Slain Journalist’s Investigative Report Published on Slovak Site

A Slovak website has published the unfinished investigative report on alleged government ties to the mafia written by slain journalist Jan Kuciak.

Kuciak and his girlfriend, Martina Kusnirova, were found dead Sunday in their home east of Bratislava. It was the first time a journalist’s death in Slovakia was linked to his or her work.

Kuciak’s story describes the alleged connection between a suspected member of the Italian ‘Ndrangheta organized crime family in Slovakia and two senior aides to Prime Minister Robert Fico.

The two aides — security council secretary Viliam Jasan and chief state adviser Maria Troskova — say they are shocked by the murders but deny any connection to the killings. They say they are stepping down from their posts until the investigation is complete.

Fico called the shootings an unprecedented attack on the freedom of the press and democracy in Slovakia. However, he warned newspapers against linking “innocent people” to a double slaying “without any evidence. Don’t do it.”

Slovak police chief Tibor Gaspar said Wednesday that Kuciak and Kusnirova were most likely killed because of Kuciak’s work as an investigative journalist. He said both were killed with the same weapon, which is missing.

The shootings have outraged Slovaks. More than a thousand people turned out for an opposition-sponsored protest, and student marches are planned across the country Friday.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. is “shocked and saddened” by the murders, and calls for a “swift, determined investigation” to bring the killers to justice.

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Montenegrin Defense Chief Says NATO Contributions on Target for 2024

Montenegrin Defense Minister Predrag Boskovic says the country is on target to spend 2 percent of annual economic output on defense by 2024, in keeping with a promise to expand military budgets as the United States offers an increase in its own defense spending in Europe.

Boskovic met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on Tuesday, his first visit to the Pentagon since Montenegro became the 29th member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in June 2017.

“Montenegro, as a new member, will reach that target by 2024,” Boskovic said in an interview with VOA’s Serbian Service, after meeting with Mattis. “We are spending 1.7 percent already this year, and I think we can reach 2 percent level without any great effort.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized NATO allies for not spending enough on defense, claiming it is unfair to taxpayers in the United States. Earlier this month in Brussels, Mattis pressed European allies to stick to a promise to increase military budgets in lockstep with increased U.S. spending.

Fifteen of 28 NATO countries, excluding the United States, now have a strategy to meet a NATO benchmark first agreed to in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, following years of cuts to European defense budgets.

​Afghanistan, Kosovo

Boskovic also announced that his country is planning to increase its troop presence in Afghanistan, where Montenegro currently has 18 soldiers participating in Operation Resolute Support, a NATO-led training and advisory mission with more than 13,000 soldiers.

The mission has been engaged in Afghanistan since 2015.

“We have already made a decision to increase the number of our soldiers in Afghanistan, which needs to be approved by the parliament, and I don’t doubt that by next rotation, we’ll have more troops in the country,” Boskovic told VOA.

Mattis, according to the readout of Tuesday’s meeting, praised the “significant contributions Montenegro has made to the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, and lauded the country’s plan to meet the Wales Summit defense spending pledge by 2024.”

Montenegro has also decided to send members of its armed forces to the NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, known as KFOR. Montenegro’s plan to participate in the KFOR mission in Kosovo has been criticized by some officials in Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Two officers are expected to join KFOR by the end of the year, Boskovic told VOA.

This story originated in VOA’s Serbian Service.

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UN Aid Chief: Syria Cease-Fire Yet to Be Implemented

The U.N. humanitarian chief said Wednesday that a 30-day cease-fire across Syria had not been implemented, and he asked the Security Council when it would be put into effect.

The council unanimously adopted a resolution on Saturday demanding the monthlong cessation of hostilities to allow aid in and evacuate the critically sick and wounded, especially from rebel-held eastern Ghouta.

“So if there has been no humanitarian access since the resolution on Saturday, what has happened in the last few days?” U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock rhetorically asked. “More bombing. More fighting. More death. More destruction. More maiming of women and children. More hunger. More misery. More, in other words, of the same.”

Lowcock said the United Nations and its partners were ready with trucks full of humanitarian aid and medical evacuation plans and could begin work once the guns fall silent and access is granted in Syria.

He cited reports of government airstrikes, barrel bombs and shelling across eastern Ghouta and a dozen other districts two days after the cease-fire was adopted. Lowcock said shells fired from eastern Ghouta had also reportedly continued to fall in the Syrian capital.

“Over 580 people since 18 February are now reported to have been killed due to air- and ground-based strikes in eastern Ghouta, with well over 1,000 people injured,” he said. “At the same time, hundreds of rockets from eastern Ghouta into Damascus have reportedly killed 15 people, and injured over 200.”

Russian ‘pause’

Russia, which supported the cease-fire resolution, said it would implement a daily five-hour “humanitarian pause” in its military operations around eastern Ghouta, where 400,000 civilians are besieged.

Lowcock said that wouldn’t provide enough time for humanitarians to deliver aid and conduct medical evacuations. 

Several council members criticized the Russian proposal. 

“This is cynical, callous and in flagrant defiance of the demands of [Resolution] 2401,” said U.S. envoy Kelley Currie. “The cessation of hostilities is for at least 30 days, every day, all day. Russia does not get to unilaterally rewrite the terms of the resolution they negotiated and they sat here and voted for.”

The sentiment was shared by Britain’s U.N. ambassador.

“Humanitarian pauses of a few meager hours are no substitute for a sustained cease-fire, which is vital to ensure delivery of lifesaving humanitarian assistance and medical evacuations,” British envoy Jonathan Allen said. “If Russia is able to deliver a five-hour pause, let it deliver a 24-hour one, as they agreed on Saturday.”

Russia’s envoy responds

“Only our country is called upon to implement Resolution 2401,” Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said with visible irritation. “We are criticized for humanitarian pauses. There are assertions that there are insufficient numbers of them. There are demands, demands, demands. For some reason, someone is always demanding something in an authoritative tone from the Russian Federation.”

Nebenzia accused council members of misinterpreting the resolution, saying pauses must be preceded by an agreement of the parties on the ground for de-escalation.

Armed groups

The main armed groups in eastern Ghouta sent a letter to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday saying they were ready to abide by the cease-fire and guarantee protection for aid convoys to their areas.

Representatives of Jaish al-Islam, Failaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham also agreed to expel, within 15 days of the truce going into effect, elements of banned groups Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the Nusra Front and al-Qaida who have taken refuge in eastern Ghouta.

Several Security Council members welcomed this as a positive move.

Meanwhile, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported more fighting Wednesday in eastern Ghouta.

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Facebook: No New Evidence Russia Interfered in Brexit Vote

Facebook Inc has told a British parliamentary committee that further investigations have found no new evidence that Russia used social media to interfere in the June 2016 referendum in which Britain voted to leave the European Union.

Facebook UK policy director Simon Milner in a letter Wednesday told the House of Commons Committee on Digital, Culture Media and Sport that the latest investigation the company undertook in mid-January to try to “identify clusters of coordinated Russian activity around the Brexit referendum that were not identified previously” had been unproductive.

Using the same methodology that Facebook used to identify U.S. election-related social media activity conducted by a Russian propaganda outfit called the Internet Research Agency, Milner said the social network had reviewed both Facebook accounts and “the activity of many thousands of advertisers in the campaign period” leading up to the June 23, 2016 referendum.

He said they had “found no additional coordinated Russian-linked accounts or Pages delivering ads to the UK regarding the EU Referendum during the relevant period, beyond the minimal activity we previously disclosed.”

At a hearing on social media political activity that the parliamentary committee held in Washington earlier in February, Milner had promised the panel it would disclose more results of its latest investigation by the end of February.

At the same hearing, Juniper Downs, YouTube’s global head of public policy, said that her company had “conducted a thorough investigation around the Brexit referendum and found no evidence of Russian interference.”

In his letter to the committee, Facebook’s Milner acknowledged that the minimal results in the company’s Brexit review contrasted with the results of Facebook inquiries into alleged Russian interference in U.S. politics. The company’s U.S. investigation results, Milner said, “comport with the recent indictments” Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller issued against Russian individuals and entities.

Following its Washington hearing, committee chairman Damian Collins MP said his committee expected to finish a report on its inquiry into Social Media and Fake News in late March and that the report is likely to include recommendations for new British laws or regulations regarding social media content.

These could include measures to clarify the companies’ legal liability for material they distribute and their obligations to address social problems the companies’ content could engender, he said.

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South Sudan Rebels: Government Forces Killed Rebel Base Commander

A commander allied to South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar was killed during clashes in Yei River state on Monday.

A rebel spokesman said Felix Likambu Faustino, the SPLA-IO base commander for Yankonye village, was killed when government forces attacked his troops.


Col. Lam Paul Gabriel, the deputy military spokesman of the Machar faction, said government forces attacked their positions along the Yei-Maridi road, leading to clashes that lasted several hours.

Government military spokesman Brig. Gen. Lul Ruai Koang denied that government forces attacked the rebels’ positions, saying the clashes were between rival opposition forces operating in the area.

“There was no engagement between SPLA forces and different rebel groups. The reports we have been getting for the last three days indicated that the rebel groups loyal to [Thomas] Cirilo and Riek Machar have been fighting among themselves,” Koang told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus.

Bishop Hillary Adeba of Yei Diocese of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan confirmed fighting occurred on the outskirts of Yei town.

“We are very shocked and worried, because we have been hearing violations of the [recent cease-fire] through gunshots around Yei. The warring parties should observe the cessation of hostilities agreement because people in the rural areas are very tired throughout the four years [of war],” Adeba told South Sudan in Focus.

Adeba said the civilians need peace so they can begin rebuilding their lives.

Gabriel said the SPLA-IO is committed to adhering to the cessation of hostilities agreement signed in December at a conference aimed at reviving the collapsed 2015 peace agreement.

Kuong also said his forces are committed to the cessation agreement.

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Lion Kills Woman at Refuge of South African ‘Lion Whisperer’

A lion that mauled a young woman to death in South Africa was under the care of a man known as the “lion whisperer” for his close interactions with the predators.

Kevin Richardson, who keeps lions at his animal sanctuary in the Dinokeng Game Reserve, said on Facebook that he and an “experienced” colleague took three lions for a walk in the reserve on Tuesday and that one chased an impala, eventually encountering the 22-year-old woman at least two kilometers (1.2 miles) away.

Richardson said he followed procedure before the weekly excursion by assessing the area for other “big five” animals, a designation that includes rhino, elephant, buffalo, leopard and lion, and sending out a “notification” that he was walking with lions.

The woman died at a tented camp run by Richardson, who said he was “devastated” by the killing. 

“The young woman was not a guest at the camp, but had accompanied her friend to conduct an interview for an assignment with the camp’s manager,” he said. “Before leaving the reserve, the two visitors were taking photographs outside the camp where the attack occurred.”

A police investigation was under way. The victim had joined a friend who went to the camp for a “school project,” said spokeswoman Constable Connie Moganedi. “When they were about to leave, the lioness attacked the young lady.”

The victim’s family is “traumatized,” said Moganedi, who declined to provide details about the victim.

The “intimate glam camp” with five tents is an hour’s drive from Johannesburg’s main international airport, according to Richardson’s website.

The management of the Dinokeng reserve said the woman was killed “within a conservation section that is not accessible to the general public” but lies within the reserve’s boundaries.

“The lion that was involved with this fatality was not one of the wild free-roaming lions of the Dinokeng Game Reserve,” the management said.

‘Canned hunting’

Some conservationists say captive-bred lions lose their fear of people and should not be released into the wild, partly because they pose a heightened threat to humans.

In an interview with The Associated Press last year, Richardson said he does not breed lions and that those on his 1,300-hectare (3,200-acre) property feed on donated carcasses of cattle and antelope. He said he hoped his hands-on interaction with lions, including caressing and cavorting, would help to highlight the plight of Africa’s wild lions. Their numbers have plummeted over several decades.

Richardson campaigns against the South African industry in which customers kill captive-bred lions in relatively confined areas, and told the AP that many of the lions in his care were rescued from being transferred to facilities where the practice labeled by critics as “canned hunting” occurs.

“I have been accepted as part of the pride,” he said in the interview. “But I have to be very careful. They are large animals and are very good at telling you how they feel.”

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Turkey Resists International Calls to Abide by UN Syria Cease-Fire

Turkey is pushing back against international calls for it to abide by a U.N.-backed cease-fire in Syria. The U.N. call for a truce comes as Ankara continues to escalate its offensive in the Syrian enclave of Afrin against the YPG Kurdish militia.

“Baseless,” Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamdi Aksoy called comments by U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, who said that the U.N. cease-fire applies to Turkish forces.

“Turkey is more than welcome to go back and read the exact text of this U.N. Security Council resolution, and (I) would suggest that they do so,” Nauert said Tuesday.

“We urge the U.S. to focus on stopping the regime from attacking innocent civilians instead of making statements that help terrorists,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry shot back in a statement.


Equally strong language was aimed at Paris, with Ankara rejecting a French Foreign Ministry statement that President Emmanuel Macron had also called for Turkey to observe the U.N. cease-fire during a call to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Dishonest,” said Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Aksoy of the Paris claims, adding the French readout of the presidential conversation was “giving false information to the public.”

‘Ankara has found itself alone’

“It’s not just Paris and Washington. Russia has made a statement on this (abiding by the U.N. cease-fire).  Iran could jump in. Ankara has found itself alone and they didn’t see this coming,” claims political columnist Semih Idiz, of the Al Monitor website.

“But Ankara will continue the [military] operation because it’s too far gone to declare a cease-fire. Because they (Ankara) also fear if they stop for 30 days, they may find it diplomatically difficult to restart. This operation is too important for Ankara. They believe they are facing an existential threat,” Idiz added.

Turkish-led forces in Operation Olive Branch are targeting the YPG Kurdish militia, which Turkey accuses of being linked to a decades-long Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey. The YPG is a key ally of Washington in its war against Islamic State. Despite international calls for a cease-fire and de-escalation in fighting in Syria, Erdogan announced a ratcheting up of the offensive, claiming it was about to enter a new phase. “Let everyone be ready for conscription, though the need is not immediate. We are just before a new resurrection,” said Erdogan at a rally.

“It’s like in Vietnam (referring to the U.S. war in Vietnam),” says political scientist Cengiz Aktar. “This operation is prone for more escalation. There is no way the Turkish government can dare to lose Afrin. I think it will be an all-out war to ensure Afrin will be properly occupied.”

Ankara has announced the sending of special forces drawn from both the paramilitary police and army to Syria. Their deployment is part of preparations for an eventual assault on Afrin’s main city, also called Afrin. Turkish forces have experience in urban warfare, having spent months removing insurgents from towns and cities across Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast two years ago. The fighting claimed many civilian lives and caused major destruction and displacement of an estimated half-million people.

Turkish ministers claim the experience gained from the fighting means its forces are well prepared for any assault in Afrin. But urban operations inside Turkey were mainly against largely poorly trained and armed fighters, many of whom were teenagers.

‘Very messy situation’

Analysts warn any assault on Afrin, home to several hundred thousand people, is likely to be a very different proposition. “There will be significant defensive preparations. Of course Turkish special forces have some experience, but they will be facing very battle-hardened fighters, armed and backed by at least one superpower or possibly two superpowers,”  Idiz pointed out.

“Turkey will face a very messy situation,” Idiz warned.  “It will have street-to-street war. It’s a very dangerous situation, with the risk of high casualties and the risk of collateral damage. This will carry the conflict to a new level. Obviously, the international community will weigh in,” added Idiz.

Observers suggest the Turkish military buildup could be a ploy to force the YPG Kurdish militia to quit Afrin. But an expert on Kurdish affairs, speaking anonymously, warned the militia will likely fight to the end, due to the city’s important symbolism to the Kurdish movement. “It will be their Stalingrad,” the expert said, referring to the bitter World War II battle between Russian and German forces in which over 1 million people died.


The Turkish president, too, is drawing on history, equating the current Syrian operation to Turkey’s independence war. Analysts suggest Erdogan will likely remain impervious to international pressure, especially with general and presidential elections due within 18 months.

“Erdogan will dare to escalate the military operation in order to get a much better position domestically,” predicts international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. “But at the end of day, Turkey will suffer financially, diplomatically and militarily. Turkey cannot win this war.”

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South Africa Explores Constitutional Change to Allow Land Seizures

South Africa’s parliament voted Tuesday to examine how to amend the constitution to allow land seizures without compensation, a move that resonates deeply in a nation where the white minority still controls much of the farmland.

But the strongest proponent of the motion immediately sought to reassure the nation that nothing too drastic would come of it.

“No one is going to lose his or her house, no one is going to lose his or her flat, no one is going to lose his or her factory or industry,” Julius Malema, who leads the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters party, said immediately following the vote. “All we are saying is they will not have the ownership of the land, they will have a lease, depending on what is the arrangement, particularly as it relates to the outcome of the Constitutional review process.”

​Another Zimbabwe?

There are fears the vote will put South Africa on the same path as neighboring Zimbabwe, where forceful, violent seizures of white-owned farms in the early 2000s were blamed for the nation’s economic freefall and political instability. 

The ruling African National Congress also supported Tuesday’s motion, but with the provision that land seizures cannot hurt agricultural production, economic stability or political stability — a fairly large and vague loophole, analysts say.

​The loudest group in support of land seizures, the Black First Land First Movement, has denounced the motion as nothing but an “electioneering gimmick” by the ANC.

“Black First Land First is concerned that the Economic Freedom Fighters and the African National Congress are not serious about land expropriation without compensation,” the group said in a statement.  

Painful history

But as Malema knows, South Africa’s soil is stained by hundreds of years of colonial exploitation, by the blood and sweat shed by underpaid, mostly black laborers working for white bosses. Today, black South Africans, who are the majority of the population, remain on average significantly poorer than white South Africans.

With a critical national election looming, Malema used this emotional pull to full effect when arguing in favor of the motion in parliament:

“The time for reconciliation is over,” he said. “Now is the time for justice. If the grandchildren of [early Dutch settler] Jan van Riebeeck have not understood that we need our land, that over and above it is about our humanity, then they have failed to receive the gift of humanity.”

The opposition Democratic Alliance voted against the measure, and blames the slow pace of land redistribution on the ANC, which has ruled since the end of apartheid in 1994, but now faces a tough election next year as it has slowly lost ground to the opposition. 

Democratic Alliance Shadow Deputy Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Ken Robertson, began his speech by exhorting in Zulu, “People are suffering.”

“The ANC government does not have a land problem, we have a problem with the way the ANC are handling land,” he said. “People were dispossessed of their land and their dignity by the discriminatory laws of the past, the painful past that can never be forgotten. The ANC’s call for expropriation without compensation is a lazy attempt to divert attention away from the real reasons that lie at the heart of the slow pace of meaningful land reform and restitution.”

​Missing facts

While this debate has no shortage of fiery rhetoric, what it lacks, says analyst Ebrahim Fakir, is any concrete details.

Because of a general lack of facts and an abundance of rhetoric, Fakir was one of several analysts who told VOA that recent developments have left them confused.

“At present, all bets are off,” he said. “No one knows how and what this could mean. Theoretically, it could even mean that it does actually end up denying a regime of protection of private property.”

No reliable figures on land ownership in South Africa exist, although a recent government study found that only a third of the nation’s land is privately owned.

Furthermore, it’s unclear how the constitution would be changed, if at all. Tuesday’s vote mobilized parliament’s Constitutional Review Committee to deliver a report on the topic by August 30. Any changes to the constitution require a 75 percent vote.

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Concerns Mount in Egypt as Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam Nears Completion

Five years after Ethiopia began construction of the Renaissance Dam on the River Nile, downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan worry about impact on the river’s water levels and potential harm to agriculture and industry.

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Students Return to Florida High School for First Time Since Mass Shooting

Students who survived one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history are returning to school Wednesday, as federal and state lawmakers continue to debate how to prevent young people from losing their lives in what they all agree should be the safe confines of the nation’s schools.

There have been no classes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida since a gunman killed 17 people there earlier this month. The massacre has reignited the the long-running debate over gun laws.

House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters Tuesday a “gap” in the nation’s background check system for gun buyers must be filled and called for the implementation of “sweeping mental health reform.”

“These are the kinds of things that we are going to be discussing with our members, with the Senate, and with the president,” Ryan said.

What Ryan and other Republican lawmakers have not called for, however, is a ban on guns, including a ban on semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifles like the one that was used in the Florida school attack.

“We shouldn’t be banning guns for law abiding citizens, we should be focusing on making sure that citizens who should not get guns in the first place don’t get those guns, said Ryan.

The National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups are strongly opposed to preventing Americans from owning certain types of weapons. As such, Republican leaders in Congress are unlikely to support U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposals to raise the minimum age for buying semi-automatic rifles, banning “bump stocks” that enable semi-automatic rifles to fire hundreds of rounds per minute, and to have more stringent background checks.

Trump, who has also called for teachers to be allowed to carry firearms in the classroom, said after meeting with the nation’s governor’s on Monday that, “half of you are so afraid of the NRA. “If [the NRA] is not with you, we have to fight them every once in a while.”

For years Democrats have pressed for a universal background check system, including investigations into online and gun show purchases.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday if Congress can pass only a bi-partisan bill to strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as “Fix NICS” legislation, “it would be an abject failure and a dereliction of duty.”

Many House Democratic members want to reinstate an assault weapons ban that expired more than a decade ago, but House Republican leaders maintain the Senate has the responsibility to take the next steps.

The mass shooting has prompted the Florida state legislature to debate a school safety bill. On Tuesday, House Republicans rebuffed Democratic amendments that would ban assault weapons, delete language that would allow some teachers to be armed with guns in schools and require mental health examinations for potential gun buyers.





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Russia Accuses Syrian Rebels of Blocking Humanitarian Plan While Fighting Continues

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday rebels in the eastern Ghouta area of Syria are blocking aid deliveries and preventing people from leaving during what Russia has called a daily “humanitarian pause” in its military operations.

The Russian plan is meant to give a five-hour window for people to get help or get out of the rebel-held area that pro-government forces have besieged since 2013.

Syrian state media also blamed opposition fighters for hindering evacuations for a second consecutive day. No civilians have yet left the area, which is home to about 400,000 people.

Rebels rejected the accusations during the first day of the limited truce on Tuesday, which included the two sides exchanging blame for continuing violence.

Mohammed Alloush, head of the largest insurgent group in eastern Ghouta, called for Russia to stop its aerial attacks on the rebels and honor a nationwide 30-day cease-fire resolution it voted for at the U.N. Security Council last week.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported more fighting Wednesday in eastern Ghouta.

“There are some very bad actors involved on the ground, notably the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, but also a number of the rebel groups and others who have taken refuge within populated areas like the eastern Ghouta suburbs,” said David Mack, a former ambassador and scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

Mack told VOA the Syrian government is taking advantage of the Russian plan in order to continue its efforts to oust opposition fighters from one of their last remaining strongholds.

United Nations officials have expressed concern about the humanitarian situation while insisting aid deliveries be allowed to reach those in need.

“The U.N. is ready to immediately support life-saving aid convoys and to support medical evacuations,” the U.N. humanitarian office said Wednesday. “But the fighting must stop and approvals from all parties to deliver must be granted.”

More than 550 civilians, almost a quarter of them children, have been killed in the last two weeks during the Russian and Syrian attacks on eastern Ghouta, one of the most violent episodes in Syria’s seven-year civil war.

In Washington, a top U.S. commander, General Joe Votel, who heads the military’s Central Command, accused Russia of playing an “incredibly destabilizing” role in Syria.

“Diplomatically and militarily, Moscow plays both arsonist and firefighter, fueling tensions among all parties in Syria,” Votel told the House Armed Services Committee.

“Moscow continues to advocate for alternate diplomatic initiatives to Western-led political negotiations in Syria and Afghan-led peace processes in Afghanistan, attempting to thwart the U.N.’s role and limit the advance of American influence,” Votel said.

Victor Beattie contributed to this report.

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Students Wary, Hopeful, Proud as Florida School Reopens

The walkway leading onto the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is lined with flowers and photographs, memorials to the 17 students and teachers killed in a Valentine’s Day massacre that forever altered their lives and thrust them into the center of the nation’s gun debate.

Alexis Grogan, a 15-year-old sophomore, planned to wear a Stoneman Douglas color — maroon — on the first day back to class Wednesday, plus sneakers that say “MSD Strong, be positive, be passionate, be proud to be an eagle” and “2/14/18” in honor of those who died.

She feels nervous, like it might be too soon to go on as usual without slain friends like Luke Hoyer, who sat two seats behind her in Spanish. Still, the support from her fellow students, and their fight to strengthen gun control laws have buoyed her spirits.

“I am so proud of how the kids at my school have been fighting because we all want change to happen and, as we see the progression, it really shows us that people do care and they do hear what we have to say,” Grogan said in a text message.

​Keeping the pressure on

The Douglas students return to school after a whirlwind of political activism that has reignited the nation’s gun and school-safety debate. Douglas sophomore Charlotte Dixon said some of her friends are having a hard time returning to classes. But like Grogan, they are encouraged by the attention to gun laws their actions have brought.

“I’m so glad that people are stepping forward and talking about it keeping it relevant … because it shouldn’t happen to anyone ever again,” Dixon said.

On Tuesday, relatives of the Stoneman Douglas victims kept up the pressure in Florida’s capital with emotional testimony during a legislative hearing to discuss passing a bill that would, among other things, raise the age limit to buy long guns from 18 to 21. The bill also would create a program that allows teachers who receive law-enforcement training and are deputized by the local sheriff’s office to carry concealed weapons in the classroom, if also approved by the school district. The school’s superintendent has spoken out firmly against that measure.

The House Appropriations Committee’s 23-6 vote in favor of the bill Tuesday followed more than four hours of emotional discussion with the parents of some of the 17 killed, and nearly two weeks of activism by students on social media and in televised debates.

Gov. Rick Scott, who met with officials in Miami-Dade County on Tuesday, said at a news conference that he hopes a gun and school-safety bill is passed before Florida’s annual legislative session ends March 9. He had proposed measures that overlap with the Legislature’s plan but did not include arming teachers. However, he declined to say Tuesday whether he would veto the sweeping package if it included that provision.

The Senate’s version of the school-safety bill was approved by a second committee on a 13-7 vote Tuesday evening. Sen. Bill Galvano, who is designated to become the next Senate president and is ushering through the bill, said the earliest it will be considered by the full Senate is Friday.

Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association and Unified Sportsmen of Florida, told the House Appropriations Committee that she supports tightening school security and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, but not the House bill’s gun-ownership restrictions, which she later said would not have stopped the Parkland shooting.

“Part of what we need to do is make people understand that guns are not the problem,” she said after the hearing. “So passing more laws dealing with guns as a solution to a problem that exists within the enforcement of laws is just kind of silly.”

Max Schachter, father of 14-year-old victim Alex Schachter, said the bill the House committee eventually approved doesn’t go far enough, but could have saved his son.

“If we would have had these measures in place, I would not have had to bury my son next to his mother a week and a half ago. … I’m pleading for your help. I’m willing to compromise. Are you?” he asked.

​Personal memorials

Outside the school on Tuesday, people tied poems to the chain-link fence surrounding the school, and dropped off red, heart-shaped balloons. The building where the shooting occurred was cordoned off, and people signed photographs of the fallen.

Junior Sidney Fischer, 17, was in a Holocaust history class when the shooter aimed his gun at the window and shot into the room. Two students in his classroom died. He’s planning to wear swim goggles on his first day back Wednesday to honor his friend Nicholas Dworet, who was an accomplished swimmer.

“Obviously our school will never be the same, but I think once we get back into our normal routine people will shift back into a comfortable state,” Fischer said.

He’s planning to ride to school with a friend — just like they did before the shooting.

“I’m actually not too scared of going back tomorrow,” he said. “There is this sort of looming thought that someone will try to perform another shooting but I’m sure our school will be riddled with security.”

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Street Section Outside Russian Embassy Dedicated to Fallen Opposition Leader

A street outside the Russian embassy in Washington has been renamed after Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition leader killed three years ago in Moscow. VOA’s Elizabeth Cherneff has more.

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U.S. Attorney General Announces New Task Force to Combat Opioid Epidemic

Joined by several state attorneys general and the acting DEA administrator, U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions announced a new task force to crack down on opioid manufacturers and distributors. He also announced the hiring of a federal prosecutor to lead anti-opioid efforts at the Department of Justice. From Washington, VOA’s Jill Craig has more.

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Nigeria Panel to Investigate Attack on Girls School

Nigeria’s government said Tuesday it had set up a panel to investigate the abduction of 110 girls from their school last week by suspected members of the extremist Boko Haram group.

Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed said a major general would head the panel of Nigerian security agencies that will examine what security was in place at the school and in its northern town, Dapchi in Yobe State, before the attack.

The military had withdrawn from Dapchi weeks before the February 19 attack, saying its troops were needed elsewhere and claiming that security was handed over to police.

Police deny that, saying the military never entrusted security to it.

Nigeria said the girls missing from the Government Girls Science and Technical College range in age from 11 to 19. 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for “the immediate and unconditional release of all missing girls and for their safe return to their families,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

The U.N. chief urged Nigerian authorities to swiftly bring those responsible for their abduction to justice, Dujarric said, and he reiterated the U.N.’s support to Nigeria and countries in the region in their fight against terrorism.

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Vote in South Africa’s Parliament Moves Land Reform Closer

South Africa took a step Tuesday to hasten the transfer of land from white to black owners when parliament backed a motion seeking to change the constitution to allow land expropriation without compensation.

The ruling African National Congress has long promised reforms to redress racial disparities in land ownership, and the subject remains highly emotive more than two decades after the end of apartheid. Whites still own most of South Africa’s land following centuries of brutal colonial dispossession.

Tuesday’s motion was brought by the radical left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party but was supported by the ANC, which controls almost two-thirds of the parliament compared with EFF’s 6 percent.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said after his inauguration two weeks ago that he would speed up the transfer of land to black people, although he stressed that food production and security must be preserved.

Launching a debate on the motion in parliament, EFF leader Julius Malema said “it was time for justice” on the land issue.

“We must ensure that we restore the dignity of our people without compensating the criminals who stole our land,” he said.

The motion was passed 241-83. Parliament then instructed a committee to review the constitution and report back to it by August 30.

It was not clear when any change to Section 25 of the constitution to allow expropriation of land without compensation would take place. Together, the ANC, EFF and other small opposition parties could muster the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional change.

The ANC supported the motion with some amendments. Its deputy chief whip, Dorries Dlakude, said the party “recognizes that the current policy instruments … may be hindering effective land reform.”


The official opposition Democratic Alliance party (DA) opposed the motion, arguing that changes to Section 25 would undermine property rights and scare off potential investors.

The DA’s Thandeka Mbabama told parliament that expropriation without compensation was a way to divert attention from the failure by successive ANC-led governments to come to grips with the issue. Corruption and lack of farmer training and capacity remain obstacles to land redistribution.

“It is shocking that at the current rate it will take 35 years to finalize [land] restitution claims lodged before 1998,” said Mbabama, who is deputy shadow minister for rural development and land reform.

In his first state of the nation address two weeks ago, Ramaphosa appealed directly to poorer black voters — the core of the ANC’s electoral support base — saying he would aim to speed up the transfer of land to black people as a general election looms in 2019.

Ramaphosa said earlier Tuesday he would pursue expropriation of land without compensation, but reiterated that this should be done in a way that increases agricultural production and improves food security.

Among the main criticisms leveled at government’s land reform policy over the years has been that many farms transferred to emerging black farmers lay fallow and unproductive.

Land expropriations would trigger legal challenges, said Ralph Mathekga, an independent political analyst.

“This thing is going to court, make no mistake. The motion today means land has been elevated even higher as a political issue to code red from code amber,” he said.

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Ethiopia’s Huge Dam Causes Worry in Egypt

Egypt was once called the “gift of the Nile” by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. But today, more than 2,000 years later, Egyptians fret about the existential threat of a faraway dam to their water supply.

Nearly seven years after Ethiopia began construction of the Renaissance Dam on the Nile River, downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan worry about the structure’s impact on the river’s water levels and potential harm to agriculture and industry. 

Negotiations to reach a solution continue, but no agreement is in sight.

Ethiopia began building the Renaissance Dam in 2011, as Egypt was engulfed in political turmoil. As the dam nears completion, Egypt’s leaders are considering ways to cut back on water consumption. Government officials fear the dam will reduce their country’s share of Nile water allocated to it under a 1929 international accord.

During a visit to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi tried to appear conciliatory. But his worry was clear. He told his hosts that he was happy that the dam would bring “development and growth” to their country, but warned them that “the Egyptian people rely entirely on the water that comes from [the Nile].”


Guy Jobbins, a water research fellow at the British Overseas Development Institute, told VOA that Egypt’s concern is well-placed.

“The Nile is to all intents and purposes Egypt’s only significant water supplier,” he said. “It supplies about 99 percent of the water that Egypt uses each year,” a reliance he said makes it “extremely vulnerable to anything that influences that flow of water.”

Jobbins pointed out that water desalinization was “becoming more of a viable option in the Middle East,” and that prices “are becoming cheaper.” But he stressed it was expensive, and “with 100 million people living in Egypt, the cost of supplying more water by desalinization would be exorbitant.”

Jobbins calculated that the needed infrastructure could cost Egypt around $3 trillion.

No one is certain how much Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam will affect Egypt’s agriculture, or life in general. The completion of Egypt’s own Aswan High Dam in 1971 with the help of the former Soviet Union disrupted the normal flow of the Nile, reducing the amount of silt carried downstream and the vital nutrients it once provided to Sudan’s and Egypt’s fertile agricultural lands.

Some experts worry the new Ethiopian dam could also increase the concentration of agricultural and industrial pollutants if the flow of river water decreases.

Jobbins noted that the agricultural regions of Egypt’s Nile Delta in the north traditionally rely on “the river’s ability to flush [pollutants from] these places into the sea.”

The issue of long-term water quality, Jobbins argued, becomes more acute if the amount of water flowing into Egypt from the Nile is reduced.

Talks in Addis Ababa

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri met with Ethiopian and Sudanese officials at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa in late January.

Earlier this month, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who recently resigned, told Sissi during a visit to Cairo that the Nile must “provide an opportunity for cooperation” and “never become a source of competition, mistrust or conflict.”

Sissi agreed, saying the river should “not be a source of conflict.”

Veteran Egyptian editor and publisher Hisham Kassem said a key potential conflict hinges on whether Ethiopia will fill the reservoir behind the new Renaissance Dam over 12 years, or over just three, which could severely curtail the flow of Nile water to Egypt in the interim.

Kassem thinks the talks are “stalled,” and said “if no deal is reached, [the situation] could be catastrophic, because it could mean that a lot of existing agricultural land in Egypt will be [left without] water, and the drought will have a serious impact on it.”

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, ousted in 2011, told Egyptian media last year that he would have taken action to destroy any dam Ethiopia built on the Nile.

Kassem believes military action to resolve a dam dispute would not be a good option, especially in the longer term. 

“If there’s a diplomatic failure, and Egypt resorts to military force, it’s going to be the biggest diplomatic failure in the history of Egypt,” he said. “And it’s going to affect Egypt’s ability to acquire arms.”

In the meantime, Sissi insists there is no crisis, while diplomats continue to talk.

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Concerns Mount in Egypt as Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam Nears Completion

Five years after Ethiopia began construction of the Renaissance Dam on the River Nile, downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan worry about impact on the river’s water levels and potential harm to agriculture and industry. Negotiations continue, though as Edward Yeranian reports for VOA from Cairo, no agreement is in sight.

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Nigeria Gripped by Massive Lassa Fever Outbreak

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports it is teaming up with national and international health agencies to tackle what appears to be the largest outbreak of Lassa fever in Nigeria. The Latest figures show 1,081 suspected cases of the disease, including 90 deaths.

The WHO reports 317 of more than 1,000 suspected cases of Lassa fever have been confirmed during the past eight weeks.  It says the number is more than the 305 cases reported all of last year, making this the biggest Lassa fever outbreak to date.

While the disease is present in 17 Nigerian states, the WHO reports it is largely concentrated in the three southern states of Edo, Ondo and Ebonyi. Lassa fever is endemic in Nigeria, as it is in a number of West African States. WHO spokesman Tarek Jasarevic says investigations have been undertaken to find out why this year’s outbreak is so extensive.

“[The] WHO is helping to coordinate health actors and is joining rapid risk assessment teams traveling to hot spots to investigate the outbreak. [The] WHO is supporting the Lassa fever Emergency Operations Center that is led by the Nigeria Center for Disease Control to revise the Lassa fever incident Action Plan, and to strengthen surveillance, infection prevention control and treatment, as well as better coordination and conducting Lassa fever research and development,” Jasarevic said.

Lassa fever is an acute viral hemorrhagic illness that occurs in West Africa. The virus is transmitted to humans via contact with food or household items contaminated with rodent urine or feces. Jasarevic told VOA the virus also can be spread between humans.

“Once a person is infected, it can infect other people just like Ebola was through the body fluid. So, mainly that would be the health care workers who are not properly trained and who are not properly equipped who may then get infected inside the health care facilities,” Jasarevic said.  

The incubation period of Lassa fever ranges from six to 21 days. The WHO says the best way to prevent the disease is by promoting good community hygiene to discourage rodents that spread the disease from entering homes. Besides storing grain and other foodstuffs in rodent-proof containers, the WHO suggests keeping cats in the home is a good idea.

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US Says 2 Al-Shabab Militants Killed in Airstrike

The U.S. Africa Command says two al-Shabab militants have been killed and another injured in an airstrike in southern Somalia.

AFRICOM says the airstrike occurred Monday in the vicinity of the town of Jilib, in the Middle Jubba region.

It marked the fourth airstrike in Somalia by the U.S. forces so far this year. Previous strikes against al-Shabab took place January 2 and 18 as well as February 19.

Meanwhile, 10 al-Shabab militants escaped from a rehabilitation center in the town of Garowe on Sunday night, security officials have told VOA Somali.

The escape occurred at around 8 p.m. local time, when the militants managed to scale a wall and slip into the darkness, the sources said.

Puntland region officials refused to speak to the media about the escape, but sources told VOA Somali that the region’s leader, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali Gas, has ordered an investigation.

One of the militants was caught on Monday while three others were apprehended on Tuesday. The six on the run include Tahlil Hussein Ali, who is believed to be the escapees’ leader.

“Officials believe these men are in the countryside still running from security forces,” said an intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The men were al-Shabab fighters captured during gun battles between Puntland forces and the militants in March 2016 after al-Shabab launched an ill-fated seaborne raid on coastal towns.

They were placed at the rehabilitation center in an effort to reintegrate them into Somali society. The project was funded by an international aid organization, according to documents seen by VOA Somali.

Security sources tell VOA that the escape is suspicious, as the men did not break any doors prior to getting out. Guards at the center are being questioned.


In November, some inmates at the center physically attacked the guards in an attempt to escape but that effort failed, officials said.


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US Adds Several Islamic State Affiliates to Terror List

The U.S. State Department on Tuesday branded seven Islamic State groups from around the world and two of its leaders as terrorists in an effort to cut off any financial support they may have been getting from within the United States.

The top U.S. diplomatic agency blacklisted ISIS-West Africa, ISIS-Philippines and ISIS-Bangladesh, along with four other ISIS-affiliated groups — ISIS-Somalia, Jund al-Khilafah-Tunisia, ISIS-Egypt and the Maute Group. The State Department said it also has sanctioned two ISIS leaders, Mahad Moalim and Abu Musab al-Barnawi.

Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said in a statement that the designations “target key ISIS-affiliated groups and leaders outside its fallen caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Today’s actions are a critical step in degrading ISIS’s global network and denying its affiliates the resources they need to plan and carry out terrorist attacks.”

The law under which the sanctions were imposed blocks the IS groups from conducting any business transactions linked to any properties they may have in the U.S. and prohibits Americans from doing business with them.

The State Department said the sanctions send a message globally that “these groups and individuals have committed or pose a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism.  Terrorist designations expose and isolate entities and individuals, and deny them access to the U.S. financial system. Moreover, designations can assist the law enforcement activities of U.S. agencies and other governments.”

It said the terrorist designations are part of the U.S. plan to defeat IS insurgents.

“This whole-of-government effort is destroying ISIS in its safe havens, denying its ability to recruit foreign terrorist fighters, stifling its financial resources, countering the false propaganda it disseminates over the internet and social media, and helping to stabilize liberated areas in Iraq and Syria so the displaced can return to their homes and begin to rebuild their lives,” the State Department said.

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US Cutting Aid to Cambodia for Recent Democratic Setbacks

The White House announced Tuesday the U.S. is cutting aid to Cambodia because of “recent setbacks to democracy” in the southeast Asian country.

The statement said the setbacks caused the administration of President Donald Trump “deep concern” and prompted a review of U.S. aid, resulting in reductions in military and civilian aid.

The White House said the U.S. would continue to support health, agricultural, mine clearance and other programs “in support of the Cambodian people.”

The reduction in U.S. aid comes after Human Rights Watch reported in January the Cambodian government’s “broad political crackdown” last year “effectively extinguished” the country’s emerging democracy.

In its annual World Report, the rights group said the government, controlled by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party for more than three decades, disbanded the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, and arrested its leader on questionable treason charges. The dissolution came after a ruling the CNRP was involved in an attempt to overthrow Hun Sen’s regime.

The report said government authorities also abused the judicial system to prosecute political opponents and human rights activists and forced the closure of several independent media outlets, including radio stations that broadcast programming from Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. RFA’s Cambodian bureau was subsequently forced to close, and authorities charged two RFA journalists with spying in November for allegedly providing information to a foreign country.

“The last vestiges of democratic government in Cambodia disappeared in 2017,” said Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams. “Hun Sen cemented his 33-year rule into dictatorship at the expense of the Cambodian people’s basic rights.”

The delegation to the European Union to Cambodia announced in December it was suspending funding for Cambodia’s National Election Commission after the dissolution of the CNRP and the arrest of its leader, Kem Sokha.

The EU said the party’s elimination meant the government could not organize a legitimate election in 2018 as planned. In November, the U.S. also decided to suspend funding for the NEC.

Despite the suspensions, NEC officials said it would not affect the NEC’s ability to hold an election, as it had lined up funding from government and other donors, including China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

The increasing tensions with the EU and the U.S. come as Cambodia is becoming close to Beijing, which is offering political and economic support to Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge officer.

After the U.S. November announcement it was suspending funding to the NEC for the vote scheduled for July 29, 2018, the pro-government Fresh News website reported that Hun Sen said in a speech to garment workers that he welcomed the cut in U.S. aid, and urged Washington to cut all assistance.

Although U.S. assistance to Cambodia for health, education, governance, economic development and clearing unexploded ordnance was worth more than $77.6 million in 2014, China is now Cambodia’s biggest donor and lender.

According to The Economist, Chinese firms sent nearly $5 billion to Cambodia in loans and investments between 2011 and 2015, which accounts for about 70 percent of total industrial development.


A Cambodian court, meanwhile, ordered the seizure Tuesday of CNRP’s headquarters because former party co-leader Sam Rainsy failed to pay a $1 million judgment against him for allegedly defaming him, as well as compensation to another ruling party leader. Rainsy owns the property that was seized.




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White House Reaches Informal Deal with Boeing for Air Force One

U.S. President Donald Trump has reached an agreement with the Boeing Co to provide two Air Force One planes for $3.9 billion, the White House said on Tuesday.

“President Trump has reached an informal deal with Boeing on a fixed-price contract for the new Air Force One Program,” Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley told Reuters. He said the contract will save taxpayers more than $1.4 billion, but those savings could not be independently confirmed.

Trump has said Boeing’s costs to build replacements for Air Force One aircraft – one of the most visible symbols of the U.S. presidency – were too high and urged the federal government in a tweet to “Cancel order!”

The Boeing 747-8s are designed to be an airborne White House able to fly in worst-case security scenarios, such as nuclear war, and are modified with military avionics, advanced communications and a self-defense system.

“President Trump negotiated a good deal on behalf of the American people,” Boeing said in a news release.

U.S. aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia said the White House was engaging in “political theater.”

“There’s no evidence of a discount,” said Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group.

Earlier this month, the Pentagon released Air Force budget documents for fiscal year 2019 disclosing the $3.9 billion cost for the two-aircraft program. The same 2018 budget document, not adjusted for inflation, showed the price at $3.6 billion.

Boeing would only have so much room to offer discounts given the high proportion of supplier content on Air Force One, from refrigerators to missile warning systems, Aboulafia said by phone.

The big U.S. defense contractor said the deal includes work to develop and build two planes, including unique items such as a communications package, internal and external stairs, large galleys and other equipment.

The “informal deal” will need to be codified in a formal contract with comprehensive, complex terms and conditions said Franklin Turner, a partner specializing in government contracts at law firm McCarter & English, suggesting a final deal was still a ways off.

Boeing stock was up 1.4 percent at $368.54, trading at an all-time high.


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Fed’s Powell Nods to ‘Gradual’ Rate Hikes, Close eye on Inflation

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, pledging to “strike a balance” between the risk of an overheating economy and the need to keep growth on track, told U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday that the central bank would stick with gradual interest rate increases despite the added stimulus of tax cuts and government spending.

Fed policymakers anticipate three rate increases this year, and Powell gave no indication in prepared remarks to the House Financial Services Committee that the pace needs to quicken even as the “tailwinds” of government stimulus and a stronger world economy propel the U.S. recovery.

“The [Federal Open Market Committee] will continue to strike a balance between avoiding an overheating economy and bringing … price inflation to 2 percent on a sustained basis,” Powell said in prepared remarks for his first monetary policy testimony to Congress as Fed chief.

“Some of the headwinds the U.S. economy faced in previous years have turned into tailwinds,” Powell said, noting recent fiscal policy shifts and the global economic recovery. Still, “inflation remains below our 2 percent longer-run objective. In the (FOMC‘s) view, further gradual rate increases in the federal funds rate will best promote attainment of both of our objectives.”

The testimony sent Powell’s first signal as Fed chief that the massive tax overhaul and government spending plan launched by the Trump administration will not prompt any immediate shift to a faster pace of rate increases. “Gradual” has been the operative word since the Fed began raising rates under Powell’s predecessor, Janet Yellen, in late 2015.

The Fed is expected to approve its first rate increase of 2018 at the next policy meeting in March, when it will also provide fresh economic projections and Powell will hold his first press conference.

“This is a continuation of where this Fed was under Chair Yellen,” said Robert Albertson, principal and chief strategist at Sandler O‘Neill & Partners in New York.

“They are normalizing, they are not tightening … The surprises, if we are going to see them, are going to be after more data comes out in the next month or two,” and accounts for things like the tax cuts and whether business investment spending continues higher, he said.

Market reaction was muted. U.S. stocks were trading slightly lower while the dollar .DXY was stronger against a basket of currencies. Prices of U.S. Treasuries were mixed.

Valuation pressures

Powell’s appearance before the House panel is his first as Fed chief. He used his prepared remarks to strike notes likely to be welcomed by the Republican majority on the panel – including promises of “transparency” and a nod to the monetary policy rules some of them favor.

“I am committed to clearly explaining what we are doing and why we are doing it,” Powell said.

But in his remarks and in a monetary policy report issued to Congress by the Fed last week he also stuck close to a safe script, mentioning none of the new initiatives that some of his colleagues have pushed for, such as a review of the Fed’s system for managing inflation.

That report acknowledged “valuation pressures” in parts of the economy, and noted the recent return of volatility in stock markets.

Though rising long-term interest rates and recent equity market volatility have tightened financial conditions, Powell said, “we do not see these developments as weighing heavily on the outlook for economic activity, the labor market and inflation.”

Rather, “the robust job market should continue to support growth in household incomes and consumer spending, solid economic growth among our trading partners should lead to further gains in U.S. exports, and upbeat business sentiment and strong sales growth will likely continue to boost business investment,” he said.

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