Zimbabwe Hikes Traffic Fines to Boost Revenue

Motorists in Zimbabwe are ringing in the new year by toasting — or cursing — increased traffic fines which are expected to raise needed revenue by the cash-strapped government and reduce car accidents. 

Come Jan. 1, if motorists break a traffic law, they will pay as much as $700 for offenses such as speeding, drinking and driving, overloading their vehicle, or driving without a license. The previous maximum penalty was just $30. 

President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government says the move, besides raising revenue, will reduce fatalities on the roads. But Stanford Chigwedere, a public transport driver, says he is against the idea because casualties on Zimbabwe’s roads are not caused by bad driving alone. 

“Roads in Zimbabwe are now useless. They want to fine us; we pay tax but they are doing nothing,” Chigwedere said. “Now they are increasing fines to as much as $700, where will that money go to? All roads are full of potholes. We are giving them lots of money. We are not causing deaths or accidents on the roads; it is the police chasing motorists that cause accidents because we will be on these bad roads.”

Critics say the move is a desperate measure to squeeze money from an already overburdened citizenry. 

Clever Mundau says he is for the new traffic fines being introduced by the government.

“I think the responsible authority have views, maybe they want the roads to be OK.” Mundau said. “So they are going to make sure that the roads are OK. So let’s just give them time.”

According to the Traffic Safety Council of Zimbabwe, major causes of road accidents include speeding and lack of discipline. Obio Chinyere, the head of the government agency, says fines by themselves will not work.  

“It is not only the fines when you look at the road safety, there are other instruments we can actually use, yes, the fines, but you also have to bring in education, road worthy vehicles,” Chinyere said. “We are saying; yes you can make an error as you drive, if you move out of the road, it shouldn’t be a death sentence, the road should be able to forgive you. Once you leave that road, you are gone.”

Narrow roads have also been an issue, causing some motorists to swerve and get into accidents.

The government says it is embarking on a program to create four-lane roads as the current infrastructure has become dangerous after years of neglect.

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Sudanese Police Fire Tear Gas at Protesters

Police in Sudan’s capital fired tear gas Monday at demonstrators who had planned to march to the presidential palace to call for a change in President Omar al-Bashir’s government.

Witnesses say demonstrators gathered in groups in downtown Khartoum, but were quickly confronted by security forces and unable to march to the palace of President Omar al-Bashir. Some in the crowd chanted, “The people want the fall of the regime,” the slogan used in the 2011 Arab Spring.

Witnesses say demonstrators gathered in downtown Khartoum but were quickly confronted by security forces and were unable to march to the palace. Some in the crowd chanted, “The people want the fall of the regime,” the main slogan used in the 2011 Arab Spring protests.

Most shops in the area were closed ahead of the planned march, which was organized by professional groups, including lawyers, doctors and teachers.

Witnesses say police arrested dozens of people.

The anti-government demonstrations are in their second week, having begun as a protest against a sharp increase in the price of bread, a staple food in the country. The demonstrations have been forcibly dispersed by Sudanese security forces.

Sudan’s government said 19 people have been killed, including two security personnel, since the protests broke out the northeastern city of Atbara on Dec. 19.

Human rights group Amnesty International said 37 people have been killed in the protests.

Sudan’s government said more than 200 protesters and nearly 190 members of the security forces have been wounded.

Authorities have closed schools and declared curfews and states of emergency in several regions since the protests began.

Protesters have repeatedly targeted and burned the offices of Bashir’s party and called for an end to his 29-year rule. Bashir came to power in a 1989 military coup.

Bashir spoke on national television Monday to commemorate the country’s Independence Day on Jan. 1. He acknowledged the economic troubles the country is facing, but did not explicitly mention the protests.

“Our country is going through difficult economic circumstances … we are confident that we are close to overcoming this difficult and temporary period,” he said.

Prices for food in Sudan have climbed sharply in recent months, with inflation topping 60 percent. This comes after the government cut subsidies earlier in 2018.

Sudan’s economy deteriorated after South Sudan became independent, depriving Khartoum of much of its oil revenue. Sudan is facing a foreign exchange crisis and soaring inflation, despite the United States lifting a trade embargo in October 2017.

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Elizabeth Warren Makes Big Move Toward 2020 US Presidential Run

Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Monday took the first major step toward launching a widely anticipated campaign for the presidency, hoping her reputation as a populist fighter can help her navigate a Democratic field that could include nearly two dozen candidates.

“No matter what our differences, most of us want the same thing,” the 69-year-old Massachusetts Democrat said in a video that highlights her family’s history in Oklahoma. “To be able to work hard, play by the same set of rules and take care of the people we love. That’s what I’m fighting for and that’s why today I’m launching an exploratory committee for president.”

Warren burst onto the national scene a decade ago during the financial crisis with calls for greater consumer protections. She quickly became one of the party’s more prominent liberals even as she sometimes fought with Obama administration officials over their response to the market turmoil.

Now, as a likely presidential contender, she is making an appeal to the party’s base. Her video notes the economic challenges facing people of color along with images of a women’s march and Warren’s participation at an LGBT event.

In an email to supporters, Warren said she’d more formally announce a campaign plan early in 2019.

Warren is the most prominent Democrat yet to make a move toward a presidential bid and has long been a favorite target of President Donald Trump.

In mid-December, former Obama housing chief Julian Castro also announced a presidential exploratory committee, which legally allows potential candidates to begin raising money. Outgoing Maryland Rep. John Delaney is the only Democrat so far to have formally announced a presidential campaign.

But that’s likely to change quickly in the new year as other leading Democrats take steps toward White House runs.

Warren enters a Democratic field that’s shaping up as the most crowded in decades, with many of her Senate colleagues openly weighing their own campaigns, as well as governors, mayors and other prominent citizens. One of her most significant competitors could be Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who is eyeing another presidential run harnessing the same populist rhetoric.

She must also move past a widely panned October release of a DNA test meant to bolster her claim to Native American heritage. The move was intended to rebut Trump’s taunts of Warren as “Pocahontas.” Instead, her use of a genetic test to prove ethnicity spurred controversy that seemed to blunt any argument she sought to make. There was no direct mention of it in the video released Monday.

Warren has the benefit of higher name recognition than many others in the Democratic mix for 2020, thanks to her years as a prominent critic of Wall Street who originally conceived of what became the government’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

She now faces an arduous battle to raise money and capture Democratic primary voters’ attention before Iowa casts its first vote in more than a year. She has an advantage in the $12.5 million left over from her 2018 re-election campaign that she could use for a presidential run.

Warren’s campaign is likely to revolve around the same theme she’s woven into speeches and policy proposals in recent years: battling special interests, paying mind to the nexus between racial and economic inequities.

“America’s middle class is under attack,” Warren said in the video. “How did we get here? Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie. And they enlisted politicians to cut them a fatter slice.”


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Chad Frees Nearly 60 Amnestied ‘Political’ Prisoners

Chad’s President Idriss Deby on Monday freed nearly 60 detainees considered political prisoners by rights groups as part of a general amnesty for former rebels, the country’s justice minister told AFP.

Those released included Moussa Tao, arrested in 2013 on a conspiracy charge; and Colonel Haroun Bata and about 10 Chadian “mercenaries” accused of having organised an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea a year ago.

“We conducted a ceremony to release 58 prisoners as part of the general amnesty,” said Justice Minister Djimet Arabi.

But former rebel Baba Ladde, jailed for eight years earlier this month, was not on the list, the minister said.

“He can still be subject to a reduced sentence or a presidential pardon,” he said.

Rights groups in Chad, who have on several occasions called for the full application of the amnesty, declared in May, welcomed the news.

Most of those released had been held for several months without trial, they said.

At the beginning of December, 12 other prisoners had been released, said Jean-Bosco Manga, spokesman for the ACAIAT group, a citizens group campaigning for a full amnesty.

Arabi said the total number of prisoners freed came to 70 and cases were still under consideration.



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Iraqi Jets Strike IS in Syria After Assad’s Authorization

The Iraqi military says its fighter jets struck an Islamic State position inside Syria, a day after the Syrian government authorized its neighbor to target the militants at will.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command says F-16s struck a two-story house Monday in Souseh, close to the border, that was being used as a meeting place for IS leaders.

The Associated Press could not verify the number of casualties.

Iraq has regularly coordinated with the U.S.-led coalition to strike IS positions inside Syria by air and artillery. On Sunday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad formally invited Iraq to do so, reflecting the changing battlefield in Syria as the U.S. prepares to withdraw its forces.


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Emirati Court Upholds 10-year Sentence Against Activist

A high court in the United Arab Emirates upheld a 10-year prison sentence of Emirati rights activist Ahmed Mansoor for criticizing the government in social media posts, local media and human rights groups said Monday.

The Dubai-based Gulf News reported that Mansoor’s sentencing, which also includes a $272,000 fine, was upheld by a branch of the Federal Supreme Court dealing with state security. His lawyer did not immediately respond to calls by The Associated Press.


Mansoor was convicted of seeking to damage the UAE’s reputation and relationship with neighboring states by posting false reports and information.


An electrical engineer with a master’s from the University of Colorado Boulder, Mansoor was the recipient of the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2015. He was described as one of the few voices within the UAE who regularly raised concerns on arbitrary detention, torture and issues related to the judiciary. He also wrote about stateless residents in the Gulf, known as Bidoon.


In March 2017, Mansoor was arrested when security forces raided his home in the emirate of Ajman, confiscating computers and phones.


In the weeks leading up to his arrest, he had criticized the imprisonment of other activists in the UAE, including Nasser bin-Ghaith, an academic and economist who was sentenced to 10 years after his criticism of Emirati and Egyptian authorities.


Human Rights Watch previously reported that Mansoor had also used Twitter to draw attention to rights violations committed by the Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen, of which the UAE is an active member.


Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, Lynn Maalouf, said the decision to uphold his prison sentence “confirms there is no space for free expression in the United Arab Emirates.” The verdict cannot be appealed, she said in a statement.


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Campaigning Starts in Ukraine’s Hard-to-Predict Presidential Race

A 90-day political campaign period has opened in Ukraine, where the incumbent president’s future is uncertain.

President Petro Poroshenko hasn’t yet announced whether he plans to run in a March 31 election, although he is expected to seek re-election. Monday marked the official start of campaigning.

A poll of 2,017 eligible voters published last week put Poroshenko’s approval rating at just over 14 percent. Another likely candidate, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, had support from 16 percent of those surveyed.

Other presidential hopefuls trailed behind the two. The Razumkov Center poll had a margin of error of 2.3 percentage points.

Ukraine has been hit hard by the tug-of-war with Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and backed a separatist insurgency in the country’s industrial heartland in the east.


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Trump Defends His Planned Troop Withdrawal from Syria

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday defended his planned withdrawal of all 2,000 American troops from Syria, attacking critics of the action as chronic complainers.

In a string of Twitter remarks, Trump said, “If anybody but Donald Trump did what I did in Syria, which was an ISIS (Islamic State) loaded mess when I became President, they would be a national hero.”

He said the Islamic State terrorist group that once claimed Raqqa in northern Syria as the capital of its caliphate, “is mostly gone” from Syria and “we’re slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time fighting ISIS remnants.”

Trump stunned U.S. national security aides and lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, by announcing December 19 that he was withdrawing the U.S. troops who had been instrumental in removing most of the jihadist group from northeast Syria and aided Kurdish fighters in their fight against the insurgents.

Critics of the withdrawal said that removing U.S. troops could lead to a resurgence of Islamic State operations.

One critic of the move, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, normally a Trump loyalist, met with the U.S. leader Sunday and later said the president remains committed to defeating Islamic State. Graham suggested Trump may slow his planned 30-day withdrawal, but the White House has not commented on Graham’s interpretation of his talks with Trump.

“I think we’re in a pause situation where we are re-evaluating what’s the best way to achieve the president’s objective of having (other countries) pay more and do more” in the war on terrorism, Graham said.

In his Monday tweets, Trump said, “I campaigned on getting out of Syria and other places. Now when I start getting out the Fake News Media, or some failed Generals who were unable to do the job before I arrived, like to complain about me & my tactics, which are working. Just doing what I said I was going to do! Except the results are FAR BETTER than I ever said they were going to be! I campaigned against the NEVER ENDING WARS, remember!”

Trump contended, “I am the only person in America who could say that, “I’m bringing our great troops back home, with victory,” and get BAD press. It is Fake News and Pundits who have FAILED for years that are doing the complaining. If I stayed in Endless Wars forever, they would still be unhappy!”

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Nigeria Targets 26M People in Yellow Fever Campaign

A vaccination center in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, is swarming with people, a sign that Nigeria’s campaign to vaccinate more people against yellow fever appears to be making headway.

As part of the effort, Nigeria’s government partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO), vaccine alliance GAVI, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to immunize more than 26 million people.

It is the second phase of Nigeria’s preventive campaign after a yellow fever outbreak in September 2017.

Deborah Adiche came to the Abuja vaccination center with her daughter.


“We’ve learned it’s killing people, so we don’t have to wait for it to happen to us – that’s why we came to collect the vaccine and I brought her, too, to collect the vaccine.”

Some 8.7 million people were vaccinated in the country during an initial campaign in January and February 2018.

This phase covers six states, including the Federal Capital Territory.

Obiora Ezebilo, UNICEF’s yellow fever coordinator, has been monitoring the process.

“The campaign has been very good. We started the campaign on the 22nd of November. We’re implementing in Borno state, Niger, Kebbi, Sokoto, Plateau and … actually all the states have completed. The records were having is really good, as at now we’re having maybe a coverage of above 95 percent,” Ezebilo said.

But Nigeria’s routine yellow fever immunization rate is low – only 4-in-10 children age 2 years and older are immunized.


Experts say a high enough percentage of the population must be immunized to contain the spread of the disease. Nigeria hopes to reach that point in five years.

About 39 million people between 9 months and 44 years old are expected to be vaccinated by the end of 2018.

Program manager for immunization in Abuja, Salome Toh, says the effort is having an impact.

“The federal government of Nigeria, in collaboration with international organizations, especially the GAVI, they have earmarked a lot of money in supporting this campaign. They purchased the vaccines, they provided logistics, and there’s a national plan to cover this age group across the country. It is divided into phases, as I’m talking to you now, the first quarter of next year, other states are also going to do the campaign,” Toh said.

Since the September 2017 outbreak, doctors have seen more than 1,600 suspected cases of yellow fever across 14 states. Up to 70 people have died.

UNICEF’s Ezebilo says the campaign is focusing on high-risk areas first.

“There’s a global shortage of yellow fever vaccines. You can’t get, like, 200 million doses to vaccinate everybody in Nigeria. We have to get them based on global availability. So this year we are …  we’re lucky to have about 20 million doses. So we just did a risk categorization, selected areas we feel that are most at risk and try to focus on them for the preventive campaign,” Ezebilo said.


The Yellow fever virus is endemic in tropical areas and is spread through the bite of an infected mosquito. As many as 60,000 Africans die annually from the disease. Children are most at risk.

There is no cure for the viral infection, but it can be prevented with the vaccine. Once someone contracts yellow fever, medical treatment consists of easing symptoms of the virus, which include fever, muscle pain and dehydration.

Good sanitation, hygiene and proper drainage are natural ways to reduce risks of the disease.


Nigeria is one of 50 global partners battling to eliminate the disease within the next 10 years.

Besides improving sanitation and clearing stagnant water where mosquitoes breed, Nigeria needs to immunize about 80 percent of the at-risk population to prevent further transmission of the disease.


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(Im)migration News Recap, Dec. 23-29

Editor’s note: We want you to know what’s happening, why and how it could impact your life, family or business, so we created a weekly digest of the top original immigration, migration and refugee reporting from across VOA. Questions? Tips? Comments? Email the VOA immigration team: ImmigrationUnit@voanews.com.

Separated by the wall

A U.S. partial government shutdown started at the beginning of the week and showed no signs of ending by week’s end. At issue is President Trump’s insistence on $5 billion in funding for construction of a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. Democrats believe a wall would be ineffective and a waste of money. They refuse to provide any funding for the wall. 

By Thursday Congress had adjourned for the rest of the year. Friday, the president struck back by threatening to close the border entirely.

A case of the flu

A second migrant child has died in U.S. custody, prompting calls for investigations in both houses of Congress. Eight-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo became nauseous and started vomiting Monday night. He later died in a hospital on Christmas. A subsequent autopsy revealed he had had the flu.

A second child who died in U.S. custody, Jakelin Caal, was buried – also on Christmas. As a result of the two deaths, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has ordered medical screenings for all children in its custody.

Migrants, safe and… not

A migrant ship has docked in Spain after being refused in other countries. Three hundred and ten African migrants walked off the ship draped in red blankets provided by the Red Cross.

They are the lucky ones. The International Organization for Migration has found records that 6,600 Africans have died over the past five years, most of them crossing the Sahara Desert toward Europe. The study notes these numbers are “just the tip of the iceberg.”

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Vatican Spokesman, Deputy Resign Suddenly

The Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, and his deputy resigned suddenly Monday amid an overhaul of the Vatican’s communications operations that coincides with a troubled period in Pope Francis’ papacy.


In a tweet, Burke said he and his deputy, Paloma Garcia Ovejero, had resigned effective Jan. 1. Francis accepted the resignation Monday, the Vatican said in a statement.


“At this time of transition in Vatican communications, we think it’s best the Holy Father is completely free to assemble a new team,” Burke wrote.  


He and Garcia both thanked the pope. “A stage is ending. Thank you for these two and a half years,” Garcia tweeted.


Francis named a longtime member of the Vatican’s communications operations, Alessandro Gisotti, as an interim replacement.


The pope has recently overhauled the Vatican’s media operations for the second time by ousting the longtime editor of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano and naming a new director of editorial content for all Vatican media, the Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli.


The resignations clearly took the new team by surprise.


The head of Vatican communications, Paolo Ruffini, said he had learned of the decision by Burke and Garcia and respected it. He praised their professionalism and said he had full confidence in Gisotti, who had been a longtime journalist with Vatican Radio and more recently had been head of social media for the Vatican.


“The year ahead is full of important appointments that will require maximum communications efforts,” Ruffini said in a statement.


It was perhaps a reference to Francis’ high-stakes summit on preventing clergy sex abuse in February, as well as his multiple foreign trips planned for 2019: Panama, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Bulgaria and Macedonia in the first half of the year, and rumored trips to Madagascar and Japan in the second half.


Francis also has to deal with continued fallout from the clergy abuse scandal, in Chile, the U.S. and beyond. The next year will likely see the outcome of a canonical investigation into ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, accused of sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians, as well as the results of a Vatican investigation into McCarrick’s rise through church ranks.


Burke, then a Fox TV correspondent in Rome, was hired as a communications adviser for the Vatican’s secretariat of state in 2012. At the time, the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI had suffered a series of communications blunders, and it was thought that Burke could provide guidance.


In 2015, Burke was named deputy spokesman under the Rev. Federico Lombardi, an Italian Jesuit.


When Lombardi retired in 2016, Burke became main spokesman and was joined by Garcia, the first woman to ever hold the position of deputy. Garcia had been the Vatican correspondent for the Cadena Cope, the Spanish broadcaster.


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Russia: 4 Dead in Apartment Collapse, Apparent Gas Explosion

At least four people died Monday when sections of an apartment building collapsed after an apparent gas explosion in Russia’s Ural Mountains region, officials said.

The authorities said five others were hospitalized with injuries, and 68 other residents remained unaccounted for in the accident in Magnitogorsk, a city of 400,000 about 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) southeast of Moscow.


The nation’s top investigative agency, the Investigative Committee, said the collapse of a section of the ten-story building was apparently caused by a gas leak. It happened before dawn when most residents were still asleep on the New Year’s Eve.

Nearly 1,400 rescuers were searching for those who could have been buried under debris.


Emergency workers have evacuated residents of nearby sections of the building, fearing they could also tumble down.

The Kremlin said that President Vladimir Putin has been briefed on the situation. Cabinet officials arrived in Magnitogorsk to oversee the rescue efforts.

Gas explosions in Russian homes and businesses are common, and they are usually blamed on neglect of safety rules or poor maintenance.


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Retired US General Calls Trump Dishonest, Immoral

Retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal blasted U.S. President Donald Trump, calling him dishonest and immoral.

The former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan told ABC’s This Week news show, “I don’t think he tells the truth.”

Responding to Trump’s announcement that he will withdraw half of all U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan, McChrystal said the move would reduce the incentive for the Taliban to negotiate a peace deal after more than 17 years of war.

He said, making the decision, Trump has “basically traded away the biggest leverage point we have.”

“If you tell the Taliban that we are absolutely leaving on date certain, cutting down, weakening ourselves, their incentives to try to cut a deal drop dramatically,” McChrystal said.

He was also highly critical of the president’s personal character. When asked if Trump is immoral, McChrystal responded: “I think he is.”

This is not the first time McChrystal has slammed a sitting president. He was forced to resign in 2010 after he criticized the Obama administration in an article in Rolling Stone magazine.


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2nd Child Dead in US Custody Mourned in Guatemala Village

White flowers and flickering candles sat atop a low table inside the simple wooden home in remote, rural Guatemala. Nearby was a small pair of rubber boots, sized to fit an 8-year-old.

Taped to the wall were three photos, alternately smiling and serious, bearing a simple epitaph for the boy whose memory the makeshift altar honored: “Felipe Gomez Alonzo. Died Dec. 24 2018 in New Mexico, United States.”

On Christmas Eve, Felipe became the second Guatemalan child this month to die while in U.S. custody near the Mexican border. The deaths prompted widespread criticism of President Donald Trump, who has foisted blame on Democrats even as his Homeland Security secretary vowed additional health screenings for detained migrant children.

In the boy’s village of Yalambojoch, in western Guatemala, the political fallout in the United States seemed a world away and there was only deep sadness over his death. Relatives said they had no idea that such a tragedy could occur. Nor had they heard about U.S. policies that led to thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents earlier this year.

“We don’t have a television. We don’t have a radio,” said Catarina Gomez, Felipe’s sister. “We didn’t know what had happened before.”

The hamlet, set on a plain and surrounded by spectacular, pine-covered mountains, is a place of crushing poverty and lack of opportunity, home to a single small school, dirt roads that become impassible during the rainy season and rudimentary homes without insulation, proper flooring, water or electricity.

The community is populated by families who fled to Mexico during the bloodiest years of Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war but returned after the signing of peace accords. There are no jobs, and people live off meager subsistence farming and local commerce. Residents say the Guatemalan government has turned a blind eye to their plight, a complaint that can be heard in other impoverished villages in the country.

Felipe’s sister, Catarina, said that in recent years “everyone started heading for the United States,” so much so that a local project to boost education financed with Swedish help was abandoned because there were practically no more young people to take the classes.

It was extreme poverty and lack of opportunity that drove Felipe’s father, Agustin Gomez, to decide that he and the boy would set off for the United States. Others from the community had been able to cross the U.S. border with children, and he figured they would have the same luck. Felipe was chosen because he was the oldest son. It didn’t occur to anyone that the journey could be dangerous.

“I didn’t think of that, because several families had already left and they made it,” the boy’s mother, Catarina Alonzo said, speaking in the indigenous Chuj language as her stepdaughter translated into Spanish.

Felipe was healthy when they left, according to the family. The last time he spoke with his mother was a day before they were taken into detention by border agents. Felipe told her he was well, that he had eaten chicken, that the next time they talked would be by phone from the United States.

Instead, the call that came Christmas Day was from her husband, who said Felipe had died the day before.

The two had been apprehended a week earlier, on Dec. 18, near the Paso del Norte bridge connecting El Paso, Texas, to Juarez, Mexico, according to border officials. Father and son were held at the bridge’s processing center and then the Border Patrol station in El Paso before being transferred on Dec. 23 to a facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) away.

After an agent noticed Felipe coughing, father and son were taken to an Alamogordo hospital, where Felipe was found to have a 103-degree fever (39.4 degrees Celsius), officials have said.

Felipe was held for observation for 90 minutes, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, before being released with prescriptions for amoxicillin and ibuprofen.

But the boy fell sick hours later and was admitted to the hospital on Christmas Eve. He died just before midnight.

New Mexico authorities said late Thursday that an autopsy showed Felipe had the flu, but more tests need to be done before a cause of death can be determined.

The other Guatemalan child, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, died Dec. 8 in El Paso. She showed signs of sepsis, a potentially fatal condition brought on by infection, according to officials.

On Saturday, Trump claimed that Felipe and Jakelin were “very sick” before they reached the border and sought to pin blame for their deaths on Democrats, though both young migrants passed initial health screenings by Border Patrol.

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said last week that prior to this month, no child had died in the agency’s custody in more than a decade.

On Sunday he called for a “multifaceted solution” on immigration, including not only better border security and new immigration laws but more aid to the Central American countries the migrants are fleeing from.

Referring to the U.S. pledge earlier this month of $5.8 billion in development aid for Central America, McAleenan called it “a tremendous step forward.”

“There are green shoots of progress both on security and the economic front in Central America. We need to foster that and help improve the opportunities to stay at home,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Outside the Gomez family home in Yalambojoch, women gathered wearing lavender skirts in the intricate patterns typical of indigenous garb in Guatemala. Colorful tapestries hung on a clothesline above the muddy yard.

Taped to the door were a pair of Felipe’s artworks. One was a rendering of a blue balloon with a green string; in the other, a white horse jumped over a fence against a yellow sun and tangerine sky.

Among the villagers grieving Felipe’s death was his 7-year-old best friend, Kevin. Two days before Felipe and his dad left, the two boys quarreled.

“They were crying because they had fought,” said Felipe’s sister, Catarina.

By the time Kevin came back to look for his friend, he had left for the United States. Kevin now knows that Felipe has died, the family said.

Trying to fight back tears, Catarina Alonzo said her son promised before leaving that when he was grown, he would work to send money home. Felipe also wanted to buy her a cellphone so she could see pictures of him from afar.

Now she hopes for only two things: That Felipe’s body is returned as soon as possible for burial, and that her husband can remain in the United States to work off debt and support their other kids.

The Guatemalan Consulate in Phoenix has said that Agustin Gomez was released on a humanitarian license allowing him to remain in the United States for now. Felipe’s body is expected to be sent back to Guatemala around mid-January.



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Top US Senator Upbeat on Syria Troop Withdrawal After Trump Meeting

A senior Republican U.S. senator said he emerged from a White House meeting with President Donald Trump on Sunday reassured that Trump is committed to defeating Islamic State even as he plans to withdraw American troops from Syria.

Senator Lindsey Graham had warned that removing all U.S. forces from Syria would hurt national security by allowing Islamic State to rebuild, betraying U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters of the YPG militia battling remnants of the militant group, and enhancing Iran’s ability to threaten Israel.

During a morning television interview, Graham said he would ask Trump to slow down the troop withdrawal, which was announced earlier this month and drew widespread criticism.

An ally of Trump, although he has opposed some of his foreign policy decisions, Graham was more upbeat after the meeting.

“We talked about Syria. He told me some things I didn’t know that made me feel a lot better about where we’re headed in Syria,” Graham told reporters at the White House.

“We still have some differences but I will tell you that the president is thinking long and hard about Syria – how to withdraw our forces but at the same time achieve our national security interests,” Graham said.

Asked if Trump had agreed to any slowing down of the troop withdrawal, Graham said: “I think the president’s very committed to making sure that when we leave Syria, that ISIS is completely defeated.”

He said Trump’s trip to Iraq last week was an eye-opener and he understood the need to “finish the job” with Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

“I think the president has come up with a plan with his generals that makes sense to me,” Graham said. He gave no further details of that plan.

Graham also said Trump was committed to making sure Turkey did not clash with the YPG forces once U.S. troops leave Syria, and was assuring the NATO ally that it would have a buffer zone in the region to help protect its own interests.

Turkey views the YPG as a branch of its own Kurdish separatist movement and is threatening to launch an offensive against the group, igniting fears of significant civilian casualties.

The Pentagon says it is considering plans for a “deliberate and controlled withdrawal.” One option, according to a person familiar with the discussions, is for a 120-day pullout period.

Graham is an influential lawmaker on national security policy who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

He joined other Republicans and Democrats in criticizing Trump’s order for the pullout of all 2,000 U.S. troops deployed in Syria in support of anti-Islamic State fighters made up mostly of Kurds.

U.S. commanders planning the U.S. withdrawal are recommending that YPG fighters battling Islamic State be allowed to keep U.S.-supplied weapons, according to U.S. officials.

That proposal would likely anger Turkey, where Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, holds talks this week.

Trump decided on the Syria withdrawal in a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, ignoring the advice of top national security aides and without consulting lawmakers or U.S. allies participating in anti-Islamic State operations. The decision prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign.


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Putin Tells Trump in New Year’s Letter He’s Open to Meeting

Russian President Vladimir Putin has told U.S. President Donald Trump in a New Year’s letter that the Kremlin is “open to dialogue” on the myriad issues hindering relations between their countries.

The Kremlin published a summary of Putin’s “greeting message” to Trump on Sunday. The summary states the Russian leader wrote: “Russia-U.S. relations are the most important factor behind ensuring strategic stability and international security.”

Trump canceled a formal meeting with Putin scheduled for Dec. 1 at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, tweeting “it would be best for all parties” given Russia’s seizure days earlier of three Ukrainian naval vessels.

Since then, the Kremlin has repeatedly said it is open to dialogue.

The message to Trump was among dozens of holiday greetings Putin sent to other world leaders, each tailored to reflect a bilateral theme. The recipients included Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Putin has backed throughout a civil war that started in 2011.

Putin’s message to Assad “stressed that Russia will continue to provide all-around assistance to the government and people of Syria in their fight against terrorism and efforts to protect state sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to the Kremlin summary.

Moscow hosted talks with Turkey on Saturday in which the two countries agreed to coordinate actions in northern Syria after Trump’s announcement that he was withdrawing U.S. forces from the country.

The main group of Kurdish-led forces fighting against Assad with U.S. support has said the U.S. pullout could lead to the revival of the Islamic State group.

Putin, in his message to Assad, “wished the Syrian people the earliest return to peaceful and prosperous life.”


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Journalist Group: 94 Slayings of Media Staff in 2018

An international trade association says on-the-job slayings of journalists and news media staff rose again in 2018 following an overall decline during the past half-dozen years.

The International Federation of Journalists said in an annual report set for release Monday that 94 journalists and media workers died in targeted killings, bomb attacks and conflict crossfire this year, 12 more than in 2017.

Before the declines seen in five of the past six years, 121 people working for news organizations were slain in 2012. Since the federation started its annual count in 1990, the year with the most work-related killings, 155, was 2006.

The deadliest country for people who work in the news media this year was Afghanistan, where 16 of the killings occurred. Mexico was next, with 11. Yemen had nine media slayings and Syria eight in 2018.

Beyond the tragedy of lives lost, such killings affect the pursuit of truth and sharing of information in communities and countries where they happen, the president of the International Federation of Journalists said.

“Journalists are targeted because they are witnesses,” the group’s president, Philippe Leruth, told The Associated Press. “And the result of this, when a journalist or many journalists are killed in a country, you see an increase of self-censorship.”

Iraq, where 309 media professionals were killed over the past quarter-century, long topped the federation’s annual list. The federation identified a photojournalist as the one victim in the country this year.

While 2018 brought a worldwide increase, the total remained in the double digits for a second year running. The total of 155 in.

The IFJ connects some 600,000 media professionals from 187 trade unions and associations in more than 140 countries. The group said the new report showed that journalists face dangers apart from the risks of reporting from war zones and covering extremist movements.

“There were other factors, such as the increasing intolerance to independent reporting, populism, rampant corruption and crime, as well as the breakdown of law and order,” the Brussels-based group said in a statement.

Suddenly high on the list, in sixth place, was the United States with five killings. On June 28, a gunman in Annapolis, Maryland, opened fire in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette newspaper and fatally shot four journalists and a sales associate. The man had threatened the newspaper after losing a defamation lawsuit.

The Oct. 2 slaying of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who lived in self-imposed exile in the United States, had worldwide impact. He went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to formalize a divorce so he could marry his Turkish fiance, but instead was strangled and dismembered there – allegedly by Saudi agents.

Khashoggi wrote critically of Saudi Arabia’s royal regime, and the alleged involvement of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the journalist’s slaying has put the governments of other countries under pressure to sever economic and political ties.

“Jamal Khashoggi was a very well-known figure, but you know, the most shocking statistic is that we know that nine of 10 journalist murders remain unpunished in the world,” Leruth said.



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6 Iranians Found on English Beach As Channel Crossings Mount

British officials say six Iranian men have been found on a beach in southeastern England as the number of migrants making risky crossings of the English Channel continues to mount.

The Home Office said Sunday the men have been given medical checks and turned over to immigration officials for processing.

Border Force officials were called Sunday morning after the men were found on a beach in Kent with a rigid-hulled inflatable boat.

There has been an increase in recent weeks in the number of migrants traveling from France to England in small boats.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid has called the crossings a “major incident” and reached out to French officials for more coordination.

The crossing is risky because of rough seas and a high volume of commercial and ferry traffic.

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Note Says Britain’s Queen ‘Naturally’ Wanted New Royal Yacht 

A newly discovered note in the U.K.’s National Archives shows Queen Elizabeth II let government officials know she would welcome a replacement for the Royal Yacht Britannia once it was decommissioned. 

The 1995 note is unusual because the queen is required to remain politically neutral and avoids lobbying the government on specific requests. 

The message from her deputy private secretary to the Cabinet office said Elizabeth would “naturally very much welcome” a new royal yacht.

But it made clear palace officials recognized the decision had to be made by government ministers, not the queen.

The Royal Yacht Britannia was in service from 1954 to 1997.

The queen was known to be deeply attached to the Britannia. She was photographed shedding a tear when the vessel was retired. 

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Diplomats: Afghan Pullout Plan Could Complicate Peace Talks

Former senior diplomats who have steered U.S. policy on Afghanistan say U.S. President Donald Trump’s reported decision to pull thousands of troops out of that country complicates U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s efforts to broker a cease-fire with the Taliban.

Trump announced he was considering withdrawing roughly half of the 14,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan, shortly after he said American forces would pull out of Syria. Both decisions took many by surprise, including some officials tasked with overseeing U.S. foreign policy.

A former U.S. diplomat, who requested not to be named because of possible reprisal, told VOA that Khalilzad needed flexibility on a U.S. troop pullout from Afghanistan because that has long been a demand by the Taliban.

“What’s problematic is that any gesture indicating drawdown had to be on a quid pro quo basis and tied to a cease-fire agreement by the Taliban, which does not appear to be the case,” the former U.S. official said. “And that can have military- as well as policy-related consequences, not to mention the Afghan government circles do not like this situation one bit as they feel they have been sold out by Ambassador Khalilzad.”

Ambassador Richard Boucher, a former assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, told VOA the decision to withdraw some troops from Afghanistan was a political decision, not a strategic one.

Former U.S. Ambassador Robin Raphel agreed, and added that the announcement put additional pressure on Khalilzad’s office to come up with a deal that doesn’t damage the U.S. reputation as a reliable ally in the region.

“Otherwise, this would send wrong message to the Taliban and the neighboring countries like Pakistan, who have always doubted U.S. seriousness to stay in Afghanistan,” Raphel said. 

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Germany: Drugged Driver Forces Car Onto Airport Tarmac 

A man forced open a locked gate on the security perimeter of Hannover Airport in northern Germany and drove a car onto the airfield Saturday before coming to a halt underneath an airliner and being detained, police said. 

No one was hurt in the incident, but flights were suspended for more than four hours.

Police said a test suggested that the driver, who told them he was a 21-year-old from Poland, was under the influence of drugs and there were no indications that his actions were terror-related. 

The man drove his BMW onto the airport apron after forcing open a gate, and was pursued by police until he stopped underneath a Greek airline’s Airbus A320 that was standing on the tarmac with 172 passengers on board, a police statement said. Officers then overpowered the man in his car and arrested him. 

Takeoffs and landings were halted while police experts examined the car. They found no traces of explosives, and flight operations resumed shortly after 8 p.m. No other dangerous substances were found in the vehicle or on the driver. 

The man was believed to have acted alone. He apparently has no official residence in Germany.  

Federal police told the German news agency dpa that the driver tested positive for amphetamines and cocaine. They said the man wasn’t carrying an identity card.

The police statement issued later Saturday said authorities had taken a blood sample and were still working to be certain of his identity. 

Police opened an investigation on suspicion of dangerous interference in air traffic and resisting officers, and were considering whether to have the man taken before a judge Sunday to try to have him kept in custody. His motive remained unclear. 

The international airport in Hannover handled 5.87 million passengers last year, though it isn’t one of Germany’s top hubs. 

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Trump Continues Wall Campaign as Shutdown Reaches Day 8

U.S. President Donald Trump continued Saturday to stress the need for his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall as a partial government shutdown, triggered by a stalemate over funding for the project, entered its eighth day. 


In a tweet, Trump linked Democrats’ “pathetic immigration policies” with the deaths of two Guatemalan children while they were in U.S. custody.  


And in an earlier tweet, he said Democrats should take the initiative on ending the shutdown, saying, “I am in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come on over and make a deal” on border security. 


A budget standoff remains between Trump, who wants $5 billion in wall funding, and Democratic lawmakers, who back a modest increase in border security funding but resolutely oppose a wall. 

420,000 work without pay


Out of a workforce of about 2.1 million federal employees, more than 800,000 have been furloughed without pay. About 420,000 of those furloughed employees are still being required to work without pay. 


On Friday, Trump again threatened to close the entire U.S.-Mexico border and cut aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador if Congress failed to give him money to fund the wall. In an earlier series of tweets, he also asked for changes in what he said were the United States’ “ridiculous immigration laws.”  


Closing the U.S.-Mexico border would mean disrupting a $1.68 billion-a-day trade relationship between the two countries. In addition, immigrant advocates have called any move to seal the border “disgraceful.”  

Trump has declined to comment on whether he might accept less than $5 billion for wall funding. When asked Wednesday how long he thought the shutdown would last, Trump told reporters, “Whatever it takes.”  



Democrats have blamed Trump for “plunging the country into chaos” and have noted that, weeks ago, Trump said he would be “proud” to “own” a shutdown over border wall funding.  


Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and presumed incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said in a joint statement, “The president wanted the shutdown, but seems not to know how to get himself out of it.”  


The Republican Party controls the White House, as well as both chambers of Congress. Next Thursday, however, a new Congress, with a Democrat-controlled House, will be seated. 


Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told Fox News Channel on Friday, “We’re here, and they know where to find us.”   

Mulvaney also blamed Democrats for the continuing shutdown, saying they have refused to negotiate since the White House made an offer last weekend.  


Lorella Praeli, deputy political director at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that Congress has an obligation to serve as a check on the executive branch.  


“This government shutdown is due solely to Trump’s border wall obsession and his refusal to abandon his anti-immigrant agenda, even at the cost of denying hundreds of thousands of federal workers their holiday paychecks and impacting operations at several federal agencies,” Praeli said.

Affected departments 


Among the government agencies affected by the partial shutdown that began Dec. 22 are the departments of Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Interior and the Executive Office of the President. 


Early Saturday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which had funding through midnight Friday, was shut down. Many of the agency’s 14,000 employees are being furloughed, EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said. Disaster-response teams and other employees deemed essential will continue to work, she added.  

If the partial shutdown continues, the Smithsonian Institution said it would start closing its 19 museums, art galleries and National Zoo starting midweek. The Smithsonian attractions drew nearly 21 million visitors by the end of October 2018, according to the institution’s website. It recorded 30 million visitors in 2017.


Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told reporters on Friday that Trump’s border closure threat was an internal U.S. government matter.   


“We take great care of the relationship with the government of the United States,” Lopez Obrador said. “Of course we will always defend our sovereignty. … We will always protect migrants, defend their human rights.” 

Aid cutback


Cutting funds to Central American countries would mean a cutback on humanitarian programs, according to State Department data. The aid includes assistance on civilian security, legal development and basic nutrition.  


The largest grant was spent to help with agriculture in Guatemala, where the U.S. Agency for International Development says food security is a “grave concern.”  

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5 Arrested in Suspected Dutch Terror Attack Plot 

Dutch and German police on Saturday arrested five people suspected of preparing a terrorist act in the Netherlands. 

Dutch police said in a statement that four suspects were detained in Rotterdam and officers searched multiple locations. 

The statement said the investigation would continue to determine the nature and scale of the alleged threat. It provided no details. 

In neighboring Germany, police announced the arrest of a Syrian man suspected of involvement in preparations for a terror attack in the Netherlands. 

Police said the 26-year-old was arrested Saturday in the western city of Mainz following an extradition request from the Netherlands. They didn’t name him. 

A statement from police said the suspect has neither an official residence nor a criminal record in Germany. The apartment where he was found was searched. 

German police said they couldn’t give further details, which they said are a matter for the police in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, who are leading the investigation. 

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