Saturday, February 04, 2023

Ethiopia’s PM Meets Tigray Leaders for First Time Since War

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Ethiopia’s prime minister has met the leaders of rival Tigray forces for the first time since a devastating two-year conflict ended with a peace deal late last year.

State media on Friday showed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed meeting with the Tigray side’s lead negotiators and others. It didn’t say when the meeting occurred.

National Security Adviser Redwan Hussein tweeted that the prime minister made decisions on increasing flights and banking services to the northern Tigray region along with issues to “boost trust and ease lives of civilians.”

The conflict cut off the Tigray region of more than 5 million people, with humanitarian aid often blocked and basic services severed while health workers pleaded for the simplest of medical supplies. Pressure over the fate of civilians helped lead to the peace deal.

The conflict is estimated to have killed a half-million civilians in Tigray, according to researchers with Ghent University in Belgium, and others were killed in neighboring Amhara and Afar regions.

There was no immediate statement by the Tigray leaders on the meeting.

Friday, February 03, 2023

Sudan Demands United Nations Immediately Lift Arms Embargo

By EDITH M. LEDERER

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Sudan is demanding the U.N. Security Council immediately lift an arms embargo and other sanctions imposed during violence in the western Darfur region in 2005, saying the punishment did not include conditions or require the military government to meet U.N. benchmarks.

Sudan’s U.N. ambassador, Al-Harith Idriss Mohamed, said in a letter to the council circulated Friday that the sanctions “are no longer relevant to the magnificent reality on the ground in Darfur today compared to the situation in 2005.”

“Darfur has, for the most part, overcome the state of war, as well as previous security and political challenges,” he said.

Mohamed said Sudan’s transitional government is committed to addressing the remaining social and security issues in Darfur, including sporadic tribal clashes. He added that efforts are being made to form and deploy a Joint Security-Keeping Force to protect civilians.

The Sudanese government has repeatedly urged the Security Council to lift sanctions but this letter was much stronger. It said that “Sudan will accept nothing less than the immediate lifting of these sanctions without conditions or benchmarks.”

The Darfur conflict began in 2003 when rebels took up arms against the authoritarian government in Khartoum then led by Omar al-Bashir, accusing it of discrimination and neglect. The U.N. previously estimated 00,000 people died in the conflict and 2.7 million fled their homes.

Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged atrocities in Darfur. The court issued an arrest warrant for him in 2009 for crimes against humanity and war crimes and added genocide to the charges in 2010.

In April 2019, Al-Bashir was ousted after three decades in power. He is incarcerated in Khartoum, where he is facing corruption charges and charges related to the overthrow of the former elected government.

In October 2021, Sudan was plunged into turmoil following a coup led by the country’s leading military figure, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, that derailed the short-run democratic transition following al-Bashir’s ouster.

Sudan’s ambassador told the Security Council that the contined sanctions have had “a detrimental impact and negative consequences that extend beyond the arms embargo in Darfur and the targeted sanctions on some individuals,” including asset freezes and travel bans.

Sanctions discourage investors and “encourage the rogue armed transboundary bands to disrupt peace and order in Darfur, owing to the imbalance of hard power,” Mohamed said. Lifting sanctions would enable Sudan “to further play an active regional role,” he said.

In July 2021, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recommended four benchmarks to guide the Security Council in reviewing sanctions: progress on political and economic governance issues; transitional security arrangements in Darfur; the National Plan for Civilian Protection; and transitional justice and accountability.

Mohamed said some of the benchmarks and targets “are completely unrealistic and cannot be met, neither in the Sudan nor elsewhere in the majority of developing nations.” He not not single out any of the benchmarks.

The ambassador aslo accused some council members of refraining from engaging with Sudan’s government “to achieve realistic, applicable and measurable benchmarks.”

Pope in South Sudan Warns Leaders as Peace Process Stalls

By NICOLE WINFIELD and DENG MACHOL

Pope Francis talks to South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, center-right, after arriving at the airport in Juba, South Sudan Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. Pope Francis arrived in South Sudan on the second leg of a six-day trip that started in Congo, hoping to bring comfort and encouragement to two countries that have been riven by poverty, conflicts and what he calls a "colonialist mentality" that has exploited Africa for centuries. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — Pope Francis, on a novel ecumenical peace mission to the world’s youngest country, warned South Sudan’s political leaders on Friday that history will judge them harshly if they continue to drag their feet implementing a 2018 peace accord.

Accompanying him to the overwhelmingly Christian country were the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt. Rev. Iain Greenshields. They hope to cast a spotlight on what Francis has called a “forgotten crisis.”

South Sudan gained independence from the majority Muslim Sudan in 2011, but has been beset by civil war and conflict.

Thousands of people ululated and sang in 96-degree Fahrenheit (35.5-degree Celsius) heat as President Salva Kiir greeted the religious leaders at the airport in the capital, Juba. Francis’ motorcade route was lined with Christians, Muslims, and traditional dancers waving Vatican, South Sudanese and British flags.

“The pope is closest to God,” said Poni Jadalla, 45, as she waited to welcome Francis on the first-ever papal visit to the country. “Let the pope give us peace so that this country can develop and no more bloodshed.”

The Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian leaders have called for the country’s political leaders to put aside their differences and work for the good of their people.

In his first address on South Sudanese soil, Francis addressed former rivals Kiir and deputy Riek Machar, who were gathered in the garden of the presidential palace.

“Future generations will either venerate your names or cancel their memory, based on what you now do,” Francis said. “For just as the Nile leaves its sources to begin its course, so the course of history will leave behind the enemies of peace and bring renown to those who are true peacemakers.”

Kiir, Machar and other opposition groups signed the peace agreement in 2018 ending five years of civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. But the deal’s provisions, including the formation of a national unified army, remain largely unimplemented. The delays have forced the postponement of the country’s first presidential election for another two years.

Meanwhile, clashes continue, including attacks this week in the south that killed 27 people. Combined with flooding last year, the number of internally displaced people has topped 2 million and the U.N. has warned that humanitarian needs are soaring.

Francis and Welby first announced plans to visit South Sudan in 2017, but security concerns repeatedly thwarted the trip. In an effort to move the process forward, Francis presided in 2019 over a joint prayer in the Vatican, and famously got down on hands and knees and kissed the feet of South Sudan’s rival leaders, begging them to make peace.

“That gesture of humility did not go in vain,” Kiir, a Catholic, told Francis in welcoming him to Juba Friday. He recalled that at the time of that extraordinary gesture, Machar was living in exile, but that today the two of them “are seated here, working collectively to implement” the provisions of the accord.

Calling Francis’ visit “historic,” Kiir publicly committed to the government returning to talks, suspended last year, with opposition groups that didn’t sign the peace deal.

In urging peace, Francis used the Italian exhortation “Basta!” (Enough!), saying: “Enough bloodshed. Enough conflicts. Enough violence and mutual recriminations about who is responsible for it. Enough leaving your people athirst for peace. Leave the time of war behind and let a time of peace dawn!”

He called for an end to corruption, and for particular attention to be paid to women and to involving them in decision-making. “Anyone who commits an act of violence towards a woman commits it towards God,” Francis said.

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan has reported that “widespread rape” was being used as a weapon by armed groups across the country. It expressed shock at interviewees describing “staggeringly brutal and prolonged gang rapes perpetrated against them by multiple men, often while their husbands, parents or children were forced to watch, helpless to intervene.”

Additionally, the United Nations warned in November that some 9.4 million people out of a population of 12.4 million would need humanitarian aid and protection this year, a half million more than in 2022. It cited violence, constraints on access by aid groups, and climate conditions including flooding and drought.

At the same time, the U.N. has warned that funding for increased aid has dwindled, as donors redirect money to Ukraine and other crises.

Welby acknowledged the donor fatigue and said international organizations were doing their best but meet “strong opposition” on the ground.

“When I remember the commitments made back in 2019, I am saddened that this is what I see and hear,” he said in remarks to Kiir and Machar.

The fighting that killed at least 27 people in Central Equatoria state’s Kajo-keji this week demonstrated the simmering violence in communities sometimes awash with arms and ethnic tensions in one of the world’s poorest countries. It pitted cattle herders against other residents, said county commissioner Phanuel Dumo.

The South Sudan Red Cross said four of its volunteers were among the dead, “picked from their houses together with community members and callously killed.” It said others were taken from water-distribution points and “killed in groups.” South Sudan is one of the deadliest countries for aid workers.

Human Rights Watch, for its part, urged Pope Francis and his fellow religious leaders to raise the issue of widespread impunity for abuses in South Sudan. It asked him to call for the immediate release of journalists with the state broadcaster who were detained last month in relation to a video of the 71-year-old president apparently urinating on himself, and for any charges against them to be dropped.

Francis Wani, 30, who sat outside the airport gate on Friday waiting for Francis to arrive, said, “We have suffered so much in silence. Therefore we only need blessings and peace.”

___

Cara Anna and Evelyne Musambi in Nairobi contributed.

African Diplomats Visit Xinjiang, Express Firm Support for China’s Justified Stance on the Region

By Global Times

Feb 03, 2023 12:55 PM

Photo: Xinjiang Daily

A group of ambassadors and diplomats from African countries visited Northwest China's Xinjiang region and had a meeting with the regional Party chief Ma Xingrui on Thursday, during which they spoke highly of the region's efforts in countering terrorism and extremism and expressed firm support for China's justified stance on Xinjiang-related topics.

The delegation included ambassadors and diplomats from embassies in China of African countries, including Senegal, Benin, Mali, Rwanda, Madagascar, Malawi, Uganda, Lesotho and Chad, according to the Xinjiang Daily newspaper. 

Representing the Party committee and the regional government, Ma welcomed the delegation at the Thursday meeting and introduced the socioeconomic developments in the region. He noted that the region continued to promote high-quality developments centered on the people, consolidate ethnic harmony and unity, fully protect region freedom and boost human rights developments.

With the support of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the Xinjiang region has worked to deepen exchanges with the outside world, which firmly refuted disinformation spread by the US and some Western countries, said Ma, expressing hope for the delegation to introduce their experience in the Xinjiang region and let the international community have a more overall and objective view on the happy life of local people in the region and regional developments. 

China and Africa hold dear abiding friendship, Ma welcomed diplomats to visit the region to promote exchanges and deepen cooperation between the region and African countries.

Ambassadors and diplomats from the African embassies who attended the Thursday meeting spoke highly of the region's efforts in countering terrorism and expressed hope for further strengthening cooperation on security to jointly prevent and handle with threat of terrorism.

The diplomats were also impressed by the achievements in the region and the harmony and happy life of local residents. Lies on the region cannot cover up the truth. They would firmly support China's justified stance on Xinjiang-related topics, oppose politicizing human rights issues and oppose foreign forces to interfere with China's internal affairs by using topics of the region.

The Xinjiang region is the core area of the Silk Road Economic Belt, and under the Belt and Road Initiative, African countries will expand cooperation with the Xinjiang region, promote more companies in the region to invest in Africa to make more achievements in fields including poverty alleviation, culture, agriculture and energy, in order to bring more benefits to African people, said the African diplomats. 

Global Times 

China Does Not Accept Baseless Speculation, Hype, Wang Yi Says in Phone Talks with Blinken After Balloon Incident

By Global Times

Feb 04, 2023 09:54 AM

China is a responsible country and has always strictly abided by international law. We do not accept any groundless speculation and hype, Wang Yi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China said in phone talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday after the US continued to hype an balloon incident.

A spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday a Chinese unmanned civilian airship used mainly for meteorological research purposes made an unintended entry of into the US airspace due to force majeure and rejected the spy claim made by the US.

During Wang and Blinken's phone conversation, they communicated on how to deal with the accidental incident in a calm and professional manner. Wang said in face of unexpected situations, both sides should maintain focus, communicate in a timely manner, avoid misjudgments, manage and control differences.

Prior to Wang and Blinken's talk, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that Blinken postponed his visit to China due to the balloon incident and Blinken would be prepared to visit Beijing "as soon as conditions allow."

Previous news on Blinken's visit to China on February 5 and 6 all came from the US. China has never confirmed the information.  

On Saturday, a spokesperson from the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement that maintaining contact and communication at all levels is an important common understanding reached by the Chinese and US presidents at their meeting in Bali. One of the tasks of the diplomatic teams on both sides is to properly manage bilateral relations, particularly to manage unexpected situations in a cool-headed and prudent manner. 

"In fact, neither side has ever announced that there would be a visit. It is a matter for the US to make its latest announcement, and we respect that," said the spokesperson. 

Regarding the unintended entry of a Chinese unmanned airship into US airspace due to force majeure, the Chinese side has verified the situation and communicated the facts to the US side. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course, the spokesperson said in the statement. 

"This is entirely an unexpected situation caused by force majeure and the facts are very clear. China always acts in strict accordance with international law and respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries," read the statement.

We have no intention to violate and has never violated the territory or airspace of any sovereign country. Some politicians and media in the US have hyped up the incident and used it to attack China. The Chinese side is firmly opposed to this kind of behavior, the spokesperson said. 

Global Times 

US Hypes Spy Balloon, Brings ‘China Threat’ to New Level

By Liu Xin

Feb 03, 2023 11:17 PM

Recent signals sent from the US on China have been utterly chaotic, which may bring more uncertainty to already strained bilateral relations, Chinese analysts said on Friday. They urged the US to be more sincere in fixing relations with China instead of making provocative actions against it, especially after the picture of a white balloon made headlines in the US and some Western countries on Friday, as Pentagon officials claimed that a Chinese spy balloon hovering over Montana this week had a flight path that took it over "sensitive sites" in the US. 

A spokesperson from the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday that the balloon was an airship from China but rejected the spy claim, saying that the civilian airship, used mainly for meteorological research purposes, deviated from its planned course after being affected by westerlies and due to its limited self-steering capability.

The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure, and will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure, said the spokesperson. 

The balloon - about the size of three buses, is traveling at an altitude "well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground," Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters in a hastily arranged news conference where he addressed the ongoing situation, the Washington Post reported. 

Before being clear of the facts, the US military and media accused China of spying, and this incident has brought the US' recent hyping of the "China threat" to a new level, with some Chinese analysts saying the stunt, which was not backed by concrete proof, may bring new tensions to China-US relations, as it is a follow-up to more intensive US moves to contain China in the fields of military, technology, and diplomacy and also on issues of China's core concerns, including on the island of Taiwan. 

The string of US' actions against China also came with the news from the US that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit China on February 5 and 6. China has not yet confirmed Blinken's visit, despite the spokesperson of China's Foreign Affairs Ministry previously welcoming it.  

Following the balloon hype, US media reported Friday that the Biden administration has decided to postpone Blinken's upcoming trip to Beijing. 

While the international community expects to see the world's top two economies ease tensions via high-level interactions to boost global development in the post-pandemic era, the US is being urged to be more sincere in making concrete moves to solve problems with China, instead of making more provocations, analysts said. 

Maintaining high-level communication is conductive to improving bilateral relations, However, deeply affected by its domestic politics, Washington has sent utterly chaotic signals, with positive commitments made by the top leader as well as continuous actions that further endanger relations, bringing more uncertainties to China-US ties, Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations at the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times.

This week, while drumming up the threat from China, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had been engaged into a whirlwind of activities in South Korea and the Philippines, two of China's neighboring countries, to step up military drills and push for wider access of US troops to bases in Southeast Asia.

Aside from adding to its military presence around China, the US also ramped up efforts to strangle China on high-technologies, including a decision to cease approval licenses for American firms to export most items to Chinese technology giant Huawei and coercing the Netherlands and Japan to agree to join the US in limiting exports of advanced chipmaking equipment to China. It has also been unceasingly hyping issues on the island of Taiwan ahead of the one-year anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine military conflict.

To set real guardrails 

Analysts said it is neither strange nor rare to see the US playing this old trick of exerting extreme pressure on China before significant and high-level potential interactions in an attempt to gain more bargaining chips. However, China will make no compromise on its core concerns and will take countermeasures against provocations while welcoming any exchanges made in good intention.

On Friday, China released a report that examines the US' willful practice of long-arm jurisdiction in recent years, and the perils it has brought to the international political and economic order and the international rule of law. Some analysts interpreted the report as a response to Washington's suppression of China. 

The US is facing a problem on how to balance its strategic goals with domestic practical needs, as its containment of China is more a negative-sum game than a zero-sum one. As it attempts to cripple China, it is shooting its own feet. For example, the semiconductor industry in the US is facing its toughest challenges since the 90s and its internet industry has suffered the coldest winter, Lü Xiang, an expert on US studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times, on Friday. 

Economic recovery is not the only field in which the US needs China. Analysts noted that the Biden administration is seeking to hold talks with China on a slew of issues, including the Russia-Ukraine conflict, exchanges between the two militaries, and climate. Communication channels on the latter two fields had been temporarily suspended after the US former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's highly provocative visit to the island of Taiwan. 

Some US lawmakers, especially hawkish anti-China ones, have provocatively put out a longer list of issues that should be discussed between China and the US. US media reported that US Senator Bob Menendez wrote to Blinken on Wednesday to urge him to talk about human rights issues and the Taiwan question. 

Li said that China also has its own list of issues it needs to talk about with the US, especially on the island of Taiwan. With the harm done by Pelosi's visit to the island still lingering over China-US relations, the Biden administration should credibly honor its commitment and make sure the new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy does not provoke China with a visit to the island, which is a real move that would set a guardrail on bilateral relations.

The US has continued playing the Taiwan card, with the latest stunt pulled by US Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns, who said on Thursday that China's "ambitions" on the island should not be underestimated. 

In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at the press conference on Friday that the island is an inalienable part of China and the Taiwan question is China's domestic affair, which is different from the Ukraine issue in nature. She urged some people in the US to stop creating new factors that will bring tension to the cross-Straits situation. 

China has made the red line crystal clear to the US, and it is time for the US to show sincerity in fixing ties, said analysts. 

Lü said that the US and China should grasp the current window of opportunity to improve relations, as the US will fall into more chaos after it enters its election cycle. More stable China-US relations benefit not only the US and China, but also meet the expectations of the international community. 

Dutch Ministry Won’t Appeal Unlawful Afghan Airstrike Ruling

By MIKE CORDER

FILE - Netherlands' Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren attends the Summit of the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) in Riga, Latvia, on Dec. 19, 2022. The Dutch government said Friday that it will not appeal a court ruling that Dutch forces unlawfully bombed a residential complex in Afghanistan in 2007, killing some 20 civilians, in a civil case brought by four survivors. The defense ministry argued that buildings were being used by Taliban fighters when the military hit the walled compound, known as a “quala,” with munitions fired from attack helicopters and F-16s. (AP Photo/Roman Koksarov)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The Dutch government said Friday that it will not appeal a court ruling that Dutch forces unlawfully bombed a residential complex in Afghanistan in 2007, killing some 20 civilians, in a civil case brought by four survivors.

The District Court of The Hague found in November that the late-night attack violated international humanitarian law. The court sided with four survivors of the attack who sued the Dutch state for compensation.

The defense ministry argued that buildings were being used by Taliban fighters when the military hit the walled compound, known as a “quala,” with munitions fired from attack helicopters and F-16s.

The Dutch were part of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan at the time and were fighting the Taliban in a battle for control of the Chora Valley some 500 kilometers (310 miles) southwest of the capital, Kabul.

However, some 12 hours had elapsed since the last time the Taliban used the location as a firing position when the bombing occurred, and judges concluded that the military did not have enough information to designate the compound as a military target.

In a letter to lawmakers Friday, Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren said that 15 years after the attack, the ministry “does not have any further or additional information to substantiate the fact that the quala was a military target at that time.”

“The State will therefore not lodge an appeal. The State will comply with the court’s ruling by proceeding to pay compensation. The extent of the damage has yet to be determined,” she wrote.

Liesbeth Zegveld, the Dutch lawyer who represented the survivors in court, said she had informed them via an intermediary in Afghanistan and that they were relieved at the government’s decision.

Ollongren, in her letter to parliament, said her thoughts went out “to the civilian victims of the Taliban’s attack on the Chora Valley and their loved ones. And to those who lost their lives protecting the civilian population during the defense of Chora, including a Dutch soldier, his relatives and comrades.”

Dutch Slavery Exhibition to Open at UN Headquarters

By MIKE CORDER

Tronco, or multiple foot stocks used to to constrain enslaved people, are seen at the Slavery exhibition Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Monday, May 17, 2021. A landmark exhibition on slavery in the Dutch colonial era that was first staged at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum is going on display at the United Nations in New York Feb. 27-March 30. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A landmark exhibition on slavery in the Dutch colonial era that was first staged at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is going on display at the United Nations in New York.

The show, titled “Slavery. Ten True Stories of Dutch Colonial Slavery,” will open in the the U.N. headquarters’ visitors’ lobby from Feb. 27-March 30, as part of a U.N. outreach program on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Rijksmuseum announced Friday.

“Recognizing the continuing impact of slavery on world history is of great importance. We are very grateful to the United Nations for drawing attention to this important subject through the exhibition,” Rijksmuseum General Director Taco Dibbits said in a statement.

The exhibition at the U.N. is an adapted version of the show titled “Slavery” that was opened in 2021 at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and told the story of slavery by drilling down into the personal stories of 10 people, ranging from enslaved workers to a wealthy Amsterdam woman.

The unflinching exhibition looks at the lives of people who were enslaved, those who profited from the inhumane trade and people who opposed it in the Dutch colonial era, from the 17th to the 19th century — in Brazil, Suriname and the Caribbean, as well as in South Africa, Asia and the Netherlands.

The Rijksmuseum show tapped into a national debate about slavery that gained momentum amid the Black Lives Matter movement that swept the world after the 2020 death of Black man George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. In December, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologized for the Dutch state’s role in slavery.

The grim centerpiece of the U.N. slavery exhibition will be a set of wooden stocks known as a tronco, derived from the Portuguese word for tree trunk, in which several enslaved people could be constrained by clamping their ankles.

8 Dead Migrants Recovered off Italian Island of Lampedusa

By COLLEEN BARRY

MILAN (AP) — The bodies of eight migrants have been recovered by Italy’s coast guard during an operation overnight that also rescued 42 survivors in the central Mediterranean off the island of Lampedusa, authorities said Friday.

Another two people, a newborn and a man, fell into the sea during the crossing and were presumed dead, the coast guard said in a statement, citing survivor accounts.

Survivors reported that the infant died of exposure and that the distraught mother threw the newborn into the sea, according to the news agency ANSA. The man then jumped in attempting to retrieve the body, disappearing in the waves.

Video of the rescue shows the survivors packed in a small open fishing boat, which was adrift with a nonfunctioning motor. Rescuers warned them to sit down and not move before throwing a line to pull them to safety.

All on board were soaking wet, cold and dehydrated, and the deceased were believed to have perished from hypothermia, ANSA reported.

Survivors said they had departed the Tunisian port of Sfax before dawn on Saturday, ANSA said. They were among some 200 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan African nations, who arrived at Lampedusa on three boats overnight.

Lampedusa’s mayor, Filippo Mannino, appealed to Premier Giorgia Meloni, asking that “the government not leave us alone to manage this enormous tragedy. Help us. We are no longer able to manage.”

Charity boats operating in the deadly central Mediterranean have complained that a new Italian decree forcing them to port after each rescue endangers the lives of migrants departing from North Africa by leaving the search and rescue area uncovered. That is compounded by a new practice of assigning ports in northern Italy, requiring days of navigation to reach.

The Council of Europe this week urged the Italian government to consider withdrawing the decree, saying it could hamper search and rescue operations by nongovernmental agencies, “depriving people in distress of life-saving assistance from NGOs on the deadliest migration route in the Mediterranean.”

In a letter to Italy’s interior minister, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatović, also repeated a call for Italy to suspend its cooperation with the Libyan government on interceptions at sea, because of the likelihood that migrants returned to Libya face torture, rape, slavery, exploitation and detention.

The latest call comes after Italy agreed over the weekend to supply Libya with five new coast guard boats to help stem the movement of migrants to Europe. The deal was announced during a visit by Meloni that secured an $8 billion gas deal.

The central Mediterranean Sea is a perilous crossing that has claimed 20,285 lives since the U.N. migration office began tracking figures in 2014, compared with 5,000 in the eastern and western Mediterranean combined. Many of the victims are missing at sea and presumed dead, based on survivor accounts.

Thursday, February 02, 2023

North Korea Warns of ‘Overwhelming Nuclear Force’ to Counter US

By KIM TONG-HYUNG

In this photo provided by South Korean Defense Ministry, U.S. Air Force B-1B bombers, center, F-22 fighter jets and South Korean Air Force F-35 fighter jets, bottom, fly over South Korea Peninsula during a joint air drill in South Korea, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2023. North Korea on Thursday threatened the "toughest reaction" to the United States' expanding joint military exercises with South Korea to counter the North's growing nuclear weapons ambitions, claiming that the allies were pushing tensions to an "extreme red line." (South Korean Defense Ministry via AP)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Thursday it’s prepared to counter U.S. military moves with the “most overwhelming nuclear force” as it warned that the expansion of the United States’ military exercises with rival South Korea is pushing tensions to an “extreme red line.”

The statement by Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry came in response to comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who said Tuesday in Seoul that the United States would increase its deployment of advanced military assets to the Korean Peninsula, including fighter jets and aircraft carriers, as it strengthens joint training and operational planning with South Korea.

South Korea’s security jitters have risen since North Korea test-fired dozens of missiles in 2022, including potentially nuclear-capable ones designed to strike targets in South Korea and the U.S. mainland.

In a statement attributed to an unidentified spokesperson of its Foreign Ministry, North Korea said the expansion of the allies’ drills is threatening to turn the Korean Peninsula into a “huge war arsenal and a more critical war zone.” The statement said the North is prepared to counter any short- or long-term military challenge with the “most overwhelming nuclear force.”

“The military and political situation on the Korean Peninsula and in the region has reached an extreme red line due to the reckless military confrontational maneuvers and hostile acts of the U.S. and its vassal forces,” the spokesperson said.

North Korea for decades has described the United States’ combined military exercises with South Korea as rehearsals for a potential invasion, although the allies have described those drills as defensive.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry said the United States flew B-1B bombers and F-22 and F-35 fighter jets in an exercise Wednesday with South Korean fighters above South Korea’s western waters. The United States and South Korea are also planning to a joint simulation this month aimed at sharpening their response if North Korea uses nuclear weapons.

The North Korean statement portends another provocative run in weapons demonstrations in 2023, similar to how the North ramped up its own weapons launches in 2022 as the allies resumed their large-scale training. North Korea’s actions included a slew of missile and artillery launches that it described as simulated nuclear attacks on South Korean and U.S. targets.

“DPRK will take the toughest reaction to any military attempt of the U.S. on the principle of ‘nuke for nuke and an all-out confrontation for an all-out confrontation!’” the North Korean spokesperson said, invoking the country’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“If the U.S. continues to introduce strategic assets into the Korean Peninsula and its surrounding area, the DPRK will make clearer its deterring activities without fail according to their nature,” the spokesperson said.

When asked about the North Korean statement in the Philippines on Thursday, Austin said the United States is “very serious” about its commitment to defending South Korea and will continue to work alongside its allies and “train and ensure that we maintain credible and ready forces.”

Ahn Eunju, spokesperson of South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, said North Korea’s expansion of its nuclear weapons and missile program and verbal threats of preemptive nuclear attacks have forced Seoul to react sternly to ensure the protection of its citizens.

“North Korea is the one that’s elevating tensions on the Korean Peninsula by rejecting dialogue offers from South Korea and the United States and making nuclear and missile provocations and threats,” she said, urging Pyongyang to return to denuclearization talks.

Jeon Ha Gyu, spokesperson of South Korea’s Defense Ministry, said the allies’ latest aerial drills were aimed at demonstrating the credibility of the U.S. “extended deterrence,” referring to a commitment to use the full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear ones, to defend South Korea. He declined to reveal the exact number of U.S. and South Korean aircraft involved in the exercise.

In a news conference following their meeting on Tuesday, Austin said he and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-Sup agreed to further expand their combined military exercises, including more live-fire demonstrations. They pledged to continue a “timely and coordinated” deployment of U.S. strategic assets to the region.

The allies had previously downsized their training in recent years to create room for diplomacy with North Korea during the Trump administration and because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

South Korea and the United States have also been strengthening their security cooperation with Japan, which recently included trilateral missile defense and anti-submarine warfare exercises during a provocative run in North Korean weapons tests.

“We deployed fifth-generation aircraft, F-22s and F-35s, we deployed a carrier strike group to visit the peninsula. You can look for more of that kind of activity going forward,” Austin said.

Tensions could further rise with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un doubling down on his nuclear ambitions.

During a political conference in December, Kim called for an “exponential increase” in nuclear warheads, mass production of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons targeting South Korea, and the development of more powerful long-range missiles designed to reach the U.S. mainland.

Kim could showcase his growing arsenal of nuclear-capable missiles next week as commercial satellite images indicate preparations for a huge military parade in capital Pyongyang, likely for the 75th founding anniversary of its army that falls on Feb. 8.

Experts say Kim’s nuclear push is aimed at forcing the United States to accept the idea of North Korea as a nuclear power so it can negotiate badly needed economic concessions from a position of strength. Nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea stopped in 2019 because of disagreements over a relaxation of U.S.-led economic sanctions against the North in exchange for steps by North Korea to wind down its nuclear weapons and missiles programs.

The North Korean spokesperson said Pyongyang isn’t interested in any contact or dialogue with the United States as long as it maintains its “hostile policy and confrontational line,” saying Washington is trying to force Pyongyang to “disarm itself unilaterally.”

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AP writer Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to the story.

US Advances Deal to Access More Military Bases in the Philippines Amid Protests

By Liu Xin and Liu Xuanzun

Feb 02, 2023 10:28 PM

Philippine protesters hold anti-US placards during a rally in front of the military headquarters in Quezon City, suburban Manila on February 2, 2023, during US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's visit to the Philippines. The two countries announced a deal on February 2 that will give US troops access to another four bases in the Southeast Asian country. Photo: AFP

The US has been criticized for pushing for more military presence in Asia out of a zero-sum game mentality and jeopardizing regional stability, after the US has managed to expand access to four additional military bases in the Philippines to boost its military flexibility in possible war scenarios with China.

Analysts said that regional countries have become vigilant about not becoming cannon fodder for Washington's belligerence. 

Despite protests scattered around cities in the Philippines, including Manila and Quezon City, against the deployment of US forces and weapons in the country, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pressed on with advancing the expansion of a defense pact, which allows the US to position military equipment and rotate its troops to four more military bases in the Southeast Asian country. 

The deal under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was announced on Thursday. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who took office last year, also met with Austin on Thursday. 

The US and some Western media ran a series of reports on the deal before it was finalized and claimed that this US military expansion was aimed at China's "increasing" threats in the South China Sea and the Taiwan question. 

In response, Mao Ning, a spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told a routine press conference on Thursday that defense and security cooperation between countries needs to be conducive to regional peace and stability and not targeted at or harmful to the interests of any third party. The US, out of selfish interests, holds on to the zero-sum mentality and keeps strengthening military deployment in the Asia-Pacific. This would escalate tensions and endanger peace and stability in the region.

Mao also reminded that regional countries need to remain vigilant and avoid being coerced or used by the US. 

The Chinese Embassy in the Philippines also responded on Thursday, saying that during his visit, Austin smeared China over the South China Sea and pushed the US' anti-China agenda, which goes against regional countries' common aspiration for peace, cooperation, and development. It also runs counter to Filipino people's common desire to accelerate economic recovery, improve people's livelihoods and develop cooperation with China.

From a military tactical point of view, the US military's access to more bases in the Philippines will grant US forces more flexibility if a conflict breaks out between China and the US over the Taiwan question or in the South China Sea, but that will not change the Chinese military forces' superiority on its doorstep along the first island chain, military analysts said.

From locations in the Philippines such as Luzon and Palawan islands, the US military could cover the Bashi Channel to the south of the island of Taiwan and the Nansha Islands in the South China Sea, so it is likely the US will deploy surveillance, reconnaissance and combat forces in the newly announced bases, Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times on Thursday.

With the modernization and rapid development of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) over the past decade, the US has acknowledged that the Philippines, together with other locations along the first island chain, is no longer secure. This is why it has been pulling back some of its forces to the second island chain, while also scattering its forces to more locations, making it more difficult for the PLA to strike them, experts said.

Under this concept, the US did not aim to increase the number of troops in the Philippines, but sought to have more bases at its disposal, said Chinese military expert Zhang Xuefeng.

Zhang told the Global Times on Thursday that the US now wants to deploy small but mobile forces in the first island chain that are able to harass the PLA, making it more difficult for the PLA to break the chain.

However, these US forces are actually putting themselves in a dangerous position, as PLA's tactical missiles and aviation forces can easily cover them with large numbers of munitions, Zhang said.

To counter the latest US move, the PLA should act to prepare more cost-efficient precision munitions and their launch platforms, in addition to increasing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets that can track, monitor and lock onto US' flexible deployment in real time, observers said.

Song said that if a conflict breaks out, all US bases involved in attacking China will be targeted by the PLA, and the countries that host those US bases will inevitably get hit.

The Philippines should not get itself involved in the confrontation between China and the US, but instead focus on domestic economic development and make joint efforts to make the South China Sea a sea of peace and stability, Song said.

Although the permission to use additional bases in the Philippines is more symbolic than practical, the US will trumpet it as a major achievement for pushing its Indo-Pacific Strategy, some analysts said. As predicted, a release from the US Defense Department hailed the "full implementation" of the EDCA and boasted it as being "a key pillar of the US-Philippines alliance." 

The government of the Philippines has acted with more prudence on the deal to avoid casting a shadow over China-Philippines or China-ASEAN relations, as both the Philippines and ASEAN members have managed to maintain a delicate balance between China and the US, Zhou Fangyin, a research fellow at the Guangdong Institute for International Strategies, told the Global Times. 

The Biden administration is keen to fix its relations with the Philippines, which became strained under ex-president Rodrigo Duterte. The US has intensified its efforts to woo the Marcos administration to join the small US clique by hyping topics on the South China Sea. However, analysts said that the Philippine president is endeavoring to balance security and military with economic development, and has shown a positive attitude in handling disputes with China on the South China Sea. 

As the US persists in fanning confrontations to contain China, regional countries are encouraged to increase their vigilance for any attempt to destroy the hard-won peace and stability in the region, said analysts. 

How the US is Boosting Military Alliances to Counter China

By LOLITA C. BALDOR

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, shakes hands with his Philippine counterpart, Carlito Galvez Jr. at a joint press conference in Camp Aguinaldo military headquarters in metro Manila, Philippines on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. The United States and the Philippines announced on Thursday an agreement to expand American military presence in the Southeast Asian country, where U.S. forces would be granted access to four more Philippine military camps, effectively giving them new ground to ramp up deterrence against China's increasingly aggressive actions toward Taiwan and in the disputed South China Sea. (AP Photo/Joeal Calupitan,Pool)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. is expanding it military presence in Asia, in a string of moves aimed at countering Beijing and reassuring Indo-Pacific allies that America will stand with them against threats from China and North Korea.

The U.S. actions stretch from Japan to the Solomon Islands. And they involve more and increasingly advanced military exercises in the region and additional troop rotations in key areas facing the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. In some cases, they also could provide logistical support in the event of any conflict with China, specifically in defense of the self-governing island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own.

The announcements in recent weeks have triggered angry responses from both China and North Korea. And they come as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to go to China next week in what will be the first visit by a Cabinet-level official in the Biden administration.

PHILIPPINES

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, on his seventh trip to Asia during his two years in office, announced an agreement with the Philippines on Thursday that gives the U.S. access to four more military camps in the Southeast Asian country.

He called it a “big deal” even though it doesn’t establish a permanent U.S. military presence, which is prohibited under the Philippine Constitution. What it does do, however, is give U.S. troops — rotating in and out of the Philippines — a bird’s eye view of two critical spots: the Taiwan Strait and disputed regions of the South China Sea.

There are about 500 U.S. troops in the Philippines on any given day, but thousands rotate in and out over the course of a year for military exercises, humanitarian aid, training and other missions, according to officials. The Philippines allows American forces to stay in barracks within designated Philippine camps. The U.S. already had access to five Philippine military bases.

Standing with his Philippine counterpart, Carlito Galvez Jr., during a press conference in Manila, Austin said the efforts to strengthen the alliance “are especially important as the People’s Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea.”

In response, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswomen Mao Ning accused the U.S. of pursuing “its selfish agenda” with the new arrangement, calling it “an act that escalates tensions in the region and endangers regional peace and stability.”

SOUTH KOREA

In Seoul on Tuesday, Austin announced that the U.S. would increase its deployment of advanced military assets to the Korean Peninsula, including fighter jets and aircraft carriers to boost joint training and planning.

He and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-Sup agreed to expand their combined military exercises, including more live-fire demonstrations. And they discussed preparations for a simulated exercise in February aimed at sharpening their response if North Korea used nuclear weapons.

North Korea test-fired dozens of missiles in 2022, including potentially nuclear-capable ones designed to strike targets in South Korea and the U.S. mainland.

The U.S. resumed large-scale military drills last year, including an aerial exercise involving U.S. strategic bombers in November, in a stepped-up effort to deter Pyongyang. The allies had scaled back exercises in recent years to create room for diplomacy with North Korea during the Trump administration and because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

North Korea, in response, said it’s prepared to counter U.S. military moves with the “most overwhelming nuclear force.” It said the expansion of military exercises is pushing tensions to an “extreme red line.”

JAPAN

Last month, the U.S. and Japan agreed to adjust the American troop presence on the island of Okinawa in part to enhance anti-ship capabilities that would be needed in the event of a Chinese incursion into Taiwan or other hostile acts in the South or East China sea.

They also added a formal mention of outer space in the longstanding U.S.-Japan security treaty, making clear that “attacks to, from and within space” could trigger the mutual defense provisions of the treaty. And Japan announced it would begin constructing a pair of runways on the small southern island of Mageshima where joint exercises, amphibious operations and missile interception could begin in about four years.

The island would be a hub for troop deployments and munition supplies in case of a conflict like a Taiwan emergency.

The changes in the U.S. deployment on Okinawa will transform the 12th Marine Regiment into a smaller, more rapidly mobile unit — the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment, which will be better equipped to fight an adversary and defend the U.S. and its allies in the region.

SOLOMON ISLANDS

On the diplomatic front, the U.S. opened an embassy in the Solomon Islands this week, in a direct effort to counter China’s growing influence there. There had been an embassy in the Solomons for several years, but it was closed in 1993 as part of a global reduction in diplomatic posts. Over time, however, the U.S. became concerned about possible weakening ties with the country.

The Solomon Islands switched allegiance from the self-ruled island of Taiwan to Beijing in 2019. And last year, the Solomons signed a security pact with China, raising fears of a military buildup by Beijing in the region.

Reopening an embassy there, the U.S. State Department said, was a priority to counter China’s growing influence in the region. The embassy in the capital, Honiara, is starting small, with a chargé d’affaires, a couple of State Department staff and a handful of local employees.

Extremist Israeli Group Halts Fund-raising Effort in US

By URI BLAU of Shomrim and MIKE CATALINI of The Associated Press

FILE - Israeli Yosef Haim Ben David, convicted in the killing of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir, arrives to a court in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 19, 2016. An Israeli group that assists Jewish prisoners convicted in some of the country's most notorious hate crimes has halted its fund-raising efforts through a U.S.-based Jewish charity following an investigation by The Associated Press and the Israeli investigative platform Shomrim. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, file)

LAKEWOOD, N.J. (AP) — An Israeli group that assists Jewish prisoners convicted in some of the country’s most notorious hate crimes has halted its fund-raising efforts through a U.S.-based Jewish charity following an investigation by The Associated Press and the Israeli nonprofit news organization Shomrim.

The fund-raising through the Lakewood, New Jersey-based World of Tzedaka had allowed American donors to make tax-exempt contributions to the hard-line Israeli group, and suggested that Israel’s far right was making new inroads into the U.S.

World of Tzedaka confirmed that it was no longer working with Shlom Asiraich, while a fund-raising link on the Israeli group’s website that connected donors to the American nonprofit has stopped working.

“We don’t do any business with them anymore, so we don’t have anything else to do with them,” said Yaakov Cohen, who identified himself as a manager for World of Tzedaka.

Shlom Asiraich, or “The Well-Being of Your Prisoners,” has been raising money in Israel since at least 2018. The group was officially registered as a nonprofit in 2020 by a group consisting mostly of Israelis from hard-line settlements in the West Bank.

According to its promotional materials, the group has provided assistance to Yigal Amir, who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995; Amiram Ben-Uliel, who was convicted in the 2015 murder of a Palestinian baby and his parents in an arson attack; and Yosef Haim Ben David, who was convicted of abducting and killing a 16-year-old Palestinian boy in Jerusalem in 2014. The group also assists an extremist ultra-Orthodox man who fatally stabbed a 16-year-old Israeli girl at Jerusalem’s gay pride parade in 2015.

A spokesman for Shlom Asiraich slammed down the phone twice when he was called by The Associated Press for comment on Thursday.

It’s not clear when the U.S. fundraising efforts on behalf of Shlom Asiraich began. Being a relatively new organization, the group’s official filing to Israel’s nonprofit registry provides little data and does not indicate how much money it has raised. But in its promotional flyers, recently broadcast by Israeli Channel 13 news, the organization indicated it has raised 150,000 shekels, or about $43,000.

It’s also not clear how much of that money was raised in the U.S. by World of Tzedaka, a group that assists Jewish families in distress, according to its website. Lakewood, New Jersey, is home to a sizeable Orthodox Jewish community.

Cohen, the World of Tzedaka representative, said his group had raised just $200 for Shlom Asiraich before the connection was halted, though that figure could not be verified.

“It didn’t really get off the ground that much. Then we started hearing some questionable information about them. Then rabbis advised to stop doing business with them, so we did,” he said.

Just when the break happened isn’t clear. Cohen said it happened “a few months” ago after “a few people locally” brought the connection to their attention.

But he couldn’t specify when, and a link on the Shlom Asiraich website that connects to the World of Tzedaka donation page was still working when the AP-Shomrim investigation was published on Jan. 24. Another link directly on World of Tzedaka’s website has also disappeared.

“We removed them from our website, and we asked them to remove our name from their website and whatever they had and we completely separated from them,” Cohen said.

Israeli universities, hospitals and charities often have fund-raising operations in the U.S., but activities like those of extremist groups like Shlom Asiraich are rare.

It is not known whether Shlom Asiraich or World of Tzedaka broke any U.S. laws. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service’s rules for fund-raising by nonprofit organizations are vague – saying the groups cannot exert political influence or benefit private interests.

The IRS declined to comment on the case. The U.S. State Department said it was aware of the reports about Shlom Asiraich, but referred questions to the Justice Department.

“We condemn extremist violence in all its forms,” the State Department said.

The Justice Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government took office in late December, giving ultranationalists and extremist lawmakers unprecedented power. There is no direct link between Shlom Asiraich and the government, though its registration with Israeli authorities was handled by a top aide to Israel’s ultranationalist national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir.

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This article was published in partnership with Shomrim, The Center for Media and Democracy in Israel. AP correspondent Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed reporting.

Recent Extremist Attacks Kill 32 People in Burkina Faso

By ARSENE KABORE and SAM MEDNICK

January 31, 2023

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — Multiple jihadi attacks across Burkina Faso over several days have resulted in the death of at least 32 people, including soldiers and civilians, government authorities said Tuesday.

Burkina Faso’s State Information Agency posted on its Facebook page that a dozen soldiers and a civilian were killed Monday in Falagountou in Burkina Faso’s Sahel region during clashes between the military and jihadis. Another 20 people were killed in two attacks over the weekend in the country’s east-central and western regions.

Four people were executed Saturday afternoon when gunmen intercepted their van between Tenkodogo and Ouargaye villages. On Sunday, a passenger mini-bus coming from the western city of Banfora was intercepted by armed men, said Col. Jean Charles dit Yenapono Some, governor of the Cascades region in a statement. Eight women and one man were freed, the rest of the people were abducted and their lifeless bodies were found with bullet holes the following day, he said.

Jihadi violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State Group has ravaged the West African country for years killing thousands and displacing nearly 2 million people. Nearly 5,000 civilians have been killed since 2015, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).

The violence has sowed frustration and distrust among the population and led to two coups last year. The new junta leader, Ibrahim Traore, seized power in September promising to stem the violence but attacks are increasing.

Traore has mobilized tens of thousands of civilian fighters to combat the jihadis alongside the army. But analysts says the civilian fighters are accused of targeting other civilians perceived to be working with the jihadis, which is fueling retaliatory attacks.

“The types of mass-atrocities that are occurring were expected, as the conflict was expected to escalate in the coming months due to the increased mobilization of the population through the (volunteer) program and the increasing trend of extrajudicial killings by defence and security forces observed in recent months,” said Heni Nsaibia, senior researcher at ACLED.

“With the increase in state violence and state-sanctioned violence, it is not surprising that militant violence is escalating and further fueling cycles of attacks and retaliation,” he said.

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Mednick reported from Dakar, Senegal.

Pope Urges Congo Youth to Reject Corruption and They Respond

By NICOLE WINFIELD, CHRISTINA MALKIA and JEAN-YVES KAMALE

Pope Francis, second from left, looks at traditional dancers performing at the Martyrs' Stadium In Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. Francis is in Congo and South Sudan for a six-day trip, hoping to bring comfort and encouragement to two countries that have been riven by poverty, conflicts and what he calls a "colonialist mentality" that has exploited Africa for centuries. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Pope Francis led Congo’s young people in a rousing denunciation of political corruption on Thursday, turning an otherwise scripted meeting with church catechists into a rally that shook the capital’s sports stadium.

Francis was repeatedly interrupted as some of the 65,000 people in Kinshasa’s Martyrs’ Stadium took up his call to say “No” to corruption and turned it into a demand for Congo’s president to not run for a second term in elections later this year.

The Argentine pope often uses his foreign trips to denounce corruption, particularly in meeting with young people in hopes that future generations will resist the temptation to make dishonest deals for personal gain. The issue is particularly dear to Francis, who wrote a book on the issue and likes to say that corruption is far worse than sin.

He continued that tradition on Thursday in Kinshasa, denouncing the “cancer of corruption” as he called for Congolese to create an honest future for themselves and their families.

“If someone offers you an envelope with a bribe, or promises you favors and lots of money, do not fall into the trap. Do not be deceived! Do not be sucked into the swamp of evil!” Francis said to cheers.

Transparency International ranks Congo 166th out of 180 on its corruption perception index, finding a direct correlation between political corruption and the high level of insecurity in the country. Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi says his administration is committed to fighting corruption, has denied any wrongdoing and has blamed foreign powers for the decades of violence in the east by rebels and armed militia groups.

Taking up Francis’ call, the audience broke into a chant in the Lingala language directed at the country’s president, thundering that his mandate was over.

The pope clearly seemed to enjoy the enthusiasm, even if he needed his interpreter to explain hat the crowd was chanting.

More than two-thirds of Congo’s population of around 100 million is under age 25, and the United Nations and humanitarian organizations have said the country’s youth were particularly vulnerable to abuses amid the fighting in the east of the country which has forced more than 5 million to flee their homes.

Some in the stadium on Thursday said the lack of jobs in Congo fueled the conflict since there are few other options for young people to earn money legitimately.

“We have the impression that our leaders do absolutely nothing to improve the living conditions of the population and that these leaders minimize the capacity of the youth to improve things,” said Kavira Shukuru, 26.

“And this situation is among the causes of the instability and insecurity that our country is experiencing. An unemployed youth is easily influenced and can easily join an armed group to earn a living or be influenced by a politician with bad intentions,” she said.

Tshisekedi, who is up for reelection at the end of the year, took office just over four years ago, starting what many had hoped would be a new era after the 18-year tenure of his predecessor. However, critics say Tshisekedi’s government hasn’t done enough to improve living conditions in Congo, where many remain desperately poor despite the country’s vast mineral riches.

A top presidential adviser resigned in September amid a scandal over a mining deal. Opponents also have accused the president of giving bonuses to legislators and aides.

Emery Kalo, 27, said the government was doing what it could but that Congo’s young people needed more opportunities to find work and receive adequate training and education.

“It is because of the lack of employment that many young people indulge in delinquency and other depravities,” Kalo said. Dreaming of the future, Kalo said he would like to see a Congo where the government guarantees security, justice, work and health care.

“I would like to see the Congo embody its role in the middle of Africa, taking advantage of our resources by transforming them here locally,” Kalo said.

Later Thursday, Francis met with Congo’s priests and nuns at the capital’s Notre Dame Cathedral and repeated his appeal to avoid the temptations of corruption, vice and material comfort.

“It is scandalous when this happens in the life of a priest or sister, for they should instead be models of sobriety and inner freedom,” he said, urging religious figures to live honest, Christian lives — including honoring their vows of celibacy.

Outside the cathedral, advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse staged a small protest, holding up signs urging Francis to use his trip to meet with survivors. Signs also urged him to apply the church law that punishes bishops who cover up abuse.

Benjamin Kitobo, a 55-year-old Congolese survivor who now lives in the United States, called for accountability to stop abuse in the church.

“If he does not help the Africans, that will continue in the dark for many years,” he said.

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Yesica Fisch contributed. ___

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

African Countries Lack ‘Immediate Access’ to Cholera Vaccine

By CARA ANNA

A woman carries her son, who has cholera, at Bwaila Hospital in Lilongwe central Malawi, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. Malawi’s health minister says the country’s worst cholera outbreak in two decades has killed 750 people so far. The southern African country of 20 million people first reported the outbreak in March last year. (AP Photo/Thoko Chikondi)

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Africa’s public health agency says countries with deadly cholera outbreaks on the continent have no “immediate access” to vaccines amid a global supply shortage.

The acting director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ahmed Ogwell, told journalists on Thursday that the agency is working with the World Health Organization and the vaccine alliance GAVI on ways to obtain more doses.

The Africa CDC is also working with two local manufacturers to explore if their facilities can be repurposed to manufacture cholera vaccines, Ogwell said. He didn’t say which ones.

WHO and its partners recommended in October that countries temporarily switch to using a single dose of the cholera vaccine instead of two because of the supply shortage as outbreaks of the water-borne disease surge globally. They said one dose of vaccine has proven effective in stopping outbreaks “even though evidence on the exact duration of protection is limited” and appears to be lower in children.

WHO noted that Haiti and Syria also are trying to contain large outbreaks. WHO and partner agencies manage a stockpile of cholera vaccines that are dispensed free to countries that need them.

Malawi in southern Africa especially is struggling with a cholera outbreak. The country has recorded 3,577 new cases including 111 deaths in the past week, Ogwell said. They make up the bulk of the new cholera cases on the continent.

Since the beginning of 2023, there have been 27,300 new cases of cholera including 687 deaths in five African countries, Ogwell said.

The WHO has said climate change could make cholera epidemics more common, as the bacteria that causes the disease can reproduce more quickly in warmer water.

Spain and Morocco Renew Ties with Migration, Business Deals

By MOSA'AB ELSHAMY and JOSEPH WILSON

Morocco Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch receives Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez at Rabat-Sale Airport in Rabat, Morocco, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. Sanchez is on a two-day visit to Morocco for the Moroccan-Spanish Economic Forum. (AP Photo)

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — The governments of Spain and Morocco signed deals Thursday on managing migration and boosting Spanish investment in Morocco, among 20 agreements reached at wide-ranging meetings aimed at turning the page on diplomatic tensions linked to the disputed Western Sahara.

Morocco is an ally to Western powers in fighting extremism and important in aiding EU migration policies, and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez applauded what he described as a trust-building step at the signing ceremony in Rabat.

The documents inked Thursday included an 800-million-euro ($873-million) package to encourage investment by Spanish firms in Morocco, two memorandums on migration and several deals for education and job training, among other agreements. Details were not immediately released.

The meeting, which involved 11 Spanish ministers and 13 from the Moroccan government, also included a repeated commitment to eventually opening customs offices on the border crossings at Spain’s North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which Morocco doesn’t officially recognize as European territories. No date or timetable was given.

This would be a boost to the local economies on both sides of the border. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the land crossings were porous to flows of contraband goods, and now the goal is for goods to move on trucks and with duties duly paid.

The frontiers are also often sites of tragedy for Africans who try on occasion to storm the fences in hopes of continuing on to continental Europe. The border policing methods of both Spain and Morocco fell under intense scrutiny after the death of at least 23 African men, many reportedly refugees from Sudan, when they stormed a border fence at Melilla last year.

Morocco has received hundreds of millions of euros from the EU in recent years to curb irregular migration that, for Spain, peaked in 2018 with 64,000 arrivals. European officials have credited Morocco with helping lower that to 31,000 last year. Of that number for 2022, almost 29,000 arrived on the Spanish mainland or its Canary Islands, mostly on small boats unfit for open waters. Thousands more have perished or vanished at sea. Those migrants included young Moroccans.

Moroccans make up the single largest foreign community in Spain, with 800,000 residents; Spain is the largest foreign investor in Morocco, making economic cooperation a top priority for the Moroccan government.

The Spanish government’s visit is seen as an effort to get something tangible in return for diplomatic efforts to mend ties with Morocco after a flareup in tensions over the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony annexed by Morocco in 1975.

Moroccan Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch praised the “renewed dynamism of our relations.”

He also thanked Spain for its support of its proposal for Western Sahara.

Spain incurred Morocco’s wrath in 2021 by allowing a Western Sahara independence fighter to seek treatment in a Spanish hospital. Rabat eased border controls on Ceuta, and thousands of people crossed over into the small city. Sanchez then took the controversial decision to throw Spain’s backing behind Morocco’s vision for the future of the territory — more autonomy but remaining firmly under Moroccan control — to smooth over tensions.

That angered Algeria, a major natural gas supplier to Spain and backer of the Polisario Front movement that has fought for Western Saharan independence. Politicians from across Spain’s spectrum considered Sánchez to have betrayed the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara for very little in return.

Sánchez insisted Thursday on the importance of improved paths of communications between governments with the intention of avoiding “unilateral actions, and never leaving out any topic regardless of its complexity.”

“We are establishing the basis for the type of relations between Spain and Morocco for the present and the future ... based on mutual trust,” Sánchez said.

Miguel Hernando de Larramendi, professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies for the University of Castilla-La Mancha, believes that Spain’s government tilted toward Morocco in the Western Sahara question because it was convinced that “its interest in fighting extremism and irregular migration hinge on having good relations with Morocco.”

In exchange, Madrid has edged toward strengthening its exclaves surrounded by Moroccan territory — if customs offices are finally established on the land border as agreed in principle.

“We are in the ‘honeymoon’ moment of this rapprochement, but we will have to see the real results of the summit,” Hernando de Larramendi said. “The opening of the customs could be a good thermometer to gauge their relations because it carries with it a type of implicit recognition (by Morocco) of Ceuta and Melilla.”

One person was notably absent from the Spanish visitors’ agenda in Morocco: King Mohammed VI.

That earned Sánchez scorn back home from opposition parties, who said the Socialist leader had been snubbed.

The Moroccan monarch and Sánchez spoke by telephone on Wednesday about a “new era” between their countries. Sánchez paid a visit early on Thursday to the gravesite of the king’s grandfather, Mohammed V.

Sánchez met with the king last year to put an end to the diplomatic crisis. They have now agreed to meet again soon.

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Joseph Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain. Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.

Regional Heads Plan Joint Push Against al-Shabab in Somalia

By OMAR FARUK

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — The leaders of Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya have agreed on a joint “search and destroy” military campaign against the Somali al-Shabab Islamic militant group that has carried out attacks in the region — including firing mortars near the meeting venue in Mogadishu before officials gathered Wednesday.

In a joint communique issued after the meeting in Somalia’s capital, the four heads of state said the operation would “prevent any future infiltrating elements into the wider region.”

“The Summit agreed to make the final push for joint operations in the areas that remain under the terrorists to completely liberate the whole of Somalia from Al-Shabab,” read Wednesday’s communique from the four countries — whose soldiers are part of the Africa Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

Somalia’s government is currently running what has been described as the most significant offensive against the al-Shabab extremist group in more than a decade.

Al-Shabab’s thousands of fighters have held back the nation’s recovery from decades of conflict by carrying out brazen attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere.

Streets of Mogadishu which regularly face attacks were on Wednesday shut down with limited movement amid strong military patrols, and all commercial flights were suspended while the heads of state visited.

Even then, witnesses reported that mortar shells landed near the presidential place before the meetings kicked off, but no fatalities were reported. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack.

Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said the meeting “reaffirms our resolve to rid our region of terrorism permanently.”

Kenya’s President William Ruto said that peace was within reach due to the “collective effort in anti-terrorism.”

The regional leaders have decided to establish a joint operations mechanism that will coordinate the drive to defeat al-Shabab.

A Western humanitarian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said more territory has been taken from al-Shabab in the past six months than in the past five years, with close to 100 villages recaptured from the extremists.

“It took us all by surprise because it was very organic,” the official said, with local communities rising up in revolt against al-Shabab’s harsh taxation amid Somalia’s worst drought on record. Somalia’s government quickly supported the local militia fighters in the offensive.

While Somalia’s government vows to eliminate al-Shabab, some observers see that as a daunting task. “Al-Shabab has proven it can be effective without holding territory,” the humanitarian official said.

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Associated Press writer Cara Anna in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed.

Western-backed Chadian Military Leader to Open Embassy in Occupied Palestine Undermining the Struggle for Liberation

FILE - Chad's Interim President and Chairman transitional Military Council, Gen. Mahamat Idriss Deby, waves as he is welcomed by French President Emmanuel Macron for a meeting on the Sahel crisis at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. Chad will open an embassy in Israel, four years after the countries restored diplomatic relations, Israel's Prime Minister's Office said Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Chad will open an embassy in Israel, four years after the countries restored diplomatic relations, Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office said Wednesday.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the embassy would be inaugurated on Thursday as part of Chadian President Mahamat Deby’s state visit to Israel.

Netanyahu visited the central African state in January 2019 as part of Israel’s push to establish diplomatic ties with Muslim states. The following year Israel signed normalization agreements with Morocco, Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates as part of the U.S.-brokered “Abraham Accords.”

“These are relations we want to upgrade to new levels, to new heights, and your visit here to Israel and opening an embassy are an expression of that,” Netanyahu said during a meeting with Deby.

Deby was declared head of state in 2021 after the military announced that his father had been killed by rebels after more than three decades in power.

Deby was greeted on the tarmac by Mossad intelligence agency chief David Barnea, the Prime Minister’s Office said.

Deby’s father and predecessor in office, Idriss Deby, visited Jerusalem in 2018. Chad had relations with Israel until 1972, when it terminated diplomatic ties under pressure from other Arab countries.

The desert country is one of the world’s least developed states, according to the World Bank’s Human Development Index, and its government has been accused of widespread human rights abuses and rigged elections.

‘Hands off Africa!’: Pope Blasts Foreign Plundering of DR Congo

By NICOLE WINFIELD, JEAN-YVES KAMALE and CHRISTINA MALKIA

January 31, 2023

Pope Francis, left, sits with President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Felix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo during a welcome ceremony at the "Palais de la Nation" in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. Pope Francis starts his six-day pastoral visit to Congo and South Sudan where he'll bring a message of peace to countries riven by poverty and conflict. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Pope Francis demanded Tuesday that foreign powers stop plundering Africa’s natural resources for the “poison of their own greed” as he arrived in Congo to a raucous welcome by Congolese grateful he was focusing the world’s attention on their forgotten plight.

Tens of thousands of people lined the main road into the capital, Kinshasa, to welcome Francis after he landed at the airport, some standing three or four deep, with children in school uniforms taking the front row.

“The pope is 86 years old but he came anyway. It is a sacrifice and the Congolese people will not forget it,” said Sultan Ntambwe, a bank agent in his 30s, as he waited for Francis’ arrival in a scene reminiscent of some of Francis’ earlier trips to similarly heavily Catholic countries.

Francis plunged headfirst into his agenda upon arrival, denouncing the centuries-long exploitation of Africa by colonial powers, today’s multinational extraction industries and the neighboring countries interfering in Congo’s affairs that has led to a surge in fighting in the east.

“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa!” Francis said to applause in his opening speech to Congolese government authorities and the diplomatic corps in the garden of Kinshasa’s national palace.

Calling Congo’s vast mineral and natural wealth a “diamond of creation,” Francis demanded that foreign interests stop carving up the country for their own interests and acknowledge their role in the economic “enslavement” of the Congolese people.

“Stop choking Africa: It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered,” said history’s first Latin American pope, who has long railed at how wealthy countries have exploited the resources of poorer ones for their own profit.

The six-day trip, which also includes a stop in South Sudan, was originally scheduled for July, but was postponed because of Francis’ knee problems, which were still so serious on Tuesday that he couldn’t stand to greet journalists in the plane heading to Kinshasa and forced him to use a wheelchair on the ground.

It was also supposed to have included a stop in Goma, in eastern Congo, but the surrounding North Kivu region has been plagued by intense fighting between government troops and the M23 rebel group, as well as attacks by militants linked to the Islamic State group.

The fighting has displaced some 5.7 million people, a fifth of them last year alone, according to the World Food Program.

Instead of travelling there, Francis will meet with a delegation of people from the east who will travel to Kinshasa for a private encounter at the Vatican embassy on Wednesday. The plan calls for them to participate in a ceremony jointly committing to forgive their assailants.

Sylvie Mvita, a student in economics in Kinshasa, said the pope’s arrival would focus the world’s attention and television cameras on Congo and the fighting in the east to show how its suffering has been forgotten by the rest of the world.

“This will allow the world to discover the atrocities of which our brothers in the east of the country are victims. And maybe for once, the little humanity that remains in some people will cause an awakening and the international community will not only be interested in what is happening in Ukraine but also in what is happening in this country,” she said.

President Felix Tshisekedi voiced a similar line in his speech to the pope, accusing the international community of forgetting about Congo and of its complicit “inaction and silence” about the atrocities occurring in the east.

“In addition to armed groups, foreign powers eager for the minerals in our subsoil commit cruel atrocities with the direct and cowardly support of our neighbor Rwanda, making security the first and greatest challenge for the government,” he said.

Rwanda has been accused of -- and has repeatedly denied -- backing the M23 rebels operating in Congo.

Francis’ tough words at the start set the tone for the trip, in which the pontiff is aiming to bring a message of peace, a warning to the international community to not look the other way and a recognition that Africa is the future of the Catholic Church.

The continent is one of the only places on Earth where the Catholic flock is growing, both in terms of practicing faithful and fresh vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

And Congo stands out as the African country with most Catholics hands down: Half of its 105 million people are Catholic, the country counts more than 6,000 priests, 10,000 nuns and more than 4,000 seminarians — 3.6% of the global total of young men studying for the priesthood.

That makes Francis’ trip, his fifth to the African continent in his 10-year pontificate, all the more important as the Jesuit pope seeks to reshape the church as a “field hospital for wounded souls,” where all are welcome, poor people have a special pride of place and rivals are urged to make peace.

Aid groups had hoped Francis’ six-day visit would shine a spotlight on the forgotten conflicts of Congo and South Sudan and their soaring humanitarian costs, and rekindle international attention amid donor fatigue that has set in due to new aid priorities in Ukraine.

Francis answered their call, pointing the finger at the role colonial powers such as Belgium played in the exploitation of Congo until the country, which is 80 times the size of Belgium, gained its independence in 1960, and neighboring countries are playing today.

Francis didn’t identify Belgium or any neighboring country by name, but he spared no word of condemnation, quoting Tshisekedi as saying there was a “forgotten genocide” under way.

“The poison of greed has smeared its diamonds with blood,” Francis said. “May the world acknowledge the catastrophic things that were done over the centuries to the detriment of the local peoples, and not forget this country and this continent.”

“We cannot grow accustomed to the bloodshed that has marked this country for decades, causing millions of deaths that remain mostly unknown elsewhere,” he said.

At the same time, he urged Congolese authorities to work for the common good and not tribal, ethnic or personal interests; and put an end to child labor and invest in education so that “the most precious diamonds” of Congo can shine brightly.

Congolese faithful were flocking to Kinshasa for Francis’ main event, a Mass on Wednesday at Ndolo airport that is expected to draw as many as 2 million people in one of the biggest gatherings of its kind in Congo and one of Francis’ biggest Masses ever.

Banners emblazoned with the pope’s image carried messages including “Pope Francis, the city of Kinshasa welcomes you with joy.”

Some women wore colorful dresses and skirts made of pagne, a wax print fabric featuring images of Francis, the Virgin Mary or the Vatican keys, in a celebratory sign of welcome.

Jean-Louis Mopina, 47, said he walked about 45 minutes to Kinshasa’s airport before the pope’s arrival on Tuesday.

“He has come like a pilgrim sent by God,” Mopina said. “His blessing will give us peace in our hearts.”

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Christina Malkia in Kinshasa, and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.