CDC Latest to Endorse Johnson & Johnson Vaccine for Use in US

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel Sunday endorsed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, voting overwhelmingly to recommend the shot for adults older than 18. CDC recommendations are not binding but are widely respected by medical institutions and professionals. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky later approved the panel’s recommendations.Sunday’s CDC endorsement came one day after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally authorized the use of the one-dose vaccine.Nearly 4 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be distributed and available as early as Tuesday morning, according to a senior administration official. This vaccine, the third to be approved for use in the United States, will be distributed to states, tribes and territories proportional to their populations – the same way the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been distributed.FDA Approves Johnson & Johnson Vaccine for Use in USOne-dose shot is third, behind Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, to win FDA approval Health officials in the U.S. welcomed the third vaccine, which has been eagerly awaited largely because it requires only one shot, but officials urged Americans to receive whichever vaccine is first available to them, reiterating that all three have proved to be safe and effective.The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 85% effective against serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to data from a study that spanned three continents. The shot kept its protection even in the countries where the South African variant is spreading.As of Sunday evening, about 28.6 million Americans have had COVID-19 and more than 513,000 have died from the disease, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center.President Joe Biden praised the “exciting news for all Americans,” in a statement Saturday evening, also urging Americans not to let their “guard down now.”“But I want to be clear: this fight is far from over,” he added. “I urge all Americans — keep washing your hands, stay socially distanced, and keep wearing masks. As I have said many times, things are still likely to get worse again as new variants spread, and the current improvement could reverse.”An FDA advisory panel unanimously endorsed the vaccine Friday, paving the way for the agency’s authorization.By the end of March, Johnson & Johnson has said, it expects to deliver 20 million doses to the U.S., and 100 million by summer, the Associated Press reported. Johnson & Johnson is also seeking authorization for emergency use of its vaccine in Europe and from the World Health Organization.In New Zealand, residents of Auckland, a city of nearly 2 million people, began a seven-day lockdown Sunday, the second in the month since the more contagious British variant of the coronavirus emerged there.Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the lockdown Saturday because of a person who was infectious for a week but had not isolated.”It is more than likely there will be additional cases in the community,” Ardern told a press conference Sunday, although no new cases had been recorded.New Zealand, a nation of 5 million people, identified its first COVID-19 case on February 29, 2020, and since then has seen almost 2,400 cases of COVID-19 and 26 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins data.Japan reported 329 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, slightly down from 337 a day earlier, according to national broadcaster NHK.While a state of emergency stays in effect in Tokyo and three other prefectures until after the first week of March, it was lifted in eight others a week earlier than scheduled.In Russia, the coronavirus crisis center confirmed 11,359 new coronavirus cases on Sunday and 379 deaths in the past 24 hours. The total number of infections in the country stands at 4,246,079 to date and the death toll at 86,122.Elsewhere, the Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq, Archbishop Mitja Leskovar, has tested positive for COVID-19. The announcement comes a week before Pope Francis’ March 5-9 trip to the country.Leskovar, whose title is apostolic nuncio, said in a statement that he was experiencing only light symptoms so far.  “This is not going to influence the pope’s program, which is going on as planned,” he said.France will impose weekend lockdowns in Paris and 19 other regions in early March if coronavirus infections continue to accelerate. The Czech government announced tighter restrictions beginning March 1.In Latin America, new containment measures were imposed in several Brazilian cities and states.The U.S. continues to lead the world in the number of coronavirus infections, followed by India with more than 11 million infections and Brazil with more than 10.5 million. 

Iran Balks at Resuming Nuclear Talks with US

Iran on Sunday balked at holding an informal meeting with the United States and three European powers about reviving the 2015 accord that restrained Tehran’s nuclear development program to keep it from developing nuclear weapons.Tehran said that before talks are held, the new U.S. administration of President Joe Biden must first lift its unilateral economic sanctions against Iran.An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that “considering the recent actions and statements” by the U.S., Britain, France and Germany, “Iran does not consider this the time to hold an informal meeting with these countries,” which was proposed by the European Union foreign policy chief. Iran has said its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.Iranian Parliament Speaker Puts Interim Nuclear Inspection Agreement with IAEA in Doubt Iranian parliament questions validity of temporary accord reached with IAEA headA White House spokesperson responded Sunday by expressing “disappointment” with Iran’s response, but said the U.S. is ready to “reengage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with JCPOA commitments,” referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal.  Washington will consult the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – Britain, China, France and Russia – plus Germany on the best way forward, the spokesperson said.  Former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal, but Biden during his presidential campaign against Trump and since he took office has said he wants to rejoin the pact that includes Russia and China. The U.S. has also opened talks with Iran over the fate of at least five American hostages being held by Tehran.At the same time, Biden has pressured Iran militarily, ordering airstrikes last week on buildings in Syria that the Defense Department says were used by Iranian-backed militias. The U.S. said the rocket attacks were in retaliation for missile attacks on U.S. targets in neighboring Iraq.The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday the attacks in Syria killed at least 22 militia fighters, although the Pentagon did not confirm the figure.

Nigeria: Parents Anxiously Await Return of 300 Abducted Girls

Nigerian parents waited anxiously Sunday outside the school their daughters were taken from, amid rumors of their release and heavy security.The 317 schoolgirls, ages 12-16, were kidnapped Friday from the Government Girls Science Secondary School in the town of Jangebe by armed men.The state government has called the rumors a “falsehood.” Nigeria’s army has been working through the weekend alongside Zamfara state police in a search and rescue operation.Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said his priority is ensuring the safe return of all hostages. Buhari urged state governments Friday not to negotiate with bandits by paying ransom with money or vehicles.Hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls were infamously kidnapped by the extremist group Boko Haram in 2014. Known as the Chibok girls, they were taken from their boarding school. In the seven years since, many of the 276 girls have escaped, been rescued or released, but more than 100 remain missing. Since then, Nigeria has seen several such kidnappings. As recently as Saturday, 24 students were released after having been abducted February 17 from the neighboring nation of Niger.The U.N. condemned the abduction over the weekend, calling it a “heinous violation of human rights.”“The girls must be released to their families immediately & unconditionally,” Secretary General Antonio Guterres wrote on Twitter.I am appalled by the abduction of more than 300 girls during an attack on a secondary school in Nigeria today.Attacks on schools are a heinous violation of human rights.The girls must be released to their families immediately & unconditionally.— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) February 26, 2021Kidnappings have been carried out by Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa, but other militant groups with unclear motivations have also adopted the practice as a way to raise money. Boko Haram opposes Western education and has frequently targeted schools.

Cancer Survivor Launches Head-Scarf Business to Help Women Undergoing Treatment

Hair loss is one of the unfortunate side effects of some cancer treatments, but one survivor decided that losing her hair didn’t mean she couldn’t look and feel great. Maxim Moskalkov has the story.amera: Andrey Degtyarev 

Trump Rejoins US Political Fray at Conservative Conclave

Former U.S. President Donald Trump is set Sunday to stake his claim as the dominant Republican in the country, trying to win back party control of Congress next year and possibly run again for the presidency in 2024.Trump is speaking at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering in Orlando, Florida, of hundreds of the most ardent Republicans. While he has made some public comments since leaving Washington January 20, when his victorious Democratic reelection opponent, Joe Biden, took power, Trump’s speech is his first significant post-presidency address.”I stand before you today to declare that the incredible journey we began together four years ago is far from over,” Trump plans to say, according to excerpts released by aides.”We are gathered this afternoon to talk about the future — the future of our movement, the future of our party, and the future of our beloved country,” he says.Republicans Hold Annual Conference With Trump Still at Center Stage Prominent annual gathering for conservatives will feature speech by former president on SundayBut Trump also is likely to mount his claim to dominance of the party, to leave his options open to run again in three years for another four-year term in the White House, at least to stall any momentum for other possible 2024 Republican candidates, including U.S. Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley and others eyeing the presidency.Early national polls show voters giving wide approval to Biden’s first month-plus as president, including from some Republicans. But Trump, even if widely rejected by Democrats and a majority of independents, remains particularly popular among many Republican voters.Trump’s future as the dominant Republican figure in the U.S. remains an open question, however. He is the only president in U.S. history to be twice impeached and acquitted and the first president in 90 years to lose political control of the White House and both chambers of Congress in a single term in office.Conservatives at the three-day conference have cheered mention of his name, with many of them posing for pictures with a large golden caricature of his face that was sculpted in Mexico and now is being wheeled around the convention hall.The Senate earlier in February voted 57-43, with seven Republicans joining all 50 Democrats in the chamber, to convict Trump of inciting a mob of hundreds of his supporters that rampaged into the U.S. Capitol on January 6 as lawmakers were certifying that he had lost his November re-election to Biden. The Senate vote count fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for a conviction.  The mayhem left five dead, including a U.S. Capitol Police officer. More than 200 rioters have been arrested as the investigation continues.     The CPAC conference is one of the most prominent annual gatherings for conservatives and comes at a time of growing debate within the Republican Party over whether to distance themselves from the former president or continue to tie their future with his.  Trump has signaled he wants to try to defeat or diminish the political standing of the 10 Republicans in the House of Representatives who voted to impeach him in January, a week ahead of him leaving office, and the seven who voted to convict him at his Senate trial.Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader, voted to acquit Trump at the impeachment trial, but then assailed Trump’s role in fomenting the storming of the Capitol, in which rioters smashed windows, ransacked congressional offices and scuffled with police.  McConnell said Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events” that led to the Capitol siege.Trump, in response, described McConnell as “a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack,” and said if Republican senators are going to stay with him, “they will not win again.”Even so, McConnell said last week he would support Trump for the presidency if Republican voters nominate him again in 2024.Asked whether Trump still controls the Republican Party, Senator Rick Scott of Florida told the “Fox News Sunday” show, “It’s the voters’ party.” But he said he believes Trump is “going to be helpful” in the immediate future.“We’re on the right side of the issues,” Scott said of Republicans. “The Democrats are on the wrong side.”One Republican lawmaker who voted to convict Trump on the impeachment charge, Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, told CNN that if Republicans reclaim the White House in four years, “it will be because we speak to the issues, not by putting one person (Trump) on a pedestal. CPAC is not the entirety of the Republican Party.”“You’ve got to speak to voters who didn’t vote for us last time,” Cassidy said. “If we idolize one person, we will lose.”“I don’t think he’ll be our nominee,” Cassidy said. “We need a person who lifts all boats.”

Militia Raids in Eastern DR Congo Kill 10 Civilians, Says Army 

Fighters thought to belong to the notorious Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) militia killed 10 civilians in two overnight attacks in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the army said Sunday.  ADF fighters decapitated eight villagers in the village of Boyo, in the northeast Ituri province, and shot dead two civilians in Kainama, army spokesman Lieutenant Jules Ngongo said.  Soldiers were in pursuit of the attackers, he added.   Local officials confirmed the two attacks, adding that houses were also burned in the violence.   Kainama lies at the extreme north of North Kivu province, where it borders with Ituri. It is just five kilometres (three miles) from Boyo. Both provinces sit on DR Congo’s eastern border with Uganda.   The ADF militia are Ugandan Islamic fighters who have made their base in eastern DR Congo since 1995.  While they have not launched raids into Uganda for several years, the militia has been blamed for the killings of more than 800 civilians over the past year in both North Kivu and South Kivu provinces.  While the army has conducted operations against them in the region since October 2019, they have not been able to put a stop to the massacres of civilians.  After a relative calm period in January, its fighters have stepped up attacks on civilians since February in Beni, North Kivu province, and Irumu, in Ituri. But they are just one of dozens of armed groups that have been operating in the mineral-rich border region of eastern DR Congo for decades now.  One recent report by analysts the Kivu Security Tracker estimated there were at least 122 armed groups active in DR Congo’s four eastern border provinces, from north to south: Ituri, North Kivu, South Kivu and Tanganyika. 

18 Deaths Reported in Bloodiest Day of Myanmar Coup Protests 

Security forces in Myanmar fired on protesters on Sunday, killing at least 18 people and leaving more than 30 others injured in the deadliest day of demonstrations since the February 1 military coup, according to the U.N. human rights office.”Throughout the day, in several locations throughout the country, police and military forces have confronted peaceful demonstrations, using lethal force and less-than-lethal force,” said a statement from U.N. human rights office spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani.At least 18 people were killed & 30 wounded in #Myanmar today. “We strongly condemn the escalating violence against protests in Myanmar & call on the military to immediately halt the use of force against peaceful protestors,” says spox Ravina Shamdasani 👉
— UN Human Rights Asia (@OHCHRAsia) February 28, 2021The statement called on the military to “immediately halt the use of force against peaceful protesters.”The new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, tweeted, “We stand in solidarity with the people of Burma, who have displayed determination and courage in rejecting this military coup,” as she used another name for Myanmar. She also said, “We stand with them as they call for a return to peace, democratic governance, and rule of law.”Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
This handout from Dawei Watch shows spent casings and projectiles after security forces launched a crackdown on protesters taking part in a demonstration against the military coup in Dawei, capital of the Tanintharyi Region, Feb. 28, 2021.Police also aggressively sought to break up protests in other cities, including Mandalay and Dawei.Popular protests have been staged across Myanmar on a daily basis since the military detained de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the civilian government last month, claiming widespread fraud in last November’s election, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won in a landslide.The junta has declared a one-year state of emergency. Its commander, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has pledged that new elections will be held to bring about a “true and disciplined democracy,” but did not specify when they would take place.Myanmar’s ambassador to the U.N. Kyaw Moe Tun holds up three fingers at the end of his speech to the General Assembly where he pleaded for international action in his country, at the U.N. in New York City, Feb. 26, 2021.The envoy said he represents the NLD, which is “the legitimate and duly elected” government – not the military leaders who seized power. He said the coup was illegal, unconstitutional and “not acceptable in this modern world.” “It is crystal clear that we all do not want to go back to the system that we used to be in before,” Kyaw Moe Tun said of the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets across Myanmar since the coup.The envoy accused the military of oppressing the people for decades, using “unspeakable, violent methods” to attack ethnic minorities and that “these actions no doubt amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”A riot police officer opens fire on protesters during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 28, 2021.Kyaw Moe Tun said the military continues to act with impunity as it deploys violence against the peaceful protesters demanding a return to civilian rule and democratic norms.Meanwhile, the Foreign Correspondents Club of Myanmar says an Associated Press photographer, Thein Zaw, was arrested “while carrying out his journalistic work” in Yangon Saturday.A statement issued by the FCCM condemned the move and called for the release of the photographer and other detained journalists across the country while urging authorities to ensure the safety and security of those “performing their professional duties covering the ongoing protests in the country.”Some information in this report was provided by Associated Press and Reuters. VOA’s Margaret Besheer contributed to this story. 

Powerful Countries Come Under Fire at UN Human Rights Council 

Cracks are emerging in the firewall that until now has protected some of the world’s powerful nations from being scrutinized and called to account for gross violations by the U.N. Human Rights Council.  The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, called them the “untouchables.”   “By that I mean governments that have managed to avoid any real critical scrutiny in the form of a resolution by the council.  And the foremost untouchables that I have in mind are China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Russia,” he said.  FILE – Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, attends an interview with Reuters in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 12, 2021.Addressing the untouchables, Roth said, is not only the biggest challenge facing the council, but is critical to its credibility.  He said efforts are underway to draft critical statements on Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  He added pressure is growing on Russia because of its alleged poisoning of opposition activist Alexey Navalny.    However, of greatest interest, he says are emerging signs that China may no longer be untouchable. “It has been seen as politically impossible to address the worsening repression in Xinjiang, the ongoing repression in Tibet, the crushing of Hong Kong’s freedoms.  It was seen as just, you know, impossible to get past China’s enormous diplomatic and economic efforts to prevent that kind of critical scrutiny.  But the times are changing,” he said.  International criticism of China’s alleged internment of at least 1 million Uighur Muslims in so-called vocational education camps hit new heights during the council’s High-Level Segment last week. FILE – Britain’s Foreign Affairs Secretary Dominic Raab walks outside Downing Street in London, Britain, Feb. 3, 2021.In a hard-hitting statement, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the situation in Xinjiang beyond the pale.   “The reported abuses — which include torture, forced labor and forced sterilization of women — are extreme and they are extensive.  They are taking place on an industrial scale.  It must be our collective duty to ensure that this does not go unanswered.  U.N. mechanisms must respond.”     Raab called on the council to pass a resolution allowing urgent and unfettered access to Xinjiang by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights or another independent fact-finding expert.  Raab also condemned the systematic violation of rights in Hong Kong and restrictions in Tibet.  His denunciations of China’s repressive actions were supported by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.   “Our commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also leaves no room for the arbitrary detention of ethnic minorities, like the Uighurs in Xinjiang or China’s crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong,” he said.    China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi hit back hard on his critics.  He told them to stop meddling in his country’s affairs and to stop using human rights as a pretext to interfere in other countries’ internal matters.   “There has never been so-called genocide, forced labor or religious oppression in Xinjiang.  Such inflammatory accusations are fabricated out of ignorance and prejudice.  They are simply malicious and politically driven hypes and could not be further from the truth,” he said.  Wang Yi said the door to Xinjiang was always open and he invited the High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit.     During a regular update to the council Friday on the global human rights situation, U.N. rights chief Michele Bachelet stressed the importance of such a visit.   “In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, information that is in the public domain indicates the need for independent and comprehensive assessment of the human rights situation,” she said.  “My office continues to assess the alleged patterns of human rights violations, including reports of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and sexual violence in institutions; coercive labor practices, and erosion of social and cultural rights.”    Bachelet said she was confident a mutually agreeable arrangement would be worked out for her to visit China.   To date, efforts to arrange a visit to the region, which began before she took office in September 2018, have failed to materialize.  Discussions between Bachelet’s office and Chinese authorities are continuing.    

‘Not a Good Idea:’ Experts Concerned about Pope Trip to Iraq 

Infectious disease experts are expressing concern about Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to Iraq, given a sharp rise in coronavirus infections there, a fragile health care system and the unavoidable likelihood that Iraqis will crowd to see him.No one wants to tell Francis to call it off, and the Iraqi government has every interest in showing off its relative stability by welcoming the first pope to the birthplace of Abraham. The March 5-8 trip is expected to provide a sorely-needed spiritual boost to Iraq’s beleaguered Christians while furthering the Vatican’s bridge-building efforts with the Muslim world.But from a purely epidemiological standpoint, as well as the public health message it sends, a papal trip to Iraq amid a global pandemic is not advisable, health experts say.Their concerns were reinforced with the news Sunday that the Vatican ambassador to Iraq, the main point person for the trip who would have escorted Francis to all his appointments, tested positive for COVID-19 and was self-isolating.In an email to The Associated Press, the embassy said Archbishop Mitja Leskovar’s symptoms were mild and that he was continuing to prepare for Francis’ visit.Beyond his case, experts note that wars, economic crises and an exodus of Iraqi professionals have devastated the country’s hospital system, while studies show most of Iraq’s new COVID-19 infections are the highly-contagious variant first identified in Britain.“I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Dr. Navid Madani, virologist and founding director of the Center for Science Health Education in the Middle East and North Africa at Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.The Iranian-born Madani co-authored an article in The Lancet last year on the region’s uneven response to COVID-19, noting that Iraq, Syria and Yemen were poorly placed to cope, given they are still struggling with extremist insurgencies and have 40 million people who need humanitarian aid.Christians volunteers decorate streets with the pictures of Pope Francis, ahead of his planned visit to to Iraq, in Qaraqosh, Iraq, Feb. 22, 2021.In a telephone interview, Madani said Middle Easterners are known for their hospitality, and cautioned that the enthusiasm among Iraqis of welcoming a peace-maker like Francis to a neglected, war-torn part of the world might lead to inadvertent violations of virus control measures.“This could potentially lead to unsafe or superspreading risks,” she said.Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an infectious disease control expert at the University of Exeter College of Medicine, concurred.“It’s a perfect storm for generating lots of cases which you won’t be able to deal with,” he said.Organizers promise to enforce mask mandates, social distancing and crowd limits, as well as the possibility of increased testing sites, two Iraqi government officials said.The health care protocols are “critical but can be managed,” one government official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.And the Vatican has taken its own precautions, with the 84-year-old pope, his 20-member Vatican entourage and the 70-plus journalists on the papal plane all vaccinated.But the Iraqis gathering in the north, center and south of the country to attend Francis’ indoor and outdoor Masses, hear his speeches and participate in his prayer meetings are not vaccinated.And that, scientists say, is the problem.“We are in the middle of a global pandemic. And it is important to get the correct messages out,” Pankhania said. “The correct messages are: the less interactions with fellow human beings, the better.”He questioned the optics of the Vatican delegation being inoculated while the Iraqis are not, and noted that Iraqis would only take such risks to go to those events because the pope was there.In words addressed to Vatican officials and the media, he said: “You are all protected from severe disease. So if you get infected, you’re not going to die. But the people coming to see you may get infected and may die.”“Is it wise under that circumstance for you to just turn up? And because you turn up, people turn up to see you and they get infected?” he asked.The World Health Organization was diplomatic when asked about the wisdom of a papal trip to Iraq, saying countries should evaluate the risk of an event against the infection situation, and then decide if it should be postponed. “It’s all about managing that risk,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19. “It’s about looking at the epidemiologic situation in the country and then making sure that if that event is to take place, that it can take place as safely as possible.”Francis has said he intends to go even if most Iraqis have to watch him on television to avoid infection. The important thing, he told Catholic News Service, is “they will see that the pope is there in their country.”Francis has frequently called for an equitable distribution of vaccines and respect for government health measures, though he tends to not wear face masks. Francis for months has eschewed even socially distanced public audiences at the Vatican to limit the chance of contagion.Dr. Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Medicine, said the number of new daily cases in Iraq is “increasing significantly at the moment” with the Health Ministry reporting around 4,000 a day, close to the height of its first wave in September.Head said for any trip to Iraq, there must be infection control practices in force, including mask-wearing, hand-washing, social distancing and good ventilation in indoor spaces.“Hopefully we will see proactive approaches to infection control in place during the pope’s visit to Baghdad,” he said.The Iraqi government imposed a modified lockdown and curfew in mid-February amid a new surge in cases, closing schools and mosques and leaving restaurants and cafes only open for takeout. But the government decided against a full shutdown because of the difficulty of enforcing it and the financial impact on Iraq’s battered economy, the Iraqi officials told AP.Many Iraqis remain lax in using masks and some doubt the severity of the virus.Madani, the Harvard virologist, urged trip organizers to let science and data guide their decision-making.A decision to reschedule or postpone the papal trip, or move it to a virtual format, would “be quite impactful from a global leadership standpoint” because “it would signal prioritizing the safety of Iraq’s public,” she said. 

Taliban Warn Turning Away from Afghan Peace Deal ‘Doomed to Failure’ 

The Taliban demanded Sunday that the United States and its foreign military allies leave Afghanistan by May 1, in line with a peace agreement the insurgent group signed with Washington a year ago, warning any attempt to change the path “is already doomed to failure.” 
In a statement released to journalists and on its website marking the first anniversary of the February 2020 accord sealed in Doha, Qatar, the Taliban claimed they have fully adhered to, and remain committed to, the understanding aimed at ending two decades of Afghan war. It called on Washington to honor its part of what the group described as a “historic” deal. FILE – In this Feb. 29, 2020, U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group’s top political leader sign a peace agreement between Taliban and US officials in Doha, Qatar.  
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is currently reviewing the deal his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, sealed with the Afghan insurgency and deciding whether to pull the remaining 2,500 American soldiers from Afghanistan to close America’s longest war. NATO-led U.S. allies have fewer than 10,000 troops left in the country. 
The U.S. review process has stemmed from widespread allegations the Taliban have not lived up to their commitments, including those of cutting ties with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups that threaten the U.S. and the security of its allies. 
“The Doha agreement has created a practical framework for bringing peace and security to Afghanistan. If any other pathway is pursued as a replacement, then it is already doomed to failure,” the Taliban statement warned. 
It said that Washington has committed itself in the agreement that within 14 months of signing, all U.S.-led international forces and their nondiplomatic personnel, private contractors, advisers, trainers and service providers will withdraw from Afghanistan. 
“In line with this agreement, a large part of foreign forces specifically American forces have withdrawn from our country, while the rest must also withdraw within the specified date,” the statement stressed. 
The Taliban said Qatar and the United Nations Security Council, along with all other countries and international observers that attended the Doha signing ceremony, “have an obligation in the complete implementation of the agreement that must be fulfilled.” 
The insurgents, under the deal, agreed to stop attacking international forces in Afghanistan and to open direct peace talks with representatives of the U.S.-backed Afghan government to try to negotiate a political settlement to the country’s long conflict.  
Washington acknowledges the U.S. military has not suffered any casualties since signing the Doha agreement. Before then, the Afghan military mission had claimed the lives of more than 2,400 American soldiers and injured thousands of others. 
The Taliban rejected terror link charges and allegations they have intensified the conflict as propaganda by some Afghan and “foreign actors” who the group said are attempting to disrupt the peace process. 
Edmund Fitton-Brown, coordinator of the United Nations monitoring team for Islamic State, al-Qaida and the Taliban, told an online event at the Middle East Institute on Thursday that the Taliban have failed to cut ties with al-Qaida.   
“As yet, we have not seen any evidence,” he said.   
The so-called intra-Afghan negotiations started in September, six months later than scheduled in the U.S.-Taliban deal because of a rift between the Afghan government and the Taliban over the release of 5,000 insurgent prisoners.  FILE – Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, bottom right, speaks at the opening session of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, Sept. 12, 2020.Kabul was unhappy with the Doha accord because it was kept out of it. 
Meanwhile, the United Nations has reported the Afghan violence has also intensified since the start of the talks, with civilians bearing the brunt of it. 
More than 3,000 civilians were killed and 5,800 were injured in Afghanistan in 2020, the U.N office in Kabul said last week. The annual report said civilian casualties rose 45% after the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations. 
Afghan leaders allege the Trump administration’s decision to leave Kabul out of the February 2020 agreement has only emboldened the Taliban to intensify military assaults and drag their feet in the peace talks.  
The insurgents dismiss Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government as an illegitimate entity they say stemmed from the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. 
Ghani’s special envoy for neighboring Pakistan, Mohammed Umer Daudzai, said Biden’s review of Afghan peace deal with the Taliban has ended the “unpredictability” that was plaguing the process from the outset about whether the arrangement will promote peace in Afghanistan.  
“Now with the Biden administration, we see an increase in predictability,” Daudzai told VOA in an interview.  
The Afghan presidential envoy said his government has left it entirely for Washington to decide whether they withdraw or leave some troops in Afghanistan while reviewing the document. 
“We don’t seek that Americans should get back into the war, should get involved in the war. What we are seeking from them is that the process of state building that they together with us started 19 years ago they continue with that,” said Daudzai. The Taliban say their deal with the U.S. required the release of another 7,500 insurgent prisoners from Afghan jails and the removal of names of top Taliban leaders from a U.N. sanctions list by now, but those terms have not been fulfilled by the opposing side. The insurgents also dismiss Kabul’s demand for a ceasefire, saying they have reduced battlefield attacks as part of the deal with Washington, but a complete cessation of hostilities, they insist, is linked to a political agreement the warring parties intend to reach in the ongoing intra-Afghan negotiations.  

At Least 5 Deaths Reported in Bloodiest Day of Myanmar Coup Protests 

The crackdown against opponents of Myanmar’s military takeover intensified Sunday as security forces were reported to have fired on protesters, killing at least five people in the deadliest day of demonstrations since the February 1 coup.Witnesses say police used tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and in some cases live ammunition in the country’s biggest city Yangon.  According to the Associated Press, photos of shell cases from live ammunition were posted on social media.Police also aggressively sought to break up protests in Mandalay and Dawei.Medics attempt to treat an injured man with gunshot wounds in Dawei, Myanmar, Feb. 28, 2021, in this still image from video obtained via social media. (DAKKHINA INSIGHT)Popular protests have been staged across Myanmar on a daily basis since the military detained de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the civilian government last month, claiming widespread fraud in last November’s election, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won in a landslide.The junta has declared a one-year state of emergency. Its commander, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has pledged that new elections will be held to bring about a “true and disciplined democracy,” but did not specify when they would take place.Myanmar’s electoral commission denied the military’s claims of election fraud.The United States and other Western nations have demanded the release of Suu Kyi and her lieutenants and called on the junta to restore power to the civilian government.The country’s crisis was complicated further Friday when Myanmar’s U.N. envoy, Kyaw Moe Tun, appealed to a special meeting of the United Nations General Assembly to reject the military coup and “use any means necessary” to protect the people.On Saturday, Myanmar state television reported Kyaw Moe Tun had been fired, saying he “betrayed the country.”Kyaw Moe Tun is a member of the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluuttaw, which represents the elected members of parliament from the NLD.The envoy said he represents the NLD, which is “the legitimate and duly elected” government – not the military leaders who seized power. He said the coup was illegal, unconstitutional and “not acceptable in this modern world.” “It is crystal clear that we all do not want to go back to the system that we used to be in before,” Kyaw Moe Tun said of the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets across Myanmar since the coup.Myanmar’s ambassador to the U.N. Kyaw Moe Tun holds up three fingers at the end of his speech to the General Assembly where he pleaded for international action in his country, at the U.N., in New York City, Feb. 26, 2021. (United Nations TV)The envoy accused the military of oppressing the people for decades, using “unspeakable, violent methods” to attack ethnic minorities and that “these actions no doubt amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”Kyaw Moe Tun said the military continues to act with impunity as it deploys violence against the peaceful protesters demanding a return to civilian rule and democratic norms.Meanwhile, the Foreign Correspondents Club of Myanmar says an Associated Press photographer, Thein Zaw, was arrested “while carrying out his journalistic work” in Yangon Saturday.A statement issued by the FCCM condemned the move and called for the release of the photographer and other detained journalists across the country while urging authorities to ensure the safety and security of those “performing their professional duties covering the ongoing protests in the country.”Some information in this report was provided by Associated Press and Reuters. VOA’s Margaret Besheer contributed to this story. 

Russia Seeks to Strengthen Old Ties with Myanmar Junta

Russia’s appetite for influence and lucrative arms sales in Southeast Asia has been whetted by the latest coup in Myanmar, where isolated generals remain distrustful of China but still require allies on the United Nations Security Council.Chinese investments had flourished in Myanmar under the now-deposed civilian government effectively led by former opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi, and the military, also known as Tatmadaw, benefitted through state owned enterprises brought under its control before Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won historic 2015 elections.However, relations between junta leaders and Beijing have long been strained over Chinese interference across their common border – an existential threat not shared with Russia – and Beijing’s assistance to long-running ethnic insurgencies, including the sale of weapons to rebels.Bradley Murg, a senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said Russia and China are both maneuvering to protect their vested interests in Myanmar.“We’ve seen Russia step up to the plate twice with its actions in the Security Council on the Myanmar question and again joining with China and others in the human rights council to potentially oppose any form of condemnation of the new regime,” he said.Russia and China used their power in the Security Council to water down the world body’s response to the coup, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.China labeled the coup a “cabinet reshuffle” while Russia called it a “purely domestic affair,” and, according to The Irrawaddy, a news site, even asked the international community for “practical assistance to the new authority of Myanmar.”That was despite the message from U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who said he would do everything in his power to pressure Myanmar and “make sure that this coup fails.”Guterres has also consistently slammed the repression and violence inflicted upon protesters.Numbering hundreds of thousands, resistance groups have held nonviolent protests, marching through cities, promoting boycotts and labor strikes in response to the Feb. 1 coup and the Tatmadaw’s refusal to accept the November elections results.A riot police officer fires a rubber bullet toward protesters during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 28, 2021.The United States, Canada and New Zealand have already imposed sanctions on military leaders and pressure is mounting on the European Union, Australia and Japan to follow suit.“Faced with the threat of sanctions from the West, Myanmar sees Russia as a natural ally in thwarting Western pressure and in managing regime consolidation,” said Mohan Malik, visiting fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, a U.S. Defense Department institution in Washington.“Given China’s tendency to extract maximum concessions for its backing of the junta, Russia plays an important role as a counterweight to China both as an arms supplier and as a permanent member of the UNSC,” he said, referring to the U.N. Security Council.According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Myanmar spent $2.4 billion on weapons between 2010 and 2019, including $807 million on Russian-made arms and $1.3 billion on Chinese munitions, often criticized as faulty.Moscow has faced growing criticism at home from its own Muslim community incensed over Myanmar’s alleged ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in 2017, blamed on Min Aung Hlaing.Protests have erupted in Grozny, where Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov warned he would oppose policies that support the Myanmar junta and has reportedly found support among Muslims in the neighboring Caucasus regions and elsewhere in the Russian Federation.Analysts, though, said Moscow’s appetite for access to railroads, seaports and trade routes and its liking for barter deals, which appeals to the junta, would counter any opposition at home.“The most interesting thing I think we see in the Russian case is some of the frankness on the Russian side about what this means for the future of Myanmar-Russian relations,” Murg said.“You see defense contractors, others, basically licking their lips saying this is a new day, there are a lot of new opportunities for Russians in a post-coup Myanmar,” he added.A protester uses a slingshot as demonstrators clash with riot police officers during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 28, 2021.An initial military-technical agreement was reached between Myanmar and Russia in 2001, according to the Warsaw Institute, a nonprofit Polish think tank.Myanmar has since acquired 30 Russian-made MiG-29 jet fighters, 12 Yak-130 jet trainers, 10 Mi-24 and Mi-35P helicopters, and eight Pechora-2M anti-aircraft missile systems, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles, anti-tank and artillery systems and six Su-30SME warplanes.In late 2019 Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin confirmed progress in fresh efforts at developing military cooperation with Myanmar, along with Cold War allies Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.Then, a week before the coup, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu went to Myanmar and signed off on a deal to supply the formidable Pantsir-S1 air defense system, Orlan-10E surveillance drones and radar equipment. He also finalized a flight safety agreement.Arun Sahgal, senior fellow for strategic and regional security at the Delhi Policy Group in India, said democracy remains an issue but, importantly for Moscow and Naypyitaw, India – a major buyer and servicer of Russian arms – would continue to do business with the junta.Sahgal said India will “need to have a dealing with the government of Myanmar whoever is there and from inside to push the generals on the path of reconciliation with the political class rather than make a big song and drum about it.“But they also look at Russia as a source of reasonably cheap weapons systems which are good, and which suits their purpose and there is also an eye that whatever they buy it can be maintained either by Russians or through contacts with India,” Sahgal added.

US Report Documents Atrocities, Ethnic Cleansing in Tigray, NY Times Says

An internal U.S. government report obtained by The New York Times says that Ethiopia is conducting “a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing” under the cover of war in the Tigray region, an area largely controlled by Amhara militias in the northern part of the country.The Times says the report, written earlier in February, describes “in stark terms a land of looted houses and deserted villages where tens of thousands of people are unaccounted for.”According to the Times, the report finds that Ethiopian officials and allied militia fighters from the neighboring Amhara region, who moved into Tigray in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, are “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation.”The report says some people fled into the bush or crossed illegally into Sudan, while others were rounded up and forcibly relocated to other parts of Tigray, according to the newspaper.U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Saturday that the United States is “gravely concerned by reports of atrocities and the overall deteriorating situation in the Tigray.”The U.S. “has repeatedly engaged the Ethiopian government on the importance of ending the violence, ensuring unhindered humanitarian access to Tigray, and allowing a full, independent, international investigation into all reports of human rights violations, abuses, and atrocities,” Blinken said, adding that those responsible for them “must be held accountable.”Blinken called on the African Union, and regional and international partners to work with the U.S. to “address the crisis in Tigray, including through action at the UN and other relevant bodies.”Blinken also addressed the activity of Eritrean soldiers in Tigray.”The immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces and Amhara regional forces from Tigray are essential first steps,” Blinken said. “They should be accompanied by unilateral declarations of cessation of hostilities by all parties to the conflict and a commitment to permit unhindered delivery of assistance to those in Tigray.”The lead Republican in U.S. House of Representative Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, also issued a statement Saturday, urging the Biden administration “to take decisive action to hold those accountable for any atrocities committed” in the Tigray region.“This must be a high priority as the U.S. takes on the role of U.N. Security Council Chair next month,” McCaul said.The armed conflict in Tigray has taken thousands of people’s lives. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee their homes as a result. The region of more than 5 million people is facing shortages of food, water and medicine. 

2 Die as Myanmar Police Crack Down on Protests for Second Day

Myanmar police opened fire Sunday on protests of military rule, killing at least two people and wounding several on the second day of a crackdown on demonstrations across the country, a doctor and a politician said.Myanmar has been in chaos since the army seized power and detained elected government leader Aung San Suu Kyi and much of her party leadership on Feb. 1, alleging fraud in a November election her party won in a landslide.The coup, which brought a halt to Myanmar’s tentative steps towards democracy after nearly 50 years of military rule, has drawn hundreds of thousands onto the streets and the condemnation of Western countries.Police opened fire in different parts of the main city of Yangon after stun grenades and tear gas failed to disperse crowds.One man was brought to a hospital with a bullet wound in the chest and died, said a doctor at the hospital who asked not to be identified. The Mizzima media outlet also reported the death.Police also opened fire in the southern town of Dawei, killing one and wounding several, politician Kyaw Min Htike told Reuters from the town. The Dawei Watch media outlet also said at least one person was killed and more than a dozen wounded.Police and the spokesman for the ruling military council did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.Police were also cracking down on a huge protest in the second city of Mandalay and in the northeastern town of Lashio, residents there said.Junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing said last week authorities were using minimal force to deal with the protests.Nevertheless, at least five protesters have died in the turmoil. The army said a policeman has been killed.The crackdown would appear to show a determination by the military to impose its authority in the face of widespread defiance, not just on the streets but more broadly in areas such as the civil service, municipal administration, the judiciary, education and health sectors and media.’Never kneel’In Yangon, several people were helped away, leaving blood-smeared pavements, after police fired, images posted by media showed.Police also threw stun grenades, used tear gas and fired into the air, witnesses said. Nevertheless, hundreds of protesters refused to back down by early afternoon.Some marched, while others set up barricades.”If they push us, we’ll rise. If they attack us, we’ll defend. We’ll never kneel down to the military boots,” said Nyan Win Shein from one Yangon protest.Police were out in force early in the day and moved swiftly to break up crowds.”Police got out of their cars and started throwing stun grenades without warning,” said Hayman May Hninsi, who was one of a group of teachers who fled to nearby buildings.Doctors and students in white lab coats scattered as police threw stun grenades outside a medical school elsewhere in the city, posted video showed.Saturday brought disturbances in towns and cities nationwide as police began their bid to crush the protests with tear gas, stun grenades and shooting into the air.State-run MRTV television said more than 470 people had been arrested on Saturday. It said police had given warnings before using stun grenades to disperse people.It was not clear how many were detained on Sunday.’Instill fear’Youth activist Esther Ze Naw said earlier that people were battling to overcome the fear they had lived with for so long under military rule.”It’s obvious they’re trying to instill fear in us by making us run and hide,” she said. “We can’t accept that.”The police action came after state television announced that Myanmar’s U.N. envoy had been fired for betraying the country after he urged the United Nations to use “any means necessary” to reverse the coup.MRTV said he had been fired in accordance with civil service rules because he had “betrayed the country” and “abused the power and responsibilities of an ambassador.”The ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, was defiant. “I decided to fight back as long as I can,” he told Reuters in New York.While Western countries have condemned the coup and some have imposed limited sanctions, the generals have traditionally shrugged off diplomatic pressure. They have promised to hold a new election but not set a date.Suu Kyi’s party and supporters said the result of the November vote must be respected.Suu Kyi, 75, spent nearly 15 years under house arrest during military rule. She faces charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios and of violating a natural disaster law by breaching coronavirus protocols.The next hearing in her case is set for Monday.

At Bicoastal Globes on Sunday, ‘Borat’ Could Triumph

When drained of glamour, what’s left of the Golden Globes?That’s one of the biggest questions heading into the 78th annual awards on Sunday night. The show, postponed two months from its usual early-January perch, will have little of what makes the Globes one of the frothiest and glitziest events of the year. Due to the pandemic, there will be no parade of stars down the red carpet outside the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California. Its hosts, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, will be on different sides of the country.More than any award show, the Globes revel in being an intimate banquet of stars. When the show begins at 8 p.m. EST on NBC, with Poehler in Beverly Hills and Fey in New York’s Rainbow Room, the circumstances will test the Globes telecast like never before.Presenters will include Awkwafina, Joaquin Phoenix, Kristen Wiig, Tiffany Haddish, Margot Robbie and Angela Bassett. At least some of them will be present at one of the two locations. Pre-show coverage is still going forward on E! beginning at 4 p.m. EST and on NBC beginning at 7 p.m. EST. The telecast will be streamed on NBC’s website with a television-provider log-in, as well as on the Roku Channel, Hulu with Live TV, YouTube TV, AT&T TV, Sling TV and Fubo TV.Lack of diversityBut pandemic improvising is only part of the damage control the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which puts on the Globes, finds itself dealing with this year. A pair of extensive reports by the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times in the week leading up to the awards renewed scrutiny on the press association and its 87 voting members.While the HFPA has long been known as an organization with members of questionable qualification — most of its members don’t write for well-known publications — and are known for being swayed by high-priced junkets, the reports again forced the HFPA to defend itself.Among the most damning details was the revelation that there are no Black voting members in the group, something that only reinforced criticism that the press association — which host Ricky Gervais last year called “very, very racist” in his opening monologue — needs overhauling. This year, none of the most acclaimed Black-led films — Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, Da 5 Bloods — were nominated for the Globes’ best picture award.In a statement, the HFPA said it would make “an action plan” to change. “We understand that we need to bring in Black members, as well as members from other underrepresented backgrounds,” the group said.For some, none of the revelations were surprising. Ava DuVernay tweeted in response to the Los Angeles Times article: “Reveals? As in, people are acting like this isn’t already widely known? For YEARS?”Two-time nominee Sterling K. Brown, who’s presenting Sunday, said in an Instagram post that “having a multitude of Black presenters does not absolve you of your lack of diversity.”“87 people wield a tremendous amount of power,” said Brown. “For any governing body of a current Hollywood award show to have such a lack of voting representation illustrates a level of irresponsibility that should not be ignored.”42 nominations for NetflixYet the Globes have persisted because of their popularity (the show ranks as the third most-watched award show, after the Oscars and Grammys), their profitability (NBC paid $60 million for broadcast rights in 2018) and because they serve as important marketing material for contending films and Oscar hopefuls. That may be especially true this year when the pandemic has upset the normal rhythms of buzz in a virtual awards season lacking the usual frenzy.The Globes are happening on the original date of the Academy Awards, which are instead to be held April 25.Netflix comes in with a commanding 42 nominations, including a leading six nods for David Fincher’s Mank and The Crown also topping TV nominees with six nods. Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, also from Netflix, is also a heavyweight with five nominations.Chloe Zhao, the Nomadland filmmaker and Oscar frontrunner, is expected to become the first woman of Asian descent to win best director at the Globes and the first woman since Barbra Streisand won for Yentl in 1984.Chadwick Boseman, nominated for best actor for his performance in the August Wilson adaptation Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, could win a posthumous Golden Globe. Boseman is widely expected to be nominated for an Oscar.And Borat Subsequent Moviefilm stands a good chance of being crowned best picture, comedy or musical. With many of the leading nominees in the drama category — among them Mank, Nomadland, The Father, Promising Young Woman and The Trial of the Chicago 7 — Sacha Baron Cohen’s sequel could emerge a big winner. Cohen, who won a Globe for his performance in the first Borat film, is nominated for Borat and for his role in The Trial of the Chicago 7.Jane Fonda, a seven-time Globe winner, will receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement. Norman Lear will be honored for his television career and accept an award named after Carol Burnett.

US Calls on African Union to Exert Pressure Over Worsening Crisis in Tigray

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday called on the African Union and other international partners to help address a deepening crisis in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region as he condemned alleged atrocities in fighting there.Blinken’s statement suggested growing frustration with the response so far from Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea to what America’s top diplomat described as a “worsening humanitarian crisis.”His remarks came a day after Amnesty International released a report accusing Eritrean forces of killing hundreds of civilians in Tigray in a 24-hour period last year, an incident it described as a potential crime against humanity.Eritrea rejected the accusations.”The United States is gravely concerned by reported atrocities and the overall deteriorating situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia,” Blinken said.”We ask international partners, especially the African Union and regional partners, to work with us to address the crisis in Tigray, including through action at the U.N. and other relevant bodies.”Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s federal army ousted the former local ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), from the regional capital Mekelle in November, but low-level fighting has continued.Thousands of people have died, hundreds of thousands have been forced from homes and there are shortages of food, water and medicine around the region of more than 5 million people.Ethiopia and Eritrea have denied that Eritrean troops participated in the conflict, though dozens of witnesses, diplomats and an Ethiopian general have reported their presence.Still, the state-run Ethiopian Human Rights Commission released a statement on Friday timed to coincide with the Amnesty report, saying preliminary investigations indicated that Eritrean soldiers had killed an unknown number of civilians in Axum, an ancient city in northern Ethiopia. It said the killings were in retaliation for an earlier attack by TPLF soldiers.Amnesty said Eritrean soldiers executed men and boys in the streets and engaged in extensive looting.Blinken noted Ethiopian commitments to full accountability, including international support for investigations into human rights abuses and to allowing unhindered humanitarian access.”The immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces and Amhara regional forces from Tigray are essential first steps,” Blinken said.”They should be accompanied by unilateral declarations of cessation of hostilities by all parties to the conflict and a commitment to permit unhindered delivery of assistance to those in Tigray.”

Durham Remains Special Counsel Overseeing Trump-Russia Probe

U.S. Attorney John Durham said Friday that he will resign from his position as the top federal prosecutor in Connecticut but is remaining as a special counsel to oversee the Justice Department’s investigation into the origins of the Russia probe that shadowed Donald Trump’s presidency.Durham will resign from his post as U.S. attorney for Connecticut on Monday. But Durham, who was appointed in October by then-Attorney General William Barr as a special counsel to investigate the origins of the Trump-Russia probe, will remain in that capacity.Like Durham, nearly every other U.S. attorney who served in the Trump administration was asked earlier this month to submit their resignations as the Biden administration moves to transition to its own nominees.The FBI in July 2016 began investigating whether the Trump campaign was coordinating with Russia to sway the outcome of the presidential election. That probe was inherited nearly a year later by special counsel Robert Mueller, who ultimately did not find enough evidence to charge Trump or any of his associates with conspiring with Russia.The early months of the investigation, when agents obtained secret surveillance warrants targeting a former Trump campaign aide, have long been scrutinized by Trump and other critics of the probe who say the FBI made significant errors. A Justice Department inspector general report backed up that criticism but did not find evidence that mistakes in the surveillance applications and other problems with the probe were driven by partisan bias.Durham’s investigation, which the Justice Department has described as a criminal probe, had begun very broadly, but Barr said in December that it had “narrowed considerably” and that it was “really is focused on the activities of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation within the FBI.”Durham’s investigation has so far resulted in one prosecution so far. A former FBI lawyer was sentenced to probation last month for altering an email the Justice Department relied on in its surveillance of an aide to President Donald Trump during the Russia investigation.The U.S. attorneys transition process, which happens routinely between administrations, applies to a few dozen U.S. attorneys who were appointed by Trump and confirmed by the Senate, and many of the federal prosecutors who were nominated by Trump have left their positions.A senior Justice Department official told the AP earlier this month that David Weiss, the U.S. attorney in Delaware, overseeing the federal tax probe involving Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, will remain in place.The 93 U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and are responsible for overseeing offices of federal prosecutors and charged with prosecuting federal crimes in their jurisdictions.

Dozens of Hong Kong Democrats Brace for National Security Charges

Several dozen Hong Kong democrats are set to report to local police stations across the city Sunday, with some expecting to be charged with breaches of national security as a crackdown on the democratic opposition intensifies.Benny Tai, one of the organizers of an unofficial primary election last summer, said in an online post that there was a chance he would be formally charged.Tai was arrested in a dawn raid along with more than 50 other democrats on Jan. 6 in the largest national security operation since the law’s passage last June.They were accused of organizing and participating in an unofficial primary election last July aimed at selecting the strongest candidates for a legislative council election.The democrats were detained at the time, questioned, and some said their mobile phones and computers were confiscated, but released pending further investigations.”My chance of bail won’t be too great,” wrote Tai, who has been accused by Chinese authorities of being a key tactician for the pro-democracy movement in the former British colony.Those also called in by Hong Kong police include John Clancey, a U.S. citizen and human rights lawyer, as well as a group of younger democratic activists including Lester Shum, Sam Cheung, Ventus Lau and Fergus Leung.The democrats denounced the arrests as political persecution for the informal, peaceful poll that drew 600,000 votes in a city of 7.5 million.A rights advocacy group, “Power for Democracy,” that co-organized the primary elections, said in a Facebook post on Friday that it had disbanded.When contacted by Reuters, a local police spokeswoman would not immediately say whether the democracy advocates would be charged with breaching the national security law.The Hong Kong police say 99 individuals have been arrested for suspected violations of the security laws so far.Some of these have been denied bail, including media mogul and prominent China critic Jimmy Lai, despite protracted legal appeals.The sweeping national security laws — seen by critics as a threat to Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy — punish acts of subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism with possible life imprisonment.

WWII Plane Flyby Honors Britain’s ‘Captain Tom’ at Funeral

Church bells rang and a World War II-era plane flew Saturday over the funeral for Captain Tom Moore, the veteran who single-handedly raised millions of pounds for Britain’s health workers by walking laps in his backyard.Soldiers performed ceremonial duties at the private service for Moore, who died February 2 at age 100 after testing positive for COVID-19. Captain Tom, as he became known, inspired the U.K. during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic with his humble endeavor that raised almost 33 million pounds ($46 million) for Britain’s National Health Service last year.The funeral cortege of Captain Tom Moore arrives at Bedford Crematorium, in Bedford, England, Feb. 27, 2021.The service was small, attended by eight members of the veteran’s immediate family. But soldiers carried his coffin, draped in the Union flag, and formed a ceremonial guard. Others performed a gun salute before a C-47 Dakota military transport plane flew past.A Dakota performs a flyby at the funeral of Captain Tom Moore, in Bedford, England, Feb. 27, 2021.”Daddy, you always told us, ‘Best foot forward,’ and true to your word, that’s what you did last year,” Moore’s daughter Lucy Teixeira said at the service. “I know you will be watching us, chuckling, saying, ‘Don’t be too sad as something has to get you in the end.’ “His other daughter, Hannah Ingram-Moore, said the world was “enthralled” by her father’s “spirit of hope, positivity and resilience.””They, too, saw your belief in kindness and the fundamental goodness of the human spirit,” she said.The service featured music that reflected the man being honored, opening with the rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone that Moore recorded for charity with Michael Ball and the NHS Voices of Care Choir. The song topped the U.K. singles charts last April.Singer Michael Bublé recorded a version of Smile for the funeral, and as requested by Moore, Frank Sinatra’s My Way was played. A bugler sounded The Last Post to close the service.A church in Bedfordshire, England, where the family is based, rang its bell 100 times in Moore’s honor. A post on Moore’s Twitter account invited his admirers to remember him Saturday with a cup of tea and a slice of Victoria sponge cake.Moore, who served in India, Burma and Sumatra during World War II, set out to raise a modest 1,000 pounds for Britain’s NHS by walking 100 laps of his backyard by his 100th birthday last year. But donations poured in from across Britain and beyond as his quest went viral, catching the imagination of millions stuck at home during the first wave of the pandemic.FILE – In this July 17, 2020, photo, Captain Tom Moore poses for the media after receiving his knighthood from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, during a ceremony at Windsor Castle in Windsor, England.His positive attitude — “Please remember, tomorrow will be a good day” became his trademark phrase — inspired the nation at a time of crisis. Prime Minister Boris Johnson described him as a “hero in the truest sense of the word.”He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in July in a socially distanced ceremony at Windsor Castle, west of London. 

2 Skiers Defy Death in Descent of Yosemite’s Half Dome

Two skiers navigated a thin layer of snow with no margin for error down the precipitous shoulder of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and alternately skied and rappelled back to the valley floor in an unusually daring feat.Jason Torlano, 45, and Zach Milligan, 40, completed the descent in five hours Sunday by carefully carving their way in crusty snow and using ropes to rappel several sections of bare rock known as the “death slabs” beneath the iconic face of Half Dome, the Fresno Bee reported Thursday.”If you fall to your left or right, you’re definitely dead,” said JT Holmes, a professional free skier and a friend of Torlano. “If you fall down the middle, you have a small chance of not falling to your death — but it’s a maybe.”Snowboarder Jim Zellers is believed to be the first to descend the 243-meter upper section on the shoulder of the dome in 2000. But no one is known to have attempted the entire 1,463-meter descent from peak to valley.Torlano said he had been dreaming about skiing the dome since his family moved to Yosemite when he was 5 years old.He first climbed Half Dome as a youngster, clinging to the same cables tens of thousands of visitors do every year to ascend the final steep pitch up the rounded side of the polished granite feature. He advanced to become one of an elite group of climbers to scale the sheer granite face at least a dozen times, using only ropes to catch his fall. He later became a ranger in the park.”It’s just always been there,” Torlano told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I’ve been attracted to Half Dome for as long as I can remember.”After also serving a stint in the U.S. Army, he settled down with his wife and children in a community near Yosemite. He specializes in using ropes to work in high-altitude and dangerous settings.He said he tried to ski down Half Dome each of the past three years but called it off after finding unsuitable snow. This year, an early February storm filled Yosemite with fresh powder, including about 7.6 centimeters of snow at the peak of Half Dome.He rented a friend’s small plane Feb. 19 to study the snow conditions and possible route before calling Milligan, a rock-climbing buddy, to join him.Milligan said he initially planned to only film Torlano skiing but decided to make his own descent by carefully side slipping down on skis. He said things quickly turned dangerous when he skied over part of one of the cables and lost control before using an ice ax to stop his slide and right himself.”I was just trying to stay in control and stay alive,” Milligan said. “You’re on that spine and you don’t have a lot of room for error.” 

Tunisians Protest Amid Political Standoff 

Tunisia’s main parliamentary bloc Ennahdha rallied thousands of people Saturday in a demonstration of support for the government amid a tug-of-war with President Kais Saied.The Islamist-inspired Ennahdha and liberal Qalb Tounes parties pushed for a reshuffling of the government by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in mid-January, introducing 11 new ministers.Saied has strongly criticized the reshuffle — confirmed by parliament — saying he wasn’t consulted, and he charged that some ministers were suspected of corruption and conflicts of interest.He also refused to confirm the new ministers, including interior, justice and health, leaving the government paralyzed, in a country reeling from economic hardship and the coronavirus pandemic.Unity, democracySaturday’s protest in the capital, Tunis, was called by Ennahdha, and several protesters said they rallied in support of the moderate Islamist party as well as for unity and democracy.”We have a parliamentary system, and it is not up to the president to decide who will govern,” said protester Mohamed Khlif, who traveled from the coastal city of Sfax to take part in the rally.”Democracy and the constitution must be respected,” he added.Around him protesters, who came to the capital from across the country, chanted, “The people want national unity.”The political standoff comes as Tunisia has been hit hard by the pandemic and its social and economic repercussions.This “weakening governance” led international ratings agency Moody’s this week to downgrade Tunisia’s sovereign debt rating, complicating the country’s borrowing power while it has not finalized its 2021 budget.The International Monetary Fund, too, warned in a report published Friday that the “COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating Tunisia’s socioeconomic fragilities” and “led to an unprecedented economic downturn.”The IMF called for urgent reforms to reduce the fiscal deficit, which it said was estimated to have reached 11.5% of GDP in 2020.It also made a series of recommendations, including for limits on energy subsidies and lowering the wage bill.The leader of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, House Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, waves a Tunisian flag during a rally in Tunis, Tunisia, Feb. 27, 2021.‘Strengthened by visible support’Ennahdha head Rached Ghannouchi addressed the protesters Saturday, calling for dialogue and unity among political forces.His party dominated the political scene after the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali but has seen its base erode, now controlling only a quarter of the parliament.Saied called the protest “a waste of money.””We are not reacting according to their calculations and arrangements, but according to our principles and commitments to the people,” Saied said on Saturday.Saied, an independent academic and constitutional law expert, has castigated the procedure for naming the new ministers, saying it was unconstitutional.Tunisia’s constitution does not require parliamentary approval for regular reshuffles.But in the absence of a constitutional court in Tunisia, the political crisis has dragged on for six weeks with no solution in sight to ease tensions between the president, parliament and the government.   

Nigerian Bandits Blame Crime on Government Neglect

In Nigeria, Friday’s predawn abduction of 317 female students from a government school in Zamfara state was the latest in a surge of kidnappings in the country’s north.It’s not yet clear who was responsible for the girls’ abduction. But members of an armed gang who met with a VOA Hausa reporter and another journalist at their Sububu Forest hideout in Zamfara earlier this week contend they – and others like them – have turned to hostage-taking and other crimes because they have little choice to survive.They said these “bandits” are mostly ethnic Fulanis like they are, traditionally nomadic herders who have seen public grazing lands shrink and their cattle and sheep stolen by soldiers and rustlers. They said various governments have neglected and even harassed them – and failed to protect their way of life.“Everyone knows we are herders. This country is blessed with oil and other natural resources,” but that bounty doesn’t filter down, Shehu Rekep, the group’s deputy, said in justifying its crimes. “We have not been educated, we don’t have security, and the government is not doing anything for us. We are being killed, but we are always reported as the killers.”The bandits’ campArmed men on motorcycles fetched the journalists from an appointed meeting place to visit the gang’s forest hideout in the far northern part of Zamfara state for an interview last Monday. Someone fired a gun skyward, announcing their arrival. Roughly 30 men milled about the clearing, soon joined by at least 20 others, including several women. Most wore scarves that covered their faces, and they carried assault rifles. Some had rifles equipped with rocket-propelled grenade launchers.They gathered near a man sitting on a carpet beneath a shade tree. Rekep introduced him.“Kachalla Halilu Sububu Seno, leader of all terrorists,” Rekep said, using a courtesy title. Kachalla means gang leader in Fulani.Halilu commands a network of about 1,000 bandits in Zamfara state, his deputy said. The leader also claims to control some gangs in southern Nigeria. Rekep also wields influence, citing connections to bandits in the French-speaking countries of Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Central African Republic.Rekep said that, in a peace deal negotiated two years ago between his gang and communities in the Shinkafi government area, the gang provides protection in exchange for a relatively undisturbed base of operations.Traditional herders took up arms out of desperation, the group’s leaders said.They said central and state governments in the last 20 years have abandoned herding communities, failing to provide academic or religious education or other social services, with limitations on grazing rights – particularly in Nigeria’s south – leaving them illiterate, jobless and hopeless. They also said herders face excessive taxes when trying to sell their livestock at market, and sometimes encounter extortion or brutality by military and police personnel.Shehu Rekep, deputy of an armed group of “bandits” in Nigeria’s northwestern Zamfara state, contends they have taken up crime because government hasn’t protected their livelihood as herders.The bandit leaders told VOA that many of their members have lost relatives in clashes with security agents and rival groups.”Security forces and vigilantes kill us,” Rekep said. “We also kill every day.”He also said that captives are released when ransom is paid – but that bandits will shoot anyone who resists them. He did not disclose how many people had been killed because ransom demands went unmet.FILE – In this photo released by the Nigeria State House, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari addresses the nation on a live telecast, Oct. 22, 2020.Won’t ‘succumb to blackmail’Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari denounced Friday’s kidnapping at the Government Girls Science Secondary School in Zamfara’s town of Jangebe, saying his administration “will not succumb to blackmail by bandits” seeking ransom payments.But authorities in federal and state governments have been criticized for paying large ransoms.“Between 2011 and 2020, Nigerians paid more than $18 million to liberate themselves or loved ones,” The Washington Post reported this week, citing data from the consulting firm SB Morgen.To deter abductions, at least two northwestern states – Kebbi and Jigawa – have passed laws prescribing death sentences for convicted kidnappers.This report originated in VOA’s Hausa Service, with Sani Shu’aibu Malumfashi reporting from Nigeria’s Zamfara state and Hassan Maina Kaina from the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Haruna Shehu, Murtala Sanyinna and Lawal Isah Ikara also contributed.     

Archaeologists Find Intact Ceremonial Chariot Near Pompeii 

Officials at the Pompeii archaeological site in Italy announced Saturday the discovery of an intact ceremonial chariot, one of several important discoveries made in the same area outside the park near Naples following an investigation into an illegal dig.The chariot, with its iron elements, bronze decorations and mineralized wooden remains, was found in the ruins of a settlement north of Pompeii, beyond the walls of the ancient city, parked in the portico of a stable where the remains of three horses previously were discovered.The Archaeological Park of Pompeii called the chariot “an exceptional discovery” and said “it represents a unique find — which has no parallel in Italy thus far — in an excellent state of preservation.”A detail of the decoration of a chariot that was found in Civita Giuliana, north of Pompeii. Officials at the Pompeii archaeological site near Naples announced its discovery Feb. 27, 2021.The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD destroyed Pompeii. The chariot was spared when the walls and roof of the structure it was in collapsed, and also survived looting by modern-day antiquities thieves, who had dug tunnels through to the site, grazing but not damaging the four-wheeled cart, according to park officials.The chariot was found on the grounds of what is one of the most significant ancient villas in the area around Vesuvius, with a panoramic view of the Mediterranean Sea, on the outskirts of the ancient Roman city.Archaeologists last year found in the same area on the outskirts of Pompeii, Civita Giulian, the skeletal remains of what are believed to have been a wealthy man and his male slave, attempting to escape death.The chariot’s first iron element emerged January 7 from the blanket of volcanic material filling the two-story portico. Archaeologists believe the cart was used for festivities and parades, perhaps also to carry brides to their new homes.While chariots for daily life or the transport of agricultural products have been previously found at Pompeii, officials said the new find is the first ceremonial chariot unearthed in its entirety.The villa was discovered after police came across the illegal tunnels in 2017, officials said. Two people who live in the houses atop the site are on trial for allegedly digging more than 80 meters of tunnels at the site.  

Somalia Issues First License to Mobile Money Service 

Somali officials on Saturday issued the country’s first license to a mobile money service, bringing regulation to the widely used digital payment process for the first time.The Central Bank of Somalia awarded the license to the country’s largest telecommunications provider, Hormuud Telecom, which runs the Electronic Voucher Card or EVCPlus, a free mobile money service used by 3 million of its 3.6 million subscribers in the Horn of Africa country.The use and circulation of Somali banknotes has been dwindling because of the absence of central monetary policies and because little new paper currency has been printed. But private businesses have nonetheless flourished in Somalia, where unregulated mobile money is extensively used for most buying, selling and transfers.Mobile money services emerged 10 years ago but were never regulated. The new regulation formalizes digital transactions as the primary payment method within the country and will enable further integration of the Somali financial system with the international financial system, officials said.The license was issued by the governor of the Central Bank of Somalia, Abdirahman Mohamed Abdullahi, on Saturday in Mogadishu.“We have developed a robust regulation, and based on that we have issued the first license of its kind in the country today,” Abdullahi told VOA Somali.“This has huge significance. I cannot express in words how important this is.”Easy to accessAbdullahi said the mobile money service is the preferred choice of Somalis because there is a low bar for accessing it.“For the mobile money, you can actually buy a mobile phone, SIM card and then register yourself and start using right away, starting from one dollar or half a dollar or whatever amount you want, whether you want to deposit it, make payments from the convenience of your home or transfer money,” he said.Hormuud Telecom said it was delighted to receive the first license.“The news today cements what we’ve known for a long time — that Somalia is moving towards being the world’s first truly cashless economy,” said company CEO Ahmed Mohamud Yusuf. “This issuing of a mobile money license for the first time is arguably one of the most important steps taken by Somalia since the end of the war.”An estimated 155 million mobile money transactions, amounting to about $2.7 billion a month in Somalia, were reported by the World Bank in 2018. At the time, the World Bank praised mobile money platforms for “immensely” easing transactions and providing opportunities for economic growth but raised red flags about “plausible fiscal risks” in the event of disruption to mobile money platforms. It also said the platform’s lack of regulation caused serious macroeconomic effects.The Somali shilling has had severe devaluation over past decades because administrations and businesses increasingly preferred using U.S. dollars. Today, one U.S. dollar is worth 25,000 Somali shillings, about the value of one kilogram of rice.EVCPlus recognizes both Somali and U.S. dollars but operates on dollars only because the economy of Somalia is being dollarized due to devaluation. This devaluation hits the poorest Somalis hardest, particularly those who don’t receive dollar earnings or remittances from relatives living abroad.