White House Press Gala Offers Political Normalcy Despite COVID

Much of Washington is ready to party like it’s 2019, before the coronavirus, when the biggest risk at the annual White House press corps gala was more likely to be jokes that ruffled too many political feathers.

After the pandemic nixed the event in 2020 and 2021, the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner returns Saturday night, with Joe Biden as the first sitting president to attend in six years after Donald Trump shunned it while in office.

Comedy is also back, with “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah as headliner. Celebrities are, too: Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson are expected to turn up, and the Funny or Die comedy studio is co-sponsoring an after-party. The event also draws a large swath of government officials and other prominent figures. 

“Seeing the president of the United States come back, and the dinner come back, I think signals more than a pause in the pandemic,” said Harold Holzer, author of the book “The Presidents vs. The Press.” “We’re safe to talk to each other again.

“I think this relationship — even if it’s a one-night thing where witticisms are exchanged, and people make fun of others and each other — it’s a very healthy thing.”

It feels like the return of a modicum of normalcy for the nation’s capital, but it is also a reminder that COVID-19 remains a threat. Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive this week and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top coronavirus expert, is skipping the dinner “because of my individual assessment of my personal risk.”

That raised questions about whether the 79-year-old Biden should go. The president is going to pass up the meal and turn up later for the program. He plans to be masked when not speaking.

Biden mentioned the dinner during a speech this week about Russia’s war on Ukraine, saying, “I’ve always had respect for the press but I can’t tell you how much respect I have watching them in these zones where they’re under fire.”

“Imagine if we weren’t getting that information,” the president added. “It would be a different world.” 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s plan to attend “does stand in stark contrast to his predecessor, who not only questioned the legitimacy of the press on a nearly daily basis, but also never attended the dinner.” Trump gleefully boycotted the event and at times branded the media “the enemy of the people.”

After the recent Gridiron Club press dinner in Washington, dozens of attendees, including members of Congress and of Biden’s Cabinet and journalists, tested positive for COVID-19.

The White House is stressing the abundance of the antiviral pill Paxlovid, which has been shown to reduce by 90% severe outcomes from the virus among those at highest risk. Still, Psaki has said of Biden, “We want to be very clear that it is possible he could test positive for COVID, just like any American.”

That’s because the U.S. is experiencing a COVID case spike from a highly contagious subvariant of omicron, with confirmed infections rising to about 44,000 per day, up from 26,000 a month ago. Though well below the maximum of 800,000-plus cases per day nationwide during the height of the omicron wave earlier this year, current statistics are probably undercounts given the increased availability of at-home COVID-19 tests whose results may not be reported to health authorities.

The White House Correspondents’ Association said it would require same-day antigen testing for its dinner attendees even before the Gridiron outbreak. It has since added a vaccination requirement for those attending Saturday’s gala, which will have a capacity exceeding 2,600 and is fully booked.

Despite the latest wave of COVID-19 cases, virus deaths and hospitalizations are near, or at, pandemic lows, with the BA.2 variant proving less severe than earlier virus strains. Just over 300 people are dying in the U.S. each day from the virus, down from more than 2,600 daily earlier this year — with about 1,600 hospitalizations per day, declining from a peak of more than 21,000 daily in January.

The correspondents’ dinner debuted in 1921. Calvin Coolidge became the first president to attend three years later and all have since, except Trump. Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon opted not to attend every year of their presidencies, however, and Ronald Reagan, then recovering from a assassination attempt, missed the 1981 installment — but called in from Camp David.

“The thing I think this shows is the restoration to the health of the relationship,” said Holzer, director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York. “It’s still barbed, there are still tense moments. But that’s OK.”

After comedian Michelle Wolf’s sharp satire sparked controversy in 2018, the event the following year featured historian Ron Chernow. The return of celebrities this time recalls President Barack Obama’s administration, when the likes of George Clooney, Charlize Theron and Viola Davis attended.

As vice president in 2014, Biden appeared in a comedy video with the star of HBO’s “Veep,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus, which drew big laughs at the correspondents’ dinner. The White House director of speech writing, Vinay Reddy, and longtime Biden adviser Mike Donilon worked on Biden’s remarks for this year, the White House said, tapping material from a variety of people both inside and outside government.

Psaki already acknowledged trying to lower expectations, saying the speech is “not funny at all. Just kidding.” Presidential attempts at humor can be tricky, though.

At the 2011 dinner, Obama skewered an unamused Trump — in his presence — over Trump’s fictitious claims about the then-president’s birth certificate. Obama concluded by musing about Trump taking his job one day, saying, “He certainly would bring some change to the White House” as banquet hall screens flashed a parody image of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s grand façade fitted with a Trump logo, golden columns, a digital clock and a sign proclaiming “Hotel, Casino, Golf Course, Presidential Suite.”

That turned out to be prophetic, since Trump of course succeeded Obama — though the overhauls he eventually brought to the presidency stopped short of affixing his name to the White House.

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Quick Payoff Unlikely in Biden Order to Boost Lithium Mining  

President Joe Biden is turning to a Cold War-era law to boost production of lithium and other minerals used to power electric vehicles, but experts say the move by itself is unlikely to ensure the robust domestic mining Biden seeks as he promotes cleaner energy sources.

Biden’s action, part of his efforts to find alternatives to fossil fuels and combat climate change, does not waive or suspend existing environmental and labor standards, the White House said. Nor does it address the chief hurdle to increased domestic extraction of so-called critical minerals: the years-long process needed to obtain a federal permit for a new mine.

Even so, the mining industry and supporters in Congress cheered Biden’s use of the 1950 Defense Production Act to increase U.S. supplies of lithium, nickel and other minerals needed for electric-vehicle batteries and other clean-energy technology.

His March 31 executive order is a historic step by the White House to “recognize the critical importance of minerals and push to electrify the car industry,” said Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the National Mining Association.

But “unless we continue to build on this action” and approve new hard-rock mines, Nolan added, “we risk feeding the minerals dominance of geopolitical rivals” such as China and Russia.

“We have abundant mineral resources here,” he said. “What we need is policy to ensure we can produce them and build the secure, reliable supply chains we know we must have.”

Environmental worries

Environmentalists, meanwhile, worry that Biden is activating a war-time tool to boost mineral extraction that can contaminate groundwater and harm ranching and wildlife.

“The clean energy transition cannot be built on dirty mining,” said Lauren Pagel, policy director of Earthworks, an environmental group that has pushed for stronger restrictions on hard-rock mining.

Biden’s order directs the Defense Department to consider at least five metals — lithium, cobalt, graphite, nickel and manganese — as essential to national security and authorizes steps to bolster domestic supplies. Biden and former President Donald Trump both used the defense production law previously to speed the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On minerals, Biden wants to ensure the U.S. has enough lithium and other materials needed for EV batteries, heat pumps and large-capacity batteries for the electric grid. A majority of global lithium production comes from China, Australia, Argentina and Chile, while Russia dominates the global nickel market, and the Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s largest cobalt producer.

“We need to end our long-term reliance on China and other countries for inputs that will power the future,” Biden said, vowing to “use every tool I have to make that happen.”


‘Saudi Arabia of lithium’

Although lithium reserves are distributed widely across the globe, the U.S. is home to just one active lithium mine, in Nevada. New and potential lithium mining and extracting projects are in various stages of development in Nevada, Maine, North Carolina and California. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has labeled California the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” and two projects there could produce lithium by 2024.

Under Biden’s order, the Pentagon is authorized to spend millions of dollars to support a range of activities, including feasibility studies to determine economic viability of a proposed mine and develop mineral-waste recycling programs. The money also could help existing mines and other industrial sites produce valuable materials, the Pentagon said. For example, a copper mine could also produce nickel.

It’s unclear how much money will be available for mining, but the Defense Department is authorized to keep up to $750 million on hand for its strategic and critical material stockpile.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., called Biden’s order “a good first step toward expanding our electric vehicle battery manufacturing and infrastructure.” But she and other lawmakers said the U.S. needs a long-term strategy to improve the domestic supply chain of critical minerals.

“Unless the president streamlines permitting, we should not expect to see any meaningful increase in American mineral production,” said Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. At a recent committee hearing. Barrasso urged Biden to “stand up to mining opponents in his own party.”

Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, called Biden’s order misguided.

“Fast-tracking mining under antiquated standards that put our public health, wilderness and sacred sites at risk of permanent damage just isn’t the answer,” he said.

Grijalva and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., introduced legislation to modernize the 1872 law that governs hard-rock mining in the U.S.

“Our current mining law was put in place before we even knew what a car was, much less an electric one,” Grijalva said. “Modernizing this relic of a law isn’t extreme or anti-industry — it’s just common sense.”

Mining companies have extracted hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of gold, silver, copper and other minerals from federal lands over the past 150 years “without paying a cent in federal royalties,” Grijalva and Heinrich said in a statement. The House bill would establish a 12.5% royalty on new mining operations and an 8% royalty on existing operations.

Mining law reform

The bill also would set up a Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund to make the industry pay for cleanup of abandoned mine sites.

About 40% of the watersheds in the Western U.S. are contaminated by hard-rock mine drainage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Many nickel, copper, lithium and cobalt reserves are within 56 kilometers of tribal lands.

Indigenous people living near a proposed lithium mine in Nevada assailed Biden’s order.

“I believe this is going to be the second coming of environmental destruction,” said Day Hinkey, a member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribe and an organizer with People of Red Mountain, a group that opposes the vast Thacker Pass lithium mine in northern Nevada.

Another Nevada lithium mine is planned near a desert ridge where a rare wildflower has been proposed for listing as an endangered species. The mine’s developer, Australia-based Ioneer, said the expected habitat protections for the rare Tiehm’s buckwheat would not affect its mining activities, and company operations would not jeopardize conservation of the species.

Opponents dispute that. Hinkey said the first environmental crisis was caused by the fossil fuel industry “and I believe this next one will be lithium mining.”

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‘A Huge Demand’: Ukrainian Women Train to Clear Landmines

Learning to identify and defuse explosives is something Anastasiia Minchukova never thought she would have to do as an English teacher in Ukraine. Yet there she was wearing a face shield, armed with a landmine detector and venturing into a field dotted with danger warnings.

Russia’s war in Ukraine took Minchukova, 20, and five other women to Kosovo, where they are attending a hands-on course in clearing landmines and other dangers that may remain hidden across their country once combat ends.

“There is a huge demand on people who know how to do demining because the war will be over soon,” Minchukova said. “We believe there is so much work to be done.”

The 18-day training camp takes place at a range in the western town of Peja where a Malta-based company regularly offers courses for job-seekers, firms working in former war zones, humanitarian organizations and government agencies.

Kosovo was the site of a devastating 1998-99 armed conflict between ethnic Albanian separatists and Serbian forces that killed about 13,000 people and left thousands of unexploded mines in need of clearing. Praedium Consulting Malta’s range includes bombed and derelict buildings as well as expanses of vegetation.

Instructor Artur Tigani, who tailored the curriculum to reflect Ukraine’s environment, said he was glad to share his small Balkan nation’s experience with the Ukrainian women. Though 23 years have passed, “it’s still fresh in our memories, the difficulties we met when we started clearance in Kosovo,” Tigani said.

Tigani is a highly trained and experienced mine operations officer who served as an engineer in the former Yugoslav army during the 1980s. He has been deployed in his native Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda and Kenya, and conducted training missions in Syria and Iraq.

During a class last week, he took his trainees through a makeshift minefield before moving to an improvised outdoor classroom featuring a huge board with various samples of explosives and mines.

While it is impossible to assess how littered with mines and unexploded ordnance Ukraine is at the moment, the aftermaths of other conflicts suggest the problem will be huge.

“In many parts of the world, explosive remnants of war continue to kill and maim thousands of civilians each year during and long after active hostilities have ended. The majority of victims are children,” the International Committee of the Red Cross testified at a December U.N. conference.

“Locating (unexploded ordnance) in the midst of rubble and picking them out from among a wide array of everyday objects, many of which are made of similar material is a dangerous, onerous and often extremely time-consuming task,” the Red Cross said.

Mine Action Review, a Norwegian organization that monitors clearance efforts worldwide, reported that 56 countries were contaminated with unexploded ordnance as of October, with Afghanistan, Cambodia and Iraq carrying the heaviest burdens, followed by Angola, Bosnia, Thailand, Turkey and Yemen.

Thousands of civilians are believed to have died in Ukraine since Russia invaded Feb. 24. Russian forces have bombed cities and towns across the country, reducing many to rubble.

Military analysts say it appears Russian forces have employed anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, while Ukraine has used anti-tank mines to try to prevent the Russians from gaining ground.

With Ukrainian men from 18 to 60 years old prohibited from leaving their country and most engaged in defending it, the women wanted to help any way they could despite the risks involved in mine clearing.

“It’s dangerous all over Ukraine, even if you are in a relatively safe region,” said Minchukova, who is from central Ukraine.

Another Ukrainian student, Yuliia Katelik, 38, took her three children to safety in Poland early in the war. She went back to Ukraine and then joined the demining training to help make sure it’s safe for her children when they return home to the eastern city of Kramatorsk, where a rocket attack on a crowded train station killed more than 50 people this month.

Katelik said her only wish is to reunite with her family and see “the end of this nightmare.” Knowing how to spot booby-traps that could shatter their lives again is a necessary skill, she said.

“Acutely, probably as a mother, I do understand that there is a problem and it’s quite serious, especially for the children,” Katelik said.

Minchukova, wearing military-style clothes, said she was doubtful that normal life, as they all knew it before the war, would ever fully return.

“What am I missing? Peace,” she said. “I’m dreaming about peace, about sleeping in my bed not worried about going to bomb shelters all the time. I miss the people I lost.”

The Kosovo training center plans to work with more groups of Ukrainian women, both in Peja and in Ukraine.

“We’re planning as well to go to Ukraine very soon and start with delivery of courses there, on the theater” of war, Tigani said.

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Despite Payment, Investors Brace for Russia to Default

Prices for Russian credit default swaps — insurance contracts that protect an investor against a default — plunged sharply overnight after Moscow used its precious foreign currency reserves to make a last-minute debt payment Friday.

The cost for a five-year credit default swap on Russian debt was $5.84 million to protect $10 million in debt. That price was nearly half the one on Thursday, which at roughly $11 million for $10 million in debt protection was a signal that investors were certain of an eventual Russian default.

Russia used its foreign currency reserves sitting outside of the country to make the payment, backing down from the Kremlin’s earlier threats that it would use rubles to pay these obligations. In a statement, the Russia Finance Ministry did not say whether future payments would be made in rubles.

Despite the insurance contract plunge, investors remain largely convinced that Russia will eventually default on its debts for the first time since 1917. The major ratings agencies Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s have declared Russia is in “selective default” on its obligations.

Russia has been hit with extensive sanctions by the United States, the EU and others in response to its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and its continuing military operation to take over Ukrainian territory.

The Credit Default Determination Committee — an industry group of 14 banks and investors that determines whether to pay on these swaps — said Friday that they “continue to monitor the situation” after Russia’s payment. Their next meeting is May 3.

At the beginning of April, Russia’s finance ministry said it tried to make a $649 million payment due April 6 toward two bonds to an unnamed U.S. bank — previously reported as JPMorgan Chase.

At that time, tightened sanctions imposed for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prevented the payment from being accepted, so Moscow attempted to make the debt payment in rubles. The Kremlin, which repeatedly said it was financially able and willing to continue to pay on its debts, had argued that extraordinary events gave them the legal footing to pay in rubles, instead of dollars or euros.

Investors and rating agencies, however, disagreed and did not expect Russia to be able to convert the rubles into dollars before a 30-day grace period expired next week.

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Conservation Group Urges Tracking of Botswana’s Big Tusk Elephants

The Botswana Wildlife Producers Association, a group that focuses on the conservation and management of the country’s wildlife, says placing electronic tracking collars on big tusk elephants could help prevent indiscriminate hunts. The idea follows the recent killing of a so-called big tusker during a sanctioned hunt, which sparked outrage among conservationists.

The association’s chief executive, Isaac Theophilus, said while his organization is satisfied that the hunt of bull elephants is being handled properly, tracking some big tusk elephants could help.

An electronic elephant collar helps keep track of the animal so that unsanctioned hunts of these animals for their tusks can be prevented.       

“The hunt from the point of view of the association is that it was perfectly legal,” Theophilus said. “We are happy with the size of the trophy that was harvested, and we are glad we still have such big tuskers. Going forward, the association would like to work hand-in-hand with [the] government to ensure that we monitor elephant populations out there. Go out there and collar a few of the so-called big tuskers and follow them to ensure that they are not harvested or anything like [that].”  

Theophilus contended the criticism of Botswana’s decision to reintroduce hunting in 2019 is unjustified. The southern African country recently opened its annual hunting season, which ends in September.

“The issue might have attracted criticism from certain quarters that do not value Botswana’s conservation efforts,” he said. “This particular hunt is a very good tusker. We should as a country be very appreciative that our conservation efforts are bearing fruit. We still have big elephants in the conservation areas, particularly in the concession areas and in the parks, where no hunting is done.” 

Local professional hunter Randy Motsumi said hunters always target old bulls with big tusks, which is what their clients demand.

“Mostly the hunters are looking for big bulls, which are old and no longer breeding,” Motsumi said. “If natural death could have occurred, who would have benefited? No one would have benefited. The animal was going to rot in the bush. Now hunters have shot a bull and it has fed more than 700 people. There is money in the government coffers and the community got employed. All these people have gained from only one big elephant that is no longer breeding.”               

Conservationist Map Ives said shooting big elephants is what drives the hunting industry.

“It is truly an impressive elephant, and the hunting of large tusks elephant is very much at the core of what the hunting industry is selling to its customer base in the United States in particular,” Ives said. “That is what the professional hunting industry is all about; is to find the biggest, largest animal because they have lists and books of records, and everybody wants to be in that book of records and publish a story about him.”     

Among critics of the decision to gun down a big tusk elephant is British Conservative Party Member of Parliament Roger Gale. He argued that tourists pay for photographic safaris to see the big tuskers, and he is opposed to Botswana’s decision to reintroduce trophy hunting.

But Botswana government spokesperson William Sentshebeng says Gale seeks to undermine Botswana’s pragmatic and sustainable conservation policy.

While elephant populations are declining elsewhere on the continent, Botswana has seen its herd grow to more than 130,000, while the most it can support is estimated at 55,000.

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Satellites Detect California Cow Burps, a Major Methane Source, From Space

Satellites have detected methane emissions from belching cows at a California feedlot, marking the first time emissions from livestock – a major component of agricultural methane – could be measured from space.

Environmental data firm GHGSat this month analyzed data from its satellites and pinpointed the methane source from a feedlot in the agricultural Joaquin Valley near Bakersfield, California in February.

This is significant, according to GHGSat, because agricultural methane emissions are hard to measure, and accurate measurement is needed to set enforceable reduction targets for the beef-production industry.

GHGSat said the amount of methane it detected from that single feedlot would result in 5,116 tons of methane emissions if sustained for a year. If that methane were captured, it could power over 15,000 homes, it said.

Agriculture contributes 9.6% to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and about 36% of methane emissions, mostly from livestock.

The Biden administration late last year announced its plan to crack down on methane emissions from the U.S. economy.

The EPA unveiled its first rules aimed at reducing methane from existing oil and gas sources that require companies to detect and repair methane leaks. The Agriculture Department rolled out a voluntary incentive program for farmers.

At last year’s climate talks, more than 100 countries pledged to cut methane emissions by 30% and to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. Much of this reduction would need to come from the livestock industry, according to the U.N. food agency, which said that livestock accounts for 44% of man-made methane emissions.

Several methods to reduce livestock methane emissions are being tested, including adding seaweed to cattle diets.  

GHGSat provides its data to the United Nations’ International Methane Emissions Observatory program.

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Eastern DRC Residents Accuse Army of Abuse

Forced to flee her home, 62-year-old Agathe fears never to see peace again as she recounts the violence she has faced in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But the abuse Agathe has suffered in the territory of Masisi in North-Kivu province is not by rebels who have terrorized the area for more than a quarter of a century, but by soldiers.

“I tried three times to go home, but the soldiers who took control of the village behaved like those in the forest,” says Agathe, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, referring to rebels.

“They force us to work for them, they steal half of our crops. They ask us to pay taxes to access our own fields and when we don’t pay, they whip us.”

Agathe, like thousands of others displaced in Masisi, fled the fighting between DRC armed forces and rebel groups after the authorities declared a “state of siege” in the troubled region nearly a year ago.

The stringent measure gave the army and police full powers to run the administration and wage war on the hundred or so armed groups.

But in witness testimony and reports, civilians accuse soldiers of murder, rape, torture, looting, forced labor and collaborating with rebels.

“We thought that the state of siege would put an end to harassment, but in fact, it’s much worse,” says a civil society figure, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons.

“The extortion by soldiers is taking place in broad daylight and with complete impunity,” the person says.

‘Shot on the spot’

A U.N. document seen by AFP tells of troops committing hundreds of abuses including “attacks on protected people and places … abduction, recruitment and use of children,” as well as sexual violence and torture.

The abuses were documented in Masisi between May 6 last year and February 9, 2022, the U.N. Joint Human Right Office in DR Congo (UNJHRO) says.

A religious leader blames commanders. “The people will never be safe here while soldiers’ rations are stolen by their commanders,” he charges.

A health worker describes how soldiers from the 3410e regiment stormed into a health center in Loashi, 10 kilometers from central Masisi, in February looking for a rebel before they “shot him on the spot with three bullets.”

In another incident in December, soldiers from the same regiment raped 15 women held in underground cells after they were accused of witchcraft, according to a report by UNJHRO.

The soldiers demanded $200 for the release of each woman and refused to let them access health care, it adds.

The region’s armed forces spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume Ndjike, told AFP he was not aware of any accusations against the regiment.

“If necessary, they will respond [to any claims] … it’s not a problem.”

Several sources said the 3410e regiment left Masisi earlier this month, which Ndjike did not deny.

Sitting on a bench, a despondent Agathe remembers the happier times of her youth. “When I was a young girl, we could walk freely, there was no kidnapping, no shootings, no harassment,” she says, describing a world she no longer believes will return.

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Remembering Havel, Czechs Feel Moral Responsibility to Help Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has driven home the importance of NATO and the European Union for many of their newest members, according to Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky, who was in Washington this week for the funeral of Czech emigre and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

“The reason we joined these two organizations is that it won’t happen to us,” Lipavsky, said at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council.

The fact that Ukraine did not manage to enter the two Western institutions “created a gray zone” that Russian President Vladimir Putin exploited, said Lipavsky, who had discussed the challenge facing Ukraine, among other topics, in an interview with VOA earlier in the day.

The people of Ukraine “want to be part of the Western society, they want democratic elections, they want freedom of speech,” and they want to enjoy the prosperity that comes with them, he said. “I feel our moral responsibility to help them.”

Lipavsky is part of a newly sworn-in coalition government comprising both conservatives and progressives. Led by Prime Minister Petr Fiala, the new Czech administration is expected to pursue an internationalist foreign policy that promotes democracy and human rights, harkening back to an era when the country was led by playwright-turned political leader Vaclav Havel.

On his limited itinerary in Washington, Lipavsky paid tribute to Havel, who is memorialized in what is known as the “Freedom Foyer” of the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. There, his bust sits in close proximity to those of Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

Lipavsky gifted his American hosts with a collection of Havel photographs, including photos of Havel with Albright, who was born in then-Czechoslovakia and whose father was a member of the Czechoslovakian diplomatic corps.


The friendship between Havel and Albright was stressed by Lipavsky and other Czech dignitaries who came to Washington for the funeral. Among them were Czech senate president Milos Vystrcil, the senate foreign affairs committee chairman and three former ambassadors to the United States.


Albright is credited with having played a critical role in ushering the Czech Republic and other Central and Eastern European countries into NATO.

“Madeleine Albright made that possible, because she knew — she had suffered the consequences of policy failures, including American policy failures” in the 1930s and ’40s, said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, at the Atlantic Council event alongside Lipavsky.

“Vaclav Havel, along with Poland’s Lech Walesa, pushed [then U.S. President] Bill Clinton on NATO enlargement,” Fried recalled. “One of their arguments was — I was around, I remember — ‘we have a window now to do it, don’t you Americans blow it!’ ”

Fried added that Havel and Walesa might not have “quite put it that way, but that was more or less their way, what they were saying.”

Speaking to VOA earlier by telephone, Fried took issue with widespread reports of “backsliding” on democratic governance in the former Soviet bloc countries of Central and Eastern Europe. “Except for Hungary,” he said, he sees the countries in the region “going back to their roots” of fighting for freedom and democracy.

Lipavsky, for his part, said he believes the countries of the region are attracted to the West by its “democratic identity.”

“This identity is built upon the vision that every person can pursue his and her own happiness, and you have very basic values like human rights, rights to own [property], rights to think, freedom of speech,” he said. “Baltics, Central and Eastern Europe, want to be part of that, is part of that.”

The Ukrainian people are “literally fighting and dying” for the very same choice, he said, and the Czech Republic will do its utmost to help them to prevail against Russia and become a member of the club of like-minded nations that is the EU.

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Ukraine Slows Russian Advance in East, South as Talks in Doubt

The continuation of negotiations to end Russia’s war against Ukraine is in doubt, with Ukraine’s president saying it is hard to discuss peace amid public anger over alleged atrocities carried out by Russian troops, while Russia’s foreign minister said Western sanctions and arms shipments were impeding the talks, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.  


Ukrainian forces fought Saturday to counter a Russian advance in their country’s south and east, where the Kremlin is seeking to capture the industrial Donbas region. Western military analysts said Moscow’s offensive was going much slower than planned.

While Russia claimed on Saturday to have struck more than 380 targets overnight as it sought to take full control of the territories of Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said the Russian military’s efforts to capture targets were “not succeeding — the fighting continues.” Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, reportedly was targeted by mortar and artillery shelling Saturday.  


Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a televised address Friday night that Ukrainian forces had recaptured a strategically important village near the city and evacuated hundreds of civilians.  


RFE/RL reported that in a daily briefing Saturday, the Ukrainian military said the greatest enemy losses were taking place in the Izyum area, near Kharkiv.


Appeals in Rome


Meanwhile, the United Nations continued working to negotiate the evacuation of civilians from the increasingly hellish ruins of Mariupol, the southern port city that Russia has sought to capture since it invaded Ukraine more than nine weeks ago.  


Two Ukrainian women whose husbands are defending the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol were in Rome on Friday, calling for any evacuation of civilians to also include an estimated 2,000 soldiers holed up in the plant, the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in the strategic and now bombed-out port city. They cited fears the troops would be tortured and killed if left behind and captured by Russian forces.  


“The lives of soldiers matter, too. We can’t only talk about civilians,” said Yuliia Fedusiuk, the wife of Arseniy Fedusiuk, a member of the Azov Regiment in Mariupol; she was joined by Kateryna Prokopenko, whose husband Denys Prokopenko, is the Azov commander.  


“We are hoping that we can rescue soldiers, too, not only dead, not only injured, but all of them,” Fedusiuk said.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Saudi-owned Al Arabiya Television there was no need for anybody to provide help to open up humanitarian corridors out of Ukraine’s besieged cities.  


“We appreciate the interest of the [U.N.] secretary-general to be helpful,” he added. “[We have] explained … what is the mechanism for them to monitor how the humanitarian corridors are announced.”


Lavrov also accused the West of being “Russia phobic,” and he complained that his country never lived a day without being subject to sanctions by the West.  


“So … to believe that this latest wave of sanctions is going to make Russia cry ‘Uncle’ and to beg for being pardoned, those planners are lousy, and of course, they don’t know anything about [the] foreign policy of Russia and they don’t know anything about how to deal with Russia,” Lavrov said.

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UN Calls on Mali to Reverse New Media Restrictions

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights warns that Mali’s new media restrictions reflect a growing intolerance toward freedom of the press in the region.

U.N. human rights officials are expressing deep dismay at Mali’s decision Wednesday to permanently suspend Radio France International and France 24 from operating there. They are urging Mali’s military authorities to reverse the ban and allow independent media to work freely in the country. 

The government temporarily suspended the two international broadcasters on March 16, accusing them of airing false allegations of human rights violations by the Malian army and Russian mercenaries.

U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said the current climate of fear in Mali is having a chilling effect on journalists and bloggers.

“There is a lot of self-censorship. There is a lot of pressure,” she said. “There have been a number of journalists—local, regional, international, who have come under pressure. Licenses revoked.… Journalists are trying to avoid reporting on sensitive topics, so that they do not fall foul of the authorities.”  

Shamdasani said U.N. human rights monitors continue to document allegations of serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in many parts of Mali. If anything, she said the prevailing situation in the country demands more, not less, scrutiny.

However, she said Mali is not the only country where attacks on freedom of expression and opinion are occurring with increasing frequency and intensity.

“We are seeing a worrying trend in some of the other countries in West Africa as well,” she said. “And this applies not only to freedom of expression and then the work of journalists, but also civic space and civil society as a whole. There appears to be a growing intolerance for dissent, unfortunately.”  

Shamdasani said journalists all over the world are under threat, and journalists increasingly are being discredited for their reporting, accused of bias or of spreading misinformation. She said governments have many tools they can use to intimidate journalists and prevent the free flow of information. 

She said governments are increasingly using surveillance to monitor the work of journalists, adding that this makes it more difficult for them to protect their sources, to gather information, report on abuse, and bring perpetrators of crimes to account.

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White House Correspondents Dinner Returns, With Biden Headlining

U.S. President Joe Biden will resume a Washington tradition by speaking at the White House Correspondents Association dinner on Saturday night, the first president to speak at the annual event since 2016.

After being canceled for two years due to COVID-19 pandemic and boycotted by Donald Trump during his presidency, the event returns with gusto this year, featuring remarks by comedian Trevor Noah.

More than 20 WHCA-related parties are being staged around Washington before and after the major event on Saturday night and several senior administration officials will attend as well as a smattering of celebrities from the entertainment world.

However, a recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Washington, in particular an outbreak at the journalists’ white-tie Gridiron dinner early in April, has brought an undercurrent of caution to the White House dinner.

Organizers are requiring every attendee be tested for the virus, and some top officials, including infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, have dropped out.

The White House said Biden will take extra precautions at the event – skipping the dinner portion and attend only the speakers program, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday. He may opt to wear a mask when he is not speaking.

Asked what Biden will tell the crowd, Psaki said, “I will lower expectations and say it’s not funny at all.”

In recent weeks, the president has mostly been unmasked at crowded White House events, but those events had lower attendance than Saturday’s dinner, which is expected to seat about 2,600 journalists, Washington officials and celebrities.  

The White House Correspondents Association was founded in 1914 and has held a dinner nearly every year since the first one in 1921 to celebrate the reporters who cover the presidency and raise money for scholarships.

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For Kenya’s Birds of Prey, Power Lines Are a Deadly Enemy

A blindfold calms the large black and white augur buzzard as two men glue a prosthetic leg into an insert on her body to replace the one that she lost.

The female is one of many injured birds of prey that turn up at Simon Thomsett’s Kenyan rehabilitation center, most of which, like her, have been crippled by electrocution.

The problem has progressively grown as Kenya has upgraded its electricity network, replacing wooden poles with steel-reinforced concrete, which can be conductive, and hanging inadequately insulated power lines between them, conservationists say.

That and the lack of deterrent markers along the cables are pushing Kenya’s already dwindling bird of prey populations closer to disappearance.

“Thirty years ago, the birds were coming in being hit by cars, diseased… or hitting things like clothes lines or …windows,” said Thomsett before/after helping to fit the prosthetic.

“Now we … the vast majority is electrocution.”

Many are killed outright by the shock, both via direct collision with power lines or from perching.

Kenya’s population of augur buzzards, historically one of its most common birds of prey has plunged 91% over 40 years due to electrocution, habitat loss, and poisoning, according to a February study by Thomsett and others published in Biological Conservation.

Over the same period, hooded vulture are down 88% and long-crested eagles by 94%, the study said.

The government-run Kenya Power and Lighting Company did not respond to requests for comment.

In some parts of South Africa, bird flight diverters have successfully been introduced to reduce instances of such deaths.

“These devices can reduce collisions by over 90% for some species,” said Lourens Leeuwner, who manages the wildlife and energy program at South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust.

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In Scandinavia, Wooden Buildings Reach New Heights

A sandy-colored tower glints in the sunlight and dominates the skyline of the Swedish town of Skelleftea as Scandinavia harnesses its wood resources to lead a global trend towards erecting eco-friendly high-rises.

The Sara Cultural Center is one of the world’s tallest timber buildings, made primarily from spruce and towering 75 meters over rows of snow-dusted houses and surrounding forest.

The 20-story timber structure, which houses a hotel, a library, an exhibition hall and theater stages, opened at the end of 2021 in the northern town of 35,000 people.

Forests cover much of Sweden’s northern regions, most of it spruce, and building timber homes is a longstanding tradition.

Swedish architects now want to spearhead a revolution and steer the industry towards more sustainable construction methods as large wooden buildings sprout up in Sweden and neighboring Nordic nations thanks to advancing industry techniques.

“The pillars together with the beams, the interaction with the steel and wood, that is what carries the 20 stories of the hotel,” Therese Kreisel, a Skelleftea urban planning official, tells AFP during a tour of the cultural center.

Even the lift shafts are made entirely of wood. “There is no plaster, no seal, no isolation on the wood,” she says, adding that this “is unique when it comes to a 20-story building.”

Building materials go green

The main advantage of working with wood is that it is more environmentally friendly, proponents say.

Cement — used to make concrete — and steel, two of the most common construction materials, are among the most polluting industries because they emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

But wood emits little CO2 during its production and retains the carbon absorbed by the tree even when it is cut and used in a building structure. It is also lighter in weight, requiring less of a foundation.

According to the U.N.’s IPCC climate panel, wood as a construction material can be up to 30 times less carbon intensive than concrete, and hundreds or even thousands of times less than steel.

Global efforts to cut emissions have sparked an upswing in interest for timber structures, according to Jessica Becker, the coordinator of Trastad (City of Wood), an organization lobbying for more timber construction.

Skelleftea’s tower “showcases that is it possible to build this high and complex in timber,” says Robert Schmitz, one of the project’s two architects.

“When you have this as a backdrop for discussions, you can always say, ‘We did this, so how can you say it’s not possible?'”

Only an 85-meter tower recently erected in Brumunddal in neighboring Norway and an 84-meter structure in Vienna are taller than the Sara Cultural Centre.

A building under construction in the U.S. city of Milwaukee and due to be completed soon is expected to clinch the title of the world’s tallest, at a little more than 86 meters.

‘Stacked like Lego’

Building the cultural center in spruce was “much more challenging” but “has also opened doors to really think in new ways,” explains Schmitz’s co-architect Oskar Norelius.

For example, the hotel rooms were made as prefabricated modules that were then “stacked like Lego pieces on site,” he says.

The building has won several wood architecture prizes.

Anders Berensson, another Stockholm architect whose material of choice is wood, says timber has many advantages.

“If you missed something in the cutting you just take the knife and the saw and sort of adjust it on site. So it’s both high tech and low tech at the same time,” he says.

In Stockholm, an apartment complex made of wood, called Cederhusen and featuring distinctive yellow and red cedar shingles on the facade, is in the final stages of completion.

It has already been named the Construction of the Year by Swedish construction industry magazine Byggindustrin. 

“I think we can see things shifting in just the past few years actually,” says Becker.

“We are seeing a huge change right now, it’s kind of the tipping point. And I’m hoping that other countries are going to catch on, we see examples even in England and Canada and other parts of the world.” 

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Man Sentenced for Shooting Vegas Officer Amid 2020 Protest

A 21-year-old man who shot and paralyzed a Las Vegas police officer during a racial justice protest on the Las Vegas Strip in June 2020 was sentenced Friday to 20-50 years in state prison.

The officer, Shay Mikalonis, was 29 when he was shot and now breathes with the help of a ventilator. He and his family were in the courtroom while Edgar Samaniego read a statement saying he doesn’t remember the shooting due to his use of drugs and alcohol, KLAS-TV reported.

Clark County District Court Judge Carli Kierny said the shooting “can’t get any closer to an actual murder,” KSNV-TV reported.

“Officer Mikalonis was only doing his job, and there was no reason for this to happen,” the judge said.

Mikalonis’ father, Guy Mikalonis, said his son “can’t talk, eat, swallow on his own, or breathe,” and spoke of the toll his care takes on his family as “a life sentence with no parole.”

Samaniego avoided trial when he pleaded guilty in November 2021 to attempted murder, battery and assault — each with a deadly weapon — and illegally discharging a firearm.

Police said witnesses saw Samaniego fire a handgun from a motel parking lot toward a demonstration that was one of hundreds around the U.S. calling for racial justice following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

Investigators determined that Samaniego had not been participating in protests.

At the time, Mikalonis was handcuffing a person near the Circus Circus hotel-casino. A bullet struck him in the spine and lodged in his face. He had been a police officer for four years.

The same night Mikalonis was wounded, Las Vegas police shot and killed a man they said was armed with several guns and refused orders to leave an area near downtown federal courthouses.  

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Leading Algeria Opposition Figure Arrested, Rights Groups Say

One of Algeria’s leading opposition figures, Karim Tabbou, has been arrested again, rights groups have said.

Tabbou was one of the most-recognizable faces during unprecedented mass rallies, led by the Hirak pro-democracy movement, that began in February 2019. They demanded a sweeping overhaul of the ruling system in place since the North African country’s independence from France in 1962.

He was detained Friday evening at his home, the rights groups said.

Algeria’s Human Rights League (LADDH) said on its Facebook page: “We still don’t know the reasons for this new arrest.”

On Tuesday, Tabbou published on his Facebook page an “homage” to another activist, Hakim Debbazi, whose death the Rights League announced. Debbazi had been detained in February.

“Physically dead, the martyrs of the just causes are more than alive,” Tabbou wrote. 

He blamed authorities for the death of “modest and humble” Debbazi after a heart attack and said the activist had been “committed body and soul to the Hirak.”

Tabbou called on people to honor Debbazi’s “sacrifice” and “continue our fight for the advent of a state of law.”

Tabbou leads a small, unregistered opposition party, the Democratic Social Union (UDS).

In March 2020, he was sentenced to one year in jail for “undermining national security.” The conviction stemmed from his criticism of the army’s involvement in politics.

He was also detained and released on other occasions, including just before last June’s parliamentary election which Hirak boycotted.

The Hirak protests forced longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down. Demonstrations continued in a push for deep reforms but the movement waned when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

More than 300 people are detained in Algeria over links to the Hirak or rights activism, the National Committee for the Release of Detainees (CNLD) says. 

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Surge in Gun Ownership Among Minorities in US

More members of minority groups in the United States are buying guns as the fear of violence and crime increases. VOA’s Aunshuman Apte in New York spoke with some minority gun owners to learn more about why they bought their weapons.

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Biden, Mexican President Warn of ‘Unprecedented’ Migration Flow

U.S. President Joe Biden and his Mexican counterpart, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, warned of “unprecedented” pressure from migration in a call Friday that highlighted a major political headache for the White House ahead of November elections.

“In view of the unprecedented flows of migrants from throughout the hemisphere to our two countries, the presidents reiterated the need to build stronger tools for managing regional migration surges,” the White House said in a statement after the call between the two presidents.

The virtual meeting, just under an hour long, showcased Biden’s attempt to steer the complex relationship onto a more cooperative basis after the tempestuous, at times tense, situation under his predecessor Donald Trump.

“The tone of the call was very constructive. This was not a call where President Biden was threatening the Mexican president in any way,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, referring to Trump’s aggressive brinkmanship with Mexico over illegal immigration.

The two nations are inextricably tied through trade, culture and the violent narcotics industry. However, looming over everything is the quandary of how to manage both legal and illegal migration.

It’s a subject that will feature heavily at the upcoming regional Summit of the Americas in June, being hosted in Los Angeles.

“The majority of the conversation was about migration and was about continued work on coordination, on economic coordination, on taking steps to reduce migration along the border,” Psaki said.

Lopez Obrador tweeted after the call that Mexican foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard will travel to Washington on Monday to discuss “issues of cooperation for development” and the Summit of the Americas.

And Lopez Obrador himself is to visit Central America and Cuba from May 5-9, with stops in three of the main countries where migrant caravans originate: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

The trip is unusual, as the Mexican president has made few foreign visits since taking office in 2018, although he has visited the United States three times.

A senior US official told reporters Friday that “monumental challenges” around the world, ranging from climate change to the war in Ukraine and food insecurity, are prompting “unprecedented levels of migration.”

Looming surge

The already messy situation is heating up with Biden’s attempt to end Title 42, a rule instituted during the COVID pandemic as a way to quickly expel migrants and asylum seekers, rather than let them stay in the United States while their cases are heard.

Opponents see the rule as no longer justified, but Republicans and even some of Biden’s own party warn that lifting the measure will trigger an uncontrolled surge across the border. Although the rule was set to expire May 23, a court order means it remains in place for now.

With Biden’s Democrats potentially facing heavy defeats in November midterm congressional elections, the issue will only intensify.

Both sides of the political divide in Washington agree there’s a problem.

The White House talks of a “broken” immigration system that Congress should fix, while Republicans accuse Biden of failing to protect the country’s southern frontier.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection registered 7,800 undocumented migrants a day along the southwest border in the past three weeks — almost five times the average of 1,600 recorded from 2014-19, before the coronavirus outbreak.

But where Trump made political capital with a project to reinforce barriers and walls along the border, as well as threatening trade tariffs on Mexico, the Biden administration is doubling down on its theory that only a more complex, collaborative approach can work.

“Given our shared border, we must do this together — and as a region,” the U.S. official said, referring to the challenge of managing the expected surge should Title 42 be lifted.

The phrase most often heard from the Biden White House when explaining its approach to the migration problem is “root causes” — a reference to economic, security, political and increasingly climate strains driving people out of poorer countries to the south.

“We have many challenges before us, but we can tackle them better when we work in partnership,” the official said. “What I will say is that the mechanisms for cooperation with Mexico had not been functioning during the previous administration.”

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Largest US Wildfire Rages Out of Control in New Mexico

Firefighters in New Mexico failed Friday to pin back the flames of the United States’ largest wildfire, which is burning perilously close to a string of mountain villages.

The blaze is the most destructive of dozens in the U.S. Southwest that are more widespread and burning earlier than normal in the year due to climate change, scientists say.

Thousands of people in the Mora valley, about 64 kilometers northeast of Santa Fe, prepared to evacuate as smoke billowed from forest around the nearby farming community of Ledoux.

High winds blew embers over nearly 2 kilometers, spreading a wildfire that has scorched about 303 square kilometers, of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains since April 6, destroying hundreds of homes and structures.

“It looks very scary out there,” incident commander Carl Schwope told a briefing. “With the rate of spread, it’s very difficult for us to get any fire control.”

Winds were expected to blow from the south on Saturday, pushing the blaze towards villages such as Mora, as well as the city of Las Vegas, with a population of 14,000, fire officials said.

“It’s coming, and it’s here,” said Mora County sheriff’s official Americk Padilla, urging residents to evacuate to the towns of Taos and Angel Fire if requested.

More than two decades of extreme drought have turned forested mountains and valleys into a tinderbox, said fire expert Stewart Turner.

“It’s moving a lot faster than we anticipated,” Turner said of the blaze. “This is a very, very serious fire.”

Locals lashed out at the U.S. Forest Service for a deliberate, “controlled burn” meant to reduce fire risk that inadvertently started part of the blaze.

“The U.S. Forest Service needs to be held accountable,” said Skip Finley, a former Mora County commissioner, as he loaded his car to evacuate his home.

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Zelenskyy’s Invite to G20 Not Enough for Biden

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who holds this year’s G-20 presidency, has invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the group’s summit in Bali later this year, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to attend. However, Zelenskyy’s invitation may not be enough to secure the attendance of U.S. and other Western leaders keen on isolating Moscow. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has this report.

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Fighting Breaks Out in Ethiopia’s Amhara Despite ‘Humanitarian Cease-fire’  

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a humanitarian cease-fire five weeks ago, but it is already beginning to fray. In the northern region of Amhara, fighting had subsided. But, last week, it erupted again.

VOA spoke to witnesses who got caught up in the fighting when militants from the Fano militia group, on the border of the Oromia zone, in Amhara, allegedly opened fire on civilians close to the town of Shewa Robit.

Wendowessen Mamo says he was 3 kilometers away when the conflict erupted.

“Molale, the epicenter of the conflict, is almost burned to the ground like Ataye town was, where three such ethnic-based conflicts happened in the space of a year,” he added.

The hills of Amhara have been the scene of fighting between federal government forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and militia groups for months.

Most people who spoke to VOA said they want to see peace now – among them Demeku Ali Abdu, who says her son was taken and killed after TPLF troops occupied her house last year.

“When I confirmed my child’s death, I felt so alone,” she said, as she started to cry. “I felt bereft for my future. And also, I thought about his two children growing up without a father. I hate to live without him.”

Ahmed Mohammed Seid, part of a local militia who fought to push the TPLF out of his hometown, hopes the fighting will soon end for good.

Seid said he hopes conflict will never return to his home. He believes that all parties involved in the conflict have learned lessons, and “I hope every person strives for the prevalence of peace.”

However, a spokesperson for the local government said the presence of the TPLF in Amhara has emboldened other militant groups.

Jemal Hassen, Oromo special zone government spokesperson, said, “Both TPLF and Oromo separatists have a common goal or target. Their marriage seems to have become more concrete as they have common agendas of dismantling the state apparatus and retaking control of politics.”

The special zone is an enclave of ethnic Oromos surrounded by the Amhara region.

In January, Abiy announced a national dialogue with the aim of bringing peace to the country. But the initiative has been criticized for failing to include many of the factions engaged in conflict, including the TPLF.

Ethiopian analyst Kiram Tadesse said, “There was optimism from all parties involved. Divergence has also started to emerge among these opposing parties, especially among those that are not included, and its credibility has been questioned.”

Given the renewed fighting in this area of Amhara, residents’ hopes for peace might not be realized.

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Trump, Fighting Contempt Fines, Says He Doesn’t Have Records

Donald Trump’s lawyers, seeking to reverse their client’s $10,000-per-day contempt fine, provided a New York judge Friday with an affidavit in which the former president says he didn’t turn over subpoenaed documents to the state attorney general’s office because he doesn’t have them. 

The judge, though, was unmoved and refused to lift sanctions he imposed on Trump on Monday. Judge Arthur Engoron criticized the lack of detail in Trump affidavit, which amounted to two paragraphs, saying that he should have explained the methods he uses to store his records and efforts he made to locate the subpoenaed files. 

In the affidavit, which bore Trump’s signature and Wednesday’s date, the former president said that documents sought in Attorney General Letitia James’ civil investigation into his business dealings weren’t in his personal possession. Trump said he believed any documents would be in the possession of his company, the Trump Organization. 

In other affidavits, Trump lawyers Alina Habba and Michael Madaio detailed steps they took to locate documents in the December 1 subpoena, including meeting with Trump last month at Mar-a-Lago in Florida and reviewing prior searches of his company’s files. 

Andrew Amer, a lawyer for the attorney general’s office, said in a court filing that while the affidavits “provide some additional information” about Trump’s efforts to comply with the subpoena, more extensive searches were needed — including of Trump Tower, his residences and electronic devices — before the judge should consider reversing the contempt finding. 

Frank Runyeon, a reporter for the legal publication Law360, said that Engoron held an impromptu hearing Friday, without a court stenographer, in which he addressed the affidavits from Trump and his lawyers and ruled to keep the contempt fine in place. 

‘Where did he keep files?’

Runyeon, one of the few members of the news media to attend the unadvertised hearing, reported that Engoron was insistent that Trump provide the “who, when, where, what” of his search, with the judge asking at one point: “Where did he keep files? I assume it wasn’t all in his head.” 

Habba filed a notice of appeal Wednesday with the appellate division of the state’s trial court seeking to overturn Engoron’s contempt ruling. Trump is also challenging Engoron’s February 17 ruling requiring that he answer questions under oath. Oral arguments in that appeal are scheduled for May 11. 

James has said that her investigation has uncovered evidence that Trump may have misstated the value of assets like skyscrapers and golf courses on his financial statements for more than a decade. Her December 1 subpoena sought numerous documents, including paperwork and communications pertaining to his financial statements and various development projects. 

James asked Engoron to hold Trump in contempt after he failed to produce any documents by a March 31 court deadline. In his ruling, Engoron said that Trump and his lawyers not only failed to meet the deadline but also failed to document the steps they had taken to search for the documents, as required under case law. 

Trump is suing James in federal court to try to stop her investigation. Oral arguments in that matter are scheduled for May 13. 

Trump has said James’ investigation and a separate criminal probe overseen by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg are politically motivated. James and Bragg are Democrats, and Trump is a Republican.

Bragg said this month that the three-year-old investigation he inherited in January from his predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., is continuing “without fear or favor” despite a recent shakeup in the probe’s leadership. Trump’s lawyers contend that James is using her civil investigation to gain access to information that could then be used against him in the criminal probe. 

So far, the district attorney’s investigation has resulted in tax fraud charges against the Trump Organization and its longtime finance chief, Allen Weisselberg, relating to lucrative fringe benefits such as rent, car payments and school tuition. The company and Weisselberg have pleaded not guilty.

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Tech Stocks Sink Again; Nasdaq Has Worst Month Since 2008 

The Dow Jones Industrial Average slumped more than 900 points Friday as another sharp sell-off led by technology added to Wall Street’s losses in April, leaving the S&P 500 with its biggest monthly skid since the start of the pandemic.

The benchmark S&P 500 fell 3.6% and finished April with an 8.8% loss, its worst monthly slide since March 2020. The Dow slumped 2.8%.

The Nasdaq composite, heavily weighted with technology stocks, bore the brunt of the damage this month, ending April with a 13.3% loss, its biggest monthly decline since the 2008 financial crisis.

A sharp drop in Amazon weighed on the market after the internet retail giant posted its first loss since 2015.

Major indexes have been shifting between slumps and rallies throughout the week as the latest round of corporate earnings hit the market in force. Investors have been reviewing a particularly heavy batch of financial results from big tech companies, industrial firms and retailers.

Fed medicine

The volatile week caps off a dismal month for stocks as traders fret about the tough medicine the Federal Reserve is using in its fight against inflation: higher interest rates. That will increase borrowing costs across the board for people buying cars, using credit cards and taking out mortgages to buy homes.

The S&P 500 fell 155.57 points to 4,131.93. The Dow dropped 939.18 points to 32,977.21. The Nasdaq slid 536.89 points to 12,334.64.

Big Tech has been leading the market lower all month as traders shun the high-flying sector. Tech had posted gigantic gains during the pandemic and now is starting to look overpriced, particularly with interest rates set to rise sharply as the Fed steps up its fight against inflation.

Internet retail giant Amazon slumped 14%, one of the biggest decliners in the S&P 500, after reporting a rare quarterly loss and giving investors a disappointing revenue forecast. The weak update from Amazon comes as Wall Street worries about a potential slowdown in consumer spending along with rising inflation.

Prices for everything from food to gas have been rising as the economy recovers from the pandemic, and there has been a big disconnect between higher demand and lagging supplies. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only added to inflation worries as it drives price increases for oil, natural gas, wheat and corn.

The Commerce Department on Friday reported that an inflation gauge closely tracked by the Federal Reserve surged 6.6% in March compared with a year ago, the highest 12-month jump in four decades and further evidence that spiking prices are pressuring household budgets and the health of the economy.

Europe, too

The latest report on rising U.S. inflation follows a report from statistics agency Eurostat that shows inflation hit a record high in April of 7.5% for the 19 countries that use the euro.

Bond yields rose following the hot readings on inflation. The yield on the 10-year Treasury rose to 2.92% from 2.85%.

Persistently rising inflation has prompted central banks to raise interest rates to temper the impact on businesses and consumers.

Much of the anxiety on Wall Street in April has centered around how quickly the Fed will raise its benchmark interest rate and whether an aggressive series of hikes will crimp economic growth. The chair of the Fed has indicated the central bank may raise short-term interest rates by double the usual amount at upcoming meetings, starting next week. It has already raised its key overnight rate once, the first such increase since 2018, and Wall Street is expecting several big increases over the coming months.

Investors spent much of April shifting money away from Big Tech companies, whose stock values benefit from low interest rates, to areas considered less risky. The S&P 500’s consumer staples sector, which includes many household and personal goods makers, is on track to be the only sector in the benchmark index to make gains in April. Other safe-play sectors, such as utilities, held up better than the broader market, while technology and communications stocks were among the biggest losers.

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Malawi Court Convicts 12 People in Albino Attack

A high court in Malawi has convicted five people of murder for the 2018 killing of a 22-year-old albino man, including the victim’s brother. The court convicted seven other people of selling the victim’s body parts.

Malawi officials say more than 170 albinos have been attacked in the country since 2014 by people who believe their body parts bring luck and wealth.

Family members of the deceased, MacDonald Masambuka, left the courtroom Thursday with hopes of justice being served after the court convicted all 12 people accused in his death.

Family members, including Masambuka’s mother, appeared calm and composed as Judge Dorothy NyaKaunda Kamanga read the judgments.

Those convicted included a Catholic priest, Father Thomas Muhosa, police officer Chikondi Chileka, clinician Lumbani Kamanga, and the deceased’s brother, Cassim Masambuka. Charges included murder, extracting human tissues, causing harm to a person with disability, and trafficking in persons.

Kamanga convicted the victim’s brother and four others of murder.

The court convicted seven other people, including the priest and police officer, of selling the victim’s body parts.

Business with tissue

According to the court, Muhosha, Chileka and others offered to conduct business using human tissue extracted from a human corpse.

The judge said the state proved beyond reasonable doubt the 12 people conspired to kill Masambuka to extract his bones based on a perception they would benefit financially.

She said Masambuka is the latest victim of violent attacks on persons with albinism who have not been protected by the community.

Director of Public Prosecutions Steve Kayuni represented the state in the case. He said he was pleased the court agreed on all the seven charges he presented.

“It’s really something overwhelming on the part of the state considering that this matter, if you notice, there is a police officer involved, a priest involved and there is a brother involved. If you notice, it all revolves around the position of trust — that somebody like the late Macdonald Masambuka trusted so much, they are the ones who ended up betraying him,” Kayuni said.

Masambuka went missing from his village on March 9, 2018, and his limbless body was found buried in a garden on April 2, 2018, in his home district of Machinga south of Malawi.


Court documents show that Masambuka was enticed by his brother to meet his friends, who he claimed had found a girl for him to marry.

But when they reached the scene, the alleged friends grabbed Masambuka by the neck and dragged him to a garden where they killed him. Here, his assailants cut off his limbs, burned his body using petrol and buried it there.

This was the first such case involving high-profile community members involved in attacks on persons with albinism.

Masauko Chamkakala, the lawyer for the 12 defendants in the case, said he would comment once he had gone through the judgment.

“We are still waiting to see the perfected judgment so that we can read it and study it and talk to our clients,” Chamkakala said.

Rights activists said they expected the court to give stiffer punishment to those convicted.

‘Serious sentencing’

Ian Simbota represented the Association of Persons with Albinism at the court.

“When the judge was reading, what concerned me was that part of a [Priest] Father Muhosha [and others] who have been convicted of transacting body parts. If you go to the Anatomy Act, it is not so hard on such offenses. So, we are really looking forward to the judge, if at all it’s possible, to put a human face to the case so that at least we really need to see serious sentencing on this case,” Simbota said.

The high court is expected to sentence the perpetrators on May 30.

In another case, a high court on Thursday sentenced a 37-year-old man to life in prison for the 2020 murder of a 14-year-old-boy with albinism in Phalombe district.

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Claim of Tigrayan Rebel Withdrawal From Ethiopia’s Afar Region Questioned 

Ethiopian federal authorities are dismissing a claim by Tigrayan rebels that their forces have pulled out of the neighboring Afar region.

A spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front this week said the rebels had withdrawn their fighters so the federal government would allow much-needed aid to reach the Tigray region.

But four days after that announcement, the federal government did not appear to be increasing the frequency of humanitarian convoys to Tigray, as some had hoped.

On Wednesday, the Afar Mass Media Agency released a statement refuting the TPLF claim that it had pulled out of the northern Ethiopian region.

“The terrorist TPLF has been spreading false propaganda that is far from the truth,” the statement said. It then listed areas of Afar where the TPLF was still present.

The Afar regional communications office did not respond to a request for comment. It has not yet been possible to verify if Tigrayan forces are still in Afar.

Yohannes Abraham, a spokesperson for the TPLF, reiterated the claim to VOA that TPLF forces had left.

“The pullout was done per the previous plan to withdraw in a step-by- step fashion,” he said. “Contrary to the false narrations, as usual, alluded by the Ethiopian government and its subsidiaries in Afar and elsewhere, as we speak, there are no Tigrayan forces remaining in Afar. Even if humanitarian deliveries shouldn’t be conditioned, as you know, the presence of our forces in Afar is no more an excuse for the region to block delivery of humanitarian aid.”

William Davison, an analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said the Ethiopian federal government had indicated the TPLF’s pullout from Afar might result in more aid reaching Tigray.

‘Absolutely desperate’

“Throughout the government’s communication following its humanitarian truce announcement,” he said, “it made reference to the Tigray forces’ presence in Amhara and Afar regions, almost suggesting that it’s a condition for the increased delivery of aid for Tigray’s forces to vacate those areas. … It seems the conditions inside Tigray are absolutely desperate. … Now we will see if this leads to something approaching unrestricted humanitarian access.”

Ethiopian analyst Kiram Tadasse said, however, that even if the Ethiopian federal government gave the go-ahead for aid to enter Tigray, forces from the Afar and Amhara regions might still block them, as has happened in the past.

The humanitarian need in Afar and Amhara also is at a crisis point, Tadasse said.

“We should not be underestimating the potential challenge that could come from the Afar regional forces,” he said. “Like in Tigray, many people in Amhara and Afar region are also in need of food aid, and there should be certain ways to deal with this deadlock, regardless of the urgent need to respond to the situation in Tigray, where access is a critical issue.”

Combined, Tigray, Afar and Amhara have 9.4 million people who need humanitarian assistance, according to the U.N., which also said the humanitarian situation in Tigray in particular was so desperate that “people have been eating roots and flowers and plants instead of a normal steady meal.”

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