China Slashes US Investments

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China’s direct investment in the U.S. has slowed to a trickle, dropping by 80% from 2016 to 2018, according to New York-based research provider Rhodium Group

Among the hardest-hit sectors are real estate and hospitality, with Chinese investors no longer scrambling to buy prime properties in cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Chinese real estate investment in the U.S. tripled from 2015 to 2016, reaching a record $16.5 billion. In contrast, not one real estate and hospitality investment reached more than $100 million during 2018, the Rhodium Group found

Chinese developer Oceanwide Holdings’ U.S. footprint includes prime properties in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Construction reportedly has been suspended on one of the towers at the San Francisco Oceanwide Center, while construction has come to a standstill at the Los Angeles Oceanwide Plaza.

“The skylines are no longer filled with cranes, really supplied by Chinese investments coming over here in the downtown region,” said Stephen Cheung, president of World Trade Center Los Angeles and executive vice president of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation.  

“What we’re worried about [is] the construction that’s already here that cannot be finished because of the financing situations,” Cheung said.

Construction work stalled

The billion-dollar Oceanwide Plaza is located in a prized location near the Los Angeles convention center and the complex where the Lakers and Clippers play basketball. Construction stalled in January for the condo, hotel and retail space, and Cheung said he has seen very little activity since then.

The standstill at Oceanwide Plaza is but one sign of a sharp drop in capital flowing from China at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing.  

Overall, direct foreign investment between the two superpowers peaked in 2016 to a record $60 billion, then dropped drastically, according to the Rhodium Group.

One reason for the decline is a change in China’s monetary policy.

“There were the currency controls out of China, where a lot of companies were parking money. I think it was probably to get money out of China into a safe investment. And at the end of the day, the Chinese cracked down,” said Dale Goldsmith, a land use lawyer and managing partner at Armbruster Goldsmith & Delvac LLP.

“The Chinese companies couldn’t get the money out of China even though they committed to certain projects. So certain projects here we’ve seen stalled,” Cheung said.

Another reason for the drop in direct Chinese investment is increased vigilance by a federal watchdog organization, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). The Rhodium Group estimates the committee’s scrutiny has led Chinese investors to abandon more than $2.5 billion in U.S. deals.

A relatively strong U.S. economy is another factor.

“The dollar has been very strong, making investment a lot less attractive for the Chinese and in the states. On top of it, you’d have skyrocketing construction costs,” Goldsmith said.

To top it all off, a trade war persists between the U.S. and China, sowing uncertainty in an already challenging investment climate.

“As the tension is escalating, I think a lot of the Chinese companies are wary in terms of whether they should enter the U.S. market,” Cheung added.

Southeast Asia gains

The trade war is creating another trend: to avoid high tariffs, international companies are moving manufacturing out of China and into Southeast Asian countries.

In some countries, such as Vietnam, the trade war is creating new wealth.

To offset a potentially negative impact of the trade war in a country such as Indonesia, Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, a research associate at the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance in Jakarta, advised in an op-ed he co-authored in that Indonesia increase its direct foreign investment. 

In Los Angeles, Cheung said he is seeing a “massive influx” of interests from Southeast Asian countries.

“Vietnam is now looking very carefully into the Los Angeles region, given the Southern California region has such a large Vietnamese population,” he said. “We’re also working with our partners in Singapore and Indonesia and Thailand to really expand those opportunities, because we have been dependent on China for such a long time.

“We really have to look for alternate solutions as this trade war continues, that trade tension continues, and investment is slowing down significantly,” Cheung added.

So long as economic tensions remain high between Washington and Beijing, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities will have to look elsewhere for investment capital.

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Southeast Asian Leaders Seen Siding with China’s Despite Maritime Dispute

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Ten Southeast Asian heads of state will hold their landmark annual meeting next week, and four are enmeshed in a maritime sovereignty dispute with their more powerful neighbor China. But the event is widely expected to produce a statement that avoids condemning Beijing.

That’s because those leaders, even in Vietnam and the Philippines where frustration is running high this year after a series of incidents, hope China will eventually sign a code of conduct aimed at preventing maritime accidents and because some of the 10 countries need Chinese economic aid, scholars say.

Heads of state from the 10 countries, who will convene October 31-November 4 at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, will probably issue a statement that avoids fingering China directly and instead plays up common values, the experts believe.

“The summit itself is very cautious,” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at The University of New South Wales in Australia. “I expect a boilerplate, ‘freedom of navigation, settle matters peacefully.’”

Spirit of cooperation despite hostilities

ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam dispute with Beijing’s Communist leadership parts of the South China Sea, a 3.5 million-square-kilometer waterway that’s rich in fisheries and fossil fuel reserves. China has taken a lead over the past decade by landfilling small islets for military use.

A Chinese survey ship spent months this year in waters where Vietnam is looking fuel under the sea. Chinese coast guard ships patrolled Malaysian-claimed waters for 258 days over the year ending in September, one think tank found. In early 2019, hundreds of Chinese boats surrounded disputed islets occupied by the Philippines.

But ASEAN’s 2019 chair Thailand hopes to “disarm” China, Thayer said. Thai officials may have worked behind the scenes to pick friendly wording for any summit statements next week, he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his ASEAN counterparts attend the 26th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Bangkok, Thailand Aug. 2, 2019.

Beijing, if feeling welcome, might push harder for an ASEAN-China code of conduct covering the contested sea. China has suggested it could be finished by 2021 despite past fears that the code would weaken its sovereignty claims. China had stalled talks on a code before 2016. Analysts say sovereignty disputes still make it hard to craft a legally binding document.

A code might use vague language, for example, on the scope of the sea in question and discourage involvement from neutral states outside Asia, Thayer said.

This year’s summit statement may note concern about recent events in the sea and reiterate intent to keep working on the code of conduct, Thayer said.

Outspoken Vietnam

Vietnam probably wants sterner language in the 2019 summit statement, said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Vietnam speaks out regularly against China due to deep historical differences over territory.

“I think that Vietnam is pushing the multilateral framework as the battlefront for Vietnam to exert sovereignty in the South China Sea and to denounce or to condemn any behavior that can go against Vietnam’s sovereignty.” Nguyen said.

Cambodia could block ASEAN from blaming China, he said. Three years ago, the longtime friend of Beijing stopped ASEAN from mentioning that year’s international arbitration court ruling against China, over the legal basis of its maritime claims. Cambodia lacks a South China Sea claim and accepts Chinese development aid.

Vietnam will have more sway over ASEAN next year when it becomes the chair. China will find it harder at that point to avoid criticism, Thayer said.

Eventually progress on a code may fall to meetings between China and individual ASEAN countries, Thayer said.

Philippine wildcard

Suspicion among Filipinos is mounting this year over China’s growing presence in the disputed sea’s Spratly Islands where Manila controls 10 features. The Philippine foreign minister called this month for a formal protest against China for making “multiple passes” near one Philippine-held islet, Second Thomas Shoal.

FILE – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, meet at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, Aug. 29, 2019.

However, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte takes a friendly view toward China, landing his country pledges of $24 billion in Chinese aid and investment. China agreed this year to explore jointly with the Philippines for undersea oil and take just 40% of any discoveries.

“For the Philippines, there’s already agreement to go ahead with a joint exploration, so I don’t think the Philippines would want to be seen as an unfriendly country towards China,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.

The Philippines will instead hope ASEAN focuses its 2019 statement on speeding up the code of conduct, Araral said. A June 9 collision between Philippine and Chinese vessels added impetus to signing the code.

Elsewhere around the sea, China with the world’s second largest economy is helping Brunei’s economy diversify away from selling oil. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad joined a Chinese Belt and Road Initiative summit earlier this year, meaning his country would be in line for Chinese infrastructure aid.

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Papadopoulos Seeks California Seat Left Vacant by Rep. Hill

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George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign aide who was a key figure in the FBI’s Russia probe, filed paperwork Tuesday to run for the U.S. House seat being vacated by Democrat Katie Hill.

Papadopoulos didn’t immediately comment, but on Sunday he tweeted, “I love my state too much to see it run down by candidates like Hill. All talk, no action, and a bunch of sellouts.”

Hill, whose district covers Los Angeles County, announced her resignation on Sunday amid an ethics probe into allegations she had an inappropriate relationship with a staff member.

She’s admitted to a consensual relationship with a campaign staff member, but denied one with a congressional staff member, which would violate U.S. House rules. She’s called herself the victim of revenge porn by an abusive husband she is divorcing.

Papadopoulos, meanwhile, was a key figure in the FBI’s Russia probe into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation that later became the Mueller probe was triggered, in part, from a tip from an Australian diplomat who had communicated with Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos told the diplomat, Alexander Downer, in May 2016 that Russia had thousands of stolen emails that would be potentially damaging to Hillary Clinton.

His lawyers have sought a pardon from the president, though Papadopoulos contends that’s unlikely to come to fruition.

In the last few months, he’s been working on a working on a documentary series with his wife about their interactions with the special counsel’s team. He’s also on the board of advisers for a medical marijuana company that is hoping to help use cannabis to combat the opioid epidemic.

Papadopoulos was the first of five Trump aides to plead guilty as part of Mueller’s investigation. He wants the government to declassify material, including authorizations by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that he contends could prove he was unlawfully targeted.

Attorney General William Barr appointed a U.S. attorney who is conducting a criminal investigation examining origins of Mueller’s probe. The current investigation is examining what led the U.S. to open a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign and the roles that various countries played in the U.S. probe. Prosecutors are also investigating whether the surveillance and intelligence-gathering methods used during the investigation were legal and appropriate

Papadopoulos enters a field of at least three other Republicans and one Democrat. The other Republicans are Navy veteran Mike Garcia, bank executive Angela Jacobs Underwood and Mark Cripe, who works for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Former Republican Rep. Steve Knight, who lost the seat to Hill in 2018, is also considering running.

The seat was the last Los Angeles County seat to be held by Republicans before Hill’s victory and was one of seven Democrats flipped last year.

State Assemblywoman Christy Smith is the only Democrat in the race so far. She quickly criticized Papadopoulos on Tuesday.

“If he pled guilty to lying to the FBI – how do we know he’ll tell us the truth?” Smith tweeted. “We deserve someone from our community serving as our voice – not (Trump’s) wannabe political hack!”

A special election to fill Hill’s seat cannot be set by Gov. Gavin Newsom until she officially leaves Congress, which she has not done. It’s possible there is no special election, depending on how long she waits to leave office. That would make the next election for the seat in November 2020.

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Jimmy Carter to Miss Another Week Teaching Sunday School

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Former President Jimmy Carter will miss a second week teaching Sunday school as he recovers from a fall that resulted in a broken pelvis.

Maranatha Baptist Church posted an update late Monday requesting prayers for the 95-year-old Carter and his family during the healing process.

Carter has been teaching Sunday school for decades, and big crowds typically show up at his small church in Plains, Georgia, to hear his lessons.

But Carter was injured when he fell on Oct. 21, and aides say he’s recovering at home following a hospital stay.

Carter is the oldest living U.S. ex-president ever, and he has fallen at least three times this year. The first fall in the spring required hip replacement surgery.

Carter’s niece, Kim Fuller, will substitute for him in class.


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Russia and Cuba Rebuild Ties That Frayed After Cold War

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Over the last year Russia has sent Cuba 1,000 minibuses, 50 locomotives, tens of thousands of tourists and a promise to upgrade the island’s power grid with a multi-million dollar improvement plan.

Russian-Cuban trade has more than doubled since 2013, to an expected $500 million this year, mostly in Russian exports to Cuba. And a string of high-ranking Russian officials have visited their former ally in the Caribbean, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. On Tuesday, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel lands in Moscow for meetings with officials including President Vladimir Putin, with the expectation that they will move forward on deals for more trade and cooperation.

Russian-Cuban ties are far from the Cold War era of near-total Cuban dependence on the Soviet bloc, which saw this island as a forward operating base in the Americas then largely abandoned it in the 1990s. But observers of Cuban and Russian foreign policy say there is a significant warming between the former partners prompted in part by the Trump administration’s reversal of President Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba. Cuba and Russia are also heavily supporting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, whom the U.S. has been trying to overthrow.

“We did make huge mistakes in the 1990s while turning our backs on Cuba. That time is definitely over, and I’m absolutely sure that our relations deserve better attention from Russia,” said Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament. “They deserve more investments from Russia both in terms of finances and equipment of course, but also human resources. And definitely we should assist, we should help, Cuba; we should support Cuba as long as it’s discriminated against, as long as it’s sanctioned, as long as it’s blockaded by the United States.”

Neither country provides many details about their improving relations, but Russian products being exported to Cuba include new-model Lada automobiles and Kamaz trucks. There’s a new Cuban-Russian joint venture to produce constructions materials, and when Medvedev visited Cuba this month, he inaugurated a petroleum products plant and signed deals to repair three Soviet-era power plants.

As tourism from the U.S. slackens, Russian visits rose 30% in 2018, to 137,000.

“Russia is trying to preserve the zone of influence it had during the era of the Soviet Union, looking for partners in Latin America and letting Washington know that it’s still a great power,” said Arturo López-Levy, a Cuban-born assistant professor of international relations and politics at Holy Names University in Oakland, California. “Cuba’s signing up for projects that can benefit it, and are already showing results on the island.”

Russia is making no secret of its desire to play reliable partner to an island facing hostility from the United States, including sanctions on ships bringing oil from Venezuela.

“It’s obvious, the U.S. desire to create a toxic atmosphere around cooperation with Cuba, to frighten investors and block the flow of energy,” Medvedev said during his trip to Havana. “Cuba can always count on Russia’s support.”

During the 1960s, 1970s and ’80s, Cuba was filled with Soviet products and citizens, who worked alongside Cubans in chemical plants, mines and army bases. Moscow sent billions in aid before the fall of the Soviet Union caused a disastrous 30% drop in gross domestic product.

Cuba emerged with $35 billion in debt to the Soviet Union, 90 percent of which Russia forgave in 2014, an event that Cuban-Russian anthropologist Dmitri Prieto Samsónov called the start of the modern era of relations between the two countries.

“Russia started to think more about its business and government interests and a new relationship with Cuba emerged on the foundation of the old brotherly relations,” Prieto said.

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Army Officer Says He Raised Concerns About Trump and Ukraine

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A military officer at the National Security Council twice raised concerns over the Trump administration’s push to have Ukraine investigate Democrats and Joe Biden, according to testimony the official is to deliver Tuesday in the House impeachment inquiry.

Alexander Vindman, an Army lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq and, later, as a diplomat, is prepared to tell House investigators that he listened to President Donald Trump’s July 25 call with new Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and reported his concerns to the NSC’s lead counsel.

“I was concerned by the call,” Vindman will say, according to prepared testimony obtained Monday night by The Associated Press. “I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine.”

Vindman is the first White House official who listened in on that call to testify as the impeachment inquiry reaches deeper into the Trump administration and Democrats prepare for the next, public phase of the probe. He’s also the first current White House official to appear before the impeachment panels.

The inquiry is looking into Trump’s call, in which he asked Zelenskiy for a “favor” — to investigate Democrats — that Democrats say was a quid pro quo that could be an impeachable offense.

The 20-year military officer will testify that he first reported his concerns after an earlier meeting July 10 in which U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland stressed the importance of having Ukraine investigate the 2016 election as well as Burisma, a company linked to the family of Biden, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.

Vindman says he told Sondland that “his statements were inappropriate, that the request to investigate Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security, and that such investigations were not something the NSC was going to get involved in or push.”

That account differs from Sondland’s, a wealthy businessman who donated $1 million to Trump inauguration and testified before the impeachment investigators that no one from the NSC “ever expressed any concerns.” He also testified that he did not realize any connection between Biden and Burisma.

For the call between Trump and Zelenskiy, Vindman said he listened in the Situation Room with colleagues from the NSC and Vice President Mike Pence’s office and was concerned. He said he again reported his concerns to the NSC’s lead counsel.

He wrote, “I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained. This would all undermine U.S. national security.”

Vindman, who arrived in the United States as a 3-year-old from the former Soviet Union, served in various military and diplomatic posts before joining the NSC. He was the director for European affairs and a Ukraine expert under Fiona Hill, a former official who testified earlier in the impeachment probe. Hill worked for former national security adviser John Bolton.

Vindman will be a key witness. He attended Zelenskiy’s inauguration with a delegation led by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and he and Hill were both part of a Ukraine briefing with Sondland that others have testified irritated Bolton at the White House.

Vindman will testify that he is not the whistleblower, the still unnamed government official who filed the initial complaint over Trump’s conversation with the Ukraine president that sparked the House impeachment inquiry. He will say he does not know who the whistleblower is.

“I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend OUR country, irrespective of party or politics,” wrote Vindman, who was wounded in Iraq and awarded a Purple Heart.

“For over twenty years as an active duty United States military officer and diplomat, I have served this country in a nonpartisan manner, and have done so with the utmost respect and professionalism for both Republican and Democratic administrations,” he wrote.

The testimony comes a day after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House will vote on a resolution to affirm the impeachment investigation, set rules for public hearings and outline the potential process for writing articles of impeachment against Trump. The vote is expected Thursday.

It would be the first formal House vote on the impeachment inquiry and aims to nullify complaints from Trump and his allies that the process is illegitimate, unfair and lacking due process.

Democrats insisted they weren’t yielding to Republican pressure. Pelosi dismissed the Republican argument that impeachment can’t begin without formal approval from the House and brushed off their complaints about the closed-door process.

“I do not care. I do not care. This is a false thing with them,” Pelosi said. “Understand, it has nothing to do with them. It has to do with how we proceed.”

Pelosi’s announcement Monday came just hours after a former White House national security official defied a House subpoena for closed-door testimony, escalating the standoff between Congress and the White House over who will testify.

Charles Kupperman, who was a deputy to Bolton, failed to show up for the scheduled closed-door deposition after filing a lawsuit asking a federal court in Washington to rule on whether he was legally required to appear.

Democrats have indicated they are likely to use no-show witnesses to write an article of impeachment against Trump for obstruction of justice, rather than launching potentially lengthy court battles to obtain testimony.


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In Chicago, Trump Calls the City an Embarrassment to the US

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President Donald Trump used a conference of police chiefs on Monday to slam the host city as “embarrassing to us as a nation” under the leadership of its top cop, who skipped the event over disagreements with Trump’s immigration policies.

Trump has frequently criticized Chicago for its crime problems and status as a sanctuary city, one of scores of cities around the country that refuse to work with federal authorities to round up people who are living in the U.S. illegally.

“It’s embarrassing to us as a nation,” Trump said. “All over the world they’re talking about Chicago. Afghanistan is a safe place by comparison.”

Trump also lashed out at Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who angered Chicago’s police by skipping Trump’s first appearance in the city as president.

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson listens to a question as he responds to remarks made by President Donald Trump at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Convention, Oct. 28, 2019, in Chicago.

“More than anyone else he should be here, because maybe he could maybe learn something,” Trump said, claiming Johnson puts the needs of illegal immigrants above the needs of the law-abiding residents of Chicago.

“Those are his values and frankly those values to me are a disgrace,” Trump said, vowing to never to give priority to the needs of illegal immigrants. “I want Eddie Johnson to change his values and to change them fast.”

Chicago’s police department had no immediate comment on Trump’s remarks.

Johnson’s decision to skip Trump’s address angered the city’s chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, which said in a Facebook post that “such a gesture would be an insult to both President Trump and the office of the presidency itself and would be a mark of disgrace upon the city throughout the entire nation, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot.” Lightfoot has also refused to meet with Trump while he is in her city.

FILE – Mayor of Chicago Lori Lightfoot speaks during her inauguration ceremony in Chicago, May 20, 2019.

Then FOP Lodge 7, which represents rank-and-file Chicago police officers, announced that it had cast a vote of no confidence in Johnson.

The vote might please Trump, who likes to tell officers not to treat crime suspects so gently and was cheered at last year’s gathering of the same police chiefs’ organization in Orlando, Florida, when he advocated the use of the “stop and frisk” policing tactic that has been deemed unconstitutional.

The president’s visit also comes as more than 25,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union have been on strike since Oct. 17.

At the conference, Trump signed an executive order creating a presidential commission on law enforcement to study issues like substance abuse, homelessness and mental illness, the White House said. The order calls for establishing a framework for better training, recruiting and retaining law enforcement officers.

The president also announced that the Justice Department will begin a stronger crackdown on violent crime in the United States, targeting gang members and drug traffickers in high-crime areas.

“Let’s call it the surge,” Trump said.

Johnson, meanwhile, is under internal investigation after he was found sleeping in a city-owned vehicle earlier this month. Lightfoot said the superintendent, who called for the investigation, told her he had “a couple of drinks with dinner” before he fell asleep at a stop sign while driving home. Johnson blamed the episode on a change in his blood pressure medication.

While in Chicago, Trump is scheduled to headline a campaign luncheon that’s set to raise approximately $4 million for a joint fundraising committee benefiting Trump’s reelection effort and the Republican National Committee, according to the GOP.

Trump last visited Chicago in 2016 as a presidential candidate for what supposed to be a campaign rally on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago. But after fights broke out between supporters and protesters awaiting his arrival at the arena, Trump canceled the event before he took the stage.

Trump said then that he had consulted with Chicago police before making the decision. But the city’s top cop at the time, interim Superintendent John Escalante, disputed Trump’s characterization.

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Aztec Descendants: ‘Take the Dollar Out of the Day of the Dead’

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Americans will celebrate Halloween on October 31, a tradition that dates to an ancient Celtic festival in which it was believed the dead would return to haunt the living. Chances are, many of today’s trick-or-treaters will paint their faces like skulls, borrowing from an ancient Aztec tradition falling at the same time: Dia de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead.

Once little-known in the U.S., it has spread from Mexico and Central America, inserting itself into Halloween. It has become big business in America: retail chains sell Day of the Dead costumes, sugar skulls and decorative items — even keychains and ashtrays. The U.S. toymaker Mattel recently launched a Day of the Dead Barbie doll; Nike has unveiled a Day of the Dead-themed athletic shoe, an update of the so-called “Cortez” model, ironically named for the very conquistador who brought down the Aztec Empire, Hernan Cortes.

“Mattel Is Releasing a Day of the Dead Barbie Doll”
Cultural appropriation? Helping to understand different cultures? Cheap, money-maker? Opening up a dialogue about death? Do the same people complaining about it own sugar skull handbags from 2010?

— Carla Valentine (@ChickAndTheDead) September 26, 2019

“Mainstream  culture, they think the Day of the Dead is just about sugar skulls and marigolds,” said Ixtlixochitl Salinas-White Hawk, a member of Mexico’s largest indigenous group, the Nahua-Mexika (Aztec), who now lives in Seattle, Washington.

She takes exception to the fact that big business and non-indigenous people have appropriated the celebration.

“They try to pull the look without really understanding the significance and the medicine and the spirituality behind it,” she said. “They need to take the dollar sign out of it.”

Melding of religions

Festivals honoring the dead date back at least to the Aztecs, who devoted a month at the end of the growing season to festivals honoring Mictecacihuatl, the “Lady of the Dead,” who with her husband Miclantecuhtl, guarded the underworld.  In a series of festivals, Aztecs reenacted religious myths and made offerings of food, drink and flowers to the dead. Often, these celebrations involved human sacrifices, to the horror of Spanish conquistadors and the Catholic Church.

Spain toppled the Aztec Empire in 1521 but had a harder time crushing Aztec spiritual tradition. Gradually, indigenous spirituality and Catholicism merged: Christian churches were built on the sites of former temples, and festivals were reborn as Christian holy days.

“They knew that they were not going to be able to make the people not celebrate our ancestors,” said White Hawk, “so they passed it on to All Saint’s and All Soul’s Day.”

She refers to the Christian holidays that fall on the first two days of November, one honoring deceased Catholic Saints and the other remembering the dead.

Today, Day of the Dead is three-day celebration, beginning October 31 and running through November 2.  These are days dedicated to honoring generations of ancestors.

“We are not here just on our own,” said White Hawk. “We are here because our ancestors lived through hardships and struggles and gave their love for us to be here. So, we celebrate them as a way of thanking them.”

Though individual traditions vary by region, even family, most involve ofrendas, altars set up in homes or at gravesites. Families decorate them with photographs of the dead, candles, food offerings of traditional pan de muerto, a sweet bread, sugar skull confections and cempasuchitl, large yellow or gold marigold flowers believed to help the spirits of the dead return, however briefly, to sit with their descendants.

Altar of the dead at the “Tepoznieves” store in Tepoztlán, Morelos, Mexico, taken Nov. 8, 2014 by María José Felgueres Planells

“We understand that death is part of a continuing cycle, so it doesn’t have to be sad,” she said. “There is understanding that our ancestors walk with us, so we sit with them, fix their favorite meal, their favorite drink, share stories. It’s about celebrating the life of the person, not mourning their loss.”

Widespread celebrations

Today, indigenous diaspora communities in cities across America host Day of the Dead parades, street festivals and candlelit processions to cemeteries.

White Hawk is a member of Tloke Nahuake, “together and united,” a dance group founded by her father Juan Salinas, who for decades has toured America to share Aztec culture through dance. The family has participated in Day of the Dead celebrations in Seattle for years, bringing in representatives from different communities in Mexico to share the tradition with the public.

“There are stories that go with the dances, which are really prayers,” she said. “Every step has meaning; every beat has meaning. They are an expression of who we are — not who we are in that moment, but everything our ancestors did to get us to that moment.”

Dancers create their own regalia, which feature large, colorful headdresses made up of the  feathers of the parrots and other birds.

“Every feather has its own meaning,” said White Hawk, explaining they sometimes dance for an exhausting seven or eight hours at a stretch.

Photo shows a dancer wearing an ornate Aztec headdress, taken at the Fiestas Patrias Parade, South Park, Seattle, Washington, Sept. 19, 2015.

“It’s a small sacrifice to pay for our ancestors. We are here because our ancestors lived through hardship and struggle and gave their love for us to be here. And we are also responsible to pass our culture on to the next generations.”

She understands why non-indigenous people are tempted to co-opt the imagery of the Day of the Dead.

“I appreciate that everybody is on their own journey, trying to find their own place,” she said. “But I feel very protective of the knowledge and culture that has been entrusted to me. I realize how much responsibility that is. I don’t want it to get lost in someone else’s hands.”    



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New Fire Ignites in California Near LA’s Getty Museum

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Firefighters in California battled a new blaze Monday that broke out near the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, forcing thousands of people to evacuate.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the fire has grown to 200 hectares since it ignited before dawn on Monday and has burned down at least five homes. The area is where some of the city’s most expensive homes are located.
Basketball star LeBron James, who lives in the area, said he evacuated with his family, but had difficulties finding a nearby hotel with vacancies.
“Finally found a place to accommodate us!” the Los Angeles Lakers player wrote on Twitter. “Crazy night man!”

California firefighters are simultaneously battling several blazes in the state, including a large fire in the northern wine country.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said there are hopes that by later Monday, the near historic winds that are driving the wildfire will “substantially settle down,” as some 3,000 people work to put out the blaze.

“We’re not out of the woods, but we are leaning in the right direction,” Newsom said at a briefing late Sunday.

The western U.S. state is commonly hit by numerous wildfires at this time of year, with the combination of low humidity and strong winds combining to create favorable conditions for fire growth.

Firefighters had said the Kincade Fire, named for a local road where the flames are believed to have started in Sonoma County, was at 10% containment. But as of late Sunday, that had dropped to 5%, with the fire at about 22,000 hectares in size.

Cal Fire said the blaze had already destroyed about 100 structures.

California State Sen. Mike McGuire said 4,600 people have gone to shelters in Sonoma County.

Statewide, around 200,000 people have evacuated their homes to seek safety from the wildfires.  

Newsom declared a state of emergency Sunday and said there is “no question” the evacuations have saved lives.

“Go means go,” he said, encouraging people to heed any evacuation orders.

Firefighters are also battling a blaze in Southern California in Santa Clarita near Los Angeles. Officials say that fire is about 70% contained.

The California utility company Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to nearly 1 million homes and businesses across Northern California, some with little notice, as part of a strategy to try to prevent surges from downed power lines sparking more fires.

Businesses are angry that the power cuts have cost them tens of thousands of dollars, and residents bitterly complain about the inconvenience of going days without electricity, especially those who need power for lifesaving medical devices.

California authorities blame PG&E lines for sparking last year’s wildfires that killed 85 people and destroyed entire towns. The utility, facing billions of dollars in lawsuits, was forced to declare bankruptcy earlier this year.

Newsom, who had criticized the utilities, said the state will spend $75 million to help residents and businesses deal with the power cuts.  He said the state has a lot of work to do toward putting electrical wires underground and to manage forests in order to prevent both wildfire damage and the need to shut off the power.


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Biden: Kushner has no ‘Credentials’ for White House Post

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Joe Biden called it “improper” for President Donald Trump for having his daughter and son-in-law hold positions in the White House, suggesting in a CBS interview Sunday that Jared Kushner is not qualified to weigh in on the complex affairs assigned by his father-in-law.

That assessment, which the Democratic presidential hopeful offered in a wide-ranging “60 Minutes” interview, ratchets up the rhetoric between Trump and Biden over each other’s adult children and family business affairs.

Biden told CBS that he doesn’t like “going after” politicians’ children, but he said none of his children would hold White House posts, even as he continued to defend his son, Hunter, against Trump’s charges that the Biden’s are corrupt because of the younger Biden’s international business affairs while his father was vice president.

“You should make it clear to the American public that everything you’re doing is for them,” Biden said, according to a CBS transcript, when he was asked about Ivanka Trump and Kushner, her husband, in White House posts with significant policy portfolios.

“Their actions speak for themselves,” Biden said of the Trump family. “I can just tell you this, that if I’m president get elected president my children are not gonna have offices in the White House. My children are not gonna sit in on Cabinet meetings.”

Asked specifically whether he thinks Kushner should be tasked with negotiating Middle East peace agreements, Biden laughed. “No, I don’t,” he said. “What credentials does he bring to that?”

Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine and China remains an emphasis of Trump’s broadsides against Biden, a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. The younger Biden took a post on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm after his father became the Obama administration’s point man on U.S.-Ukraine relations.

Trump’s focus on finding information about the Biden’s Ukraine connections is now at the heart of a House impeachment inquiry against the president. Ukrainian investigators have found no legal wrongdoing by either Biden.

Noting that, the former vice president blasted social media giant Facebook for allowing the Trump campaign to distribute online ads framing the Bidens as corrupt.

“You know, I’m glad they brought the Russians down,” Biden said, noting Facebook’s recent decision to shut down accounts that were distributing misinformation, including about Biden. But, the former vice president asked, “Why don’t you bring down the lies that Trump is telling and everybody knows are lies?”

Hunter Biden in a recent interview said the only thing his father said to him at the time he took the post at Burisma was, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

The elder Biden told CBS he never got into any details over the firm, which had been the focus on Ukrainian corruption inquiries.

“What I meant by that is I hope you’ve thought this through. I hope you know exactly what you’re doing here,” the elder Biden said. “That’s all I meant. Nothing more than that because I’ve never discussed my business or their business, my sons’ or daughter’s. And I’ve never discussed them because they know where I have to do my job and that’s it and they have to make their own judgments.”

And turning the issue back on the president, Biden repeated a line he’s started using on the campaign trail, urging Trump to release his tax returns. “Mr. President … let’s see how straight you are, okay old buddy?” Biden said. “I put out 21 years of mine. You wanna deal with corruption? Start to act like it. Release your tax returns or shut up.”

Trump’s attacks have not displaced Biden as a duel Democratic front-runner alongside Sen. Elizabeth Warren. But it has nonetheless raised new questions about Biden’s argument that he’d be the best Democrat to take on the Republican president in a general election. And the Biden attack ads Trump and Republicans have financed in early nominating states, combined with Biden’s own lagging fundraising, have led some of his wealthy supporters to openly discuss the possibility of launching an independent political action committee.

Biden’s CBS interview was taped before his recent decision to reverse his previous opposition to such a Super PAC, a move that Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders have indirectly criticized. Biden did address his campaign’s cash balance being dwarfed by Warren and Sanders, saying he’s “not worried” about raising enough money.

As to just how he can withstand Sanders’ and Warren’s grassroots fundraising juggernauts, he replied, “I just flat beat them.”


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Rep. Katie Hill of California Resigns Amid Ethics Probe

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Democratic congresswoman Katie Hill of California has resigned amid an ethics probe and revelations of an affair with a campaign staffer.

In a statement Sunday, the 32-year-old freshman from the Los Angeles area says leaving the House is best for her constituents, community and country.

Hill is under investigation by a congressional committee for an alleged intimate relationship with a male senior aide, which Hill denies.

She has acknowledged an affair with a young female staffer. Compromising photos and purported text messages surfaced online this past week in a right-wing publication and a British tabloid.

Last year, Hill won the last Republican-held House seat anchored in Los Angeles County.

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Hong Kong Business People Set their Sights on America

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Hong Kong’s reputation as a haven for freewheeling business has steadily eroded since the territory was handed over to China from Britain in 1997. As anti-government protestors step up demands for democracy, and with demonstrations becoming more violent, however, the business environment is getting worse.

High-technology professionals, bankers and financiers head the list of those wanting to go to the United States, a desire that has taken on an added sense of urgency with the level of investment required for the EB-5 U.S. investment visa, known as the “golden visa,” leaping to $900,000 next month from $500,000, where it has been since 1993, as part of an effort to stem money laundering.

The EB-5 visa grants a two-year conditional green card in return for investments in struggling parts of the United States, and applicants have until November 21 to apply under the current investment level.

John Hu, principal consultant of John Hu Migration Consulting, says inquiries have risen four-fold overall since the protests escalated five months ago. He says he is receiving thousands of callers a month, mainly from those interested in heading to the United States, Canada and Australia.

“The protests is definitely a catalyst for people who are determined to go to the U.S.,” Hu says from his office in the Wanchai financial district, adding that the U.S. trade war with China is a further spur.

“This is a very favorable destination, and also in November the investment amount is going to increase from $500,000 to $900,000, so people are rushing in,” he says, referring to the EB-5 visa.

Hong Kong has witnessed a steady loss of its financial clout over the last two decades.

Some business have opted for the Chinese financial capital of Shanghai, others for the West, moves which have been blamed on an erosion of freedoms and failure by Beijing to uphold the promises it made before the handover from Britain.

Protesters Again Take to Streets of Hong Kong video player.
Protesters Again Take to Streets of Hong Kong

As a result protests have become common, but the recent hike in violent clashes between protesters, police and pro-Beijing gangs, in response to government-planned extradition laws bitterly opposed by business groups, has deeply unsettled the city.

Despite the scrapping of those laws, protesters continue to agitate for universal suffrage, and most Sundays are dominated by police and hardcore demonstrators exchanging tear gas and Molotov cocktails. Train stations and businesses with known pro-China leanings are often trashed.

On potential emigration to the United States, Hu notes, “First of all, there is the education, because you have the top-of-the-world Ivy League colleges, and we have lots of financial professionals in Hong Kong.”

 “For people who want to work in Wall Street and the financial world they would like to migrate to the U.S.,” he added

An October survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong found at least a third of the territory’s 7.4 million people would emigrate if they could. Taiwan, Britain, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan are also popular destinations.

Huw Watkin, head of the risk, research and investigation company Drakon Associates, says a weak economy and comments by the pro-China lobby have not helped, as they have fueled increased migration, amid the current wave of protests.

He cites comments by Junius Ho, ejected from the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s legislature, after suggesting pro-democracy politician Claudia Mo, whose husband is British, “eats foreign sausage.”

“Incomes have been static for years, the cost of living remains very high, and racist comments by the business elites and pro-China political lobby give the sense that Westerners are actually no longer welcome in Hong Kong,” Watkin adds.

“Given that China is clearly more aggressively nationalistic, here as elsewhere, I am not surprised that people are leaving,” he says.

At the corporate level, the more recent evidence is anecdotal, however.

Goldman Sachs has estimated that between $3 billion and $4 billion in deposits flowed to Singapore, the territory’s main rival in international finance, in July and August.

A flash survey led by the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore found 80% of respondents believed Hong Kong protests had affected their decisions on whether to make future investments here.

Twenty percent said they had “considered plans” to move capital out or relocate their business functions, particularly to Singapore, a trend described by the Hong Kong chamber as a “real concern.”

Watkin said Hong Kong’s strong English-language credentials make it easier for business immigrants to meet U.S. entry standards and that the scramble to leave is unlikely to abate, unless the pro-China lobby backs off and Beijing adheres to its “one country two systems” policy.

That includes the Basic Law, under which Beijing agreed to 50 years of self government and autonomy.

“Hong Kong is this entrepot, this cosmopolitan place, and has been so since its inception,” Watkin saus. “There was a deal and I think it’s incumbent upon the Chinese administration to honor that deal, if not for their own self-interest in being a trusted partner in the world.”

“In Hong Kong it’s a very unique situation and frankly it’s very hard to predict how this will turn out.”

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In California Fires, Thousands Evacuate, Millions Under Blackouts

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A Northern California blaze forced evacuation orders and warnings for nearly all of Sonoma County stretching to the coast, with forecasts of strong winds prompting officials to start cutting electricity for millions of people in an effort to prevent more fires.

Pacific Gas & Electric started shutting off power about 5 p.m. Saturday for an estimated 2.35 million people across 38 counties. About 90,000 residents were ordered to evacuate towns near the 40-square-mile (104-square-kilometer) fire.

Saturday night’s evacuation order encompassed a huge swath of wine country stretching from the inland community of Healdsburg west through the Russian River Valley and to Bodega Bay on the coast, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick said. An even broader area was put under a warning for residents to get ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

Some weekend gusts might reach 75 mph (120 kph) or higher in a historic wind event, the National Weather Service said. Winds could lead to “erratic fire behavior” and send embers for miles, warned the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Concern that gusts could knock down power lines and spark devastating wildfires prompted two blackouts in recent weeks.

The wind event expected to peak early Sunday would likely be the strongest in several years, said PG&E meteorologist Scott Strenfel. He said Saturday that falling trees and breaking branches were likely. Relative humidity will dip into single digits.

Eve Peteros helps evacuate Redwood Retreats, a residential care facility in Santa Rosa, Calif., Oct. 26, 2019. A Northern California blaze forced evacuation orders and warnings for nearly all of Sonoma County.

Blackouts for nearly 1 million customers

PG&E said the new wave of blackouts was affecting about 940,000 homes and businesses in 36 counties for 48 hours or longer. The city of San Francisco was not in line for a blackout amid shut-offs for most of the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area, the wine country to the north and the Sierra foothills.

Evacuations also hit inmates at the North County Detention Facility in Santa Rosa and about 100 Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital patients.

The sheriff pleaded with residents in the evacuation zone to get out immediately, citing the 24 lives lost when a wildfire swept through the region two years ago.

“I’m seeing people reporting that they’re going to stay and fight this fire,” Essick said. “You cannot fight this. Please evacuate.”

Flames from a backfire, lit by firefighters to slow the spread of the Kincade fire, burn a hillside in unincorporated Sonoma County, Calif., near Geyservillle, Oct. 26, 2019.

Tick and Kincade fires

A wildfire Thursday destroyed 18 structures in the Santa Clarita area north of Los Angeles. Nearly all the 50,000 residents ordered to evacuate were allowed back home after Santa Ana winds began to ease.

Sheriff’s officials said human remains were found within the wide burn area, but it’s unclear if the death is connected to the blaze. The Tick fire was 55% contained.

To the north, firefighters raced to make progress against the blaze near Geyserville in Sonoma County before ferocious “diablo winds” returned. The blaze, called the Kincade fire, had burned 77 buildings, including 31 homes, and swept through more than 40 square miles (104 square kilometers) of the wine-growing region by Saturday evening. It was roughly 10% contained.

A firefighter shielded two people from flames with his fire shelter and all three were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, Cal Fire said.

Several thousand people in neighboring Lake County were warned to be ready to evacuate if an order is given. A 2015 wildfire in the area killed four people and burned nearly 2,000 buildings.

What sparked the current fires is unknown, but PG&E said a 230,000-volt transmission line near Geyserville malfunctioned minutes before that blaze erupted Wednesday night.

The utility acknowledged a tower malfunction prompted a strategy change for determining when to kill high-voltage transmission lines, Andrew Vesey, CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., said Friday.

“Any spark, from any source, can lead to catastrophic results,” Vesey said. “We do not want to become one of those sources.”

SoCal Edison crews replace power lines that were damaged from the Tick fire, Oct. 24, 2019, in Santa Clarita, Calif.

Many residents facing blackouts had barely recovered from a previous shut-off.

Jon Robinson, 52, of Rough and Ready, said the earlier shut-off put him in the hospital for several days for the stomach flu. He’d been tending to his sick grandson and got worn down between that and taking care of animals on his ranch.

Robinson was unsure if his family, who moved to California seven years ago, will remain in the state.

“Before this, we planned on staying,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what, it’s just too nerve-racking.”

Sodhi Singh closes up his Chevron station shortly after losing power in Healdsburg, Calif., Oct. 26, 2019. Pacific Gas & Electric started shutting off power around 5 p.m. Saturday for an estimated 2.35 million people.

Business losses pile up

About 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Sacramento, 65-year-old Sukhwinder Singh said he worked the Quality Market convenience store cash register in the dark, but nobody wanted warm soda and melted ice cream. He estimates he lost about $1,100 in sales and products. Singh has a generator now, but said he can’t keep it running all night when the store is closed.

“I don’t know how we can pay the bills at the end of the month,” he said.

Also northeast of Sacramento, Scott Paris estimates about $20,000 lost in shutting down his High-Hand Nursery and Cafe when PG&E cut the power earlier this month for about 24 hours during a weekday. A beautiful fall Sunday might bring $50,000 to $60,000 worth of business.

“We’re scrambling to get enough generators,” he said. “If this is the new normal, it’s going to drive up a lot of costs. It drives up stress.”

Even before the new blackout order, the University of California, Berkeley announced it was canceling all Saturday afternoon classes, as well as other indoor events and activities scheduled through Sunday.

A Florida utility, Florida Power & Light, announced it was sending 100 line workers and support staff to help PG&E restore power to areas with outages caused by the wildfires.

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Villagers: US Drone Strike in Somalia Kills Frankincense Collectors

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BOSASO, Somalia / WASHINGTON / PENTAGON — A U.S. drone strike intended to hit an Islamic State (IS) hideout in Somalia’s northeastern region of Puntland mistakenly killed two frankincense collectors, according to local elders and a survivor who spoke Saturday with VOA.

The Friday afternoon attack also injured another person after the drone strike hit the men, who were in the process of collecting frankincense near the remote Ameyra village in the Golis Mountain region of Somalia’s Northeastern Bari province, multiple local elders told VOA.

Sa’id Abshir Mohamud, a local elder at Timishe village near the target of the strikes, told VOA Somalia about the reported civilian casualties.

“Men sent to the location of the strike brought back the dead bodies of two locally known villagers who went there to collect frankincense,” the elder said.

He identified the victims as Salad Mohamud Barre and Ayanle Ibrahim Mohamud.

“One of the bodies was mutilated,” the elder said.


U.S. Africa Command said it conducted the airstrike and targeted IS terrorists in region. Despite the local elders’ claims, a statement from U.S. AFRICOM said Friday it killed three terrorists and no civilian were harmed. 

“At this time, it is assessed the airstrike killed three (3) terrorists. Currently, we assess no civilians were injured or killed as a result of this airstrike,” the statement said.

To boost their ranks and mislead the locals, terrorists in Somalia routinely spread propaganda saying U.S. military drones target civilians. Additionally, the terrorist groups are known to use civilians as human shields.

The prevalence of the militants’ anti-Western smear campaign makes it difficult to immediately prove the complicity or innocence of those targeted by such drone attacks in remote villages.

In an exclusive interview Friday with VOA, Africa Command Director of Public Affairs Col. Chris Karns also stressed the importance of the U.S. strikes in Somalia.

“Oftentimes people will see the airstrikes, which are important because they help the disrupt al-Shabab. They create organizational confusion, they essentially, the airstrikes prevent them [the terrorists] from maneuvering. So they set the conditions for development. They set the conditions for governance, and they’re foundational to the progress that’s being made,” Karns said.

Survivor’s description

Mohamed Mohamud Barre, a man claiming to be a survivor of the strike, described to VOA what he said he witnessed.

“The three of us went there to collect frankincense days ago. A missile surprisingly targeted where we were, killing the two other men. I ran through a dark smoke and the debris of the mountain rocks and crawled under a nearby mountain cave, then another missile was targeted at my location but the cave and Allah saved me. In the cave, I found out that I had sustained shrapnel injuries and remained there until midnight Friday. I am bleeding and I feel kidney pain,” Barre told VOA on the phone.

VOA could not fully verify Barre’s claim but Isse Jama Mohamed, a revered local traditional elder, who later contacted VOA, confirmed the man’s claim and called for the Somali federal government to investigate the incident so the victims’ families could pursue their rights for compensation.

“One of the dead men left eight orphans and the other, five. I think they were mistakenly targeted. I call for the federal government and the government of Puntland Regional State to look into the incident,” Mohamed said.

He said one of the dead men left Bosaso, the port and the commercial hub of Puntland, three days ago to collect frankincense to pay medical bills for his pregnant wife.

“He took his pregnant wife to Bosaso for medical care but he could not afford to pay the bills. He decided to go the mountains and collect frankincense to sell and then pay the surgery bills for his wife, who is carrying twin babies, one of them dead,” the elder said.

Targeted area

The area where the latest U.S. strike occurred is a known hideout for IS militants in Somalia. It is a hot and dry rocky land, where locals historically have harvested gold and frankincense, which is used in traditional Sufi religious ceremonies.

One attack in the area in April killed the deputy leader of Somalia’s IS group, Abdulhakim Dhuqub, who was responsible for the extremist group’s daily operations, attack planning and resource procurement.

Another airstrike in May killed 13 of the group’s fighters.

There have been incidents in which the U.S. military has been accidentally responsible for the deaths of civilians and subsequently admitted so after an investigation.

Earlier this year, a civilian casualty report issued by human rights group Amnesty International concluded there was credible evidence that five U.S. airstrikes were responsible for the death of 14 civilians killed between 2017 and 2018.

The U.S. military initially denied Amnesty International’s reporting but later admitted that a woman and child were killed in one incident in April 2018, near the town of Elbur, in the central Somali region of Galgudud.

Officials said they missed the incident because it was not reported to them.

The acknowledgement marked the first time the U.S. admitted to causing civilian casualties during its air campaign in Somalia, which began in 2011 under the direction of President Barack Obama.

Since the election of President Donald Trump, the number of strikes in the region has risen sharply.

U.S. AFRICOM has said repeatedly the precision airstrikes it carries out in Somalia are to support Somali government security forces and create safe space for increased governance in the nation.

“In support of the federal government of Somalia, U.S. forces will use all effective and appropriate methods to assist in the protection of the Somali people, including partnered military counterterrorism operations with the Federal Government of Somalia, AMISOM [the African Union Mission in Somalia], and Somali National Army forces,” the latest U.S. AFRICOM statement said.

Fadumo Yasiin Jama contributed to this story from Bosaso, Somalia; VOA Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb

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Syrian Army Reaches Border Area, Deploys Around Turkish Zone

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Syrian troops reached a key area near Turkey’s border Saturday after sending further reinforcements to the region, in what a war monitor said was its largest deployment there in years.

Syrian regime forces entered the provincial borders of the town of Ras al-Ain, state news agency SANA said.

The regime forces entered the area, which was taken by Turkish forces following a weeks-long offensive against Syria’s Kurds.

Troops also deployed along a road stretching some 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of the frontier, SANA added.

Turkey and its Syrian proxies on October 9 launched a cross-border attack against Kurdish-held areas, grabbing a 120-kilometer-long (70-mile) swathe of Syrian land along the frontier.

The incursion left hundreds dead and caused 300,000 people to flee their homes, in the latest humanitarian crisis in Syria’s brutal eight-year war.

This week, Turkey and Russia struck a deal in Sochi for more Kurdish forces to withdraw from the frontier on both sides of that Turkish-held area under the supervision of Russian and Syrian forces.

A Syrian security forces member takes a selfie by a Russian military vehicle during a patrol near the Syria-Turkey border, in northern Syria, Oct. 25, 2019.

On Saturday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said some 2,000 Syrian troops and hundreds of military vehicles were deploying around what Turkey calls its “safe zone.”

In the army’s “largest deployment” in the area in years, regime forces were being accompanied by Russia military police, the Observatory said.

Moscow has said 300 Russian military police had arrived in Syria to help ensure Kurdish forces withdraw to a line 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the border in keeping with Tuesday’s agreement.

Despite Saturday’s deployment, the Observatory said that Kurdish fighters and Ankara’s Syrian proxies traded artillery fire in the region.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Under the Sochi deal, Kurdish forces have until late Tuesday to withdraw from border areas at either end of the Turkish-held area, before joint Turkish-Russian start patrols in a 10-kilometer (six-mile) strip there.

Ankara eventually wants to set up a buffer zone on Syrian soil along the entire length of its 440-kilometre-long border, including to resettle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces has objected to some provisions of the Sochi agreement and it has so far maintained several border posts.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Saturday that Ankara would “clear terrorists” on its border if the Kurdish forces, which his country view as an offshoot of its own banned insurgency, did not withdraw by the deadline.


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Russia Says US Presence in Syria Illegal, Protects Oil Smugglers

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Russia’s defense ministry on Saturday attacked U.S. plans to maintain and boost the American military presence in eastern Syria as “international state banditry” motivated by a desire to protect oil smugglers and not by real security concerns.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Friday Washington would send armored vehicles and troops to the Syrian oil fields in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of Islamic State militants.

His comments came after President Donald Trump earlier this month pulled some 1,000 U.S. military personnel out of northeast Syria, a move that prompted Turkey to launch a cross-border incursion targeting the Kurdish YPG militia, a former U.S. ally against Islamic State.

Trump’s decision drew an angry backlash from Congress, including key Republicans who saw the pullout as a betrayal of the Kurds and a move that could bolster Islamic State.

In a statement, Russia’s defense ministry said Washington had no mandate under international or U.S. law to increase its military presence in Syria and said its plan was not motivated by genuine security concerns in the region.

“Therefore Washington’s current actions – capturing and maintaining military control over oil fields in eastern Syria – is, simply put, international state banditry,” it said.

U.S. troops and private security companies in eastern Syria are protecting oil smugglers who make more than $30 million a month, the statement said.

Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has helped him turn the tide of a bloody civil war, has long insisted that the U.S. military presence in Syria is illegal.

Moscow has further bolstered its position in Syria following the U.S. withdrawal from the northeast of the country, negotiating a deal this week with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan to help remove the Kurdish YPG militia from within a 30 km (19 mile) strip along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Ankara views the YPG as terrorists linked to Kurdish insurgents operating in southeast Turkey.


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Ahead of Argentine Election, Voting Software Company Faces Scrutiny

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A supplier of election technology whose software was used in highly suspect Venezuelan balloting, faces a fresh test of its products during a decisive election this Sunday in Argentina.

The company, Smartmatic, made headlines in 2017 by pulling out of Venezuela when the United States, the European Union and the Organization of American States accused the country’s leftist government of massive vote tampering.

Smartmactic CEO Antonio Mujica, a Venezuelan engineer, said at the time that Venezuela’s election authorities had grossly inflated the number of voters participating in the election of a special constituent assembly that was convened to change the constitution.

But government opponents had already filed a series of lawsuits, alleging major irregularities in previous elections administered by Smartmatic, which had worked with the Venezuelan government for more than a decade.

FILE – Venezuelan presidential candidate Nicolas Maduro and his wife Cilia Flores celebrate after the official results gave him a victory in the balloting, Caracas, April 14, 2013.

Fraud allegations

Cases of fraud alleged by the opposition included a 2013 vote that elevated then-Vice President Nicolas Maduro to the presidency, even as the country reeled from spiraling inflation and a scarcity of consumer products.

“In the few districts, which we managed to audit through unfettered access to the paper ballots, we found that the opposition had won by huge margins even as election authorities reported that they had gone for Maduro,” said Adriana Vigilanza, a lawyer and international monitor of election processes who has led investigations into Venezuela’s balloting.

She said the Venezuelan military and government militias, or “colectivos,” prevented audits from being conducted in most districts, threatening local authorities with arrest if they allowed independent verification of ballot boxes.

The Venezuelan government contracted Smartmatic to supply election machinery when the company started up in Florida in 2004.

Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, faced a challenging recall referendum at the time and wanted to replace the Spanish firm INDRA, which had been Venezuela’s main election technology provider.

FILE – The corporate logo of Smartmatic at its offices in Caracas, Venezuela, Aug. 2, 2017.

The government acquired a 28% stake in Smartmatic’s software provider, Bitza, which it sold back to the company when critics brought up conflict of interest concerns. Bitza and Smartmatic have interlocking directorships, and members of Venezuelan government agencies initially served on Bitza’s board of directors, according to corporate records seen by VOA.

Smartmatic’s website says the firm is present in several countries where it “designs technology to give authorities all the hardware, software and services they need to successfully manage each phase of the election process.”

Election commissions throughout the world have used Smartmatic technology to process 4.6 billion votes “without a single discrepancy,” according to the company.

There is no evidence that Smartmatic or its personnel have actively participated in election fraud. Mujica said it was his denunciation of irregularities in Venezuela’s 2017 Constituent Assembly elections that alerted the international community.

But Smartmatic’s past association with the Venezuelan government is raising alarms in other countries where its products are used.

FILE – Smartmatic founder and CEO Antonio Mugica speaks during a press briefing in London, Aug. 2, 2017.

Probe of Smartmatic acquisition

U.S. Congress members called for an investigation into Smartmatic’s acquisition in 2005 of Sequoia voting systems, which manages election technology in 17 American states.

In the Philippines, members of congress have charged that Smartmatic allowed multiple servers to be connected to the vote-counting center instead of only one secure line as specified in the original government contract.

Controversy has most recently been triggered in Argentina over technology that Smartmatic is providing for presidential elections Sunday. Incumbent Alfonso Macri faces a tough reelection challenge against a rival from the Peronist party, which has dominated Argentine politics for decades.

Smartmatic has been contracted by Argentina’s post office service to supply software for transmitting results through real time “telegrams” from voting centers to the national tallying office, according to government officials.

Argentine President Mauricio Macri, who is running for reelection with the “Juntos Por el Cambio” party, applauds next to rival candidate Alberto Fernandez, with the “Frente de Todos” party, at the end of a debate in Buenos Aires, Oct. 20, 2019.

Pro-Macri congresswoman Elisa Carrio has charged that the telegrams were loaded with excessive votes for Peronista candidate Alberto Fernandez in a three-way primary, which he won two months ago. A judge has ordered the designation of judicial poll watchers to control the transmission of results.

“The machines are only as honest as the people managing them,” said Vigilanza, the international elections monitor, who added that in the case of Venezuela, the transmission of results was tightly controlled by the central electoral commission dominated by Chavez and Maduro officials.

“There are a variety of ways of hacking electronic voting results,” said Guillermo Salas, a Spain-based election computer expert.

Salas and Vigilanza both charge that in Venezuela, a two-way server allowed central authorities to manipulate numbers at local voting centers before they were published.

The U.S. Embassy in Caracas reported use of the two-way line in confidential diplomatic cables revealed by Wikileaks.

International political consultant Ray Cantillo, whose clients have ranged from former U.S. President Ronald Reagan to Spain’s Socialist Party, said the United Nations should back the formation of an independent body to monitor electronic voting.

“A growing perception that elections are fixed is undermining democracy throughout the world,” he said.


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Authorities Arrest 2 More in UK’s Gruesome Truck Deaths Case

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British police arrested two more people Friday in connection with the deaths of 39 others found in the back of a container truck in southeastern England as the investigation into one of the country’s worst human smuggling cases geared up.

Police said the man and the woman, both 38 and from Warrington, a town in northwestern England, were arrested on suspicion of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people. The 25-year-old driver of the truck remains in custody on suspicion of murder.
The new arrests came as police began the grim process of conducting post-mortem examinations of the dead. The remains of 11 people from the truck were transported by ambulance from the Port of Tilbury under police escort Thursday.

Essex Police said 31 men and eight women were found dead in the truck early Wednesday at an industrial park in Grays, a town 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of London.

Although U.K. police said they believed the dead were Chinese citizens, Chinese officials told reporters in Beijing that the nationalities and identities of the victims had not yet been confirmed.  

Flowers are placed at the scene where bodies were discovered in a lorry container, in Grays, Essex, Britain, Oct. 24, 2019.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China was working in cooperation with local authorities.

“No matter where these victims come from, this is a great tragedy which drew the attention of the international community to the issue of illegal immigration,” she said. “The international community should further strengthen cooperation in this area, strengthen sharing of information and intelligence … to prevent such tragedies from happening again.”

‘Humanitarian disaster’
Hua said Chinese authorities were also seeking information from police in Belgium, since the shipping container in which the bodies were found was sent to England from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge.

Human smuggling from China is believed to have fallen drastically in recent years amid the country’s rapidly growing domestic economy. However, some Chinese, particularly those with lesser education, continue to be drawn to Europe and North America by the promise of much higher wages than they can earn at home, despite the considerable risks involved.
Parts of China, especially the southeastern province of Fujian, have long histories of sending migrants abroad.
The issue is a difficult one for China’s ruling Communist Party, which is intensely sensitive about China’s international image and has staked much of its legitimacy to rule on improving living standards for the bulk of China’s 1.4 billion people.

In an editorial Friday, the party newspaper Global Times said authorities in Britain and elsewhere hadn’t done enough to crack down on people smuggling.
“Such a serious humanitarian disaster occurred under the eyes of the British and Europeans,” the newspaper said. “Britain and the related European countries have not met their responsibility for protecting these people from dying in such a manner.”

Large-scale trafficking
British police believe the truck and container took separate journeys before ending up at the industrial park. They say the container traveled by ferry from Zeebrugge to Purfleet, England, where it arrived early Wednesday and was picked up by the truck driver and driven the few miles to Grays.

FILE – Police work at the scene where bodies were discovered in a lorry container, in Grays, Essex, Britain, Oct. 23, 2019.

The truck cab, which is registered in Bulgaria to a company owned by an Irish woman, is believed to have traveled from Northern Ireland to Dublin, where it caught a ferry to Wales, then drove across Britain to pick up the container.

Global Trailer Rentals Ltd told Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE the trailer it owns was leased Oct. 15 in County Monaghan, in Ireland, at a rate of 275 euros ($299) per week. The Dublin-based company said it will make the data from its tracking system available to investigators.

The company’s directors told RTE it was “shell-shocked” at the news.

Groups of migrants have repeatedly landed on English shores using small boats to make the risky Channel crossing, and migrants are sometimes found in the back of cars and trucks that disembark from the massive ferries that link France and England.
But Wednesday’s macabre find in an industrial park was a reminder that criminal gangs are still profiting from large-scale trafficking.

The tragedy recalls the deaths of 58 Chinese migrants who suffocated in a truck in Dover, England, in 2000 after a perilous, months-long journey from China’s southern Fujian province. They were found stowed with a cargo of tomatoes after a ferry ride from Zeebrugge, the same Belgian port that featured in the latest tragedy.

In February 2004, 21 Chinese migrants — also from Fujian — who were working as cockle-pickers in Britain drowned when they were caught by treacherous tides in Morecambe Bay in northwest England.

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Concern Grows in South Korea Over Trump Cost-Sharing Demands

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The United States and South Korea this week held fresh negotiations over how to split the cost of the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. The current deal expires at the end of the year, and U.S. President Donald Trump has reportedly demanded a fivefold increase in how much Seoul pays.  

Trump says South Korea and other allies are taking advantage of the U.S. He reportedly wants Seoul to pay more than five times the amount it contributes now. Analyst Shin Beom-chul said some South Koreans would see such a demand as absurd, and that it could fuel anti-U.S. sentiment. 

South Korea experienced mass anti-U.S. protests as recently as the late 2000s. However, these days, it’s hard to find overt displays of anti-U.S. sentiment. Polls suggest both conservative and liberal South Koreans broadly support the U.S. alliance.  

FILE – South Korean (blue headbands) and U.S. Marines take positions as amphibious assault vehicles of the South Korean Marine Corps fire smoke bombs during a U.S.-South Korea joint landing operation drill in Pohang, South Korea, March 12, 2016.

It’s not guaranteed to stay that way, though. As Trump turns up the heat on cost-sharing, some familiar pockets of protest are getting louder. 

Four hours south of Seoul, local villagers have set up a permanent roadblock to protest a controversial U.S. anti-missile system. As a result, the U.S. must deliver supplies to the base via helicopter.  

Activist Kim Young Jae said he was also upset about the cost-sharing dispute. He said the U.S. was asking for more than what he saw as the total cost of the U.S. military presence, and he wondered how South Koreans could accept this. 

Local resident Lee Jong-hee said that even if Trump wound up getting more money from South Korea, it would drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. 

It’s an outcome that Trump seems increasingly willing to risk. 

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UN Chief Urges Leaders to Listen to Their Discontented Citizens

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U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged leaders to listen to the problems of their people as demonstrations multiply in cities around the world.

“It is clear that there is a growing deficit of trust between people and political establishments, and rising threats to the social contract,” he told reporters Friday.

He cited economic problems, political demands, discrimination and corruption as some of the issues driving protests.

“People want a level playing field – including social, economic and financial systems that work for all,” Guterres said. “They want their human rights respected, and a say in the decisions that affect their lives.”

Demonstrations have erupted this year in scores of countries stretching across nearly every continent.

In Hong Kong, protestors have been on the streets since June, angered by a proposed bill that would allow extradition to mainland China. Hong Kong has been under Chinese rule since 1997. The bill was withdrawn last month, but protesters’ anger has not abated.

In the Middle East, demonstrations started sweeping Lebanon last week, after the government mismanaged the containment of massive forest fires and then, days later, announced plans to tax WhatsApp Internet-based phone calls.

Tens of thousands of protesters in the tiny country are demanding the cabinet’s resignation and early parliamentary elections. They want government corruption investigated, the minimum wage increased, and basic services provided — including clean water and 24-hour electricity.

Guterres said the Lebanese must solve their problems with dialogue and he urged maximum restraint and non-violence from both the government and the demonstrators.
In Iraq, the U.N. says at least 157 people have died and nearly 6,000 have been injured during protests that began October 1. Young people are frustrated with the lack of jobs and services, as well as government corruption and inefficiency.

“Governments have an obligation to uphold the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, and to safeguard civic space,” the U.N. chief said of all protests. “Security forces must act with maximum restraint, in conformity with international law.”

Guterres said he is “deeply concerned” that some protests have led to violence and loss of life.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, protests have erupted in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Bolivia and most recently Chile. While in Africa this year, demonstrators have raised their voices in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Guinea and Ethiopia. In Sudan, protesters succeeded in ousting the president who had been in power for 30 years.

Europeans are angry too. France, Britain and Spain have seen disruptive and sometimes violent protests, while in the United States, civil rights groups have marched for women’s rights. Supporters and opponents of President Donald Trump have also taken to the streets during the year.


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Young Thais Battle Seniority Culture to Raise Climate Awareness 

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When Nanticha “Lynn” Ocharoenchai organized Thailand’s first climate strike in March, more than half of the 50 people who showed up at the rally in Bangkok were students at international schools and expatriates. 
The same day, Ralyn “Lilly” Satidtanasarn, then age 11, and a group of fellow pupils submitted an open letter to the prime minister, calling for urgent action on climate change. 
“The fact that Lilly and I can do this draws a lot from being in international schools,” said Lynn, 21. 
There they received classes on the environment, whereas most Thai state schools do not teach the subject, Lynn noted in an interview a week after graduating from Chulalongkorn University.  

FILE – Environmental activist Greta Thunberg of Sweden addresses the Climate Action Summit at the U.N. General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 23, 2019.

The young pair are often said to be Thailand’s version of Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish activist who has inspired other children worldwide to skip school and demonstrate in the streets about the need to halt global warming and its impacts. 
Lynn’s mission is to boost awareness among the Thai public about climate change in a country that is witnessing warmer temperatures, sea level rise, floods and droughts. 
Its capital, Bangkok, built on the floodplains of the Chao Phraya River, is expected to be among the urban areas hit hardest as the climate heats up. 
Nearly 40% of Bangkok may be inundated each year as soon as 2030 because of more extreme rainfall, according to the World Bank. 
But Lynn said that while many Thais are directly experiencing the growing effects of climate change, some Asian social norms made it hard for her to achieve her aims. 
“In Asia, we have a culture of seniority, and young people aren’t supposed to speak up for themselves and are not supposed to speak against adults,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a Bangkok coffee shop. 
Local link lacking 
Lynn’s interest in climate change was sparked through writing articles on the environment as a journalism intern. 
In March, she read about Thunberg, which prompted her to create a Facebook event for a climate strike in Bangkok. 
“I could truly relate to her frustration and depression, and just feelings of hopelessness,” said Lynn. 
“For years I cried in my bedroom, and I’m sad and I’m just, like, no one’s going to do anything about it. But I figured if Greta can do it … I can probably do something too,” she said. 
Since she set up the Facebook page “Climate Strike Thailand,” it has attracted almost 5,000 followers. 
“Initially I had no idea about Thai social media and how to deal with Thai culture and Thai people and changing their mindset, but since March I’ve learned so much,” she said. 
Tara Buakamsri, Thailand director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said young people in provinces outside Bangkok have long campaigned on environmental issues affecting their hometowns, such as opposing gold mines or coal-fired power plants. 
But there has been no networking platform to link them with groups in the capital, and Climate Strike Thailand has yet to spread beyond middle-class and international school students, he added. 
“While the recent climate strikes are connected to climate change issues [at] the international level, they have yet to connect on the local level,” said Buakamsri.  

FILE – An environmental activist carries his daughter on his shoulders as they participate in a Global Climate Strike near the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment office in Bangkok, Thailand, Sept. 20, 2019.

‘Just the beginning’ 
Since the first March strike, Lynn has led two more, in May and September. 
For the third, about 200 young people marched to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, demanding that the government declare a climate emergency and shift to 100% renewable energy by 2040. 
In 2015, Thailand signed the Paris climate agreement and pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% to 25% by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. 
But new coal-fired power plants have since been promoted both in Thailand and neighboring countries, which activists say contradicts climate change goals. 
“These climate strikes are by no means methods to solve the problem,” Lynn said. “It’s just the beginning where you acknowledge the problem.” 
Lilly, meanwhile, now 12, has been meeting with business and government officials, urging them to care more about the environment. 
Her persistence over the last two years has paid off, and she is widely credited for a pledge by more than 40 national retailers to ban plastic bags by next year. 
“I see no progress made by the government,” she told journalists recently. “I only see progress made by Lynn and me.” 

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One of Europe’s Last Wild Rivers Is in Danger of Being Tamed

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Under a broad plane tree near Albania’s border with Greece, Jorgji Ilia filled a battered flask from one of the Vjosa River’s many springs. 
“There is nothing else better than the river,” the retired schoolteacher said. “The Vjosa gives beauty to our village.” 
The Vjosa is temperamental and fickle, changing from translucent cobalt blue to sludge brown to emerald green, from a steady flow to a raging torrent. Nothing holds it back for more than 270 kilometers (170 miles) in its course through the forest-covered slopes of Greece’s Pindus mountains to Albania’s Adriatic coast. 
This is one of Europe’s last wild rivers. But for how long? 
Albania’s government has set in motion plans to dam the Vjosa and its tributaries to generate much-needed electricity for one of Europe’s poorest countries, with the intent to build eight dams along the main river. 

Hydropower boom
It’s part of a world hydropower boom, mainly in Southeast Asia, South America, Africa and less developed parts of Europe. In the Balkans alone, about 2,800 projects to tame rivers are underway or planned, said Olsi Nika of EcoAlbania, a nonprofit that opposes the projects. 
Some tout hydropower as a reliable, cheap and renewable energy source that helps curb dependence on planet-warming fossil fuels. But some recent studies question hydropower’s value in the fight against global warming. Critics say the benefits of hydropower are overstated — and outweighed by the harm dams can do.  

FILE – The sky is reflected in the Vjosa River after sunset near the village of Badelonje, Albania, June 30, 2019. Rivers are a crucial part of the global water cycle. They act like nature’s arteries.

Rivers are a crucial part of the global water cycle. They act as nature’s arteries, carrying energy and nutrients across vast landscapes, providing water for drinking, food production and industry. They’re a means of transportation for people and goods, and a haven for boaters and anglers. Rivers are home to a diversity of fish — including tiny minnows, trout and salmon — and provide shelter and food for birds and mammals. 
But dams interrupt their flow, and the life in and around them. While installing fish ladders and widening tunnels to bypass dams helps some species, it hasn’t worked in places like the Amazon, said Julian Olden, a University of Washington ecologist. 
Dams block the natural flow of water and sediment. They also can change the chemistry of the water and cause toxic algae to grow. 

Some will lose property
Those who live along the riverbank or rely on the waterway for their livelihood fear dams could kill the Vjosa as they know it. Its fragile ecosystem will be irreversibly altered, and many residents will lose their land and homes. 
In the 1990s, an Italian company was awarded a contract to build a dam along the Vjosa in southern Albania. Construction began on the Kalivac dam but never was completed, plagued with delays and financial woes. 
Now, the government has awarded a new contract for the site to a Turkish company. Energy ministry officials rejected multiple interview requests to discuss their hydropower plans.  

FILE – People raft on the Vjosa River near Permet, Albania, June 25, 2019. Some tout hydropower as a reliable, cheap and renewable energy source, but critics say the benefits of hydropower are overstated and are outweighed by the harm dams can do.

Many locals oppose the plans. Dozens of residents from the village of Kute joined nonprofits to file what was Albania’s first environmental lawsuit against the construction of a dam in the Pocem gorge, a short distance downriver from Kalivac. They won in 2017, but the government has appealed. 
The victory, while significant, was just one battle. A week later, the government issued the Kalivac contract. EcoAlbania plans to fight that project, too. 
Ecologically, there is a lot at stake. 
A recent study found the Vjosa was incredibly diverse. More than 90 types of aquatic invertebrates were found in the places where dams are planned, plus hundreds of fish, amphibian and reptile species, some endangered and others endemic to the Balkans. 

Thwarting fish
Dams can unravel food chains, but the most well-known problem with building dams is that they block the paths of fish trying to migrate upstream to spawn. 
As pressure to build dams intensifies in less developed countries, the opposite is happening in the U.S. and Western Europe, where there’s a movement to tear down dams considered obsolete and environmentally destructive. 
More than 1,600 have been dismantled in the U.S., most within the past 30 years, according to the advocacy group American Rivers. In Europe, the largest-ever removal began this year in France, where two dams are being torn down on Normandy’s Selune River. 
With so few wild rivers left around the globe, the Vjosa also is a valuable resource for studying river behavior. 
“Science is only at the beginning of understanding how biodiversity in river networks is structured and maintained,” said researcher Gabriel Singer of the Leibniz-Institute in Germany. “The Vjosa is a unique system.”  

FILE – An abandoned bulldozer sits on the banks of the Vjosa River at the construction site of the Kalivac dam in Albania, June 23, 2019.

For Shyqyri Seiti, it’s much more personal. 
The 65-year-old boatman has been transporting locals, goods and livestock across the river for about a quarter-century. The construction of the Kalivac dam would spell disaster for him. Many of the fields and some of the houses in his nearby village of Ane Vjose would be lost. 
“Someone will benefit from the construction of the dam, but it will flood everyone in the area,” he said. “What if they were in our place? How would they feel to lose everything?” 
But the mayor, Metat Shehu, insisted that his community “has no interest” in the matter. 
“The Vjosa is polluted. The plants and creatures of Vjosa have vanished,” Shehu said. The biggest issue, he added, is that villagers are being offered too little to give up their land. He hopes the dam will bring investment to the area. 

‘Irreparable’ damage
Jonus Jonuzi, a 70-year-old farmer who grew up along the river, is hopeful the Vjosa will stay wild. 
“Albania needs electrical energy. But not by creating one thing and destroying another,” he said. “Why do such damage that will be irreparable for life, that future generations will blame us for what we’ve done?” 
This was produced in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content. 

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Alaska’s Iditarod Joins New Global Sled-dog Racing Series

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Alaska’s famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has joined a new global partnership billed as the World Series of long-distance sled dog racing and aimed at bringing more fans to the cold-weather sport.

The Iditarod has teamed up with Norway pet food supplement company and series creator, Aker BioMarine, and other races in Minnesota, Norway and Russia for the inaugural QRILL Pet Arctic World Series, or QPAWS, next year.

Logistics were still being worked out, but the series will use a joint point system over a still-undetermined time frame, GPS tracking and an online platform to follow the racing teams. Talks with potential broadcast outlets also are under way, organizers say.

FILE – Defending Iditarod champion Joar Lefseth Ulsom of Norway greets fans on the trail during the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, March 2, 2019, in Anchorage, Alaska.

“Together with Iditarod and the other unique events, we will make QPAWS a winning TV concept in order to build the sport for the future,” series project manager Nils Marius Otterstad said in an email to The Associated Press. He said the Iditarod was approached about the idea a year ago and agreed to move forward on it during this year’s race in March.

The other races

At 1,000 miles (1,610 kilometers), the Iditarod will be the longest race among those participating the first year, as well as serve as the finale to the series next March. The series also will feature races kicking off in late January with the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Minnesota, followed by the Femundlopet in Norway in early February by the Volga Quest in Russia a week later.

Discussions also are under way to add other races, including the 1,000-mile (1,610-kilometer) Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race traversing Alaska and Canada’s Yukon each February. Marti Steury, the Quest’s executive director for Alaska, said Quest officials are watching to see how the first year goes.

New Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach poses for a photo in Anchorage, Alaska, Oct. 15, 2019.

Participants in any of the QPAWS races don’t have to join the circuit if they prefer to stick to just one contest, according to the Iditarod’s new CEO, Rob Urbach. Because the races are so globally distant and scheduled so closely together, he said the circuit could take place over two years.

“The complexity of our racing is unique in the world of sports, and therefore may see some different ways to do the series,” he said.

The Iditarod is already well-steeped in technology, despite the low-tech aspect of the trail, which spans two mountain ranges and the frozen Yukon River before it heads up the wind-scrubbed Bering Sea Coast to the finish line in the Gold Rush town of Nome. Sleds are equipped with GPS trackers that allow fans to follow them online and enable organizers to ensure no one is missing.

Race volunteers and contractors working out of an Anchorage hotel process live video streamed from village checkpoints, using satellite dishes. Some volunteers handle race-standing updates sent through equipment that activates a super-size hot spot in the most remote places with satellite connections.

Troubled time for Iditarod

The move to QPAWS follows a troublesome time for the Iditarod that was marked in recent years by multiple challenges, including escalating pressure from animal-welfare activists over multiple dog deaths, a 2017 dog-doping scandal and the loss of major sponsors.

Urbach, a former CEO of USA Triathlon, recently met with representatives of the Iditarod’s harshest critic, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA’s executive vice president Tracy Reiman called the new racing circuit a “World Series of Cruelty” destined for failure.

“Just as Ringling Bros. circus struggled to find an audience for its abusive elephant shows, the dogsledding industry is desperately scrambling for viewers — but kind people today have no interest in watching dogs being forced to run until their paws bleed, they choke on their own vomit, and they drop dead on the trail,” Reiman said in an email.

Branding expert Conor O’Flaherty said the venture has the potential to create a bigger audience.

“What’s important for a sport like this is it not only represents the distinct community, it also represents part of cultural history that’s important to protect,” said O’Flaherty, managing director at New York-based SME Branding.

Urbach contends QPAWS will go far in raising the exposure of long-distance mushing and better educate the public about the special relationship the dogs have with their human teammates. 

“You could argue that the sport needs a rejuvenation,” said Urbach, who took the helm of the Iditarod in July.

Mushers interested, cautious

With so many details about the series still unknown, many mushers are taking a wait-and-see approach. Defending champion Pete Kaiser said he plans to participate only in the Iditarod.

“My main concerns are, what do you have to do to win this thing and what are the logistics,” he said.

Three-time winner Mitch Seavey, who comes from a multigenerational family of mushers, also is watching developments closely.

“I’m in favor of the Iditarod and other races doing new things. We need to change our demographic. We need to change our fan base, or at least expand it. We need to modernize and appeal to more people,” Seavey said. “Give them a chance. That’s what I’m saying.”

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Another Partial Victory in Ending Polio

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Ending polio has been a long haul. The global campaign to eradicate the virus has been going on since 1988, and while it’s close, it’s not over. Sometime in 2020, Africa may be declared polio-free. But the disease is hanging on stubbornly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and as long as it hangs on, it can spread around the globe.

The effort to end polio started more than 30 years ago. It’s been a massive program that relies on global funding, countless volunteer vaccinators, negotiations with political and religious leaders and parents. Vaccinators sometimes work in conflict zones, all to save lives and prevent lifelong disability.

Polio cases down 99.9%

In Kenya, facts about polio and the vaccine are taught in schools. Children are even taught what to tell their parents.

The international effort has seen the polio cases drop by 99.9%. Nigeria had its last case more than three years ago. It’s possible that next year Nigeria, and all of Africa, will be declared polio free.

Another victory: There used to be three strains of the virus. As of this week, there is now only one.

Afghan women wearing burqas from a polio immunization team walk together during a vaccination campaign in Kandahar, Oct. 15, 2019. Polio immunization is compulsory in Afghanistan, but distrust of vaccines is rife.

Pakistan-Afghanistan border

It is here, at the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan where the wild polio virus spreads. People are constantly crossing from one country to another, mostly to visit family members. Both countries saw cases increase in 2019 from the previous year. Oliver Rosenbauer is a spokesman for the World Health Organization. He spoke to VOA by Skype.

“The reality is that both countries are essentially one epidemiological block, and there is so much population movement. The same virus family is being ping-ponged back and forth across the border with population movements,” he said.

A second challenge concerns restrictions the Taliban have placed on vaccinators. The vaccine can only be given at immunization centers. Door-to-door immunizations are now banned.

WATCH: Another Partial Victory in Ending Polio

Another Partial Victory in Ending Polio video player.

Program’s success

Still another challenge is a result of the program’s success. There are so very few cases in the two countries, the global program now has to address other urgent needs like access to clean water and better nutrition.

Carol Pandak, head of the PolioPlus program at Rotary International, says the partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative have always been able to adapt.

“UNICEF, in particular, has a strategy for both Afghanistan and Pakistan to provide these complimentary services, and Rotary, for many years now, has been working with Coca Cola in Pakistan, providing water filtration systems in some of these highest risk areas,” she said.

Those involved in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative have traveled a road that is longer and harder than was expected in 1988, when the program began. It’s far from over, but Rotary International, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with countless local and federal governments, and the vaccinators themselves have not given up.

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UN Says 1st Local Polio Case Found in Zambia Since 1995

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The World Health Organization says Zambia has reported its first local case of polio since 1995, in a 2-year-old boy paralyzed by a virus derived from the vaccine.

In a report this week, WHO said the case was detected on the border with Congo, which has reported 37 cases of polio traced to the vaccine this year. The U.N. health agency said there is no established link between the Zambia case and the ongoing Congo outbreak but said increased surveillance and vaccination efforts are needed, warning that “there is a potential for international spread.”

In rare cases, the live virus in oral polio vaccine can mutate into a form capable of sparking new outbreaks.

Nine African countries are currently battling polio epidemics linked to the vaccine as WHO and partners struggle to keep their efforts to eradicate polio on track. Elsewhere, cases have been reported in China, Myanmar and the Philippines.

On Thursday, WHO and partners are expected to announce they have rid the world of type 3 polio virus.

Nigerian Polio Survivor Gives Hope To Thousands
Teaser Description
Ten years ago, Nigeria accounted for half of the world’s polio cases, but following an aggressive vaccination program, the African nation is on the verge of being declared polio free. Despite the milestone, Nigeria’s many polio survivors are left to struggle with their disabilities, although one survivor has found a way to provide support and hope for thousands. Timothy Obiezu has this story from Abuja ahead of World Polio Day on October 24th.

There are three types of polio viruses. Type 2 was eliminated years ago. That now leaves only type 1. But that refers only to polio viruses in the wild. Type 2 viruses continue to cause problems since they are still contained in the oral polio vaccine and occasionally evolve into new strains responsible for some vaccine-derived outbreaks.

The global effort to eradicate polio was launched in 1988 and originally aimed to wipe out the potentially fatal disease by 2000. While cases have dropped dramatically, the virus remains stubbornly entrenched in parts of Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. This year there have been 72 cases of polio in Pakistan after only eight in 2018.

In meeting notes from an expert polio oversight board in September, WHO’s Michel Zaffran said the status of eradication was “of great concern,” noting the Taliban’s ban on house-to-house vaccination in Afghanistan. Officials described the program in Pakistan as a “failing trajectory.”

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Former Top General Gets a Shot at Forming Israeli Government

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Israel’s former military chief Benny Gantz is set to receive an official mandate to form the country’s next government but has few options after last month’s elections left him in a near tie with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu was given the first opportunity to form a government after assembling a large right-wing bloc but announced this week that he failed to build a 61-seat majority. Gantz faces similarly steep odds, raising the possibility that Israel will hold a third election in less than a year.

President Reuven Rivlin is to formally grant the mandate later Wednesday to Gantz, who will have 28 days to form a coalition. It will mark the first time in over a decade that anyone besides Netanyahu has been given the task.

Still, Gantz faces steep odds in every possible path to forming a government. He has been endorsed by just 54 lawmakers representing an array of parties that are unlikely to sit together in a coalition.

Both Gantz and Netanyahu say they favor a national unity government. Together, Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White control a solid 65-seat majority. But the two men are divided over who should lead any new government.

Netanyahu has insisted he head the government, at least for the first two years, and that it include his right-wing allies, conditions that Gantz has repeatedly rejected.
Netanyahu is likely to be indicted on corruption charges in the coming weeks, and Gantz has said Netanyahu should resolve his legal troubles before returning to the top post.

Gantz could potentially break up the right-wing alliance and recruit some of the smaller parties to his coalition. But that might be seen as a major betrayal by those parties’ voters.

Another option would be to form a minority government with Avigdor Lieberman, who emerged as kingmaker after his party won eight seats and has refused to endorse either Gantz or Netanyahu. Gantz might be able to convince the Arab Joint List, which won 13 seats, to support the coalition from the outside.

That would bring down Netanyahu but result in a highly unstable government. It’s also far from clear that Lieberman, a nationalist with a history of harsh rhetoric toward the Arab minority, would support such a scheme. No Arab party has ever sat in an Israeli government.

The political deadlock dates back to April, when Lieberman refused to join a right-wing coalition under Netanyahu. In response, parliament voted to dissolve itself, leading to an unprecedented repeated election in September. A similar scenario could play out again.

The political deadlock has delayed the Trump administration’s release of its long-awaited peace plan. The Palestinians have already rejected the plan, accusing the administration of extreme and unfair bias toward Israel.

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