US Sanctions Traders of Iranian Oil 

The United States imposed new sanctions Thursday against several companies that facilitate trade in Iranian oil and petrochemical products.

The U.S. Treasury Department issued a statement and warned it would take more measures to apply its economic restrictions against the Islamic Republic.

“The United States is committed to severely restricting Iran’s illicit oil and petrochemical sales,” said Brian Nelson, undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control targeted “an international network of companies involved in the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars in petrochemical and petroleum products” to destinations in South and East Asia, the statement said.

Treasury’s actions target “Iranian brokers and several front companies in the UAE, Hong Kong and India that have facilitated financial transfers and shipping of Iranian petroleum and petrochemical products,” the statement said.

The U.S. State Department also designated two entities based in the People’s Republic of China, Zhonggu Storage and Transportation Co. Ltd. and WS Shipping Co. Ltd., for their involvement in Iran’s petrochemical trade, according to the statement.

The Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment, Reuters reported.

U.S. sanctions on Iran have accelerated in recent months, as administration officials try to bring Tehran back to negotiations for a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

“So long as Iran refuses a mutual return to full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the United States will continue to enforce its sanctions on the sale of Iranian petroleum and petrochemical products,” Nelson said.

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

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After Anti-China Campaign, Kenya’s Ruto Does About-Face

Kenya’s newly elected President William Ruto, who talked tough on China while campaigning, has reversed his stance on Beijing since taking office.

“We cherish the robust friendship that Kenya enjoys with China. We will step up and expand these relations, on infrastructure, agriculture, education, among other broad array of issues for the mutual benefit of our countries,” Ruto said when he met with Liu Yuxi, China’s special representative on African affairs, shortly after taking office.

During his campaign, Ruto ran on an anti-China platform, vowing to deport Chinese nationals doing jobs he said should be reserved for Kenyans, promising to make opaque government contracts with Beijing public and pledging to cut borrowing.

Only a few months ago, at a June economic forum, Ruto was reported as saying, “Chinese nationals are roasting maize and selling mobile phones. We will deport all of them.”

The language of his new administration, however, contrasts sharply with the strident tones he used on the campaign trail.

Last week, National Assembly speaker Moses Wetangula met with Beijing’s ambassador to Kenya, Zhou Pingjian, and he assured him of Kenya’s continued cooperation.

“China is one of the most important national development partners for Kenya and has in the last decade extended considerable support to our infrastructure development,” he said in a statement. Wetangula also “assured him that the new administration of President William Ruto has no plans whatsoever to scale down” Kenya’s collaboration with Beijing.

“[I am] delighted that China is also seeking to further enhance our strategic economic partnership, and people-people relations,” he added.

China is Kenya’s biggest bilateral lender and has been responsible for major infrastructure projects, including the recently opened Nairobi Expressway and the controversial and expensive Chinese-built Standard Gauge Railway, which links the capital with the key port city of Mombasa.

Former President Uhuru Kenyatta had signed deals with Beijing on infrastructure projects to develop Kenya, resulting in Kenyan debt to China in the billions of dollars. Ruto was Kenyatta’s deputy. The two men had a falling out, and during the campaign Ruto made a point of trying to distance himself from his boss and alleged corruption.

‘More pragmatic’ situation

The about-face in the new administration’s position on China since taking office is a typical case of the reality of politics winning the day, according to analysts.

“It was entirely predicted and predictable that President Ruto would resile and soft-pedal on his initial Chinese comments,” Aly-Khan Satchu, a political economist in Nairobi, told VOA. “I think we’ve just returned to a more pragmatic policymaking situation. You can’t upset one of your biggest creditors.”

Adhere Cavince, an independent Kenyan analyst and China specialist, echoed this view, saying: “Whatever happened in the campaign doesn’t seem to hold a lot of water, especially now that he has won the seat and he has the responsibility to govern the country. Campaigning is quite different from governing and sometimes the dynamic drastically changes.

“It is clear that William Ruto does not intend to reduce or scale down cooperation between Kenya and China,” he added.

Cavince said a number of factors could account for the change of heart, including the fact there are 400 Chinese companies operating in the country employing tens of thousands of Kenyans, and China is the East African country’s biggest trading partner.

While a large trade imbalance exists between the two, China has made efforts recently to offset them, allowing more exports from Kenya, including of the country’s avocados.

There are also growing cultural ties between the two, with more and more young Kenyans going to China to study, Cavince said.

And he noted it’s not only about Kenya needing China.

“Kenya presents a very formidable gateway into the east and central Africa regions, the markets. … There’s an incentive for China to court Kenya, so it is not a one-way street,” he said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping sent Ruto a message of congratulations shortly after he won the election in August.

“I attach great importance to the development of China-Kenya relations and stand ready to work with President Ruto to advance the development of the China-Kenya comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership to the benefit of the two countries and two peoples,” said China’s leader.

One policy reversal

There’s one election promise Ruto was swift to keep and put into motion, though, despite the fact it could prove unpopular with Beijing. He reversed one of his predecessor’s most controversial policies.

During his presidency, Kenyatta had transferred cargo-clearing operations to the Nairobi and Naivasha inland container depots from the coastal city of Mombasa.

Traders had to use the Chinese-built Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) to ferry goods to Nairobi and Naivasha, with the government saying it was a faster way of transporting goods and would decongest the port of Mombasa.

Some say Kenyatta’s move was motivated by the need to boost traffic on the railway and drive revenue for debt repayment to China. His decision cost thousands of jobs in Mombasa, but with Ruto’s reversal of the policy, critics worry the debt repayment burden for the $3.6 billion SRG will now fall on the Kenyan taxpayer.

“Now importers and their customers are being given the liberty to choose the mode of transport they prefer … that means the SGR has to become more efficient and competitive rather than getting favors from government,” said Cliff Mboya, a Kenyan researcher at the China Global South Project think tank.

“That means that [Ruto] is willing to do the right thing, whether it works for China or not, and that is telling,” he added.

But in terms of one of Ruto’s other major campaign promises – to publish private contracts with China – Mboya said he doubted the president would be able to make it happen.

“Even if he wants to do it, it won’t be easy. It would be a serious diplomatic crisis,” said Mboya. “I know that senior Chinese government officials have already intimated that publishing these contracts goes against the contractual agreements.”

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Many Americans in No Rush to Get Bivalent COVID-19 Booster

For weeks, reformulated bivalent COVID-19 vaccine boosters have been available across the United States that aim to protect against newer omicron variants that have sickened millions of people in recent months.  

Initial reports, however, suggest Americans are not rushing to get the new vaccines.  

While health officials view this as a challenge, some say a drop-off in demand shouldn’t be surprising. 

“Back in late 2020 and early 2021 when the vaccine first became available, many Americans were afraid for their life of this virus,” said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  

“We were all susceptible to serious illness then. Today, most Americans feel safer, and we’ve got tens of thousands of people screaming in stadiums together at football games. The situation feels different, so it makes sense there’s less urgency to get vaccinated,” Offit told VOA. 

Still, the Food and Drug Administration is encouraging people ages 12 and older to get the bivalent booster. In deciding to authorize them, the FDA pointed to data from earlier iterations of COVID-19 vaccines as evidence the bivalent vaccine is safe and will provide additional protection from the most severe symptoms of both the original and more recent coronavirus strains. 

In a recent press release, FDA commissioner Robert Califf said, “The COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters, continue to save countless lives and prevent the most serious outcomes [hospitalization and death] of COVID-19. 

“As we head into fall and begin to spend more time indoors, we strongly encourage anyone eligible to consider receiving a booster dose with a bivalent COVID-19 vaccine to provide better protection against currently circulating variants.” 

Supply exceeding demand 

The United Kingdom was the first country to make the bivalent vaccine booster available, doing so in mid-August. After the United States and Canada, the European Union could be next. Earlier this month, the European Medicines Agency (EMC) recommended approving revamped boosters to all 27 EU member states – something that could happen within days.  

As of last week, more than 25 million doses of the updated vaccine had been delivered to tens of thousands of sites across the United States, from pharmacies to medical facilities to local government venues operating vaccination sites.    

Yet, while more than 80% of the U.S. population has gotten a COVID-19 vaccine since they became publicly available in early 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data last week estimating that just 4.4 million people — approximately 1.5% of the population — had received the bivalent vaccine.  

While appointments at vaccination sites were often booked weeks in advance in early 2021, demand for the new booster is low enough that many vaccine providers can accept walk-ins.  

Dani Streger, a teacher from Brevard County, Florida, said she got the original vaccine in 2021 but doesn’t see a need to get the bivalent shot.  

“I’ve already had COVID, and it wasn’t severe,” Streger told VOA. “People can do whatever they want, but I’m not a high-risk individual, and the bivalent booster seems unnecessary for me at this point.”  

While national data paint an overall picture of weak demand, health officials in some states insist plenty of people are eager to get the vaccine.  

“We’re still coming down from our sixth and longest-enduring [COVID] surge to date,” Louisiana Department of Health public information officer Mindy Faciane told VOA. “Many Louisianians recently had COVID-19, and there’s still high transmission across the state. Many of our residents had been anxiously awaiting an updated booster shot.” 

Who to target? 

Coronavirus transmission in the United States reached a summer peak of 227,000 cases reported in a single day in July. Documented transmission has significantly ebbed since then, although many cases go unreported. Significantly, deaths blamed on COVID-19 have hovered between 300 and 500 per day since April — down from daily averages that topped 3,000 at the peak of the pandemic. 

This has left many Americans and even some health experts in disagreement over the importance of the bivalent booster shot. 

Offit said he believes the CDC’s recommendation that anyone over age 12 receive the vaccine is unnecessary. 

“The best any coronavirus vaccine can do is stop individuals from experiencing severe, dangerous symptoms,” said Offit, who serves on the FDA Vaccine Advisory Committee and voted against authorizing the bivalent vaccine. “But the already available regimen of vaccines and boosters already does that for most of us.” 

The exceptions, Offit explained, are the elderly, those with serious health problems and people who are immunocompromised. 

“Heading into the fall and winter, when diseases like coronavirus and the flu are at their worst, the focus should be on getting the bivalent vaccine to these at-risk groups who will really benefit,” he said.  

For those not in at-risk groups, Offit said getting additional boosters can be a personal choice. Additional data on the protection provided by the new booster likely won’t be released for weeks, but the limited early research suggests the updated vaccines provide only a modest level of additional protection for those who are already vaccinated and healthy. 

“If you’ve had several doses of the vaccine, and maybe you’ve had COVID and developed antibodies that way, then your resistance is already high,” Offit told VOA. “The amount another dose can help you is minimal … so I think these bivalent boosters become a personal choice.” 

Spectrum of opinions 

National, state and local health agencies agree that high-risk groups should be prioritized. But the vast majority are urging the public at large to get the bivalent shot. 

Jennifer Avegno, director of the New Orleans Health Department, remembers what it was like during the pandemic’s early days, when hospitals were overwhelmed and without enough beds to care for patients. 

“Nationally, around 400 individuals per day continue to die from COVID — a stark reminder that many are still at high risk,” she told VOA. “As we head into the winter, where respiratory disease generally increases, we cannot afford to strain our hospitals as we have in previous years. 

“We know that well-matched vaccines give significant protection against hospitalization, severe disease and death, and so to preserve health care capacity, reduce work disruptions and protect our most vulnerable, everyone is urged to get the booster and a flu vaccine as soon as they are eligible.” 

Across the country, Americans are deciding for themselves. 

In Uintah County, Utah, for example, high school teacher Jason Winder told VOA he won’t be getting the updated booster and believes pandemic fatigue has set in for many. 

“We’ve been talking about the coronavirus for more than two years, and I think people are tired of it,” he said. “Not that it’s not important, but I think that’s why so few people here are getting the bivalent booster so far.” 

Winder added, “For me, I got the initial vaccine and a booster because my job would have made me stay home and use my paid time off if I tested positive for COVID, even if I was asymptomatic. That rule is no longer in place, so I’m not worried about it anymore after all these doses of vaccine I’ve already had.” 

Other Americans remain eager to receive any new dose of vaccine to feel maximally protected. 

Aaron Scheibelhut, a freelance sports broadcaster who also owns a filming company in Indianapolis, Indiana, said even though he noticed this dose didn’t seem to have been advertised as much, receiving the bivalent booster was still a priority for him.  

“Because I work for myself, I don’t get paid time off. I didn’t want to risk it,” he said. “Plus, I already got COVID once, and I didn’t want to go through that again.”  

With coronavirus case numbers expected to rise in the coming months, local health departments are doing their best to raise public awareness about the bivalent vaccine booster.  

In New Orleans, like many other locations, Avegno said there is a focus on at-risk groups. 

 

“We’re utilizing community health workers to communicate with those key groups and to get the word out, and we’re planning vaccine events with community partners close to higher concentrations of vulnerable individuals,” she said. “Much of our communication campaigns are focused on targeting those at-risk groups where we’ll see the biggest public health benefits.” 

 

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Biden Pledges Support to Rebuild Florida After Ian

As what is now Tropical Storm Ian moves out over the Atlantic Ocean, U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday pledged the federal government will do whatever has to be done to help Florida rebuild. 

At last report, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said Ian had moved back over waters in the Atlantic faster than predicted and is expected to move over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream later Thursday where it will once again reach hurricane strength. A hurricane warning has been issued for the entire coast of South Carolina to the northwest.

Meanwhile, Biden, speaking from the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, said he had spoken with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and approved his requests for an expedited major disaster designation.

He said that means the federal government will cover the costs of removing all debris and rebuilding public buildings. The federal government will also provide funds to help cover the costs of rebuilding homes and recovering property for those who do not have enough insurance. 

Biden said Ian could prove to be the deadliest storm ever to hit Florida by the time its effects are finally assessed.

At a news conference earlier in the day, DeSantis said the extent of deaths and injuries was unclear as rescue workers were only starting to respond to calls after not being able to go out during the treacherous conditions. Rescue crews were working by land, sea and air to reach stranded residents.

DeSantis said more than 2 million people were without power, and the amount of water rising in Florida is “basically a 500-year flooding event.”  

“We’ve never seen a flood event like this. We’ve never seen a storm surge of this magnitude. And it hit an area where there’s a lot of people,” DeSantis said.

Ian came ashore Wednesday near Cayo Costa as a strong Category 4 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of nearly 250 kilometers per hour, along with a powerful storm surge and heavy rains that combined to flood coastal areas.

The Collier County Sheriff’s Office said it carried out at least 30 rescue missions Wednesday and cautioned residents that Thursday was likely to be “frustrating and heartbreaking for many” as people began to assess damage from the storm. The county was one of several that instituted overnight curfew.

Hurricane Ian earlier hit western Cuba, killing two people and leaving the entire island without power after its aging electrical grid, which has been struggling to remain operational amid a dire economic crisis, collapsed late Tuesday.

Ian left behind a trail of destruction across Pinar del Rio province, Cuba’s main tobacco-growing region, ripping the roofs off homes and buildings and making streets impassable because of downed trees and power lines, and flooding. 

Authorities evacuated as many as 40,000 people from low-lying areas of Pinar del Rio.

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

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NATO Vows Retaliation for Attacks on Infrastructure, Blames Sabotage for Pipe Blasts 

NATO vowed retaliation Thursday for attacks on the critical infrastructure of its 30 member nations, while strongly suggesting the rupture of two Baltic Sea pipelines meant to send natural gas from Russia to Germany was the direct result of sabotage.

Ambassadors to NATO, the West’s key military alliance, said in a statement, “Any deliberate attack against allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response.” They said four ruptures in the pipelines were of “deep concern.”

NATO did not accuse anyone of damaging the pipelines but said that “all currently available information indicates that this is the result of deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage. These leaks are causing risks to shipping and substantial environmental damage.”

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that the ruptures in the Nord Stream pipelines would not have been possible without a state actor’s involvement.

“It looks like a terror attack, probably conducted on a state level,” Peskov told reporters.  Russian President Vladimir Putin later told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that “international terrorism” was to blame.

“Judging by the amount of destruction of the Nord Stream, it’s hard to imagine that such action could have been taken without a state involvement,” Peskov said. “It’s a very dangerous situation that requires a quick investigation.”

Some European officials and energy experts have suggested that Russia likely carried out the attacks, to benefit from higher energy prices and to create more economic chaos in Europe for its support of Ukraine in fending off Russia’s seven-month invasion. But other officials urged caution in assessing blame until investigators determine what happened.

Peskov characterized media reports about Russian warships being spotted in the area of the damaged pipelines as “stupid and biased,” adding that “many more aircraft and vessels belonging to NATO countries have been spotted in the area.”

The Swedish Coast Guard confirmed a fourth leak on the Nord Stream pipelines off southern Sweden.

“We have leakage at two positions” off Sweden, coast guard spokesperson Mattias Lindholm said, with two more off Denmark.

Two of the leaks are on the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, where the flow of gas was recently halted, while the other two are on Nord Stream 2, which has never been opened. Although they weren’t running, both pipelines were filled with methane gas, which has escaped and is bubbling to the surface, probably until Sunday, according to energy experts.

The Danish and Swedish governments said they believed the leaks off their shores were the result of “deliberate actions.”

Before the leaks became obvious, explosions were recorded. Swedish seismologists recorded a first explosion early Monday southeast of the Danish island of Bornholm, with a second, stronger blast northeast of the island that night, one that was equivalent to a magnitude 2.3 earthquake. Danish, Norwegian and Finnish seismic stations also registered the explosions.

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Turkey Cracks Down on Pop Music as Elections Loom

Turkish pop star Gulsen faces jail as a crackdown on popular music broadens. Some see the crackdown as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempt to court his religious base as elections loom and young people voice dissatisfaction with the economy. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

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Report: Million Livelihoods in DRC Threatened by Planned Oil and Gas Exploration

The environmental group Greenpeace Africa has released a report saying planned oil and gas exploration in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo could expose more than 1 million people to pollution and disease.

The planned selling of 30 eastern land blocks that extend into a famous gorilla reserve would also threaten wildlife and food security, while fueling conflict, poverty and corruption, according to the report. 

Residents in the area accuse the government of keeping them in the dark and expressed fear of losing their livelihoods when companies start drilling for fossil fuels.  

Representatives for Greenpeace Africa and partner organizations visited about 30 villages in July to gauge the community’s awareness of the planned exploration and how they intend to protect their land and livelihoods. 

Mbong Akiy Fokwa Tsafack, head of communication at Greenpeace Africa, said many communities are not aware of the government’s plan to auction their land.  

“The thought of the government thinking of auctioning their lands for oil was really a shock for them. They were unaware, so they didn’t know this was underway, which is quite shocking given how much the government has said it plans to really put people ahead of everything else,” Tsafack said.

No one asked residents what they thought of the oil and gas drilling project, said Bantu Lukambo, who works with Innovation for the Development and Protection of the Environment, an NGO monitoring the welfare of communities around Virunga National Park.  

The government is supposed to have public input before undertaking such exploration, he said, but failed to do so. Even parliament members were not included in the decision-making process, he added. 

DRC President Felix Tshisekedi defended his government’s plan while speaking at the United Nations General Assembly last week, saying oil discovery would bring economic development to his people.  

Hydrocarbons Minister Didier Budimbu Ntubuanga, speaking at the Africa Oil Week conference in Senegal early this month, said the DRC has received two offers for the oil blocks and said any exploration will follow environmental guidelines. 

Lukambo is doubtful that will be the case. 

He fears all the fish will die if the exploration begins, and fishermen and their families will be in trouble. In addition, he added, 14 of the oil blocks are in Virunga National Park, and the others are in farming areas. If exploration starts on the land, he said, farmers won’t farm their land. 

The oil exploration blocks overlap parts of Congo’s most pristine ecosystems and Virunga Park, which is home to over 1,000 species of animals and birds.  

Tsafack said Congo’s leaders need to reconsider their decision to allow oil exploration in the park and nearby areas.  

“This is a moment when we need to see leadership coming through, in terms of the zeal to uproot corruption, to strengthen good governance and to put the people of the DRC at [the] heart of any kind of development agenda,” Tsafack said. “And putting the people of DRC at the heart of any development agenda means really looking into the communities and finding out what it is that will uplift their lives.” 

The 20-page report from Greenpeace urges the government to halt the projects and encourage alternative investments in renewable energy sources.  

 

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Wife of US Supreme Court Justice Thomas Appears for Interview With Jan. 6 Panel

Conservative activist Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, appeared on Thursday for a voluntary interview with the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The committee has for months sought an interview with Thomas in an effort to know more about her role in trying to help former President Donald Trump overturn his election defeat. She texted with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and contacted lawmakers in Arizona and Wisconsin in the weeks after the election.

Thomas’ appearance on Capitol Hill was confirmed by two people familiar with the committee’s work who were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

The testimony from Thomas was one of the remaining items for the panel as it eyes the completion of its work. The panel has already interviewed more than 1,000 witnesses and shown some of that video testimony in its eight hearings over the summer.

Thomas’ attorney, Mark Paoletta, said last week that Thomas had agreed to meet with the panel and is “eager to answer the committee’s questions to clear up any misconceptions about her work relating to the 2020 election.”

The extent of her involvement in the Capitol attack is unclear. In the days after The Associated Press and other news organizations called the presidential election for Biden, Thomas emailed two lawmakers in Arizona to urge them to choose “a clean slate of Electors” and “stand strong in the face of political and media pressure.” The AP obtained the emails earlier this year under the state’s open records law.

She has said in interviews that she attended the initial pro-Trump rally the morning of Jan. 6 but left before Trump spoke and the crowds headed for the Capitol.

Thomas, a Trump supporter long active in conservative causes, has repeatedly maintained that her political activities posed no conflict of interest with the work of her husband.

“Like so many married couples, we share many of the same ideals, principles, and aspirations for America. But we have our own separate careers, and our own ideas and opinions too. Clarence doesn’t discuss his work with me, and I don’t involve him in my work,” Thomas told the Washington Free Beacon in an interview published in March.

Justice Thomas was the lone dissenting voice when the Supreme Court ruled in January to allow a congressional committee access to presidential diaries, visitor logs, speech drafts and handwritten notes relating to the events of Jan. 6.

Ginni Thomas has been openly critical of the committee’s work, including signing onto a letter to House Republicans calling for the expulsion of Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois from the Republican Party conference for joining the Jan. 6 congressional committee.

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