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Myanmar junta slams US aid plan

WASHINGTON — Myanmar’s ruling junta, the State Administrative Council, is criticizing a U.S. aid package that is being funneled through opponents of the regime, saying the United States should consider whether its actions amount to support for terrorism. 

The assistance marks the first implementation of the BURMA Act, part of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act aimed at helping pro-democracy forces battling the SAC. 

Under the act, the aid is intended to strengthen federalism in Myanmar by providing nonlethal assistance to armed groups, helping pro-democracy organizations, assisting aid organizations operating from Thailand, and financing investigations of junta human rights violations. The aid is restricted to ensure it does not benefit the SAC or any entity affiliated with the Myanmar military. 

“We believe the U.S. is manipulating Myanmar to counter China’s influence in the region,” the junta said in a statement provided to VOA on March 29. “Despite the U.S. presenting itself as a champion of democracy, the aid disproportionately benefits Myanmar’s opposition groups, particularly the National Unity Government (NUG) and the People’s Defense Force (PDF).” 

The NUG is the opposition’s shadow government; the PDF is made up of civilian armed groups battling the military. 

The junta statement calls on the United States to review its aid allocation “to reassess whether their actions, which some label as terrorism, represent a legitimate path to reclaiming power.” 

The junta, which has killed and imprisoned thousands of people since overthrowing the democratically elected government in February 2021, accuses the NUG and PDF of responsibility for the civilian deaths. The statement did not elaborate on the charge that U.S. support for resistance groups in Myanmar is linked to Myanmar’s adversarial relationship with China. 

The promise of the BURMA Act 

The Burma Unified Through Rigorous Military Accountability Act, commonly called the BURMA Act, says it aims to “continue to support the people of Burma in their struggle for democracy, human rights, and justice.” 

It identifies specific resistance groups as beneficiaries, including the NUG, and the National Unity Consultative Council, or NUCC, which comprises several opposition groups. 

Also named are the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, which is made up of members of the ousted Myanmar parliament; the civil disobedience movement; “and other entities in Burma and in other countries” that seek to “bring about an end to the military junta’s rule.” 

The act promises to “hold accountable perpetrators of human rights violations,” and to “hold accountable the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China.” 

It provides $75 million for refugee assistance programs, including in Thailand and India, and $25 million for “technical support and non-lethal assistance” to the NUG and PDF. Smaller amounts are earmarked for governance programs, documentation of atrocities, and assistance to political prisoners, Rohingya and deserters from the junta’s military. 

The Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group, have faced persecution and discrimination in Myanmar for decades. In 2017, a military crackdown by the Myanmar army forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, seeking refuge from the violence and persecution. 

The act authorizes appropriations to be allocated annually from fiscal years 2023 through 2027, with $121 million earmarked for FY 2024.  

Process of the funding 

During debate on the bill, the U.S. House of Representatives initially proposed a more limited $50 million aid package but agreed to the larger sum advocated by the Senate before final passage. 

“We are pleased with the $121 million proposed by the Senate, instead of the $50 million proposed by the House. However, we believe this amount is insufficient, and should be closer to $300 million to meet the humanitarian needs on the ground,” said James Shwe, from the Los Angeles Myanmar Movement, which works with Myanmar activists in the United States. 

In a Zoom call with VOA, Shwe also criticized what he sees as the high administrative costs of aid distribution. 

“Because of the lack of state-to-state cooperation in a case such as Myanmar, where the aid is meant for humanitarian assistance, but not for the ruling power, this leads to several layers of management,” he said. 

“The aid is funneled through USAID partners, the biggest of which is the U.N., which has to operate under the rules of the junta. In many cases, the U.N. will in turn deal with [non-governmental organizations]. The NGO then needs to distribute that aid to [civil society organizations] on the ground. This leads to ever-increasing administrative costs and less actual assistance to those in need.” 

Shwe said administration costs eat up around 45% of aid funds. 

“Only $75 million of the $121 million is allocated for cross-border aid, which we believe will be more effective than channeling funds through the U.N., the largest partner of USAID,” Shwe added. But he welcomed the lawmakers’ decision to specifically name the NUG and the NUCC in the act, ensuring that they will play a role in the allocation of the funds. 

Hopes for assistance amid U.S. engagement 

Hopes for continued humanitarian assistance to Myanmar are on the rise after U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet and USAID Assistant Administrator Michael Schiffer met this month with representatives from the NUG. 

“The meeting underscores the ongoing commitment of the United States to engage with Myanmar’s NUG leadership and support their endeavors to promote democracy, peace, and stability in the region,” said an April 11 State Department press release. 

Chollet also met in late March with ethnic armed organizations allied with the NUG.

“Met today with leaders of Burma’s ‘K3C’ ethnic group alliance on their extraordinary efforts to pursue a federal democracy in Burma,” he wrote on X on March 28. “We discussed steps for the international community to expand assistance to those in need and secure a better future for the people of Burma.”

The K3C alliance, comprising the Kachin Independence Organization, Karen National Union, Karenni National Progressive Party, and Chin National Front, is politically aligned with the NUG and collaborates militarily with its armed wing, the People’s Defense Force. 

“We briefed them on the political and military situation in our state, as well as the humanitarian situation,” said Aung San Myint, secretary of the Karenni National Progressive Party, who shared details of the meeting with VOA by phone.  

“Following our presentation, they assured us of continued collaboration as the U.S. Department of State. … We have hope for increased humanitarian aid as discussions progress with U.S. officials.”

Azerbaijan says ‘closer than ever’ to Armenia peace deal

Baku, Azerbaijan — Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said on Tuesday a peace deal with Armenia was closer than ever before, as teams from both countries began demarcating the border in a bid to end decades of territorial disputes and clashes.

Aliyev’s optimism comes amid progress on marking the border despite protests in Armenia, still bruised after Baku seized control of the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region in a lightning offensive last year.

On Tuesday, teams from both countries installed the first border marker after officials had agreed to delimit a section based on Soviet-era maps.

“We are close as never before,” Aliyev said on Tuesday of an elusive peace deal.

“We now have a common understanding of how the peace agreement should look like. We only need to address details,” he said.

“Both sides need time… We both have political will to do it.”

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan last month agreed to return four border villages that were part of Azerbaijan when the two countries were republics of the Soviet Union.

Aliyev said Tuesday he had accepted a proposal by Kazakhstan to host a meeting of their foreign ministers.

Several countries have tried to play mediator — including Russia, Iran, the United States, France and Germany — but years of talks have failed.

Aliyev downplayed the need for third party intervention.

“We are not talking about any kind of mediation, because what happens now on our border demonstrates that when we are left alone… we can agree sooner than later,” he said.

Experts from both countries installed the first marker on Tuesday, they announced in identical statements.

Rallies had earlier erupted in Armenia, with protestors briefly blocking traffic at several points on the Armenia-Georgia highway, fearful of giving up more land.

Yerevan said Tuesday it would not transfer “Armenia’s sovereign territory.”

The four abandoned settlements that are to be returned to Azerbaijan — Lower Askipara, Baghanis Ayrum, Kheirimly and Gizilhajili — were taken over by Armenian forces in the 1990s, forcing their ethnic Azerbaijani residents to flee.

But Armenian residents of nearby villages worry they will end up isolated from the rest of the country and that some houses could fall into Azerbaijani territory.

The area has strategic importance for landlocked Armenia: Several small sections of the highway to Georgia — a vital trade artery — could be handed over.

The delimited border will run close to a major Russian gas pipeline, in an area that also offers advantageous military positions.

Pashinyan has insisted on the need to resolve the border dispute “to avoid a new war.”

On Saturday, he said Russian guards deployed in the area since 1992 would be replaced “and border guards of Armenia and Azerbaijan will cooperate to guard the state border on their own.”

Border delimitation was a “significant change,” he said, adding: “now have a border and not a line of contact, which is a sign of peace.”

Last autumn, Azerbaijani troops recaptured the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region from Armenian separatists in a one-day offensive that ended a bloody three-decade standoff over the region.

But lingering territorial claims have continued to threaten a fresh escalation.

Baku has claims over four more villages located in exclaves deeper in Armenian territory.

It is also demanding the creation of a land corridor through Armenia to connect the mainland to the Nakhichevan exclave and onwards to close ally Turkey.

Yerevan, in turn, points to its own exclave in Azerbaijan and pockets of land Baku has seized over the last three years outside of Karabakh.

US sanctions four over ‘malicious cyber activity’ for Iran’s military

Washington — The U.S. ramped up its sanctions against Iran on Tuesday, designating four people and two companies it says were “involved in malicious cyber activity” on behalf of the country’s military.  

“These actors targeted more than a dozen U.S. companies and government entities through cyber operations, including spear phishing and malware attacks,” the U..S Treasury Department said in a statement. 

The individuals and companies were working “on behalf of” Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Cyber Electronic Command (IRGC-CEC), the Treasury said. 

“Iranian malicious cyber actors continue to target U.S. companies and government entities in a coordinated, multi-pronged campaign intended to destabilize our critical infrastructure and cause harm to our citizens,” the Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Brian Nelson, said in a statement. 

“The United States will continue to leverage our whole-of-government approach to expose and disrupt these networks’ operations,” he added.  

Tuesday’s sanctions are the latest to be levied against Tehran by the United States and its allies for supporting anti-Israel proxies in the Middle East and for providing military support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.  

Last week, the U..S and Britain announced widespread sanctions against Iran’s military drone program in response to Tehran’s large-scale attack against Israel earlier this month.  

That attack came in response to an April 1 airstrike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus — widely blamed on Israel — that killed seven members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including two generals. 

A day after those sanctions were unveiled, the U.S. fined a Thailand-based firm $20 million for more than 450 possible Iran sanctions violations. 

They included processing close to $300 million in wire transfers for a company jointly owned by the National Petroleum Company of Iran.  

Alongside Tuesday’s sanctions, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have indicted the four individuals in question “for their roles in cyber activity targeting U.S. entities,” the Treasury Department said.

 

UK announces $620 million in new military aid for Ukraine, plan to up own defense spending

Warsaw, Poland — U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced Tuesday that the country is to increase defense spending to 2.5% of GDP by the end of the decade.

Sunak made the announcement during a visit to Warsaw, where he also described a new pledge to send arms to Ukraine.

He said the government is putting the U.K.’s defense industry “on a war footing,” describing it as the “biggest strengthening of our national defense for a generation.”

“In a world that is the most dangerous it has been since the end of the Cold War, we cannot be complacent,” he said at a news briefing in Warsaw alongside NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg. “As our adversaries align, we must do more to defend our country, our interests and our values.

The announce followed the U.K. pledging an additional $620 million in new military supplies for Ukraine, including long-range missiles and 4 million rounds of ammunition, at a time when Ukraine is struggling to hold off advancing Russian forces on the eastern front line of the war, now in its third year.

Sunak spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to confirm the assistance and “assure him of the U.K.’s steadfast support for Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s brutal and expansionist ambitions,” Sunak’s office said.

Ahead of the visit the U.K. government said Sunak would announce 500 million pounds ($620 million, 580 million euros) in new British military supplies, including 400 vehicles, 60 boats, 1,600 munitions and 4 million rounds of ammunition. The shipment will include British Storm Shadow long-range missiles, which have a range of some 150 miles (241 kilometers) and have proved effective at hitting Russian targets.

“President Zelenskyy thanked the prime minister for the U.K.’s continued support, saying the new military assistance would make a material difference to ordinary Ukrainians fighting on the front line to defend their country,” Downing Street said.

However, Downing Street did not indicate whether the aid would be immediately available for delivery. Zelenskyy has pleaded for greater international assistance, warning that his country will lose the war without it.

The announcement came three days after the U.S. House of Representatives approved $61 billion in aid for Ukraine, as American lawmakers raced to deliver a fresh round of U.S. support to the war-torn ally. The Senate was expected to vote on the package Tuesday.

Ammunition shortages over the past six months have led Ukrainian military commanders to ration shells, a disadvantage that Russia has seized on this year — taking the city of Avdiivka and currently inching towards the town of Chasiv Yar, also in the eastern Donetsk region.

LogOn: Hologram-like experience allows people to connect

The Dutch company Holoconnects are experts in the field of holographic illusions and are now delivering life-size personal connections with a 2-meter-tall box that make it feel like the person you are talking to is physically present. Deana Mitchell has more from Austin, Texas in this week’s episode of LogOn.

Taiwan attracting Southeast Asian tech students

Taiwan is looking to Southeast Asia as a pipeline to fill its shortage of high-tech talent. The numbers of foreign students coming to the island has been growing, especially from Vietnam and Indonesia. VOA Mandarin’s Peh Hong Lim reports from Hsinchu, Taiwan. Adrianna Zhang contributed.

Russian media: Kremlin plans to deploy ballistic missiles on Finnish border

LONDON — Russian media report that the Kremlin plans to deploy ballistic missiles close to its border with Finland. It’s the latest in a series of military and hybrid threats that Russia has made against the Nordic state since it joined NATO in April last year in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian newspaper Izvestia reported Monday that a new brigade will be deployed in the Karelia region bordering Finland, equipped with an Iskander-M ballistic missile system.

The Izvestia report quoted an ex-commander of Russia’s Baltic Fleet, Admiral Vladimir Valuev, who told the newspaper that “the formation of a missile brigade is a very timely decision. This is an adequate response to Finland’s accession to NATO.”

Despite the proximity to Finland, the potential deployment is not raising alarm bells in Helsinki, said security analyst Charly Salonius-Pasternak of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

“This is really not news. And of course, announcing a thing and then doing something about it are two very different things when it comes from Russia. So overall, we really haven’t seen a lot other than rhetoric,” he told VOA.

Finland has warned that it is facing varied security and hybrid threats from Russia since it joined NATO.

In the second half of 2023, following Finland’s accession to the alliance, over 1,300 migrants from countries including Yemen, Syria and Somalia began to arrive at the Finnish-Russian border to try to claim asylum.

Helsinki closed all crossing points along the frontier in November, accusing the Kremlin of weaponizing migration. They were reopened briefly, but swiftly closed again after another surge in migrant arrivals. The closure was extended indefinitely earlier this month.

Finland wants the European Union to help in preventing any future migrant crisis.

Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo hosted the European Union’s Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on a tour of the border region Friday.

“Now we have to find common solutions to stop this phenomenon when Russia uses illegal immigrants against us. We are preparing our own legislation, but we also need EU-level measures,” Orpo said.

Von der Leyen pledged the EU’s support. “This is a new phenomenon. It is a hybrid threat, and it has to be dealt (with) as a hybrid threat to national security. And what we see is that a state is instrumentalizing poor people to put pressure on another state. So that is a clear security issue, and we will certainly be dealing for quite a long time with that, and we will have to prepare for that,” she told reporters at the Imatra border crossing on the Russian frontier.

Finland is building a fence along part of the 1,340-kilometer (833-mile) border and increasing patrols. The government is debating legislation to block asylum-seekers entering from Russia. Von der Leyen said any such measures must strike a balance between protecting security and international obligations on the rights of refugees.

The threats go beyond a migrant crisis, said analyst Charly Salonius-Pasternak.

“The Russian security services, once some of these individuals have gotten to Finland, are seeking to recruit them to then cause further mayhem within Finland.”

It’s part of Russia’s hybrid campaign against Finland and other NATO allies, Salonius-Pasternak added.

“The Russian land forces are, of course, engaged in Ukraine, so we really haven’t seen a lot of (military threats), except some posturing. But there’s certainly an expectation from the Finnish authorities that cyber-attacks, maybe other attacks on infrastructure, as well as this weaponization of humans, will continue. Now that winter is slowly receding here, the long border becomes, of course, much more passable.”

Russia denies trying to create a migrant crisis on the Finnish border. Moscow has described Finland’s accession to NATO as a “historic mistake” that would force it to take what it called “countermeasures.”

Blinken returns to China amid ongoing tensions, with no breakthrough expected

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to China this week for talks with senior officials in Shanghai and Beijing to discuss a range of issues, including Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Middle East crisis, the South China Sea, and human rights. State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching has more.

Columbia’s ongoing protests cause canceled classes and increased tensions

NEW YORK — Columbia University held virtual classes Monday on the sixth continuous day of student protests over the Israel-Hamas conflict. 

University president Nemat “Minouche” Shafik sent an email to the Columbia community announcing that classes would be held virtually. 

“The decibel of our disagreements has only increased in recent days,” Shafik wrote. “These tensions have been exploited and amplified by individuals who are not affiliated with Columbia who have come to campus to pursue their own agendas. We need a reset.”

More than 100 students were arrested at the school April 18, after the university’s president authorized police to clear away protesters. Some of the students also received suspension notices from the school. 

Columbia’s action prompted an onslaught of pro-Palestinian demonstrations at other universities and responses from faculty and politicians.

The arrests occurred after students calling themselves Columbia University Apartheid Divest erected dozens of tents on a lawn at the center of the campus, establishing it as the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment.”

Following the arrests and the demolition of the original encampment, another pro-Palestine encampment sprung on an adjacent lawn.

Students aren’t the only demonstrators experiencing tensions on campus and with the university administration.

Monday morning, Business School assistant professor Shai Davidai was denied entry to the university for an attempted pro-Israel counter-protest on the occupied lawn after he refused to comply with the university’s counter-protest policies. 

“I am a professor here; I have every right to be everywhere on campus. You cannot let people who support Hamas on campus, and me, a professor, not on campus. Let me in now,” he said after Columbia COO Cass Halloway stopped him and other pro-Israel protesters at the entrance gates.

He has repeatedly called student protesters “violent maniacs” and “pro-Hamas terrorists.” A petition calling for Davidai’s dismissal has amassed nearly 9,000 signatures as of last Thursday night; additional grievances have been shared on social media and with the university.

Some Jewish students at Columbia say that many criticisms of Israel are antisemitic and make them feel unsafe.

Since the arrests, many student groups and Columbia affiliate groups have released statements condemning the university’s decision to arrest students, citing discriminatory enforcement of rules that limit students’ freedom of speech. 

Monday, hundreds of faculty members from across Columbia and Barnard staged a rally and walkout to urge the university to reverse the students’ suspensions. Some faculty members wore their graduation regalia and sashes reading “We support students.”

The backlash from the protests has even reached the ear of U.S. President Joe Biden. When asked about the recent events at the university by reporters Monday, Biden said, “I condemn the antisemitic protests. That’s why I have set up a program to deal with that. I also condemn those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

Other campuses, such as Yale, Stanford, and New York University have also rallied around the Palestinian cause, calling for their universities to divest from companies with ties to Israel and for a ceasefire in Gaza. Many have put up tent encampments on their campuses. About 50 students were arrested at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, Monday after they refused to leave their encampment.

Student protesters at Columbia have urged organizers of rallies outside the campus to “remember what we are protesting for” and focus on the war in Gaza, rather than just expressing solidarity with protesters. 

Some information for this report was provided by Reuters and the Associated Press.

 

Turkey hosted Hamas leader amid growing criticism over inaction in Gaza

Istanbul/Washington — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh and his delegation last weekend in Istanbul amid growing criticism in Turkey of his government’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war.

There was no news conference after the meeting.  Erdogan’s office released a statement on the topics discussed with Haniyeh, who lives in exile in Qatar.

According to the statement, Erdogan and the Hamas leader talked about “Israel’s attacks on Palestinian territory, especially Gaza, what needs to be done to ensure adequate and uninterrupted delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza, and a fair and lasting peace process in the region.”

Erdogan also emphasized the importance of Palestinians acting in unity, which he called “the most robust response to Israel and the way to victory go through unity and integrity.”

In another statement, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) revealed that a Hamas delegation, including key members of the militant group, was present in the meeting.

Haniyeh’s visit came at a time when Erdogan’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war and his support for the Palestinian people were questioned by the Islamist New Welfare Party, which came in third nationally in the local elections last month.

On April 9, Turkey’s Trade Ministry announced export restrictions of several product groups to Israel as a response growing calls in Turkey for a boycott.

Some analysts think that Erdogan’s meeting with Haniyeh is to consolidate his base.

“AKP and Erdogan have been very worn out recently regarding the Palestine issue after it was revealed that there was trade with Israel,” Erhan Kelesoglu, an Istanbul-based Middle East expert, told VOA.

“Meeting with Hamas leaders actually provides President [Erdogan] with the opportunity to refresh his image before the public. It shows that he is behind the Palestinian cause and Hamas,” Kelesoglu added.

On April 17, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan went to Doha, Qatar, where he met Haniyeh.

Later in a joint news conference with his Qatari counterpart, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Fidan said that Hamas has accepted the establishment of a Palestinian state with the 1967 borders.

“They have told me that following the establishment of the Palestinian state, Hamas would no longer need an armed wing and they would continue as a political party,” Fidan said.

Some experts view Ankara’s recent involvement with Hamas as its intent to play a mediator role.

“Turkey intends to reassert its influence in the region by playing a mediator role, particularly as Qatar’s mediating capacity reaches its limits, and Turkey has recently emerged as one of the intermediary countries in relations with Iran,” Evren Balta, a non-resident scholar at Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington, wrote in an analysis for MEI’s blog. 

“However, it is unlikely that either Israel or the United States will agree to the role that Turkey wishes to play or see the dissolution of the military wing of Hamas as a sufficient move to engage with the organization,” Balta added.  

Israel’s reaction

Following the meeting on April 20, Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz shared a photo of Erdogan shaking hands with Haniyeh on his X account.

“Erdogan, shame on you,” Katz wrote in a post in Turkish. He also listed his allegations of “rape, murder, and the desecration of corpses” committed by “the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Hamas shares the Islamist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Erdogan’s AKP also backed in the past.

Oncu Keceli, Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, reacted to Katz’s statement on X, saying, “It is the Israeli authorities who should be ashamed. They have massacred nearly 35,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children.”

“Türkiye’s priority is to bring the massacre in Gaza to an end, and the establishment of a Palestinian state to ensure lasting peace in our region,” Keceli added.

More than 34,000 people have been killed, Palestinian health authorities say, since the beginning of the war in Gaza last October.

Comparison with Turkish militia

On April 17, in his ruling AKP’s parliamentary group meeting, Erdogan accused critics of his handling of the Israel-Gaza war of slandering him, his party, his government, and the Turkish Republic.

“Some of our steps may not be visible. We may not be able to explain some of what we do. However, those who question our sensitivity on Palestine will sooner or later be embarrassed and disgraced,” Erdogan said.

“I say it very clearly and openly: Hamas is the same as Kuva-yi Milliye in Turkey during the war of independence,” Erdogan added.

He also called Hamas “a group of mujahideen waging a battle to protect its lands and people” in the past after the Oct. 7 attack. Mujahideen is an Arabic word meaning those who fight for Islam.

The U.S., the U.K. and European Union have listed Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Kuva-yi Milliye, founded in 1918, is the name of the Turkish militia forces that fought in the early period of Turkey’s War of Independence and was later organized under the command of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Erdogan’s statement stirred a debate in Turkey as the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) rejected such a similarity between Turkish national forces and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

“Identifying Hamas with Kuva-yi Milliye means ‘the Palestinian cause started with Hamas.’ However, everyone knows very well that the [Palestinian] struggle is a struggle that has lasted for decades. And it certainly did not start with Hamas,” Oguz Kaan Salici, CHP’s Istanbul deputy and a Turkish Parliament’s Commission of Foreign Affairs member, told VOA.

CHP calls for a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians.

White House weighs immigration relief for spouses of US citizens

washington — The White House is weighing ways to provide temporary legal status and work permits to immigrants in the U.S. illegally who are married to American citizens, three sources familiar with the matter said on Monday, a move that could energize some Democrats ahead of the November elections.

Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups have pressured President Joe Biden to take steps to protect immigrants in the country illegally as Biden simultaneously considers executive actions to reduce illegal border crossings.

Immigration has emerged as a top voter concern, especially among Republicans ahead of the Nov. 5 election pitting Biden, a Democrat, against his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump. Trump has said Biden’s less restrictive policies have led to a rise in illegal immigration.

The White House in recent months has considered the possibility of executive actions to block migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border if crossings reach a certain threshold, sparking criticism from some Democrats and advocates.

The Biden administration also has examined the possible use of “parole in place” for spouses of U.S. citizens, the sources said, requesting anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The temporary status would provide access to work permits and potentially a path to citizenship. No actions are imminent or finalized, the sources said.

A White House spokesperson said the administration “is constantly evaluating possible policy options” but declined to confirm discussions around specific actions.

“The administration remains committed to ensuring those who are eligible for relief can receive it quickly and to building an immigration system that is fairer and more humane,” the spokesperson said.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the possible moves.

An estimated 1.1 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally are married to U.S. citizens, according to data by advocacy organization FWD.us.

A group of 86 Democrats sent a letter to Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last year urging them to protect spouses of U.S. citizens and create a family reunification process for those outside the country.

Speaking at an advocacy press conference in Washington on Monday, Philadelphia resident and U.S. citizen Allyson Batista said her Brazilian-born husband still lacks legal immigration status after 20 years of marriage.

Batista and her husband have three children together and run a construction company, she said, pleading with Biden to act.

“Year after year, we continue to live in trauma and fear of separation,” she said, “especially if an unfriendly administration takes over again.”

Russian media: Kremlin will deploy ballistic missiles close to Finnish border

Russian media say the country plans to deploy ballistic missiles close to its border with Finland. Analysts say it’s the latest in a series of military and hybrid threats that Russia has made against Finland since it joined NATO last year in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Henry Ridgwell reports.

Work starts on bullet train rail line from Las Vegas to Los Angeles

las vegas — A $12 billion high-speed passenger rail line between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles area has started construction, officials said Monday, amid predictions that millions of ticket-buyers will be boarding trains by 2028.

“People have been dreaming of high-speed rail in America for decades,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement released to coincide with a ceremony at the future site of a terminal to be built just south of the Las Vegas Strip.

Buttigieg predicted the project will bring “thousands of union jobs, new connections to better economic opportunity, less congestion on the roads, and less pollution in the air.”

Brightline West, whose sister company already operates a fast train between Miami and Orlando in Florida, aims to lay 351 kilometers of new track between Las Vegas and another new facility in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Almost the full distance is to be built in the median of Interstate 15, with a station stop in San Bernardino County’s Victorville area.

Brightline Holdings founder and Chairperson Wes Edens dubbed the moment “the foundation for a new industry.”

“This is a historic project and a proud moment,” Edens said in the statement. “Today is long overdue.”

Brightline aims to link other U.S. cities that are too near to each other for air travel to make sense and too far for people to drive the distance.

Company CEO Mike Reininger has said the goal is to have trains operating in time for the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028.

Brightline received $6.5 billion in backing from the Biden administration, including a $3 billion grant from federal infrastructure funds and approval to sell another $2.5 billion in tax-exempt bonds. The company won federal authorization in 2020 to sell $1 billion in similar bonds.

The project is touted as the first true high-speed passenger rail line in the nation, designed to reach speeds of 186 mph (300 kph), comparable to Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains.

The route between Vegas and L.A. is largely open space, with no convenient alternate to I-15. Brightline’s Southern California terminal will be at a commuter rail connection to downtown Los Angeles.

The project outline says electric-powered trains will cut the four-hour trip across the Mojave Desert to a little more than two hours. Forecasts are for 11 million one-way passengers per year, or some 30,000 per day, with fares well below airline travel costs. The trains will offer restrooms, Wi-Fi, food and beverage sales and the option to check luggage.

Las Vegas is a popular driving destination for Southern Californians. Officials hope the train line will relieve congestion on I-15, where drivers often sit in miles of crawling traffic while returning home from a Las Vegas weekend.

The Las Vegas area, now approaching 3 million residents, draws more than 40 million visitors per year. Passenger traffic at the city’s Harry Reid International Airport set a record of 57.6 million people in 2023. An average of more than 44,000 automobiles per day crossed the California-Nevada state line on I-15 in 2023, according to Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority data.

Florida-based Brightline Holdings launched the Miami-to-Orlando line in 2018 with trains reaching speeds up to 125 mph (200 kph). It expanded service to Orlando International Airport last September. It offers 16 roundtrips per day, with one-way tickets for the 235-mile (378-kilometer) distance costing about $80.

Other fast trains in the U.S. include Amtrak’s Acela, which can top 241 kph while sharing tracks with freight and commuter service between Boston and Washington, D.C.

Passenger trains to Las Vegas ended in 1997, when Amtrak ended service.

Ideas for connecting other U.S. cities with high-speed passenger trains have been floated in recent years, including Dallas to Houston; Atlanta to Charlotte, North Carolina; and Chicago to St. Louis. Most have faced delays.

In California, voters in 2008 approved a proposed 805-kilometer rail line linking Los Angeles and San Francisco, but the plan has been beset by rising costs and routing disputes. A 2022 business plan by the California High-Speed Rail Authority projected the cost had more than tripled to $105 billion.

EU may suspend TikTok’s new rewards app over risks to kids

LONDON — The European Union on Monday demanded TikTok provide more information about a new app that pays users to watch videos and warned that it could order the video sharing platform to suspend addictive features that pose a risk to kids. 

The 27-nation EU’s executive commission said it was opening formal proceedings to determine whether TikTok Lite breached the bloc’s new digital rules when the app was rolled out in France and Spain. 

Brussels was ratcheting up the pressure on TikTok after the company failed to respond to a request last week for information on whether the new app complies with the Digital Services Act, a sweeping law that took effect last year intending to clean up social media platforms. 

TikTok Lite is a slimmed-down version of the main TikTok app that lets users earn rewards. Points earned by watching videos, liking content and following content creators can then be exchanged for rewards including Amazon vouchers and gift cards on PayPal. 

The commission wants to see the risk assessment that TikTok should have carried out before deploying the app in the European Union. It’s worried TikTok launched the app without assessing how to mitigate “potential systemic risks” such as addictive design features that could pose harm to children. 

TikTok didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment. The company said last week it would respond to the commission’s request and noted that rewards are restricted to users 18 years and older, who have to verify their age. 

“With an endless stream of short and fast-paced videos, TikTok offers fun and a sense of connection beyond your immediate circle,” said European Commissioner Thierry Breton, one of the officials leading the bloc’s push to rein in big tech companies. “But it also comes with considerable risks, especially for our children: addiction, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, low attention spans.” 

The EU is giving TikTok 24 hours to turn over the risk assessment and until Wednesday to argue its case. Any order to suspend the TikTok Lite app’s reward features could come as early as Thursday. 

It’s the first time that the EU has issued a legally binding order for such information since the Digital Services Act took effect. Officials stepped up the pressure after TikTok failed to respond to last week’s request for the information. 

If TikTok still fails to respond, the commission warned the company also faces fines worth up to 1% of the company’s total annual income or worldwide turnover and “periodic penalties” of up to 5% of daily income or global turnover. 

TikTok was already facing intensified scrutiny from the EU. The commission already has an ongoing in-depth investigation into the main TikTok app’s DSA compliance, examining whether it’s doing enough to curb “systemic risks” stemming from its design, including “algorithmic systems” that might stimulate “behavioral addictions.” Offices are worried that measures including age verification tools to stop minors from finding “inappropriate content” might not be effective.

Connected Africa Summit addressing continent’s challenges, opportunities and bridging digital divides

Nairobi, Kenya — Government representatives from Africa, along with ICT (information and communication technology) officials, and international organizations have gathered in Nairobi for a Connected Africa Summit. They are discussing the future of technology, unlocking the continent’s growth beyond connectivity, and addressing the challenges and opportunities in the continent’s information and technology sector.

Speaking at the Connected Africa Summit opening in Nairobi Monday, Kenyan President William Ruto said bridging the technology gap is important for Africa’s economic growth and innovation.  

“Closing the digital divide is a priority in terms of enhancing connectivity, expanding the contribution of the ICT sector to Africa’s GDP and driving overall GDP growth across all sectors. Africa’s digital economy has immense potential…,” Ruto said. “Our youth population, the youngest globally, is motivated and prepared to drive the digital economy, foster innovation and entrench new technologies.”    

Experts say digital transformation in Africa can improve its industrialization, reduce poverty, create jobs, and improve its citizens’ lives.

According to the World Bank, 36 percent of Africa’s 1.3 billion population have access to the internet, and in some of the areas that have connections, the quality of the service is poor compared to other regions.

The international financial institution figures show that Africa saw a 115 percent increase in internet users between 2016 and 2021 and that 160 million gained broadband internet access between 2019 and 2022.  

Africa’s digital growth has been hampered by the lack of an accessible, secure, and reliable internet, which is critical in closing the digital gap and reducing inequalities.  

Lacina Kone is the head of Smart Africa, an organization that coordinates ICT activities within the continent. He says integrating technology into African societies’ daily activities is necessary and cannot be ignored.  

“Digital transformation is no longer a choice but a necessity, just like water utility, just like any other utility we use at home,” Kone said. “So, this connected Africa is an opportunity for all of us. I see a lot of country members, and ICT ministers are here to align our visions together.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the consumption of technology in different sectors of the African economy, and experts say opportunities now exist in mobile services, the development of broadband infrastructure, and data storage.  

The U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Meg Whitman, called on the summit attendees to develop technologies that can solve people’s problems.  

“I encourage all of you to consider this approach for your economies. Look at what strengths already exist in your countries and ask how technology can solve challenges in those sectors to make you a leader through innovation,” Whitman said. “Sometimes innovation looks like Artificial Intelligence, satellites and e-money. Sometimes though it looks much different than we expect. However, innovation always includes three elements: solution focused, it’s specific and it’s sustainable. Bringing solution-focused, being solution-focused is the foundation of shaping the future of a connected Africa.”

The summit ends on Friday, but before that, those attending aim to explore ways to improve Africa’s technology usage, enhance continental connectivity, boost competitiveness, and ensure the continent keeps up with the ever-evolving tech sector.

UK police charge two men with spying for China

LONDON — British police on Monday charged two men with spying for China, including one reported to have worked as a researcher in Britain’s parliament for a prominent lawmaker in the governing Conservative Party.  

Anxiety has mounted across Europe about China’s alleged espionage activity and Britain has become increasingly vocal about its concerns in recent months.  

The two men, aged 32 and 29, were charged with providing prejudicial information to China in breach of the Official Secrets Act, and will appear in court Friday. 

“This has been an extremely complex investigation into what are very serious allegations,” said Commander Dominic Murphy, head of the Counter Terrorism Command at the Metropolitan Police. 

The Chinese embassy in London said the allegation that China was trying to steal British intelligence was “completely fabricated.” 

“We firmly oppose it and urge the UK side to stop anti-China political manipulation and stop putting on such self-staged political farce,” an embassy spokesperson said in a statement. 

One of the men was named by police on Monday as Christopher Cash.  

In September, the Sunday Times reported that Cash had been arrested for spying while working as a researcher in parliament for Conservative lawmaker Alicia Kearns, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. 

A Christopher Cash was listed on parliamentary documents from early 2023 as working for Kearns.  

In September, a lawyer for the arrested man issued a statement denying the accusations of spying without confirming the identity of their client. The same legal firm did not provide a statement on Monday when contacted by Reuters.  

Cash does not have publicly available contact details and could not immediately be reached for comment. 

Last month, the British government summoned the chargé d’affaires of the Chinese Embassy in London after accusing Chinese state-backed hackers of stealing data from Britain’s elections watchdog and carrying out a surveillance operation against parliamentarians. 

China denied those allegations, calling them “completely fabricated.” 

The government also said in September Chinese spies were targeting British officials in sensitive positions in politics, defense and business as part of an increasingly sophisticated spying operation to gain access to secrets.  

Separately, Germany on Monday said it had arrested three people on suspicion of working with the Chinese secret service to hand over technology that could be used for military purposes.