The issue of gun violence has been dominating U.S. political debate in the wake of mass shootings last weekend in Texas and Ohio. While members of Congress are on their August recess, Democratic presidential candidates are calling for action and Republican President Donald Trump is promising more rigorous screening of gun buyers. VOA’s Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Once considered Islamic State’s de facto capital, the Syrian city of Raqqa is slowly recovering, nearly two years after its liberation from the Islamic State terror group. Local officials and residents complain there is too little money to rebuild their city. VOA’s Sirwan Kajjo reports from Raqqa.
Former defense secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse formally launched his bid for Sri Lanka’s presidency Sunday, vowing to battle “extremist terrorism” in the wake of the deadly Easter Sunday suicide attacks.
The 70-year-old — and his ex-president brother, Mahinda — have been critical of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s handling of the bombings, which were blamed on a local Islamist jihadi group in the Buddhist-majority nation.
The attacks targeting three churches and three hotels claimed the lives of at least 258 people and left nearly 500 wounded. Since then, the country has been under a state of emergency.
Gotabhaya Rajapakse will stand for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Front) party, which was formed recently by his older brother, who ruled for a decade from 2005.
The SLPP is a breakaway faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is nominally led by current President Maithripala Sirisena.
Highlighting frequent schisms in the country’s politics, the SLFP in turn broke away from a coalition with premier Wickremesinghe’s right-wing United National Party (UNP) earlier this year.
“I will not allow extremist terrorism under my presidency,” Gotabhaya Rajapakse said at the launch of his campaign for presidential elections, which are due later this year.
He was in charge of the defense ministry as its top bureaucrat when security forces crushed Tamil rebels and ended a 37-year separatist war in May 2009.
The no-holds-barred military campaign also triggered allegations of grave human rights abuses, including the killing of up to 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of fighting.
Gothabhaya Rajapakse is currently on bail facing prosecution for allegedly siphoning off millions of rupees of state cash to build a monument for his parents when his brother was president.
He also faces a civil suit in the United States for allegedly causing the death of a prominent anti-establishment newspaper editor in Sri Lanka in January 2009.
Wickremesinghe has indicated he too wants to run for president, but his party is yet to nominate an official candidate amid major internal clashes over his leadership.
The second season of an AMC-TV drama series follows the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and a number of bizarre deaths haunting a community.
“The Terror: Infamy” is set to premiere Monday and stars Derek Mio and original “Star Trek” cast member George Takei as they navigate the forced internment and supernatural spirits that surround them.
It’s the first television series depicting the internment of Japanese Americans on such a massive scale and camps were recreated with detail to illustrate the conditions and racism internees faced.
The show’s new season is part of the Ridley Scott-produced anthology series.
Mio, who is fourth-generation Japanese American and plays Chester Nakayama, said he liked the idea of adding a supernatural element to a historical event such as Japanese American internment. He says he had relatives who lived on Terminal Island outside of Los Angeles and were taken to camps.
Residents there were some of the first forced into internment camps after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
“If you add the supernatural element, it’s a little more accessible and now it’s like a mainstream subject and it can open up more discussion about what really happened and what’s going on right now,” Mio said.
It was a role personal to him as well. “It’s not just another kind of acting job for me,” Mio said. “I really do feel a responsibility to tell this story that my ancestors actually went through.”
From 1942 to 1945, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were ordered to camps in California, Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico and other sites.
Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, forced Japanese Americans, regardless of loyalty or citizenship, to leave the West Coast and other areas for the camps surrounded by barbed wire and military police. Half of those detainees were children.
Takei, who was interned in a camp as a child, said he was impressed with the show’s research into recreating the camp.
“The barracks reminded me again – mentally, I was able to go back to my childhood. That’s exactly the way it was,” Takei said. “So for me, it was both fulfilling to raise the awareness to this extent of the terror. But also to make the storytelling that much more compelling.”
The series also involves others who are connected to historic World War II events. Josef Kubota Wladyka, one of the show’s directors, had a grandfather who was in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb dropped and managed to survive.
Max Borenstein, one of the show’s executive producers who lost relatives at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, said the show’s horror genre still doesn’t compare to the horror of the internment camp.
“It was important to do the research, the lived reality that people faced,” Borenstein said. “The fact of taking people who are citizens of the country and (putting them in camps) is a great stain of our country.”
Co-creator Alexander Woo, who is Chinese American, said he believes the series is especially relevant now given the debate over immigration in the U.S. and Europe.
“The struggle that immigrants go through of embracing a country that doesn’t embrace you back is a story, unfortunately, that keeps repeating,” Woo said. “There’s going to be some people who likely didn’t know of the internment. There will be some people who had relatives in camps. We have a responsibility to be accurate.”
Financier Jeffrey Epstein died by suicide while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges in New York, a former law enforcement official said Saturday.
He was found in his cell at the Manhattan Correctional Center Saturday morning, according to the officials, who was briefed on the matter but spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss it publicly. The medical examiner’s office in Manhattan confirmed Epstein’s death.
Epstein’s arrest last month launched separate investigations into how authorities handled his case initially when similar charges were first brought against him in Florida more than a decade ago. U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta resigned last month after coming under fire for overseeing that deal when he was U.S. attorney in Miami.
The 66-year-old had pleaded not guilty and was facing up to 45 years in prison if convicted.
A little over two weeks, Epstein was found on the floor of his jail cell with bruises on his neck early, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity. At the time, it was not clear whether the injuries were self-inflicted or from an assault.
Epstein’s arrest drew national attention, particularly focusing on a deal that allowed Epstein to plead guilty in 2008 to soliciting a minor for prostitution in Florida and avoid more serious federal charges.
Federal prosecutors in New York reopened the probe after investigative reporting by The Miami Herald stirred outrage over that plea bargain.
But his lawyers maintained that the new charges brought by federal prosecutors in New York were covered by the deal and were improper.
They said he hasn’t had any illicit contact with underage girls since serving his 13-month sentence in Florida.
Before his legal troubles, Epstein led a life of extraordinary luxury that drew powerful people into his orbit.
He socialized with princes and presidents and lived on a 100-acre private island in the Caribbean and one of the biggest mansions in New York. A college dropout, he became a sought-after benefactor of professors and scientists, donating millions of dollars in donations to Harvard University and other causes.
Still, it was never entirely clear how the middle-class Brooklyn math whiz became a Wall Street master of high finance.
Malta says it is willing to take in 39 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean Sea early Saturday by a Spanish NGO’s ship.
Malta said, however, it would not take the 121 people who were already on the vessel who were plucked from the sea last week.
Malta said its military had already mounted an effort to rescue the 39.
Proactive Open Arms, the migrant rescue group, recovered the 39 instead and has refused to disembark the group if Malta does not take the group of 121 migrants.
Malta said in a statement that the larger group was rescued in “an area where Malta is neither responsible nor the competent coordinating authority. Malta can only shoulder its own responsibility since other solutions are not forthcoming.”
Oscar Camps, the founder of Proactive Open Arms, said Malta’s decision not to take the 121 migrants has “caused a serious security problem” on the ship. “The anxiety of these people is unbearable.”
Actor Richard Gere who brought food and water to the ship Friday, said, “The most important thing for these people here is to be able to get to a free port, to be able to get off the boat, to start a new life for themselves.”
A landslide buried more than a dozen village houses in southeastern Myanmar, killing at least 10 people and injuring nearly 30, media reported Saturday.
Rescuers were using backhoes and bulldozers to clear the mud and debris from the village in Paung township. The Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported that some residents were still missing.
The top official in Mon state, Aye Zan, visited the site and villagers who were evacuated to a relief camp to escape floods following torrential rains.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that monsoon flooding had displaced more than 7,000 people this week in Mon state. Apart from the landslide in Paung, houses and a school in other townships were washed away, roads were blocked and villages were submerged.
Nearly 12,000 people have been displaced in Myanmar this week alone, bringing the total number of those in evacuation centers to more than 38,000, the U.N. said.
In the 4½ months since U.S.-backed forces declared victory over the Islamic State terror group’s last shred of territory in Syria, there has been a steady drumbeat of doubt.
One by one, military leaders, diplomats and experts began raising concerns, aiming to convince policymakers that for all of the success in rolling back IS’s self-declared caliphate, the group was far from dead.
“This is not the end of the fight,” U.S. Special Representative for Syria Ambassador James Jeffrey warned, just days after the victory celebrations in Syria in late March.
“That will go on,” he said. “It is a different type of fight.”
A series of new reports, citing intelligence from United Nations member states, the U.S. military and other sources, now indicate it is a fight that IS is increasingly well-positioned to win.
“As long as it can gain revenue, it will remain a danger,” the Rand Corp. declared Thursday in “Return and Expand?” a report on the terror group’s finances and prospects following the collapse of its caliphate.
The Rand report estimates IS had perhaps in excess of $400 million in assets by early 2019.
Intelligence from U.N. member states, included in another recent report, indicates even after the fall of the caliphate, IS may still have up to $300 million at its disposal.
But even if the actual figure is lower, there are no indications that efforts to defeat IS has left the terror group wanting.
“It still has certainly more than enough money to survive for quite a while,” Rand senior economist Howard Shatz, one of the authors of the Rand report, told VOA.
“It’s a cash organization. Its expenses had to match its revenues,” he said. “We haven’t seen evidence of drawing from reserves or expenses outstripping revenues.”
And despite repeated strikes targeting senior IS leaders in Syria and Iraq, the group’s infrastructure and financial leadership has remained solid.
“It is possible to lower their level of effort, to lower their competency,” Shatz said. “But if there’s any let up, they do have people who are in the organization, come up through the organization, and take over.”
“Some of those people will be better. Some of those people will be worse. But the people are there,” he said.
Estimated number of fighters
The best U.S. estimates indicate an IS pool of anywhere from 14,000 to 18,000 so-called members across Syria and Iraq, many of whom are thought to be fighters.
While many of those fighters have gone underground, others remain active, targeting key community leaders in Syria and Iraq for assassinations, and burning crops to create turmoil.
Officials with Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led military operation to counter IS, also warn the terror group has solidified in capabilities, enhancing its command and control and logistics infrastructure in Iraq.
Military and diplomatic officials say IS also has retained support in rural parts of Iraq, especially in areas extending south of Mosul all the way to Baghdad, the capital.
In Syria, where military officials describe IS as “resurgent,” the group is using large displaced persons camps, like the one at al-Hol, to its advantage.
Despite efforts by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to provide security for al-Hol, coalition officials warned the U.S. Defense Department inspector general that thousands of IS supporters have been able to spread the group’s ideology “uncontested.”
“We have been clear that there is work left to do,” Pentagon spokesman Commander Sean Robertson said.
“ISIS has prepared its resources to operate underground,” he said, adding that in the face of the terror groups’ resurgence, “we continue to work with allies and partners to enable stabilization efforts.”
In some ways, this is what U.S. military officials have been worried about since last year, when the Pentagon warned that despite mounting territorial losses, IS was “well-positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to re-emerge.”
According to a recent U.N. report, rebuilding efforts would still seem to include key IS leaders, including the group’s self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“This process is more advanced in Iraq, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and most of the [IS] leadership are now based,” the report said, a conclusion supported by some Western intelligence officials.
Key leaders survived
The U.N. said other key leaders have also survived “elsewhere in the former ‘caliphate’ area and parts of the immediate neighborhood,” though the report admits communication remains difficult.
The U.S.-led coalition has, at times, described the terror group’s current strategy as “strategic patience.”
“While their leadership hides for the sake of self-preservation, some groups of fighters have been attempting to create safe havens,” the coalition told VOA in a statement.
Still, there is persistent concern that even as IS seeks to regain its relevance on the battlefield, it is finding success in using social media to recreate the perception it is as relevant as ever.
This past April, al-Baghdadi was able to deliver his first video speech since he was shown giving a sermon in July 2014 at the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, Iraq.
“Jihad continues until judgment day,” al-Baghdadi said, urging IS followers to fight on.
Researchers, though, fear IS has one more card to play as the group seeks to reassert itself — its detailed record-keeping for the areas it once ruled.
“We know during the time of the caliphate, the Islamic State was recording financial details about individuals living in its territory,” said Shatz, the Rand economist.
“I don’t think that information goes away,” he said, adding when the time is right, the group knows whom to squeeze. “There are a lot of people now who are known to the Islamic State who the Islamic State could come to and try to get money from.”
An envoy of U.S. President Donald Trump suggested on Friday that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s unwillingness to boost defense spending might give the United States no choice but to move American troops stationed in Germany to Poland.
The comments by Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, signal Trump’s impatience with Merkel’s failure to raise defense spending to 2% of economic output as mandated by the NATO military alliance.
“It is offensive to assume that the U.S. taxpayers continue to pay for more than 50,000 Americans in Germany but the Germans get to spend their [budget] surplus on domestic programs,” Grenell told the dpa news agency.
Germany’s fiscal plans foresee the defense budget of NATO’s second-largest member rising to 1.37% of output next year before falling to 1.24% in 2023.
Eastern European countries like Poland and Latvia, fearful of Russia after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, have raised their military spending to the 2% target, drawing praise from Trump who wants Germany to do the same.
U.S. complaints about Germany’s defense spending pre-date Trump but relations with the United States have deteriorated since he became president.
The two allies do not see eye-to-eye on a range of issues, including Iran, trade tariffs and the NordStream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.
Trump said in June he would deploy 1,000 U.S. troops from Germany to Poland, which sees the measure as deterrence against possible aggression from Russia.
Georgette Mosbacher, U.S. ambassador to Poland, has made a similar criticism of Germany’s reluctance to commit more financial resources to NATO.
“Poland meets its 2% of GDP spending obligation towards NATO. Germany does not. We would welcome American troops in Germany to come to Poland,” she wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
The United States has more than 33,000 soldiers in Germany and an additional 17,000 U.S. civilian employees to support them. It is believed the United States also has nuclear warheads in Germany.
“President Trump is right and Georgette Mosbacher is right,” Grenell told dpa. “Multiple presidents have asked Europe’s largest economy to pay for its own defense. This request has been made over many years and by many presidents.”
Grenell added that the United States must react if Germany continues to ignore Trump’s demand to boost defense spending.
Trump travels to France this month for the G-7 summit, where Iran will be a major topic. Trump will also visit Poland and Denmark.
Grenell earlier this month criticized Germany for showing reluctance to join a planned U.S. naval mission in the Strait of Hormuz, close to Iran.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday unveiled a proposal that would curb state powers to block pipelines and other energy projects, as part of the Trump administration’s effort to boost domestic oil, gas and coal development.
The move, swiftly criticized by an organization representing progressive states, comes four months after President Donald Trump ordered the EPA to change a section of the U.S. Clean Water Act that states like New York and Washington have used in recent years to delay pipelines and terminals.
“When implemented, this proposal will streamline the process for constructing new energy infrastructure projects that are good for American families, American workers, and the American economy,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a press release announcing the move.
The EPA’s proposal is centered on changes to Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, which allows states and tribes to block energy projects on environmental grounds, it said.
David Hayes, director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center, part of the New York University Law School, which coordinates policy with state attorneys general, said the proposal runs counter to the Trump administration’s promises to support so-called “cooperative federalism” in which states are given broad authority to decide policy.
“The Trump administration gives lip service to ‘cooperative federalism,’ but it practices ‘fair-weather federalism,” he said. “It’s a hypocritical double standard.”