US Defense Secretary to Visit Israel, Germany, NATO Headquarters, UK

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel to Israel, Germany, NATO headquarters in Belgium and Britain starting on Saturday, the Pentagon said in a statement.“Secretary Austin will meet with his counterparts and other senior officials to discuss the importance of international defense relationships and reinforce the United States’ commitment to deterrence and defense, burden sharing, and enduring trans-Atlantic security,” said the statement released on Thursday.

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Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh Fear Deadly Fires

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are living in renewed fear after deadly fires broke out more than 30 times in the southeastern Cox’s Bazar district in recent weeks.Rights activists said these fires are part of a “very worrying trend” in the overcrowded, sprawling shantytown that is home to dozens of interconnected makeshift refugee settlements.“Every day and night Rohingyas across the camp are living in fear that fire will break out again somewhere in the camp,” a Cox’s Bazar-based Rohingya rights activist who goes by Hussain told VOA. Many Rohingya use only one name.“Fires are breaking out time and again,” he said, “at least 32 times in different parts of the Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar in the past 17 days, after the devastating March 22 fire.”The rights activist said the perpetrators in recent fires were caught and turned over to authorities.“We caught seven or eight people red-handed while they were setting ablaze some shacks,” he said. “They were all handed over to police.”About 1 million Rohingya Muslim refugees have been living in the bamboo and tarpaulin shanties in the congested Cox’s Bazar district since fleeing military clampdowns in neighboring Myanmar in recent years, according to the United Nations. There are 34 encampments within in the district where Rohingya refugees have settled, which are collectively identified as one expansive settlement, including the Balukhali and nearby Kutupalong refugee camps, according to the International Organization for Migration.On March 22, a fire ripped through the Balukhali area of the camp, killing at least 15 refugees, authorities said. Sanjeev Kafley, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies delegation head in Bangladesh, told Reuters that more than 17,000 shelters were destroyed, and thousands of people were displaced in the area because of the fire. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that the fire injured around 550 refugees and left more than 48,000 homeless.People inspect the debris after a fire in a makeshift market near a Rohingya refugee camp in Kutupalong, Bangladesh, April 2, 2021.Last week, a statement from the UNHCR in Bangladesh said, “Multiple small fires have been reported across camps in Kutupalong and Nayapara [of Cox’s Bazar] in [the] last week. This is a very worrying trend. Refugees have managed to put out the fires quickly with only a limited number of families affected.”While several thousand victims of the March 22 fire remain without shelter, more incidents of fire have been reported, leading refugees to live in constant fear. On April 2, at least three people were killed and more than 20 shops were gutted in a makeshift market near Kutupalong refugee camp, Part of Balukhali Rohingya Refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, as it looks now, two weeks after a devastating fire ravaged the area. With the support of aid agencies and others, the refugees have rebuilt most of the shanties. (Nur Islam/VOA)Abdus Shukur, 45, another refugee, from Kutupalong, said he believes the fires were caused by arson.“Some people are secretly sprinkling a white inflammable powder on the roofs of our shacks. Some others are setting them on fire,” Shukur told VOA. “It is clear, they are not accidents. Some people are setting fire to the shacks as part of a conspiracy.”The suspected perpetrators, he said, may be conspiring to scare Rohingya refugees from Cox’s Bazar by repeatedly setting fire to their makeshift homes.”They want more Rohingya to move to Bhasan Char,” he said, referring to a remote Bay of Bengal island, “or they want all Rohingya to go back to Myanmar.”Bangladesh has set up a facility on Bhasan Char, where it wants to relocate at least 100,000 Rohingya refugees from camps in Cox’s Bazar. A few thousand Rohingya have moved to the island in recent months but most are unwilling to relocate there, saying that the island is prone to flooding during high tide and largely disconnected from the mainland.A day after the March 22 fire, Bangladesh said it would investigate the cause of the blaze, but authorities so far have not said what triggered the devastating fire.Several senior government officials did not respond to questions from VOA asking about the cause of the fires. However, one midlevel police officer said that the cause is rivalry among feuding Rohingya criminal gangs.“There is rivalry among different Rohingya anti-social groups,” the officer told VOA on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “Members of one group are setting fire to the shanties belonging to its rival groups or their supporters.”However, many Rohingya refugees living in the Cox’s Bazar disagree.“At least three of those who were caught red-handed were [non-Rohingya] Bangladeshis,” said a Cox’s Bazar-based Rohingya refugee who withheld his name for fear of reprisal by police and locals. “We strongly believe the masterminds behind the fires are those who view the Rohingya as their enemy in Bangladesh and want them to flee the camps of Cox’s Bazar.“Those masterminds are using some hired anti-socials, who are Bangladeshis as well as Rohingyas, to carry out the fire attacks on us,” he added. “The fires cannot be rooted to any Rohingya conspiracy, we believe.”

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Chad’s Veteran Leader Deby Targets Sixth Term in Presidential Vote

Voters in Chad head to the polls Sunday for a presidential election in which Idriss Deby is widely expected to extend his three-decade rule despite growing signs of popular discontent and opposition criticism over his handling of oil wealth. Deby, 68, is one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders and an ally of Western powers in the fight against Islamist militants in West and Central Africa. He seized power in 1990 in an armed rebellion, and in 2018 pushed through a new constitution that could let him stay in power until 2033, even as it reinstated term limits. Deby has relied on a firm grip over state institutions and one of the region’s most capable militaries to maintain power. He said recently he knew in advance that he would win again “as I have done for the last 30 years.” “Many of you, my daughters and sons, were not yet born when I took power in 1990,” he said Friday at his final campaign rally. “You have asked me to be a candidate for this sixth term.” Among Deby’s six rivals is former Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke, but several leading opponents are boycotting the race, including the 2016 runner-up Saleh Kebzabo, who has vowed to make Chad ungovernable if Deby wins. Several recent anti-government demonstrations in the capital, N’Djamena, have turned violent and there was a heavy military presence in the city Saturday. As soldiers patrolled the streets, municipal workers collected car tires and plastics that protesters could set on fire. Earlier this week, the authorities arrested several people, including at least one opposition leader, for what they said was a plot to assassinate politicians and bomb polling stations and the electoral commission headquarters. The opposition said the arrests showed mounting repression under Deby, whose government has also arrested scores of people ahead of the vote, according to Human Rights Watch. The government rejects allegations of human rights abuses. It has come under increasing public pressure over a flagging economy as low prices for the main export, oil, in recent years forced cutbacks in public spending and sparked labor strikes. Norbert Djimadoum, a N’Djamena resident, said he expected many people to express their dissatisfaction by staying home Sunday. “There won’t be a lot of enthusiasm at the polls tomorrow and that will be a victory for the start of change,” he said.

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Ramsey Clark, Former US Attorney General, Saddam Hussein’s Lawyer, Dies at 93

Ramsey Clark, who promoted civil rights as America’s top law enforcement official in the 1960s but later helped defend Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic in court, has died at 93. The liberal figure and former attorney general died April 9 at his home in New York City, a niece, Sharon Welch, told U.S. media. No cause of death was given. His political arc was extraordinary. While serving under President Lyndon Johnson, Clark’s Justice Department prosecuted popular author and pediatrician Benjamin Spock for helping Vietnam War protesters evade the draft. But he also filed the first school desegregation and voting rights suits in the northern U.S. states.  Within years of leaving government in 1969, he had become a stunningly direct critic of U.S. foreign policy, which he called “genocidal,” and of military spending, which he termed “certifiably insane.” Defender of the unpopular  He became a defender of unpopular figures and causes, including Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, the ex-Yugoslav president accused of war crimes, and Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther jailed in Pennsylvania for killing a policeman. Everyone, however unpopular, deserved a proper defense, he insisted. Clark was mourned Saturday by figures ranging from Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi, who tweeted that he was “an indefatigable defender of Palestinian & human rights,” to Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who said Clark had “denounced the great injustices committed by his country worldwide.” Despite Clark’s criticism of U.S. policies, President Jimmy Carter turned to him to attempt to negotiate the release of the 53 American hostages held in Tehran in 1979.  Though his effort failed, Clark later returned to Iran on his own and said the continuing hostage taking was “understandable.” He urged the U.S. to apologize to Iran for misdeeds, drawing a warning from a furious Carter that he could be prosecuted for violating a travel ban. Clark met with communist officials in Hanoi during the Vietnam War and blasted U.S. conduct there. He sued the U.S. government for bombing Libya after a 1986 terror attack in Berlin, and he opposed the U.S. wars with Iraq. Landmark rights law In 1990, then head of Amnesty USA John Healey called Clark “one of the most respected advocates for human rights in the world today.” The late civil rights leader Roy Wilkins once called Clark “the first powerful white man I had ever seen who took poor black people seriously.” Born in Dallas in 1927, Clark joined the Marine Corps in 1945 and served as a courier in Europe, where he witnessed the devastation wrought by the war. Returning to the U.S., he earned a law degree from the University of Chicago. His father had been a Supreme Court justice who resigned to avoid an appearance of conflict of interest. In 1961, Ramsey Clark went to work for Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department, gaining a reputation as an efficient administrator, and in 1967 was named by Johnson, a fellow Texan, to head the department. He was involved in drafting the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1968; he also ordered an end to federal executions. Clark later ran twice for the U.S. Senate from New York. “Thank God I didn’t win,” he later said. “Frankly, I would have been bored.” 

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Blackmore 1st Woman to Win Grand National Horse Race

A Hollywood fantasy turned into reality Saturday when Rachael Blackmore became the first female jockey to win Britain’s grueling Grand National horse race, breaking one of the biggest gender barriers in sports. Blackmore, a 31-year-old Irishwoman, rode Minella Times to victory at odds of 11-1 in the 173rd edition of the famous steeplechase at Aintree in Liverpool, northwest England “I don’t feel male or female right now. I don’t even feel human,” Blackmore said. “This is just unbelievable.” Blackmore is the 20th female jockey to compete in a race that has been a mud-splattered British sporting institution since 1839. Women have been allowed to enter the National as jockeys since 1975. “I never even imagined I’d get a ride in this race, never mind get my hands on the trophy,” Blackmore said. In the 1944 Hollywood movie “National Velvet,” a 12-year-old girl, Velvet Brown — played by a young Elizabeth Taylor — won the Grand National on The Pie, a gelding she won in a raffle and decided to train for the world’s biggest horse race. In the story, Brown was later disqualified on a technicality, having dismounted before reaching the enclosure. Even though Aintree was without racegoers because of the coronavirus pandemic, cheers rang out as Blackmore made her way off the course — still aboard Minella Times — and into the winner’s enclosure. She looked as if she couldn’t believe what she had done. “For all the girls who watched ‘National Velvet’!” tweeted Hayley Turner, a former female jockey. “Thank you Rachael Blackmore, we’re so lucky to have you.” Blackmore, the daughter of a dairy farmer and a schoolteacher, grew up on a farm and rode ponies. She didn’t have a classic racing upbringing, which makes her ascent in the sport all the more inspirational. A professional jockey since 2015, she rode the second most winners in Irish jump racing in 2018-19, the same season she won her first races at the prestigious Cheltenham Festival. She was already the face of British and Irish horse racing before arriving at Aintree, having become the first woman to finish as the leading jockey at Cheltenham three weeks ago. Now she’s won the biggest race of them all, one that even non-horse racing enthusiasts turn on to watch and one that first captured Blackmore’s imagination. Indeed, her first memory of horse racing is going over to a friend’s house and taking part in a sweepstake for the National. A beaming Blackmore had special words for her parents, who “took me around the country riding ponies when I was younger.” “I can’t believe I am Rachael Blackmore. I still feel like that little kid — I just can’t believe I am me,” she said. “I hope it does help anyone who wants to be a jockey. I never thought this would be possible for me. I didn’t dream of making a career as a jockey because I never thought it could happen.” The previous best performance by a female jockey in the National was Katie Walsh’s third-place finish on Seabass in 2012. Minella Times went out as the fourth favorite of the 40 horses in a race run over 4 1/4 miles (6.4 kilometers) and features 30 big and often brutal fences. Minella Times was always near the front of the field, and Blackmore timed the horse’s run for glory to perfection, easing past long-time leader Jett with around three fences to jump. The famous, draining run to the line — about 500 meters from the last fence — was a procession as Minella Times won by 6 1/2 lengths. “He was just incredible and jumped beautifully,” Blackmore said. “I tried to wait as long as I could. When I jumped the last and asked him for a bit, he was there.” One of the other two female jockeys in the race, Bryony Frost, was taken to the hospital after being unseated from her horse, Yala Enki. The Long Mile was destroyed after suffering an injury while running between two of the fences. It was the second equine fatality since safety changes to the race were introduced in 2013.

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Turkey’s Erdogan Calls for End to ‘Worrying’ Developments in Eastern Ukraine, Offers Support

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday called for the “worrying” developments in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region to come to an end after meeting his Ukrainian counterpart in Istanbul, adding that Turkey was ready to provide any necessary support. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy held more than three hours of talks with Erdogan in Istanbul as part of a previously scheduled visit, amid tensions between Kyiv and Moscow over the conflict in Donbass. Kyiv has raised the alarm over a buildup of Russian forces near the border between Ukraine and Russia, and over a rise in violence along the line of contact separating Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists in Donbass. The Russian military movements have fueled concerns that Moscow is preparing to send forces into Ukraine. The Kremlin denies its troops are a threat but says they will remain as long as it sees fit. The United States says Russia has amassed more troops on Ukraine’s eastern border than at any time since 2014, when it annexed Crimea from Ukraine and backed separatists in Donbass. On Friday, Turkey said Washington will send two warships to the Black Sea next week. Speaking at a news conference alongside Zelenskiy, Erdogan said he hoped the conflict would be resolved peacefully, through dialogue based on diplomatic customs, in line with international laws and Ukraine’s territorial integrity. “We hope for the worrying escalation observed on the field recently to end as soon as possible, the cease-fire to continue and for the conflict to be resolved via dialogue on the basis of the Minsk agreements,” Erdogan said. “We are ready to provide any support necessary for this.” Major combat in Donbass ended with a truce agreed to in the Belarusian capital Minsk in 2015, whose implementation France and Germany have helped to oversee. Sporadic fighting continues despite repeated attempts to implement a cease-fire. Zelenskiy said the positions of Kyiv and Ankara coincided on threats in the Black Sea and the response to those threats, and added he briefed Erdogan on the developments in Donbass. “We discussed in detail the issues of security and joint counteraction to challenges in the Black Sea region and it is worth noting that the visions of Kyiv and Ankara coincide both regarding the threats themselves and the ways of responding to these threats,” he said. NATO member Turkey has forged close cooperation with Russia over conflicts in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as in the defense and energy areas. But it has criticized Crimea’s annexation and supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity. It also sold drones to Kyiv in 2019. Erdogan said on Saturday that Turkey and Ukraine launched a platform with their foreign and defense ministers to discuss defense industry cooperation but added this was “not in any way a move against third countries.” Ukraine and Russia have traded blame for the increase in violence in the conflict, which Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people since 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a call with Erdogan on Friday, accused Ukraine of “dangerous provocative actions” in Donbass. Kyiv said on Saturday Ukraine could be provoked by Russian aggravation of the situation in Donbass.

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Prince Charles Pays Tribute to ‘My Dear Papa,’ Prince Philip, for Devoted Service

Britain’s Prince Charles paid a personal tribute Saturday to his “dear papa” Prince Philip, saying the royal family missed him enormously and that the 99-year-old would have been amazed at the touching reaction around the world to his death. Philip, the husband of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth who had been at her side throughout her record-breaking 69-year reign, died at Windsor Castle on Friday. “As you can imagine, my family and I miss my father enormously,” Charles, the couple’s eldest son and heir to the throne, said outside his Highgrove House home in west England. “My dear papa was a very special person who I think above all else would have been amazed by the reaction and the touching things that have been said about him and from that point of view we are, my family, deeply grateful for all that. It will sustain us in this particular loss and at this particularly sad time.” Britain’s Prince Edward and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, leave Windsor Castle in their car following the death of Britain’s Prince Philip in Windsor, England, April 10, 2021.’Queen has been amazing’ Tributes have flooded in from across Britain and from world leaders for Philip, who was a pillar of strength for the queen. At 94, she is the world’s oldest and longest-reigning living monarch. Philip was a decorated sailor who fought in World War II and the armed forces marked his passing with artillery salutes with units in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and Gibraltar, and some navy warships, firing their guns. The royal family asked the public to heed social distancing rules and avoid visits to its residences, but people still laid cards and bouquets outside Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. “It’s not something I’ve ever done before,” said Joanna Reesby, 60, who came to pay her respects at Buckingham Palace. “I brought yellow roses for friendship because I think that’s what he exhibited to everyone who came into his world.” The queen has lost her closest confidante. They had been married for 73 years and Philip would have turned 100 in June. Members of the family visited the grieving monarch at Windsor Castle. “The queen has been amazing,” said a tearful Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, as she left with her husband Prince Edward, the youngest son of Elizabeth and Philip. On its official Twitter feed, the royal family put up a tribute paid by the queen to her husband on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1997. “He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know,” she said. Flags at Buckingham Palace and at government buildings across Britain have been lowered to half-mast and billboard operators replaced advertisements with photographs and tributes to the prince. Sporting events observed silences in his honor.

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Two Killed During Anti-UN Protests in Eastern Congo Protests, Officials Say

At least two people were killed during violent protests Friday against the United Nations peacekeeping mission in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, local officials said. Troops attached to the U.N. mission, known as MONUSCO, killed one person during a protest in the rural area of Oicha, its mayor Nicolas Kikuku told Reuters. “They [the protesters] set fire to two bridges that lead to the [peacekeepers’] base,” Kikuku said. “The MONUSCO peacekeepers did not accept that and opened fire directly on the demonstrators.” Rosette Kavula, the deputy administrator of Beni territory, where Oicha is located, and Philippe Bonane, a local activist, also said peacekeepers had killed a protester. The incident came after days of protests in several eastern Congo cities by young people angered over the 12,000-strong U.N. Mission’s failure to prevent a wave of civilian killings by armed groups. MONUSCO spokesman Mathias Gillmann said the mission was investigating what had happened in Oicha.  The other fatality occurred when protesters closed a road to the city of Beni, blocking the path of an ambulance carrying the body of a man killed earlier in a suspected rebel attack, said local army spokesman Antony Mwalushayi. “That’s how a woman was hit and died on the scene, and her baby was seriously wounded,” Mwalushayi told Reuters. He said an investigation had been opened into the incident.  At least seven people were killed in the suspected rebel attack, which officials blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan Islamist group that has operated on Congolese soil for decades.More than 300 people have been killed so far this year in violence in eastern Congo, which is in part an unresolved legacy of a civil war that officially ended in 2003. U.N. peacekeepers have been deployed to Congo since 1999 at the invitation of the government. 

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