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Russia Offers Military Support to Somalia

Somali diplomats said Friday that Russia had offered to help support Somalia’s armed forces in their battle against the al-Shabab terrorist group.

The diplomats, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had made the offer during talks with his Somali counterpart, Abshir Omar Jama, in Moscow.

One diplomat said, “Russia was ready to provide Somalia’s army with military supplies, to strengthen the government fight against al-Shabab.”

The diplomats did not specify the kinds of materiel Russia was offering to Somalia, which is under a long-standing U.N. arms embargo.

The U.N. Security Council imposed the embargo in 1992 after the outbreak of civil war and factional violence. The embargo was partially lifted in 2013 to help Somalia’s security forces fight the Islamist militants.

Russia’s offer came hours after al-Shabab militants stormed a military base manned by African Union forces from Uganda in Bulo Marer, an agricultural town in the Lower Shabelle region, about 110 kilometers south of Mogadishu.

Earlier, at the opening of the talks between the two foreign ministers, Lavrov emphasized the long relationship between the two countries, which goes back to quick Soviet recognition of Somalia after it gained independence in 1960.

He also said he and Jama would discuss preparations for the Russia-Africa summit scheduled for late July in St. Petersburg.

Diplomatic relations

In modern times, Russia and Somalia have had fairly routine diplomatic relations, with Russia sending humanitarian aid to Somalia several times.

In May 2010, Somalia reacted angrily to the way Russian marines handled their rescue of a tanker, the MV Moscow University, that had been hijacked 560 kilometers off the coast of Yemen.

Russian media reported at the time that 10 Somali pirates, who had taken the tanker and its crew hostage, were released on the open sea because there were no grounds to prosecute them in Russia.

Somali authorities said the pirates never made it ashore and likely died at sea.

Somalia’s Foreign Ministry statement at the time warned that relations with Russia might be harmed over the incident and demanded an apology from the Russian government.

Since then, two Somali prime ministers, Omar Sharmarke and Hassan Ali Khaire, have met with top Russian officials requesting assistance to strengthen the Somali National Army.

In recent years, Somali diplomats, who asked for anonymity, told VOA Somali that the Russian military has been eyeing Berbera port, located in the breakaway republic of Somaliland, as a potential base on the Red Sea.

Last November, Russia, China, Gabon and Ghana abstained from a Security Council vote to maintain an arms embargo on Somalia, in support of Mogadishu’s strong objections. The United States and Britain supported maintaining the ban, although the measure did loosen restrictions on some weapons like portable surface-to-air missiles in recognition of the government’s improved oversight of weapons and munitions.

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US Labor Department: Child Labor Violations Have Been on the Rise

The US Labor Department says the number of children employed in violation of labor laws has been on the rise since 2015. While the total number of violations is still lower than it was two decades ago, experts say the increase is troubling. For VOA News, Maxim Moskalkov has the story. Camera and video edit: Andre Sergunin and Anna Rice

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Pro-Government Rally Planned in Serbia Amid Growing Discontent After Mass Shootings

Tens of thousands of people converged on the Serbian capital on Friday for a major rally in support of President Aleksandar Vucic, who is facing an unprecedented revolt against his autocratic rule amid the crisis triggered by two mass shootings that stunned the nation. 

The event was somewhat overshadowed by a new crisis in Serbia’s former province of Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs clashed with Kosovo police on Friday and Vucic ordered Serbian troops to be put on a “higher state of alert.” Vucic also said he ordered an “urgent” movement of Serbian troops to the border with Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. 

Answering Vucic’s call for what he called “the largest rally in the history of Serbia,” his supporters, many wearing identical T-shirts with his portrait, were bused to Belgrade from all over the Balkan country as well as neighboring Kosovo and Bosnia. 

Those working in state firms and institutions were told to take a day off from work to attend the rally in front of the parliament building. Some said that they were warned that they could lose their jobs if they didn’t show up on the buses, which started arriving hours before the gathering was to start. 

Serbian officials said the rally promotes “unity and hope” for Serbia. 

At three large anti-government protests held earlier this month in the capital, demonstrators demanded Vucic’s ouster and the resignation of two senior security officials. They also demanded the withdrawal of broadcasting licenses for two pro-Vucic television stations that they say promote violence and often host convicted war criminals and other crime figures. 

Opposition protesters blame Vucic for creating an atmosphere of hopelessness and division in the country that they say indirectly led to the May 3 and May 4 mass shootings that left 18 people dead and 20 wounded, many of them schoolchildren who were gunned down by a 13-year-old schoolmate. 

Vucic has vehemently denied any responsibility for the shootings, calling organizers of the opposition protests “vultures” and “hyenas” who want to use the tragedies to try to come to power by force and without an election. 

“They are not against violence, they want my head,” he said. 

Analysts believe that by staging the mass rally, Vucic, who has ruled the country for more than a decade with a firm grip on power, is trying to overshadow the opposition protests with the sheer number of participants. 

“For the first time, Vucic has a problem,” said political analyst Zoran Gavrilovic. “His problem is not so much the opposition, but Serbian society that has woken up.” 

During the rally, Vucic is expected to announce he is stepping down from the helm of his Serbian Progressive Party and forming “a movement” that will unite all “patriotic forces” in the country. He also could call for a new parliamentary election for September — something unlikely to be accepted by the opposition under the current conditions where he has full control over all pillars of power, including the mainstream media. 

Vucic, a former pro-Russia ultranationalist who now says that he wants to take the country into the European Union, has alleged that “foreign intelligence services” are behind the opposition protests. He said that he received the tip from “sisterly” spy agencies “from the east” — thought to mean Russia. 

There are widespread fears that violence could erupt during the rally on Friday that could then be used as a pretext for a crackdown on future opposition protests, including one that is scheduled in Belgrade on Saturday. 

Similar big rallies were held in Serbia in the early 1990s when strongman Slobodan Milosevic delivered fiery speeches that heralded the violent breakup of Yugoslavia and rallied the masses for the wars that followed. 

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Pope Runs Fever, Skips Meetings, Vatican Says

Pope Francis skipped meetings Friday because he was running a fever, the Vatican said.

There were no details about how sick Francis was. The last time he spiked a serious fever, in March, the 86-year-old pontiff was rushed to the hospital where he was diagnosed with acute bronchitis. He received intravenous antibiotics and was released three days later.

A Vatican official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak about the pope’s health, said Francis didn’t receive anyone in audience Friday “because of a feverish state.”

There were no formal audiences scheduled Friday, but Francis keeps a separate, private and unofficial agenda of meetings with people he receives at his residence.

Francis has had a busy week, presiding over a meeting of the Italian bishops conference, participating in an afternoon encounter Thursday with his school foundation Scholas Occurentes, as well as meeting with several other prelates and visiting dignitaries.

He is due to preside over Pentecost Mass on Sunday in St. Peter’s Basilica, and in a sign that he was expected to recover quickly, the Vatican on Friday announced a new official audience with Italian President Sergio Mattarella, scheduled for Monday.

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Japan and US to Commit to Closer Chip Cooperation in Joint Statement: Source

Japan and the United States will issue a joint statement on technology cooperation on Friday that will commit them to closer cooperation in research and development of advanced chips and other technologies, a Japanese government source said.

Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yasutoshi Nishimura and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo will meet in Detroit in the U.S. on the sidelines of the 2023 APEC Ministers Responsible for Trade Meeting, Yomiuri reported earlier. In addition to semiconductors, they will discuss artificial intelligence and quantum technology, the newspaper added.

They want to deepen ties between research and development hubs in Japan and the U.S., the Japanese official told Reuters, asking not to be identified because he is not authorised to talk to the media. It will be another incremental step as they map out their future technology cooperation, he added.

As Washington and Tokyo reduce their exposure to Chinese supply chains amid growing tension, they are working together to expand chip manufacturing to ensure access to advanced components that they see as essential for economic growth.

Japan has established a new chip maker, Rapidus, that is working with International Business Machines Corp (IBM)(IBM.N) to develop advanced logic semiconductors, and is offering subsidies to U.S. memory maker Micron Technology Inc (MU.O) so it can expand production there.

Japan, along with the Netherlands, has also agreed to match U.S. export controls that will limit the sale of some chipmaking tools in China.

The meeting between Nishimura and Raimondo comes after the leaders of the Group of Seven advanced democracies agreed at a meeting in Hiroshima, Japan, to reduce their exposure to China because of its “economic coercion.”

Raimondo on Thursday met China’s Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao in Washington where the pair exchanged views on trade, investment and export policies.

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US, South Korea Hold Biggest ‘Annihilation’ Drills

The United States and South Korea are kicking off three weeks of massive military drills. The move is part of a show of force against North Korea, which has accelerated its own missile launches. More from VOA’s Bill Gallo, who reports from Pocheon, South Korea, near the demilitarized zone.

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Latest in Ukraine: Russian Paramilitary Groups in Crimean Peninsula Spark Concern

New developments:

Russia accused Ukrainian militia of using U.S.-made armored vehicles in a cross-border incursion on Monday
In response, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin emphasized Thursday that U.S. is not at war with Russia
JCS Chief Mark Milley said Washington asked Kyiv not to use U.S.-supplied equipment for direct attacks into Russia

The British Defense Ministry said Friday in its daily intelligence update on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that for at least 20 years, Russia has experienced a “proliferation of paramilitary groups” from Russia’s military.

The “paramilitarization” has increased dramatically, the ministry said, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, especially in the Crimean Peninsula, where many units have been given “some semi-official status as reserve units of the regular army.”

Sergei Aksyonov, the leader of Russian-occupied Crimea, is described as having been “instrumental” in creating these paramilitary groups in the region.

Now, however, Aksyonov is likely eager to distinguish himself by recruiting fighters, but the ministry said he is “likely concerned” about the military’s capacity to defend the peninsula.

“The main element of the Russian garrison, 22nd Army Corps,” the ministry said, “is currently mostly deployed outside the peninsula and has taken heavy casualties.”

‘This is Ukraine’s fight’

On Thursday, U.S. defense leaders were careful to draw the distinction that despite Washington’s continued support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia, the United States itself is not at war with Russia.

At a news conference following a virtual meeting of dozens of countries supporting Ukraine militarily, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin responded to concerns that U.S. military vehicles, reportedly used by a militia in its incursion into Russia on Monday, could be used as a pretext by Moscow to bring the United States directly into the war.

“We are not at war with Russia. This is Ukraine’s fight. Our goal is to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to make sure Ukraine is successful,” Austin said.

The United States has long asked Ukraine not to use U.S. weaponry inside Russian territory, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Mark Milley, said Thursday.

“I can say that we have asked the Ukrainians not to use U.S.-supplied equipment for direct attacks into Russia,” Milley said. “This is a Ukrainian war. It is not a war between the United States and Russia. It’s not a war between NATO and Russia.”

Earlier Thursday, Ukraine said its forces shot down 36 Iranian-made Shahed drones that Russia used to attack areas in western Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Russian forces “presumably aimed to attack critical infrastructure and military facilities.”

Russia has repeatedly used aerial attacks, including attacks involving crashing drones into targets to damage infrastructure sites in Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted on Telegram that it had been an “uneasy night.”

“Continuing to terrorize Ukraine, the enemy used 36 Shaheds. None of them reached their target. Thanks to our air defense forces for the 100% result,” Zelenskyy said.

In Crimea, Aksyonov said Thursday that air defenses had shot down six drones overnight.

He said on Telegram no one had been killed or injured.

Bakhmut fight

The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said in a video published Thursday that his forces had begun withdrawing from the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

Prigozhin said the Russian military was coming in to replace the Wagner forces and that his units would complete their withdrawal by June 1.

The announcement came a day after Prigozhin said the lengthy battle for Bakhmut left 20,000 of his fighters dead.

Prigozhin said about half of those killed were Russian convicts who were promised their freedom from sentences for criminal offenses if they fought in Ukraine for six months. But the mercenaries were often sent to the battle front with scant training and often were killed soon after in fierce combat with better-trained Ukrainian troops.

White House officials said Prigozhin’s casualty estimate was in line with their own and that Russian losses have accelerated. Russia claimed in recent days it has captured Bakhmut, while Ukrainian officials say they have not given up the fight for the city and are trying to surround it.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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Ukrainian Language More Popular Since War Started

More than 1 million people have started learning Ukrainian since February of last year, according to data from language learning app Duolingo. They say interest in Ukrainian remains high, and the top three countries with the most learners of the language are the United States, Britain and Poland. Correspondent Lesia Bakalets reports from Warsaw

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Humanitarian Group Blasts Greece Over Treatment of Asylum-Seekers on Island

A prominent humanitarian group on Thursday blasted Greece over its treatment of asylum-seekers on the island of Lesbos, repeating allegations of illegal deportations back to Turkey and claiming authorities are using hunger as a weapon against some migrants. 

Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, said in a statement that the situation for asylum-seekers on the eastern Aegean Sea island is “continuously deteriorating.” 

“Many people there have been exposed to violence and have alleged abductions by unidentified masked people, pushbacks that forced them out of Greece, arbitrary detentions, and deprivation of food and shelter,” it said. 

The Greek government has ordered an investigation into claims that a group of migrants was illegally deported from Lesbos back to Turkey. Last week, a New York Times report claimed that the migrants were taken onto a Greek coast guard boat that left them in a raft at sea to be picked up by the Turkish coast guard, which returned them to Turkey. 

Athens has denied persistent allegations that it engages in such deportations, known as pushbacks. Lesbos is a major landing point for thousands of people seeking a better life in Europe, who cross illegally from Turkey in small boats provided by smuggling gangs. 

MSF said Thursday that fear of pushbacks was preventing many newly arrived migrants from accessing its health services, while others who could not be found may have been secretly deported. 

“When we are alerted of newly arrived people in urgent need of medical assistance, we spend hours — sometimes days — looking for them as they are often hiding in forests,” Nihal Osman, MSF’s Lesbos coordinator, said. Osman added that since June 2022, MSF had been unable to find 940 people at their reported locations. 

The group also claimed that Greek authorities stopped giving food on May 17 to people who had completed the registration process in a Lesbos center for asylum-seekers to stay pending examination of their bids. 

“The government is using food as leverage to force people to leave the facility,” Osman said. He also described as dire the conditions at another center where newly arrived asylum-seekers are sent for days, saying it’s overcrowded and too remotely located. 

There was no immediate comment from the Greek government. 

Nearly a million people reached Greece from Turkey in 2015, most landing on Lesbos. Numbers later dropped, and since 2019 Athens has stepped up patrols at sea to further reduce arrivals.

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White House Releases First-Ever National Antisemitism Strategy

The White House on Thursday released the first-ever national strategy aimed at countering antisemitism amid a rise in violence against members of the Jewish community and a gain in antisemitic beliefs among Americans.

Prominent American religious advocacy groups noted that the White House strategy would placate critics who worry about conflating criticism of the Israeli state with antisemitism. The White House did this by not basing the strategy solely on the definition used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Although its definition of antisemitism does not mention Israel, many of its cited examples of antisemitism do.

“At its core, antisemitism divides us, erodes our trust in government, institutions and one another,” said second gentleman Douglas Emhoff at the launch of the strategy. “It threatens our democracy while undermining our American values of freedom, community and decency. Antisemitism delivers simplistic, false and dangerous narratives that have led to extremists perpetrating deadly violence against Jews.”

Emhoff, who is Jewish, described disturbing incidents in recent American life, such as schoolchildren finding swastikas drawn on their desks and parents of young children being met with slurs at school drop-offs. In 2022, according to the Anti-Defamation League, there were nearly 3,700 antisemitic incidents throughout the United States. More than one-third of those incidents involved vandalism or assault.

The White House said 63% of reported religiously motivated hate crimes affect members of the Jewish community — although Jews account for only 2.4% of the nation’s population. Overall, Jews are the target of 4% of all reported hate crimes in the United States, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

And the ADL, which helped the White House shape the new strategy, reported earlier this year that 85% of Americans believe at least one anti-Jewish trope — a jump from 61% in 2019.

Global implications

Antisemitism also has global implications, said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, in praising the strategy.

“The strategy reaffirms the United States’ commitment to combat antisemitism globally — including efforts to delegitimize or isolate the state of Israel at the U.N.,” she said in a statement.

The four-pillar plan — which includes increasing awareness and understanding of antisemitism and why it matters; improving safety for Jewish communities; reversing the normalization of antisemitism; and building cross-community solidarity — has gained support from prominent American Jewish and Muslim groups.

“We welcome President Biden’s commitment to confronting the threat of antisemitism, a dangerous and pervasive form of bigotry that has become even more widespread in recent years, largely due to the rise in extremist, far-right political leaders,” Edward Ahmed Mitchell, national deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement.

His statement continued: “We also look forward to the release of the White House’s strategic plans to confront other forms of bigotry, including Islamophobia. We also appreciate the White House’s use of language which makes clear that these national strategies should not be used to either infringe upon the constitutional guarantees of free speech or to conflate bigotry with human rights activism, including advocacy for Palestinian freedom and human rights.”

And T’ruah, a Jewish human rights organization that also worked with the White House, praised the White House’s decision not to adopt the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism as its only definition.

Larger fight

“We are glad to see the administration taking the threat of antisemitism seriously, and we welcome the announcement of a national plan that situates the fight against antisemitism within the larger fight against white nationalism, violent extremism, rising authoritarianism and hate in all its forms,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the organization’s leader, in a statement.

“The administration made the right decision by not codifying a definition of antisemitism, which would only have made it harder to recognize and respond to antisemitic attacks in context, and which would have opened the door to infringement of First Amendment rights,” the statement said, adding, “There is a long road ahead, and we look forward to continuing to work with the White House to stop antisemitism and other forms of bigotry.”

Emhoff said his own family history was shaped by antisemitism. His great-grandparents, he said, escaped persecution in what is now Poland, around the turn of the 20th century. They fled to the United States, where, 120 years later, their great-grandson became the first Jewish spouse of a U.S. president or vice president.

“We must not forget the joy that comes from celebrating our faith, celebrating our cultures and celebrating our contributions to this great nation,” he said. “There is more that unites us than divides us.”

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Biden’s Pick for Joint Chiefs Post Has History of Firsts

The Air Force fighter pilot whom President Joe Biden nominated Thursday to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff got his call sign by ejecting from a burning F-16 fighter jet high above the Florida Everglades and falling into the watery sludge below.

It was January 1991, and then-Captain Charles “CQ” Brown Jr. had just enough time in his parachute above alligator-full wetlands for a thought to pop into his head. “Hope there’s nothing down there,” Brown said in an interview at the Aspen Security Forum last year.

He landed in the muck, which coated his body and got “in his boots and everything.” That’s how the nominee to be the country’s next top military officer got his call sign: “Swamp Thing.”

Brown, now a four-star general and the Air Force chief, was introduced by Biden on Thursday as his nominee. If confirmed, Brown would replace Army General Mark Milley, whose term ends in October. Biden made the announcement during a Rose Garden event on Thursday afternoon.

“[Brown] gained respect across every service from those who have seen him in action and have come to depend on his judgment,” Biden said.

“More than that, he gained the respect of our allies and partners around the world, who regard General Brown as a trusted partner and a top-notch strategist,” he added.

The call sign story was a rare inner look into Brown, who keeps his cards close to his chest. He’s spent much of his career being one of the Air Force’s top aviators, one of its few Black pilots and often one of the only African Americans in his squadron.

To this day, his core tenets are to “execute at a high standard, personally and professionally,” Brown said this month at an Air Force Association conference in Colorado. “I do not play for second place. If I’m in, I’m in to win — I do not play to lose.”

He’s been many firsts, including the Air Force’s first Black commander of the Pacific Air Forces, and most recently its first Black chief of staff.

If confirmed, he would be part of another first — the first time the Pentagon’s top two posts were held by African Americans, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin the top civilian leader. Brown would not be the first African American to be chairman, the Pentagon’s top military post; that distinction went to the late Army General Colin Powell.

Brown, 60, has commanded the nation’s air power at all levels. Born in San Antonio, he is from a family of Army soldiers. His grandfather led a segregated Army unit in World War II, and his father was an artillery officer and Vietnam War veteran. Brown grew up on several military bases and in various states, which he said helped instill in him a sense of mission.

His four-decade military career began with his commission as a distinguished ROTC graduate from Texas Tech University in 1984 and led him to his White House nomination this week. He was widely viewed within military circles as the front-runner for the chairmanship, with the right commands and a track record of driving institutional change, attributes seen as needed to push the Pentagon onto a more modern footing to meet China’s rise.

For the past two years Brown has pressed “Accelerate, Change or Lose” within the Air Force. The campaign very much has China in mind, pushing the service to shed legacy warplanes and speed its efforts to counter hypersonics, drones and space weapons, where the military’s lingering Cold War-era inventory does not match up.

In person, Brown is private, thoughtful and deliberate. He is seen as a contrast to Milley, who has remained outspoken throughout his tenure, often to the ire of former President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers.

“He’s not prone to blurt out something without some serious thought in his own mind, some serious kind of balancing of the opportunities or options,” said retired Air Force Chief of Staff General Michael Moseley, who knows Brown from when Brown worked for him as a member of the Air Staff.

Brown has more than 3,000 flying hours and repeat assignments to the Air Force Weapons School — an elite aerial fighting school similar to the Navy’s TOPGUN. Only about 1% of Air Force fighter pilots are accepted, Moseley said.

He later earned a spot as an instructor, “which is like 1% of the 1%,” Moseley said.

Brown returned to the weapons school as its commandant. By then it had expanded from fighter-only exclusivity to teaching combined airpower operations, with tankers, bombers and cargo planes.

Brown saw that the school “required a different approach and attitude,” said retired Air Force Lieutenant General Bill Rew. Earlier commandants had tried to institute a new mantra, “Humble, Approachable, Credible,” but it had not taken root.

Under Brown the cultural shift took hold and remains in place today, said Rew, who was one of Brown’s instructors at the weapons school and wing commander during Brown’s time as commandant.

“It takes a certain kind of leadership that doesn’t force cultural change on people but explains it and motivates them on why that change is important,” Rew said.

In June 2020, Brown was just a week from being confirmed by the Senate to serve as chief of staff of the Air Force when he felt the need to speak out on George Floyd’s murder.

It was risky and inopportune time for the general to offer his private thoughts. But he did so anyway, after discussions with his wife and sons about the murder, which convinced him he needed to say something.

In a June 2020 video message to the service titled “Here’s What I’m Thinking About,” Brown described how he’d pressured himself “to perform error-free” as a pilot and officer his whole life, but still faced bias. He said he’d been questioned about his credentials, even when he wore the same flight suit and wings as every other pilot.

“I’m thinking about how my nomination provides some hope, but also comes with a heavy burden — I can’t fix centuries of racism in our country, nor can I fix decades of discrimination that may have impacted members of our Air Force.

“I’m thinking about how I can make improvements, personally, professionally and institutionally,” so all airmen could excel.

His decision to speak out did not cost him. His Senate confirmation vote was 98-0.

But like the brief moment in Aspen, the personal video message was a rarity. After confirmation, he lowered his public profile again, and got to work.

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Turkey’s Erdogan Faces Unprecedented Presidential Runoff

Turkish voters will cast ballots in the country’s presidential runoff election on May 28. Incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the front-runner after narrowly scoring an outright win in the first round and securing a majority in parliament. But analysts say challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu has an outside chance if he can galvanize his voting base. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

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Biden: US Debt Ceiling Talks Going Well, but No Deal Reached Yet

President Joe Biden said Thursday that negotiations with Republican lawmakers to raise the U.S. government’s borrowing limit and set future spending levels are going well, while assuring Americans the country will not default on its obligation to pay its bills.

White House budget negotiators continued to talk with representatives of Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to sort out the last details of a deal, but no agreement was announced as lawmakers began to leave Washington ahead of the country’s annual Memorial Day weekend.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is not scheduled to return until Tuesday — just two days ahead of June 1, the date Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says the government could run out of cash to meet its obligations if the country’s existing $31.4 trillion debt ceiling is not increased so the government can borrow more money. Both the House and Senate need to approve the debt limit increase before Biden can sign it into law.

The focus of the negotiations, Biden said, was on future spending, for the budget year starting in October and beyond. Republicans are trying to sharply curb spending, while the Democratic president and his congressional colleagues are trying to keep as much funding as possible in place for their legislative priorities.

At the U.S. Capitol, McCarthy said he had directed his negotiators “to work 24/7 to solve this problem.” He said that “every hour matters” but that a deal could come together “at any time.” He has repeatedly said the government cannot continue to run up massive deficits totaling about $1 trillion annually, adding to the long-term debt total.

“We have to spend less than we spent last year,” McCarthy said. “That is the starting point.”

A key Democratic lawmaker, Representative Katherine Clark, characterized the negotiations as “a battle between extremism and common sense.” Republicans, she said, “want the American people to make an impossible choice: devastating cuts or devastating debt default.”

The Fitch Ratings agency put the United States’ AAA credit on “ratings watch negative,” warning the government is at risk of a possible downgrade because of what it described as brinkmanship and political partisanship surrounding the debate over lifting the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling has been raised 78 times since 1960, including three times under Republican President Donald Trump.

Nonetheless, Fitch said it “still expects a resolution” in the current debt ceiling and budget negotiations.

A Treasury Department statement late Wednesday said the Fitch warning “underscores the need for swift bipartisan action by Congress to raise or suspend the debt limit and avoid a manufactured crisis for our economy.”

A White House statement said the move by Fitch “reinforces the need for Congress to quickly pass a reasonable, bipartisan agreement to prevent default.”

It remained unclear, however, exactly how Biden and Democrats pushing for only relatively modest cuts in government spending and Republicans pressing for steeper ones can get to an agreement, and to what extent the debt ceiling would be increased beyond its current level.

“I will not raise taxes,” McCarthy has said, rejecting a White House proposal to increase taxes on the wealthiest U.S. taxpayers and large corporations. Nor, he said, would he allow a House vote on a measure to raise the debt ceiling without accompanying it with spending cuts.

“Sixty percent of Americans believe we should not raise the debt ceiling without cutting spending,” he said.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday the Biden administration says it is possible to reach a “reasonable bipartisan agreement that Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate can move forward with.”

Jean-Pierre said the American people do not want what she called “devastating cuts” sought by Republicans.

“House Republicans have said we need to make these cuts in the name of fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction, but that’s not what this is about. That’s never been what this is about for them,” Jean-Pierre said. “Because even as they fight to gut investments in hardworking families, they want to turn around and protect tax breaks skewed to the wealthy and corporations.”

The government reached its existing borrowing limit in January, but the Treasury has adopted “extraordinary measures” since then to keep paying its bills. Without enough new tax receipts flowing into government coffers in the first days of June, the government would then face the difficult choice of which bills to pay.

Officials have warned that a default by the United States, the biggest global economy, could prove catastrophic, roiling the world’s stock markets, forcing job layoffs in the U.S. and hurting the U.S. credit standing, resulting in higher interest rates for borrowers.

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Man Drives Into Gates of Downing Street; Police Say Not Terror Related

A car crashed Thursday into the gates of Downing Street in central London, where the British prime minister’s home and offices are located, setting off a rapid, intense security response at one of London’s most-fortified sites. 

No one was injured, and police said they were not treating the incident as terror related. Police arrested a man on suspicion of criminal damage and dangerous driving, and local officers, rather than counterterrorism detectives, were handling the investigation. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was in his office at the time of the crash. 

It was not immediately clear whether the crash was deliberate. Video footage posted on social media showed a silver hatchback car heading straight for the gates at low speed across Whitehall, the main thoroughfare in London’s government district. 

“I heard a bang and looked up and saw loads of police with Taser guns shouting at the man,” said witness Simon Parry, 44. “A lot of police vehicles came very quickly and were very quick to evacuate the area.” 

The BBC showed a photo of officers leading away a man with handcuffed hands behind his back. 

Footage shot soon after showed a car with its trunk open up against the tall metal gates. Several police officers minutely inspected the vehicle, removing items from the trunk and inside the car and placing them in evidence bags.  

About two hours after the crash, a car transporter arrived to take the vehicle away. 

Officers cordoned off a wide area of London’s government district, but lifted the barriers less than two hours after the incident took place, allowing people back into Whitehall. The street normally teems with civil servants and tourists keen to see the nearby Houses of Parliament and other historical buildings. 

“A small cordon remains in place outside Downing Street after a car collided with the gates earlier this afternoon,” the Metropolitan Police said in a statement. “The incident is being dealt with by local officers in Westminster and isn’t currently being treated as terror-related.” 

Downing Street is a narrow street with a row of Georgian houses that includes the prime minister’s official residence at No. 10. 

Public access to the street is restricted and the heavy steel gates are protected at all times by armed police officers. Bollards and metal crowd barriers also help keep threats at bay. 

Seats of power around the world are often magnets for protest and sometimes violent attack. The incident came three days after a man crashed a rented truck into a security barrier outside the White House in Washington, got out and began waving around a Nazi flag. Sai Varshith Kandula, 19, has been charged with damaging U.S. property. 

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Russia to Relocate Some Tactical Nuclear Weapons to Belarus

Russia and Belarus signed a pact Thursday allowing Moscow to relocate an undisclosed number of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus as Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine enters its 16th month.

The Kremlin says it will maintain control of the shorter-range warheads to be transferred to its ally. It was not announced when the weapons would be sent there but Russian President Vladimir Putin has said storage facilities in Belarus would be completed by July 1.

The U.S. and Western allies have often warned Russia against the use of tactical nuclear warheads in the Ukraine conflict but also said at times they do not believe Moscow was on the verge of doing so.

Tactical nuclear weapons are intended for use in killing enemy troops and destroying armaments on the battlefield. They can be deployed for relatively short-range attacks and have a much lower yield than nuclear warheads fitted to long-range strategic missiles that can wipe out whole cities.

Both Belarusian and Russian officials characterized the transfer of the tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus as a response to Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive to try to retake Russian-controlled territory in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin, in Minsk at a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, said, “Deployment of nonstrategic nuclear weapons is an effective response to the aggressive policy of countries unfriendly to us.”

Shoigu said, “In the context of an extremely sharp escalation of threats on the western borders of Russia and Belarus, a decision was made to take countermeasures in the military-nuclear sphere.”

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya blasted the new agreement.

“We must do everything to prevent Putin’s plan to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus, as this will ensure Russia’s control over Belarus for years to come,” Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press. “This will further jeopardize the security of Ukraine and all of Europe.”

Some material in this report came from The Associated Press.

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Greece Probes Video Purportedly Showing Migrants Forcibly Abandoned at Sea

Greek authorities have been caught on film apparently forcing asylum seekers into a life raft and abandoning them at sea. Human rights groups have long accused Athens of such practices. Greece denies carrying out so-called pushbacks and says it has launched an investigation into the video. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

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Ex-Trump Advisor Bannon’s Trial Over Border Wall Scheme Set for May 2024

Steve Bannon, a one-time advisor to Donald Trump, is set to go on trial on May 27, 2024, on criminal charges over a push to fund the former U.S. president’s signature wall along the U.S. southern border, a New York judge said in a court hearing on Thursday.

New York state prosecutors in Manhattan accuse Bannon of defrauding donors who contributed more than $15 million to the “We Build the Wall” fundraising drive. According to the indictment, Bannon concealed his role in diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars to the drive’s chief executive. 

Bannon, 69, has pleaded not guilty to charges of money laundering, conspiracy and scheming to defraud. 

Justice Juan Merchan at the brief hearing gave Bannon’s lawyers until Oct. 6 to file a possible motion to dismiss the charges. Merchan said he would rule on any such motion at a hearing on April 29. 

Bannon was initially charged over the fundraising push by federal prosecutors in Manhattan but received a presidential pardon from Trump during the final hours of his term. That pardon covered federal but not state charges.

Brian Kolfage, a decorated U.S. Air Force veteran who led the funding push, was sentenced last month to 4-1/4 years in prison after pleading guilty to federal charges of misappropriating funds for the campaign. An associate, Andrew Badolato, was sentenced to three years in prison.  

Another defendant in the case, Timothy Shea, is set to be sentenced on June 13 after his conviction at trial last October. 

Construction of a border wall was a key element of Trump’s hardline immigration policies during his presidency, supported by his fellow Republicans but opposed by Democrats and immigrant advocacy groups.


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Renovated Gallery Aims to Put African Art in Proper Cultural Context

Art from across Africa is on display in a newly renovated gallery at the Denver Art Museum in the U.S. state of Colorado. VOA’s Scott Stearns shows us what is on display.

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After Typhoon Mawar Battered Guam, ‘What Used to Be a Jungle Looks Like Toothpicks’ 

 Many residents of Guam remained without power and utilities Thursday after Typhoon Mawar tore through the remote U.S. Pacific territory the night before and ripped roofs off homes, flipped vehicles and shredded trees.

There were minor injuries reported but no fatalities, according to the governor’s office.

The central and northern parts of the island received more than 2 feet (60 centimeters) of rain as the eyewall passed. The island’s international airport flooded and the swirling typhoon churned up a storm surge and waves that crashed through coastal reefs and flooded homes.

“We are waking up to a rather disturbing scene out there across Guam. We’re looking out our door and what used to be a jungle looks like toothpicks — it looks like a scene from the movie ‘Twister,’ with trees just thrashed apart,” said Landon Aydlett, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“Most of Guam is dealing with a major mess that’s gonna take weeks to clean up,” he added.

The strongest typhoon to hit the territory of roughly 150,000 people since 2002, Mawar briefly made landfall around 9 p.m. Wednesday as a Category 4 storm at Andersen Air Force Base on the northern tip of the island, weather service officials said.

The scope of the damage was difficult to ascertain early on, with power and internet failures making communication on the far-flung island difficult. Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said in a video message late Thursday morning that roads were passable, but residents should avoid driving and stay home due to ongoing strong winds.

“We have weathered the storm,” Leon Guerrero said, adding that “the worst has gone by.”

As the typhoon crept slowly over the island, it sent solar panels flying and crumbled part of a hotel’s exterior wall to the ground, according to videos posted on social media. At what felt like its peak intensity, the winds screeched and howled like jets, and water swamped some homes.

Leah del Mundo spent the night with her family in their concrete home in Chalan Pago, in central Guam. She told The Associated Press they tried to sleep but were awakened “by violent shaking of the typhoon shutters and the whistling strong winds.”

“It’s not our first rodeo,” she said via text message. “We’ve been through worse. But we brace ourselves for the cleanup, repairs, restoration afterwards.”

Winds peeled back the roof of Enrique Baza’s mother’s house in Yona, allowing water to damage everything inside.

“My mom’s house didn’t escape,” he said, adding that his mother stayed with him in his concrete home during the storm.

He drove around in a pickup truck looking for supplies to repair his mother’s roof, but most stores were without power and only accepting cash. Many wooden or tin homes he passed were badly beaten or collapsed.

“It’s kind of a shock,” he said.

In Tumon, on Guam’s northeastern shore, winds tore a granite countertop from a hotel’s outdoor bar and tossed it into the air. Guests scrambled to stack chairs to brace the doors, and windows buckled and creaked.

“It was like a freight train going on outside,” said Thomas Wooley, who recounted how wind and rain pushed through the aluminum shutters of his family’s concrete home overlooking Tumon Bay. When day broke, he found their outdoor china cabinet toppled and its contents shattered on the ground. A chainsaw-wielding relative helped clear downed branches.

“We’ve got tons of work to do,” Wooley said. “It’s going to take a few days to clean it up.”

Guam’s weather service office in Tiyan said it would shut down operations in the morning for workers to get home to families and assess damage at their homes. Counterparts in the Honolulu office took over their duties.

In a sign of how much help Guam might need, the Navy ordered the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier strike group to head to the island to assist in the recovery effort, according to a U.S. official. The Nimitz, along with the USS Bunker Hill, a cruiser, and the USS Wayne E. Meyer, a destroyer, were south of Japan and expected to arrive in Guam in three or four days, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ship movements not yet made public.

Guam is about 3,800 miles (6,115 kilometers) west of Hawaii and 1,600 miles (1,575 kilometers) east of the Manila, the capital of the Philippines.

By Thursday afternoon, Mawar was centered 135 miles (217 kilometers) northwest of Guam and 150 miles (241 kilometers) west of Rota, Guam’s neighbor to the north, moving west-northwest at 7 mph (11 kph).

Power was also knocked out for all of Rota, the Commonwealth Utilities Corp. said late Wednesday. The island has about 2,500 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The storm strengthened to 155 mph (249 kph) winds Thursday and regained its status as a super typhoon, according to the weather service. Mawar, a Malaysian word that means “rose,” was forecast to maintain this intensity for the next two days.

After moving away from Guam, the storm is expected to track generally northwest over a large, empty of expanse of ocean for days, and it could threaten Taiwan next week.

Guam is a crucial hub for U.S. forces in the Pacific, with about 6,800 service members assigned to the island, according to the Pentagon. Military officials evacuated personnel, dependents and employees, sent ships out to sea and moved aircraft off the island or secured them in protective hangars.

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Lebanon Slaps Travel Ban on Central Bank Chief Wanted by France

A Lebanese judge has banned the country’s central bank governor Riad Salameh from travelling, days after Beirut received an Interpol Red Notice following a French arrest warrant, a judicial official said Wednesday. 

Salameh has been the target of a series of judicial investigations both at home and abroad on allegations including embezzlement, money laundering, fraud and illicit enrichment, which he denies.   

French investigators suspect that during his three decades as central bank chief, Salameh misused public funds to accumulate real estate and banking assets concealed through a complex and fraudulent financial network.   

On Wednesday, judge Imad Qabalan questioned Salameh and “decided to release him pending investigation, ban him from travelling, and confiscate his Lebanese and French passports,” the official told AFP, requesting anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media.   

Activists say the travel ban on the central bank chief helps shield him from being brought to justice abroad — and from potentially bringing down others in Lebanon’s entrenched political class.   

“The Lebanese judiciary, with the exception of a few judges, has shown that it is not independent. It is biased for politicians who steer it the way they want,” charged lawyer and activist Karim Daher.   

“The corrupt Lebanese regime… has no interest in Salameh being tried abroad and spilling the beans” about the political class’s financial activities, he told AFP.   

Interpol circulated a Red Notice last week after a French magistrate issued a warrant for Salameh, who failed to appear for questioning in Paris before investigators probing his sizeable assets across Europe.   

An Interpol Red Notice is not an international arrest warrant but asks authorities worldwide to provisionally detain people pending possible extradition or other legal actions.   

Lebanon does not extradite its nationals, but Salameh could go on trial in Lebanon if local judicial authorities decide the accusations against him are founded, an official previously told AFP.   

Qabalan asked the French judiciary to refer Salameh’s file to Beirut in order to “determine whether the Lebanese judiciary will prosecute him for the crimes he is accused of in France or not,” the official added.   

Salameh “asked the judge to try him in Lebanon and not to extradite him to France,” the official said. 

Also Wednesday, Germany notified Lebanon’s general prosecutor that it too had issued an arrest warrant for Salameh, the judicial official said, adding that Munich’s public prosecutor would submit the warrant to Interpol shortly.   

Salameh has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and continues to serve as central bank governor. His mandate ends in July.   

In March 2022, France, Germany and Luxembourg seized assets worth $130 million in a move linked to a probe into Salameh’s wealth.   

In February, Lebanon charged Salameh with embezzlement, money laundering and tax evasion as part of its own investigations.   

The domestic probe was opened following a request for assistance from Switzerland’s public prosecutor looking into more than $300 million in fund movements by Salameh and his brother.   

This year, European investigators have questioned Salameh in Beirut, also hearing from his assistant Marianne Hoayek, his brother Raja, a Lebanese minister and central bank audit firms.   

The judicial official said Wednesday that a judge had notified Raja Salameh and Hoayek that they were due to appear before the French judiciary respectively on May 31 and June 13.   

Since 2019, Lebanon has plunged into an economic crisis deemed by the World Bank as one of the planet’s worst since the mid-19th century.