Month: November 2019

UN Tries to cut Numbers at EU-funded Migrant Center in Libya

The U.N. refugee agency plans to cut the number of migrants staying at an overcrowded transit center in Libya’s capital, a spokesman said Saturday.

Libya is a major waypoint for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East to Europe.

“The situation is very difficult, and we do not have the resources” because the center in Tripoli is at about twice its capacity, with some 1,200 migrants, Charlie Yaxley, a UNHCR spokesman, told The Associated Press.

The UNHCR has asked those refugees not registered with the agency to leave the European Union-funded Gathering and Departure Facility, offering an assistance package that includes cash for an initial two months.

“You will not be considered for evacuation or resettlement if you stay at the GDF,” the agency warned the migrants, according to a document obtained by the AP. It added that those seeking registration with the agency could only do so “outside” the facility.

The UNHCR said it would phase out food distribution for the unregistered migrants, including dozens of tuberculosis patients, from Jan. 1.

Yaxley said the agency also offered to facilitate returning the migrants to their home country or to a country they previously registered as asylum-seekers.

Migrants, however, decried the move, fearing they would end up at detention centers or at the mercy of human traffickers.

“The migrants are reluctant and have their concerns about leaving the GDF,” one person seeking shelter at the facility said, who spoke on condition of anonymity for his safety. The surrounding areas of Tripoli have seen heavy fighting between armed factions since April.

The self-styled Libyan National Army, led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter, launched an offensive to capture the capital city in April, clashing with an array of militias loosely allied with the U.N.-supported but weak government there.

The fighting has stalled in recent weeks, with both sides dug in and shelling one another along Tripoli’s southern reaches. They have also carried out airstrikes and drone attacks.

In July, an airstrike hit a detention center for migrants outside Tripoli, killing more than 50 migrants held there. The Tripoli-based authorities blamed the LNA for the airstrikes. The LNA, however, said it was targeting a nearby military site, not the detention center.

After the airstrike, hundreds of former detainees made their way into the GDF, the agency said. They were followed by another group of around 400 people from Abu Salim detention center in late October, as well as up to 200 people from urban areas, the UNCHR said.

The gathering point, which was opened a year ago, has capacity for around 600 people.

“We hope that the GDF will be able to return to its original function as a transit facility for the most acutely vulnerable refugees, so we are able to evacuate them to safety,” said UNHCR’s Chief of Mission for Libya Jean-Paul Cavalieri.

There are some 40,000 refugees and asylum-seekers living in urban areas across Libya, some of whom are extremely vulnerable, face abuse in militia-run detention centers, and are in desperate need of support, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

Separately, the Libyan coast guard said Saturday it intercepted at least 205 Europe-bound migrants off the western town of Zawiya. The African migrants, who included 158 men, 33 women and 14 children, were given humanitarian assistance and were taken to the detention center in Tajoura.

Libya’s detention centers are rife with abuse and Europe’s policy of supporting the coast guard has come under growing criticism.

Climate Activists Invade East German Coal Mines in Protest

Climate activists protested at open-pit coal mines in eastern Germany, pouring onto the premises to urge the government to immediately halt the use of coal to produce electricity.

The news agency dpa reported that police estimated more than 2,000 people took part Saturday at sites near Cottbus and Leipzig and that some of the demonstrators scuffled with police. Three officers were reported slightly injured at the Janschwaelde mine near Cottbus. The mine operators, Leag und Mibrag, filed police reports asking for an investigation and possible charges.

Burning coal releases carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed by scientists for global warming. The German government plans to end the use of coal by 2038 and spend 40 billion euros ($44 billion) on assistance for the affected mining regions.

Commonwealth, AU, OIF Call for Peace and Unity in Cameroon

Three international organizations have ended an official visit to Cameroon with a call for efforts to restore security, justice and the conditions for the resumption of normal life in English-speaking northwest and southwest regions of the country hit by the separatist crisis that has killed over 3,000 people. The Commonwealth, African Union, and International Organization of La Francophonie delegation says it is convinced dialogue remains the preferred path for peace to return, but that the government should start implementing the recommendations of the last major national dialogue it organized. Some, however, have been critical of government efforts.

Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union Commission, says after exchanging views with Cameroonian President Paul Biya, Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute, representatives of the main political parties, religious leaders, youth representatives and a cross-section of Cameroonians,  the organizations are convinced that there is a yearning for peace to return to the restive English-speaking regions.

Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat delivers a speech during the African Union (AU) summit at the Palais des Congres in Niamey, Niger, July 7, 2019.
FILE – Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat delivers a speech during the African Union (AU) summit at the Palais des Congres in Niamey, Niger, July 7, 2019.

He says they noted that a majority of Cameroonians welcomed the convening of the Grand National Dialogue from September 30 to October 4,  in which Cameroon’s government  consulted with political party leaders, activists, opinion leaders, traditional rulers, lawmakers and clergy, and are anxiously waiting for the government to implement its recommendations.  Those recommendations include establishing some sort of special status for the minority English-speaking regions, to be considered by the country’s parliament.  It also backed enforcement of the constitutional language giving English and French equal status and saying they must be used in all public offices and documents.  It also backed continuing the process of decentralization by giving more powers and resources to local councils.  

Mahamat participated in the tripartite mission with  International Organization of La Francophonie Secretary General Louise Mushikiwabo and Commonwealth Secretary General Patricia Scotland to encourage national peace efforts.

Mahamat said after their meetings in Yaounde, they observed that a large majority of Cameroonians supported the convening of the major national dialogue and believe it aided their quest for peace.  He said they were convinced that dialogue remains the only path to peace, and asked the government to implement the recommendations of the national dialogue.

After the national dialogue, hundreds of prisoners were freed when Biya ordered a halt to court proceedings against them, saying he was implementing the recommendations of the dialogue.

However, Albert Mvomo, an official of the opposition Cameroon United Party, says Biya’s government has not been doing enough to solve the crisis. He says the AU, OIF and Commonwealth delegation should have proposed sanctions to force Biya to solve the crisis.

He says the three organizations, like any international organization, should force the government in Yaounde to solve the crisis in the English-speaking regions through economic and diplomatic sanctions. He says Cameroon’s government shows no serious sign of wanting to stop the crisis.

Mvomo said the growing number of displaced people in towns and villages in the French-speaking regions showed the government has not been doing much to stop the separatist conflicts.

Simon Munzo,  an Anglophone leader who took part at the national dialogue, says while some recommendations would require legislation, Cameroon should have started showing serious signs that it wants peace to return by restoring public infrastructure and villages and towns destroyed by the fighting for the population to return.  

“We expect the government to maintain the momentum through the implementation of the recommendations of the dialogue,” said Munzo. “Some of them require legislation. Others do not, for example rebuilding schools and bridges and all of that. You do not need legislation for that except in terms of budgeting. Now, there are other aspects that will require modifying the constitution.”

Separatists have insisted on social media that they do not recognize the outcome of the national dialogue and will be ready to negotiate with the Yaounde government only on the terms of the separation of the English-speaking and French-speaking parts of Cameroon.

Hong Kong’s Young and Elderly Come Together

Retirees and secondary-school children came together Saturday in Hong Kong to protest what they see as China’s creeping interference in Hong Kong since the territory was returned to China by Britain in 1997.

“I have seen so much police brutality and unlawful arrests,” said a 71-year-old woman in Hong Kong’s Central district, who only gave her name as Ponn.  “This is not the Hong Kong I know.”  

The young and the elderly listened to pro-democracy activists in the city’s Chater Garden, one of several planned weekend rallies.

The demonstrations in Hong Kong have become increasingly violent over the months as protesters vented their frustrations.  

The mood in Hong Kong has changed, however, since local elections last week gave pro-democracy politicians a big win.

Some of the demonstrators Saturday carried American flags, in support of newly signed bi-partisan U.S. legislation supporting pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.    

Carrie Lam has called for the current mood to be maintained, but she has refused to give in to protesters’ demands, including free elections for her position and an independent investigation into alleged police brutality.


Taliban-Planted Bomb Kills Afghan Army General

Officials in southern Afghanistan say a bomb explosion Saturday killed a senior military commander and wounded at least four other people, including a local journalist.

The Taliban swiftly took responsibility for the attack in Helmand province where most of the districts are either controlled or hotly contested by the insurgent group.

The provincial police spokesman told VOA that Gen. Zahir Gul Muqbil, the commander of an army border unit, was heading to the volatile Marjah district along with a group of journalists to visit an ongoing counterinsurgency operation when the convoy struck a roadside bomb.

Mohammad Zaman Hamdard said the slain general was directing the military operation. He added three security personnel and a reporter with Afghanistan’s mainstream Shamshad TV, were among the wounded. The journalist, Sardar Mohamad Sarwary, is said to have received multiple injures.

A Taliban statement said the attack also killed Muqbil’s two guards, though insurgent claims are often inflated.

Helmand is Afghanistan’s largest province and a major opium-poppy producing region.

International media watchdogs list Afghanistan as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

Iraqi Protests Continue Despite Prime Minister’s Resignation Announcement

Iraqi protesters burned tires on three bridges Saturday in the southern city of Nasiriyah, despite the prime minister’s announcement that he will step down from office.

Adel Abdul-Mahdi said Friday he will submit his resignation to the country’s parliament, following weeks of deadly protests.

The people responsible for the killings must be brought to justice, Iraq’s semi-official Human Rights Commission said in a statement Saturday.

“Firearms and live ammunition must only be used as a last resort,” the International Committee of the Red Cross warned in a statement.

Abdul-Mahdi’s announcement Friday came after Iraq’s top Shiite cleric called for a change in leadership in the country. At least 400 people have been killed and hundreds of others wounded since anti-government protests began October 1.
“I will submit to parliament an official memorandum resigning from the current prime ministry,” the Abdul-Mahdi said, in response to the cleric’s call. He did not specify when he will step down.
The move triggered celebrations by protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, however demonstrators said they would continue their sit-in at the square

Iraq’s parliament is set to hold an emergency session on Sunday to discuss the crisis.
Earlier on Friday, during his weekly sermon, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani urged Iraq’s parliament to reconsider its support for Abdul-Mahdi’s government, amid the rising violence.

Violence continued on Friday with medical officials saying at least three protesters were shot by security forces in the southern city of Nasiriyah.

On Thursday, Iraqi security forces used live ammunition against mostly unarmed demonstrators in Nasiriyah, killing at least 40 people in one of the bloodiest days since anti-government protests began last month, security and medical officials said.
At least 25 people were killed and more than 200 wounded when security forces opened fire on protesters who had blocked key roads and bridges in the city.

Baghdad said it had sent military troops to restore order across southern Iraq, where protests have grown increasingly violent. Demonstrators have occupied buildings and bridges and have clashed with security forces, who have used tear gas and live ammunition almost daily since protests began.

Amnesty International denounced the violence in Nasiriyah, calling it a bloodbath.

In Baghdad, security forces shot and killed four people Thursday and wounded at least another 22 as protesters tried to cross the Ahrar Bridge, which leads to the Green Zone, the heavily fortified seat of Iraq’s government.

The demonstrators are demanding an end to government corruption and what they perceive as increasing Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs.


US Border Agents Rescue Migrants From Flooded Drainage Pipe

U.S. border protection officials in San Diego said Friday that 20 people had been rescued from flooded drainage pipes west of the San Ysidro Port of Entry. 

A Border Patrol agent found three people trying to enter the United States illegally late Thursday near a drainage tube about 3 kilometers west of the port of entry, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol’s parent agency.

In a release, CBP said the three people told agents there were people trapped inside the drainage tubes, with water rising because of heavy rain in the area. 

After a search, local emergency officials aided CBP agents in recovering 17 people, sending seven of them to a nearby hospital for medical care.

About an hour later, three more people were discovered in the drainage tubes and were taken into custody. One was sent to the hospital.

CBP said it apprehended 15 men, three women and one juvenile male from Mexico, and one Guatemalan man. It said all would be processed for illegally entering the United States. 

Twitter CEO Pledges to Live in Africa for Several Months in 2020

Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey has wrapped up of a trip to Africa by pledging to reside on the continent next year for up to six months. 

Dorsey tweeted this week: “Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!). Not sure where yet, but I’ll be living here for 3-6 months mid 2020.”

The CEO of the social media giant did not say what he planned to do on the African continent.

Twitter, which is based in San Francisco, did not offer more details on Dorsey’s plans. 

On Dorsey’s recent trip, he visited entrepreneurs in Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. 

Dorsey, 43, co-founded Twitter with several other entrepreneurs in 2006. He ran the company until he was ousted in 2008 but was brought back seven years later to again lead the platform.

Dorsey also co-founded the payment processing app Square and is also CEO of that operation. The tech exec holds millions of stock shares in both companies, and Forbes estimates his net worth at $4.3 billion.

Twitter, along with other social media companies, has faced criticism of its handling of misinformation and has come under scrutiny ahead of next year’s U.S. presidential election. Dorsey announced in October that Twitter would ban political advertisements on the platform. 

Chinese Ambassador Visits Huawei Exec Under House Arrest in Canada

China’s ambassador to Canada on Friday called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to “correct its mistake” of detaining Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou last year on a US extradition warrant.

Ambassador Cong Peiwu issued the statement after visiting Meng at her mansion in Vancouver, where she is under house arrest pending an extradition trial scheduled to start in January.

Cong said that he stressed to Meng that Beijing is “determined to protect the just and legitimate rights and interests of its citizens and enterprises, and will continue to urge the Canadian side to correct its mistake and take measures to solve the issue as soon as possible.”

“We expect (Meng) to go back to China safe and sound at an early date,” he said.

Meng’s arrest last December during a layover at Vancouver’s international airport triggered an escalating diplomatic row between Canada and China.

Within days, China detained two Canadians — former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor — in apparent retaliation, and subsequently blocked billions of dollars worth of Canadian canola and meat shipments, before restoring imports of the country’s beef and pork earlier this month.

Canada, meanwhile, enlisted the support of allies such as Britain, France, Germany, the United States and NATO to press for the release of its two citizens.

When he met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at a G20 meeting in Japan last weekend, Canada’s new foreign minister, Francois-Philippe Champagne, called their release an “absolute priority.”

But Cong, who was posted to Ottawa in September, told Canadian media that Meng’s release was a “precondition” for improved relations.

Canada has previously declared the arrests of Spavor and Kovrig “arbitrary.” Others have gone further, tarring it as “hostage diplomacy.”

The pair, held in isolation until June when they were formally charged with allegedly stealing Chinese state secrets and moved to a detention center, have been permitted only one 30-minute consular visit per-month.

Describing their harsh detention conditions, The Globe and Mail newspaper, citing unnamed sources, reported that Kovrig’s jailers at one point seized his reading glasses.

Since being granted bail soon after her arrest, Meng has been required to wear an electronic monitoring anklet and abide by a curfew, but she is free to roam within Vancouver city limits under the gaze of a security escort.

Her father, Huawei founder Ren Zengfei, told CNN that she’s “like a small ant caught between the collision of two giant powers.”

He described her spending time in Vancouver enjoying painting and studying, adding that her mother and husband routinely travel to Canada to care for her.

Somali Refugee Leads US Pediatric Clinic that Gave Her a Healthy Outlook

Anisa Ibrahim was six years old when she came to the United States as a Somali refugee in 1993. The family settled in Seattle, in the northwestern state of Washington, where the girl and her four siblings got health care at the Harborview Medical Center Pediatric Clinic.

Now a pediatrician herself, Ibrahim is medical director of the clinic, overseeing a dozen other doctors whose patients, like hers, include many immigrants.

When she got the promotion in September, “it felt like everything that I had been working for had come to fruition and my story had really, really come full circle,” Ibrahim, 32, told VOA’s Somali Service in a phone interview. “I really thought back [on] everyone and everything that made this moment possible for me.”

Among those Ibrahim credits is the doctor who treated her in childhood, after her family had moved from a Kenyan refugee camp where they’d sought relief from Somalia’s civil war in 1992.

She had told her pediatrician, Elinor Graham, that she wanted to follow in that profession. Graham’s response “really stuck with me,” said Ibrahim, repeating the words she’d heard long ago: ” ‘You know, Anisa, I want you to become a pediatrician as well. And when you do, I want you to work here so I can retire.’ ”

Ibrahim studied at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, graduating in 2013. She did a residency at Seattle Children’s Hospital and joined Harborview as a general pediatrician in 2016.

Along the way, she married and had two daughters. She also encountered doubters.

“Going to medical school, going to residencies, there are always people who discourage you … simply because of how you look, simply because of your race, your religion, your nationality,” Ibrahim said. “But, you know, most recently I’ve just been overwhelmed with the amount of support I’ve gotten from everyone.”

Communication and trust

One of her backers is Brian Johnston, Harborview’s chief of pediatrics.

Along with providing medical skills, Ibrahim — part of a diverse staff — is able to telegraph acceptance to immigrant families that might identify with her, Johnston said.  And that can lead to better care.

“When there is concordance between a health care provider and a patient in terms of their race, ethnicity or culture, the communication can be improved, the trust is improved and the patient’s adherence to the plan that is formulated is improved,” Johnston said. “So having a diverse workforce among our positions improves our ability to deliver good health care to a diverse population.”

At Harborview, Ibrahim, who also serves as president of the Somali Health Board, works closely with immigrants and refugees. In her official bio, she describes herself as “committed to caring for low-income, socially vulnerable populations” with limited English skills.

“I can say I know life is tough in a refugee camp,” the doctor told K5 News (KING-TV Seattle) last month. “I know life is tough settling into a new country and not speaking English and not knowing where the grocery store is and being isolated from the rest of your family.”

‘Powerful’ role model

Not only does Ibrahim work to improve the health and conditions of children who are in the same position she was, but she also hopes to combat any negative perceptions about newcomers.

“We are in a very polarizing time where there is negative rhetoric about immigrants. That’s really being used to dehumanize human beings, to demonize people for wanting what other people would want: safety, an education, a good life for their children,” she said.  

“It’s really, really important for people to go back to … a humanistic approach and not a political approach because this is not a political issue. It is about giving people opportunities,” said Ibrahim, a U.S. citizen. “So I think [through] my story, I want people to know that every single individual, every single human being, is capable of achieving great things.”

Johnston said Ibrahim is, indeed, a source of inspiration.

“We are a pediatric clinic that serves a large immigrant population, and for those kids, it’s really powerful to have a role model in a leadership position who looks like them: a woman, a woman of color, a woman who shares their experience in terms of forced migration, being a refugee in a new country,” Johnston said. “I think it sends a message to those kids that this career, even leadership in this career, is open to people of their experience and their background.”

Last week in a Twitter post, Ibrahim suggested she’s making a positive impact, as her own pediatrician once did.

“Today my 11-year-old patient told me that she wanted to be a doctor and a scientist [to] do research. She then said, ‘You can’t do both, I need to pick.’ Her eyes lit up when I said, ‘No you don’t, you can do both!’ Made my day.”

Spain: Sunbathers Help Migrants Arriving to Beach by Boat

Sunbathers have assisted two dozen exhausted migrants who arrived by boat to a beach in Spain’s Canary Islands.
The boat landed early Friday at a beach in San Bartolome de Tirajana on the island of Gran Canaria, one of Spain’s seven Canary Islands located off the northwest coast of Africa.
Television images showed bathers giving the migrants water and food and wrapping them in towels.
Emergency services said the Spanish Red Cross later looked after the migrants _ 12 men, eight women and three children _ six of whom were treated at a local hospital. None were reported to be in serious condition.
Private Spanish news agency Europa Press said the North African and sub Saharan migrants had been aboard the boat for several days.

Botswana Drought Makes Wasteland of Harvests, Livestock

Southern Africa is experiencing one of the worst droughts in years, with more than 40 million people expected to face food insecurity because of livestock and crop losses. Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe have declared it an emergency.

In semi-arid Botswana, the farmers are reeling after the worst drought in a decade wiped out entire harvests and left the land littered with dead livestock.

Two thirds of the crops planted last season failed, while Ngamiland, a rich beef producing region, has recorded nearly 40,000 cattle deaths.

Rancher Casper Matsheka says there was no food or water, so his animals starved to death.

“The goats died, as well as the cattle, as you can see the carcasses all over. We were really affected. If only the government could subsidize the prices of feed and vaccines for the livestock during such times,” he said.

Cattle and hippos wallow in the mud in one of the channel of the wildlife reach Okavango Delta near the Nxaraga village in the…
Cattle and hippos wallow in mud in one of the channels of the wildlife-rich Okavango Delta near Nxaraga village in the outskirt of Maun, Sept. 28, 2019. Botswana government declared this a drought year because of no rainfall throughout the country.

Nor has the drought sparred wildlife.

National parks authorities have resorted to feeding starving hippos while hundreds of elephants have died.

Environmental nongovernment organization, Kalahari Conservation Society’s Neil Fitt says competition for food and water has increased the risk of human-wildlife conflict.

“The livestock are now putting pressure on the wildlife areas, so the wildlife are also getting pressure on their areas, and that is where the conflict zone is,” he said. “Why I am bringing this up? The… interconnected with the drought is this wildlife-human conflict.”

In Botswana, where drought is frequent, President Mokgweetsi Masisi said the government plans to stop calling it an emergency and instead make drought relief part of the national budget.

“Government has taken a decision to develop a Drought Management Strategy, which would classify drought as a permanent feature in our budget plans, rather than an emergency,” he said. “The strategy will be completed before the end of the financial year.”

Acting director of Meteorological Services Radithupa Radithupa says a robust strategy is needed to deal with the recurring droughts.

“We are looking at climate change as an impact now, we are seeing the impact now in terms of heating, the dry spells and the excessive rains. Therefore, we really need to adapt as a nation,” Radithupa said.

Meanwhile, a forecast for rain has raised hopes among farmers and ranchers for recovery and that this season of severe drought won’t be a total loss.

Tibetan Man Dies After Self-immolation Protest Against  China

A former Buddhist monk has died in eastern Tibet after setting himself on fire this week to protest China’s repressive rule, a spokesperson for the monastery told VOA Tibetan Service.

Yonten, a 24-year-old former monk at Kirti Monastery in Amdo Ngaba, in the western China province of Sichuan, carried out his self-immolation Tuesday in Meruma township, spokesperson Kanyag Tsering said.

He said China had imposed restrictions in the area, including cellphone use, slowing the gathering and dissemination of information about the incident.

“We have no further information on whether the body of the deceased has been handed over to the family or not since all channels are now blocked,” the monastery said in a statement.

There have been 156 self-immolations across Tibet over the past decade, 44 of which took place in Amdo Ngaba.

Once a monk, Yonten later disrobed and settled as a nomad. Meruma township has been the scene of multiple self-immolation protests, most recently in March 2018.

In a statement, Free Tibet communications manager John Jones said, “Yonten lived his life under occupation. In his 24 years, he would have seen Chinese police and military suppress protests in his homeland, seen his culture, language and religion come under attack, seen people he knew arrested and made to disappear. Tibetans today grow up in a world of injustice.”

China maintains it has worked to modernize Tibetan society since “liberating” Tibetans in 1950.

NATO at 70: Internal Tensions, External Threats as Leaders Set to Gather

NATO leaders are preparing to gather in London for a two-day meeting Tuesday to mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the alliance, but growing tensions among members could overshadow the celebrations.

The war in Syria and the ongoing Russian threat will serve as the backdrop to the summit. Fellow NATO members the United States and Turkey came close to confrontation in northern Syria last month, rattling the alliance.

“The position of Turkey in the North Atlantic alliance is a difficult one,” said Jonathan Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute in London in an interview with VOA this week.

“Turkey’s decision to become involved in military operations in the Middle East against the wishes of most of its allies, including the United States, [and] Turkey’s decision to buy Russian military equipment … [are] riling with many countries in Europe.”

NATO members say it’s better to have Turkey inside than outside the alliance.

“NATO is about European security, it’s not about coordinating policies in the Middle East,” Eyal said.

Where American troops once kept the peace, Russian forces now patrol northern Syria. The U.S. withdrawal has fueled concerns over America’s commitment to NATO. French President Emmanuel Macron recently called the alliance “brain dead” and urged Europe to create its own security architecture. 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, is welcomed by French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Nov. 28, 2019.

The comments elicited a sharp rebuke from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg this week.

“European unity cannot replace transatlantic unity. We need both. And we have to also understand that, especially after Brexit, the EU cannot defend Europe,” Stoltenberg told reporters.

Europe still sees Russia as the biggest threat following its 2014 forceful annexation of Crimea and ongoing campaigns of espionage, cyberwarfare and disinformation.

European concerns over the U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, on collective defense, are not borne out by facts on the ground, Eyal said.

“The reality is the Pentagon’s spending in Europe is increasing, the number of U.S. troops is increasing.”

The deployment of U.S. troops in Europe is seen differently in Moscow.

“Some of the Eastern European nations are trying to get American boots on the ground despite the fact that Article 5 should cover their security, which suggests that they trust the United States more than they trust NATO,” Andrey Kortunov of the Russian Council on International Affairs in Moscow told VOA in a recent interview.

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly demanded that European NATO members “share the burden.” Germany on Wednesday pledged to meet the NATO defense spending target of 2% of GDP, but only by the 2030s.

“The U.S. president should be credited with actually banging the table hard enough for the United States to be heard,” Eya said, “This is, and it’s important sometimes to repeat the cliché, the most successful alliance in modern history.”

NATO will hope that is cause for celebration as leaders gather for its 70th anniversary.

VOA Interview: US Ambassador to El Salvador Ronald Johnson

The new U.S. ambassador to El Salvador says the United States is looking forward to reintegrating migrants there from other Central American nations who are seeking asylum in the United States. Ambassador Ronald Johnson, speaking in his first interview since his appointment in July, told VOA there was not a timeline on when El Salvador would start taking in migrants. “I don’t have a timeline on it, but I do think that the intent is that it will be implemented in a way that is not burdensome to any of the countries,” Johnson said.


VOA Interview: US Southern Command Chief Admiral Craig Faller

The top U.S. commander in Latin America and the Caribbean says illicit narcotics money is now a “big part” of financing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government. “If you’re a cartel leader, you now see an easy pathway through Venezuela into commercial shipping and air to distribute your product, and Maduro and his illegitimate regime are getting a cut,” Admiral Craig Faller, the commander of US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), told VOA in an exclusive interview.


Rebuilding Paradise, but Not Returning

It has been a year since what is now known as the Camp Fire destroyed approximately 90% of the northern California town of Paradise and killed 85 people. The fire that started on November 8, 2018, and burned down more than 14,000 homes was one of the worst wildfires in the past 100 years in the United States.  Some survivors still do not want to return.  VOA’s Elizabeth Lee spoke to a couple of longtime residents to ask them why.

China Summons US Ambassador to Protest Bill on Hong Kong Human Rights

China summoned the U.S. ambassador in Beijing Thursday to “strongly protest” President Donald Trump’s signing of bills on Hong Kong’s human rights.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng told Ambassador Terry Branstad the move constituted “serious interference in China’s internal affairs” and described the action as a “serious violation of international law,” a statement from the foreign ministry said.  He urged Washington to refrain from implementing the bills to “avoid further damage” to U.S.-China relations.

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Sunrise, Fla., Nov. 26, 2019.

Trump Wednesday signed two separate bills backing pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, despite a trade deal in the balance and threats from Beijing.

The House and Senate passed both bills last week nearly unanimously.

One law requires the State Department to certify annually that China allows Hong Kong enough autonomy to guarantee its favorable trading status. It threatens sanctions on Chinese officials who do not.

The second bill bans the export of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and other non-lethal ammunition to Hong Kong police.

It was not immediately clear if Trump’s decision might disrupt negotiations at easing the bilateral trade dispute. China’s foreign ministry said it will take “firm countermeasures” if the United States keeps interfering in Chinese affairs.

Hong Kong’s government expressed “extreme regret,” saying the U.S. moves sends the “wrong message” to the protesters.

But Trump, appearing on the U.S. cable news network Fox News late Tuesday, called Chinese President Xi Jinping “a friend of mine. He’s an incredible guy.”

“I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China and the people of Hong Kong,” Trump said in a later statement. “They are being enacted in the hope that leaders and representatives of China and Hong Kong will be able to amicably settle their differences, leading to long-term peace and prosperity for all.”

Trump had twice called the large street protests in Hong Kong “riots” — a word the protesters say plays into the hands of Chinese authorities.

But Trump took credit for thwarting Beijing’s threat to send in 1 million soldiers to put down the marches by saying such a move would have a “tremendous negative impact” on trade talks.

Protester holds U.S. flags during a demonstration in Hong Kong, Nov. 28, 2019.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong police entered Polytechnic University on Thursday after a two-week siege and said they were searching for evidence and dangerous items such as petrol bombs, according to the assistant commissioner of the police.

Police officials said they were not searching for any protesters that may be still holed up on campus.

Protests erupted in Hong Kong in June over the local government’s plans to allow some criminal suspects to be extradited to the Chinese mainland.

Hong Kong withdrew the bill in September, but the street protests have continued, with the demonstrators fearing Beijing is preparing to water down Hong Kong’s democracy and autonomy, nearly 30 years before the ex-British colony’s “special status” expires

Some of the protests have turned violent, with marchers throwing gasoline bombs at police, who have responded with live gunfire.


Iran Condemns Burning of Its Consulate by Iraqi Protesters

Iran on Thursday condemned the burning of its consulate in southern Iraq hours earlier, which came amid an escalation in Iraq’s anti-government protests that erupted nearly two months ago.
Violence across southern Iraq had continued throughout the night, with security forces killing 16 protesters and wounded 90 since Wednesday. Protesters closed roads while a large number of police and military forces were deployed across key oil-rich provinces. Protesters had set fire to the Iranian consulate in the holy city of Najaf late Wednesday. The Iranian staff were not harmed, and escaped out the back door.
Anti-government protests have gripped Iraq since Oct. 1, when thousands took to the streets in Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite south. The largely leaderless movement accuses the government of being hopelessly corrupt, and has also decried Iran’s growing influence in Iraqi state affairs.
At least 350 people have been killed by security forces, which routinely used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds, sometimes shooting protesters directly with gas canisters, causing several fatalities.
Separately, the U.S. Embassy denounced a recent decision by Iraq’s media regulator to suspend nine television channels, calling for the Communications and Media Commission to reverse its decision. Thursday’s statement from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad also condemned attacks and harassment against journalists.
Local channel Dijla TV had its license suspended on Tuesday, and its office was closed and its equipment confiscated, according an official from one of the channels under threat. Other channels have been asked by the regulatory commission to sign a pledge “agreeing to adhere to its rules,” said the official, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal.
The Islamic State group also claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s coordinated bombings in three Baghdad neighborhoods, which killed five people. That was the first apparent coordinated attack since anti-government protests began. The bombings took place far from Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of weeks of anti-government protests that have posed the biggest security challenge to Iraq since the defeat of IS.
Tehran called for a “responsible, strong and effective” response leadership to the incident from Iraq’s government, said Abbas Mousavi, a foreign ministry spokesman, in statements to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.
Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the torching of the consulate, saying it was perpetrated by “people outside of the genuine protesters,” in a statement, adding that the purpose had been to harm bilateral relations between the countries.
One demonstrator was killed and 35 wounded when police fired live ammunition to prevent them from entering the Iranian consulate building. Once inside, the demonstrators removed the Iranian flag and replaced it with an Iraqi one, according to a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with regulations.
A curfew was imposed in Najaf after the consulate was burned. Security forces were heavily deployed around main government buildings and religious institutions on Thursday morning. The province is the headquarters of the country’s Shiite religious authority.
The consulate attack comes after days of sit-ins and road closures with protesters cutting access to main thoroughfares and bridges with burning tires. Protesters have also lately targeted the state’s economic interests in the south by blocking key ports and roads to oil fields.
In the oil-rich province of Nassiriya, sixteen protesters were killed overnight and 90 wounded by security forces who fired live ammunition to disperse them from a key bridge, security and medical officials said Thursday. Demonstrators had been blocking Nasr Bridge leading to the city center for several days. Security forces moved in late Wednesday to open the main thoroughfare. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
In Basra, security forces were deployed in the city’s main roads to prevent protesters from staging sit-ins, with instructions to arrest demonstrators if they tried to block roads.
Basra’s streets were open as of Thursday morning, but roads leading to the two main Gulf commodities ports in Umm Qasr and Khor al-Zubair remained closed. Schools and official public institutions were also closed.
Protesters had brought traffic in the oil-rich province to a halt for days by burning tires and barricading roads.

Time Running Out on North Korea’s Deadline to US on Nukes

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump have signaled their affection for each other so regularly it might be easy to miss rising fears that the head-spinning diplomatic engagement of the past two years is falling apart.
Pyongyang has issued increasingly dire warnings to Washington to mind a year-end deadline to offer some new initiative to settle the nations’ decades-long nuclear standoff.
Failure could mean a return to the barrage of powerful North Korean weapons tests that marked 2017 as one of the most fraught years in a relationship that has often been defined by bloodshed, deep mistrust and regular threats.
As the deadline approaches, and as the North’s propaganda machine cranks up its warnings, here’s a look at how high-stakes diplomatic wrangling in one of the most dangerous corners of the world might play out:
North Korea has previously issued deadlines it doesn’t follow through on as a way to try to get what it wants in negotiations.
But despite the usual skepticism, there are signs that Pyongyang means business this time.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency has reported that Seoul is taking the year-end deadline seriously and is working on “contingency plans” with the United States, which has been trying, and failing, to get North Korea back into serious talks before time runs out.
The chief U.S. nuclear negotiator warned recently that the North could turn to provocations if the deadline is unmet.
When diplomacy broke down at a Trump-Kim summit last February after North Korea didn’t win broad sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities, it began staging a series of short-range weapons tests. On Thursday, North Korea fired two projectiles likely from a multiple rocket launcher, South Korea’s military said, the first such major weapons test in about a month.
The North has also suggested it will not hold another summit with Trump unless it gets something substantial for its efforts.
“The U.S. only seeks to earn time, pretending it has made progress in settling the issue of the Korean Peninsula,” Kim Kye Gwan, a senior adviser to the North’s foreign ministry, said last week. “As we have got nothing in return, we will no longer gift the U.S. president with something he can boast of.”
If North Korea makes the determination that it can win little from Trump, amid congressional impeachment proceedings and 2020 presidential election jockeying, it might return to the nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests that made 2017 such a dangerous year.
Some outside observers, however, believe that Kim, despite his frustration with the Trump administration, has yet to give up on negotiations that have won a level of U.S. engagement that has eluded North Korean leaders for decades.
“As we enter 2020, the strategic window to make some kind of compromise with the U.S. will close rapidly, making sanctions more permanent” and hampering Kim’s promise of economic relief for his people, according to Stephen Robert Nagy, an Asia expert and professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo.
Kim may also try to further bolster ties and secure aid from China, North Korea’s most important ally and economic lifeline, and Russia while testing shorter-range missiles, according to Moon Seong Mook, an analyst at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul.
But more powerful tests aren’t out of the question.
If the North decides to give up on talks and launches an ICBM, for instance, it will most likely be at “a time that would inflict the biggest pain on Trump,” said Go Myong-Hyun, an analyst at the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
Sue Mi Terry, a former senior CIA analyst on Korea, wrote earlier this month that amid unrealistic expectations in Pyongyang, the U.S. might have “only two bad options” _ give the North massive sanctions relief up front in return for little in return, or watch Pyongyang return to more powerful weapons tests after the expiration of the year-end deadline.
“The North Koreans’ plan is to stall: show up, talk, break off talks,” Terry wrote. “And while they play this game, they are improving and expanding their nuclear and missile programs.”
Christopher Hill, chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea in the George W. Bush administration, said he feels that Pyongyang is “going to really press (Trump) to get something by the end of the year.”
“And if the Trump administration holds firm, then they’re going to have to recalibrate. And they will recalibrate, because they know they need Trump,” Hill said.
Moon Jae-in, the liberal South Korean president who has held summits with Kim and who yearns for deeper engagement, might be the last best hope for diplomacy, according to Robert Kelly, a Koreas expert at South Korea’s Pusan National University.
Moon, Kelly wrote, must strike “a deal which re-engages Trump’s interest at a busy time for him and finally pulls a concession out of the North which is meaningful enough to silence the growing chorus of conservative criticism in Seoul and Washington, yet simultaneously offers North Korea enough to halt its countdown.“
But, Kelly added, “it is unclear if Moon or anyone can thread such a narrow needle.”

3 Injured in Texas Petrochemical Plant Blast

At least three workers were injured in an early morning explosion on Wednesday that sparked a blaze at a Texas petrochemical plant, the latest in a series of chemical plant accidents in the region.

An initial explosion at a TPC Group complex in Port Neches, Texas, was followed by secondary blasts, shattering windows, blowing locked doors off their hinges and prompting officials to evacuate homes within a half-mile radius of the facility, which about 90 miles east of Houston.

Toby Baker, head of the state’s pollution regulator, criticized the “unacceptable trend of significant incidents” in the region and pledged to review the state’s compliance efforts.

The fiery blast follows others at petrochemical producers and storage facilities in Texas. A March blaze at chemical storage complex outside Houston burned for days and was followed a month later by a fire at a KMCO LLC plant northeast of Houston that killed one worker and injured a second. A fire at an Exxon Mobil Corp chemical plant in Baytown, Texas, in July injured 37.

People more than 30 miles away from the complex, which supplies petrochemicals for synthetic rubber and resins and makes a gasoline additive, were shaken awake by the 1 a.m. CT (0700 GMT) explosion, sources familiar with the fire-fighting and rescue operations said.

Some homes close to the plant sustained heavy damage and local police were going door-to-door to check if residents were injured, said the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

One of the three wounded workers was flown by helicopter to a Houston hospital’s burns unit, the sources said.

Peyton Keith, a TPC spokesman, said fire officials were determined to let the fire in a butadiene processing unit burn itself out, and were focused on keeping the flames from spreading. He could not say when the fire could be extinguished.

All three of the workers taken to hospital were treated and released.

There was no immediate information on possible emissions from the blaze, pollution regulator Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said. No impacts to water were reported.

The plant employs 175 people and routinely has 50 contract workers on site. The company said the explosion occurred in a processing unit.

“We cannot speak to the cause of the incident or the extent of damage,” the company said.

TPC processes petrochemicals for use in the manufacture of synthetic rubber, nylon, resins, plastics and MBTE, a gasoline additive. The company supplies more than a third of the feedstock butadiene in North America, according to its website.

“Right now, our focus is on protecting the safety of responders and the public, and minimizing any impact to the environment,” TPC Group added.

US Judge Delays Sentencing of Former Trump Adviser Flynn

A U.S. judge on Wednesday delayed the planned Dec. 18 sentencing hearing of President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, but did not set a new date.

Judge Emmett Sullivan had been expected to put off sentencing after both Flynn, who has pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents, and the United States filed a joint motion to request the delay, citing the expected December release of the Justice Department inspector general’s report on the origins of investigations into alleged Russian election interference. The inspector general said last week he expects to release the report on Dec. 9.

“The parties expect that the report of this investigation will examine topics related to several matters raised by the defendant,” they wrote in the joint filing.

Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to agents about his 2016 conversations with Sergey Kislyak, then-Russian ambassador to the United States. The retired Army lieutenant general is one of several Trump aides to plead guilty or be convicted at trial in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Turkish Ally Accused of Widespread Rights Abuses in Syria

The New York-based Human Rights Watch claims it has “damming evidence” showing the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army is engaged in summary executions, pillaging, seizing properties, and preventing the return of people to their homes.

“Turkey is turning a blind eye to the reprehensible behaviors displayed by the factions it arms,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “So long as Turkey is in control of these areas, it has a responsibility to investigate and end these violations.”

In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province,…
In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, smoke billows from a fire in Ras al-Ayn, Syria, Oct. 20, 2019.

Last month Turkish forces and the SNA launched an offensive in northeast Syria against Syrian Democratic Forces, which are made up mainly of the Kurdish militia the YPG.

Ankara considers the YPG terrorists, but the militia was a crucial ally of Washington’s military effort against Islamic State.

HRW cites evidence that the SNA executed prisoners, seized the homes of local Kurds, and engaged in indiscriminate shelling of civilians.

The case of Hevrin Khalaf, a prominent women’s rights activist, is highlighted. In October, Khalaf was executed after her car was stopped by a militia affiliated with the SNA.

HRW also says social media postings of videos put up by the militia appear to show the execution of women prisoners.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. Erdogan says Turkey…
FILE – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Nov. 6, 2019.

Ankara has so far not responded to the HRW report. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has praised the SNA for its “sacrifices” in Syria.  

Turkey is facing growing international criticism for its use of militias, which critics claim have links to radical Islamic groups, a charge denied by Ankara.

“The problem is that those people are radicals in terms of their ideology, this is criticized by the western world,” said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University.

“But Turkey has done it in the last eight years, so this is a choice by the president. He takes the risk. He lets them fight on the side of the Turkish army. We will see if it’s like a hand grenade exploding in his hand or it will strengthen his position,” Bagci added.

The SNA force is around three times larger than Turkish armed forces engaged in northern Syria. Ankara’s reliance on the SNA comes as its armed forces are facing an unprecedented number of simultaneous military commitments.

FILE – A Turkish army tank is driven to its new position on the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, Oct. 8, 2019.

“The Turkish army is already strained,” said retired Turkish general Haldun Solmazturk, who now heads the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkish Institute. “From Iraq to Idlib to eastern Mediterranean Cyprus. An additional burden will have some serious impact on the Turkish army to meet all these challenges.”

The SNA has also taken the brunt of casualties. As of November 15, 224 killed and 692 injured compared to Turkish forces casualties of 11 dead and 90 wounded. Some analysts claim the relatively low number of Turkish deaths is a reason why the operation continues to enjoy strong domestic support among the Turkish public.

Ankara’s heavy use of SNA forces made up of mainly Syrian Arabs is also widely seen as a tactic to dispel allegations Turkish forces are invading another country.

Analysts point out, given that Turkey once ruled the region when it was the Ottoman Empire, Arab nations remain nervous about any irredentist Turkish aspirations. The Arab League has strongly condemned the Turkish operation.

Ankara insists it is committed to Syria’s territorial integrity.

“Our operations in northern Syria aim to clear terrorists from their strongholds, create safe conditions for the return of refugees robbed of their homes & lands,” tweeted Fahrettin Altun, the Turkish president’s communications head.
“Kurdish groups have forced many Arabs from their homes in areas under their control in northern Syria,” said former Turkish ambassador Mithat Rende. “These towns and cities controlled by Kurds are Arab towns with Arab names, with Kurdish minorities.”

Erdogan claims up to two million Syrians who fled to Turkey to escape the civil war will be returned to a so-called “safe zone,” that is being created in northern Syria along the Turkish border.

The Turkish president is looking to the international community for funding to pay $20 billion for the building of hundreds of thousands of new homes in the “safe zone.”  

Next week Erdogan will press his case when he is scheduled to hold a meeting with French, German, and British leaders on the sidelines of the London NATO summit.
“We invite the international community to support us in helping our Syrian brothers and sisters to safely return to areas where they can live in peace regardless of their religious and ethnic identities,” tweeted Altun Wednesday.

However, the actions of SNA forces are seen as fueling accusations Ankara is seeking to remove local Kurdish populations and replace them with Arabs considered more sympathetic to Turkey.

“There weren’t many mistakes by the Turkish army, but there was a tactical mistake when it comes to public diplomacy in the communication,” said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen who served widely in the region. “It’s a fact some of these militias have committed crimes, and this is being used against Turkey, that it’s involved in ethnic cleansing.”

Ankara vehemently denies any intention that it’s seeking demographic changes in Syria. However, the latest findings by HRW can only add to questions over Turkey’s plans for a safe zone and mass return of Syrians.

“Executing individuals, pillaging property, and blocking displaced people from returning to their homes is damning evidence of why Turkey’s proposed ‘safe zones’ will not be safe,” said Whitson.