McCain Again Takes on Trump Administration, Will Offer Afghan War Strategy

U.S. Senator John McCain was back in Arizona on Monday to begin treatment for brain cancer, but his situation did not stop him from again slamming the Trump administration for having “no strategy for success in Afghanistan” more than six months after the presidential inauguration.

“When the Senate takes up the National Defense Authorization Act in September, I will offer an amendment based on the advice of some our best military leaders that will provide a strategy for success in achieving America’s national interests in Afghanistan,” McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement released Monday.

“Eight years of a ‘don’t lose’ strategy has cost us lives and treasure in Afghanistan,” the Republican added. “Our troops deserve better.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis had promised to deliver to Congress a strategy by mid-July, yet no finished strategy has materialized. The administration is still debating a plan that could send up to 5,000 more American troops to Afghanistan, where the U.S. has been fighting the Taliban since 2001.

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Trump to Travel to Promote Tax Overhaul Legislation

President Donald Trump, who has been criticized for not doing enough to help pass health care legislation, will do more traveling to try to drum up support for tax legislation, a senior White House aide said on Monday.

Specifically, Trump could travel to some Midwest states like Michigan and Wisconsin that he won during the 2016 presidential campaign but are still represented by Democrats in Congress.

“In terms of travel, I think you will see him out there more … in the states where we need votes,” said Marc Short, the White House’s legislative liaison.

The Republican effort to repeal Obamacare failed in the Senate last week, leaving party leaders looking ahead to try to tackle an overhaul of the tax code. But it has also left many questioning how taxes will be different, especially if Trump, who suffers from low national approval ratings, does not become more actively involved in pushing for the bill.

Short said that unlike the health care, which he called more complicated, the White House has been working to build support for tax reform among national groups aligned with their ideology.

His remarks came at a tax panel discussion sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by Republican donors Charles and David Koch that organizes supporters across the country to contact their members of Congress in favor of conservative legislation.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, speaking on the same panel, echoed his remarks.

“The message is [tax reform] may not be perfect for everything you want, but it’s going to be really really good for the economy and better than what we have,” Mnuchin said.

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US Sanctions Maduro After ‘Illegitimate’ Vote

The United States has imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, over what it called his “illegitimate” election of an assembly to rewrite the constitution.

All of Maduro’s assets in the United States are frozen and Americans are forbidden from doing any business with him.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced the sanctions Monday in Washington, calling Maduro a “dictator” who ignores the will of the Venezuelan people.

“By sanctioning Maduro, the United States makes clear our opposition to the policies of his regime and our support for the people of Venezuela, who seek to reform their country to a full and prosperous democracy.”

Maduro showed his apparent indifference to the sanctions late Monday, calling them a sign of President Donald Trump’s “desperation and hate.”

“I will not obey imperial orders. I do not obey any foreign governments. I’m a free president,” Maduro declared. “Why the hell should we care what Trump says? We care about what the sovereign people of Venezuela say,” he shouted Monday to a crowd of supporters in Caracas.

The sanctions against Maduro follow those imposed last week on a number of current and former senior Venezuelan officials.

Mnuchin would not comment on future sanctions, including a ban on Venezuelan oil exports. He said the U.S. will monitor the situation, but that “our objective is not to do anything to hurt the people of Venezuela.”

Peru has called for a meeting of Latin America foreign ministers in Lima next week to discuss the crisis in Venezuela.

The European Union also says it will not recognize the assembly, along with Canada, Spain, and nearly every Latin American country.

Maduro is defying the global condemnation, especially from what he regards as Venezuela’s arch enemy, the United States.

Maduro presses ahead

The Maduro government appeared determined to go through with forming the 545-member constituent assembly, even before it releases final results of the election.

The government said more than 8 million people cast ballots; the opposition, which boycotted the vote, said the turnout was much lower. Reporters on the ground in Caracas said dozens of polling places were almost deserted Sunday.

If 8 million people voted, that would be less than half of all registered voters. Pre-election polls showed more than 70 percent of all Venezuelans opposed the assembly.

Details on what is likely to be included in a new constitution are unclear. Maduro has said it is the only way to pull Venezuela out of its severe economic and social crisis and stop the seemingly endless violence.

The opposition said the measure would bring on a socialist dictatorship. It contended the vote was rigged, in order to pack the assembly with Maduro supporters who could dissolve the opposition-controlled national assembly and fire officials who disagree with the government. Maduro’s opponents are demanding early presidential elections.

Violent protests

Sunday’s election was the bloodiest day in four months of anti-government protests, with at least 10 people killed in clashes around the country. More than 120 have died since early April.

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin on Monday accused the Venezuelan government of “deliberately and repeatedly” using violence to repress the opposition.

The drop in global energy prices, together with political corruption, have destroyed oil-rich Venezuela’s economy. Gasoline, medicine, and such basic staples as cooking oil, flour and sugar are scarce, and many Venezuelans cross into neighboring Colombia and Brazil to buy food.

Maduro has blamed the country’s woes on what he calls U.S. imperialism and its supporters inside Venezuela. He has warned against intervention by the Organization of American States, saying that would surely lead to civil war.

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Clooney Foundation to Open Schools for Syrian Refugees

George Clooney’s foundation is planning to open seven public schools for Syrian refugee children.


The Clooney Foundation for Justice announced a new partnership Monday with Google, HP and UNICEF to provide education for more than 3,000 refugee children in Lebanon.


George and Amal Clooney said in a statement Monday that the foundation’s commitment of more than $2 million toward education for Syrian refugees aims to prevent thousands of young people from becoming “a lost generation.”


The couple said Syrian refugee children “have been victims of geography and circumstance” for whom formal education can make all the difference.


George and Amal Clooney established the Clooney Foundation for Justice last year to support equity in courtrooms, classrooms and communities around the world.

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Trump Insists There’s No Chaos at White House

President Donald Trump insisted Monday there is no chaos at the White House, even as his new chief of staff is entering a West Wing battered by crisis.

Retired Gen. John Kelly, previously the Homeland Security secretary, takes over Monday from the ousted Reince Priebus, bringing his military experience to an administration weighed down by a stalled legislative agenda, a cabal of infighting West Wing aides and a stack of investigations.


While Trump is looking for a reset, he pushed back against criticism of his administration on Twitter Monday. He said: “Highest Stock Market EVER, best economic numbers in years, unemployment lowest in 17 years, wages raising, border secure, S.C.: No WH chaos!”

Kelly’s success in a chaotic White House will depend on how much authority he is granted and whether Trump’s dueling aides will put aside their rivalries to work together. Also unclear is whether a new chief of staff will have any influence over the president’s social media histrionics.


Former Trump campaign manager Cory Lewandowski, who was ousted from the campaign in June 2016, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he expected Kelly would “restore order to the staff” but also stressed that Trump was unlikely to change his style.


“I say you have to let Trump be Trump. That is what has made him successful over the last 30 years. That is what the American people voted for,” Lewandowski said. “And anybody who thinks they’re going to change Donald Trump doesn’t know Donald Trump.”

Kelly’s start follows a tumultuous week, marked by a profane tirade from the new communications director, Trump’s continued attacks on his attorney general and the failed effort by Senate Republicans to overhaul the nation’s health care law.


In addition to strain in the West Wing and with Congress, Kelly starts his new job as tensions escalate with North Korea. The United States flew two supersonic bombers over the Korean Peninsula on Sunday in a show of force against North Korea, following the country’s latest intercontinental ballistic missile test. The U.S. also said it conducted a successful test of a missile defense system located in Alaska.


Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that she hopes Kelly can “be effective,” and “begin some very serious negotiation with the North and stop this program.”


Another diplomatic fissure opened Sunday when Russian President Vladimir Putin said the U.S. would have to cut its embassy and consulate staff in Russia by several hundred under new sanctions from Moscow. In a television interview, Putin indicated the cutback was retaliation for new sanctions in a bill passed by Congress and sent to Trump.


Trump plans to sign the measure into law, the White House has said. After Putin’s remarks, the State Department deemed the cutbacks “a regrettable and uncalled for act” and said officials would assess the impact and how to respond to it.


While Trump is trying to refresh his team, he signaled that he does not want to give up the fight on health care. On Twitter Sunday, he said: “Don’t give up Republican Senators, the World is watching: Repeal & Replace.”


The protracted health care fight has slowed Trump’s other policy goals, including a tax overhaul and infrastructure investment. But Trump aides made clear that the president still wanted to see action on health care. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” that senators “need to stay, they need to work, they need to pass something.”


Asked if nothing should be voted on in Congress until the Senate votes again on health care, Mulvaney said: “well, think _ yes. And I think what you’re seeing there is the president simply reflecting the mood of the people.”


On Saturday, Trump threatened to end required payments to insurance companies unless lawmakers repeal and replace the Obama-era health care law. He tweeted that if “a new HealthCare Bill is not approved quickly, BAILOUTS for Insurance Companies and BAILOUTS for Members of Congress will end very soon!”


The payments reduce deductibles and co-payments for consumers with modest incomes. Trump has guaranteed the payments through July, but has not made a commitment going forward.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said on “Fox News Sunday” that Trump would make a decision on the payments this week.


Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who opposed the efforts to move a health bill forward this week, said on CNN that cutting the payments would “be detrimental to some of the most vulnerable citizens” and that the threat has “contributed to the instability in the insurance market.”


The House has begun a five-week recess, while the Senate is scheduled to work two more weeks before a summer break.

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Is Washington Sending Signal of Renewed Commitment to Balkans?

As Vice President Mike Pence prepares to visit Montenegro and hold talks with Western Balkan leaders this week, a senior State Department official says U.S. engagement in the region remains strong. This is being welcomed by those countries’ leaders amid concerns that deep cuts in the proposed budget for the State Department could diminish Washington’s role in these fragile democracies exposed to Russian interference. VOA’s Keida Kostreci reports.

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Jeanne Moreau Dies at 89

Husky-voiced, French actress Jeanne Moreau has died. She was 89.

The French president’s office announced her death Monday in a statement.

American director Orson Welles once described Moreau as “the best actress in the world.”

Moreau is perhaps best known, in her long, prolific career, for her role in Francois Truffaut’s 1962 film “Jules and Jim.”

Her international career found her acting in films with a host of directors, including Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Tony Richardson and Luis Bunel.

She turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in Mike Nichols “The Graduate.”

She received a number of awards for her work, including a best actress prize at Cannes, a BAFTA, and a honorary Oscar.

French President Macron said Moreau “embodied cinema” and was a free spirit who “always rebelled against the established order.” He praised her range that extended beyond her early roles as a femme fatale.

Moreau, who worked into her 80s, was found dead at her home in Paris Monday morning, the French news agency, AFP, reported.

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First American Woman Conquers K2

Vanessa O’Brien has become the first American woman to summit K2, the world’s second highest mountain at 8,611 meters.

The 52-year-old former banker from New York led a nine-member team of international climbers and planted the U.S. flag on top of K2 on July 28.

The mountain is located at Pakistan’s border with China and considered one of the world’s most dangerous peaks for climbers.

The first male American team conquered “the savage mountain” 39 years ago.

This was O’Brien’s third attempt at K2 after having been unsuccessful in 2015 because of unusually harsh weather conditions, and in 2016 when an avalanche swooped in and buried all the expedition equipment stashed at CAMP-3, its high altitude operational base.

Bad weather prevented all other international teams from summiting K2 in those two years.

It took O’Brien’s team 16 hours from CAMP-4 at 7681 meters to the top, a very long time, but the weather held.

She told VOA on Monday after safely descending to K2 base camp at 5,100 meters she was exhausted but very grateful for her team’s success.

“This was by far the hardest undertaking I have ever come across. Not just the 50 kilometer winds and snow pushing against you, but the pure blue ice underneath your feet that threatened to pull you off balance at any second,” said the climber, who also holds British nationality.

“I was constantly reminded of the 84 people who came before me and lost their lives commemorated at the Gilkey Memorial,” she added. O’Brien was referring to the place near the K2 base camp, where the victims are laid to rest.

The Memorial is named after Art Gilkey, the American who died of serious illness during an unsuccessful attempt by his team of mostly U.S. climbers in 1953.

“A proud day for #woman everywhere at the top of #K2, the world’s second highest mountain,” O’Brien announced via Twitter from shortly after scaling the peak on Friday.

“One of the most important flags I carried to the top of #K2 was #Pakistan, a country that has showed me so much love & support #PakistanZindabad (long live Pakistan),” she said in another message on her Twitter post with a picture of the green and white Pakistani flag.

Heavy snowfall and unstable weather were again a factor this year and O’Brien’s was the only expedition to reach the top, said Nazir Sabir, the chief organizer of the expedition and veteran Pakistani mountaineer.

O’Brien conquered Mt. Everest, the world’s highest peak at 29,035 feet, in 2010. But she describes K2 as more challenging and fascinating for mountaineers.

“K2 is the perfect triangle. Mountains are not shaped that way. In reality, they are very peculiar and they have got lots of places to rest and go higher and stop. This is boom, a triangle. It is asking for 110 percent effort day one,” O’Brien said.

While routine avalanches do pose risks, she says, due to climate change rocks on K2 that used to be fixed to earth and frozen are now just broken and they come down in rock avalanches.

“So, you have got the snow avalanches, you have got the rock avalanches, you have got extreme weather and unpredictable weather. Any one of those three could kill the expedition at a moment’s notice. So, it is just fraught with danger and that is probably why for every four of that climb, one dies,” O’Brien noted.

Sabir praised O’Brien for her courage, saying that even top Himalayan climbers give up somewhere around second attempt.

“I think her determination paid off but we have to understand that there was a brilliant planning behind it. All other six teams gave up and went home while Vanessa and her team were looking for a weather window and it clicked and they used every minute and climbed every inch to the summit,” he told VOA.

WATCH: Report about O’Brien’s attempt at K2 Summit

O’Brian is the 19th woman to have survived the climb to the top. Before undertaking the latest mission, she held the record of being the fastest woman to climb the seven summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.

Sabir praised Vanessa as “a friend of Pakistan and a messenger of peace”, hoping her repeated visits and successfully summiting K2 will send a positive image of Pakistan and encourage more Americans and international expeditions to visit the country.

Militant attacks have in recent years worsened security conditions in Pakistan, discouraging foreigners from visiting the country. But authorities say successes in counterterrorism operations have reduced the threat and improved security.


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Washington Week Ahead

U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to sign into law new sanctions against Russia, Iran, and North Korea. While Washington awaits the president’s signature, Russia is promising retaliation if punitive measures are implemented.

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Nigeria Scaling Up Boko Haram Fight, Seeking Abducted Oil Workers

Nigeria has scaled up its military response to the Boko Haram insurgency and will secure the northeast, the acting president’s spokesman said on Sunday, adding that the search for oil workers abducted by suspected members of the jihadist group will go on.

Members of an oil prospecting team were kidnapped in the northeast’s restive Lake Chad Basin region on Tuesday, prompting a rescue bid that left at least 37 dead including members of the team, rescuers from the military and vigilantes, officials say.

Three kidnapped members of the oil team later appeared in a video seen by Reuters on Saturday.

The insurgency has killed 20,000 people and forced some 2.7 million to flee their homes in the last eight years, and the frequency of attacks has increased in the last few months. At least 113 people have been killed by insurgents since June 1.

Military will ‘scale up their efforts’

In a statement on Sunday, the office of Acting President Yemi Osinbajo said he had ordered the military to “scale up their efforts and activities” in Borno, the state worst hit by the insurgency, to “maintain a strong, effective control of the situation and secure lives and property.”

“The federal government of Nigeria is not only on top of the situation, but will define the end of these atrocities by both winning the war and winning the peace in the northeast,” said the emailed statement issued by Osinbajo’s spokesman.

President Muhammadu Buhari left Nigeria on May 7 to take medical leave in Britain for an unspecified ailment. He handed power to his deputy, Osinbajo, seeking to allay concerns of a void at the helm of Africa’s most populous nation.

The government and military have repeatedly said Boko Haram — which also carries out cross-border attacks in neighboring Cameroon and Niger — was on the verge of defeat.

Boko Haram base captured

Buhari said in December that Boko Haram’s base in the northeast’s vast Sambisa forest had been captured.

The statement issued on Sunday said Osinbajo had ordered the “continuation of search and rescue missions to locate and ensure the freedom of all remaining abducted persons” following the kidnapping of oil workers.

The state oil company has for more than a year surveyed what it says may be vast oil reserves in the Lake Chad Basin as part of a bid to reduce the OPEC member’s reliance on the southern Niger Delta energy hub, which last year was hit by militant attacks on oil facilities.

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Interior Head to Stop in Nevada Hometown of Standoff Family

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was expected to make a stop Sunday in the hometown of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher accused of organizing an armed standoff three years ago that forced federal agents to end a roundup of his cattle.

Zinke’s planned stop in Bunkerville, Nevada – about 80 miles (129 kilometers) northeast of Las Vegas – is part of his tour of national monuments being scrutinized by the Trump administration.

Trump announced the review of 27 monuments in May, saying the designations imposed by previous presidents amounted to a massive federal land grab. Monument designations protect federal land from energy development and other activities.

Zinke plans the stop in Bunkerville ahead of visits Monday to the nearby Gold Butte and Basin and Range national monuments, which cover a combined 1,500 square miles (3,885 sq. kilometers) – more than half the size of Delaware.

Gold Butte is the grazing area at the center of the cattle round-up and armed standoff in April 2014 involving Bundy and federal land management agents.

The monument is home to pioneer-era and Native American artifacts, and rare and threatened wildlife, including the Mojave desert tortoise and desert bighorn sheep.

A recent study by the Bureau of Land Management documented nearly 400 ancient rock art panels and more than 3,500 individual petroglyphs scattered throughout the Gold Butte area

President Obama designated the Gold Butte National Monument in 2016 under the 1906 Antiquities Act.

Bundy argues that the federal government has no jurisdiction in such vast rangelands of the West.

He and four of his sons are in jail awaiting federal trial on felony charges that they organized an armed insurrection to turn away Bureau of Land Management agents and contract cowboys and to release cattle collected from the Gold Butte range.

Federal officials say the bureau, an agency within the Interior Department, was trying to enforce court orders issued for Bundy’s yearslong failure to pay federal grazing fees.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat, recently made a two-minute videotape and Rep. Jacky Rosen, a Democrat running for Republican Sen. Dean Heller’s seat in 2018, sent a letter to Zinke urging him to keep his hands off Nevada’s natural treasures.

In addition to preserving cultural history, native wildlife and scenic beauty, Gold Butte and Basin and Range generate more than $150 annually for Nevada’s economy, they said.

“Apparently the 2.7 public comments submitted in favor of keeping these monuments were not enough to help Mr. Zinke make up his mind,” Masto, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee overseeing the Interior Department, said about a public comment period that closed earlier this month.

Outdoor retailer Patagonia took out two full page ads in the state’s largest newspaper Sunday in support of the two Nevada national monuments.

On Friday, Zinke took a helicopter tour of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico and held a roundtable event with ranchers, county commissioners and university professors.

Last week, he removed Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients National Monument from the list under review. He previously dropped two others, one in Idaho and one in Washington state. A full report is due next month.


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Republicans Call on New Trump Chief of Staff to Fix White House Chaos

Republicans on Sunday urged President Donald Trump’s new chief of staff John Kelly to rein in the chaos within the White House on Monday but said the retired Marine Corps general will be challenged to assert control.

In his first six months in office, Trump has upended White House convention with a loose decision-making style and an open-door policy to his Oval Office for advisers, both internal and external. Infighting among his senior staff has become bitter and public.

“He’s going to have to reduce the drama, reduce both the sniping within and reduce the leaks, and bring some discipline to the relationships,” Karl Rove, a Republican strategist and former White House adviser to George W. Bush, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Trump announced Kelly would replace his embattled chief of staff Reince Priebus at the end of a particularly chaotic week that saw his first legislative effort – healthcare reform – fail in Congress.

“He (Trump) is in a lot of trouble. This week was the most tumultuous week we’ve seen in a tumultuous presidency,” Rove said.

On top of the healthcare debacle, Trump came under fire for banning transgender people from the military, and was pilloried for politicizing a speech he made to the Boy Scouts.

Adding fuel to the fire, his new communications director Anthony Scaramucci unleashed a string of profane criticism about Priebus and Trump strategist Steven Bannon to a New Yorker magazine reporter.

Republicans welcomed Trump’s decision to bring in Kelly, who starts on Monday.

“I think he will bring some order and discipline to the West Wing,” said Republican Senator Susan Collins and Trump critic on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The last week heightened concerns in Trump’s party that the distractions and West Wing dysfunction would derail other legislative priorities, including tax reform and debt ceiling negotiations.

White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said he thought Priebus had been effective “but was probably a little bit more laid back” in the way he ran the office.

“I think the president wants to go in a different direction, wants a little bit more discipline, a little more structure in there,” said Mulvaney, who reports to the chief of staff.

It is not yet clear whether all of Trump’s senior staff will answer to Kelly. Some members, including Scaramucci and senior counselor Kellyanne Conway, report directly to Trump, a structure which gives them more power.

“I will do whatever the president and our new chief of staff General Kelly ask me to do,” Conway told Fox News’ “Fox News Sunday.”

Kelly should be empowered to be the gatekeeper to the Oval Office, said Mike Huckabee, the former Republican governor of Arkansas, whose daughter Sarah Sanders is Trump’s spokeswoman.

“That’s what needs to happen, but that’s going to be up to the president,” Huckabee said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures.”

“The president has a very different style, he’s very open, the door is open, he invites people to just come on it to a meeting,” Huckabee said.

To be effective, Kelly needs to find a way to work within Trump’s untraditional style, said Corey Lewandowski, who was a former campaign manager to Trump, and remains close to the president.

“The thing that General Kelly should do is not try to change Donald Trump,” Lewandowski said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“Anybody who thinks they’re going to change Donald Trump doesn’t know Donald Trump,” Lewandowski said.


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Libya Committee Votes in Favor of Constitutional Draft

A committee tasked with writing a constitution for Libya voted in favor of a draft, paving the way for parliament to approve a referendum and causing uproar among opponents.

Critics, including secessionists and people in favor of the country’s 1951 constitution, called for a redo of Saturday’s vote.

Protesters broke into the committee’s building in the eastern town of Bayda, according to two committee members, who said they called on the committee to reconvene Sunday. It was not immediately clear whether the committee met again.

Committee members opposing the decision issued a signed statement saying that voters failed to consider amendments proposed by opponents to articles in the draft.

Amraja Noah, a committee member from the eastern city of Tobruk, said protesters stormed the building to stop the session, forcing the members to rush the vote.

He said 44 members attended the session and 42 voted in favor of passing the draft.

An opponent of the decision, Abdelkader Kadura, a committee member from Benghazi, expressed skepticism about the legitimacy of the voting.

“This serves a small minority and a certain geographical area,” he said, referring to members who voted in favor.

The 60-member committee has been assigned to work on a draft constitution since 2014.

Libya descended into chaos following the 2011 civil war that toppled and killed dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The oil-rich nation is now split between rival governments and militias.

Libya’s internationally-recognized parliament is based in the east and allied with the powerful military commander Khalifa Hifter.

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Senegalese Vote in Election That Brought Back Ex-leader

Voters in Senegal are casting ballots in a legislative election that has brought the country’s former longtime leader back to the political scene.


Ex-President Abdoulaye Wade, now 91 years old, has been leading his loyalists’ efforts to win seats in Sunday’s election.


Wade was president from 2000 to 2012, when he was defeated by current President Macky Sall. He returned from France this month to campaign in the parliamentary contest, though critics accuse him of re-entering Senegalese politics to try and pave the way for his son to return as well.

Karim Wade has been in Qatar since his release from prison in 2016 after serving three years on corruption charges.


Unlike many of its West African neighbors plagued by dictators and coups, Senegal is known for its political stability.

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Thousands Rally in Istanbul Against Israel’s Al-Aqsa Mosque Measures

Thousands of people rallied in Turkey’s largest city on Sunday against security measures Israel has imposed at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, shortly after Israel removed other measures that led to two weeks of violent Palestinian protests.

The rally in Istanbul, called “The Big Jerusalem Meeting” and organized by Turkey’s Saadet Party, drew some five thousand people to the Yenikapi parade ground on the southern edge of Istanbul.

Protesters were brought in by buses and ferries from across the city, waved Turkish and Palestinian flags, and held up posters in front of a giant stage where the chairman of the Saadet party and representatives from NGOs addressed the crowd.

“The Al-Aqsa mosque is our honor,” read a poster.

“You should know that not only Gaza, but Tel Aviv also has their eyes on this parade ground. Netanyahu does as well, and he is scared”, said Saadet Party Chairman Temel Karamollaoglu, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Turkey has opposed the security measures installed at the entry points of the mosque compound, with President Tayyip Erdogan warning Israel that it would suffer most from the dispute.

Erdogan accused Israel of inflicting damage on Jerusalem’s “Islamic character”, in comments that Israel’s foreign ministry called “absurd”.

The dispute over security at the mosque compound – where Israel installed metal detectors at entry points after two police guards were shot dead this month – has touched off the bloodiest clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in years.

On Friday however, the main prayer session at the Al-Aqsa mosque ended relatively calmly after Israel removed the tougher security measures, though it barred entrance to men under age 50.

Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City and the holy compound, in the 1967 Middle East war. It annexed the area in a move that has never been recognized internationally.

Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine, sits in the heart of the Old City. It is also the holiest place in Judaism – the venue of two ancient temples, the last destroyed by the Romans. Jews pray under heavy security at the Western Wall at the foot of the elevated plaza.

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Egypt Officials Say Resort Knife Attacker Tasked by IS

Security officials said on Sunday that the Egyptian man who stabbed to death three tourists and wounded three others earlier this month in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada was tasked by the Islamic State group to carry out an attack against foreigners.

The officials said that investigations revealed 29-year old Abdel-Rahman Shaaban had communicated with two IS leaders on social media after they recruited him online.

One of them gave Shaaban daily lessons for a month after which he got in touch with the other, who asked him carry out an attack against tourists in either the resort city of Sharm al-Sheikh or Hurghada, to prove his allegiance to the group, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

Shaaban rode a bus from the Nile Delta province of Kafr el-Sheikh to Hurghada on July 14 and headed to a beach hotel where he killed two German women and wounded two Armenians, a Ukrainian and a Czech woman, using a knife that he bought earlier from a store, the officials added. Shaaban was arrested shortly after he was chased by hotel workers and security guards who handed him over to the police.

The Czech woman, who was hospitalized with back and leg injuries after the attack, died last week.

Shaaban is a resident of Kafr el-Sheikh where he attended the business school of the local branch of Al-Azhar University – the world’s foremost seat of learning of Sunni Islam and the target of mounting criticism in recent months over its alleged radical teachings and doctrinal rigidity.

The resort attack took place just hours after five policemen were killed in a shooting near some of Egypt’s most famous pyramids in the greater Cairo area. The Interior Ministry said last week that its forces killed four suspects and arrested two others who were behind the killing of the policemen.

Egypt’s government has been struggling to contain an insurgency by Islamic militants led by an Islamic State affiliate that is centered in the northern region of the Sinai peninsula, though attacks on the mainland have recently increased.

The extremist group has been mainly targeting security personnel and Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

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Trump Expected to Sign New Russia Sanctions

U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to sign into law new sanctions against Russia, Iran, and North Korea. While Washington awaits the president’s signature, Russia is promising retaliation if punitive measures are implemented. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington

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Trump, White House Continue to Press for Health Care Overhaul

U.S. President Donald Trump and key aides pressed lawmakers Sunday to not abandon an overhaul of the country’s health care law in the face of the Senate’s rejection last week of three measures to repeal or replace it.

“Don’t give up Republican Senators, the World is watching: Repeal & Replace,” Trump said in a Twitter comment.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said it was “time to move on” to other issues after three Republican senators joined all 48 Democrats early Friday to defeat a slimmed-down repeal of Obamacare, former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic legislative achievement, on a 51-49 vote.

Republican leaders viewed the vote as their last best effort to be able to advance the repeal effort and negotiate with the House of Representatives on how to dismantle the law, coming after two other attempts at revamping the law were defeated earlier in the week.

But Trump budget chief Mick Mulvaney told CNN, “In the White House’s view, they can’t move on in the Senate.” He said that senators “need to stay, they need to work, they need to pass something.”

Health care secretary Tom Price, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” show, said lawmakers need to continue to work to replace Obamacare with a law that “actually works for patients … so they’re making the decisions, not Washington.”

Most American workers receive their health insurance coverage through their employers, with poorer and older Americans assisted through long-standing government plans. Aside from those plans, individuals who buy insurance to help cover their medical bills are most affected by Obamacare.

But Price contended that the law is “imploding,” and that as it currently stands, 40 percent of the more than 3,000 counties in the U.S. will have only one insurer or none next year in the individual insurance market.

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, one of the three Republicans who voted against what McConnell and other party leaders characterized as a “skinny bill” repealing only parts of Obamacare and leaving much of it intact, told NBC that new hearings on the law are needed that “would produce way better legislation … on the best path forward.”

Republican lawmakers have tried dozens of times to overturn Obamacare, enacted in 2010 by a Democratic-controlled Congress without a single Republican supporting it. Party leaders and Washington political analysts thought 2017 was their best chance to overhaul the law, with Trump in the White House and Republicans controlling both the Senate and House.

But after extensive debate throughout the first six months of the Trump presidency, Republicans are riven in deciding how to overhaul the law, with conservative lawmakers trying to upend as much of the law as possible and more moderate lawmakers looking to keep as much funding as possible for insurance coverage for poorer Americans.

The third major Senate vote last week on health care ended in dramatic fashion early Friday.

With the outcome hanging in the balance, Republican Senator John McCain, who had returned to Congress just days after being diagnosed with brain cancer, walked to the front of the Senate and turned a thumb down, giving the minority Democrats the extra vote they needed to block passage of the scaled-down repeal of Obamacare.


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Russian Official Threatens Retaliation Over US Sanctions

The Kremlin vowed Sunday to retaliate against the United States for approving new sanctions against Russia for its meddling in last year’s presidential election to help President Donald Trump win the White House.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told ABC News’ “This Week” show, “I think this retaliation is long, long overdue.”

He said Moscow has “a very rich toolbox at our disposal. It would be ridiculous on my part to start speculating on what may or may not happen. But I can assure you that different options are on the table and consideration is being given to all sorts of things.”

The White House says that Trump will sign legislation overwhelmingly approved by Congress that imposes new sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea.

Trump aides had objected to the measure because of inclusion of a provision that gives Congress 30 days to review and block any Trump effort to ease sanctions against Russia, including those imposed by former President Barack Obama for Russia’s interference in the election. But the lopsided congressional approval of the sanctions left Trump with the prospect that if he vetoed the legislation, Congress would likely have overridden it.

Ryabkov said the U.S. Senate’s 98-2 vote for the sanctions was “the last drop” on what he described as “a completely weird and unacceptable piece of legislation.”

Obama closed two Russian compounds in the U.S. and expelled 35 diplomats in late December, less than a month before leaving office. But Moscow did not retaliate in kind until last week, when it shut two U.S. facilities in Russia and ordered 745 American diplomats out of the country by September 1.

Political analysts in the U.S. had thought that Trump, in an attempt to ease tensions with Russian President Vladimir Putin, might overturn the Obama sanctions when he assumed power, but he did not.

Since then, the early months of Trump’s presidency have been consumed by numerous investigations of Russian meddling in the election, including whether Trump aides colluded with Moscow to help him win and whether Trump obstructed justice by firing James Comey, the Federal Bureau of Investigation director leading the agency’s Russia investigation. Subsequently, another former FBI director, Robert Mueller, was named to take over the criminal investigation.

Moscow has rejected the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Putin personally directed Moscow’s interference in the election, while Trump has been dismissive of the investigations, describing them as a “witch hunt” and an excuse by Democrats to explain his upset win over the Democratic candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Ryabkov told ABC, “If the U.S. side decides to move further towards further deterioration, we will answer, we will respond in kind. We will mirror this. We will retaliate. But my whole point is don’t do this, it is to the detriment of the interests of the U.S.”

The Russian diplomat said, “I believe there are several areas where the U.S. and Russia can and should work together cooperatively. Nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, countering terrorism, illicit immigration, trafficking in people, climate change, you name it.

“We are ready, we are stretching our hand forward, we are hopeful that someone on the other side, President Trump included, but also others may see here a chance for a somewhat different way,” he added.

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North Korea: Missile Test ‘Stern Warning’ to US Against New Sanctions

North Korea said Sunday its latest test missile, deemed by weapons experts as capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, was a “stern warning” to Washington against a new round of sanctions aimed at Pyongyang.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry said Washington should “wake up from the foolish dream of doing any harm” to the reclusive communist nation.

Pyongyang’s statements came hours after the U.S. Air Force flew two B-1B bombers over the Korean Peninsula, accompanied by South Korean and Japanese jet fighters, as a show of strength against North Korean threats.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency said it conducted its 15th successful shoot-down of a medium-range ballistic missile in 15 tests of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. The target ballistic missile was launched from a fighter jet over the Pacific Ocean, but the military said it was detected, tracked and intercepted by the defense system located in Alaska.

Military Defense Agency chief Lieutenant General Sam Greaves said data collected from the test would improve the U.S.’s “ability to stay ahead of the evolving threat.”

The U.S. Pacific Command said its fly-over conducted with South Korean and Japanese jet fighters was in “direct response” to North Korea’s “escalatory launch” of intercontinental ballistic missiles on July 3 and last Friday.

“North Korea remains the most urgent threat to regional stability,” said General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, U.S. Pacific Air Forces commander. “Diplomacy remains the lead; however, we have a responsibility to our allies and our nation to showcase our unwavering commitment while planning for the worse-case scenario. If called upon, we are ready to respond with rapid, lethal, and overwhelming force at a time and place of our choosing.”

The 10-hour joint forces mission began at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. U.S. Air Force bomber jets were joined by two Japanese F-2 fighter jets in Japanese airspace. The U.S. bombers then flew over the Korean Peninsula and were accompanied by four South Korea fighter jets. The U.S. bombers also did a low-pass over South Korea’s Osan Air Base, before returning to Guam.

U.S. President Donald Trump again criticized China for failing to stop North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.


Following Friday’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile that landed west of Japan, Trump singled out China for blame on Saturday evening, saying Beijing could “easily solve this problem.

“I am very disappointed in China,” Trump wrote on his Twitter account. “Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue.”

Trump’s remarks echoed those made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who released a statement that blamed both China and Russia for North Korea’s continued violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions.


“As the principal economic enablers of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development program, China and Russia bear unique and special responsibility for this growing threat to regional and global stability,” Tillerson said.


In April, Trump praised his first meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping, later telling reporters that Xi had agreed to suspend coal and fuel shipments to pressure North Korea to stop its belligerent behavior. However, since then, the North has continued to threaten its neighbors and the United States, and Trump has grown more critical of Beijing.

Even though the North Korean missile landed west of Japan, experts said it would be powerful enough to reach much of the U.S. mainland. North Korea’s official news agency said leader Kim Jong Un boasted that the latest test was “meant to send a grave warning to the U.S.”


China condemned the launch, while Japan, South Korea and the U.S. vowed to work together on a new Security Council measure aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.


At the same time, the U.S. Congress has overwhelmingly approved new sanctions aimed at North Korea, Russia and Iran, a measure the White House says Trump plans to sign into law.

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African Union Troops Ambushed in Somalia, Al-Shabab Says 39 Dead

Somalia’s al-Shabab insurgents and troops from the African Union peacekeeping mission clashed on Sunday, a senior military officer said, while the group said it had killed 39 soldiers.

The incident took place in Bulamareer district in Lower Shabelle region about 140 km southwest of Mogadishu.

The al-Shabab fighters ambushed a convoy carrying troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Col. Hassan Mohamed told Reuters.

“The ambush turned into a fierce fight between al-Shabab and AMISOM. We understand fighting is still going on but we do not have the figure of casualties,” he told Reuters.

Abdiasis Abu Musab, al-Shabab’s military operation spokesman, said: “We have in hand 39 dead bodies of AU soldiers including their commander.”

The casualty figure could not be immediately independently verified.

Government officials were not available for immediate comment.

Al-Shabab, which wants to force out the peacekeepers, oust the Western-backed government and impose its strict interpretation of Islam in Somalia, has targeted the peacekeepers in the past.

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Al-Shabab Ambush Kills 18 AU Troops in Somalia

At least 18 African Union troops were killed in a deadly ambush in the Lower Shabelle region by al-Shabab militants, officials and security sources told VOA Somali.


The attack, near near Golweyn village, 120 kilometers south of Mogadishu, targeted a supply convoy of 24 vehicles near the town of Bulo Marer.


Al-Shabab claimed killing 39 AU soldiers, but military officials say that figure is exaggerated.


The convoy of Ugandan soldiers was as part of AMISOM that left Shalanbod town.


Residents in Jeerow village also told VOA Somali that they saw al-Shabab fighters dragging the bodies of two soldiers


AU military spokesman Wilson Rono confirmed the ambush in an interview with VOA Somali.


“There was an IED [Improvised Explosive Device] that was made on the road that hit our convoy and then they followed that up with an ambush, but so far we have not gotten the details of the casualties on both sides,” he said.


Rono denied the figure claimed by al-Shabab.


“That figure is farfetched.”


AMISOM exit strategy

The attack comes a day after AU and Somali government officials concluded a five-day conference where they discussed transitioning security responsibilities from the AU peacekeepers to the Somali national security forces.  AMISOM said it will start gradual transfer of responsibilities next year.


A statement issued at the conclusion of the conference said the transition is “real and must happen, but will be gradual and conditions-based”.


The statement also said the commanders of AMISOM and Somali national forces will hold a meeting in August for a joint, coordinated operation against al-Shabab “for the rest of 2017 and beyond”.


Deputy Governor of Lower Shabelle Ali Nur Mohamed, whose region sees relentless al-Shabab attacks, says “politicization” of the rebuilding of Somali national army is delaying the process.  Mohamed was referring to the apparent divisions within the Somali national army in his region.


He said some members of the national army have left the region following the infighting, which he says created a vacuum in the troops’ capability to operate alongside the AU troops.


“It was five years ago when AU and Somali troops came here in this region, but their operations have been politicized by the officials in previous governments and AMISOM officials themselves,” he said.


He said the Somali government needs to make its own plans.


Mogadishu explosion


Meanwhile, at least 10 people were killed and 15 others were wounded in a massive suicide car bomb attack Sunday in the Somali capital, witnesses and security sources said.

The car that exploded was in a line of vehicles on Maka Al-Mukarama road, Mogadishu’s busiest street, witnesses said.


A VOA Somali service reporter who went to the scene said the car was stuck in a traffic jam due to intensive stop and search operations by the security forces.   The bomber then detonated the car filled with explosives.


A security source who could not be named said it’s believed the ultimate destination for the car used in the attack may have been the parliament, where lawmakers were discussing ongoing constitutional reviews.


Most of the victims were shoppers caught in the explosion as they came out of a supermarket next to the road.


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Two Dead in Attack on Kenya Deputy President’s Home

A gunman and a police officer were killed in an attack on the home of Kenya’s deputy president in the western town of Eldoret, a senior administrator said Sunday, just more than a week before a national election.

Deputy President William Ruto and his family were not at home at the time of the Saturday attack, police said. Ruto is the running mate of President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is seeking a second and final term in office in the Aug. 8 elections.

“From the exchange of fire we thought it was more than one attacker, because he used different firearms, but after we subdued him, we found only one man dead, plus our officer who he had killed,” Wanyama Musiambo, Rift Valley Regional Coordinator, told reporters at the scene Sunday.

Musiambo declined to comment when asked about the motive of the attack, or the attacker’s identity. The deputy president’s residence is guarded by an elite paramilitary police unit.

Musiambo said the attacker initially had no gun but managed to break into the police armory once inside the compound.

“I want to say that after the operation we discovered that it was one gunman, but because he was inside there, he could change position and firearms because he had access to the guns. And the guns he was using were ours,” he said. “We have however launched investigations into the issue, to find out if he conducted the attack alone or he was with others who may have escaped.”

Late Saturday, police initially said the attacker was armed with a machete and had injured one police officer before holing himself up in an outbuilding.

Ruto and Kenyatta spent Saturday campaigning in the counties of Kitale, Kericho and Narok, the president’s office said in a statement. Neither commented on the incident.

A Reuters reporter near Ruto’s compound said he saw several police vehicles going in and out of the compound, as well as one armored vehicle in the compound.

The reporter said he also saw one armored vehicle in the compound.

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Young Ethiopian Immigrant Returns to Help Ethiopian Children

A young Ethiopian immigrant who has spent most of her life in the United States, has founded a project to give back to her country of birth. VOA’s Amber Wihshi has more.

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