While Small in Number, Tajik Fighters an Asset for Islamic State-Khorasan

Washington — The Iranian government has traced this month’s twin suicide bombings in Kerman city to ethnic-Tajik fighters of the Islamic State Khorasan Province who, experts say, are “fairly small” in number but play “an important part” in the group’s military activities.

The Afghanistan-based branch of the Islamic State (IS-K) claimed responsibility for the January 3 blasts that killed at least 95 people attending the commemoration of the death of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force, who was killed in a January 2020 U.S. drone attack in Iraq.

A day after the Kerman city attack, top Iranian officials, including President Ebrahim Raisi and IRGC Commander Hossein Salami, claimed that Israel and the U.S. were behind the attack, without offering any evidence.

But a week later, the Iranian intelligence ministry said in a statement that one of the two bombers was a citizen of Tajikistan who received training at an IS-K camp in Afghanistan and crossed to Iran illegally via its southeastern border.

The statement did not name the second suicide bomber but said the mastermind of the attack was also a citizen of Tajikistan who left Iran after planning it.

The number of Tajik citizens in IS-K is “fairly small,” said David Sedney, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, adding, “but they are, I understand, a fairly large portion of the more aggressive and successful fighters.”

Sedney told VOA that Tajik fighters are well-trained and important to IS-K’s military operations.

Tajik fighters are “a very important part of the Daesh military wing, capable of carrying out suicide attacks and other military activities,” said Sedney, using another name for the Islamic State, which is also known as IS or ISIS.

Formed in 2015, IS-K is an offshoot of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria which, according to a June 2023 U.N. report, is “the most serious current terrorist threat in Afghanistan, neighboring countries and Central Asia.”

The report estimated IS-K’s fighters and their families number between 4,000 to 6,000, including citizens of Central Asian countries.

Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told VOA that though the exact number of Central Asians, including Tajiks, in IS-K is not known, they could be in the hundreds.

Roggio, however, said that the Islamic State has “always been effective in poaching … disaffected” members of the other militant groups based in Afghanistan.

The U.N. report said there are around 20 militant groups in Afghanistan, including Jamaat Ansarullah, a Tajikistani extremist group, also known as Tajik Taliban.

“The Islamic State is a natural place for individuals who want to get their jihad on now, and aren’t, you know, afraid to be bold and attack China or attack various places,” Roggio said.

He added that the Persian-speaking militants are an asset for the IS-K.

“They certainly would leverage individuals who could speak Farsi, who could operate a little bit more easily in Iran for certain,” Roggio said.

Islamic State is a Sunni extremist group that considers majority-Shiite Iran as its enemy.

Roggio said that he does not think the Islamic State could pose a significant threat to Iran, but the group can carry out terrorist attacks.

The Islamic State also claimed an attack on a religious shrine in the Iranian city of Shiraz in October 2022, killing 15 people. IS-K is a major rival to the Taliban and carried out several high-profile attacks after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan.

Addressing a press conference in Kabul last month, Taliban defense chief Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid claimed that most of the attacks in Afghanistan were carried out by Tajik and Pakistani nationals.

He also claimed that the Taliban’s security forces killed dozens of Tajiks and more than 20 Pakistanis, and asserted the number of IS-K attacks has decreased by 90%.

Tajik writer and political analyst Sherali Rizoyon told VOA that the Kerman suicide bombers were trained in Afghanistan, and it “either refutes the Taliban’s claim that they are in full control of Afghanistan or shows that the Taliban have relations with such groups.”

A U.N. report released in June said members of the Tajik militant group Jamaat Ansarullah helped Taliban fighters battle anti-Taliban resistance forces in the northern provinces of Afghanistan.

Ghaws Janbaz, former Afghan ambassador to Moscow, told VOA that the Taliban’s return to power has inspired militant groups throughout the region.

“The Taliban’s takeover has encouraged and motivated them,” said Janbaz, adding that “the Taliban claim that they defeated the superpower in Afghanistan so these [militant groups] think that they can easily defeat the governments in the region.”

This story originated in VOA’s Afghan Service.

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China Circumspect After International Court Ruling on Israel

Johannesburg, South Africa — In a carefully worded response this week, China voiced its support of the U.N.’s International Court of Justice, or ICJ, ruling that orders Israel to desist from the killing of Palestinians in Gaza. Experts tell VOA that privately China has reservations about the use of such courts to deal with allegations of genocide, which could have awkward implications for Beijing.

“We hope that the ICJ’s provisional measures can be effectively implemented,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin when asked about the issue at a regular press conference on Monday. While the EU and U.S. reacted almost immediately to Friday’s ruling in The Hague, Wang’s comments were the first from a previously taciturn Beijing and came in response to a question from state broadcaster CCTV.

“We condemn all acts against civilians and oppose all moves that violate international law. China urges parties to the conflict to realize a comprehensive cease-fire at once, abide by the international humanitarian law,” he said.

South Africa’s case

It was the South African government — a longtime supporter of the Palestinian cause — that asked the ICJ to investigate whether Israel was committing genocide in the war in Gaza, which began in response to an attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

While a final ruling on whether genocide has indeed been committed is years down the road, the court announced provisional measures in the case last week. A majority of the judges — including a Chinese judge — ruled that South Africa had a plausible case and that Israel must now take every measure to avoid causing deaths in Gaza.

Israel has slammed allegations of genocide, and President Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the court’s order by vowing to continue the war. Israel’s key ally, the United States, played down the ruling and noted it did not call for a cease-fire. But experts said the damning nature of the ruling was embarrassing for both democracies, which are proponents of international law.

South Africa — which has a close relationship with China — hailed the ruling as a win for the so-called Global South, of which Beijing sees itself as a leader.

Israel and the U.S. are both members of the ICJ, whose rules are binding. However, there is no enforcement mechanism, so sometimes — as in the case of the court’s 2022 ruling that Russia must exit Ukraine — its orders are ignored.

Usually, China is quick to point out anything it sees as U.S. hypocrisy, but on this issue Beijing has remained tight-lipped. Some experts think that is because Beijing is afraid of the precedent it could set.

China wary

“I think China is using the ICJ decision to push for de-escalation. But it made no mentioning of genocide and called the decision a ‘temporary measure,’” Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, told VOA.

“‘Genocide’ is a sensitive word for China, and I doubt China wants to set the precedent that it can be declared and imposed on a sovereign country,” she said.

Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, echoed this view.

“They are privately very worried about precedent,” he wrote to VOA. “It is very possible for a state that is not directly affected by the goings on in Xinjiang to bring a case at the ICJ.”

Nantulya was referring to China’s policies regarding the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province. The United Nations and rights groups have accused Beijing of persecuting the minority group, which, evidence has shown, is subjected to torture, sexual violence and mass arbitrary detention in camps.

In 2022, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet reported China’s counterterrorism policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

Lawyers representing Uyghurs in exile filed a case with another global judicial body, the International Criminal Court, also in The Hague, Netherlands, in 2020. They accused senior Chinese leaders of genocide, but the ICC said it could not hear the case because the alleged crimes happened in China, which — like the U.S. — is not a party to the court.

The lawyers have argued the ICC should still take up the case given evidence of Beijing’s efforts to round up Uyghurs in neighboring countries that are members of the court.

However, unlike with the ICC, even a state that is not party to a conflict can bring charges against another state at the ICJ if they are both members of the court — as are South Africa and Israel.

South Africa was the second country to use the court this way, after West African state Gambia filed a genocide case against Myanmar over its persecution of the Rohingya Muslims.

In 2022, the ICJ set a precedent by ruling it would hear Gambia’s case on the basis that all parties to the Genocide Convention have an interest in ensuring the prevention of genocide anywhere in the world.

“I don’t think this sits easily with the Chinese side,” Nantulya said, given that China is an ICJ member.

Therefore, he said, Beijing is unlikely to chide Israel, and by association the U.S., over any noncompliance. “Softly, softly will be their approach.”

Cobus van Staden, an analyst with the South African Institute for International Affairs, told VOA he thinks China shares South Africa’s position overall on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Where I think they become more cautious is around the international institution aspect … and obviously they are wary of those tools kind of being turned against them,” he said.

Jonathan Hafetz, professor of law at Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey, likewise noted China’s “reticence in accepting the jurisdiction of international tribunals.” However, he said it was a reticence “shared by other major global powers, including the United States.”

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UN, Somalia Launch $1.6 Billion Appeal for Humanitarian Aid

Mogadishu, Somalia — The United Nations and the Somali government have launched a $1.6 billion appeal to address humanitarian challenges in Somalia. The 2024 Humanitarian Needs Action Plan seeks to provide life-saving support to over 5 million Somalis this year. 

The U.N. says climate shocks, conflict, widespread poverty and disease outbreaks continue to drive humanitarian needs in the Horn of Africa country. 

The appeal comes as Somalia struggles to deal with long dry spells followed by heavy rains and deadly flash floods. 

“In terms of the overall humanitarian situation in Somalia for 2024, World Vision sees humanitarian needs remaining high in 2024 due to recurrent shocks induced by climate change and underlying factors such as conflict and insecurity,” says Suganya Kimbrough, program development and quality assurance director for World Vision Somalia.

But “the number of people needing humanitarian assistance in 2024 has decreased to 6.9 million from 8.2 million people in 2023, according to the latest draft of the 2024 Humanitarian Needs and Response Plan,” she added.

Kimbrough says funding for the U.N.’s Somalia Humanitarian Fund currently stands at only $56.6 million, leaving a significant gap between resources available and the need. 

She added that most of the funding goes to life-saving interventions because Somalia remains fragile. 

However, Kimbrough said, humanitarian organizations, including World Vision, are gradually charting long-term sustainable solutions. 

“Over the last few years, World Vision Somalia has seen a gradual shift in funding, focusing more on longer-term resilience linked to the humanitarian development peace nexus and away from short-term humanitarian responses,” she said.

“Continued investments in disaster risk management, system strengthening, social cohesion and livelihood adaptation, and including mechanisms such as crisis modifiers are all key to foster resilience and build the capacity of communities to cope with recurrent shocks,” she added.

Close to three million Somalis are living in internally displaced persons camps and largely depend on support from the government and aid agencies. 

Marya Ahmed, a mother of seven based in a camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu, says, she has have been living with all children in the camp for the last five years. She said they get just a little food and medical support, and that she really wants to leave the camp one day and start a new life. Right now, she added, she doesn’t have the means.

Analysts say whereas the annual call for international support has been critical in staving off humanitarian suffering, it hardly resolves Somalia’s food security problems. 

Ali Mohamed, a food security expert and researcher in Mogadishu, says the appeal by the Somali government and aid agencies is critical for millions of Somalis who are starving. But, he adds, we’re dealing with cyclical problems and we’re yet to find a lasting solution that will enable populations to develop the capacity to respond to shocks and sustainably generate their food.

Studies indicate that Somalia contributes only a tiny percentage of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming but suffers more than most countries from adverse climate change conditions. 

Mohamed says the situation could get worse because of dwindling global resources and dire humanitarian situations elsewhere. 

“I am worried that donors are increasingly getting fatigued with Somalia as we have witnessed recently. There have to be deliberate efforts by the government to seriously invest in food systems and fully exploit the local resources to gradually reduce foreign dependence.” 

According to the humanitarian agency OCHA, the 2023 appeal was only 43% funded, raising concerns about a similar scenario this year. 

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Putin Vows to Make Military Gains in Ukraine as He Meets With His Campaign Staff

Moscow — President Vladimir Putin vowed Wednesday to push back Ukrainian forces to reduce the threat of attacks on Russian territory as he met with activists running his campaign ahead of the March presidential election that he’s all but certain to win.

Asked about plans for the military campaign in Ukraine, Putin said the line of contact needs to be pushed back to “such a distance from our territory that will make it safe from Western-supplied long-range artillery that Ukrainian authorities use for shelling peaceful cities.”

He added the Russian military has been doing just that, “pushing the enemy back from vital populated centers.”

“This is the main motive for our guys who are fighting and risking their lives there — to protect the Motherland, to protect our people,” he added.

Ukraine has struck inside Russia recently, including a December 30 attack on the border city of Belgorod that killed 25 people, injured over 100.

Putin also said Russian investigators concluded that Ukraine used U.S.-supplied Patriot air defense systems to shoot down a Russian military transport plane in the Belgorod region on January 24. Russian authorities said the crash killed all 74 people onboard, including 65 Ukrainian POWs heading for a swap.

Ukrainian officials didn’t deny the plane’s downing but didn’t take responsibility and called for an international investigation.

Putin said Russia wouldn’t just welcome but would “insist” on an international inquiry on what he described as a “crime” by Ukraine.

Putin, 71, who is running as an independent candidate, relies on a tight control over Russia’s political system that he has established during 24 years in power.

With prominent critics who could challenge him either jailed or living abroad and most independent media banned, his reelection in the March 15-17 presidential vote is all but assured.

“Russia has been forced to defend its interests, including by military means,” Putin told the meeting with his campaign staff, saying that even as the meeting was going on, Russian troops made new gains on the edge of the town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine.

“We are passing through a very difficult and important period in the development of our country, the strengthening of its independence and sovereignty in all vectors,” he said. “Scum that is always present is being washed away bit by bit.”

Under a constitutional reform that he engineered, Putin is eligible to seek two more six-year terms, potentially allowing him to remain in power until 2036. He is already the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who died in 1953.

Three other candidates who were nominated by parties represented in parliament are also running: Nikolai Kharitonov of the Communist Party, Leonid Slutsky of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and Vladislav Davankov of the New People Party.

All three parties have been largely supportive of the Kremlin’s policies. Kharitonov ran against Putin in 2004, finishing a distant second.

Boris Nadezhdin, a 60-year-old local legislator in a town near Moscow, also is seeking to run. He has openly called for a halt to the conflict in Ukraine and starting a dialogue with the West.

Thousands of Russians across the country signed petitions in support of Nadezhdin’s candidacy, an unusual show of opposition sympathies in the rigidly controlled political landscape that raises a challenge for the Kremlin. On Wednesday, Nadezhdin submitted 105,000 signatures to the Central Election Commission, which is expected to review them over the next few days.

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UN Court Rejects Much of Ukraine’s Case Alleging Russia Discriminated in Crimea, Supported Rebels

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The United Nations’ top court on Wednesday rejected large parts of a case filed by Ukraine alleging that Russia bankrolled separatist rebels in the country’s east a decade ago and has discriminated against Crimea’s multiethnic community since its annexation of the peninsula. 

The International Court of Justice ruled Moscow violated articles of two treaties — one on terrorism financing and another on eradicating racial discrimination — but it rejected far more of Kyiv’s claims under the treaties. 

It rejected Ukraine’s request for Moscow to pay reparations for attacks in eastern Ukraine blamed on pro-Russia Ukrainian rebels, including the July 17, 2014, downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 that killed all 298 passengers and crew. 

Russia has denied any involvement in the downing of the jetliner. A Dutch domestic court convicted two Russians and a pro-Moscow Ukrainian in November 2022 for their roles in the attack and sentenced them in their absence to life imprisonment. The Netherlands and Ukraine also have sued Russia at the European Court of Human Rights over  Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. 

Court rules Russia violated order 

In another rebuke for Moscow, the world court ruled that Russia had violated one of the court’s orders by launching its full-scale invasion in Ukraine nearly two years ago. 

The leader of Ukraine’s legal team, Anton Korynevych, called the ruling “a really important day, because this is a judgment which says that the Russian Federation violated international law, in particular both conventions under which we made our application.” 

The legally binding final ruling was the first of two expected decisions from the ICJ linked to the decade-long conflict between Russia and Ukraine that exploded into all-out war almost two years ago. 

At hearings last year, a lawyer for Ukraine, David Zionts, said the pro-Russia forces in eastern Ukraine “attacked civilians as part of a campaign of intimidation and terror. Russian money and weapons fueled this campaign.” 

Another ruling expected Friday

The court, however, ruled that sending arms and other equipment didn’t constitute terrorism funding, according to the 1999 treaty. 

“The alleged supply of weapons to various armed groups operating in Ukraine and the alleged organization of training for members of those groups fall outside the material scope” of the treaty, said ICJ President Joan E. Donoghue. 

Another lawyer for Ukraine, Harold Koh, said during last year’s hearings that in the Crimean Peninsula, Russia “sought to replace the multiethnic community that had characterized Crimea before Russia’s intervention with discriminatory Russian nationalism.” 

Lawyers for Russia urged the world court to throw out the case, arguing that the actions of pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine did not amount to terrorism. 

The court found that Russia failed to investigate allegations by Ukraine of alleged terrorist acts but rejected all other claims by Kyiv of breaches of the Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism. 

It also ruled that Moscow breached the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by limiting school education in the Ukrainian language and by maintaining a ban on a Tartar representative assembly called the Mejlis. 

The court is scheduled to rule Friday on Russia’s objections to its jurisdiction in another case filed by Ukraine shortly after Russian troops invaded on February 24, 2022. It alleges Moscow launched its attack based on trumped-up genocide allegations. The court already has issued an interim order for Russia to halt the invasion, which Moscow has flouted. 

In recent weeks, the ICJ also heard a case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza. Judges issued provisional measures last week calling on Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in the conflict. 

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Kenyan Entrepreneur Makes Snacks from Indigenous Grains

Indigenous African grains such as millet and sorghum are known to be nutritious but are not popular with many, especially the Gen Zers who view the grains as food for the poor. To change this narrative, a Kenyan entrepreneur is using the grains to make snacks and breakfast cereals to promote consumption of indigenous grains and foster environmental sustainability, as Juma Majanga reports from Nairobi. Video by Amos Wangwa.

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Central Africa Communication Ministers Discuss Ways to Stop Hate Speech

Yaounde, Cameroon — Communication ministers from the Economic Community of Central African States, ECCAS, are meeting in Bangui, Central African Republic, this week to map out ways to stop the spread of hate speech.

Officials from central African states say some influential politicians, business moguls and community leaders are using radio, television and social media to propagate information that has fueled regional crises, resulting in the displacement of millions of people. 

Simplice Mathieu Sarandji, prime minister of the Central African Republic, said leaders of the 11-member ECCAS expect communication ministers at the meeting in Bangui to propose lasting solutions to xenophobic statements that are propagated on media outlets.

Sarandji said humanitarian crises are spiraling in ECCAS states because of widespread hate speech.  

A separatist crisis in western Cameroon, which has killed more than 6,000 people, was fueled in part by social media propaganda by rebel leaders who are based in Europe and the United States, according to Cameroonian officials.  

Hate on social media also fueled an ongoing conflict between ranchers and fishers in northern Cameroon and Chad. Clashes there have killed more than 100 people and displaced more than 80,000.  

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda was sparked by hate speech, mostly over radio, by Hutu extremists against Tutsis. 

Joanne Adamson, deputy head of MINUSCA, the U.N. stabilization mission in the Central African Republic, spoke about the Bangui meeting on state TV in the CAR.

She said the focus on hate speech is an important step toward finding solutions to fighting that sparked a mass movement of people fleeing in search of safety. By organizing the forum, Adamson added, the 11 ECCAS member states indicate they are ready to support and defend values that are vital to consolidate peace and security and promote human rights. 

The ministers said they will enact legislation to punish people who use TV, radio and print media to propagate hate speech, but gave no further details. They also have agreed to control harmful content they say runs rampant on social media.

Charly Gabriel Mbock, an anthropologist and conflict resolution specialist at the Yaounde-headquartered Catholic University of Central Africa, said the ministers should launch campaigns against hate speech in restive central African towns and villages.

To do this, Mbock said, ECCAS communication ministers must educate clerics and traditional rulers that peace is priceless, before using radio, television and print media to call on civilians to reject and denounce calls for violence, especially on social media. He said central African governments should also make sure media laws being prepared against hate and xenophobic language do not infringe on press freedom.

The communication ministers say they will submit their recommendations to ECCAS governments with the hope that if hate speech and xenophobic statements can be stopped, peace will return to restive areas.  

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Scholz Evokes Nazi Era as He Urges Germans to Reject Far Right

BERLIN — Chancellor Olaf Scholz reminded Germans of their Nazi past on Wednesday as he called on citizens to reject the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) which is second in most national polls.

Hundreds of thousands of people have joined demonstrations across Germany against the AfD after a report that two senior party members had discussed plans for the mass deportation of citizens with foreign backgrounds — a term called remigration.

Addressing the Bundestag lower house of parliament after a special session marking the Holocaust and dressed in a black suit and tie, Scholz said democrats must stand together and stop the shift to the right.

“The word ‘remigration’ is reminiscent of the darkest times in German history,” Scholz said.

“Those who remain silent are complicit,” he said, adding he wanted voters to see the AfD for what it was.

Support for the AfD dipped slightly in a poll published this week following the protests but the party, which has a strong focus on migration, is still second in most polls before this year’s European elections.

Scholz also said that “Dexit”, the idea of Germany leaving the European Union, which AfD co-leader Alice Weidel has talked about, would lead to “the greatest destruction of prosperity that could happen to Germany and Europe.”

In an unusually combative speech during which he waved his clenched fists in the air, Scholz argued for a stronger EU.

“If the world becomes even more difficult, for example if you look at what is possible in the U.S. election, then the European Union must become all the stronger,” he said, adding the bloc must complete a banking and capital market union.

Support for Social Democrat Scholz and his awkward three-way coalition with the Greens and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) is hovering around record lows.

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Traffic-Blocking Farmers Closing In on EU Capital

HALLE, Belgium — Farmers blocked more traffic arteries across Belgium, France and Italy on Wednesday, as they sought to disrupt trade at major ports and other economic lifelines. They also moved closer to Brussels on the eve of a major European Union summit, in a continued push for better prices for their produce and less bureaucracy in their work.

The protests had an immediate impact on Wednesday — the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, announced plans to shield farmers from cheap exports from Ukraine during wartime and allow farmers to use some land that had been forced to lie fallow for environmental reasons.

The plans still need to be approved by the bloc’s 27 member states and European Parliament, but they amounted to a sudden and symbolic concession.

“I just would like to reassure them that we do our utmost to listen to their concerns. I think we are addressing two very important (concerns) of them right now,” European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said.

The rallies are part of farming protests across the EU and have shown how only a few hundred tractors can snarl traffic in capitals from Berlin to Paris, Brussels and Rome. Millions across the bloc have been facing disruptions and struggling to get to work, or seen their doctor’s appointments canceled because protests blocked their way.

“It obviously has a major economic impact. Not only for our company, but for many companies in Flanders and Belgium,” said Sven Pieters of the ECS transport company in Belgium’s Zeebrugge North Sea port.

In France, the prosecutor in Creteil, south of Paris, said that 15 people have been placed in police custody Wednesday after they have been arrested near the entrance of the Rungis international market, where they headed with tractors.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has warned farmers encircling Paris that any attempt to block the Rungis market and airports, and to enter into the capital would be considered “red lines.” The Rungis market supplies Paris and the surrounding regions with fresh food.

Protesters put a big banner on the A6 highway, south of the French capital, writing: “Paris, let our farmers get through” as police armored vehicles were blocking the road. No major incidents between police and farmers have been reported so far.

A climax in Belgium is set for Thursday, when farmers plan to protest outside EU headquarters during a summit of government leaders. They will seek to get their issues on the summit agenda and win some concessions on the financial burdens they face and the increased competition from nations as far away as Chile and New Zealand.

“It is important that we listen to them,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said. “They face gigantic challenges,” from adapting to climate change to countering environmental pollution, he said.

Belgium currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, and De Croo said that he would address the issue during the summit as a late addition to an agenda centered on providing aid to Ukraine, after Russia’s full-scale invasion nearly two years ago.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants to hold off on a free trade deal with South American nations because of the vehement opposition of EU farmers and will discuss the issue at the summit.

Despite the widespread inconveniences, governments in the EU are treating protests, which have been mostly peaceful, with extreme caution.

Spanish farmers were also set to add their weight to the protests. Three main Spanish farming associations agreed to begin protests in the coming weeks to demand changes in what they describe as overly restrictive EU policies. 

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Third Round of Polio Vaccination Targets High-Risk Counties in Northeastern Kenya

Nairobi — A polio vaccination campaign that was planned for November but postponed due to heavy rains and floods is finally taking place in three high risk counties in the northeastern part of Kenya. This comes after 13 cases of the so-called circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (CVDPV2) were discovered last year in the area. 

This is the third round of polio vaccination targeting three high-risk counties of Mandera, Wajir and Garissa.

The goal, according to Kenya’s ministry of health and its partners, is to reach about 750,000 children under the age of five. About 238,000 children ages 6 to 15 in certain areas will also be vaccinated.

Aden Ibrahim, Garissa County director of health, explains.

“The first case, the sample was collected in June 2023. It was a child which came from the Somalia side, later became sick and went to a health facility; they [child] were investigated because they were symptomatic, and they were confirmed as having a polio positive,” he said.

Ibrahim said soon after, more cases were detected in some of the refugee camps. 

“In Hagadera camps, there were 13 confirmed cases of polio in the camps last year and that has necessitated 3 rounds of campaign to be conducted where we did the two rounds last year and this one was actually scheduled to take place last year in November,” he said.

But due to heavy rains and floods that killed 130 and displaced 89,000 the November round was postponed.

Kenya is not the only country affected by a resurgence of polio. After three decades of being polio-free, Burundi had 16 cases last year. And as of August 2023, 187 confirmed cases of circulating variant poliovirus have been reported in 21 countries in Africa Region according to the World Health Organization.

Among the many reasons this has been happening are inaccessibility to basic healthcare, conflicts and insecurity in some of the countries, and climate change, said Ibrahim.

“Polio is more of an oral-fecal transmission and because of this climate change, age of drought brings poor sanitation at the end of the day because of issue of lack of water and all those things,” he said.

The Horn of Africa region recently suffered its worst drought in decades.  

To eradicate the disease, Ibrahim points out that countries need to strengthen routine immunization, invest in a robust surveillance system, and improve their respective healthcare systems.

Polio is a highly infectious and debilitating disease that affects children under 5 causing permanent paralysis. It can also cause death in 2 to 10 percent of those paralyzed according to WHO.

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Zimbabwean Opposition Leader Released After Almost 600 Days in Custody

An opposition leader in Zimbabwe who spent nearly 600 days in detention while awaiting trial on charges of inciting public violence has been released. A magistrate in Harare convicted Job Sikhala on the charges but handed down a suspended two-year sentence because Sikhala had already spent so many days in jail. Columbus Mavhunga has more from Harare.

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China’s Jailing of Brit for Espionage Will Further Discourage Business, Analysts Say

LONDON — Beijing’s revelation that it sentenced an elderly and well-connected British businessman who has lived in China for decades to five years in prison for espionage will further discourage business and trade, say analysts and a friend of the man.

Last week, China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that in August 2022 a Beijing court found Ian J. Stones, a 70-year-old consultant, guilty of “buying and unlawfully providing intelligence for an organization or individual outside China.”

Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin was responding to a question about Stones at a regular press briefing the day after The Wall Street Journal broke the story on his case, which had not previously been made public by the Chinese or British.

Wang said that Stone’s appeal of the verdict was rejected last September but did not provide any more details about the case. He did say the Chinese courts held the trial “strictly in accordance with the law, guaranteed Stones’ procedural rights, and allowed the UK [side] to visit him and sit in on the sentencing.”

Stones’ daughter, Laura Stones, told The Wall Street Journal the Chinese authorities refused them access to legal documents and did not allow them to attend the trial.

“There has been no confession to the alleged crime; however, my father has stoically accepted and respects that under Chinese law he must serve out the remainder of his sentence,” she told the Journal.

Stones has worked in China since the 1970s for prominent companies, including Pfizer and General Motors. He started his own consultancy, Navisino Partners, which he was working for when he disappeared from public view in 2018, the Journal reported Thursday. Stones also built close relations with Chinese government agencies and officials, including some with whom he studied who went on to achieve high ranks.

‘He thought he could manage’

Peter Humphrey, a former fraud investigator for Western firms in China, has known Stones for 45 years.

He told VOA, “Three years before he was taken, I saw him in London. He had realized that an agency was tracking him, and they even invited him for a tea chat. So he was worried, but he thought he could handle it. Then, when he was detained, he also thought he could manage. So, he did not speak out to the outside world.”

Governments and rights groups have accused China of arresting foreigners to use as bargaining chips. China in 2018 arrested two Canadians, a consultant and an analyst, on spying charges after Canadian authorities arrested Chinese technology company Huawei’s chief financial officer on a U.S. warrant for violating sanctions on Iran. Beijing released the Canadians in 2021 after a deal was made to release the Huawei officer.

Romanian university professor Marius Balo worked in China before being charged with contract fraud and sentenced to eight years in prison in 2014.

He told VOA, “In my own experience, these espionage cases are bogus. They use it as an excuse to capture people and then use them as bargaining chips. I’ve met several of these people, and it’s a common tactic for them.”

Another possible explanation

Humphrey says it’s also possible Stones was hired by a company linked to an intelligence agency.

“If you are a consultant, you want to see as much information as possible so that you can analyze and interpret it and write a report for your client about the condition of the Chinese economy and predictions for what will happen in the next few months, and so on. But the problem might be: Who is the client?” Humphrey said.

“Among his clients, are there any that the Chinese authorities do not want him to provide information to? Sometimes intelligence services try to use consultancies to gather information for them unwittingly,” he said. “I don’t know if Ian Stones fell afoul of this or not.”

VOA sent requests for comment via email to the Chinese Embassy in London and the British Foreign Office. No response has been received yet.

China last year expanded its counterespionage law to include more options for prosecuting alleged spying.

China’s Ministry of State Security earlier this month announced it arrested a man it identified as a third party national named “Huang” for spying for Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence service. The arrest was seen by some analysts as retaliation for Britain’s arrest last year of a parliamentary researcher on suspicion of spying for China.

Benedict Rogers, chief executive of the Britain-based human rights organization Hong Kong Watch, said China’s espionage allegations not only worsen Sino-British relations but also significantly affect foreign nationals and businesses operating in China.

“Whether the Chinese allegations are true, or whether this is a tit-for-tat retaliation for allegations of Chinese espionage at Westminster, remains to be seen,” he said. “But either way, this incident will make it a much more dangerous environment for British citizens doing business in or traveling to China.”

China under President Xi Jinping has been tightening controls on information, raiding foreign companies and jailing journalists.

China jailed Humphrey himself in 2013, the year Xi first became president, for two years for his consultancy’s collecting and selling of private information, revoked his risk consultancy’s business license, and had him deported.

It’s not clear if the Chinese court will count any of Stones’ time served in detention toward his five-year sentence. If it does, he could be released as early as this year.

VOA’s Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

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