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Volunteers Pitch in to Fight Russia’s Raging Forest Fires

The little domed tents of the volunteer firefighters in the clearing of a Siberian forest can be hard to see — even from only a few steps away — because of the choking smoke. Their shovels and saws seem to be tiny tools against the vast blaze, like toy weapons brought to a war.

As of Monday, about 1.88 million hectares (4.6 million acres) of forest were burning in Russia — an area larger than the U.S. state of Connecticut.  

More than 5,000 regular firefighters are involved, but the scale is so large and the area is so enormous that 55% of the fires aren’t being fought at all, according to Avialesookhrana, the agency that oversees the effort.

That means the volunteers, who take time off work and rely on their own money or nongovernmental funds, are a small but important addition to the overwhelmed forces.

“The guys (volunteers) are doing a great job. Their help is significant because the area and distances are quite large, so the more people there are, the more effective our efforts are to control the fires,” said Denis Markov, an instructor at a base for paratrooper firefighters in Tomsk, who is working with some of the volunteers.

The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all of Russia’s fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital, Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people.

As the smoke intensified, Ivan Nikiforov took a leave from his office job in the city — not to escape the bad air but to head into the fires as a volunteer.

“I think it’s important to participate as a volunteer because our republic, our shared land and our forests are burning. This is what we’ll be leaving for our children and our grandchildren,” he said at his group’s encampment in the Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk.

Nikiforov and a small contingent of other volunteers dig trenches, chop down trees and set small, controlled fires to try to block the spread.

Volunteers in the area received some support from the nongovernmental agency Sinet-Spark, which provided sleeping bags, gloves and heavy equipment. Alexandra Kozulina, the group’s director of projects, said Sinet-Spark initially had planned to spend its money on information campaigns but decided to provide equipment as the fires worsened.

“I also believe our government should be doing this. I don’t understand why it isn’t happening — whether there isn’t enough money because budgets were cut, or some other reason, but we are doing what is in our power,” she said.

The main problem, many observers say, is that the size of the aerial forest protection agency has been reduced, along with the number of rangers.

“I can personally remember how each district had a branch of Avialesookhrana with 15-20 paratroopers. They constantly made observation flights and put out fires as soon as they started,” said Fedot Tumusov, a member of the Russian parliament from Sakha.  

The 2007 changes that reduced the number of rangers also gave control over timberlands to regional authorities and businesses, eroding centralized monitoring, fueling corruption and contributing to illegal tree-cutting practices that help spawn fires.

Critics also say the law allows authorities to let fires burn in certain areas if the potential damage is considered not worth the cost of containing them. They say this encourages inaction by authorities and slows firefighting efforts, so a blaze that could have been extinguished at a relatively small cost is often allowed to burn uncontrolled.

This year’s fires in Siberia already have emitted more carbon than those in some previous years, according to Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.

He said the peat fires that are common in Siberia and many other Russian regions are particularly harmful in terms of emissions because the peat has been absorbing carbon for tens of thousands of years.

“Then it’s releasing all that carbon back into the atmosphere,” Parrington said.  

While pledging adherence to the Paris agreement on climate change, Russian officials often underline the key role played by the country’s forests in slowing down global warming. However, regular fires have the opposite effect, dramatically boosting carbon emissions.

“Everyone emphasizes that we have huge forests, but no one so far has calculated how much our forest fires contribute to greenhouse gas emissions,” said Mikhail Kreindlin of Greenpeace Russia.  

It’s too early to tell whether this year’s fires will reach a record-breaking scale, Kreindlin says, noting that the situation in Siberia has been particularly difficult for the past three years. What sets 2021 apart is that Karelia — a small region in northwestern Russia on the border with Finland — also has been engulfed by devastating, unprecedented fires.

As of Monday, Karelia was among the top three regions affected by the fires, according to Avialesookhrana, with 22 of them still active on more than 11,000 hectares (27,180 acres).  

“The fact that Karelia got ablaze so unexpectedly — there were fires there before, but there hasn’t been such massive fires there in many years — shows that in general the situation with the fires in the country is extremely difficult and poorly controlled,” Kreindlin said.

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Chinese Pair Outduels Russians to Win Mixed Team Pistol Gold

China’s Jiang Ranxin and Pang Wei out-dueled their Russian rivals in a riveting contest to secure gold in the 10-meter air pistol mixed team event at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday. 

The Chinese pair scored a 16-14 victory against newly minted women’s Olympic champion Vitalina Batsarashkina and Artem Chernousov at the Asaka Shooting Range. 

Jiang and Pang, bronze winners in their individual events in Tokyo, overcame an 8-4 deficit to lead 14-10 before the Russians staged a comeback to level the scores. 

The Chinese shooters, however, held their nerve to reach the 16-point mark and claim gold. 

Russian athletes are competing in Tokyo under the flag of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) as part of sanctions for several doping scandals. 

Ukraine won the bronze medal match after Olena Kostevych and Oleh Omelchuk beat Serbians Zorana Arunovic and Damir Mikec 16-12. 

South Korean pistol great Jin Jong-oh will return empty-handed from his fifth, and possibly final, Olympics as his pairing could not get through the qualification round. 

The four-time Olympic gold medalist failed to qualify for the final of the men’s individual event on Saturday. 

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Protests Flare in Tunisia as Critics Accuse President of ‘Coup’

The United States and several other countries have called for calm in Tunisia after violent protests broke out following the suspension of parliament Sunday. Tunisia’s president invoked purported emergency powers to sack the prime minister following months of demonstrations over a worsening economic crisis. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

 Camera: Henry Ridgwell

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US Special Envoy for Haiti Faces Criticism After Weekend Meetings With Officials

Some Haitian officials are expressing doubt and criticism about U.S. Special Envoy Daniel Foote’s mission in Haiti after he had meetings over the weekend with National Police Chief Leon Charles and Senate President Joseph Lambert.  “(This is just) one more American official. But to do what?” Senator Patrice Dumont, one of 10 Haitian senators whose parliament terms have not expired, told VOA. “Haiti is an adult and should resolve its own problems.”  FILE – Haitian Senator Patrice Dumont gestures during an interview with Reuters in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, July 15, 2021.Asked by VOA if Haiti should accept American assistance in resolving its political crisis, Dumont responded, “Absolutely not.”  A State Department statement emailed to VOA said Foote will lead “U.S. diplomatic efforts and coordinate the effort of U.S. federal agencies in Haiti from Washington, advise the secretary and acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, and coordinate closely with the National Security Council staff on the administration’s efforts to support the Haitian people and Haiti’s democratic institutions in the aftermath of the tragic assassination of (President) Jovenel Moise.”  On Saturday, the national police posted three photos on its official Twitter account showing Charles meeting with Foote, U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison and a police official.  The message did not provide any details about what was discussed during the meeting. It said only that it was in response to a request for assistance made by former Prime Minister Claude Joseph shortly after Moise’s assassination.🔵 Suite à la demande de l’ex- Premier Ministre, Claude Joseph, peu après l’assassinat du Président Jovenel Moïse; pour qu’Haïti bénéficie du support des nations unies, l’ambassadeur Daniel FOOTE envoyé spécial pour Haïti, l’Ambassadeur des États-Unis, Michele J. SISON, (1/4)— PNH (@pnh_officiel) July 24, 2021Lambert also posted on Twitter a photo of his meeting on Sunday with Foote and Sison.”I was invited by Ambassadors Sison and Foote. Our conversation was intense. Our exchanges took into consideration Haiti’s situation, which is currently at an impasse, as well as the urgent need to restore the country’s institutions,” Lambert tweeted.  J’ai été l’invité des ambassadeurs Sison et Foote. Notre conversation a été intense. Nos échanges ont considéré la situation d’Haïti qui est dans l’impasse et l’urgence des actions qui doivent être bonnes pour refaire les institutions de l’État.— Sénateur Joseph Lambert (@josephlambertHT) July 25, 2021Foote is a Foreign Service officer whose experience as a diplomat includes serving twice as the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. He also served as U.S. ambassador to Zambia during the Trump administration.  The envoy arrived in Haiti on Friday with a delegation of American officials named by President Joe Biden to represent the United States at the national funeral of Moise. The delegation was evacuated from Haiti after gunfire erupted and angry protesters approached a private compound serving as the site of the funeral.  Pastor Edouard Paultre, who heads the civil society organization National Council of Non-State Actors, said Foote should follow the will of the Haitian people.  “This is a period of extreme distress for our nation, as well as institutional bankruptcy. None of our institutions are able to function properly. It’s in this context that Daniel Foote is arriving in Haiti. But he is also arriving at a time when civil society is collaborating with other sectors of Haiti to search for a solution to the crisis,” Paultre told VOA. “I don’t know what he’s looking for, but he should not be making any unilateral decisions.”  The pastor said he thinks Foote should work with Haitians toward an “inter-Haitian” consensus.  Foote has not yet commented on his meetings with Haitian officials. But two U.S. representatives who traveled with him from Washington to Haiti for the funeral on Friday issued statements about their brief time in the country.  New York Democrat Gregory Meeks, chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, said the U.S. wants to support the Haitian people as they work toward security and a stable government.  “Now is the time for the international community to listen to the voices of the Haitian people and stand shoulder to shoulder with them as they navigate these turbulent times, helping bring about a better future for all of Haiti,” Meeks said in a statement emailed to VOA.  U.S. Representative Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska Republican, posted a video message on Twitter that he had recorded on the tarmac at the Cap-Haitien airport. He expressed regret about having to leave so abruptly.  Today I traveled as a part of a Presidential Delegation to attend the funeral of Haitian President Moise. Unfortunately, after nearby gunshots, we had to quickly evacuate. Here’s a short video from #Haiti:— Jeff Fortenberry (@JeffFortenberry) July 23, 2021″I regret that, because it’s a bit undignified, the way we had to leave,” Fortenberry said. “This is an important country, in proximity to America. It’s on our doorstep as we’ve tried to help significantly over the years, and we want to stand in solidarity with the Haitian people as they mourn and suffer.”  Fortenberry expressed hope that the tragedy of Moise’s assassination would lead to redevelopment and hope for Haiti’s people in the future.  Congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.

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Haiti: S Korean TV Channel Apology Over Olympics Stereotypes ‘Didn’t Go Far Enough’

Haitian Foreign Minister Claude Joseph says an apology by the head of a South Korean television station after the broadcaster portrayed Haiti using stereotypical images “didn’t go far enough.”Munhwa Broadcasting Corp. (MBC) used video footage of a riot in Haiti as Haitian athletes marched in the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony. The broadcaster is under fire for its use of stereotypical images to portray several countries, including a picture of Count Dracula for the Romanian team and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster to represent Team Ukraine.At a press conference Monday, Park Sung-jae, the president of MBC, bowed deeply and promised a “major makeover,” including installing an ethics committee and better screening system.The station also apologized to the embassies of Ukraine and Romania in Seoul, Park said.”Their apology didn’t go far enough, but the incident shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the athletes who have worked tirelessly for years to get to the Olympics,” Joseph told VOA.”The Olympics are that unique, unifying global event: all nations come together, not for politics but for the beauty of sport,” Joseph said.Haiti has a delegation of six athletes participating in the Tokyo Games.MBC’s coverage of the Friday opening ceremony quickly went viral on the internet, with some users expressing outrage and others laughing at the simplistic, offensive images. For Norway, MBC used a picture of fresh salmon. For Italy: pizza. For Mongolia: Genghis Khan.In an English statement posted online, MBC said the images and captions were intended to “make it easier for the viewers to understand the entering countries quickly” during the ceremony.”However, we admit that there was a lack of consideration for the countries concerned, and inspection was not thorough enough,” the statement read. “It is an inexcusable mistake.”MBC has been rebuked before for such behavior. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it referred to Chad as the “dead heart of Africa” and spoke of “murderous inflation” in Zimbabwe.   

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At Tokyo Olympics, Skateboarding Teens Blaze Trail for Women

On the Olympic podium stood three teenage girls — 13, 13 and 16 — with weighty gold, silver and bronze medals around their young necks, rewards for having landed tricks on their skateboards that most kids their age only get to see on Instagram.

After decades in the shadows of men’s skateboarding, the future for the sport’s daring, trailblazing women suddenly looked brighter than ever at the Tokyo Games on Monday.

It’s anyone’s guess how many young girls tuned in to watch Momiji Nishiya of Japan win the debut Olympic skateboarding event for women, giving the host nation a sweep of golds in the street event after Yuto Horigome won the men’s event.

But around the world, girls trying to convince their parents that they, too, should be allowed to skate can now point to the 13-year-old from Osaka as an Olympic-sized example of skateboarding’s possibilities.

A champion of few words — “Simply delighted,” is how she described herself — Nishiya let her board do the talking, riding it down rails taller than she is. She said she’d celebrate by asking her mother to treat her to a dinner of Japanese yakiniku barbecue.

The silver went to Rayssa Leal, also 13 — Brazil’s second silver in skateboarding after Kelvin Hoefler finished in second place on Sunday in the men’s event.

Both Nishiya and Leal became their countries’ youngest-ever medalists. The bronze went to 16-year-old Funa Nakayama of Japan.

“Now I can convince all my friends to skateboard everywhere with me,” Leal said.

She first caught the skateboarding world’s attention as a 7-year-old with a video on Instagram of her attempting, and landing, a jump with a flip down three stairs while wearing a dress with angel wings.

“Skateboarding is for everyone,” she said.

But that hasn’t always been true for young girls, even among the 20 female pioneers who rode the rails, ramps and ledges at the Ariake Urban Sports Park.

The field included Leticia Bufoni of Brazil, whose board was snapped in two by her dad when she was a kid to try to stop her from skating.

She was 10.

“I cried for hours,” she recalled. “He thought girls shouldn’t skate because he had never seen a woman skate before.”

Bufoni added, half-joking, that getting him to relent had been harder than qualifying for the Tokyo Games.

“So I want be that girl that the little girls can show their parents and be like, ‘She can skate. I want to be like her,'” Bufoni said.

Annie Guglia of Canada said she didn’t see any other girls skate during her first two years on her board. The first contest she entered, at the age of 13, had no women’s category, so organizers had to create one for her.

“And I won, because I was the only one,” the 30-year-old Guglia said. “We have come a long way.”

Skaters predicted that by time the next Olympics roll around, in Paris in 2024, the women’s field will have a greater depth of talent and tricks, built on the foundations they laid in Tokyo.

“It’s going to change the whole game,” U.S. skater Mariah Duran said. “This is like opening at least one door to, you know, many skaters who are having the conversations with their parents, who want to start skating.

“I’m not surprised if there’s probably already like 500 girls getting a board today.”
Nishiya is going places with hers. She said she aims to be at the Paris Games “and win.”

“I want to be famous,” she said.

But first — barbecue. Her delighted mom didn’t take much convincing.

“I’ll definitely take her,” she said.

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Ties Between Peace Partners Jordan, Israel Seen as Improving

After years of strained relations between Jordan and Israel over the Palestinian issue, analysts say a new dynamic dominates their relationship with the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership and they point to some positive momentum. 

Jordanian political commentator Osama Al Sharif says that just a month after a new Israeli coalition government was formed in June, ending 12 years of Netanyahu rule, the two sides reached several initiatives helping to normalize relations.  

Their foreign ministers have concluded fresh deals on water and trade, he told the Jordan Times newspaper, whereby Jordan will buy an additional 50 million cubic meters of water as the kingdom battles a severe drought. This is besides the “30 million cubic meters Israel provides annually under the 1994 peace treaty,” noted Al Sharif. 

The Israelis “also agreed to increase Jordanian exports to the West Bank from $160 million to $700 million annually,” Al Sharif said. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called Jordan “an important neighbor and partner,” saying Israel “will broaden economic cooperation for the good of the two countries.” 

King Abdullah, in a recent interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, said he met both Israeli and Palestinian leaders following the 11-day war with Gaza, which he called a “wake-up call” for both sides, urging a return to the negotiating table.  

“I think we have seen in the past couple of weeks, not only a better understanding between Israel and Jordan, but the voices coming out of both Israel and Palestine that we need to move forward and reset that relationship. This last war with Gaza, I thought was different. Since 1948, this is the first time I feel that a civil war happened in Israel. I think that was a wake-up call for the people of Israel and the people of Palestine to move along. God forbid, the next war is going to be even more damaging,” Abdullah said.

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told VOA that he shares the king’s concerns, if the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate continues and another war with Gaza were to erupt.

“As long as the U.S. remains committed to the two-state solution and talking to the Palestinian Authority, that’s to the minimal needs of the kingdom. It’s a frustrating situation because we know the status quo is not sustainable. Another round of violence like we saw earlier this year is only a matter of time,” Riedel said.  

Commentator Al Sharif also warns that “while ties with Israel can only improve after years of turbulence, trouble could be lurking ahead.” 

“Jordan cannot compromise on the two-state solution, nor can it accept Israeli actions” in East Jerusalem, he said, whether at the Al Aqsa Mosque or in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. 

Al Sharif warned that any future attacks on Jerusalem “will force the Jordanian monarch to react” as the custodian of the city’s Muslim and Christian holy sites. 

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