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Voice of America

Voice of America is an international news and broadcast organization serving Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Russia, the Middle East and Balkan countries


Syrian Activists: Tweeting for Their Lives

Sat, 24 Feb 2018 05:55:15 -0500

“For God’s sake help us!” reads a message on Twitter attached to a video showing two small girls, bleeding and crying in a smoky, chaotic house. It is part of a social media campaign surrounding the crisis in Ghouta, Syria, where more than 400 civilians have been killed in the past six days, according to Human Rights Watch. “I’m in the center of the city,” said Mahmoud Bwedany, a 20-year-old activist and student in Ghouta, speaking on a Whatsapp call Friday evening from the basement of the building he used to live in. “I’m not near the front line but two days ago a mortar hit 3 meters away from our building.” “The children were crying out loud,” he added. “I didn’t see any guns they were holding.” Online, hundreds of messages, many including pictures of dead children, emerged in a “Twitter Storm” on Friday, an event designed to raise awareness. If the assault on Ghouta continues, activists say this could be the beginning of a devastating new chapter in Syria's 7-year-old civil war. “They are literally targeting everything that moves,” said Adnan Hadad, a Syrian media activist in direct contact with civilians in Ghouta. “There is no shortage of news, videos and still photos. But people feel that the world is just sitting there, watching them dying.” International war Eastern Ghouta, about 15 kilometers from Damascus, is held by opposition fighters and has been under siege by Syrian government forces since 2013, HRW says. More than 13 hospitals have been hit in the recent bombardments, and activists say they fear that if Syrian and Russian forces continue to cause mass civilian casualties in Ghouta, they will proceed to take other opposition-controlled areas in a similar fashion. Russia’s envoy to the U.N., Vassily Nebenzia, disputes claims of mass civilian casualties, calling them rumors as a result of “mass psychosis in global media outlets acting in coordination.” Iranian and Russian media accuse the Western press of ignoring the casualties caused by fighters in Ghouta lobbing rockets into Damascus. Iran, also allied with the Syrian government against rebel groups, has called for a de-escalation of the violence, but blames it on “terrorist groups,” according to Iranian broadcaster, Press TV. Reacting to the fighting in Syria, U.S. President Donald Trump said Friday, "What Russia and what Iran and what Syria have done recently is a humanitarian disgrace." He made the comments during a press conference at the White House, adding, "What those three countries have done to people over a short period of time is a disgrace."  Online activists beg, plead and try to shame the world into hearing their message. One professional-looking series of photos shows individual world leaders juxtaposed to photographs of carnage in Syria, reading, “What are you doing for Ghouta except observing the Genocide?” But activists say their calls have done little to stop the violence. The United Nations has repeatedly failed to broker a cease-fire, and the Syrian government insists it is fighting terrorists, not opposition groups. And even if a cease-fire is reached, it may not de-escalate the violence, according to Bwedany, the activist who has been living in the basement with about 30 of his neighbors since the assault began. Beyond a cease-fire agreement, the international community needs to “make sure that they respect it and fulfill what they agreed," he said.

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Philippines Students Gather for Art — and a Shot at a Guinness Record

Sat, 24 Feb 2018 05:24:14 -0500

Nearly 17,000 students in the Philippines gathered in a park in the capital, Manila, on Saturday in a bid to set a record for the world’s biggest art class. Middle school pupils from about 200 schools listened for about an hour as a teacher taught them how to draw a mask. “I learned a lot,” said one of the students, Kathleen Pareno. Organizers said 16,692 students joined the lesson and the figure would be sent to Guinness World Records for an evaluation. India holds the record for the largest art lesson with 14,135 people taking part in one in 2014, Guinness World Records said on its website.  

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US Men Win First Olympic Gold Medal in Curling

Sat, 24 Feb 2018 05:04:49 -0500

The American men have won the Olympic gold medal in curling in a decisive upset of Sweden.   John Shuster skipped the United States to a 10-7 victory Saturday for the second curling medal in U.S. history. Shuster was part of the other one, too, as the lead thrower on Pete Fenson’s bronze-medal team at the 2006 Turin Games.   The Americans received a good luck call from Mr. T before the match. The King of Sweden was there, as was U.S. presidential daughter Ivanka Trump. They saw Shuster convert a double-takeout for a five-ender in the eighth — an exceedingly rare score that made it 10-5 and essentially clinched the win. Sweden retained the last-rock advantage known as the hammer for the ninth end, and scored two.  But that gave the hammer to the Americans for the 10th and final end. Shuster played it safe, throwing away one stone intentionally to keep the target area clear and avoid the traffic that can lead to big scores. The remaining rocks were used to methodically pick off Sweden’s until there weren’t enough left to catch up.  With two stones apiece left, Swedish skip Niklas Edin pushed off with a spin and a smile, and then conceded defeat. (Although Sweden had two stones in the house, the end does not count in the score). Sweden is the reigning world champion silver medalist and finished first in pool play with a 7-2 record. The Americans barely squeaked into the playoffs with a 5-4 record after losing four of their first six games to move to the brink of elimination.  But Shuster, American curling’s only four-time Olympian, guided his team to three straight victories to advance to the playoffs and then a semifinal win over three-time defending gold medalist Canada. No U.S. curling team, men’s or women’s, had ever beaten Canada at the Olympics. This year’s team — Shuster, Tyler George, Matt Hamilton, John Landsteiner and alternate Joe Polo — did it twice in one week.   Sweden took the silver medal. Switzerland beat Canada in the third-place game on Friday for bronze. 

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More US Companies End Marketing Programs With National Rifle Association

Sat, 24 Feb 2018 04:10:33 -0500

Three more companies say they have ended marketing programs with the National Rifle Association (NRA), as gun control advocates stepped up pressure on firms to cut ties to the gun industry following last week’s school shooting in Florida. Activists have posted petitions online, identifying businesses that offer discounts to NRA members, in a push to pressure the companies to cut ties to the gun rights organization. Corporations that ended their discount programs with NRA members on Friday included insurance company MetLife, car rental company Hertz, and Symantec Corp., the software company that makes Norton Antivirus technology. The move comes after several other companies cut their ties to the NRA earlier this week, including car rental company Enterprise, First National Bank of Omaha, Wyndham Hotels and Best Western hotels. The NRA is one of the country’s most powerful lobbying groups for gun rights and claims 5 million members. Florida shooting renews debate Last week’s shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead has renewed the national debate about gun control. Gun control activists have been mounting a campaign on Twitter, including using the hashtag #BoycottNRA as well as using social media to pressure streaming platforms, including Amazon, to drop the online video channel NRATV, which features gun-friendly programming produced by the NRA. On Thursday, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that those advocating for stricter gun control are exploiting the Florida shooting. Receiving a rousing reception, LaPierre said, “There is no greater personal individual freedom than the right to keep and bear arms, the right to protect yourself and the right to survive.” Arming teachers On Friday, President Donald Trump reiterated to CPAC for the third time this week the need to arm teachers with concealed weapons to prevent more shootings in U.S. schools. “It’s time to make our schools a much harder target for attackers. We don’t want them in our schools,” Trump said. Trump has also proposed raising the age to buy assault-style rifles from 18 to 21, which is opposed by the NRA. In his speech to CPAC, Trump indicated he does not intend to battle the powerful organization. “They’re friends of mine,” Trump said of the NRA, which gave more than $11 million to his presidential campaign in 2016 and spent nearly $20 million attacking his Democratic Party general election challenger, Hillary Clinton. The mass shooting in Florida on Feb. 14 has sparked a wave of rallies in Florida, Washington and in other areas of the United States in an attempt to force local and national leaders to take action to prevent such attacks.  

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Zimbabwe’s Opposition Names Acting Leader 

Sat, 24 Feb 2018 03:21:01 -0500

Zimbabwe’s main opposition party says its acting leader will stay at the helm following the death of former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai earlier this month. But signs of internal division remain, something analysts say could handicap the opposition with elections just months away. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) goes into this year’s election without its founding leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who died in South Africa two weeks ago after a battle with colon cancer. Since then, the MDC’s three vice presidents have been fighting for the top post. One of them, Nelson Chamisa, said Friday that MDC leaders have chosen him to be the party’s acting head for the next 12 months. “There is a lot of noise in the cockpit, yes. This is just turbulences. It is a difficult transition. We had giant who was our head, our leader, and all of a sudden that giant is no longer there,” Chamisa said. “Obviously, the small giants would want to fit in the shoes. But you can be assured that it will be resolved,” he added. “Don’t listen to too much noise. Listen to the music coming from the cockpit, and the music is that we are going to win the election.” A coalition of opposition parties is expected to back Chamisa as their presidential candidate in the coming elections. For the first time, the MDC will not be facing off against Robert Mugabe. The longtime president was forced to resign under military pressure in November, after 37 years in power. Some in the opposition see opportunity in this time of transition in Zimbabwe, but independent analyst Rejoice Ngwenya says time is running out. “Elections are really about being organized,” Ngwenya said. “If I were to advise them now, I would tell the opposition that it is too late to start re-aligning their governance and constitutional issues now. They need to compromise and focus on the candidate who is the best to bring votes into their kit. The issues of governance and constitutional issues should have been solved two years ago, it is too late now.” The ruling ZANU-PF party has selected its top candidate, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took over from Mugabe in November.

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Attacks Across Afghanistan Leave Dozens Dead, Wounded

Sat, 24 Feb 2018 01:27:30 -0500

A suicide bomber killed at least two and wounded seven in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group in the diplomatic area of Afghanistan’s capital Saturday, and at least 18 soldiers died in an attack on a checkpoint by Taliban insurgents in the country’s west, authorities said.   Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish said the Kabul attack took place in the Shash Darak area near NATO headquarters and not far from the U.S. Embassy. Danish said the initial casualty count could rise.   The Islamic State group in a statement on its website claimed responsibility.   In western Farah province, at least 18 soldiers were killed when their checkpoint came under attack by Taliban insurgents, said Dawlat Waziri, spokesman for the Defense Ministry. He said two other soldiers were wounded in the attack in the Bala Buluk district.    Qari Yusouf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement.   Meanwhile, an Afghan official said at least three security personnel were killed in separate suicide bombing attacks in southern Helmand province.   Omar Zwak, spokesman for the provincial governor in Helmand, said a car bomber early Saturday was shot by Afghan army soldiers but his vehicle managed to reach the entrance of the army base in Nad Aali district, killing two soldiers and wounding another.   In a second suicide bombing attack near another military base in Helmand’s capital city Lashkar Gah, one security person was killed and seven civilians wounded, Zwak said.   Qari Yusouf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for both suicide attacks in Helmand.   The resurgent Taliban and the newer IS affiliate have been blamed for increased violence in Afghanistan after U.S. and NATO forces concluded combat missions in 2014 that began after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S.

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Nanette Fabray, Award-Winning Star of Stage, Film and TV, Dies at 97

Sat, 24 Feb 2018 01:06:40 -0500

Nanette Fabray, the vivacious, award-winning star of the stage, film and television, has died at 97. Fabray’s son, Dr. Jamie MacDougall, told The Associated Press his mother died Thursday at her home in Palos Verdes Estates. Fabray launched her career at age 3 as Vaudeville’s singing-dancing Baby Nanette. On Broadway she won a Tony in 1949 for the musical “Love Life” and was nominated for another for “Mr. President.” She starred opposite Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in the hit 1953 film “The Band Wagon.” Her television roles included playing Bonnie Franklin’s mother in the hit 1980s sitcom “One Day at a Time.” She also played the mother of Shelley Fabares, her real-life niece, in the 1990s sitcom “Coach.”

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Taliban Vows to Protect TAPI Gas Pipeline Project 

Sat, 24 Feb 2018 00:03:53 -0500

As leaders and representatives of countries involved in the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) gas pipeline celebrated the project’s inauguration, Afghan Taliban, in a rare announcement, vowed to support and protect the pipeline in areas under its control. In a statement emailed to media outlets, Qari Mohammad Yusuf Ahmadi, a purported Taliban spokesperson, claimed credit for the project, implying that it was initially planned during the Taliban regime, and said the group will ensure its security in areas under its control. “The Islamic Emirate views this project as an important element of the country’s economic infrastructure and believes its proper implementation will benefit the Afghan people. We announce our cooperation in providing security for the project in areas under our control,” the Taliban statement said. The long-awaited 1,814-kilometers (1,130-mile) pipeline project, known by its acronym TAPI, which will stretch from Turkmenistan and feed gas to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, was officially inaugurated Friday by Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani in the country’s western Herat province. ​Inaugural ceremony Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and India Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar participated in the inauguration ceremony, which was held amid tight security to prevent possible attacks aimed at disrupting the event. The work on the Afghan part of the multibillion-dollar project has officially begun, and the project will take several years to complete. Ghani said TAPI is the start of a new beginning for the region. “We hope that this project [TAPI] will pave the way for hundreds of other projects and the hope is that our future generations will view this not only as the inauguration of a project and an economic corridor, but the foundation of a shared vision which will help us fight poverty, unemployment, extremism and insecurity in our region,” he said. “The policy of cooperation will ensure prosperity for our people, and economic prosperity is an important pillar of security and stability,” Ghani added. Taliban’s statement follows another statement by the group’s breakaway faction, led by Mullah Mohammad Rasool, which also said it would support the project and prevent domestic and foreign groups from jeopardizing the prospects of its success. “We will not allow any group or state to disrupt this project,” Maulawi Abdul Manan Niazi said in a statement sent to local media. It is very rare for Taliban insurgents to support a government project. The militant group is often accused of destroying bridges, roads, schools and other places of public interest in their attacks across the country. ​Militants linked to Iran Meanwhile, provincial officials in Herat province told media that a group of 10 militants, who allegedly had been trained in Iran to attack the inauguration ceremony of TAPI, decided not to carry out the attack and instead surrendered to authorities. “Enemies of Afghanistan have instructed them to disrupt the ceremony, but they [militants] realized that this project would benefit the Afghan people and the next generations of the country,” Herat province Governor Mohammad Asif Rahimi told RFE/RL Afghanistan service. The Afghan Ministry of Interior said they would investigate the group’s claims. “Every country involved in such disruptive attempts should know that one day their future generations will pay the price as the fire will reach them as well,” Murad Ali Murad, deputy minister of Interior, told local media without naming any country. Iranian officials have not commented on this issue yet. Some Afghan officials, however, blame Tehran for supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, a charge Tehran denies. TAPI vs IPI? Another gas [...]

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Deportations Rise, Increasingly Among Those With No Criminal Record

Fri, 23 Feb 2018 23:38:55 -0500

People arrested by deportation officers increasingly have no criminal backgrounds, according to figures released Friday, reflecting the Trump administration’s commitment to cast a wider net. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said 65 percent of arrests from October to December were criminals, compared to 82 percent during the final full three months of the Obama administration. Looked at another way, arrests of criminals jumped 14 percent to 25,626 from 22,484, but arrests of non-criminals nearly tripled to 13,548 from 4,918. Overall, there were 39,174 deportation arrests from October to December, up from 27,402 during the final full three months of the Obama administration. The 43 percent surge is consistent with trends since Trump took office and dramatically increased enforcement. During the 2017 fiscal year, which included nearly four months under Obama, 74 percent had criminal convictions and an additional 16 percent had pending charges, according to ICE. The most common crimes were driving under the influence, drugs, other traffic offenses and immigration violations. The administration has said people with criminal histories remain a priority but that no one in the country illegally is immune. Many with deep, longstanding ties in the country who stayed out of trouble were allowed to stay under Obama but are now ordered to leave. In February, former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, now Trump’s chief of staff, scrapped the Obama administration’s policy of limiting deportations to people who pose a public safety threat, convicted criminals and those who have crossed the border recently, effectively making anyone in the country illegally vulnerable. ICE’s Dallas field office tallied the most arrests during the latest three-month period, followed by Atlanta and Houston.

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Shiffrin Jokes About Whether Vonn's Olympic Career Is Over

Fri, 23 Feb 2018 22:04:59 -0500

Mikaela Shiffrin is not quite convinced Lindsey Vonn's Olympic career is done. "Whenever I hear anybody say something about this," Shiffrin said Friday, "it's like, 'most likely,' ]'probably,' 'maybe,' 'we'll see,' 'not sure.' I'm like, 'Knowing Lindsey, I don't believe her.' " And with that, Shiffrin let out a big laugh. She is, without a doubt, the heir apparent to Vonn as the leader of U.S. ski racing. They were the only two members of the country's Alpine team to earn medals at the Pyeongchang Games — and the only two to hold news conferences a day after the sport's last two individual events. First came Vonn, 33, wearing her downhill bronze medal. After she left the room, it was time for Shiffrin, 22, whose gold from the giant slalom and silver from the combined dangled from her neck. Vonn spent much of her session taking questions about her, um, extensive experience — "You're not getting any younger," was the way one reporter put it, to which the skier replied with a smile, "Come right out and say it, why don't you!" — and the emotions of her (presumably) last Olympics. Then Shiffrin discussed what she called the frustration of dealing with schedule changes that contributed to a fourth-place finish in her top event, the slalom, and forced her to enter only three of five races. Tribute to Vonn When asked about being Vonn's successor, she was deferential. "I don't necessarily feel like I'm taking over something for the sport. I don't know if I could fill Lindsey's shoes, the way that she has worn them," Shiffrin said. "I'm going to do my best to help the sport grow in whatever way that I can. The best way that I can do that, as far as I see right now, is just to ski my best and to keep taking ski racing to a new level." Shiffrin also was asked about what sort of advice she might have received from Vonn about taking over as the face of Alpine skiing in the United States. "I haven't had a lot of advice about what to do because, first of all, I don't think Lindsey sees herself as being done yet or passing the baton," she answered. "And I don't see myself as taking the baton." Shiffrin is now what Vonn once was: a multiple Olympic medalist in her 20s with a bright future. After Vonn won a gold and bronze at the 2010 Vancouver Games, the assumption was she would go on to add medal upon medal to her career total. Instead, she was forced to miss the 2014 Olympics after tearing knee ligaments. So after an eight-year wait, Vonn stepped back on the stage, but has said this would be her last Olympics. As it is, she became the oldest woman to win an Alpine medal. Vonn said the woman who took the gold in the downhill, good friend Sofia Goggia of Italy, wrote a note trying to lobby for a return in 2022. "I told her ... if I physically could continue for four years, then I probably would, as long as I considered myself still a competitor," Vonn said. "But four years is a really long time. I told her that. She said she's going to keep trying to convince me." Career record In the meantime, there are other goals Vonn will pursue before retiring. She reiterated she is "not going to stop ski racing until I break" Ingemar Stenmark's World Cup record for most career race wins. She has 81; he had 86. "I think next season," Vonn said, "I can get it done." She also intends to pursue a chance to compete against men, something she's sought for years. The sport's governing body is supposed to consider her request in a few months, but if that doesn't work out, Vonn said she would think about trying to set up an exhibition race. All of that will be put on hold for a bit, though. Instead of joining the skiing circuit when it resumes in Switzerland next weekend, Vonn will wait until the World Cup Finals in Are, Sweden, on March 14-18, to try to overtake [...]

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