Pressure Mounts on Refugee Camps as Final Offensive Looms in Mosul

Displaced residents of Mosul say food, water and medicine in refugee camps are becoming increasingly scarce as fleeing civilians continue to join them daily due to a new push by U.S.-backed Iraqi government troops against Islamic State in old Mosul. VOA’s Kawa Omar reports.

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Turkey-Israel Rapprochement Threat to Iranian Ambitions?

With Turkey facing strained relations with most of its neighbors and allies, Ankara is deepening ties with Israel in a rare bright spot.  Diplomatic relations collapsed in 2010 after Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish citizens on a boat seeking to break Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza. A reconciliation deal reached last year has opened the door to a resumption in relations that could pose a threat to Iran’s regional aspirations.

“Almost every day there is a certain bilateral activity, either here or in Israel that has to do with the fruits of the reconciliation,” said Shai Cohen, the Israeli consul-general, speaking in Istanbul last week at a gathering aimed at enhancing ties. Cohen went further, eyeing regional turmoil as an impetus for further cooperation. “We share almost the same interests along our borders with Syria, Israel on one side and Turkey on the other. The main one is defeating jihadi terrorism Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic term for Islamic State. “But there is another one, with the expanding presence of Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, in that region.”

Israeli hopes of fostering a powerful alliance against Tehran have been boosted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly fiery rhetoric against Iran. Last month, Erdogan labeled Shia paramilitary forces fighting Islamic State in Iraq “terrorists,” calling them part of Iran’s “Persian expansionism policy.” Erdogan has increasingly positioned himself as protector of Sunni Muslim interests in the region, accusing Tehran of pursuing sectarian policies.

Turkey-Israel cooperation on Iran, would, analysts suggest, mark a major step in enhancing relations, especially addressing the “trust deficit.”  

“Trust has to be rebuilt. Security is a crucial issue for both governments,” Cohen said. “We are working on that and maybe it’s a little bit too early to elaborate on that but I think in the near future we will know more.”



The warming in Israeli-Turkish relations has brought improvements in trade along with talks on energy cooperation and promising signs of a return to Turkey of lucrative Israeli tourism; but, relations are still far from their heyday of the late 1990’s, epitomized by close military cooperation that culminated in a deal that allowed Israeli jets to practice in Turkish airspace.

Bilateral cooperation against Iran could offer an opportunity in bridging the trust deficit.

“I think the current political setting in the Middle East provides a fertile ground for Turkey and Israel to restore their partnership. They have shared interests in terms of balancing Iran and combating terrorism in the region,” said Selin Nasi, journalist for Turkey’s Salom newspaper and a columnist for Hurriyet Daily News. Nasi, however, also voices caution. “On the other hand, they (Turkey and Israel) do not see eye to eye on a number of issues. For instance, Iran is a rival but not an enemy for Turkey. Turkey has to take into account the fact that she shares a border with Iran.”

Former Turkish ambassador Unal Cevikoz, now head of the Ankara Policy Center research organization, warns of risks of joining any anti-Iranian alliance. “If Turkey chooses to do that, then Turkey will be perceived if it’s pursuing some kind of sectarian policy just because of the emerging Sunni-Shia divide in the region.”

There are also domestic political risks for Erdogan, whose priority is his 2019 re-election bid. Much of the president’s electoral base is drawn from conservative Muslims, to whom anti-Israeli rhetoric often plays well. Some of the pro-government Turkish media are rampantly anti-Semitic, rarely missing an opportunity to fan anger over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

“It is always better to maintain a cautious optimism when making an assessment on Turkish-Israeli relations, given the place of the Palestinian issue in bilateral ties as a derailing factor,” warns journalist Nasi; but, a Turkish presidential source maintains the Palestinian issue remains “compartmentalized” in relations with Israel.

“Cooperation and rivalry” is the traditional maxim in Turkish diplomacy in defining Iranian relations. Even in the current tensions, cooperation remains an important aspect of relations. “In the Astana Process, Russia, Iran and Turkey are at least trying to find a common understanding to guarantee the cease-fire and also deconfliction zones in Syria,” points out retired Turkish ambassador Cevikoz, citing peace talks in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana.

The complexity and sensitivity of attempting to lure Turkey into Israel’s fold in its struggle against Iran is acknowledged by Consul-General Cohen. For now it appears Israel is ready to play the long game. “Iran is a common denominator for Israel and Turkey because of its aspirations for regional hegemony; but, the Iranian issue is not right now, something we are putting up at the top of the priority list.  It’s a common interest; we talk about it,” he said.

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Syria Opens Its First Solar-Powered Hospital Aiming to Save More Lives

After months of testing, a hospital in Syria will have uninterrupted power from this week, charged by solar power in a project designers hope will save lives and can be repeated across the country.

Syria’s electrical grid has taken a big hit after six years of a volatile civil war with most the electrical infrastructure bombed, dismantled or destroyed, leaving hospitals relying on diesel generators but at the mercy of fuel shortages.

So the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), an international coalition of international medical organizations and NGOs, said it hoped creating the country’s first solar-power hospital would save lives.

“To have those active [hospitals] resilient and operational, it’s a matter of life [or death] for many, many people in the country,” said Tarek Makdissi, project director of UOSSM told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

The France-based UOSSM launched the initiative, “Syria Solar”, with the aim of getting hospitals less dependent on diesel which the organization says is expensive and not reliable.

The first solar hospital – the name and location of which the UOSSM would not release for safety reasons – runs on mixture of a diesel generator and 480 solar panels built near the hospital that link to an energy storage system.

If there is a complete fuel outage the solar system can fully power the intensive care unit, operating rooms and emergency departments for up to 24 hours without diesel, which is 20 to 30 percent of the hospital’s energy cost.

Makdissi said the goal is to get five other medical facilities in Syria running like this by the end of spring 2018 with funding from places like institutions, foundations, government agencies, and philanthropists.

Beyond reducing operational costs Makdissi believes this initiative creates a more resilient electrical infrastructure.

“To be resilient is to be independent and to be independent you need to have control of your own resources,” said Makdissi. “This project is really increasing the independence and resilience of local communities.”

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Bahrain Court Orders Dissolution of Last Major Opposition Group

A court in Bahrain ordered the country’s last main opposition group dissolved and its property confiscated Wednesday in the latest blow to reformers and dissenting voices in the Middle Eastern island nation.

The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said the political society known as Waad planned to appeal the ruling. Waad confirmed the court order for its dissolution on its official Twitter account.

The Justice Ministry had launched proceedings to dissolve the 15-year-old group, alleging that Waad incited acts of terrorism, promoted the violent overthrow of the Sunni-led government and “glorified convicted terrorists and saboteurs.” The government used similarly broad wording to dissolve the country’s largest Shi’ite opposition group, al-Wefaq.

Bahrain is a majority Shi’ite nation ruled by a Sunni monarchy with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which sent forces to help quell an Arab Spring-style uprising in 2011.

The government accuses Shi’ite-ruled Iran, which lies across the Persian Gulf from Bahrain, of arming and training some protesters to destabilize the country. Shi’ite militant groups have claimed responsibility for some deadly attacks on police, but Iran denies it has trained or assisted groups in Bahrain.

Waad’s dissolution came a week after five people died in a police raid on the hometown of a prominent Shi’ite cleric who was stripped of his nationality and faces possible deportation. Police arrested 286 people in the raid, adding to the hundreds more who have been jailed, forced into exile or stripped of their nationality in recent years.

Both Shi’ite, Sunni activists

Two smaller opposition groups remain active, but Waad was seen as the last major opposition group still functioning in Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. The secular group included both Shi’ite and Sunni activists and political figures. Its offices were targeted by vandals and twice set ablaze.

“Today matters because it says the government won’t just not tolerate Shi’ite opposition, it won’t tolerate any opposition,” Brian Dooley, a senior adviser at Human Rights First, told The Associated Press.

Rights group Amnesty International said Bahrain “is now heading towards total suppression of human rights” with Wednesday’s court ruling.

The case stems from a statement Waad made in February on the anniversary of the country’s 2011 uprising in which the group criticized the Bahraini constitution.

“Their only so-called ‘crime’ is exercising their right to freedom of expression and association,” said Lynn Maalouf, director of research at Amnesty International’s Beirut regional office.

Separately, Amnesty International reports that human rights activist Ebtisam al-Saegh said she was tortured for seven hours in Bahrain during an interrogation last month. She said she was blindfolded, beaten, kicked and kept standing for most of the time, and that she was threatened with the rape of her daughter and the torture of her husband.

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IOM Head: People Smugglers Make $35 Billion a Year on Migrant Crisis

People smugglers make about $35 billion a year worldwide and they are driving the tragedy of migrants who die trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe, the head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) told Reuters on Wednesday.

Increasing numbers of desperate migrants fleeing from Africa and elsewhere due to conflicts and humanitarian crises are dying as they attempt to reach Europe via Libya, coaxed to do so by smugglers as they wait in detention centers.

The death toll of people crossing the Mediterranean has reached 1,700 so far this year before the summer when many more often make the journey, compared to 3,700 for all of 2015 and 5,000 last year, said IOM head William Lacy Swing.

“Now, let’s be careful because those are the people we know who died, how many other bodies are submerged in the Mediterranean or buried in the sands of the Sahara?” he said in an interview on the sidelines of a conference on migration.

“That’s the tragedy and this is why we are so concerned to try to caution migrants about smugglers. The smugglers are really the big problem. It’s about $35 billion a year [that people smugglers make] and we know they’re making lots of money across the Mediterranean.”

People smuggling now represents the third-largest business for international criminals, after gun and drug trafficking, he said.

Libya has become a major point of departure for migrants from Africa, where lawlessness is spreading six years after the fall of strongman Muammar Gaddafi and migrants say conditions at government-run migrant centers are terrible.

After visiting Libya in March, Lacy Swing said his organization is “all ready to go” and return international staff to Libya to work at migrant centers but has so far not been allowed to do so by the United Nations.

On Tuesday, the IOM and U.N. refugee agency UNCHR presented plans in Geneva on boosting operations in Libya. Lacy Swing said the IOM was ready to help the government with Libya’s own internally displaced people and work in migration centers.

He said Europe’s migrant crisis has been aggravated by what he called “unprecedented anti-migrant sentiment, fueled now by suspicions that some of those fleeing terrorism might be terrorists themselves.”

But he urged governments to try to address the root causes of migration — conflicts, water shortages and big disparities between rich and poor countries.

“In my lifetime I have never known a situation quite like today, because you have nine armed conflicts and humanitarian emergencies from West Africa to the Himalayas,” he said.

He said Europe needs to come up with a comprehensive plan on migration “but I don’t see it happening any time in the near future, but we’ll do everything we can to support them on it.”

Lacy Swing stressed that “migration is not an issue to be solved, it’s a human reality that has to be managed or governed.”

“We know that historically, migration has always been overwhelmingly positive.”

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Woman Thought Headed for Canada Found Dead in Minnesota

Authorities say a woman who may have been trying to reach Canada was found dead in northwestern Minnesota.

Kittson County Chief Deputy Matt Vig tells WDAZ-TV that the woman, 57-year-old Mavis Otuteye, is believed to be a citizen of Ghana. Her body was found Friday in a field a half-mile from the Canadian border near the tiny town of Noyes.

Otuteye was reported missing a day earlier. Vig says she was headed to Canada on foot to try to reunite with her daughter. Otuteye had been living in Delaware for the past several years.

Autopsy results are pending, but Vig says she apparently died of hypothermia. He says temperatures were in the 40s that night, and part of her body was in a shallow pool of water in a ditch.

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USS Vinson, USS Reagan Carrier Strike Groups Conduct Dual Exercises in Sea of Japan

Two U.S. aircraft carriers have started military exercises together in the Sea of Japan, U.S. Navy officials tell VOA.

“The USS Carl Vinson Strike Group and USS Ronald Reagan Strike Group are conducting routine operations in the Western Pacific,” Navy spokesman Lt. Loren Terry said.

Officials said the carriers, along with the ships and aircraft assigned to each, began dual operations in international waters within the sea on Wednesday.

The dual-carrier exercises come days after North Korea launched another missile into the Sea of Japan.

The multi-day, multi-carrier exercises provide “combatant commanders with significant operational flexibility should these forces be called upon in response to regional situations,” Terry told VOA.

“This unique capability is one of many ways the U.S. Navy promotes security, stability and prosperity throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific,” he added.

The dual-carrier operations mark the end of the USS Vinson strike group’s tour in the Western Pacific, according to a Navy official.

The USS Reagan strike group includes cruiser USS Shiloh and destroyers USS Barry and USS McCampbell.

The USS Vinson strike group includes destroyers USS Wayne E. Meyer and USS Michael Murphy along with cruiser USS Lake Champlain.

American ships and aircraft routinely operate in international waters throughout the Western Pacific, which includes waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula.

U.S. Pacific Command said the short-range ballistic missile North Korea launched on May 28 posed no threat to North America, adding that the U.S. military stands behind its “ironclad commitment to the security of our allies in the Republic of Korea and Japan.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to work with the United States to “take specific action to deter North Korea.”

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Court Rules Against Kremlin Critic, Orders Graft Allegation Video Deleted

A Russian court ruled on Wednesday against Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in a defamation lawsuit brought by one of Russia’s richest businessmen, ordering

the removal of a popular video from the internet which details the offending allegations.

Navalny, who says he plans to run in next year’s presidential election, has emerged as a major irritant for the Kremlin after thousands of people across Russia attended anti-graft protests he organized in March.

A former lawyer, he has revived some Russians’ interest in politics by publicizing what he says are outrageous cases of top government officials and Kremlin-connected businessmen abusing the system to amass huge wealth.

Most of his targets merely deny such allegations, but businessman Alisher Usmanov, part-owner of British soccer club Arsenal, filed a lawsuit against Navalny alleging he had been defamed in a video about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Medvedev and Usmanov said corruption and other allegations leveled against them in the video were utterly false.

On Wednesday, a Moscow court agreed with Usmanov, saying the allegations had wrongly impugned his “honor and dignity.” The presiding judge ordered Navalny to delete all references to the allegations within 10 days and to publish a retraction within

three months.

Usmanov’s lawyer, Genrikh Padva, was cited by the TASS news agency as saying his client’s good name had been upheld.

“Our position – which is that there was no basis for the publication of these slanderous statements – was confirmed in court,” Padva said.

Navalny, who plans to appeal the ruling, said he would not delete the video and stood by the allegations. “The reality that we see around us somewhat contradicts the court’s decision,” said Navalny. “The investigation was based on facts.”

Opinion polls show Navalny would lose next year’s presidential election to the Kremlin candidate – widely expected to be incumbent Vladimir Putin – by a large margin.

The offending video has helped boost his campaign, garnering over 21 million online views, and Navalny successfully used it to get people to take to the streets in March to protest against official corruption.

On Wednesday, after his supporters began recirculating the contested video online, he said his court defeat underlined the need to step up the fight against corruption. He also predicted it would boost turnout at the next anti-government protest.

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Trump Assails Congressional Probes of His Campaign’s Links to Russia

U.S. President Donald Trump again assailed the congressional probes into his campaign’s links to Russia on Wednesday, claiming opposition Democrats were blocking the testimony of one of his former aides looking to clear his name.

“Witch Hunt!” Trump declared in one comment on his Twitter account.

Trump said, without citing evidence, that Democrats on the House intelligence committee “don’t want” Carter Page, a former campaign adviser whose ties to Moscow officials are under investigation, to testify. Trump said Democrats “have excoriated Page about Russia,” but that he “blows away their case against him.”

The president said Page wanted to rebut the “the false or misleading testimony” of James Comey, former Federal Bureau of Investigation chief, and John Brennan, former Central Intelligence Agency director, about Page’s connections with Russian interests.

The FBI last year obtained a warrant under the country’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor Page’s communications.

Page, an international businessman and energy consultant, on Monday sent a letter to the House intelligence panel saying he had been told he “might not be immediately afforded the opportunity” to testify and made clear he was eager to do so at a public hearing.

Page, 45, accused Comey; former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state whom Trump defeated in the 2016 election; and the U.S. news media of making up “unrelenting lies about me.”

Trump’s defense of Page came as his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, agreed to hand over documents to the Senate intelligence committee in connection with its investigation into Russia’s efforts to influence last year’s U.S. presidential election.

Flynn had previously refused a subpoena from the committee, with his lawyers asserting the request was too broad in what it was seeking.  

The committee filed a narrower subpoena, and Flynn is now expected by next week to provide some personal documents and those related to two businesses.

The House intelligence committee is conducting its own investigation, and Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, turned down a request Tuesday to provide information, calling it “poorly phrased, overly broad and not capable of being answered.”

There are four congressional investigations of possible Trump campaign links to Russia and Moscow’s meddling in the election. In addition, the Justice Department appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to probe whether Trump campaign aides illegally colluded with Russia during the long political campaign.

Trump has rejected allegations of collusion and dismissed the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign aimed at disrupting the November election and helping Trump win.

“Russian officials must be laughing at the U.S. & how a lame excuse for why the Dems lost the election has taken over the Fake News,” Trump wrote Tuesday on Twitter. Clinton has said that Russian interference was partly to blame for her defeat.

Later Tuesday, at a White House briefing for reporters, spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump “is frustrated … to see stories come out that are patently false, to see narratives that are wrong, to see, quote unquote, fake news, when you see stories get perpetrated that are absolutely false, that are not based in fact.”

Trump’s Russia comment came as news reports continued to focus on Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a White House adviser, and his reported attempt to establish a back-channel communications link to Russian officials in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration in January.

Some foreign affairs experts worried that the move, while Obama had weeks left in his term, could undermine U.S. security, and some opposition Democrats have suggested Kushner’s security clearance should be revoked.  Other experts say exploring the creation of “back channels” is commonplace, even during presidential transitions.

Spicer deflected several questions about Kushner’s actions, telling one reporter his inquiry “presupposes facts that have not been confirmed.”

The White House also is bracing for Comey’s upcoming congressional testimony. Trump fired the FBI chief after allegedly asking him to drop the probe into Flynn and his ties to the Kremlin.

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Man With Weapons, Ammo Arrested at Trump’s Washington Hotel

A guest at President Donald Trump’s Washington hotel has been arrested after police found guns and ammunition in his car.

Bryan Moles was detained by Washington police early Wednesday morning at Trump International Hotel. The hotel is just blocks from the White House.

Police say they found a handgun, a rifle and about 90 rounds of ammunition, after they received a tip.

Chief of Police Peter Newsham did tell reporters they learned about Moles from Pennsylvania State Police who contacted the U.S. Secret Service telling them Moles was traveling to Washington with weapons.

Newsham said they still don’t know Moles’ motive, but that law enforcement was “very concerned.”

“We’re going to do a thorough examination if we can get to the motive as to why this guy was coming to the District of Columbia armed with these weapons, Newsham said. “I was very concerned about this … very peculiar circumstance, and I believe that the officers and our federal partners, and in particular the tipster coming forward, averted a potential disaster in our nation’s capital.”

Moles’ car was parked near a valet attendant, and the weapons were reportedly visible from the outside.

Moles reportedly told police he was a military veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress. He also reportedly told officers he supports Trump.

Officially, the police have not confirmed those details.

According to a local radio station, Moles was “charged with one count of carrying a dangerous weapons, one count of carrying a pistol without a license outside of a home or business, as well as having unregistered ammunition.”

Police say they don’t yet have enough evidence to charge Moles with making threats.

Trump International released a statement on the incident.

“We take the safety and security of guests very seriously,” the hotel said in a statement. “It is our first priority. This morning, the authorities arrested a guest who was behaving suspiciously.”

The hotel would not give further details citing an ongoing investigation.

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Tennis: Venus Stellar in Paris with Straight Sets Win Over Japan’s Nara

With superstar sister Serena away pregnant, it was left to 36-year-old Venus to carry the standard for the Williams family at Roland Garros on Wednesday, with a second-round thumping of Japan’s Kurumi Nara.

Seeded 10th here, Williams ground her Japanese opponent into the red Parisian dust in a contest that at times almost veered into miss-match territory before ending 6-3, 6-1.

Williams never appeared extended on the Philippe Chatrier court, but she nevertheless delivered a display of exquisite shot-making to a crowd denied a real contest.

Punching her black and lime-green racquet through the ball, Williams cleaned the lines with her groundstrokes, sending Nara scampering all round the arena.

“You know, it’s always a joy when you can control the match,” she smiled afterwards. “That always feels good.”

The win makes her the oldest woman to reach the third round at the French Open since Billie-Jean King in 1982.

Next up is either Dutch qualifier Richel Hogenkamp or Belgian Elise Mertens.

“I don’t think I have played either in singles, so it will be interesting to, like, see how that ball is coming at me,” she mused. “I just want to win, so whoever I play, I just would like to win that match. That’s how you have to be is greedy.”

It is Venus’s 20th attempt at winning this title, and time may be running out for her, and for tennis fans to enjoy her languid shot-play.

She came closest in 2002 when she was beaten in the final by her younger sister, as she was at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open that year.

There is no Serena standing in her way here, but plenty of younger guns are eager for a notable victory.

Serena for one, though, is in her corner.

“Yeah, she said, ‘Good job’. She came in sometime during the match. I don’t know exactly when. She knows exactly what it’s like out there, and she’s had a lot of success here. If she stays here through the end, I would like that.”

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Gulf Arab Row Rattles Trump’s Anti-Iran Axis

Just 10 days after President Donald Trump called on Muslim countries to stand united against Iran, a public feud between Qatar and some of its Gulf Arab neighbors is jolting his attempt to tip the regional balance of power against Tehran.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are incensed by Qatar’s conciliatory line on Iran, their regional archrival, and its support for Islamist groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, which they regard as a dangerous political enemy.

The bickering among the Sunni states erupted after Trump attended a summit of Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia where he denounced Shi’ite Iran’s “destabilizing interventions” in Arab lands, where Tehran is locked in a tussle with Riyadh for influence.

The spat shows no sign of abating, raising the prospect of a long breach between Doha and its closest allies that could have repercussions around the Middle East.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani visits Kuwait on Wednesday for talks with his counterpart Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah that are expected to address the rift. Kuwait, a past mediator between Gulf states, has offered to help ease tensions.

But few expect an early end to what is not their first feud. Three years ago Saudi Arabia and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha for similar reasons, although they returned after less than a year.

Analysts point to the unusual willingness of Qatari state-backed media on one side, and Saudi and Emirati media on the other, to trade rhetorical broadsides in public.

This suggests that point-scoring is taking priority over displays of unity among some members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a Saudi-dominated club of states that presents itself as an outpost of stability in a turbulent region.

In the Gulf’s tightly-controlled media scene, attacks made by news outlets tend to be authorized by governments.

“The GCC could harm it own interests in this fight and is at risk of becoming more vulnerable to Iranian encroachment,” said a Western diplomat based in Doha.

Emboldened by Trump

The spat’s immediate cause was a purported Qatari state media report that the emir had cautioned against confrontation with Iran, as well as defending the Palestinian group Hamas and Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi’ite movement allied to Tehran.

Qatar denied the report, saying its news agency had been hacked, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE allowed their state-backed media to continue running it, angering Doha.

The squabble revives old accusations that Qatar backs the Brotherhood, which is present across most of the Muslim world and whose political ideology challenges the principle of dynastic rule. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi also suspect Doha is complacent about Iranian expansionism.

Some analysts speculate Riyadh and Abu Dhabi felt confident to authorize criticisms of Qatar by their deepening friendship with Trump, confident that his opposition to Iran and all Islamist armed groups reflects their views more than Qatar’s.

“When Trump gave fulsome support in Riyadh and said, ‘let’s isolate Iran’ that sent a signal to the UAE and Saudi, which felt emboldened and said: let’s let loose everything we have on Qatar,” said Gerd Nonneman, professor of International Relations and Gulf Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar.

Acknowledging the tensions, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, wrote on Twitter on Sunday that the GCC countries “are passing through a new sharp crisis that carries within it a great danger”.

Gulf officials and commentators outside Qatar said it did not matter whether the remarks were fake because they reflected Qatar’s sympathies anyway.

“Doha’s insistence in denying the issue is marginal because in reality, on the ground, Qatar confirms it adopts the policies that it is now trying to deny,” an editorial in Saudi-owned newspaper Al-Hayat on Monday said.

Rifts have ramifications

A Gulf Arab official said patience had run out. “What is certain is the Gulf states led by Riyadh are not likely to tolerate such a deviation, if intentional, especially at this junction in our relationship with our hostile neighbor Iran.”

Al Raya, a government-owned Qatari daily, hit back at Emirati reports on Friday by publishing pictures on its front page of UAE journalists it called “mercenaries”.

Such animosities can have ramifications across the Middle East, where Gulf states have used their financial and political clout to influence events in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen amid upheaval caused by the Arab Spring.

Nonneman said Kuwait and Oman clearly did not want a major rift. “It’s not in the interests of anyone for this to grow into a clash beyond a media campaign – but sometimes these things take on a life of their own,” he said.

Iran, which denies Arab accusations that it is engaged in subversion of Arab countries, appears to be gloating. Kayhan, a newspaper closely associated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Tuesday the rift reflected Saudi Arabia’s inability to “form an alliance against Tehran.”

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Czech Republic Enforces Smoking Ban After Years of Debate

The Czech Republic on Wednesday enforced a smoking ban in bars, restaurants and cafes, putting to an end to the country’s status as one of the last havens for tobacco smokers in Europe.

The ban, which applies to inside areas of bars and restaurants as well as public places like cinemas, theaters and sports venues, was approved by Parliament following years of heated debate and signed by President Milos Zeman, a chain smoker.

Unlike most of Europe, Czechs had remained tolerant of smoking up until now — and it was up to restaurant owners to decide whether to allow it in their establishments.

According to data from the European Union, 17 member states have comprehensive smoke-free laws in place. But some, including Austria, Portugal, Romania and Serbia, only have partial bans on indoor smoking in restaurants and bars.

Others, like Greece, have official bans but the rules are flouted — even by government ministers.

After the Czech ban, Slovakia appeared to be the only EU country left with no official ban in place inside bars.

The Czech Health Ministry said it estimated 18,000 Czechs die of smoking every year and another two thousand non-smokers die due to exposure to second-hand smoke.

From Wednesday, which is World No Tobacco Day, violating the ban would incur a fine of up to 5,000 koruna ($190).

Most Czechs approve the ban, but a group of lawmakers have challenged it at the Constitutional Court.

Jakub Storek, owner of the Cafe Liberal in Prague — a popular hangout among local smokers — said he opposed the ban.

“It’s hard to predict the impact at the moment,” he said. “But I guess it would be different clients coming here in the future.”

Stepan Ourecky said he would still come, but may have a smoke outside the cafe.

“Or perhaps, I will smoke less,” the 18-year-old student said.

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Lawyer Says Independent Journalist Abducted in Georgia

An independent Azerbaijani journalist has been abducted from Georgia, where he had been living, and forcibly taken to Azerbaijan, his lawyer said on Wednesday.

A court in this former Soviet republic was due to hold a hearing later on Wednesday to arrest Afgan Mukhtarli, who is facing charges of smuggling and crossing the border illegally.


Mukhtarli, who is also a civil rights activist, had been living in neighboring Georgia for two years. His lawyer, Elchin Sadigov, told The Associated Press the journalist was abducted outside his home Monday evening, beaten up and taken to the land border between Azerbaijan and Georgia. Sadigov claimed that the journalist’s captors planted 10,000 euros ($11,180) on him, which led to the charges.


Eldar Sultanov, spokesman for the Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office, said the journalist was detained late on Monday “after illegally crossing the Azerbaijani border” with a large sum of money.


Mukhtarli left Azerbaijan in 2015, around the time when several Azerbaijani journalists working for foreign or local independent media faced charges of tax evasion.


Mukhtarli’s wife, Leila Mustafayeva, told the AP she was waiting for her husband at home Monday evening but he never showed up. Mustafayeva said her husband had been investigating Georgian business ties of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s family.


“Naturally, this created resentment in the presidential family,” she said, insisting that her husband’s disappearance is connected to his investigation.


Several dozen journalists rallied in the capital, Tbilisi, demanding that Georgian authorities explain how they allowed the reported abduction to happen.


Giorgi Gogia, Human Rights Watch director of South Caucasus, in a statement described Mukhtarli’s disappearance as another step in the Azerbaijani government’s “relentless crackdown on critics.”


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Russia Fires Cruise Missiles at Islamic State in Syria

Russia’s Defense Ministry says its forces fired four cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea to hit Islamic State targets in Syria.

The ministry said the missiles came from a frigate and a submarine and landed near the city of Palmyra, striking heavy weapons and Islamic State militants who had deployed there from the group’s de facto capital in Raqqa.

Russia said it notified the United States, Turkey and Israel before firing the missiles. It did not say exactly when the strikes took place.

The Palmyra area has seen a lot of fighting during the past year, with control of the city changing between Islamic State fighters and the Syrian government several times. Syrian forces currently hold the city, but clashes continue.

Russian forces have been involved in Syria since late 2015 in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Russia has been criticized by the United States and others for not focusing enough of its air campaign against Islamic State targets.

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Indications Iran Doubling Down on Use of Proxy Forces

An influx of cash that was the byproduct of the deal Iran struck with a group of world powers to curtail its nuclear program may not be changing the way Iran goes about wielding influence across the Middle East and beyond. 

A top U.S. military official says rather than using any additional monies to invest more heavily in conventional forces, there are indications Tehran continues to focus on cultivating special operators to help lead and direct proxy forces. 

“If anything, increased defense dollars in Iran are likely to go toward increasing that network, looking for ways to expand it,” U.S. Special Operation Forces Vice Commander Lieutenant General Thomas Trask told an audience in Washington late Tuesday. 

“We’ve already seen evidence of them taking units and officers out of the conventional side that are working with the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) in Syria,” Trask added.  “We’re going to stay focused on these proxies and the reach that Iran has well past Syria and Yemen but into Africa, into South America, into Europe as well.” 

The 2015 nuclear deal, also known as the JCPOA, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, gave Tehran access to an estimated $50 billion to $150 billion in previously frozen assets. It also cleared the way for Iran to seek new investment to boost its economy. 

Critics of the deal feared Iran would take a large portion of that money to boost its military and expand its influence across the Middle East.   

Yet despite Iran’s heavy involvement in Syria to help prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, U.S. military officials see no indications much of that money has been set aside for bolstering Tehran’s conventional forces. 

Nor do they see that as a likely scenario, even though the latest estimates from the U.S. intelligence community warn Iran is trying to develop “a range of new military capabilities,” including ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and armed drones. 

“That takes a long time to change. You’ve really got to build a significant infrastructure,” Trask said during the event at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). 

“We’re going to continue to plan primarily against that network of proxies and unconventional warfare that Iran pushes out to create that buffer for the regime,” he said. 

Already, Iran is supplementing its own forces inside Syria by providing arms, financing and training for as many as 10,000 Shia militia fighters, including units from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to U.S. intelligence officials. 

Military and intelligence officials further worry about the sway Iran has over tens of thousands of additional fighters who are part of Shia militias fighting in Iraq. And there are concerns Iran is trying to employ the same type of model in Yemen, where U.S. officials say it has been supplying arms and other help to Houthi forces. 

“Everywhere you look, if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last moth during a visit to Saudi Arabia, when asked about Yemen. “We’ll have to overcome Iran’s efforts to destabilize yet another country and create another militia in their image of Lebanese Hezbollah.” 

And some analysts say that Iran will persist, even if the results are not immediate. 

“You’ve seen this slow ratcheting up of what they’ve been able to do in Syria and it’s not sufficient,” said J. Matthew McInnis, a resident fellow at AEI and author of a new report on Iran’s security policy, noting Tehran’s reliance on Russian air support. 

Still, Tehran has shown no signs of backing down, he said, willing to wait out its adversaries. 

“We underestimated the degree to which Iran was committed to Assad,” McInnis said. “They’re going to fight as long as it takes in Syria.” 

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Solar Power Lights Up Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan

Solar power is lighting up the night sky in Jordan and making life easier for the 20,000 Syrian refugees at a camp that once had no reliable source of electricity. Faith Lapidus reports.

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Kushner, Merkel Top Questions at Contentious Briefing

Days after President Donald Trump’s first overseas trip, the contentious relationship between the news media and the White House was on full display. Embattled White House press secretary Sean Spicer abruptly cut short the first post-trip press briefing after once again lecturing reporters about their treatment of the president. It comes as reports circulate of an impending shakeup among White House communications staff, as VOA’s Bill Gallo report.

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Haley Represents Another Side of ‘America First’ Policy

Nikki Haley crouched low in the trailer of an 18-wheeler, taping up a box of lentils and wheat for besieged Syrians, her hands-on diplomacy a world apart from the gleaming new NATO headquarters where President Donald Trump was debuting his “America First” doctrine overseas.

Haley, Trump’s U.N. ambassador, had started the day in Turkey’s capital, opened a refugee school in the south of the country, then traveled hours in an armored vehicle to the Syrian border. Her afternoon stop had to be short. She had a packed schedule, and at a nearby refugee camp she was soon kicking soccer balls with stranded Syrians and noshing on shawarma.

As she hopped a flight to Istanbul, Trump was arriving in Brussels to scold European allies for relying too much on U.S. defense spending. Haley’s mission represented another side of Trump’s “America First,” assuring nations on the border of the world’s worst crisis that the U.S. wasn’t forgetting them.

“I think ‘America First’ is human rights and ‘America First’ is humanitarian issues,” Haley said. “It’s what we’ve always been known for.”

Haley’s trip last week to Jordan and Turkey showcased the outspoken former South Carolina governor-turned-Trump diplomat’s emergence as Trump’s foreign policy alter ego: still bold, still brash-talking, but with greater attention to America’s traditional global roles and the personable side of diplomacy.

Human rights, democracy

Whereas Trump has emphasized U.S. security and prosperity and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has distinguished between America’s interests and its values, Haley is the national security voice insisting the U.S. still seeks to promote human rights, democracy and the well-being of others. Yet Haley brushes off any suggestion of divergent interests, arguing instead that the members of Trump’s Cabinet simply “see the world through a different scope.”

“We take basically what we work with every day and try to make America first through that lens,” she said at Altinozu Refugee Camp in southern Turkey, in explaining her sharply contrasting style. “For me to make America first, I have to fight for the political solution, have to fight for human rights and I have to fight for humanitarian issues, because I’m surrounded by it every day.”

So far, the White House has cautiously embraced Haley’s higher profile, perhaps as an antidote to Democratic and Republican critiques that Trump doesn’t care about human rights. Her prominent role as a face of Trump’s foreign policy has fueled talk in Washington about her political future, including potentially as a future secretary of state.

And while Haley has sometimes contributed to mixed messages, on everything from Syria to the delicate issue of Jerusalem’s status, the White House has continued sending her out frequently to represent the administration in public and on television. On Tuesday, Haley’s office announced she’ll travel next week to Switzerland to give a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council and then to Israel, where she’ll meet Israelis and Palestinians and observe local U.N. operations.

Haley’s role as boundary-pusher may have roots in her political upbringing in South Carolina, where the daughter of Indian immigrants became the first female governor in a state notorious for its “good ol’ boy” Republican network.

When a self-avowed white supremacist gunned down nine black worshippers in a Charleston church, Haley sat front and center for weeks at every one of the funerals. She grieved publicly throughout her second term after the “1,000-year flood,” Hurricane Matthew and other tragedies in the state.

Confederate flag

Yet it was her role in the roiling controversy over removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds that largely defined her ascent as a national political figure. For many in the state, it was a cherished symbol of Civil War sacrifices. But the rebel flag had been brandished by the Charleston church gunman in a display of hate, and Haley said South Carolinians needed to move forward and “put themselves in other people’s shoes.”

“She’s definitely someone who seemed to rise to the occasion when faced with these controversies,” said Gibbs Knotts, who teaches political science at the College of Charleston. “She hadn’t necessarily had a legislative success, but her ability to handle crises and connect with people and represent the state was when she was at her strongest as governor.”

After being picked by Trump in January for the U.N. ambassadorship, Haley said that “everything I’ve done leading up to this point has always been about diplomacy.”

“It’s been about trying to lift up everyone, getting them to work together for the greater good, and that’s what I’m going to attempt to do going forward,” she said.

As a member of Trump’s administration, though, it’s been more complicated.

While Haley conducted her reassurance tour for Syria’s neighbors last week, Trump unveiled a budget proposing sweeping cuts to U.S. foreign aid. Many of the same U.N. agencies whose programs Haley visited faced sharply reduced U.S. contributions, creating uncertainty about whether she could deliver on her declarations of support.

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Iowa’s Republican Senators: Health Care Law Repeal Unlikely

Lowering expectations, Iowa’s two Republican senators say the long-promised repeal of “Obamacare” is unlikely, and any final agreement with the Republican-controlled House is uncertain.

The comments Tuesday by Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst come as the Republican-controlled Senate moves forward on its work to dismantle the 2010 health care bill while facing conflicting demands within their own party and lockstep Democratic opposition. Both senators are active players in the health care debate.

“You can’t repeal it in its entirety,” Ernst told reporters after a joint appearance with Grassley in suburban Des Moines.

Frank admission

It was a frank admission from loyal conservatives representing a state Republican Donald Trump carried in November.

The Senate’s filibuster rule means that Republicans — who control the Senate with 52 seats — can’t repeal the entire law.

“You’ve got to have 60 votes and we don’t have 60 votes at this point,” Grassley said.

Grassley, in his seventh term, is a senior member of the Finance Committee, which oversees the law’s tax and Medicaid provisions. Ernst, elected in 2014, says has been part of an informal GOP health care working group’s discussions.

“As much as I’d love to go back and scrap the whole darn thing, we’re simply unable to do that,” Ernst said.

Other Senate rules permit the GOP majority to repeal portions of Obamacare without Democratic support but render other parts of the law off limits.

“That just allows us to tinker around the edges,” Ernst earlier told Eric Borseth, an Altoona, Iowa, businessman who implored her to “get rid of that monstrosity.”

What Grassley and Ernst did not mention are divisions within the Republican caucus in the Senate. Getting every Republican on board is proving arduous.

House measure

House Republicans passed a measure May 4 axing major parts of the 2010 law, including hundreds of billions in extra Medicaid money that 31 states now receive for expanding to cover more lower-income Americans under the federal insurance program.

Such provisions, as well as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s estimate that 23 million Americans would lose health insurance, make the House bill a non-starter with several Republican senators.

Erasing Obama’s health care law was a top promise of Donald Trump during his presidential campaign, and by congressional GOP candidates since its 2010 enactment.

But writing legislation that can pass with only Republican votes has proven agonizing.

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin canceled a March vote after opposition from party conservatives and moderates would have sealed its defeat, and the two wings of the GOP spent weeks blaming each other for the bill’s demise.

Ernst says the Senate will be able to make individual changes to Obama’s law where only a simple majority vote is required.

For instance, she mentioned changing mandatory health care benefits required by insurers as ripe for Senate action.

Ernst stopped short of saying whether any legislation passed in the Senate would be accepted by the House.

“We will be working with the House,” she said.

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Portland Stabbing Suspect Shouts, ‘You’ve Got No Safe Place!’

Unease about white supremacist activity in Portland deepened after the fatal stabbings of two men who tried to shield young women from an anti-Muslim tirade, and some people worry that the famously tolerant community could see a resurgence of the hostilities that once earned it the nickname “Skinhead City.”

The attack aboard a light-rail train happened Friday, the first day of Ramadan, the holiest time of the year for Muslims. Authorities say Jeremy Joseph Christian started verbally abusing two young women, including one wearing a hijab. When three men on the train intervened, police say, Christian attacked them, killing two and wounding one.

Christian, 35, was defiant during his brief initial court appearance Tuesday, shouting: “You call it terrorism I call it patriotism!”

He made repeated outbursts saying “you’ve got no safe place!” and “death to the enemies of America!”

Aggravated murder, other charges

Christian, who faces aggravated murder and other charges, didn’t enter a plea. His next court date is June 7. He has been appointed public defenders. In a statement, Lane Borg, the head of the local public defender agency, said the office was “saddened by this tragedy” but urged people to let the justice system take its course.

The deaths stunned the city, but also underscored nervousness about recent events, including a series of apparent hate crimes in the region and contentious public rallies that have drawn national attention.

The Pacific Northwest has a long and violent history of white supremacist and other racist activities, despite its more recent reputation for being one of the nation’s most socially liberal regions.

“The idea that Portland is so liberal supersedes this dark, hidden secret about racism,” said Karen Gibson, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University.

The lone man to survive Friday’s stabbings says he’s having a difficult time processing what happened. Micah Fletcher told KGW-TV ( that he’s focusing on trying to get better.

“I’m healing. That’s what I’m doing. As much as I can, in whatever way I can,” Fletcher told the station. He was released from the hospital Monday.

Many of the early settlers to Oregon were from Southern states and brought with them negative attitudes about blacks, Gibson said. Only about 6 percent of the Portland population is black, while more than 70 percent is non-Hispanic white, statistics show.

Place blame

Some residents said President Donald Trump has caused those racist demons to stir again with his administration’s travel ban, his promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico and his crackdown on illegal immigration.

Since Trump’s election, Portland has led all major metropolitan areas in reported hate crimes, Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office said.

“I don’t have that feeling like it can’t happen here — the way people talk about Portland — because we’ve got racism. We’ve got all kinds of things,” said Murr Brewster, who came to see a memorial at the city’s transit center. “It’s everywhere and the trouble is, it’s getting more and more prevalent.”

On Tuesday, Wheeler reiterated his call to organizers of a June 4 protest to cancel, saying he fears they could further enflame tensions. The event organized by the group Patriot Prayer is billed on its Facebook page as a Trump Free Speech Rally in “one of the most liberal areas of the West Coast.” Several counter-protests are planned.

Christian attended a similar rally in late April wearing an American flag around his neck and carrying a baseball bat. Police confiscated the bat, and he was then caught on camera clashing with counter-protesters.

Mayor speaks out

Wheeler has also asked the federal government to cancel a June 10 rally that targets Sharia law out of fears it could create unrest.

“These kinds of rallies … are typically people who come from elsewhere and hold rallies here because we are a deep blue city. They are intending to be provocative,” Wheeler said Tuesday in a phone interview with the Associated Press. “There is a growing sense of anger and it is focused at the far right, so I’m going to do my best to keep the peace here.”

In a video posted on Facebook, Joey Gibson of the group Patriot Prayer, condemned Christian and acknowledged that some rallies have attracted “legitimate Nazis.” He described Christian as “all crazy” and “not a good guy” during the April 29 event. He hurled insults at rally organizers as well as counter-protesters and was not a Trump supporter, Gibson said.

“To say that any of my speakers are racist, that’s ridiculous,” Gibson said in his video. “I haven’t seen the evidence. I haven’t seen the proof.”

No one immediately replied to a message sent to Patriot Prayer through Facebook. Gibson’s Twitter account appeared to have been deactivated, and a phone listing for him was disconnected.

The tumult caps a series of unsettling events in recent months in and around Portland.

Earlier this year, organizers of a small community parade affiliated with the city’s famous Rose Festival canceled the celebration over fears of violence after protesters said the local Republican Party had plans to allow a “neo-Nazi hate group” to march with them. Local GOP leaders denied the charges, but the tension spilled over into smaller protests in the days that followed.

Racist crimes

In the suburb of Troutdale, an Iranian refugee found his home painted with racist graffiti and death threats. And in Gresham, another eastern suburb, prosecutors charged a man with a hate crime after police said he chased down a black teenager with his car after a fight and struck him, killing him.

For years, Portland was the home base for Volksfront, a now-defunct white separatist organization founded in 1994, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.

“There have been skinheads in that region forever,” said Heidi Beirich, spokeswoman for the law center. “Portland police have a robust unit against white supremacists.”

One of the most infamous attacks in Portland’s racial history occurred in November 1988, when an Ethiopian immigrant was beaten to death by three white supremacists in front of his apartment.

Mulugeta Seraw was a student who came to the United States to attend college. The members of the California-based White Aryan Resistance killed him with a baseball bat.

Civil case

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League won a multimillion-dollar civil case in 1990 against the White Aryan Resistance on behalf of his family, and the damages crippled the organization.

At least one local Muslim leader invoked Seraw’s memory and the vandalism of the Iranian refugee’s home when discussing the recent stabbings. A chalk message at the memorial at the transit center also urged Portland to remember his death.

Gratitude for the victims’ heroic actions is also tinged with fear, said Wajdi A. Said, president and co-founder of the Muslim Educational Trust.

“We hope,” he said, “that we will always respond with love and encouragement.”

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Defeat Was a Motivator for Past Spelling Bee Champs

Three past winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee say losing was the secret to their success.

Early defeats spurred an inner competitive streak that they used to eventually seize the title, said champions from 1985, 1999 and 2010. The 2017 national spelling bee winner will be crowned on Thursday.

“Those were tough losses but they also made me dig deeper and work harder,” said Balu Natarajan, 45, who flamed out on the national stage in 1983 and 1984. He won the next year at age 13 and is now a sports medicine doctor in Chicago.

Nupur Lala, 32, still remembers the word that tripped her up in 1998: commination, which ironically means the act of threatening divine vengeance. She took the title in 1999 at 14.

“It was one of the really healthy moments in my life. Any hubris that I had was eliminated at that point,” said Lala, headed for a 2018 medical school degree with a focus in neurology after conducting research at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Lesson about challenges

For 2010 winner Anamika Veeramani, losing in front of a worldwide audience on live television in 2009 was a seminal lesson in handling life’s challenges.

“In the spelling bee, you really learn how to deal with failure. And dealing with those things gracefully is really important to living a good life,” said Veeramani, 21.

She graduated last week with a biology degree after just three years at Yale University and is applying to medical school. She envisions treating patients as well as launching a broadcast career covering medical stories.

Defeat has fanned the competitive fires within, all three past winners said in separate interviews.

“The competition is not with other spellers but with yourself,” Lala told Reuters. “I don’t think that besting other people is quite as motivating for me.”

Natarajan, who is chief medical officer at Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care, the nation’s largest privately owned hospice provider, agreed he has been his own fiercest rival.

“Some people love to win. Some people want to keep pushing to be their best. I am the latter,” he said.

Natarajan won the title for correctly spelling milieu, Lala for logorrhea and Veeramani for stromuhr, after their opponents had stumbled.

Others’ errors

And how do the world’s best spellers handle errors in emails, classroom lessons or even romantic love letters? Do they point out corrections or suffer in silence?

“I don’t hesitate,” Natarajan said. “It drives me crazy.”

But Lala and Veeramani hold their tongues.

“I don’t want to be obnoxious. Nobody wants to be that kid,” Veeramani said.

This week, 291 whizzes ages 6 to 15 will descend on a resort in the Washington area to compete in the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee.

They have made the cut from more than 11 million contenders who faced off in spelling bees in all 50 U.S. states, U.S. territories from Puerto Rico to Guam, and several nations from Jamaica to Japan.

The victor on Thursday takes home a $40,000 cash prize. But second place also has its rewards: a $30,000 prize.

Natarajan, a married father of boys 8 and 11, said his elder child just missed competing in the national bee this year, coming in second in a countywide spelling competition. If losing really is the key to winning, that may be great news.

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Nigeria’s Senate Passes Bill to Crackdown on Money Laundering

Nigerian lawmakers passed a bill aimed at cracking down on money laundering by urging foreign countries where currency crooks are hiding to cooperate in prosecuting them, a senior official said on Tuesday.

According to the bill, Nigeria may ask any country where a money launderer is hiding to help it prosecute the offender, or prosecute that person itself. In the second case, Abuja would supply the country with evidence to support a conviction.

Development in the OPEC member, which has Africa’s largest economy, has been stunted by endemic corruption. Most people live on less than $2 a day despite the country’s vast energy wealth, much of which has been plundered by a rich elite.

“This act will facilitate the needed cooperation with other states to prevent individuals from escaping prosecution by fleeing to another country,” said Senate President Bukola Saraki.

The bill was originally presented by President Muhammadu Buhari, who was elected in May 2015 after vowing to fight corruption.

The 74-year-old president is on medical leave in Britain for an unspecified ailment. He has handed over power to his deputy, Yemi Osinbajo, in his absence.


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Burundi Paralyzed by Fuel Shortages as Leaders Blame Lack of Dollars

Fuel shortages have paralyzed the small central African nation of Burundi, threatening further damage to an economy already moribund after years of political violence and raising questions about the role of the country’s only oil importer.

The problem has damaged two big foreign investors, Kenya’s KenolKobil and South Africa’s Engen, a subsidiary of Malaysian parastatal Petronas.

The shortages, which forced the government to introduce rationing on May 16, have paralyzed commerce and caused food prices to jump by around a third, raising the prospect of a wave of economic migration. More than 400,000 people have already fled Burundi into the volatile central African region.

Anti-corruption campaigners said the fuel shortages became severe after Burundian company Interpetrol Trading Ltd. received the lions’ share of dollars that are allocated by the central bank to import fuel.

“The oil sector is undermined by favoritism and lack of transparency, because the rare hard currency available in the central bank reserves is given to one oil importer,” said Gabriel Rufyiri, head of anti-graft organization OLUCOME.

The central bank declined to answer Reuters’ questions.

Interpetrol’s lawyer, Sylvestre Banzubaze, said: “I am not associated with the day-to-day operations and only intervene on legal questions. You should address your questions directly to Interpetrol sources.”

He did not respond when asked for further contacts, and the company does not have a website.

Rufyiri said that government sources told him that the bulk of dollars for fuel purchasing had been allocated to Interpetrol since March this year.

Reuters confirmed with two other sources that Interpetrol received the bulk of dollar allocations. Other companies only received a small fraction of the dollars they needed, the sources said, severely damaging their businesses.

Earlier this month, South African petrol company Engen confirmed it had sold its assets in Burundi to Interpetrol.

Engen declined to comment further. KenolKobil also declined to comment, but Burundian citizens say most of their petrol stations have been closed for three months.

Sole importer

Interpetrol is now the sole oil importer and runs all the fuel storage tanks in the country, said an industry source.

Banzubaze said there was “no link” between Interpetrol’s shareholders and any member of the government.

But a 2011 U.S. State Department report described attempts by senior government officials to pressure judges into dropping a corruption case against the company, owned by brothers Munir and Tariq Bashir. Neither the government nor Interpetrol’s lawyer responded when asked about the status of the case.

Government officials blame dollar shortages on aid cuts that donors imposed after President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a third term in 2015, triggering a wave of political violence.

“These days, fuel importers don’t get enough dollars to bring petroleum products,” said Daniel Mpitabakana, the government’s director of fuel management.

Burundi’s economy shrank by 0.5 percent last year, and the International Monetary Fund expects no growth at all this year and 0.1 percent next year.

Black market prices for fuel range between 5,000 to 6,000 Burundi francs per liter, vendors said, double the official price of 2,200 francs.

The street exchange rate is 2,600 francs to the dollar, although it is just over 1,700 to the dollar at the central bank. Only the central bank can receive dollar deposits and allocate dollars to businesses.

In the capital, queues at empty petrol stations snaked around the block. One civil servant said he had taken the last three days off work to search for gas.

“I have no fuel for days and I don’t know if by chance will get it today,” he said, asking not to be named.

Burundi has also been battered by drought and almost two years of political instability. Hundreds of people were killed and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee abroad during the political violence, which still sometimes erupts in low-level clashes.

Almost 3 million of Burundi’s 11 million citizens are dependent on food aid, the U.N. says.

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