Month: July 2019

N. Korea, China on Agenda as Pompeo Heads To Thailand, Australia, Micronesia

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is headed to Southeast Asia, Australia and Micronesia, and is not ruling out working-level talks with North Korean officials on the sidelines of ASEAN regional meetings in Thailand this week.  Tensions with China are also likely to be a major theme.  VOA’s Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine has more from the State Department.


Teens From Around the Globe Compete at Google

Teenagers from around the world were on Google’s campus this week to compete in a science competition. Their projects brought novel approaches to address health, disability and environmental issues. Michelle Quinn visited their booths to find out more.


A Blockchain Remedy for Handwritten Prescriptions

Doctors’ scrawls and scribbles are notoriously hard to read. Electronic prescriptions remedy the problem but around the world and especially in developing countries, the technology isn’t always accessible. One possible solution? Blockchain, the same technology underpinning cryptocurrency transactions. Tina Trinh reports.


Tanzania Plans to Install Cable Cars on Mount Kilimanjaro

Tanzania is planning to build a car cable service on Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak and a world heritage site.  The country wants to boost tourist numbers but a quarter million porters and mountain guides worry the quick ride up the mountain is a threat to their livelihoods. Charles Kombe reports from Kilimanjaro.


Ethiopia Plants Trees to Curb Climate Change Effects

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his guest, director of the World Food Program David Beasley, planted tree seedlings on Tuesday in a salute to Ethiopia’s Green Legacy Initiative, which seeks to combat climate change through mass tree planting. Volunteers in the Horn of Africa state planted 350 million trees in the past week in an effort to curb climate change effects.


Boris Johnson Tries to Reassure on Brexit As Pound Slumps

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Wales on Tuesday as part of a national tour intended to reassure Britons that his hard-Brexit push won’t hurt the economy and rip apart the U.K.

Currency markets were far from reassured, however, as the pound slid to a new 28-month low. And Johnson faced a tough reception from farmers _ a group central to the Welsh economy who fear economic havoc if Britain leaves the European Union without a divorce deal. They say millions of sheep might have to be slaughtered if tariffs are slapped on lamb exports to the EU.

“The bottom line is we’re exporting 40% of our sheep production, we are the second-largest producer of sheep meat in the world, so if we are priced … we’re tariffed out of the EU market, where does that 40% go?” said Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union.

The government argues that leaving the 28-nation bloc and its rules-bound Common Agricultural Policy will be “a historic opportunity to introduce new schemes to support farming” and will open up new markets for U.K. agricultural exports.

The government’s Wales Secretary Alun Cairns said “90% of global growth will come from outside of the EU.” However, trade with the EU accounts for almost half of all British exports, and any new trade deals are years away.

The trip follows a visit Monday to Scotland, where Johnson was booed by protesters and warned by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that his vow to take Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31, with or without a deal, was “dangerous.”

Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the EU divided the country and also strained the bonds among the four nations that make up the U.K.: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A majority of voters in England and Wales backed leaving in the referendum, while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. That has emboldened Scotland’s nationalist government to demand a vote on independence, arguing that Scotland should not be forced out of the EU against its will.
In Parliament last week, Scottish National Party lawmaker Ian Blackford mockingly welcomed Johnson as “the last prime minister of the United Kingdom.”

Johnson also plans a visit to Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. to share a land border with the EU. The status of that currently invisible frontier with the Republic of Ireland has become the main stumbling block to a Brexit deal.

The pound has fallen sharply in recent days as businesses warn that no amount of preparation can eliminate the economic damage if Britain crashes out of the 28-nation trading bloc without agreement on the terms. The currency fell early Tuesday to $1.2120, its lowest value since March 2017.

Fiona Cincotta, senior market analyst at City Index, said sterling had lost 4.3% of its value since the beginning of July.

“Investors’ main concern remains a hard no-deal Brexit which has the potential to pull the economy into chaos,” she said. “Boris Johnson’s new cabinet did little to alleviate those fears, taking a hard-line with Europe on forthcoming negotiations.”

Johnson became prime minister last week after winning a Conservative Party leadership contest by promising the strongly pro-Brexit party membership that the U.K. will leave the EU on the scheduled date of Oct. 31, with or without a divorce deal.
The EU struck a withdrawal agreement with Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, but it was rejected three times by Britain’s Parliament. Johnson is insisting the bloc make major changes to May’s spurned deal, including scrapping an insurance policy for the Irish border that has been rejected by U.K. lawmakers.

The EU insists it won’t reopen the 585-page withdrawal agreement it spent two years negotiating with May’s government.

Johnson’s government has been accused of sending mixed messages on Brexit that have unsettled markets.

Michael Gove, who heads a new Brexit delivery committee in Cabinet, has said the government is “operating on the assumption” that the U.K. will leave without a deal.

But Johnson who just weeks ago put the odds of leaving without a divorce agreement at a million to one said Monday he was “very confident” of getting a new deal.
There are currently no new negotiations planned between Britain and the bloc.


Trump to Visit Poland for World War II Anniversary Sept 1

An aide to Poland’s president says that President Donald Trump will visit Warsaw from Aug. 31 through Sept. 2 to take part in observances marking the 80th anniversary of World War II.

It would be Trump’s second visit to Poland since July 2017. Poland is among Washington’s closest partners in Europe, with cooperation focusing on defense and energy security.
The head of President Andrzej Duda’s office, Krzysztof Szczerski, said Tuesday that Trump would arrive in Warsaw on the evening of Aug. 31.
The next day Trump will take part in ceremonies in Warsaw marking 80 years since Nazi German troops invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939 starting the war.
He would depart on Sept. 2.
Trump has hosted Duda twice at the White House.


Sheriff: 1 Dead, 1 Shot at Walmart in Mississippi

A sheriff says one person is dead and a suspect was shot at a Walmart in the northern Mississippi city of Southaven.

DeSoto County Sheriff Bill Rasco told WHBQ-TV that one person was killed and the suspect was shot.
The shooting prompted a sizeable law enforcement response, with officers setting up a perimeter and entering the Walmart Supercenter.
A woman answering the phone at the Southaven Police Department Tuesday morning said “we have ongoing emergencies” and no one was available to provide information.




Dubai Ruler, Princess in London Court Over Welfare of Kids

A dispute between the ruler of Dubai and his estranged wife over the welfare of their two young children will play out over the next two days in a London courtroom amid reports the princess has fled the Gulf emirate.

The case beginning Tuesday in Britain’s High Court pits Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum against Princess Haya, daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan.

The princess is believed to be in Britain, where she owns a gated mansion.

The clash between Sheikh Mohammed and Princess Haya is the latest sign of trouble in Dubai’s ruling family. Last year, a daughter of Sheikh Mohammed tried to flee Dubai after appearing in a 40-minute video saying she had been imprisoned.


Manchester Bomber’s Brother to Go on Trial in November

Manchester Arena bomber Salman Abedi’s brother will go on trial in November following his extradition from Libya for a 2017 attack that killed 22 people, a court ruled on Tuesday.

Hashem Abedi, 22, is accused of buying bomb-making chemicals and making detonator tubes for use in the device, as well as helping to buy a car in which to store components.

He will go on trial at London’s Old Bailey central criminal court from November 5, judge Nigel Sweeney ruled.

Salman Abedi detonated his device outside an Ariana Grande concert on May 22, 2017, killing young fans and their parents.

His younger brother Hashem Abedi left for Libya before the attack.

He was arrested in Libya days after the bombing but was only extradited back to Britain earlier this month.

Libya has been mired in chaos since the ouster and killing of dictator Moammar Ghadafi in a NATO-backed uprising 2011.

The Abedi family, originally from Libya, had fled to Britain during the dictatorship, but the brothers returned to the country along with their father when the uprising began.



At Least 52 Inmates Killed During Prison Riot in Brazil

Authorities say at least 52 prisoners have been killed by other inmates during a riot at a prison in northern Brazil.

Para state prison officials say 16 of the victims were decapitated while others were asphyxiated.

Inmates also set part of the Altamira prison on fire, preventing authorities from entering parts of the facility. The total number of victims could rise.

Authorities say a fight between criminal groups erupted early Monday.

No members of the prison’s staff were injured.


Tanzanian Journalist Abducted

A Tanzanian investigative journalist, Erick Kabendera, was abducted Monday from his home on the outskirts of Dar es salaam, the country’s business capital.

A leading Tanzanian newspaper Mwananchi reports that Kabendera who writes for local and international newspapers was abducted Monday evening by people who are said to be police officers. Police have immediately denied being involved.

The journalist’s wife Loy Kabendera, told Mwananchi newspaper that the journalist was “picked up by six people who forcibly stormed into the house and left with a Toyota Alphard” car. She said the people identified themselves as police but refused to produce their badges. They also left with cellphones belonging to Kabendera and his wife.

In November 2017 a Tanzanian journalist Azory Gwanda disappeared mysteriously while investigating a series of killings of local government officials and police officers by unidentified assailants near Kibiti in Pwani region. He has not been since.

In early July, Tanzania’s Foreign Minister Palamagamba Kabudi said during an interview with BBC that Gwanda had “disappeared and died.” He later retracted his statement.


Iraq Displays Stolen Artifacts Recovered From UK, Sweden

Iraqi officials are displaying stolen artifacts from the country’s rich cultural heritage that were recently recovered from Britain and Sweden.

Many archaeological treasures from Iraq, home of the ancient “fertile crescent” considered the cradle of civilization, were looted during the chaos that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion and whisked out of the country.

Now Iraq is making a massive effort to bring these pieces home, working closely with the U.N. cultural organization.

The artifacts on display Monday at the foreign ministry in Baghdad include archaeological and historical items, such as pottery fragments and shards with writing dating back at least 4,000 years to the ancient Sumerian civilization.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Hakim said his country is determined to recover its lost heritage, whatever it takes.


IMF: Venezuela’s Economic Decline Among Most Severe Globally

The International Monetary Fund says the cumulative decline of the Venezuelan economy since 2013 will surpass 60% and is among the deepest five-year contractions the world has seen over the last half century.

Alejandro Werner is director of the IMF’s Western Hemisphere Department. He describes the Venezuelan decline as a “historical case” because it is unprecedented in the hemisphere and also because it is the only one of the top global five-year contractions that is unrelated to armed conflicts or natural disasters.    

The IMF on Monday also adjusted its 2019 forecast for the South American country to a contraction of 35% — up from the 25% decline expected back in April — due to a sharp fall in the oil production, which has already plunged to its lowest level in seven decades. 


North Korea, South China Sea Top Agenda as Pompeo Heads to Asia

The United States is not ruling out working-level talks with North Korean officials on the sidelines of Southeast Asian regional meetings in Thailand this week, with experts noting Pyongyang’s recent missile launch is unlikely to reverse Washington’s current diplomatic efforts. 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will arrive in Bangkok on Aug. 1, where he will co-chair the U.S.- Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial.

On Aug. 2, Pompeo will participate in the East Asia Summit (EAS) Ministerial and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Ministerial, and will hold a bilateral meeting with Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai to discuss ways to further strengthen the U.S.-Thai alliance.

FILE – Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai talks to reporters during press conference at Foreign Ministry in Bangkok, Thailand, July 1, 2016.

“I head to Asia tomorrow midday, I’ll be in Bangkok for a couple of days. We hope that we can have working-level discussions starting again very soon,” Pompeo said Monday when asked about diplomatic engagement with North Korea during an event in Washington.

“We’re not going to talk about the specific bilateral meetings, other than the ones that have been announced,” said a senior State Department official in a briefing when asked if U.S. officials will hold talks with North Korea officials on the sidelines of ASEAN meetings.

In recent days, the U.S.-led United Nations Command said it will continue to support confidence-building measures setting the stage for dialogue, and for diplomats to work toward permanent peace and final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.

After North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test last Thursday, Pompeo suggested talks could still continue. 

“I think we’re still going to proceed,” said the top U.S. diplomat in an interview with Fox News.  “I mean, I think we’re still going to go sit down and have a conversation about this. North Korea has engaged in activity before we were having diplomatic conversations far worse than this.”

Media reports said North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho will not attend this week’s ASEAN related meetings in Bangkok. While in the past North Korea’s foreign minister had skipped the forum from time to time, Pyongyang has always sent other diplomats to attend.

FILE – North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho walks to speak to the media outside the Millennium hotel in New York, Sept. 25, 2017.

“We are clearly going to be continuing to talk to our allies who face this issue quite closely,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus told VOA on Monday.  

Foreign ministers from Japan and South Korea will also attend the East Asia Summit in Bangkok.

North Korea’s July 25 missile tests were a “relatively modest [action] along the North Korean messaging spectrum,” argued Todd Rosenblum, a nonresident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council. He said Pyongyang’s latest missile launch “should not and likely will not have much impact on current negotiating efforts.”

South China Sea

Pompeo’s meetings with ASEAN foreign ministers also come amid China’s increasingly assertive actions in the South China Sea, a resource-rich region contested by several ASEAN members, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan and China. 

China has landfilled and militarized islets over the past decade.

FILE – A man rides a motorcycle past a poster promoting Vietnam’s sovereignty in the East Sea of the South China Sea, on Phu Quoc island, Sept. 11, 2014.

“We have an interest in ensuring stability there,” said a senior State Department official.

The U.S. strongly opposes China’s efforts to assert its unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea. Washington is calling for a code of conduct between China and ASEAN to be “in line with” existing international laws.

“We’re very concerned,” Ortagus told VOA in an interview Monday, referring to recent Chinese anti-ship missile launches from man-made structures in the disputed South China Sea, and a standoff between China and Vietnam.

Last week, Vietnam urged an “immediate withdrawal” of a Chinese government-run vessel in the disputed South China Sea as the standoff between the two nations over China’s ongoing geological survey work intensified. China asked Vietnam to respect “China’s sovereign rights and jurisdiction” over the area near the disputed Spratly Islands. Vietnam said Chinese vessel’s activities fall within the Vietnamese waters. 

Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs Congressman Eliot Engel recently issued a statement on Chinese interference in Vietnamese-controlled waters.

“China’s recent aggression in the South China Sea is a disturbing demonstration of a country openly flouting international law,” said Engel. “Just as importantly, China’s behavior threatens the interests of U.S. companies operating in the area.” 

Australia, Pacific Islands 

From Thailand, Pompeo will head to Australia on Aug. 4.  Newly sworn-in U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper will join Pompeo in Sydney for the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN).

FILE – Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks during a full honors welcoming ceremony for him at the Pentagon, July 25, 2019.

“The United States has no better friend or ally than Australia,” said a senior State Department official in a phone briefing to reporters. Pompeo will safeguard “sovereignty in Pacific Island countries and Southeast Asia,” according to the State Department.

On Aug. 5, the top U.S. diplomat embarks on a trip to the Federated States of Micronesia, making him the first sitting U.S. secretary of state to visit the Pacific Island nation. The visit comes days after an inauguration ceremony of its new President David Panuelo. 

Pompeo will also meet with leaders from Pacific island nations that have compact associations with the U.S., including Palau and the Marshall Islands. The U.S. provides more than $350 million in projects and economic assistance to the Pacific island nations during the last fiscal year.

The U.S. is working with the Federated States of Micronesia “in keeping the Western Pacific and Indo-Pacific region free and open,” said State Department’s Director for Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Islands Nicholas Dean in a recent briefing.


Trump Renews Twitter Attacks Against Maryland Lawmaker, District

In a series of tweets over the weekend, U.S. President Trump lashed out against one of his most vocal Democratic critics, attacking Congressman Elijah Cummings and calling the Maryland lawmaker’s district “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” The comments sparked backlash from critics calling the language racist and unacceptable. VOA’s Elizabeth Cherneff has more.


Cuban Officials Attend Funeral Services for Cardinal Ortega

Cuban government and Communist Party officials attended funeral services for Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega on Sunday in  a testament to his success in elevating the Church’s position on the Caribbean island after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Cuban First Vice President Salvador Mesa and two other top leaders on the Communist Party Politburo attended the Requiem Mass along with other officials.

Religious leaders from other countries including Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, Puerto Rico Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves and Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston also attended the event in the colonial district’s Havana Cathedral.

Ortega, who died on Friday aged 82, was buried afterwards in the city’s Colon cemetery.

A labor camp inmate in the 1960s when Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government was rounding up religious figures and other perceived enemies, Ortega became archbishop of Havana in 1981 at a time when Cuba was still officially atheist.

For the more than three decades that followed, as Castro’s stance on the Church softened, Ortega raised its visibility and power, building a working relationship with the government thanks to his nonconfrontational style and opposition to U.S. sanctions.

Ortega earned the wrath of hardline exiles and some dissidents on the Caribbean island with his stance.

“His work helped a lot to bring closer the ideas of the Cuban government and the Catholic church,” retiree Maria Green, said, standing outside the Cathedral.

“He managed to solve many things and opened the way for many, many Cubans,” she added.

Ortega hosted three popes and negotiated the release of dozens of political prisoners in 2010 and 2011.

When Raul Castro became president in 2010, Ortega backed his attempts to open up the country and restore relations with Western nations.

At a critical moment in secret talks between Cuba and the United States that led to a detente in December 2014, it was Ortega who relayed messages among Pope Francis, Castro and then-President Barack Obama.

Ortega met with hundreds of U.S. lawmakers, religious figures and businessmen over the years.

John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, worked with Ortega in the 1990s to channel medical aid to the country and said members of his organization provided some logistics for Pope John Paul II’s historic visit in 1998.

“With Cardinal Ortega, there was never a “can’t do it,’ or ‘we must wait,’ or ‘no’,” Kavulich said.



Nigeria: 65 Killed in Attack by Boko Haram Militants

Boko Haram militants killed at least 65 people at a funeral in northeastern Nigeria, local officials said Sunday, revising the earlier death toll of 23.

“It is 65 people dead and 10 injured,” said Muhammed Bulama, the local government chairman. Bulama said he thought the attack was in revenge for the killing of 11 Boko Haram fighters by the villagers two weeks ago.

Nigerians last week marked the 10-year anniversary of the rise of the Boko Haram insurgency, which has killed more than 30,000 people, displaced millions and created one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises. The extremists are known for mass abductions of schoolgirls and putting young women and men into suicide vests for attacks on markets, mosques and other high-traffic areas.

The insurgent group, which promotes an extreme form of Islamist fundamentalism and opposes Western-style education, has defied the claims of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration that the insurgency has been crushed. The violence also has spilled into neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon.