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Updated: 48 min 48 sec ago

Africa 54

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 23:30

2-Week Power Outage Paralyzes Cameroon

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 22:58

Businesses, media and hospitals in Cameroon's capital have been brought to a halt because of an unprecedented power failure that has gone on for nearly two weeks. The government has ordered the electric company, ENEO, to restore power within seven days but the company says it needs at least three months to repair equipment destroyed in a fire.

This loud noise from a standby generator is unusual in Cameroon's capital, Yaounde. But for the past two weeks, many locals have become familiar with it.

The power supply disappeared on August 4th, the day a fire ripped through the city's main power station, destroying much of the equipment, and leaving more than one million people without electricity.

Fire-damaged electric company building is seen from the road in Yaounde, Cameroon, Aug. 16, 2019. (Photo: Moki Kindzeka / VOA)

The government has ordered the electric company, ENEO, to restore power within seven days but the company says it needs at least three months to repair equipment destroyed in a fire.

Henry Ndaa, manager of Divine Finance, a bank in Yaounde, now relies on the generator to keep the lights on and computers running.  But this source of power is unreliable, because at times fuel stations cannot supply enough gasoline to keep it going.

"We cannot adequately operate. We use the generator and it goes off and it is weighing negatively on us and our customers. Our members keep complaining," he told VOA.

The power outage has paralyzed businesses, crippled hospitals, affected the water supply and forced people to dispose of huge quantities of perishable goods. Radio and TV stations cannot have regular broadcasts.  

At this business, the cashier is present but can not work without electricity in Yaounde, Cameroon, Aug 16, 2019. (Photo: Moki Kindzeka)

Godlove Ndifontah, a researcher, says even the internet supply is no longer regular.

"It is horrible. I am on my machine always almost 24 on 24 [every day], preparing my projects and responding to mails from my partners.  [Now] we have to go to where there are generators in order to pay 500 francs ($510) to charge your machine or to charge your phone per hour."

Cameroon's minister of water and energy resources, Gaston Eloundou Essomba, says the government is taking steps to replace all of the damaged equipment and will import parts from abroad as needed.

In Yaounde, Cameroon people are using generators to produce the power they need at home and businesses, Aug. 16, 2019. (Photo: Moki Kindzeka / VOA)

Communication minister and government spokesperson Rene Emmanuel Sadi says power is being rationed, and urged people in neighborhoods without electricity to be patient.

"The government wishes to laud the patience, understanding and civic sense showcased by the inhabitants of the capital city. Instructions have been given to ENEO to provide a general calendar of the rationing of supply to the public of the city of Yaounde," he said.

Authorities have not identified the cause of the August 4 fire, although they refuted newspaper reports of sabotage. 

UNHCR: 360,000 Displaced in Congo's Ituri Province Struggling to Survive

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 22:39

The U.N. refugee agency warns more than 360,000 people who have fled inter-communal violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo's Ituri province over the past two months are living in squalor, struggling to survive. 

The violence, which erupted between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups over land and other resources in mid-June, is not as acute as it was then, but it has not gone away. To complicate matters, other armed groups have joined the fighting.

UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said thousands of people continue to flee, though at a lower rate. Agency staff who recently visited the town of Djugu found empty villages and burned homes, he told VOA, adding that many of the displaced are afraid to return.

FILE - Victims of ethnic violence are seen at a makeshift camp for the internally displaced people in Bunia, Ituri province in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, June 25, 2019.

"People who have tried, or relatives who have tried to return to their villages and to their homes, they have been reportedly attacked and killed," Baloch said. "Displaced people are saying that they have lost relatives who were even trying to go and bring back some possessions from their houses or from their villages."  

People in overcrowded towns and villages are forced to find shelter wherever they can, he said. Many are sleeping in the open, while others have converted local schools and churches into large, squalid dormitories.

Ebola threat

Ituri, along with North Kivu province, is in the throes of an Ebola outbreak. However, World Health Organization spokesman Christian Lindmeier told VOA no case of the fatal disease has been detected among the displaced population. 

While no specific precautions are being taken, he said treatment centers are operational and health workers try to make both the fleeing and migrating populations aware of the risks.

"The scenario of a highly mobile population on the run is something which has been underlying in this response since the beginning, which is why it is so difficult to end it," Lindmeier said.

Risks of disease, violence

The UNHCR said the most urgent needs are for shelter, water, sanitation, health care and food.  Poor hygiene is increasing the risk of diseases spreading among the displaced, it warned, adding that women and girls are also at high risk of sexual violence.

The agency reports it lacks the funds to deal with the crisis, saying it has received only one-third of its $150 million appeal and is urging the international community to fill the gap.

Thai Junta Critic: Prison 'Like Hell on Earth'

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 22:21

"Prison proves if you are a fighter," says Siraphop Kornaroot.

The 55-year-old Thai poet and author should know, having spent the past five years in a Bangkok jail without having been convicted of a crime. Released on bail in June, he still faces up to 45 years behind bars if found guilty at his long-running trial, currently taking place in a closed military court.

Officially, Siraphop stands accused of breaking the country's Computer Crimes Act and strict lèse majesté law for a trio of Facebook posts and cartoons allegedly skewering Thailand's revered royal family. But the political activist is convinced that the old posts were dredged up to punish him for his true "crime" — criticizing the military junta that had wrested power from an elected government about a month before his arrest on June 25, 2014.

Siraphop, whose pen name Rungsira roughly means "born with strength," tells VOA he turned out to be a fighter. 

"Prison is like hell on earth. There is no human dignity in the cell," says Siraphop, who adds he spent most of his days confined to a sweltering 5-by-12-meter room with 40 to 50 other men. "No food. No games. No books. Only drinking water."

Siraphop Kornaroot was arrested June 25, 2014, for ignoring a summons from the military to appear for "attitude adjustment." He was later charged with computer crimes and lèse majesté but never convicted. (Photo: Siraphop Kornaroot)

As a political prisoner, even conversation was denied him. He says inmates who ventured to chat with him were quickly reassigned to other cells and that he was relegated to the prison's library detail to keep his interactions with others to a minimum.

"They try to isolate the political prisoners," he says. "This is what life was like. Every political prisoner is treated like this." 

Siraphop believes he could have won an early release with a royal pardon had he confessed, but says he never considered the option.

"I wouldn't do that because I want to prove that I am innocent, that I never said anything bad about the royal family. I am anti-coup d'état, not anti-royalist," he says.

"I think what I did was right, because otherwise how can our children live in this kind of society if I don't stand up for myself and for my belief in civil disobedience? I don't think it's right that the military took power. I think people like us, the citizens, should have the power in our hands. It's not right that we citizens are arrested for expressing our civil rights. Do we really think that this should be the standard in society?"

The junta denied Siraphop's requests for bail seven times before finally relenting, a few weeks after the U.N. Human Rights Council's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion slamming his arrest and closed-door trial in military court and calling for his immediate release.

Siraphop credits the working group's attention for his freedom, however tenuous, but he also believes the timing of their opinion was in his favor. A pro-military civilian government had just taken over from the junta after tainted elections in March, and was eager to prove to the world that Thailand was back to democratic ways.

Siraphop and other rights activists are yet to be convinced.

In the weeks after the vote, the leaders of the 2014 coup assumed the top posts in the new government. The Constitution that the junta drafted and enacted also remains in place, as do some of the security decrees it issued.

Physical assaults on the military's most vocal critics by gangs of armed and masked men have also picked up since the election. Dissidents taking shelter in neighboring countries have either disappeared or been forced to return home, and opposition lawmakers have come under sustained legal attack.

Siraphop's release on bail is "one piece of good news at a time when there are strong indications that authorities haven't shifted their approach," says Katherine Gerson, Thailand campaigner for Amnesty International.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights says that during the junta's five-year run, 169 people were charged with lèse majesté, 144 with computer crimes for expressing political opinions, and 121 with sedition.

While most have been released or were never arrested, about 20 political prisoners remain behind bars, according to iLaw, another local legal rights group. All but one of those are accused of lèse majesté.

"And so there's a considerable amount of work this new government must do both to reverse the legacy of some of the worst excesses of restrictions during the coup period, but also to look at the body of laws which, previous to the coup, were being used to silence opposition voices," Gerson says.

In the meantime, Siraphop, a single father of three, is focused on fighting his charges and putting the pieces of his life back together.

The Justice Ministry is in the process of transferring his case to a civilian court, but the arrest ruined his home design business and his bank accounts remain frozen. His two youngest children were forced to drop out of school, one to work, the other to take up vocational training. 

Siraphop says he is now shadowed by plain-clothes police around the clock but still takes to social media to share his thoughts on the state of Thai politics. Having endured one long stint in prison, he is stoic about the prospects of another.

"I don't care if they come to arrest me again. Hell is not that scary anymore," he says. "I am not fighting to win, but I want to fight to make a better life for my children."
 

Google Employees Call for Pledge Not to Work With ICE

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 21:55

Hundreds of Google employees are calling on the company to pledge it won't work with U.S. Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It's the latest in a year full of political and social pushback from the tech giant's workforce.

A group of employees called Googlers for Human Rights posted a public petition urging the company not to bid on a cloud computing contract for CBP, the federal agency that oversees law enforcement for the country's borders. Bids for the contract were due Aug. 1. It is not clear if Google expressed interest. The company did not return a request for comment.

More than 800 Google employees had signed the petition by Friday morning. Citing a "system of abuse" and "malign neglect" by the agencies, the petition demands that Google not provide any technical services to CBP, ICE or the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which provides services for refugees, until the agencies "stop engaging in human rights abuses."

"In working with CBP, ICE, or ORR, Google would be trading its integrity for a bit of profit, and joining a shameful lineage," the organizers wrote. They cited federal actions that have separated migrant children from parents and set up detention centers with poor conditions.

Google employees have led a growing trend in which some tech-company employees have taken public stances against their employers' policies. Thousands of Google employees walked out last fall to protest the company's handling of sexual misconduct claims. Employees also protested a Pentagon contract last year over work that used artificial intelligence technology to analyze drone footage.

The protests have chalked up some victories. After the walkout , Google announced new sexual misconduct guidelines, although some employees say they don't go far enough. And the company did not renew the Pentagon contract after significant pushback.

Accusations of bias

Responding to some employee pressures has added fuel to claims from Republican pundits and lawmakers that the company is building its products to be biased against conservatives — an unfounded claim that has spawned multiple congressional hearings, although none that have produced evidence of bias.

Google was hit with criticism by President Donald Trump last week when the president tweeted he was "watching Google very closely" after a former employee claimed on Fox News — without evidence — that the company would try to influence the 2020 election against Trump.

Google has denied claims of political bias in its popular search service and other products.

Latino Actors, Writers Pen 'Letter of Solidarity' Amid Fears

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 21:41

Actresses America Ferrera and Eva Longoria are leading a group of more than 150 writers, artists and leaders who have written a public "letter of solidarity" to U.S. Latinos after the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, and an immigration raid in Mississippi. 
 
The letter, published Friday in The New York Times and in a handful of Spanish-language newspapers, says the signers stand with U.S. Latinos who may feel "terrified, heartbroken and defeated by the barrage of attacks," citing the shooting in El Paso, which targeted Hispanics, and another shooting in Gilroy, California. The two attacks killed nearly two dozen Latinos. 
 
A huge immigration raid of Mississippi poultry plants this month that rounded up 680 mostly Latino workers, leaving behind crying children searching for their detained parents, also has unnerved some Hispanics.

"We have been smeared by political rhetoric and murdered in violent hate crimes. We have been separated from our families and have watched our children caged," the letter said. "But, we will not be broken. We will not be silenced."

'Indignities and cruelty'

The letter says such "indignities and cruelty" won't diminish the contributions Latinos have made to the U.S., and it urged Hispanics to keep standing up to bigotry.

FILE - Actress Eva Longoria, right, is interviewed by Mariana Atencio of Univision on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 6, 2012.

Signing the letter were some of the most important Latino figures in entertainment, art, literature and activism, including novelist Sandra Cisneros, Academy Award-winning actress Rita Moreno, civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, singer-actress Jennifer Lopez and Tony Award-winning composer Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The violence has some Hispanics looking over their shoulders, avoiding speaking Spanish in public, and seeking out escape routes amid fears they could be next. 
 
The shootings and the raid come against a backdrop of racist episodes that include then-candidate Donald Trump referring to Mexican immigrants as "rapists"; Trump, as president, referring to migrants coming to the U.S. as "an invasion"; and viral videos of white people chastising Hispanics for speaking Spanish in public.

Longoria told The Associated Press that she and Ferrera got the idea for the letter after they talked and found out they were both depressed and sad after the El Paso shooting.

"Once we started talking to other people, we found out others were feeling the same way," Longoria said. "Instead of us all suffering alone we wanted to unite and tell our community that is going through all of this ... we are with you and we will fight for you."

'Soul-crushing'

Longoria said the letter is not meant to take political sides but to reach out to Americans regardless of party to say Latinos are hurting.

Ferrera told the AP that Latinos have been subjected to a number of racist attacks recently, but the El Paso shooting and the Mississippi raid were "just soul-crushing" for some. 
 
"We wanted to do something to let people know we aren't growing to lie down and take it," Ferrera said. "We are going to stand up and fight." 
 
Monica Ramirez, a civil rights lawyer and activist who helped organize the letter, called it a "letter of love" and hopes it changes some hearts. 
 
"We also wanted to make sure that people understand that our community is powerful and we have many allies," Ramirez said. "We don't want other groups to be targeted."

Trump Continues to Weigh Possible Blagojevich Commutation

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 21:25

President Donald Trump says he's still considering whether to sign commutation papers freeing former Illinois governor and one-time "Celebrity Apprentice" contestant Rod Blagojevich from federal prison in Colorado.

Trump told reporters Thursday before leaving from Morristown, New Jersey, that he "floated" the prospect of commutation "to see where the Democrats stood, where the Republicans stood."

Republican Congressman Darin LaHood of Illinois told WLS-TV on Thursday that he told Trump a commutation wouldn't send the right message.

The office of Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois also said Trump called Durbin last week to discuss Blagojevich's sentence and Durbin didn't take a position on a possible commutation.

Trump previously told reporters he believed the seven years the Democrat Blagojevich has served on a 14-year sentence for corruption was enough.

17 Chinese, Ukrainian Seamen Kidnapped off Cameroon Coast

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 21:14

Nine Chinese and eight Ukrainian seamen were abducted Thursday when two merchant vessels came under attack in Cameroonian waters in the Gulf of Guinea, sources said Friday.

"Seventeen Chinese and Ukrainians were kidnapped ... (of whom) nine (are) Chinese who were abducted on one of the ships," an official in the port of Douala told AFP. A security official, likewise speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the account.

The abduction was reported Thursday by sources in the Cameroonian navy and the country's port service, who said their number and nationalities were unknown.

'A Heavy Lift': Religious Black Voters Weigh Buttigieg's Bid

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 21:13

Joe Darby, a South Carolina pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, pondered a sensitive question that he knew was on the mind of his congregation. Would black voters be able to reconcile their conservative religious doctrine with voting for a gay candidate for president?

"It's a heavy lift in the black church," says Darby, who is also a Charleston-area NAACP leader. "Just as nobody who is racist likes to say, 'I'm a racist,' nobody who is homophobic in the black community likes to say, 'I'm homophobic.'"

In South Carolina, the first state with a predominantly African American electorate, part of the dialogue focuses on a conflict between a cultural openness for same-sex marriage and the deeply held religious convictions that could impede support for the 2020 race's only gay candidate — Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

The historically diverse field of Democratic presidential hopefuls is overflowing with options. But it is also forcing conversations about the roles — if any — that gender, race and, for the first time, sexuality should play in voters' decisions.

Black voters comprise more than 60% of South Carolina's Democratic electorate. But an overwhelming majority of African Americans — 79%, according to a recent Pew study — also identify as Christians, which some church leaders note can contribute to internal strife between their religious convictions and how they feel about a gay candidate, if they think doctrine says it's wrong.

"I'm interested to see how Buttigieg is going to play," said Darby, saying that the mayor "does the best job of articulating his faith of any of the candidates" but is inherently running up against barriers with those to whom he's still an unknown. "The most damning comment was at a clergy breakfast, and when his name was brought up another guy said, 'Yeah, that's the guy who kissed his husband on TV.'"

Buttigieg's husband, Chasten, has not traveled to South Carolina to campaign. Chris Meagher, Buttigieg's spokesman, said voters are still getting acquainted with the mayor, who this month became the first 2020 Democratic candidate to hire a faith outreach director.

"Pete is focused on meeting folks where they are," Meagher said. "It just means quantity of time and spending time with folks and making sure that he's listening to their concerns and that they're hearing his plans and his policies and his values."

Besides his overt expressions of his faith, Buttigieg also has offered a broad policy agenda for African Americans and has been outspoken on the issue of race. But he consistently polls in the low single digits among black voters.

Buttigieg, 37, has acknowledged he has ground to make up in terms of making his case to African American voters in South Carolina, where he also attended a Black Economic Alliance forum this summer. On Friday, he'll sit down for an interview with black church leaders at an Atlanta event expected to attract 5,000 black millennials. This weekend, he'll return to South Carolina, planning a series of town halls and attending an AME church service.

With six months until South Carolina's vote, Buttigieg, like many others in the field, is still working to introduce himself to the electorate. But in some corners of South Carolina's faith community, according to Darby, first impressions may have already hampered Buttigieg's on-the-ground debut efforts.

Jon Black, an AME pastor along South Carolina's coast in Bluffton, said that he presumes the church will ultimately move past any divisions over homosexuality and same-sex marriage, as it did previously with divorce.

"If we can get in a time machine and go down the road 25 years, I think the issue would be resolved," Black said. "It may take us 25 years to make that turn, but we've always supported the disinherited, disenfranchised. ... We've got to stand with those people who may be the most threatened."

The church as a whole may not make that change anytime soon, but Black said he didn't feel that the issue of Buttigieg's sexuality would override his support if his policy positions prove strong.

"If it gets down to two or three candidates and one happens to be gay, I don't think that would be a problem for black communities," Black said.

The attempt to square a willingness to hear all candidates out with a faith-based attitude toward issues of homosexuality is surfacing in conversations in some church communities. Seated in a basement fellowship hall, as Wednesday night services boomed in the sanctuary above, several members of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, mulled over the intersection of sexuality and what many of them agreed should be 2020's top imperative.

In some circles of faith, LaVelle Pitts said, relying on biblical crutches like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a condemnation of homosexuality can be convenient, but it's not the full story.

"Am I my brother's keeper? Of course I am," Pitts, 52, said. "He's still a person. If his politics are on target, I have no problem voting for him. ... If you judge him, you may find yourself in that same situation."

"You have to completely love them more than you love yourself," agreed Vanessa Young, a 24-year-old small-business owner. "I think that we just need to love them a little."

Even when faith and sexuality seem in conflict, said Feliccia Smith, the prevailing sentiment should fall on the side of love and wanting someone to feel whole.

"Regardless of the topic, the church is supposed to be a helping and a healing voice," said Smith, who declined to give her age. "You don't accept the sin, but you love the person. ... And at the end of the day, God's word is God's word."

Nodding, Young agreed, saying she wouldn't feel right passing judgment on Buttigieg solely based on his sexuality: "I definitely can't place judgment on him because I've got to go to Judgment Day myself."

For many, underlying any skepticism of Buttigieg's personal life, though, remains a theme that has become a constant refrain among Democrats in this early voting state: If he can oust the current White House occupant, little else matters.

"If he's got good politics, his personal life has nothing to do with what his job will be," Pitts said. "We have got to have somebody who's going to beat Trump."

VOA Our Voices 137: The Challenge of Choice

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 20:58

This week on #VOAOurVoices, there are two sides to the fierce debate on abortion, pro-life and pro-choice. But can these two sides meet in the middle? In Africa, this debate goes to the heart of people's culture, family planning and the modernization of societies. According to the World Health Organization, 25 million unsafe abortions were performed each year from 2010 to 2014. With the highest risk of death from an unsafe abortion in Africa. Our team looks into the Mexico City policy, also known as 'Global Gag Rule,' which places abortion-related restrictions on non-governmental organizations. We are also joined by Ann Kioko, campaigns director for Africa with CitizenGo, a pro-life organization to tackle this debate. 

UN Experts: Iran Must Free Women Held Over Veil Protests

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 20:55

A group of UN human rights experts on Friday called for the immediate release of three Iranian women given long jail terms for protesting laws compelling women to wear veils. 

The trio were charged after a video posted online showed them handing out flowers on Tehran's metro on March 8, International Women's Day, according to a statement co-signed by five United Nations special rapporteurs and another expert. 

The women — named in the statement as Mojgan Keshavarz, Yasaman Aryani and Monireh Arabshahi — were not wearing veils. 

They "peacefully protested against Iran's compulsory veiling laws and advocated for a woman's right to choose whether or not to wear the hijab," the statement said. 

According to the experts, who are independent and do not speak for the world body, the women were detained in April, "forcibly disappeared" for up to two weeks, and denied access to a lawyer through the initial investigation. 

"Their legal representatives were also reportedly prohibited from representing them at their trial," the statement said. 

Keshavarz has been sentenced to 23 and a half years in prison while Aryani and Arabshahi were both given 16-year terms. 

All were convicted of national security violations, spreading anti-state propaganda and "encouraging and providing for [moral] corruption and prostitution," the UN experts said. 

Keshavarz was convicted of the additional crime of "insulting the sacred" .

"We call upon the Iranian authorities to quash these convictions and immediately release all human rights defenders who have been arbitrarily detained for their work in advocating women's rights," the statement said. 

It was co-signed by Javaid Rehman, special rapporteur on rights in Iran, Dubravka Simonovic, UN expert on violence against women and Michel Forst, rapporteur on human rights defenders. 

David Kaye, the expert on freedom of expression, Meskerem Geset Techane, who heads the UN working group on discrimination against women and girls, and Ahmed Shaheed, rapporteur on religious freedom, also signed the letter.

Arrests rising 

The experts said Tehran responded to their concerns by noting that the women "had been arrested on charges relating to morality and national security offences". 

The rapporteurs also reported that arrests of women's activists have risen in recent weeks, with Iran's government having issued an official warning that those who do not wear a veil will face severe punishment. 

They cited unidentified reports that 32 people had been arrested, and at least 10 imprisoned, since January of last year for protesting against ruled mandating that hijabs be worn. 
 

1 Ebola Fatality Confirmed in New Congo Region

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 20:38

Congolese officials have confirmed the death of one of at least two new Ebola patients in South Kivu province.  

The outbreak in Congo has killed more than 1,800 people but this is the first time in the year-long epidemic Ebola has spread to South Kivu.  The new cases were reported Friday near the city of Bukavu in Congo's Mwenga area, near the Rwanda border.
 
Treating Ebola has been a challenge for Congolese authorities because of ongoing civil strife.

In addition, many people do not believe Ebola is real.  Instead of seeking medical care, they may chose to stay at home, which allows the virus to spread.

Anti-Ebola efforts have also faced adversity from residents suspicious of the extensive precautions taken by the health care workers to stop the spread of the highly contagious disease. Because Ebola virus can be transmitted through a victim's bodily fluids after death, even burial of the victims requires stringent safety protocols.

The current outbreak is considered the worst since the two-year outbreak in West Africa that started in 2014 and killed more than 11,000 people.

Greenland Tells Trump it is Open For Business, Not for Sale

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 20:18

COPENHAGEN - Greenland on Friday dismissed the notion that it might be up for sale after reports that U.S. President Donald Trump had privately discussed with his advisers the idea of buying the world's biggest island.

"We are open for business, but we're not for sale," Greenland's foreign minister Ane Lone Bagger told Reuters.

Trump is due to visit Copenhagen in September and the Arctic will be on the agenda during meetings with the prime ministers of Denmark and Greenland, an autonomous Danish territory.

Talk of a Greenland purchase was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. Two sources familiar with the situation told Reuters that the notion had been laughed off by some advisers as
a joke but was taken more seriously by others in the White House.

Danish politicians on Friday poured scorn on the idea.

"It has to be an April Fool's joke. Totally out of season," former prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said on Twitter.

"If he is truly contemplating this, then this is final proof, that he has gone mad," foreign affairs spokesman for the Danish People's Party, Soren Espersen, told broadcaster DR.

"The thought of Denmark selling 50,000 citizens to the United States is completely ridiculous," he said.

In this photo taken on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, icebergs are photographed from the window of an airplane carrying NASA Scientists as they fly on a mission to track melting ice in eastern Greenland.

Greenland, a self-ruling part of Denmark located between the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, is dependant on Danish economic support. It handles its own domestic affairs while
Copenhagen looks after defence and foreign policy.

"I am sure a majority in Greenland believes it is better to have a relation to Denmark than the United States, in the long term," Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, Danish MP from Greenland's
second-largest party Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), told Reuters. "My immediate thought is 'No, thank you'," she said.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod were not available for comment but officials said they would respond later on Friday. The U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen
was also not immediately available for comment.

"Oh dear lord. As someone who loves Greenland, has been there nine times to every corner and loves the people, this is a complete and total catastrophe," former U.S. ambassador to Denmark, Rufus Gifford, said in on Twitter.

Greenland is gaining attention from global super powers including China, Russia and the United States due to its strategic location and its mineral resources.

In May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Russia was behaving aggressively in the Arctic and China's actions there had to be watched closely as well.

A defense treaty between Denmark and the United States dating back to 1951 gives the U.S. military rights over the Thule Air Base in northern Greenland.

There has been no indication that a Greenland purchase will be on the agenda for Trump's talks with Danish officials. Martin Lidegaard, senior lawmaker of the Danish Social Liberal Party and a former foreign minister, called the idea "a grotesque proposal" which had no basis in reality.

"We are talking about real people and you can't just sell Greenland like an old colonial power," he told Reuters. "But what we can take seriously is that the U.S. stakes and interest in the Arctic is significantly on the rise and they want a much bigger influence," he added.

In 1917 Denmark sold off the then Danish West Indies islands for $25 million to the United States, which renamed them the United States Virgin Islands.

New York Subway Station Evacuated

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 19:59

Two suspicious objects that prompted an evacuation of a major lower Manhattan subway station during the morning commute Friday are not explosives, police said.

The bomb squad cleared the items found at the Fulton Street station, New York Police Department Counterterrorism Chief James Waters said on Twitter.
 
 Waters posted photos of the objects, which looked like pressure cookers or crockpots.
 
 "The suspicion is that they were placed there to suggest that they were electronic devices and possible bombs," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on WCBS-AM after the all clear was given.
 
 The devices were found at the line that carries No. 2 and 3 trains around 7 a.m.
 
 The station is a busy transit hub a few blocks from the World Trade Center.
 
 In 2017, a would-be suicide attacker set off a homemade pipe bomb in an underground passageway at the Times Square subway station during rush hour, seriously injuring himself.

 

 

Kashmir 'Curbs' to Be Lifted Gradually

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 18:42

Indian government officials say restrictions imposed on the Indian-controlled Kashmir region will be "lifted gradually."

The Indian Supreme Court heard petitions Friday from Kashmir Times editor Anuradha Bhasin challenging the curbs imposed 12 days ago on Kashmir by India.

A lawyer for Bhasin told the panel, according to the Deccan Chronicle newspaper, that communication systems need to be restored as soon as possible so journalists can do their jobs in the region that is claimed by both India and Pakistan.  

On Thursday, Pakistan said three of its soldiers were killed in clashes with India across the disputed Kashmir border, known as the Line of Control (LoC), amid increasing tensions between the two nations over the Himalayan region.  

A Pakistani army spokesman claimed five Indian soldiers also were killed in retaliatory fire.  The Press Trust of India said late Thursday an Indian army spokesman told the news agency late Thursday that the report of five Indian soldiers killed was "fictitious."

Also Thursday, Pakistan summoned the senior most Indian diplomat in Islamabad to the foreign ministry to condemn what an official statement described as "the unprovoked cease fire violations" by Indian forces in several sectors along the de facto Kashmir border. “The cease fire violations by India are a threat to regional peace and security and may lead to a strategic miscalculation,” the statement said.
Pakistan already has expelled the Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, and has suspended all bilateral trade and public transport links in response to India’s recent actions in Kashmir.  

Kashmiri Muslim boys offer Friday prayers at the doorway of a local mosque in an alley during curfew like restrictions in Srinagar, India, Aug. 16, 2019.

Tensions have significantly escalated between the two nuclear-armed rival countries since August 5 when New Delhi abruptly ended semi-autonomous status for the Indian-administered portion of the divided Himalayan region and bifurcated it into two territories to be directly controlled by the federal government.

A massive security crackdown and communications blackout to deter violent reactions to the controversial move have since cut off millions of residents of Kashmir from the rest of the world.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended his decision to strip Kashmir of its special status during a speech Thursday marking India's independence.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, while denouncing the security lockdown in Kashmir, warned in a tweet Thursday that India's Hindu-nationalist government could be planning another "Srebrenica-type massacre & ethnic cleansing of Muslims." Khan referred to the 1995 massacre of thousands of ethnic Muslims, mainly men and boys, during the Bosnian war.

On Wednesday, the Pakistani leader claimed his country possessed "credible information" Indian military forces were planning a major cross-border attack to divert international attention from abuses being inflicted on Kashmiris.

The United Nations Security Council is expected to hold a closed-door meeting Friday to discuss the situation in Kashmir.

Polish ambassador Joanna Wronecka, the council's president for August, confirmed to VOA on Wednesday that the consultations were requested by China. It will be the first U.N. debate over Kashmir since 1971.

Kashmir has triggered two full scale wars between India and Pakistan since they both gained independence from Britain in 1947, and the territorial dispute remains the primary sources of regional tensions.

Pakistani and Indian militaries routinely accuse each other of firing the first shot across the LoC in violation of a 2002 cease-fire agreement, although both sides privately admit almost daily clashes in recent years have rendered the truce ineffective.

Israel Allows Congresswoman Tlaib to Visit Family in West Bank

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 16:37

Israel will allow U.S. lawmaker Rashida Tlaib to visit her family in the occupied West Bank on humanitarian grounds, the interior ministry said Friday, after barring an official visit under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday he would not allow Tlaib and congresswoman Ilhan Omar, both Democrats, to make a planned trip to Israel.

Tlaib and Omar have voiced support for the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement over Israel’s policies toward Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Under Israeli law, BDS backers can be denied entry to Israel.

However, Netanyahu said that if Tlaib submitted a request to visit family on humanitarian grounds, Israel would consider it as long as she promised not to promote a boycott against Israel.

Tlaib sent a letter to Israel’s Ministry of Interior Thursday requesting permission “to visit relatives, and specifically my grandmother, who is in her 90s,” adding that it “could be my last opportunity to see her.”

“I will respect any restrictions and will not promote boycotts against Israel during my visit,” Tlaib wrote in the request, which was circulated by the Ynet website Ynet and other Israeli media.

Israel’s interior ministry said in a statement it “decided on Friday to approve the entry of U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib for a humanitarian visit to her 90-year-old grandmother.”

Australia to Help Pacific Neighbors Adapt to Climate Change

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 15:11

Australia is offering vulnerable South Pacific nations $340 million to help them deal with the effects of climate change. The announcement came ahead of a visit by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Tuvalu for the Pacific Islands Forum this week, where Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels was a dominant issue.

Australia wants to help its Pacific neighbors invest in renewable energy and make their roads, hospitals and schools able to withstand extreme weather events.

But Morrison met resistance in Tuvalu at a meeting of Pacific leaders. They have been urging Australia to phase out the use of coal that generates most of its electricity and generates billions of dollars in export earnings.

Australia's Scott Morrison arrived at a meeting of Pacific island leaders in Tuvalu, Aug. 14, 2019, with Canberra's regional leadership in question amid intense scrutiny of his government's climate change policies.

Questions about aid

That appears unlikely, and Australia recently approved a huge new coal mine in the state of Queensland to be run by an Indian company, Adani.

Island nations fear that fossil fuels are endangering their way of life as global temperatures increase and the seas rise. Some low-lying communities have already been inundated, and there are concerns that many more will follow.

Simon Bradshaw from Oxfam Australia, an independent aid organization, believes Australia’s offer of financial assistance to the Pacific needs careful scrutiny.

“There are very important questions around the details of this announcement,” he said. “Is it additional money? It does not seem so. It seems to be taken from the existing and rapidly diminishing aid budget. But, of course, the elephant in the room is still on the one hand providing some assistance, on the other hand Australia’s emissions (are) still going up. We are the world’s largest producer of coal and gas.”

Way of life in danger

Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said that climate change posed “an existential threat” to island nations.

Samoa’s leader Tuilaepa Sailele has said previously that any world leader who denied the existence of warming temperatures was mentally unstable.

The Pacific Islands Forum was founded in 1971. It has 18 members, including Australia, French Polynesia, Tonga, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

It aims to become a “region of peace, harmony, security … and prosperity.”

Rights Group: Zimbabwe's Deteriorating Economy Hurting Children, Too

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 14:46

Zimbabwe's deteriorating economy is forcing many families to put their children to work to put food on the table. Child rights activists say an increasing number of children are selling things on the street to supplement family income. Columbus Mavhunga reports from Harare for VOA.
 

Sudan: While Peace Deal is Signed, Feminists Fight for Representation

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 14:21

In Sudan, women are well-represented in the workforce. They are not lacking in any public spaces. And over the past few months, they have made up half, if not more, of the protest crowds making demands of their new transitional government.

Women were an integral part of protests that led to the ouster of longtime president Omar al-Bashir, as well as in demonstrations after his fall. However, many female leaders now say they feel they have been locked out of political agreements and do not expect to be named to any positions in the Regional Council.

Many feminists have been pushing to negotiate a 50% quota for women in government. Others have argued that 40% would be a more reasonable demand, as the current rate is 30%. But even the 40% has not been met.

A young woman protests for more transparency outside the SPA headquarters (E. Sarai/VOA)

“Our ambition was to have 50% representation in the government, or at least 40%, but this didn’t happen,” Haifa’a Farouq, a feminist and representative of the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), told VOA.

Farouq is in a unique position; though she works with and for the SPA, she has also taken part in many protests organized by women outside SPA headquarters.

“Women who have taken to the streets since December have done so so the issues important to them would be priorities during the transitional period,” she said. But she, like many others, remain disappointed.

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Driving force in talks

The SPA has been a driving force in negotiations for the transitional government, but many are unhappy with compromises that have made with the Transitional Military Council (TMC).

Men and leaders in the SPA welcome criticism. When protests are held outside their headquarters, one of the leaders will often talk to them and take note of their demands.

“Women should also fight individually for their right to representation. We will support them,” Rasheed Saeed, a spokesman for SPA, told VOA.

“The revolution hasn’t completely fulfilled its demands,” Saeed added, about compromises made during the transition.

Though women are represented in the SPA, many will note that the leaders of the group are still men.

Men in jail during revolution

In the months before longtime President Omar al Bashir stepped down, SPA leaders, mostly male, were jailed for months. During that time, women led the revolution and organized protests on the streets.

But they say when the men were released in April, they resumed their leadership roles with little acknowledgment of what women had accomplished in their absence.

“When they were released, for reasons I cannot understand, we were surprised the men were put back in leadership positions. I think it is because of the dominance of the patriarchal system that gave the men this feeling of privilege,” Niemat Koko, a former politician and feminist researcher, told VOA.

Koto noted that the heavy presence of women in protests was largely fueled by the patriarchal system. In 1989, a public order was established that mostly affected women’s abilities to express themselves, including mandatory dress codes and head coverings.

“What Sudanese women have suffered for 30 years — politically, socially and economically — they have only suffered it since independence,” Koko said. “And it’s caused by the dominance of religious culture, the practice of the totalitarian ideology and the absence of freedoms.”

Women have not been completely locked out of the government. At least one woman is expected to be named to the Sovereign Council, and many others to the legislative body.

Nahid Bustami shares her protests sign with another woman (E. Sarai/VOA)

But feminists who have taken to the streets partly because of the public order say they don’t feel the women currently poised to take office will address their concerns.

“There is an absence of real representation for women,” Nahid Bustami, a protester, told VOA.

“For me as a feminist, I am not seeing feminists who can represent me in the government. There are women, but they don’t represent women’s issues.”

Sudan’s TMC and opposition will formally sign their political agreement Saturday and will name members of the Sovereign Council on Sunday.

But many women who have led what they call their country’s revolution are unwilling to remain silent, as long as they still feel underrepresented.

Scary Teen Stories, a Gold Mine for Studios, Streaming Companies

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 13:52

Scary folk tales and urban legends have always captivated people's imaginations, especially those of the young. Now, "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark," a collection of short stories for children by author Alvin Schwartz and illustrator Stephen Gammell has been adapted by Oscar-winning producer Guillermo Del Toro and director André Øvredal. During its opening weekend, the movie grossed more than $20 million, proving again that teen horror flicks are a lucrative genre. Penelope Poulou has more.

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