South Africans Bid Farewell to Tutu on Eve of His Funeral 

South Africans took their last opportunity to pay their respects to Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Friday, the eve of the revered anti-apartheid fighter’s funeral.

Since Thursday, nearly 3,000 mourners have filed through Cape Town’s St. George’s Cathedral before the simple pine casket containing Tutu’s remains. 

Members of Tutu’s family hugged and consoled each other as the coffin returned for the second and final day to lie in state while a band, which included a preschooler trumpeter, played in his honor. 

The archbishop’s successor, Thabo Makgoba, waved a chalice of burning incense over the coffin before pallbearers, Anglican vicars, took the coffin from a silver Mercedes SUV hearse. 

They slowly walked up the stairs into the cathedral where Tutu had preached for a decade. 

The body will spend the night in the cathedral until the funeral, which will be presided over by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Tutu died peacefully Sunday at age 90. 

The funeral 

Tutu had carefully set down details for his funeral, insisting that his coffin be “the cheapest” available, and that it be adorned by a simple bunch of carnations. 

Mourners are being asked to donate money to his charitable foundations instead of sending flowers, and even the disposal of his remains is being conducted in an eco-friendly way. 

The dean of the cathedral, Michael Weeder, told AFP that Tutu had asked for “aquamation,” a process that supporters say releases one-tenth of climate-altering carbon dioxide gases compared with traditional cremation. 

In aquamation, bodies are dissolved in a heated solution of water and alkali in a stainless steel vessel, leaving behind the bones, which are then turned to ash by cremation. 

The ashes are to be interred at the cathedral. 

The burial “might be Sunday,” Weeder said in a text message, adding the “family will decide whether it will be private or open to others.” 

‘Moral compass’ 

Libane Serenji, an artist from Johannesburg, came to pay respects. He painted portraits of Tutu on a canvas and attached them to a tree outside the cathedral.

He said it was fitting “to come all the way and paint … because he played also a significant role in my life like everyone from Africa.”

Another mourner, Antonia Appels, had come from the capital, Pretoria, to stand in line. 

Tutu was a “moral compass” who had helped haul country out of the darkness of the apartheid era, she said. 

South Africa is marking a week of mourning for Tutu, with the country’s multicolored flag flying at half-staff nationwide and ceremonies taking place every day. 

The cathedral’s bells have been pealing in his memory for 10 minutes at midday. 

Tutu was for years the emblem of the struggle to end white-minority rule as Nelson Mandela and other leaders languished behind bars. 

After apartheid was dismantled and South Africa ushered in its first free elections in 1994, Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which exposed the horrors of the past in terrible detail. 

He would later speak out fearlessly against the ruling African National Congress (ANC) for corruption, incompetence and failures to tackle the country’s AIDS epidemic. 

Weakened by advanced age and prostate cancer, Tutu had retired from public life in recent years. 

He is survived by his wife, Leah; four children; and several grand and great-grandchildren.

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UK Honors COVID Scientists and Medics, Bond Actor Daniel Craig 

Britain recognized the scientists and medical chiefs at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19 in Queen Elizabeth’s annual New Year’s honors list, while James Bond actor Daniel Craig was given the same award as his famous onscreen character. 

Craig, who bowed out from playing the fictional British spy after five outings following the release of “No Time to Die” this year, was made a Companion in The Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG) in recognition of his outstanding contribution to film. 

Bond was also a CMG, so the honor means Craig has now matched all his titles, having been made an honorary Commander in the Royal Navy in September. 

There were also major honors for the high-profile officials and others involved in tackling the coronavirus pandemic. 

The chief medical officers for England, Scotland and Wales – Chris Whitty, Gregor Smith and Frank Atherton – were given knighthoods. There were also honors for the deputy medical officers for England, with Jonathan Van-Tam knighted and Jenny Harries made a dame. 

The government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, who had previously been knighted, was made a Knight Commander of The Order of The Bath. 

There were also awards for those involved in producing vaccines including Pfizer Chief Development Officer Rod MacKenzie, Sean Marett, the chief business and commercial officer at BioNTech, and Melanie Ivarsson, the chief development officer at Moderna. 

Cyclist Jason Kenny, who achieved his seventh gold medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games, more than any other Briton has won, was also knighted. His wife, Laura, who is the nation’s most successful female Olympic athlete and became the first to win gold at three successive Games, received a damehood. 

Among the 78 Olympian and Paralympians to be included in the list were gold medal winners swimmer Adam Peaty and diver Tom Daley, who received OBEs. 

Emma Raducanu, who stunned the tennis world by becoming the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam title with victory in the U.S. Open, was another sporting figure to be honored with an MBE. 

Songwriter Bernie Taupin, best known for his collaborations with Elton John including his 1997 reworking of “Candle in the Wind” that John sang at the funeral of Princess Diana, was awarded a CBE. 

There were also damehoods for veteran actresses Joanna Lumley and Vanessa Redgrave for their services to drama, entertainment and charity. 

The New Year’s honors have been awarded since Queen Victoria’s reign in the 19th century and aim to recognize not just well-known figures but people who have contributed to national life through often unsung work over many years. 

“These recipients have inspired and entertained us and given so much to their communities in the UK or in many cases around the world,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.


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Towns’ Residents Slowly Trickle Back in Colorado Wildfires’ Wake

The day after fast-moving wildfires devastated two Colorado communities, some residents were hopeful, as winds calmed and fire-snuffing snow fell on the region, yet worried as some waited to find out whether their homes had been destroyed in the unseasonal blaze.

The wildfires that forced the communities of Louisville, population 21,000, and Superior, 13,000, to evacuate Thursday were no longer considered a danger late Friday morning. 

The fires, which erupted in an area about 32 kilometers northwest of Denver, had consumed about 580 homes, a shopping center and a hotel.

Because some roads were closed Friday, some residents trekked back to the ruins of their homes on foot to gather belongings such as clothes and medicine, which they stuffed in backpacks or pulled in suitcases or wagons. Some came simply to see if their homes were still standing. ​

In the blazes’ wake 

Cathy Glaab, a resident of Superior, said she found the home she shared with her husband reduced to a “charred and twisted pile of debris,” with only the mailbox standing, according to The Associated Press.

“Just hard. So many memories,” she said as she surveyed the scene. Glaab’s home was one of seven houses in a row that burned to the ground. She said that despite the devastation, she and her husband planned to rebuild their home, which once had a view of the mountains.

Sophia Verucchi and her partner, Tony Victor, were able to return to their apartment in Broomfield, on the edge of Superior, and found that it was not damaged. The previous afternoon, they fled with only Victor’s guitar, bedding and their cat, Senor Gato Blanco, according to The Associated Press.

“We left thinking it was a joke. We just felt like we were going to come back. At 5 o’clock, we thought, maybe we’re not coming back,” Verucchi said.

They received an email in the morning, however, saying they could return home.

“Seeing the news and seeing all the houses burnt, we just feel very lucky,” Verucchi said.

State of emergency 

At least seven injuries have been reported, but there have been no reports of any deaths or missing people, according to Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle.

“It’s unbelievable when you look at the devastation that we don’t have a list of 100 missing persons,” he said. 

Pelle said that some communities have been reduced to “smoking holes in the ground” and urged residents to wait until an all-clear has been issued before returning to their homes. 

During a press briefing, Colorado Governor Jared Polis was grateful that no deaths had yet been reported, especially considering that people had just minutes to evacuate.

“We might have our very own New Year’s miracle on our hands, if it holds up that there was no loss of life,” he said. 

Polis also said he had spoken to U.S. President Joe Biden, who verbally approved a major disaster declaration to quickly distribute financial aid to people following the fire. 

Gusty winds of up to 170 kilometers per hour stoked the fires Thursday afternoon and evening, enabling their rapid spread over 24 square kilometers (9.4 square miles). By late Friday morning, the fires appeared to be contained, Pelle said. 

Last year, Colorado endured three of the largest fires in its history. Those fires were in mostly mountainous areas, not suburban subdivisions.

This year’s winter has been extremely dry in the state. Its Front Range, where most of its population resides, had a very dry and mild fall.

Scientists say that climate change is making weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press. 

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Hall of Famer Sam Jones, Winner of 10 NBA Titles, Dies at 88

Basketball Hall of Famer Sam Jones, the Boston Celtics’ “Mr. Clutch” whose sharp shooting fueled the league’s longest dynasty and earned him 10 NBA titles — second only to teammate Bill Russell — has died, the team said. He was 88. 

Jones died Thursday night in Florida, where he had been hospitalized in failing health, Celtics spokesman Jeff Twiss said.

“Sam Jones was one of the most talented, versatile and clutch shooters for the most successful and dominant teams in NBA history,” the team said in a statement.

“His scoring ability was so prolific, and his form so pure, that he earned the simple nickname, ‘The Shooter,’ ” the Celtics said. “The Jones family is in our thoughts as we mourn his loss and fondly remember the life and career of one of the greatest champions in American sports.” 

The Celtics paused for a moment of silence before Friday afternoon’s game against the Phoenix Suns, showing a video tribute on the screen hanging among the championship banners above the parquet floor at the TD Garden. His No. 24, which was retired by the Celtics in 1969 while he was a still an active player, also was displayed on the monitor in the hushed arena before a still photo of him in a suit and the words “Sam Jones 1933-2021.” 

“Another one of my dear friends lost,” Celtics broadcaster Cedric Maxwell wrote on Twitter. “Well, the banks are open in heaven this #NYE.”

Reliable scorer 

Often providing the offense while Russell locked things down at the other end, Jones averaged 17.7 points per game over 12 seasons. The number went up in the postseason, when he averaged 18.9 points and was usually the No. 1 option for the game’s final shot for the teams that won 10 titles from 1959 to 1969. 

“We never flew first class in my 12 years of playing basketball,” Jones told The Associated Press this fall in an interview for the league’s 75th anniversary. “But we always won NBA championships.” 

In 1964, Jones was a member of the NBA’s first starting lineup to include five Black players, joining Russell, Tom “Satch” Sanders, K.C. Jones and Willie Naulls. Although coach Red Auerbach maintained he was thinking only of his best chance to win, the lineup broke with an unwritten rule that pressured teams to have at least one white player on the floor.

Jones, a North Carolina native who served two years in the Army before returning to college, told the AP that the NBA of the 1960s was little different than the segregated South where he grew up and went to school. 

“I’m fighting for the freedom of everybody here in the United States. And when I come back, I still got to fight for my freedom,” Jones said. “Something is wrong with that and has always been and is happening even today.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Jones will be remembered as “one of the most prolific champions in all of professional sports.” 

“His selfless style, clutch performances and signature bank shot were hallmarks of an incredible career,” Silver said. “Sam was a beloved teammate and respected competitor who played the game with dignity and class. We mourn the passing of a basketball giant and send our deepest condolences to Sam’s family and the Celtics organization.” 

Born in Wilmington, Jones attended North Carolina Central, a Division II, historically Black university in Durham. Auerbach first heard of Jones when he went to North Carolina to scout the national champion Tar Heels and was told that the best player in the state was at Central playing for Hall of Fame coach John McLendon.

Selected sight unseen

Auerbach selected Jones in the first round of the 1957 draft, eighth overall, despite never seeing him play. 

“Russell and I are the most successful players in winning championships in the NBA. Yet he never saw us play a game because they had no scouts,” Jones told the AP. “The coaches called other coaches to see how other players were playing. They took their word for it.”

Jones led the Celtics in scoring five times — including the 1963 champions, when he was one of eight future Hall of Famers on the roster. When he retired in 1969 at age 36, Jones held 11 Celtics records and was the only player in franchise history to score more than 50 points in a game. 

“You look at the championships and what he did, it’s obviously a big loss for the community here,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said before Friday’s game. 

Using a bank shot that was unconventional even then, Jones came to be known as “Mr. Clutch” after a series of game-winners, including a buzzer-beater to clinch the 1962 Eastern Conference finals. He hit an off-balance, wrong-footed jumper to win Game 4 of the ’69 finals; instead of heading to Los Angeles trailing 3-1, the Celtics tied the series against the Lakers at two games apiece and went on to win in seven. 

Jones retired after that title, having won his 10 championships in 12 seasons. A five-time All-Star, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984. 

Jones was named to the NBA’s 25th, 50th and 75th anniversary teams. His death comes a year after teammate Tommy Heinsohn died and 13 months after the death of K.C. Jones. 

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Sudanese Block Streets After Day of Protest Violence 

Sudanese pro-democracy demonstrators blocked streets on Friday in Khartoum, protesting the violence a day earlier that left five people dead and sparked condemnation from the U.S. and others. 

Protesters barricaded roads in the east Khartoum district of Burri as well as in nearby Khartoum North using rocks, tree branches and tires, an AFP journalist said. 

Sudan has been gripped by turmoil since military leader General Abdel-Fattah Burhan launched a coup on October 25 and detained Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. 

Hamdok was reinstated on November 21, but mass protests have continued as demonstrators distrust Burhan’s promises of seeking to guide the country toward full democracy. 

As the authorities on Thursday cut off communications across the country, security forces clamped down on demonstrations, firing live rounds and tear gas as tens of thousands gathered in Khartoum, Khartoum North and nearby Omdurman. 

Five protesters killed 

Four protesters were fatally shot in the head or chest in Omdurman, according to the pro-democracy Sudan Doctors Committee, while a fifth succumbed to his wounds Friday after he was shot in central Khartoum. 

Protesters charge that the deal to reinstate Hamdok simply aims to give the cloak of legitimacy to the generals, whom they accuse of trying to continue the regime built by former autocratic President Omar al-Bashir, who was toppled in 2019 following mass protests. 

A civilian member recently appointed to the ruling Sovereign Council, Abdel Baqi Abdel Qader, announced Friday his intent to resign. 

He said he had sent a message to Burhan’s office requesting a meeting “to present to him my resignation … over the violence against demonstrators.” 

Journalists released 

Two journalists from Saudi Arabia’s Asharq television channel, Maha al-Talb and Sally Othman, were released after they and their crews were held for several hours, the channel said Friday. 

Police had also stormed the bureau of the Al-Arabiya television network funded by Saudi Arabia, which is seen as a traditional ally of Sudan’s military leaders. 

The violence and attacks on the media drew widespread condemnation. 

“Deeply troubled by reports that Sudanese security forces used lethal force against protesters, blacked out the internet, and attempted to shutdown media outlets,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted after Thursday’s events. 

The Doctors Committee has accused security forces of blocking ambulances and of forcibly removing at least one seriously injured protester from an ambulance. 

Videos have circulated on social media showing men in uniform beating protesters with sticks. 

The Sudanese Communist Party called for “urgent international solidarity to demand an end to the bloody repression in Sudan and the immediate release of all political detainees.” 

Protesters have renewed demands that the military “return to their barracks” as promised in 2019 when Bashir was toppled and the country came under the control of the Sovereign Council, a body composed of civilian and military figures, headed by Burhan. 

Demonstrations ‘waste of time’ 

A police spokesman had said four people died in Thursday’s unrest and 297 people were injured, “including 49 police officers.” 

He also said three police vans were set on fire and accused protest leaders of having sought to “turn a peaceful march into violence and confrontations with the security forces.” 

An adviser to Burhan told the state news agency on Friday that “the demonstrations are a waste of time and energy” and would not lead to a political solution. 

The violent crackdown since the October coup has claimed 53 lives and left hundreds wounded.



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Biden, Ukraine President to Speak Sunday Amid Tensions with Russia 

President Joe Biden plans to speak Sunday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a White house official said Friday, a day after Biden spoke with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on how to reduce tensions on the Ukraine-Russia border. 

Biden will reaffirm support for Ukraine, discuss Russia’s military build-up on its borders and review preparations for diplomatic efforts to calm the situation in the region, the official said Friday. 

The U.S. and Russian leaders exchanged warnings over Ukraine in Thursday’s call, but their countries voiced some optimism afterwards about planned security talks in January to address Russian military actions that drew the threat of sanctions from Washington and its allies. 

The leaders’ exchange set the stage for lower-level engagement between the countries that includes the U.S.-Russia security meeting on January 9-10, followed by a Russia-NATO session on January 12, and a broader conference including Moscow, Washington and other European countries on January 13. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to lay the groundwork for the talks Friday in calls with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and others, the State Department said. 

In conversations with the foreign ministers of Canada and Italy, Blinken discussed a united response to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine and their consensus to impose “severe costs” on Moscow for any such actions. 



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America’s New Problem: Not Enough Truck Drivers

On top of many other difficulties the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the US, problems continue with the supply chain and the shortage of truck drivers. Mariia Prus has more in this story narrated by Anna Rice. Camera: Dmitriy Savchuk

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Sahel Conflict Set to Worsen in 2022: Analysts

Islamist militant attacks increased this past year in the Sahel region, leading to political instability that saw a coup in Mali, an attempted coup in Niger, and calls for Burkina Faso’s president to resign. Burkina Faso experienced the deadliest terrorist attacks since the conflict began, but analysts say the worst could be yet to come. 

2021 marks the ninth year of conflict in Africa’s western Sahel, and in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, violence has only worsened.     

A video recently posted online purports to show an attack on a military base in northern Burkina Faso that killed almost 50 military police in November. Terrorists said to be linked to al-Qaida can be seen firing heavy weapons from the backs of pickup trucks before burning and looting the base. 

Across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, fatalities from clashes between state forces and armed groups linked to Islamic State, al-Qaida and criminal gangs are up 18% since last year, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.  

The humanitarian impact has been huge, with close to 3.4 million now displaced as a result of the conflict, according to the United Nations refugee agency.  

Amadou Agli, from Burkina Faso, fled the north of the country around three months ago after terrorists attacked nearby villages. He says he has a message for the world.  

Agli says his community is living through very hard times and appeals to any people, NGOs and governments around the world who can help them. He says they are suffering a food crisis, a housing crisis and that the children are unable to attend school.  

The year also saw a shift in the region’s military structure, says Paul Melly, an analyst with London-based Chatham House, a research institution.  

“The start of the process of moving towards a new pattern of French deployment where the Sahel armies in the G5 Sahel military structure are much more, the frontline face if you like, with the French in more of a backup and special forces role, air support, intelligence,” Melly said.  

France, which had 5,000 troops supporting Sahel security forces at the beginning of 2021, has said it will reduce that number to 3,000 by early 2022.


Escalating insecurity has also plunged Sahel governments into political turmoil. Mali saw a coup by military leader Assimi Goïta in May after street protests against insecurity. The West African political bloc, ECOWAS, along with France, have put pressure on Goïta to hold democratic elections in 2022.    

Protests against the government’s handling of security in Burkina Faso in November forced the government to reshuffle military leadership and the Cabinet.  

Andrew Lebovich is an analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations.   

“What people are concerned about is the ongoing insecurity and the state of security forces. So, if that doesn’t improve, then no, the change in government certainly will not be enough to appease the opposition,” Lebovich said. 

Lebovich says analysts are also keeping an eye on attacks in Burkina Faso’s border area with coastal West African states including Benin and Ivory Coast. 

“I do think, at a minimum, it’s something to be concerned about and something to watch out for and something to actively work against,” Lebovich said.  

Meanwhile in Niger, the emergence of civilian militia groups to fill the security gap could play a big role in 2022. In other Sahel countries they have been used to assist the military but have also been accused of human rights abuses, says Philippe M. Frowd, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. 

“We’ve seen this in southwestern Niger recently, kind of community violence spiraling and driven a lot by non-state armed groups. We see this in Burkina Faso as well where we have the state in fact relying on armed groups like this,” Frowd said.  

After a difficult 2021, the Sahel conflict looks set to worsen as the new year begins.   

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Sahel Conflict Set to Get Worse in 2022, Analysts Say

Islamist militant attacks increased this past year in the Sahel region, leading to political instability that saw a coup in Mali, an attempted coup in Niger, and calls for Burkina Faso’s president to resign.  Burkina Faso experienced the deadliest terrorist attacks since the conflict began, but analysts say the worst could be yet to come.  Henry Wilkins reports from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.  Camera: Henry Wilkins

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Biden, Putin Address Ukraine Tensions in High-Stakes Phone Call

For the second time in a month, US President Joe Biden has spoken directly to his Russian counterpart and urged him to de-escalate, as President Vladimir Putin continues to amass soldiers near the border with Ukraine. But administration officials said Putin provided no assurances of his intentions. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Washington.

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Governor in Colorado Cuts Trucker’s Prison Term to 10 Years 

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday shortened the prison sentence of a truck driver convicted in a deadly crash to 10 years, drastically reducing his original 110-year term that drew widespread outrage. 

The decision on Rogel Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence was among several year-end commutations and pardons issued by Polis. 

The move comes days after a judge scheduled a hearing for next month to reconsider the sentence at the request of the district attorney, who planned to ask that it be reduced to 20 to 30 years. 

Around 5 million people signed an online petition seeking clemency for Aguilera-Mederos, who was convicted of vehicular homicide and other charges in an explosive pileup that killed four people in 2019. 

Aguilera-Mederos testified that he was hauling lumber when the brakes on his semitrailer failed as he was descending a steep grade of Interstate 70 in the Rocky Mountain foothills.

His truck plowed into vehicles that had slowed because of another wreck, setting off a chain-reaction crash and a fireball that consumed vehicles and melted parts of the highway. 

Judge Bruce Jones imposed the 110-year sentence on December 13 after finding it was the mandatory minimum term set forth under state law, noting it would not have been his choice. 

Prosecutors had argued that as Aguilera-Mederos’ truck barreled down from the mountains, he could have used a runaway ramp alongside the interstate that is designed to safely stop vehicles that have lost their brakes.

The crash killed 24-year-old Miguel Angel Lamas Arellano, 67-year-old William Bailey, 61-year-old Doyle Harrison and 69-year-old Stanley Politano. 

In a letter to Aguilera-Mederos explaining his decision, Polis said that while he was not blameless in the crash, the 110-year sentence was disproportionate when compared with inmates who committed intentional, premeditated or violent crimes. 

The governor said the case would hopefully spur a discussion about sentencing laws, but he noted any future changes would not help Aguilera-Mederos. 

“There is an urgency to remedy this unjust sentence and restore confidence in the uniformity and fairness of our criminal justice system, and consequently I have chosen to commute your sentence now,” Polis wrote. 

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Biden Affirms Sanctions Threat; Putin Says That Would Be ‘Colossal Mistake’

Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin spoke frankly for nearly an hour late Thursday amid growing alarm over Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine, a simmering crisis that’s recently deepened as the Kremlin has stiffened its demands for increased security guarantees and test-fired hypersonic missiles to underscore its demands. 

Putin’s foreign affairs adviser said Biden reaffirmed the U.S. threat of new sanctions against Russia in case of an escalation or invasion, to which Putin responded with a warning of his own: that such a U.S. move could lead to a complete rupture of ties. 

“It would be a colossal mistake that would entail grave consequences,” said Yuri Ushakov. He added that Putin told Biden that Russia would act as the U.S. would if offensive weapons were deployed near American borders. 

Putin requested the call, the second between the leaders this month, ahead of scheduled talks between senior U.S. and Russian officials set for January 10 in Geneva.

White House officials said that the call began at 3:35 p.m. EST and concluded 50 minutes later, after midnight in Moscow.

What Russia wants 

Russia has made clear it wants a written commitment that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO and that the alliance’s military equipment will not be positioned in former Soviet states, demands that the Biden administration has made clear are nonstarters. 

The White House said ahead of the call that Biden would tell Putin that a diplomatic path remained open even as the Russians have moved an estimated 100,000 troops toward Ukraine and Kremlin officials have turned up the volume on demands for new guarantees from the U.S. and NATO. 

Those demands are to be discussed during the talks in Geneva, but it remains unclear what, if anything, Biden would be willing to offer Putin in exchange for defusing the crisis. 

Draft security documents Moscow submitted demand that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back its military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe. 

The U.S. and its allies have refused to offer Russia the kind of guarantees on Ukraine that Putin wants, citing NATO’s principle that membership is open to any qualifying country. They agreed, however, to hold talks with Russia to discuss its concerns. 

Pretext to invade? 

The security proposal by Moscow has raised the question of whether Putin is making unrealistic demands in the expectation of a Western rejection that would give him a pretext to invade.

Steven Pifer, a career foreign service officer who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in the Clinton administration, said the Biden administration could engage on some elements of Russia’s draft document if Moscow was serious about talks.

Key NATO members have made clear there is no appetite for expanding the alliance soon. The U.S. and allies could also be receptive to language in the Russians’ draft document calling for establishing new consultative mechanisms, such as the NATO-Russia Council and a hotline between NATO and Russia. 

“The draft treaty’s proposed bar on any NATO military activity in Ukraine, eastern Europe, the Caucasus or Central Asia is an overreach, but some measures to limit military exercises and activities on a reciprocal basis might be possible,” Pifer, who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in an analysis for the Washington think tank.

Biden planned to tell Putin that for there to be “real progress” in the talks they must be conducted in “a context of de-escalation rather than escalation,” according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters before the call. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

Biden and Putin, who met in Geneva in June to discuss an array of tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship, are not expected to take part in the January talks. 

In the December 7 video call, the White House said, Biden put Moscow on notice that an invasion of Ukraine would bring sanctions and enormous harm to the Russian economy. Russian officials have dismissed the sanction threats. 

Last week, Russia test-fired Zircon hypersonic missiles, a provocative move that Peskov said was meant to help make Russia’s push for security guarantees “more convincing.” The test was the first time Zircon missiles were launched in a salvo, indicating the completion of tests before the new missile enters service with the Russian navy next year and arms its cruisers, frigates and submarines. 

U.S. intelligence earlier this month determined that Russian planning was underway for a possible military offensive that could begin as soon as early 2022, but that Putin had yet to determine whether to move forward with it. 

No immediate threat seen

Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council, said Thursday that his country believed there was no immediate threat of a major Russian invasion. 

“Our experts say that the Russian Federation just physically can’t mount a big invasion of our territory,” Danilov said. “There is a time period needed for preparations.” 

The U.S. military has flown surveillance flights in Ukrainian airspace this week, including a flight Thursday by an Air Force E-8C JSTARS aircraft, according to Chuck Pritchard, a spokesman for U.S. European Command. That plane is equipped to provide intelligence on ground forces. 

Pritchard said such flights are conducted with European allies routinely and the missions this week were “not in response to any specific event.” 

Moscow and NATO representatives are expected to meet in the days after the Geneva talks, as are Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which includes the United States. 

Russia has denied an intention of launching an invasion and, in turn, accused Ukraine of hatching plans to try to reclaim control of the territories held by Moscow-backed rebels by force. Ukraine has rejected the claim. 

‘Aggressive’ course by West seen

At the same time, Putin has urged the West to move quickly to meet his demands, warning that Moscow will have to take “adequate military-technical measures” if the West continues its “aggressive” course “on the threshold of our home.” 

As Biden prepared for the talks with Putin, the administration also sought to highlight the commitment to Ukraine and drive home that Washington is committed to the “principle of nothing about you without you” in shaping policy that affects European allies. 

Biden, who is spending the week in his home state of Delaware, spoke to Putin from his home near Wilmington. The White House distributed a photo of the president speaking to the Russian leader from a desk lined with family photos. 

Ahead of the call, Putin sent a telegram to Biden with New Year’s and Christmas wishes, which was posted on the Kremlin site on Thursday, along with other holiday messages to world leaders. 

“I am convinced that in the development of our agreements reached during the June summit in Geneva and subsequent contacts that we can move forward and establish an effective Russian-American dialogue based on mutual respect and in consideration of each other’s national interests,” Putin wrote. 

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2 Colorado Cities Evacuated Ahead of Wind-Driven Wildfire

Thousands of residents in two communities near Denver were ordered to evacuate Thursday because of a wind-fueled wildfire that engulfed parts of the area in smoky, orangish skies. 

The city of Louisville, which has a population of about 21,000, was ordered to evacuate after residents in Superior, which has 13,000 residents, had been told to leave. The neighboring towns are roughly 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Denver. 

A nearby portion of U.S. Highway 36 was also shut down because of fire. 

The blaze near the towns was one of several that started in the area Thursday — at least some sparked by downed power lines — as winds gusted up to 105 mph (169 kph) and sent flames racing through barren trees, according to the National Weather Service. 

Colorado’s Front Range, where most of the state’s population lives, had an extremely dry and mild fall, and winter so far has continued to be mostly dry. Snow was expected Friday in the region, though. 

Video captured by a bystander outside a Superior Costco store showed winds whipping through trees in the parking lot, along with gray skies, a hazy sun and small fires scattered across the ground. 

Leah Angstman and her husband saw similar skies when returning to their Louisville home from Denver International Airport, after being away for the holidays. As they were sitting on the bus going toward Boulder, Angstman recalled instantly leaving clear blue skies and entering clouds of brown and yellow smoke. 

“The wind rocked the bus so hard that I thought the bus would tip,” she wrote in a message to The Associated Press.

The visibility was so poor that the bus had to pull over, and they waited a half-hour until a regional transit authority van escorted them to a turnaround on the highway. There she saw four separate fires burning in bushes across the freeway, she said. 

“The sky was dark, dark brown, and the dirt was blowing in swirls across the sidewalk like snakes,” she said. 

The evacuations come as climate change is making weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive, scientists say. A historic drought and heat waves have made wildfires harder to fight in the U.S. West. 


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South Africa Lifts Curfew, Says COVID-19 Fourth Wave Peaked

South Africa has lifted a midnight-to-4 a.m. curfew on people’s movement, effective immediately, saying the country has passed the peak of its fourth COVID-19 wave driven by the omicron variant, a government statement said Thursday. 

However, wearing a face mask in public places remains mandatory. Failure to wear a mask in South Africa when required is a criminal offense. 

The country made the curfew and other changes based on the trajectory of the pandemic, levels of vaccination in the country and available capacity in the health sector, according to a press release issued by Mondli Gungubele, a minister in the presidency. 

South Africa is at the lowest of its five-stage COVID-19 alert levels. 

“All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level,” a statement from the special cabinet meeting held earlier Thursday said. 

Data from the Department of Health showed a 29.7% decrease in the number of new cases detected in the week ending December 25 compared with the number of cases found in the previous week, at 127,753, the government said. 

South Africa, with close to 3.5 million infections and 91,000 deaths, has been the worst-hit country in Africa during the pandemic on both counts. 

Besides lifting the restrictions on public movement, the government also ruled that alcohol shops with licenses to operate after 11 p.m. local time may revert to full license conditions, a welcome boon for traders and businesses hard hit by the pandemic and looking to recover during the festive season. 

“While the omicron variant is highly transmissible, there have been lower rates of hospitalization than in previous waves,” the statement said.

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Mali Conference Recommends Election Delay of Up to 5 Years 

A conference in Mali charged with recommending a timetable for democratic elections following a military coup said on Thursday that polls scheduled for February should be delayed by six months to five years in part because of security issues. 

Mali’s transitional government initially agreed to hold elections in February 2022, 18 months after an army faction led by Colonel Assimi Goita overthrew President Boubacar Ibrahim Keita. 

But it has made little progress, blaming disorganization and Islamist violence in the north and central parts of the country. 

ECOWAS, West Africa’s main political and economic bloc, has imposed sanctions on the coup leaders and had promised more if Mali did not produce a plan for February elections by Friday. 

The government has said it will take the recommendations of the National Refoundation Conference and decide on a new election calendar by the end of January. 

A prolonged transition back to democracy could isolate Mali from its neighbors and from former colonial power France, which has thousands of soldiers deployed there against insurgents linked to al-Qaida and Islamic State. 

It could also undermine democracy in West and Central Africa, where military coup leaders in Chad and Guinea are also under pressure to organize elections and give up power. 

The proposed election timetable comes at a delicate time politically. France is reducing its military presence in the north, and Russia has sent private military contractors to train Malian troops, a move Western powers worry is the beginning of a wider Russian deployment.

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Russia’s ‘Gas Pivot’ to China Poses Challenge for Europe

Gazprom, Russia’s giant state-owned energy company, is slated to finalize an agreement in 2022 for a second huge natural gas pipeline running from Siberia to China, marking yet another stage in what energy analysts and Western diplomats say is a fast-evolving gas pivot to Asia by Moscow.

They see the pivot as a geopolitical project and one that could mean trouble for Europe.

Known as Power of Siberia 2, the mega-pipeline traversing Mongolia will be able to deliver 50 billion cubic meters of Russian gas to China annually. It was given the go-ahead in March by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and when finished it will complement another massive pipeline, Power of Siberia 1, that transports gas from Russia’s Chayandinskoye field to northern China.

Power of Siberia 2 will supply gas from Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula, the source of the gas exported to Europe. Western officials worry that the project could have serious geopolitical implications for energy-hungry European nations before they embark in earnest on a long transition to renewables and away from fossil fuels.

For months Western leaders and officials have been accusing Russia of worsening an energy crunch that’s hit Europe this year and threatens to deepen during the northern hemisphere winter. Gazprom has shrugged off urgent European requests for more natural gas. In the past few weeks Gazprom has at times even reduced exports, say industry monitors.

The energy giant maintains it has been meeting the volumes of gas it agreed to in contracts, but Gazprom has been accused by the International Energy Agency and European lawmakers of deliberately not doing enough to boost supplies to Europe as the continent struggles with unprecedented price hikes and the increasing risk of power rationing and plant stoppages.

The new Sino-Russian energy project, which Putin discussed with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, during a December 18 video conference, will give Moscow even more leverage when price bargaining with Europe and boost China as an alternative market for gas, according to Filip Medunic, an analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Russia remains Europe’s main gas supplier, but Europeans urgently need to understand the changes it is currently making to its energy transport infrastructure—as these changes could leave Europe even more at Moscow’s mercy,” he outlined in a study earlier this year.

Speaking after his conference call with Xi Jinping, the Russian president told reporters that the pipeline’s route, length and other parameters have been agreed to, and a feasibility study will be completed in the next several weeks.

The Kremlin has been eager to expand its energy market in China, which will need more gas in coming years to substitute for an eventual phasing down of coal, according to Vita Spivak, an energy analyst at Control Risks, a global consulting firm. Spivak told a discussion forum earlier this month that Kremlin officials are anxious to “exploit the opportunity” especially “considering there is a good working relationship between the two capitals.”

The Power of Siberia 2 pipeline has been championed by Putin, she said.

McKinsey, the strategic management consulting firm, estimates Chinese demand for gas will double by 2035. That will be a godsend for Russia. European governments are already setting out plans on how to transform their energy markets—how they will generate, import and distribute energy and shift to renewables and, in some cases, nuclear power. Russia needs to diversify into Asia to prolong its profits from its vast natural gas resources as Europe slowly weans itself off Gazprom supplies.

But Europe will remain dependent on Russian gas in the near future and Moscow has been busy re-ordering its complex network of pipelines, shaping them for wider economic and political purposes, say energy and national security analysts. Currently it supplies Europe through several pipelines—Nord Stream I, TurkStream and another from Yamal that terminates in Germany after transiting Belarus and Poland.

And it has just completed the controversial Nord Stream 2 underwater pipeline, which connects Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, circumventing older land routes through Ukraine. Nord Stream 2 has yet to receive final approval by German authorities.

Washington has long warned of the risk of Nord Stream 2 making the EU in the short term even more dependent for its energy needs on Russia and potentially vulnerable to economic coercion by the Kremlin. The planned Power of Siberia 2 pipeline will be able to pump into China around the same amount that Nord Stream 2 would be able to transport to Europe, giving the Kremlin more options about who gets the gas and at what price.

A senior European diplomat told VOA that Gazprom’s refusal to come up with additional supplies during the current energy crunch already “demonstrates Russia’s questionable motives about how ready it is to use the energy market for purely political purposes.” He added, “As it diversifies to China, it will give the Kremlin more opportunities to turn off and on supplies to Europe but reduce considerably any financial risks for Russia.”

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Celebrity Chef Keeps Up Family Tradition of Feeding Homeless Persons During the Holidays

Celebrity Chef and TV personality Bren Herrera and her family take the idea of giving very seriously during the holidays. Maxim Moskalkov has the story. Camera: Aleksandr Bergan.

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US Jobless Claims Dip Below 200,000

Applications for state unemployment benefits fell by 8,000 from 206,000 applications last report to 198,000 for the week ending December 25, the U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday.

Economists had predicted 205,000 applications.

The number of applications was near a 50-year low, but concerns over COVID-19, low labor market participation rates and rising inflation continue to add to economic uncertainty.

Labor participation, the number of people working or actively seeking a job, continues to hover at rates not seen since the early 1970s

“The claims data may be more volatile in the upcoming weeks due to the seasonal adjustment process, but looking past that noise, we expect claims to remain around 200,000 as layoffs remain low amid tight labor market conditions,” said Nancy Vanden Houten, lead economist at Oxford Economics, according to CBS News.

Continuing claims reportedly were 1.72 million for the week ending December 18, which is the lowest since March of 2020, when the pandemic began to peak.

n October, the U.S. had nearly 11 million job openings, a near record.

The news sent the stock market slightly higher on low, pre-holiday volume.

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Kenyan Lawmakers Brawl Over Controversial Bill

Kenyan lawmakers brawled Wednesday as they debated proposed changes to a law governing the conduct of political parties and the formation of coalitions ahead of the 2022 election.

Video broadcast on television showed lawmakers engaged in a shouting match and coming to blows as they fought over the measure. One member of parliament was seen with blood on his cheek. Another was suspended.

At issue is a bill that will guide political parties on how to conduct political affairs leading up to the election. If passed, the legislation would allow several parties to form a coalition and choose a presidential candidate.

Political commentator Martin Andati said those behind the bill aim to use the constitution to force a political winning formula.

“The handshake team which is the president and the former prime minister, are trying to use a political route to find a way to get people who are not supporting them to either go on their side or Ruto’s side so that they are able to draw a political strategy,” he said.

Opponents of the bill, most supporting Deputy President William Ruto, see it as a plan by President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga to force the smaller parties to merge with them to win the election.

Those against the measure introduced separate amendments, which critics say were meant to paralyze the parliamentary proceedings.

Political expert Michael Agwanda said the proposed changes mean that lawmakers will have to be loyal to their parties.

“What it means is that you are either part of government or not part of government by instrument and you cannot cross on the other side unless you just decided to do that; but you will not be part of that government if you don’t belong to the coalition that makes the government,” he said.

The proposed changes will require the parties to form a coalition four months before the election, thereby blocking them from joining another coalition party.

Agwanda said bigger parties are targeting the support of the smaller ones.

“It’s incumbent upon the political parties now to decide which coalition they want to join because that’s key to either forming the next government or not. I think they are targeting smaller parties to make serious decisions to support the big guys, they are also targeting parties like ANC, they are also targeting parties like FORD Kenya and they know very well they cannot make the next government. As a result, they are saying you either belong to us or you don’t and if you don’t, then you go to oblivion,” he said.

Kenyan politicians are fond of changing political sides to suit their interests, which analysts say has hurt the opposition.

The sponsor of the bill, Amos Kimunya, said he has asked the parliament speaker for another meeting so the legislation can be wrapped up.

“Let’s keep up the spirit because at the end of it all what we are doing is for better political party governance in this country as we deepen and widen our democracy for purposes of posterity,” he said.

The debate ended with members of parliament voting for eight proposed changes out of 27. Parliament will reconvene in January to vote.

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Mourners Pay Respects to South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid Hero Tutu

Hundreds of mourners queued Thursday to pay their respects to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose body lies in state at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town where the anti-apartheid hero preached against racial injustice.  

Tutu, a Nobel Peace prize winner widely revered across racial and cultural divides for his moral rectitude and principled fight against white minority rule, died Sunday at the age of 90.

His death represents a huge loss for South Africa, where many called him as “Tata” – father. Since Sunday, church bells have been rung every day in his honor and tributes and prayers have poured in from around the world.

Tutu will lie in state at the cathedral Thursday and Friday, ahead of a requiem Mass funeral service Saturday where President Cyril Ramaphosa was expected to deliver the main eulogy.

“I am basically just here to pay my respects,” said Randall Ortel, a medical doctor and one of the first members of the public in line to enter the church. “He is definitely one of my role models and I want to emulate what he has done in his life,” he said.

Amanda Mbikwana said she had arrived as early as 5 a.m. (0300 GMT) with her mother and nephews. “We have known Tata’s work, he has stood up for us and we are here today in a free country to give him the honor, to celebrate his life and to support [his wife] Mama Leah and the family,” said Mbikwana, a human resources manager.

‘Voice of reason’

Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 in recognition of his non-violent opposition to white minority rule. A decade later, he witnessed the end of that regime and chaired a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help unearth state-sponsored atrocities during that era.

“He was always the voice of the voiceless and always the voice of reason,” said fellow anti-apartheid activist Chris Nissen, as he waited in line outside the cathedral.

Tutu’s simple pine coffin with rope handles, adorned with a single bunch of white carnations, was carried into St. George’s, which provided a safe haven for anti-apartheid activists during the repressive white-minority rule.

Emotional family members met the coffin outside the entrance, where six black-robed clergy acting as pall bearers carried the closed coffin inside to an inner sanctuary amid a cloud of incense from the Anglican thurible.

Tutu, who requested the cheapest coffin and did not want any lavish funeral expense, will be cremated and his remains interred behind the cathedral pulpit he often used to preach against racial injustice.

In Johannesburg, a memorial service was held at St. Mary’s Cathedral, where Tutu was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1961 and where he later served as the first Black Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg in 1985.

An interfaith prayer service also was held in Pretoria.

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Times Square Show Will Go on Despite Virus Surge, Mayor Says

New York City will ring in 2022 in Times Square as planned despite record numbers of COVID-19 infections in the city and around the nation, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday.

“We want to show that we’re moving forward, and we want to show the world that New York City is fighting our way through this,” de Blasio, whose last day in office is Friday, said on NBC’s “Today” show.

After banning revelers from Times Square a year ago due to the pandemic, city officials previously announced plans for a scaled-back New Year’s bash with smaller crowds and vaccinations required.

While cities such as Atlanta have canceled New Year’s Eve celebrations, de Blasio said New York City’s high COVID-19 vaccination rate makes it feasible to welcome masked, socially distanced crowds to watch the ball drop in Times Square. “We’ve got to send a message to the world. New York City is open,” he said.

Thanks to the highly contagious omicron variant that was first identified as a variant of concern last month, new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have soared to their highest levels on record at over 265,000 per day on average. New York City reported a record number of new, confirmed cases — more than 39,590 — on Tuesday, according to New York state figures.

De Blasio said the answer is to “double down on vaccinations” and noted that 91% of New York City adults have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose.

The city’s next mayor, Eric Adams, will take the oath of office in Times Square early Saturday. Adams, a Democrat like de Blasio, planned a news conference later Thursday to outline his pandemic plan.

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2021 Saw Blinken Facing Coups and Conflicts, Repairing Key Alliances

The Biden administration came into office vowing “America is back,” with Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledging to work closely to boost ties with allies. But unexpected crises, coups and conflicts in Ethiopia, Haiti, Myanmar, Sudan and Ukraine have also commanded the top U.S. diplomat’s attention in 2021. VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports.

Produced by: Rob Raffaele

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Atrocities, War Expand Beyond Ethiopia’s Tigray

What began as a conflict between the Ethiopian Federal government and a local military in late 2020, exploded into a civil war in 2021 that has forced two million people to flee their homes and left hundreds of thousands of people in famine-like conditions. The war continues expanding, with displacements, ethnic killings and mass rape in the increasingly devastated region.

By the beginning of 2021, the war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, then more than a month old, had forced tens of thousands of people to flee across the border to Sudan. Refugees reported ethnic massacres, sexual assaults and mass arrests.   

In the months that followed, the humanitarian crisis deepened. More than a million people were displaced inside Ethiopia and aid workers warned of looming famine.  


The few hospitals not damaged or destroyed in the region were packed with war wounded, including children who had been stabbed, shot, or become victims of newly laid landmines.  

Eleven-year-old Goitom lost one leg now suffers from infection and nightmares.  

Goitom’s father, Gebreyohannes Ataklti, says his son was taking the goats to graze [and then he stepped on a landmine.] Goitom is too weak to speak. 

The war broke out in the Tigray region in late 2020 between the federal government and local Tigrayan forces. It quickly expanded to include other regional forces allied on both sides and Eritrean forces fighting with the government.  

Both sides have been accused of massacres, torture and other atrocities. Federal Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have been also accused of systematic mass rape. 

Hundreds of women and girls have come forward, and aid workers say many, many more have not. 

Mihira Redae is a case worker for sexual assault victims in Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekelle, Tigray’s regional capital. She says many women who are raped by soldiers are often afraid to come forward, and many others have no access to health care.  

A national election in June re-established the authority of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who then had control of the Tigray Region. About a week later, Tigrayan forces re-captured the region and the war escalated, now engulfing many areas beyond Tigray. Abiy has vowed to crush his enemies. 

On December 17, the United Nations voted to investigate abuses by both sides of the conflict, including the reported mass detention of as many as 7,000 people allegedly sympathetic to Tigrayan interests, among them nine U.N. workers.  

In the battered Tigrayan countryside, many say they have seen so much tragedy, they no longer fear arrest. 

Haftom Gidey, a resident of the war-torn town of Hawsen, says he no longer fears war or arrest. He has seen too much already.  

Mass graves litter the countryside as massacres continue here and in neighboring regions. Refugees are still fleeing to Sudan and many areas are cut off from humanitarian aid. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in “famine-like” conditions and the U.N. now says at least two million people in three Ethiopian states have fled their homes.  

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Atrocities, War Expand Beyond Ethiopia’s Tigray

What began as a conflict between the Ethiopian Federal government and a local military in late 2020, exploded into a civil war in 2021 that has forced two million people to flee their homes and left hundreds of thousands in famine-like conditions. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports that the war continues expanding, with displacements, ethnic killings and mass rape in the increasingly devastated region.

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