggering rallies demanding the army quit politics. 

Some of Thursday’s protesters carried banners calling for justice for those killed in previous demonstrations. Others chanted, “Burhan, Burhan, back to the barracks and hand over your companies,” a reference to the military’s economic holdings. 

In the evening, protesters in Bahri and Khartoum said they were starting sit-ins against Thursday’s deaths, one of the highest single-day tolls to date.   

June 30 also marks the day Bashir took power in a coup in 1989.   

“Either we get to the presidential palace and remove Burhan or we won’t return home,” said a 21-year-old female student protesting in Bahri.   

It was the first time in months of protests that internet and phone services had been cut. After the military takeover, extended internet blackouts were imposed in an apparent effort to weaken the protest movement.   

Staff at Sudan’s two private sector telecoms companies, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities had ordered them to shut down the internet once again on Thursday.   

Phone calls within Sudan were also cut, and security forces closed bridges over the Nile linking Khartoum, Omdurman and Bahri, another step typically taken on big protest days to limit the movement of marchers.   

On Wednesday, medics aligned with the protest movement said security forces shot to death a child in Bahri during neighborhood protests that have been taking place daily.  

Thursday’s seven deaths, five in Omdurman, one in Khartoum and another child in Bahri brought the number of protesters killed since the coup to 110. There were many injuries and attempts by security forces to storm hospitals in Khartoum where the injured were being treated, the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors said. 

There was no immediate comment from Sudanese authorities. 

The United Nations envoy in Sudan, Volker Perthes, called this week on authorities to abide by a pledge to protect the right of peaceful assembly. 

“Violence against protesters will not be tolerated,” he said.   

Military leaders said they dissolved the government in October because of political paralysis, though they are yet to appoint a prime minister. International financial support agreed with the transitional government was frozen after the coup and an economic crisis has deepened. 

Burhan said on Wednesday the armed forces were looking forward to the day when an elected government could take over, but this could only be done through consensus or elections, not protests.   

Mediation efforts led by the United Nations and the African Union have so far yielded little progress. 


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Landmines Add to Drought Woes of Ethiopian Herders

The battles between Ethiopian government-aligned troops and Tigrayan forces may have stopped, but herders in western Afar region are left fighting for survival.

The record drought in the Horn of Africa that has killed millions of livestock has been made worse by landmines left by combatants.

Herder Hassen Arebti Hassen’s 4-year-old daughter was injured by a landmine, and the weapons are also killing his animals.

He said landmines are everywhere, and many animals have stepped on them and died.

Landmines and other explosives are so common in the area that some locals use the wood from their crates as building materials.

Nine-year-old Ali Omer said his 10-year-old friend was killed by a landmine while they were herding goats together.

“We were just there to take care of the goats, but my friend died,” he said.

Omer said his friend was playing, throwing stones at the landmine, but then he picked it up and threw it to the ground.

Omer was also injured.

His father, Oumer Hadeto, said landmines make them all afraid to collect water, despite the drought.

Hadeto said the community doesn’t know what to do, and he has to spend a lot of money to buy food for his family and animals. The landmines need to be removed, he added.

After speaking with locals, VOA was unable to establish which side in the conflict was responsible for laying the mines.

Bekele Gonfa, executive director of a nonprofit in Addis Ababa that supports landmine victims, said people in mined areas of Ethiopia, like Chifra, need help.

“Number one is the medical treatment. And then, they’re provided with psychosocial support, which includes counseling. Particularly, that’s what the organization is basically engaged in. The public and the community [have] to be given risk education in order to really keep themselves away from the mines,” Gonfa said.

But with the ongoing drought, people in Chifra have little choice but to risk landmines if they want to find food for their animals and collect water for their survival.

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Taliban Hold Islamic Scholars’ Huddle to Show Strength, Legitimacy

Afghanistan’s Islamist Taliban arranged Thursday a men-only conference of about 3,500 mostly clerics and tribal elders from across the country in an apparent bid to demonstrate their hold on power and domestic legitimacy. 


The three-day, closed-door conference began in Kabul amid tight security in the wake of a recent spike in Islamic State-claimed terrorist attacks in the Afghan capital and elsewhere in the war-torn South Asian nation. 


The insurgent-turned-ruling group seized power last August, when the United States and NATO partners withdrew their final troops from Afghanistan after almost two decades of military intervention, but the world has not yet recognized the interim Taliban government. 


Acting Taliban Defense Minister Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, while addressing Thursday’s inaugural session, urged participants to share their advice and suggestions to help strengthen the government so it can deal with foreign policy issues. 

“You can see that even after completing almost one year, no country — be it Muslim, non-Muslim, neighboring or regional — has formally recognized this regime,” Yaqoob said. 


“My fundamental demand from you all is to courageously formulate a fatwa (decree) for us that helps us end our shakiness in terms of resolving our external problems and bridge any differences that, God forbid, may arise in future between us and the (Afghan) nation,” the defense minister said without elaborating. 


The Taliban’s harsh treatment of women and girls and a lack of political inclusivity in governance have kept the global community from granting diplomatic recognition to the new Afghan rulers.  


The Islamist group has suspended secondary education for most teenage female students, ordered women to wear face coverings in public and barred them from traveling beyond 70 kilometers without a close male relative. 


The U.S. and the world at large have been urging the hardline group to reverse some of its curbs on women and ensure inclusive governance if it wants them to consider the Taliban’s demand for diplomatic recognition. 

Taliban chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, later in the day, briefed reporters about the opening proceedings, saying women were not invited to the meeting because it was organized on the request of independent participating scholars and the government had nothing to do with attendees nor the agenda of the event. 


Mujahid said Hibatullah Akhundzada, the reclusive Taliban chief, “may” also attend the ongoing Kabul gathering, but he shared no further details.  


Taliban leaders have rejected calls for removing the restrictions on women, insisting they are in accordance with Afghan culture and Islamic Shariah law. 


Acting Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi argued on Wednesday that women’s participation in the huddle was taking place as their male family members would attend. 


Critics questioned the effectiveness and legitimacy of the grand scholars’ meeting in the absence of women, almost 50% of the country’s estimated 40 million population. 

“Durable peace and reconciliation also requires inclusive administration represented by all political, religious and ethnic groups,” said Richard Bennett, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan. 


“It is vital that national ethnic religious and linguistic minorities, including minority women in Afghanistan, are included in all decision-making processes,” Bennett remarked at an online seminar Tuesday. 

Rina Amiri, the U.S. special envoy for Afghan women, girls and human rights, while addressing the seminar, suggested rights-related issues would require engagement with the new rulers in Kabul. 


“We try to identify very specific measures that the international community can consider and can try to move forward and also how we can press the Taliban to do more because they are right now the reality in the country,” Amiri said. 


Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan official and political commentator, is skeptical about the outcome of the meeting.  


“An allegiance from 3,000 selected guests by (the) Taliban in a meeting will not help fix any of the problems (facing the country), nor confer any internal or external legitimacy to (the) Taliban,” Farhadi told VOA. 


“The book of God in Islam is gifted to women and men equally. Depriving women to have a voice in society is going against the precepts of Islam.” 


The Taliban takeover and their subsequent installation of an all-male interim government prompted Washington and other Western countries to immediately halt financial assistance to largely aid-dependent Afghanistan, seize its foreign assets worth more than $9 billion, mostly held by the U.S., and isolate the Afghan banking system. 


The action and long-running terrorism-related sanctions on senior Taliban leaders have thrown cash-strapped Afghanistan into a severe economic upheaval, worsening an already bad humanitarian crisis blamed on years of war and persistent drought. 

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NATO Ends Summit with Strengthened Posture Against Russia, China

NATO leaders concluded their three-day meeting in Madrid Thursday with the Western security alliance strengthening its defense against Russian aggression, warning of global challenges posed by China and inviting neutral countries Finland and Sweden into the group.

U.S. President Joe Biden described the summit as “historic.”

“The last time NATO drafted a new mission statement was 12 years ago,” Biden said, referring to a document also known as the alliance’s Strategic Concept.

“At that time, it characterized Russia as a partner, and it didn’t mention China. The world has changed, changed a great deal since then, and NATO is changing as well. At this summit, we rallied our alliances to meet both the direct threats that Russia poses to Europe and the systemic challenges that China poses to a rules-based world order. And we’ve invited two new members to join NATO,” Biden said.

Biden reiterated that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has only strengthened NATO.

“He tried to weaken us, expected our resolve to fracture but he’s getting exactly what he did not want,” Biden said. “He wanted the ‘Finland-ization’ of NATO. He got the ‘NATO-ization’ of Finland.”

On Wednesday Putin dismissed the imminent expansion of the Western alliance.

“With Sweden and Finland, we don’t have the problems that we have with Ukraine. They want to join NATO, go ahead,” Putin told Russian state television.

“But they must understand there was no threat before, while now, if military contingents and infrastructure are deployed there, we will have to respond in kind and create the same threats for the territories from which threats towards us are created,” he warned.

As it sets to expand, NATO leaders agreed on a massive increase in troop deployments across Europe. A total of 300,000 soldiers will be placed at high readiness across the continent starting next year to defend against potential military attacks by Moscow on any member of the alliance – what Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg characterized as “the most serious security crisis” since the Second World War.      

To bolster NATO’s defense, the United States is also set to establish a permanent headquarters for the U.S. 5th Army Corps in Poland, add a rotational brigade of 3,000 troops and 2,000 other personnel to be headquartered in Romania, and send two additional squadrons of F-35 fighter jets to Britain.   

Reaffirming commitments made by other Western leaders, Biden said the U.S. will stand firm against Russia’s aggression. He offered little indication the conflict would conclude anytime soon, suggesting that Americans would have to bear high gas prices longer.

“As long as it takes, so Russia cannot in fact defeat Ukraine and move beyond Ukraine,” he said.

China challenge

Biden said the summit has brought together “democratic allies and partners from the Atlantic and the Pacific” to defend the rules-based global order against challenges from China, including its “abusive and coercive trade practices.” 

NATO leaders have also called out the “deepening strategic partnership” between Beijing and Moscow as one of the alliance’s concerns.

Beijing is not providing military support for Russia’s war on Ukraine, but Chinese leader Xi Jinping has stated support for Moscow over “sovereignty and security” issues. The country continues to purchase massive amounts of Russian oil, gas and coal. 

Biden noted that for the first time in the transatlantic alliance’s history, Asia Pacific leaders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea participated at the summit.

With the reemergence of great power conflict, a strategic competitor sitting in each region, and an evolving Russia-China relationship, there are many common challenges that European and Asia-Pacific partners must discuss together, said Mirna Galic, senior policy analyst on China and East Asia at the United States Institute of Peace.

Galic told VOA these include issues already being worked on, such as cyber defense, maritime security and space, as well as those that will require some new thinking, such as intermediate-range nuclear forces, missile defense, inter-theater deterrence and defense, and how to push back on great power use of force in contravention of international norms.

“The last is certainly relevant to the Russian invasion of Ukraine but also has parallels with China and Taiwan, which is why Ukraine is seen as more than a European security issue,” Galic said.

In his remarks at the end of the NATO summit, Biden also touted the West’s latest counter to China’s multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

“We also launched what started off to be the Build Back Better notion, but it’s morphed into a Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment,” he said referring to the “Build Back Better World” initiative announced at the 2021 meeting of the Group of Seven leaders in Cornwall, UK and relaunched earlier this week as the PGII at the G-7 summit of leading industrialized nations in Krün, Germany.

Officials say PGII will offer developing nations $600 billion in infrastructure funding by 2027 and be a better alternative to China’s BRI that critics have characterized as “debt trap diplomacy.”

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Beijing Seeks Mediator Role in Turbulent Horn of Africa 

China is offering to help “silence the guns in the Horn of Africa,” an ambitious undertaking given the multiple conflicts in the region, and an indication that Beijing may be moving away from its traditional “non-interference” stance towards more active diplomatic engagement.

China’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Xue Bing, made the offer last week at a peace conference organized by Chinese officials in Addis Ababa. The Chinese government has historically avoided getting involved in foreign disputes, but some observers see the event as evidence that Beijing seeks to rival the U.S. as an international conflict mediator. Others saw it more as a pragmatic move by a major investor in the region to keep its interests safe.

The conference itself did not get into specific proposals for resolving several ongoing security crises, but the Chinese envoy said Beijing wants to become more involved.

“This is the first time for China to play a role in the area of security,” said Xue, who was appointed to his position earlier this year, adding that Beijing wants a more important role “not only in trade and investments but also in the area of peace and development.”

China has some 400 construction and manufacturing projects worth over $4 billion in Ethiopia alone, according to the United States Institute of Peace. However, Ethiopia has been mired in vicious ethnic conflict since 2020, with the federal government in Addis Ababa fighting rebel forces in the northern Tigray region.

Peace talks are set to begin soon, but there’s disagreement between the warring factions over who should serve as mediator, the African Union or Kenya.

“As Africa’s largest single-country trade partner, China acknowledges the economic necessity of stability in regional anchor countries such as Ethiopia,” Fonteh Akum, executive director of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, told VOA.

Much of the rest of the region is also in crisis. Northern neighbor Eritrea has been murkily involved in the war in Tigray, while Ethiopia’s eastern neighbor, Somalia, has been ravaged by conflict and Islamist insurgency for decades. To the west, South Sudan is navigating a tenuous peace after years of civil war, while Sudan recently underwent a military coup. Just this week, the Sudanese and Ethiopian armies clashed over a disputed border region.

So China has its work cut out for it, and it’s not the first country to try. Washington’s own Horn of Africa envoy, David Satterfield, stayed only three months in the job before quitting earlier this year. President Joe Biden’s envoy before him, Jeffrey Feltman, lasted less than a year.

The joint statement released at the end of China’s peace conference — which was attended by foreign ministry officials from regional countries and during which no specific conflict was even discussed — was extremely vague. It said only that all parties had agreed to “maintain peace and stability.”

“I think despite the holding of this peace forum it’s not clear what they can offer in terms of mediation to the federal government and the other Ethiopian conflict actors,” said William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at International Crisis Group.

“It isn’t clear that there’s the political commitment from Beijing, or the understanding of the political complexities, or the diplomatic capacity to really get involved in talks,” he told VOA.

Washington has placed sanctions on Ethiopia, much to the annoyance of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has also described China as Addis Ababa’s “most reliable friend.” China’s ambassador to the United Nations spoke out against imposing sanctions at the U.N. Security Council last year.

“There’s concern in Addis about so-called Western meddling and the U.S. pushing its agenda onto Ethiopia’s civil war,” Davison said. “So it wouldn’t be a surprise if Ethiopia preferred the far more non-interfering approach of China in the context of peace talks.”

Adhere Cavince, an independent Kenyan international relations analyst, concurred, saying some Western interventions in the Ethiopian conflict had “not been very kindly received.”

“The U.S. responded with sanctions, with conditions, with threats … and this is quite different from what the Chinese are saying,” he told VOA, referring to the fact that China is focused on development rather than human rights concerns.

The Chinese Communist Party has always maintained that stability is necessary for development and the Horn region is a key part of its global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

China has funded railways and highways in Kenya, built the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, and constructed a railway from landlocked Ethiopia to Djibouti — where it also has set up its first overseas military base. It will be looking to protect this strategic base as well as shipping lanes and its own nationals working in the region.

“From an economic perspective, stability in the region will help China to move deeper in eastern Africa, which is a center point of its BRI in Africa,” said Christian Géraud Neema Byamungu, an analyst at the China-Global South Project.

Whether they can do it by offering economic integration and development projects, Neema Byamungu said, is another question.

“The conflicts in the region are not only economically rooted, they’re also socially and culturally rooted … and this is one of the areas where China lacks experience,” he told VOA.

Still, it seems China wants to send a message to Washington that it, too, can help foster stability abroad. Mediation with Chinese characteristics might look quite different however, with a focus not on human rights and democratization but economic development.

A recent column on Africa in China’s state-affiliated Global Times newspaper suggests as much, positing that as a good thing.

“Although some Western countries like the US also offer mediation in the region, China has an advantage compared to them, which is that China never takes sides or interferes with regional countries domestic affairs,” it read.

But analysts don’t think this will necessarily play in China’s favor, particularly in Ethiopia.

“Its neutrality wasn’t well received by the Tigray people,” who didn’t have a representative present at the peace conference, noted Neema Byamungu.

Davison said as China has always supported the government of the day, “it’s unlikely that the other actors, most notably the Tigray regional leadership, would be interested in China playing a mediating role.”

But for Cavince, “the Horn of Africa countries are simply welcoming of what the Chinese are proposing on the basis of the fact that it is not confrontational, it is not forceful, it is based on mutual consent.”

“Whether China is going to be successful in its mediation efforts in Africa is a question whose time hasn’t come, it lies in the future,” he said.

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US Visa Called Too Expensive for Afghan Students

For Breshna Salaam, the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan last year meant a return to the same extreme poverty she and her mother had experienced under the Taliban’s first time in control of the country.  

In 1996, the Taliban fired Salaam’s mother from a public service job, denying the widow and her daughter their only source of income. In August 2021, with her mother retired, the Taliban fired Salaam from a job at the Ministry of Agriculture.  

Deprived of work and education in her own country, she applied for graduate programs abroad and was offered a scholarship at New York University.  

“I cried out of happiness when I received news of the scholarship,” Salaam told VOA.  

But her happiness did not last long.  

First, she had to pay more than $2,000 in bribes to get a new passport and a short-term visa to Pakistan, where she needs to submit a student visa application at the U.S. embassy. The embassy in Afghanistan remains closed since the Taliban entered Kabul last year.  

“I had to literally beg relatives and friends for money to pay for the passport and the Pakistani visa,” she said.  

And, there are more expenses she has to cover.  

“I have to buy a flight ticket to Islamabad, pay for my accommodation in Islamabad, have to pay $510 for U.S. visa fees, and finally, if I’m given a visa, I will have to buy my ticket to New York,” said Salaam, adding that she had no means to pay all the required expenses on her own.  

Staff at her U.S. university contributed $350 for her SEVIS fee, a payment to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security required from all international students before they submit an F-1 student visa application. Students also have to pay a $160 F-1 visa fee to the U.S. embassy. Both fees are non-refundable, even if the visa is denied.  

Calls for help unanswered   

Over the past four months, more than 500 U.S. academics and human rights activists have signed at least two appeal letters to the White House and the Department of State calling for assistance for Afghan scholars, particularly women, who strive to come to the United States to continue their education.  

“We are deeply concerned about the lives and well-being of these Afghan academics, especially women,” reads a June 21 letter signed by academics from more than 20 U.S. colleges and universities. It is addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  

The letter criticizes the delays and rejections of student visas for Afghan scholars – even while a fully funded stipend and scholarship is provided by the inviting university – and calls on Blinken to personally intervene “to rectify this shameful situation.” 

“We have received no response to the letter,” Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York and a signee of the letter, told VOA.  

In a separate letter sent to U.S. President Joe Biden in February, more than 450 academic organizations and individuals made a similar call for support for at-risk Afghan scholars.   

“Please help facilitate access to our colleges and universities for the many Afghan scholars and students, who deserve our continued support and investment,” the letter asked Biden.  

“We have received no updates from the U.S. government,” Edward Liebow, executive director of the American Anthropological Association, told VOA.  

More than 80,000 Afghans have come to the U.S. over the past 10 months, mostly through Operation Allies Welcome, a U.S. government program designed to resettle former U.S. Afghan allies and at-risk individuals.

U.S. officials have repeatedly voiced support for Afghan women and minorities whose fundamental rights are reportedly violated under Taliban leadership.

Visa fees 

Already one of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan has plunged deeper into poverty over the past 10 months largely due to a cessation of foreign development aid, rampant unemployment, and international banking and economic sanctions imposed on the Taliban leadership. Afghan women, deprived of work and education, are particularly suffering the brunt of the harsh poverty, aid agencies say.  

To help Afghan scholars, U.S. academics have called on the Department of State to waive the student visa fees.  

“The cost of J-1 visas for academics and F-1 for students is a non-refundable fee of $160, a considerable challenge to most applicants, with further expense for those with family, each of whom pays the same fee,” said Breyer.  

A spokesperson for the Department of State said there is no exception in visa fees for Afghan students.  

“The department does not have the authority to waive visa fees on an ad hoc basis and the department’s regulations contain no exemption from the payment of visa fees that would apply to Afghan students, in general,” the spokesperson told VOA.  

For Breshna Salaam, the SEVIS and visa fees are as much an impediment to her education as are the Taliban’s outright denials of her right to work and learn.  

“I hear a lot from U.S. officials in the media that they support the right of Afghan women and girls to education and work, but it would be good to see some actions like waiving student visa fees for Afghan women or making the visa process a little easier so we don’t have to travel to a third country only to submit a visa application,” Salaam said.  

More than 914,000 international students were enrolled at U.S. academic centers in 2021, of which 354 were from Afghanistan, according to the Institute of International Education.  


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International Commission Calls on Ethiopia to End Violations on Its Territory

A U.N. investigative panel is calling on the government of Ethiopia to end conflict-related rights violations on its territory and bring the perpetrators of crimes to justice. The commission has submitted its first report to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The three-member International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia reports that violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law continue and appear to be committed with impunity.

Commission chair Kaari Betty Murungi said the panel is alarmed by ongoing atrocities against civilians, including events reported in the Oromia region. This is a reference to the recent killings of an estimated 250 people, mostly from the Amhara ethnic group, allegedly by the rebel Oromo Liberation Army.

“Any spread of violence against civilians, fueled either by hate speech or incitement to ethnic-based or gender-based violence, are early warning indicators and a precursor for further atrocity crimes,” Murungi said. “These and the protracted humanitarian crisis including blockades to food and medical aid, supplies and services pose grave risk to the Ethiopian civilian population and to people in the region.”

The commission was established last December at a special session on the human rights situation in Ethiopia since Nov. 3, 2020. That was when the government’s military offensive in Tigray began in response to attacks by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Ethiopia has rejected as unwarranted the adoption of the resolution that established the commission.

Ethiopia’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Zenebe Kebede Korcho, however, has told the council his government will cooperate with the commission despite ongoing reservations. He said discussions have begun.

“The country is now turning a page,” Korcho said. “The government of Ethiopia has decided to seek peaceful end to the conflict. An inclusive national dialogue is launched to address political problems across the country. The government has taken numerous confidence-building measures.”

The ambassador said his government has declared an indefinite humanitarian truce in northern Ethiopia. As a result, he noted humanitarian assistance is reaching all those in need.

The commission said it has begun its work and welcomes the cooperation of the Ethiopian government. The commission adds it believes it can contribute to furthering accountability for the many violations that have occurred since the start of the conflict in Tigray and that are still ongoing.

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Report: Only 15% of World Enjoys Free Expression of Information

A Britain-based group says its latest study of worldwide free expression rights shows only 15% of the global population lives where people can receive or share information freely.

In its 2022 Global Expression Report, Article19, an international human rights organization, said that in authoritarian nations such as China, Myanmar and Russia, and in democracies such as Brazil and India, 80% of the global population live with less freedom of expression than a decade ago.

The report said authoritarian regimes and rulers continue to tighten control over what their populations see, hear and say.

While mentioning Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the report singles out China’s government for “exerting ultimate authority over the identities, information and opinions” of hundreds of millions of people.  

The annual report examines freedom of expression across 161 countries using 25 indicators to measure how free each person is to express, communicate and participate in society, without fear of harassment, legal repercussions or violence. It creates a score from zero to 100 for each country.

This year, the report ranks Denmark and Switzerland tops in the world, each with scores of 96. Norway and Sweden each have scores of 94, and Estonia and Finland both scored 93. The study said the top 10 most open nations are European.

Article 19 ranks North Korea as the most oppressive nation in the world with a score of zero. Eritrea, Syria and Turkmenistan had scores of one, and Belarus, China and Cuba had scores of two.   

The United States ranked 30th on the scale. In 2011, it was 9th in the world. The U.S. has seen a nine-point drop in its score, putting the country on the lower end of the open expression category. It was globally ranked in the lowest quartile in 2021 in its scores for equality in civil liberties for social groups, political polarization and social polarization, and political violence.

The report said that over the past two decades, there have been more dramatic downward shifts in freedom of expression around the world than at any time. Many of these occur as the result of power grabs or coups, but many more nations have seen an erosion of rights, often under democratically elected populist leaders.

Article 19 takes its name from the article under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

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US Argues Against ‘Pure Isolation’ to Advancing Interests in Afghanistan

US official tells VOA: ‘We are advancing these interests through engagement’

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144 Ukraine Fighters Freed from Russian Captivity in Prisoner Exchange

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry announced on Wednesday that 144 of the country’s fighters were freed from Russian captivity via “an exchange mechanism” and that nearly 100 of the freed fighters had participated in the defense of the Ukrainian coastal city of Mariupol.

Earlier, a leading Ukrainian parliamentarian told VOA that Kyiv and Moscow were undergoing a process of prisoner exchange and that Roman Abramovich, a Russian businessman with ties to Putin, was playing “an active role” in the talks.


Hours later, in his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the development “optimistic and very important.” Zelenskyy said 59 of the soldiers that returned to Ukraine were members of the National Guard, followed by 30 servicemen with the Navy, 28 who had served in the Army, 17 with Border Guards and 9 who fought as territorial defense soldiers and one had been a policeman.

“The oldest of the liberated is 65 years old, the youngest is 19,” he said in the video broadcast. “In particular,” Zelenskyy added, “95 Azovstal defenders return[ed] home.”

The defense of Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol stood out as a particularly fierce struggle between Ukrainian and Russian forces from March to May. It ended with an unknown number of casualties on Ukraine’s side and close to 2,500 Ukrainian fighters in Russian captivity, according to figures released by the Russian side.

Wednesday’s news came on the heels of an announcement a day earlier that 17 Ukrainians, including 16 servicemen and one civilian, were freed from Russian captivity in an exchange that saw 15 Russians released and that the bodies of 46 fallen Ukrainian soldiers returned home. In return, Ukraine handed Russia 40 of their fallen servicemen. Among the 46 fallen Ukrainian fighters, 21 took part in the defense of Azovstal, according to the Ukrainian government.

David Arakhamia, leader of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People Party in the Ukrainian parliament, told VOA during a visit to Washington earlier this month that Abramovich was playing “an active role” in prisoner exchange talks between Kyiv and Moscow.

“As a human being, I think he has [the] intention to stop the war, he doesn’t like the idea that Russia invaded Ukraine,” Arakhamia said of Abramovich.

As negotiations are concerned, “He’s trying to play the neutral role, but for us, we treat him as a Russian representative. He’s closer to Mr. Putin [than to the Ukrainian side], of course,” Arakhamia said, adding that Ukraine sees Abramovich as a “messenger” who could deliver messages to Russian President Vladimir Putin “in their original form.”

Abramovich was the owner of the British football club, Chelsea. He made arrangements for its sale in the aftermath of Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions put in place by Britain, the United States and other western nations against Russian businessmen believed to have benefited from close ties with the Russian government and Putin.

On Wednesday, Zelenskyy concluded his nightly address to the nation by thanking those who played a part in securing the return home of 144 Ukrainian fighters from Russian captivity.

“I am grateful to the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine and to everyone who worked for this result. But let’s talk about this later. We will do everything to bring every Ukrainian man and woman home,” Zelenskyy said.

As the war enters the fifth month, the exact number of prisoners held by each side has not been made public. Little is known about how they are treated or precisely where they’re held.

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Communal Tensions Rise in India After Muslims Arrested in Hindu Man’s Killing

Internet services have been suspended in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, while in the city of Udaipur, a curfew is in place over fears of retaliatory communal violence following the killing of a Hindu tailor, allegedly by two Muslim men.

Following their arrests, the suspects reportedly said that they killed the Hindu man because he insulted the Prophet Muhammad by supporting Indian politician Nupur Sharma and sharing a related post in social media.

Sharma, a spokesperson of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), made controversial comments about the Prophet Muhammad last month. Sharma’s remarks triggered a diplomatic storm, with many Islamic countries condemning the comments and registering protests against India. The BJP then suspended her from the party.

Kanhaiya Lal, the tailor, was briefly detained by police after sharing the controversial tweet earlier this month and had been receiving death threats from unknown people since then. His family on Wednesday criticized police for not providing him with protection.

The Indian government has sent a special team of the National Investigation Agency, the country’s anti-terrorism agency, to look into whether the killing was linked to any terrorist group.

On Tuesday, tensions climbed when two video clips of Lal’s killing went viral on social media.

One of the clips, allegedly made by his killers, shows the two men attacking him with cleavers. In the other, the two men allegedly declare that they have beheaded the tailor and threaten Prime Minister Modi, while brandishing the cleavers.

One of the two men also allegedly said in the video, “We live for the Prophet Muhammad, as we are ready to die for him. … Listen, Narendra Modi, you lit the fire, but we will douse it and, if God is willing, our daggers will reach your neck soon, too.”

A senior Rajasthan police official urged the media to stop showing the video because it is “too ghastly to watch.”

Hindu nationalists are calling on the Muslim suspects to be treated as terrorists and hanged. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said on Twitter that the case will be handled by a special investigation team and “speedier justice and strict punishment” will be ensured.

“Please stay calm and don’t help serve the assailants’ motive of spreading discord in the country,” Gehlot said.

The tailor’s killing has been widely condemned by Muslims, with many calling the act completely “un-Islamic.”

India’s largest Islamic organization, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, called the killing “barbaric” and “uncivilized.”

“There is no room for justification of violence in Islam. … We strongly condemn it. No citizen should take law in his own hands,” a tweet from the organization said. 

New Delhi-based Muslim community leader Zafarul-Islam Khan said that the Udaipur killing is “completely illegal and deplorable.”

“The criminals must be appropriately punished but a minute probe is also necessary to uncover the conspiracy behind the killing. … The probe must also focus on who benefits from this crime. It flows into the polarization politics and demonizes Muslims,” Khan told VOA.

Another Muslim community leader, Syed Azharuddin, described the killing as “inhuman” and “un-Islamic.”

“We strongly condemn this killing. The culprits should be dealt with strictly, through the legal process,” Azharuddin told VOA.

“Let us not forget that the Quran teaches us saving a human is equivalent to saving entire humanity vis-a-vis killing a human is equivalent to killing entire humanity.” 

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US Believes China Still Hoping to Take Taiwan Without Force 

Fears that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would spur China to take a similar approach to Taiwan do not appear to be playing out, at least not yet, according to the top U.S. intelligence official. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping “quite clearly sees reunification of Taiwan as a goal,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told an audience in Washington late Wednesday, adding Xi “continues to prefer doing that peacefully as opposed to using military force.” 

“There are not indications that he is currently intending to take Taiwan by military force even as he is planning for the potential,” Haines added. 

Senior U.S. defense officials have repeatedly warned about China’s increasing aggressiveness in and around the South China Sea and Taiwan, and a military buildup larger than any seen since World War II. 


Those concerns were echoed Wednesday by NATO, which accused Beijing of “bullying its neighbors and threatening Taiwan.” 

“China is not our adversary, but we must be clear-eyed about the challenges it represents,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at the alliance’s summit in Madrid. 

“We see a deepening strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing, and China’s growing assertiveness and its coercive policies have consequences for the security of allies and our partners,” he added. 

The U.S. Commerce Department on Wednesday placed export restrictions on five Chinese companies for providing military-related support to Russia. 

Asked about the restrictions, Haines echoed the concerns. 

“They’ve tried very hard to quite publicly not take a critical stance of Russia,” she said. “Yet at the same time what we do see is that they are helping the Russians in a variety of ways behind the scenes.” 

Other top U.S. officials have previously said there has been no evidence of direct Chinese government support for Russia’s military efforts in Ukraine.

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US Boosts Deployments in Europe as NATO Summit Warns of Russian Threat

The United States will strengthen its forces in Europe as NATO faces up to the threat from Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. President Joe Biden announced the deployments at the NATO summit in Madrid. Henry Ridgwell reports.

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Biden Thanks Erdogan for Dropping Veto on Sweden, Finland NATO Bids

U.S. President Joe Biden thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday for dropping his objections to the bids by Sweden and Finland to join NATO, leading the way for the military alliance to expand even closer to Russia.

“I want to particularly thank you for what you did putting together the situation with regard to Finland and Sweden,” Biden told Erdogan during a one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Madrid. “You’re doing a great job.”

In response, speaking through an interpreter, Erdogan said that Biden’s “pioneering in this regard is going to be crucial in terms of strengthening NATO for the future, and it’s going to have a very positive contribution to the process between Ukraine and Russia.”

Turkey, Finland and Sweden on Tuesday signed a memorandum deepening their counterterrorism cooperation, addressing Ankara’s concerns that the two Nordic countries are not doing enough to crack down on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union, the U.S. and others.

Finland and Sweden also agreed not to support the Gulenist movement, led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, which Turkey blames for a failed 2016 coup attempt and other domestic problems.

Helsinki and Stockholm will also end support for the so-called Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) in Syria, part of the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting against the Islamic State group. Additionally, Sweden agreed to end an arms embargo against Turkey that dated to its 2019 incursion into Syria.


Invitation to join NATO

With Turkey withdrawing its veto, NATO formally invited Finland and Sweden to join the alliance earlier Wednesday.  


“It sends a very clear message to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. We are demonstrating that NATO’s doors are open,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, characterizing the invitation process as “the quickest in history.”  


Helsinki and Stockholm will bring great military capability and strategic outlook to the alliance, said Jim Townsend, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy, now at the Atlantic Council.

“Both nations — because they were neutral — they had to spend a lot of money and make a lot of effort to be a very professional force because they weren’t in an alliance. They had to depend on themselves,” Townsend told VOA. “It took the wolf being at the door for those nations to come in.”   


The two countries applied to join in May, but the process began months earlier during the initial phase of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Biden reaching out to the leaders to discuss the possibility of joining NATO, a senior U.S. administration official told reporters Tuesday. 

Since then, the U.S. has been “painstakingly working to try and help close the gaps between the Turks, the Finns and the Swedes,” the official said. “All the while trying, certainly in public, to have a lower-key approach to this so that it didn’t become about the U.S. or about particular demands on the U.S.,” he said, referring to Ankara’s long-standing request to purchase U.S. F-16 fighter jets.

Biden phone call 


The official denied that Ankara made the warplane request a precondition to withdraw its objections. However, he noted that Biden conveyed Tuesday during a phone call to Erdogan his desire to “get this other issue resolved, and then you and I can sit down and really, really talk about significant strategic issues.”  


The day after Ankara lifted its veto, the administration announced its support for the potential sale of the fighter jets. 


Celeste Wallander, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs at the Pentagon, told reporters that Washington supports Ankara’s effort to modernize its fighter fleet. 

“That is a contribution to NATO security and, therefore, American security,” she said.  

In 2017, despite American and NATO opposition, Turkey signed a deal to purchase the S-400 Russian missile defense system. In response, Washington issued sanctions and kicked Ankara out of its newest, most advanced F-35 jet program. Since then, Turkey has sought to purchase 40 modernized F-16s, which are older models of the American fighter jets, and modernization kits for another 80 F-16s. 

Wallander said any F-16 sales “need to be worked through our contracting processes.” A deal would likely require approval from Congress. 

Ukraine grain 

In their meeting, Biden also thanked Erdogan for his “incredible work” to establish humanitarian corridors to enable the export of Ukrainian grain to the rest of the world amid the war. 

“We are trying to solve the process with a balancing policy. Our hope is that this balance policy will lead to results and allow us the possibility to get grain to countries that are facing shortages right now through a corridor as soon as possible,” Erdogan said in response. 

Turkey has played a central role in negotiations with Kyiv and Russia to increase the amount of grain that can get out of Ukraine. Tens of millions of people around the world are at risk of hunger as the conflict disrupted shipments of grain from Ukraine, one of the world’s leading producers. 

Earlier this month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met his Russian counterpart to discuss unlocking the grain from Black Sea ports but failed to reach an agreement. Hurdles remain, including payment mechanisms and mines placed by both Moscow and Kyiv in the Black Sea.  


Turkey has suggested that ships could be guided around sea mines by establishing safe corridors under a U.N. proposal to resume not only Ukrainian grain exports but also Russian food and fertilizer exports, which Moscow says are harmed by sanctions. The U.N. has been “working in close cooperation with the Turkish authorities on this issue,” said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric. 

VOA’s Henry Ridgwell contributed to this report.

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Maasai in Tanzania Move to New Homes Amid Eviction Effort

Tanzanian authorities say violent clashes on June 10 between police and ethnic Maasai people they were trying to evict from a conservation area left one officer dead and scores of Maasai shot and wounded. While rights groups have condemned Tanzanian authorities for what they call unlawful evictions, some Maasai families say they had no choice but to move from their ancestral home to a reservation 600 kilometers away.

Saiboku Laizer, 63, has found a new home in eastern Tanzania’s Handeni township.

It’s about 600 kilometers south of his ancestral land in the Ngorongoro Conservation area.

Laizer has three wives and 20 children. In this new environment, he is worried about the fate of their long-preserved traditions, including living in a traditional Maasai bomas (huts).

Laizer said that in Ngorongoro, the laws were strict, and people were instructed about what to do with their land, so they had much time to invest in their traditions. But for now, he added, the traditions of living in bomas and living with many cattle may suffer.

He is among the Maasai who have left their land after a government eviction that has sparked protests and a violent police crackdown.

Government officials say the Maasai are being asked to voluntarily leave their homes, located in parts of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

They also say the goal of the eviction is to protect a conservation area from a growing Maasai population and their cattle.

But activists say they are being forced out to make way for trophy hunting and conservation zones. Onesmo Ole Ngurumwa, the executive director of Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, said they have been advising citizens to sit together with the government and write down their recommendations, and they have done that.

The challenge comes on the government’s side, he said.  The government, he said, didn’t seem want or to pay attention to any recommendations. Instead, he said, it simply continued with the strategies it has already planned.

About 27 Maasai families already have shifted from Ngorongoro to Msomera village, where the government provides those evicted with a house and land where they can let their cattle graze.

Msomera Village chairperson Martin Oleikayo said the president’s plan to move Maasai from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is for the benefit of all the country, adding that the revenue collected from tourism activities from the conservation area benefits all citizens.

Meanwhile, Laizer is adjusting to a new life and a new home. But he is worried about those more than 300 families that remain in the area, who are reluctant to leave the only home they have ever known.

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UN: Well-Armed M23 Rebels Resurgent in DRC

The top U.N. official for the Democratic Republic of the Congo said Wednesday that the resurgent M23 rebel group in the country’s east is well-armed and equipped, posing a growing threat to civilians.

“During the most recent hostilities, the M23 has conducted itself increasingly as a conventional army, rather than an armed group,” said Bintou Keita, head of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known as MONUSCO.

“The M23 possesses firepower and equipment, which is increasingly sophisticated, specifically in terms of long-range fire capacities — mortars, machine guns, as well as precision fire against aircraft,” she said in remarks to the Security Council.

The M23 was defeated by Congo’s army (FARDC) and special MONUSCO forces in 2013. But in November 2021, its forces began to reemerge.

Congolese officials blame neighboring Rwanda, saying it supports the group, which claims to be protecting the Tutsi minority in eastern DRC. Rwanda’s government is Tutsi-led but denies any link to the rebel group.

At the Security Council, Congolese Ambassador Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja called for the M23’s unconditional withdrawal from the DRC. He also urged strong condemnation of those who support the group “beginning with the state of Rwanda and its president.”

“This is an unfounded accusation,” Rwanda’s envoy Claver Gatete responded.

MONUSCO has more than 16,000 troops and police in Congo’s east. But Keita warned they may soon be outgunned by the rebels.

“Should the M23 continue its well-coordinated attacks against FARDC and MONUSCO with increasing conventional capabilities, the mission may find itself confronted by a threat that goes beyond its current capabilities,” she said.

The United Nations has called on the group to cease all hostilities and disarm.

In the past three months, the U.N. has recorded nearly 1,000 civilian deaths and scores of injuries in the provinces of North and South Kivu and Ituri because of attacks by armed groups and their clashes with security forces.

The militants seek to control lucrative trade in sought-after minerals, including gold, tungsten, copper and cobalt, which are abundant in the east.

As Congolese security forces and U.N. peacekeepers have redeployed to respond to the M23 threat, Keita said, other armed groups have exploited the security vacuum, including the Allied Democratic Forces and the Coopérative pour le développement du Congo-Zaire (CODECO).

Civilians suffering

The U.N. has chronicled abuses including looting, rape and murder. Displacements have soared in the east, with 700,000 people forced from their homes since the beginning of 2022.

“Just imagine — mothers are cooking dust, soil, to feed their children instead of boiling corn or soya,” said Julienne Lusenge of the Ituri-based women’s NGO Female Solidarity for Integrated Peace and Development.

Speaking to council members via video, Lusenge read the horrifying testimony of one woman who was kidnapped by CODECO militants when she went to pay a ransom for a captive relative.

“It was a trap. They brought me there, they tied me up, they beat me, they undressed me. They slit the throat of a Nande man, they pulled out his entrails and asked me to cook them,” Lusenge said, reading the woman’s statement. “They then fed all of the prisoners human flesh.”

The woman’s ordeal did not end there.

“Late at night, we went to another camp. I was raped all night long, and I was subjected to other physical abuse,” she said.

Released by CODECO a few days later, the woman was then taken by another group in a different village as she made her way home. She was held as a sex slave for several days and again was asked to cook and eat human flesh. When she finally arrived home, she discovered the relative whose release she had been trying to secure had already been murdered.

Regional stabilization force 

The resurgence of the M23 has led to a deterioration in relations between the DRC and Rwanda.

On May 27, the Congolese government declared M23 a terrorist movement, accused Rwanda of supporting the rebels and suspended RwandAir flights to the DRC.

At an African Union summit the next day, Senegalese President Macky Sall, chairman of the AU, met with the two presidents and offered Angolan President João Lourenço, chair of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, to mediate between them.

Last week, East African leaders agreed to deploy a regional security force to help restore order in the eastern Congo and ease tensions. Kenya is slated to lead the force, the size of which has not been announced.

The U.N.’s Keita told reporters she has been told the force’s headquarters will be deployed by the end of July, and troops will follow in August.

“I would urge East Africa Community leaders to prioritize dialogue-based approaches to the crisis,” U.S. envoy Richard Mills told the council. “The United States insists that the deployment of any additional force in eastern DRC must be closely coordinated with MONUSCO, and it must be conducted in conformity with the parties’ respective commitments under international law, including international humanitarian law.”

He said it must also be done in line with existing Security Council sanctions resolutions, and the council should be formally notified before it is deployed.

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