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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