Voice of America

  • Iraq Parliament Sacks Governor Over Deadly Ferry Capsize
    Iraq's parliament on Sunday sacked the governor of a northern province where 100 people died in a ferry disaster that sparked a wave of grief and anger. Most of those killed when the boat sank Thursday in the Tigris River in Mosul were women and children headed for a Mother's Day picnic on the Kurds' Nowruz New Year holiday. Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mehdi wrote to parliament on Saturday calling on legislators to fire Nineveh provincial governor Nawfel Akoub, citing "negligence and concrete failings" meriting his dismissal. His two deputies were also fired during a vote in the national assembly. Parliament declared those killed in the tragedy "martyrs", allowing their families to receive financial compensation and paving the way for court proceedings. Sixteen people have been arrested as part of an investigation into the ferry capsize, a security official said. Authorities say 63 people are still listed as missing. Dozens of students held a silent protest Sunday on the campus of the university of Mosul, dressed in black to mourn the victims. One of them, Abdullah al-Jubburi, told AFP they were demonstrating to demand that "corrupt" politicians and civil servants be replaced. "The governor and all corrupt officials must be put on trial... We are fed up of being mistreated and marginalised," said fellow protester Isra Mohammed. Akoub has already been subjected to the anger of victims' relatives and their supporters over alleged corruption and cronyism. When he visited the scene of the tragedy on Friday stones were thrown at his convoy by protesters demonstrating against perceived corruption and neglect.          

  • Pope Prays for Nicaragua, Victims in African Attacks
    Pope Francis prayed on Sunday for the victims of attacks in Nigeria and Mali, and for the success of talks underway in Nicaragua aimed at solving a yearlong political crisis in the country.   "Let's pray for the numerous victims of the recent inhuman attacks in Nigeria and Mali. May the Lord welcome these victims, heal the wounded, console loved ones and convert cruel hearts," Francis said.   At least 134 people were killed on Saturday in a massacre in Mali, according to the United Nations. In Nigeria, dozens have been killed in Boko Haram attacks this week.   Francis also addressed the crisis in Nicaragua after leading a prayer Sunday to a crowd at St. Peter's Square. Francis, who is from Argentina, described the talks between Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's administration and opposition delegations as "important."   "I accompany the initiative with prayer and encourage the parties to find a peaceful solution for the good of all as soon as possible," the pope said.   The Nicaraguan crisis was triggered last April when cuts to social security benefits led to protests that evolved into calls for Ortega's resignation. Security forces responded with violent repression. Human rights groups say at least 325 people died and hundreds were imprisoned.   The unrest also devastated Nicaragua's economy.    

  • US Attorney General Could Summarize Russia Probe Report on Sunday
    U.S. Attorney General William Barr could release his first summary as early as Sunday of special counsel Robert Mueller's confidential report on Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether Donald Trump, after assuming power, then sought to obstruct the investigation. Barr and his aides spent hours Saturday poring over the report Mueller handed them late Friday after his 22-month investigation. Barr aides say that he hopes to hand top lawmakers an initial summary after more review on Sunday and could also publicly release the same summary. Key lawmakers, opposition Democrats and some of Trump's Republican allies, have all called for release of the full report, but it is not clear whether Barr will do so. President Trump said last week he did not object to the full release to the public but also has said it is up to Barr, whom he appointed as the country's top law enforcement official, to decide how much of it is disclosed. White House aides say Trump has not been briefed on the outcome of Mueller's investigation, a probe that has clouded almost the entirety of his 26-month presidency. The U.S. leader has dozens of times derided Mueller's investigation as unwarranted and a "witch hunt," while rejecting accusations that he colluded with Russia or that he tried to thwart the probe. He is spending the weekend at his Atlantic oceanfront retreat Mar-a-Lago in Florida, playing golf, and uncharacteristically not commenting on Twitter about Mueller. On Sunday, he tweeted, "Good Morning, Have A Great Day!" White House aides were relieved to learn one aspect of Mueller's conclusions, that he was not recommending any further indictments that might have ensnared White House officials or Trump family members. Mueller has already secured guilty pleas or convictions from five key figures in Trump's orbit and indicted a sixth for a variety of offenses, including some for lying about their contacts with Russia during the election campaign or just before Trump took office in January 2017. Trump's one-time personal attorney, Michael Cohen, has been ordered to prison to start a three-year term in May for financial crimes and lying to Congress about Trump's efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Former campaign manager Paul Manafort has already been imprisoned for a 7 1/2-year term for financial crimes related to his long-time lobbying efforts for pro-Russian interests in Ukraine. Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts just before Trump took office with Russia's then-ambassador to Washington. Under long-standing Justice Department policy, U.S. presidents cannot be indicted while serving in office, but can face charges once they leave office. Trump's term in the White House ends in January 2021, but he is running for re-election next year for another four-year term. In addition to the Mueller investigation, Trump is facing numerous investigations brought by Democrats in the House of Representatives, along with federal criminal probes in New York of his business affairs as a real estate mogul before he ran for president and the financing of his inaugural committee as he took power. If the full Mueller report, and underlying investigative evidence, is not turned over to Congress, Democrats who control the House have vowed to subpoena it and possibly call Mueller to testify about his findings. Some lawmakers have called for Trump's impeachment, but top leaders cautioned that any possible impeachment proceedings should wait until Mueller's conclusions are known. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he hopes that Barr will "provide as much information as possible'' on the findings, "with as much openness and transparency as possible.'' Democratic presidential hopefuls also joined the chorus of calls for the report’s release. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a frequent critic of the president, requested that Barr disclose the report “to the American public. Now.” Kamala Harris, a senator from California, not only demanded “total transparency,” but said Barr “must publicly testify under oath about the investigation’s findings.” The Democratic heads of six House committees wrote a joint letter to Barr Friday, saying, "If the Special Counsel has reason to believe that the president has engaged in criminal or other serious misconduct, then the Justice Department has an obligation not to conceal such information. The president must be subject to accountability." Mueller, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has won wide acclaim in Washington for his impartiality, but his report is landing at a time of widespread political division in the United States, with polls showing a sharp split among Americans about Trump's performance in office and whether he should be re-elected.  More than a dozen Democrats are seeking their party's nomination to oppose him in the November 2020 election. Any negative conclusions drawn by Mueller are sure to become a key talking point to voters to oust Trump after a single term in the White House.  

  • UN: Death Toll From Central Mali Massacre up to 134
    The death toll from a massacre in a central Malian village rose to 134 dead, the U.N. said, as new video emerged Sunday showing victims strewn on the ground amid the burning remains of their homes. An ethnic Dogon militia already blamed for scores of attacks in central Mali over the past year attacked an ethnic Peuhl village just before dawn on Saturday.   Among the victims in Ogossogou were pregnant women, small children and the elderly, according to a Peuhl group known as Tabital Pulaaku.   Graphic video obtained by The Associated Press shows the aftermath of Saturday's attack, with many victims burned inside their homes. A small child's body is covered with a piece of fabric, and at one point an ID card is shown covered with blood.   In the capital of Bamako, visiting U.N. Security Council President Francois Delattre, condemned the killings as an ``unspeakable attack'' late Saturday.   At least 55 people were wounded and the U.N. mission in Mali said it was ``working to ensure the wounded were evacuated.''   In New York, the U.N. secretary-general condemned the attack and called on the Malian authorities to swiftly investigate it and bring the perpetrators to justice.    Islamic extremists were ousted from urban centers in northern Mali during a 2013 French-led military operation. The jihadists scattered throughout the rural areas, regrouped and began launching numerous attacks against the Malian military and the U.N. mission. Since 2015, extremism has edged all the way to central Mali where it has exacerbated tensions between the Dogon and Peuhl groups.   Members of the Dogon group accuse the Peulhs of supporting these jihadists linked to violent groups in the country's north and beyond. Peulhs have in turn accused the Dogon of supporting the Malian army in its effort to stamp out extremism.   In December, Human Rights Watch had warned that "militia killings of civilians in central and northern Mali are spiraling out of control." The group said the ethnic Dogon militia known as Dan Na Ambassagou and its leader had been linked to many of the atrocities and called for Malian authorities to prosecute the perpetrators.   Mali's Dogon country with its dramatic cliff landscapes and world renowned traditional art once drew tourists from Europe and beyond who hiked through the region's villages with local guides. The region, though, has been destabilized in recent years along with much of central Mali.      

  • Chinese President Visiting Monaco Amid European Tech Worries
    Chinese President Xi Jinping has found one country in Europe that isn't worried about China's growing global clout or its ambitions to dominate the future of technology: Monaco.   Xi visited the tiny Mediterranean principality Sunday as part of a European tour that is clouded by mixed feelings about how to engage with China and benefit from its trade — while setting limits on its appetite for greater economic and diplomatic influence.   Xi's appearance alongside Monaco's Prince Albert and Princess Charlene marks the first state visit by a Chinese president to the principality. The palace said Monaco is seeking to boost its trade and economic cooperation with China, without providing details on eventual contracts to be signed.   Monaco last year clinched a deal with Chinese tech company Huawei to develop its 5G telecommunications network — a thorny issue for several European countries.   The U.S. government says Huawei's 5G network could give Chinese security services a backdoor to spy on consumers, and has pressed European partners to shun it. Huawei says the fear is unfounded.   Monaco banned all flights in its airspace during Xi's brief visit and any sailing in its waters or mooring in its luxury yacht-filled harbor.   The Chinese leader will dine Sunday with French President Emmanuel Macron in the French Mediterranean resort town of Beaulieu-sur-Mer. A police boat and police divers worked to secure the area before his arrival, and security cordons blocked several roads in Nice, where Xi will stay overnight.   Xi will sign energy and other contracts with Macron on Monday, then meet in Paris on Tuesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.   The European Union is China's biggest trading partner, but many in Europe worry about unfair competition from Chinese companies that benefit from government financial backing.   Xi comes to Monaco and France from Italy, which just endorsed a vast Chinese transport infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative. Macron criticized Italy's move, calling for a concerted European approach to China instead.   "There is this bad European habit to have 28 different policies, with countries competing against each other to attract investment," a top French official said. "We need to speak with a common voice if we want to exist. We have the same approach on the 5G issue: avoiding 28 different decisions."        

  • Nearly Half of Cyclone Idai’s Victims Are Children
    The U.N. children’s fund reports nearly half of the 1.7 million people affected by Cyclone Idai in southern Africa are children. The official number of deaths across the region has now risen to over 700. But this figure is expected to increase once the waters have receded and the bodies of those who have drowned and gone missing are found. Conditions in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe remain critical. Thousands of people are still trapped by the flood waters, many huddled on rooftops and in trees waiting to be rescued. The U.N. children’s fund reports the situation for hundreds of thousands of children caught up in this monumental storm is particularly dire. It says many do not have adequate shelter and are in urgent need of food and safe drinking water. UNICEF spokesman, Christophe Boulierac says children are particularly susceptible to infectious diseases. “Without safe and effective water, sanitation and hygiene services, children are at high risk of preventable diseases including diarrhea, typhoid and cholera, and also increasingly vulnerable to malnutrition,” he said. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reports cases of cholera have been confirmed in the city of Beira in Mozambique, the epicenter of the cyclone. It warns the risk of outbreaks of malaria, water-borne and infectious diseases is high due to the prevailing conditions. UNICEF reports many schools and hospitals have been destroyed or damaged or are being used as collective shelters. As a consequence, thousands of children are unable to go to school. It says it is crucial for children to go back to the classroom as soon as possible. Officials explain many children are suffering from physical and emotional distress. They say school provides them with a structure and a sense of normalcy that can help them better deal with their anguish in this time of extreme chaos.      

  • Syrian Fighters Clear Explosives in Area Retaken from IS
    U.S.-backed Syrian fighters cleared explosives in the last area retaken from the Islamic State group on Sunday, a day after declaring military victory over the extremists and the end of their self-styled caliphate. A spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who goes by the nom de guerre Mervan The Brave, said Baghuz village where the militants made their final stand is "full of all kinds of explosives." He said SDF forces were clearing the area and have detonated land mines and suicide belts left behind by the militants. A Syrian driver working with NBC News reporters was killed Saturday by an explosive device that went off in a house used as an SDF command post and a media center for journalists covering the fighting in Baghuz.   Noah Oppenheim, the president of NBC News, said in a statement that network employees escaped unharmed. He expressed "deepest sympathies" to the driver's family and loved ones.   "We are still gathering information from today's events, and are in touch with the driver's family to support them however we can," he said. It was not immediately clear what caused the explosion.   The victory announced in Baghuz on Saturday marks the end of a devastating five-year campaign by an array of forces to retake territories held by IS in Syria and Iraq. At its height, IS controlled a sprawling self-declared caliphate the size of Britain that was home to some 8 million people. The campaign against the group came at a staggering cost, with entire neighborhoods and towns destroyed across a swath of Syria and Iraq.   Unknown numbers of fighters and supporters are believed to have gone underground, and the group has continued to carry out insurgent attacks in areas that were liberated months or even years ago.   It's not known whether the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still alive or where he might be hiding.   "This is an historic moment, but we cannot be complacent," tweeted Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, the deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition against IS.   "Even without territory, Daesh will continue to pose a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, as well as to the wider world. The coalition must remain firm in its determination to counter Daesh," he said, referring to the extremist group by an Arabic acronym.   Thousands of people, including IS fighters and their family members, left Baghuz in recent weeks and were taken to detention centers and camps for the displaced elsewhere in eastern Syria. The militants were holding hostages and had detained civilians, whose fate remains unknown.   Separately, Syrian state media reported that nearly two dozen people have suffered from asphyxiation after shells were lobbed from rebel-held areas into government-administered villages in the country's west. The state news agency quoted director of a local hospital in Hama province saying 21 people were hospitalized after inhaling gases in the attack on al-Rasif and al-Aziziyeh villages.   The pro-state Al-Ikhbariya TV interviewed survivors at the hospital who said a foul smell followed the launching of mortars into their villages.   The months-old truce, sponsored by Russia and Turkey, in Syria's west has been tested, as fighting between government forces and al-Qaida-linked militants resumed. The government wants to regain control of a key highway that flanks the opposition-held area. Al-Qaida-linked militants have expanded their dominance in northwestern Syria, rooting out other armed opposition groups and undermining the truce.    

  • Tugs Tow Norway Cruise Ship After 463 Rescued; 17 Injured
    More than 450 passengers were airlifted off a cruise ship that got stranded off Norway's western coast in bad weather before the rescue operation was suspended Sunday so the vessel could be towed to a nearby port, Norwegian authorities said.   Five helicopters flying in the pitch dark took the evacuated passengers from the tossing ship in a painstaking process that continued throughout the night. The rescues took place under difficult conditions that included wind gusts up to 38 knots (43 mph) and waves over 8 meters (26 feet).   Some 17 people were hospitalized with injuries, police said. Passenger Alexus Sheppard told The Associated Press in a message sent from the Viking Sky that people with injuries or disabilities were winched off the cruise ship first. The atmosphere onboard grew calmer after the rescue operation's first dramatic hours, Sheppard said.   "It was frightening at first. And when the general alarm sounded it became VERY real," she wrote. Photos posted on social media showed the ship listing from side to side, and furniture smashing violently into walls.   "We saw two people taken off by stretcher," another passenger, Dereck Brown, told Norwegian newspaper Romsdal Budstikke. "People were alarmed. Many were frightened but they were calm."   The Viking Sky carried 1,373 passengers and crew members when it had engine trouble in an unpredictable area of the Norwegian coast known for rough, frigid waters. The crew issued a mayday call Saturday afternoon.   Police said the crew, fearing the ship would run aground, managed to anchor in Hustadvika Bay so the evacuations could take place.   Coast guard official Emil Heggelund estimated to newspaper VG that the ship was 100 meters (328 feet) from striking rocks under the water and 900 meters (2,953 feet) from shore when it stopped.   The ship was visiting the Norwegian towns and cities of Narvik, Alta, Tromso, Bodo and Stavanger before its scheduled arrival Tuesday in the British port of Tilbury on the River Thames. The passengers mostly were a mix of American, British, Canadian, New Zealand and Australian citizens.   The airlifts continued at a steady pace Sunday morning, as the vessel was being prepared for towing by two tugboats to the nearby town of Molde, according to Per Fjerd at the Joint Rescue Coordination Center.   The helicopters stopped taking people off the ship when the ship was ready for the trip to shore, and 463 passengers had been evacuated by that time, the Joint Rescue center said. Three of the ship's four engines were working as of Sunday morning, the center said.     The Viking Sky, a vessel with a gross tonnage of 47,800, was delivered in 2017 to operator Viking Ocean Cruises.    

  • Vigils Against Racism Held In New Zealand
    Thousands of people in the New Zealand cities of Auckland and Christchurch attended vigils Sunday to protest racism and to remember the 50 Muslims who were killed in two mosques last week by a white nationalist. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Sunday in a statement that a national remembrance service will be held March 29 to honor the victims of the mass shootings. The words of black civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were cited by speakers at the vigils Sunday in Christchurch and Auckland, according to the New Zealand Herald. Thousands of people gathered at a park in Christchurch near the al-Noor Mosque, one of the places of worship that came under attack in last week's mass shootings. The nearby Linwood mosque was also targeted by the shooter. The Christchurch event began with an Islamic prayer and the reading of the names of all 50 victims. A student at Cashmere High School, using the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., told the crowd that "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can." The student urged the crowd to "unite in love and not hatred." "Migrant lives matter" and "Refugees welcome here" were among the signs at a march in Auckland, earlier Sunday. New Zealand authorities have charged 28-year-old Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant with murder in connection with the March 15 attacks on the al-Noor and Linwood mosques. The self-proclaimed white nationalist did not enter a plea in his initial court appearance the day after the attack. His next court appearance is April 5.              

  • Thais Cast Ballots Marking 'A Return to Democracy'
    Thais voted Sunday in an election called a return to democratic rule, but which has been widely criticized as an exercise designed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to entrench his military’s stranglehold on power. Counting began immediately after polls closed at 5 p.m. Exit polls had indicated a strong showing for the Pheu Thai party of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra but initial officials results released Sunday had the military backed Phalang Pracharat party in the lead. The campaign was marred by allegations of vote buying, however, complaints were few on polling day with election observers from Australia, Canada, the United States and the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations on hand. Security was tight and opinions were mixed as about 52 million Thais voted. But the long shadow of the military is still having an impact, most of those willing to express an opinion declined to be identified. Some were positive about the outcomes, particularly among the youth vote. A hotel receptionist said before voting, “I have my choice in my mind, it’s good for me, I like it.” Another said she had faith in a political system guided by the military and Thailand's 20th constitution, written after 13 coups since 1932, “We are very confident with the election today, it is going to be democratic and fair to the society.” Others remained angry about the coup in 2014, which ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and installed General Prayut as head of a junta that curtailed civil liberties and banned political opposition. “The coup is a really terrible thing that happened to our country. You can not say what you want or what you think, you can not protest because they will take you to the jail,” she said. Her sentiments were echoed by others who said it was wrong that Prayut and the military could dominate the political system and exert their influence to the point where they are widely expected to remain in control after this election. “To answer whether to bring democracy back to Thailand is good or not; I won’t say it's good,” one middle-aged businessman said. “Everywhere in the world, in every country — even in America — you see how democracy works. Does it work for the country or the privileged few?” Paul Chen, 80, was an exception. He spoke openly and said the elections were a step in the right direction and could provide a much needed boost for the economy, but noted the legal restrictions imposed by the junta. “After today I think everything will be getting better,” he said. “They have so many good political parties, about two or three, but I can not mention their name, it may be against the law.” Thais have cast votes for the 500-seat House of Representatives, while 250 members in the Senate will be appointed by the armed forces. A joint session of both houses will elect the next prime minister. A key figure will be the overall popular vote. Pheu Thai, the party of Yingluck and her brother Thaksin — who was also ousted by a coup in 2006 — are expected to poll well in the rural north. Future Forward, led by the young entrepreneur Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, has been effective in attracting the youth vote with promises to end military conscription, and inclusive polices have endeared him to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The youth vote and the LGBT community number around seven million each. Combined, they share 25 percent of the total vote. But seat distribution and absolute military control of the Senate leaves General Prayut’s Phalang Pracharat as the only likely clear winner. “In Thailand today after five years of dictatorship, we see these rising expectations among voters. Social mobilization, political participation, people want change,” said Paul Chambers, lecturer and special advisor on international affairs at Naresuan University, Phitsanulok. “You know the last time there was a long period like this of dictatorship between elections, my gosh its maybe 30 years ago. So people really want change. Now the junta leaders are not stupid, they’re certainly trying to corral and control.” During a panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand Chambers said, "... you know you can’t stay in power militarily forever, you have to change your legitimacy, somehow. And the best way to do that in the world today is to have a so-called democracy. Election results are not expected to be ratified until late May.  

  • UK's Theresa May Faces Pressure to Step Down to Save Brexit
    Prime Minister Theresa May faces growing pressure from within her own party either to resign or to set a date for stepping down as a way to build support for her Brexit agreement with the European Union, British media reported Sunday. Senior Conservative Party figures were urging May to recognize her weakened political position and leave the prime minister's post. However, there was no indication from Downing Street a resignation was near.   May thus far has been unable to generate enough support in Parliament for the withdrawal deal her government and the EU reached late last year. Lawmakers voted down the Brexit plan twice, and May has raised the possibility of bringing it back a third time if enough legislators appear willing to switch their votes.   The U.K.'s departure from the EU long was set to take place on March 29, but the absence of an approved divorce agreement prompted May last week to ask the leaders of the 27 remaining member nations for a postponement.   The leaders rejected May's request to extend the deadline until June 30. Instead, they agreed to delay Brexit until May 22, on the eve of EU Parliament elections, if the prime minister can persuade Parliament to endorse the twice-rejected agreement. If she is unable to rally support for the withdrawal agreement, the European leaders said Britain only has until April 12 to choose between leaving the EU without a divorce deal and a radically new path, such as revoking the decision to leave the bloc or calling another voter referendum on Brexit.   Parliament may take a series of votes this week to determine what proposals, if any, could command majority support.   Conservative Party legislator George Freeman tweeted Saturday night that the U.K. needs a new leader if the Brexit process is to move forward.   "I'm afraid it's all over for the PM. She's done her best. But across the country you can see the anger. Everyone feels betrayed," Freeman tweeted. "This can't go on. We need a new PM who can reach out & build some sort of coalition for a Plan B.''   Under Conservative Party rules, May cannot face a formal leadership challenge from within her own party until December because she survived one three months ago. But she may be persuaded that her position is untenable if Cabinet ministers and other senior party members desert her.   Her bid for fresh support for her withdrawal plan has so far failed to win backing from Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, which usually provides crucial votes for May's minority government.   She also faces pressure from groups demanding a second Brexit referendum. Huge crowds turned out Saturday for an anti-Brexit protest march in London. Organizers claimed more than 1 million people attended.        

  • First Subway Opens in Indonesia’s Gridlocked Capital
    Indonesia’s long-awaited first subway opened Sunday in the country’s capital with the aim of relieving crippling traffic gridlock in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy. Minutes after inaugurating the 16-kilometer (10-mile) transit line running south from Jakarta’s downtown, President Joko Widodo presided over a groundbreaking ceremony to mark the beginning of the second phase: an 8-kilometer (5-mile) northward line planned for completion by 2024. The two projects are being built at a cost of $2.6 billion. “Today we will begin a new civilization by operating the first phase of mass rapid transit in Jakarta,” Widodo told several thousand guests and residents at the inauguration. The line that opened Sunday includes seven elevated and six underground stations built by two consortiums of local and Japanese companies. Passengers can ride for free until the end of the month, after which operator PT MRT Jakarta has said tickets will cost the equivalent of between 70 cents and $1. ​Widodo, who is campaigning for re-election, told the crowd that he has instructed Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan to begin the next phase of construction of an east-west line covering a distance of 87 kilometers this year. Jakarta’s first subway line, the latest of many infrastructure improvements across the world’s fourth most populous nation, is aimed at helping it catch up with other Southeast Asian capitals such as Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Bangkok in public transport. Jakarta is officially home to about 10 million people, but the population of the greater metropolitan area swells to 30 million. The project, funded through a loan from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), has been planned since the 1980s, but its construction was hampered by political crises, red tape and funding disagreements. Widodo was the Jakarta governor when construction finally kicked off in October 2013. JICA has predicted that without a major investment in transportation, Jakarta would be overwhelmed by traffic jams by 2020. Annual losses from congestion are forecast to reach $6.5 billion by next year. Congestion has relentlessly worsened in the past decade as car ownership rose, squeezing more and more vehicles onto Jakarta’s unchanging road network. The average peak hour speed has “significantly decreased” to 10 kilometers an hour (6.2 miles per hour), according to the transport ministry. It often can take two or more hours to move 5 kilometers (3 miles) in some pockets of the city. The line opened Sunday runs from the southern neighborhood of Lebak Bulus to Jakarta’s downtown and is expected to take less than 30 minutes. In addition to the subway project, a $2.4 billion elevated rail network linking Jakarta and its satellite cities is also taking shape, with the first stage expected to begin operating in April. But it likely will take several years for new transit systems to make a dent in the congestion. About 1.4 million people commute into central Jakarta on work days. The initial subway line aims to carry only about 130,000 people a day by the end of this year.

  • Poll: Majority of Americans Favor Stricter Gun Laws
    A majority of Americans favor stricter gun laws, and most believe places of worship and schools have become less safe over the last two decades, according to a new poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.  The survey was conducted both before and after this month’s mass shooting at two mosques in New Zealand. It found that 67 percent of Americans support making U.S. gun laws stricter, while 22 percent say they should be left as they are and 10 percent think they should be made less strict.  The New Zealand shooting on March 15 did not appear to have an impact on Americans’ support for new gun laws; support for tighter gun laws was the same in interviews conducted before and after the shooting.  Wide partisan divide While a majority of Americans have consistently said they support stronger gun laws, proposals have stalled repeatedly in Congress in recent years, a marked contrast to New Zealand and some other countries, such as Australia, that have acted swiftly after a mass shooting. Less than a week after the mosque shootings, New Zealand moved to ban “military-style” semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines; similarly, after a mass shooting in 1996, Australia enacted sweeping gun bans within two weeks.  The new poll suggests many Americans would support similar measures, but there’s a wide gulf between Democrats and Republicans on banning specific types of guns. Overall, 6 in 10 Americans support a ban on AR-15 rifles and similar semiautomatic weapons. Roughly 8 in 10 Democrats, but just about 4 in 10 Republicans, support that policy. Republicans are also far less likely than Democrats to think that making it harder to buy a gun would prevent mass shootings, 36 percent to 81 percent. Overall, 58 percent of Americans think it would. Support across party lines Still, some gun restrictions get wide support across party lines. Wide shares of both Democrats and Republicans support a universal background check requirement, along with allowing courts to prevent some people from buying guns if they are considered dangerous to themselves or others, even if they have not committed crimes. In contrast to New Zealand, the United States has enacted few national restrictions in recent years. In part, that’s a reflection of gun rights being enshrined in the U.S. Constitution; in a poll by the Pew Research Center in spring of 2017, 74 percent of gun owners said the right to own guns is essential to their own sense of freedom.  That poll also found that gun owners were far more likely than those who don’t own guns to contact public officials about gun policy or donate to organizations that take a stance on the issue. A divided Congress after last year’s midterm elections only serves to make any new national gun laws unlikely for the foreseeable future. Support unchanged from 2018 Overall support for stricter gun laws is unchanged since an AP-NORC poll conducted one year ago, a month after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead. The post-Parkland poll marked an increase in support for stricter gun laws, from 61 percent in October 2017. But the strength of that support appears to have ebbed. The percentage who say gun laws should be made much stricter, rather than just somewhat stricter, drifted down slightly after reaching a peak in the post-Parkland poll, from 45 percent then to 39 percent now. The poll showed a wide share of Americans say safety in churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship has worsened over the past two decades. Sixty-one percent say religious houses have grown less safe over the last two decades. Slightly more said so after the New Zealand shooting than before, 64 percent to 57 percent.    Nearly 7 in 10 believe elementary and high schools have become less safe than they used to be. And 57 percent say the same about colleges and universities.

  • New York City Muslims Begin Community Safety Patrol
    On March 14, New York City Muslims were putting their families to bed when details emerged of a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, about 15,000 kilometers away. A white supremacist had targeted Friday prayer. Fifty were dead, including refugees, women and children; one as young as three.  Brooklyn residents Mohammad Khan and Nazrul Islam were returning from a leadership dinner when they heard. “We stopped our car, we parked, and we were just in tears,” Khan said. “Me and the imam — we were just devastated.”  For months, Khan and Islam, an imam and a Quranic school principal, had been working on the rollout of an all volunteer-led civilian patrol organization, Muslim Community Patrol & Services (MCPS). “MCPS is aimed at protecting members of the local community from escalating quality-of-life nuisance crimes,” its website says. Its mission took on added relevance after the attack in New Zealand.  Traumatized members of the community, who had seen video of the attack on social media, sought help from MCPS at local vigils and rallies. The organization responded with trained counselors and chaplains. WATCH: New York City Muslims Begin Community Safety Patrol ​‘Here for everyone’  On a white-and-blue emblazoned Ford Taurus, a seal matching the style and color scheme of the New York Police Department (NYPD) identifies the MCP volunteer unit. Above it, the words “Assalamu alaikum” are inscribed in Arabic. “Peace be upon you.”  Patrolling the streets is just one aspect of the group’s mission. Its guiding principle is mentorship, said Khan, MCPS’ director of community affairs. Mentorship can be provided in person or by phone, 24/7, with the aim of bridging the community across religious, ethnic and language divides. New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world. “If an immigrant came to this country from an Arabic-speaking country — and they might be in trouble or they need help — and they see Assalamu alaikum,” Islam, 28, explained, “they’ll definitely know there are Muslim people in that car, so they can come and they can ask us if they need anything.” MCPS’ 50-plus volunteers are never armed, and they are trained to deal with crises including drug abuse, financial woes, depression and suicide prevention. They are trained in first aid, mental health, chaplaincy and basic security. Every Friday they deliver meals to the homeless in midtown Manhattan. Serving both Muslims and non-Muslims, they speak English, Arabic, Bangla, Urdu, Hindi and “some Polish.”  Vital to their success, they work in collaboration with NYPD, whose off-duty officers led a recent training in Sunset Park. “Once people see our work, [they’ll see that] we’re here to help,” said Mahwish Fathma, MCPS’ director of operations. “We’re here to give. That’s all.” Fathma, a 22-year-old Muslim-American of mixed Pakistani and Cambodian heritage, remembers earlier patrols, the 1970s-established Shomrim, a volunteer Hasidic Jewish civilian patrol, and the more recently formed Brooklyn Asian Civilian Observation Patrol (BACOP) — both based in Brooklyn.  “I always thought, ‘Why don’t Muslims have that? Everyone should have this,’” Fathma said. “Dealing with your own families or your own communities, it’s different. It’s always different.”  ​Lessons from their counterparts  Four avenues across from MCPS’ makeshift office, a cohort of Mandarin-language volunteers don “Brooklyn Asian COP” jackets at the group’s headquarters, a red-walled basement that contains a bar, gym, ping-pong table and wicker lawn chairs.  Hongmiao Yu, a local pharmacy owner, joined BACOP after a burglary at his business left employees shaken. On days, he volunteers, he doesn’t return home until after 2 a.m. To avoid waking his young children on the second floor, he sleeps downstairs.  “We’re all Chinese immigrants, so I wanted to do something for this community,” Yu said. “The more civilian patrols we have, the more beneficial it is for the communities,” said BACOP’s chairman, Louie Liu. “As long as we are serious and sincere in our cooperation with local law enforcement, we’re confident that crimes will go down, [and] our living conditions will improve.”  Getting past the language barrier has been essential for the group. Members speak English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese and “Spanish-Chinese,” according to Liu. Over the past five years, he says Brooklyn’s Chinatown, home to more than 200,000 ethnic Chinese residents, has made strides in its relationship with law enforcement as a result of BACOP. “We enable immigrants to express themselves without any fear or concern, and law enforcement has confidence in the role that we’re playing,” Liu said. ​Evolving relationship  Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Intelligence Project, sees the potential for law enforcement to restore trust among immigrant and Muslim communities, which are increasingly the targets of U.S. hate crimes, the majority of which are not reported to the police. “If the cops take hate crime seriously and work with the community, it can show those communities that they care about them, and that they really exist to protect them,” Beirich told VOA. According to FBI statistics, 59.6 percent of hate crime victims in 2017 were targeted because of race, ethnicity or ancestry bias, while an additional 20.6 percent were targeted based on their religion.  “Realistically, it’s impossible to eliminate racism, so there has to be an organization speaking on our behalf,” said Tony Jiang, a fish market owner in Sunset Park. Down the street, MCPS members brush off the accusations and name-calling the group has received on social media: “Sharia Patrol,” “an Islamic invasion on the West,” “the worst-case scenario of multiculturalism,” coupled with slurs and death threats. Islam, who was born in Bangladesh but moved to East New York when he was 10, recalls the bullying of his Brooklyn childhood. Headed home from mosque as a young boy, he says children would throw eggs at him and others. Once they removed his brother’s taqiyah (cap) and beat him up, sending him to the hospital. “I’ve seen a lot of hate growing up, and it’s ugly,” Islam said. The Sunset Park community in Brooklyn he adds, has thrown its weight behind them today: “they see us and they know who we are.” Adds Khan, “Our actions speak louder than our words.”  Yuan Ye of VOA's Mandarin Service contributed to this report.

  • Sandhill Cranes Spread Their Wings, Rest a Spell in US Midwest
    One of the world’s greatest migrations pauses every March in one humble place, central Nebraska’s flat landscape full of cornfields, located in the middle of the United States. While people may fly over or drive through the area at high speeds on Interstate Highway 80, sandhill cranes stop to appreciate the adjacent wide, braided channels of the shallow Platte River to roost and feed. Last year, a record 1 million of the lanky, playful birds — about 85 percent of the world’s population — stopped on their northward migration. In recent decades, more visitors have discovered the migration, looking up from car windshields as wave after wave of cranes fill the sky for six or more weeks, or crowd into river blinds — a structure that allows bird watchers to remain hidden while peering through camera lenses and binoculars in awe. Scientists here say there is only one other migration as concentrated and spectacular in the world: the wildebeest migration in Africa. ​Getting close to the cranes On a morning in mid-March, a ritual unfolds. Dozens of tourists gather at 5:45 a.m. at Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary here and walk arm-in-arm down a dark trail, carefully feeling their way with their feet. As the group gets closer to the riverside blind, they are hit with sound. It’s described as a loud, but somehow gentle croak, chortle or rattle. It’s a sound that travels far and right into the hearts of those tiptoeing into the blind. Neseem Munshi said the calls go “deep into my soul.” “The sound that they make is such a moving, ancient sound. If I could just live and breathe that sound, I would be a very happy person,” said Munshi, who was raised in Kenya and today lives in nearby Colorado. Hundreds of foreign travelers from 66 countries viewed the migration last year. Overall, the 50,000 tourists who come to this rural state, located nearly midway between the East and West U.S. coasts, spend an estimated $14.3 million, buoying the local economy, a 2017 tourism survey states. And the cranes, among the oldest known bird species, put on quite a show. The sandhill crane is a 1.2-meter-tall (4-foot-tall) bird with long legs, neck and beak, and a wingspan of 2.1 meters (7 feet). Their soft grey plumage is sometimes spotted with rust colors, but its signature is the bright red patch on the top of its head. That, and it’s playful hopping, or dancing, which viewers hope to see once the sun rises.  The migration occurs here as the birds make their way from wintering grounds, fanned out in Mexico and in Southern U.S. states, all pointing toward a thin 130-kilometer-wide (80-mile-wide) center of the hourglass between the cities of Kearney and Grand Island, Nebraska, before fanning out again north toward Canada. ​‘Almost obliterate the sun’ The birds hang around at this staging location, coming in waves, at times as many as 400,000 in one day, feeding in the nearby stubbles of cornfields and wet meadows, where they get energy from leftover grain and protein from critters in the soggy ground. “They get up in the air and almost obliterate the sun,” said Jim Jewell, who joined the group in a blind. It was his first time, even though he lives in nearby Kearney. “It’s something you see every day but never get used to it.” Many tourists start the prior afternoon, driving the gravel roads near the river where the birds are feeding. Cars are stopped with binoculars jutting out the open windows. Near sunset, they travel to blinds or river bridges, where platforms are erected to watch the cranes come into the river to roost in water, which is a social and protective behavior. The water acts as a sound warning in the dark to protect them from chasing predators, such as coyotes. The cranes glide from the sky, not in any strict pattern of leaders and followers like the estimated 9 million ducks and geese that also fill the skies here, but haphazardly descend to the river, floating down with their long legs dangling like landing gear. “The best description I’ve read is like a dandelion seed falling gently,” said Chris Helzer, science director of the Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, which also gives blind tours to members and donors. As it grows dark, the river is filled with a roar of chattering sound. Helzer said climate change may have caused a shift in behavior among the cranes, but the data on the precise cause isn’t in. Some cranes are arriving earlier, the first in the early part of February, and more now are leaving after a shorter time here, heading to another staging area in North Dakota. ​Stop on the way north The cranes typically stay for two to three weeks, to feed and rest. They are leaving in worse condition, however, as waste grain has diminished because of better harvesting equipment or competition from the growing numbers of migrating snow geese. But the cranes are showing remarkable adaptation, and their population is increasing, experts say. The principle ecological issue is the habitat and changing river. As more water is used for agriculture in Western states, the Platte dries up in summer. Trees then grow in the wide and shallow channel, which the cranes don’t like because they could be filled with predators like bald eagles. The nonprofit Crane Trust is working on the issue by providing 5,300 acres of habitat in an area where only 2 percent of the lowland tallgrass prairie remains and bulldozing the trees from the river channel. “We think locally but act globally,” said Crane Trust president Brice Krohn. “We want to lead by example for the betterment of the species.” The trust also leads daily tours to blinds, where photographers flock to capture these photogenic birds in action. But visitors marvel at more than the birds. “Everyone can’t believe the beautiful colors. The hues in the sky and the river so blue and, as Jane Goodall said, the ‘whiffs of smoke’ as they come from the sky and come into roost,” Krohn said. Goodall, the famed expert on chimpanzees, has been coming to Nebraska to see the cranes every year since 2001, according to Crane Trust officials. The culmination for many is the sunrise viewing, however, when people typically attached to mobile devices silently stand in the dark together and wait. As light comes to the river, the cranes begin tossing weeds or sticks in the air and hopping, bowing to each other, then leaping. They might even do-si-do to a neighbor. Helzer compares it to square dancing, but most of the dancing is pair bonding. The cranes mate for life. “You see the movement and the nervous energy through the flock,” he said. “You see them waking up after all night on the river; it’s gotta be cold. You see them hopping a bit. Then all the sudden they are jumping in full height and spreading their wings and the morning has started.” Thousands of birds will later burst into flight, in a roar unlike anything outside a football stadium. “It’s a very emotional experience for everybody,” Munshi said. “Some people cry.”

  • New York City Muslims Begin Community Safety Patrol
    A week has passed since a white supremacist gunned down 50 Muslims during Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand. About 15,000 kilometers away, a recently formed group in New York, Muslim Community Patrol & Services, has found itself on the front lines as it counsels distraught neighbors. Soon, its presence will be widely felt and seen throughout the city. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.

  • Cruise Ship Restarts Engines, Limps Toward Norwegian Port
    A cruise ship that broke down in rough seas off the western Norwegian coast with more than 1,300 passengers and crew on board has restarted three of its four engines and will be towed to port, emergency services said Sunday. “Three of the four engines are now working, which means the boat can now make way on its own,” emergency services spokesman Per Fjeld said. The Viking Sky lost power and started drifting midafternoon Saturday about two kilometers (1.2 miles) off More og Romsdal in dangerous waters and high seas, prompting the captain to send out a distress call and trigger a massive airlift operation. Passengers hoisted off one by one That sent rescue workers rushing to evacuate the passengers and crew by helicopter, winching them one-by-one to safety as heaving waves tossed the ship from side to side and high winds battered the operation. The airlift continued into the early morning, Fjeld said. And police said 379 of the 1,373 people on board had been taken off by helicopter. Police in the western county of Moere og Romsdal said the crew managed to anchor in Hustadvika Bay, between the Norwegian cities of Alesund and Trondheim, so the evacuations could take place. Rescue teams with helicopters and boats were sent to evacuate the cruise ship under extremely difficult circumstances, including gusts up to 38 knots (43 mph) and waves more than 8 meters (26 feet). The area is known for its rough, frigid waters.  Norwegian public broadcaster NRK said the Viking Sky’s evacuation was a slow and dangerous process, as passengers needed to be hoisted one-by-one from the cruise ship to the five available helicopters.   “I was afraid. I’ve never experienced anything so scary,” Janet Jacob, among the first group of passengers evacuated to the nearby town of Molde, told NRK.  Police said that 17 people had been taken to hospital, including, NRK said, one 90-year-old-man and his 70-year-old spouse who were severely injured but did not say how that happened. The majority of the cruise ship passengers were reportedly British and American tourists.  'Just chaos' Video and photos from people on the ship showed it heaving, with chairs and other furniture dangerously rolling from side to side. Passengers were suited up in orange life vests but the waves broke some ship windows and cold water flowed over the feet of some passengers.    American passenger John Curry told NRK that he was having lunch as the cruise ship started to shake.   “It was just chaos. The helicopter ride from the ship to shore I would rather not think about. It wasn’t nice,” Curry told the broadcaster. Once the vessel was able to restart the engines, it began making slow headway at 2 to 3 knots (4-5 kilometers) an hour off the dangerous, rocky coast and a tug will help it toward the port of Molde, about 500 kilometers northwest of Oslo, officials said. Later, reports emerged that a cargo ship with nine crew members was in trouble nearby, and the local Norwegian rescue service diverted two of the five helicopters working on the cruise ship to that rescue.    Authorities told NRK that a strong storm with high waves was preventing rescue workers from using lifeboats or tug boats to take passengers ashore. Fjeld said rescuers were prioritizing the nine crew members aboard the Hagland Captain cargo ship, but later said they had all been rescued and the helicopters had returned to help the Viking Sky. The cruise ship was on a 12-day trip that began March 14 in the western Norwegian city of Bergen, according to the website.  Agence France Presse contributed to this report.

  • Second Cyclone Bears Down on West Australia
    Australia was bracing Sunday to be hit by a second powerful cyclone in two days, as Cyclone Veronica bore down on the country’s northwest coast.   The storm was expected to make landfall Sunday afternoon, a day after Cyclone Trevor hit a remote part of the Northern Territory coast. Weather authorities were forecasting Veronica would hit the coast about 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) to the west, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia state.   While that area is also lightly populated, residents were warned that because the cyclone was moving slowly, at just 8 kilometers per hour (5 mph), they would likely have to shelter for several hours. A category 3 system on a scale in which 5 is the strongest, Veronica has winds of up to 220 kph (136 mph). ​Evacuees can return home With Trevor downgraded Sunday to a tropical low pressure system as it moved inland, the more than 2,000 people evacuated from Northern Territory coastal areas in its path began moving back home.   Officials were still awaiting word on any damage to property and livestock. Flood warnings were still in effect for inland areas as the system moved south. Veronica unique, dangerous Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster James Ashley said Veronica was unique because of its slow speed, which would bring a long danger period.   “We are expecting a prolonged period — 12 hours or more — of destructive winds near the core of the cyclone,” Ashley said.   Cyclones are frequent in Australia’s tropical north and rarely claim lives. But two large storms such as Trevor and Veronica hitting on the same weekend is rare.

  • Military Identifies 2 US Soldiers Killed in Afghanistan
    The Pentagon has identified two U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan while involved in combat operations Friday in Kunduz Province. The men were identified Saturday as Spc. Joseph P. Collette, 29, of Lancaster, Ohio, and Sgt. 1st Class Will D. Lindsay, 33, of Cortez, Colorado. Collette was assigned to the 242nd Ordnance Battalion, 71st Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group, and Lindsay was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne). Both were based at Fort Carson, Colorado. “The 71st Ordnance Group ... is deeply saddened by the loss of Spc. Joseph P. Collette. We extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to his family and friends,” Col. David K. Green, commander of 71st Ordnance Group, said in a statement. The fatalities bring to four the number of U.S. soldiers killed so far this year in Afghanistan. The deaths underscore the difficulties in bringing peace to the war-ravaged country.

  • DRC, Madagascar Struggle With Ebola, Measles Outbreaks
    Efforts to control the Democratic Republic of Congo's Ebola outbreak are hitting a roadblock, says Doctors Without Borders (MSF). The medical charity group says security forces and a climate of community mistrust are hampering efforts to combat the outbreak. Meanwhile the country of Madagascar is struggling to curb a measles outbreak. VOA’s Mariama Diallo reports.