Quran Burning in Sweden Spurs Second Day of Protests in Iraq

BASRA, IRAQ – Thousands of followers of a firebrand Iraqi Shiite cleric rallied in major cities in Iraq on Friday, condemning the burning of a Quran during a protest in Sweden earlier this week. Some of the demonstrators called for the expulsion of the Swedish ambassador from Iraq. 

At rallies in Baghdad and Basra, followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a cleric and political leader with a large grassroots following, burned Swedish flags and rainbow LGBTQ+ pride flags and chanted “Yes, yes to Islam” and “No, no to the devil.” 

Addressing the crowds in a speech in the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City, Friday prayers preacher Sayyid Sattar Batat called on Iraqi authorities to, “if necessary, expel the Swedish ambassador and cut all diplomatic relations with them.” 

The protests came a day after hundreds of protesters briefly stormed the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad. 

On Wednesday, a man who identified himself in Swedish media as a refugee from Iraq burned a Quran outside a mosque in central Stockholm. 

An Iraqi security official said the man was an Iraqi Christian who had previously fought in a Christian unit of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a collection of mostly Shiite militias that were incorporated into the country’s armed forces in 2016. 

Swedish police had authorized the protest, citing freedom of speech, after a previous decision to ban a similar protest was overturned by a Swedish court. 

The act, coming during the major Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, drew widespread condemnation in the Muslim world. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested Thursday that the incident would pose another obstacle to Sweden’s bid for NATO membership. 

Iraqi officials have called on Sweden to extradite the man who had burned the Quran for prosecution in Iraq.

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Chinese Army Invasion of Taiwan Not a Given, US General Says

WASHINGTON – There is still time to dissuade Beijing not to use force to reunify Taiwan with mainland China, according to America’s most senior military official.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said Friday that despite well-publicized plans calling for the Chinese military to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027, there is no indication Chinese President Xi Jinping has made a decision one way or the other.

Speaking to an audience at the National Press Club in Washington, Milley said that gives the U.S. and other countries time to show Xi the use of force would be a bad idea.

“You want to make sure that every single day, President Xi wakes up and says, ‘Today is not that day,’ and that that decision never comes,” he said.

Milley’s comments are in line with analysis from top U.S. intelligence officials, who have argued for much of the past year that Xi would prefer a peaceful reunification with Taiwan.

Some officials and analysts, however, have expressed concern that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would prompt Beijing to risk war over Taiwan, with others warning China is likely learning lessons from Russia’s failures.

Milley on Friday said that as long as the U.S. and its allies are able to maintain their shrinking military advantage over China — and upgrade and modernize where necessary — Beijing can be persuaded to keep its forces on its side of the Taiwan Strait.

“The faster we move out, the faster we can retain military superiority, then I believe the theory of the case is we are more likely than not to deter war from happening, and if war does happen, we will prevail,” Milley said.

He also pushed back against criticism of the current U.S. approach to China and Taiwan, saying the U.S. and its allies have the capacity to support Ukraine and Taiwan, even though some of the needs overlap when it comes to weapon systems and ammunition.

“It’s not … a zero-sum game. It’s not like that,” Milley said, adding, “There are other allies and partners out there [to help Taiwan]. It’s not just the United States.”

Tensions between the U.S. and Chinese militaries have been rising steadily, going back to February, when the Pentagon accused China of flying a high-altitude spy balloon over the United States. 

Chinese officials have insisted the device was a weather balloon, rejecting evidence from Washington that the equipment on board the balloon was meant for surveillance.

Complicating matters, Chinese military leaders have refused to speak with their U.S. counterparts.

Earlier this week, officials at the Chinese Embassy in Washington called on the U.S. to drop sanctions against China as a prerequisite for talks.

Pentagon officials Thursday rejected the demand.

U.S. officials have said they will continue to leave open the possibility for military-to-military talks, saying such communication is critical to prevent misunderstandings that could lead to conflict, something Milley alluded to Friday. 

“The geostrategic history of this century will likely be determined by the United States-China relationship,” he said, “and whether it remains in competition or tips into a great power war.”

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Dozens Killed in Kenya Road Disaster

NAIROBI, KENYA – At least 48 people were killed Friday when a truck apparently lost control and plowed into other vehicles and pedestrians at a busy junction in western Kenya, police said. 

Television images showed scenes of devastation at the crash site with the mangled wreckage of several minibuses and the overturned truck as rescue workers hunted for people feared trapped. 

“So far we can confirm 48 dead and we are suspecting one or two are still trapped under the truck,” local police commander Geoffrey Mayek told AFP after the accident on the highway between the towns of Kericho and Nakuru. 

He said another 30 people had been seriously injured and rushed to various hospitals. 

Tom Mboya Odero, the regional police commander for the Rift Valley, said the truck traveling toward Kericho “lost control and rammed into eight vehicles, several motorcycles, people who were by the roadside, vendors, and other people who were on other businesses.”  

Kenyan leaders including President William Ruto expressed their condolences after the accident, which took place about 6:30 p.m. (1530 GMT) at a busy area known as Londiani junction. 

Transport Minister Kipchumba Murkomen said on Twitter that the rescue efforts would be followed by an investigation to determine the cause of the crash. 

Collins Kipkoech, a senior doctor at Kericho County Hospital, said his facility’s morgue had so far received 45 bodies while more victims were taken to other hospitals “and the rescue is still ongoing.” 

The Kenyan Red Cross, which sent ambulances and rescue workers to the scene, said heavy rains were hindering rescue operations. 

“The truck was [traveling at] high speed. … It tried to avoid several vehicles before it came straight into the market,” said one witness, Maureen Jepkoech. 

“All I can say is that I am lucky to be alive because I saw what happened and I am alive because I ran. I am just lucky,” she added.  

“I have seen a very bad scene, bodies and blood all over. So many people are dead.” 

‘Happened in a flash’

Another witness, Joel Rotich, said, “The accident happened in a flash. Many of them had no time to escape. There was a lot of confusion because people were screaming all over and everyone was running after the accident.”

He added, “It took some time before people gathered courage and started helping those injured.”

According to figures from the National Transport and Safety Authority, at least 21,760 people were involved in road accidents last year in Kenya, including 4,690 who died.  

“My heart is crushed,” Kericho County Governor Erick Mutai wrote on Facebook, describing it as a “dark moment for the people of Kericho.” 

“My heart goes out to the families who have just lost their loved ones,” he said, adding that ambulances had been mobilized and all health facilities were on standby. 

Ruto, for his part, said the country was mourning with the families who had lost their loved ones. He urged motorists to be extra cautious on the roads, particularly when there was heavy rain. 

“It is distressing that some of the fatalities are young people with a promising future and businesspeople who were on their daily chores,” he said on Twitter. 

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State Department Review of Afghanistan Evacuation Critical of Biden, Trump

WASHINGTON – A U.S. State Department report on Friday criticized the handling of the 2021 evacuation from Afghanistan, saying decisions by President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump to withdraw troops had “serious consequences for the viability” and security of the former U.S.-backed government. 

Adverse findings in the report also reflected on Secretary of State Antony Blinken, without naming him. They included the department’s failure to expand its crisis-management task force as the Taliban advanced on Kabul in August 2021 and the lack of a senior diplomat “to oversee all elements of the crisis response.” 

“Naming a 7th floor principal … would have improved coordination across different lines of effort,” said the report, referring to the State Department’s top floor where Blinken and senior diplomats have offices.  

The review, and a similar Pentagon study, contributed to a report released by the White House in April. But the State Department review’s critical findings were not reflected in the White House report. 

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A representative for Trump also did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The White House report effectively blamed the chaotic U.S. pullout and evacuation operation on a lack of planning and troop reduction rounds by Trump following a 2020 deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces. 

“I can’t speak to that internal coordination piece and how the administration settled on the core conclusions that it presented” in April, a senior State Department official said. 

No reason given for timing

The official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, declined to say why the review dated March 2022 was withheld from release until the eve of the July 4 holiday weekend. 

The U.S troop pullout and evacuation of U.S. and allied officials, citizens and Afghans at risk of Taliban retribution saw crowds of desperate Afghans trying to enter Kabul airport and men clinging to aircraft as they taxied down runways. 

An Islamic State group suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and more than 150 Afghans outside an airport gate. 

The State Department released 24 pages of an 85-page After Action Report — the rest remained classified — on its handling of the evacuation operation launched as the last U.S.-led international forces departed after 20 years of backing successive Kabul governments against the Taliban. 

It praised the performance of American Embassy personnel working under difficult conditions like the COVID-19 pandemic and reduced security because of the U.S. troop drawdown, whose speed “compounded the difficulties the department faced.” 

About 125,000 people, including nearly 6,000 Americans, were flown out of Kabul before the last U.S. soldiers departed on August 30, 2021, as the Taliban consolidated their grip on Kabul after the U.S.-backed government fled. 

“The decisions of both President Trump and President Biden to end the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan had serious consequences for the viability of the Afghan government and its security,” the review said. 

While those decisions were outside its scope, the review said that “during both administrations there was insufficient senior-level consideration of worst-case scenarios and how quickly those might follow.” 

The review said State Department planning for the evacuation was hindered because it was unclear which senior official had the lead. 

Senior administration officials also failed to make “clear decisions regarding the universe of at-risk Afghans” to be included in the evacuation by the time it started, nor had they determined where Afghan evacuees would be taken, it said. 

Preparation and planning “were inhibited” by the Biden administration’s reluctance to take steps that could signal a loss of confidence in the Kabul government “and thus contribute to its collapse,” the review found. 

“The complicated department task force structure that was created when the evacuation began proved confusing to many participants, and knowledge management and communication among and across various lines of effort was problematic,” it said. 

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Most Europeans See Russia as Adversary, Poll Shows

LONDON — Most Europeans see Russia as an adversary following its invasion of Ukraine, according to a survey of over 16,000 people across 11 European Union member states.

Europeans tend to have a more favorable opinion of China, with a plurality seeing Beijing as a necessary partner.

Russian ‘adversary’

Two-thirds of Europeans now see Russia as an adversary since its invasion of Ukraine, according to the poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations, or ECFR, which was conducted in April. That’s double the figure from 2021, the last time the survey was taken.

“In particular, majorities in Denmark [74%] Poland [71%], Sweden [70%], the Netherlands [66%], Germany [62%] and Spain [55%], think of Russia as an “adversary” of Europe – while only 37% in Italy and 17% in Bulgaria do,” the ECFR report said.

Future relations

The respondents also were asked about Europe’s future relationship with Moscow.

“Around half of those surveyed [48%] believe their country’s relationship with Russia, in the event of a negotiated peace settlement in Ukraine, should be ‘limited,’” the report said.

“The only country where a majority [51%] of citizens expressed the view that it should be ‘fully cooperative’ was Bulgaria. Many in Austria [36%] and Hungary [32%] also supported this view,” it added.

European Security

The survey looked at attitudes toward the security guarantees provided by the United States and whether Europe should invest more in its own defense. Some EU leaders – notably French President Emmanuel Macron – have called for Europe to develop strategic autonomy, the ability to defend itself independent of the U.S.

Almost three-quarters of the respondents said Europe cannot always rely on the U.S. for its security.

“You can interpret it, of course, as a sign that Europeans are not trusting Americans that much as they used to historically. And in this sense, perhaps the presidency of Donald Trump has left lasting damage to that relationship,” said Pawel Zerka, a co-author of the report with the European Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview with VOA.

“But you can also have a more benevolent interpretation, according to which – simply due to the war in Ukraine and Russia’s invasion on Ukraine – Europeans are more ready right now to take responsibility for their security,” he said.

China’s position

The survey asked similar questions about European attitudes toward China.

“A plurality of respondents [43%] consider China a “necessary partner” of their country. This position puts them closer to the political positions of Germany’s Olaf Scholz and France’s Emmanuel Macron than China hawks, such as [European Union Commission President] Ursula von der Leyen,” the report said.

Co-author Pawel Zerka said that compared to Russia, there are marked differences in European attitudes toward China.

“People mostly say that the risks and benefits are balanced, so they do not recognize that economic relationship with China as particularly risky and therefore requiring some rebalancing,” he told VOA.

However, a majority of Europeans opposed the idea of Chinese ownership of key infrastructure, while 41% of respondents said that if Beijing gave weapons to Russia, the EU should impose sanctions on Beijing even if that would harm Western economies.

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More Weapons Needed for Successful Counteroffensive, Says Ukrainian General

The U.N. expressed concern Friday that no new ships have been registered since June 26 under a deal allowing the safe Black Sea export of grain from Ukraine. “We call on the parties to commit to the continuation and effective implementation of the agreement without further delay,” U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq told reporters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday. Moscow said Modi expressed support for what the Kremlin called the Russian leadership’s decisive actions in handling the mutiny by the Wagner mercenary group last Saturday. The call comes after the U.S. and India declared themselves “among the closest partners in the world” last week during a state visit to Washington by Modi. India has yet to condemn ally Russia for the invasion of Ukraine.  
Russian forces hit a school in Serhiivka, Donetsk Oblast on Friday, killing two members of staff and injuring six others, the regional prosecutor’s office reported.


More weapons are needed for an effective counteroffensive, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the top officer in Ukraine’s armed forces, said in an interview with The Washington Post. 

Zaluzhny expressed frustration that although Ukraine is expected to rapidly take back Russian occupied territories, it will have to wait — in a best-case scenario — at least until the fall before it receives American-made F-16s.

The Ukrainian commander pointed to NATO’s own doctrine, which calls for air superiority before launching an offensive. Despite that, Western leaders are slow to supply the jets, Zaluzhny complained.

He also said his troops have limited ammunition, adding they have been outshot tenfold at times by the enemy.

So, it “pisses me off,” Zaluzhny said, when he hears that Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive in the country’s east and south has started slower than expected — an opinion publicly expressed by Western officials and military analysts. Nevertheless, he remarked his troops have gained some ground — even if they are inching just 500 meters daily.

“This is not a show,” Zaluzhny said Wednesday in his office at Ukraine’s General Staff headquarters. “It’s not a show the whole world is watching and betting on or anything. Every day, every meter is given by blood.”

“Without being fully supplied, these plans are not feasible at all,” he said. “But they are being carried out. Yes, maybe not as fast as the participants in the show, the observers, would like, but that is their problem.”

Ukrainian forces have successfully liberated nine settlements in Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, according to Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, though the main attack is yet to come.


Northern border

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked his senior military leadership to strengthen Ukraine’s northern military sector after the arrival in Belarus of Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. 

“The decision … is for Commander-in-Chief [General Valeriy] Zaluzhny and ‘North’ commander [General Serhiy] Naev to implement a set of measures to strengthen this direction,” Zelenskyy said on the Telegram messaging app.

Zelenskyy did not mention Wagner Group boss Prigozhin in the brief post on Telegram.  

National Security Spokesman John Kirby told VOA the U.S. will “continue to monitor Wagner’s activities wherever they are around the world, and we’re going to continue to hold them properly accountable for the kinds of egregious violent, deadly and illegal conduct that they, that they are still capable of conducting.”

After pushing Russian forces out of northern regions last year, Ukraine took steps to tighten the defense of its border with Belarus, a close ally of Russia.

Prigozhin flew from Russia into exile in Belarus on Tuesday under a deal negotiated by President Alexander Lukashenko that ended his mercenaries’ mutiny in Russia on Saturday.

Thunberg’s involvement

Zelenskyy met Thursday in Kyiv with Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg and prominent European figures who are forming a working group to assess ecological damage from the 16-month-old Russian invasion. Their talks focused on the destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant. 

“Combating ecocide is one of the points of the Ukrainian Peace Formula, and we must implement each of its points, all aspects of peace,” said Zelenskyy.

Zelenskyy also met Thursday with former U.S. vice president Mike Pence, who made a surprise visit in Kyiv. Zelenskyy thanked Pence for his support. “We appreciate that both major U.S. parties, the Republican and Democratic, remain united in their support for Ukraine,” he said and added “we feel the strong support of the people of the United States,” he said.

Zelenskyy also thanked the U.S. for the recent defense assistance packages worth $2.1 billion and $500 million, allocated on June 6 and June 27, respectively, and he emphasized the unprecedented total amount of support provided, which has reached $43.1 billion since February last year. [https://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/volodimir-zelenskij-zustrivsya-iz-48-m-vice-prezidentom-ssha-83929]

Pence is the first Republican U.S. presidential candidate to meet with the Ukrainian president during the campaign.

VOA White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report. Some information for this story was provided by The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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New York Introduces Congestion Fee to Drive into Midtown Manhattan

Getting into Midtown Manhattan is going to get expensive in the coming months when early next year a new congestion pricing plan takes effect and may have some commuters trading their cars for trains and buses. Aron Ranen has the story.

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Sudan: No End in Sight After Nearly 50 Days of Fighting

Analysts monitoring Sudan say it might take an internationally supported peacekeeping force to end the ongoing fighting there. That assessment follows multiple failed cease-fire attempts and talks facilitated by Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Until two weeks ago, Hala Alkarib lived in Khartoum, where she’s the regional director for the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa. But she and other colleagues had to relocate because of the horrors created by the ongoing war, including looting.

“I would say 75% or more of Khartoum inhabitants have experienced looting,” Alkarib said. “Our homes were completely looted, our vehicles, our personal properties, our papers and documents were destroyed and burned.”

She said the strategy of the Rapid Support Forces run by General Hamdan Dagalo is not new.

“The presence on the ground inside residential areas being in Khartoum, in Al Fasher, in Nyala or in [El] Geneina, the RSF strategy is to run a war from within and inside civilian residencies,” Alkarib said. “The RSF are the extension of the Janjaweed. It’s been done for over 20 years in rural Darfur, where villagers were terrorized, and infrastructure was completely destroyed.”

Alkarib blames the Sudanese Armed Forces led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, for enabling the RSF to flourish.

“SAF unfortunately, they were for years kind of relying on the RSF to do their dirty work and they were complacent and enabled this criminal organization to grow and right now it grew to the point that it actually threatens the existence of overall Sudan as a state.”

She said it’s unfortunate the international community is not exerting sufficient pressure on countries that could help end the war.

“Seventy-five percent of the causes of this war lies outside of Sudan,” Alkarib said. “UAE [United Arab Emirates] and their significant support to the RSF and Egypt and their position – anti- any type of democratic governance in Sudan and that constantly put them in a position where they support SAF as potential rulers.”

That sentiment was partly echoed by Dr. Edgar Githua, a lecturer at the United States International University and Strathmore University.

“The African Union and the world in general looking at this situation need to step up and need to call out Russia and tell Russia pull out the Wagner group, get it out,” Githua said. “Egypt is an easier group to deal with, the U.S. has a lot of leverage with Egypt. Libya, Khalifa Haftar can be told to back down also, and the UAE can be told to back off.”

Some of the countries mentioned offered to mediate the crisis and denied involvement in the war. Githua said the international community must become more directly involved.

“They are coming to the battlefield with renewed vigor and at some point, the world has no choice but there has to be some external intervention and for me it’ll be a peacekeeping force that creates a humanitarian corridor to just try to restore normalcy.”

The Jeddah talks overseen by the United States and Saudi Arabia were recently suspended and the most recent offer by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, to mediate the crisis also stalled because one of the generals said he didn’t want the Kenyan president leading the group that is made up of South Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

And that’s a problem, said Macharia Munene, professor of History and International Relations at USIU in Nairobi.

“One of the generals, Burhan, has said he doesn’t want anything to do with him, so he’s going nowhere,” Munene said. “He prefers [South Sudan political figure Salva Kiir. Yes, the team is an IGAD team, and he’s supposed to lead the team but if one of the participants, the major player, doesn’t want anything to do about him leading the team, there’s something wrong.”

For now, fighting is showing no signs of letting up.

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NATO Struggles to Choose New Leader as Allies Crave Stability Amid Ukraine War

NATO is attempting to choose a new leader, as the term of the current secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, is due to end later this year. However, some member countries want Stoltenberg to stay on, to give the Western alliance stability amid Russia’s war on Ukraine. 

Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, has led NATO for nine years. His tenure has already been extended twice, most recently last year, following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Hosting the secretary-general in Washington earlier this month, U.S. President Joe Biden praised Stoltenberg’s record.

“Your leadership in the alliance has been through a really significant period, in terms of dealing with NATO’s relationship with Ukraine and, you know, I think you’ve done an incredible job,” Biden said June 13. 

Stoltenberg’s term is due to expire in September. Traditionally, the secretary-general is European, but NATO allies appear undecided over who should succeed the 64-year-old incumbent, said Joel Hickman, an analyst with the Center for European Policy Analysis, based in Washington.

“They’re going to have to be able to navigate lots of different competing national interests that you get in NATO, you get in an alliance of 30-plus countries. 

“They’re also going to have to be able to garner support among populations within those allied nations, particularly with young people. Polling in recent years has found that young people in the West struggle to understand the purpose or the relevance of NATO,” Hickman told VOA.

Denmark’s frontrunner

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen is seen as a frontrunner. On a recent visit to Washington, she highlighted her country’s support for Kyiv.

“We will, of course, continue from our Danish perspective, our very strong, strong support to Ukraine,” she said.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace are also seen as contenders. However, Wallace said this week he does not believe he is a likely candidate for the top job. 

Hickman said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will inevitably dominate NATO thinking on choosing Stoltenberg’s successor.

“Its important that the NATO secretary-general has both an established and clear voice on Ukraine and can continue to maintain alliance solidarity on Ukraine. But also that they have credibility when it comes to NATO’s 2% [of GDP] spending target,” he said.

NATO is due to hold its annual summit on July 11 and 12 in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Some allies want Stoltenberg to extend his term once again, although he hasn’t indicated whether he is prepared to do so.

“Right now I think there’s a lot of uncertainty in Ukraine. There’s also a lot of uncertainty in terms of U.S. politics and who we may have as a president next year – obviously we’ve heard different positions from some of the Republican candidates. And I think given all of that uncertainty, a large number of allies are looking for that stability,” Hickman said.

Daunting Challenges

Analysts say that whoever leads NATO will face numerous challenges: large scale land warfare in Europe; the dangers of nuclear proliferation; an increasingly assertive China; and new theaters of competition in cyber and space technology.

“All across the West, I think advanced societies are on the cusp of profound transformational changes, in particular in emerging and disruptive technologies. And I think NATO really needs to lead that race, particularly with what’s going on in Russia, but also with China and elsewhere in the world,” Hickman said. 

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Supreme Court Rejects Biden’s Plan to Wipe Away Student Loans

WASHINGTON — A sharply divided Supreme Court on Friday effectively killed President Joe Biden’s $400 billion plan to cancel or reduce federal student loan debts for millions of Americans.

The 6-3 decision, with conservative justices in the majority, said the Biden administration overstepped its authority with the plan, and it leaves borrowers on the hook for repayments that are expected to resume in the fall.

Biden was to announce a new set of actions to protect student loan borrowers and would address the court decision later Friday, said a White House official. The official was not authorized to speak publicly ahead of Biden’s expected statement on the case and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The court held that the administration needed Congress’ endorsement before undertaking so costly a program. The majority rejected arguments that a bipartisan 2003 law dealing with student loans, known as the HEROES Act, gave Biden the power he claimed.

“Six States sued, arguing that the HEROES Act does not authorize the loan cancellation plan. We agree,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent, joined by the court’s two other liberals, that the majority of the court “overrides the combined judgment of the Legislative and Executive Branches, with the consequence of eliminating loan forgiveness for 43 million Americans.”

Loan repayments will resume in October, although interest will begin accruing in September, the Education Department has announced. Payments have been on hold since the start of the coronavirus pandemic more than three years ago.

The forgiveness program would have canceled $10,000 in student loan debt for those making less than $125,000 or households with less than $250,000 in income. Pell Grant recipients, who typically demonstrate more financial need, would have had an additional $10,000 in debt forgiven.

Twenty-six million people had applied for relief and 43 million would have been eligible, the administration said. The cost was estimated at $400 billion over 30 years.

Advocacy groups supporting debt cancellation condemned the decision while demanding that Biden find another avenue to fulfill his promise of debt relief.

Natalia Abrams, president and founder of the Student Debt Crisis Center, said the responsibility for new action falls “squarely” on Biden’s shoulders. “The president possesses the power, and must summon the will, to secure the essential relief that families across the nation desperately need,” Abrams said in a statement.

The loan plan joins other pandemic-related initiatives that faltered at the Supreme Court.

Conservative majorities ended an eviction moratorium that had been imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and blocked a plan to require workers at big companies to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing and wear a mask on the job. The court upheld a plan to require vaccinations of health-care workers.

The earlier programs were billed largely as public health measures intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. The loan forgiveness plan, by contrast, was aimed at countering the economic effects of the pandemic.

In more than three hours of arguments last February, conservative justices voiced their skepticism that the administration had the authority to wipe away or reduce student loans held by millions.

Republican-led states arguing before the court said the plan would have amounted to a “windfall” for 20 million people who would have seen their entire student debt disappear and been better off than they were before the pandemic.

Roberts was among those on the court who questioned whether non-college workers would essentially be penalized for a break for the college educated.

In contrast, the administration grounded the need for the sweeping loan forgiveness in the COVID-19 emergency and the continuing negative impacts on people near the bottom of the economic ladder. The declared emergency ended on May 11.

Without the promised loan relief, the administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer told the justices, “delinquencies and defaults will surge.”

At those arguments, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said her fellow justices would be making a mistake if they took for themselves, instead of leaving it to education experts, “the right to decide how much aid to give” people who would struggle if the program were struck down.

The HEROES Act has allowed the secretary of education to waive or modify the terms of federal student loans in connection with a national emergency. The law was primarily intended to keep service members from being hurt financially while they fought in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Biden had once doubted his own authority to broadly cancel student debt, but announced the program last August. Legal challenges quickly followed.

The court majority said the Republican-led states had cleared an early hurdle that required them to show they would be financially harmed if the program had been allowed to take effect.

The states did not even rely on any direct injury to themselves, but instead pointed to the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, a state-created company that services student loans.

Nebraska Solicitor General James Campbell, arguing before the court in February, said the Authority would lose about 40% of its revenues if the Biden plan went into effect. Independent research has cast doubt on the financial harm MOHELA would face, suggesting that the agency would still see an increase in revenue even if Biden’s cancellation went through. That information was not part of the court record.

A federal judge initially found that the states would not be harmed and dismissed their lawsuit before an appellate panel said the case could proceed.

In a second case, the justices ruled unanimously that two Texans who filed a separate challenge did not have legal standing to sue. But the outcome of that case has no bearing on the court’s decision to block the debt relief plan.

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What’s Ahead for College Admissions After End of Affirmative Action?

Colleges across the country will be forced to stop considering race in admissions under Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling, ending affirmative action policies that date back decades.

Schools that have relied on race-conscious admissions policies to build diversity will have to rethink how they admit students. It’s expected to result in campuses that have more white and Asian American students and fewer Black and Hispanic students.

The impact of the decision will be felt most strongly at the nation’s most selective colleges, which have been more likely to consider race as one of many factors in admissions. But some less selective universities also consider race, and hundreds of colleges may need to adjust their admissions systems in response to the decision.

Colleges say they’re still analyzing the decision, but it’s sure to have a dramatic impact nationwide. Here’s what we know so far.

When will the ruling take effect?

Today’s incoming high school seniors will be the first to see any change. Many of them will be applying for college over the next year as colleges remove race from admissions decisions. The process probably won’t look much different for students — maybe there will be another question or two about their life experiences — but behind the scenes, there could be big changes in the way colleges evaluate applications.

At Northeastern University, President Joseph E. Aoun said in a campus message the decision “will dramatically alter the use of race as a factor in college admissions.”

How many colleges consider race?

No one knows for sure. Colleges aren’t required to disclose whether they consider race, and the federal government doesn’t track it. A survey of about 200 colleges in 2019 found that roughly four in 10 colleges said race had at least limited influence in admissions decisions. The practice is most common at highly selective institutions, while many less selective schools don’t consider race.

Nine states have separately banned affirmative action at private universities, including California, Michigan, Florida and Washington.

In states that already banned affirmative action, colleges responded by recruiting more low-income students, hoping that wealth would act as a proxy for race. Some colleges also started “percentage” plans that offer admission to top students at every high school in their state. Such approaches have had mixed results. But expect to see more colleges trying alternate approaches.

How are colleges going to change admissions?

An alternate approach floated by some would put greater emphasis on students who overcome adversity. President Joe Biden endorsed that approach Thursday, saying adversity should be a “new standard” in college admissions, rewarding those who overcome challenges related to income, race or other factors.

The court’s decision appears to allow such an approach. The conservative majority wrote that “nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life,” as long as it’s tied to a particular quality the applicant brings to campus.

Applicants may see more colleges add questions about adversity or other life experiences. But the decision also warns about going too far, saying colleges can’t simply use essays to revive “the regime we hold unlawful today.”

What’s clear is that any direct consideration of race in admission decisions will have to end, meaning colleges will no longer be able to give an edge to underrepresented minorities simply because of their race.  

What does this mean for legacy admissions?

With affirmative action off the table, colleges face mounting pressure to end other admission practices that disproportionately benefit white and wealthy students. Chief among those are legacy preferences, the practice of giving an admission boost to the children of alumni.

Within hours of the decision, activists and some Democrats in Congress were urging colleges to abandon the policy. Biden took a shot at it too, saying he’s asking the Education Department to examine legacy preferences and other practices that “expand privilege instead of opportunity.” A small but notable group of colleges have dropped the practice in recent years, including Johns Hopkins University and Amherst College, but it continues at many others, including Harvard and other Ivy League schools.

What are colleges saying?   

Colleges across the country said they’re committed to campus diversity no matter what the court says. Campus leaders say they’re still sorting out how the decision will affect them, but many expressed optimism that they will legally find other ways to bring a diverse mix of students to campus.

Colleges are sending a welcoming message in hopes of avoiding the type of drop-off among Black and Hispanic students that have been seen in some states that outlawed affirmative action. 

Why were colleges considering race in the first place? 

In several decisions dating to the 1970s, the Supreme Court had upheld affirmative action in college admissions. Past rulings found that colleges have a compelling interest in promoting racial diversity because of the benefits it provides. They say it exposes students to differing viewpoints and helps prepare future leaders, among other benefits. Colleges say race has been a small factor, sometimes giving an edge to underrepresented students. Opponents dispute that notion, citing research finding a boost for Black applicants equivalent to 310 points on the SAT exam.

Thursday’s decision reversed course on the earlier decisions. The court found that while the benefits cited by universities are “commendable,” they don’t pass legal muster because they aren’t concrete enough to be measured and they don’t have a clear end goal. 

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US Supreme Court Rules for Designer Who Doesn’t Want To Make Wedding Websites for Gay Couples

In a defeat for gay rights, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled Friday that a Christian graphic artist who wants to design wedding websites can refuse to work with same-sex couples.

The court ruled 6-3 for designer Lorie Smith despite a Colorado law that bars discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, gender and other characteristics. Smith had argued that the law violates her free speech rights.

Smith’s opponents warned that a win for her would allow a range of businesses to discriminate, refusing to serve Black, Jewish or Muslim customers, interracial or interfaith couples or immigrants. But Smith and her supporters had said that a ruling against her would force artists — from painters and photographers to writers and musicians — to do work that is against their beliefs.

“The First Amendment envisions the United States as a rich and complex place where all persons are free to think and speak as they wish, not as the government demands,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court’s six conservative justices.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent that was joined by the court’s other liberals. “Today, the Court, for the first time in its history, grants a business open to the public a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of a protected class,” Sotomayor wrote.

The decision is a win for religious rights and one in a series of cases in recent years in which the justices have sided with religious plaintiffs. Last year, for example, the court ruled along ideological lines for a football coach who prayed on the field at his public high school after games.

The decision is also a retreat on gay rights for the court. For two decades, the court has expanded the rights of LGBTQ people, most notably giving same-sex couples the right to marry in 2015 and announcing five years later that a landmark civil rights law also protects gay, lesbian and transgender people from employment discrimination. That civil rights law decision was also written by Gorsuch.

Even as it has expanded gay rights, however, the court has been careful to say those with differing religious views needed to be respected. The belief that marriage can only be between one man and one woman is an idea that “long has been held — and continues to be held — in good faith by reasonable and sincere people here and throughout the world,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court’s gay marriage decision.

The court returned to that idea five years ago when it was confronted with the case of a Christian baker who objected to designing a cake for a same-sex wedding. The court issued a limited ruling in favor of the baker, Jack Phillips, saying there had been impermissible hostility toward his religious views in the consideration of his case. Phillips’ lawyer, Kristen Waggoner, of the Alliance Defending Freedom, also brought the most recent case to the court.

Smith, who owns a Colorado design business called 303 Creative, does not currently create wedding websites. She has said that she wants to but that her Christian faith would prevent her from creating websites celebrating same-sex marriages. And that’s where she runs into conflict with state law.

Colorado, like most other states, has a law forbidding businesses open to the public from discriminating against customers. Colorado said that under its so-called public accommodations law, if Smith offers wedding websites to the public, she must provide them to all customers, regardless of sexual orientation. Businesses that violate the law can be fined, among other things. Smith argued that applying the law to her violates her First Amendment rights. The state disagreed.

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Lavrov: Iran To Join Shanghai Alliance With China, Russia Next Week

Iran will be formally approved as a member of the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization with China, Russia and Central Asian countries, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday.

“At the meeting of heads of state on July 4, the full membership of Iran will be approved,” Lavrov said at the opening of an SCO center in Moscow.

Iran has intensified its diplomacy with friends and foes alike in recent months, seeking to reduce its isolation, improve its economy and project strength.

SCO membership was already on the cards and Iran is also hoping to be quickly accepted into another grouping that excludes Western countries — the BRICS group with Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

The SCO, which has its headquarters in China, is a diplomatic organization with eight members, including India and Pakistan.

Kremlin ally Belarus is also applying to join, and Lavrov said Friday that next week’s virtual summit would “begin the procedure” for that membership to go ahead.

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600 Arrested, 200 Police Officers Hurt in French Protests

NANTERRE, France — Protesters erected barricades, lit fires and shot fireworks at police who responded with tear gas and water cannons in French streets overnight as tensions grew over the deadly police shooting of a 17-year-old that has shocked the nation. More than 600 people were arrested and at least 200 police officers injured as the government struggled to restore order on a third night of unrest.

Armored police vehicles rammed through the charred remains of cars that had been flipped and set ablaze in the northwestern Paris suburb of Nanterre, where a police officer shot the teen identified only by his first name, Nahel. On the other side of Paris, protesters lit a fire at the city hall of the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois and set a bus depot ablaze in Aubervilliers.

In several Paris neighborhoods, groups of people hurled firecrackers at security forces. The police station in the city’s 12th district was attacked, while some shops were looted along Rivoli street, near the Louvre museum, and at the Forum des Halles, the largest shopping mall in central Paris.

In the Mediterranean port city of Marseille, police sought to disperse violent groups in the city center, regional authorities said.

President Emmanuel Macron planned to leave an EU summit in Brussels, where France plays a major role in European policymaking, to return to Paris and hold an emergency security meeting Friday.

Some 40,000 police officers were deployed to quell the protests. Police detained 667 people, the interior minister said; 307 of those were in the Paris region alone, according to the Paris police headquarters.

Around 200 police officers were injured, according to a national police spokesperson. No information was available about injuries among the rest of the population.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Friday denounced what he called a night of “rare violence.” His office described the arrests as a sharp increase on previous operations as part of an overall government efforts to be “extremely firm” with rioters.

The government has stopped short of declaring a state of emergency — a measure taken to quell weeks of rioting around France that followed the accidental death of two boys fleeing police in 2005.

The police officer accused of pulling the trigger Tuesday was handed a preliminary charge of voluntary homicide after prosecutor Pascal Prache said his initial investigation led him to conclude “the conditions for the legal use of the weapon were not met.” Preliminary charges mean investigating magistrates strongly suspect wrongdoing but need to investigate more before sending a case to trial.

The detained police officer’s lawyer, speaking on French TV channel BFMTV, said the officer was sorry and “devastated.” The officer did what he thought was necessary in the moment, attorney Laurent-Franck Lienard told the news outlet.

“He doesn’t get up in the morning to kill people,” Lienard said of the officer, whose name has not been released as per French practice in criminal cases. “He really didn’t want to kill.”

The shooting captured on video shocked France and stirred up long-simmering tensions between police and young people in housing projects and other disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The teenager’s family and their lawyers haven’t said the police shooting was race-related and they didn’t release his surname or details about him.

Still, anti-racism activists renewed complaints about police behavior.

“We have to go beyond saying that things need to calm down,” said Dominique Sopo, head of the campaign group SOS Racisme. “The issue here is how do we make it so that we have a police force that when they see Blacks and Arabs, don’t tend to shout at them, use racist terms against them and in some cases, shoot them in the head.”

Race was a taboo topic for decades in France, which is officially committed to a doctrine of colorblind universalism. But some increasingly vocal groups argue that this consensus conceals widespread discrimination and racism.

Deadly use of firearms is less common in France than in the United States, although 13 people who didn’t comply with traffic stops were fatally shot by French police last year. This year, another three people, including Nahel, have died under similar circumstances. The deaths have prompted demands for more accountability in France, which also saw protests against racial injustice after George Floyd’s killing by police in Minnesota.

In Nanterre, a peaceful march Thursday afternoon in honor of Nahel was followed by escalating confrontations, with smoke billowing from cars and garbage bins set ablaze.

Tensions rose in places across France throughout the day. In the usually tranquil Pyrenees town of Pau in southwestern France, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a police office, national police said. Vehicles were set on fire in Toulouse and a tramway train was torched in a suburb of Lyon, police said. Some towns, such as Clamart on the French capital’s southwest suburbs and Neuilly-sur-Marne in the eastern suburbs, imposed precautionary overnight curfews.

Bus and tram services in the Paris area shut as a precaution, and many tram lines remained shut for Friday morning rush hour.

The unrest extended as far as Belgium’s capital Brussels, where about a dozen people were detained during scuffles related to the shooting in France and several fires were brought under control.

Prache, the Nanterre prosecutor, said officers tried to stop Nahel because he looked so young and was driving a Mercedes with Polish license plates in a bus lane. He allegedly ran a red light to avoid being stopped then got stuck in traffic.

Both officers said they drew their guns to prevent him from fleeing. The officer who fired the shot said he feared he and his colleague or someone else could be hit by the car, according to Prache.

The scenes in France’s suburbs echoed 2005, when the deaths of 15-year-old Bouna Traoré and 17-year-old Zyed Benna led to three weeks of riots, exposing anger and resentment in neglected housing projects. The boys were electrocuted after hiding from police in a power substation in Clichy-sous-Bois. 

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EU Leaders Resume Migration Talks

BRUSSELS — European Union leaders opened a second day of migration talks Friday as Poland and Hungary continued to block progress after they were outvoted earlier this month on a plan to share refugees arriving in Europe among the 27 member countries.

Some leaders said that Poland and Hungary seemed to be fighting a battle started years ago, when well over 1 million migrants entered Europe, most of them refugees fleeing Syria, in 2015 and sparked one of the bloc’s biggest crises. Others said the two simply must not be permitted to break EU rules.

“My feeling was there’s a lot of bitterness about the debates on migration from 2015,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told reporters at EU headquarters in Brussels. “If you just say no to everything and everybody else tries to compromise that doesn’t really work out.”

Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob said that “Hungary was totally adamant” about having the issue removed altogether from the leader’s final summit communique. “It was not about let’s do it this way or the other way. It was like, ‘We don’t want to see migration being mentioned at all.’”

Golob confirmed that European Council President Charles Michel, who is chairing the summit, is likely to issue a separate chairman’s statement that does not require the endorsement of member countries.

Earlier this month, EU countries made a breakthrough on asylum law reform, sealing an agreement on a plan to share responsibility for migrants entering Europe without authorization.

The deal balanced the obligation for countries where most migrants arrive to process and lodge them against the requirement for other members to provide support, whether financial or by hosting refugees. Countries refusing to take migrants in could pay $21,400 per person instead.

The agreement was sealed with a qualified majority vote of around two-thirds. Only Poland and Hungary voted against. Their aim at the summit has been to challenge the legal validity of that decision.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said that caving in to them would set a dangerous precedent.

“The fact is, Poland and Hungary do not agree with the (EU) treaty,” he told reporters. “It has been decided, so we cannot come back and say now, ‘OK, we do not agree,’ because then everybody will open the list of all the decisions we took the last 10 years.”

Ahead of the meeting, Poland’s prime minister had insisted that his country wouldn’t be forced to accept European Union rules on migration, and he vowed to veto any plan that might force countries to take in refugees.

“An attack on Europe is underway. Europe’s borders are not secure. The safety of the inhabitants of our continent is at stake,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in a video statement. He said he would propose “a plan for secure borders” to the leaders.

Morawiecki said that his “plan is clear — ‘no’ to forced relocation of immigrants, ‘no’ to violations of veto rights by individual states and ‘no’ to violations of the principle of freedom, the principle of decision-making by states alone, ‘no’ to Brussels-imposed penalties on states.”

Poland and Hungary, along with the Czech Republic, refused to accept migrant quotas hastily imposed in 2015. The EU’s top court ruled in 2020 that they had failed to respect the bloc’s laws.

The number of people trying to enter the EU without authorization is on the rise. The border and coast guard agency Frontex said that more than 50,300 attempts were made from January to May. It’s more than double in the same period last year, and the most since 2017. But migrant arrivals in Europe dwarf those seen in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan.

At the same time, Poland is looking after around 1 million refugees from Ukraine.

Any attempt to court the help of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose anti-migrant government abstained in the vote on the breakthrough deal, appears to have failed.

“I perfectly understand the point of views of nations who have different problems with migration. But I think that the agreement that was found was a balanced one,” Meloni told reporters.

While Hungary and Poland are unlikely to succeed in their quest to have the rules overturned, their anti-immigrant stance — backed by other members like Austria, Denmark or Sweden — has helped ensure that the EU’s policies focus on keeping people out and quickly deporting those not entitled to stay. 

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Detained Migrant Minors in US Get More Phone Time With Family

Unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. shelters will now be allowed longer phone calls with loved ones. That’s because of a recent change in guidance announced by the U.S. agency that oversees the care and release of minors.

The updated guidance from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, that went into effect on Monday, allows minors to have at least 50-minute phone calls Monday through Friday with parents or other relatives anywhere in the U.S. or outside the country. That’s a change from the two 10-minute phone calls twice a week they were allowed to have.

Unaccompanied migrant minors remain in shelters and under the U.S. government’s custody until they’re released to their relatives or sponsors in the United States. Migrant children advocates called this a critical step for children’s safety and well-being.

“It’s something that children have repeatedly raised over time as a key issue in terms of conditions of custody,” Jane Liu, director of policy and litigation at Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, told VOA. “We’ve been working with pediatric health experts to do advocacy around this issue. … And so anything to mitigate the harm of that detention is critical to their health and that’s why … we’ve been pushing really hard on this.”

The policy also requires at least 45-minute calls on holidays, weekends, and the child’s birthday. Unlimited calls are expected to be available when children are in situations of emergency such as “grieving the loss of a loved one or experiencing a mental health crisis.”

There are almost 6,000 unaccompanied minors in U.S. custody, according to the latest daily report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security.

In its daily report to the media, ORR and DHS repeatedly say that in more than 80% of cases, an unaccompanied minor has a family member in the United States; in nearly half of those instances, that family member is a parent or legal guardian.

“These children are reunited with their families who will care for them,” according to the daily report. “The children then go through immigration proceedings where they are able to present an application for asylum or other protection under the law.”

Importance of communication

Physicians for Human Rights sent ORR a letter in April 2022 recommending that children in its custody have at least 30 minutes of phone communication per day, video being preferable, and in-person contact visits when possible. For children without anyone to call, the physicians recommended support through other activities.

“The most powerful factor to foster child resilience and adaptive skills to overcome negative impacts from difficult situations is a secure relationship with a safe, stable, nurturing adult whose presence is continuous over time, whether it is the child’s parent or caregiver,” they wrote. “Emotionally attuned attachment promotes healthy brain growth, development of accurate mental maps of self and others, ability to trust, and protection from trauma.”

Although ORR did not say specifically what prompted its decision to allow for longer phone calls with loved ones, expanded communications had been advocated by a number of pediatric health experts aside from PHR, some of whom submitted an open letter to ORR officials in January.

In addition to government-run facilities, some unaccompanied minors are placed in foster care programs until they are released to relatives in the United States. ORR notes in its policy that “Care providers must exhaust all efforts to utilize video calls over audio-only calls, where the family, sponsor and/or other approved contacts have access to video calling technology.”

ORR guidance also prohibits providers from taking away or threatening to take away opportunities to communicate with approved family members or sponsors as a form of punishment.

Unaccompanied migrant minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border and crossing without authorization are first taken to a border patrol station. Many hope to reunite with parents who are already in the U.S. or have deliberately left their country due to crime, domestic abuse, gangs, or poverty.

Within 72 hours, however, they must be transferred to the custody of the ORR office under HHS and placed in facilities designed to accommodate the needs of children.

The Biden administration dealt with a record number of unaccompanied migrant minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal 2022. According to the latest numbers, border patrol processed 9,943 minors in May. That number was 14,675 at the same time last year.

In May, the U.S. House passed a border security package that included extending the timeframe in which minors can be held in immigration facilities, limiting asylum and eliminating ORR’s program that offers legal representation to children in immigration court.

Democrats have said the proposed legislation does not resolve the challenges at the U.S.-Mexico border.

U.S. Representative Jody Chu, from California, said the bill would “decimate our asylum system and humanitarian protections, put more children and families in detention.”

House GOP leadership, however, said the proposal is the “strongest border security bill this country has ever seen.”

The bill, however, is unlikely to become law as the White House has already said it would veto it.

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Austria Seizes Weapons Cache in Raids on Right-Wing Biker Gang

VIENNA, AUSTRIA – Austrian authorities said Thursday they had seized hundreds of weapons, ammunition and Nazi memorabilia and arrested six people after raids on several premises of the right-wing extremist Bandidos motorcycle gang.

Police found a huge weapons stash including about “35 long firearms, 25 submachine guns, 100 pistols, over a thousand weapons components, 400 signal weapons,” the interior ministry said.

The haul was made following 13 house searches in the neighboring provinces of Upper and Lower Austria carried out Monday, the ministry added in a statement.

More than 10,000 rounds of ammunition as well as grenade launchers were also seized, it said.

Nazi memorabilia, including daggers, flags, uniform parts, busts and pictures were also found at the homes of the suspects, who were remanded in custody.

After plans by the Bandidos MC motorcycle group to expand to Austria were revealed in late 2022, authorities have been surveilling them.

Investigations aimed to avoid potential violent clashes between the Bandidos, which has a worldwide network of branches, and their rival Hells Angels MC, as has occurred in Switzerland.

“The investigations have shown the extent to which right-wing extremism is represented in outlaw motorcycle gangs,” domestic intelligence agency (DSN) chief Omar Haijawi-Pirchner said.

Possessing Nazi memorabilia is illegal in Austria, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler.

Austria long cast itself as a victim after being annexed by the German Third Reich in 1938 and has only in the past three decades begun to seriously examine its role in the Holocaust.

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Blinken: Hard Work Still Ahead for Armenia, Azerbaijan Peace Talks

Secretary of State Antony Blinken brought the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan together for several days of peace talks in Washington, as residents of the ethnic Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan say they have been cut off from food, medicine and gas. VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports.

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Report Accuses Burkina Faso’s Military of Killings, Torture

DAKAR, SENEGAL —  A slew of extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and instances of torture by Burkina Faso’s military has terrorized communities in the country’s northeast this year, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Thursday.

The violence took place between February and May across the province of Séno. The report identifies at least 27 people who were either summarily executed or disappeared and then killed, most of them members of the Fulani ethnic group.

Jihadi fighters linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have waged a violent insurgency in Burkina Faso for seven years. The violence has killed thousands of people and divided the country, leading to two coups last year.

The report by the New York-based watchdog comes in the wake of an April massacre in which residents say security forces killed at least 150 civilians in Karma, a northern village near the Mali border.

A Burkina Faso government spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

In one account, 10 men in the village of Gangaol, all of the Fulani ethnic group, were hauled away in the backs of trucks, pushed out, and fired upon.

“The soldiers shot and I ran. I saw the others falling on the ground, but I kept running,” the HRW report quoted a survivor of the incident. Only four of the men survived, two of whom suffered critical injuries.

“In the cases we documented, most of those who have been victims of these crimes were from the Fulani ethnic group,” explained Ilaria Allegrozzi, the senior regional researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The Fulani people in Burkina Faso and Mali have been accused of collaborating with Islamic extremists, and as a result have often been targeted by security forces and others.

“The only reason is hatred,” said the father of a teen boy who had been shot by suspected government forces, according to the report.

The upsurge in violence comes as the nation’s government recently pledged to double its number of volunteer auxiliary military units, known as VDPs, to 100,000.

“The recruitment of VDPs has coincided with an increase of abuses by both sides,” Allegrozzi said.

Just as Burkinabe soldiers strike villages suspected of harboring extremist elements, the presence of army recruiters in a Burkina Faso community often invites violent intimidation by armed groups.

“I think it’s also important to recognize that they are fighting a legitimate war,” Allegrozzi said, referring to the armed forces. As recently as Monday, 34 members of the military were killed in an ambush by suspected extremist fighters, according to a government press release.

“What we are questioning is the way this fight is conducted, which is not according to human rights standards and doesn’t take into account civilian protection,” she said.

The targeting of civilians is unnecessary, inhumane, and ultimately counterproductive, the report also says.

“Executions and disappearances by Burkina Faso’s army are not only war crimes, but they breed resentment among targeted populations that fuel recruitment to armed groups,” Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, wrote in Thursday’s report.

“Burkina Faso should ensure that provost marshals, who are responsible for discipline in the armed forces and detainees’ rights, are present during all military operations,” the report stressed, adding that transitional authorities should work with the U.N. human rights office to hold offenders within its military’s ranks accountable. 

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Putin ‘Somewhat Weakened’ by Mutiny, Trump Says

WASHINGTON – Former U.S. President Donald Trump, a longtime admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Thursday that Putin has been “somewhat weakened” by an aborted mutiny and that now is the time for the United States to try to broker a negotiated peace settlement between Russia and Ukraine.

Speaking expansively about foreign policy in a telephone interview with Reuters, the front-runner in opinion polls for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination also said China should be given a 48-hour deadline to get out of what sources familiar with the matter say is a Chinese spy capability on the island of Cuba 145 kilometers off the U.S. coast.

On Ukraine, Trump did not rule out that the Kyiv government might have to concede some territory to Russia to stop the war, which began with Russian forces invading Ukraine 16 months ago. He said everything would be “subject to negotiation,” if he were president, but that Ukrainians who have waged a vigorous fight to defend their land have “earned a lot of credit.”

“I think they would be entitled to keep much of what they’ve earned, and I think that Russia likewise would agree to that. You need the right mediator, or negotiator, and we don’t have that right now,” he said.

U.S. President Joe Biden and NATO allies want Russia out of territory it has seized in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine has launched a counteroffensive that has made small gains in driving out Russian forces.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last year proposed a 10-point peace plan, which calls on Russia to withdraw all of its troops.

“I think the biggest thing that the U.S. should be doing right now is making peace — getting Russia and Ukraine together and making peace. You can do it,” Trump said. “This is the time to do it, to get the two parties together to force peace.”

As president, Trump developed friendly relations with Putin, who Biden said on Wednesday has “become a bit of pariah around the world” for invading Ukraine.

Trump said Putin had been damaged by an uprising by the Russian mercenary force, the Wagner Group, and its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, last weekend.

“You could say that he’s (Putin) still there, he’s still strong, but he certainly has been, I would say, somewhat weakened at least in the minds of a lot of people,” he said.

If Putin were no longer in power, however, “you don’t know what the alternative is. It could be better, but it could be far worse,” Trump said.

As for war crimes charges levied against Putin by the International Criminal Court last March, Trump said Putin’s fate should be discussed when the war is over “because right now if you bring that topic up, you’ll never make peace, you’ll never make a settlement.”

Trump was adamantly opposed to China’s spy base on Cuba and said if Beijing refused to accept his 48-hour demand for shutting it down, a Trump administration would impose new tariffs on Chinese goods.

As president, Trump adopted a tougher stance on China while claiming a good relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping that soured over the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’d give them 48 hours to get out. And if they didn’t get out, I’d charge them a 100% tariff on everything they sell to the United States, and they’d be gone within two days. They’d be gone within one hour,” Trump said.

Trump was mum on whether the United States would support Taiwan militarily if China invaded the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own.

“I don’t talk about that. And the reason I don’t is because it would hurt my negotiating position,” he said. “All I can tell you is for four years, there was no threat. And it wouldn’t happen if I were president.” 

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US Supreme Court Ends Decades-Long Policy of Including Race as a Factor in College Admissions

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday against allowing race to be used as a factor in college and university admissions, ending a decades-long policy intended to improve diversity in American higher education. VOA’s Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson has more.

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Sierra Leoneans Call for National Unity After Election Irregularities

Observers of Sierra Leone’s election are raising concerns about vote count irregularities in a ballot that declared President Julius Maada Bio’s re-election. As the Muslim-majority nation marks Islam’s Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice, there are calls for peace and unity, after violence during the polling process left at least one dead. Senanu Tord reports from Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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Moscow Reportedly Detains General Surovikin Over Suspected Link to Wagner Rebellion

Russian authorities appear to have detained General Sergei Surovikin over his suspected connection to the Wagner Group’s mutiny last week, according to media reports.

The specific details surrounding Surovikin’s status remain blurry, but top Russian and U.S. officials have said the senior general has been detained, the Financial Times and The New York Times reported Thursday.

Questions about Surovikin’s whereabouts have been swirling for days because the general had not been seen in public since June 24, when the Wagner paramilitary group marched on Moscow. Surovikin was known to have a good relationship with Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

It is unclear whether Surovikin, the deputy commander of Russia’s invasion force in Ukraine, has been formally charged for playing a part in the rebellion or just detained for questioning.

But Moscow has not yet publicly confirmed what has happened to him.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters he could not clarify the situation about Surovikin and said reporters should contact the Defense Ministry.

Surovikin appeared in a video Saturday urging the Wagner Group to halt any moves against the army and return to their bases.

His daughter Veronika said that “everything is fine” with her father. “Honestly, no, nothing has happened to him. He’s at work,” she told the Russian news outlet Baza.

“When did he appear in the media every day? He never made any statements every day,” she said. “As I understand, everything is sort of flowing as things normally happen. Everyone is at their workplace. Everything is fine.”

Prigozhin arrived in Belarus earlier this week at the invitation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko as part of a deal to halt the mutiny.

It still is not clear where Prigozhin is in Belarus, how many fighters accompanied him or how long he plans to stay there.

Peskov told reporters Thursday that he did not have information about Prigozhin’s location.

U.S. President Joe Biden said Wednesday he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin has “absolutely” been weakened inside Russia by Prigozhin’s rebellion effort.

But Biden, speaking to reporters at the White House, said it was “hard to tell” the extent to which Putin is diminished.

Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, echoed Biden’s comments when speaking with VOA’s Russian Service on Wednesday.

“On balance, Putin is much weaker today than he was just four or five days ago. Elites in Russia, soldiers in Russia, are all watching this and wondering, ‘What’s happened to our leader?’

“And I think that’s good, because a weakened Russia might do less in terms of damage, principally in Ukraine,” McFaul said.

While pledging that Prigozhin would be safe in Belarus, Putin has expressed mixed views about the Wagner Group since the rebellion. He has characterized Wagner’s leaders as traitors but said the rank-and-file mercenaries “really showed courage and heroism” in their fight against Kyiv’s forces.

Prigozhin’s arrival in Belarus came as Putin said Tuesday that Moscow had paid $1 billion between May 2022 and May 2023 to fully fund the Wagner mercenary fighters, contrary to claims by Prigozhin that he had financed his mercenaries.

Russia once denied the existence of the Wagner Group, but it has advanced Russia’s interests in several African and Middle Eastern countries.

Many of the Wagner fighters in Ukraine were convicted criminals freed from Russian prisons on the promise that if they fought in neighboring Ukraine for six months, the remaining portions of their sentences would be rescinded.

Prigozhin said earlier this year that he had always financed Wagner but had looked for additional funding after Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine.

Prigozhin said Monday that his troops’ advance on Moscow had not been an attempt to overthrow the Russian government and that he remained a patriot.

VOA’s Russian Service contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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Wagner Rattles Baltic Nerves, Broadens NATO Summit Agenda Beyond Ukraine

The fallout from Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny and exile to Belarus has rattled nerves in the Baltic countries and is expected to broaden NATO’s agenda beyond Ukraine during talks at its annual summit later in July. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has this report.

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