Author: Depoworld

Asteroid on Path for Close Call With Earth

An asteroid the size of a delivery truck will whip past Earth on Thursday night, one of the closest such encounters ever recorded.

NASA said it will be a near miss with no chance of the asteroid hitting Earth.

NASA said Wednesday that the newly discovered asteroid will zoom 3,600 kilometers above the southern tip of South America. That’s 10 times closer than the bevy of communication satellites circling overhead.

The closest approach will occur at 7:27 p.m. EST (9:27 p.m. local.)

Even if the space rock came a lot closer, scientists said most of it would burn up in the atmosphere, with some of the bigger pieces possibly falling as meteorites.

NASA’s impact hazard assessment system, called Scout, quickly ruled out a strike, said its developer, Davide Farnocchia, an engineer at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“Despite the very few observations, it was nonetheless able to predict that the asteroid would make an extraordinarily close approach with Earth,” Farnocchia said in a statement. “In fact, this is one of the closest approaches by a known near-Earth object ever recorded.”

2023 BU

Discovered Saturday, the asteroid known as 2023 BU is believed to be between 3.5 meters and 8.5 meters feet across. It was first spotted by the same amateur astronomer in Crimea, Gennadiy Borisov, who discovered an interstellar comet in 2019. Within a few days, dozens of observations were made by astronomers around the world, allowing them to refine the asteroid’s orbit.

Earth’s gravity will alter the path of the asteroid once it zips by. Instead of circling the sun every 359 days, the rock will move into an oval orbit lasting 425 days, according to NASA.

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Afghan Soldier Seeking US Asylum Freed From Federal Custody

An Afghan soldier seeking U.S. asylum who was detained for months after being arrested while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border has been freed from immigration detention and reunited with his brother, his attorney said Wednesday. 

Abdul Wasi Safi’s release from custody in Eden, Texas, came after a judge dropped an immigration charge against him at the request of federal prosecutors. 

Wasi Safi fled Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. forces in August 2021, fearing reprisals from the Taliban because he had provided U.S. forces with information on terrorists while working as an intelligence officer for the Afghan National Security Forces. In the summer of 2022, he began a treacherous journey from Brazil to the U.S.-Mexico border, where he was arrested in September near Eagle Pass, Texas. He had hoped to eventually be reunited with his brother, who lives in Houston. 

On Monday, a federal judge in Del Rio, Texas, dismissed the federal immigration charge after prosecutors had filed a motion asking her to do so “in the interest of justice.” 

Zachary Fertitta, one of his criminal defense attorneys, said Wednesday that Wasi Safi was receiving medical care at an undisclosed location but that he planned to speak at a news conference on Friday in Houston. 

Fertitta said Wasi Safi and his brother “are overjoyed to be reunited.” 

‘Not a danger’

Jennifer Cervantes, another of Wasi Safi’s immigration attorneys, said earlier Wednesday that she expected him to be transferred from U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She said ICE would likely interview him but had no reason to keep him in custody. 

“He’s certainly not a danger to the United States. He’s done a lot of good service for the United States,” Cervantes said. 

U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, belongs to a bipartisan group of lawmakers that had been working to free Wasi Safi. She said in a statement Tuesday night that she expected him to arrive in her hometown by Friday. 

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection and ICE, has not responded to an email seeking comment Wednesday. 

Sami-ullah Safi, Wasi Safi’s brother, was employed by the U.S. military for several years as a translator. Sami Safi said he was pleased the criminal case had been dropped but that he remained frustrated about how his sibling was treated in light of his family’s support for the U.S in Afghanistan. 

“If we categorize my brother’s service, how many lives he has saved because of his service, and how many lives I have saved because of my service being a combat translator?” Sami Safi said. 

Wasi Safi’s case was first reported by The Texas Tribune.

‘Serious’ health problems 

On his journey from Brazil to the U.S., Wasi Safi suffered serious injuries from beatings, including damaged front teeth and hearing loss in his right ear. 

“We are now working on his health condition, which has turned serious after months of neglect,” Zachary Fertitta, one of his criminal defense attorneys, said in an email Wednesday. 

The lawyers, lawmakers and military organizations that have been working to free Wasi Safi said his case highlights how America’s chaotic military withdrawal continues to harm Afghan citizens who helped the U.S. but were left behind. 

Nearly 76,000 Afghans who worked with American soldiers since 2001 as translators, interpreters and partners arrived in the U.S. on military planes after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. But their immigration status remains unclear after Congress failed to pass a proposed law, the Afghan Adjustment Act, that would have solidified their legal residency status. 

Cervantes said Wasi Safi’s case is not unique and that other Afghans seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border have also faced difficulty getting their cases properly reviewed. She said she hoped her work “sheds some light on that and [helps] these guys get what I think is the right thing to do, what I think is fair for them.” 

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Russia, Pakistan Discuss ‘Practical Engagement’ With Afghan Taliban

Russia and Pakistan emphasized in bilateral talks Wednesday the need for “practical engagement” with Afghanistan’s Taliban but ruled out formal recognition of the Islamist rulers until they address international concerns over women’s rights and inclusive governance.

The Russian presidential envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, led his delegation in the talks with Pakistani officials in Islamabad and briefed them on his meetings earlier this month with the Taliban in Kabul.

 

Kabulov said Moscow was continuing to engage with the Taliban but was not considering granting legitimacy to the de facto Afghan rulers “for the time being,” official Pakistani sources privy to Wednesday’s meetings told VOA.

The sources quoted the Russian envoy as saying he “advised” the Islamist Taliban to move toward creating a politically inclusive government and easing curbs on women, saying that otherwise there can be no movement forward on the issue of their legitimacy, nor can Afghanistan get any substantial support from the world.

A brief Pakistani statement posted on Twitter after Kabulov’s meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said the two sides “emphasized [the] need for practical engagement with the interim Afghan government.”

The Pakistani side also reiterated that Islamabad was not considering giving the Taliban formal recognition and would do so only collectively with the international community, the sources said.

The foreign ministry in a formal statement issued later offered few details of the meeting and did not mention the issue of recognition of the de facto Afghan authorities.

The statement quoted Khar as urging the international community “to continue extending assistance and support, in order to address urgent humanitarian needs and to provide a sustainable pathway for Afghanistan’s prosperity and development.”

The Taliban reclaimed power in Afghanistan in August 2021 following the end of almost 20 years of U.S.-led foreign military intervention in the conflict-torn South Asian nation.

The world has not yet formally recognized the male-only Taliban government, mainly over human rights concerns and curbs it has placed on women’s access to work and education.

While the United States and Western nations at large shifted their Afghan diplomatic missions to Qatar after the Taliban captured Kabul, several countries, including Pakistan, Russia, China, Turkey and Iran, have kept their embassies open and maintain close contacts with the hard-line rulers.

Chinese support

Last week, newly appointed Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang spoke with his Taliban counterpart, Amir Khan Muttaqi, and reaffirmed Beijing’s support for the group to establish what he called “a broad and inclusive political structure” in Kabul.

Afghan women have been excluded from most areas of the workforce and have been banned from using parks, gyms and public bath houses. The Taliban have refused to reopen secondary schools for girls beyond grade six since returning to power.

The hard-line Taliban reject criticism of their administration, saying the government represents all ethnic and political groups in Afghanistan. They also strongly defend restrictions on women, saying the policies are in line with Afghan culture and Islamic law, or Shariah.

Last month, the Taliban authorities closed universities to female students until further notice, and they forbade women from working for national and international nongovernmental organizations.

The Taliban’s curbs on Afghan female aid workers have forced major international charity groups to halt some of their programs in a country where 97% of the estimated population of 40 million lives below the poverty line and nearly half of them need humanitarian assistance.

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Iran Responds to EU, UK Sanctions With Some of Its Own

Iran imposed sanctions Wednesday on 34 individuals and entities from the European Union and Britain in reaction to similar measures they have taken over Tehran’s response to months-long protests. 

Tehran’s move comes two days after the EU and Britain placed another round of sanctions on the Islamic republic, which has been rocked by protests since the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini. 

Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd, died in police custody after being arrested for allegedly breaching the country’s strict dress code for women. 

The sanctions imposed by Tehran include the blocking of accounts and transactions in Iran’s banks and the “prohibition of visa issuance and entry” to Iran, the foreign ministry said. 

Iran accuses the people and organizations of “supporting terrorism and terrorist groups, instigating and encouragement to terrorist acts and violence against Iranian people.” 

It also accuses them of “interference in the domestic affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran and fomenting violence and unrest and dissemination of false information about Iran.” 

The EU said “these Iranian measures are purely politically motivated,” insisting the European sanctions were “adopted on clear legal grounds.” 

“The European Union will continue to call on Iranian authorities to ensure accountability and basic freedom for its people,” Peter Stano, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, told AFP. 

The Iranian sanctions include 25 listed names from the EU and nine from Britain. 

France’s Radio J, the European Friends of Israel group, and 22 individuals including six members of the European Parliament are among those targeted. 

The list also includes the Swedish-Danish right-wing extremist Rasmus Paludan, who burned a copy of the Koran in Sweden on Saturday, sparking strong protests from the Muslim world. 

The EU on Monday imposed its fourth round of sanctions against Iran since the protests started, placing 37 more officials and entities on an asset freeze and visa ban blacklist. 

Britain on the same day sanctioned five more Iranian officials, broadening its blacklist to 50 individuals and organizations it considers to be involved in dealing with the protests. 

The new Iranian list also includes nine French nationals, among them Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and the philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy. 

Also targeted are three members of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which as an entity was on a previous Iranian sanctions list for publishing caricatures of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

In Britain, they include Victoria Prentis, the attorney general, army chief Patrick Sanders and the former Defense Secretary, Liam Fox. 

The EU has imposed sanctions on more than 60 Iranian officials and entities over the crackdown on protesters, including the morality police, state media and individual commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

But the 27-nation bloc has so far stopped short of blacklisting the IRGC as a whole as a “terrorist” organization, despite calls from Germany and the Netherlands to do so. 

Iran has warned the bloc against sanctioning the Revolutionary Guards, and EU officials are wary it could forever end stalled talks they have been mediating on reviving a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. 

The agreement gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program to guarantee that Tehran could not develop or acquire a nuclear weapon, something it has always denied wanting to do. 

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GOP States Sue Biden Administration Over New Border Policy 

Twenty states with GOP attorneys general on Tuesday sued the Biden administration over a major change in immigration policy that would turn away more migrants but still allow 360,000 people to legally enter each year from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. 

The lawsuit, filed in a federal court in Texas, accuses the Biden administration of arbitrarily creating recent changes and overstepping its authority. Among those leading the challenge is Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has succeeded before in temporarily stopping new immigration rules under President Joe Biden.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment on the lawsuit late Tuesday. 

The changes that Biden announced this month amounted to his boldest move yet to confront the arrival of migrants that have spiraled since he took office two years ago. The four nationalities that Biden addressed now make up the majority of those crossing the border illegally. 

There were more than 2.38 million stops during the fiscal year that ended September 30, which is the first time the count topped 2 million. The administration has struggled to clamp down on crossings, reluctant to take hardline measures that would resemble those of the Trump administration.

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US Seeks Reengagement with China to Stop Illicit Fentanyl as Blinken Heads to Beijing

The United States is “actively seeking to reengage” China on counternarcotics, including stopping the flow of illicit synthetic drugs like fentanyl into the U.S., said the State Department ahead of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing in early February.

U.S. officials admit engagement between the two countries on these issues “has been limited in recent months.”

“We don’t have any recent meetings to read out or to preview,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA on Tuesday, when asked if talks to combat fentanyl have been resumed after Beijing suspended collaboration with Washington on the issue in protest of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August.

“Though its past action has helped counter illicit synthetic drug flows, we do hope to see additional action from the PRC (People’s Republic of China) – meaningful, concrete action – to curb the diversion of precursor chemicals and equipment used by criminals to manufacture fentanyl and other synthetic drugs,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told VOA this week.

In 2019, China added fentanyl-related substances to the list of controlled narcotic drugs.

While Beijing is no longer a major source of the synthetic opioid flowing to the United States, U.S. officials said Washington continues to see Chinese-origin precursor chemicals being used in illicit fentanyl production and other illicit synthetic drugs.

Bipartisan congressional majorities have approved legislation to prioritize U.S. efforts to combat international trafficking of covered synthetic drugs.

The FENTANYL Results Act was signed into law by U.S. President Joe Biden through the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 at the end of last year.

Fentanyl is the leading killer of Americans between the ages of 18 and 49.

The FENTANYL Results Act would authorize programs through the State Department to build foreign law enforcement capacity to detect synthetic drugs and carry out an international exchange program for drug demand reduction experts, according to Democratic Representative David Trone and Republican Representative Michael McCaul, who co-authored the bill.

Trone said his nephew died of a fentanyl overdose alone in a hotel room.

 

A recent report by the U.S. Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) underlined growing threats of an animal sedative called xylazine (often known as “tranq”) mixed with illicit fentanyl. The risk of overdose multiplies when xylazine is combined with fentanyl.

“A kilogram of xylazine powder can be purchased online from Chinese suppliers with common prices ranging from $6-$20 U.S. dollars per kilogram. At this low price, its use as an adulterant may increase the profit for illicit drug traffickers,” the DEA said in a report late last year.

On Dec. 15, 2021, the State Department announced a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of Chuen Fat Yip, a Chinese national charged in a five-count federal indictment, including manufacturing and distributing a controlled substance knowing it will be unlawfully imported into the United States.

“We have no updates on Chuen Fat Yip,” a spokesperson told VOA when asked if the Chinese government is cooperating on his case.

Yihua Lee from VOA Mandarin contributed to this report.

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European Rights Court Rules Dutch, Ukraine Cases Against Russia Are Admissible

The European Court of Human Rights said cases brought by Ukraine and the Netherlands against Russia over human rights violations in the two breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine, and the shooting down of Flight MH-17, were admissible. 

The decision is procedural and does not rule on the merits of the cases, but it does show the Strasbourg-based court considers Russia can be held liable for alleged human rights violations in the separatist regions. 

“Among other things, the Court found that areas in eastern Ukraine in separatist hands were, from 11 May 2014 and up to at least 26 January 2022, under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation,” the court said in a ruling on Wednesday. 

The cases will now move on to the merits stage, expected to take another one to two years before a final decision is issued. 

The ECHR ruling opens the doors to at least three other cases by the Ukrainian state against Russia, which had been put on hold pending the decision on jurisdiction. 

The Netherlands filed its case with the ECHR in 2020, saying the shooting down of Flight MH-17 over territory in eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists breached the European Convention on Human Rights. 

Moscow has repeatedly denied any involvement in the destruction of the aircraft as fighting raged between the separatists and Ukrainian government forces. 

The two Ukrainian cases, which date from 2014, pertain to what Kyiv says were administrative practices by Russia in eastern Ukraine in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as the abduction of three groups of Ukrainian orphan children and children without parental care, and a number of adults accompanying them.

All were returned home one day or, in the third case, five days after their abduction, the ECHR said. 

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UN Economists Project Lowest Global Growth Rates in Decades

The 2023 World Economic Situation and Prospects report has just been issued, and U.N. economists present a gloomy and uncertain outlook for the coming year, with the global economy projected to grow at a particularly sluggish rate.

Multiple crises have converged to batter the world economy. The U.N. report cites a series of multiple and severe shocks for unleashing one of the lowest global economic outputs in recent decades.

It says the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, surging inflation and the climate emergency, among other crises, are setting back short-term growth prospects and threatening to undermine longer-term sustainable development in the poorer countries.

The report projects world output growth to drop from an estimated 3 percent in 2022 to 1.9 percent in 2023.

Ingo Pitterle, senior economist at the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said private consumption and investment are expected to weaken in most countries due to declining income and higher interest rates. He noted several countries will see a mild recession before growth is expected to pick up in the next half of this year into 2024.

“The economic trajectory this year and next year will significantly be driven by trends in inflation and the monetary and fiscal policy response set,” Pitterle said. “The good news is that energy, food and fertilizer prices have already come down considerably from their peak in the middle of last year. However, food insecurity remains an immense global challenge. The number of people facing food insecurity has more than doubled since 2019.”

The report finds weaker economic growth in the United States, the European Union and other developed economies last year has adversely impacted the rest of the global economy.

Pitterle said most developing regions are expected to experience lower growth this year. The main exception, he said, is East Asia due largely to the rebound in China.

“Our growth outlook for Africa is relatively moderate,” he said. “But when we factor in the very high population growth, 4 percent annual growth is not enough to address the region’s massive development challenges.”

The report calls on governments to avoid fiscal austerity measures to get out of their economic doldrums. This, it says, would stifle growth and disproportionately affect the most vulnerable groups, set back progress in gender equality and stymie development prospects.

The report recommends reallocating public expenditure through direct policy interventions that will create jobs and reinvigorate growth. It says strategic public investments in education, health, new technologies and climate change mitigation and adaptation can bring about large social and economic returns.

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‘Happening Way Too Often’: Report Delves Into Mass Attacks

As the nation reels from a week of high-profile shootings, a new report on mass attacks calls for communities to intervene early when they see warning signs of violence, encourages businesses to consider workplace violence prevention plans and highlights the connection between domestic violence, misogyny and mass attacks.

The report, released Wednesday by the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, analyzed 173 mass attacks carried out over a five-year period from January 2016 to December 2020 in public or semi-public places such as businesses, schools or churches.

It was released as the U.S. experienced a particularly deadly start to the new year that has left 39 people dead in six mass killings, including one this week in Monterey Park, California, that left 11 people dead at a dance hall as they welcomed in the Lunar New Year.

“It’s just happening way too often,” said Lina Alathari, the center’s director, during a news conference ahead of the report’s release. Alathari said that while the center had not specifically studied the shootings that took place this week, there are themes seen “over and over again” when analyzing mass attacks.

The report is the latest in a series undertaken by the center to look at the problem of mass attacks. While previous reports examined the specific years of 2017, 2018 and 2019, the new report noted that it analyzed multiple years of data and gives more “in-depth analysis of the thinking and behavior of mass attackers.”

The center defines a mass attack as one in which three or more people — not including the attacker — were harmed. Almost all the attacks were carried out by one person, 96% of attackers were men and the attackers ranged in age from 14 to 87.

The report noted that nearly two-thirds of attackers exhibited behaviors or communications “that were so concerning, they should have been met with an immediate response.” It said these concerns were often shared with law enforcement, employers, school staff or parents. But in one-fifth of the cases, the concerning behavior wasn’t relayed to anyone “in a position to respond, demonstrating a continued need to promote and facilitate bystander reporting.”

The report also called for greater attention toward domestic violence and misogyny, noting that nearly half of the attackers studied had a history of domestic violence, misogynistic behavior or both.

“Though not all who possess misogynistic views are violent, viewpoints that describe women as the enemy or call for violence against women remain a cause for concern,” the report said.

About half the attacks in the study involved a business location, and attackers often had a prior relationship with the business, as an employee, a customer or a former employer. The report also noted the role that grievances like workplace disputes or feuds with neighbors played in mass attacks. About half the attacks were motivated “in whole or in part by a perceived grievance,” according to the report.

“Workplaces should establish behavioral threat assessment programs as a component of their workplace violence prevention plans, and businesses should also establish proactive relationships with area law enforcement so that they may work collaboratively to respond to incidents involving a concern for violence, whether that concern arises from a current employee, a former employee, or a customer,” the report read.

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Pope Francis: Homosexuality Not a Crime 

Pope Francis criticized laws that criminalize homosexuality as “unjust,” saying God loves all his children just as they are and called on Catholic bishops who support the laws to welcome LGBTQ people into the church.

“Being homosexual isn’t a crime,” Francis said during an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press.

Francis acknowledged that Catholic bishops in some parts of the world support laws that criminalize homosexuality or discriminate against the LGBTQ community, and he himself referred to the issue in terms of “sin.” But he attributed such attitudes to cultural backgrounds, and said bishops in particular need to undergo a process of change to recognize the dignity of everyone.

“These bishops have to have a process of conversion,” he said, adding that they should apply “tenderness, please, as God has for each one of us.”

Some 67 countries or jurisdictions worldwide criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity, 11 of which can or do impose the death penalty, according to The Human Dignity Trust, which works to end such laws. Experts say even where the laws are not enforced, they contribute to harassment, stigmatization and violence against LGBTQ people.

In the U.S., more than a dozen states still have anti-sodomy laws on the books, despite a 2003 Supreme Court ruling declaring them unconstitutional. Gay rights advocates say the antiquated laws are used to harass homosexuals, and point to new legislation, such as the “Don’t say gay” law in Florida, which forbids instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, as evidence of continued efforts to marginalize LGBTQ people.

The United Nations has repeatedly called for an end to laws criminalizing homosexuality outright, saying they violate rights to privacy and freedom from discrimination and are a breach of countries’ obligations under international law to protect the human rights of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Declaring such laws “unjust,” Francis said the Catholic Church can and should work to put an end to them. “It must do this. It must do this,” he said.

Francis quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church in saying gay people must be welcomed and respected, and should not be marginalized or discriminated against.

“We are all children of God, and God loves us as we are and for the strength that each of us fights for our dignity,” Francis said, speaking to the AP in the Vatican hotel where he lives.

Such laws are common in Africa and the Middle East and date from British colonial times or are inspired by Islamic law. Some Catholic bishops have strongly upheld them as consistent with Vatican teaching that considers homosexual activity “intrinsically disordered,” while others have called for them to be overturned as a violation of basic human dignity.

In 2019, Francis had been expected to issue a statement opposing criminalization of homosexuality during a meeting with human rights groups that conducted research into the effects of such laws and so-called “conversion therapies.”

In the end, the pope did not meet with the groups, which instead met with the Vatican No. 2, who reaffirmed “the dignity of every human person and against every form of violence.”

On Tuesday, Francis said there needed to be a distinction between a crime and a sin with regard to homosexuality.

“Being homosexual is not a crime,” he said. “It’s not a crime. Yes, but it’s a sin. Fine, but first let’s distinguish between a sin and a crime.”

“It’s also a sin to lack charity with one another,” he added.

Catholic teaching holds that while gay people must be treated with respect, homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” Francis has not changed that teaching, but he has made reaching out to the LGBTQ community a hallmark of his papacy.

Starting with his famous 2013 declaration, “Who am I to judge?” when he was asked about a purportedly gay priest, Francis has gone on to minister repeatedly and publicly to the gay and trans community. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he favored granting legal protections to same-sex couples as an alternative to endorsing gay marriage, which Catholic doctrine forbids.

Despite such outreach, Francis was criticized by the Catholic LGBTQ community for a 2021 decree from the Vatican’s doctrine office that the church cannot bless same-sex unions “because God cannot bless sin.”

The Vatican in 2008 declined to sign onto a U.N. declaration that called for the decriminalization of homosexuality, complaining the text went beyond the original scope and also included language about “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” it found problematic. In a statement at the time, the Vatican urged countries to avoid “unjust discrimination” against gay people and end penalties against them.

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US Treasury Secretary Focuses on Agriculture During Visit to Zambia

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is in Zambia, the second stop in a three-country swing, where she assured the country’s president and its finance minister that the timely restructuring of Zambia’s debt is a top priority. She spent most of Tuesday highlighting long-term measures to mitigate the sort of threats to food security exposed by Russia’s war in Ukraine. VOA’s Mariama Diallo reports.

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Biden Pushing Assault-Weapons Ban Renewal Following Mass Shootings

As Californians deal with two mass shootings just days apart, President Joe Biden is supporting gun control measures introduced by California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein to renew the 1994 assault-weapons ban. But as White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara reports, with Republicans controlling the House of Representatives, and the Supreme Court leaning heavily conservative, the legal landscape for more gun control in the U.S. looks bleak.

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US-Made Tanks Likely Headed to Ukraine; Timing Uncertain

Pleas by Ukrainian officials for more tanks, and more advanced tanks, to use in their fight against Russia have begun to resonate in Washington with the United States now preparing to send Kyiv dozens of its top-of-the-line battle tank.

A U.S. official familiar with the deliberations told VOA on Tuesday that the White House is working to finalize a plan to get Ukraine the coveted M1 Abrams tanks, though it could be some time before Ukraine would be able to take delivery and insert them onto the battlefield.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the plans, said the tanks would likely be provided through the Pentagon’s Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI). The fund allows the Defense Department to purchase weapons and systems either from defense manufacturers or from other sources, rather than draw them directly from U.S. stocks.

In this case, the official said the U.S. might seek to purchase the M1 Abrams tanks from other countries and refurbish them before sending them to Ukraine.

The decision to send the M1 Abrams to Ukraine, as part of a diplomatic understanding with Germany regarding provision of some of its tanks to Ukraine, was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The move to provide Kyiv with the tanks would represent an about-face for U.S. officials, many of whom have dismissed the idea of sending Abrams tanks to Ukraine, warning that while Abrams tanks are very capable, they are difficult to maintain and require more fuel than Kyiv can spare.

“We should not be providing the Ukrainians systems they can’t repair, they can’t sustain, and that they, over the long term, can’t afford, because it’s not helpful,” Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told reporters last week.

Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Patrick Ryder echoed those concerns Tuesday.

“Our focus has been on providing Ukraine with capabilities it can employ right now on the battlefield,” he said. “The M1 [Abrams tank] is a complex weapon system that is challenging to maintain. … That was true yesterday. It is true today. It will be true in the future.”

The shift in the U.S. position on sending Ukraine the M1 Abrams tanks came as multiple German news outlets reported that Germany had decided to send some of its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine in addition to clearing the way for other countries to send their German-made Leopard tanks to Kyiv.

Earlier, following a meeting in Berlin, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Germany’s decision to allow allies, led by Poland, to send Ukraine the coveted German-made tanks.

“At this pivotal moment in the war, we must provide heavier and more advanced systems to Ukraine, and we must do it faster,” Stoltenberg said.

He added that providing battle tanks to Ukrainian forces is important in order to both repel Russian advances and to help Ukraine retake its territory.

Ukrainian officials have said Western battle tanks, like the Leopard and the Abrams, will allow their forces to maneuver more effectively, with greater firepower and protection, as they seek to push back Russian forces occupying their country.

“A few hundred tanks for our tank crews — the best tank crews in the world. This is what is going to become a real punching fist of democracy against the autocracy from the bog,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, wrote on Telegram Tuesday.

In the meantime, the U.S. signaled that despite an initial reluctance to provide Ukraine with some weapon systems, it remains willing to shift gears as conditions on the ground change.

“We have not taken capabilities off the table,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Tuesday. “This is a conversation based on what our Ukrainian partners need, where they need it, when they need it.”

Ukraine corruption

Several senior Ukrainian officials announced their resignations Tuesday amid what Zelenskyy said would be some personnel changes in his government.

Deputy Defense Minister Viacheslav Shapovalov, who was in charge of logistical support for Ukraine’s forces, stepped down from his post, citing allegations about a food procurement scandal that he denies.

Deputy Prosecutor General Oleksiy Symonenko and the deputy head of Zelenskyy’s office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, also resigned without giving reasons for their departures.

“There are already personnel decisions — some today, some tomorrow — regarding officials at various levels in ministries and other central government structures, as well as in the regions and in law enforcement,” Zelenskyy said in his evening address Monday.

U.S. officials on Tuesday said there appear to be no indications that the corruption issues have affected U.S. security assistance to Ukraine.

“We’re not aware of any type of widespread issues regarding corruption that would negatively impact the fight,” said the Pentagon’s Ryder.

Nike Ching, Cindy Saine and Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report. Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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Hundreds Attend Funeral for Zambian Killed Fighting for Russia in Ukraine

Hundreds of people attended a memorial service in Lusaka on Tuesday for a Zambian student who died fighting for Russia in Ukraine as Tanzania confirmed the death of another student who was also recruited in a Russian jail.

Family members broke down as they filed past the coffin of Lemekani Nyirenda at Lusaka Baptist Church, where the 23-year-old was a regular worshipper before moving to Russia to study nuclear engineering.

Nyirenda was recruited by Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group last year while serving a nine-and-a-half year jail term for a drug offense and sent to fight in Ukraine.

His death in September sparked a diplomatic spat, with Zambia demanding an urgent explanation from the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, Tanzania on Tuesday confirmed that another student, Nemes Tarimo, had been killed after also being recruited in jail by Wagner.

“When Tarimo was serving jail, he was given an opportunity to join the Russian army group called Wagner for payment and the promise that he would be freed after the war,” Tanzanian Foreign Minister Stergomena Tax said.

“Tarimo agreed, and he was taken to Ukraine where he was killed on October 24.”

In recent months, men have been recruited from Russian prisons to fight on the front lines in Ukraine with the promise of reduced sentences and attractive fees.

Tarimo, who had been studying in Russia since 2020, was arrested in March 2022 and sentenced to a seven-year jail term for undisclosed reasons.

“It’s illegal for a Tanzanian national to join any foreign army,” added the foreign minister.

On Tuesday, Nyirenda’s father paid tribute to his son, saying he was a hard worker who helped set up a beehive business for the family.

Edwin Nyirenda told mourners his son had sought a part-time job and “started working as a courier” after posting an advertisement online when he got into trouble.

The two were last in touch at the end of August when Nyirenda told his father he would return home after going to fight in Ukraine.

Nyirenda’s body was repatriated in December and will be laid to rest in a private ceremony in Rufunsa, east of Lusaka, on Wednesday.

Funerals were delayed after some family members raised concerns that the remains might not belong to the student.

But doubts were dispelled by a DNA test, said family spokesman Ian Banda.

“There may be some parts missing but by and large, we have the remains of Lemekhani,” Banda told journalists after the service.

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Key US Lawmakers Endorse Sending Tanks to Ukraine

Several key U.S. lawmakers endorsed the next major step in American assistance to Ukraine on Tuesday, encouraging the White House to move forward with a plan to send M1 Abrams tanks to combat Russian aggression. 

“Seldom in the history of modern warfare has so much depended on so few tanks,” Republican Lindsey Graham told reporters Tuesday after returning from a congressional trip to Ukraine. “Three hundred tanks given to the Ukrainians who have an ability to take any weapon system and maximize its benefit.”

Despite the difficulties of running M1 Abrams tanks on jet fuel, the Biden administration is reportedly weighing sending the tanks to Ukraine, hoping it would increase chances of Germany sending its own Leopard tanks. 

Poland announced Monday it would seek German approval to send tanks from its stock of Leopards, and Great Britain announced last week it would send Challenger 2 tanks. Ukrainian officials said Challenger 2 tanks were “not sufficient to meet operational goals.”

Ukraine has consistently asked Western nations to supply tanks to defend itself against Russia. Last week at a meeting of NATO officials, Germany said it would consider supplying Leopard 2s – seen as the most advanced tanks – if the United States would supply M1 Abrams. 

German news outlet Der Spiegel and others cited unconfirmed reports late Tuesday that the German government has decided to send the Leopard 2 tanks. American news service The Associated Press reported officials saying the U.S. will announce it will send M1 Abrams tanks as soon as this Wednesday.

“If press reports are true, I am very pleased with the Biden Administration’s apparent decision to send Abrams tanks to help Ukraine evict Russia from Ukrainian soil,” Graham said in a statement.

“The Ukrainians can win if they have the tools that are necessary – beginning with tanks,” said Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, who was also part of the delegation that met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Ukraine. “The Leopard 2 tanks are important because they are there. They’re in Europe, thousands of them within easy transport, training, fueling. They are essential. And just very bluntly, if it takes sending three, five, 10 Abrams tanks there, let’s do it.”

The Pentagon said earlier Tuesday that M1 Abrams are “complex weapons systems that are challenging to maintain.” Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters, “Our focus has been on providing Ukraine with capabilities it can employ right now on the battlefield.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned on the Senate floor Tuesday that the West’s failure to act could have devastating consequences.

“Germany has not only resisted calls to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine but has also prevented other European nations to transfer their own German-produced Leopards to Ukraine. Time is short, and while Berlin agonizes over its own decision whether to provide Leopards to Ukraine, it should proactively and explicitly make clear that other allies are free to do so,” McConnell said.

He added that the Biden administration’s “latest deliveries failed to include the longer-range missiles and more sophisticated munitions that Ukraine has been requesting for months. Mr. President, Ukraine’s brave resistance deserves our continued praise. But more importantly, it needs our concrete and consistent material support.”

Ukraine on Tuesday marked the 11-month anniversary of the Russian invasion. Since then, the United States has provided nearly $50 billion in humanitarian, economic and military aid. But U.S. assistance to Ukraine could face a roadblock in the House of Representatives, where Republicans holding the majority have expressed concern about oversight of the aid. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy said last year the United States would not continue to write a “blank check” on aid while Americans face a difficult domestic economic situation. 

But Graham pushed back against the perception the aid is not being properly managed.

“We’re very reassured that that our military assistance is going to where it should be going to and that accountability and transparency is there,” Graham said. “To my House colleagues, to those who believe we shouldn’t write a blank check, I agree. To those who have concerns about what’s going on in Ukraine – go. Don’t talk about it in Washington, get on a plane, get on a train, rest up, drink a lot of water, take your vitamins, and they will open up the books.”   

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Key US Lawmakers Endorse Sending Tanks to Ukraine

Several key U.S. lawmakers endorsed the next major step in American assistance to Ukraine on Tuesday, encouraging the White House to move forward with a plan to send M1 Abrams tanks to combat Russian aggression. 

“Seldom in the history of modern warfare has so much depended on so few tanks,” Republican Lindsey Graham told reporters Tuesday after returning from a congressional trip to Ukraine. “Three hundred tanks given to the Ukrainians who have an ability to take any weapon system and maximize its benefit.”

Despite the difficulties of running M1 Abrams tanks on jet fuel, the Biden administration is reportedly weighing sending the tanks to Ukraine, hoping it would increase chances of Germany sending its own Leopard tanks. 

Poland announced Monday it would seek German approval to send tanks from its stock of Leopards, and Great Britain announced last week it would send Challenger 2 tanks. Ukrainian officials said Challenger 2 tanks were “not sufficient to meet operational goals.”

Ukraine has consistently asked Western nations to supply tanks to defend itself against Russia. Last week at a meeting of NATO officials, Germany said it would consider supplying Leopard 2s – seen as the most advanced tanks – if the United States would supply M1 Abrams. 

German news outlet Der Spiegel and others cited unconfirmed reports late Tuesday that the German government has decided to send the Leopard 2 tanks. American news service The Associated Press reported officials saying the U.S. will announce it will send M1 Abrams tanks as soon as this Wednesday.

“If press reports are true, I am very pleased with the Biden Administration’s apparent decision to send Abrams tanks to help Ukraine evict Russia from Ukrainian soil,” Graham said in a statement.

“The Ukrainians can win if they have the tools that are necessary – beginning with tanks,” said Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, who was also part of the delegation that met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Ukraine. “The Leopard 2 tanks are important because they are there. They’re in Europe, thousands of them within easy transport, training, fueling. They are essential. And just very bluntly, if it takes sending three, five, 10 Abrams tanks there, let’s do it.”

The Pentagon said earlier Tuesday that M1 Abrams are “complex weapons systems that are challenging to maintain.” Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters, “Our focus has been on providing Ukraine with capabilities it can employ right now on the battlefield.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned on the Senate floor Tuesday that the West’s failure to act could have devastating consequences.

“Germany has not only resisted calls to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine but has also prevented other European nations to transfer their own German-produced Leopards to Ukraine. Time is short, and while Berlin agonizes over its own decision whether to provide Leopards to Ukraine, it should proactively and explicitly make clear that other allies are free to do so,” McConnell said.

He added that the Biden administration’s “latest deliveries failed to include the longer-range missiles and more sophisticated munitions that Ukraine has been requesting for months. Mr. President, Ukraine’s brave resistance deserves our continued praise. But more importantly, it needs our concrete and consistent material support.”

Ukraine on Tuesday marked the 11-month anniversary of the Russian invasion. Since then, the United States has provided nearly $50 billion in humanitarian, economic and military aid. But U.S. assistance to Ukraine could face a roadblock in the House of Representatives, where Republicans holding the majority have expressed concern about oversight of the aid. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy said last year the United States would not continue to write a “blank check” on aid while Americans face a difficult domestic economic situation. 

But Graham pushed back against the perception the aid is not being properly managed.

“We’re very reassured that that our military assistance is going to where it should be going to and that accountability and transparency is there,” Graham said. “To my House colleagues, to those who believe we shouldn’t write a blank check, I agree. To those who have concerns about what’s going on in Ukraine – go. Don’t talk about it in Washington, get on a plane, get on a train, rest up, drink a lot of water, take your vitamins, and they will open up the books.”   

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