Category Archives: News

worldwide news

World Donors Seek Ways to Help Afghans, Not Taliban

At an emergency conference this week, the European Union pledged more than 1 billion dollars in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and neighboring countries, as the United Nations warns millions of Afghans are facing famine. But the United States has been cautious, saying it is sending humanitarian aid, but cannot provide funds directly to the Taliban-led government until they start respecting human rights and women’s rights. VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports.

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US Puts Cryptocurrency Industry on Notice Over Ransomware Attacks 

Suspected ransomware payments totaling $590 million were made in the first six months of this year, more than the $416 million reported for all of 2020, U.S. authorities said on Friday, as Washington put the cryptocurrency industry on alert about its role in combating ransomware attacks. 

The U.S. Treasury Department said the average amount of reported ransomware transactions per month in 2021 was $102.3 million, with REvil/Sodinokibi, Conti, DarkSide, Avaddon, and Phobos the most prevalent ransomware strains reported. 

President Joe Biden has made the government’s cybersecurity response a top priority for the most senior levels of his administration following a series of attacks this year that threatened to destabilize U.S. energy and food supplies. 

Avoiding  U.S. sanctions

Seeking to stop the use of cryptocurrencies in the payment of ransomware demands, Treasury told members of the crypto community they are responsible for making sure they do not directly or indirectly help facilitate deals prohibited by U.S. sanctions. 

Its new guidance said the industry plays an increasingly critical role in preventing those blacklisted from exploiting cryptocurrencies to evade sanctions. 

“Treasury is helping to stop ransomware attacks by making it difficult for criminals to profit from their crimes, but we need partners in the private sector to help prevent this illicit activity,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said in a statement. 

The new guidance also advised cryptocurrency exchanges to use geolocation tools to block access from countries under U.S. sanctions. 

Hackers use ransomware to take down systems that control everything from hospital billing to manufacturing. They stop only after receiving hefty payments, typically in cryptocurrency. 

Large scale hacks

This year, gangs have hit numerous U.S. companies in large scale hacks. One such attack on pipeline operator Colonial Pipeline led to temporary fuel supply shortages on the U.S. East Coast. Hackers also targeted an Iowa-based agricultural company, sparking fears of disruptions to grain harvesting in the Midwest. 

The Biden administration last month unveiled sanctions against cryptocurrency exchange Suex OTC, S.R.O. over its alleged role in enabling illegal payments from ransomware attacks, officials said, in the Treasury’s first such move against a cyptocurrency exchange over ransomware activity.

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US Defense Secretary Heads to Europe to Focus on Black Sea Stability, NATO 

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is heading to Europe this weekend to meet with leaders in Georgia, Ukraine and Romania and to participate in a NATO defense ministers meeting in Belgium. 

 

“The Department of Defense steadfastly supports its European Allies and partners in the face of Russia’s destabilizing actions in the critical Black Sea region, and the Secretary looks forward to meeting with his counterparts and other senior officials to reinforce the United States’ commitment to a safe, stable, and prosperous Europe,” the Pentagon said in a statement. 

 

In Georgia, Austin will meet with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Minister of Defense Juansher Burchuladze to discuss bilateral relations and regional security. 

 

In Ukraine, the secretary will meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Minister of Defense Andriy Taran to discuss “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” as well as the country’s defense industry reforms. 

 

In Romania, Austin will meet President Klaus Iohannis and Minister of National Defense Nicolae-Ionel Ciuca to discuss bilateral relations. He also will visit U.S. forces at Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base. 

 

In Belgium, Austin will attend a meeting of his NATO counterparts and Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to ensure the alliance “is prepared for the challenges of the future.” 

 

 

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Turkish Media Face 18 Trials in One Week

Eighteen journalists, nearly all of whom work for Kurdish media outlets, stood trial at hearings across Turkey this week. 

Lawyers and media rights groups say the trials show how Turkey’s laws on terrorism and protests can be used to detain or harass journalists. 

Nearly all those in court this week face accusations of belonging to or creating propaganda for a terrorist organization—often a reference to the militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Others face charges of defying Law 2911, which regulates public meetings and demonstrations, according to the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), a Turkey-based group that offers legal support to journalists.

Media who cover protests can sometimes be accused of organizing an illegal gathering. And in April, Turkey’s Interior Ministry issued an order requiring journalists to have permits for covering approved protests. 

Some rights lawyers have said the ruling appears designed to silence journalists.

“The order is problematic because it only recognizes journalists who are given permits by the government to cover protests,” said Erselan Aktan, an Istanbul-based lawyer who has represented dozens of journalists in recent years. 

“It doesn’t consider freelance journalists and those who work for opposition media outlets as journalists and this is against the core of the freedom of expression,” he told VOA.   

One of those in court this week on charges of defying the law on protests was freelance journalist Rusen Takva. 

The journalist, who contributes to the pro-opposition Arti TV, was charged in connection with his coverage of a protest calling for Kurdish rights, in the eastern Turkish city of Van in January. 

A prosecutor had recommended that Takva be sentenced to 18 years in prison. But at a hearing on Tuesday, a new prosecutor dropped the charges, citing a lack of evidence. 

“It was clear from the beginning that this case was not holding,” Takva said. “I was merely doing my job as a journalist. When the original prosecutor was replaced, the new prosecutor concluded that there was no evidence to support the charges against me.”

Others on trial have cases going back more than four years, like journalist Hayri Demir, who worked for outlets including the pro-Kurdish Dicle News Agency. 

In 2017, authorities charged Demir with belonging to and creating propaganda for the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization by Ankara and Washington.  

The journalist’s case has received media attention because evidence presented in the indictment included photographs from a memory stick that was stolen from Demir’s home in Ankara. 

The images were taken by Demir while he was on assignment in northeast Syria in 2015. 

“Six months after that robbery, the pictures on that card came out in the court as evidence in my case file for my conviction,” Demir told VOA.

“My previous telephone conversations with Selahattin Demirtas were also included in my court file as a crime.” 

Demirtas, a former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has been in prison since 2016 on terror charges.  

The journalist had his ninth hearing Tuesday, but the case remains open with the hearing adjourned. If Demir is convicted, he could face up to 22 years in prison.    

Turkey’s Interior Ministry and Ankara’s High Criminal Court didn’t respond to VOA requests for comment.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last month that Turkish media is “incomparably free,” and that he does not accept the findings of media rights groups that show mass arrests.

“We don’t have any problems of that nature in terms of freedoms,” Erdogan told U.S. broadcaster CBS.

But media lawyer Aktan, who coordinates with the MLSA, said that arrests and trials are common. 

In September alone, 65 journalists had hearings across Turkey, mostly on terror-related charges, defying the protest law or insulting the head of state, Aktan said.  

The country’s media came under pressure following a failed attempted coup in 2016, after which Ankara arrested dozens of journalists it accused of supporting or being sympathetic to the coup.

As of August, data by the Stockholm Center for Freedom, an advocacy groups that documents human rights abuses with a special focus on Turkey, showed 174 journalists either detained pending trial or serving sentences and a further 167 accused of a crime but who are in exile or at large.

Turkey also ranks poorly on the World Press Freedom Index, coming in at 153 out of 180 countries, where 1 is the freest, according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

This story originated in VOA’s Kurdish Service.

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David Amess, British MP, Killed in Stabbing

A British member of parliament died Friday after being stabbed several times at a church, while he was visiting constituents in his home district in southeastern Britain, officials said.

David Amess, 69, was a member of the Conservative Party and represents Southend West in Essex, England.

Police said a 25-year-old suspect is in custody.

“We are not looking for anyone else in connection with the incident and do not believe there is an ongoing threat to the wider public,” Essex Police said in a statement.

Amess, who had been a member of parliament since 1983, was married and had five children.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed some information in this report.

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Norway Bow-and-Arrow Suspect Facing Custody Hearing

The suspect in a bow-and-arrow attack that killed five people and wounded three in a quiet Norwegian town this week is facing a custody hearing Friday. He won’t appear in court because he has confessed to the killings and has agreed to being held in custody.

Espen Andersen Braathen, a 37-year-old Danish citizen was arrested Wednesday night, 30 minutes after the deadly rampage targeting random people. Police have described the attack as an act of terror.

On a central square in Kongsberg, a town of 26,000 people surrounded by mountains and woods some 66 kilometers southwest of Oslo, people were laying flowers and lighting candles Friday.

“This a a small community so almost everybody knows each other, so it s a very strange and very sad experience for us,” said teacher Ingeborg Spangelo, who brought her students to the impromptu memorial. “It’s almost surreal or unreal.”

Andersen Braathen was handled over to medical authorities, Norwegian news media reported Friday, saying he will be observed and assessed by two experts who will try to clarify whether he was sane at the time of the attack. If they conclude he was not sane, he cannot be punished for the acts but can be sentenced to compulsory mental health care.

Regional prosecutor Ann Iren Svane Mathiassen told Norwegian broadcaster NRK that the decision for his move was an assessment of his health situation. She didn’t elaborate.

Officials said Andersen Braathen used a bow and arrow and possibly other weapons to randomly target people at a supermarket and other locations in Kongsberg, where he lived.

Four women and a man, all between the ages of 50 and 70, were killed, and three other people were wounded, police said.

Police said they believe he acted alone. Norway’s domestic security service PST said the attack “appears to be an act of terror,” but didn’t elaborate. It added that Andersen Braathen was known to the PST, but, again, declined to elaborate.

The suspect has been described by police as a Muslim convert and said there “earlier had been worries of the man having been radicalized,” but they did not elaborate or say why he was previously flagged or what authorities did in response.

According to Norwegian media, Andersen Braathen has a conviction for burglary and drug possession, and last year a court granted a restraining order for him to stay away from his parents for six months after threatening to kill one of them. 

 

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US, Greece Enhance Ties with China, Turkey in the Background

The United States and Greece upgraded an existing Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement on Thursday, a move seen as elevating bilateral ties in defense and overall relations.

The amendment to the MDCA was signed by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and visiting Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in Washington as part of the third round of the U.S.-Greece Strategic Dialogue. The talks were launched in 2018 by then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Greek counterpart.

Blinken described the dialogue as “a signal of our shared commitment to deepen our partnership” through which the two countries will become “an even more powerful force for peace, prosperity and human dignity.”

The amendment will enable U.S. forces in Greece “to train and operate from additional locations,” Blinken told a Thursday news conference.

Dendias described the amendment as one that safeguards Greek interests and enables collaboration beyond defense issues.

“It also creates a shell [framework] that allows the United States to invest in Greece, not only for the improvement of our country’s defense facilities, but to do so in a broader framework of cooperation that is being established and improved,” he said.

The agreement comes as tension appears to be rising in the eastern Mediterranean, where Greece and its neighbor Turkey have recently accused each other of aggressive actions that threaten an escalation of territorial disputes.

Reliable ally

Congressman Ted Deutch, a senior member of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, also met with Dendias this week. In written response to VOA’s request for comment, Deutch, chairman of the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism Subcommittee, said Greece is a reliable ally in the eastern Mediterranean region.

“The U.S.-Greece relationship is vital to U.S. national interests and to the security and stability of the Eastern Mediterranean region. Greece has consistently proven itself to be a reliable ally in the region, and the United States must continue to support its efforts to modernize its armed forces and strengthen our nations’ strategic partnership,” Deutch said.

Deutch said the importance of this partnership is behind his decision to sponsor, with Representative Gus Bilirakis, the United States-Greece Defense and Interparliamentary Partnership Act of 2021.

The bill, he said, is designed to foster interparliamentary engagement among Greece, Cyprus and Israel, known as the “3+1 process,” in addition to supporting Greece’s military modernization.

“Encouraging continued security cooperation among our allies and partners, including Greece, will help us ensure stability throughout the region and bolster global security,” Deutch told VOA in a written statement.

Stephen J. Blank, a senior fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told VOA in a phone interview that while the strengthening of defense ties with Athens sends a signal that the U.S. will support Greece, Washington’s overriding concern is ensuring that the “two NATO allies that have a long history of mutual enmity dating back to Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, don’t start a war.”

China

China’s influence in Greece, particularly its purchase of a majority stake in the largest and strategically located port in Greece, the Port of Piraeus, is another factor in the background of talks between Washington and Athens.

China Ocean Shipping Company purchased a 51% stake in the Piraeus Port Authority in 2016 and signed a deal to obtain an additional 16% stake last month, despite having delivered only a third of agreed-to investments under the initial agreement.

Eric Brown, who studies China’s strategic designs at the Hudson Institute in Washington, told VOA that the Port of Piraeus “has featured prominently in the [People’s Republic of China’s] imagining of the new world system that it is striving to build,” as a key component to China’s maritime Silk Road Initiative.

Even though Beijing’s control of a key Greek and European strategic asset may put a question mark in the minds of policymakers in Washington and Brussels, the fact that China is situated in a different part of the world limits its potential as a guarantor of security for countries like Greece, Brown said.

“Geography matters,” he said.

Chinese ownership of a key port at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa nonetheless poses significant security concerns, U.S. analysts say.

“They own it now, they can use for economic, military, intelligence purposes, whatever they want,” Blank said.

David Stilwell, a former Pentagon and State Department official who served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, said deals Beijing has managed to strike may not always last, pointing to recent reports that the 99-year lease between a Chinese state-backed entity and the Australian Port of Darwin may either be scrapped or subjected to additional scrutiny on security grounds.

In Stilwell’s view, the more distance democratic countries put between themselves and Beijing, the better. He considers Lithuania’s recent decision to withdraw from a multilateral forum designed to increase collaboration between China and Central and Eastern European countries as a model that other countries can learn from. 

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US Defense Secretary Heads to Eastern Europe, NATO Next Week

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin heads to Europe next week for talks with allies concerned about Russia and what the NATO military alliance will focus on now that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is complete. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.

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US Authorities Disclose Ransomware Attacks Against Water Facilities

U.S. authorities said on Thursday that four ransomware attacks had penetrated water and wastewater facilities in the past year, and they warned similar plants to check for signs of intrusions and take other precautions. 

The alert from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) cited a series of apparently unrelated hacking incidents from September 2020 to August 2021 that used at least three different strains of ransomware, which encrypts computer files and demands payment for them to be restored. 

Attacks at an unnamed Maine wastewater facility three months ago and one in California in August moved past desktop computers and paralyzed the specialized supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) devices that issue mechanical commands to the equipment. 

The Maine system had to turn to manual controls, according to the alert co-signed by the FBI, National Security Agency and Environmental Protection Agency. 

A March hack in Nevada also reached SCADA devices that provided operational visibility but could not issue commands. 

CISA said it is seeing increasing attacks on many forms of critical infrastructure, in line with those on the water plants. 

In some cases, the water facilities are handicapped by low municipal spending on technology cybersecurity. 

The Department of Homeland Security agency’s recommendations include access log audits and strict use of additional factors for authentication beyond passwords.  

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