EU Urges Rwanda to Stop Supporting M23 Rebels in DR Congo

The European Union on Saturday urged Rwanda to stop supporting the M23 rebel group, which has captured swaths of territory in the North Kivu province of neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

The DRC, along with the United States and several European countries, has repeatedly accused its smaller central African neighbor of backing the M23, although Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, denies the charge.

The Tutsi rebel group has in recent months advanced to within a few dozen kilometers of provincial capital Goma.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Saturday that the European bloc had urged Rwanda to “stop supporting the M23 and use all means to press the M23 to comply with the decisions taken by the EAC (East African Community)” and at a November summit in Angola.

“It also firmly urges all states of the region to prevent the provision of any support to armed groups active in the DRC,” Borrell said.

He called on Kinshasa to “take all measures necessary to protect the civilian population in its territory.”

Under heavy international pressure to disarm, M23 joined a ceremony last week to deliver the strategic town of Kibumba to an East African military force as a “goodwill gesture” for peace.

The EAC also said the group had to withdraw to the border between the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda.

However, the Congolese army promptly dubbed the Kibumba handover a “sham.”

Borrell’s comments came after a U.N. experts’ report on DR Congo indicated it had collected proof of “direct intervention” by Rwandan defense forces inside DRC territory between at least November 2021 and last October.

The experts’ report says Rwandan troops launched operations to reinforce the M23 against the mainly Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), notably by supplying weapons, ammunition and uniforms.

Kigali sees the FDLR as a threat that justifies interventions inside the DRC.

Rwanda has also accused the DRC, where presidential elections are scheduled for next December, of using the conflict for political purposes as well as fabricating a November massacre of at least 131 civilians.

A U.N. probe blamed those deaths on M23 rebels.

In a statement Saturday, Kinshasa welcomed the findings of the U.N. experts, which it said “put an end to the lies and manipulations” of Rwanda.

Given the gravity of the allegations, it called for the U.N. Security Council to examine the experts’ report with a view to possible sanctions against Rwanda.

Meanwhile, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame blamed Kinshasa for the chaos in its war-torn eastern regions in his New Year’s address.

“After spending tens of billions of dollars on peacekeeping over the past two decades, the security situation in Eastern Congo is worse than ever,” Kagame said in a statement Saturday.

“To explain this failure, some in the international community blame Rwanda, even though they know very well that the true responsibility lies primarily with the government of the DRC. It is high time that the unwarranted vilification of Rwanda stopped.”

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Islamic State Claims Attack on Police in Suez Canal City

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility Saturday for an attack Friday on a police checkpoint in Egypt’s Suez Canal city of Ismailia. At least four people, including three police officers, were killed, officials and state-run media said.

The attack also wounded 12 others, mostly conscripts who were taken to a hospital, according to a casualty tally document at the hospital.

The dead included three police officers and a still unidentified person, the hospital document obtained by The Associated Press showed.

“A cell of soldiers of the caliphate managed to attack an Egyptian police roadblock … with a machine gun,” the militant group’s Amaq news agency said Saturday.

The attack took place late in the afternoon in Ismailia city, on the western side of the Suez Canal, according to security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The media office of Ismailia province described the attack as a terrorist strike.

State-run al-Qahera New television reported that security forces killed one of the attackers. It broadcast graphic footage purportedly showing a body, saying it was the dead militant.

Egypt has been battling the Islamic State extremist group in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula for years. The militants have carried out numerous attacks in Sinai and elsewhere in the country, mainly targeting security forces, minority Christians, and those who they accuse of collaborating with the military and police.

In May, at least 11 Egyptian soldiers, including an officer, were killed in a militant attack on a water pumping station east of the Suez Canal.

The pace of IS attacks in Sinai’s main theater and elsewhere has slowed to a trickle since February 2018, when the military launched a big operation in Sinai as well as parts of the Nile Delta and deserts along the country’s western border with Libya.

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Storm Brings Flooding, Landslides Across California

Landslides of rock and mud closed roadways Friday across California as heavy rains kicked off what will be a series of storms poised to usher in the new year with downpours and potential flooding across much of the state and several feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada.

The atmospheric river storm, a long and wide plume of moisture pulled in from the Pacific Ocean, began sweeping across the northern part of the state Friday and was expected to bring more rain through Saturday, according to the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

A winter storm warning was in effect into Sunday for the upper elevations of the Sierra Nevada mountains from south of Yosemite National Park to north of Lake Tahoe, where as much as 5 feet (1.5 meters) of snow is possible atop the mountains, the National Weather Service said in Reno, Nevada.

A flood watch was in effect across much of Northern California through New Year’s Eve. Officials warned that rivers and streams could overflow and urged residents to get sandbags ready.

Landslides already had closed routes in the San Francisco Bay Area, between Fremont and Sunol, as well as in Mendocino County near the unincorporated community of Piercy and in the Mendocino National Forest, where crews cleared debris into Friday night.

Humboldt County, where a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck Dec. 20, also saw roadways begin to flood, according to the National Weather Service’s Eureka office. A bridge that was temporarily closed last week due to earthquake damage may be closed again if the Eel River, which it crosses, gets too high, officials said.

More rain ahead

It was the first of several storms expected to roll across California over the next week. The current system is expected to be warmer and wetter, while next week’s storms will be colder, lowering snow levels in the mountains, said Hannah Chandler-Cooley, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

The Sacramento region could receive a total of 4 to 5 inches (10 to 13 centimeters) of rain over the span of the week, Chandler-Cooley said.

The California Highway Patrol reported some local roads in eastern Sacramento were under water and impassable Friday. By nightfall, nearly 5 inches (12.7 centimeters) of rain had fallen over the past 24 hours in the Sierra foothills at Blue Canyon about 70 miles (112 kilometers) northeast of Sacramento, the weather service said.

Sacramento’s fire officials planned to broadcast evacuation announcements from a helicopter and a boat along the American River — a spot where many unhoused people live in encampments — to warn of flooding.

Warnings of deep snow, avalanches

A winter storm warning was in effect through 4 a.m. Sunday for much of the Sierra, including the highest elevations around Lake Tahoe where more than a foot of snow was expected near the shores at an elevation of about 6,200 feet (1,889 meters) and up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) above 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) with winds gusting up to 100 mph (160 kph) over ridgetops.

“Strong winds could cause tree damage and lead to power outages and high waves on Lake Tahoe may capsize small vessels,” the weather service in Reno said.

Avalanche warnings were issued in the backcountry around Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes south of Yosemite.

On the Sierra’s eastern front, flood watches and warnings continue into the weekend north and south of Reno, Nevada, where minor to moderate flooding was forecast along some rivers and streams into the weekend.

At Susanville, California — about 85 miles (137 kilometers) north of Reno — the Susan River was forecast to rise from about 5 feet (1.5 meters) Friday to a foot (30 centimeters) above the flood stage of 12 feet (3.6 meters) by Saturday morning, causing moderate flooding that could affect some homes, roads and bridges, the National Weather Service said.

In Southern California, moderate-to-heavy rain was forecast for Saturday. The region will begin drying out on New Year’s Day and the January 2 Rose Parade in Pasadena should avoid rainfall.

Heavy showers are forecast for Tuesday or Wednesday, the National Weather Service in Oxnard said.

The rain was welcomed in drought-parched California, but much more precipitation is needed to make a significant difference. The past three years have been California’s driest on record.

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Despite Rhetoric, Greek-Turkish Armed Conflict Seen Remote

Even by the standards of Turkey’s and Greece’s frequently strained relations, it was a remarkable escalation. Speaking to youths in a Black Sea town, Turkey’s president directly threatened his country’s western neighbor: Unless the Greeks “stay calm,” he said, Turkey’s new ballistic missiles would hit their capital city.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comment on an otherwise unremarkable December weekend followed repeated threats and warnings in recent months: Alleged violations of international treaties by Greece could throw the sovereignty of many inhabited Greek islands into doubt. Turkish troops, Erdogan warned on several occasions, could descend on Greece “suddenly one night.”

The striking rhetoric has led to questions about the reasons behind it, and whether it could be a prelude to more alarming developments, including potential armed conflict between Turkey and Greece, both NATO members.

Both countries face national elections in the first half of 2023, which is likely to ramp up the rhetoric still further, and Russia’s war in Ukraine has demonstrated that an invasion of a smaller European country by a larger neighboring power is no longer unthinkable.

But analysts on both sides of the Aegean Sea are cautious, noting an escalation in verbal barbs but still assessing a military conflict between neighbors Greece and Turkey as unlikely.

Longtime foes

Traditional adversaries, the countries are no strangers to tension. Mock dogfights by fighter jets over the Aegean have taken place for decades as the two sides disagree on the limits of Greece’s national airspace.

They are at loggerheads over a broad variety of other issues, including the ethnically divided island of Cyprus, maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean Sea and territorial claims in the Aegean Sea, through which their joint border runs. In 2021, Turkish and Greek warships shadowed each other and briefly collided during a heated dispute over exploration rights to potential offshore energy reserves.

Greece and Turkey have come close to war three times in the past half-century. The most recent was in January 1996, when a last-minute U.S. intervention averted an armed conflict over an obscure pair of uninhabited islets named Imia in Greek and Kardak in Turkish.

Few people in either country had ever heard of them before. But the tensions led to a dramatic military buildup in the Aegean and a Greek navy helicopter crash that killed three officers.

Even in the run-up to that crisis, the rhetoric, particularly from Turkey, was not as bellicose as it is now.

“It is unprecedented. This hasn’t happened before,” said Constantinos Filis, an international relations professor who directs the Institute of Global Affairs at the American College of Greece. “We’re talking of nearly 2 ½ months where we have nearly daily statements by Turkey against Greece. This hasn’t happened before in duration, and I certainly don’t remember there having been such direct threats.”

The factors fueling the escalation are complex. Along with the approach of elections, they include strains in Turkey’s relations with the United States and its exclusion from a fighter jet purchasing program among others, analysts say.

The U.S. removed Turkey from a program to produce F-35 fighter jets in 2019 after Ankara bought a Russian-made S-400 missile defense system, which Washington said was a threat to the stealth fighter jets. Ankara has since requested new F-16 jets and kits to modernize its existing fleet, but that purchase would require approval from the U.S. Congress.

Greece has lobbied Washington to block its larger, more powerful neighbor from purchasing F-16s while also pursuing its own military procurement and modernization program, which includes new fighter jets and new warships currently being built.

Speaking in the northern Turkish city of Samsun earlier this month, Erdogan said Turkey has begun making its own short-range ballistic missiles, which, he said, was “frightening the Greeks.”

“(The Greeks) say ‘it can’t hit Athens,’” said Erdogan. “Of course it will. If you don’t stay calm, if you try to buy things from the United States and other places (to arm) the islands, a country like Turkey … has to do something.”

“I think Erdogan’s (missile) statement is his way of telling Greece that actually there is no (military) balance, that Turkey is still superior and therefore Greece should act very cautiously,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara office, said. “Nevertheless, if you take him at his word, it is a threat and should have no place in Turkish-Greek relations.”

Elections ahead

Unluhisarcikli said that apart from reminding Greece of Turkey’s military capabilities, Erdogan also hopes his tough words will help him in the presidential and parliamentary elections currently scheduled for June.

In power since 2003, Erdogan is seeking a third term in office as president amid an economic crisis and skyrocketing inflation that has eaten away at earnings and put even necessities out of reach for many.

Unluhisarcikli thinks threatening Greece will not make much of a difference in the races. “Past elections and also the polls suggest that national rhetoric does help a little bit in the beginning, but the impact is short-lived,” he said. “Its impact is not even nearly comparable to the economic situation.”

Filis agreed the Turkish elections were among the reasons for Erdogan’s verbal escalation. But, he noted, it was the first time Greece appeared so prominently in public discourse in the lead-up to a national vote.

Ankara recently has focused on the militarization of the Greek islands in the eastern Aegean Sea, saying international treaties prohibit the presence of armed forces. Greece counters that it is adhering to the treaties and needs to defend the islands against a potential attack from Turkey, which maintains a sizable military force on its nearby coast.

Turkey “is building a story, a narrative, so it can (potentially) attribute its own aggressive act against Greece to legitimate self-defense,” Filis said, a tactic that “has many similarities with what Russia did and is doing in Ukraine.”

Still, chances of open conflict — or of an accident or military incident triggering an unplanned escalation — remain slim, both analysts agreed. An armed conflict is “still a very, very low probability,” Unluhisarcikli said, noting that past accidents, such as collisions between navy vessels or jet crashes during island patrols, had not led Turkey and Greece to war.

A military incident or conflict “is a scenario that doesn’t have much probability,” said Filis. “But the climate that the Turkish leadership is cultivating could make something like that easier.”


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Putin Tells Russia: ‘Sanctions War Was Declared on Us’

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s New Year’s address to the nation usually is rather anodyne and backed with a soothing view of a snowy Kremlin. This year, with soldiers in the background, he lashed out at the West and Ukraine.

The conflict in Ukraine cast a long shadow as Russia entered 2023. Cities curtailed festivities and fireworks. Moscow announced special performances for soldiers’ children featuring the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus. An exiled Russian news outlet unearthed a video of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, now the Ukrainian president despised by the Kremlin, telling jokes on a Russian state television station’s New Year’s show just a decade ago.

Putin, in a nine-minute video shown on TV as each Russian time zone region counted down the final minutes of 2022 on Saturday, denounced the West for aggression and accused the countries of trying to use the conflict in Ukraine to undermine Russia.

“It was a year of difficult, necessary decisions, the most important steps toward gaining full sovereignty of Russia and powerful consolidation of our society,” he said, echoing his repeated contention that Moscow had no choice but to send troops into Ukraine because it threatened Russia’s security.

“The West lied about peace, but was preparing for aggression, and today it admits it openly, no longer embarrassed. And they cynically use Ukraine and its people to weaken and split Russia,” Putin said. “We have never allowed anyone and will not allow anyone to do this.”

The Kremlin has muzzled any criticism of its actions in Ukraine, shut independent media outlets, and criminalized the spread of any information that differs from the official view — including diverging from calling the campaign a special military operation. But the government has faced increasingly vocal criticism from Russian hardliners who have denounced the president as weak and indecisive and called for ramping up strikes on Ukraine.

‘Sanctions war was declared on us’

Russia has justified the conflict by saying that Ukraine persecuted Russian speakers in the eastern Donbas region, which had been partly under the control of Russian-backed separatists since 2014. Ukraine and the West says these accusations are untrue.

“For years, the Western elites hypocritically assured all of us of their peaceful intentions, including the resolution of the most difficult conflict in the Donbas,” Putin said.

Western countries have imposed wide sanctions against Russia, and many foreign companies pulled out of the country or froze operations after Moscow sent troops into Ukraine.

“This year, a real sanctions war was declared on us. Those who started it expected the complete destruction of our industry, finances, and transport. This did not happen, because together we created a reliable margin of safety,” Putin said.

Year-end celebrations tempered

Despite such reassurances, New Year’s celebrations this year were toned down, with the usual fireworks and concert on Red Square canceled.

Some of Moscow’s elaborate holiday lighting displays made cryptic reference to the conflict. At the entrance to Gorky Park stand large lighted letters of V, Z and O – symbols that the Russian military have used from the first days of the military operation to identify themselves.

“Will it make me a patriot and go to the front against my Slavic brothers? No, it will not,” park visitor Vladimir Ivaniy said.

Moscow also announced plans to hold special pageant performances for the children of soldiers serving in Ukraine.

The Russian news outlet Meduza, declared a foreign agent in Russia and which now operates from Latvia, on Saturday posted a video of Zelenskyy, who was a hugely popular comedian before becoming Ukraine’s president in 2019, performing in a New Year’s Day show on Russian state television in 2013.

Zelenskyy jokes that the inexpensive sparkling wine Sovietskoe Shampanskoye, a popular tipple on New Year’s, is in the record books as a paradox because “the drink exists but the country doesn’t.”

Adding to the irony, the show’s host was Maxim Galkin, a comedian who fled the country in 2022 after criticizing the military operation in Ukraine.

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Pope Emeritus Benedict, Known for Conservative Views, Dies at 95

Pope Emeritus Benedict served for just eight years before making history by stepping down in 2013, saying he didn’t have the mental or physical strength to run the church. VOA’s Laurel Bowman has more.

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Libya Intercepts Boat with 700 Europe-Bound Migrants 

A vessel carrying at least 700 migrants was intercepted off the eastern coast of Libya, the coast guard said. It was one of the largest interceptions in recent months of migrants seeking a better life in Europe through the war-torn North African country.

The coast guard said the boat was stopped Friday off the Mediterranean town of Moura, 90 kilometers (56 miles) west of the eastern city of Benghazi.

It said in a statement that the migrants hail from different nations and that those who illegally entered Libya would be handed over to their home countries.

The statement did not provide further details.

The coast guard posted images on Facebook showing a large, overcrowded vessel with most of those on board appearing to be young people.

It was one of the largest interceptions in recent months of migrants sailing to Europe, a destination for thousands fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

In August last year, Italian military vessels aided a boat crammed with 539 migrants off the southern island of Lampedusa. The boat was launched from Libyan shores.

Libya has in recent years emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants seeking a better quality of life in Europe. The oil-rich country plunged into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Human traffickers in recent years have benefited from the chaos in Libya, smuggling in migrants across the country’s lengthy borders with six nations. The migrants are then packed into ill-equipped rubber boats and other vessels and set off on risky sea voyages. Officials didn’t say what kind of vessel was found over the weekend.

The International Organization for Migration has reported 1,522 dead or missing migrants in the Mediterranean this year. Overall, the IOM says 24,871 migrants have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since 2014, with the real number believed to be even higher given the number of shipwrecks that never get reported. 

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Despite War, Some Ukrainian Families Reunite for New Year

For millions of Ukrainians, many of them under Russian bombardment and grappling with power and water shortages, New Year’s celebrations will be muted as Russia’s 10-month war rumbles on with no end in sight.

But for some families, it is a chance to reunite, however briefly, after months apart.

At Kyiv’s central railway station on Saturday morning, Mykyta, still in his uniform, gripped a bouquet of pink roses tightly as he waited on platform 9 for his wife Valeriia to arrive from Poland. He hadn’t seen her in six months.

“It actually was really tough, you know, to wait so long,” he told The Associated Press after hugging and kissing Valeriia.

Nearby, another soldier, Vasyl Khomko, 42, joyously met his daughter Yana and wife Galyna who have been living in Slovakia because of the war, but they returned to Kyiv to spend New Year’s Eve together.

The mood contrasted starkly with that from 10 months ago when families were torn apart by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Back in February, fathers, husbands and sons had to stay behind as their wives, mothers and daughters boarded trains with small children seeking safety outside the country. Scenes of tearful goodbyes seared television screens and front pages of newspapers across the world.

But on the last day of the year marked by the brutal war, many returned to the capital to spend New Year’s Eve with their loved ones.

As Russian attacks continue to target power supplies leaving millions without electricity, no big celebrations are expected, and a curfew will be in place as the clock rings in the new year. But for most Ukrainians being together with their families is already a luxury.

Valeriia first sought refuge from the conflict in Spain but later moved to Poland. Asked what their New Year’s Eve plans were, she answered simply: “Just to be together.”

The couple declined not to share their family name for security reasons as Mykyta has been fighting on the front lines in both southern and eastern Ukraine.

On platform 8, another young couple reunited. University student Arseniia Kolomiiets, 23, has been living in Italy. Despite longing to see her boyfriend Daniel Liashchenko in Kyiv, Kolomiiets was scared of Russian missiles and drone attacks.

“He was like, ‘Please come! Please come! Please come!’” she recalled. “I decided that (being) scared is one part but being with beloved ones on the holidays is the most important part. So, I overcome my fear and here I am now.”

Although they have no electricity at home, Liashchenko said they were looking forward to welcoming 2023 together with his family and their cat.

In an attempt to ensure residents have light during their celebrations, the regional government of Ukraine’s southwestern Odesa province is planning to limit the work of the most energy-intensive industries on Dec. 31 and Jan 1.

Regional head Maksym Marchenko made the announcement on Friday via Telegram and said that power engineers in the province had used all means possible to “eliminate the consequences” of Russia’s barrage of attacks on Ukraine on Thursday and reinstate the power supply.

In Kyiv, recent attacks have left many on edge, unsure about whether the skies will be peaceful on the last day of the year.

“We are hoping there will be no surprises today,” said Natalya Kontonenko who had traveled from Finland. It was the first time she had seen her brother Serhii Kontonenko since the full-scale invasion began on February 24. Serhii and other relatives traveled from Mykolaiv to Kyiv to meet Natalya.

“We are not concerned about the electricity, because we are together and that I think is the most important,” he said.

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UN Chief Appeals for Peace in the New Year

As the old year gives way to the new, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has issued a heartfelt appeal to the citizens of the world to put peace at the center of their words and actions in 2023.

Every new year is a moment of rebirth and hope. It is a time for reflection and for resolve to make things better in the year to come than they were in the year gone by.

In reviewing the events of 2022, U.N. chief Antonio Guterres considered the difficulties and the heartbreak of the past year.  In his New Year’s message, he said millions of people around the world have literally swept out the ashes of the old year.

He said they are preparing for a new dawn and a brighter day in the year ahead.

“From Ukraine to Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and beyond, people left the ruins of their homes and lives in search of something better.  Around the world, one hundred million people were on the move, fleeing wars, wildfires, droughts, poverty, and hunger.  In 2023, we need peace, now more than ever,” said Guterres.

He said conflicts can end and peace can be assured through dialogue.  He said a more sustainable world can be achieved by making peace with nature and climate.  He appeals for peace in the home, so women and girls can live in dignity and safety.

Guterres said peace on the streets and communities, peace in places of worship, and freedom from hate speech and abuse online depend upon the full protection of human rights.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Tuerk echoes those sentiments. He said the shape of the New Year will be determined by the individual and collective actions people take.

His hope for the next year, he said, is for people to lead their lives with kindness, empathy, unity, and protection of human rights.

“We must ensure women’s rights, for example, are respected at home and in public, that women and girls have full equality and freedom from discrimination.  We must open our children’s eyes to the mistakes of the past, we can inspire them to write a story of hope and unity and instill in them a commitment to creating a better world,” said Guterres.

The 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be celebrated in 2023.  The core message inherent in this document – that there cannot be progress and peace without human rights – is as relevant now as it was in 1948.

U.N. rights chief Tuerk appeals to all nations and peoples to strive to make the world more dignified, to create a world where everyone’s rights are respected.

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Mega Millions Lottery Draw Likely to Reach a BillIon-Dollar Pot

Someone is likely to have a very good year in 2023 as the Mega Millions lottery creeps toward the billion-dollar mark, after no one had the winning numbers (1, 3, 6, 44 and 51, plus Mega Ball 7) for Friday’s draw.

The prize for the U.S. game next week will be an estimated $785 million according to a Mega Millions statement.

“On only three previous occasions has the Mega Millions jackpot gone beyond $700 million, “Mega Millions said, “and all three times those rolls continued on past $1 billion.”

The game, however, does offer different ways of winning and players can win by matching only some of the numbers. with payoffs ranging from $2 to $1 million.

The current estimated $785 million is the value of the prize if it is paid through an annuity, with annual checks over 29 years. If a winner takes cash, the next drawing would get them an estimated $395 million before taxes.

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Nuremberg Prosecutor to Receive Congressional Gold Medal

Congress has signed off on the Congressional Gold Medal for the chief prosecutor in what was regarded as “the biggest murder trial in history.”

South Floridian Benjamin Ferencz was 27 years old in 1948 when he had secured enough evidence to prosecute 22 members of Nazi killing squads responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million Jewish, Roma, Soviet, and others in shooting massacres in occupied Soviet territory.

“Mr. Ferencz is a hero of the Jewish community who has dedicated decades of his life to combatting antisemitism, prosecuting those who act on their hatred, and keeping the lessons of the Holocaust alive,” said U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat who represents most of Palm Beach County and co-led the bipartisan effort. “It is a privilege to recognize his remarkable, lifelong commitment to justice, peace, and human dignity with the Congressional Gold Medal — Congress’s highest expression of honor.”

The award was included in the $1.66 trillion government funding bill that provides assistance for victims of natural disasters, funding for those struggling with drug addiction, and sends emergency aid to Ukraine, approved hours before a midnight deadline Friday to avoid a partial shutdown of federal agencies.

Ferencz was born on March 11, 1920, in Transylvania, in what is now Hungary. That same year his family fled to “Hell’s Kitchen” on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to avoid the persecution of Hungarian Jews by Romania.

“The neighborhood was known for having one of the highest crime rates in America. I decided early on that if my choices were to either be a crook or be a lawyer, I would choose law,” he once said in a newspaper interview.

In 1940 he received a scholarship to Harvard Law School. With the onset of World War II, he enlisted in the United States Army in 1943, eventually transferring to a newly created War Crimes Branch of the Army to gather evidence that could be used in court.

Ferencz documented Nazi Germany’s crimes and visited concentration camps as they were liberated.

In 1946, the United States government recruited him to work on the Nuremberg tribunals.

In his role as a war crimes investigator, Ferencz visited concentration camps as they were liberated to gather evidence of atrocities carried out by the Nazis. They kept death registries, and Ferencz was assigned to collect these registries which contained victims’ names.

He became the chief prosecutor at Nuremberg’s Einsatzgruppen Trial, where he tried Nazi defendants for perpetrating the worst crimes against humanity. Einsatzgruppen was the ninth of 12 trials held by the U.S. government in occupied Germany.

“The defendants were commanders and officers of special SS groups known as Einsatzgruppen-established for the specific purpose of massacring human beings because they were Jews, or because they were for some other reason regarded as inferior peoples,” he said in his opening remarks presented before the trial.

The court found 20 defendants guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and two guilty of a lesser charge. Fourteen defendants were sentenced to death, more than in any other of the Nuremberg proceedings.

In the decades since the Nuremberg Trials, Ferencz has dedicated his life to ending war and promoting justice.

“I fought for compensation for victims and survivors of the Holocaust, the return of stolen assets, and other forms of restitution for those who had suffered at the hands of the Nazis,” he said in a newspaper interview earlier this year.

And since the 1970s, he contributed to the establishment of the International Criminal Court and to the recognition of aggression as an international crime.

In April, right after his 102nd birthday, in an interview with the Florida Jewish Journal, Ferencz said when he publicly presents his life story, he always tells his audience, “There are three important lessons I wish to transmit: One, never give up, Two, never give up, and three, never give up.”

Images the Delray Beach resident saw during the Holocaust are still vivid, he told the newspaper.

“Camps like Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and Dachau are vividly imprinted in my mind’s eye. Even today, when I close my eyes, I witness a deadly vision I can never forget,” he said.

He was honored by Florida’s Palm Beach County commissioners last year, who declared Nov. 5, 2021, as “Benjamin Ferencz Law Not War Day,” a shout-out to his motto: “Law. Not War.”

And in April, 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis awarded him the governor’s medal of freedom.

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Former Pope Benedict Dies at 95

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who led the Catholic Church for nearly eight years before becoming the first pope to resign in six centuries, died Saturday at the age of 95.

Benedict’s death followed an appeal by Pope Francis to pray for his predecessor, with the Vatican announcing the former pontiff’s health had worsened due to “advanced age.”

When he made the shock announcement in 2013 that he would be stepping down, Benedict said he no longer had the physical and mental strength to serve as pope.

He rarely made public appearances in his retirement, dedicating the last years of his life to prayer and meditation as he lived in a former convent in the Vatican.

In a 2018 letter to Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper, Benedict described “the slow withering of my physical forces,” saying he was “on an interior pilgrimage towards home.”

Early years

Born Joseph Ratzinger in 1927 in Marktl am Inn, Germany, he spent his youth in southeastern Germany near the Austrian border. He entered a seminary a year before the outbreak of World War II and would eventually be drafted into the German army, where he served in an anti-aircraft unit before eventually deserting in the late days of the war.

He returned to his theological studies, and in 1951 became an ordained priest. After years of teaching and serving as an adviser to the Second Vatican Council, in 1977 Pope Paul VI appointed Ratzinger archbishop of Munich and Freising and later made him a cardinal.

Ratzinger spent more than 20 years serving as the prefect of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he was a close friend and adviser of Pope John Paul II.

He presided over the April 2005 funeral mass for John Paul II, and that same month was elected the 265th pontiff.

Papal legacy

Benedict’s time as pope included the fallout from child sex-abuse scandals involving clergy that emerged during John Paul II’s papacy. His response included expelling priests and both apologizing to and meeting with victims.

A January 2022 report accused him of failing to act in four cases during his time as archbishop of Munich.  In a letter released by the Vatican, Benedict acknowledged what he called “errors” in handling allegations of sexual abuse and said he could “only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness.”

In 2006, Benedict prompted protests from the Muslim world after a speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor stating what for some Muslims was seen as an attack on Islam.

In 2013, his butler was convicted of taking sensitive and confidential documents from the papal chambers and leaking them to journalists.

At the time of Benedict’s retirement, Brennan Pursell, one of Benedict’s biographers, told VOA he will be remembered first and foremost as a teacher.

“His legacy as pope will survive in his writings, above all, and his catechesis [religious/faith instruction], his encyclicals [papal letters], his various documents,” he said. “And for people who just read what’s online, they can get a sense of the awesome extent of this man’s contribution to church teaching.”

The Rev. Thomas Reece at Georgetown University said Benedict “had very strong ideas about church doctrine, orthodoxy, church traditions. He was not afraid to go after priests and religious and theologians who disagreed with him — basically try to silence them.”

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. 

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The Pandemic, Rudeness, Crypto Craziness: We’re Over You, 2022

The rudeness pandemic, the actual pandemic, and all things gray. There’s a lot to leave behind when 2022 ends and uncertainty rules around the world.

The health crisis brought on the dawn of slow living, but it crushed many families forced to hustle for their living. Rudeness went on the rise. Crypto currencies tanked. Pete Davidson’s love thing with Kim Kardashian made headlines.

A list of what we’re over as we hope for better times in 2023:

Incivility be gone

The pandemic released a tsunami of overwrought people, but heightened incivility has stretched well beyond their raucous ranks.

Researcher Christine Porath restricted herself to rudeness, disrespect or insensitive behavior when she recently wrote about the subject in Harvard Business Review. The professor of management at Georgetown University found incidents of incivility way up, in line with a steady climb stretching back nearly 20 years.

Particularly hammered this year, Porath wrote, were frontline workers in health care, retail, transportation, hospitality and education. All were declared heroes when the pandemic struck. It didn’t take long for that to become a beat down.

Noting that incivility can and does escalate to physical aggression and other violence, Axios dubbed it the rudeness pandemic.

Crypto craziness

Will the implosion of FTX, the world’s third-largest cryptocurrency exchange, bring on broader chaos in a digital world that millions of people already distrust?

Time will tell as other and otherwise healthy crypto companies face a liquidity crisis. And there’s the philanthropic implications of the FTX bankruptcy collapse here in the real world, since founder Sam Bankman-Fried donated millions to numerous causes in “effective altruism” fashion.

The FTX bankruptcy filing followed a bruising of crypto companies throughout 2022, due in part to rising interest rates and the broader market downturn that has many investors rethinking their lust for risk. That includes mom-and-pop investors along for the ride.

ASMR, pipe down

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It began, innocently enough, as brain tingles brought on by whispering, tapping, brushing or scraping. Then, bam, it took off on social media like a really loud rocket on a mission to annoy.

Today, we’ve got millions of videos filled with people attempting to calm by speaking in low tones, armed with anything they can get their hands on in conjunction with their expensive, ultra-sensitive mics.

Companies are selling beer and chocolate, paint and home goods using ASMR. All the calming — and commerce — is deafening.

Gray, the color

Gray walls, gray floors, gray furniture. Is gray passé? Here’s hoping.

The color spent much of 2022 as a purportedly neutral “it.” The problem was, we were already feeling gray on the inside.

Of course, gray has been around since color itself, but it took over as an alternative to beige and Tuscan brown. Gray took a tumble midyear, but one doesn’t paint or swap out the couch as quickly as trends fade. We’ve been stuck with gray, thanks to TV home shows and social media loops.

“What would your reaction be if I told you that color is disappearing from the world? A graph suggesting that the color gray has become the dominant shade has been circulating on TikTok, and boy does it have folks in a tizzy,” wrote Loney Abrams in Architectural Digest in October.

By that, she explained, the upset folks she mentioned stand firmly behind the notion that a lack of color “spells tragedy.”

Abrams, a Brooklyn artist and pop culture curator, speaks of the fixer-uppers of Chip and Joanna Gaines and the Calabasas compound of Kim Kardashian. And she cites Tash Bradley, a trained color psychologist who works for the U.K. wallpaper and paint brand Lick.

Bradley, Abrams wrote, points to the hustle-bustle of pre-pandemic life as one villain leading to The Great Gray Washing. Bradley, the interior design director for Lick, sees no psychological benefits to gray.

Pete Davidson’s love life

Not the King of Staten Island himself, per se. Look deeply into your hearts and decide for yourselves whether to love him or Ye him.

We’re talking about the vast quantities of air volume his love life has sucked up on a near-hourly basis, especially in 2022, otherwise known as his Kim Kardashian era (which actually started in late 2021 for the obsessives).

Davidson’s love roster has puzzled for years, stretching back to his MTV “Guy Code” days in 2013 while still a teenager, leading to his Carly Aquilino phase.

There were stops along the way with Cazzie David (Larry Davidson’s daughter), Ariana Grande, Kate Beckinsale (briefly), Kaia Gerber (even more briefly), and others, including his latest: model Emily Ratajkowski.

The “SNL” alum and self-described — in appearance — “crack baby” is a paparazzi, social media, gossip monger magnet. Rather, his love life is.

Movie upchuck madness

The film industry, to state the obvious, has produced decades of genre-spanning grossness, much of it significant and legit to show on camera.

However, there’s one particular cinematic exclamation point we could do without, or at the very least, with significantly less of: The dispensable spew.

Implied vomiting with an urgent rush to a curb, hand to a mouth or turn of a head would sometimes suffice, thanks. Who spread the word in Hollywood that movie watchers actually desire all the nauseating details. The projectile-ness, the color combinations, the chunks.

Well, in some cases, audiences themselves.

That notable dress shop scene in the 2011 smash hit “Bridesmaids” was a gender test of sorts, according to The Daily Beast. Would audiences accept all the spewing and other grand scatology from women in a wedding-themed movie as they do for the bros of producer Judd Apatow’s other comedies?

Apatow and director Paul Feig extensively tested “Bridesmaids” with audiences, and they were fine.

Fast forward to 2022’s notables. There’s the satire “The Triangle of Sadness,” which could hardly do without, but there’s also “Tár,” a far more serious film that wouldn’t make the vomit hall of fame with Lydia Tár’s one fleeting gush. We ask, what’s the point of that? Meaning, the upchuck as aside.

Cate Blanchett’s Tár has far bigger problems, so let’s rein in all the gratuitous spewing.

The ultra hustle

Elon Musk put it thusly in an email to his remaining employees:

“Going forward, to build a breakthrough Twitter 2.0 and succeed in an increasingly competitive world, we will need to be extremely hardcore. This will mean working long hours at high intensity. Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”

Musk is Musk, but he illustrates a moment: A need to remain in motion, to work harder, climb higher, sweat longer. With the volatile economy, political chaos, extreme weather and wars, it’s no wonder that a blanket of anxiety has kept the ultra-hustle alive.

As if all the slow living and work-life balance talk is meaningless, or more to the point, can’t exist for many.

“We’re hustling to make ends meet, `building our brand,’ ensuring our startup doesn’t tank, or dreaming about the day our side hustle takes off and we can walk into the office and give everyone the bird,” wrote Benjamin Sledge on Medium.

It stands to reason, he said, that “most of us are hustling because we literally have to in order to survive.”

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US Gun Violence Soars in 2022

Across America, gun violence surged in many communities in 2022 as overall death rates from firearms rose to the highest level in nearly three decades. The year saw a near-record number of mass casualty shooting incidents, including several allegedly motivated by hate.

“For God’s sake, how much more carnage are we willing to accept? How many more innocent American lives must be taken before we say enough is enough?” asked U.S. President Joe Biden in a nationally televised address in May — days after the deadliest U.S. school shooting incident in nearly a decade.

Biden joined the nation in mourning after an 18-year-old gunman wielding a semi-automatic rifle killed 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

The attacker, a former student at the school, fired hundreds of rounds as he carried out the massacre. Heavily armed law enforcement officers delayed storming the building for approximately an hour, sparking outrage from the community and across the nation.

The young lives taken illustrate a sobering statistic that guns are now the number one killer of children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The tragedy came less than a month after another a 19-year-old — also armed with a semi-automatic rifle — opened fire at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 people. The suspect said he was targeting Black people.

In November, a mass shooting at a Colorado Springs gay nightclub claimed five lives and left 17 others wounded. The 22-year-old suspect was charged with murder and bias-motivated crimes.

“We are seeing a return to much higher rates of gun violence than we have seen for a long time,” said Jack McDevitt, a professor at Northeastern University School of Criminology and Criminal Justice in Boston, Massachusetts, speaking with VOA. “We are starting to see more people use firearms to go after victims who they perceive to be different.”

Analysts believe guns, especially semiautomatic handguns and rifles, are being used more often to settle disputes and in crimes motivated by hate.

Investigators are looking into the possibility that antisemitism was the motivation for a gunman who killed seven people and wounded dozens of others gathered for a July 4 Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Illinois. From atop a building, the suspect fired 83 rounds in less than a minute.

“Our sense of security is permanently ruptured,” said Dr. Emily Lieberman, a pediatrician who witnessed the shooting with her children. She and a group of fellow doctors traveled to Washington in December to urge lawmakers to pass a ban on assault weapons.

“As mass shootings continue to rise year after year, I realize that complacency is just as dangerous as these attacks themselves.,” she said. “The time is now to save lives.”

Mass shootings rise

The U.S. experienced more than 600 mass shootings in 2022, nearly double the number recorded four years ago when there were 336, according to Washington-based Gun Violence Archive.

Mass shootings are broadly defined as an incident in which four or more people are shot or killed, not including the shooter.

Analysts see a link between bias-motivated gun violence and a rise in hate groups and toxic discourse in the United States targeting vulnerable, often marginalized populations.

“One of the problems with seeing gun violence in the context of hate crimes is that the trauma isn’t just to the individual; the trauma is to that community,” said Professor Carlos Cuevas, co-director of the Center on Crime, Race and Justice at Northeastern University. “It is a crime against a person but it is also a crime against a group.”

While mass shootings grab news headlines, they account for a small percentage of the more than 40,000 U.S. gun deaths recorded in 2022. Half were by suicide, according to Gun Violence Archive.

“One of the positive things in all of this is that mass shooting events are the most visible but the least frequently occurring ones,” Cuevas noted. “It’s important to provide continuing support to communities and help them recover a sense of safety that will help them heal from these events going forward.”

Debate over gun laws

In June, Congress approved the first national gun legislation in decades. The law seeks to deny firearms to those deemed dangerous and a threat to public safety. It would also fund new mental health programs and require enhanced background checks on gun buyers aged 18 to 21.

Many Republican lawmakers opposed the legislation. “Democrats are coming after law-abiding American citizens’ Second Amendment liberties,” said Ohio Republican Congressman Jim Jordan, referring to the constitutional right to “keep and bear arms” that gun rights defenders believe should be broadly protected.

But many Democrats and gun control advocates want to go further and ban semi-automatic weapons, among other restrictions.

“Now the moral imperative is to act against ghost guns [untraceable firearms often bought online], against assault weapons, against high-capacity magazines, against a system that allows people to keep guns when they say they are going to kill themselves and others,” said Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal in December.

Georgia resident Henderson Masiyakurima said his perspective on gun legislation changed after his best friend was shot to death in 2017. “My thought on weapons and guns was like, “Oh, I’m defending myself,” he said in an interview with the Reuters news agency. “Lately it just looks like, it’s just, been going crazy with a lot of this gun violence. It’s time for a change.”

While many gun rights advocates bemoaned the law passed by Congress, they cheered a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a New York state law that restricted the carrying of concealed handguns in public.

“They are lawful citizens that have the right to bear arms. And they also have the right, now the Supreme Court has said it, to bear arms outside the home and protect themselves,” said Tiffany Cheuvront, an attorney for the California Rifle and Pistol Association.

Following the ruling, some Democrat-led states moved to enhance gun laws while Republican-led states sought to challenge or eliminate existing gun restrictions.

Gun availability

The changing legal landscape for firearms comes as gun ownership continues to grow in the United States.

American gunmakers churned out more than 11 million firearms in 2020, nearly three times the number manufactured in 2000, according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A survey by the nonpartisan Small Arms Survey estimated the U.S. had about 400 million firearms in 2018, more guns than the country’s population.

As the number of firearms grows, the United States remains plagued by the highest rate of gun deaths among advanced industrialized nations.

“It looked like we were moving the needle pretty well in terms of reducing gun violence, but we have seen it come back with a vengeance over the past three or four years,” said criminologist McDevitt. “The reality is we should be comparing ourselves to other countries where it’s hard to get guns, like Britain and Japan, where gun violence rates are 10 times less than in some of the safest U.S. states.”

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Mali Court Sentences 46 Ivorian Soldiers to 20 Years in Prison

A court in Mali has sentenced 46 Ivorian troops whose detention in Mali sparked a diplomatic row between the two countries to 20 years in prison, the public prosecutor said Friday.

Three female soldiers among the original group detained in July, and who were freed in early September, were sentenced to death in absentia.

The trial of the 46 Ivorian troops wrapped up on Friday after opening in the capital Bamako on Thursday.

The court proceedings came in the run-up to a Jan. 1 deadline set by West African leaders for Mali to release the soldiers or face sanctions.

The Ivorians were found guilty of an “attack and conspiracy against the government” and seeking to undermine state security, public prosecutor Ladji Sara said in a statement.

The court proceedings were held behind closed doors and under heavy security, an AFP journalist noted.

Forty-nine troops from Ivory Coast were detained after they arrived at Bamako airport on July 10. Three of them, all women, were later freed.

Those remaining, branded by Mali’s junta as “mercenaries,” were charged the following month with seeking to undermine state security.

Ivory Coast and the United Nations say the troops were flown in to provide routine backup security for the German contingent of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali.

The row escalated in September, when diplomatic sources in the region said Mali wanted Ivory Coast to acknowledge its responsibility and express regret for deploying the soldiers.

Bamako also wanted Ivory Coast to hand over people who had been on its territory since 2013 but who are wanted in Mali, they said.

Ivory Coast rejected both demands and was prepared for extended negotiations to free the men, the sources said.

An Ivorian delegation traveled to Mali last week for talks on the crisis, and the Ivorian Defense Ministry said it was “on the way to being resolved.”

An agreement reached last week between Mali and Ivory Coast leaves the possibility open of a presidential pardon by Mali’s junta leader Assimi Goita, who is due to make a national address on Saturday.

On December 4, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) set New Year’s Day as a deadline for the soldiers’ release, failing which the bloc would impose new sanctions against Mali.

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Pioneering US Television Journalist Barbara Walters Dies at 93

Barbara Walters, one of the most visible women on U.S. television as the first female anchor on an evening news broadcast and one of TV’s most prominent interviewers, has died at age 93, her longtime ABC home network said on Friday.

Walters, who created the popular ABC women’s talk show The View in 1997, died Friday at her home in New York, Robert Iger, chief executive of ABC’s corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co., said on Twitter.

In a broadcast career spanning five decades, Walters interviewed an array of world leaders, including Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and every U.S. president and first lady since Richard and Pat Nixon.

She earned 12 Emmy awards, 11 of those while at ABC News, the network said.

Walters began her journalism career on NBC’s The Today Show in the 1960s as a writer and segment producer. She made broadcast history as the first woman co-anchor on a U.S. evening newscast, opposite Harry Reasoner.

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What Americans Googled Most in 2022

Web searches reveal what America really cared about this year  

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Ukraine Facing ‘Tough’ Enemy in Battle for Key City

Behind the frontline near Kreminna, a strategically located Russian-controlled city in eastern Ukraine, Kyiv’s troops say they are facing a tough enemy.

“We fight them every day, in any weather. We attack in the direction of Kreminna, but they are not easy to defeat,” said a 24-year-old Ukrainian soldier who goes by the call sign “Kulak” or “Fist.”

“They are good, they are tough,” he told Agence France-Presse in Yampil, a village some 30 kilometers (18 miles) west of Kreminna and recaptured by Ukrainian forces in late September.

The city in the eastern Luhansk region — which Moscow claimed to have annexed along with three other Ukrainian regions — has been the scene of intense fighting in recent days.

“We had some successes on the Ukrainian side, but nothing huge. The enemy is not giving up,” Kulak said with a smile.

For the past few days, the region’s governor, Serhiy Gaidai, has been posting encouraging — if slightly contradictory — messages on social media.

On Thursday, he wrote that Ukraine’s troops advanced 2.5 kilometers in the direction of Kreminna in a week.

A day earlier, he said Russians had sent reinforcements to the area, while adding that the city could be retaken early next year.

According to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Russian forces “appear to be preparing for a decisive effort” in the Luhansk region.

‘Get it over with’

Yampil looks like a hive of wartime activity.

Military vehicles crisscross the main street of this largely destroyed village. There are nearly as many soldiers as there are civilians.

In a field behind several half-abandoned houses, soldiers are busy keeping two tanks — nicknamed Natalya and Salvador — in fighting shape. The tanks were captured during the Russian army’s retreat.

“If we liberate Kreminna, we will cut off the Russians’ supply route in Rubizhne, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk,” said one of the soldiers, Vlad, referring to other occupied towns in the region.

“We don’t want the situation to be put on ice. We want to push them back, get it over with,” said Vlad, who hails from Kyiv.

‘Nowhere better than home’

Although Yampil was liberated by Ukrainian forces during a sweeping counteroffensive in the fall, it is still within reach of Russian artillery.

A few kilometers up north, battles are raging in the village of Torske, and the shelling has intensified in recent days.

“It’s more or less fine. It would be better if it weren’t for these deafening noises,” said Olga, a 69-year-old retired teacher, declining to give her last name.

Every day, she meets with other residents of Yampil outside the only operating store.

The convenience store is both a collection point for humanitarian aid and a place to gather for a chat.

Despite the cold, they sit around a table in front of the store, talking and arguing as military vehicles drive by.

“We come here to talk; it’s our living room,” Olga said, smiling while a woman sitting next to her lamented the power cuts and lack of aid in the village.

“They don’t care about us!” she said.

Humanitarian aid dominates conversations here.

Not far away, an 84-year-old woman wearing a blue head scarf bursts into tears as she points to the people gathered round the table.

“When help arrives, they take everything, they don’t share anything. Why?” she asked tearfully, standing in front of her heavily damaged home.

But local official Yulia Rybalko insists that “nobody is starving” in Yampil.

She said she organizes the distribution of food, clothing and firewood delivered by NGOs.

Only some 600 civilians remain in the village that used to have a population of 2,500 people before Russia invaded on February 24.

But according to Olga, the former math teacher, many of those who leave choose to eventually return.

“Nowhere is better than home,” she said.

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Biden Pardons 6 Convicted of Murder, Drug, Alcohol Crimes

President Joe Biden has pardoned six people who have served out sentences after convictions on a murder charge and drug- and alcohol-related crimes, including an 80-year-old woman convicted of killing her abusive husband about a half-century ago and a man who pleaded guilty to using a telephone for a cocaine transaction in the 1970s.

The pardons, announced Friday, mean the criminal record of each crime is now purged. They come a few months after the Democratic president pardoned thousands of people convicted of “simple possession” of marijuana under federal law. He also pardoned three people earlier this year and has commuted the sentences of 75 others.

Biden’s stance on low-level crimes, particularly low-level drug possession, and how those crimes can impact families and communities for decades to come has evolved over his 50 years in public service. In the 1990s, he supported crime legislation that increased arrest and incarceration rates for drug crimes, particularly for Black and Latino people. Biden has said people are right to question his stance on the bill, but he also has encouraged them to look at what he’s doing now on crime.

The pardons were announced while the president was spending time with his family on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The White House said those pardoned are people who went on to serve their communities. It said the pardons reflect Biden’s view that people deserve a second chance.

Those granted pardons are:

— Beverly Ann Ibn-Tamas, 80, of Columbus, Ohio. At age 33, Ibn-Tamas was convicted of killing her husband. She testified that her husband beat her, verbally abused her and threatened her. She told jurors that she shot him moments after he had assaulted her, while she was pregnant. The judge refused to allow expert testimony on battered woman syndrome, a psychological condition that can develop among victims of domestic violence. Ibn-Tamas got one to five years of incarceration with credit for time served. Her appeal was among the first by someone with battered woman syndrome, and her case has been studied by academics.

— Charles Byrnes-Jackson, 77, of Swansea, South Carolina. Byrnes-Jackson pleaded guilty to possession and sale of spirits without tax stamps when he was 18, and it involved a single illegal whiskey transaction. He tried to enlist in the Marines but was rejected because of the conviction.

— John Dix Nock III, 72, of St. Augustine, Florida. Nock pleaded guilty to using his property as a grow-house for marijuana 27 years ago. He didn’t cultivate the plants, but he got six months of community confinement. He now operates a general contracting business.

— Gary Parks Davis, 66, of Yuma, Arizona. When Davis was 22, he admitted using a telephone for a cocaine transaction. He served a six-month sentence on nights and weekends in a county jail and completed probation in 1981. After the offense, the White House says, Davis earned a college degree and worked steadily, including owning a landscaping business and managing construction projects. He has volunteered at his children’s high school and in his community.

— Edward Lincoln De Coito III, 50, of Dublin, California. De Coito pleaded guilty at age 23 to being involved in a marijuana trafficking conspiracy. He was released from prison in December 2000 after serving nearly two years. Before the offense, De Coito had served honorably in the U.S. Army and the Army Reserves and had received numerous awards.

— Vincente Ray Flores, 37, of Winters, California. As a 19-year-old, Flores consumed Ecstasy and alcohol while serving in the Air Force, later pleading guilty at a special court-martial. He was sentenced to four months of confinement, loss of $2,800 in pay and a reduction in rank. Flores participated in a six-month rehab program that gives select enlisted offenders a chance to return to duty after therapy and education. His reduction in rank was amended, and he remains on active duty, earning medals and other awards for his service.

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Five Takeaways About Trump’s Taxes

Democrats in the U.S. Congress released six years’ worth of former President Donald Trump’s tax returns following a years-long legal fight in which Trump sought to keep the information private. The newly publicized records amount to nearly 6,000 pages, including the personal tax returns of Trump and his wife, Melania, from 2015 to 2020, as well as tax returns from Trump’s businesses.

Here are five key takeaways from the documents:

  1. Trump’s personal income varied greatly year by year.

Of the six years covered by the documents from 2015 to 2020, Trump’s adjusted gross income ranged from a low of negative $32.4 million (in 2016) to a high of $24.4 million (in 2018).

  1. Trump’s tax liability also greatly fluctuated.

Trump paid little to no taxes in three of the six years covered by the documents released: $0 taxes paid in 2020 and $750 in taxes paid in both 2016 and 2017. The former president paid larger sums in 2015 ($641,931), 2018 ($999,466) and 2019 ($133,445).

  1. Trump claimed large deductions and losses.

While Trump’s gross income ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars, he also reported large losses and claimed various tax deductions, which reduced his adjusted gross income, along with the taxes he would have to pay on it.

  1. Trump had bank accounts in several foreign countries.

In his tax filings, Trump said he had financial accounts in various foreign countries between 2015-2020, including China, Ireland, Great Britain and the Caribbean nation of St. Martin. By 2018, he had closed all his overseas accounts except for the one in Great Britain. The former president also reported earning money in foreign nations.

  1. Trump’s charitable giving varied year by year.

Of the six years covered by the documents, Trump’s charitable giving ranged from a low of $0 in 2020 to a high of $1.8 million in 2017. Trump gave about half a million in each of 2018 and 2019, and $1.1 million in 2016.

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

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Zelenskyy: Ukrainian Air Defenses Stronger Than Ever

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Friday that Ukraine continues to endure and repel waves of Russian air attacks and that Ukrainian air defenses have been made “stronger than ever.” 

“In the new year,” he added, “Ukrainian air defense will become even stronger, even more effective.”

The Ukrainian leader said Ukrainian air defense “can become the most powerful in Europe,” a guarantee of security “not only for our country, but for the entire continent.”

The United States last week announced nearly $2 billion in additional military aid, including the Patriot Air Defense System, which offers protection against aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on NATO member states to supply more weapons to Ukraine.

“I call on allies to do more. It is in all our security interests to make sure Ukraine prevails and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin does not win,” Stoltenberg told German news agency DPA on Friday.

Stoltenberg said the need for ammunition and spare parts was “enormous.” He told DPA that military support for Ukraine was the fastest way to peace, Reuters reports.

“We know that most wars end at the negotiating table — probably this war too — but we know that what Ukraine can achieve in these negotiations depends inextricably on the military situation,” he said.

Russia’s ongoing offensive

Russia shelled Ukrainian towns across a long stretch of the front line from north to south, Ukrainian officials said Friday, a day after Moscow fired dozens of missiles in its latest barrage against critical infrastructure.

In an evening report Friday, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said Russian forces had tried to advance near Bakhmut and Avdiivka in the east, while firing on several towns and villages, and shelled settlements further west in the Donetsk region, including the town of Vuhledar.

Zelenskyy said the nation’s forces were holding their positions in the eastern Donbas region.

“There are also some areas of the front where we are advancing a bit,” he noted.

Russian forces shelled several towns near Kupiansk, in the northeast Kharkiv region recaptured by Ukraine in September, the General Staff report said, as well as settlements in the Luhansk region, where Ukrainian forces hope to advance after the gains of recent weeks.

Areas of the Zaporizhzhia region, to the south, also came under heavy Russian shelling, including the contested town of Hulyaipole. Additionally, there was also shelling in and around Ukrainian-held Nikopol, on the opposite side of the Kakhovka reservoir from the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station. 

On the southern front, there were renewed Russian strikes targeting infrastructure in the city of Kherson, which Russian forces abandoned last month, and Kachkarivka, further north on the west bank of the Dnipro River.

Air attack sirens blared overnight into Friday in the capital, Kyiv, and Reuters reported several explosions and the sound of anti-aircraft fire south of the city, as Russian forces launched 16 Iranian-made Shahed drones, the officials said.

The Ukrainian military said all of the drones had been destroyed. Seven had targeted Kyiv, where an administrative building was damaged, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said.

Putin-Xi deepen ties

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping vowed Friday to strengthen their bilateral cooperation. During their opening remarks on a publicly broadcast videoconference, the two leaders welcomed strengthening ties between Moscow and Beijing amid what they called “geopolitical tensions” and a “difficult international situation,” with Putin expressing his wish to extend military collaboration.

“In the face of increasing geopolitical tensions, the significance of the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership is growing as a stabilizing factor,” he said.

Putin added that he expected Xi to visit Moscow in the spring. Such a trip “will demonstrate to the whole world the strength of the Russian-Chinese ties on key issues, will become the main political event of the year in bilateral relations,” he said.

Xi said through a translator that “in the face of a difficult and far from straightforward international situation,” Beijing was ready “to increase strategic cooperation with Russia, provide each other with development opportunities, be global partners for the benefit of the peoples of our countries and in the interests of stability around the world.”

But an official Chinese transcript of the video summit between the two leaders highlighted differences in their approach to their developing alliance, making no mention of Xi’s visit to Moscow and stressing that Beijing, which has declined to back or condemn the invasion, would maintain its “objective and fair” stance.

The U.S. expressed concern about the Russian-China rapprochement.

“We are monitoring Beijing’s activity closely,” a State Department spokesperson said. “Beijing claims to be neutral, but its behavior makes it clear, it is still investing in close ties to Russia.”

U.S. officials have repeatedly said they have yet to see Beijing provide material support to Russia on its invasion on Ukraine, a move that could provoke sanctions against China.

Some material for this article came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.  


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Uganda Police Arrest Dozens of Bobi Wine Supporters

Ugandan police fired tear gas and arrested more than 30 opposition supporters attending a Friday prayer rally organized by musician-turned-politician Bobi Wine. Police say the meeting was illegal as organizers failed to inform the chief of police before holding it.

Uganda police have confirmed the arrests of at least 30 members of Bobi Wine’s opposition party while at a prayer meeting organized by the umbrella group, the United Forces of Change.

Those gathered were set to pray for people arrested, dead, abducted and all opposition supporters, especially from Wine’s National Unity Platform, whose whereabouts are still unknown in the past two years.

Other opposition members included the Conservative Party and the Forum for Democratic Change.

But Lucas Owoyesigyire, the deputy spokesperson for the Kampala Metropolitan Police, told VOA by phone that the opposition group did not give the Inspector General of Police Okoth Ochola advance notice about the prayer meeting so he could set up security for it due to ongoing terrorism threats.

“This was a public place,” said Owoyesigyire, “and they ought to have informed the IGP — especially the owners of the venue — should have informed the IGP about this. So, we could not allow them to go ahead with this.”

Owoyesigyire added that “we have some suspects here, at CPS [Central Police Station] but they are more than 30.”

Ugandan politician Joel Ssenyonyi told VOA that they had paid for the venue but upon their arrival Friday morning, the police and army had cordoned off the venue forcing them to pray from outside.

“When we got there, we saw one of the guys who had the most peeps,” said Ssenyonyi. “We requested him, please come and speak to us. He refused to come. Because we were at the gate, they couldn’t let us in. The law says notify…the law does not say ask for permission. We informed them and asked them to provide security for our function to go on undisturbed because we were going to be indoors.”

In the past two years, especially before the 2021 general elections, a number of opposition supporters have been bundled into vans and taken to both known and unknown detention centers.

While many have returned maimed, claiming torture, many others are suspected to either have died or still be in detention. The opposition said it has provided those names several times to parliament, asserting they are being held by security and demanding in vain that the government provide an explanation.

To date, the abductions continue — including a 17-year-old boy picked up from his place of work as he peeled potatoes.

Speaking to VOA, the boy’s mother, Nambazira Sauda, recalled that on November 5, a friend of her son told her about her son’s disappearance. Since then, Sauda said she has checked all known detention centers without success and fears her son may be dead.

“They say when a child is dying, a mother gets birth pangs,” she said. “I go to the bathroom all the time, I don’t eat, I don’t drink, I lose my senses. When I start moving, I find myself coming out from another direction.”

“My son is young,” she said. “They should come and kill me instead.”

President Yoweri Museveni has in recent months stated he is not aware of any abductions going on in the country. He also maintains that mistakes by security personnel while on duty are being corrected.

It is still not clear exactly how many members of the opposition group are either dead or in detention.

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Soldier Killed in Jihadi Ambush in Cameroon, Military Says

A soldier has been killed and another wounded in an ambush by jihadis in Cameroon’s Far North, military and local sources said Friday.

The attack happened on Thursday in the town of Ldaoussaf in a region troubled by jihadi insurgents, the two sources told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“An army patrol was ambushed,” a senior army officer said, adding that a soldier had been killed and another injured. “The assailants fled with weapons.”

A local authority representative who also asked to remain anonymous confirmed the toll.

The Far North is a tongue of land that lies between Nigeria to the west and Chad to the east.

Nigeria’s Boko Haram and its dissident branch, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), have in recent years carried out deadly attacks against security forces and civilians in northern Cameroon, as well as adjacent parts of Nigeria, Niger and Chad.

Boko Haram launched an insurgency in northeast Nigeria in 2009 before it spread through the region.

More than 36,000 people have been killed since, mainly in Nigeria, and 3 million people have fled their homes, the United Nations says.

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Prayers in Germany, Rome for Frail Former Pope Benedict XVI

The condition of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI remains stable, the Vatican said Friday, as Catholics prayed for the 95-year-old former pontiff whose health has seriously deteriorated.

The German, who in 2013 was the first pope since the Middle Ages to resign as head of the worldwide Catholic Church, has become increasingly frail over the years.

Pope Francis said Wednesday his predecessor, whose birth name is Joseph Ratzinger, was “very ill.”

On Friday, the Vatican said his condition was “stable,” adding that Benedict had rested well overnight and taken part in a mass held in his bedroom.

Benedict moved out of the papal palace and into a former convent within the Vatican when he retired.

Francis called Wednesday for people to pray for him, before visiting him at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery.

The Vatican later confirmed the former pope’s health had worsened “due to advancing age,” while a Vatican source told Agence France-Presse it had begun deteriorating “about three days ago.”

“It is his vital functions that are failing, including his heart,” the source said, adding that no hospital admission was planned, as he has the “necessary medical equipment” at home.

The Rome diocese celebrated a special mass for Benedict at the Basilica of St. John Lateran Friday. In his homily, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis said as “priest, theologian, bishop, pope,” Benedict “expressed at the same time, the strength and the sweetness of faith.”


In Germany, in the church of St. Oswald in Marktl am Inn, where the former pope was baptized, a photo of Benedict was set up on a tripod next to a baptistery.

Photos from his 2006 trip to the town line the walls. A red candle burns on the floor of the white building, which is topped by a black bell tower.

One visitor, Tobias Ferstl, 43, prayed with his eyes closed for several minutes in front of the photograph of Benedict.

“I was passing through, so I decided to stop by the birthplace of the Pope Emeritus,” the devout Catholic, an altar server at Regensburg Cathedral, told AFP.

“I don’t feel any great sadness or astonishment, but rather gratitude,” he said, despite a few tears filling his eyes. Benedict was “a gentle person,” he said.

At Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican, tourists and pilgrims taking selfies in front of the Christmas tree and Nativity scene contrasted with the few journalists on standby in case of a death announcement.

“He was a great pope,” Italian Carmelo Dellisanti told AFP. “Perhaps misunderstood by some in the Catholic world, but he served the Church. He produced extraordinary homilies and writings.”

A difficult time

Benedict was 78 when he succeeded the long-reigning and popular John Paul II in April 2005.

His eight-year pontificate was marked by multiple crises, including the global clerical sex abuse scandal, which has dogged him in retirement as well.

A damning report for the German church in January 2022 accused him of personally having failed to stop four predatory priests in the 1980s, when he was archbishop of Munich.

Benedict has denied wrongdoing, but in a letter released after the report, asked “for forgiveness.”

“I think he had a difficult time as pope, because of the pedophilia scandal, and he never really wanted to be pope, so it would be nice if he went to heaven,” said 30-year-old German Annika Hafner.

Benedict has appeared increasingly frail in recent months, using a wheelchair, but was still receiving visitors. He appears frail in photos taken December 1.

The last public video of him, released by the Vatican in August, shows a thin man with a hearing aid who can no longer speak, but whose eyes are still bright.

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