California Wildfire Insurance Claims Top $3.3B

Property damage claims from a series of deadly October wildfires now exceed $3.3 billion, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said Tuesday.

The figure represented claims for homes and businesses insured by 15 companies and was more than triple the previous estimate of $1 billion. Jones said the number would continue to rise as more claims were reported.

The amount of claims now reported means that the fires caused more damage than California’s 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which was previously the state’s costliest, with $2.7 billion in damage in 2015 dollars, according to the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Forty-three people were killed in the October blazes that tore through Northern California, including the state’s renowned winemaking regions in Napa and Sonoma counties. They destroyed at least 8,900 buildings as more than 100,000 people were forced to evacuate. It was the deadliest series of fires in California history.

Several dozen buildings were also damaged or destroyed in fires in Southern California’s Orange County.

“Behind each and every one of these claims … are ordinary people, Californians who lost their homes, lost their vehicles, in some cases whose family members lost their lives,” said Jones, a Democrat who is running for attorney general.

Jones said there were just over 10,000 claims for partial home losses, more than 4,700 total losses and about 700 for business property. There were 3,200 claims for damaged or destroyed personal vehicles, 91 for commercial vehicles, 153 for farm equipment and 111 for watercraft.

The figures do not reflect uninsured losses, including public infrastructure and the property of people who were uninsured or underinsured.

Arson suspect’s warning

Meanwhile, a man facing arson charges for a wildfire that destroyed two homes south of the San Francisco Bay Area had an ominous message for a prosecutor during a court hearing Tuesday: “You’re next.”

Marlon Coy, 54, uttered the words while glaring at Santa Cruz County District Attorney Jeffrey Rosell while he explained four of the felony charges Coy is facing, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported.

Coy pleaded not guilty to charges of arson of a nondwelling, arson causing bodily injury and being a felon in possession of a firearm, the newspaper reported.

Witnesses saw Coy start the fire on October 16 near a property in Santa Cruz County connected to someone with whom he had a dispute, sheriff’s officials said.

Coy was arrested in possession of jewelry and a bicycle taken from a home that had been burglarized while under evacuation, according to sheriff’s officials.

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Immigrants From Honduras, Nicaragua Face US Deadline

Immigrants from Honduras and Nicaragua who have Temporary Protected Status in the United States will learn by Monday whether that status is to be extended.

If the Department of Homeland Security does not extend TPS for the two countries by November 6, permission to live and work in the U.S. will expire for thousands of Hondurans and Nicaraguans on January 5.

Honduras and Nicaragua became TPS-designated countries in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch cut a swath of devastation through them. In Honduras, “the hurricane killed 5,657 people and displaced approximately 1.1 million people,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says on its website. The storm also destroyed about 70 percent of the country’s infrastructure.

Nicaragua fared no better. USCIS says 3,045 people were killed and 885 were reported missing.

“Landslides and floods destroyed entire villages and caused extensive damage to the transportation network, housing, medical and educational facilities, water supply and sanitation facilities, and the agricultural sector,” the agency says.

Since then, TPS status has been renewed several times for the two countries on the ground that they were racked by subsequent environmental disasters and had not fully recovered from Mitch.

Miami immigration attorney Stephanie Green told VOA’s LatAm service the main argument for renewal this time around was economic. “The economy of those countries is not strong,” she said. “They’re among the poorest countries in the hemisphere.”

Meant to be temporary

The Trump administration has indicated it will take a harder line on TPS than previous ones. TPS allows citizens of countries hit by natural disasters or war to live and work in the U.S. until their homelands have recovered.

“We’re looking at the fact that TPS means temporary,” DHS spokesman David Lapan said about two weeks ago. “It has not been temporary for many years, and we have created a situation where people have lived in this country for a long time.”

In September, acting DHS Director Elaine Duke ended TPS status for Sudan, while extending it for South Sudan.

In May, then DHS Secretary John Kelly extended TPS status for Haiti for only six months, not the year Haiti’s government had requested.

Kelly indicated another extension was unlikely. He said the six months “should allow Haitian TPS recipients living in the United States time to attain travel documents and make other necessary arrangements for their ultimate departure from the United States, and should also provide the Haitian government with the time it needs to prepare for the future repatriation of all current TPS recipients.”

Haiti’s TPS designation expires in January, and DHS will have to decide on an extension by a November 23 deadline. “They usually decide on extensions right before a reregistration period occurs. If you get a work permit that’s good for a year, maybe three months before the work permit expires, they’ll decide whether they are going to extend TPS or not,” Green said.

According to the Congressional Research Service, about 50,000 Haitians have TPS status as well as 57,000 Hondurans and 2,550 Nicaraguans.

After TPS

To people who have lived and worked in the U.S. for years, returning home could be a shock.

“None of the countries that currently have TPS in this hemisphere are ready to receive all of the people that might be returned,” Green said. “They don’t have the resources. They don’t have the employment. They don’t have the housing. They don’t have medical facilities. They don’t have educational facilities.”

Yet, going home voluntarily may be the best of the choices available to people who lose TPS status. If they try to stay in the U.S., they do so without “legal authority to be here,” Green said.

And anyone who participated in TPS would be easy for immigration officials to track down, simply because of all the information they would have provided on their TPS applications.

“They want to know your name, your date of birth. Of course, they want to know your country of birth. They want to know your telephone number. They want to know where you work. They want to know where you were educated. They want to know everything about you. And, yes, they will have all of your information,” Green said.

She added, “They are already deporting thousands of people. There is nothing to stop them from deporting thousands more.”

After Honduras and Nicaragua, TPS for El Salvador expires March 9. El Salvador got a TPS designation after earthquakes in 2001. The Congressional Research Service said 195,000 Salvadorans have TPS. A decision on whether to extend the program is due January 8.

Ten countries currently have TPS benefits: El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Nepal and Yemen.

VOA’s Latin American service contributed to this report.

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House GOP Leaders Delay Tax Plan Release Amid Changes

House Republicans, straining to make last-minute changes to their far-reaching tax proposal, on Tuesday delayed the rollout by a day after they failed to finalize the details.

The plan pushed by President Donald Trump and Republican leaders in Congress is a top legislative priority. The details originally were to be unveiled on Wednesday, but that was delayed until Thursday, a senior GOP aide said Tuesday night. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the individual wasn’t allowed to publicly discuss the schedule.

The tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee had worked throughout the day and evening to produce a plan for the first overhaul of the nation’s tax code in three decades.


Although they had settled on some key details — such as a cut in the corporate tax rate to 20 percent and maintaining the top personal income tax rate for the wealthy of 39.6 percent — other elements still had to be resolved.


Trump has intensified his lobbying for the nearly $6 trillion tax overhaul plan, seeking a major legislative achievement after the collapse of the health care repeal. The president predicted a grand signing ceremony before Christmas at “the biggest tax event in the history of our country.”


The plan originally unveiled by Trump and congressional Republicans called for shrinking the number of tax brackets from seven to three, with respective tax rates of 12 percent, 25 percent, 35 percent. That plan drew immediate criticism from Democrats, who complained it was too favorable to the wealthy and undermined Trump’s rhetoric about it benefiting the middle class.

The head of the House tax-writing committee, Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, did not answer directly when he was asked — while leaving House Speaker Paul Ryan’s suite Tuesday — whether the drop in the corporate tax rate would happen immediately. But, he said: “I want as much growth right from Day One as I can.”


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Gunfire, Protests Reported in Eritrea’s Capital

Demonstrations in Eritrea’s capital Asmara have drawn a violent crackdown with reports of gunshots.

The U.S. Embassy reported the protests and gunshots, although the source of the gunfire is unknown. Multiple videos shared via Facebook and Twitter and uploaded to YouTube show demonstrators fleeing along Asmara’s downtown streets with sounds of gunshots audible.

Unverified reports state the protests began in the city’s predominantly Muslim Akriya neighborhood. There, an Islamic school, Diaa Islamic School of Asmara, had been ordered by the government to change its curriculum. The school’s board — including an elderly board member, Hajji Muasa Mohamed Nur — refused and some were arrested, according to a report by, an Eritrean news website that is opposed to the government and its policies. The arrests prompted students and others sympathetic to the cause to take to the streets to demonstrate.

According to Radio Erena, a radio station run by Eritrean diaspora journalists in Paris, more than 100 students from the school protested on Oct. 31 following an order by the government to shut down the school. Within an hour, government forces armed with sticks and firearms dispersed the crowd, Radio Erena reported.

Eritrea’s Minister of Information Yemane Gebremeskel took to Twitter to downplay the importance of the protests, calling it a “small demonstration by one school in Asmara dispersed without any casualty hardly breaking news.” 

Protests are exceedingly rare in the Eritrean capital where free speech and political demonstrations are severely curtailed.

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Bahrain Imposes Entry Visas on Qatar Nationals, Residents

Bahrain said on Tuesday it would impose entry visas on Qatar nationals and residents in what it called a security measure.

Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cut diplomatic, transport and trade ties with Qatar in June, accusing it of financing terrorism. Doha denies that and says the boycott is an attempt to rein in its support for reform.

“The new measures aim at preventing harming the security and stability of the kingdom of Bahrain particularly in light of the latest repercussions of the crisis with Qatar,” said a statement from the official Bahraini news agency BNA.

Citizens from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council countries are supposed to be able to travel within the GCC carrying only an identity card. Bahrain’s visa requirements will apply from Nov. 10.

Ambassador Ali Khalfan Al Mansouri, Qatar’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva, said the visas “constitute a flagrant violation of the agreements and resolutions of the Gulf Cooperation Council.”

“These measures are completely contrary to the statements of officials of the siege countries not to harm the Qatari citizen when taking any steps in the context of this crisis,” Mansouri told the Qatari state news agency.

Bahrain believes Qatar is fomenting unrest in the island kingdom by supporting protests and even sporadic shooting and bombing attacks against security forces.

Bahrain’s foreign minister said on Sunday his country would not attend December’s GCC summit if Qatar does not change its policies, and that Qatar should have its GCC membership suspended.


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Ukraine Official: US Should Demand Access to Yanukovych in Manafort Case

A top Ukrainian official says Russia should provide U.S. investigators with access to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after his rule was toppled in Ukraine’s Maidan revolution of 2014.

Dmitry Shymkiv, the deputy head of the administration of President Petro Poroshenko, said access to Yanukovych could prove vital to an understanding of the work done for Ukraine by indicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Shymkiv, whose role is similar to that of deputy chief of staff in the United States, spoke to VOA in response to comments made Tuesday by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said Washington should further investigate Ukrainian links to Manafort.

Kyiv “has information” about the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Lavrov told a news briefing, according to reports by Russian news outlet RIA.

U.S. investigators probing Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election — which Moscow denies having made — charged Manafort and a business associate on Monday with conspiracy to launder money and other crimes. The charges, some going back more than a decade, center on Manafort’s work in Ukraine, specifically for Yanukovych’s pro-Russian Party of Regions.

Yanukovych, who fled to Crimea just before it was annexed by Russian forces in February 2014, was not seen again until he held a news conference three weeks later in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.

Ukrainian TV channel TSN has reported that Yanukovych lives in the Rostov region, although Russian officials have never confirmed this.

“We need to understand … how all of the [ties between Manafort and top Ukrainian officials] took place,” said Shymkiv, secretary of the National Reform Council to the president of Ukraine and deputy head of Poroshenko’s administration.

Russia, however, has not cooperated with a Ukrainian government arrest warrant for Yanukovych, who stands accused of the “mass murder of peaceful citizens” during the uprising against his administration. Similarly, Shymkiv suggested in a Skype interview with VOA’s Ukrainian service, Russian officials would be unlikely to accommodate a U.S. request for Yanukovych to testify in the Manafort trial.

“I believe Yanukovych should be interrogated by the U.S. government, but I don’t think the Russians would let the Americans do that,” he said, laughing. “But it is absolutely a valid claim, because Yanukovych was the leader of Ukraine’s oligarchical structure, the leader of the corrupted vertical that was built in Ukraine since his rise to power in 2012 and up to the 2013 revolution of dignity.”

In his remarks Monday, Lavrov suggested that the charges over Manafort’s work for Ukraine indicated that the U.S. investigators had so far been unable to make a case against Russia, which has been the main focus of the probe headed by special counsel Robert Mueller.

“He has been working for several months. Accused two former Trump campaign managers of what they were doing on behalf of Yanukovych. Even though they were looking for a Russian trace,” Lavrov said, according to the Russian news outlet Sputnik International.

Lavrov also hinted at a Ukrainian role in last year’s U.S. presidential election, saying Ukrainian officials “can say a lot about their position toward the candidates during the 2016 presidential campaign.”

Shymkiv said U.S. investigators should explore whether Manafort was connected to the confiscation of revenue from some Ukrainian businesses while he was serving as a consultant to Yanukovych’s party.

“There was very aggressive behavior toward Ukrainian business people, and there was a strong extraction of money from different industries, so [Yanukovych] should be interrogated in this case, or at least be a subject of the case, because Paul Manafort was hired by the Party of Regions, which represented Mr. Yanukovych,” said Shymkiv.

Ukraine focus on lobbying

Asked for his reaction to the Manafort indictment, Shymkiv, who is tasked with overseeing post-Maidan reforms under Poroshenko’s administration, said that while U.S. news coverage has been dominated by the money-laundering and tax-evasion charges, Ukrainians are focused on U.S.-based lobbying groups in the employ of various Ukrainian politicians.

“[The Manafort trial] puts a significant light on a lot of lobbying activities in the U.S. from international governments or some political forces,” he said. “We’ve seen many Ukrainian politicians hiring lobbyists for different activities — creating, for example, fake hearings in the Congress.

“We appreciate American journalists who investigated it and showed how fake it is. But it is important that through the interrogation of Manafort by U.S. law enforcement agencies, we might get some additional insight into corruption practices, or other similar activities, which were happening in Ukraine during the Yanukovych regime,” Shymkiv added. “This can help Ukrainian law enforcement agencies build stronger cases on convicting some Ukrainian individuals.”

Ukrainian prosecutors, he noted, are willing to remain in touch with U.S. Justice Department officials.

“As this Manafort case evolves, there will be more stories and more disclosures taking place,” he said.

Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign manager for about two months in the summer of 2016, was forced to resign after reports surfaced about his financial relationship with Yanukovych.

This story originated in VOA’s Ukrainian service.

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Cleared of Islamic State, Raqqa Remains a Deadly Battlefield

Syrians hoping to return home to Raqqa now that the city has been liberated from the clutches of the Islamic State terror group are being told to wait indefinitely.

Coalition officials say the problem comes from potentially thousands of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and booby traps littered across the city, some already taking a toll.

“Civilians deaths have already been reported by some of those who have tried to return,” Major General James Jarrard, commander of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve said Tuesday, briefing Pentagon reporters from Baghdad.

“It’s still not safe,” he added. “There are so many out there, nobody moves around very freely.”

200,000 fled Raqqa

Aid groups estimate more than 200,000 people fled Raqqa since efforts to retake the city gained steam. And there may be a temptation for some of them to try to return as winter brings rain and colder temperatures.

But officials caution even the weather is wracking havoc on the city.

“The other day we had the first significant rainstorm in that part of Syria,” said Jarrard. “There are so many explosive devices still left, and the rain was hard and actually causing some of those explosive devices to detonate.”

Work to clear the city of IEDs is under way, with private contractors joining the Syrian Democratic forces to speed up the process though the coalition refuses to estimate when the work will be done.

More progress had been made in some of the outer edges of the city, as well as its suburbs, than in the city center, where some of the heaviest fighting took place.

Most Islamic State fighters gone

Despite the threat from IEDs, booby traps and unexploded munitions, officials say IS itself poses little danger.

Raqqa itself is “void of Daesh fighters,” said the coalition’s Jarrard, using the Arabic acronym for the terror group.

And outside of the group’s last remaining stronghold in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, its reach has been limited.

“It is a very low threat of any Daesh attacks or any Daesh period in northeast Syria,” said Jarrard. “Once you get away from the front lines it is a relatively secure place.”

U.S. officials estimate Islamic State may still have as many as 7,000 fighters at its disposal across Syria and Iraq. But they say the group is on the run, “hiding in basements or holes in the ground or caves.”

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World Bank Approves $400 Million to Rebuild Liberated Iraqi Areas

The World Bank on Tuesday approved $400 million in additional funding to help rebuild services to Iraqi areas recaptured from Islamic State militants after a three-year military campaign, the global development bank said.

The World Bank also said it would fund studies on how to involve the private sector in the reconstruction of Mosul’s airport and restore public transport terminals as well as parts of the railway network.

“The package represents an additional financing to the Iraq Emergency Operation for Development Project [$350 million] approved back in July 2015 and already under way in seven cities in Diyala and Salah Ad-Din governorates,” the World Bank said in a statement.

It said the new funding would focus on rebuilding in five sectors — water and sanitation, electricity, health, transport and municipal services. The funds will also help with the restoration and preservation of cultural heritage sites in Mosul’s Old City, which was heavily damaged by fighting.

Iraqi government forces, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, retook Mosul in May — by far the largest city to fall under militants’ control — after nearly nine months of urban warfare.

Iraqi government officials have estimated it will take at least five years and billions of dollars to rebuild Mosul.

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Britain Accelerates Brexit Plans; Talks Also to Speed Up

Britain is accelerating preparations for “all eventualities” when it leaves the European Union, but both sides are hopeful an agreement on stepping up talks to unravel more than 40 years of partnership will be sealed soon.

With only 17 months remaining until Britain’s expected departure, the slow pace of talks has increased the possibility that London will leave without a deal, alarming business leaders who say time is running out for them to make investment decisions.

British and EU negotiators met in Brussels on Tuesday to try to agree a schedule for further divorce talks, with an initial proposal from the bloc to hold three more rounds before the end of the year not winning instant approval from London.

The pressure has spurred the British government to step up its Brexit plans, employing thousands more workers and spending millions to make sure customs posts, laws and systems work on day one of Brexit, even without a deal on a future relationship.

At a meeting with her ministers Tuesday, Prime Minister Theresa May was updated on plans for the tax and customs authority to add 3,000 to 5,000 workers next year and for spending of 500 million pounds ($660.45 million) for Brexit.

Domestic preparations

“Alongside the negotiations in Brussels, it is crucial that we are putting our own domestic preparations in place so that we are ready at the point that we leave the EU,” May’s spokesman told reporters.

“The preparatory work has seen a significant acceleration in recent months. Departments are preparing detailed delivery plans for each of the around 300 programs underway across government.”

May wants to silence critics in her ruling Conservative Party who are pressing her to walk away from talks, which have faltered over how much Britain should pay to leave the bloc.

Brexit campaigners are demanding that Britain leave with no deal if the talks do not move on beyond a discussion of the divorce settlement on a so-called Brexit bill, EU citizens rights and the border with EU member Ireland by December.

Brexit minister David Davis said Tuesday that he thought Britain would agree on some kind of basic deal with the European Union, even in the “very improbable” eventuality that they failed to agree on a trade deal.

Better tone

In a sign that an improved tone between the two sides, struck at a summit earlier this month, was continuing, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier reaffirmed his message in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, that he was ready to “speed up negotiations.”

May’s government has also long said it would welcome an acceleration in the talks. But the sides have yet to agree on how to do that following a top-level meeting in Brussels on October 19-20.

Barnier has proposed three rounds — one that did not take place last week, and two more in the weeks starting November 16 and December 4. London prefers continuous talks.

“We are ready to accelerate, but we must have something to talk about,” said an EU official.

This was what Britain’s Oliver Robbins and Barnier’s deputy, Sabine Weyand, were seeking to agree on in Brussels on Tuesday.

Before leaving the EU, May faces a struggle to get parliamentary support for a law to sever political, financial and legal ties with the bloc — the EU Withdrawal Bill, for which lawmakers have proposed hundreds of amendments.

Asked whether May was preparing to offer a concession over a final vote on any deal struck with the EU, her spokesman said there was “lots of speculation in relation to Brexit.”

“We’ve always said that we’ll do whatever is necessary,” he said.

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Prime Minister: Iraq to Pay Kurdish Peshmerga, Civil Servants

The Iraqi government plans to soon start paying the salaries of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and civil servants working for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Tuesday.

The semi-autonomous KRG has been struggling to pay the Peshmerga and its employees since 2014, after Baghdad stopped payments to it because of a dispute about oil-sharing revenue.

“We will soon be able to pay all the salaries of the Peshmerga and the employees of the region,” Abadi told reporters.

The cost of a three-year war on Islamic State added to the Kurdistan region’s financial difficulties, and Iraqi troops captured the oil region of Kirkuk from the Peshmerga two weeks ago, halving the KRG’s oil income.

Paying Kurdish salaries would help defuse tensions in the northern Iraqi region, where a referendum vote in favor of Kurdish independence in September triggered economic and military retaliation from the Iraqi government.

The Peshmerga had taken over the multi-ethnic region of Kirkuk in 2014, after the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of Islamic State, preventing the militants from controlling its oil fields.

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Iran Says Supreme Leader Limits Ballistic Missile Range

Iran’s supreme leader has restricted the range of ballistic missiles manufactured in the country to 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles), the head of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard said Tuesday, which limits their reach to only regional Mideast targets.

The comments on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s orders appear to be an effort by Iranian authorities to contrast their missile program, which they often describe as being for defensive purposes, against those of countries like North Korea, which poses a threat to the United States.

“It is a political decision,” said Michael Elleman, the senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington. “I think with the supreme leader saying it, it takes on a little more significance.”

The range of 2,000 kilometers encompasses much of the Middle East, including Israel and American military bases in the region. That’s a concern for the U.S. and its allies, but Iran’s ballistic missile program was not included in the 2015 nuclear deal that it struck with world powers.

Speaking on the sidelines of a conference in Tehran, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari told journalists that the capability of Iran’s ballistic missiles is “enough for now.” The Guard runs Iran’s missile program, answering only to Khamenei.

“Today, the range of our missiles, as the policies of Iran’s supreme leader dictate, are limited to 2,000 kilometers, even though we are capable of increasing this range,” he said. “Americans, their forces and their interests are situated within a 2,000-kilometer radius around us and we are able to respond to any possible desperate attack by them.”

However, Jafari said he didn’t believe there would be war between Iran and the U.S.

“They know that if they begin a war between Iran and the United States, they will definitely be the main losers and their victory will by no means be guaranteed,” he said. “Therefore, they won’t start a war.”

While keeping with the anti-American tone common in his speeches, Jafari’s comments seemed to be timed to calm tensions over Iran’s missile program.


By limiting their range, Iran can contrast itself with North Korea, as Pyongyang has tested developmental intercontinental ballistic missiles that could potentially reach the U.S. mainland and conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date.

Pyongyang also flew two powerful new midrange missiles over Japan, between threats to fire the same weapons toward Guam, a U.S. Pacific territory and military hub.


The Trump administration already sanctioned Iran for test-firing a ballistic missile in February, with then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn warning Tehran that Iran was “on notice.” President Donald Trump’s recent refusal to re-certify the nuclear accord has sent the matter to the U.S. Congress. On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to put new sanctions on Iran for its pursuit of long-range ballistic missiles, without derailing the deal.

Iran long has insisted its ballistic missiles are for defensive purposes. It suffered a barrage of Scud missiles fired by Iraq after dictator Saddam Hussein launched an eight-year war with his neighbor in the 1980s that killed 1 million people. To build its own program, Tehran purchased North Korean missiles and technology, providing much-needed cash to heavily sanctioned Pyongyang.


Iran today likely has the capability to go beyond 2,000 kilometers with its Khorramshahr ballistic missile, though it chose to limit its range by putting a heavier warhead on it in testing, Elleman said.


“It will be interesting to see how Iran reconciles this Khorramshahr missile with the supreme leader’s dictate,” he said. “Iran may say, ‘Well, we’re fitting it with this big warhead so we’re not exceeding this limitation,’ but the modification is very simple.”

The Gulf Arab nations surrounding Iran, while hosting American military bases, also fly sophisticated U.S. fighter jets that Iranian forces can’t match. The ballistic missiles provide leverage against them, as well as the U.S.-made anti-missile batteries their neighbors have bought, according to Tytti Erasto, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

“Iran’s pattern of missile testing — which has sought to address the long-standing problem of poor accuracy — is consistent with the program’s stated purpose as a regional deterrent,” Erasto wrote Monday. “It also reinforces the argument that Iran’s missiles are designed to be conventional, not nuclear.”

Still, Iran could use the missiles as “a tool of coercion and intimidation,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, the senior Iran analyst at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which takes a hard line on Tehran and is skeptical of the nuclear deal.

“A secure Islamic Republic that does not fear kinetic reprisal is more likely to engage in low-level proxy wars and foreign adventurism, much like we see today,” he said.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Iran broke ground at its Bushehr nuclear power plant for two more atomic reactors to generate electricity. State television quoted Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, as saying the first new reactor would go online in seven years, while a third would be active in nine years.

Russia will provide assistance in building the new reactors as Moscow helped bring Bushehr online in 2011. It marks the first expansion of Iran’s nuclear power industry since the atomic accord.


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Nigeria President Buhari Plans to Expand His Cabinet

Nigeria’s cabinet will be expanded to bring in “more people and fresh ideas, for the ultimate benefit of the people of Nigeria,” President Muhammadu Buhari said on Tuesday.

Government officials have privately raised the prospect of Buhari reshuffling his cabinet since he returned from medical leave in Britain in August, but the presidency had not discussed any changes until Tuesday’s comments on Twitter.

However, Buhari did not immediately provide any further details, nor mention any potential reshuffle of ministers’ current portfolios.

The president’s relationship with his cabinet has at times been tense. It took him six months to appoint his initial team after he was inaugurated in May, 2015.

Ministers have struggled to get access to Buhari since then and some are unhappy with their portfolios, according to people familiar with the situation.

A letter from Nigeria’s oil minister to Buhari, leaked at the beginning of this month, said he had failed to secure an appointment with the president despite many attempts to do so.

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Ousted Catalan Leader in Brussels as Spain Seek Charges

Spain’s High Court Tuesday called for ousted Catalonia President Carles Puigdemont to appear in court on Thursday morning.

Spanish prosecutors announced plans to seek sedition, rebellion and embezzlement charges against Puigdemont and his colleagues, who are currently in Brussels “for safety purposes and freedom”.

Puigdemont said Tuesday he would not be seeking asylum in Belgium. He and 13 members of his sacked administration were called to appear in court at 9 a.m. on Thursday.

Chief prosecutor Jose Manuel Maza said Monday he would seek to charge the leaders of Catalonia who led a push to secede from Spain. It is up to a court to decide whether to move forward with the charges, which could bring lengthy jail terms, including up to 30 years for rebellion.

A disputed Catalonian referendum on October 1 ended with a vote for the autonomous region to break away from Spain.

The government in Madrid rejected the secession push, and after Catalan lawmakers declared independence last week the central government asserted control over the region and dissolved the local parliament.

New elections are set for December, and Catalonia’s separatist party announced it would field candidates.

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Czech Election Winner Babis to Seek Minority Government

Czech election winner Andrej Babis will attempt to form a minority government after being shunned by other parties, Babis said on Tuesday after meeting the president.

The country faces the possibility of months of political wrangling which could put approval of the 2018 budget approval at risk, potentially curbing investments that would help the economy keep growing at least at its current rapid pace.

Babis said he hoped to have a new government put together by the Christmas holiday.

His ANO party won a parliamentary election this month by a large margin, convincing voters it could deliver a more effective state, weed out corruption and distribute the fruits of economic expansion more fairly.

Other parties have refused to back a government that includes billionaire businessman Babis, who is facing fraud charges regarding a 2 million euro EU subsidy. Babis denies any wrongdoing, calling the charges politically motivated.

After meeting President Milos Zeman, Babis said he was “very sorry” the other parties had not given ANO a chance in coalition talks.

“We will try to form a minority government and will try to convince lawmakers … of other parties with our program,” he told a news conference alongside Zeman.

Zeman said he would give Babis a second attempt if his first try fails a confidence vote in the lower house.

Forming a minority government would require support from other parties as ANO’s 78 seats do not make up a majority in the 200-member lower chamber.

Only the Communists have said they could tolerate a minority government.


Babis can be appointed prime minister only after Nov. 20, when the newly elected lower chamber of parliament opens its session. It has to elect a speaker before current Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka can vacate the position for his successor.

This process could take long as some parties may try to prevent Babis’ appointment by blocking the speaker’s election.

In 2013, Zeman rejected a majority coalition in parliament after a center-right cabinet had collapsed, and appointed Jiri Rusnok, the current Governor of the Czech National Bank, as prime minister. His government ruled for half a year without winning a confidence vote.

Babis dismissed a suggestion by the head of the conservative TOP 09 party to block the speaker as “destructive and reckless.”

“The worst thing which could happen is that we would have a blocked parliament and a provisional budget,” he said.

If a budget is not approved by the end of the year, a provisional arrangement kicks in, meaning the state would run with the previous year’s budget, imposing severe limits on investments and other non-mandatory spending.

Czech markets have taken the political uncertainty in their stride, with the crown trading near multi-year highs as the central bank looks set to continue raising interest rates this week.

The country of 10.6 million has a history of shaky coalition governments. The outgoing center-left coalition, led by the Social Democrats and including ANO, is the first in 15 years to finish its four-year term.

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4 Killed, 15 Injured in Eastern Congo Protests Over Kabila

The United Nations Joint Office for Human Rights says four people have been killed and 15 others injured amid clashes between security forces and protesters in eastern Congo.

The office said Tuesday that the U.N. mission in Congo has deployed a team to Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, to monitor the situation and investigate. It also said security forces arrested at least 37 people.


Protesters in Goma on Monday demanded that President Joseph Kabila step down at the end of the year if new elections are not held.


The U.N. mission says it condemns “all forms of violence and calls for the respect of fundamental rights and freedoms, including the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and demonstration.”


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UN Official: Over 13 Million People Inside Syria Need Aid

More than 13 million people inside Syria still need humanitarian assistance and nearly half are in “acute need” as a result of having fled their homes, of hostilities, and of limited access to food, health care and other basic needs, the U.N. humanitarian chief said Monday.


Mark Lowcock told the Security Council the number of Syrians who have been displaced within the country for a long time has dropped from 6.3 million to 6.1 million. But he said “levels of new displacement remain high,” with 1.8 million people reportedly forced to leave between January and September.


Since just the offensive began in November 2016 that ousted the Islamic State extremist group from the city of Raqqa, its self-proclaimed capital, airstrikes and clashes resulted in over 436,000 people being displaced to 60 different locations, Lowcock said, speaking via video conference from Amman, Jordan.


In the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, he said, heavy fighting and airstrikes continue to cause civilian deaths and injuries as well as large-scale displacement. The International Organization for Migration reported some 350,000 people forced to flee since August, including more than 250,000 in October, he said.


Lowcock said airstrikes on the city of Al Mayadin in Deir el-Zour in mid-October left hospitals and medical facilities “inoperable,” depriving about 15,000 people of health care. He said the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF and the World Health Organization reported that the attacks destroyed a cold room where at least 140,000 doses of U.N. provided measles and polio vaccines were destroyed.


“This is a particular setback for efforts to check one of the world’s largest polio outbreaks in recent memory, an outbreak which continues to plague Deir el-Zour in particular, with new cases continuing to be reported,” Lowcock said.


He said nearly 3 million people continue to live in besieged and hard-to-reach areas where the U.N. faces “considerable challenges” in meeting humanitarian needs.


Lowcock said there was an expectation that progress in de-escalating fighting would result in increased humanitarian access but “this has yet to materialize.”


On average, he said, only 10 percent of people in besieged locations were reached with U.N. assistance every month this year.


In the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, “one of the four de-escalated areas where nearly 95 percent of Syria’s besieged population lives,” shelling has been reported in recent weeks and humanitarian access has been severely curtailed for months, Lowcock said.


“Since the start of the year, 110,000 people have received food assistance, out of an estimated population of nearly 400,000,” he said. “Today, the U.N. and partners delivered food, nutrition and health assistance to 40,000 people.”


Lowcock said “an alarming number of child malnutrition cases” have been reported in eastern Ghouta and more than 400 people with health problems need medical evacuation.


Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, called the situation in eastern Ghouta “atrocious,” saying de-escalation should not mean bombardment.


“What we fear is that the de-escalation zone is becoming a starvation zone,” Rycroft said. “So we call on the Syrian regime and their allies to lift the blockade to allow humanitarian aid to get through.”

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McCain Thanks Midshipmen for Their Sacrifice to Nation

Republican Sen. John McCain on Monday gratefully thanked U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen for sacrificing for fellow Americans “who won’t be asked to make sacrifices for you” in an emotional address from the former Navy pilot now battling brain cancer.


With a mix of humor and pathos, the six-term Arizona senator returned to his alma mater to speak to the Brigade of Midshipmen and field a few questions about past presidential campaigns, the Russia probe and advice for those at the academy in Annapolis, Maryland.


McCain, 81, described himself as an “undistinguished member of the class of 1958” and now stands as the “luckiest guy you’ll ever know.” The senator underwent surgery in mid-July to remove a 2-inch (51-millimeter) blood clot in his brain after being diagnosed with an aggressive tumor called a glioblastoma.


“Many of you will risk everything for your country. You will make sacrifices for your fellow Americans, who won’t be asked to make sacrifices for you. That’s your calling. Thank you for accepting it,” said McCain, who spent 5 years in a Vietnamese prison after being shot down. “I promise, there will be compensations for the hard times you endure. You will have lives of adventure. You will have the best company. And you will know a satisfaction far more sublime than pleasure.”


McCain described his regret from the 2000 presidential campaign, when he yielded to polling data and said the people of South Carolina should decide whether the Confederate flag should fly over their state.


“My friends, that was the wrong answer and I lost anyway. It was the easy thing to say at that time,” McCain recalled. “I knew at the time it was the wrong thing to say.”


His message to the midshipmen: “Do the right thing, thanks or no thanks.”

Questioned about the Russia probe, McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had not seen evidence that the meddling by Moscow affected the outcome of the presidential election. He added, however, that he has seen these scandals before and “every day, another shoe drops.”


McCain recently drew the wrath of President Donald Trump for questioning the “half-baked, spurious nationalism” in America’s foreign policy. The senator shrugged off the criticism, saying he had faced tougher adversaries. The GOP senator stunned the White House this past summer when he was the decisive vote against a Republican plan to dismantle Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.


Given a chance Monday night to answer additional questions, McCain joked, “as many questions as you want, since we’re not doing anything in the Senate.”

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Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey Launch ‘Silk Road’ Rail Link

The leaders of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia launched an 826-km (500-mile) rail link connecting the three countries on Monday, establishing a freight and passenger link between Europe and China that bypasses Russia.

The line, which includes 105 km of new track, will have the capacity to transport one million passengers and 5 million tons of freight.

The three countries are linked by the BP-led Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas line, but trade links between Turkey and the Caucasus region are limited. The new Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway (BTK) promises to provide an economic boost to the region.

“Baku-Tbilisi-Kars is part of a big Silk Road and it’s important that we have implemented this project using our own funds,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said at the railway’s inauguration ceremony attended by Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili.

Starting in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, trains will stop in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, pass through gauge-changing facilities in the Georgian town of Akhalkalaki and end their journey in the Turkish town of Kars.

The project’s total cost rose to more than $1 billion from an initial estimate of about $400 million. The bulk of that financing came from Azerbaijan’s state oil fund.

The rail link between Azerbaijan and Georgia was modernized under the project, which was launched in 2007. Its completion had been postponed several times since 2011.

“Several European countries have expressed an interest in this project and Azerbaijan is in talks with them,” Aliyev said, adding Kazakhstan and other countries in Central Asia were interested in transporting their goods via the BTK.

The new link will reduce journey times between China and Europe to around 15 days, which is more than twice as fast as the sea route at less than half the price of flying.

Trains can depart from cities in China, cross into Kazakhstan at the Khorgos Gateway, be transported across the Caspian Sea by ferry to the New Port of Baku and then be loaded directly onto the BTK and head to Europe.

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African Development Bank Calls Off Proposed Loans to Nigeria

The African Development Bank has called off a loan to Nigeria that would have helped fund the country’s budget, instead redirecting the money to specific projects, a vice president at the lender said on Monday.

The African Development Bank had been in talks with Nigeria for around a year to release the second, $400 million tranche of a $1 billion loan to shore up its budget for 2017, as the government tried to reinvigorate its stagnant economy with heavy spending.

But Nigeria refused to meet the terms of international lenders, which also included the World Bank, to enact various reforms, including allowing its currency, the naira, to float freely on the foreign exchange market.

Rather than loan Nigeria money to fund its budget, the African Development Bank is likely to take at least some of that money and “put it directly into projects,” Amadou Hott, African Development Bank vice president for power, energy, climate change and green growth, told Reuters in an interview during a Nordic-African business conference in Oslo.

Because prices for oil, on which Nigeria’s government relies for about two-thirds of its revenues, have risen and the naira-dollar exchange rate has improved, the country is relying less than expected on external borrowing, Hott said.

No one from the Nigerian finance ministry was immediately available to comment.

Nigeria’s 2017 budget, 7.44 trillion naira, is just one in a series of record budgets that the government has faced obstacles funding, pushing it to seek loans from overseas.

In late 2016, the AfDB agreed to lend Nigeria a first tranche of $600 million out of $1 billion. But negotiations over economic reform later bogged down, blocking attempts to secure the second tranche of $400 million, sources told Reuters then.

Now, AfDB’s loans will be more targeted, Hott said.

“It’s hundreds of millions of dollars, just in one go, that we were supposed to provide in budget support, but we will move into real projects … ” he said.

Earlier this month, the head of Nigeria’s Debt Management Office said the country is still in talks with the World Bank for a $1.6 billion loan, which will help plug part of an expected $7.5 billion deficit for 2017.

The administration is also trying to restructure its debt to move away from high-interest, naira-denominated loans and towards dollar loans, which carry lower rates.

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Mattis and Tillerson: No New War Authorization Needed

A new war authorization is “not legally required” to conduct combat operations against terrorist groups across the globe, top administration officials said Monday.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that the current authorization should not be repealed, even if Congress approves a new authorization of force to cover the fight against Islamic State.

“The United States must retain the proper legal authorities to ensure that nothing restricts or delays our ability to respond effectively and rapidly to terrorist threats to the United States,” Tillerson said.

Both leaders have said on multiple occasions that the current law, created after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, covers the authorization needed to fight terror groups.

Mattis welcomed continued congressional support but expressed concern to lawmakers that should Congress decide to repeal the current law, coalition partners and America’s enemies might view that as “backing away” from the fight.

Tillerson added that Congress should not restrict the geography of any new war authorizations because the fight against terrorists can quickly move from continent to continent.

“This is the nature of the enemy we’re confronted with today,” Tillerson said.

The hearing comes as many in Congress have demanded a new authorization for the use of military force. Both Republicans and Democrats at the hearing Monday argued that the 16-year authorization is not tailored to the current counterterrorism fight.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is sponsoring legislation for a new war authorization, said Monday that a new authorization may not be needed legally, but it’s “certainly needed politically.”

“We’ve got to have a conversation where the Congress is more involved here,” Flake said.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) warned that the post-9/11 authorization has become “so convoluted that it’s hard to trace a path” between its original purpose and its military use today.

Members of Congress argue that Islamic State is an enemy that did not exist 16 years ago, and the group has taken the counter-terror battle to countries that the original American war authorization did not anticipate fighting in.

Niger Pushes Limits

The demand for a new authorization was pushed to the political forefront after a deadly ambush in Niger killed four American soldiers and four members of Niger’s security forces.

The United States has about 800 service members in Niger to provide support for the U.S. embassy and counter-terrorism training for government forces battling Islamist militant groups. Several hundred more American troops are in other African countries.

Some lawmakers pushed Mattis on why so many troops were in Niger at the time of the attack. Mattis said that Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump sent troops there because “as the physical caliphate (of Islamic State) is collapsing, the enemy is trying to move somewhere.”

He added that the French have played a big role in building up militaries in West Africa, and the United States also has been “trying to prepare” these militaries in case their countries come under attack when the Islamic State caliphate falls apart.

Officials said the mission of the soldiers ambushed in Niger had been considered “low risk.” One U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told VOA that soldiers involved in the incident had said their meeting with local leaders had run late, and some suspected that the villagers were intentionally delaying their departure,” the official said.

Various Islamist militant groups operate in Niger. Nigeria-based Boko Haram has carried out attacks in eastern Niger, and Algeria-based al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operates in the west, along with pockets of Islamic State fighters.

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Putin Opens Monument to Stalin’s Victims, Dissidents Cry Foul

President Vladimir Putin inaugurated a monument to the victims of Stalinist purges on Monday, but Soviet-era dissidents accused him of cynicism at a time when they say authorities are riding roughshod over civil freedoms.

“The Wall of Grief” occupies a space on the edge of Moscow’s busy 10-lane ring road and depicts a mass of faceless victims, many of whom were sent to prison camps or executed on Josef Stalin’s watch after falsely being accused of being “enemies of the people.”

Nearly 700,000 people were executed during the Great Terror of 1937-38, according to conservative official estimates.

“An unequivocal and clear assessment of the repression will help to prevent it being repeated,” Putin said at the opening ceremony. “This terrible past must not be erased from our national memory and cannot be justified by anything.”

His words and the ceremony amounted to one of his strongest condemnations of the Soviet Union’s dark side in the 18 years he has dominated Russia’s political landscape.

Putin has in the past called Stalin “a complex figure” and said attempts to demonize him were a ploy to attack Russia. But at Monday’s ceremony, he said there were lessons for Russia.

“It doesn’t mean demanding accounts be settled,” said Putin, who stressed a need for stability. “We must never again push society to the dangerous precipice of division.”

‘Tragic Pages’

Putin’s carefully balanced words reflect Kremlin unease over this year’s centenary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which paved the way for Stalin’s rise. Uncomfortable about promoting discussion of the idea of governments being overthrown by force, the Kremlin is not organizing any commemorative events.

Putin, who is expected to run for and win the presidency again in March, told human rights activists earlier on Monday that he hoped the centenary would allow society to draw a line under the tumultuous events of 1917 and to accept Russia’s history – “with great victories and tragic pages.”

Yet some historians fret that what they say is Putin’s ambiguity about Stalin along with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea have emboldened Stalin’s admirers.

Monuments and memorial plaques honoring Stalin have sprung up in different Russian regions. State-approved textbooks have softened his image, and an opinion poll in June crowned him the country’s most outstanding historical figure.

By contrast, those who have helped document Stalin’s crimes, from the Memorial human rights group to individual historians and journalists, have sometimes felt themselves under pressure from the authorities.

A group of Soviet-era dissidents published a letter on Monday, accusing Putin of cynicism.

“We … consider the opening in Moscow of a monument to victims of political repression untimely and cynical,” they said in the letter, published on the news portal. “It’s impossible to take part in memorial events organized by the authorities who say they are sorry about victims of the Soviet regime, but in practice continue political repression and crush civil freedoms.”

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Special US Envoy Reports ‘Important Progress’ in Mideast Peace

U.S. special Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt was in Israel Sunday as part of the Trump administration’s attempt to get Israel-Palestinian peace talks back on track.

Greenblatt tweeted that “important progress” was made.

“Meaningful steps forward on key economic issues — revenues, customs, and investment — that help support the search for peace,” he said.

Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner was also at the talks in Ramallah which included Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, Israeli Finance Minster Moshe Khaon, and top Israeli defense ministry official Yoav Mordechai.

A White House official said Monday President Trump believes peace can only be reached through direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians and that no settlement can be imposed on them.

The official also said Greenblatt and Kushner stopped in Saudi Arabia on their way to Israel, but gave no details.

The Mideast peace process has been stalled for several years, primarily over Israeli settlement activity and Palestinian militant violence against Israelis.

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Lobbying, Political Worlds of Paul Manafort Merge in Indictment

For nearly 40 years, Paul Manafort has been one of Washington’s top lobbyists, paid millions of dollars to represent controversial  figures from around the globe who needed to burnish their standing in the U.S. capital, including the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos,  Zaire’s military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and most recently Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych.

At the same time, he has been a Republican political operative, advising and serving an array of the party’s presidents since the 1970s. Just last year, he briefly was campaign chairman for the upstart candidacy of real estate mogul Donald Trump on his eventually successful run to the White House.

Now the lobbying and political worlds of the 68-year-old Manafort have achieved a merger of sorts.

A federal grand jury in Washington indicted him in a money-laundering scheme linked to his lobbying for Moscow-supported Yanukovych before the Kyiv leader was ousted in 2014 and fled to Russia in exile. The charges came as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election aimed at undermining U.S. democracy and help Trump win.

By the end of Monday, Manafort was under house arrest, awaiting resolution of charges that could, if convicted, land him in prison for years.

The indictment against Manafort did not describe his tenure as Trump’s campaign chief and was related solely to lucrative lobbying transactions that predated the Trump campaign.

Trump was quick to note, “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign.”

After Manafort pleaded not guilty to the charges, his lawyer, Kevin Downing, told reporters, “I think you all saw today that President Donald Trump was correct. There is no evidence that Mr. Manafort or the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government. Mr. Manafort represented pro-European Union campaigns for the Ukrainians and … was seeking to further democracy and to help the Ukraine come closer to the United States and the EU.”

Downing said, “Those activities ended in 2014 over two years before Mr. Manafort served in the Trump campaign.”

But Manafort was at the top of the Trump campaign for three months in 2016 and Mueller’s investigators are in the midst of a months-long investigation of trying to determine who had contacts with Russia in the long run-up to Trump’s upset win in the November election over former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. One person they could look to for answers is Paul Manafort.

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US Russia Probe Takes Dramatic Turn With Indictments, Plea Deal

The special counsel investigation into possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia took a dramatic turn Monday with criminal indictments of two former Trump campaign officials, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. Special Counsel Robert Mueller also revealed that a former Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in connection with the Russia probe. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

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