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At Least 67 Journalists Killed On Job In 2015

Pakistani journalists help a colleague who was injured in clashes between Police and the supporters of Islamic political party Jamat-e-Islami in Karachi, January 2015.

At least 67 journalists were killed worldwide while on the job in 2015, according to a pair of year-end surveys.

The Paris-based press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said December 29 it had documented 67 killings of journalists and noted most were deliberately targeted for their work in supposedly peaceful countries.

RSF said the circumstances around another 43 deaths of news workers and citizen journalists remain unclear, raising the possibility the total number of news workers killed in the line of duty in 2015 could be higher.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) documented 69 killings. It said 29 of the journalists were slain by Islamic militant groups.

Syria and Iraq were the deadliest place for journalists to work.

Third on the list was France, where Islamic extremist groups killed eight journalists in an attack in Paris in January at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

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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.

Iran

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.

Georgia

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.

Romania

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.

Ukraine

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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Russia

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

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.

Pakistan

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.

Uzbekistan

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.

Armenia

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.

Azerbaijan

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.

Afghanistan

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, Digi24.ro, G4media.ro, and Hotnews.ro

COVID-19: Serbia Declares State Of Emergency; Iran Warns Of Overwhelmed Health System

Workers in Iran disinfect streets in central Tehran against the novel coronavirus.

The latest on the coronavirus crisis in RFE/RL's broadcast countries:

Serbia

Serbia has declared a state of emergency to contain the coronavirus outbreak, shutting down schools and universities and deploying the military to guard hospitals.

"We will close down to save our lives, to save our parents, to save our elderly," President Aleksandar Vucic said in a televised address on March 15.

Vucic said the details of the measures will be announced on March 16, adding that "there will be limitations of all sorts."

The president said that from March 16 the military will be guarding state hospitals, while police will be monitoring those quarantined or in self-isolation for 14 or 28 days.

Those who violate quarantine may face jail terms of up to three years, he warned.

Earlier on March 15, Serbia announced it was closing the borders to foreigners coming from the worst-hit countries.

Vucic, however, said the border entry ban does not apply to people from China, praising Beijing for helping Serbia amid the COVID-19 crisis.

He criticized the European Union for allegedly failing to provide adequate support.

After Vucic's address, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic told state TV that borders will be open only “for Serbians, foreign diplomats, and foreign nationals with residence permits.”

The Balkan state has so far recorded 48 coronavirus infections. There have been no fatalities, but two patients are in a serious condition, health authorities say.

Armenia

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian ended his two-day self-isolation in Sevan and returned to the capital, Yerevan, after testing negative for the coronavirus for the second time.

Pashinian underwent another test for the potentially deadly infection after one of the individuals he had contact with during his trip to a southern Armenian province last week had tested positive.

“The answer to our tests is negative again. Coming back to Yerevan in the morning,” Pashinian wrote in a Facebook post on March 15, referring to the results of his test and the test of his wife, Anna Hakobian.

The couple decided to isolate themselves in a government villa at Lake Sevan late on March 13 and undergo coronavirus tests after local media raised concerns about Hakobian’s contacts with the wife of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during a visit to that Latin American country on March 7.

An aide to Bolsonaro and another senior Brazilian government official tested positive for coronavirus, raising questions about the president's health. The Brazilian leader has since said he tested negative for the virus.

INTERACTIVE: The Symptoms Of COVID-19


Amid the quarantine, Pashinian suspended his political campaigning ahead of next month’s constitutional referendum.

He said his government will discuss this week whether to move ahead with the national referendum scheduled for April 5 amid the spread of the virus.

He said his government will discuss this week whether to move ahead with the national referendum scheduled for April 5 amid the spread of the virus.

Armenians will be asked to vote on a constitutional amendment that would lead to the dismissal of seven of the Constitutional Court’s nine members installed before nationwide protests swept Pashinian to power in 2018.

As of March 15, Armenia’s health authorities confirmed 28 cases in the country with more than half located in one region. They said the first patient hospitalized on March 1 had already recovered from the disease.

Armenia shut down the city of Vagharshapat in a bid to curb the spread of the virus, Pashinian said on March 15. Vasharshapat, also known as Echmiadzin, is located 21 kilometers to the west of the capital, Yerevan.

Vagharshapat, which has a population of 46,000 people, has accounted for more than half of the 28 registered coronavirus cases in Armenia. Pashinian said residents will be able to leave the city only after having their body temperature taken.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan reported five new cases on March 15, bringing the total number of registered cases in the country to 16.

Officials in Kabul said that all of those infected are Afghans who have recently returned from neighboring Iran.

The officials said up to 15,000 Afghan migrants workers and refugees are returning from Iran on a daily basis.

Iran

Officials in Iran, which is battling one of the world's worst outbreaks, have warned that the county's health facilities could be overwhelmed if the current growth in new cases continues.

Iran had registered nearly 14,000 cases of coronavirus by March 15, up from about 1,000 at the start of the month.

Iran has the third-most registered cases after China and Italy. The nation's death toll reached 724 on March 15 as another 113 people died.

Kianush Jahanpur, Iran's Health Ministry spokesman, said in a televised news conference that citizens "should cancel all travel and stay at home" to halt the spread of the deadly virus.​

Pakistan

Pakistani President Arif Alvi is on an official visit to China on March 16-17 to hold meetings with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, and other top officials, Alvi’s office said in a statement on March 15.

The statement said the visit aims at “further solidifying historic bonds" between the two countries and described China and Pakistan as “the closest friends and staunch partners.”

It also pointed out that the visit comes as China is “engaged in efforts to contain” the spread of the new coronavirus, which has affected 157 countries and territories since it was first recorded in Wuhan, a city in central China.

It’s Alvi’s first official visit to China, a strategic partner and major investor to Pakistan’s economy.

Pakistan on March 16 announced 41 additional cases of infection with the coronavirus after 41 more cases were confirmed in the Sindh region, bringing the total tally to 94.

Dozens of people quarantined at the Pakistan-Iran border protested what they called the poor hygiene in the camps.

The quarantined include religious pilgrims who are now returning from Iran.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan and Armenian services, RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, and AP, AFP, and Reuters

World Braces For Spread Of Coronavirus As More Countries Report Cases

An Iranian man wears a protective masks to prevent contracting coronavirus on a bus in Tehran on February 25.

More than 30 countries have reported cases of a new coronavirus and there are five main clusters, raising concerns that efforts to contain the outbreak have failed and the threshold of a pandemic is approaching.

Most cases are in China, where the virus originated in December, as well as Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Iran.

Brazil's Health Ministry said on February 26 that a Sao Paulo resident who recently travelled to Italy was undergoing testing for the virus, in what could become the first case in South America.

Several European countries -- Austria, Croatia, Spain, and Switzerland -- announced their first coronavirus cases involving people who had been to Italy, as did Algeria in North Africa.

Italy has reported more than 330 cases and 11 deaths.

In recent days, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman also reported their first cases -- all involving people who had come from Iran.

The country has nearly 100 confirmed cases and officially 15 deaths, but there has been speculation that Tehran is underreporting the extent of the outbreak in the country.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded that Iranian officials "tell the truth" about the outbreak.

"The United States is deeply concerned by information indicating the Iranian regime may have suppressed vital details about the outbreak in that country," Pompeo said.

The coronavirus has killed more than 2,700 people and infected over 78,000 others on mainland China. In the rest of the world, there have been more than 40 deaths and over 2,700 cases.

The epidemic's disruption has caused stock markets to slump around the world, restrictions imposed on travelers, and sporting events cancelled.

But Bruce Aylward, who led a World Health Organization-led investigative mission to China, said one of his conclusions for the rest of the world is that it "simply not ready" to contain the outbreak.

"You have to be ready to manage this at a larger scale...and it has to be done fast," Aylward said at a Geneva news conference.

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

Pakistani Christian Woman Seeks Political Asylum In France

Asia Bibi

Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman who spent several years on death row after a 2010 conviction of blasphemy, has said she is seeking political asylum in France.

Bibi, 49, said in an interview with France's RTL radio on February 24 that her "great desire was to live in France."

On February 25, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo will bestow an honorary citizenship certificate granted to Bibi by the French capital in 2014, when she was still behind bars in Pakistan.

Last month, Bibi released a memoir in which recounts the nightmare conditions she was subjected to in prison until her release in 2018, amid an international outcry over her case.

The book, Enfin Bible!, was released in French, with an English version due in September.

Bibi was sentenced to death by a court in the central province of Punjab in 2010 for allegedly committing blasphemy in a dispute with Muslim women while working on a farm.

Bibi was only able to depart Pakistan for Canada in May 2019 after being kept in protective custody out of security concerns.

Islamic extremists have threatened to kill her and also urged the overthrow of the government following Bibi's acquittal.

Bibi's case brought international attention to Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, which carries an automatic death penalty.

Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was killed in 2011 for defending Bibi and criticizing the misuse of the blasphemy law.

Pakistan's minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated later that year after demanding justice for Bibi.

Based on reporting by AFP and RTL

WHO Urges Countries To Brace For 'Local Outbreaks' Of Coronavirus

Drivers who work for a Pakistan-based Chinese company look on as they wear protective face masks before their temperatures are checked in Islamabad on January 30.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged governments around the world to prepare for local outbreaks of the coronavirus.

The February 1 announcement came as China raised the death toll in that country from the virus to 259. China reported 11,791 confirmed cases of the virus, making it worse than the 2002-03 outbreak of SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

The WHO earlier in the week declared a global health emergency over the flu-like coronavirus. The organization has expressed concern that some cases outside China could involve human-to-human transmission of the virus.

"Countries need to get ready for possible importation in order to identify cases as early as possible and in order to be ready for domestic outbreak control, if that happens," the WHO representative in Beijing, Gauden Galea, told journalists.

In Geneva, WHO Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that, despite the health emergency declaration, there was "no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade."

On January 31, the United States barred entry to most foreigners who visited China in the last two weeks and introduced other screening measures. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced similar measures on February 1, following such announcements earlier by Japan, Italy, Mongolia, and Singapore.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has criticized the U.S. travel ban as "unkind."

"Certainly it is not a gesture of goodwill," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on February 1.

At least 25 countries have reported cases of infection by the virus, mainly involving people returning from China or who have had contact with such people. No deaths have been reported outside of China.

The Kremlin said on February 1 that Russia would fly out Russians on February 3 and 4 from areas of China most seriously affected by the virus.

Russia also announced on February 1 that it is suspending a tourist visa-free program with China.

An EU evacuation flight from Wuhan was scheduled for February 1.

U.S. tech giant Apple announced on February 1 that it would close all its stores in mainland China at least until February 9 because of the virus.

With reporting by AP, The New York Times, Reuters, and dpa

Bosnia Puts Off Closing Makeshift Migrant Camp 'Until Further Notice'

A migrant walks at the Vucjak refugee camp outside Bihac on December 3.

Bosnian authorities have indefinitely postponed the scheduled closing of a makeshift migrant tent camp in the northwest of the country.

The closing of the Vucjak camp had been scheduled for December 9, following harsh international criticism of the improper conditions hundreds of people are being housed in. The camp is hosting some 600 migrants, according to the Red Cross.

Rade Kovac, the director of the Bosnian Service for Foreigners' Affairs, visited the camp on December 9 and said that the authorities had postponed closing the camp until further notice.

Aid groups have repeatedly warned that the Vucjak camp is located on a former landfill and close to a mine field from Bosnia's 1992-95 war, and has no running water or toilets. Living conditions worsened further after snow started falling last week.

Kovac said the migrants will eventually be moved to one of the reception centers in the Sarajevo Canton. He gave no reason for the postponement, but media reports said the decision was prompted by a lack of proper accommodation at the reception centers.

Bosnia-Herzegovina's security minister, Dragan Mektic, last week announced that the occupants of the camp on the border with Croatia would be relocated to other camps outside the region.

"It was agreed that migrants would be moved early next week from this locality to other reception centers...and that this makeshift camp would be closed," Mektic said in a statement on December 6.

The decision to close the camp came after Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, visited Vucjak last week and warned that deaths would be imminent if the camp were not closed at once. "If we don't close the camp today, tomorrow people will start dying here," she told reporters while visiting the snow-covered camp.

On December 6, Mijatovic told a news conference in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, that it was now urgent to relocate the migrants and provide them with "decent accommodation."

"Many people lack adequate clothing and footwear,'' she said. "It is inhumane and unacceptable to keep people in such conditions.''

However, some migrants said that despite snow and freezing weather, they will refuse to be moved farther away from the border. Most of the migrants flocked to the northwestern part of Bosnia because they want to continue their journey to Western Europe's more prosperous countries by crossing the border into European Union member Croatia.

On December 7, migrants at Vucjak resumed accepting food distributed by the Bihac branch of the Red Cross, after refusing it for several days in protest at the announced relocation of the camp.

Bosnian authorities have struggled to accommodate thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Migrants enter Bosnia from neighboring Serbia or Montenegro.

NATO To Toast 70th Anniversary As Alliance Seeks To Assert Relevance

The 29 allies will have much to discuss on December 3-4, including NATO's political future amid signs of disunity ahead of talks. 

NATO, the most successful military alliance in history, is celebrating its 70th anniversary in London during a two-day summit of the alliance's leaders.

The 29 allies will have much to discuss on December 3-4, including NATO's political future amid signs of disunity ahead of talks.

France, Turkey, and the United States are arriving with differing visions for NATO.

U.S. President Donald Trump has questioned why Washington should defend the West and has called on NATO countries to increase defense spending.

That so far has been happening, according to Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who said non-U.S. allies will have increased their defense spending by $130 billion since 2016.

Canada, Turkey, and Europe are expected to pledge $400 billion in defense spending by 2024 to further appease Trump.

Meanwhile, Turkey has been criticized for buying a sophisticated Russian air-defense system that are incompatible with NATO's systems and which prompted the United States to threaten sanctions and remove Ankara from its F-35 fighter jet program.

Washington, furthermore, has criticized Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for pursuing a policy to defeat Kurdish fighters in Syria who are considered U.S. allies.

In disagreement with mounting criticism, Ankara has been withholding support for a NATO defense plan for the Baltics and Poland that requires the approval of all 29 members.

"The message to Turkey...is we need to move forward on these response plans and it can't be held up by their own particular concerns," U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Reuters as he flew to London.

French President Emmanuel Macron last month questioned NATO's central tenet that an attack on one member is an attack against all while saying the alliance is "experiencing brain-death" over the lack of an overarching strategy.

Wariness of Russia's growing military might and expansion is on the agenda, as is a new strategy to monitor the rise in China's military activity.

NATO also will for the first time name space as a domain of warfare, in addition to air, land, sea, and cyberspace.

"We are faced with a paradox," Stoltenberg told Reuters. "Yes, we have some differences, but the reality is that we are doing more together than for many years."

With reporting by Defense News, AFP, and Reuters

Suspected Islamic State Recruiter Arrested In The Maldives

Up to 160 Maldivian militants are believed to be held in Syrian detention camps after Islamic State was defeated in the country. (file photo)

Police in the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives have detained a local man who the United States says is a recruiter for the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

Muhammad Ameen, 35, was arrested on October 23 on suspicion of spreading an "extremist ideology," Maldivian police said the following day.

He allegedly mobilized fighters for IS in Syria and Afghanistan.

No further details were provided about the suspect although U.S. authorities last month designated him as a foreign terrorist leader of IS-Khorasan, a group that is reportedly active in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Citing local media, AFP reported that Ameen first sent fighters to Syria, but was now focused on recruiting Maldivians for combat in Afghanistan.

He is also suspected of involvement in an explosion at Sultan Park in the capital of Male in September 2007 in which a dozen tourists were hurt with minor injuries.

Up to 160 Maldivian militants are believed to be held in Syrian detention camps after IS was defeated in the country.

The country’s parliamentary speaker and former president, Muhammad Nasheed, said in June that he wants to rehabilitate the imprisoned Maldivians but not without an internationally supervised reintegration program.

The Maldives is a state of 340,000 mostly Sunni Muslims who practice a liberal form of Islam in a nation that relies heavily on luxury tourism for revenue.

Based on reporting by AFP

Disease Fighters To Mark Partial Victory In Polio Eradication Battle

A health worker administers polio vaccine to children during a three-day countrywide vaccination campaign in Peshawar on August 26.

LONDON, -- Global health officials will on October 24 announce a partial victory in the decades-long fight to end polio, with a second of three strains of the crippling virus certified as eradicated worldwide.

The ending of wild polio virus type 3, also known as WPV3, will be the third human disease-causing pathogen to be eradicated in history, after smallpox was declared wiped out in 1980 and wild polio virus type 2 (WPV2) in 2015.

Polio spreads in vulnerable populations in areas where there is no immunity and sanitation is poor. It invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours.

It cannot be cured, but infection can be prevented by vaccination, and a dramatic reduction in case numbers worldwide in recent decades has been largely due to intense national and regional immunization campaigns in babies and children.

The last case of polio type 3 was detected in northern Nigeria in 2012, and global health officials have since been conducting intense surveillance to ensure it has gone.

"With no wild poliovirus type 3 detected anywhere in the world since 2012, the Global Commission for the Certification of Poliomyelitis Eradication is anticipated to officially declare this strain as globally eradicated," the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) said in a statement.

The success in ending type 3 means that only type 1 of the wild virus is still circulating and causing infections.

Polio type 1 is endemic in two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but efforts to wipe it out have faced setbacks in the past two years.

After reaching a historic low of only 22 cases of wild polio infection in 2017, the virus has caused 72 cases in Pakistan and Afghanistan already this year -- pushing back yet further the potential date for the world to wipe polio out altogether.

The first target date for ending polio was set in 1988 by the GPEI, a partnership of the World Health Organization, the health charity Rotary International and others, which had aimed to eradicate it by 2000.

GPEI said, however, that this week's declaration of the end of WPV3 was a "significant milestone," while Carol Pandak, director of Rotary's PolioPlus program, said it proves that a polio-free world is achievable. "Even as the polio program addresses major challenges, we're making important headway in other areas," she said.

At Least Two Dead At Greek Migrant Camp Of Mostly Afghans

A man holds a boy during clashes with police outside the refugee camp of Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos on September 29.

A riot broke out and at least two fires were set ablaze at an overcrowded refugee camp of mostly Afghan migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos on September 29.

At least two people, a mother and child, were killed, the Athens News Agency reported quoting police sources.

The overpopulated Moira camp is designed to house 3,000 people while four times as many migrants live there either in UN-supplied tents or containers.

"The situation is tense," Lesbos Mayor Stratis Kytelis told AFP.

Local police said the two fires, one sparked outside the camp near an olive grove then inside the compound, broke out within 20 minutes of each other.

Riots ensued as migrants clashed with police in protest at the cramped conditions as they demanded access to the mainland.

"We learned with deep sadness that the lives of a woman and a child were lost in a fire on [Lesbos] today," the Greek unit of the UN’s refugee agency said on social media.

Greece admits that it doesn’t have the capacity to accommodate so many migrants on the islands and its government has said it will discuss a new asylum law to deal with the migrant crisis.

The country hosts about 70,000 Syrian refugees and migrants who have fled their homeland since 2015.

Minister of State George Gerapetritis said on local television on September 29 that migrants should be sent to camps with humane conditions.

Ahead of the weekend, Citizen's Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis asked for regional governors to share the migrant burden of the country’s overcrowded islands.

Based on reporting by Al Jazeera, AP, AFP, and Athens News Agency

UNICEF Says More Than 29 Million Babies Born In Conflict Zones In 2018

Afghan women sit with their children after returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan in September 2016.|

More than 29 million babies were born last year into conflict-affected areas, including Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

A report published on September 20 said the statistics meant that more than one in five babies born last year spent their earliest moments in communities affected by "the chaos of conflict, often in deeply unsafe, and highly stressful environments."

"Every parent should be able to cherish their baby's first moments, but for the millions of families living through conflict, the reality is far bleaker," UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said.

She said that in many countries, violent conflict has severely limited access to essential services for parents and their babies.

A UNICEF worker in Afghanistan related the story "of my son, 5-year-old Heraab. [He] finds himself in a community where he is constantly exposed to the sounds of explosions, smell of smoke, accompanied by the regular shrieking of sirens, be it police or ambulance, or the persistent honking of cars and motorbikes rushing the injured to hospital."

"He shudders and wakes up at night if a truck passes by with speed, sometimes shaking the windows of our house, thinking it must be another attack," the worker related.

Afghanistan is embroiled in an 18-year civil war since the 2001 invasion by U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban government after it refused to hand over Al-Qaeda terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, blamed for launching the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

A UNICEF staffer in war-torn Yemen said that "some of the young children we see shake with fear, uncontrollably, for hours on end. They don't sleep. You can hear them whimpering, it's not a usual cry but a cold, weak whimper."

"Others are so malnourished and traumatized they detach emotionally from the world and people around them, causing them to become vacant and making it impossible for them to interact with their families."

Yemen's civil war has killed thousands of civilians and caused shortages of food and medical care that have affected millions in what international experts have called a "humanitarian disaster."

A Saudi-led Sunni Muslim coalition intervened in 2015 to try to restore the internationally recognized government ousted from power in the capital, Sana'a, by the Iran-backed Shi'ite Huthis in late 2014.

The Huthis, who deny being a puppet of Iran and say they launched a revolution against corruption, hold Sana'a and most of the biggest urban centers of Yemen.

French Prosecutor Says Knife-Wielding Afghan Suspect In 'Psychotic State’

Migrants and refugees leave their camp as they are evacuated by French CRS riot police in Nantes, western France, on July 23.

An Afghan asylum-seeker who fatally stabbed one person and wounded eight others in France was under the influence of drugs and experiencing "paranoid delirium," a regional prosecutor said on September 1 as reported by the AP news agency.

He was in a "psychotic state" during the stabbing and reported hearing "voices" telling him to kill, prosecutor Nicolas Jacquet said.

The suspect started attacking people with a knife on August 31 outside a subway station in the Lyon suburb of Villeurbanne.

A group of passers-by apprehended him before the police arrived.

The 33-year-old suspect’s identity wasn’t made available to the public and isn't listed on any radicalism watch list. A police search of his residence found two knives and no radical literature.

He has been living at a French center for asylum-seekers and was in possession of a temporary French residency card.

French cities are on high alert following several deadly attacks blamed on Islamic extremists in 2015 and 2016.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Afghan Man Detained Following Mass Knife Attack In France

FILE: Policemen stand during the evacuation of a migrants and refugees camp in Franc.e

Police in France detained an Afghan asylum-seeker after one person was killed and nine others injured in a knife attack near a commuter train station outside Lyon.

Authorities on August 31 described the attacker as a 33-year-old Afghan citizen who had applied for asylum in France and was waiting for a response.

Police said a 19-year-old man was killed and three of the others were in critical condition following what was described as a “frenzied” attack.

"There was blood everywhere," said a woman who witnessed the attack in the town of Villeurbanne.

Authorities said the incident did not immediately appear to be terrorism-related and it was not known if the assailant knew the victims.

French cities are on high alert following several deadly attacks blamed on Islamic extremists in 2015 and 2016.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

G7 Leaders Gather In France To Discuss Iran, Russia, Amazon Rainforest

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech to business leaders on the eve of the G7 summit.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) top industrialized nations are gathering in southwest France for a potentially contentious summit, with Iran’s nuclear program and the possibility of Russia's reentry into the group on the agenda.

U.S. President Donald Trump and new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are among the leaders scheduled for the two-day summit beginning on August 24 in the resort area of Biarritz, hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Upon his departure from Washington, Trump told reporters that he expected "very productive" talks with his fellow G7 members. He also called on France to drop plans to impose sales taxes on U.S. tech giants such as Google and Facebook.

Along with the other leaders from the G7 nations -- Germany, Canada, Italy, and Japan -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to attend as a guest and will meet individually with many other participants, most likely to discuss the Kashmir crisis.

Macron said he will also look to press Trump to sign a charter protecting biodiversity amid the continuing fires that are devastating the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

All eyes will be on Trump and his relations with the rest of the grouping. The G7 meeting last year in Quebec, Canada, ended in disarray with the U.S. president accusing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of making "false statements" regarding a final communique, which the United States did not endorse.

This year, Washington has been pushing European allies to help put “maximum pressure" on Iran -- through sanctions and other means – to force Tehran to the negotiating table over its nuclear program.

A British diplomatic source in Biarritz told Reuters that "we are strong supporters" of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump pulled out of in May 2018, when he claimed the terms were not strict enough.

"We think that it is very important that Iran doesn't get the nuclear weapons...It is important that it continues and I don't think you will find any change in the British government position," the source said.

The source added, though, that it was crucial for Iran to comply fully with the 2015 accord, sayng that, while Johnson would listen to the U.S. position, the British government was not planning to make any radical changes to its approach.

Trump is likely to face strong pushback if he continues to press his view that Russia should be readmitted to the grouping, which was called the G8 before Moscow was thrown out.

Russia was expelled from the G8 format after invading and annexing Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014. Moscow is also backing separatists in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014.

The G7 member states have imposed sanctions against Moscow over its actions in Ukraine.

Macron said on August 23 that he wanted the leading industrialized nations to also address the "ecocide" that is going on in the Amazon rainforest, which has been struck by a massive number of fires. Experts say many of the fires have been caused by farmers setting the forest ablaze to clear more land for pasture.

His comments have angered Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who blasted what he called Macron’s "colonialist mentality."

Many of the leaders are also expected to discuss the crisis in Kashmir with India’s Modi.

Tensions have risen since Hindu-led India said on August 5 that it would strip the majority-Muslim region of its special status, which sparked resentment in Indian-administered Kashmir and across the border in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, as well as in Islamabad.

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since they gained independence from Britain in 1947, but both sides claim the territory in its entirety.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, dpa, and AP

Trump Backs Off Plan To Slash Foreign Aid Amid Bipartisan Backlash

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the proposed cuts would have been "harmful to our national security." (file photo)

Facing criticism from Republicans and Democrats, U.S. President Donald Trump has backed off a plan to slash some $4 billion in foreign aid already approved by lawmakers.

U.S. news agencies on August 22 quoted unnamed senior administration officials and a Democratic congressional aide as confirming the White House had decided not to go forward with the planned cuts.

U.S. officials on August 7 said Trump had frozen foreign-aid funding until the White House Office of Management and Budget could review any money that hadn't been spent for the fiscal year ending September 30.

The freeze would have impacted 10 bank accounts overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department, a senior administration official told RFE/RL.

Funding for a Pakistani space initiative and Uzbek education program were among the projects funded by the 10 accounts.

AP quoted an administration official as saying it was clear that many lawmakers were not willing to join in "curbing wasteful spending."

Since taking office, Trump has repeatedly sought to cut foreign aid, but the proposals have been rejected by lawmakers from both parties.

Liz Schrayer, chief of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition -- a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for a strong international affairs budget -- applauded the move to maintain funding.

"Americans can be pleased that the administration recognized the importance of these vital foreign-assistance programs for keeping America safe and on the global playing field," she said.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said the proposed cuts would have been "harmful to our national security" and violated good-faith negotiations that brought about the bipartisan budget deal.

Based on reporting by AP and Reuters

Trump: Other Countries Should Fight Islamic State

Forces with Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) escort alleged Taliban and Islamic State fighters after they are presented to the media in Jalalabad on May 23.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said that other countries must take up the battle against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, citing Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia as examples.

Asked by reporters whether he is concerned about the reemergence of the IS group in Iraq, Trump told reporters on August 21 that U.S. forces had “wiped out the caliphate 100 percent.”

Earlier this year, U.S.-backed forces reclaimed the last remaining territory once held by IS fighters in Syria.

The Trump administration has reduced the U.S. military presence in Syria and neighboring Iraq, and there have been concerns about the extremists gaining new strength in the region.

Meanwhile, U.S, and Taliban negotiators are reportedly nearing a deal to end the nearly 18-year war in Afghanistan, which would allow the United States to withdraw its troops from the country.

"At a certain point, Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, they are going to have to fight their battles too," Trump said at the White House.

"At a certain point, all of these other countries, where [IS] is around...are going to have to fight them. Because do we want to stay there another 19 years? I don't think so," he said.

Trump singled out India and Pakistan as frontline countries that are doing little to fight militant groups.

"Look, India's right there, they are not fighting it, we're fighting it. Pakistan is next door. They're fighting it, very little.... It's not fair. The United States is 7,000 miles [11,265 kilometers] away," he said.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

Pilgrims At Hajj Gather At Mount Arafat

SAUDI ARABIA -- Muslims pray at the Grand Mosque during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in their holy city of Mecca, August 8, 2019

An estimated 2 million Muslims have gathered at Saudi Arabia's Mount Arafat as part of the annual hajj pilgrimage.

Worshippers spent the night at a large encampment around the hill where Islam holds that God tested Abraham's faith by commanding him to sacrifice his son Ismail. It is also where Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon.

Saudi Arabia has said more than 2 million pilgrims, mostly from abroad, have arrived for the five-day ritual, a religious duty once in a lifetime for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the journey.

The pilgrims will spend the day on Mount Arafat.

By sunset they will move to Muzdalifa to gather pebbles to throw at stone columns symbolizing the devil at Jamarat on August 11, which marks the first day of Eid al-Adha, or the feast of sacrifice.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP

Bipartisan Group Of U.S. Lawmakers Oppose Plan To Freeze Foreign Aid

USAID is often directed toward economic development, such as this fruit-processing plant in Kyrgyzstan (file photo).

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have joined forces to oppose moves by the White House that critics fear could lead to sharp cuts in foreign aid for health, peacekeeping, narcotics control, and other programs.

Senior members of both parties sent a letter on August 9 to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) expressing “deep concern” after it instructed the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to freeze around $4 billion in their budgets until it reviews any money that hasn't yet been spent.

Critics have said the freeze could be the first step in making cuts to foreign aid.

In the letter, the lawmakers wrote that "these funds, which were appropriated by Congress and signed into law by the President following lengthy, bipartisan negotiations, are essential to promoting U.S. global leadership and protecting the security of the American people."

The freeze impacts 10 bank accounts overseen by USAID and the State Department, a senior administration official told RFE/RL.

The OMB made the request to USAID and State Department on August 3 and has yet to receive information about how much is currently in those accounts and how they plan to use the money.

The fiscal year ends on September 30.

Funding for a Pakistan space initiative and Uzbek education program are two of the projects funded by the 10 accounts under review.

The chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee urged the heads of the OMB to make money available right away.

Republicans in both houses of Congress have typically been extremely supportive of Trump’s policies, although many have spoken up against moves related to foreign affairs, including his close ties to Saudi Arabia, plans to withdraw troops from Syria, and reduction in aid to Central America.

The Trump administration has made repeated efforts to reduce the amount of money Washington spends on foreign aid.

In April, the administration unsuccessfully tried to cut the budget on foreign aid and diplomacy by 23 percent.

Trump’s ally, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, called the proposal “insane.”

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Muslims Begin Arriving In Saudi Arabia Ahead Of Annual Hajj

Muslim pilgrims congregate around the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, ahead of the Hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, on August 8.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have begun arriving in Saudi Arabia for the upcoming annual hajj amid the blistering heat and rising political and military tensions in the region.

This year's hajj is expected to feature large numbers of pilgrims from Iran, whose government had boycotted the event after an estimated 2,300 pilgrims, many of them Iranians, were crushed to death in a ritual near Mecca in 2015.

The hajj this year will run from August 19 to August 24 and is expected to draw 2 million of the world's estimated 2 billion Muslims.

Every Muslim is required to complete the hajj -- considered one of the five pillars of Islam -- at least once in their lifetime if they have the means to do so.

Muslims around the world pray toward the Kaaba, which is located in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and pilgrims walk around it seven times.

The Saudis stake their reputation on the guardianship of Islam's holiest sites and the conducting of a peaceful hajj.

Besides the 2015 tragedy, the event has been marred in the past by deadly fires and riots.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

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