Kosovo Delays License Plate Plan After Border Tensions

The Kosovo government postponed implementation of a decision that would oblige Serbs in the north of the country to apply for car license plates issued by Pristina institutions after tensions rose between police and local communities that set roadblocks.

Late on Sunday the protesters parked trucks filled with gravel and other heavy machinery on the roads leading to the two border crossings, Jarinje and Bernjak, in a territory where Serbs form a majority. Kosovo police said they had to close the border crossings.

“The overall security situation in the Northern municipalities of Kosovo is tense,” NATO-led mission to Kosovo KFOR said in a statement.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova blamed the heightened tension on what she called “groundless discriminatory rules” imposed by Kosovo authorities

Fourteen years after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, some 50,000 Serbs living in the north use license plates and documents issued by Serbian authorities, refusing to recognize institutions under the capital, Pristina. Kosovo has been recognized as an independent state by more than 100 countries but not by Serbia or Russia.

The government of Prime Minister Albin Kurti said it would give Serbs a transitional period of 60 days to get Kosovo license plates, a year after giving up trying to impose them because of similar protests.

The government also decided that as of August 1, all citizens from Serbia visiting Kosovo would have to get an extra document at the border to grant them permission to enter.

A similar rule is applied by Belgrade authorities to Kosovars who visit Serbia.

But following tensions on Sunday evening and consultations with EU and U.S. ambassadors, the government said it would delay its plan for one month and start the implementation on September 1.

Earlier on Sunday, police said there were shots fired “in the direction of police units but fortunately no one was wounded.”

It also said angry protesters beat up several Albanians passing on the roads that had been blocked and that some cars had been attacked.

Air raid sirens were heard for more than three hours in the small town of North Mitrovica inhabited mainly by Serbs.

A year ago, after local Serbs blocked the same roads over license plates, Kosovo’s government deployed special police forces and Belgrade flew fighter jets close to the border.

Tensions between the two countries remain high, and Kosovo’s fragile peace is maintained by a NATO mission that has 3,770 troops on the ground. Italian peacekeepers were visible in and around Mitrovica on Sunday.

The two countries committed in 2013 to a dialog sponsored by the European Union to try to resolve outstanding issues but little progress has been made.

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California Sees Its Largest 2022 Fire as Flames Spread in US West

Crews battling the largest wildfire so far this year in California braced for thunderstorms and hot, windy conditions that created the potential for more fire growth Sunday as they sought to protect remote communities.

The McKinney Fire was burning out of control in Northern California’s Klamath National Forest, with expected thunderstorms a big concern Sunday just south of the Oregon state line, said U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Adrienne Freeman.

“The fuel beds are so dry, and they can just erupt from that lightning,” Freeman said. “These thunder cells come with gusty erratic winds that can blow fire in every direction.”

The blaze exploded in size to more than 207 square kilometers just two days after erupting in a largely unpopulated area of Siskiyou County, according to a Sunday incident report. The cause was under investigation.

The blaze torched trees along California Highway 96, and the scorched remains of a pickup truck sat in a lane of the highway. Thick smoke covered the area and flames burned through hillsides in sight of homes.

A second, smaller fire just to the west that was sparked by dry lightning on Saturday threatened the tiny town of Seiad, Freeman said. About 400 structures were under threat from the two California fires. Authorities have not confirmed the extent of the damage yet, saying assessments would begin when it was safe to reach the area.

A third fire, which was on the southwest end of the McKinney blaze, prompted evacuation orders for around 500 homes Sunday, said Courtney Kreider, a spokesperson with the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office. The office said crews had been on the scene of the fire since late Saturday but that the fire Sunday morning “escaped its containment line.”

Several people in the sheriff’s office have been affected by the evacuation orders “and they’re still showing up to work so, (a) very dedicated crew,” she said. A deputy lost his childhood home to fire on Friday, she said.

As the McKinney fire threatened, some residents chose to stay behind while others heeded orders to leave.

Larry Castle and his wife, Nancy, were among about 2,000 residents of the Yreka area under evacuation orders. They left Saturday with some of their prized possessions, including Larry’s motorcycle, and took their dogs to stay with their daughter near Mount Shasta.

Larry Castle said he wasn’t taking any chances after seeing the explosive growth of major fires in recent years.

“You look back at the Paradise fire and the Santa Rosa fire and you realize this stuff is very, very serious,” he told the Sacramento Bee.

Montana and Idaho

In northwest Montana, a fire sparked in grasslands near the town of Elmo had grown to about 44 square km after advancing into forest. Crews were working along the edges of the fire Sunday, and aircraft were expected to continue to make water and retardant drops to help slow the fire’s advance, said Sara Rouse, a spokesperson with the interagency team assigned to the fire. High temperatures and erratic winds were expected, she said.

A section of Highway 28 between Hot Springs and Elmo that had been closed was reopened with drivers asked to watch for fire and emergency personnel. Visibility in the area was poor, Rouse said.

In Idaho, the Moose Fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest has burned on more than 196 square km in timber land near the town of Salmon. It was 21% contained by Sunday morning. Pila Malolo, planning operations section chief on the fire, said in a Facebook video update that hot, dry conditions were expected to persist Sunday. Officials said they expected fire to grow in the steep, rugged country on the fire’s south side.

Elsewhere in the West

Scientists say climate change has made the West warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

The Pacific Coast Trail Association urged hikers to get to the nearest town while the U.S. Forest Service closed a 177 km section of the trail from the Etna Summit to the Mt. Ashland Campground in southern Oregon.

In Hawaii, the Maui County Emergency Management Agency said a brush fire was 90% contained but a red flag warning was in effect for much of Sunday.

And in north Texas, firefighters continued to work to contain the 2-week-old, 27-square-kilometer Chalk Mountain Fire. The crews now report 83% containment of the fire that has destroyed 16 homes and damaged five others about 80 kilometers southwest of Fort Worth. No injuries have been reported.

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Excitement Over Investing in Cryptocurrency Tinged With Fear of Big Slide

The price of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has fallen dramatically in recent months. Still, many investors are excited about the future of digital currencies despite the risks. VOA’s Michelle Quinn reports from San Francisco. VOA footage by Matt Dibble and Michelle Quinn.

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UN Peacekeepers Involved in Deadly Shooting at DRC Border Post

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was outraged after two people were killed and several others were injured when U.N. peacekeepers opened fire during an incident in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on the Uganda border on Sunday.

The U.N. force, MONUSCO, admitted that some of its peacekeepers had opened fire “for unexplained reasons,” adding that arrests had been made.   

Guterres was “saddened and dismayed” to learn of the shooting, a U.N. statement said.

“The Secretary-General stresses in the strongest terms the need to establish accountability for these events,” it said.

“He welcomes the decision of his special representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to detain the MONUSCO personnel involved in the incident and to immediately open an investigation,” it added.

Video of the incident, shared on social media showed men, at least one in police uniform and another in army uniform, advancing toward the U.N. convoy stopped behind a closed barrier in Kasindi.  

The town is in eastern DR Congo’s Beni territory on the border with Uganda.  

After a verbal exchange, the peacekeepers appeared to open fire before opening the barrier and driving through while people scattered or hid.

“During this incident, soldiers from the intervention brigade of the MONUSCO force returning from leave opened fire at the border post for unexplained reasons and forced their way through,” the U.N. mission in Kasindi said in a statement earlier Sunday.

“This serious incident caused loss of life and serious injuries,” it said.

The Democratic Republic of Congo “strongly condemns and deplores this unfortunate incident in which two compatriots died and 15 others were injured according to a provisional roll,” government spokesman Patrick Muyaya said in a statement.

The government said it launched an investigation with MONUSCO to establish who was responsible, why the shooting took place and would ensure “severe penalties” are given.

The U.N. envoy in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bintou Keita, said she was “deeply shocked and dismayed by this serious incident,” according to the mission’s statement.  

“In the face of this unspeakable and irresponsible behavior, the perpetrators of the shooting have been identified and arrested pending the conclusions of the investigation, which has already begun in collaboration with the Congolese authorities,” MONUSCO said.

The U.N. mission said the troops’ home countries had been contacted so legal action could begin promptly, with the involvement of witnesses and survivors, which could lead to exemplary penalties.  

Earlier Barthelemy Kambale Siva, the North Kivu governor’s representative in Kasindi, said that “eight people, including two policemen who were working at the barrier, were seriously injured” in the incident.

Kambale Siva, interviewed by AFP, did not say why the U.N. convoy had been prevented from crossing.

There are more than 120 militias operating in the DRC’s troubled east. The U.N. first deployed an observer mission to the region in 1999.  

In 2010, it became the peacekeeping mission MONUSCO — the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — with a mandate to conduct offensive operations.

There have been 230 fatalities among the force, according to the U.N.

Last week, deadly demonstrations demanding the departure of the United Nations took place in several towns in eastern DRC.  

A total of 19 people, including three peacekeepers, were killed.

Anger has been fueled by perceptions that MONUSCO is failing to do enough to stop attacks by the armed groups.

U.N. under-secretary-general for peace operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix was in the central African country on Saturday to “talk to the Congolese authorities,” he said.

“(They would) examine ways in which we can both avoid a recurrence of these tragic incidents and, above all, work better together to achieve our objectives,” he said.

“We hope that the conditions will be met, in particular the return of state authority, so that MONUSCO can complete its mission as soon as possible. And to leave room for other forms of international support.”

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Ukraine War Hangs Over UN Meeting on Nuclear Treaty’s Legacy

There was already plenty of trouble to talk about when a major U.N. meeting on the landmark Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was originally supposed to happen in 2020.

Now the pandemic-postponed conference finally starts Monday as Russia’s war in Ukraine has reanimated fears of nuclear confrontation and cranked up the urgency of trying to reinforce the 50-year-old treaty.

“It is a very, very difficult moment,” said Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Russia’s invasion, accompanied by ominous references to its nuclear arsenal, “is so significant for the treaty and really going to put a lot of pressure on this,” she said. “How governments react to the situation is going to shape future nuclear policy.”

The four-week meeting aims to generate a consensus on the next steps, but expectations are low for a substantial — if any — agreement.

Still, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis, prime ministers Fumio Kishida of Japan and Frank Bainimarama of Fiji, and more than a dozen nations’ foreign ministers are among attendees expected from at least 116 countries, according to a U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly before the conference.

In force since 1970, the Nonproliferation Treaty has the widest adherence of any arms control agreement. Some 191 countries have joined.

Nations without nuclear weapons promised not to acquire them, while nuclear-armed Britain, China, France, Russia (then the Soviet Union) and the United States agreed to negotiate toward eliminating their arsenals someday. All endorsed everyone’s right to develop peaceful nuclear energy.

India and Pakistan, which didn’t sign, went on to get the bomb. So did North Korea, which ratified the pact but later announced it was withdrawing. Non-signatory Israel is believed to have a nuclear arsenal but neither confirms nor denies it.

Nonetheless, the Nonproliferation Treaty has been credited with limiting the number of nuclear newcomers (U.S. President John F. Kennedy once foresaw as many as 20 nuclear-armed nations by 1975) and serving as a framework for international cooperation on disarmament.

The total number of nuclear weapons worldwide has shrunk by more than 75% from a mid-1980s peak, largely thanks to the end of the Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. But experts estimate roughly 13,000 warheads remain worldwide, the vast majority in the U.S. and Russia.

Meetings to assess how the treaty is working are supposed to happen every five years, but the 2020 conference was repeatedly delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Challenges have only grown in the meantime.

When launching the Ukraine war in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that any attempt to interfere would lead to “consequences you have never seen” and emphasized that his country is “one of the most potent nuclear powers.” Days later, Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to be put on higher alert, a move that U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called “bone-chilling.”

“The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility,” he said.

The events in Ukraine create a tricky choice for the upcoming conference, said Patricia Lewis, a former U.N. disarmament research official who is now at the international affairs think tank Chatham House in London.

“On the one hand, in order to support the treaty and what it stands for, governments will have to address Russia’s behavior and threats,” she said. “On the other hand, to do so risks dividing the treaty members.”

Another uncomfortable dynamic: The war has heightened some countries’ apprehensions about not having nuclear weapons, especially since Ukraine once housed but gave up a trove of Soviet nukes.

Ukraine is hardly the only hot topic.

North Korea appears to have been preparing recently for its first nuclear weapons test since 2017. And talks about reviving the deal meant to keep Iran from developing nukes are in limbo.

The U.S. and Russia have only one remaining treaty curtailing their nuclear weapons and have been developing new technologies. Britain last year raised a self-imposed cap on its stockpile. China says it’s modernizing — or, the U.S. claims, expanding — the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal.

U.S. Ambassador Adam Scheinman, the presidential special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, said Washington hopes for a “balanced” outcome that “sets realistic goals and advances our national and international security interests.”

The Associated Press sent inquiries to Russia’s U.N. mission about Moscow’s goals for the conference. There was no immediate response.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said his country wants to work toward improving global nuclear governance and upholding the international order and will “firmly safeguard the legitimate security and development interests and rights of China and the developing world.”

If the world can’t speak with one voice, disarmament advocates say a strong statement from a large group of countries could send a meaningful message.

In recent years, frustration with the Nonproliferation Treaty catalyzed another pact that outright prohibits nuclear weapons. Ratified by more than 60 countries, it took effect last year, though without any nuclear-armed nations on board.

At a recent meeting in Vienna, participating countries condemned “any and all nuclear threats” and inked a lengthy plan that includes considering an international trust fund for people harmed by nuclear weapons.

Fihn, whose Geneva-based group campaigned for the nuclear ban treaty, hopes the vigor in Vienna serves as inspiration — or notice — for countries to make progress at the U.N. conference.

“If you don’t do it here,” she said, “we’re moving on without you elsewhere.”

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England Beats Germany in Extra Time to Win Women’s Euro 2022

England beat Germany 2-1 in the final of the European Championship after extra time on Sunday to win its first major women’s soccer title.

Chloe Kelly scored the winning goal on a rebound in the second half of extra time after Germany failed to clear a corner. The game had finished 1-1 after 90 minutes at Wembley Stadium with Lina Magull for Germany canceling out Ella Toone’s goal for England.

After the final whistle, the England players danced and the crowd sang their anthem “Sweet Caroline.” The good-natured atmosphere inside the stadium Sunday drew contrasts with the violent scenes when the England men’s team lost its European Championship final to Italy at the same stadium a year ago.

“I always believed I’d be here, but to be here and score the winner, wow. These girls are amazing,” said Kelly, who returned from a serious knee injury in April. “This is amazing, I just want to celebrate now.”

Kelly took her shirt off to celebrate her goal, earning a yellow card but also a shout-out from Brandi Chastain, who celebrated in similar style when her penalty kick won the World Cup for the U.S. in 1999.

“Enjoy the free rounds of pints and dinners for the rest of your life from all of England. Cheers!” Chastain wrote on Twitter.

The tournament-record crowd of more than 87,000 underlined the growth of women’s soccer in Europe since the last time England and Germany played for a continental title 13 years ago.

On that occasion, Germany surged to a 6-2 win over an England team that still relied on part-time players. Two years later, England launched its Women’s Super League, which has professionalized the game and grown into one of the main competitions worldwide.

That has meant increasing competition for Germany, which was a pioneering nation in European women’s soccer and increasingly faces well-funded rivals in England, Spain and France. England’s title comes 56 years after the nation’s only major men’s title which was also an extra-time win at Wembley over Germany at the 1966 World Cup.

Wiegman remains unbeaten in 12 games as coach at the European Championships after winning the tournament first with the Netherlands and now with England. One of her first moves after England won was to share a hug with 35-year-old midfielder Jill Scott, the only remaining player on either team from England’s 2009 loss to Germany.

The game was refereed by Ukrainian Kateryna Monzul, who fled her home country after Russia invaded. One of Europe’s leading referees, Monzul left her home in Kharkiv, a major city that has been heavily bombarded by Russian forces — and spent five days living in a basement at her parents’ house before leaving the country and eventually living and working in Italy.

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Bill Russell, NBA Great and Celtics Legend, Dies at 88

Bill Russell, the National Basketball Association (NBA) great who anchored a Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 championships in 13 years — the last two as the first Black head coach in any major U.S. sport — and marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr., died Sunday. He was 88.

His family posted the news on social media, saying Russell died with his wife, Jeannine, by his side. The statement did not give the cause of death.

A Hall of Famer, five-time Most Valuable Player and 12-time All-Star, Russell in 1980 was voted the greatest player in the NBA history by basketball writers. He remains the sport’s most prolific winner and an archetype of selflessness who won with defense and rebounding while leaving the scoring to others. Often, that meant Wilt Chamberlain, the only player of the era who was a worthy rival for Russell.

The battles on the court between the centers were fierce — signature showdowns in the NBA. Russell led the University of San Francisco to NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 and won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics.

In Boston, Russell left a lasting mark as a Black athlete in a city — and country — where race is often a flash point. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Medal of Freedom. Two years later, a statue of Russell was unveiled on Boston’s City Hall Plaza.

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Police Fire Tear Gas on Sudanese Protest

Thousands of protesters marching towards Sudan’s presidential palace were blocked by police firing tear gas, as an anti-military campaign entered its 10th month. 

Protests have continued weekly since an Oct. 25 military takeover that halted a transition to democracy and plunged the country into turmoil. 

Police on Sunday blocked protesters from reaching the kilometer-long road that leads to the presidential palace and chased them into nearby side streets, Reuters journalists said. 

Military leaders have said they are prepared to step aside if civilian groups can agree on a new government but political parties have been skeptical. 

However, former Sovereign Council member Mohamed al-Faki Suleiman said in an interview with local media outlet Sudan Tribune on Saturday that new constitutional arrangements were being discussed between the former ruling Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition and other “revolutionary forces.” 

Sunday’s protests were the latest in a series of demonstrations since multi-day sit-ins in Sudan’s capital prior to the Eid holiday. Last week, a protest called for by the FFC was attacked by unidentified assailants. 

At least 116 people have been killed in the protests, and thousands injured, many by gunfire, according to medics. 

Protesters assume they will be arrested, injured, or killed, said an injured protester, who asked to be referred to by his nickname Karika. 

“We don’t think we’ll make it back home, and so we have only one message: the military should go to the barricades and the Rapid Support Forces should be dissolved,” he said, referencing the country’s powerful paramilitary group. 

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Senate Democrats Move Forward Bill to Tackle Climate, Taxes, Healthcare, Inflation

Senate Democrats last week made public the details of a broad bill that would address climate change, health care, inflation, and taxes. The announcement followed months of negotiations and infighting that seemed to derail major parts of U.S. President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda. But as VOA’s Arash Arabasadi reports, the bill faces stiff Republican opposition in the Senate.

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Crises Pushing Up Acute Malnutrition in Refugee Sites

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, this week reported that global crises have combined to raise levels of acute malnutrition in dozens of refugee sites surveyed, most of them in Africa. UNHCR’s 2021 Annual Public Health Global Review was released Friday.

UNHCR officials say they are concerned by their findings, which show a significant deterioration in the nutritional condition of refugees. Monitoring refugees’ nutritional status resumed last year after stopping in 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions.

The officials say a third of the 93 sites surveyed in 12 African countries and in Bangladesh showed serious levels of global acute malnutrition, a measurement of a population’s nutritional status, and 14% of locations recorded life-threatening levels of malnutrition.

UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo tells VOA the rates of malnutrition are particularly troubling as they were recorded before the war in Ukraine sent food and commodity prices rising.

“This is a key concern because nutritional intake is really key to building healthy and resilient communities,” she said. “The leading causes of illness for refugees remain upper respiratory tract infections and malaria and lower respiratory tract infections. And we had noncommunicable diseases also accounting for about 5% of consultations as well as mental health services.”

These concerns are playing out at a particularly difficult time marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and record levels of people being forcibly displaced by conflict, violence, and natural disasters.

Despite these problems, the UNHCR says gains were made in the inclusion of refugees into national health policies. A survey of 46 countries found 76% included refugees in their national health plans and practically all refugees were able to use primary health facilities.

In another promising result, by the end of last year, the report says 162 countries had included refugees and asylum-seekers in national COVID-19 vaccination plans.

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Al-Shabab Militants Execute 7 by Firing Squad in Somalia  

Somali-based militant group al-Shabab has executed seven men in Somalia’s southwestern region of Bay Six of them were accused of spying for the U.S and Somali government.

The execution that was conducted publicly took place in the vicinity of Buula-Fulay in Somalia’s Bay region late Saturday.

Six of the executed men were accused of spying for the Somali government and the U.S.

Three of them were also accused of providing intelligence that led to the killing of senior al-Shabab leaders, Yusuf Jiis and Abdulkadir Commandos, who were targeted in U.S. airstrikes in 2020.

An al-Shabab judge told local spectators that the six men have confessed, without providing evidence. Al-Shabab courts don’t allow lawyers who can defend the accused.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s Somali state president Mustafe Omar said that the region’s special forces operations against al-Shabab militants inflicted the group heavy casualties.

He said they believe that the troops killed 600 al-Shabab fighters during their operations against the militant group who a week ago infiltrated Ethiopia, sparking new confrontations near the Ethiopian border with Somalia.



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Kentucky Floods Kill at Least 26, Number to Keep Rising, Governor Says 

At least 26 people, including children, have died in floods unleashed by torrential rains in eastern Kentucky, and more fatalities are predicted with authorities expecting to continue finding bodies for weeks, Governor Andy Beshear said on Sunday. 

“There is widespread damage with many families displaced and more rain expected throughout the next day,” the governor wrote on Twitter on Sunday. 

“I know of several additional bodies, and we know it’s going to grow,” the governor told NBC News. “We are going to be finding bodies for weeks.” 

Four children were confirmed dead as of Saturday and the governor told NBC News he feared that number would go up at least by two on Sunday. 

The floods were the second major national disaster to strike Kentucky in seven months, following a swarm of tornadoes that claimed nearly 80 lives in the western part of the state in December.  

Beshear on Thursday declared an emergency and described the disaster as “one of the worst, most devastating flooding events” in Kentucky’s history.  

President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Kentucky on Friday, allowing federal funding to be allocated to the state. 

A flood watch was in effect through Monday morning for areas in southern and eastern Kentucky, the National Weather Service said. 

There were over 13,000 reports of power outages in the state early on Sunday, according to PowerOutage.US. 

The damage from the storms could take years to repair, Beshear said. 

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US Envoy Urges Progress on Ethiopia Peace Talks, Aid 

The new U.S. envoy for the Horn of Africa called Saturday for progress in holding Ethiopian peace talks and for unrestricted aid deliveries to stricken areas of the country.

Mike Hammer, who arrived in Addis Ababa Friday, held talks with Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen, the U.S. embassy said.

They discussed the “need for continued progress on ensuring unfettered humanitarian assistance delivery, human rights accountability & political talks to end the conflict & achieve a lasting peace”, the embassy said on Twitter.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the rival Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have both raised the prospect of peace talks to end the brutal conflict that erupted in November 2020.

But major obstacles have emerged, not least over who should mediate any negotiations.

Abiy wants the African Union, which is based in Addis Ababa, to broker any talks, while the TPLF is insisting that the negotiations are led by neighboring Kenya.

Abiy’s national security adviser Redwan Hussein said on Twitter this week that the government was ready to talk “anytime anywhere” and that negotiations should begin “without preconditions.”


Meanwhile, TPLF-linked Tigrai TV quoted the rebels’ leader Debretsion Gebremichael warning that basic services would have to be restored in Tigray before negotiations could begin.

Fighting has eased in northern Ethiopia since a humanitarian truce was declared at the end of March, allowing the resumption of desperately needed aid convoys.

Malnutrition and food insecurity

Untold numbers of people were killed in the war and the UN says more than 13 million people need food aid across Tigray and the neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara, with high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition.

Tigray itself is lacking in food, fuel and essential services such as electricity, communications and banking, with hundreds of thousands living in dire conditions because of what the United Nations has described as a de facto blockade.

The UN’s humanitarian response agency OCHA said that since the resumption of humanitarian convoys on April 1, 4,308 trucks had arrived in Tigray’s capital Mekele as of July 19.

In Addis, Hammer also “reviewed” the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the large-scale hydroelectric project on the Blue Nile, the embassy said.

On Friday, Egypt said it had protested to the U.N. Security Council against Ethiopian plans to fill the reservoir of the controversial dam for a third year without agreement from downstream countries.

The multi-billion-dollar GERD is set to be the largest hydroelectric scheme in Africa but has been at the center of a dispute with Egypt and Sudan ever since work began in 2011.

“We are actively engaged in supporting a diplomatic way forward under the African Union’s auspices that arrives at an agreement that provides for the long-term needs of every citizen along the Nile,” Hammer said on a visit to Egypt this week.

Addis Ababa deems the GERD essential for the electrification and development of Africa’s second most populous country.

But Cairo and Khartoum fear it could threaten their access to vital Nile waters.

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New York City Declares Monkeypox Public Health Emergency

New York has declared a public health emergency due to a monkeypox outbreak.  Mayor Eric Adams and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan made the announcement Saturday.

The two officials said in a joint statement that “New York City is currently the epicenter of the outbreak, and we estimate that approximately 150,000 New Yorkers may currently be at risk for monkeypox exposure.”

“Over the past few weeks, we have moved as quickly as possible to expand outreach and access to vaccines and treatment to keep people safe,” the officials said.  “We will continue to work with our federal partners to secure more doses as soon as they become available. This outbreak must be met with urgency, action, and resources, both nationally and globally, and this declaration of a public health emergency reflects the seriousness of the moment.”

On Friday, New York state Governor Kathy Hochul issued an executive order declaring a state disaster emergency because of the monkeypox outbreak. In her executive order, Hochul said that “More than one in four monkeypox cases in this country are in New York State.”  Her declaration also expanded the number of health care individuals who can administer the monkeypox vaccines.

The World Health Organization has declared the global monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said recently that while 98% of global monkeypox cases “are among men who have sex with men, anyone exposed can get monkeypox, which is why WHO recommends that countries take action to reduce the risk of transmission to other vulnerable groups, including children, pregnant women and those who are immunosuppressed.”

Tedros said, “In addition to transmission through sexual contact, monkeypox can be spread in households through close contact between people, such as hugging and kissing, and on contaminated towels or bedding.” 

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Nigerian Street Vendor Brutally Killed in Italy

Hundreds of people from the Nigerian community of the central Italian city of Civitanova Marche took to the streets Saturday to protest the slaying of a Nigerian street vendor.

The killing was caught in cellphone video, but no one intervened to stop the slaying of the disabled man.

Police say an Italian man, Filippo Claudio Giuseppe Ferlazzo, 32, has been arrested in connection with the brutal beating of Alika Ogorchukwu, a 39-year-old husband and father.

The footage of the incident shows Ferlazzo using the vendor’s crutch to strike him down. Ogorchukwu had lost his job as a laborer after being hit by a car. He needed to use a crutch to walk after the accident.

The street vendor was unable to get up after Ferlazzo attacked him, the video shows, because the Italian man used his weight to keep Ogorchukwu down.

“The aggressor went after the victim, first hitting him with a crutch,” police investigator Matteo Luconi said at a press conference.  “He made him fall to the ground, then he finished, causing the death, striking repeatedly with his bare hands.”

An autopsy has been ordered to determine the cause of Ogorchukwu’s death.

“My condemnation is not only for the [crime], but it is also for the indifference,” Civitanova Marche’s mayor, Fabrizio Ciarapica, told Sky News.

“A father was killed in an atrocious and racist way while passersby took video without stopping the aggressor,” said former Premier Matteo Renzi.  He urged people to reflect “on what we are becoming.”

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.

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Pelosi Confirms Asia Visit, Doesn’t Mention Taiwan

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed Sunday she is leading a congressional delegation to Asia but did not mention whether she will defy China by making a stop in Taiwan.

In a statement, Pelosi said she is leading a group of five other Democratic Party lawmakers to Asia “to reaffirm America’s strong and unshakeable commitment to our allies and friends in the region.”

The trip will include stops in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan, the statement said. The group already stopped in Hawaii, where it received a briefing from the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command, it added.

U.S. media reports Friday suggested Pelosi was tentatively planning to stop in Taiwan. Pelosi herself has indirectly spoken about such a possibility, even though her office has not confirmed it, citing security protocols.

It would be the highest-level U.S. visit to Taiwan since 1997, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich led a congressional delegation there.

China had repeatedly warned Pelosi’s trip would be an unacceptable violation of what it sees as its sovereignty over the self-ruled island.

Taiwan and China split in 1949 after a civil war, with the defeated nationalist forces fleeing to Taiwan and setting up a government that later grew into a vibrant democracy.

Since then, China’s Communist Party has vowed to take Taiwan, using force if necessary, even though the island has never been led by the Communist Party.

Chinese leaders strongly object to U.S. shows of support for Taiwan’s government, which they see as illegitimate.

In a Thursday phone call with U.S. President Joe Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a blunt warning over Taiwan, saying “those who play with fire will perish by it,” according to a Chinese government readout.

China’s foreign ministry has also vowed Beijing would “act strongly” and “take countermeasures” in response to a Pelosi visit.

White House officials said Friday they saw no evidence China’s military was preparing major action against Taiwan.

China announced Saturday it was holding “live-fire” military exercises off its coast facing Taiwan. The drills, which were set to last from 8 a.m.-9 p.m. local time, occurred near the Pingtan islands off Fujian province, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency. The report did not specify what type of weapons were used in the exercises.

On Sunday, a spokesperson for China’s air force said Beijing has the “firm will” and “sufficient capability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The spokesperson, who was quoted in state media, also said China had various fighter jets that can circle “the precious island of our motherland.”

China has flown an increasing number of warplanes through Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identification zone in recent years, greatly raising tensions in the Taiwan Strait. In recent weeks, Chinese state media editorials have warned Chinese fighter jets could follow and intercept Pelosi’s plane.

Hu Xijin, a fiercely nationalistic commentator for the Communist Party’s Global Times, even suggested in a tweet that the Chinese military has the right to “forcibly dispel” any U.S. aircraft traveling or escorting Pelosi to Taiwan.

“If ineffective, then shoot them down,” Hu said in the tweet, which was later removed because it violated Twitter guidelines.

Despite China’s warnings, a large, bipartisan chorus of lawmakers had urged Pelosi to not back down, saying China should not be allowed to dictate where U.S. officials visit.

“It would make it look like America can be shoved around,” former House Speaker Gingrich told VOA’s Mandarin Service earlier this week. Gingrich said he supports Pelosi’s trip, which will likely only amount to “an irritation” to U.S.-China ties.

“I think this is at one level a lot of noise about nothing,” Gingrich said. “I think if she holds her ground, and if the Biden administration doesn’t act timidly and almost cowardly, I think everything will be fine.”

Taiwan is one of the most dangerous points of tension in an increasingly fraught U.S.-China relationship.

The United States formally cut official relations with Taiwan in 1979 when it switched diplomatic recognition to China. However, the United States has continued to supply Taiwan with defensive weapons as mandated by the U.S. Congress.

U.S. presidents have long used a policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan – essentially leaving their options open in the case of a Chinese invasion of the island.

However, Biden’s recent comments have raised doubts about that approach. Since taking office, Biden on three occasions has said the U.S. is committed to defending Taiwan.

Biden has been cautious, though, on the prospect of a Pelosi visit. Earlier this month, Biden said the U.S. military does not think a visit would be a good idea.

Pelosi’s possible visit comes at a sensitive moment for Xi, who is expected to use a Communist Party Congress later this year to secure a controversial third term as China’s top leader.

Observers have said Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, may want to send a tough message on Taiwan ahead of the meeting. But he may also want to preserve stability around a sensitive political moment.

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Friday there is “no reason” for increased tension with China because U.S. policy has not changed.

Kirby reiterated that Pelosi “does not need nor do we offer approval or disapproval” for travel. He added: “The speaker is entitled to travel aboard a military aircraft.”

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Cameroon Becomes a Go-To Country for Foreign Fishing Vessels 

Off the coast of West Africa, the Trondheim is a familiar sight: a soccer field-sized ship, plying the waters from Nigeria to Mauritania as it pulls in tons of mackerel and sardines — and flying the red, yellow and green flag of Cameroon.

But aside from the flag, there is almost nothing about the Trondheim that is Cameroonian.

Once, it operated under the name of the King Fisher and sailed under the flag of the Caribbean nation St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Then it switched to Georgia, the former Soviet republic. It was only in 2019 that it began flying the banner of Cameroon.

The Trondheim is one of several vessels reflagged under Cameroon’s growing fishing fleet that have changed names and been accused of illicit activities at sea. Currently, an investigation by The Associated Press found, 14 of these vessels are owned or managed by companies based in European Union member states: Belgium, Malta, Latvia and Cyprus.

The AP examined over 80 ship profiles on MarineTraffic, a maritime analytics provider, and matched them with company records through IHS Maritime & Trade and the International Maritime Organization or IMO.

“They’re interested in the flag. They’re not interested in Cameroon,” said Beatrice Gorez, coordinator for the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements, a group of organizations highlighting the impacts of EU-African fisheries arrangements that identified the recent connection between companies in EU member states and the Cameroon fleet.

Each of the vessels changed flags to Cameroon between 2019 and 2021, though they had no obvious link to the country and did not fish in its waters. The Trondheim and at least five others have a history of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, according to a report by the environmental group Greenpeace. Both the vessels and their owners conceal what they catch, where it goes and who is financially benefiting from it, maritime and company records show.

In recent years, Cameroon has emerged as one of several go-to countries for the widely criticized “flags of convenience” system, under which companies can — for a fee — register their ships in a foreign country even though there is no link between the vessel and the nation whose flag it flies.

The ships are supposed to abide by that nation’s fishing agreements with other countries. But experts say weak oversight and enforcement of fishing fleets by countries with open registries like Cameroon offer shipping companies a veil of secrecy that allows them to mask their operations.

That secrecy, the experts say, also undermines global attempts to sustainably manage fisheries and threatens the livelihoods of millions of people in regions like West Africa. Cameroonian officials say all the ships that fly its flag are legally registered and abide by all of its laws. But regulators in Europe recently warned the country that its inability to provide oversight of its fishing fleet could lead to a ban on fish from the country.

Cameroon’s flagged fishing fleet is minuscule compared to countries such as Liberia, Panama or the Marshall Islands. But the rapid adoption of the country’s flag by some shipping companies accused of illegal fishing is raising alarm.

“This is a big issue,” said Aristide Takoukam, a biologist and founder of the African Marine Mammal Conservation Organization, a non-profit based in Cameroon that monitors illegal fishing. “I don’t think Cameroon is able to monitor these vessels that are flying Cameroon flags outside its waters.”

A history of lax oversight

Cameroon has long been criticized for lax oversight of its fishing fleet. A study published last year in the journal African Security documented deep-rooted corruption in the ministries that oversee the fishing industry. In that same year, the European Commission issued a “yellow card” to the country, warning it to step up its actions against illegal fishing.

The commission identified a series of shortcomings, including that the country had registered several fishing vessels — some of them accused of illegal fishing — under its flag in the past few years, raising concerns about the nation’s ability to control and monitor the activities of its fleet.

If Cameroon does not comply after its initial warning, the commission can issue a “red card,” effectively listing them as a non-cooperating country. And it can ban their fish products from entering EU markets.

The commission’s report named a dozen fishing vessels registered between 2019 and 2020 whose names were not provided to them by Cameroonian authorities. At least eight of the 12 identified vessels are managed or owned by European companies. The AP found six more vessels not included in the EU report.

The European Commission did not respond to the AP’s requests for comment.

Data from two maritime intelligence companies, Windward and Lloyd’s List Intelligence, reveals an accelerated growth in the number of vessels that sail under the Cameroonian flag in the past four years, from 14 vessels in 2018 to more than 129 in 2022. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, Cameroon’s fishing capacity is now nine times larger than it was before 2018.

While the number of flagged ships has grown, the resources to monitor them have not kept pace, a review of budget documents show. The documents show that the budget for the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries’ control and supervision of fisheries declined 32% from 2019 to last year.

While countries have a right to allow vessels to adopt their nationality and fly their flag, Article 91 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea requires a “genuine link” to be established between a vessel and its flag state.

Despite this, foreign vessels in countries with open registries often have little to no relationship with their flag states. The responsibility falls on the flagged country to control operations of the vessels in their fleet, including any illegal activity caused in other nations’ waters or on the high seas.

“The very point of flags of convenience is that it’s easy, it’s cheap, you can do it quickly, and they are not necessarily looking at your history of compliance,” said Julien Daudu, senior campaigner at the Environmental Justice Foundation, a British NGO focusing on environmental and human rights issues.

Paul Nkesi, a representative of the agency that oversees fisheries, the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries, says that although the government recognizes the need to step up its surveillance of industrial trawlers, all vessels are registered lawfully in Cameroon.

All of the 14 EU-linked vessels registered to Cameroon are massive trawler ships at least 100 meters long; none operate in Cameroonian waters. Tracking data show the ships journeying between ports in Mauritania, Angola, South Africa, and Namibia.

Still, for the local fishermen who already compete with the Chinese-owned vessels in their waters, the pressure of a growing fleet is creating concerns that Cameroon will be completely overpowered by foreign-owned vessels.

“Their business is only fishing; they can fish more than 1,000 local boats. If those bigger [international] vessels enter here, we’ll be really affected,” said Simeon Oviri, a local fisherman in Youpwe, a coastal area near Douala, Cameroon’s largest city.

Maurice Beseng, a research associate at the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Development and visiting fellow in maritime security at Coventry University, said ships operating the flags of convenience appear to be using the system to circumvent the limits on fishing imposed by the European Union.

Differing sets of rules

The EU has fishing agreements with numerous countries, and EU-flagged vessels are subject to stricter fishing restrictions around the world, including in West Africa. But ships flagged to other countries outside the union are not subject to the same fishing limits.

For example, data from Global Fishing Watch, which uses satellite data and machine learning to monitor activity at sea, shows most of the EU-affiliated, Cameroonian-flagged trawlers appear to be fishing in Mauritania, a country that has one of the most robust fishing agreements with the EU.

Under this agreement, trawlers fishing with an EU flag have a total fishing capacity of 225,000 tons for a maximum of 19 vessels. Once that quota is met, all fishing activity has to stop.

But foreign vessels not under any agreement can fish in Mauritania under a free license. For the Cameroon-flagged trawlers, this means they can go above the EU limit without having to land their catches in Mauritania.

The same goes for Gambia, where industrial fishing vessels flagged to Cameroon may fish for any species outside the 7-mile nautical limit. However, if the vessel is flagged to an EU member state, the vessel can only fish for tuna and hake, according to current sustainable fisheries partnership agreements between the small West African country and the EU.

“They are able to use that as a loophole to go beyond the agreements,” said Charles Kilgour, director of fisheries analysis for Global Fishing Watch.

The trawler vessels catch small fish species, including horse mackerel, sardinella and anchovy, which recent stock assessments have shown are overfished along the Atlantic coast of West Africa.

These species are a lucrative and vital food source across the region, with an estimated 6.7 million people dependent directly on them. Sardinella in particular are locally consumed in the region as an affordable source of protein and nutrients. Currently, the Food and Agriculture Organization lists most of the targeted species as either fully exploited or overexploited.

Although it’s unclear where the fish goes after being unloaded in ports, Beseng notes that the fish targeted by these vessels commonly enter EU markets to be used as fish meal and fish oil.

“Their impact is huge. These are species that the local population depend on,” Beseng said. “The increase in catch has increased food security challenges for coastal communities.”

While environmental and maritime security experts applauded the EU for issuing the yellow card to Cameroon for the lax oversight of its fishing fleet, they say not enough is being done to target the EU-based companies that are the culprits.

“If you have European companies that are working under this flag,” Daudu said, “you should also demonstrate exemplary behavior by going after your own nationals.”

But just finding the trail can be a daunting — and sometimes insurmountable — challenge. “It’s really like an ink bottle. You can get so far, and then at some point it becomes completely opaque,” Gorez said. “It makes it really difficult to find information on who owns these vessels.”

The companies

The AP tracked the 14 vessels ultimately to four active companies: Ocean Whale Co. Ltd in Malta, INOK NV in Belgium, Sundborn Management Ltd in Cyprus and Baltreids SIA in Latvia.

Ocean Whale operates several former Soviet trawlers, including a ship formerly known as the Coral that has changed the flag under which it operates seven times since 2005. Recently, it switched to the Cameroon flag after two months under the Russian flag.

Other ships in the company’s fleet were involved in a 2010-12 fishing license scandal in Senegal. Under an agreement that was neither allowed by law nor publicly disclosed, the fisheries ministry granted several of its vessels licenses to catch small fish that were in danger of being overfished. The company and the minister denied wrongdoing.

The company did not respond to the AP’s requests for comment.

On its website, the Ocean Whale Co. said it catches fish in Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Namibia, and that “the company is only engaged in legal fishing activities under the licenses issued by the coastal States and strictly adheres to all applicable environmental regulations.”

Another group of ships registered to EU companies and recently flagged to Cameroon were also named in the Senegalese fishing scandal. Data from the IMO, the Maritime & Trade database and the Russian maritime register of shipping identifies the fleet’s owners as various companies in Cyprus and Belgium, with each ultimately managed by Sundborn Management Ltd, a company registered in Cyprus and INOK NV, a company registered in Belgium.

Both INOK and Sundborn Management offer vessel registration services. Among them: choosing a “flag of convenience and a ship register for a vessel,” in Malta, Cyprus, Panama, Belize and other countries.

Neither company responded to requests for comments from the AP.

Belgium’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries said it has been contacted by the European Commission about vessels managed by INOK that have reflagged to Cameroon between 2019 and 2020 but said it couldn’t comment on ongoing investigations.

Baltreids Ltd, a Latvian fishing company established in 1998, manages five Cameroon-flagged vessels. The company structure includes two other holdings listed as official owners of the vessels in 2021, Limmat Inter SA, based in the Seychelles, and Oceanic Fisheries NB Ltd, based in Canada.

Baltreids has been accused of a number of suspicious activities, including insurance fraud and illegal fishing in the Atlantic Ocean. A 2020 Canadian Broadcasting Corp. investigation found that Oceanic Fisheries N.B., was flagged by global banks for more than $31 million in suspicious money transfers, according to documents shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other news organizations as part of the FinCEN Files.

When trying to track down a physical presence of the company in Canada, the CBC hit a dead end.

The Latvian IUU Single Liaison Office, the team that works with the EU Commission to regulate IUU fishing in Latvia, told the AP that the Marshal Vasilevskiy was excluded from the Latvian Ship Register in November 2019, when the ship reflagged to Cameroon, and the Kaptian Rusak was never registered under the Latvian flag. Instead, the vessel is listed as owned by Fishing Company SA, a company based in the British Virgin Islands.

IMO data lists ownership of the five Cameroon-flagged vessels owned by either Baltreids Ltd, Limmat Inter SA or Oceanic Fisheries NB Ltd, effective between 2019 and 2021. The New Brunswick corporate register indicates that Oceanic Fisheries N.B. has been inactive since October 2021.

Baltreids denied ever having links to Oceanic Fisheries N.B. or to engaging in any illegal fishing or money laundering to the CBC. In response to the AP, the company said it presently owns two vessels registered in Latvia.

Upping the accountability

According to Gorez, the timing of the ships’ reflagging to Cameroon in recent years seem to correspond with the 2017 adoption of the Sustainable Management of External Fishing Fleets , a regulation adopted by the European Parliament aimed to monitor EU vessels that operate outside EU waters.

The regulation requires fishing vessels to provide information regarding their operations’ sustainability and legality before their EU member state can issue them an authorization to fish in the waters of third countries.

“This regulation is really trying to catch these guys, but as soon as it becomes too complicated, then the easy way out is to change the flag,” Gorez said. “It’s like when you try to catch soap with your hands. It slips and goes somewhere else.”

Since 2010, the EU has incorporated other provisions to make its nationals more accountable for fisheries operations, regardless of country or vessel flags — most notably by penalizing EU nationals who engage in or support illegal or unregulated fishing anywhere in the world, under any flag.

But it’s up to the member states to address the issue. Gorez says the states involved in this matter — Latvia, Malta, Belgium and Cyprus — have so far shown little interest.

“We can see the duplicity of the EU in terms of their effort to fight IUU fishing. They’ve come up with good regulations, but when you go deep into how this is implemented in practice, you see that there are a lot of loopholes,” Beseng said.

Part of the SMEFF regulation is to maintain a database including information on the beneficial owners of operations by vessels flagged in an EU member state. As of now, the information remains confidential.

“How can you expect an official in a remote country that sees a vessel coming to be able to easily retrace the whole history of the vessel by himself if the former flag state does not put that information online?” said Daudu. “It would cost a lot of time. It would take a lot of verification. Sometimes it’s so well concealed that you can’t even find information.”

This story was supported by funding from the Walton Family Foundation and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Passenger Rail Return to US City Took Vision, Decades

After a nearly 70-year absence, a passenger train running from Vermont’s revitalized Burlington train station to New York City headed south Friday as part of a nationwide renewal of interest in rail travel.

Last November, President Joe Biden, who famously rode Amtrak between Washington and his Delaware home during his 36 years in the Senate, signed legislation that includes $102 billion for passenger and freight rail investment that will help Amtrak improve and expand its services over time.

Among the projects that will be funded with the help of the rail infrastructure money is a a planned $11 billion train tunnel under the Hudson River linking New Jersey and New York.

Vermont’s new Burlington rail expansion caps a nearly 30-year-long effort that saw about $117 million spent on rail infrastructure and comes a year after Amtrak, on its 50th anniversary as the nation’s passenger rail service, announced a $75 billion, 15-year plan to expand passenger rail around the country.

“With the price of gas, we just jump on the train, sit back and relax and don’t have to worry about it,” said Justin Kratz, who was boarding the Vermont train Friday headed home to Philadelphia.

The new service ran into some early hiccups when passengers were forced to get off the train and take a bus for the portion of the trip in upstate New York between Saratoga Springs and Albany, said Amtrak spokesperson Jason Abrams.

The track in Albany runs by an old warehouse with a wall in danger of collapsing, and Amtrak is avoiding that stretch out of safety concerns. The issue is causing service disruptions on other Amtrak lines. Abrams could not say how long the track in Albany would be closed.

Amtrak, which now serves 46 states, has recently been restoring service that was disrupted by the pandemic and adding service in other parts of the country, including New England, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association — an organization working to expand and improve passenger service — said the goal of expanding passenger rail has been around for decades but has seen a boost more recently.

“I know in some quarters that might sound a bit corny, but we have advocates in our coalition who have literally spent their entire lives dedicated to advancing these arguments,” Mathews said in an email. “When the tide began to turn in 2017, it was in part because of this slow buildup of support and evidence that this is good public policy.”

Mathews said his organization has conducted studies that show the benefits of passenger rail, including that it produces gains across the board in jobs, incomes, business-to-business transactions and even local and state tax revenues.

“We have also been able to show Congress going back to 2017 how important passenger rail is for the disabled and the marginalized, for whom trains in many cases are the only form of public transportation available,” he said. “We have also been able to show compelling environmental benefits, as an exceptionally green way to travel.”

Vermont State Sen. Dick Mazza, the longtime chair of the Senate Transportation Committee who worked for years to help bring passenger rail back to Burlington, said it has been an unexpectedly long process to accomplish the bipartisan vision of bringing passenger rail to the state’s largest city, which has a population of about 45,000.

“We said, ‘Well, you know, it’s a long road, but someday it’s going to make a lot of sense for Burlington to New York City,’ not knowing what 20 years later would bring,” he said.

The new Burlington service is an extension of the Ethan Allen Express, which has run between New York City and Rutland since the mid-1990s.

It was around that time, shortly after Amtrak started serving Rutland, that the state — boosted largely by former Gov. Howard Dean, his administration, its successors and the congressional delegation — began applying for a series of federal grants needed to upgrade the rails and other infrastructure, such as rail crossings and stations. The state money that was kicked in over the intervening years enabled the entire stretch to be brought up to passenger rail standards.

Dean was ridiculed by some for his support of rail, and he had to overcome some local opposition. Today, he says he’s happy to leave his car at home in Burlington and ride the train to see his grandchildren in Philadelphia, changing trains in New York.

“You don’t want to use a car in a big city if you can help it,” Dean said. “There is no garage, no driving, no hassle, no rude people.”

The 7 1/2-hour trip between Burlington and New York will be about two hours longer than driving. The top speed between Burlington and Rutland will be 94.95 kph, but that could be increased with future technology upgrades.

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Some US Residents Begin Cleanup After Deadly Floods

Some residents of Appalachia returned to flood-ravaged homes and communities on Saturday to shovel mud and debris and to salvage what they could, while Kentucky’s governor said search and rescue operations were ongoing in the region swamped by torrential rains days earlier that led to deadly flash flooding.

Rescue crews were continuing the struggle to get into hard-hit areas, some of them among the poorest places in America. Dozens of deaths have been confirmed and the number is expected to grow.

In the tiny community of Wayland, Phillip Michael Caudill was working Saturday to clean up debris and recover what he could from the home he shares with his wife and three children. The waters had receded from the house but left a mess behind along with questions about what he and his family will do next.

“We’re just hoping we can get some help,” said Caudill, who is staying with his family at Jenny Wiley State Park in a free room, for now.

Caudill, a firefighter in the nearby Garrett community, went out on rescues around 1 a.m. Thursday but had to ask to leave around 3 a.m. so he could go home, where waters were rapidly rising.

“That’s what made it so tough for me,” he said. “Here I am, sitting there, watching my house become immersed in water and you got people begging for help. And I couldn’t help,” because he was tending to his own family.

The water was up to his knees when he arrived home and he had to wade across the yard and carry two of his kids out to the car. He could barely shut the door of his SUV as they were leaving.

In Garrett on Saturday, couches, tables and pillows soaked by flooding were stacked in yards along the foothills of the mountainous region as people worked to clear out debris and shovel mud from driveways and roads under now-blue skies.

Hubert Thomas, 60, and his nephew Harvey, 37, fled to Jenny Wiley State Resort Park in Prestonburg after floodwaters destroyed their home in Pine Top late Wednesday night. The two were able to rescue their dog, CJ, but fear the damages to the home are beyond repair. Hubert Thomas, a retired coal miner, said his entire life savings was invested in his home.

“I’ve got nothing now,” he said.

Harvey Thomas, an EMT, said he fell asleep to the sound of light rain, and it wasn’t long until his uncle woke him up warning him that water was getting dangerously close to the house.

“It was coming inside and it just kept getting worse,” he said, “like there was, at one point, we looked at the front door and mine and his cars was playing bumper cars, like bumper boats in the middle of our front yard.”

As for what’s next, Harvey Thomas said he doesn’t know, but he’s thankful to be alive.

“Mountain people are strong,” he said. “And like I said it’s not going to be tomorrow, probably not next month, but I think everybody’s going to be OK. It’s just going to be a long process.”

At least 25 have people died — including four children — in the flooding, Kentucky’s governor said Saturday.

“We continue to pray for the families that have suffered an unfathomable loss,” Gov. Andy Beshear said. ”Some having lost almost everyone in their household.”

Beshear said the number would likely rise significantly and it could take weeks to find all the victims of the record flash flooding. Crews have made more than 1,200 rescues from helicopters and boats, the governor said.

“I’m worried that we’re going to be finding bodies for weeks to come,” Beshear said during a midday briefing.

The rain let up early Friday after parts of eastern Kentucky received between 20-27 centimeters over 48 hours. But some waterways were not expected to crest until Saturday. About 18,000 utility customers in Kentucky remained without power Saturday, poweroutage.us reported.

It’s the latest in a string of catastrophic deluges that have pounded parts of the U.S. this summer, including St. Louis earlier this week and again on Friday. Scientists warn climate change is making weather disasters more common.

As rainfall hammered Appalachia this week, water tumbled down hillsides and into valleys and hollows where it swelled creeks and streams coursing through small towns. The torrent engulfed homes and businesses and trashed vehicles. Mudslides marooned some people on steep slopes.

President Joe Biden declared a federal disaster to direct relief money to more than a dozen Kentucky counties.

The flooding extended into western Virginia and southern West Virginia.

Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency for six counties in West Virginia where the flooding downed trees, power outages and blocked roads. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin also made an emergency declaration, enabling officials to mobilize resources across the flooded southwest of the state.

The deluge came two days after record rains around St. Louis dropped more than 31 centimeters and killed at least two people. Last month, heavy rain on mountain snow in Yellowstone National Park triggered historic flooding and the evacuation of more than 10,000 people. In both instances, the rain flooding far exceeded what forecasters predicted.

Extreme rain events have become more common as climate change bakes the planet and alters weather patterns, according to scientists. That’s a growing challenge for officials during disasters, because models used to predict storm impacts are in part based on past events and can’t keep up with increasingly devastating flash floods and heat waves like those that have recently hit the Pacific Northwest and southern Plains.

“It’s a battle of extremes going on right now in the United States,” said University of Oklahoma meteorologist Jason Furtado. “These are things we expect to happen because of climate change. … A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor and that means you can produce increased heavy rainfall.”

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Zelenskyy Calls for Evacuation of Eastern Donetsk

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Saturday for the evacuation of eastern Donetsk province, the region that has seen the fiercest fighting as Russia seeks to fully control it.

Hundreds of thousands of people, including children and the elderly, remain in combat zones of the larger Donbas region, which includes Donetsk and Luhansk. It is also the region where Ukrainian prisoners of war died in a missile attack earlier this week.

Zelenskyy made the announcement Saturday during his nightly video address to his nation.

“The more people leave [the] Donetsk region now, the fewer people the Russian army will have time to kill,” he said, adding that residents who left would be given compensation, he said according to Reuters.

Zalenskyy promised logistical support to persuade people to leave.

“Many refuse to leave but it still needs to be done,” the president said. “If you have the opportunity, please talk to those who still remain in the combat zones in Donbas. Please convince them that it is necessary to leave.”

Earlier Saturday, Ukraine demanded that Russia be held accountable for a missile attack that killed dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war at a Russian-operated detention facility in eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government on Saturday called on the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to immediately investigate Friday’s attack.

With international outrage building over the missile strike, the United Nations pledged support to help investigate the prison attack.

“In relation to the recent tragedy at the prison in Olenivka, we stand ready to send a group of experts able to conduct an investigation, requiring the consent of the parties,” said Farhan Haq, deputy spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general in a statement released Saturday.

Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of carrying out the attack. Neither claim could be independently verified. So far, no international aid organizations have been granted access to the bombed-out site. The Red Cross requested access to help evacuate the wounded.

In a statement Sunday, Russia said it has invited United Nations and Red Cross experts to investigate the deaths at the prison, according to Reuters.

The statement from the defense ministry said it was acting “in the interests of conducting an objective investigation” into what it called an attack on the prison earlier in the week.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said 40 prisoners were killed and 75 were wounded at the detention facility located in the Russian-occupied Donetsk region. Russia insisted Ukraine used American-made weapons to hit the prison to prevent its own fighters from surrendering to Russian forces.

Ukraine’s armed forces disputed the claim and said Russian artillery targeted the prison camp to hide the mistreatment of the prisoners.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the attack a deliberate Russian war crime and a mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war.

The Ukrainian army is trying to get the bodies of those killed returned, but Russia has only released the names of the dead.

Meanwhile, fighting raged on as Ukraine’s military claimed its forces killed more than 100 Russian soldiers in the southern area of Kherson. Military officials Saturday said its forces bombed railway and road bridges inside Russian controlled territories.

Russia announced Saturday its forces killed more than 130 elite Ukrainian soldiers aboard a train in the Donbas region last week and were making gains in other locations on the battlefield.

Grain shipments

In other developments, the first ship loaded with Ukrainian grain is set to sail from the Black Sea port of Chornomorsk.

Last week Russia and Ukraine agreed to unblock grain exports from Black Sea ports, which have been threatened by Russian attacks since the invasion. The blockade of grain in Ukraine, one of the world’s biggest exporters, has led to sharp increases in global food prices.

Grain shipments from the country were allowed to resume after a U.N. brokered agreement was signed in Turkey last week.

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and mentioned the importance of Russia following through on the agreement.

Blinken also warned of consequences should Moscow move ahead with suspected plans to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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Zambia Debt Relief Pledge Clears Way for $1.4 Billion, IMF Says

Zambia’s creditors pledged to negotiate a restructuring of the country’s debts on Saturday, a move International Monetary Fund managing director Kristalina Georgieva welcomed as “clearing the way” for a $1.4 billion IMF program. 

The creditor committee, co-chaired by China and France, said in a statement released by G-20 chair Indonesia that it supported Zambia’s “envisaged IMF upper credit tranche program and its swift adoption by the IMF Executive Board.” 

In 2020, Zambia became the first African country in the pandemic era to default. The restructuring of its external debt, which amounted to more than $17 billion at the end of 2021, is seen by many analysts as a test case. 

“Very pleased the Official Creditor Committee for Zambia has provided its financial assurances clearing the way for a Fund program,” IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva said in a tweet.  


“The delivery of these financing assurances will enable the IMF Executive Board to consider approval of a Fund-supported program for Zambia and unlock much needed financing from Zambia’s development partners,” Georgieva said in a statement released by the IMF after her tweet. 

Zambia reached a staff-level agreement with the IMF on a $1.4 billion, three-year extended credit facility in December, conditional upon its ability to reduce debt to levels the IMF deems sustainable. 

Zambia’s government welcomed the creditors’ pledge and its unlocking of IMF support. 

“Zambia remains committed to implementing the much needed economic reforms, being transparent about our debt and ensuring fair and equitable treatment of our creditors,” Finance Minister Situmbeko Musokotwane said. 

On Friday, the finance ministry said it was canceling $2 billion in undisbursed loans. 

Zambia’s creditor committee said that the restructuring terms would be finalized in a memorandum of understanding, without providing further details. 

It also called on private creditors to “commit without delay” to negotiating debt relief on terms at least as favorable. 

Kevin Daly, who chairs a committee of holders of Zambia’s Eurobonds, welcomed the bilateral creditors’ statement, but repeated a call to be given access to the IMF’s Debt Sustainability Analysis (DSA), which forms the basis of negotiations. 

“That’s where you could have delays with the restructuring, if all of a sudden we get the DSA and … (it) is just way too conservative, in terms of the forecasts,” Daly, of emerging markets investor abrdn, formerly Standard Life Aberdeen, told Reuters by telephone. 

The first bilateral creditor meeting was held in June, after Zambia’s government complained of delays to the restructuring. Talks are taking place under the Common Framework, a debt relief process launched by the Group of 20 major economies in 2020 that has been criticized by some for being slow to yield results. 

“This shows the potential of the #G20CommonFramework for debt treatment to deliver for countries committed to dealing with their debt problems,” Georgieva said in the tweet. 

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Iran Arrests Swedish Citizen on Espionage Charges

Iran has arrested a Swedish citizen on espionage charges, the official IRNA news agency reported on Saturday, after a court in Stockholm sentenced a former Iranian official for war crimes earlier this month.

Iran has arrested dozens of foreigners and dual nationals in recent years, mostly on espionage and security-related accusations. Rights groups call that a tactic to win concessions from abroad by inventing charges, which Tehran denies.

“The suspect had been under surveillance by the intelligence ministry during several previous trips to Iran because of (their) suspicious behavior and contacts,” IRNA quoted the Iranian intelligence ministry statement as saying.

It did not give a name or say when the arrest was made but added that the suspect had a history of going to the Palestinian territories, went to non-tourist destinations in Iran, and contacted people, including Europeans, under surveillance.

The intelligence ministry statement accused Sweden of “proxy spying” on behalf of Iran’s archenemy Israel, which it said would draw a “proportional reaction” from Iran.

Sweden’s Foreign Ministry said it was aware of the case.

A spokesperson said the case is that of a Swedish man whom the Foreign Ministry had said in May had been detained in Iran. Tehran did not report that arrest at that time. 

Relations between Sweden and Iran have been difficult since Sweden detained and put on trial a former Iranian official on charges of war crimes for the mass execution and torture of political prisoners at an Iranian prison in the 1980s.

On July 14, a Swedish court sentenced the man, Hamid Noury, to life in prison.

Iran condemned that as politically motivated.

Among other foreigners and dual nationals held in Iran are Ahmad Reza Jalali, a Swedish-Iranian researcher sentenced to death on charges of spying for Israel.

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Biden Tests Positive for COVID-19, Returns to Isolation

President Joe Biden tested positive for COVID-19 again Saturday, slightly more than three days after he was cleared to exit coronavirus isolation, the White House said, in a rare case of “rebound” following treatment with an anti-viral drug.

White House physician Dr. Kevin O’Connor said in a letter that Biden “has experienced no reemergence of symptoms and continues to feel quite well.”

In accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, Biden will reenter isolation for least five days. The agency says most rebound cases remain mild and that severe disease during that period has not been reported.

Word of Biden’s positive test came just two hours after the White House announced a presidential visit to Michigan this coming Tuesday to highlight the passage of a bill to promote domestic high-tech manufacturing. Biden had also been scheduled to visit his home in Wilmington, Delaware, on Sunday morning, where first lady Jill Biden has been staying while the president was positive. Both trips have been canceled as Biden has returned to isolation.

Biden, 79, was treated with the anti-viral drug Paxlovid, and tested negative for the virus on Tuesday and Wednesday. He was then cleared to leave isolation while wearing a mask indoors. His positive tests puts him among the minority of those prescribed the drug to experience a rebound case of the virus.

While Biden was testing negative, he returned to holding in-person indoor events and meetings with staff at the White House and was wearing a mask, in accordance with CDC guidelines. But the president removed his mask indoors when delivering remarks on Thursday and during a meeting with CEOs on the White House complex.

Asked why Biden appeared to be breaching CDC protocols, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “They were socially distanced. They were far enough apart. So we made it safe for them to be together, to be on that stage.”

Regulators are still studying the prevalence and virulence of rebound cases, but the CDC in May warned doctors that it has been reported to occur within two days to eight days after initially testing negative for the virus.

“Limited information currently available from case reports suggests that persons treated with Paxlovid who experience COVID-19 rebound have had mild illness; there are no reports of severe disease,” the agency said at the time.

When Biden was initially released from isolation on Wednesday, O’Connor said the president would “increase his testing cadence” to catch any potential rebound of the virus.

White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha told reporters on Monday that “the clinical data suggests that between 5 and 8 percent of people have rebound” after Paxlovid treatment.

Paxlovid has proved to significantly reduce severe disease and death among those most vulnerable to COVID-19. U.S. health officials have encouraged those who test positive to consult their doctors or pharmacists to see if they should be prescribed the treatment, despite the rebound risk.

Biden is fully vaccinated, after getting two doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine shortly before taking office, a first booster shot in September and an additional dose March 30.

While patients who have recovered from earlier variants of COVID-19 have tended to have high levels of immunity to future reinfection for 90 days, Jha said that the BA.5 subvariant that infected Biden has proven to be more “immune-evasive.”

“We have seen lots of people get reinfected within 90 days,” he said, adding that officials don’t yet have data on how long those who have recovered from the BA.5 strain have protection from reinfection.

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Death Toll in Kentucky Floods Rises to 25: Governor

At least 25 people, including four children, have died in floods unleashed by torrential rains in eastern Kentucky, and more fatalities are expected, the state’s governor Andy Beshear said Saturday.

“This is still an emergency situation,” Beshear told reporters. “We are in search and rescue mode. Again, that count is going to continue to go up.”

Heavy rains of 13 to 25 centimeters (5 to 10 inches) pounded the region from Wednesday into Thursday, sweeping through homes, washing out roads and pushing rivers over their banks. While the region’s steep hillsides and narrow valleys make it prone to flooding, experts are also blaming climate change.

The floods were the second major national disaster to strike Kentucky in seven months, following a swarm of tornadoes that claimed nearly 80 lives in the western part of the state in December.

President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Kentucky on Friday, allowing federal funding to be allocated to the state.

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