Blinken Vows US Support for Ukraine in Call With Foreign Minister

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a phone call with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Wednesday, affirmed Washington’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity “in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression,” the State Department said in a statement.
 
Ukraine and Russia have been at loggerheads since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and over its support for separatist rebels fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, which Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people.
 
Blinken “expressed concern about the security situation in eastern Ukraine and offered condolences on the recent loss of four Ukrainian soldiers,” the statement said.
 
Ukraine’s armed forces said last week that four soldiers were killed in shelling by Russian forces in Donbas, the highest daily death total since a cease-fire agreement was reached last July.
 
Ukrainian commander-in-chief Ruslan Khomchak said on Tuesday Russia was building up armed forces near Ukraine’s borders in a threat to the country’s security.
 
The Kremlin said Wednesday it was concerned about mounting tensions in eastern Ukraine and that it feared Kyiv’s government forces could do something to restart a conflict with pro-Russian separatists. 

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Economists See Biden Infrastructure Plan Powering Growth; Criticism Is Muted

President Joe Biden’s plan announced Wednesday to plow $2 trillion into an eight-year overhaul of U.S. infrastructure was met with only limited carping from many voices normally critical of government spending. Meanwhile, economists expressed broad agreement that the plan, as proposed, would power long-run economic growth.It is certainly possible that pumping that much money into the economy, with interest rates near zero and a nascent recovery already taking shape, could cause inflation, said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate.com.However, he said, “The other part of the discussion is, there’s clearly a huge risk from failing to address infrastructure needs. And I think most people would say that [inflation] is a risk worth taking at this point.”The proposal outlined by Biden in Pittsburgh would direct $620 billion in funding to transportation infrastructure, $300 billion to boost manufacturing, $180 billion to research and development focused on climate-science research, $174 billion to accelerate the use of electric vehicles, and hundreds of billions more to a laundry list of smaller-ticket priorities.All of this massive spending is only the first half of what officials say will be a two-part effort to invest in the country’s future, with the second piece expected next month. The elements of the Biden plan announced Wednesday would be paid for by increasing taxes on U.S. businesses, while the next round of proposals would be paid for by increasing taxes on wealthy individuals.President Joe Biden speaks about infrastructure spending at Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center, March 31, 2021, in Pittsburgh.Public sector criticism largely mutedIt is a testament to the widespread agreement on the need for infrastructure investment that even groups adamantly opposed to Biden’s plan to pay for it with a tax increase or concerned about the possibility of inflation were quick to praise the proposal’s breadth and ambition.“We need a big and bold program to modernize our nation’s crumbling infrastructure and we applaud the Biden administration for making infrastructure a top priority,” said Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a statement released by the organization. “However, we believe the proposal is dangerously misguided when it comes to how to pay for infrastructure.”In an analysis of the plan, Michael R. Strain, the director of economic policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, called it “admirably ambitious” even as he expressed concern about the way it was being paid for and worried about inflation.“Much of the debate about the infrastructure plans will focus on whether there is political space for another multitrillion-dollar bill,” he wrote. “I am worried about whether there is economic space.”Construction workers work in Wheeling, Ill., March 31, 2021. President Joe Biden on Wednesday unveiled his nearly $2 trillion infrastructure plan aimed at revitalizing U.S. transportation infrastructure, water systems, broadband and manufacturing.Too much economic juice?Strain said that a surge in spending this year and next, temporarily fueled by debt while the tax revenue was collected, could combine with the $1.9 trillion spending in the American Rescue Plan to drive inflation.“Can the economy handle a temporary deficit boost this year and next? That will depend on whether the $1.9 trillion stimulus law Biden just signed pushes the economy too hard, leading to consumer price inflation, higher interest rates and financial instability. I am worried that it will,” Strain said.However, the majority of economic analysts seemed more concerned about what might happen if the administration failed to act.“Most economists are in agreement that the costs will be paid back in the economic productiveness of the expenditures, at least in their totality, if indeed it were to be passed as proposed,” said Hamrick of Bankrate.com. “There’s an economic cost to the lack of investment, not only in infrastructure, but these other areas as well. And that needs to be part of the central argument. There’s a cost to not doing it. And there’s a benefit to doing it.”Inflation? So what?“It’s important to recognize that if the plan works as intended, it should increase the productive capacity of the economy,” said David Wilcox, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “We’re paying real costs today for our inadequate investment in infrastructure. The investments that are made under this plan should help alleviate some of the bottlenecks in the American economy, and that itself will provide a bit of a pressure relief valve against some of the concerns that have been expressed.”Wilcox, former director of the Federal Reserve Board’s domestic economics division and a senior adviser to three Fed chairs, said that Biden’s intention to pay for his infrastructure proposals with tax increases on the wealthy and on businesses should, by itself, “substantially diminish the potential for this plan by itself to contribute to any kind of worrisome overheating of the economy.”A EVgo electric vehicle charging station is seen at a shopping plaza in Northbrook, Ill., March 31, 2021. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for building a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle chargers by 2030.He added that even if increased infrastructure investment triggered higher inflation, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.”The Fed has indicated that it not only will tolerate but indeed welcome some additional inflation,” Wilcox said. “So all of that says to me that now is a good time to err on the side of providing more relief than it might turn out that American families and businesses actually need.”Mission not accomplishedEven though the U.S. economy has begun to spring back, with the unemployment rate falling sharply from alarming highs early in the pandemic, there are still 9.5 million fewer jobs in the country than there were when employment peaked near the beginning of the pandemic.That’s about the number of job losses the U.S. suffered during the Great Recession.“So the jobs deficit, as of today, remains huge,” Wilcox said. “We’ve got a very long way to go before anybody is going to unfurl the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner on the economy being fully recovered.”Political criticismThe most vocal critics of the Biden administration plan have been Republican leaders in Congress, who claim that the plan is a cover for Democratic priorities not related to infrastructure.”It’s called infrastructure, but inside the Trojan horse it’s going to be more borrowed money, and massive tax increases on all the productive parts of our economy,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, echoing a criticism of the bill he has made many times in recent days, while speaking with reporters in his home state of Kentucky on Wednesday.Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, who chairs the Senate Republican Conference, warned that Biden’s two-step infrastructure plan wasn’t really an infrastructure proposal at all.”Infrastructure means highways, roads, bridges,” he said in an interview with Fox Business News on Tuesday. “They want to do all sorts of social things. They’re talking about free community college, free day care, free senior care and then, of course, the punishing regulations of the Green New Deal. And you add on that all the taxes, that they’re talking about taxes on individuals, taxes on businesses. And they’re trying to resurrect the death tax. The difference could not be more clear.”    

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UN’s Myanmar Envoy Warns of ‘Bloodbath,’ ‘Civil War’

The U.N. Special Envoy for Myanmar warned Wednesday that “a bloodbath is imminent” and there is an increasing “possibility of civil war” in the country if civilian rule is not restored. “I appeal to this council to consider all available tools to take collective action and do what is right, what the people of Myanmar deserve, and prevent a multidimensional catastrophe in the heart of Asia,” Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener told a closed-door meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, according to a copy of her remarks obtained by VOA. FILE – U.N. Special Envoy for Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener arrives at Sittwe airport after visiting Maung Daw Township at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border area in Rakhine state, Oct. 15, 2018.She said she fears the conflict will become bloodier as the commander in chief of the military, General Min Aung Hlaing, “seems determined to solidify his unlawful grip on power by force.” She cited the intensification of fighting in Kayin and Kachin states, and warnings of retaliation from three of the country’s armed ethnic rebel groups if attacks on protesters do not stop, as fueling her fears of civil war. “Mediation requires dialogue, but Myanmar’s military has shut its doors to most of the world,” Schraner Burgener said. “It appears the military would only engage when it feels they are able to contain the situation through repression and terror.” Myanmar has been mired in chaos and violence since the military’s overthrow of the civilian government on February 1, and the detentions of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other high-ranking officials of her National League for Democracy (NLD) Party. The military has claimed widespread fraud occurred in last November’s election, which the NLD won in a landslide.    Security forces have cracked down on demonstrators, using live ammunition and rubber bullets, shooting indiscriminately into the crowds. On Saturday, Armed Forces Day, more than 100 protesters were killed, including women and children. Anti-coup protesters run to avoid military forces during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar, March 31, 2021.The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a nongovernmental organization, estimates that 536 people have been killed by the junta since the peaceful protests began. More than 2,700 have been arrested, charged or sentenced. “This Council must consider potentially significant action that can reverse the course of events in Myanmar,” Schraner Burgener said. The U.N. Security Council has issued two statements condemning the violence, expressed support for the democratic process and emphasized the need for dialogue, but it has not imposed sanctions or other measures on the military. The special envoy’s request to the junta for her to visit Myanmar has been rebuffed, so she is planning instead to visit the region and hold consultations with members of regional bloc ASEAN. She said Wednesday that she hopes to go as soon as this week. “A robust international response requires a unified regional position, especially with neighboring countries leveraging their influence towards stability in Myanmar,” she said. 
 

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Survey: 63% of US Jews Encountered Anti-Semitism Over Last 5 Years

At a time of growing concern about right-wing extremism in the United States, a new survey paints a troubling portrait of Jewish Americans’ experiences with anti-Semitism.The survey, released Wednesday by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a prominent Jewish civil rights group based in the U.S., said 63% of American Jews had experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism over the past five years — a marked increase from the 53% of respondents who expressed the same view in last year’s ADL survey.At the same time, 59% of the respondents in this year’s survey said they felt Jews were less safe in the U.S. today than they were a decade ago, while 49% expressed fear of a violent attack at a synagogue.Impact clearly felt“What this [report] does is it gives a very broad photograph of what the American Jewish experience is like today. And it is clearly one that is affected pretty profoundly by various forms of anti-Semitism or the expressions of anti-Semitism,” said Jessica Reaves, editorial director at ADL’s Center on Extremism.The survey was conducted January 7-15 and collected responses from 503 Jewish Americans 18 years and older. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4%.About 4.2 million American adults identify as Jewish “by religion,” representing 1.8% of the U.S. adult population, according to a 2013 Pew Research estimate. A more inclusive estimate by the American Jewish Year Book 2019 put the number at 6.9 million. Most live in major metropolitan areas that account for the bulk of anti-Jewish hate crimes.FILE – New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, center top, and other officials and community members march across the Brooklyn Bridge in solidarity with the Jewish community after recent anti-Semitic attacks, Jan. 5, 2020, in New York.Cities report declinesThe new findings came as major U.S. cities reported sharp declines in the number of anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2020 after experiencing historically high levels in 2019, when Jews were the No. 1 target of hate crimes in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.Last year’s decline in anti-Jewish hate crimes came as social distancing restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic reduced opportunities for in-person encounters, according to experts.As a result, much of the anti-Semitism experienced by Jewish Americans took place online, with 36% of the ADL survey respondents saying they had encountered some form of online harassment. Yet only 29% reported threats and harassment to social media platforms, down from 43% in 2020, Reaves noted.“I think that’s incredibly important, because it reflects, we believe, in some ways this resignation about tech companies’ refusal to deal head-on with the rise of bigotry, the rise of racism and anti-Semitism online,” Reaves said.Social media’s responseFacebook, Twitter and other mainstream social media sites say they do not allow harassment and threats on their platforms and encourage users to report them.Anti-Semitism stirs up much of America’s far-right movement, with many right-wing extremists often viewing Jews as the villain.American white supremacists have long blamed Jews for orchestrating “white genocide,” the notion that the white race is dying, as nonwhites and immigrants grow in number.In recent years, the QAnon movement has repurposed age-old anti-Semitic tropes to promote conspiracy theories about a world-dominating Jewish cabal.”We see this resurfacing over and over again in a lot of the right-wing commentary that has become so much a part of the American political landscape these days,” Reaves said.  

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ICC Upholds Acquittal of Former Ivory Coast President

Judges at International Criminal Court in The Hague have upheld the acquittal of former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo and youth minister Charles Ble Goude, paving the way for both to return home.  The two had been accused of instigating postelection violence, and observers said there were concerns that their return could again destabilize Ivory Coast, the world’s largest producer of cocoa.Gbagbo and Ble Goude were in the courtroom for the verdict. Ble Goude smiled widely as Presiding Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji read it.”The appeals chamber by majority has found no error that could have materially affected the decision of trial chamber in relation to either of the prosecutors’ two grounds of appeal,” Eboe-Osuji said. “It therefore rejects the prosecutor’s appeal, and confirms the decision of the trial chamber.”The judge also revoked all remaining conditions on the men’s release. Gbagbo, who has been staying provisionally in Belgium, has said he wants to return to Ivory Coast, where he remains a heavyweight in the opposition against current President Alassane Ouattara.In a statement, Gbagbo’s defense team hailed the acquittal, saying justice had been done.Supporters of former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo and former youth minister Charles Ble Goude celebrate their acquittal outside the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, March 31, 2021.In 2019, ICC judges acquitted Gbagbo and Ble Goude of crimes-against-humanity charges related to postelectoral violence in Ivory Coast in 2010 and 2011. The vote saw Ouattara defeating Gbagbo, who refused to concede.  Following an investigation of alleged atrocities that included perpetrating murder and rape, Gbagbo became the first former head of state to be arrested on orders of the ICC.The prosecution appealed the initial acquittal on procedural grounds, all of which were dismissed by the appeals judges, with two of them dissenting.In some cases, Eboe-Osuji offered particularly strong criticism of prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s arguments, including her apparent suggestions that the first court had hadn’t fully considered all the evidence before coming to its verdict.”Judges of the ICC … are presumed to act with integrity and impartiality. The appeals chamber would expect evidence of a very clear nature to support such a serious allegation as was made,” Eboe-Osuji said.Wednesday’s ruling amounted to yet another setback for the ICC prosecution. Judges previously acquitted on appeal former Democratic of Republic of the Congo Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba. Prosecutor Bensouda earlier dropped crimes-against-humanities charges against Kenyan leader Uhuru Kenyatta.Bensouda is also under U.S. sanctions for launching an investigation into war crimes by U.S. troops in Afghanistan. However, champions of the 20-year-old ICC argue that its mission — as a court of last resort taking on extraordinarily difficult cases against powerful figures — is extremely challenging from the start.Bensouda’s nine-year term is up in June. British prosecutor Karim Khan will succeed her. 

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Suspect Arrested in New York Attack on Asian Woman

A man suspected of assaulting an Asian woman in New York has been arrested after surveillance video of the attack drew condemnation.
Police said Brandon Elliot, 38, is the man in the video assaulting the woman in midtown Manhattan on Monday. They said Elliot was living at a hotel that doubles as a homeless shelter a few blocks from the scene of the attack.
Elliot was convicted in 2002 of stabbing his mother to death in the Bronx when he was 19 years old. He was released in 2019 and is now on lifetime parole.  
 
According to police, Elliot now faces charges of assault as a hate crime, attempted assault as a hate crime, assault and attempted assault in Monday’s attack.
The victim in the video has been identified as Vilma Kari, a 65-year-old woman who immigrated from the Philippines.
Kari was walking to church in midtown Manhattan Monday when police said a man kicked her in the stomach, knocked her to the ground, stomped on her face, shouted anti-Asian slurs and told her, “you don’t belong here” before walking away.
 
Monday’s attack is the latest in a national wave of suspected anti-Asian hate crimes , including a mass shooting in Atlanta that left eight dead, six of whom were women of Asian descent.  
 
The recent surge of anti-Asian violence has been linked in part to misplaced blame for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

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South Sudan Road Attacks Leave Nearly 30 Dead

A string of deadly road attacks in South Sudan, including one on a governor’s convoy returning from the scene of an earlier attack, have left nearly 30 people dead.
 
Officials in Eastern Equatoria state say gunmen killed a bodyguard of Governor Louis Lobong Lojore and a woman on Monday, a day after armed youths allegedly from the town of Kapoeta attacked an area called “Camp 15” where members of the ethnic Buya community reside.  
 
Governor Lojore said the motive behind Sunday’s incident was believed to be retaliation for an attack in 2020 on the SPLM-In Opposition cantonment site in the town of Lowuareng.
 
“There was an incident in Lowuareng where a small cantonment site which was there was turned into a small market and it was attacked by people suspected to be youth from Buya community killing five people, so it was based on that,” Lojore told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus.
 
Lojore traveled to Camp 15 on Monday to calm tensions following Sunday’s attack on the trading center.  A short time after the governor’s convoy left the camp to return to the state capital Torit Monday evening, gunmen attacked the convoy, killing two people and injuring three others, said state information minister Patrick Oting.
 
“They fell in an ambush and were attacked by the same Buya youths in Camp 15,” Oting told South Sudan in Focus.  The governor was uninjured.
 
Oting said Lojore’s convoy returned to Camp 15 after the attack.
 
“They withdrew from that place, the governor and all the dignitaries that were with him on the convoy including the commander of army in Torit, General Robert Okimo, back to the barracks in Camp 15 after the ambush,” said Oting.
 
With the presence of soldiers on the ground, Othing said the governor and his peace delegates hoped to continue their peace mission to the three communities of Buya, Didinga and Toposa in Eastern Equatoria.
 
In Central Equatoria state, gunmen killed another 10 people in two separate incidents on the same road. Four commuters including three drivers were killed Sunday while traveling on the Juba-Yei Road and six more travelers were killed by unknown gunmen on Monday.
 
At a Juba news conference Monday, Central Equatoria state officials accused National Salvation Front (NAS) rebels led by Thomas Cirillo of carrying out the attacks.
   
State information minister Paulino Lukudu said NAS forces also launched attacks in Lasu and Lata of Yei River County last week.
 
On Tuesday, NAS spokesperson Suba Samuel denied his group is responsible for the recent deadly attacks.
 
“We are not aware of these road attacks or road ambushes whatsoever. What we know is our forces are engaging [South Sudan army forces] south of Juba, in Otogo, in Mugo and yesterday it was in Mukaya,” Samuel told South Sudan in Focus.
 
Lukudu said he hopes Cirilo will actively engage in peace talks between the government and holdout groups under a coalition called the South Sudan Opposition Movement Alliance in Naivasha, Kenya.
 

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Beijing-Led Electoral Reforms for Hong Kong Redefine ‘Democracy,’ Critics Say

Hong Kong’s legislature will undergo major changes to its format and structure as a result of Beijing’s approval of a political shakeup that will expand its control over the semiautonomous city.China’s National People’s Congress, the Communist Party’s rubber-stamp legislative body, passed a resolution earlier this month proposing the overhaul, which would make it harder for candidates from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition to be elected.The revamp, signed into law Tuesday by President Xi Jinping, reduces the number of directly elected seats on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and increases the number of pro-Beijing voices.Those seeking office will face strict vetting by a special committee, which critics expect to shut out pro-democracy forces and ensure that “patriots” govern the Chinese city.Lee Cheuk Yan, a veteran pro-democracy activist and former lawmaker, told VOA that it’s a “disastrous act” for Hong Kong.“I think it’s closer to the National People’s Congress, which also have the candidates before any election takes place. There will not be any more credibility for this Legislative Council in the future,” he said.Fewer selections by publicIn its current form, the Legislative Council has 70 members, of which 35 are selected every four years by popular vote from various municipal constituencies and district councils.FILE – The Legislative Council is shown in session in Hong Kong, March 17, 2021.Under the reforms, Legislative Council seats will increase to 90, of which the public will vote for only 20, down from 35. The lawmaking body’s Election Committee, which is heavily pro-Beijing and tasked with appointing Hong Kong’s chief executive, will be expanded to 1,500 members from 1,200.Lee said during his time as a Legislative Council lawmaker from 1995 to 2016, the aim was to gradually increase the number of seats to be filled by public elections.”Don’t go too quick, too fast — we have to make a gradual step,” he said. “The debate was always about the speed, never about the direction. But now this time, the direction is backwards and it’s really a shock to us.”The former lawmaker believes those seeking greater democracy will have to wait for more opportunities in the future.“I think we have to prepare ourselves to be outside the system for some time to come, for years to come, wait it out,” Lee told VOA. “Wait for Hong Kong people to continue [voicing protest], if possible on the street, to work it out in civil society.”Lee is due in court Thursday to learn his fate on a charge of illegal assembly in relation to pro-democracy protests in 2019. He has four cases outstanding.Political analyst Joseph Cheng said the changes make Hong Kong’s Legislative Council a “rubber stamp” system and that the future of a natural pro-democracy opposition is bleak.“It is likely that most critical pro-democracy candidates will be disqualified, hence the candidates’ qualifications committee. But the Hong Kong government will try to persuade some moderates to run as acceptable pro-democracy candidates,” Cheng told VOA.No ‘single model’ of democracyCarrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, told a news conference on Tuesday there is not “only one single model of democracy” and that if candidates pass security checks and uphold the city’s Basic Law — Hong Kong’s constitutional guarantee meant to keep the city semiautonomous until 2047 — they can run to be elected.FILE – A man walks past a government advertisement promoting the new Hong Kong electoral system changes, in Hong Kong, March 30, 2021.“For people who hold different political beliefs, who are more inclined towards more democracy, or who are more conservative, who belong to the left or belong to the right, as long as they meet this very fundamental and basic requirement, I don’t see why they could not run for election,” she said.Avery Ng, chairman of the League of Social Democrats, disagrees.”The Beijing government is redefining the terms ‘election’ and ‘democracy,’ ” he told VOA. “The new system cannot be considered as democracy when the government can control who can run and who can nominate. Together with the screening committees, the system only fits one, not all.”Lam confirmed that the next legislative elections under the new system would be held in December. The city was scheduled to hold elections last September, but they were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.After a century and a half under British colonial rule, Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 under the Basic Law agreement, but Beijing’s influence over the city grew over the years, sparking pitched pro-democracy demonstrations that have simmered since 2019.In June 2020, China passed the National Security Law for Hong Kong, limiting autonomy and making it easier for dissidents to be punished. Dozens of high-profile pro-democracy activists have been arrested and jailed. The law carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.   

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