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Updated: 36 min 28 sec ago

Russia, Turkey Are on the Edge in Syria

1 hour 29 sec ago

Tensions between Russia and Turkey over their sometimes allied and often dueling military campaigns in Syria broke into the open Friday, with Moscow blaming Ankara for the deaths of 33 Turkish troops in Syria’s Idlib region during airstrikes. 

While Russia denied any role in the deaths of the Turkish soldiers, the Kremlin accused Turkish forces of operating unannounced in the region — and of providing support to terrorist groups subsequently targeted by Moscow’s ally, the Syrian government. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin had met with his Security Council in the wake of the attacks, with Russian generals informing Putin that raids by terrorist groups against Syrian forces in Idlib had prompted airstrikes. 

FILE - Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov is pictured in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, March 28, 2019.

Turkish troops, said Peskov, had been caught in the fighting while aiding terrorist groups in opposition to Damascus. 

Turkey disputed that account, insisting the attack occurred despite Ankara’s having informed Moscow that its troops were operating in the area. It also denied the presence of Syrian rebels near the scene of the attack, suggesting the air assault was intentionally targeting Turkey. 

Meeting possible soon

Putin and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Ergodan later discussed the situation by phone and agreed on the possibility of a meeting “in the near future” aimed at “normalizing conditions” in northwest Syria, said Kremlin officials. 

A spokesman for the Turkish leader, however, said Ergodan also was insisting on Turkey’s right to respond in kind to the Syrian airstrikes. 

The Turkish deaths came as Russia continues to help the Syrian government establish control over Idlib, one of the last remaining bastions of opposition to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s rule.   

FILE - Smoke billows over the town of Saraqeb in the eastern part of the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, following bombardment by Syrian government forces, Feb. 27, 2020.

The Syrian government's bombing campaign, carried out with Russian support, has caused a humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 900,000 residents fleeing the fighting for the Syrian-Turkish border. 

It also has prompted a standoff with Turkey, which has insisted that Syria respect a Russian-negotiated buffer zone agreed to in 2018. 

Though Turkey has stopped short of blaming Russia for direct involvement in the latest attack, Ankara has often been critical of Moscow’s inability — or, perhaps unwillingness — to control its ally in Damascus. 

Cease-fire demanded

Amid a visit by a Russian delegation to Ankara to discuss the crisis in Idlib on Friday, Turkish officials demanded that Russia force the Syrian government to immediately agree to a sustainable cease-fire. 

Turkey’s allies in NATO joined those calls, with the alliance’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, expressing condolences to families of Turks killed in the attack and placing blame squarely on Moscow and Damascus:

#NATO has just met in solidarity with our Ally Turkey, following the death of Turkish soldiers near Idlib. We condemn the indiscriminate air strikes by the Syrian regime & Russia. This dangerous situation must be de-escalated & humanitarian access allowed:

— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) February 28, 2020

A Mideast power returns 

Russia entered the Syrian civil war in 2015, coming to the aid of its ally, Assad, in what the Kremlin insisted was an anti-terrorist campaign against Islamic State, and what Western powers have billed as a ruthless effort to root out opposition to Assad’s rule.   

“Russia came there not just to help and leave. It came there to stay,” said Alexey Khlebnikov, an analyst with the Russian International Affairs Council, in an interview with VOA. Russia is the only actor that continues to have working relations with all regional powers, he said. 

In carrying out the Syrian campaign, Moscow has resurrected its Soviet-era role as a Middle East power broker, maintaining a complex web of alliances and partnerships between erstwhile regional enemies. 

Yet among the most surprising has been a partnership with Turkey, a NATO member and traditional foe of Assad’s Syria. It's a relationship that has proven at times effective and contentious. 

FILE - The Russian flag-covered coffin of Russian pilot Lt. Col. Oleg Peshkov is shown inside a Russian air force transport plane at Esenboga Airport in Ankara, Turkey, Nov. 30, 2015. He was killed when Turkish F-16s shot his plane down.

Early clash

Russia and Turkey clashed early after Moscow’s entry into the war, with Turkey shooting down and killing a Russian pilot along the Turkish border in 2015. 

At the time, Putin called the death of the pilot “a stab in the back” and ordered Russian sanctions on Turkish products and a ban on Russian tourism to the country.  

Yet the two sides bridged differences as Russia switched the brunt of its air power from what the West called Syria’s “moderate opposition” to widely recognized terrorist groups, such as Islamic State, that were waging attacks in Turkey proper. 

And for all the sparring over the events in Idlib, there seemed consensus in Moscow that Russia was interested in maintaining a working relationship with Turkey that has since expanded beyond the Syrian front into agreements involving trade, tourism and energy.   

“A wider war between Turkey and Russia? Never!” said Alexei Malashenko, a longtime regional observer currently with the Institute for the Dialogue of Civilizations.  “It’s very dangerous, of course. But we are dealing with a new kind of Middle East.”  

“I don’t think that either Russia or Turkey is willing to sacrifice bilateral ties just for Idlib,” concurred the Russian International Affairs Council’s Alexei Khlebnikov. 

Be that as it may, it was clear all sides were hedging their bets as they took stock of growing tensions in Idlib. 

The Interfax news agency reported that Russian and U.S. officials discussed the situation in Syria by phone Friday. 

Meanwhile, the Kremlin dispatched two warships armed with Kalibr cruise missiles to the Middle East on Friday. 

Their destination? The coast of Syria. 

Virus Outbreak in Iran Sickens Hundreds, Including Leaders

2 hours 4 min ago

After facing sanctions and the risk of war amid tensions with the United States, Iran's Shi'ite theocracy now has an enemy in the new coronavirus that infiltrated its leadership in plain view of state-controlled media and despite repeated denials of any looming threat.

The outbreak of the new virus in Iran has been dramatic — the head of Iran's task force to stop the illness, known as COVID-19, was seen coughing, sweating and wheezing across televised interviews before acknowledging he was infected. Then, days later, a visibly pale official sat only meters (feet) away from President Hassan Rouhani and other top leaders before she too reportedly came down with the virus.

The virus has also laid bare the challenges facing the Islamic Republic some 40 years after its founding. While its civilian government urges Shi'ite shrines to be closed, clerics keep them open and some circulate purported remedies to the virus that have no basis in science. Tehran's top-down government, where Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has final say on all state matters, now has to come to terms with the highest death toll from the virus outside of China, days after insisting everything was fine.

FILE - The head of Iran's counter-coronavirus task force, Iraj Harirchi, left, wipes his face during a press briefing with government spokesman Ali Rabiei, in Tehran, Iran, in this Feb. 24, 2020, image made from video.

Iran's success — or failure — in combating the virus will have an impact far beyond the country's 80 million people as the majority of cases in the Mideast now link back to Iran.

"We will have a tough week ahead," Iranian Health Minister Saeed Namaki warned. "The main peak of the coronavirus will be in next week and coming days."

On Friday, Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour again reported a huge spike in cases, saying there were now 388 confirmed coronavirus cases in Iran and 34 deaths. In brief remarks from Tehran, he cautioned the number of cases would likely further spike as Iran now has 15 laboratories testing samples.

In Tehran and other cities, authorities canceled Friday prayer services to limit crowds. In the capital Radio Tehran, which typically carries the prayer, played only traditional Iranian music. Universities are to remain closed another week. Schools will be closed for at least three days, Namaki said. Parliament also will be closed, state television said, citing a lawmaker.

Government denials, infections

Meanwhile, Iranian state media made a point to show the government is addressing the crisis. In the city of Mashhad, at the Imam Reza Shrine, hazmat-suited cleaners fogged disinfectant across surfaces that the faithful kiss and touch as workers installed hand sanitizers. Trucks from Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard sprayed down streets and sidewalks in the holy city of Qom, the epicenter of the country's outbreak.

FILE - An Iranian woman wears a protective mask to prevent contracting coronavirus, as she is seen at a drug store in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 25, 2020.

But questions remain over Iran's count. Experts, including at the World Health Organization, worry the Islamic Republic may be underreporting the number of cases in the country.

Iran denied for days that the virus was in the country, acknowledging it just as it was trying to pump up enthusiasm for the country's parliamentary election — a vote that saw the lowest voter turnout since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

By doing so, Iran likely allowed the virus to spread rapidly, reaching even into the upper echelons of its power structure as it sickened four lawmakers, top clerics and other officials.

FILE - Iranian Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar gives an interview to The Associated Press, in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 14, 2013.

On Thursday, word spread that one of Iran's many vice presidents, Masoumeh Ebtekar, had contracted the virus. Ebtekar, 59, is better known as "Sister Mary," the English-speaking spokeswoman for the students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and sparked the 444-day hostage crisis.

Ebtekar on Wednesday attended a Cabinet meeting chaired by Rouhani, 71. Other top officials, most in their late 50s and 60s, sat within several meters (feet) from her as well. Jahanpour, the Health Ministry spokesman, said the average age of those killed by the virus and the illness it brings is over 60.

State media has not said what measures those attending the meeting with Ebtekar were now taking. However, the concern about the virus' spread among Iran's elite has reached into Austria, where Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg tested negative for it after a recent trip to Tehran.

Closings, quarantines

Worries persist over Shi'ite shrines remaining open in the country. Saudi Arabia on Thursday took the unprecedented decision to close off the holiest sites in Islam to foreign pilgrims over the coronavirus, disrupting travel for thousands of Muslims already headed to the kingdom and potentially affecting plans later this year for millions more ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan and the annual hajj pilgrimage.

Some Iranian clerics also have offered advice with no basis in science, like Sheikh Abbas Tabrizian in Qom who told followers to give themselves a suppository of essential oils to ward off the virus.

An emergency medical response team arrives at the Crowne Plaza hotel at Yas Island Abu Dhabi, Feb. 28, 2020. Two Italian cyclists participating in the UAE Tour tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the cancellation of the final stages of the event.

Elsewhere, a major cycling race in the United Arab Emirates was canceled early Friday after two Italians tested positive for the new virus, setting off a quarantine at two Abu Dhabi hotels that also ensnared four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome of Britain. That pushed the overall number of confirmed cases to 21 in the UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula.

In Cairo, authorities allowed a plane carrying 114 Chinese tourists into Egypt despite EgyptAir halting flights to China amid the outbreak. The tourists showed no symptoms of the virus and will be monitored during their weeklong vacation, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

Lebanon has flights and barred citizens of China, Iran, Italy and South Korea from visiting the country, though Lebanese citizens and residents will be allowed back in. Qatar separately flew home its citizens from Iran and put them in a 14-day quarantine.

Social media

The Iran government's slow response and the unrelenting pressure Iranians face, especially as the country's rial currency this week hit its lowest value in a year against the U.S. dollar, has seen many Iranians turn to dark humor. Jokes spread fast across social media, including one saying a government that previously cracked down on demonstrators now will lock up the virus.

Then come the videos. Iraj Harirchi, who led Iran's coronavirus task force, sweated at the podium during a news conference and then later coughed all over the set of a state TV interview program, its female host looking down and away.

"I came from a cold place," Harirchi said, attempting to joke before bringing the crook of his arm to his face. "I made a mistake. I should cover my mouth like this."

Soon afterward, Harirchi acknowledged testing positive for the virus.

Court Temporarily Halts Trump's 'Remain in Mexico' Policy 

2 hours 23 min ago

A federal appeals court on Friday temporarily halted a Trump administration policy to make asylum-seekers wait in Mexico while their cases proceed through U.S. immigration courts. 

The same court decided to keep another major change on hold, one that denies asylum to anyone who enters the U.S. illegally from Mexico. 

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on the two policies that are central to President Donald Trump's asylum crackdown, dealing the administration a major setback, even if it proves temporary. 

The question before the judges was whether to let the policies take effect during legal challenges. 

The Trump administration has made asylum an increasingly remote possibility at a time when claims have soared. By 2017, the United States had become the world's top destination for people seeking asylum. 

FILE - Migrants, many who were returned to Mexico under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program, wait in line to get a meal in an encampment near the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Mexico, Aug. 30, 2019,

The ``Remain in Mexico'' measure took effect in January 2019 and nearly 60,000 people have been sent back to wait for hearings. The court declared the policy invalid, but acknowledged the ruling applied only to California and Arizona, the only border states in its jurisdiction. 

The other measure with far-reaching consequences denies asylum to anyone who passes through another country on the way to the U.S. border with Mexico without seeking protection there first. That policy took effect in September and is being challenged in a separate lawsuit. 

President's right

Justice Department lawyers asserted that Trump was within his rights to impose the policies without Congress' approval and that they would help deter asylum claims that lack merit. 

Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that the administration violated U.S. law and obligations to international treaties by turning back people who will likely be persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality or political beliefs. 

Judges William Fletcher and Richard Paez, who were both appointed by President Bill Clinton, sharply questioned government attorneys on ``Remain in Mexico'' during arguments October 1. They voted to block it. 

Judge Ferdinand Fernandez, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, dissented. 

Supporters of the ``Remain in Mexico`` policy note it has prevented asylum-seekers from being released in the United States with notices to appear in court, which they consider a major incentive for people to come. 

Its expansion coincided with a sharp drop in Border Patrol arrests from a 13-year high in May, suggesting it may have had its intended effect. The Homeland Security Department called it ``an indispensable tool'' in an October 28 report. 

Opponents say it has exposed asylum-seekers to extreme danger in violent Mexican border cities while they wait for U.S. court hearings. Human Rights First, an advocacy group that has criticized the policy, said in January that there were more than 800 public reports of rape, kidnapping, torture and other violent crimes against asylum-seekers who have been sent back to Mexico. 

How it progressed

The policy was introduced at the border crossing in San Diego in January and initially focused on asylum-seekers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. 

It expanded to crossings in Calexico, California, and the Texas cities of El Paso, Eagle Pass, Laredo and Brownsville, and included more people from Spanish-speaking countries. 

The administration on November 22 began busing asylum-seekers who crossed the border in Arizona from Tucson to El Paso, Texas, to be returned to Mexico from there, extending the policy across every major corridor for illegal border crossings. 

In Laredo and Brownsville, asylum-seekers appear for hearings in tents on U.S. Customs and Border Protection property, connected by video to judges in other locations. 

Mexicans are exempt, as are unaccompanied children. 

FILE - Cuban migrants, waiting for their appointment to request asylum in the U.S., rest at a gym being used as a shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, March 19, 2019.

The asylum ban on anyone who crosses the border illegally from Mexico also drew pointed questions from the judges during arguments. They asked whether the policy violated U.S. law that says it doesn't matter how people enter the country. 

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to lift a ruling blocking the ban following an extraordinary spat last year between Trump and Chief Justice John Roberts. 

The president denounced the judge who ruled against the ban as an ``Obama judge.`` Roberts said there was no such thing in a strongly worded statement defending judicial independence. Trump stood behind his comments. 

Publisher, 2 Politicians Charged Over Hong Kong Protests 

2 hours 40 min ago

Outspoken Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai and two prominent opposition politicians were charged Friday with illegal assembly over a pro-democracy march last year as the territory's Beijing-backed government appeared to move to settle scores over the protests. 

The months of demonstrations calling for reforms in semiautonomous Hong Kong crippled its economy and put its leaders and police force under unprecedented pressure. 

Lai was picked up from his home by police officers early Friday, while Yeung Sum, a former pro-democracy legislator, and Lee Cheuk-yan, a former legislator and vice chairman of the Labour Party, were also arrested. 

``Well, the Hong Kong situation is getting tense here, but we have to go on, we have to go on,'' Lai told reporters after speaking with officers. The three left the police station after being charged and are to appear in court on May 5. They could face up to five years in prison along with fines. 

Senior police officer Wong Tung-kwong said all three were charged with illegal assembly in connection with the August 31 march, which was timed to mark the fifth anniversary of a decision by China against fully democratic elections in Hong Kong. 

Batons, pepper spray

Organizers called off the march after police banned it, but hundreds of thousands of people defied the order and filled the streets in several areas of the Asian financial hub. Protesters threw gasoline bombs at government headquarters and set fires in the streets, while police stormed a subway car and hit passengers with batons and pepper spray in some of the most violent scenes up to that point in the protest movement. 

Hong Kong broadcaster TVB showed police on the platform of the Prince Edward subway station swinging batons at passengers who backed into one end of a train car behind umbrellas. The video also showed pepper spray being shot through an open door at a group seated on the floor while one man held up his hands. 

Police arrested thousands during the protest movement that began in June but fizzled out toward the end of the year amid harsher tactics by authorities. Prison sentences have been threatened against many on charges including rioting and possessing offensive weapons. 

The demonstrations initially protested proposed legislation that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be sent to mainland China to stand trial, but later included demands for democratic elections and an investigation into police use of force. Many fear Beijing is steadily eroding the legal guarantees and freedoms Hong Kong was promised after it was handed over from British to Chinese rule in 1997. 

Lai is an entrepreneur and longtime activist who sold his clothing chain under political pressure and has since focused on media in Hong Kong and Taiwan. 

'Shameless' acts

Friday's arrests were a ``shameless attempt to harass and silence those in Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement,`` the director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, Man-Kei Tam, said in a statement. ``It continues the pattern of the authorities using politically motivated charges to suppress opposition voices.`` 

The arrests came days after China sentenced a Swedish seller of books that looked skeptically on the ruling Communist Party to 10 years for ``illegally providing intelligence overseas,`` in a display of Beijing's hard line toward its critics. 

Gui Minhai first disappeared in 2015, when he was believed to have been abducted by Chinese agents from his seaside home in Thailand. He and four others who worked for the same Hong Kong publishing company all went missing about the same time, only to turn up months later in police custody in mainland China. 

In announcing the sentence Tuesday, the Ningbo Intermediate People's Court said Gui, a naturalized Swedish citizen, had admitted to his crime, agreed with the sentence and would not appeal. 

Turkish, Russian Leaders Talk as Fighting Continues in Syria

2 hours 54 min ago

Fears of an escalating conflict in Syria grew Friday as Turkish forces pounded Syria's military in retaliation for the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers. Meanwhile, Russia's and Turkey's presidents spoke, as Ankara threatens to launch even more assaults on Russian-backed Syrian forces.

"Turkish forces destroyed five Syrian regime choppers, 23 tanks, 10 armored vehicles, 23 howitzers, five ammunition trucks — as well as three ammunition depots, two equipment depots, a headquarters, and 309 regime troops," Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told reporters close to the Syrian-Turkish border.

Ankara's assault came in retaliation for an airstrike Turkey blamed on Syrian forces that killed 33 Turkish soldiers in Syria's Idlib province on Thursday.

The deadly airstrike followed Turkish forces backing Syrian rebels in an attack to recapture the strategically important town of Saraqeb. Idlib is the last rebel enclave, which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is vowing to retake.  

Syria's Idlib Remains Explosive After Deadly Attack on Turkish TroopsRussia sends two naval frigates equipped with Caliper missiles to the eastern Mediterranean following the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers

Ankara says it struck all known Syrian military targets and that it is now assessing operations in preparation for further attacks.  

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has issued an ultimatum for Damascus forces, by Saturday, to give up recent gains and retreat back behind a de-escalation zone agreed between Ankara and Moscow in 2018 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, while backing rival sides in the Syrian civil war, have been working closely to resolve the conflict.

But Thursday's deadly airstrike is seen posing the biggest threat to the recent Turkish-Russian rapprochement. In a bid to defuse tensions, Erdogan spoke with Putin by phone Friday.

"The two leaders will meet in-person as soon as possible," said Fahrettin Altun, presidential communication directorate.  

FILE - Smoke billows over the town of Saraqeb in the eastern part of the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, following bombardment by Syrian government forces, Feb. 27, 2020.

The Kremlin said the leaders agreed on the need for "additional measures" to normalize the situation, and that there was the "possibility" of a summit soon.

U.S. President Donald Trump also spoke with Erdogan on Friday. In a statement, the White House said Trump condemned the attack on Turkish personnel in Syria and "reaffirmed his support for Turkey’s efforts to de-escalate the situation in northwest Syria and avoid a humanitarian catastrophe."

The statement added that Trump and Erdogan "agreed that the Syrian regime, Russia, and the Iranian regime must halt their offensive before more innocent civilians are killed and displaced."

Deaths of Turkish soldiers

Moscow and Ankara are engaged in a blame game over the killing of the Turkish soldiers. The Russian defense ministry accused Turkey's military of failing to inform Russian forces on the ground of the location of its soldiers.  

"This attack occurred even though the locations of our troops had been coordinated with Russian officials in the field," Turkish Defense Minister Akar asserted.

"We fought Russia 16 times in the past, and we will do it again, our vengeance will be quite terrible," Erdogan's foreign affairs adviser, Mesut Casin, said in a television interview.

Turkey's Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, third right, attends a funeral ceremony for Halil Ibrahim Akkaya, one of Turkish soldiers killed in Syria, in Bahce, Osmaniye, Turkey, Feb. 28, 2020.

The Turkish president himself has avoided wielding harsh rhetoric against Moscow, notes former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who is now an analyst and host for Turkish online network Medyascope.

"It should be emphasized we didn't hear from Ankara that it was the Russian planes attacking the Turkish armed forces," said Selcen. "Yet yes, there is no other possibility that the Russian air forces are the ones attacking the Turkish armed forces. The fact that Ankara doesn't declare this officially means that they are trying to avoid an all-out breakdown with Moscow."

Russian and Turkish diplomats all week were engaged in efforts to end the violence in the Syrian city of Idlib. Moscow is expected to present again to Ankara its proposal of creating a narrow buffer zone in Idlib along Turkey's border for rebels and their families to withdraw. But analysts say Ankara remains vehemently opposed.

"The Syrian border with Turkey is still extremely porous, and there is no guarantee those people will stay there with Assad breathing down their necks," said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners. "You are essentially condemning these people to an eternal life of joblessness which offers them no future. And what would you do if Assad tanks moved into these camps?"

Refugees, migrants

With Turkey already hosting over three and half million Syrians who fled the civil war, Erdogan has said his country can take no more.

Migrants arrive with a dinghy accompanied by a Frontex vessel at the village of Skala Sikaminias, on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, Feb. 28, 2020.

Idlib hosts over three million Syrians, the United Nations said this month. Nearly a million had been forced from their homes from recent fighting, many of whom are already on the Turkish border.  

In a move seen as putting pressure on the European Union, the spokesman of the ruling AKP Omer Celik declared Friday that Turkey is "no longer able to hold refugees" seeking to enter Europe. Local media reported free buses were being provided to take people to the border or sea crossing points to Greece.  

Hundreds of refugees and migrants have already moved to Greek and Bulgarian borders.

Turkey Threatens Europe with Refugees After 33 Troops Killed Presidents of Turkey and Russia have spoken by phone, a day after 33 Turkish troops were killed in Syrian government airstrikes in country's flashpoint northwestern province of Idlib

Western support?

Ankara is looking to its western allies to support its forces in Syria. "The international community must act to protect civilians and impose a no-fly-zone," tweeted Altun.

Turkey called for an emergency meeting of NATO Friday, but while receiving words of solidarity, no concrete measures of support were agreed on.

Erdogan has recently called for the deployment of American Patriot missile system to offer protection for Syrian civilians and Turkish forces on the ground in Idlib.

But experts warn that there appears little support for any action that brings the risk of a military confrontation with Russian forces. Underlining Moscow's commitment to Damascus, Friday saw two of Russia's warships pass through Istanbul en route to Syria to reinforce its Syrian military presence.

VOA's Steve Herman contributed to this report.

Chinese National Sentenced to Prison for Trade Secrets Theft 

3 hours 8 min ago

A Chinese national who admitted stealing trade secrets from a U.S. petroleum company has been sentenced to two years in federal prison. 

Hongjin Tan, 36, pleaded guilty in November of theft of a trade secret in connection with his work as a scientist at a Phillips 66 research facility in Bartlesville, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of Tulsa. Prosecutors said Tan used a thumb drive to copy hundreds of files containing information about ``next generation battery technologies'' for use in the energy industry. 

Tan was sentenced Thursday in Tulsa and was also ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution. 

In his plea deal, Tan admitted copying and downloading the information without authorization. Prosecutors said Tan quit his job the day after downloading the information and told Phillips 66 he planned to return to China. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel-Lyn McCormick said that prosecutors were unable to determine whether a third party or the Chinese government benefited from the information, the Tulsa World reported. 

In court filings, Tan's attorney noted he had no prior convictions and that Tan had ``longtime and substantial ties to the academic community.'' 

``This is a serious offense, and Mr. Tan acknowledges that and accepts responsibility for his role in it,'' his attorney, Ryan Ray, wrote in a sentencing memorandum. 

Go or No Go? US Updates Travel Advisories Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

3 hours 57 min ago

As the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues to spread across the globe and countries are reporting new confirmed cases, the United States is closely monitoring and updating travel advisories.  
The State Department says when it comes to issuing a travel alert for Americans traveling abroad, it takes into account health risks, including current disease outbreaks or a crisis that disrupts a country’s medical infrastructure, as well as the issuance of a travel notice by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There are four travel advisory levels: Level 4—do not travel; Level 3—reconsider travel; Level 2—exercise increased caution; and Level 1—exercise normal precautions.  

On Feb. 26, the State Department raised the travel advisory to level 3—reconsider travel—on South Korea.  The change comes after the CDC issued a Level 3 travel warning for people to avoid non-essential travel for South Korea, and after a U.S. soldier there tested positive for coronavirus.
The U.S.  is asking travelers who spent time in South Korea during the past 14 days and feel sick with fever, cough, or difficulty breathing to seek medical advice, and also to avoid contact with others.
Also on Wednesday, while maintaining a Level 4 warning or 'do not travel' to Iran (due to the risk of kidnapping and the arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens), the State Department updated information amid more confirmed cases of coronavirus and deaths in that country.  
"Several countries have closed their borders with Iran and/or suspended air traffic to and from Iran. As a result, commercial travel to and from Iran may become severely limited with little or no notice,” said the State Department.

A woman wears a protective masks to prevent against the coronavirus as she sits on a bus in Tehran, Iran Feb. 25, 2020.

The U.S. has advised against travel to Mongolia, a country that neighbors China, due to travel and transport restrictions.  The State Department has also allowed for the voluntary departure of non-emergency U.S. government employees and their family members.
The update comes after Mongolia's government took several precautionary measures, including closing schools until March 30, the mandatory shutdown of restaurants and bars at midnight, and the prohibition of all public events such as concerts.  The country's president, Battulga Khaltmaa, is also in quarantine after returning from a trip to China.
This week, the U.S. travel advisory on Italy was increased to Level 2 -- exercise increased caution -- after separate cases were confirmed in Tuscany and Sicily.  But the U.S. does not recommend canceling or postponing travel to Italy, a popular travel destination.  

Italy and Iran are among the countries with the largest numbers of coronavirus cases outside Asia.

FILE - Passengers are seen wearing protective masks as they arrive at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb. 20, 2020.

 On Feb. 22, the travel advisory on Japan was raised to Level 2—exercise increased caution—after coronavirus infections on a cruise ship and an increase in cases confirmed in the country.
Thursday, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requested all schools to close from March 2 until the end of spring break, in a bid to stop coronavirus spreading.

At the 15th Novel Coronavirus Response Headquarters meeting, PM Abe stated that the government would put health and safety of children first and request all elementary, junior- and senior-high schools and special needs education schools to close from March 2 to the spring break.

— PM's Office of Japan (@JPN_PMO) February 27, 2020

In another drastic move, Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, which has seen the largest number of coronavirus cases in the country, declared a state of emergency on late Friday. The island is known for its volcanoes, natural hot springs and ski resorts.  
And as for whether the Summer Olympics in Tokyo will be canceled due to the coronavirus, the International Olympics Committee said a decision will be made around May.
The U.S. government already has a check-list for potential travelers to the sporting event set to open July 24 in Tokyo.
The following is a breakdown of travel advisories on countries and areas, as of Feb. 28, according to the State Department. 

Level 4: Do Not Travel

COVID-19 outbreak related updates: China, Iran.
Other non-coronavirus risk indicators, including terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict: Iraq, Mali, Central African Republic, Venezuela, Yemen, South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, North Korea, Libya, North Korea, Afghan.

Level 3: Reconsider Travel

COVID-19 outbreak related updates: South Korea, Mongolia.
Other non-coronavirus risk indicators, including terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict: Pakistan, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Niger, Nigeria, Lebanon, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Sudan, Honduras, Haiti, Nicaragua.

Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution

COVID-19 outbreak related updates: Italy, Japan, Hong Kong, Macau.
Other non-coronavirus risk indicators, including crimes, civil unrest, and arbitrary enforcement of local laws: Ukraine, Guinea, Russia, Serbia, Timore-Leste, Brazil, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Nepal, Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Mauritania, South Africa, Belgium, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, The Bahamas, Tajikistan, Dominica, Cuba, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Spain, Papua New Guinea, Myanmar (Burma), El Salvador, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Malawi, Ethiopia, Cote d’lvoire, Uruguay, Netherlands, Madagascar, Egypt, Denmark, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sri Lanka, Germany, Kosovo, Guyana, Zimbabwe, Maldives, United Kingdom, Republic of the Congo, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Uganda, Trinidad and Tobago, Philippines, Kenya, Colombia, Cameroon, Bangladesh, Algeria, Morocco, France, India, Guatemala, Turks and Caicos Islands, Eritrea, Antarctica, Belize, Tunisia, Israel, Jordan.

Level 1: Exercise Normal Precautions

Thailand, Palau, Solomon Island, Micronesia, Luxembourg, Australia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Poland, Croatia, Canada, The Kyrgyz Republic, Samoa, Armenia, Zambia, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Botswana, North Macedonia, Seychelles, Mauritius, Fiji, The Gambia, Rwanda, Equatorial Guinea, Cabo Verde, Bulgaria, Austria, New Zealand, French Guiana, Djibouti, Tonga, Kiribati, Ireland, Brunei, Belarus, Suriname, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Laos, Finland, Norway, Andorra, Hungary, Cyprus, Romania, Estonia, Slovakia, Latvia, Moldova, Ghana, Albania, Greece, Malta, Czech Republic, Iceland, Lithuania, Portugal, Benin, Togo, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saint Kitts and Nevis, British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Panama, Comoros, Turkmenistan, Saint Lucia, Malaysia, Georgia, Angola, Kazakhstan, Nauru, New Caledonia, Sweden, French Polynesia, Vanuatu, Barbados, Saint Vincent and The Grenadines, Montserrat, Antigua and Barbuda, Tuvalu, Grenada, French West Indies, Mozambique, Bhutan, Paraguay, Sao Tome and Principle, Gabon, Sint Maarten, Curacao, Cayman Islands, Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba, Bermuda, Aruba, Liberia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore, Uzbekistan, Marshall Islands, Argentina.

Nigeria Health Officials Prepare for Possible Outbreak After 1st Coronavirus Case Confirmed

4 hours 5 min ago

Nigerian Health authorities  are preparing to handle any possible outbreak and urge citizens to remain calm.

"We have enough reagents to do the checking now, there are four laboratories in Nigeria that can test for this particular virus," Health Minister Emmanuel Osagie said. "We also have a system for sample transport, so samples can be taken from somewhere and transported to a testing center within a few hours. So that is part of the network that we have prepared."

The effort comes as officials confirmed the country's  first case of the coronavirus.  Nigerian health authorities say the patient is a man from Italy — a country hit hard by the virus — who works in Nigeria and returned from the Italian city of Milan to Nigeria's economic hub, Lagos, days ago.

This makes Nigeria the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to record a case of the virus, which is blamed for more than 2,800 deaths worldwide.

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Health minister Osagie says they're working with airline officials to identify other passengers who may have had contact with the infected patient, in order to prevent further spread.

"We are going to get the manifest and then do a contact tracing and find all the people who were there." Osagie said.  "Usually we get their numbers and addresses and monitor them. We are not going to assume that all of them are OK or will fall sick, but advise anyone who has any symptoms to report and be monitored."

The coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan, China, in December.

A recent assessment by the World Health Organization named Nigeria as one of 12 countries in Africa at high risk of the coronavirus threat, because of the high level of travel and trade between the West African country and China.

A man wearing face mask walks at the Yaba Mainland hospital where an Italian citizen who entered Nigeria on Tuesday from Milan on a business trip, the first case of the COVID-19 virus is being treated in Lagos Nigeria, Feb. 28, 2020.

At an Abuja public briefing, WHO Health official  Dr. Clement Peter, admitted that the coronavirus issue is serious and challenging to contain.

"Indeed globally, the sounding from WHO is very clear," he said. "We don't know how this outbreak is going to go. While things should be stabilizing in China gradually, many countries are getting cases that have no link to China."

The coronavirus has killed more than 2,800 people, and infected more than 83,000 in over 50 countries.

Nigerian health officials are hoping that no other cases turn up in Lagos, one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the world.


Pompeo Jousts with Democrats at Hearing, First Since Impeachment

4 hours 21 min ago

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the Trump administration's response to the spreading coronavirus and faced contentious questions from Democrats about an airstrike that killed Iran's most powerful general.

Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed frustration that the panel was afforded only two hours to question Pompeo, who until Friday had gone months without a public appearance on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, recalled Pompeo's "thundering" while in Congress about the need for testimony from one of his Democratic predecessors, Hillary Clinton.

But, "for you, sir, we had to move heaven and earth to get you here for just two hours,'' Meeks said.

Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, asked sarcastically whether Pompeo would return to Congress next week to detail the steps the administration was taking against the coronavirus or whether he would again wait months for his next public appearance.

Democratic committee chairman Rep. Eliot Engel of New York called it an "embarrassment" that the panel had been given such a short time to question Pompeo. The secretary said he had briefed Congress more than 70 times on Iran, rejecting allegations that he had not been accessible.

The hearing was meant to focus on the Trump administration's dealings with Iran and Iraq, but many of the questions centered on the coronavirus. Pompeo said he was confident that the administration had taken action to reduce the threat.

The COVID-19 illness caused by a new coronavirus that emerged in December in the Chinese city of Wuhan has stretched well beyond Asia. The global count of those infected as of Friday exceeds 83,000, with China still by far the hardest-hit country. Dozens of cases but no deaths have been confirmed in the United States.

Pompeo's testimony comes three weeks after the conclusion of the Senate impeachment trial against President Donald Trump, who was accused of abusing his office by withholding aid from Ukraine while he was seeking an investigation into Democratic rival Joe Biden. Trump, who denied doing anything wrong, was acquitted by the Republican-led Senate.

The inquiry before House lawmakers featured the testimony of several foreign service officers, including some who'd been enlisted with trying to carry out the Republican president's wishes and expressed concerns over it.

Though Pompeo was not a central figure to the impeachment inquiry, he's faced criticism for not doing more to stand up for a workforce that's been attacked by the president - including Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who was ousted last spring after a push by the president's allies.

Syria's Idlib Remains Explosive After Deadly Attack on Turkish Troops

4 hours 22 min ago

The situation in Syria's rebel-controlled Idlib region remains explosive, following the killing there of more than 30 Turkish soldiers in an airstrike by Russia-backed Syrian government forces. Bracing against possible Turkish countermeasures, Russia is moving two warships toward the eastern Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, NATO is urging Damascus to "respect international law," and cease airstrikes over civilian areas in Idlib. Turkey also has sent scores of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees to its border with Greece in an apparent effort to pressure the EU to support its position in the northern Syrian province.

NATO's secretary general Jens Stoltenberg offered the group's "condolences" to member state Turkey in a press conference Friday, after an urgent meeting requested by Ankara following the deaths of 33 Turkish soldiers in Idlib. Stoltenberg stopped short, however, of offering any NATO military support to Ankara.

"We stated very clearly that we call on Russia and the [Syrian leader Bashar al-] Assad regime to stop the ... indiscriminate air attacks and also to engage and support U.N.-led efforts to find a lasting political, peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria," Stoltenberg said.

Arab media showed video of two Russian naval frigates equipped with Caliper missiles as they were crossing the Dardanelles, on their way to waters off Syria. At the same time, a Russian military delegation met with their Turkish counterparts in Ankara Friday to try to defuse tensions.

Russia claims that Turkish forces were working alongside "terrorist groups" in Idlib province when they were hit by a Syrian government airstrike. Turkey denies the claim. The Russian Foreign Ministry repeated Friday that "terrorist groups will not be tolerated" in Idlib.


Trump Faces Threat from Coronavirus

4 hours 55 min ago

Donald Trump's presidency is facing one of its biggest challenges from the spread of the new coronavirus, which threatens to infect the healthy U.S. economy.

As U.S. stock indexes continued to plunge Friday, the White House national economic director, Larry Kudlow, told reporters that the country's economy remains fundamentally sound, adding, "I don't think people should panic."

Kudlow, who is a member of the administration's newly formed coronavirus task force, said while there is currently no evidence of major supply chain disruptions, "that may be ahead of us."

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is poised to record its worst weekly slide since the 2008 financial crisis.

Trader David O'Day works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Feb. 28, 2020.

Market analysts say they expect the Federal Reserve, which controls interest rates, to signal action early next week to assuage panic among traders.

Trump has repeatedly complained the Fed has not been aggressive enough in cutting rates.

In response to a question from VOA about what emergency powers the administration possesses to boost domestic production of equipment in short supply, such as N95 respirator masks and other personal protection equipment, Kudlow replied: "I don't want to go into any details on that right now."

The Trump administration is considering invoking special powers through a law called the Defense Production Act to rapidly expand domestic manufacturing of protective masks and clothing to combat the coronavirus in the United States, according to the Reuters news agency.

Targeting media, opposition

Earlier in the day, the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, blamed the media for exaggerating the seriousness of the coronavirus.

"They think this will bring down the president, that's what this is all about," Mulvaney said at the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference.

FILE - Donald Trump Jr. speaks at a rally in Phoenix, Feb. 19, 2020.

The president's son, Donald Trump Jr., on Friday accused members of the Democratic Party of wanting the coronavirus to kill "millions of people," which he told Fox News Channel is a "new level of sickness" by the opposition politicians.

A Democratic congressman, John Garamendi, called Trump Jr's comment "totally outrageous."

Appearing on MSNBC, the lawmaker said: "I can assure you that there's not a Democrat or Republican in Congress that wants anybody to be sick."

Democratic leaders in Congress have harshly criticized the president's response to the coronavirus outbreak.

"The American people need a well-coordinated, whole-of-government, fully-funded response to keep them safe from the coronavirus threat," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after the president's news conference Wednesday. "Unfortunately, the Trump administration has mounted an opaque and chaotic response to this outbreak."

COVID-19 numbers

Globally there are more than 83,000 known cases of the viral disease, known as COVID-19, with nearly 2,900 reported deaths.

In the United States, there are more than 60 cases, including the first possible transmission of the coronavirus in the community — a woman in Northern California who is being treated at a hospital in Sacramento.

About half of the U.S. cases are passengers evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan. The vessel had previously visited China, the source of the outbreak.

FILE - Personnel in biological hazard suits await passengers evacuated from Wuhan, China, shortly after the plane landed at the March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, California, Jan. 29, 2020.

Hundreds of U.S. nationals have been repatriated from mainland China on State Department-chartered flights. They were then placed in 14-day quarantines on air bases in California.

A whistleblower complaint, according to media reports, alleges federal employees sent to military bases did not follow safety protocols while interacting with those individuals and the government workers subsequently were not tested for COVID-19 before departing the bases and then were sent home on commercial flights.

Nigeria Confirms First Coronavirus Case as Africa Braces for Pandemic

5 hours 24 min ago

Nigerian officials have confirmed a case of coronavirus in the country, the first confirmed case in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa is braced for a potential coronavirus pandemic as experts warn health systems on the continent could be overwhelmed.  However, experts say the apparent delay in the virus reaching Africa has given health officials precious time to prepare, as Henry Ridgwell reports.

Cultivating the Land

5 hours 29 min ago

VOA Connect Episode 111 - We head to the simple life at a homestead in Arkansas where Gary McWilliams and his family grow their own food. We then travel to Connecticut to meet seaweed farmers, and visit a school that teaches little children where our food comes from.

Attacks Prevent Displaced in Syria's Idlib from Getting Health Care

5 hours 44 min ago

The World Health Organization says tens of thousands of displaced people in northwestern Syria's Idlib province are unable to get health care, because fighting has put dozens of health facilities out of commission and created shortages of medicine and medical supplies. 

Nearly one million civilians are camped out near the border with Turkey under horrific conditions. Intensified shelling and airstrikes by Russian-backed Syrian forces trying to retake Idlib in northern Syria from rebel groups has sent people fleeing for their lives.

But they do not have anywhere to go. Turkey will not open its borders to them, leaving them stranded close to the area where the bombing is taking place. World Health Organization spokesman Christian Lindmeier told VOA shelter is scarce, exposing people to the harsh elements.

"Nearly 170,000 newly displaced people are estimated to be sleeping out in the open ... which has been exposing at least 100,000 children to temperatures close to zero degrees," Lindmeier said.

A stretcher covered in blood is left in front of a hospital in Idlib province, Syria, Feb. 28, 2020.

At least nine children reportedly have frozen to death. The WHO has delivered seven truckloads with 55 tons of medicine and medical supplies in a two-day cross-border operation from Turkey to Idlib and Aleppo.

The WHO says the supplies will provide more than 225,000 treatments to the sick, but the care that offers is far below what is needed. Since hostilities in Idlib escalated in December, Lindmeier said 84 health facilities have been forced to suspend operation. Only 31 facilities were able to relocate from the battle zone and provide services to those who have fled the bombing.

"As a result, more than 133,000 medical outpatient consultations will not take place, nearly 11,000 trauma patients are not catered to and 1,500 major surgeries will not be performed as they normally would in a cycle of four weeks," Lindmeier  said.  

The supplies sent to Idlib this week are being distributed to the WHO's partners working throughout Syria's northwest region.  

The WHO reported a sharp rise in trauma cases and respiratory tract infections, due to poor shelter and harsh weather conditions. In addition, health workers find many people are suffering from complications of non-chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, due to irregular access to medicines.

Parents of 'Terrified' Africans Stranded in China Want Help

5 hours 53 min ago

She wakes every day long before dawn to chat with her three stranded daughters on the other side of the world in China's locked-down city of Wuhan, anxious to see they have started a new day virus-free.

"If I don't get a reply it worries me, but if I get a reply from any of them I say, `'Thank you, Jesus,'" Margaret Ntale said.

Many countries evacuated citizens from Wuhan after the virus outbreak started there, but thousands of students from African countries have been left behind. Despite pleas with governments for evacuation, several African countries have said it's safer to stay in place.

More than 4,000 African students have been estimated to be in Wuhan, a result of China's push to expand its influence on the youthful African continent.

Bringing them home, governments say, is risky in sub-Saharan Africa, which on Friday confirmed its first case of the virus, in Nigeria's city of Lagos. Just two cases have been confirmed in North Africa, in Egypt and Algeria. Health systems can be weak, and quarantining dozens or hundreds of returning people is a major challenge.

That leaves African students stuck on ever-emptier campuses in Wuhan, worrying about running out of food or the money to buy it. Some governments have begun sending thousands of dollars to help them get by.

"I have a few friends who are not able to get things like detergent, sanitary towels, and then also not having food, like such things like that," said one of Ntale's daughters' roommates, Joanna Aloyo, via a messaging app.

On Thursday, Ntale joined other parents in Uganda's capital, Kampala, to talk to local reporters about their fears. And she started to cry.

"You can never know what is going to happen tomorrow. This is what scares me,"' Ntale said. "The students are traumatized and equally terrified. It makes all of us break down.'

The uncertainty about their children is "psychological torture,"' another parent said. At least 70 Ugandan students are stranded in Wuhan.

Uganda's health minister, Jane Aceng, could not be reached immediately. But two weeks ago she said the ministry was looking at the cost to"`isolate, monitor and manage in the event of an outbreak among the group if repatriated."

Meanwhile she has said the government would send $60,000 in emergency funds to be distributed among students in Wuhan.

But the parents said their children had not received the money.

"It is a bit upsetting that it appears no serious action has taken place," said one parent, Cecilia Oyet. "I think that kind of inaction or slow action sends a message to those students out there, and even to the youth within the country. It sends a message either that we as fellow Ugandans, we don't care or that they as the youth, they don't matter, and we feel it is not okay."

The parents communicate with their children by phone and the occasional video chat. They are increasingly alarmed as the death toll from the virus has grown, though some speak of trying to remain positive.

Oyet, whose daughter is a medical student at Wuhan University of Science and Technology, recalled that about two weeks ago a student sent a message saying that "people are dying here in large numbers and the bodies are being cremated. Can you imagine us dying here and you don't even see our bodies? Please do something before we become part of the statistics."

Other countries have announced plans to send students money. Botswana's government has said each of its students in Wuhan will receive an additional allowance of about $144 a month and a local company will be engaged to deliver food, water, face masks and even provide "psychosocial support services."

But that's not enough, some students and parents say. After some called Ghana's government "callous" for not evacuating its students, President Nana Akufo-Addo last week said it had not been ruled out but it would be done in a way to avoid "fear and panic among the public."
In Ethiopia, where some worried families gathered in the capital, Addis Ababa, seeking evacuations, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed this week said Chinese President Xi Jinping assured him in a phone call that China would provide "special care and support" to stranded students.

Chinese authorities have issued statements saying students are receiving food and other necessities. But Kenya's government raised eyebrows last week when it announced on Twitter that any communication from the government to stranded Kenyans in Wuhan "must be done through the Chinese government."

Spirits among some students have been low. Until Thursday night when South Africa announced that more than 130 citizens in Wuhan would be evacuated, the small island nations of Seychelles and Mauritius were the only countries in sub-Saharan Africa to bring citizens home.

In an open letter to Nigeria's president published earlier this month by the Sahara Reporters website, a Nigerian stranded in Wuhan, Ayodeji Adetunji Idowu, made an urgent plea, saying the "mood here is fast turning to frustration, helplessness, and despondency because of our failure to receive diplomatic support to be evacuated."

While Nigeria's ambassador sent the community a personal donation of about $2,850, "it saddens us that days and weeks have gone past ... to get a favorable response from authorities," Idowu wrote.

Financial Pain Deepens as Nearly 60 Countries Report Virus

6 hours 6 min ago

A deepening health crisis became an economic one too Friday, with the virus outbreak sapping financial markets, emptying shops and businesses, and putting major sites and events off limits.

As the list of countries hit by the illness edged toward 60 with Belarus, Lithuania, New Zealand, Nigeria, Azerbaijan and the Netherlands reporting their first cases, the threats to livelihoods were increasingly eyed as warily as the threats to lives.

"It's not cholera or the black plague," said Simone Venturini, the city councilor for economic development in Venice, Italy, where tourism already hurt by historic flooding last year has sunk with news of virus cases. "The damage that worries us even more is the damage to the economy."

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said the outbreak "has pandemic potential," but whatever terminology officials used, the rippling effects were clear.

A man wearing a mask walks past an advertisement for the Tokyo Disney Resort at a train station in Urayasu, near Tokyo, Feb. 28, 2020. The amusement park will be closed Feb. 29 to March 15 in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Attractions including Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan announced closures and events that expected tens of thousands, including a tour by the K-pop group BTS, were called off.

Investors watched warily as stocks fell across Asia and girded to see if Wall Street's brutal run would continue, while businesses both small and large saw weakness and people felt it in their wallets.

"There's almost no one coming here," said Kim Yun-ok, who sells doughnuts and seaweed rolls at Seoul's Gwangjang Market, where crowds were thin Friday as South Korea counted 571 new cases — more than China. "I am just hoping that the outbreak will come under control soon."

In Italy, where the count of 650 cases is growing, hotel bookings were dropping and Premier Giuseppe Conte raised the specter of recession. Shopkeepers like Flavio Gastaldi, who has sold souvenirs in Venice for three decades, wondered if they could survive the blow.

"We will return the keys to the landlords soon," he said.

The economic hurt came with anger in Bangkok, where tenants at the Platinum Fashion Mall staged a flash mob, shouting "Reduce the rent!" and holding signs that said "Tourists don't come, shops suffer."

Workers wearing protective gears spray disinfectant as a precaution against the new coronavirus at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 28, 2020.

Kanya Yontararak, a 51-year-old owner of a women's clothing store, said her sales have sunk as low as 1,000 baht ($32) some days, making it a struggle to pay back a loan for her lease. She's stopped driving to work, using public transit instead, packs a lunch instead of buying, and is cutting her grocery bills. The situation is more severe than the floods and political crises her store has braved in the past.

"Coronavirus is the worst situation they have ever seen," she said of the merchants.

Some saw dollar signs in the crisis, with 20 people in Italy arrested for selling masks they fraudulently claimed provided complete protection from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Police said they were selling them for as much as 5,000 euros ($5,520) each.

Japan's schools prepared to shutter and the country's Hokkaido island declared a state of emergency, with its governor urging residents to stay home over the weekend. The Swiss government banned events with more than 1,000 people, while at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, basins of holy water were emptied for fear of spreading germs.

Globally, more than 83,000 people have fallen ill with the coronavirus. China, though hardest hit, has seen lower numbers of new infections, with 327 additional cases reported Friday, bringing the country's total to 78,824. Another 44 people died there for a total of 2,788.

South Korea has recorded 2,337 cases, the most outside of China. Emerging clusters in Italy and in Iran, which has had 34 deaths and 388 cases, have in turn led to infections of people in other countries.

Africa 54

6 hours 12 min ago

On this edition of Africa 54, Nigeria confirms its first case of the Coronavirus, after a man entered the west African nation from Italy; The United States warns that terrorist groups may be plotting an attack in Nairobi, Kenya; the water at Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls flowing again, triggered by rains upstream in Angola and Namibia; Maurice Kamto, the leader of the opposition Cameroonian Renaissance Movement, says his party is vindicated for boycotting recent legislative and local elections.

A54 Entertainment: The 28th edition of the Pan African Film Festival recently wrapped up its showings in Los Angeles.Created by actor and producer Danny Glover, this event is the largest black film festival in America.

A Narrow Alley's Murals in San Francisco Attract Thousands

6 hours 42 min ago

A narrow alley in San Francisco, California, is also an art exhibit, with walls covered by beautifully painted images and murals. It is called the Clarion Alley Mural Project, or CAMP, and it was established by a group of volunteers in 1992. VOA's Ava Homa gives us a closer look at the magical alley and its history.

Which Coronavirus Reports Are Fake? Ask These Fact Checkers

8 hours 25 min ago

It’s easy to jump online and find reports saying onions in the home can ward off the coronavirus that has hobbled much of Asia this month or see videos saying hordes of bats living in China spread the disease. Some say Taiwan’s outbreak of COVID-19 has spiraled out of control, though the government reports just 32 isolated cases.

A young nonprofit organization in Taipei has looked into 50 virus-related news items to determine which are fakes. Its staff of five, equipped with internet apps and their own media backgrounds, specializes in knowing truth from untruth in Chinese-language media, including social.

More than 90% of the virus stories they investigated are false, said Summer Chen, chief editor of the organization called Taiwan FactCheck Center.

They found rumors. There were squibs with commercial motives. There were Chinese-planted reports that make Taiwan look bad, Chen said. The two sides are political rivals.

"Of course, some are out to make political attacks like the government, and over the past few days we’ve been hit by internet trolls,” Chen, a former newspaper journalist, said in an interview Friday.

Fake news in the making

Shortly before Taiwanese picked a president Jan. 11, someone used social media to say the coronavirus was already spreading and advised wearing face masks to polling stations, then washing their hands later in case of germs, Chen said. Someone came out this month on social media to advise rubbing sesame oil under the nose to stop the coronavirus spread, she added.

Two media-linked associations started the Taiwan FactCheck Center, and at first it was just investigating two reports per week, either from conventional media or from online. It's recognized by the International Fact-Checking Network and belongs to a Facebook fact-checking platform.

Now they get five reports a day, a surge that started during Taiwan’s sometimes vicious presidential election campaign.

After the election, “we hadn’t even taken a breath and we started working on Wuhan pneumonia,” Chen said, using a local slang term for the novel coronavirus.

People wear face masks to protect against the coronavirus, in Taipei, Taiwan, Feb. 26, 2020.

Before the vote, Taiwan’s government and political figures had talked up Taiwan FactCheck Center as a way for people to vet news they wonder about. The center accepts reports from anyone outside government or politics.

"Anybody can send any kind of information,” Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told foreign media reporters at a January 9 news briefing. “We send it to the FactCheck center and can get clarification whether this news is true or false.”

Taiwan FactCheck Center staffers don’t go after the source of fake news but look as far upstream as they can to match content with its origins. The bat video turned out to be from the United States, not China, for example, Chen said.

They can use Google Maps to know whether people really are where they say they are. A mobile reverse imaging app determines where photos might have originated. Results of the checks go on the center’s webpage and its Facebook page. About 10,00 people read each posted verdict.

Pent-up demand for fact-checking

Some 226 organizations in 73 countries specialize in fact-checking, Duke University's Duke Reporters' Lab found last year. But relatively few monitor Chinese-language media in East Asia, Chen said. Mandarin Chinese is the official language of Taiwan as well as China.

Taiwan FactCheck Center has a valuable but tough job, media analysts say.

"In general, it plays a positive role in improving the quality of local news reporting," said Ku Lin-lin, associate journalism professor at National Taiwan University.

News outlets will welcome fact-check results to know what’s right and wrong, said George Hou, mass communications lecturer at Taiwan-based I-Shou University. But checking accuracy is tough due to the glut of information coming through people’s phones and computers via the internet, Hou said.

"We have social media, we have phones and we have tablets, that’s a good thing but we’re also in an age of extremely chaotic information flow,” he said.


VOA Our Voices 216: Lessons in Mother Tongue Education

8 hours 37 min ago

“Hello”, “Bonjour”, “Ola” – all greetings in languages used in classrooms across Africa. But how many are actually indigenous to the African continent? This week, #VOAOurVoices examines mother tongue education in African schools. Should children be taught in the language they speak at home? Host, Hayde Adams FitzPatrick is joined by Madina Maishanu of VOA’s Hausa news service, Mwamoyo Hamza, Chief of VOA’s Swahili news service, as well as Jackson Mvunganyi, from VOA’s youth-focused show, Upfront. South African linguist, Somikazi Deyi, from the University of Cape Town also joins the show to talk about how friction over mother tongue education has shaped South Africa’s past and present.