Voice of America

  • Nearly 1,000 Migrants Enter Mexico in New Caravans
    Almost 1,000 Central American migrants entered southern Mexico Thursday in a test of the new government’s pledge to manage an ongoing exodus fueled by violence and poverty that has strained relations with the Trump administration. Mexico’s National Migration Institute said 969 migrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua crossed into Ciudad Hidalgo just days after new U.S.-bound caravans of people set off from Central America. Caravans from Central America have inflamed the debate over U.S. immigration policy, with U.S. President Donald Trump using the migrants to try to secure backing for his plan to build a border wall on the frontier with Mexico. Humanitarian approach Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is pursuing a “humanitarian” approach to the problem, vowing to stem the flow of people by finding jobs for the migrants. In exchange, he wants Trump to help spur economic development in the region. The U.S. government has been partially shut down for more than three weeks as Democrats resist Trump’s demand that Congress provide $5.7 billion to fund his planned wall. Mexican officials put wristbands on the migrants as they entered the country to monitor the flow of people. The bands must be kept until the migrants register with authorities. Once registered, migrants who met the requirements to stay would be issued humanitarian visas, allowing them to work in Mexico or continue to the U.S. border, said Ana Laura Martinez de Lara, director general of migratory control and verification. Those who entered Mexico at the official border crossing had done so in a “very orderly” and respectful manner, in contrast to clashes that took place at the frontier in October when a larger caravan began crossing from Guatemala, she said. Some of the migrants expected to stay in Mexico to find work but it was too early to say how many, she said. Hundreds waiting to cross Martinez de Lara said about 700 people were still waiting to cross into Mexico from Tecun Uman on the Guatemalan side of the border. She could not say if any people had tried to cross into Mexico illegally. Mexico’s government said Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard planned to meet U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo soon for talks on their efforts to address the migration challenge. No date was yet set for the talks, a ministry spokeswoman said.

  • Biggest Great White Shark on Record Thrills Divers off Hawaii
    The biggest great white shark on record is visiting the American island state of Hawaii, divers say. A group of divers monitoring the carcass of a sperm whale off the coast of Oahu say they have gone swimming with the massive predator, and that based on the size and the markings, the shark is known as “Deep Blue,” one of the largest great whites on record. “She was just this big, beautiful gentle giant wanting to use our boat as a scratching post,” diver Ocean Ramsey told The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Deep Blue is believed to be 6 meters long and at least 50 years old. The Smithsonian says the average female great white shark measures just less than 5 meters, while males measure just less than 4 meters. Diver Mark Mohler said in a post on Instagram that he and fellow diver Kimberley Jeffries had confirmed the identity of the shark as Deep Blue. [[ ]] The Instagram post shows a diver swimming alongside Deep Blue. Ramsey told the newspaper that the shark was “shockingly wide” and could be pregnant. She said hunger and the need for added nutrients might have brought Deep Blue to Hawaii, where the waters are usually too warm for great whites. “Big pregnant females are actually the safest ones to be with — the biggest, oldest ones — because they’ve seen it all, including us,” Ramsey said. Ramsey studies sharks, advocates for their conservation and leads cage-free shark diving tours. Ramsey and her team observe and identify sharks, and share that data with state and federal partners. The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources warned people to stay away from the area where the carcass and Deep Blue have been seen. “We don’t want anyone to get hurt if a shark swimming around the carcass mistakes them as food. Understandably, some people want to get into the water either out of fascination or to get photographs, but it is truly dangerous to be around this carcass with so much shark activity,” agency official Jason Redull said.

  • Total Lunar Eclipse Meets Supermoon Sunday Night
    Here comes a total lunar eclipse and supermoon, all wrapped into one. The moon, Earth and sun will line up this weekend for the only total lunar eclipse this year and next. At the same time, the moon will be ever so closer to Earth and appear slightly bigger and brighter than usual — a supermoon. "This one is particularly good," said Rice University astrophysicist Patrick Hartigan. "It not only is a supermoon and it's a total eclipse, but the total eclipse also lasts pretty long. It's about an hour." The whole eclipse starts Sunday night or early Monday, depending on location, and will take about three hours. It begins with the partial phase around 10:34 p.m. EST Sunday. That's when Earth's shadow will begin to nip at the moon. Totality — when Earth's shadow completely blankets the moon — will last 62 minutes, beginning at 11:41 p.m. EST Sunday. If the skies are clear, the entire eclipse will be visible in North and South America, as well as Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, and the French and Spanish coasts. The rest of Europe, as well as Africa, will have partial viewing before the moon sets. During totality, the moon will look red because of sunlight scattering off Earth's atmosphere. That's why an eclipsed moon is sometimes known as a blood moon. In January, the full moon is also sometimes known as the wolf moon or great spirit moon. So informally speaking, the upcoming lunar eclipse will be a super blood wolf — or great spirit — moon. In the U.S., the eclipse will begin relatively early Sunday evening, making it easier for children to stay up and enjoy the show. Plus the next day is a federal holiday, with most schools closed. But the weather forecast for much of the U.S. doesn't look good. Parents "can keep their kids up maybe a little bit later," said, Hartigan, who will catch the lunar extravaganza from Houston. "It's just a wonderful thing for the whole family to see because it's fairly rare to have all these things kind of come together at the same time. "The good thing about this is that you don't need any special equipment," he added. Asia, Australia and New Zealand are out of luck. But they had prime viewing last year, when two total lunar eclipses occurred. The next total lunar eclipse won't be until May 2021. As for full-moon supermoons, this will be the first of three this year. The upcoming supermoon will be about 222,000 miles (357,300 kilometers) away. The Feb. 19 supermoon will be a bit closer and one in March will be the farthest.

  • AP Explains: Can Trump Ground Pelosi's Plane?
    President Donald Trump canceled House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's planned trip to Belgium and Afghanistan just hours before the congressional delegation, known as a CODEL, was set to depart. Can he do that? Yes, and not just because he's the commander in chief. The military maintains a fleet of converted passenger jets used by the president, vice president, Cabinet officials and other officials, from the iconic modified Boeing 747s known as Air Force One when the president is on board to smaller, modified Gulfstream jets. They're based at Joint Base Andrews just outside Washington. The assignment of the jets is at the discretion of the White House Military Office and, ultimately, the president. How is this supposed to work? There are a limited number of planes available for travel and a large number of potential travelers. The assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs signs off on CODEL requests for military flights. The office of the assistant vice chief of staff of the Air Force, Special Air Missions Division, is responsible for matching the request with the appropriate aircraft, prioritizing those from the White House, the defense secretary's office and others. Has this happened before? If no aircraft are available, lawmakers can be accommodated on a cargo aircraft if available or declined travel on a military aircraft altogether. In such cases, the trip may be canceled or carried out on commercial planes. It is not uncommon for there to be jockeying and lobbying of the White House among members of Congress and even Cabinet secretaries to secure the best aircraft. What is extraordinarily rare is for the president to personally intervene, and to announce in writing that he was denying an official a plane for nonoperational reasons, especially after it normally cleared channels.  Can Pelosi do anything about it? Not really. She could try to secure other commercial or private air travel to make the trip, but a stop in a war zone by the second person in the presidential line of succession is traditionally carried out in secret — likely taking a stop in Afghanistan off the table. 

  • Gloomy Davos: Plenty of Crises, Few World Leaders
    An array of crises will keep several world leaders away from the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos next week, which takes place against a backdrop of deepening gloom over the global economic and political outlook. Anxieties over trade disputes, fractious international relations, Brexit and a growth slowdown that some fear could tip the world economy into recession are set to dominate the Jan. 22-25 Alpine meeting. The WEF’s own Global Risks Report set the tone this week with a stark warning of looming economic headwinds, in part because of geopolitical tensions among major powers. ​No Trump, Macron or May Some 3,000 business, government and civil society figures are scheduled to gather in the snow-blanketed ski resort, but among them are only three leaders of the Group of Seven most industrialized countries: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte. Donald Trump, who stole the Davos limelight last year with a rare appearance by a sitting U.S. president, pulled out of this year’s event as he grapples with a partial U.S. government shutdown. On Thursday, the White House said Trump had also canceled his delegation’s trip to Davos because of the shutdown, now in its 27th day. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been expected to lead the U.S. team, according to two senior administration officials. French President Emmanuel Macron is also skipping the meeting as he seeks to respond to the “yellow vest” protests, while British Prime Minister Theresa May battles to find a consensus on Brexit. ​No Xi, either Outside the G7, the leaders of Russia and India are shunning Davos, while China —whose president, Xi Jinping, was the first Chinese leader to attend the elite gathering in 2017 to offer a vigorous defense of free trade — is sending Xi’s deputy instead. That will leave the likes of British Finance Minister Philip Hammond, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan and a host of central bankers with the task of trying to reassure business chiefs. “Davos will be dominated by a high level of anxiety about stock markets, a slowdown in growth and international politics,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Markit. “The leadership presence is lower than last year but those who are going ... will be seeking to impart a sense of confidence and calm business and investors’ nerves.” ​Forum still has its glitz Before the U.S. cancellation, a Trump administration official had said the U.S. delegation would also discuss the importance of reforming institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Trump has harshly criticized globalization and questioned U.S. participation in multilateral institutions such as the WTO, calling for a revamp of international trade rules. Davos watchers said the absence of so many top leaders this year did not mean the glitzy forum had lost its status as a global stage for top politicians to present their agendas. “Abe is going to Davos not just as Japanese prime minister but also as chair of the G20. It will be a perfect opportunity to lay the groundwork of upcoming G20 meetings,” said a Japanese government source familiar with international affairs. “Of course there may be inconveniences such as missing opportunities to hold bilateral meetings, but that won’t undermine the importance of Davos,” he said. A Chinese official who has attended Davos regularly but will not go this year said China had never expected to make progress at the meeting on the trade dispute with the United States.  “It’s just an occasion for making a policy statement,” he said. ​Networking opportunities The low turnout among major Western leaders may also give more prominence to political personalities who may otherwise be upstaged. Davos will be the first major international outing for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, elected on a wave of anti-establishment and conservative nationalism also seen elsewhere. He said on Twitter he would present “a different Brazil, free of ideological ties and widespread corruption.” For business chiefs, the value of Davos lies not so much in the public sessions but in the networking and deal-making opportunities on the sidelines of the main conference. “It’s the best place to pitch for ideas, build connections and get your brand known,” said Chen Linchevski, chief executive of Precognize, an Israel-based start-up developing software that prevents technical or quality failures at manufacturing plants. “It’s the kind of place where in a few days you meet people you wouldn’t easily meet otherwise,” said Linchevski, who is paying 50,000 Swiss francs ($50,495) to attend the event.

  • Manbij Blast Reflects IS's Deep Reach in Syria 
    With a single deadly blast Wednesday, the Islamic State group did more than rattle the calm in the northern Syrian town of Manbij. The terror group also rekindled the debate over its much-heralded demise. Moments after a suicide bomber was sent into a patrol of U.S. troops and their Syrian counterparts, four Americans and five U.S.-backed fighters lay dead or dying, while images of bodies and blood-splattered walls were being shared across social media, finding their way into news articles and broadcasts.    But to officials and analysts who have been studying the collapse of the self-declared caliphate, the attack, while brutal, likely was not shocking.   "ISIS maintains the capacity to pursue opportunistic attacks and present itself as an enduring security challenge in Syria," said Nicholas Glavin, formerly a researcher at the U.S. Naval War College's Center on Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups, using an acronym for the terror group.    For more than a year, U.S. intelligence and defense officials have warned publicly that IS was finding ways to adapt to its mounting losses, sustaining enough manpower and resources to do damage.    IS in Iraq    In Iraq, where the caliphate had collapsed, IS cells carried out attacks on critical infrastructure, targeting water supplies, power lines and cell towers.    Local officials said other cells carried out campaigns of assassinations and kidnappings.    "They have deep, in some cases, familial links," Christopher Maier, the director of the Defense Department's Defeat ISIS Core Task Force, told VOA. "It's going to be fundamentally, I think, hard to see what these threats look like until they manifest."    U.S. officials have yet to confirm Wednesday's deadly attack in Manbij was indeed the work of IS, though they believe it likely was.   Yet they worry that the way in which it was carried out and the way in which IS moved to capitalize on it could be a sign the group's network of family, friends and sympathizers are well-placed for a long fight in Syria as well.    For example, despite having been kicked out of Manbij in 2016, IS knew when and where to strike, targeting the patrol near the restaurant where U.S. troops were known to stop to meet with their coalition counterparts.    "There's a good chance the group had spotters engaged in surveillance in the immediate vicinity who informed Islamic State's local intelligence and security officials in real time to dispatch the suicide bomber," said Jade Parker, a former counterterrorism analyst in support of U.S. military activities.    "If this is the case, it appears as though the Islamic State intelligence and security services have not been as thoroughly degraded as some have claimed," Parker added.    Abilities of IS    The ability of IS to quickly claim responsibility, sharing details such as the name of the suicide bomber and the U.S.-backed coalition's immediate response, also indicates its propaganda machine is still dangerous.    "Propaganda-wise, ISIS remains extremely intact," said Raphael Gluck, co-founder of Jihadoscope, a company that monitors online activity by Islamist extremists.    "They may not be releasing the amount of videos they once were, and perhaps content might not be lingering on social media as it used to, but a very steady flow of Islamic State media remains," Gluck said.     It is those types of indications of the Islamic State's resiliency that have long worried defense and intelligence officials, who have repeatedly argued that no one should confuse the collapse of the terror group's caliphate with its lasting defeat.    "We're under no illusion that we're dealing with a long-term challenge," Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a conference on defeating IS in October. "We know from previous experience that when you relieve pressure on the threat, they will take the ability to reconstitute." 

  • Guinea Worm Disease Could Soon be Wiped Out, Experts Say
    There were just 28 reported human cases of Guinea worm disease (GWD) last year, the U.S.-based Carter Center said Thursday. The nongovernmental organization founded by former President Jimmy Carter said the disease is gradually moving toward eradication. The Carter Center says there were about 3.5 million human cases of GWD in Africa and Asia every year before it took the lead of the Guinea Worm Eradication Program in 1986. "These aren't just numbers, these are people," program director Adam Weiss said. "This is why tens of thousands of volunteers, technical advisers, and staff are working in thousands of villages to find and contain the last cases of this miserable disease and show people how to wipe it out once and for all." People and animals get Guinea worm disease from drinking water contaminated with tiny crustaceans that carry the worm larvae. The larvae mate inside the victim and after the male dies, the female emerges from a blister on the skin and can only be gradually pulled out. Guinea worm disease is rarely fatal. But the Carter Center said it can incapacitate victims for months — something that villagers who work, farm or go to school cannot afford. There is no vaccine against GWD and no medicine to treat it. But the disease can be easily prevented by teaching communities how to filter drinking water and keeping Guinea worm patients and animals away from water sources. While Guinea worm disease may be on the brink of eradication in people, the Carter Center said there were still thousands of cases in animals in several African nations, where violence and insecurity are making effective prevention difficult.

  • Storm Batters California for 3 Days, Causes 6 Deaths
    The storm that pummeled much of California for three days began moving east Thursday after causing at least six deaths, forcing wildfire victims threatened by floods to flee their homes and plunging nearly 300,000 utility customers into darkness. The winter storm is forecast to bring heavy rain, snow and high winds to Colorado and “will be slamming the East Coast by Sunday,” National Weather Service forecaster Steve Anderson said. “From Maine to Florida.” Anderson said most of California should be dry and sunny by Friday. Three days of rain dent drought The three-day drenching put a dent in California’s drought. Government and university researchers who maintain the U.S. Drought Monitor map now classify most of the state as abnormally dry or in moderate drought. Only about 6 percent is in severe or extreme drought, compared to nearly a quarter of the state last September. Rain and snow fell from one end of the state to the other, canceling flights, uprooting trees, knocking down power lines and causing localized flooding. In Malibu, a 57-year-old woman was in critical condition after authorities say a boulder struck her while she was hiking Thursday. In Orange County, firefighters rescued 12 homeless people stranded on an island in the Santa Ana River bottom, while 25 other transients were evacuated from the riverbanks. Falling trees deadly In San Francisco, fallen trees blocked the city’s iconic cable car tracks for hours Thursday and similarly delayed other commuter trains in region. A 200-year-old oak tree towering 100 feet (30 meters) over James Holmes’ suburban San Francisco home toppled over in the wind Wednesday night. “My family lived under it in our house for 70 years,” he said. In the Marin County community of Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco, a man was killed when he jumped into the street to dodge a falling tree Wednesday night and was struck by a van, according to the California Highway Patrol. Earlier Wednesday, a branch from a falling tree killed a 42-year-old homeless man in Oakland. The man may have been “just trying to stay dry” under the tree, CHP officer Herman Baza said. CHP reported that four people were killed in separate Northern California crashes caused by rain-slickened roads this week, including a 1-year-old who was among three people in a vehicle who died Tuesday from a crash in the Sierra Nevada foothill town of Placerville. Evacuations after wildfires Southern California authorities concerned with rising streams and excessive runoff ordered evacuations in parts of Malibu and other areas scarred by wildfires. Malibu schools canceled classes. Santa Anita racetrack canceled its slate of horse races Thursday. In the Southern California hillside community of Oak Park, where residents used pumps and sandbags to hold off rushing storm water, longtime resident Diane Starzak said her neighborhood “kind of dodged the bullet” as the storms began to taper off. “We actually had our suitcases in the car and were ready to leave,” said Starzak, who is volunteer coordinator for Oak Park’s community’s emergency response team. Instead the family used pumps to divert water cascading down a hillside behind their home.  “We are really, really happy, really excited,” she said. Authorities warned of possible floods and debris flows in the wildfire-ravished city of Paradise and the surrounding region denuded of protective trees and vegetation. Snow in the high Sierras Meanwhile, blizzard conditions blanketed the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada and the region’s ski resorts with as much as 4 feet (1.2 meters) of snow just in time for the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. So much snow accumulated on the tail of an executive jet parked at the Tahoe Truckee Airport that it caused the plane’s nose to tilt skyward in a stationary wheelie. Pacific Gas & Electric said 280,000 customers lost power at some point since Wednesday. PG&E spokeswoman Mayra Tostado said 26,432 customers remained without power Thursday afternoon.

  • Adviser: Former Trump Lawyer Reconsidering Plan to Testify to Congress
    President Donald Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen is reconsidering his plan to testify publicly to the U.S. Congress next month because of intimidation by the president, an adviser to Cohen said Thursday. Lanny Davis, an attorney who has been advising Cohen on his media strategy, said in an interview with MSNBC that some remarks made by the Republican president about Cohen amounted to witness tampering and deserved to be criminally investigated. "There is genuine fear and it has caused Michael Cohen to consider whether he should go forward or not, and he has not made a final decision," Davis said. Last week Cohen agreed to appear before a congressional panel on Feb. 7, as U.S. House of Representatives Democrats began kicking off numerous investigations of Trump, his business interests and his administration. Cohen was sentenced in December to three years in prison for his role in making illegal hush-money payments to two women to help Trump in 2016 in violation of campaign laws and for lying to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower project in Russia. In a Fox News interview on Saturday, Trump suggested he had damaging information on Cohen's father-in-law. "That's the one that people want to look at," Trump said in the interview. Davis said: "There is no question that his threatening and calling out his father-in-law, who — quote — has all the money, is not only improper and unseemly for a bully using the bully pulpit of the presidency, but the very definition of intimidation and witness tampering." He said Trump's remarks "could be obstruction of justice." Trump called Cohen a "rat" in a tweet last month for cooperating with prosecutors. Cohen had been Trump's self-described longtime "fixer" and had once said he would take a bullet for the New York real estate developer. At a hearing in federal court in New York in August, Cohen testified that Trump had directed him to commit a crime by arranging payments before the 2016 election to two women who said they had engaged in extramarital affairs with Trump. Cohen said on Thursday he had paid a firm to manipulate online polling data "at the direction of and for the sole benefit of" Trump.

  • State Department May Ask to Scrap Another Obama Climate Order
    The U.S. State Department said in a report released Thursday by the investigative arm of Congress that it may recommend President Donald Trump revoke an Obama-era order directing federal agencies to consider climate change in international development programs. Such a move would deepen the Trump administration’s already broad rejection of former President Barack Obama’s policies on global warming, which Trump has repeatedly suggested is not as serious as scientists claim. In the 2014 executive order, Obama directed the State Department and other agencies to factor climate resilience into development programs to help vulnerable populations around the world protect themselves from the effects of droughts, floods and storms exacerbated by climate change. Order weakened The State Department said in the General Accountability Office, or GAO, report published Thursday that its foreign assistance and budget bureaus “will begin working with stakeholders to consider whether to recommend that the Secretary (Mike Pompeo) ask the president to rescind” the order. The State Department’s comment came in response to a GAO recommendation that it improve guidance to foreign bureaus on the geopolitical risks of climate change. The GAO report said the State Department has identified migration of vulnerable populations in countries that face conflicts as a risk of climate change, but that Obama’s executive order has in effect been weakened because missions are not assessing the risks. Unusual response The State Department said “it does not oppose” the GAO’s recommendation. But if Trump reverses Obama’s executive order, it would not be required to improve the guidance. The State Department’s response to the GAO was a highly unusual way for a federal department to signal potential policy initiatives, said a GAO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Trump has made reversing Obama-era executive orders and regulations on climate a priority since his early weeks in office, mainly as a way of reducing the regulatory burden on the oil, gas and coal industries. The GAO report was commissioned by Democratic Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Dianne Feinstein and others. The State Department and the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

  • N. Korea Envoy in US for Talks with Pompeo, Possibly Trump
    A North Korean envoy arrived in Washington on Thursday for expected talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a possible encounter with President Donald Trump aimed a laying the groundwork for a second U.S.-North Korea summit. The envoy arrived on the same day Trump unveiled a revamped U.S. missile defense strategy that singled out North Korea as an ongoing and "extraordinary threat," seven months after he declared after his first summit with leader Kim Jong Un that the North Korean threat had been eliminated. Kim Yong Chol, Pyongyang's lead negotiator in denuclearization talks with the United States, was due to meet Pompeo and could also go to the White House on Friday, a person familiar with the plan said, a sign of potential movement in a diplomatic effort that has appeared stalled for months. The North Korean visit could yield an announcement of plans for another summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. There has been no indication, however, of any narrowing of differences over U.S. demands that North Korea abandon a nuclear weapons program that threatens the United States or Pyongyang's demand for a lifting of punishing sanctions. Kim Yong Chol, a hardline former spy chief, arrived in Washington on a commercial flight from Beijing, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported. Pompeo had planned to meet his North Korean counterpart to discuss a second summit last November, but the meeting was postponed at the last moment. Diplomatic contact was resumed after Kim Jong Un delivered a New Year speech in which he said he was willing to meet Trump "at any time," South Korea's ambassador to the United States, Cho Yoon-je, told reporters last week. Kim Yong Chol was last in Washington in June, when he delivered a letter from Kim Jong Un to Trump that opened the way for the June 12 summit in Singapore. That meeting yielded a pledge from the latter to work toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and Trump declared the next day that there was "no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea." There has been little obvious progress since, however, which was underlined by the Missile Defense Review unveiled Thursday. Introducing the report, acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan noted that North Korean missiles remained a "significant concern." Trump himself only mentioned North Korea in passing at the same event, saying negotiations he had conducted should have been done years ago. 'Concrete steps' U.S. Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged on Wednesday that efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal had not made headway. "While the president is promising dialogue with Chairman Kim, we still await concrete steps by North Korea to dismantle the nuclear weapons that threaten our people and our allies in the region," Pence said in an address to U.S. ambassadors and other senior American diplomats at the State Department. Trump said on Jan. 2 that he had received a "great" letter from Kim Jong Un and would probably meet him again in the not-too-distant future, but there was no rush. Pyongyang had stopped missile and bomb testing and if it had not been for his administration "you'd be having a nice big fat war in Asia," he said. CNN quoted a source familiar with the U.S.-North Korea talks as saying that Kim Yong Chol would be carrying a new letter from Kim Jong Un to Trump. Kim Yong Chol will be the first top North Korean official to stay overnight in Washington since the late Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok did so ahead of talks with then-President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000. Communist-ruled Vietnam, which has good relations with both the United States and North Korea, has been widely touted as the most likely venue for a second meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un. The Washington Post quoted people familiar with recent diplomatic activity as saying that if announced soon, the summit would probably take place in March or April, with the coastal city of Danang the most likely venue.

  • African Union Urges Congo to Suspend Final Election Results
    The African Union continental body issued a surprise last-minute demand late Thursday for Congo's government to suspend the announcement of final results of the disputed presidential election, citing "serious doubts."  Congo's constitutional court is poised to rule as early as Friday on a challenge filed by the election's declared runner-up. Martin Fayulu has requested a recount, alleging fraud. Upholding the results could spark violence in a country hoping for its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960. 'Truly incredible' The AU statement said heads of state and government agreed to "urgently dispatch" a high-level delegation to Congo to find "a way out of the post-electoral crisis" in the vast Central African nation rich in the minerals key to smartphones and electric cars around the world. "This is truly incredible," tweeted Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group at New York University. "Usually, the African Union defers to the subregion ... in this case they departed dramatically." Congo faces the extraordinary situation of an election allegedly rigged in favor of the opposition. There was no immediate government comment. Fayulu accuses the administration of outgoing President Joseph Kabila of falsifying the results to declare opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi the winner after the ruling party candidate did poorly. Fayulu has cited figures compiled by the influential Catholic Church's 40,000 election observers that found he won 61 percent of the vote. Leaked data favors Fayulu Two sets of leaked data show that Fayulu won the election by a landslide, according to an investigation published this week by Radio France International and other media working with the Congo Research Group. In the first set of data, attributed to Congo's electoral commission and representing 86 percent of the votes, Fayulu won 59.4 percent while Tshisekedi received 19 percent. The second set of data, from the Catholic Church's mission, represents 43 percent of the votes. In it, Tshisekedi and ruling party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary each received less than 20 percent. Fayulu, a lawmaker and businessman who is outspoken about cleaning up Congo's sprawling corruption, is widely seen as posing more of a threat to Kabila, his allies and the vast wealth they have amassed. Tshisekedi, the son of charismatic opposition leader Etienne who died in 2017, is relatively untested and has said little since the Dec. 30 election. The AU statement was issued after Congo's foreign minister and deputy prime minister briefed "a number of heads of state and government" from across the continent on the crisis. It said some of the heads of state would join the AU Commission chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat, in the urgent mission to Congo. Pressure from African nations is seen as having more of an impact on Congo's government, which was annoyed by Western pressure during more than two years of turbulent election delays. The AU statement reflects serious concern by states about the threat of more unrest in Congo that could spill across borders and destabilize its many neighbors.  But countries have wavered on how to address the crisis. The AU statement came hours after the 16-nation Southern African Development Community backed off its earlier demand for an election recount, instead urging the international community to respect Congo's sovereignty. It stressed the need for stability in a country where conflicts over the past two decades have killed millions of people.  Election troubles reported The AU statement noted that SADC leaders attended the wider continental talks. Congo's election had been meant to take place in late 2016, and many Congolese worried that Kabila, in power since 2001, was seeking a way to stay in office. Barred from serving three consecutive terms, Kabila already has hinted he might run again in 2023. Election observers reported multiple problems, including the last-minute barring of some 1 million voters in the east, with the electoral commission blaming a deadly Ebola outbreak. That alone undermines the election's credibility, some observers said. All of the election results, not just the presidential ones, have been widely questioned after Kabila's ruling coalition won a majority in legislative and provincial votes while its presidential candidate finished a distant third. 

  • Study: Asteroids Smacking Earth Twice as Often as Before
    Giant rocks from space are falling from the sky more than they used to, but don't worry. For the past 290 million years, large asteroids have been crashing into Earth more than twice as often as they did in the previous 700 million years, according to a new study in Thursday's journal Science. But no need to cast a wary glance up. Asteroids still only smack Earth on average every million or few million years, even with the increased crash rate. NASA's list of potential big space rock crashes shows no pending major threats. The biggest known risk is a 4,200-foot (1.3-km) wide asteroid with a 99.988 percent chance that it will miss Earth when it whizzes very near here in 861 years. Tell that to the dinosaurs. Most scientists think dinosaurs and a lot of other species went extinct after a huge space rock crashed into Central America about 65 million years ago. "It's just a game of probabilities," said study lead author Sara Mazrouei, a University of Toronto planetary scientist. "These events are still rare and far between that I'm not too worried about it." Mazrouei and colleagues in the United Kingdom and United States compiled a list of impact craters on Earth and the moon that were larger than 12 miles (20 km) wide and came up with the dates of them. It takes a space rock that's half a mile (800 meters) wide to create holes that big. The team counted 29 craters that were no older than 290 million years and nine between 291 million years and 650 million years old. But we can see relatively few big craters on Earth because the planet is more than 70 percent ocean and past glaciers smoothed out some holes, said University of Toronto planetary scientist Rebecca Ghent, a study co-author. Extrapolating for what can't be seen brings the total to about 260 space crashes on Earth in the last 290 million years. Adding in other factors, the science team determined that the current space crash rate is 2.6 times more than the previous 700 million years. Craters older than 650 million years are mostly wiped off on Earth by glacial forces so the scientists used impact craters on the nearby moon as a stand-in for holes between 650 million and 1 billion years old. The moon is a good guide for estimating Earth crashes, because it is close enough to be in the same bombardment path and its craters last longer. Mixed reactions So what happened nearly 300 million years ago? "Perhaps an asteroid family was broken up in the asteroid belt," Mazrouei speculated. The space rocks then headed toward the Earth and moon, and the planet got slightly more because it is a bigger target and it has higher gravity, Ghent said. Outside scientists are split about the research. Jay Melosh at Purdue said he found the number of craters too small to come to a reasonable conclusion, but Harvard's Avi Loeb said the case was convincing. Humans might not have emerged without mass extinctions from space rocks about 250 million and 65 million years ago, Loeb said in an email, adding, "but this enhanced impact rate poses a threat for the next mass extinction event, which we should watch for and attempt to avoid with the aid of technology." "This demonstrates how arbitrary and fragile human life is," Loeb wrote.

  • UN Peace Monitoring Team in Yemen Attacked   
    A U.N. team overseeing the truce in the Yemeni port of Hodeida came under fire Thursday.  No one was injured when bullets struck an armored vehicle carrying chief monitor Patrick Cammaert. The Yemeni government and Houthi rebels blamed each other for the shooting. A shared responsibility U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said both sides needed to make sure everyone with the U.N. was safe. "It is important to add that all the parties in Yemen are also responsible for the safety of all U.N. personnel. ... We are dealing with a highly volatile environment in Hodeida." Thursday's shooting came a day after the Security Council approved sending as many as 75 U.N. monitors to Yemen to strengthen last month's cease-fire agreement for Hodeida. The deal also calls on both sides to withdraw their forces in the city. The deal has generally held, despite occasional skirmishes, but both the rebels and Yemeni government have been slow to fully implement it. Iran denies charges Hodeida has been under rebel control. Nearly all food and humanitarian shipments come through the port. Yemen says the Houthis also get Iranian weapons through the port — a charge Iran has denied. The fighting in Yemen between government forces and the Iranian-backed Houthis has killed thousands of civilians. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes targeting the rebels have been indiscriminate, wiping out entire neighborhoods and hospitals. The fighting has made a dire humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen even worse. U.N. officials say about 80 percent of Yemeni civilians lack enough food, medicine and clean water.

  • US Appeals Court Will Not Delay Net Neutrality Case
    A federal appeals court said Thursday it would not delay oral arguments set for Feb. 1 on the Trump administration's decision to repeal the 2015 landmark net neutrality rules governing internet providers. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday asked the court to delay the arguments over its December 2017 repeal, citing the partial government shutdown. Without comment, the court denied the request. The FCC had no immediate comment on the decision. A group of 22 state attorneys general and the District of Columbia have asked the court to reinstate the Obama-era internet rules and block the FCC's effort to pre-empt states from imposing their own rules guaranteeing an open internet. Several internet companies are also part of the legal challenge, including Mozilla Corp, Vimeo Inc and Etsy Inc, as well as numerous media and technology advocacy groups and major cities, including New York and San Francisco. The FCC voted to reverse the rules that barred internet service providers from blocking or throttling traffic, or offering paid fast lanes, also known as paid prioritization. The FCC said providers must disclose any changes in users' internet access. 'Misguided' repeal The net neutrality repeal was a win for providers like Comcast Corp, AT&T Inc and Verizon Communications Inc, but was opposed by internet companies like Facebook Inc, Inc and Alphabet Inc. Major providers have not made any changes in how Americans access the internet since the repeal. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said on Thursday that the lawsuits are aimed at overturning the agency's "misguided" repeal of the Obama rules. "The fight for an open internet continues," she wrote on Twitter. The panel hearing the case is made up of Judges Robert Wilkins and Patricia Millett, two appointees of Barack Obama, and Stephen Williams, an appointee of Republican Ronald Reagan. In October, California agreed not to enforce its own state net neutrality law until the appeals court's decision on the 2017 repeal and any potential review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Trump Cancels Pelosi-led Trip to Afghanistan, Brussels
    U.S. President Donald Trump forced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to cancel a planned trip to Afghanistan and Brussels on Thursday, the latest maneuver in a bitter political battle over the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. In a letter to the speaker of the House, Trump denied Pelosi and members of Congress the use of a military plane to meet with NATO allies in Brussels and U.S. troops in Afghanistan, writing "in light of the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay, I am sure you would agree that postponing this public relations event is totally appropriate." A spokesperson for Pelosi's office said the trip would have provided "critical national security and intelligence briefings," as well as serving as an opportunity for Pelosi to thank the troops. The president's letter did not directly address Pelosi's call Wednesday for Trump to delay his scheduled Jan. 29 State of the Union address until government funding is restored and the shutdown ends. "This is completely inappropriate by the president," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff told reporters outside Pelosi's office. "We're not going to allow the president of the United States to tell the Congress it can't fulfill its oversight responsibilities." The back-and-forth between the White House and the speaker of the House meant there is no end in sight for a partial federal government shutdown, which will soon enter its fifth week. The shutdown was triggered by a standoff between Democrats and Republicans over funding for construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. "While many Democrats in the House and Senate would like to make a deal, Speaker Pelosi won't let them negotiate," Trump said in a speech at the Defense Department. "Hopefully, Democrat lawmakers will step forward to do what is right for our country, and what's right for our country is border security at the strongest level." Criticism for Trump Democrats insist they will negotiate stronger, more effective border security measures once the government reopens, but that a border wall would be wasteful, ineffective and a blight on America's image. Pelosi, the top-ranking congressional Democrat, said Trump's "insistence on the wall is a luxury we can no longer afford." Later Thursday, Trump also canceled a planned trip by a U.S. delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The delegation, consisting  of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer and assistant to the president Chris Liddell, was scheduled to travel next week. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the president wanted to make sure "his team can assist as needed" during the government shutdown.  Hundreds of thousands of federal workers missed a paycheck last week and are set to miss another next week. "Not only are these workers not paid, they are not appreciated by this administration," said Pelosi, who leads the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. "We should respect what they do for their country." Criticism for Pelosi Pelosi's move on the State of the Union address drew sharp criticism from Senate Republicans. "By disinviting POTUS for SOTU, Pelosi erased any pretext for her unwillingness to negotiate an end to the shutdown. It is personal, petty, and vindictive," Sen. John Cornyn from Texas tweeted Thursday. While many Democratic lawmakers applauded Pelosi, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia told MSNBC, "I think this [delaying the State of the Union address] is the wrong approach to be taking. … We should try to have every type of respectful dialogue that we possibly can. Where I come from in West Virginia, we just don't act this way." Lawmakers of both parties are wary of the shutdown's impact on their home states and constituencies. Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper he fears a lack of Transportation Security Administration airport screeners will make it impossible for travelers to come for next month's American football Super Bowl. "We've got a Super Bowl coming to Atlanta in about three weeks, the biggest tourism event in the world this year," Isakson said. "What if the largest airport in the world, that's going to bring people to the largest football game in the world, goes out of business because the TSA strikes? Then you've just cost millions of dollars to the United States of America, my home city of Atlanta and others." Trump has called for more than $5 billion in taxpayer funding for the wall, while Democrats have offered $1.3 billion in new money for border security, but none specifically for a wall. VOA's Michael Bowman and Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report.

  • Norway PM Solberg to Form Majority Government
    Norway's minority centre-right government has struck a deal with the small Christian Democratic Party to form a four-party majority coalition, it said on Thursday, confirming earlier  reports. The agreement fulfils a long-standing goal of Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, in power since 2013, who hopes ruling in a majority will provide stability and help ease her path to re-election in 2021. "We had tough negotiations," Solberg said, celebrating the pact alongside leaders of her existing partners the Progress Party and the Liberal Party as well as the Christian Democrats. She said the government would focus on a "sustainable welfare society", help combat climate change, reduce taxes for small and medium businesses, strengthen family and children's rights, and ensure stronger security for all. The three parties also agreed to slight changes in abortion laws at the demand of the Christian Democrats. Recent opinion polls have shown a majority of voters backing the Labour-led center-left opposition.  

  • Canadian Kidnapped in Burkina Faso Found Dead 
    A Canadian geologist kidnapped earlier this week in Burkina Faso has been found dead, the country's security ministry said Thursday.    Kirk Woodman was abducted by gunmen late Tuesday from a remote gold mine in the country's northeast region.    His body was found near the country's borders with Mali and Niger in Gorom Gorom, the ministry said.     Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland confirmed Woodman's death, saying, "Canada condemns those responsible for this terrible crime. We are working with the government of Burkina Faso and other international partners to pursue those responsible and bring them to justice."    Not much is known about who kidnapped Woodman from the mine, which is owned by Vancouver-based Progress Minerals.     The company's chief executive, Adam Spencer, said: "Kirk was an incredibly accomplished and highly respected geologist with a career spanning over 30 years, with 20 years spent in West Africa."    Woodman's death raises concerns about Islamist factions making forays into the country, which so far has been spared the violence that has plagued its neighbors.     Earlier this month, a Canadian woman and an Italian man went missing in Burkina Faso.  Family members have said Edith Blais, 34, and Luca Tacchetto, 30, were supposed to travel to neighboring Togo together for a humanitarian aid mission but never arrived.    Woodman was kidnapped on the third anniversary of an attack on a hotel in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, that killed dozens. That attack was claimed by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. 

  • Ethiopia Allows Almost 1 Million Refugees to Leave Camps, Go to Work
    Ethiopia passed a law Thursday giving almost 1 million refugees the right to work and live outside of camps, in a move praised for providing them with more dignity and reducing reliance on foreign aid. Home to Africa's second largest refugee population after Uganda, Ethiopia hosts more than 900,000 people who have fled conflict, drought and persecution in neighboring countries such as South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. The refugees — many of whom sought refuge decades ago and have children born in Ethiopia — are largely confined to one of about 20 camps across country. Most are not permitted to work. "We are happy to inform that the new refugee proclamation has been enacted by the House of Peoples' Representatives of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia," Ethiopia's Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) said. "It is strongly believed that the new law will enhance the lives of refugees and host communities," added the statement posted on ARRA's Facebook page. With record numbers of people being forced to flee their homes, most of the world's 25 million refugees are hosted by developing countries in camps where funding shortages often leave them short of basics like food and education. The new law is in line with Ethiopia's commitment toward the United Nations Global Compact on Refugees, adopted by world leaders in December to increase refugees' self-reliance and ease the pressure on host nations. The law allows refugees to move out of the camps, attend regular schools and to travel and work across the country. Refugees can formally register births, marriages and deaths, and will have access financial services such as bank accounts. The head of the Ethiopian Investment Commission Fitsum Arega said the new legislation was part of the country's "Jobs Compact" — a $500 million program which aims to create 100,000 jobs — 30 percent of which will be allocated to refugees. "This helps refugees & supports #Ethiopia's industrialization," said Arega on Twitter. 'Right thing to do' Aid workers said Ethiopia served as an example in a world where, in some regions, the rights and freedoms of refugees and migrants are being eroded. "As some Western countries have adopted xenophobic policies while turning away refugees, we are pleased that Ethiopia has passed this revised refugee law," said Stine Paus, Country Director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Ethiopia. It will allow more refugees to live in urban areas, secure limited work permits, give some access to farmland and increase education enrolment for refugee children, she said. "The law will help refugees feel included and that they can contribute to society," said Dana Hughes, spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency in East Africa. "But we must remember that access to education and employment doesn't just benefit refugees, it also contributes to the economy and benefits local communities. Such legislation isn't just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do."

  • White House Ramping Up Pressure Against Maduro
    The Trump administration is putting "all options on the table" to pressure Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro government as the White House considers whether to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country's legitimate head of state. Guaido is president of the National Assembly, Venezuela's opposition-controlled legislative body. "We have a range of options in our diplomatic, political and economic toolbox," a senior administration official told VOA. "Frankly, we haven't even scratched the surface of where we can go." The options include implementing an oil embargo and putting the country on the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. However, the official said that military action, something President Donald Trump hinted at in 2017, was not one of those options. The Trump administration has placed a series of sanctions on the Maduro government and is evaluating whether to impose tougher sanctions on the country's military and vital oil industry. An oil embargo would be devastating to Venezuela, as oil accounts for 95 percent of its export earnings and 25 percent of its gross domestic product. Maduro or Guaido? Since Maduro's Jan. 10 inauguration, 19 countries on the Organization of American States' permanent council, including the United States, have voted to not recognize Maduro's new term. In a statement, White House national security adviser John Bolton said the U.S. does not recognize "Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro's illegitimate claim to power." After Guaido announced he was willing to step in as interim president, Luis Almagro, president of the OAS, tweeted his support. On Tuesday, the National Assembly officially declared Maduro a "usurper" to trigger a constitutional mechanism that would allow Guaido as the head of the assembly to take over the country's leadership. Some Venezuelan experts are urging the international community to recognize Guaido as the legitimate interim president. Once they do, "governments, companies and international organizations will be able to begin channeling aid and contracts through the National Assembly," said Moises Rendon, associate director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research group. Rendon added that this would "strike a monumental blow to the Maduro regime," as international aid is a major source of its income. But other analysts are warning that recognizing Guaido may not be the best option at this stage. "Guaido and the National Assembly are carefully threading the needle and not trying to play all their cards at once," said David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy organization. "Ham-fisted efforts by international allies to force the situation will short-circuit the process." Smilde urged the administration to coordinate its strategy with Guaido and the National Assembly, and "not seek to pre-empt it." U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said he had spoken by phone Tuesday with Guaido to express the administration's support for the National Assembly as the "only legitimate democratic body in the country." According to a readout of the call from the vice president's office, Pence "encouraged Mr. Guaido to build unity among political groups, and pledged continued support from the United States until democracy is restored." Maduro 'illegitimate' Since Maduro won another term in office last May in an election that was widely considered fraudulent, his government has been confronted with international condemnation and a growing list of sanctions. "A concerted attempt by the international community to force Maduro from office by challenging his legitimacy may help Venezuelans get their country back," Rendon said. On top of pressing sanctions, Rendon said, the international community can challenge Maduro's right to continue in office by reducing or cutting diplomatic ties, prohibiting "further international agreements with the Maduro regime" and, "in the event of illicit activities, preparing for detention and prosecution." The U.S. has accused Maduro's government of crimes, including narco-trafficking, and has labeled Maduro a dictator who has implemented failed policies that triggered the country's worst economic crisis. Maduro contends he is the target of a U.S.-led "economic war" aimed at forcing him out of office. Support from U.S. Congress The Venezuelan opposition is receiving support from U.S. lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has urged that the U.S. officially recognize Guaido. On Thursday, Democratic Rep. Darren Soto and Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, both of Florida, introduced the Venezuela TPS Act of 2019, which would allow Venezuelan nationals to become eligible for Temporary Protected Status in the U.S. That status would grant them work authorization and shield them from deportation. Other Democrats in Congress, including Donna Shalala and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, both of Florida, are also pushing for tougher actions against Maduro. In the coming weeks, they plan to introduce a series of bills targeting weapons exports to Venezuela and providing humanitarian assistance to the Venezuelan people.