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54 Dead, Tens of Thousands Displaced in Heavy Sudan Flooding

51 min 25 sec ago

The United Nations reports nearly two months of heavy rains and flooding in Sudan have wiped out livelihoods, rendered tens of thousands of people homeless and created a humanitarian emergency that needs a swift international response.

At least 54 people are known to have died from the torrential rains that have hit Sudan since the beginning of July.  Sudan’s Humanitarian Aid Commission reports nearly 194,000 people have been affected and more than 37,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports 15 of Sudan’s 18 states have been affected, with White Nile State taking the biggest hit.

OCHA spokesman, Jens Laerke, said flood victims urgently need emergency shelter, food, health services, and clean water and sanitation.   He says vector control to limit the spread of water-borne diseases by insects is crucial.

“In many places families have lost their livestock which may aggravate already rising food insecurity.   Across Sudan, the number of severely food-insecure people rose to an estimated 5.8 million at the beginning of the lean season in July this year, an increase of more than two million compared with the start of the 2018 season,” Laerke said.

Laerke said many homeless people are living with family and friends. Others are seeking shelter in schools and other public places.  He told VOA the government is responding as best it can by providing tents, sheeting and emergency shelter.

“There has been political turbulence in Sudan of late.  I also mentioned that the government has maintained its coordination of the response.  It is the government’s humanitarian aid commission that is leading the so-called flood task force, which is co-chaired by OCHA,” Laerke said.

The United Nations has appealed for $1.1 billion for humanitarian aid for Sudan this year.  Donors have provided just 30 percent of that amount.  The U.N. estimates it will need an additional $150 million to respond to the most urgent flood needs.  

If that money is not provided, Laerke said funds will have to be re-directed from one place or activity to another to meet immediate emergency needs.  He warned shifting money around in this manner has a negative impact on humanitarian operations as a whole.


How US Government's 'Remain in Mexico' Plan Unfurled Into Confusion

3 hours 14 sec ago

This is the second story in a series on how the U.S. government’s Migrant Protection Protocols are being carried out in Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Read the first story here.

VOA News Center Immigration Reporter Ramon Taylor, and VOA Spanish Service reporters Jorge Agobian and Celia Mendoza contributed to this report.

Like border cities everywhere, Nuevo Laredo is a portal. People and merchandise cross the five road and rail bridges between the U.S. and Mexico every day, in both directions, for work, school, business meetings, shopping, family visits, doctor appointments - the quotidian building blocks of life along the Rio Grande.

Pay 25 cents and you can walk right across Puente #1, as it’s known colloquially, in a few minutes if you're in a rush and there’s no line at the immigration agent desks.

Formally the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge, it links Laredo’s historic city center neighborhood of San Agustin, to the commercial strip of shops, pharmacies and low-key lunchtime restaurants on Nuevo Laredo’s Avenida Guerrero.

It’s at the end of this bridge, when entering Mexico from the U.S., in the parking lot built for buses and trucks at the Mexican immigration agency’s customs office, where U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have dropped off migrants and asylum-seekers sent back to Mexico under the Trump administration's Migration Protection Protocols (MPP) policy to wait for their immigration court dates.

FILE - FILE - People walk back to Mexico on the Americas International Bridge, a legal port of entry which connects Laredo, Texas in the U.S., with Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, July 18, 2019.

“In Nuevo Laredo, we're used to seeing a lot of migrants (traveling through), historically," said Raul Cárdenas Thomae, secretary of the Nuevo Laredo city council. "But in the last few months, the number of people crossing into the U.S. has definitely increased."

Register in Mexico

At first, asylum-seekers would register with Mexico's National Institute of Migration, which in turn would share lists of the asylum-seekers with the U.S. government, Cárdenas Thomae said. The list would allow the asylum-seekers to schedule an initial hearing with a U.S. immigration judge.

Beginning on July 9, however, Nuevo Laredo began receiving people from the other direction under the Trump administration's new policy. Since then, more than 3,000 asylum-seekers who had crossed into the U.S. and are awaiting immigration court dates have been returned to Mexico under the MPP policy.

Moreover, migrants aren't the only -- or even the main -- issue for local government for this city of about 400,000.

Nuevo Laredo maintains a prickly balance among massive amounts of transnational business, politics, migration and organized crime, and it’s long been a base for the Los Zetas cartel, whose activities are deeply entrenched in the city’s fabric.

Nuevo Laredo Mayor Enrique Rivas Cuéllar said every city has its dangers, its risks. But the city is not the one that is pushing migrants to leave, he insists.

“We obviously can't force anyone not to be in the city of Nuevo Laredo, but what we can be strict about is that the laws are followed; that there is an order that doesn't disrupt the rights of others,” he told VOA.

Officials didn't know how many people to expect. At one point, local officials understood they might receive as many as 15,000 returnees, Cardenas Thomae said. Moreover, they don’t know how long people will stay -- or even if they will stay.

FILE - Migrants sit in a bus that will take them and other migrants to Moneterrey, from an immigration center in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, July 18, 2019.

Buses to Monterrey

The Mexican government at first provided buses from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey, a 270-kilometer (168-mile)  journey that takes about three hours to drive. The buses were an option for migrants; no one was forced on board.

Beginning earlier this month, though, the buses that showed up at the bridge drop-off site were bound for Chiapas, the Mexican state bordering Guatemala, which in turn, borders Honduras and El Salvador.

Bus route from Nuevo Laredo to Tapachula, Mexico

The Homeland Security Department and U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to multiple VOA requests for comment on Mexico’s busing plan and concerns over how people would be able to return for their U.S. court dates.

Calling the busing plan “voluntary,” said Maureen Meyer, director of Mexico programs at the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington-based human rights organization, “seems hard to justify when the people aren't even very clear on what they're going into.”

Meyer traveled to Chiapas this month to see the buses from Nuevo Laredo arrive, after a more than 30-hour trip. Mexican immigration agents at the border with Guatemala seemed confused about what they should advise the busloads of people, she told VOA.

The arrival also raised issues for the migrants themselves, each theoretically with a U.S. court date in the coming months. Being closer to home could mean a place to shower and regroup, or pick up more paperwork for their cases. However, they often don’t understand that even a brief return home could weaken their asylum cases, Meyer said.

Behind the scenes, CBP officials, journalists, shelter directors, politicians, and immigration lawyers are asking questions about how MPP functions. Unlike CBP and DHS officials, though, Nuevo Laredo municipality officials were willing to not only talk, but sit down for interviews on camera and address MPP.

The migrants themselves don’t have access to these discussions, though, or to people whom they could ask questions. They have some paperwork that in some cases they don’t understand, or don’t trust, such as a list of free or low-cost lawyers from CBP. The migrants have often thrown away their cellphones before crossing the river and haven't seen the news in weeks or months.

FILE - A woman and her 7-month-old baby stand on a sidewalk after being bused by Mexican authorities from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey, Mexico.

Immigration attorneys acknowledge that even if the migrants could get cellphone service in Mexico, and can pay for phone credit, there’s a good chance they couldn't get a lawyer. Border attorneys are stretched thin, and the length of some asylum cases -- which can take years -- makes it difficult for outside lawyers to connect with potential clients.

US Border Patrol

The long wait may push people to reattempt a stealth border crossing, possibly in a more dangerously remote area.

“I envision a time where everybody… (is) going to try and traverse and evade apprehension and become part of this smuggling effort that happens on this side of the border, as opposed to just on the Mexican side of the border,” Del Rio Sector U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said.

Meanwhile, the migrants and asylum-seekers are still arriving to Nuevo Laredo, and still deciding how and where to wait out the months until their first hearing.

Lilian, a Honduran woman traveling with her 9-year-old son, said the group dropped off at Puente #1 on August 8 was told if they didn't get on the buses to Chiapas, they would be put out on the street.

She and her son, along with a woman and her children in the CBP facility, did not get on the bus, but headed to another Mexican city.

“What I don’t want is to go back to Honduras. ... If we go to Chiapas, how much is it going to cost me to come back? I don’t have that kind of money," said Lilian, who was given a November court date.


Russian Spacecraft Fails to Dock With Space Station

4 hours 10 min ago

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft failed to dock with the International Space Station Saturday.

The craft was carrying a humanoid robot that was scheduled to conduct a mission on the station with the cosmonauts who are there.  

NASA said on its blog that the docking system of the Soyuz spacecraft failed to properly lock onto its target on the ISS.

The Soyuz has backed away from the ISS while the cosmonauts work on the station's docking system.

Officials say the Soyuz will attempt another ISS docking Monday.


China Frees Consulate Staff; Protesters Target ‘Smart Lampposts’

5 hours 1 min ago

Chinese police said Saturday they released an employee at the British Consulate in Hong Kong as the city’s pro-democracy protesters took to the streets again, this time to call for the removal of “smart lampposts” that raised fears of stepped-up surveillance.

Public security authorities in Shenzhen, the mainland city bordering Hong Kong, said Simon Cheng Man-kit was released as scheduled after 15 days of administrative detention. 

Police and demonstrators clash in Hong Kong, Aug. 24, 2019. The city's pro-democracy protesters took to the streets again, this time to call for the removal of "smart lampposts" that raised fears of stepped-up surveillance.

The detention of the locally hired consulate employee stoked tensions in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, which has been rocked by months of antigovernment protests, including one to oppose new smart lampposts that activists fear could contain cameras and facial recognition software.

Cheng was detained for violating mainland Chinese law and “confessed to his illegal acts,” the public security bureau in Luohu, Shenzhen, said on its Weibo microblog account, without providing further details. 

The Chinese government has said that Cheng, who went missing after traveling by train to mainland China for a business trip, was held for violating public order regulations in Shenzhen. 

A spokeswoman at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London confirmed his release. 

The Global Times, a Communist Party-owned nationalistic tabloid, said Thursday he was detained for “soliciting prostitutes.” China often uses public order charges against political targets and has sometimes used the accusation of soliciting prostitution. 

Demonstrators put papers on a fallen smart lamppost during a protest in Hong Kong, Aug. 24, 2019.

Surveillance fears

Protesters flooded the streets to demand the removal of smart lampposts in a Kowloon district over fears they could contain high-tech cameras and facial recognition software used for surveillance by Chinese authorities. Carrying umbrellas in the sweltering heat, they filled a main road in the Kwun Tong district and chanted slogans calling for the government to answer the movement’s demands.

“Hong Kong people’s private information is already being extradited to China. We have to be very concerned,” said march organizer Ventus Lau.

Some protesters set up makeshift barricades on a road outside a police station, facing off with police in riot gear.

Hong Kong’s government-owned subway system operator, MTR Corp., shut down stations and suspended train service near the protest route, after attacks by Chinese state media accusing it of helping protesters flee in previous protests. 

MTR said Friday that it may close stations near protests under high risk or emergency situations. The company has until now kept stations open and trains running even when there have been chaotic skirmishes between protesters and police.

Lau said MTR was working with the government to “suppress freedom of expression.” 

Seoul’s Decision to End Intelligence-Sharing Pact Could Backfire 

6 hours 11 min ago

Kim Dong-hyun and Han Sang-mi contributed to this report, which originated with VOA’s Korean Service.

WASHINGTON — Seoul’s decision to end a military intelligence pact with Tokyo could have far-reaching consequences that could put its own security at risk, reducing its ability to defend against potential North Korean aggression, experts say.

Seoul announced Thursday it would terminate an intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo, attributing the move to Japan’s decision to remove South Korea from its “white list” of favored trading partners earlier this month. 

Japan’s decision “brought about fundamental changes to the environment for security cooperation between the two countries,” Kim You-geun, deputy director of South Korean National Security Council, said Thursday.

FILE - Plaintiffs' attorneys Lim Jae-sung, right, speaks as Kim Se-eun listens during a press conference in Tokyo, Dec. 4, 2018. Lawyers for South Koreans forced into wartime labor have taken legal steps to seize the South Korean assets of a Japanese company.

Trade feud, historical animosity

Seoul and Tokyo have been escalating a trade feud since early July. The disagreement is rooted in historical animosity stemming from Japanese companies’ use of South Korean forced labor during its colonial rule on the peninsula and during World War II.

The termination announcement came a day before a deadline Saturday of a 90-day notice period for one side to tell the other if it intends to cancel the arrangement. The deal automatically renews annually if no notice is given.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn, in an email sent to VOA Thursday, urged the two U.S. allies to work together, emphasizing, “Intel sharing is key to developing our common defense policy and strategy.”

What is GSOMIA?

Under the bilateral accord, known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), signed in 2016, South Korea and Japan agreed to exchange sensitive military information to respond more efficiently to potential threats posed by North Korea, China and Russia. Washington has separate intelligence-sharing deals with both countries. 

David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces colonel and current fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said South Korea would suffer “the worst” from its decision to terminate the agreement that would impede the trilateral cooperation in the region.

FILE - North Korea test-fires a weapon in this undated photo released Aug. 16, 2019, by the Korean Central News Agency. Pyongyang conducted another launch Aug. 23, violating a promise to U.S. President Donald Trump to refrain from such tests.

The end of the agreement, according to Maxwell, means the three countries will be hampered in their ability to have open three-way talks on detecting early warning signs of North Korea’s missile launches, countering its weapons proliferation, and conducting operations against its sanctions evasion.

Although information can be shared using the U.S. as an intermediary, the flow will be slow or severed if South Korea or Japan asks the U.S. not to share its information with the other, Maxwell added.

“This plays into Kim Jong Un’s (and Chinese and Russian) hands to disrupt U.S. alliance,” he said.

While testing missiles this month, North Korea called on South Korea to abandon its intelligence pact, signed with Japan under the conservative government of Park Geun-hye, who preceded current South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

“It is rather abnormal that the agreement of betraying the country signed by Park Geun-hye … still exists without being abrogated,” said North Korea’s propaganda outlet, Uriminzokkiri. 

FILE - A woman walks past an advertisement featuring Japanese and South Korean flags at a shop in the Shin Okubo area in Tokyo, Aug. 2, 2019.

Dangerous consequences

Terminating the pact could have dangerous consequences if a crisis erupted on the Korean Peninsula, said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp. An example would be if American troops would need to be brought from the U.S. and routed through Japanese air force bases, requiring three-way communications through a confidential network.

“That’s all going to be coordinated very closely,” Bennett said. “It’s not going to be coordinated by open radio calls … that would tell North Korea what to hit next. So we need to have the GSOMIA to be able to coordinate in a classified manner in terms of the deployment of U.S. forces. And that’s what the South Korean government is risking by saying it won’t renew the GSOMIA.”

Bennett, citing a South Korean military white paper, said the U.S. would need to bring about 690,000 troops to South Korea during a conflict with North Korea. The estimated number is more than the 28,000 American soldiers stationed in South Korea.

South Korea has about 17 airfield bases that can be used to bring in troops from the U.S. during wartime, Bennett said, but they are “not an adequate [number of] airfield structures to deploy forces rapidly.”

South Korea has 20 airfields, but among them, Gimpo and Incheon are within North Korean artillery range and thus cannot be used to land U.S. forces, Bennett said, adding that another airfield on Jeju Island would not be suitable either if the troops needed to fight on the peninsula.

“Are we going to have arrangements with Japan to help us use Japan’s bases and infrastructure to bring those forces to Korea?” Bennett asked. “Because if we don’t, that’s going to significantly slow the ability of U.S. forces to get to Korea and could put Korea at a disadvantage for a period of time.”

Seoul decided to scrap the intelligence-sharing agreement despite these risks, Bennett said, because it believes it will “be able to peacefully coexist with North Korea.” He added South Korea “doesn’t have other places where it’s got a lot of leverage on the Japanese” as a way to retaliate against Tokyo in their trade dispute.

How Dozens of Nigerian Scammers Stole Millions from People, Businesses

6 hours 36 min ago

For years, dozens of scammers from Nigeria and other countries swindled millions of dollars from U.S. businesses and individuals, funneling the stolen money through accounts provided by two fellow Nigerian “brokers” based in Los Angeles.

In the burgeoning underworld of online fraud, Nigerian nationals Velentine Iro and Chukwudi Christogunus Igbokwe were well-known operators who went by a raft of pseudonyms, including “Iro Enterprises” and “Chris Kudon.”

Between 2014 and 2018, Iro and Igbokwe, working with nearly 80 other international swindlers, facilitated a series of schemes that resulted in the theft of at least $6 million and the attempted theft of $40 million more from victims in more than 10 countries, according to a 252-count federal indictment unsealed Thursday.

The scammers victimized individuals and small and large businesses. In targeting businesses, they used a tactic called “business email compromise,” also known as CEO fraud. Under that scheme, a fraudster gains access to a company’s computer system and then, posing as a company executive, tricks an employee into making an unauthorized wire transfer into a bank account the fraudster controls.

Federal agents hold a detainee, second from left, in downtown Los Angeles after predawn raids that saw dozens of people arrested in the L.A. area, Aug. 22, 2019, Most of the defendants are Nigerian nationals.

The victims

The indictment documents several corporate victims.

In 2014, a San Diego clothing distributor wired nearly $46,000 into a bank account controlled by one of the scammers, believing it was paying a Chinese vendor for an order of men’s shirts.

In 2016, an unidentified Texas company was tricked into wiring $187,000 into a fraudulent account. The company thought it was making a payment for an oil extraction equipment order.

The conspiracy also targeted the elderly and victims of so-called romance scams.

For example, in 2016 a Japanese woman, identified in court documents as F.K., lost more than $200,000 during a 10-month romance scam with a fraudster who impersonated a U.S. Army captain stationed in Syria.

In 2017, an 86-year-old man with dementia and Alzheimer’s wired nearly $12,000 to a bank account controlled by one of the fraudsters.

The Justice Department unsealed the indictment after the arrest of 14 people, including Iro and Igbokwe, early Thursday. Three others were already in custody. Six defendants remain at large in the United States, while authorities are working with partners in nine other countries to arrest 57 others, most of whom are believed to be in Nigeria.

Nigerian statement

In a statement, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, the Nigerian in Diaspora Commission Chief, urged “those accused in Nigeria to voluntarily turn themselves in to American authorities to clear their names.” She added that Nigeria should extradite the defendants “if relevant international treaties between the two governments are invoked.”

Citing a Justice Department policy, a department spokeswoman declined to say whether the U.S. has made an extradition request. Since 2014, Nigeria has extradited three people wanted in the United States.

While the sheer number of defendants named in the indictment is extraordinary in an online fraud case, the investigation also shed light on the evolving tactics and growing sophistication of scammers. Once targeting mostly individuals, they are increasingly victimizing businesses.

“They were very inclusive as to the fraud they were perpetrating and laundering money for,” said Alma Angotti, a managing director at the consulting firm Navigant in London who advises government and corporate clients on anti-money laundering strategy.

Federal agents work at a downtown Los Angeles parking lot after predawn raids, Aug. 22, 2019.


Online fraud has become increasingly pervasive in recent years. In its annual Internet Crime Report in April, the FBI said online theft, fraud and exploitation were responsible for $2.7 billion in financial losses in 2018, up from $1.4 billion in 2017. Meanwhile, romance scams cost Americans $143 million last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

The Nigerian fraudsters targeted victims around the world, some of whom lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. At least 16 companies were among the victims.

Iro and Igbokwe, the men at the heart of the scam, hail from the Nigerian city of Owerri, according to a criminal complaint filed in the case.

Many fraudsters knew them from Owerri. Others were directed to them through middlemen.

“I am known all over the world,” Iro once bragged to a fellow Nigerian con artist, according to the complaint. “Even people I never meet before call me and give me better business.”

For swindlers seeking a temporary haven for stolen funds, Iro and his partner allegedly provided a valuable service.

“They would collect bank account information … field requests for bank account information from co-conspirators all over the world, and then send out bank account information to multiple coconspirators,” according to the complaint.

Using a network of “money exchangers,” they then helped the fraudsters funnel the money out of the country.

The men took a cut of 20% to 50% of each transaction. It was a lucrative business.

In 2017, according to the indictment, Iro and Igbokwe sent at least $5 million to the Nigerian accounts of the fraudsters, family members and themselves, according to the complaint.

Evidence seized by the FBI indicates the two men were using the stolen funds to build large houses in Nigeria.

Rohingya Reject Plans They Voluntarily Return to Myanmar

7 hours 46 min ago

Two years ago, Myanmar's army drew international condemnation for driving more than 750,000 Muslim Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh. This week the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments announced the beginning of a voluntary repatriation plan for many, however not a single person volunteered to go back. Steve Sandford spoke to refugees and rights workers about the prospect of returning home amid security and rights concerns.

Trump and Macron Agree Russia Should Join G-8 in 2020 But Will It?

8 hours 11 sec ago

Will Russia join next year's G-7 summit? The question is being considered after U.S. President Donald Trump raised the idea ahead of the group's annual summit this week in France. The group voted to suspend Moscow's membership in 2014 after it annexed Crimea, which Russia continues to hold. Trump says it's time for them to rejoin. Anna Rice reports on whether that's likely to happen.

Development Agencies Welcome Trump's Retreat from Foreign Aid Cuts

8 hours 13 min ago

President Donald Trump has abandoned his fight with Congress over slashing $4 billion in foreign aid and will allow the appropriated funds to be spent. But the State Department says it agreed with the White House to "redirect all funding that does not directly support our priorities." VOA Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine has more from Washington.

US, China Boost Tariffs on Each Other; Trump ‘Always Open to Talks’

8 hours 50 min ago

VOA State Department Correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report.

WHITE HOUSE — The trade war between Washington and Beijing further escalated Friday.

The United States will additionally hike tariffs on Chinese products, President Donald Trump announced.

Terming China’s announcement Friday of additional tariffs on $75 billion worth of American products “politically motivated,” Trump said he is retaliating by increasing the 25% tax, effective October 1, on $250 billion on goods of products from China to 30%.

Additionally, Trump announced on Twitter, the tariffs on the remaining $300 billion of Chinese goods to be imposed September 1 will rise from the 10% level to 15%.

....Sadly, past Administrations have allowed China to get so far ahead of Fair and Balanced Trade that it has become a great burden to the American Taxpayer. As President, I can no longer allow this to happen! In the spirit of achieving Fair Trade, we must Balance this very....

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2019

...Additionally, the remaining 300 BILLION DOLLARS of goods and products from China, that was being taxed from September 1st at 10%, will now be taxed at 15%. Thank you for your attention to this matter!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2019

Trade talks between the United States and China are tentatively set to resume next month in Washington.

VOA asked Trump Friday night if he still wanted those negotiations to proceed.

“At this moment they want to do that,” the president replied before he boarded the Marine One helicopter for the start of his trip to the G-7 leaders’ summit in France. “I’m always open to talks.”

FILE - China Shipping Company containers are stacked at the Virginia International's terminal in Portsmouth, Va., May 10, 2019.

Ordering companies to leave China

Hours earlier, Trump declared he is “ordering” American companies “to immediately start looking for alternatives to China” after Beijing announced it is raising tariffs on $75 billion of U.S. goods and resuming 25% tariffs on American autos, in retaliation against Trump’s September 1 duty increase.

In a series of tweets, the U.S. president said the companies should bring their manufacturing home. 

Our Country has lost, stupidly, Trillions of Dollars with China over many years. They have stolen our Intellectual Property at a rate of Hundreds of Billions of Dollars a year, & they want to continue. I won’t let that happen! We don’t need China and, frankly, would be far....

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2019

Asked, as he departed the White House, under what authority he could do that, Trump told reporters to look up the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, enacted in 1977, which authorizes the president to regulate international commerce after declaring a national emergency in response to extraordinary threats originating outside the United States.

“I have the absolute right to do that,” Trump stated.

FILE - Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell speaks at a news conference following a two-day meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, May 1, 2019, in Washington.

Markets drop

The escalating trade war unsettled markets Friday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average of the New York Stock Exchange closed down more than 620 points, a loss of 2.37%.

Trump, before boarding the helicopter Friday night, brushed off the plunge in share prices, saying that since the time of his November 2016 election “we’re up 50 percent or more.”

Trump, earlier on Twitter, also criticized Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, both before and after he made a closely watched speech at the institution’s annual symposium in the state of Wyoming.

Powell indicated that the Federal Reserve, which cut interest rates last month for the first time in a decade, is willing to make another reduction to keep the U.S. economy growing, but he did not specify the amount or the timing of such action.

That angered the president, who tweeted: “As usual, the Fed did NOTHING! It is incredible that they can speak’ without knowing or asking what I am doing, which will be announced shortly.” The president then added: “My only question is, who is our bigger enemy, Jay Powell or (Chinese Communist Party) Chairman Xi?”

Xi is also China’s president.

Our Country has lost, stupidly, Trillions of Dollars with China over many years. They have stolen our Intellectual Property at a rate of Hundreds of Billions of Dollars a year, & they want to continue. I won’t let that happen! We don’t need China and, frankly, would be far....

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2019

Trump has repeatedly referred to Xi as a friend and touted his relationship with Xi as a way to achieve significant breakthroughs on trade and other major issues.

China’s commerce ministry, earlier Friday, stated it will be imposing additional tariffs of 5% or 10% on a total of 5,078 products originating from the U.S., including agricultural products, crude oil, small aircraft and cars.

Chinese tariffs on some U.S. products would take effect September 1 and on others December 15.

“America’s manufacturing workers will bear the brunt of these retaliatory tariffs, which will make it even harder to sell the products they make to customers in China,” said Jay Timmons, the president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Manufacturers.

“While we share the president’s frustration, we believe that continued, constructive engagement is the right way forward,” said Myron Brilliant, executive vice president and head of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Time is of the essence. We do not want to see a further deterioration of U.S.-China relations.”

Rick Helfenbein, president and CEO of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, said: “This is not how you negotiate. This is tit-for-tat exercise that is hurting Americans and distracting from the task at hand — creating a sustainable trade agreement that solves long-standing and deep-seated issues.”

“The administration needs to rise above the fray and start negotiating for the American people,” Helfenbein added.

Analysts are expressing fears that if there is no truce soon in the trade war with China, it could lead to a recession in the United States.

However, Trump is holding firm to his policies.

“Our economy is doing great. We’re having a little spat with China and we’ll win it ...” he said Friday night. Adding, “I think that our tariffs are working out very well for us, people don’t understand that yet...”

“We’re not going to lose close to a trillion dollars a year to China,” Trump told reporters Friday. “This is more important than anything else right now, just about, that we’re working on.”

51 Homes, 3 Businesses Lost in Alaska Wildfire

12 hours 58 min ago

A wildfire burning north of Anchorage has destroyed 51 homes and three businesses, officials said Friday.

Another 84 buildings between the communities of Willow and Talkeetna, about 70 miles north of the state's largest city, also have been destroyed, fire information manager Kale Casey said.

Hundreds of people have been evacuated because of the fire that started Sunday night along the Parks Highway, the main thoroughfare that connects Anchorage to Denali National Park and Preserve and Fairbanks. 

The exact cause of the fire is under investigation, but officials have said it was human-caused.

Homeowners at one of two evacuation centers had closed-door meetings Friday with officials from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough to learn the fate of their homes, Casey said. Others who were not at evacuation centers have not been notified.

The wildlife is one of two major blazes in Alaska.

The fire had blackened nearly 6 square miles (16 sq. kilometers) and was 10% contained, said Tim Mowry, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Forestry. 

About 100 firefighters, 20 engine crews and three helicopters were fighting the fire, he said. Another 100 firefighters were expected to arrive Sunday.

“They're dropping water and retardant on and around it, but we really need people on the ground to reinforce those aerial assets,” Mowry said.

Conditions were dry, giving the fire ample fuel, Casey said. A forecast of increased winds for Saturday has fire managers on edge, and additional residents were told to be ready to evacuate if needed.

“With conditions so dry in this area, a 15 mph (24 kph) wind is a significant event,” Casey said. “The ground fuels are extremely resistant to control.”

Alaska's fire season is usually over by now, but hot, dry conditions have extended it. Alaska recorded its warmest month ever in July.

It's unusual for firefighters to be sent to Alaska from other states this time of the year.

“Usually, our crews are in the Lower 48 by now, helping out there,” Mowry said.

Another large wildfire is burning south of Anchorage, in Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. It started in June but was reinvigorated. It had burned about 222 square miles (575 square kilometers) and was 20% contained.

Smoke from the two fires has made Anchorage smoky, prompting health warnings and leading schools to cancel outdoor activities.

Blasts Injure 120 Civilians This Week in Eastern Afghanistan

13 hours 48 min ago

Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province, a stronghold of Islamic State's Khursan branch, was hit with more than a dozen bomb blasts recently, wounding more than 120 people, including 30 children. Among those children was Basharyar, who fled Afghanistan with his family years ago to neighboring Pakistan. VOA's Zia Urahman Hasrat reports from Nangarhar.

More Border Wall Work Begins in Arizona, New Mexico

13 hours 59 min ago

Work crews in Arizona and New Mexico forged ahead Friday with construction of taller border fencing funded through a national emergency declaration by President Donald Trump.

The work on his hallmark campaign promise involves mostly replacement fencing along a 46-mile stretch of desert west of Santa Teresa, New Mexico, and on 2 miles of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona. 

At the New Mexico site, about 20 workers placed rebar frames for concrete footers along the path of the wall. A 50-foot crane towered over the site, standing out on the treeless brushland and cracked washes that stretch for miles in every direction.

Workers broke ground between Columbus and Santa Teresa — small towns near ports of entry along the border between New Mexico and the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. 

In Arizona, crews were installing 30-foot (9-meter) steel fencing to replace older barriers next to a border crossing known as Lukeville Port of Entry.

Funds redirected from Defense Department

Both projects are being funded with money initially allocated to the Defense Department that was redirected by Trump's executive order.

Use of the money was previously frozen by lower courts while a lawsuit proceeded. Last month, however, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the use of about $2.5 billion.

A border wall was a keystone of the president's 2016 election campaign, but Congress has resisted funding all of it. This year it allocated $1.4 billion, but the president wanted much more. 

The administration has awarded $2.8 billion in contracts for barriers covering 247 miles (390 kilometers), with all but 17 miles (27 kilometers) of that to replace existing barriers instead of expanding coverage. 

Various forms of barriers already exist along 654 miles (1,046 kilometers) — about a third — of the border.

The construction comes as immigrant apprehensions have fallen sharply over the past two months due to the summer heat and a clamp down in Mexico.

Tens of thousands of people have come to the U.S. over the past year. Most are Central American families with children who turn themselves in to agents instead of trying to dodge them.

Environmentalists turn to courts

Environmentalists have sued over some of the construction contracts for the fencing, saying the government unlawfully waived dozens of laws so it could build on protected lands.

Conservationists say a wall — and its construction— would be detrimental to wildlife habitat and would block the migration of animals such as bighorn sheep and wolves. Two cases are pending in U.S. courts.

"It's astonishing and sad to see Trump's border wall being built through the most spectacular Sonoran desert ecosystem on the planet," Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, said Thursday.

Jordahl hoped the courts would step in to protect Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

The vast park is known for its oddly shaped cactuses that resemble organ pipes and for its many saguaros.

Vistors warned

Signs all over the park warn visitors that they might encounter smuggling activity. Until five years ago, large swaths of the park were closed to the public due to dangerous conditions and following the 2002 shooting death of Kris Eggle, a park ranger who died while pursuing suspected drug cartel members.

Groundbreaking occurred Thursday along the portion of existing fencing that stretches west from Lukeville Port of Entry, Border Patrol spokesman Jesus Vasavilbaso said. 

Many Arizona residents use the crossing on their way to Rocky Point, a beach destination in Mexico.

Construction is expected to take about 45 days. The government then plans to tackle two other projects in Arizona, including nearly 40 miles (64.4 kilometers) of fencing in other parts of the national monument and areas of Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. 

Dave Chappelle to Host Benefit Concert for Ohio Shooting

14 hours 2 min ago

Comedian Dave Chappelle plans to host a special block party and benefit concert in Ohio for those affected by the recent mass shooting.

Chappelle will be among national and local entertainers planned for the main stage at the “Gem City Shine” event in Dayton Sunday.

WDTN-TV reports the City of Dayton along with the Downtown Dayton Partnership and the Chamber of Commerce will help organize the tribute.

The organizers say the event will be an effort to reclaim the entertainment district after 24-year-old Connor Betts’ 32-second rampage in front of Ned Peppers that killed nine people and left dozens injured Aug. 4.

Chappelle, a resident of nearby Yellow Springs, urges attendees to “live in the moment” by enjoying the experience live rather than recording it on their cellphones.

Like a Rolling Stone: NASA Names Mars Rock After the Band

14 hours 14 min ago

The Rolling Stones have rocked stages around the world in their more than 50-year career. But now their influence has gone into space after NASA’s Mars InSight Mission named a rock on the planet after the band.

Slightly larger than a golf ball, the “Rolling Stones Rock” is said to have rolled about 3 feet (1 meter), spurred by the InSight spacecraft’s thrusters during touchdown on Mars in November, NASA said.

“In images taken by InSight the next day, several divots in the orange-red soil can be seen trailing Rolling Stones Rock,” it said. “It’s the farthest NASA has seen a rock roll while landing a spacecraft on another planet.”

Hollywood actor Robert Downey Jr. announced the name as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts were about to perform Thursday night at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl Stadium, close to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The Rolling Stones, known for hits such as “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Brown Sugar,” called the honor “a milestone in our long and eventful history.”

While the “Rolling Stones Rock” name is informal, it will feature on working maps of Mars, NASA said, but only the International Astronomical Union can give official scientific names for locations, asteroids and other objects in the solar system.

Hong Kong Gears Up for More Protests

14 hours 20 min ago

Hong Kong is gearing up for more protests as some demonstrators made plans to again to target the airport this weekend.

Hong Kong police said Friday that the city’s high court had extended an order restricting protests at the airport.

“Any person who unlawfully or willfully obstructs or interferes with the normal operation of the airport” is liable to face criminal charges, said Foo Yat-ting, the senior superintendent of Hong Kong Police Force’s Kowloon East Region.

Hong Kong’s Airport Authority also published a half-page notice in newspapers urging people to “love Hong Kong” and not to block the airport.

Protesters have called for an attempt Saturday to blockade routes to the city’s airport, which could disrupt the complex if large numbers turn out.

Hong Kong 'Baltic Chain'

On Friday, thousands of Hong Kong protesters joined hands to form human chains in a peaceful protest, recreating a “Baltic Chain” that pro-democracy demonstrators used against the Soviet Union three decades ago.

Demonstrators linked hands or held their lighted phones above their heads, creating a line of lights against the night sky.

The “Baltic Chain” or “Baltic Way” was one of the largest anti-Soviet demonstrations, with more than 1 million people linking hands across 600 kilometers on Aug. 23, 1989.

11 weeks of demonstrations

Friday’s demonstration in Hong Kong was the latest in a nearly 11-week movement that began with calls to stop an extradition bill, which has now been scrapped, and has expanded to include demands for full democracy.

Last week, Hong Kong’s airport was forced to close when protesters occupied terminals. China called the behavior “near-terrorist acts” and some protesters later apologized.

Trump Fights Ruling That He Can’t Block Twitter Users

14 hours 42 min ago

President Donald Trump is challenging a federal appeals court decision that ruled he violated the U.S. Constitution by blocking people whose views he disliked from his Twitter account.

In court papers filed late Friday by the U.S. Justice Department, Trump sought a rehearing by the full 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, calling the 3-0 decision “fundamentally misconceived.”

Trump has more than 63 million followers on Twitter, and often uses his account to make significant announcements, including Friday when his tweets about trade with China sent U.S. stock and oil prices down sharply.

Lower court ruling upheld

The three-judge panel last month upheld a May 2018 lower court ruling that forced Trump to unblock several dozen followers.

Twitter Inc. and the White House did not immediately comment.

In the appellate court ruling, Circuit Judge Barrington Parker wrote, “the First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise-open online dialog because they expressed views with which the official disagrees.”

White House social media director Dan Scavino, who was also a defendant, is also challenging the appeals court ruling.

The Justice Department court filing Friday warned that if the appeals court ruling was upheld, that “public officials who address matters relating to their public office on personal accounts will run the risk that every action taken on that account will be state action subject to constitutional scrutiny.”

'Official, state-run account'

Parker, however, had said Trump’s account bears “all the trappings of an official, state-run account” and is “one of the White House’s main vehicles for conducting official business.”

Trump has made his @RealDonaldTrump account, which he opened in 2009, a central and controversial part of his presidency, using it to promote his agenda and attack critics.

His blocking of critics was challenged by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, as well as seven Twitter users he had blocked.

North Korea Tests More Missiles, Violating Pledge to Trump

14 hours 55 min ago

North Korea has conducted another ballistic missile launch, violating an apparent promise to U.S. President Donald Trump to refrain from such tests after the conclusion of U.S.-South Korean military exercises. 
Japan's government first reported the launch early Saturday. South Korea's military confirmed the test minutes later, saying North Korea had fired the weapons from South Hamgyong province into the sea off its eastern coast. 
The projectiles, assessed to be "short-range ballistic missiles," traveled about 380 kilometers (236 miles), reaching an altitude of 97 kilometers (60 miles) and a speed of Mach 6.5 or higher, according to a statement from South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff. 
"We are aware of reports of a missile launch from North Korea and continue to monitor the situation. We are consulting closely with our Japanese and South Korean allies," a senior U.S. official told VOA.  
Following an emergency meeting, South Korea's National Security Council voiced "strong concern" that North Korea continues to fire projectiles, despite the end of U.S.-South Korea military exercises. 

FILE - U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as they meet at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019.

Return to talks 
Earlier this month, Trump said in a tweet that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un promised to stop launching missiles and return to nuclear talks once the latest round of U.S.-South Korean military drills ended, which happened Tuesday. 
However, North Korea has not engaged in dialogue, instead criticizing Washington and Seoul for holding the military drills at all. 
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho on Thursday warned the U.S. it was "ready for dialogue and confrontation," vowing to be "America's biggest threat" for a long time to come. 
Since May, North Korea has rolled out several new weapons systems, including a short-range ballistic missile that appears designed to evade U.S. and South Korean missile defenses.  
The missile, dubbed KN-23 by U.S. intelligence officials, flies low and fast. It is also easily transportable, since it uses a mobile truck launcher and solid fuel, which is more stable.  
The latest missiles launched by North Korea appeared to have flown much higher than many of those used in its recent tests, which reached an altitude of about 25 to 30 kilometers (15.5 to 18.5 miles). 
All the launches appeared to violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, which ban North Korea from conducting any ballistic missile activity.  
Trump says he has "no problem" with the launches, asserting that they do not violate Kim's promise to refrain from longer-range missile or nuclear tests.  
But it may be more difficult for Trump to take that same approach with North Korea's latest launch, which may be characterized as a violation of Kim's promise to Trump. 

....also a small apology for testing the short range missiles, and that this testing would stop when the exercises end. I look forward to seeing Kim Jong Un in the not too distant future! A nuclear free North Korea will lead to one of the most successful countries in the world!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 10, 2019

Continued testing 
Critics have said Trump's approach virtually guarantees North Korea will continue testing missiles.  
"I see this test as North Korea pushing the envelope as far as they think it could go, seeing what Trump will let slide and thus testing how much Washington wants diplomatic results and creating a new precedent for what Pyongyang can do with impunity," said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat who focused on Korea. 
North Korea's test came two days after South Korea announced it would scrap an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan — a move U.S. officials worry could hurt trilateral security cooperation on issues such as those pertaining to North Korea and China.  
By launching missiles Saturday, North Korea "might be pouring salt in the wound between the United States and South Korea after GSOMIA collapsed," Oba said, referring to the name of the intel-sharing pact, the General Security of Military Information Agreement. 
In a statement, South Korea's military said it was willing to share the latest information on North Korea's launches with Japan, since GSOMIA has not yet expired.  
Nuclear talks have been stalled since a February meeting between Trump and Kim ended without a deal. Kim wants the U.S. to relax sanctions and provide security guarantees. Trump says he will not ease sanctions until Kim agrees to give up all his nuclear weapons. 
North Korea has given the U.S. an end-of-year deadline to change its approach to the nuclear talks, warning it might soon resume longer-range missile or nuclear tests. 

CDC Flags One Death, Nearly 200 Illnesses Possibly Tied to Vaping 

15 hours 27 min ago

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that it had identified 193 potential cases of severe lung illness tied to vaping in 22 states as of Aug. 22, including one adult in Illinois who died after being hospitalized. 

The CDC has been investigating a "cluster" of lung illnesses that it believes may be linked to e-cigarette use, although it has not yet been able to establish whether they were in fact caused by vaping. 

E-cigarettes are generally thought to be safer than traditional cigarettes, which kill up to half of all lifetime users, according to the World Health Organization. But the long-term health effects of vaping are largely unknown. 

No link to specific product

In a briefing with reporters, representatives from health agencies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said they have not linked the illnesses to any specific product and that some patients had reporting vaping with cannabis liquids. 

Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, said the agency was analyzing product samples from states to identify any potentially harmful elements that may be triggering the illnesses. 

He said health agencies were trying to learn which specific vaping products were used and whether they were being used as intended or mixed with other substances. 

"Those kinds of facts need to be strung together for every single one of these cases, so that we can see if any other kinds of patterns have emerged," Zeller said. 

The number of potential cases has more than doubled over the past week. On Aug. 17, the CDC said it was investigating 94 potential lung illnesses in 14 states. 

Brian King, deputy director of research translation at the CDC's smoking and health division, said it was possible there might have been earlier cases that health agencies had not identified. 

Possible health implications

"The bottom line is that there's a variety of things in e-cigarette aerosols that could have implications for lung health," said King, adding that none of those compounds had been directly linked to the recent hospitalizations. 

In a statement Thursday, Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, said he was "confident" the illnesses were being caused by devices containing cannabis or other synthetic drugs, not nicotine. 

Patients have reported difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and sometimes chest pain before being hospitalized. Some have shown symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea and fatigue. 

"The severity of illness people are experiencing is alarming and we must get the word out that using e-cigarettes and vaping can be dangerous," Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a statement earlier. 

'Epidemic' of Rape Assailed in Nigeria

15 hours 47 min ago

One in four boys and one in 10 girls under age 18 are victims of sexual violence, the U.N. children’s fund has said. Health experts say more children and young women are coming forward to talk about the problem as the stigma attached to discussing it slowly subsides.  
Three survivors and their caregivers spoke about their experiences recently at the Salama Sexual Assault Referral Center in Gwamna Awan General Hospital in the northern state of Kaduna. They insisted, however, on remaining anonymous.  
One was a 3-year-old girl who was under the care of her grandmother when she was raped twice by a 44-year-old neighbor. The grandmother said she was reluctant to report the assault to police because she did not believe justice would be served and because "being a poor widow, no one would believe me." After the second attack, she fled to the Salama Center for help. 
A second survivor, a woman in her late 30s, said she was kidnapped while sleeping with her husband and child. Her abductors took her to a dense forest where she was raped every day until a ransom was paid and she regained her freedom. 
The third survivor, a 10-year-old girl, was reportedly raped by a 29-year-old man living in her neighborhood. He allegedly lured her, saying he wanted her to run an errand. Once they were out of sight, he allegedly stuffed her hijab into her mouth and raped her. 

Not strangers
Juliana Joseph, the manager of the Salama Sexual Assault Referral Center, said 90 percent of all victims are sexually abused by people they know. The center has treated women and children who have been raped by their grandparents, fathers and uncles. 
"You are going out and you entrust your child to the care of a neighbor, and by the time you're back, it's a different story," Joseph said, adding that poor investigations mean a good number of perpetrators move about freely. 
Barrister Zainab Aminu Garba, the chairperson of the International Federation of Women Lawyers in Kaduna, said rape has become an epidemic in northwestern Nigeria. She said victims are not just women, but men and boys as well.  
"Underaged boys are being defiled," she said. "Several cases [have been] reported to us. It's an epidemic, and I pray and hope that the government will do something very, very fast." 
The Nigerian Criminal Code recommends life imprisonment for the perpetrators of rape and 14 years for attempted rape. 
But Yakubu Sabo, the public relations officer for the police in Kaduna state, said many rape cases involving children are never investigated because parents want to protect their children from being stigmatized. 
"Some families kill the evidence," he said, maintaining the belief that rape victims will not be able to find a suitor for marriage.  
Sabo advised parents to watch their neighborhoods closely and to be mindful of whom they leave their children with.