African Leaders Almost Demanded Apology From Trump for Crude Remarks

African leaders were very close to officially demanding President Donald Trump publicly apologize for reportedly crude remarks about the continent and immigration, but backed off, reports say.

The African Union drafted its response to the president at a summit this week.

The draft warned that Trump’s “racist and xenophobic behavior” puts the strategic partnership between the United States and Africa at risk.

It says African heads of state are “appalled” by the presidents’ apparent remarks and “dismayed and shocked by the increasingly consistent trend from the Trump administration to denigrate people of African descent and other people of color.” 

But the African Union decided not to release the draft. It pointed to a Jan. 25th letter from Trump in which he pledged his “deep respect” for Africa and announced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will make an “extended visit” to Africa in March.

Trump also met with Rwandan President Paul Kagame on the sidelines of the Davos economic forum last week.

Kagame is the current chair of the African Union. He says the AU will have to find a way to get along with Trump.

“When the United States decided to give us Trump as their president, we will deal with that president,” Kagame said.

Trump reportedly called Africa, Haiti, and El Salvador “s—hole countries” during a White House meeting on immigration earlier this month, and wanted to exclude Haiti from any immigration reform deal.

He denied using such crude language.

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Diaspora Voices Missing in South Sudan Dialogue, Activists Say

Activists are criticizing a South Sudan peace initiative for leaving a major group out of the discussions.

The initiative, known as the High Level Revitalization Forum, is aimed at reviving South Sudan’s stalled 2015 peace agreement, and it is supposed to draw together a wide range of voices, experiences and positions. 

Reuben Garang, a Canadian-South Sudanese and president of the Coalition of Advocates for South Sudan (CASS), said the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional trade group that endorsed creation of the forum, should include a representative from the South Sudanese diaspora in the next phase of the discussions in Addis Ababa.

“We need to be at the table. We have never been represented since the negotiations started,” said Garang.

The diaspora is the “sixth region” of the African Union, and its significance is written in the framework of the AU, which also endorsed the forum. The AU describes the diaspora as “peoples of African descent who live outside the African continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality, and who are willing to contribute to the development.”

That’s the idea that William Pay, a South Sudanese-American living in Minnesota, wants to foster at the forum on South Sudan. He said the diaspora’s contributions matter and its members’ pain is real.

“About 90 percent of my family are still in South Sudan or are pushed out of South Sudan because of this current conflict,” said Pay. “So directly I am affected. So there is no way that someone will say [to the diaspora] that your voice will not matter.”

Pay added that including members of the diaspora in talks could also help close the gap and foster dialogue among South Sudanese around the world who have often been criticized for furthering hate speech.

CASS, an umbrella group of South Sudan-focused nonprofits in the U.S. and Canada, sent letters to Workneh Gebeyehu, chairman of the IGAD Council of Ministers, and Ismail Wais, IGAD’s special envoy for South Sudan, seeking to make the case that the diaspora has a large influence and can positively influence the peace process.

Garang said he had received no reply to those letters.

The next round of the forum will be dominated by security concerns, Garang said. It is scheduled to begin February 5.

“That is going to be very contentious,” Garang said. Representatives of the diaspora will be “fighting to get positions.”

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Protests Subside in Senegal Following Shooting of Fisherman

Calm has returned to the city of Saint-Louis in northern Senegal, following violent protests and the looting of shops belonging to Mauritanian nationals on Monday.

The violence erupted after the death of a Senegalese fisherman, shot by members of the Mauritanian coast guard. The Senegalese government condemned the killing but called on protesters to stay calm, promising to address the issue with Mauritanian officials.

Since the non-renewal of a fishing agreement between the two West African countries in 2016, incidents involving Senegalese fishermen and the Mauritanian coast guard have been frequent. Moustapha Dieng, the secretary-general of the Senegalese union of artisanal fishermen, said this is not an isolated incident.

“This is the fourth incident in which fishermen have been shot dead. And there are others who have been injured and will never be able to fish again.”

In a written statement, the Mauritanian military said that “the unfortunate event” occurred because of “the provocative behavior of the fishermen who ignored the orders of the coast guard.” They said the coast guard members shot at the engine in an attempt to disable the canoe, but one of the nine fishermen was hit by a bullet. The statement added that coast guard vessels conducted 62 similar operations last year without incident.

In Mauritania, the issue is being discussed widely in both traditional and social media. Mohamed Diop, editor of the Alakhbar newspaper, said the issue is attracting a lot of attention.

“The Mauritanian media are very interested in the issue because the two heads of state have been informed and discussed it on the sidelines of the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa,” he said. “The Senegalese interior minister has said the two presidents decided to address the issue at the highest level to avoid a rift.”

Moustapha Dieng said his union members feel that the Senegal government is not taking the issue seriously.

“When [authorities] board a canoe involved in unlawful fishing, they are allowed by law to confiscate the material, but you have to let the fishermen go. We also want our government to send patrols to the border, just like Mauritania is doing.”

In Mauritania, many residents have denounced the destruction and looting of shops belonging to Mauritanians in Saint-Louis, but most seem to strike a conciliatory tone.

“There is a real attempt to appease the tension, and we can see it because today there was no looting reported in Senegal. And here, the media have been very conciliatory, except a few that are favoring the Mauritanian position in their coverage,” Diop said.

The fishermen’s union in Senegal is hoping discussions between the two governments will resume soon on a new fishing agreement. That would allow its members to conduct their activities in both countries’ territorial waters without fear, in exchange for an annual fee.

The two nations are seeking to avoid an escalation in tensions as they discuss another hot-button issue. Dakar and Nouakchott are hoping to partner to exploit an underwater natural gas field recently discovered at their common maritime border. The two countries severed ties in 1989 following violent incidents and mass repatriation of each other’s citizens. Diplomatic relations have since been restored.

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Israeli Defense Chief: Lebanon Will Pay for Iranian Meddling

Israel’s defense minister said Wednesday that Lebanon would “pay the full price” for Iran’s entrenchment in any future war, the latest in a series of Israeli warnings about Tehran’s growing presence in neighboring Lebanon and Syria.

Avigdor Lieberman said Hezbollah guerrillas have sacrificed Lebanon’s national interests by subjugating the country to Iran. As a result, he said, all of Lebanon would be fair game in a future war.

Speaking to the Institute for National Security Studies’ annual conference, Lieberman said the Lebanese army will be targeted and “if citizens of Tel Aviv are forced to sit in shelters, all of Beirut will too.” 

He also described as “very provocative” Lebanon’s offshore oil and gas exploration tender on the countries’ maritime border and suggested that Lebanon had put out a tender to international groups for a gas field “which is by all accounts ours.”

Hezbollah, Lebanese respond

His comments drew sharp condemnation from Hezbollah and Lebanese officials, including Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Western ally, who described Lieberman’s comments as a “blatant provocation that Lebanon rejects.”

He said Lieberman’s claim is “invalid in form and substance” and that the Lebanese government would follow this up “with the competent international parties to assert its legitimate right to act in its territorial waters.”

Lebanon last year approved the licenses for an international consortium led by France’s Total, Italy’s ENI and Russia’s Novatek to move forward with offshore oil and gas development for two of five blocks in the Mediterranean Sea, including one known as Block 9 that is disputed in part with Israel. 

Lebanese officials say the country will start exploratory offshore drilling in 2019 and say Lebanon wants to assert its resource rights along the length of its maritime territories. 

Offshore drilling could lead to dispute

A major find in Lebanon’s southernmost waters could raise the possibility of a dispute with Israel, which is developing a number of offshore gas deposits, with one large field, Tamar, already producing gas, and the larger Leviathan field set to go online next year. 

There are over 800 square kilometers (300 square miles) of waters claimed by the two countries, which are technically in a state of conflict. Israel and Hezbollah fought a monthlong war in 2006.

Hezbollah, in a statement, said Lieberman’s remarks offer new proof of Israel’s ambitions to steal Lebanon’s resources and said it would confront any aggression against Lebanon’s rights.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun also weighed in on Wednesday, rejecting Lieberman’s statements.

“Comments by Lieberman about Block 9 are a threat to Lebanon and its right to sovereignty over its territorial waters,” he said in a statement released by his office.Israel has repeatedly warned of Iran’s increasing efforts to turn Lebanon into “one giant missile site.” Israel’s chief military spokesman this week said it was “prepared for all the scenarios.”

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah wields enormous political and military influence in Lebanon. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said the Shiite militant group does not seek to provoke a war with Israel but would respond with crushing force should Israel attack Lebanon.

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Eritrean Leader Criticizes Israel’s Migrant Deportation Plan

In a rare interview, Eritrea’s president has expressed his displeasure with Israel’s plan to deport tens of thousands of African migrants, saying they deserve far more than the $3,500 they were offered to leave.

President Isaias Afwerki’s interview on a government website Wednesday said the migrants from his country and Sudan paid a “high price” to human traffickers to reach Israel and deserve more like $50,000.

“They need fair compensation to start a new life in their home country,” Afwerki said in the interview with local reporters. He said all those who wish to return home “have every right to do so,” and that Eritrea has offered to register all of its roughly 20,000 migrants but Israeli authorities had refused.

Many Eritreans leaving the east African nation claim they fled a restrictive regime under Afwerki, where men are often forced into a military service with slavery-like conditions. They say they cannot return.

In the interview, Afwerki claimed instead that the Eritrean migrants were enticed abroad to organize an armed opposition but that the “subversive schemes” failed and the migrants now have become a burden.

Israel’s deportation plan has sparked protests by liberal Israelis who say the country should never turn away those in need. They note that of 15,000 African refugee status requests, only 11 have been approved.

On April 1, Israel plans to start expelling the African migrants, some of whom have been in the country for years. About 60,000 migrants crossed Israel’s previously porous desert border with Egypt before a barrier was completed in 2012 along the 130-mile (220-kilometer) frontier.

Since then about 20,000 migrants have left either voluntarily, via a U.N. program, or with the encouragement of the Israeli government, which offers each about $3,500 and a plane ticket to leave. Others have been locked up in a massive detention center in the remote southern desert.

Israel’s Cabinet recently voted to begin shipping out the remaining 40,000 migrants, even against their will, to an unnamed third African country with which it has reached a secret agreement. 

Israeli authorities said the migrants would be deported to Rwanda and Uganda, Afwerki said. 

“We are told they will be deported to any country that can accept them,” he said. “These are human beings, not livestock. No country can claim legal responsibility to receive our citizens.”

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Supporters, Critics React to Trump’s State of the Union Speech

Americans are responding to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, the annual report that the president makes to a joint session of Congress. Mike O’Sullivan reports that after one year in office, Trump prompted strong reactions in his speech Tuesday evening, reflecting divisions in the country.

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Freed from Libyan Jails, Frustrated Migrants Pose Challenge to New Gambia

Jobless, restless and frustrated, 24-year-old Saikou Jammeh persuaded his father to sell the family home and give up his life savings to pay for the journey from Gambia to Europe.

Jammeh saw no future for himself in Gambia, a tiny impoverished country on West Africa’s coast, so he joined an exodus of young men willing to sacrifice everything to leave.

But after being robbed, beaten, and locked in a Libyan prison for several months, Jammeh found himself back where he started — in Gambia with no job prospects and empty pockets.

“I felt abandoned by the government,” he said on a busy street in Churchill’s Town, a suburb of the capital Banjul. “I was just sitting, wondering what to do.”

Thousands of thwarted migrants like Jammeh are returning to Gambia, straining its fledgling government as officials scramble to get European-funded reintegration projects up and running.

President Adama Barrow took office a year ago, ending former leader Yahya Jammeh’s 22 years of autocratic rule, and is under pressure to deliver on promises of sweeping economic reforms.

Nearly 2,500 Gambians were flown home by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) last year, most pulled out of prisons in Libya after reports emerged of Africans being sold in slave markets in the lawless country, the U.N. agency said.

The returnees are a noticeable presence in the nation of 2 million, posing a bigger threat to stability than in other West African countries wrestling with migration, experts said.

“We are not ready to receive all these people,” said Bulli Dibba, permanent secretary of Gambia’s interior ministry.

“We are very much concerned for domestic security,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

In November, a group of newly-returned migrants threw rocks at the IOM offices because they were unhappy with the support they had received, according to IOM spokeswoman Florence Kim.

“The government is already struggling to deal with unemployment,” added Dibba, a veteran Gambian civil servant. “If we have more people coming in, what will we do with them?”

Out of reach

Gambians have accounted for about one in 20 migrants arriving in Italy in recent years, making it the country with the highest number of migrants per capita reaching Europe.

Trying to stem the flow, the European Union is funding job training and youth empowerment programs across the continent with its 3.2 billion euro ($4 billion) Trust Fund for Africa.

While the fund was created in 2015, most of the programs in Gambia only started last year, according to the IOM.

“Thank god my life has grown into a plan,” said Saikou Jammeh, who did an EU-funded CCTV installation course after returning, and is now saving money for school.

But many young Gambians are missing out.

Of the 2,435 migrants who returned to Gambia in 2017, only 170 so far have received reintegration packages from the IOM, which consist of funding for education or business start-ups. The agency has received complaints, and is striving to avoid tensions and divisions within communities, said Kim of the IOM.

Give one former migrant more money than their peers and you create competition, she said. Offer returnees more support than their neighbors and it could spur others to leave for Europe.

Many of the returned migrants are traumatized, illiterate, or live in remote areas — making them difficult to assist.

“I know people who have ideas, but they don’t have any help,” said Donald Greywoode, 36, who quit his office job and set off for Europe on a route known locally as “the back way.”


When Greywoode came back, he found himself collecting trash.

Without education, training or job opportunities, boredom and resentment could boil over into conflict, analysts said.

“The stakes are very, very high,” said Franzisca Zanker, a researcher at Germany’s University of Freiburg, who has studied migration governance in Gambia.


Several returnees told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that they had not wanted to come home, but having been locked up, abused and starved in Libya, were left with no other choice.

“We don’t see ourselves as voluntary returnees,” said Mustapha Sallah, 26, who came back from Libya in April.

“They said if you don’t want to go home, you die here,” Sallah said. “Leaving was the only option.”

Coupled with the lack of opportunity, such frustration could drive people to migrate once more, experts warned. Others said broader economic changes would be needed to keep youth at home.

“Even after training all these people in all these skills, if the industry is not there, they will still struggle,” said Kebba Sillah, head of Sterling Consortium, a vocational training institute supported by the EU Trust Fund for Africa.

“I think the EU needs to encourage their businesses to come set up here, not just pump in money,” Sillah added.

While many returnees said they would never again attempt the treacherous journey through Libya, some still dream of Europe.

Jerreh Cham, 22, has received EU funding to complete a satellite installation course and attend business management school since returning from Libya in August.

But it is not enough to keep him at home.

“My plan is to get my qualification before reaching Europe,” said Cham, sitting in the yard outside his family’s small home. “If I go with my qualification and everything, I don’t think anybody will discount me. I think they will give me my respect.”


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After Trump’s Speech, Members of Congress Say Work Lies Ahead

Members of Congress reacted to U.S. President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech, with some praising its bipartisan tone and others wishing he had used the national address to more specifically discuss some of the issues facing the nation.

Republican Rep. Ryan Costello called it a positive speech that highlighted domestic priorities such as infrastructure and immigration, and said Congress needs to use the coming weeks and months to fill out Trump’s broad proposals with more detail.

“He also, I think, was very clear in terms of what we need to do to provide leadership around the globe, to support our allies, to encourage those dissenting voices against autocratic regimes around the [world]. I thought it was very good,” Costello said.

Democratic Sen. Chris Coons said he was hoping Trump would present a bipartisan message with concrete details about improving infrastructure, advancing American interests across the world and confronting North Korea, and that in some cases he delivered while on others he made little reference.

“We have an opioid addiction crisis here in the United States that is taking tens of thousands of lives. I had hoped that would be something more concretely addressed earlier in the speech with measure about how we could work together, because it is truly unifying, there is no one in congress who doesn’t need and want to address this together,” Coons said.

Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick said he thought Trump did succeed in striking a bipartisan tone.

“He talked about paid medical leave, infrastructure, he talked about opioids. These are all bipartisan issues,” Fitzpatrick said.

Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu told VOA’s Russian service that Trump hit high points in his speech with proposals for paid family leave, prison reform and $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending, while disappointing with an “un-American” call to limit family-based immigration.

“I’m pleased his State of the Union speech was less dark than his inaugural speech,” Lieu said. “I’m pleased he has taken a different path than when he was first inaugurated. Hopefully he sticks to it.”

US immigration laws

Immigration has been a major topic of late for lawmakers, with a failure to reach an agreement on undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children and a budget battle combining to bring a brief shutdown of the government.

Trump has advocated a much stricter system that includes boosting border security with a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and restricting the overall number of people who are allowed into the country.

Democratic Rep. Lou Correa was among those unhappy with a four-point immigration reform plan Trump discussed in his speech along with a highlight on gang violence the president blamed on faulty existing immigration policy.

“For many of us, building a wall is a symbol of division, of negativity, and that’s what he wants,” Correa said. “I think what we’re forgetting is this country is a country of immigrants. Whether you’re documented or not, you work really hard to enrich this country. And somehow that message, I never heard it.”

Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro also took exception to what he described as Trump’s equation of immigrants with criminals.

“I think people understand that there’s bad people in every batch, but they don’t do it, because they’re immigrants. If somebody is a murderer, it’s not because they’re white or black or brown, it’s because that person is a bad person. And he has continued to make that link, which is unfortunate,” Castro said.

Costello expressed support for Trump’s four-part plan, which also includes a path to citizenship for the young undocumented immigrants and moving away from the visa lottery system to one that is more merit-based.

Several groups of lawmakers have put forth their own immigration reform plans that include some of the same priorities, but so far none has emerged with enough consensus to become law.

​Fitzpatrick said a proposed measure he supports “strikes a right balance between border security and immigration reform.”

Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi said Trump did not put forth a package that balances Republican and Democratic priorities on immigration.

“The harsh rhetoric combined with that particular proposal, I don’t think it’s gonna move the ball,” Krishnamoorthi said. “I think we gotta get to the bargaining table and actually work together hash out a compromise.”

Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell said if Trump is serious about reaching out to both parties on immigration, “he should invite Democrats and Republicans to the White House tomorrow” to work on those policies.

Trump also used part of his speech to say he would not repeat mistakes of past administrations regarding North Korea and would keep up strong pressure on the country that has been making advances in ballistic missile technology.

Republican Rep. Steve Chabot said North Korea is a top foreign policy challenge facing the United States, and that it can not be ignored.

“We’re at the times that we were warned about,” Chabot said. “So I think that president, when he talked about North Korea tonight, set the right tone and it’s a serious, serious problem.”

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British Prime Minister Arrives in China to Forge Post-Brexit Trade Ties

British Prime Minister Theresa May arrived in China Wednesday on a visit aimed at boosting economic ties with the Asian giant ahead of her country’s exit from the European Union next year.

May began her three-day trip in the central industrial city of Wuhan, before heading to Beijing for talks with Premier Li Keqiang. She is accompanied by a large delegation of 50 British business leaders eager to expand their business in the world’s second largest economy.

The prime minister will meet with President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Thursday, before wrapping up her visit Friday in the financial hub of Shanghai.

The British leader says she is eager to use her trip to lay the groundwork for a so-called “golden era” between London and Beijing, a term which first surfaced in 2015 ahead of a state visit to Britain by President Xi. The Chinese leader is hoping Britain will endorse his flagship Belt and Road Initiative, a multi-billion dollar project aimed at reviving the ancient Silk Road trade routes between Asia and Europe. 

But Prime Minister May has been cautious in the past about embracing Chinese investment. She angered Beijing in 2016 when she temporarily delayed approval of Chinese-funded nuclear power plant in southwest England.

She has also expressed caution over the Belt and Road Initiative, saying that while the project holds promise, it is important the project meets “international standards.” 

In addition to trade, May is expected to discuss the escalating political tensions in Britain’s former colony, Hong Kong, which it ruled for more than 150 years before giving it back to China in 1997.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, wrote May this week warning that the semi-autonomous territory is facing “increasing threats to the basic freedoms, human rights and autonomy” that China agreed to observe under the handover agreement.

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Trump Condemns “Depraved” North Korea In State of the Union

Calling North Korea a “depraved” and “cruel dictatorship,” President Donald Trump, in his first State of the Union address, again promised to exert “maximum pressure” to prevent Pyongyang from developing nuclear missiles that can threaten the U.S. mainland. 

“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation. I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position,” said President Trump.

However he was more restrained than at times in the past when he called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “little rocket man.” He also did not mention the possible use of force, despite recent reports that the Trump administration is considering launching a limited military strike in response to a future provocation.

“I don’t know whether this is good news in terms of the Trump administration opting for more diplomatic engagement towards Pyongyang, or the Trump administration is getting more serious about taking different measures, including some kind of military options,” said Bong Young-shik, a political analyst with Yonsei University’s Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul.

In the last year, tensions between North Korea and the United States have escalated over Pyongyang’s efforts to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States. The Trump administration has led international efforts to impose harsh economic sanctions on North Korea, but has also emphasized that military force remains a viable option to deal with the growing threat to the U.S. mainland.

South Korea’s leadership has been advocating increased engagement to reduce tensions, and recently negotiated at least a temporary pause in North Korean missile and nuclear tests by persuading Pyongyang to participate in the upcoming PyeongChang Winter Olympics. The United States also agreed to postpone joint military exercises with South Korea until after the Olympic Games to accommodate the North’s peaceful participation. 

Depraved character

In his speech, Trump seemed to argue that there can be no compromise with the brutal and repressive Kim government. 

“We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies,” said President Trump.

The president recounted the tragic experience of Otto Warmbier, who died last year soon after being released from North Korea while in a comatose state. The American student was visiting North Korea in 2016, and was arrested for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster. He was sentenced to 15 years hard labor but soon fell into a coma from which he never awoke. Warmbier remained in prison for almost a year without adequate medical care as his condition continued to deteriorate.

His parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, who were invited by the president to attend the State of the Union, broke into tears when Trump pointed them out in the gallery as “powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world.” 

Trump also singled out another invited guest, North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, as “one more witness to the ominous nature of this regime.” In 1996, Ji lost a hand and a foot when he fell from a moving train while stealing coal to barter for food, during a famine in which millions of North Koreans starved to death. He endured painful amputations and later torture before escaping North Korea on crutches.

Ji is now a human rights activist with the group Now Action And Unity for Human Rights, and is involved in radio broadcasts into North Korea, where the state tries to restrict access to the outside world. 

“Today he lives in Seoul, where he rescues other defectors, and broadcasts into North Korea what the regime fears the most, the truth,” said Trump.

Victor Cha withdrawn

Also raising concerns that the United States may be preparing preventive military action to deal with the North Korean threat are reports that Victor Cha’s name was withdrawn as nominee for U.S. ambassador to South Korea. Cha is a Georgetown University professor and former National Security Council adviser on North Korean affairs during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Writing in the Washington Post on Tuesday, Cha said he shared his opposition to the preventive use of force against North Korea with White House officials while he was under consideration for a position.

Cha said he empathizes with the hope that “a military strike would shock Pyongyang into appreciating U.S. strength” but that “hope must give in to logic.”

Given North Korea’s missile and artillery capability, Cha argues, President Trump would put at risk the lives of millions in South Korea and Japan, “on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of U.S. kinetic power.”

Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.

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Trump Promotes Immigration Reforms, Democrats Reject His Policy as ‘Heartless’

U.S. President Donald Trump used a large chunk of his State of the Union address Tuesday to talk about the immigration reforms he wants to see.

He called his four-part plan one that would create a “safe, modern and lawful immigration system,” while Democrats described the president’s approach as “insulting” and “heartless.”

The first part of Trump’s proposal would create a path to citizenship for nearly 2 million immigrants who came to the country illegally when they were children. 

Nearly 800,000 of that group were protected under an Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that allowed them to live and work legally. But Trump ordered an end to DACA last year, giving Congress until early March to come up with a permanent solution for those it covered, sometimes referred to as “Dreamers.”

In explaining his desired reforms, Trump alluded to those immigrants while stating his desire to “focus on the best interests of American workers and American families.”

“My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans — to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too,” Trump said.

That line drew immediate reaction from many critics of Trump’s approach, including House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who wrote on Twitter, “Dreamers are Americans too.”

Democratic Congressman Joe Kennedy sent a further message of support to the young immigrants during the Democratic response to Trump’s address.

“You are a part of our story. We will fight for you. We will not walk away,” Kennedy said.

Trump said he is reaching out to both Democratic and Republican lawmakers in order to achieve his immigration goals.

Democratic Senator Mark Warner said he agrees there is a bipartisan deal to be found when it comes to the young undocumented immigrants and boosting funding for border security.

“But tonight President Trump showed that he is not willing to stop catering to the most heartless, extreme elements of his base who want to restrict nearly all forms of legal immigration,” Warner said.

Since launching his campaign for president, Trump has championed building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and in his immigration plan he wants to add to that an increase in the number of border security agents and to end what he calls “catch and release” policies for those caught trying to cross into the United States illegally. Trump says “deadly loopholes” have allowed gang members and other criminals into the country.

He is also calling for ending the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, or green card lottery, in favor of what he called a “more merit-based system” that would bring skilled workers who “contribute to our society and who will love and respect our country.”

The program is the immigration route for those who do not have family in the United States or an employer to sponsor them, and who are not refugees. It requires a high school diploma and two years of work experience. Each year, up to 50,000 people are selected.

In the final part of his plan, Trump wants to limit family-based immigration to spouses and minor children. 

The current system allows U.S. citizens and permanent residents to sponsor a wider range of family members, including parents, siblings, and adult children. For non-parent relatives, applications can include years of waiting and are subject to quotas for the number of immigrant visas that are granted.

A Democratic lawmaker from the state of Virginia, Delegate Elizabeth Guzman, rejected Trump’s immigration vision, saying he threatens to bring the country back to a time in which people are judged by the color of their skin and religion instead of their character.

“Immigrant families – who have given new life to the American dream through their arduous work and trust in American values – are facing uncertainty, anxiety and terror under President Trump,” she said, giving a response to Trump’s speech in Spanish. “He has replaced equality with intolerance, replaced mutual respect with racism.”

Guzman criticized Trump’s executive orders banning travelers from Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, plus North Korea and Venezuela as a “hateful, immoral ban against our Muslim brothers and sisters.”

The Trump administration says the ban is necessary to protect national security and has rejected those who say the policy, and another limiting refugee arrivals, target Muslims.

Guzman said Trump’s immigration plan would “fundamentally change the character of our country” and go against the ideals of the nation’s founders.

“We should not accept nor normalize the atrocious and insulting way in which this president characterizes our communities,” she said.

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US Says It is Not Changing Its Afghan Strategy

A top State Department official says there is no change in U.S. policy towards Afghanistan after President Donald Trump Monday ruled out for now negotiations with the Taliban. The U.S. official said the president was simply responding to a dramatic escalation in Taliban and other terrorist attacks on civilians. The Afghan government and the Taliban have also reacted to Trump’s comments, as VOA’s Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from the State Department.

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A Glimpse of Beautiful Side of Syria

As Syria’s long-lasting war (started in 2011) has taken a toll on human lives and buildings, it has also destroyed the country’s deep-rooted artistic culture.  A Syrian immigrant family in the U.S. eastern state of Maryland is dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage and supporting artisans in the war-torn country. VOA’s June Soh visited Syriana Café and Gallery in Ellicott City where the family works to share the beauty of their native land. June Soh reports.

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Protests Return To Barcelona As Standoff Over Catalan President Deepens

Protests broke out in the Spanish city of Barcelona Tuesday after Catalonia’s parliament postponed a vote on who should be president of the region. Pro-independence parties, which form a majority in the parliament, had nominated only one candidate – the exiled former leader Carles Puigdemont. The stand-off between Barcelona and Madrid looks set to deepen as parties on all sides of the debate harden their positions, as Henry Ridgwell reports.

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Media Blackout in Kenya as Odinga Takes Oath as ‘People’s President’

In Kenya, independent local broadcasters say the government orchestrated a media blackout Tuesday to prevent live TV coverage of opposition leader Raila Odinga swearing himself in as the so-called “people’s president.” 

Citizen TV was one of three major stations to go off the air in Kenya Tuesday. Citizen TV had announced that it would be broadcasting live from the site of the opposition’s rival presidential inauguration. 

In an interview with VOA, Wachira Waruru, the head of Royal Media Services, which owns Citizen TV and dozens of radio stations in Kenya, said the government was behind the shutdown.

“Officials from Communication Authority accompanied by police officers went to our transmission station in Limuru, and they disabled our transmission. So we have been off air since.”

Officials at the Communication Authority of Kenya declined to comment when reached by VOA.

 Also taken off air Tuesday were Nation Television and Kenya Television Network. Both had planned live coverage of Odinga’s swearing-in event.

Waruru said they did not see this coming.

“We were shocked and disappointed because we don’t believe there is anything we have done to warrant a shutdown. So we are very shocked and disappointed that this can happen with no explanation of any kind,” Waruru said.

Citizen TV and the others were able to live stream coverage Tuesday through the internet.

Speaking to the Kenya Television Network, Odinga condemned what he called an attack on the media.

“This is very unfortunate. Indeed it basically confirms that we have descended to the level of Uganda where in the last general elections all TV stations were shut off including also the social media network. We did not expect this will come to our country. It’s very unfortunate indeed, and it must be condemned by all civilized mankind,” Odinga said. 

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Palestinian Aid Agency Faces Worst Financial Crisis in History

The head of UNRWA, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, is sharply criticizing severe funding cuts by the United States. He warns the action could lead to rising instability in Palestinian territories and the region.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl says the agency is facing the worst financial crisis in its history because of a U.S. decision to dramatically reduce its financial contributions.

“Last year, the United States provided $360 million to UNRWA. This year, they have announced $60 million. That is the difference. So, $300 million difference. We spend $1.2 to $1.3 billion a year. So, that is a significant share of the income that we need,” Krahenbuhl said.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced the cuts to UNRWA’s budget after the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to condemn his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Krahenbuhl told VOA that humanitarian funding should be related to the performance of an organization and not be linked with political considerations. He says the already explosive situation in Gaza will worsen if the funding shortfall remains and Palestinian needs go unmet.

“It is clear that if that is not bridged, then there will be increased instability…With all of the other matters that the Middle East has to deal with in terms of insecurity, radicalization and other concerns, I think, on the contrary, an investment in the stability of UNRWA’s situation and our capacity to deliver services should be foremost on everyone’s mind,” Krahenbuhl said.

UNRWA has just launched an $800 million emergency appeal to assist Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank and Syria. The money will provide desperately needed food, cash, emergency medical supplies and support for mental health and gender-based violence programs.

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Mugabe’s Demise Brings Hope to Zimbabwe’s Ousted White Farmers

A new political dawn in Zimbabwe has sparked talk among farmers of land reform and the return of some whites who lost their land and livelihoods to President Robert Mugabe during a 37-year rule that drove the economy to collapse.

Mugabe, 93, resigned in November after the army and his ZANU-PF party turned against him, prompting optimism among some of the thousands of white farmers ousted in the early 2000s on the grounds of redressing imbalances from the colonial era.

For colonialists seized some of the best agricultural land that remained in the hands of white farmers after independence in 1980 leaving many blacks effectively landless and making land ownership one of Zimbabwe’s most sensitive political topics.

Now some white landowners hope the post-Mugabe regime may address the land issue, either through compensation or returning land, and try to resuscitate a once vibrant agricultural sector boosting an economy once seen as one of Africa’s great hopes.

“We are convinced positive signals will come quickly in terms of property rights,” Ben Purcel Gilpin, director of the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), which represents white and black farmers, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It would send a good signal to people outside Zimbabwe.” 

New president and long-time Mugabe ally, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has promised a raft of changes since he took office, including a return to the rule of law and respect for property rights.

Land ownership has been a key issue for decades in Zimbabwe dating back to British colonial rule in what was then Rhodesia.

At independence, white farmers owned more than 70 percent of the most fertile land and generated 80 percent of the country’s agricultural output, according to academics.

Reforms began after independence with a “willing buyer, willing seller” system aimed at redistributing land to poor black subsistence farmers. In the 1990s, compulsory acquisition of land began with some funding provided by Britain.

But for many Zimbabweans change was too slow and Mugabe approved radical land reforms that encouraged occupation of some 4,000 white-owned farms. Land went to his supporters with no knowledge of farming and thousands of white farmers fled.

The violent farm seizures saw Zimbabwe forfeit its status as the bread basket of Africa and led to a collapse of many industries that depended on agriculture. Among those were paper mills, textile firms, leather tanners and clothing companies.

As a result the country failed to generate foreign currency, resulting in the central bank printing money which led to unprecedented levels of hyper-inflation and high unemployment.

New start

Now some white farmers are starting to reclaim their land.

“White commercial farmers, like all other Zimbabweans, could apply for land from the Government and join the queue or go into joint ventures,” Mnangagwa told a former white commercial farmer during a recent visit to Namibia.

The CFU’s Gilpin – who quit farming and moved to Harare after his farm was compulsorily acquired by the government in 2005 – said sound policies from the new team could win support and help the economy.

He said compensation rather than putting people back into their properties might be the best route as many farmers are now too old to farm, some had died and others migrated.

The current situation – where resettled farmers had 99-year leases – was also untenable as the leases were not accepted by banks as collateral against borrowing.

Gilpin said this effectively made the land dead capital, as banks could not sell if farmers failed to pay back loans, so the government should instead offer farmers freehold titles.

Property rights expert Lloyd Mhishi, a senior partner in the law firm Mhishi Nkomo Legal Practice, said although Mnangagwa spoke about compensating farmers whose land was expropriated, he did not give specifics and title deeds of the former white farmers had no legal force after repossession.

Political way out

“As far as the law of the country is concerned, the title deeds that the former white commercial farmers hold do not guarantee them title,” Mhishi said in an interview.

But the lawyer said there were positive signs that the new administration realised land was a vital cog in the economy.

“I see there will be an attempt to make land useful, productive,” he said. “The land tenure side needs to be addressed to make land useful.”

Independent economist John Robertson, a former Advisor to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, said, however, that any idea of compensation should be dropped and former white commercial farmers should get back to their land and resume work.

“I’d rather see them get back their land and start farming again than paid out and emigrating. We need their skills. If people who oppose that idea could be just successful, where have they been for the past 20 years?” he said.

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Beirut Guide Gives Walking Tours of City’s History and His Own

Tour guide Ronnie Chatah, 36, is once again doing what he loves after a four-year hiatus – telling the stories that have shaped Beirut’s history from ancient to modern times.

Chatah put the walking tours on hold in late 2013 after the assassination of his father Mohamad Chatah, a former minister and diplomat. He was worried he would not be able to give an impartial view of the city, he said.

“My father is buried in what is probably the most climactic part of the tour,” he said, referring to Martyrs’ Square, a pockmarked statue in the epicenter, where many Lebanese have rallied in times of political crisis since World War I. “It is not easy to look at your father’s burial site and just ignore the emotions.”

But reviving the tour has had a surprising effect.

“I have not had a better therapy session,” said Chatah, who first launched the tours in 2009.

Now for four hours every other Sunday, people follow Chatah as he explains some of the most complicated aspects of Lebanon’s capital.

He explains that the local currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar and about how since the civil war political power is shared between Lebanon’s 18 different religious sects. He also explains why so many abandoned heritage buildings have been seemingly left to disintegrate.

Standing outside what was once the Holiday Inn hotel, Chatah recounts how the building that once exemplified Beirut’s Seventies glamour became an icon of the 1975-1990 civil war only a few weeks after it opened. It became the military headquarters of whichever militant faction was winning the war in Beirut over the next 15 years.

For him, the building – with its grey exterior, huge gaping holes and revolving balcony – is the best reflection of how the Lebanese have yet to make peace.

“We don’t reflect properly and I think that is our problem. Maybe that is part of our story too, that we are constantly avoiding the deeper issues, and hence a country that still cannot stand properly on its own two feet,” he said.

The tour allows visitors to discover parts of the city that have either ceased to exist or cordoned off by security because of close proximity to government buildings or politicians’ residences. This includes what used to be the old Jewish neighborhood, once home to a small community that is now all but gone save for a restored synagogue.

“I thought I knew the area but I was surprised to find out about … a neighborhood that I never knew existed,” Sarah Harakeh, 24, a teacher said.

Chatah said he had been planning to resume the walks for just a couple of months, but now there are tours scheduled for the rest of the year.

“That is the persuasion of this city, you keep coming back, and even when you know it is not good for you,” he said.

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Britons Ever More Deeply Divided Over Brexit, Research Finds

The social divide revealed by Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union is not only here to stay but deepening, according to academic research published Wednesday.

UK in a Changing Europe, a research initiative, said Britons were unlikely to change their minds about leaving the EU, despite the political and economic uncertainty it has brought, because attitudes are becoming more entrenched.

“The [Brexit] referendum highlighted fundamental divisions in British society and superimposed a leave-remain distinction over them. This has the potential to profoundly disrupt our politics in the years to come,” said Anand Menon, the think tank’s director.

Britain is negotiating a deal with the EU that will shape future trade relations, breaking with the bloc after four decades, but the process is complicated by the divisions within parties, society and the government itself.

Menon said the research, based on a series of polls over the 18 months since Britain voted to leave the European Union, showed 35 percent of people self-identified as “Leavers” and 40 percent as “Remainers.”

Research also found that both sides had a tendency to interpret and recall information in a way that confirmed their pre-existing beliefs, which also added to the deepening of the impact of the vote.

Second vote

Polls have shown increasing support for a second vote on whether to leave the European Union once the terms of departure are known, but such a vote would not necessarily provide a different result, a poll by ICM for The Guardian newspaper indicated last week.

The report also showed that age was a better pointer to how Britons voted than employment. Around 73 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted to stay in the EU, but turnout among that group was lower than among older voters.

“British Election Study surveys have suggested that, in order to have overturned the result, a startling 97 percent of under-45s would have had to make it to the ballot box, as opposed to the 65 percent who actually voted,” the report said.

The difference between generations became even more pronounced in the 2017 general election, when the largest gap in how different generations voted was measured in Britain.

The British Election Study has been conducted by academics at every general election since 1964 and looks at why people vote, and why they vote the way they do.

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UN Security Council Renews CAR Arms Embargo, Threatens More Sanctions

The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday renewed an arms embargo against the Central African Republic for another year and added criteria that could lead to new sanctions.

The French-sponsored resolution passed unanimously.

Along with extending the arms embargo, it condemns using religion or ethnicity to incite violence. It says anyone who carries out such crimes will face sanctions.

“Acts of incitement are a scourge for CAR and are at the root of violence that has resulted in too many victims among civilians and blue helmets [U.N. peacekeepers],” French Ambassador Francois Delattre told the Security Council. “There will be no lasting peace in CAR if these acts of incitement continue, and the council will shoulder its responsibilities.”

Violence has plagued CAR since Muslim rebels overthrew the Christian president in 2013.

Christians retaliated, leading to the deaths of thousands on both sides and sending hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees fleeing for their lives to Cameroon and Chad.

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UN Refugee Chief Calls for Peace in South Sudan

The ratio of South Sudanese refugees to local residents in the Arua district is now 1 to 4, according to the U.N. refugee agency. That puts nearly a quarter-million refugees in that district alone. 

At the vast Imvempi settlement, a refugee named Susan, 23, digs the foundation for her new home using her bare hands and a metal bar. 

Her baby cries nearby. Susan has had to dig 16 holes, each 60 centimeters long, in which to insert the logs.

“But, problem of house, is problem for me,” she says. “The stone is very more; this one I suffer, nobody to help me.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi visited the settlement Tuesday, talking to new arrivals like Susan. She told of how her brother had been killed by rebels, leaving her to care for his three children in addition to her own. 

‘Please make peace’

Grandi made this appeal to the warring factions in South Sudan:

“Please make peace. We can’t subject these people once again to exile, to suffering. We can’t always take for granted the generosity of the Ugandan people. Really, we must ensure that peace comes, because everybody told me this morning, as in the past, ‘If there is peace I will go back, because this is where I belong. It’s my country.’ ”

Uganda is currently hosting 1.3 million refugees, nearly all of them from South Sudan. 

The civil war started in 2013, and a 2015 peace deal quickly disintegrated. International monitors say a cease-fire signed in December was also violated in short order. 

Serina Alex, 19, lives at Imvempi settlement. She has had no word on her seven family members since she fled her hometown of Yei.

“So many people are losing life in South Sudan — brothers and sisters, mothers and our fathers,” she said. “They are losing lives in South Sudan because of the war. But I request the president of South Sudan that they could cool down and bring peace to South Sudan.”

Grandi’s visit to Uganda came ahead of a fresh funding appeal to be announced Thursday to meet the needs of more than 2.2 million displaced South Sudanese in 2018. Many of the displaced are children.

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Sources: Russian Spy Chief Met US Officials in US Last Week 

Russia’s foreign spy chief, who is under U.S. sanctions, met last week outside Washington with U.S. intelligence officials, two U.S. sources said, confirming a disclosure that intensified political infighting over probes into Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

Sergey Naryshkin, head of the Russian service known by its acronym SVR, held talks with U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and other U.S. intelligence officials, the sources said. The sources did not reveal the topics discussed.

A Russian Embassy tweet disclosed Naryshkin’s visit. It cited a state-run ITAR-Tass news report that quoted Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, as telling Rossiya-1 television that Naryshkin and his U.S. counterparts discussed the “joint struggle against terrorism.”

Antonov did not identify the U.S. intelligence officials with whom he met.

The Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment. Coats’ office said that while it does not discuss U.S. intelligence officials’ schedules, “any interaction with foreign intelligence agencies would have been conducted in accordance with U.S. law and in consultation with appropriate departments and agencies.”

News of Naryshkin’s secret visit poured fresh fuel on the battles pitting the Trump administration and its Republican defenders against Democrats over investigations into Moscow’s alleged 2016 election interference.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer demanded that the administration “immediately come clean and answer questions — which U.S. officials did he meet with? Did any White House or National Security Council official meet with Naryshkin? What did they discuss?”

The key question, Schumer told reporters, is whether Naryshkin’s visit accounted for the administration’s decision on Monday not to slap new sanctions on Russia under a law passed last year to punish Moscow’s purported election meddling.

“Russia hacked our elections,” Schumer said. “We sanctioned the head of their foreign intelligence and then the Trump administration invites him to waltz through our front door.”

A January 2017 U.S. intelligence report concluded that Russia conducted an influence campaign of hacking and other measures aimed at swinging the 2016 presidential vote to Trump over his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton.

Last week, the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant reported that the Netherlands intelligence concluded that some of the Russians running a hacking operation, known as “Cozy Bear,” against Democratic organizations were SVR agents.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo told the BBC in an interview last weekend that he had not “seen a significant decrease” in Russian attempts at subversion in Europe and the United States, and he expects Moscow to meddle in November’s U.S. mid-term elections.

Congressional panels and Special Counsel Robert Mueller are investigating Russia’s alleged interference and possible collusion between Moscow and Trump’s election campaign. Russia denies it meddled and Trump dismissed the allegations of collusion as a political witch hunt.

Naryshkin’s visit coincided with other serious disputes in U.S.-Russian relations. They include Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and its interference in Ukraine and Russia’s military intervention on the government’s side in the Syrian civil war.

Washington and Moscow cooperate in some areas, including the fight against Islamic militant groups, officials said.

For example, a month ago the United States provided advance warning to Russia that allowed it to thwart a terrorist plot in St. Petersburg, the White House said.

Naryshkin, who was appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to head the SVR in September 2016, was sanctioned by the Obama administration in March 2014 as part of the U.S. response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. At the time, he was speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament.

He was banned from entering the United States, but sanctions experts said there are processes for providing people under sanction permission to enter for official business. Meetings between foreign intelligence chiefs, even from rival nations, mostly are kept secret but are not unusual.

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UN: Airstrikes on Syria Hospitals Affect Hundreds of Thousands of People

The United Nations on Tuesday condemned a recent wave of airstrikes on medical centers in rebel-held parts of Syria including one that put a hospital serving 50,000 people out of action.

The Syrian government, which is backed by Russian air power in its almost seven-year-long war with rebels, says it only targets militants and has repeatedly denied striking civilian facilities such as hospitals.

“I am appalled by the ongoing attacks on hospitals and other medical facilities in northwestern Syria, depriving hundreds of thousands of people of their basic right to health,” said Panos Moumtzis, U.N. regional coordinator for the Syria crisis.

Syria’s war shows no sign of ending and a peace conference hosted by Russia on Tuesday was marred by discord.

On Monday, two airstrikes damaged the 18-bed Owdai Hospital in Saraqib city in rebel-held Idlib governorate supported by the aid charity Médecins Sans Frontières, killing at least five people, including a child, and injuring six.

The hospital, which experienced a near miss that blew out windows on Jan. 21, was hit while receiving people wounded in an airstrike on Saraqib’s main market, which the United Nations said had killed at least 16 people.

It was the fourth time in 10 days that airstrikes had caused major structural damage to a hospital in Saraqib, said Moumtzis. An air attack also wrecked a medical center serving at least 10,000 people in Aleppo governorate on the same day.

“The loss of the provision of these medical services, including surgical and reproductive health services, will have a staggering effect on vulnerable communities affected by this conflict,” he said in a statement.

In 2017, there were 112 verified attacks on health facilities in Syria, and there had been at least 13 so far this year, according to Moumtzis.

A separate U.N. report said 272,345 people had been displaced between Dec. 15 and Jan. 24 in Idlib governorate, and health organizations there were being stretched to the limit.

It described heavy fighting between rebels and Syrian government forces in the eastern part of the governorate, mainly around the town of Abul Thohur and its air base, with numerous civilian casualties and “high levels of psychosocial distress among girls, boys, women and men.”

Saraqib’s town council has declared a disaster zone and called on the international community to intervene, the U.N. report said.

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Suspected Russian Airstrikes Kill 15 in Syrian Market

Suspected Russian airstrikes killed at least 15 people Tuesday in a crowded market in the rebel-held city of Ariha, south of Syria’s rebel-held city of Idlib.  It was the second such strike on a shopping area in area within 24 hours, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog group said.

The opposition-run civil defense service said another 20 people were wounded in the strike. Video released by local activists showed extensive damage.

A day earlier, dozens of people were killed in airstrikes by suspected Russian jets on a market in Saraqeb, 16 kilometers (10 miles) east of Idlib.

The strikes came as peace talks aimed at ending the Syrian conflict began in Russia.

Syria has been locked in a devastating civil war since March 2011, when the Bashar al-Assad government cracked down on pro-democracy protests with unexpected ferocity.

While U.N. officials say hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict, Syrian government officials say the death toll is closer to 10,000.

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