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U.S.: Air Strikes Against IS Killed 64 Civilians In Past Year

Peshmerga forces ride on military vehicles in the town of Bashiqa after it was recaptured from the Islamic State, east of Mosul, Iraq, on November 9.

U.S.-led air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria have killed 64 civilians and injured eight in the past year, the U.S. military has said.

The latest totals bring the number of civilians killed in air strikes to 119, with another 37 injured, according to the U.S. Central Command, which insists that in each incident all precautions were taken to avoid civilian deaths.

Independent monitoring groups and activists estimate that air strikes have killed hundreds of civilians, however.

The latest cases occurred from November through September. However, they do not include an air strike in July near Manbij, Syria, that monitoring groups said killed at least 56 civilians, the military said.

Also, the Pentagon said a U.S. brigadier general is still investigating a September air strike near Deir el-Zour, Syria, that may have unintentionally killed dozens of Syrian government forces.

The Pentagon said it has received 257 allegations of air strikes causing civilian casualties, and has concluded that 76 of the reports were valid. To date, it said 65 investigations have been completed.

Based on reporting by AP, Reuters, and dpa

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Pulling Back The Curtain On China's 'Project Of The Century'

Railway workers prepare the first block train for departure from Shijiazhuang, China, to Moscow in the port in Hebei Province in June 2018, just one part of the sprawling Belt and Road Initiative.

From building strategic seaports in Pakistan to connecting railways across Central Asia, perhaps no foreign-policy topic has received more attention in recent years than China's global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

But for all the bold headlines and focus from policymakers around the world, the BRI's internal machinery and how its many infrastructure deals, pipelines, railways, and roads stretching across Eurasia and Africa actually work remains poorly understood.

Pulling back the curtain on the opaque levers of China's premier foreign-policy initiative is the focus of the book The Emperor’s New Road: China And The Project Of The Century released on September 29 by Jonathan Hillman, an American analyst who serves as the director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a D.C.-based think tank.

In doing so, Hillman provides a fresh and nuanced perspective on Chinese power as it really is and presents a detailed look at the BRI that doesn't fit neatly into any of the project's prepackaged narratives, whether it be the official version of "win-win" engagement promoted by Beijing or the idea pushed by China's critics that the BRI is a political backdoor aimed at controlling developing countries.

"Some of China's activities are alarming and a cause for concern, but I don't think that's the same thing as BRI being this perfectly coordinated, uber-centralized thing," Hillman told RFE/RL in an interview. "China doesn't have the management structure in place to properly coordinate this expansive project."

Hillman paints a complicated picture that is not flattering to Chinese foreign-policy makers, revealing the estimated $1 trillion project to be more of a loose collection of poorly coordinated initiatives than an actual grand strategy.

While the BRI is a mix of development, trade, and geopolitics that is central to Beijing's rise as a global power, Hillman's portrait focuses on the mismanaged borders that hold up trade, the poorer countries desperate to accept any kind of investment, and the local governments that are harnessing Chinese mega-projects for their own political and financial ends.

The Emperor's New Road is a story of whether the BRI is actually advancing China's global ambitions, told through interviews with Chinese officials, detailed analysis and research, and on-the-ground reporting in Central Asia, Russia, and elsewhere. In the process, it is not only China using the BRI to influence and gain benefit from its neighbors, but also its neighbors using the BRI for influence with and benefit from China.

"China faces a different world today compared to what past imperial powers faced. Beijing is kind of a vampire at the door, it needs to be welcomed in," Hillman said. "This allows participating countries to decide which projects to accept and they go into them with very varying levels of experience and capacity, which leads to all kinds of different results."

Growing Pains

Central to Hillman's work is telling the story of China's rise as a great power on the world stage and the growing pains that Beijing has faced since it launched the early component of the BRI.

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping chose the Kazakh capital, Astana (since renamed Nur-Sultan), to unveil the Silk Road Economic Belt, the overland component of what would later coalesce into the BRI.

Since then, the Chinese project has become the cornerstone of Xi Jinping's foreign policy, with Beijing labeling it "the project of the century."

In the process, China has sunk hundreds of billions of dollars into ports, railways, and energy projects across Asia, Africa, and Europe to become Central Asia's top investor and the African continent's premier economic force. The goal has been not only to expand infrastructure, but also to win over local governments by funneling investment, jobs, and economic growth in their direction.

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But the BRI has also been undercut in recent years with questions regarding the commercial value of many of its projects and concerns over the initiative being a vehicle for Chinese control.

Hillman puts China alongside imperial powers that sought to use trade to further their own geopolitical ambitions, especially drawing parallels with the British Empire, whose own rise was linked to building and controlling shipping and rail links.

But Hillman is quick to note in his analysis that Beijing has often been its own worst enemy when it comes to trying to expand its influence through BRI by engaging in obtuse agreements with governments that have sparked domestic backlash, offering no official description for what qualifies as a BRI project, and relying on hard-to-complete infrastructure deals.

"Despite these imperial echoes, this is not a story about China's domination but its education as a rising power," Hillman writes in his book. "China's tool of choice, infrastructure, is appealing to developing countries but incredibly difficult to deliver."

No End In Sight

Part of this education has been coming to terms with Beijing's inexperience as a global power and how the BRI has become "a middleman's dream," with large-scale infrastructure projects -- often carried out with little transparency and accountability -- offering a wide array of opportunities for corruption.

"Infrastructure is not exactly the most effective tool to build influence," Hillman told RFE/RL. "Building big projects that are more expensive than planned and take longer than expected is not how you gain credibility."

Despite these shortcomings, the BRI and China's path forward have managed to progress.

Hillman partially attributes this to the ambiguity of the BRI, which has allowed local governments and leaders to make it suit their own interests. For former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Hillman said embracing the BRI and the Khorgos "dry port" was "poor economics but savvy politics," allowing the Kazakh leader to develop deeper ties with Beijing and gain greater leverage in balancing its relationship with Moscow.

Likewise, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an estimated $62 billion bundle of projects that forms Beijing's BRI presence in the country, has become a favorite of the Pakistani military, allowing it to increase its already formidable sway and use China's expanded economic footprint as a signal of support against India, a chief rival.

But even as China is adapting to how the BRI has mutated over the years, its core problems remain.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the economic problems facing many projects, with a June survey by the Chinese Foreign Ministry finding that 20 percent of BRI projects had been "seriously affected" by the pandemic, with a further 30 to 40 percent "somewhat affected."

Similarly, China's mass internment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang Province has strained relations with the West and hurt its credibility among populations in the Muslim world, especially across Central Asia.

Despite the BRI's many failings, the initiative still remains an attractive vision for much of the developing world and its attachment to Xi means that it will continue to be at the forefront of Chinese foreign policy.

"The need for infrastructure remains so great," Hillman said. "Countries are still eager to see what they can get out of this."

Suspect In Paris Stabbing Attack To Be Investigated By Anti-Terrorism Prosecutor

The knife attack took place near the former offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on September 25.

A Pakistani man accused of wounding two people with a meat cleaver in front of the former offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris on September 25 is being formally investigated by the anti-terrorism prosecutor.

The prosecutor had previously said the suspect would be brought before investigating judges but that has been amended to a formal investigation by the anti-terrorism prosecutor on suspicion of attempted murder related to a terrorist plan.

Prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard told a news conference on September 29 that the suspect in what the French government has called an act of "Islamist terrorism" carried three bottles of a flammable paint thinner with which he wanted to set fire to the former offices of the satirical newspaper unaware that the weekly had moved.

Ricard said the suspect planned to force his way into the magazine's offices but when he came across a man and a woman smoking beside a mural to the victims of the 2015 attack on the publication in which 12 people were killed, he thought they were staff at Charlie Hebdo and attacked them with the meat cleaver.

Both victims suffered serious injuries, Ricard said.

Ricard said the man, who had identified himself as Hassan A., an 18-year-old born in the Pakistani town of Mandi Bahauddin, operated under a false identity and that a photo of his passport on his phone showed that he was 25 years old.

The assailant did not claim an affiliation with a specific extremist group, Ricard said.

The suspect told investigators that he had watched videos from Pakistan about the cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed published by Charlie Hebdo in 2006 and again this year, Ricard said.

He said the attacker broadcast a video on social media on the morning of the attack. Speaking in Urdu, he announced that he was going to “rebel” against the new publication of the caricatures.

Ricard said the suspect arrived in France two years ago, presenting himself as an unaccompanied minor. He was not on the police radar for Islamic radicalization and not known to French intelligence services.

The 2015 attack was carried out by attackers who raided Charlie Hebdo's office in revenge for the publication of the cartoons.

The magazine republished them this month to mark the trial of suspects accused of aiding two gunmen in the attack.

After the attack, Charlie Hebdo moved its headquarters to an undisclosed location.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and dpa

Pakistani Suspect Links Paris Stabbings To Charlie Hebdo Magazine

A policeman stands guard outside the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo office in Paris (file photo).

The Pakistani-born teenager arrested on suspicion of stabbing two people with a meat cleaver has admitted to deliberately targeting the former Paris office of Charlie Hebdo magazine.

The 18-year-old, named by investigators as Hassan A., reportedly tied the attack to the satirical magazine’s recent republication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, investigators said on September 26.

The stabbings came roughly three weeks after the start of the trial in Paris of 14 suspected accomplices in the January 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 were killed.

The court has heard that the suspects had sought to avenge the Prophet Muhammad, nearly a decade after Charlie Hebdo published cartoons mocking him. Ahead of the start of the trial, Charlie Hebdo reprinted some of the caricatures.

The two wounded victims of the September 25 stabbing -- a man and a woman -- were taking a cigarette break outside the Premieres Lignes news-production agency when the incident occurred.

Premieres Lignes's offices are on the same block in central Paris that formerly housed Charlie Hebdo.

A source close to the inquiry told AFP that the Pakistani teenager mistakenly believed Charlie Hebdo's offices were still in that building and wanted to attack journalists from the magazine.

Charlie Hebdo moved offices after the 2015 attack and its current address is kept secret.

The suspect, who was arrested with blood on his clothing not far from the crime scene, "takes responsibility for his action” and places the attack "in the context of the republication of cartoons" of the Prophet Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo on the eve of the trial opening, sources told AFP news agency.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on September 25 the knifing was "clearly an act of Islamist terrorism.”

“Obviously, there is little doubt. It's a new bloody attack against our country, against journalists, against this society,” he said in an interview with the France 2 television station.

Anti-terror prosecutors have opened an investigation.

The interior minister said the main suspect was believed to have arrived in France three years ago as an unaccompanied minor from Pakistan. He had not been flagged for radicalization.

Investigators said he acted alone but police have detained eight other people for questioning, including the suspect's younger brother.

An Algerian man who was also arrested shortly after the stabbings for possible links to main suspect has been released. His lawyer told AFP that the man had tried to stop the attacker.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters.

Pakistani, Algerian Suspects Arrested In Paris 'Terrorist-Related' Attack

French soldiers at the scene of a knife attack near the former offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris on September 25.

France's counterterrorism prosecutor's office has opened an investigation after two people were wounded in a knife assault in Paris near the former offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo -- the scene of a 2015 terrorist attack that killed 12 people.

The prosecutor's office said on September 25 that an investigation had been opened into “attempted murder in relation to a terrorist enterprise" and "conspiracy with terrorists."

Two suspects were arrested, one of whom had blood on his clothing. A blade -- described as a machete or a meat cleaver --- was recovered at the scene of the attack.

Europe 1 radio quoted police as saying the suspect with blood on his clothing was 18 years old and was known to security services. He was detained near the Bastille plaza in eastern Paris, according to French media reports.

Reuters quoted a Paris police source as saying that one arrested suspect was Pakistani and the other was Algerian.

Officers cordoned off the area, including the former offices of Charlie Hebdo, after a suspicious package was reported nearby. Police said no explosives were found.

The Premieres Lignes news-production agency said the wounded were its employees -- a man and a woman taking a cigarette break outside.

"They were both very badly wounded," the founder and co-head of Premieres Lignes, Paul Moreira, told the AFP news agency.

It is unclear whether the attack is linked to Charlie Hebdo, which moved its activities out of the area after Islamic militants attacked its editorial offices in 2015, killing 12 people.

The incident comes as a high-profile trial is under way in Paris of 14 people including three fugitives, accused of helping two militants carry out the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo.

The court heard that the suspects had sought to avenge the Prophet Muhammad, nearly a decade after Charlie Hebdo published cartoons mocking him.

Police moved Charlie Hebdo's head of Human Resources from her home this week after threats against her life.

With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa, and the BBC

UN Aviation Agency ICAO Advises Pakistan To Suspend Issuance Of New Pilot Licenses

A Pakistan International Airline plane taxis on the runway in Islamabad. (file photo)

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has advised Pakistan to undertake "immediate corrective actions" and suspend the issuance of any new pilot licenses in the wake of a scandal over falsified licenses, according to an official and a document seen by Reuters.

The recommendations from ICAO, a specialized agency of the United Nations that works to ensure safety in international air transport, come days after Pakistan opened a criminal probe into 50 pilots and five civil aviation officials who allegedly helped them falsify credentials to secure pilot licenses.

"Pakistan should improve and strengthen its licensing system to ensure that it takes into account all necessary processes and procedures and prevents inconsistencies and malpractices before new licenses are issued and privileges of suspended licenses are re-established," said ICAO, in a previously unreported letter to the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) last week.

A Pakistani Aviation Ministry official told Reuters that the country has not issued any new licenses since July, in the wake of the scandal.

The Montreal-based agency's recommendations come ahead of an ICAO audit to assess the country's aviation safety management systems.

The ICAO audit, originally scheduled for November this year, has been moved to June, effectively giving the PCAA more time to work on reforms, the official said.

A PCAA spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

An ICAO representative declined to comment on specific details, but said in an email that ICAO is "helping Pakistan to recognise concerns, and if they do not take swift action on them we will actively notify other countries about them."

The pilot scandal has tainted Pakistan's aviation industry and hurt flag carrier Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) , which has been barred from flying into Europe and the United States.

In addition to revoking the licenses of 50 pilots, Pakistan has also suspended another 32 pilots for a year.

Ghani Urges World To Support Peace In Afghanistan In Speech To UN

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani pictured delivering a speech on the occasion of World Peace Day. He urged the UN General Assembly on September 23 to help his nation achieve peace.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has urged the world to help his country achieve peace amid talks with the Taliban aimed at ending nearly two decades of conflict.

In a prerecorded speech to the UN General Assembly delivered on September 23, Ghani said the Afghan government had demonstrated the "commitment, compassion, and courage" to make hard decisions to hold direct peace talks with the Taliban but said this wouldn't be enough.

"For sustainable peace in Afghanistan we must get to the roots of the terrorism problem blighting our region and address it as the global phenomenon and threat that it is," Ghani said.

Afghanistan, he said, faced "multiple drivers of turmoil all at once," noting that the coronavirus pandemic and climate change were among them.

But the main driver of turmoil is a wave of global terrorism in which terrorist networks are closely linked with global criminal networks, making warfare totally unconventional and peace-building even more of a challenge, he said.

But Ghani said peace remains Afghanistan's "most urgent and important priority," and at the talks, which got under way in Doha, Qatar, on September 12, the Afghan people have a "clear and urgent priority" to achieve a cease-fire.

The intra-Afghan talks are part of a process begun in February when the United States and the militants struck an agreement that could see foreign troops exit Afghanistan.

The Afghan government's lead negotiator, Abdullah Abdullah, said on September 22 that negotiations with the Taliban had been positive, although the two sides reportedly remain far from agreement on virtually every issue.

Abdullah also said that some of the 5,000 Taliban prisoners released by the Afghan authorities as a condition for talks had resumed the fight against the government, and said that despite the negotiations, the level of violence inside Afghanistan had not fallen.

He called on Washington and Pakistan, which allegedly maintains ties to the militants, to pressure them to agree to a cease-fire.

In his UN speech, which was delivered to a largely virtual General Assembly because of the coronavirus pandemic, Ghani called on the members of the assembly to help the country achieve a "sovereign, united, and democratic Afghanistan."

The Afghan president said that outcome would be an example of how the principles on which the UN was founded can work and would show "how our collective will can overcome the turmoil and uncertainty that defines our world today."

With reporting by AP

Islamic State Expanding Globally Amid Setbacks, Says U.S. Official

Afghan security forces arrest an Islamic State militant in August.

The Islamic State (IS) group continues to expand globally with some 20 affiliates, despite being forced out of Syria and the killing of its leaders, a top U.S. counter-terror official said on September 17.

The extremist group "has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to rebound from severe losses over the past six years by relying on a dedicated cadre of veteran mid-level commanders, extensive clandestine networks, and downturns in CT (counter-terrorism) pressure to persevere," said Christopher Miller, director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center.

Since the October 2019 killing of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and several other prominent figures, new leader Mohammed Said Abd al-Rahman al-Mawla has been able to direct and inspire new attacks by its far-flung affiliates, Miller told a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee.

On September 17, the group claimed responsibility for the killing of six French aid workers and their two local guides in Niger on August 9.

Inside Syria and Iraq, Miller said, IS has undertaken "a steady rate" of assassinations and mortar and IED bomb attacks.

Those included an operation in May that killed and wounded dozens of Iraqi soldiers.

Miller said the group trumpeted this success with graphic videos that served as propaganda to demonstrate the jihadists were still organized and active, since being uprooted from their self-proclaimed Syria-Iraq "caliphate" last year.

He said that the group is now focused on freeing thousands of IS members and their families from detention camps in northeastern Syria, in the absence of any coordinated international process to deal with them.

Outside Syria and Iraq, the IS global web "now encompasses approximately 20 branches and networks," Miller said.

It has had mixed results, but is strongest in Africa, as the Niger attack underscored.

IS also seeks to attack Western targets, Miller says, but so far effective counter-terror work has prevented this.

IS rival Al-Qaeda, which carried out the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, was weakened by the loss of leaders and key figures, but remains potent, Miller said.

The group is still determined to carry out attacks on the United States and Europe, he said, and was tied to the radicalized Saudi Air Force trainee who killed three sailors at a U.S. military base in Pensacola, Florida, December 2019.

Al-Qaeda's affiliates in Yemen and Africa retain the ability to carry out deadly attacks, Miller said, but its sub-groups in India and Pakistan have been significantly weakened.

In Afghanistan, its presence has declined to "a few dozen fighters who are primarily focused on their survival," Miller said.

Under a deal the Taliban signed with the United States in February, the insurgents agreed to stop Al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a safe haven to plot attacks.

However, despite the agreement, the jihadist group maintains close ties with the Afghan militants, the Pentagon said on September 16.

Red Cross Warns Coronavirus Is Driving Discrimination In Asia

A soldier stands guard as buses carry pilgrims returning from Iran via the Pakistan-Iran border town of Taftan in March.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) warned on September 17 that the novel coronavirus is driving discrimination toward vulnerable communities in Asia, including migrants and foreigners.

The humanitarian agency surveyed 5,000 people in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Pakistan and found about half blamed a specific group for spreading the coronavirus, with many mentioning Chinese people, immigrants, and foreigners.

"It is particularly concerning that both national migrant and foreign workers are blamed for the spread of COVID-19 as they are quite vulnerable already," Viviane Fluck, one of the lead researchers and the agency's Asia Pacific community engagement and accountability coordinator, told Reuters.

She said there should be more focus on combating "rumors that are linked to underlying power dynamics and structural issues of inequality."

More than half of the Indonesians surveyed blamed "foreigners and rule-breakers" while in Myanmar the groups most often thought to be responsible were people from China and other foreigners.

In Malaysia, two-thirds blamed a specific group, most frequently mentioning migrants, foreign tourists, and "illegal foreigners," the researchers said.

Malaysian authorities arrested hundreds of undocumented migrants and refugees in May in a crackdown the United Nations said could push vulnerable groups into hiding and prevent them from seeking treatment.

Police said at the time the operation was aimed at preventing people from traveling amid movement curbs.

In Pakistan, most people surveyed blamed inadequate government controls on the Iranian border, followed by nationals including pilgrims coming back from Iran and then people from China.

In all four countries, higher education had a small impact on whether respondents blamed a specific group, with university graduates slightly less likely to hold certain people responsible, the researchers said.

Psychological Exam Ordered For Pakistani Doctor Charged In U.S. With Terrorism

An undated photo of Muhammad Masood's passport.

A psychological exam has been ordered for a Pakistani doctor who has been in custody in the U.S. state of Minnesota since his arrest in March on a terrorism charge.

Muhammad Masood has been indicted on one count of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

The former researcher at the Mayo Clinic is accused of telling paid FBI informants that he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) and wanted to carry out lone-wolf attacks in the United States. He also allegedly voiced his desire to travel to Syria to fight for IS.

He was arrested on March 19 by FBI agents at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The psychological exam is meant to judge Masood's “competency to stand trial and assist in his defense,” according to the order. Masood's attorney has said the defendant does not understand the court proceedings.

Prosecutors say Masood was in the United States on a work visa. They allege in court documents that from January to March, Masood made several statements to paid informants pledging his allegiance to IS and its leader. He believed the informants were members of IS, they say.

Court documents do not name the clinic where Masood worked. The Mayo Clinic has confirmed that Masood formerly worked at the medical center, but said he was not employed there when he was arrested.

Based on reporting by AP

Optimism As Intra-Afghan Peace Talks Pick Up Speed In Doha

Delegates attend talks that kicked off between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents in Doha on September 12.

The two parties to intra-Afghan peace talks have exchanged positions in the Qatari capital, Doha, in what diplomats on September 16 described as a warm and "surprisingly positive" mood.

"The biggest and most important priority of our people is to stop the bloodshed in the country," the Afghan government's chief negotiator, Masoom Stanekzai, told a meeting of the two sides on September 15. "This moment that we sit here, tens of youth are being martyred, women widowed, children orphaned."

"Who killed more, who killed less is not the debate," he added. "What is important is: Why are Afghans dying?"

Taliban chief negotiator Mawlawi Abdul Hakim, meanwhile, emphasized that the two sides should resolve the country's problems independently and with tolerance and patience.

Hakim added that the Taliban is seeking to establish a "truly Islamic" country. The Taliban is not fighting to seize power, the militant group's chief negotiator said, but for Afghanistan to be free of occupation and for the establishment of an Islamic system.

On February 29, the United States signed a peace agreement with the Taliban that paves the way for a gradual withdrawal of all international forces from Afghanistan. In return, the Taliban has committed to join the intra-Afghan peace talks and renounce terrorism.

Germany Agrees To Take More Than 1,500 Refugees From Greek Islands After Camp Fire

More than 12,000 people, mostly asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Africa, and Syria, were left homeless last week after a fire destroyed a migrant camp on the island of Lesbos.

Germany has agreed to take 1,553 additional refugees from five Greek islands after a fire destroyed an overcrowded camp.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), agreed on September 15 to take in 408 families in a gesture of solidarity with EU member Greece.

That’s on top of up to 150 unaccompanied migrant children that Germany has agreed to accept from the camps.

Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the refugees will be families with children whose asylum applications have already been accepted.

More than 12,000 people, mostly asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Africa, and Syria, were left homeless after a fire last week destroyed the notoriously crowded Moria migrant camp on the island of Lesbos.

Greek police said on September 15 that they have arrested five alleged arsonists who are accused of having set fire to the Moria camp. Police said the five are young Afghan nationals whose asylum applications were rejected.

The Greek islands have been affected by waves of migrants crossing from Turkey in hopes of reaching the EU.

The fire has brought renewed attention to the EU’s failure to implement a common asylum policy to distribute asylum seekers, many of whom lanquish in Greek camps.

With reporting by dpa and Tagesschau

U.S. Envoy In Pakistan As Afghan-Taliban Talks Begin With Calls For Truce

U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad is visiting Pakistan.

The Afghan government intensified calls for a cease-fire with the Taliban on September 14 as Kabul and the militants began the second day of historic peace talks.

Negotiations kicked off over the weekend in Qatar and are initially expected to focus on technical details such as schedules for the talks and a code of conduct, the Afghan government said.

The Afghan government and its allies, including NATO and the United States, are calling for the Taliban to agree to a truce to help advance what are expected to be long and grinding negotiations to end 19 years of conflict.

But the Taliban have not agreed to a cease-fire and have conducted near daily attacks on Afghan security forces since the United States and the militants struck an agreement in February that could see foreign troops exit Afghanistan.

The deal, which paved the way for the Qatar negotiations, did not commit the insurgents to any reduction of violence, only requiring that it be "an item on the agenda" in negotiations.

Afghan presidential spokesman Sediq Seddiqi tweeted September 14 that the presence of government negotiators at the talks "is aimed at achieving a cease-fire, ending the violence, and ensuring lasting peace and stability in the country."

As talks were under way in Qatar, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and a U.S. delegation visited Pakistan, a key regional power broker with sway over the Taliban.

The U.S. team met with Pakistan's army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

Pakistan claims its influence over the Taliban is overstated, but it says it is willing to do whatever is possible for peace in Afghanistan.

A military statement said the U.S. delegation “greatly appreciated" Pakistan’s role in the peace process and that “it could not have succeeded without Pakistan’s sincere and unconditional support."

In 2015, Pakistan hosted the first ever face-to-face talks between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban, but those talks collapsed when the Afghan government announced the death of Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Since then, the United States worked with Islamabad to help convince the Taliban to meet with the U.S. and Afghan officials.

Last month, a Taliban political team led by Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar visited Islamabad to consult with Pakistani officials.

Pakistan freed Baradar from prison in 2018 in what was widely viewed as a coordinated move with the United States to advance U.S.-Taliban peace talks.

A comprehensive peace deal could take months or years to reach, involving other countries and the willingness of the warring sides to compromise on major sticking points and share power.

The Taliban have long been concerned that reducing violence levels could decrease their negotiating leverage, but heightened violence also risks derailing talks in their early stages.

The U.S.-backed negotiations are already taking place six months later than planned due to disagreements over a controversial prisoner swap and ongoing violence.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters

Biden Says Would Keep Small U.S. Troops Presence In Afghanistan, Iraq

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden Biden also says he does not plan to slash the U.S. defense budget in the face of potential threats from countries such as Russia and China. (file photo)

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden says if he is elected he will maintain a small troop presence in Afghanistan and Iraq to help battle terrorism in the war-ravaged countries.

Biden said he supports a reduction of troops in the country, "but here’s the problem: We still have to worry about terrorism and [the Islamic State]."

Biden was speaking in a phone interview with Stars and Stripes, the U.S. military newspaper, published on September 10. The newspaper said it has also requested an interview with President Donald Trump.

"I think we need special ops capacity to coordinate with our allies," Biden told the newspaper, adding that he envisioned 1,500 to 2,000 troops as the maximum number. He did not list the specific numbers for each country or for those in neighboring Syria, where U.S. troops are also deployed.

Biden added, though, that the military should not interfere in the political affairs of the countries where troops are deployed and should coordinate with allies to train and lead to “take out terrorist groups who are going to continue to emerge.”

The Pentagon earlier this week said that U.S. troops in Iraq would be reduced from just over 5,000 to about 3,000 this month.

Trump has said he will cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 8,000 to 4,000-5,000 by Election Day on November 3.

Biden also said he does not plan to slash the U.S. defense budget in the face of potential threats from countries such as Russia and China.

Trump has said repeatedly that he wants to end America's longest war, which began in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

Long-delayed peace talks between Taliban and Afghan government negotiators are set to kick off in Qatar on September 12.

The negotiations are part of a landmark deal signed between the United States and the Taliban in February.

Talks were initially supposed to start the following month but were delayed as the Taliban and the Afghan government completed a prisoner exchange.

Under the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in Doha in February, international forces should withdraw from Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the militant group, which pledged to negotiate a permanent cease-fire and power-sharing deal with the Afghan government.

With reporting by Stars and Stripes and RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan

As U.S. Election Nears, Democratic Senators Submit Bill To Sanction Russia For Bounties Reportedly Paid To Taliban

The move comes after reports emerged in June that alleged bounties are believed to have resulted in the deaths of several U.S. service members in Afghanistan. (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- A group of Democratic senators has introduced legislation to impose sanctions on any Russian individual or entity involved in a reported program to place bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

The six senators, led by Bob Menendez, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, submitted the Russia Bounty Act on September 10.

The draft legislation was introduced because U.S. Presdient Donald Trump's "deference" to Russian leader Vladimir Putin "demands that Congress proactively shape U.S. foreign policy toward Russia, especially with respect to sanctions," Menendez said in a statement.

The New York Times reported in June that a Russian military intelligence unit last year secretly offered bounties on U.S. and allied soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

The report also claimed that Trump was briefed on the matter in March, before a series of calls with Putin, but did not call for a response, sparking outrage mainly among Democratic members of Congress.

Trump officials developed several possible responses, including making a formal diplomatic complaint and imposing new sanctions, according to The New York Times.

Trump has claimed his intelligence officials did not report the information to him or Vice President Mike Pence because it was not credible.

The president also said he would respond if it were confirmed.

Amid a tight presidential race, Democrats have seized on the news to slam Trump's leadership and his attempts to improve relations with Russia, which was one of his stated foreign policy goals.

Trump, a Republican, is seeking reelection on November 3 against Democrat Joe Biden.

Besides imposing sanctions, the Russia Bounty Act also authorizes $50 million a year to individuals who provide information on Moscow-financed bounties against U.S. soldiers and $30 million a year to counter Kremlin influence in the region.

The legislation needs to pass both the House of Representatives and the Senate and be signed by the president in order to become law.

The Republicans currently control the Senate.

Thousands Homeless As Blaze Guts Greece's Main Migrant Camp

A migrant walks among destroyed shelters following a fire at the Moria migrant camp on the island of Lesbos on September 9.

Thousands of asylum-seekers were left homeless on September 9 after a fire gutted Greece's largest migrant camp on Lesbos, provoking an outpouring of sympathy from around Europe and calls for reform of the refugee system.

A second fire that evening aggravated the crisis on the island, where authorities have declared a state of emergency.

The first blaze, which began hours after 35 people tested positive for coronavirus at the Moria camp, sent thousands fleeing for safety into surrounding olive groves. No one was seriously hurt.

While European countries from Germany to Norway -- along with EU chiefs -- responded with offers of help and sympathy, Greek officials sought to blame migrants for the fire.

While stopping short of alleging arson, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the blaze was down to a "violent reaction" in the camp to virus testing.

Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said asylum seekers had started the fire because of quarantine measures imposed after the positive tests.

Most of the migrants were sitting on the roadside between the camp and the port of Mytilene late on September 9.

"What are we going to do now? Where can we go?" said Mahmout, an Afghan, as his compatriot Aisha searched for two of her children.

"We lost everything" in the fire, said Cornille Ndama, a Congolese migrant.

"I have nothing, nothing with me, and yet we don't know where we are going to sleep," she added.

Of 3,500 migrants made homeless, the most vulnerable would spend the night on a ferry at a nearby port, with two Greek navy vessels providing additional sleeping births on September 10, said Mitarachi.

'High Time' For Unity

The second fire, late on September 9, broke out in part of the camp that had not been badly damaged. "Moria finished!" shouted some migrants as they headed down the road toward Mytilene.

Officials have declared a four-month emergency and flown in riot police after reports that security forces had blocked migrants from reaching Mytilene.

Since becoming one of the main gateways into Europe for migrants and asylum-seekers in 2015, Greece has built dozens of detention centers on its islands, but people often face long waits in the camps and overcrowding is common.

The fire at Moria, which houses more than 12,000 people while designed for just 2,800, raised questions about Europe's asylum system, with Germany leading the way in calling for an overhaul.

"We urgently need a common refugee intake program among as many EU countries as possible and finally a common asylum and migration policy for the EU," said Europe Minister Michael Roth.

On the evening of September 9, several thousand people in cities across Germany staged rallies calling for their country to take in migrants from the Moria camp.

People are supposed to apply for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in before being relocated if they are successful, but the system has been widely derided as some countries barely accept any refugees and others like Greece and Italy bear the brunt.

On September 9, the International Rescue Committee was among groups arguing it was "high time" for other EU countries to help Greece relocate migrants. The Council of Europe blamed a lack of solidarity for the catastrophe.

Norway has offered to take 50 Syrians from Moria even though Greece and the EU have promised to pay for 400 unaccompanied youngsters to be transported to the mainland.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen expressed her sympathies, adding: "Our priority is the safety of those left without shelter."

'Titanic' Task

The first fire destroyed the official part of the camp, which housed roughly 4,000 people, ministers said. Another 8,000 people lived in tents and makeshift shelters around its perimeter, many of which were also badly damaged.

Officials have been trying for months to build a new camp on Lesbos to replace Moria but locals have resisted, clashing with riot police earlier this year to prevent construction from going ahead.

Moria registered its first infection only last week and testing revealed 35 more cases on September 8.

Government spokesman Stelios Petsas warned that it would be a "titanic" task to shelter the homeless and track down those infected.

The government has in recent months moved thousands of refugees from Lesbos and other islands to the mainland.

But many refugees have been unable to find places to live or jobs after leaving the camps, and the government has recently scaled back housing and cash benefits.

Climate Change Fuels Sharp Increase In Glacier Lakes

A view of Badswat village submerged by floodwaters after a glacial lake outburst in Gilgit-Baltistan Province in Pakistan in July 2018.

The volume of lakes formed as glaciers worldwide melt due to climate change has jumped by 50 percent in 30 years, according to a new study based on satellite data.

"We have known that not all meltwater is making it into the oceans immediately," lead author Dan Shugar, a geomorphologist and associate professor at the University of Calgary, said in a statement. "But until now there were no data to estimate how much was being stored in lakes or groundwater."

The findings, published on August 31 in Nature Climate Change, will help scientists and governments identify potential hazards to communities downstream of these often unstable lakes, he said.

They will also improve the accuracy of sea level rise estimates through better understanding of how -- and how quickly -- water shed by glaciers makes it to the sea.

Between 1994 and 2017, the world's glaciers, especially in high-mountain regions, shed about 6.5 trillion tonnes in mass, according to earlier research.

"In the past 100 years, 35 percent of global sea-level rises came from glacier melting," Anders Levermann, climate professor at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Impact, told AFP.

The other main sources of sea level rise are ice sheets and the expansion of ocean water as it warms.

Glacial Lake Outbursts

Earth's average surface temperature has risen one degree Celsius since preindustrial times, but high-mountain regions around the world have warmed at twice that pace, accelerating glacier melt.

Unlike normal lakes, glacier lakes are unstable because they are often dammed by ice or sediment composed of loose rock and debris.

When accumulating water bursts through these accidental barriers, massive flooding can occur downstream.

Known as glacial lake outbursts, this kind of flooding has been responsible for thousands of deaths in the last century, as well as the destruction of villages, infrastructure and livestock, according to the study, published in Nature Climate Change.

The most recent recorded incident was a glacial lake outburst that washed through the Hunza Valley in Pakistan in May.

In January, the UN Development Programme estimated that more than 3,000 glacial lakes have formed in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region, with 33 posing an imminent threat that could impact as many as 7 million people.

The new study, based on 250,000 scenes from NASA's Landsat satellite missions, estimates current glacial lake volume at more than 150 cubic kilometres (37 cubic miles), equivalent to one-third the volume of Lake Erie in the United States or twice the volume of Lake Geneva.

A decade ago, it would have not been possible to process and analyze that volume of data, said Shugar.

Africa To Be Declared Polio-Free

A girl receives the polio vaccine in a low-income neighborhood of Karachi on July 20. Pakistan, along with Afghanistan, has the world's only remaining cases.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is set to certify on August 25 that the African continent is free from wild polio, four years after the last cases appeared in northeastern Nigeria.

"Thanks to the relentless efforts by governments, donors, frontline health workers, and communities, up to 1.8 million children have been saved from the crippling lifelong paralysis," the WHO said in a statement.

The official announcement is due at 1500 GMT in a videoconference with WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and key figures including philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

"Happiness is an understatement. We've been on this marathon for over 30 years," said Tunji Funsho, a Nigerian doctor and local anti-polio coordinator for Rotary International.

He said it marked a crucial step in the total eradication of the illness at the global level.

"It's a real achievement. I feel joy and relief at the same time," he added.

Poliomyelitis, or "wild polio" is an acutely infectious and contagious disease that attacks the spinal cord and causes irreversible paralysis in children.

It was endemic around the world until a vaccine was found in the 1950s, though this remained out of reach for many poorer countries in Asia and Africa.

As late as 1988, the WHO counted 350,000 cases globally, and in 1996 said there were more than 70,000 cases in Africa alone.

Thanks to a rare instance of collective global effort and financial backing -- some $19 billion over 30 years -- only Afghanistan and Pakistan have recorded cases this year: 87 in total.

Nigeria, a country with 200 million inhabitants, was still among the trouble-spots in the early 2000s.

In its northern Muslim-majority areas, authorities were forced to stop vaccination campaigns in 2003 and 2004 by Islamic extremists who claimed it was a vast conspiracy to sterilize young Muslims.

It took a huge effort in tandem with traditional chiefs and religious leaders to convince populations that the vaccine was safe.

"People trust their local traditional leaders who live with them more than the political leaders," said Grema Mundube, a community leader in the town of Monguno, in the far north of Nigeria.

"Once we spoke to them and they saw us immunising our children, they gradually accepted the vaccine," he told AFP.

However, the emergence of violent Islamist group Boko Haram in 2009 caused another rupture in the program. In 2016, four new cases were discovered in Borno state in the northeast in the heart of the conflict.

"At the time, we couldn't reach two-thirds of the children of Borno state -- 400,000 children couldn't access the vaccine," Funsho said.

The security situation remains highly volatile in the region, with the jihadists of Boko Haram and a local Islamic State affiliate controlling vast areas around Lake Chad and the border with Niger.

"International agencies, local governments, donors -- all partners took the bull by the horns to find new strategies to manage to reach these children," said Dr Musa Idowu Audu, coordinator for the WHO in Borno.

In these "partially accessible" areas, vaccination teams worked under the protection of the Nigerian army and local self-defence militias.

For areas fully controlled by the jihadists, the WHO and its partners sought to intercept people coming in and out along market and transport routes in a bid to spread medical information and recruit "health informants" who could tell them about any polio cases.

"We built a pact of trust with these populations, for instance by giving them free medical supplies," Audu said.

Today, it is estimated that only 30,000 children are still inaccessible: a number considered too low by scientists to allow for an epidemic to break out.

Despite the "extreme happiness and pride" felt by Audu, he never fails to remember the 20 or more medical staff and volunteers killed for the cause in northeast Nigeria in recent years.

The challenge now is to ensure that no new polio cases arrive from Afghanistan or Pakistan and that vaccinations continue to ensure that children across the continent are protected from this vicious disease.

"Before we couldn't sleep at all. Now we will sleep with one eye open," Funsho said.

Trump, Putin Discuss Arms Control, Coronavirus In First Call Since Afghan Bounty Claims

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump said he spoke with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, about an arms agreement and fighting the coronavirus in their first call since explosive allegations emerged last month that Moscow had put bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

Neither the White House nor Kremlin readouts of the July 23 call mentioned the Afghanistan bounties, which have not been confirmed.

The two leaders discussed the expiring New START nuclear agreement and combating the coronavirus pandemic, according to both readouts. Trump and Putin also discussed Iran's nuclear program, the Kremlin statement said.

The New START treaty, which expires in February, limits the number of U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 each.

Trump wants China to be part of the treaty, a move that Beijing has rejected, raising concerns that the deal -- the last bilateral nuclear-arms agreement between Washington and Moscow -- could fall apart.

U.S. and Russian envoys held talks in Vienna last month to discuss a replacement for the pact and are scheduled to meet again to continue discussions.

Trump "reiterated his hope of avoiding an expensive three-way arms race between China, Russia, and the United States," adding that he "looked forward to progress on upcoming arms control negotiations in Vienna," the White House statement said.

Iran Nuclear Deal

The Kremlin readout did not give any details about their discussion regarding Iran's nuclear program.

The Trump administration in 2018 pulled out of an international nuclear agreement with Iran, claiming it paved the way for Tehran to develop weapons-grade uranium in a few years and that it did not stop Iran's missile program. Russia is among the parties to the pact.

Trump and Putin have held at least seven calls since March 30 amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has ravaged the global economy and sent the price of oil, Russia's main export commodity, tumbling. Trump and Putin spoke several times in April to negotiate a global oil production cut to shore up prices.

The White House readout of the call said Trump and Putin "discussed efforts to defeat the coronavirus pandemic while continuing to reopen global economies."

The July 23 call comes a week after the United States, Britain, and Canada accused a Russian military intelligence unit of trying to steal COVID-19 vaccine research and as Washington announced it would sanction any company helping build the Kremlin's natural gas pipeline to Germany.

The New York Times reported at the end of June that U.S. intelligence officials concluded months ago that Russian military intelligence offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill American soldiers. The paper went on to claim that Trump was briefed on the matter, but did nothing in response.

The White House has said neither Trump nor Vice President Mike Pence had been briefed on the alleged intelligence. The House of Representatives has held several hearings on the topic about how the U.S. should respond if the allegations are substantiated.

As Global Virus Cases Pass Eight Million, WHO Warns Of Resurgence

A woman wears a protective face shield and a protective face mask as she attends an event of mask distribution along a road, as the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Karachi, Pakistan on June 15.

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) says countries “must stay alert to the possibility of resurgence” as Europe continues to reopen and China faces a fresh coronavirus outbreak that has closed parts of the capital.

As the global number of confirmed coronavirus cases topped eight million and deaths reached 437,000, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that it took over two months to reach 100,000 reported cases -- which is now the daily rate – and the virus is accelerating in Asia and the Americas.

The warning to take action to curb transmission came as China increased testing and lockdowns in parts of the capital on June 16 to contain a new outbreak and New Zealand reported its first new cases in almost a month.

Across Beijing, 29 residential communities have been put under "closed management,” with all entry points guarded and strict controls on individuals leaving or entering amid fears of a second wave of infections after the Chinese capital went more than 50 days without a new case.

Since June 12, a cluster of 106 new infections has been traced to a wholesale market responsible for 80 percent of the capital’s food.

The new cluster highlights how difficult it will be to stamp out the virus, which emerged in China late last year but was largely brought under control with one of the world’s strictest lockdowns.

In New Zealand, which has recorded only 22 deaths among a population of five million and declared last week it had eliminated communitytransmission, two recent arrivals from Britain tested positive after being released early from quarantine to visit a dying relative.

Europe, meanwhile, continues to reopen despite warnings that the coronavirus could make a comeback.

Europe was once the hardest-hit continent, but new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have declined dramatically.

Many European countries reopened their borders to travelers from other European countries on June 15 after three-months of restrictions.

Germany, Belgium, France, Greece, and the Czech Republic reopened their borders, after Italy did so earlier in June.

The border reopening impacts mostly citizens of the European Union, Britain, and the rest of Europe’s usually passport-free Schengen travel area.

Still, each country is implementing different rules, including testing requirements, quarantines, and specific travel advice or restrictions for individual countries and regions.

For now, visitors from outside the continent will have to wait to enter Europe.

In the United States, about 20 states that began reopening their economies in recent weeks are recording record numbers of new confirmed infections. This is in part attributable to greater testing, but also what health experts say is states reopening.

About a half dozen states are also seeing steadily rising hospitalizations, including Texas, Arizona, and Florida.

The total case count for the United States is around 2.1 million infections and more than 116,000 deaths. According to an updated forecast used by the government, there may be over 200,000 deaths due to COVID-19 in the United States through the beginning of October.

Latin America remains at the center of the pandemic, with more than 80,000 COVID-19 deaths in the region. Brazil carries the unenviable title of second-worst hit in the world with more than 888,000 confirmed cases and some 44,000 deaths.

Despite the virus showing few signs of abating, reopening continues in Mexico and Brazil.

Densely populated India, Pakistan, and Egypt are registering record daily counts of new infections, while Turkey is again seeing rising numbers that the government says could result in new lockdown measures.

In India, the health-care system is starting to buckle as hospital beds fill up.

New infections are rising at over 10,000 a day to top 330,000. Real figures are likely higher.

With reporting by AFP, AP, dpa, and Reuters

Trump And Pakistan's Khan Discuss Coordination Against COVID-19

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, met with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York last September.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- U.S. President Donald Trump and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on April 22 discussed the global coronavirus pandemic and efforts to blunt its spread, the White House and the Pakistani leader's office said. The two also discussed the U.S.-led effort to bring peace to Afghanistan, Khan's office said in a statement distributed by the Pakistani Embassy.

Trump and Khan spoke by telephone following talks last week that U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad held with Taliban negotiators in Doha and Pakistani officials in Islamabad on the stalled peace process.

A February 29 U.S.-Taliban deal for a phased U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan called for the opening by March 10 of intra-Afghan negotiations on a settlement to decades of war.

But differences between Kabul and the Taliban over prisoner releases, a feud between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his main political rival, and a surge in Taliban attacks have stalled the peace initiative, raising concerns it could collapse as the coronavirus spreads.

U.S. officials say Pakistan wields considerable influence over the Taliban by providing the militants with sanctuary on its side of the border and other support. Pakistan denies those allegations.

In his call with Trump, Khan "reaffirmed Pakistan’s support for facilitation of the Afghan peace process and underscored the importance of next steps leading to the earliest commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations," the Pakistani statement said.

Afghanistan and Pakistan, impoverished countries with poor healthcare systems, are confronting growing cases and deaths from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. The United States, also fighting rising cases and deaths, last week announced more than $8 million of aid to help Pakistan battle the pandemic.

Trump and Khan "discussed developments in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and agreed to continue working together on a coordinated response to defeat the virus and minimize its economic impact," White House spokesman Judd Deere said.

The Pakistani statement said Trump reassured Khan "of U.S. support to Pakistan in the efforts to combat COVID-19 including by making available ventilators as well as in the economic arena."

Trump, it said, offered to send "the latest rapid testing machine for COVID-19" to Khan after hearing that the Pakistani leader was tested for the disease. Khan was found to be negative, according to Pakistani news reports.

Amnesty International Says Executions Fall To Lowest Number In A Decade, But Secrecy Skews Count

Pakistani supporters of convicted murderer Mumtaz Qadri shout slogans during an anti-government protest in Islamabad in March 2016.

Global use of the death penalty has decreased for the fourth-consecutive year and fallen to its lowest level in a decade, according to a new report by Amnesty International (AI).

The number of recorded executions fell to 657 worldwide, 33 fewer than in 2018, with all carried out in just 20 countries, according to the report published on April 21.

"The death penalty is an abhorrent and inhuman punishment, and there is no credible evidence that it deters crime more than prisons terms," said Clare Algar, Amnesty International's senior director for research, advocacy, and policy. "A large majority of countries recognize this and it's encouraging to see that executions continue to fall worldwide."

However, the human rights watchdog said lack of transparency in reporting executions meant the real number could be much higher.

The figures did not include use of the death penalty in China, for example, by far the world's greatest executioner. The number of people executed there is classified, but is believed to be in the thousands.

Iran, with at least 251 executions; Saudi Arabia, with 184; Iraq, with at least 100; and Egypt, with at least 32, rounded out the world's top-five executing countries, according to the report, titled Death Sentences And Executions.

Algar singled out a number of countries for their lack of transparency in using the death penalty.

"Executions are taking place in secret all over the world," Algar said. "In countries from Belarus to Botswana and Iran to Japan, executions were being carried out without any advance notice to the families, lawyers or in some cases the individuals themselves."

China, North Korea, and Vietnam continued "to hide the full extent of their use of the death penalty by restricting access to death penalty information,” Algar said.

She suggested that the absence of openness was telling.

"Even countries that are the strongest proponents of the death penalty struggle to justify its use, and opt for secrecy," Algar said. "Many of them take pains to hide how they use the death penalty, knowing it will not stand up to international scrutiny."

One such country is Iran, where the use of the death penalty fell to a historical low, but which AI admonished for the secret execution of two boys who were arrested and convicted at the age of 15 "on multiple rape charges following an unfair trial."

The two were not aware that they had been sentenced to death prior to their executions, and their "bodies bore lash marks, indicating they had been whipped before their deaths."

The number of people executed in Iran fell by at least two from the previous year, when some 253 cases of the death penalty were recorded. However, four of those killed were below 18, according to the rights watchdog.

Amnesty International attributed the fall in the overall number of executions in part to "significant reductions" in the number of confirmed executions in states such as Egypt, Japan, and Singapore that it said are traditionally strong adherents of the death penalty.

Kazakhstan, Russia, and Tajikistan were among the countries that continued to respect official moratoriums on executions, according to the report. And no executions were carried out in Afghanistan for the first time since 2010.

A "significant downward trend" was also reported in Pakistan, where 14 executions were carried out for the second year in a row. That followed a spike in the use of the death penalty in 2015.

Of those countries that defied the global trend away from capital punishment, Saudi Arabia, with 184 executions, was criticized for its increased use of the death penalty, "including as a weapon against political dissidents." It marked the highest number of executions in the Middle Eastern country on record.

The report said that the number of executions nearly doubled in one year in Iraq, where the death penalty was employed at least 100 times in 2019. The rise was attributed largely to the punishment of individuals accused of being part of the Islamic State extremist group.

The United States continued its 11-year run as the only country to carry out executions in the Americas region, with 22, but recorded fewer executions and death sentences.

Amnesty said the year 2019 in the United States "was dominated by significant progress towards its abolition at the state level and yet the pursuit of executions by federal authorities."

IMF Providing Debt Relief To Help 25 Countries Deal With Pandemic

Afghan National Army personnel spray disinfectant during a lockdown in Jalalabad on April 9.

The International Monetary Fund says it will provide immediate debt service relief to 25 of its poorer member states so they can focus more financial resources on fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said the IMF's executive board on April 13 approved the first group of countries that will receive grants to cover their debt-service obligations to the IMF for an initial six months.

They include Afghanistan and Tajikistan, as well as war-torn Yemen and debt-stricken countries in Africa and Asia.

Georgieva said the IMF's Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCRT) currently has about $500 million in resources available, including new pledges of $185 million from Britain, $100 million from Japan, and undisclosed amounts from China, the Netherlands, and others.

The IMF is pushing to raise its available resources to $1.4 billion.

"This provides grants to our poorest and most vulnerable members to cover their IMF debt obligations for an initial phase over the next six months and will help them channel more of their scarce financial resources towards vital emergency medical and other relief efforts," Georgieva said.

More than 1.9 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus globally and more than 119,000 have died, a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University said early on April 14.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

NATO Top Commander To Work On Coronavirus Response

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a flag-raising ceremony to mark the accession of North Macedonia to NATO, at NATO headquarters in Brussels on March 30.

NATO foreign ministers have tasked the alliance’s top military officer to help boost the 30 allies’ response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made the announcement on April 2, after the ministers held talks by video conference -- a first in NATO's 70-year history -- because of restrictions on travel and physical interaction imposed to contain the virus.

Stoltenberg said the ministers had asked U.S. Air Force General Tod Wolters, who currently heads NATO’s Allied Air Command, “to coordinate the necessary military support to combat the crisis, to speed up and step up assistance.”

"For instance, by identifying the airlift capacity to ensure that medical supplies are delivered, coordinating on any surplus capacity or stocks, and better matching requests for support with offers from allies and partners," Stoltenberg added.

Flights carrying equipment to help in the fight against the pandemic will be given priority in European airspace.

The ministers are to hold another video conference in mid-April to review the situation.

NATO has already helped deliver emergency supplies to its worst-hit members, such as Italy and Spain, while national armed forces are supporting domestic measures to combat the crisis.

At the same time, allies are concerned that NATO's adversaries such as Russia and terrorist groups could conduct hostile activities while member countries are focused primarily on combating COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

In a joint statement issued after their conference, the NATO ministers stressed that the allies remain ready to defend themselves against any threat.

"Our ability to conduct our operations and assure deterrence and defense against all the threats we face is unimpaired," they said.

The allies also urged the Taliban and all political actors in Afghanistan to play their part in brokering a deal that would put an end to the country’s 18-year conflict.

The ministers welcomed their 30th ally, North Macedonia, which joined the Western alliance last week.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and dpa

UN Postpones Five-Year Review Of Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Due To Coronavirus

FILE: The United Nations building in New York

The United Nations has announced that a conference to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some 191 states parties were expected to attend the conference that had been scheduled for April 27 through May 22 at UN headquarters in New York.

Participants meet every five years to review the treaty, considered the cornerstone of global efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the review conference will be rescheduled “as soon as the circumstances permit, but no later than April 2021.”

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, completed 50 years ago, is credited with preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to dozens of nations.

As part of the treaty, nations without nuclear weapons committed not to acquire them. Countries already holding such weapons committed to move toward their elimination.

Every nation is a party to the treaty except India, Pakistan, and North Korea -- which hold nuclear weapons -- and Israel, which most experts suspect of being a nuclear power but which has never acknowledged it.

Based on reporting by AP

COVID-19: One Iranian 'Dying Every 10 Minutes'; Romania Urges Expats To Stay Away

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a televised speech on the occasion of the Iranian New Year Nowruz in Tehran on March 20.

The global coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 230,000 people worldwide, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.

Here's a roundup of developments in RFE/RL's broadcast countries.


The death toll from the coronavirus in Iran continues to rise as the worst-affected country in the Middle East prepares for scaled-down celebrations of Norouz, the Persian New Year.

"With 149 new fatalities in the past 24 hours, the death toll from the virus has reached 1,284," Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi said on state television on March 19.

“Unfortunately, we have had 1,046 new cases of infection since yesterday,” Raisi added.

Iran has the third-highest number of registered cases after China and Italy.

With the country reeling from the outbreak, officials have recommended that Iranians stay home during the March 20 holiday, a time when hundreds of thousands usually travel to be with friends and relatives.

The government has closed schools at all levels, banned sports and cultural events, and curtailed religious activities to try and slow the spread of the virus.

Kianoush Jahanpour, the head of the Health Ministry's public relations and information center , noted on March 19 that the data on the outbreak means an Iranian dies every 10 minutes from COVID-19, while 50 infections occur each hour of the day.

"With respect to this information, people must make a conscious decision about travel, traffic, transportation, and sightseeing," he added.

Iranians Turn To Good Deeds In Dark Times
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Despite the dire circumstances, many Iranians were angered by the temporary closure of Shi'ite sites, prompting some earlier this week to storm into the courtyards of two major shrines -- Mashhad's Imam Reza shrine and Qom's Fatima Masumeh shrine.

Crowds typically pray there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, touching and kissing the shrine. That's worried health officials, who for weeks ordered Iran's Shi'ite clergy to close them.

Earlier on March 19, officials announced that the country wouldn’t mark its annual day celebrating its nuclear program because of the outbreak.


The Georgian government has ordered the closure of shops except grocery stores and pharmacies beginning March 20 to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The measure, announced on March 19, also exempts gas stations, post offices, and bank branches. The South Caucasus country has so far reported 40 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, and no deaths.

Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia on March 19 said he would declare a state of emergency, as many countries in Europe already have, if health authorities advise him to do so.

"As of today, I would like to emphasize that there is no need for this. However, in agreement with the president, we have decided, as soon as that need arises, that we will be able to make this decision within a few hours," he said.


President Klaus Iohannis has urged Romanians working abroad to refrain from traveling home for the Orthodox Easter amid fears of a worsening of the coronavirus outbreak in the country.

Romania has been under a 30-day state of emergency since March 16.

Iohannis made the appeal in a televised speech on March 19 as thousands of workers returning from Western Europe were slowly crossing into Romania after having clogged Hungary's borders both to the west and the east for two days in a row.

Romania is the European Union's second-poorest country, and at least 4 million Romanians work abroad, according to estimates.

The bottlenecks were worsened by Hungary's decision to close its borders on very short notice from March 17 at midnight -- a measure relaxed by Budapest after consultations with the Romanian government.

"Romanians from abroad are dear to us, and we long to be with them for Easter," Iohannis said. "However, that won't be possible this year.... We must tell them with sadness but also with sincerity not to come home for the holidays," he added.

Some 12,500 mostly Romanian travelers had crossed into Romania in 4,600 vehicles as of the morning of March 19, Romanian border police said.

They said 180 people were immediately quarantined, while some 10,000 were ordered into self-isolation once they reached their destinations.

The rest were mostly travelers in transit toward Moldova and Bulgaria, according to the police.

Romania has confirmed 277 coronavirus cases.

One of the patients is in serious condition in intensive care, while 25 people have recovered, according to health authorities.

No deaths have been reported so far.

However, authorities are concerned that the massive number of Romanians returning, mostly from Italy and Spain -- the European countries most affected by the coronavirus pandemic -- will lead to a spike in infections in the run-up to Orthodox Easter on April 19.

The Romanian military has started building an emergency hospital in Bucharest amid fears that the country's crumbling health-care system will not be able to cope with the outbreak.


Some 900 Ukrainians are embarking on March 19 on a train journey from Prague to Kyiv as part of an evacuation plan amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The train is set to travel through the Czech Republic and Poland, where it will make a stop at Przemysl, before heading to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv and the capital.

Yevhen Perebiynis, the Ukrainian ambassador to Prague, tweeted that more than 3,000 Ukrainians residing in the Czech Republic had asked to be evacuated.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Zhytomyr, Serhiy Sukhomlyn, said the city located 140 kilometers west of Kyiv recorded its first coronavirus infection.

Sukhomlyn said the patient, aged 56, had recently returned from Austria.

As of March 19, there were 21 confirmed cases of the respiratory illness in six regions and the capital, Kyiv, the Health Ministry said.

Meanwhile, Ukraine recorded its third death linked to COVID-19 in the western Ivano-Frankivsk region.

An elderly woman died one day after visiting a hospital with severe flu-like symptoms, according to the Health Ministry.

Chaos, Anger In Kyiv Amid Coronavirus Subway Closure
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Russian officials have reported the country's first death connected to the coronavirus outbreak, but quickly backtracked, saying an elderly woman perished due to a detached blood clot.

The Moscow health department said on March 19 that the 79-year-old, who had tested positive for COVID-19, died in a Moscow hospital from pneumonia related to the virus.

Svetlana Krasnova, head doctor at Moscow's hospital No. 2 for infectious diseases, said in a statement that the woman had been admitted with "a host of chronic diseases," including type 2 diabetes and heart problems.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin then confirmed the coronavirus-releated death, saying on Twitter, "Unfortunately, we have the first loss from the coronavirus infection."

Hours later, however, health officials put out another statement saying an autopsy had confirmed the woman had died of a blood clot.

A subsequent official tally of the number of official coronavirus cases in Russia showed 199 confirmed infections but no deaths.

It was not clear whether the woman's death would eventually be counted as a result of the virus.

Though President Vladimir Putin said earlier this week that the situation was "generally under control," many Russians have shown a distrust for official claims over the virus, and fear the true situation is much worse than they are being told.

Amid a recent rise in the number of cases, officials have temporarily barred entry to foreigners and imposed restrictions on flights and public gatherings.

The national health watchdog on March 19 tightened restrictions for all travellers from abroad with a decree requiring "all individuals arriving to Russia" to be isolated, either at home or elsewhere.


Serbia has closed its main airport for all passenger flights and said it will shut its borders for all but freight traffic in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The government banned commercial flights to and from the Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade on March 19.

However, the airport will remain open to humanitarian and cargo flights, according to the Ministry of Construction, Traffic, and Infrastructure.

Later in the day, President Aleksandar Vucic said that as of March 20, Serbia's border crossings will be closed for all passenger road and rail transport.

"Nothing but trucks will be allowed to enter," Vucic said. "From noon tomorrow we will also halt commercial passenger transport inside the country."

The move comes after some 70,000 Serbs working in Western Europe and their families returned to Serbia in the last few days despite appeals by authorities not to do so.

Serbia currently has 103 confirmed coronavirus cases, with no fatalities.

The Balkan country had already imposed a state of emergency, introduced a night curfew for all citizens, and ordered the elderly to stay indoors.


Authorities in Pakistan have closed shrines of Sufi saints in the capital, Islamabad, and elsewhere while access to museums, archaeological, and tourist sites have been banned as confirmed coronavirus cases jumped to 301, mostly in pilgrims returning from Iran.

Two Pakistanis who had returned from Saudi Arabia and Dubai became the country's first victims when they died on March 18 in the northwest.

Schools have already been shut in Pakistan.

Thousands of Pakistanis, mostly pilgrims, have been placed into quarantine in recent weeks at the Taftan border crossing in the country's southwestern province of Balochistan after returning from Iran, one of the world's worst affected countries.

Pakistani authorities on March 19 plan to quarantine hundreds more pilgrims who returned from Iran. These pilgrims will be kept at isolated buildings in central Pakistan for 14 days.


Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev’s influential son-in-law says police have identified individuals who allegedly published the names of Uzbek nationals who tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Otabek Umarov, who is also the deputy head of the president’s personal security, said on Instagram that officials are now trying to determine the legality of the perpetrators’ actions.

A joint working group set up by the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor-General’s Office has also identified 33 social media accounts involved in “disseminating false information that provokes panic among people,” Umarov wrote.

He called the accounts a “betrayal” of the country and a matter of “national security.”

Umarov’s comments come amid a campaign by the Uzbek government to crack down on information that incites panic and fear among the public amid the coronavirus crisis.

On March 16, the country’s Justice Ministry said that, according to Uzbek law, those involved in preparing materials with the intention of inciting panic -- and those storing such materials with the intent to distribute them -- will face up to $9,400 in fines or up to three years in prison.

Those who spread such information through media and the Internet face up to eight years in prison, the ministry added.

The statement came a day after the Central Asian nation announced its first confirmed coronavirus infection, which prompted the government to introduce sweeping measures to contain the outbreak, including closing its borders, suspending international flights, closing schools, and banning public gatherings.

The number of infections had risen to 23 as of the morning of March 19, the Health Ministry said.

The ministry said that the 23 individuals are all Uzbek nationals who had returned home from Europe, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.

The Health Ministry regularly updates its social media accounts with information on the outbreak in Uzbekistan. Posts are frequently accompanied by the hashtag “quarantine without panic” in both Uzbek and Russian.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan

The Kazakh national currency, the tenge, has continued to weaken sharply as the number of coronavirus cases in the oil-rich Central Asian nation reached 44.

Many exchange points in Nur-Sultan, the capital, and the former Soviet republic's largest city, Almaty, did not sell U.S. dollars or euros on March 19, while some offered 471 tenges for $1, more than 25 percent weaker than in early March when the rate was around 375 tenges.

The tenge has plunged to all-time lows in recent days following an abrupt fall in oil prices and chaos in the world's stock markets caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

The Kazakh Health Ministry said on March 19 that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country had increased by seven to 44.

In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, three people, who returned home from Saudi Arabia several days ago, tested positive for the virus, which led to three villages being sealed off in the southern Jalal-Abad region.

In two other Central Asian nations, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, no coronavirus cases have been officially recorded to date.


A relative of an Armenian woman blamed for spreading the coronavirus in the South Caucasus country alleges that criminal offenses have been committed against members of their family.

It emerged last week that the woman had traveled from Italy before attending a family gathering with dozens of guests in the city of Echmiadzin, disregarding health warnings about the coronavirus pandemic.

The woman, whose name was not released, later tested positive for the virus and was hospitalized. Dozens of other people who attended the gathering were placed under a 14-day quarantine.

Armenia has reported a total of 122 cases so far, including dozens in Echmiadzin. It has not yet reported any deaths.

Echmiadzin was locked down and a nationwide state of emergency has been announced in a bid to slow the spread of infection in Armenia.

Many on social media in Armenia expressed anger over what they said was irresponsible behavior by the woman.

Some ridiculed the woman and used offensive language against her. A photo of her also was posted online.

The woman’s lawyer, Gohar Hovhannisian, said that one of her relatives who lives abroad filed a complaint with the public prosecutor on March 17.

The complaint alleges that personal information about infected people was illegally obtained and published by the press and social media along with insults and photographs.

"It affects the mental state of a person. Imagine that a person is sick and such language is used against her or him and her or his personal data are published," Hovhannisian said.

The Prosecutor-General's Office forwarded the report to police to investigate the case.

Human rights activist Zaruhi Hovhannisian, who is not related to the lawyer, noted that the protection of personal data is enshrined in Armenia’s law. He said that disclosure of personal data in this case made it possible to identify the infected woman.

"Moreover, under the law on medical care and public services it is forbidden to disclose medical secrets, talk about people’s medical examinations and the course of their treatment as well as to pass these data to third parties," the activist said.

Earlier this week, a shop owner in Yerevan filed a complaint with police alleging that he had been attacked by three relatives of the woman in question for posting a joke about her on Facebook.

Police said they had identified and questioned three people over that complaint. But the authorities did not reveal their identities.


The Azerbaijani capital, Baku, has been sealed off to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the South Caucasus state.

According to a government decision, as of March 19 entrance to Baku, the nearby city of Sumqayit, and the Abseron district has been banned for all cars, except ambulances, cargo trucks, and vehicles carrying rescue teams and road accident brigades. The measure will run until at least March 29.

All railway links between Baku, Sumqayit and the Abseron district, and the rest of the country were also suspended.

Azerbaijan has reported 34 confirmed coronavirus cases, with one fatality.

In neighboring Armenia, where authorities announced a state of emergency until April 16, the number of coronavirus cases is 115.

Elsewhere in the South Caucasus, Georgia, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases reached 40.


The United States is temporarily suspending the movement of new soldiers into Afghanistan as a way of protecting them from the coronavirus outbreak.

U.S. Army General Scott Miller said in a March 19 statement that the move could mean that some of the troops already on the ground in Afghanistan may have their deployments extended to ensure that the NATO-led Resolute Support mission continues.

"To preserve our currently healthy force, Resolute Support is making the necessary adjustments to temporarily pause personnel movement into the theater," he said.

“We are closely monitoring, continually assessing and adjusting our operations so we can continue to protect the national interests of the NATO allies and partners here in Afghanistan," he added.

About 1,500 troops and civilians who recently arrived in Afghanistan have been quarantined, Miller said, stressing that this was purely a precautionary measure and “not because they are sick.”

Earlier this month, the United States began reducing its troop presence in Afghanistan as part of a peace deal signed in February with the Taliban.

The agreement sees an initial reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from about 13,000 to 8,600 soldiers.

Miller did not mention the agreement in his statement.

So far, 21 U.S. and coalition staff exhibiting flu-like symptoms are in isolation and receiving medical care, Miller’s statement said.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian, Azerbaijani, Georgian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Romanian, and Uzbek services, AP, AFP, Reuters,,, and

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