Biden Honors Springsteen, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mindy Kaling

U.S. President Joe Biden made an observation when conferring the National Medal of Arts on rocker Bruce Springsteen on Tuesday:

“Bruce, some people are just born to run, man.”

Springsteen and a host of actors, authors, singers and other artists joined Biden in the White House East Room where they received either a National Medal of Arts or National Humanities Medal for their contributions to American society.

Comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose “Veep” show made light of the vice presidency — an office Biden once held — was also honored.

“She embraces life’s absurdity with absolute wit, and handles real life turns with absolute grace. A mom, a cancer survivor, a pioneer for women in comedy, she is an American original,” Biden said.

Actress Mindy Kaling, a main character on the long-running television show, “The Office,” set in Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, received a medal as well.

When Biden introduced author Colson Whitehead to the crowd, he noted that Whitehead had won back-to-back Pulitzer Prizes for his books and gave a hint of his own ambitions.

“I’m trying to go back to back myself,” said Biden, who has said he intends to run for reelection in 2024.

Singer Gladys Knight, the “empress of soul,” was an honoree, along with clothing designer Vera Wang, historian Walter Isaacson and authors Amy Tan, Ann Patchett and Tara Westover, among others.

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Los Angeles Education Workers Strike, Canceling School for 420,000 Students

About 30,000 education workers backed by the teachers’ union began a three-day strike in Los Angeles on Tuesday, canceling school for nearly half a million students at the second-largest school district in the United States.

The Service Employees International Union Local 99 seeks to increase what it calls poverty wages that average $25,000 per year for many of their members, including school bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers and classroom assistants.

Thousands of protesters gathered for a rally in the rain outside the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters, vowing to continue picketing for the next two days.

“We love our students, and we’re here for the students. But if we can’t properly take care of our kids, how can we properly come here and work as well?” Lynneier Boyd-Peterson, a striking bus driver, told KTLA 5 television news.

She was one of the striking workers who marched in pouring rain under umbrellas early on Tuesday carrying signs reading “Respect Us!” at a school bus yard.

The service workers are backed by the 35,000 members of the teachers’ union United Teachers Los Angeles, which refused to cross their picket line.

The work stoppage is the latest in a series of job actions by educators across the U.S. who have complained of burnout and low wages, leading to a teacher shortage in many parts of the country.

The Los Angeles strike follows a six-day teachers’ strike in 2019 and the coronavirus pandemic that closed in-classroom instruction for more than a year in 2020 and 2021.

Los Angeles schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho has acknowledged workers have been underpaid for years and said he was committed to reaching a deal.

The strike has disrupted classes for 420,000 students, many of whom also depend on schools for meals, counseling and other social services. The city opened dozens of meal and safe-place sites on Tuesday for students.

“I will make sure the well-being of L.A. students always comes first as I continue to work with all parties to reach an agreement to reopen the schools and guarantee fair treatment of all LAUSD workers,” Mayor Karen Bass said in a statement.

The union, which said 96% of its membership had authorized the strike, is demanding a 30% salary increase plus an additional $2 per hour for the lowest-paid workers, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Carvalho told reporters on Monday the district was offering a 23% raise plus a 3% bonus and that “there are still additional resources to put on the table.”

Education experts have been warning of staff burnout for years. Those concerns grew when the coronavirus pandemic put additional stress on teachers, many of whom left the profession for better pay in the private sector, where their skills and education were valued.

“What’s happening in L.A. is going to happen in all the major cities if we don’t start doing something collectively as a nation,” said Jamie Sears, a former third-grade teacher who now teaches a master class for educators.

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Putin, Xi Call for Ukraine Peace Talks as Russian Leader Says West Not Ready

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Tuesday signed a new strategic partnership between their countries and called for a diplomatic solution to Moscow’s war against Ukraine, but Putin said he sees no indication that the Kyiv government and its Western allies are ready for peace talks.

After two days of talks with Xi at the Kremlin, Putin accused the United States and Western countries of fighting “to the last Ukrainian,” but praised what he said was China’s “neutral position” on the war.

China’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Beijing and Moscow believe that the United Nations Charter “must be observed and international law must be respected,” but made no demand that Russia withdraw its troops from Ukraine or honor Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders.

Putin called his talks with Xi “open and friendly,” discussions aimed at cementing their “no limits” partnership agreed to in early 2022, less than three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.

China recently proposed a 12-point plan calling for a de-escalation and eventual cease-fire in Ukraine, which the West has rejected because it would lock in place Russian territorial gains its illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and more land seized by Russia in eastern Ukraine during its 13-month invasion.

Putin said, “We believe that many of the provisions of the peace plan put forward by China are consonant with Russian approaches and can be taken as the basis for a peaceful settlement when they are ready for that in the West and in Kyiv. However, so far, we see no such readiness from their side.”

Kyiv has welcomed Beijing’s diplomatic overture but says that Russia must first withdraw its troops from Ukraine. Fighting has mostly stalemated in eastern Ukraine along the main battlefront line.

The series of documents Putin and Xi signed called for “strategic cooperation” between the two countries, including a planned pipeline shipping Russian natural gas to China.

“I am convinced that our multi-faceted cooperation will continue to develop for the good of the peoples of our countries,” Putin said in televised remarks. He said Moscow was ready to help Chinese businesses replace Western firms that have left Russia in protest over the invasion of Ukraine.

Xi said he invited Putin to visit China later this year.

In opening remarks before their closed-door talks Monday, Putin said Russia was “slightly envious” of the rapid development of China in recent decades that has boosted it to become the world’s second-largest economy behind the United States.

Russian news agencies later reported that the two leaders talked for nearly four-and-a-half hours before breaking for dinner, where Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had said Putin would likely give Xi a “detailed explanation” of Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

The Chinese leader’s three-day visit to Moscow gives both Xi and Putin a public show of partnership in opposing what both see as American domination of global affairs. Their growing alliance also facilitates economic deals, such as shipment of Russian oil and natural gas to China at a time when the U.S. and its Western allies have imposed widespread sanctions to curb Russia’s foreign business transactions in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Washington Monday that any proposal for Ukraine that allows Russian forces to remain in the country would merely let Moscow regain its strength to continue its offensive.

“Calling for a cease-fire that does not include the removal of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory would effectively be supporting the ratification of Russian conquest,” he said.

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby called on Xi “to press President Putin directly on the need to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Some material in this report came from Reuters.


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Niger Credited With Negotiating Release of US Aid Worker, French Journalist

The government of Niger says it negotiated the release of a U.S. aid worker and a French journalist who were held captive by Islamist militants in the Sahel region. Aid worker and missionary Jeffery Woodke was held for more than six years, while reporter Olivier Dubois spent nearly two years in captivity.

Kidnappings in the Sahel are growing at an alarming rate. Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger saw a combined 532 abductions in 2022, up from to 33 in 2017, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. Some 115 abduction incidents have already been recorded in the region this year.

Kidnappings in the Sahel represent a “permanent risk” for all actors working in the region, said Fahiraman Kone, a security analyst with the Institute for Security Studies in Dakar.

“This is a practice that has been put forward for a long time by jihadist groups as a method of financing, but also by other ransom groups who simply engage in banditry,” he said.

Due to the private nature of hostage negotiations, it’s difficult to decipher the role each country plays in securing someone’s release, Kone said. Niger’s efforts, however, should not go unnoticed, he added.

“Niger nevertheless stands out more and more in the central Sahel in its approach to the fight against insecurity,” he said. “While in Burkina Faso and Mali we see a strengthening of the militarized approach to the fight, Niger is trying to set forth a policy of negotiation so as to disengage fighters from groups and to negotiate with jihadist leaders themselves.”

While abductions of foreigners often make headlines, the majority of kidnappings target locals. Some 97% of civilians abducted in Mali since 2012 were Malian, according to a 2021 report from the Institute for Security Studies. Local humanitarian workers, village chiefs, religious leaders and journalists are among the most targeted groups.

Sadibou Marong is the West Africa director for Reporters Without Borders. People must not forget Malian journalists Hamadoun Nialibouly and Moussa M’Bana Dicko, who are still being held captive, he said.

The safe return of Dubois shows that hostage release campaigns can be successful, he added.

“When people generally think it’s not possible, we need to go far and wide,” Marong said. “It’s always possible to set up mechanisms to advocate, to mobilize allies everywhere, so as to achieve such a positive result.”

Dubois was kidnapped on April 8, 2021, in Mali’s northern Gao region by the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM, a coalition of jihadist insurgent groups active in the Sahel. He was there to interview a jihadist leader when he was abducted.

In a video posted to Twitter from Niamey airport Monday he told reporters he was tired but felt fine.

“It’s huge for me to be here, to be free,” he said. “I’d like to acknowledge Niger and their expertise with this sensitive mission. And to France as well — to everyone that allowed me to be here today.”

Dubois returned to Paris Tuesday, where he was greeted by President Emmanuel Macron.

U.S. aid worker Jeffery Woodke was kidnapped in October 2016 from his home in Abalak, Niger, and was believed to have been taken to Mali.

Niger’s interior minister said Nigerien authorities secured his release from JNIM.

Via Twitter, White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan said he was “gratified” and “relieved” over Woodke’s liberation and thanked Niger for its help in securing the aid worker’s release.

The releases followed a recent trip to Niger by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

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Paris’ Notre Dame Comes Closer to Reopening

Next month marks an important step in the reconstruction of Paris’ iconic Notre Dame cathedral, heavily damaged by fire four years ago. The base of the new spire is to be built, and officials hope to reopen the cathedral by the end of next year. From Briey, France, where the work on the spire is being done, Lisa Bryant reports.

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Ukrainian Artists Use Their Craft to Counter Russian Messaging in Africa

Ukraine is supporting artists painting murals in Europe and Africa to counter Russian disinformation about Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Dubbed ”The Wall,” a nod to the album by British rock band Pink Floyd, the project was recently launched in Kenya’s capital and also employs local artists. Victoria Amunga reports from Nairobi. Kenya footage by Jimmy Makhulo.

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Ethiopia Rejects US Accusation of War Crimes as Inflammatory

Ethiopia’s government has rejected a U.S. assertion that all sides in the two-year Tigray war committed war crimes, calling the statement “inflammatory.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday on Twitter that the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies, Amhara region forces and Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces all committed “atrocity crimes” during the Tigray war that ended in November.

Blinken said he condemns these atrocities and welcomes commitments to pursue transitional justice.

Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs struck back in a statement Tuesday, saying it rejects the U.S. allegation that all sides committed war crimes during the Tigray conflict.

It said Blinken’s statement, coming a week after the secretary of state visited Ethiopia, “unfairly proportions blame” and is inflammatory and “untimely.”

The government said it has just launched national consultations on a transitional justice policy.

The ministry added that a report on human rights released by the U.S. State Department on Monday does not contain any information that wasn’t included in a previous joint report done by the U.N. and Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission.

That report in September of last year said investigators had found evidence of crimes against humanity by the Ethiopian government, including using starvation as a weapon.

The government rejected that report.

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What’s Next for France’s Macron Amid Fight Over Retirement Age?

After weeks of raucous parliamentary debate and public anger spilling onto garbage-choked streets, French President Emmanuel Macron has won his battle – for now – to raise France’s retirement age from 62 to 64. But what happens next?

After Monday’s defeat of two no-confidence motions, in the National Assembly, that would have toppled Macron’s government — one short by only nine votes — opposition lawmakers and unions vow to repeal Macron’s pension reform by other means, including ongoing strikes and protests that could paralyze the country.  

“There is a massive opposition to that reform,” says French political scientist and author Nicole Bacharan of the pension bill rammed through using a special constitutional measure. “The anger is growing and growing and growing. Nobody knows how far it will go.”

More protests broke out in Paris and other cities following the no-confidence vote, adding to days of unrest. Police arrested dozens and put out fires smoldering on piles of uncollected trash. Garbage workers are finally getting back to work after a week-plus strike over the reform, but more than nine thousand tons of refuse continued to fester at last count.

For their part, unions have called for another nationwide strike and protest on Thursday. Worker blockages in some refineries are also sparking fuel shortages in parts of the country.  

Macron — who has remained largely silent amid the pension uproar — will give a televised interview Wednesday, his office says. He has chosen to address the nation at lunchtime, rather than during prime time in the evening.   

He faces serious trouble convincing an angry nation.  

“Can he still govern over four more years?” asked France-Info radio in an editorial, noting the president had lost his absolute parliamentary majority and faces slipping support from the center right.  

A poll by popular BFMTV finds most French had hoped a no-confidence vote would pass. Another showed public disapproval of Macron and his prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, had soared to 70%.

For its part, the centrist government has downplayed the close outcome of the no confidence effort, blaming rebels from the conservative Republicans party — whose leadership promised to support the reform.  

“They preferred to renounce their own ideas, their own campaign proposals rather than support the government,” government spokesman Olivier Veran told RTL radio Tuesday.  

Bigger tests ahead   

The opposition vows to block the reform from becoming law by other means, including petitioning France’s Constitutional Council.

Macron’s government “is already dead in the eyes of the French,” said Mathilde Panot, leader of the leftist France Unbowed coalition, calling on Prime Minister Borne to resign.  

The government may face a bigger test on the streets.

The ongoing protests spilling into violence have sparked fears of rolling Yellow Vest-style demonstrations that swept the country a few years ago. Some observers also draw parallels with massive 1995 protests that forced then-Prime Minister Alain Juppe to repeal a pension reform measure.  

“What worries me is seeing violent demonstrations succeeding dignified protests and the possibility of an explosion,” one leftist lawmaker told French media.  

Macron made reforming France’s generous and complicated pension system a central pillar of his presidency and campaign. He and his government argue the system risks going bankrupt as French age and fewer workers pay in. Currently, France enjoys among the lowest retirement ages in Europe.  

His critics argue there is no immediate urgency and there are other ways to make the system sustainable, including taxing the very wealthy.

Even more controversial, perhaps, has been Macron’s method of pushing through his reform. He rebuffed negotiations with unions, then used a controversial constitutional lever — Article 49.3 — to ram the reform through without a lower house vote.  

Far right the big winner?

“The accusation of isolation, out-of-touch, arrogance — it flies everywhere, including in his own support circle,” says analyst Bacharan, citing conversations she has had with members of Macron’s Renaissance party, including close allies.  

Today’s turmoil amounts to one of the biggest challenges of Macron’s presidency. It’s not clear whether he can recover, many analysts say — much less push through other reforms.  

“No matter how Macron comes out of this crisis, he will be very, very much weakened; that’s a sure thing,” Bacharan says.

Macron is “totally deaf to the aspirations of the French,” said Marine Le Pen, head of the main opposition National Rally party, after the vote. She called for a referendum on pension reform action and a new government.  

Observers believe Le Pen — runner up to Macron in the last two presidential elections — and her far-right party, could emerge the biggest winners from the crisis.  

Strengthening their hand, Bacharan says, is Macron’s apparent failure to turn his centrist movement that swept him to power in 2017 into a sustainable bloc.

“We are in a situation where the left in a way is irrelevant, the center will be gone — his party won’t survive his term,” Bacharan says.  “And the far right is getting stronger and stronger.” 

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Washington Tries to Ease Potential Anger by China over Taiwan Leader’s Upcoming Visit to US 

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is trying to lower any possible animosity from China over an upcoming visit to the United States by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.  

President Tsai will stopover in California and New York later this month before embarking on an official mission to Central America.  An unnamed administration official says the Biden administration has told Beijing that past Taiwanese presidents have routinely made stopover visits in the U.S. on their way to other nations, including Tsai, who has made six stopover visits between 2016 and 2019.

The official says China should not use Tsai’s stopover in the U.S. as a reason to take any aggressive action towards Taiwan.

China responded to a visit to Taiwan last August by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by launching several days of massive military drills over the Taiwan Strait, including firing ballistic missiles in the waterway that separates the island from mainland China.

Beijing considers the democratically-ruled island part of its territory, even though Taiwan has been self-governing since the end of China’s civil war in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces were driven off the mainland by Mao Zedong’s Communists. China has vowed to bring the island under its control by any means necessary, including a military takeover.

The United States switched diplomatic recognition of China from Taiwan to Beijing in 1979, but it provides Taiwan military equipment for self-defense under the Taiwan Relations Act.   

News outlets said last month that Tsai will give a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Center near Los Angeles ahead of her scheduled trip to Central America. It was also reported that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will meet with President Tsai during her stopover in the U.S.  The Republican leader, who represents a district in California, has previously expressed an interest in visiting Taiwan himself.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. 

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Putin Hosts Xi for Second Day of Talks After Welcoming China’s Ukraine Peace Plan

Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts Chinese leader Xi Jinping for a second day of talks Tuesday, after Putin welcomed Beijing’s peace plan to resolve Russia’s war against Ukraine and signaled to Western leaders the extent of what they call their “limitless” friendship.       

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday’s meetings would involve a range of subjects and officials from both countries. 

In opening remarks before their closed-door talks Monday, Putin said Russia was “slightly envious” of the rapid development of China in recent decades that has boosted it to become the world’s second-largest economy behind the United States.   

Russian news agencies later reported that the two leaders talked for nearly 4 1/2 hours before breaking for dinner, where Peskov had said Putin would likely give Xi a “detailed explanation” of Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. 

Putin said Monday he viewed the Beijing peace plan with respect.  

But China’s proposal has little chance of enactment as proposed because it does not meet key demands from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — namely, that Russia withdraw from Ukraine to honor its internationally recognized borders, including the Crimean Peninsula that Moscow illegally annexed in 2014 and the eastern Ukrainian regions Russian forces invaded in February of last year.       

The Chinese leader’s three-day visit to Moscow gives both Xi and Putin a public show of partnership in opposing what both see as American domination of global affairs. Their growing alliance also facilitates economic deals, such as shipment of Russian oil and natural gas to China at a time when the U.S. and its Western allies have imposed widespread sanctions to curb Russia’s foreign business transactions in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine.   

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Washington Monday that any proposal for Ukraine that allows Russian forces to remain in the country would merely let Moscow regain its strength to continue its offensive.     

“Calling for a cease-fire that does not include the removal of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory would effectively be supporting the ratification of Russian conquest,” he said.      

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby called on Xi “to press President Putin directly on the need to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”     

Ahead of Xi’s visit, in an article published in the Chinese People’s Daily newspaper, Putin described the visit as a “landmark event” that “reaffirms the special nature of the Russia-China partnership.”      

The Russian leader specifically said the meeting sent a message to Washington that the two countries aren’t prepared to accept attempts to weaken them.      

“The U.S. policy of simultaneously deterring Russia and China, as well as all those who do not bend to the American diktat, is getting ever fiercer and more aggressive,” he wrote.      

The Chinese leader’s trip to Moscow came just days after the International Criminal Court in The Hague charged Putin with the illegal deportation of thousands of children from Ukraine to Russia. Russia has ignored the allegations as “null and void.”      

It was not immediately clear what China hoped to gain from Xi’s visit. In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Xi’s trip was a “journey of friendship, cooperation and peace.”      

On the war, Wang said, “China will uphold its objective and fair position on the Ukrainian crisis and play a constructive role in promoting peace talks.”      

The spokesperson added, “President Xi will have an in-depth exchange of views with President Putin on bilateral relations and major international and regional issues of common concern.”      

Wang said that Xi aims to “promote strategic coordination and practical cooperation between the two countries and inject new impetus into the development of bilateral relations.”      

While trying to broker an end to the war in Ukraine, Beijing has not supplied weapons to Moscow, nor has it condemned the invasion. At the same time, it has accused NATO and the United States of provoking Putin’s attack on Ukraine.      

The U.S. has strongly rejected Beijing’s call for a cease-fire, which it says would leave in place Moscow’s territorial gains in eastern Ukraine.      

“The first and main point is the capitulation or withdrawal of the Russian occupation troops from the territory of Ukraine in accordance with the norms of international law and the U.N. Charter,” Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said Monday on Twitter.      

On Monday, Xi wrote in the Rossiiskaya Gazeta, a Russian state-run daily publication, that the Chinese peace proposal represents “as much as possible the unity of the world community’s views,” according to an English translation of the article issued by the Chinese Mission to the United Nations.     

“The document serves as a constructive factor in neutralizing the consequences of the crisis and promoting a political settlement,” Xi said. “Complex problems do not have simple solutions.”         

White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara and Paris Huang of VOA’s Mandarin service contributed to this report. Some material for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. 

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Biden Expresses Support for ‘Brave Women’ of Iran as White House Marks Nowruz

U.S. President Joe Biden said Monday the United States stands with the “brave women and all the citizens of Iran” who are inspiring the world with their conviction and courage as they fight for their “human rights and fundamental freedoms.” 

Speaking at a White House event celebrating Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, Biden said the United States and its partners will “continue to hold Iranian officials accountable for their attacks against their people.” 

Biden also highlighted the people who have been unjustly detained in Iran, and elsewhere in the world, saying it is a top priority for his administration to bring those people home. 

In a statement earlier Monday, Biden said he and first lady Jill Biden “send our best wishes to everyone celebrating Nowruz across the United States and around the world— from the Middle East, to Central and South Asia, to the Caucasus, to Europe.” 

“This year, Nowruz comes at a difficult time for many families, when hope is needed more than ever — including for the women of Iran who are fighting for their human rights and fundamental freedoms,” President Biden said. 

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US Welcomes Yemen Prisoner Exchange Deal

The United States has welcomed an agreement between Yemen’s warring sides to free nearly 900 detainees. 

“This important step builds on the positive environment created by a truce in Yemen that has effectively stopped the fighting for the past 11 months,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.  “We thank UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg and the International Committee of the Red Cross for their hard work finalizing the agreement.” 

Monday’s agreement came after 10 days of negotiations in Switzerland. 

It includes the Iran-backed Houthi rebels releasing 180 prisoners in exchange for Yemen’s internationally recognized government freeing more than 700 Houthi prisoners, according to Abdul-Qader el-Murtaza, the head of the Houthi delegation. 

U.N. special envoy Hans Grundberg said the two sides agreed to meet again in mid-May to discuss more releases but added that there is much more work to be done to resolve the conflict that began in late 2014. 

“A comprehensive and sustainable end to the conflict is necessary if Yemen is to recover from the devastating toll the eight-year conflict has had on its men and women,” Grundberg said. 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters. 

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UK Hits More Iranian Officials with Sanctions

The U.K. on Monday sanctioned more senior officials of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including financiers and commanders, in its latest set of asset freezes and visa bans. 

The government said it was slapping sanctions on five board directors of a foundation which manages the IRGC’s domestic investments, as well as two provincial commanders of the state security service. 

It follows a flurry of other sanctions against Iranian officials by London, the European Union and the United States in recent months over Tehran’s bloody crackdown on protesters. 

“Today we are taking action on the senior leaders within the IRGC who are responsible for funneling money into the regime’s brutal repression,” said U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly. 

“Together with our partners around the world, we will continue to stand with the Iranian people as they call for fundamental change in Iran.” 

The U.K. has imposed dozens of asset freezes and U.K. travel bans since the start of the year on Iranian individuals and organizations, including leading IRGC commanders and Tehran’s prosecutor general. 

The last set of sanctions in January followed Iran announcing that it had executed British-Iranian dual citizen Alireza Akbari for spying for the U.K., prompting widespread Western outrage. 

Demonstrations have swept Iran since the September 16 death in custody of Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, 22, after her arrest for allegedly failing to adhere to the Islamic republic’s strict dress rules. 

Iran has since arrested thousands of people in the wave of protests, according to the United Nations and rights groups.  

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Russia to Hold UN Meeting on Ukrainian Children Taken to Russia

Russia plans to hold an informal meeting of the U.N. Security Council in early April on what it said is “the real situation” of Ukrainian children taken to Russia, an issue that has gained the spotlight following the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes related to their abduction. 

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told a news conference Monday that Russia planned the council meeting long before Friday’s announcement by the ICC. Russia holds the rotating presidency of the council in April. 

The court said it was seeking Putin’s arrest because he “is allegedly responsible for the war crime of unlawful deportation of (children) and that of unlawful transfer of (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.” 

The announcement of the warrants for Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, the commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation, was welcomed by Ukraine as a first step toward accountability by Russia for crimes following its February 2022 invasion. It was dismissed by Moscow, which is not one of the 123 countries that are parties to the court, calling the action “legally void” and “outrageous.” 

The announcement followed a report Thursday by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine that said there was evidence of the illegal transfer of hundreds of Ukrainian children to Russia. 

The commission said both parents and children faced many obstacles in establishing contact, with the burden falling primarily on the children, with young children likely unable to make any contact. It concluded that the forced deportations “violate international humanitarian law, and amount to a war crime.” 

The Ukrainian government claims 16,221 children have been taken to Russia since the war began. 

ICC prosecutor Karim Khan was quoted by the Courthouse News Service as telling Russia on Monday at a conference in London of justice ministers from more than 30 countries: “Return the children, repatriate the children.” 

Russia’s Nebenzia called the issue of the children “totally overblown” and said Moscow wants to explain at the Security Council meeting, around April 6, that they were taken to Russia “simply because we wanted to spare them of the danger that military activities may bring.” 

Nebenzia was asked whether Russia planned on returning the children. “When conditions are safe, of course. Why not?” the Russian envoy replied. 

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Biden Signs Bill on COVID Origins Declassification

President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan bill Monday that directs the federal government to declassify as much intelligence as possible about the origins of COVID-19 more than three years after the start of the pandemic.

The legislation, which passed both the House and Senate without dissent, directs the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to declassify intelligence related to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology. It cites “potential links” between the research that was done there and the outbreak of COVID-19, which the World Health Organization declared a pandemic March 11, 2020. The law allows for redactions to protect sensitive sources and methods.

U.S. intelligence agencies are divided over whether a lab leak or a spillover from animals is the likely source of the deadly virus.

Experts say the true origin of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 1.1 million in the U.S. and millions more around the globe, may not be known for many years — if ever.

Biden, in a statement, said he was pleased to sign the legislation.

“My Administration will continue to review all classified information relating to COVID-19’s origins, including potential links to the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” he said. “In implementing this legislation, my Administration will declassify and share as much of that information as possible, consistent with my constitutional authority to protect against the disclosure of information that would harm national security.”

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Breaking Down Possible Indictment of Trump

The criminal charges looming over former President Donald Trump pivot around the payment of hush money to adult movie actress Stormy Daniels in the final days of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

The payment was made by former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen as part of a scheme to “catch and kill” politically damaging stories about the real estate mogul’s marital infidelities.

Cohen pleaded guilty in connection with the case in 2018 but federal prosecutors did not charge Trump, leaving it to New York City’s district attorney to investigate the case under state law.

In court documents, federal prosecutors laid out how Cohen, working at the behest of Trump, sought to prevent then-candidate Trump’s accusers from going public with their allegations.

In October 2016, an agent for Daniels contacted American Media Inc. (AMI), the publisher of the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer, to offer the rights to a story about an alleged sexual encounter she had with Trump a decade earlier.

AMI Chairman David Pecker, a longtime Trump friend, had offered to help the Trump campaign deal with negative press about his relationships with women by identifying stories that could be bought but not published, a tactic known as “catch and kill.”

The tabloid agreed to keep Cohen “apprised of such stories,” according to federal prosecutors.

In August 2016, AMI had identified one such story and, after receiving Cohen’s assurances of reimbursement, agreed to pay former Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 for the rights to her story about an alleged affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007.

But when Daniels’ agent approached AMI, the chairman put him in touch directly with Cohen, who negotiated a $130,000 agreement to buy her silence, federal prosecutors say.

Paying hush money is not a crime. But federal prosecutors say Cohen arranged for the payments to Daniels and McDougal in an attempt to influence the presidential campaign while falsely recording it as a legal “retainer” expense and receiving reimbursements from the Trump Organization.

In fact, “there was no such retainer agreement, and the monthly invoices COHEN submitted were not in connection with any legal services he had provided in 2017,” federal prosecutors wrote.

In August 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight federal criminal charges, including campaign finance violations related to the payment of $130,000 to Daniels.

In the lead up to his guilty plea, Cohen admitted under oath that he had facilitated the hush money payments “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump.

Trump, who has denied Daniels’ allegation, later said that he “never directed Michael Cohen to break the law” and said the payment was not a “campaign contribution.”

“If it were, it’s only civil, and even if it’s only civil, there was no violation based on what we did. OK?” he told Reuters in 2018.

Cohen spent a little over two years in federal prison before being released in 2021.

Federal prosecutors did not charge Trump in the case.

The Manhattan District Attorney has since been investigating whether the hush money payments violated any state laws.

While it remains unknown what charges the prosecutor will ultimately bring, legal experts say they could center on the falsification of business records.

The theory is that Trump allegedly used the guise of a legal retainer agreement to conceal the hush money payments in violation of federal election laws.

Under New York law, falsifying business records is typically a misdemeanor. To elevate the charge to a felony, prosecutors would have to show that the act of fraud was carried out with the intent to commit, aid or conceal another crime.

“That other crime would appear to be the federal election violations which the Justice Department previously declined to charge,” Jonathan Turley, a law professor at the George Washington University, wrote in a column in The Hill.

Saying he “did absolutely nothing wrong,” Trump has called the New York District Attorney’s investigation a “witch hunt” led by a “racist” prosecutor. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is Black.

This is not the only criminal case hanging over the former president. In Georgia, prosecutors are considering bringing criminal charges in connection with Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election result in the state. Trump narrowly lost to Democrat Joe Biden in Georgia.

Meanwhile, special counsel Jack Smith has been investigating Trump’s role in the effort to overturn the election results as well as his handling of classified documents after he left office.

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Ukrainian Artists Document Horrors of War in Warsaw Exhibit

An art exhibit in Warsaw, Poland, brings together the works of Ukrainian artists who aim to document the brutality of Russian aggression. The exhibition is entitled “Ukraine. Under a Different Sky.” For VOA, Lesia Bakalets reports on the display at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw. Elizabeth Cherneff narrates. Camera – Daniil Batushchak.

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US, French Hostages in West Africa Released

U.S. hostage Jeffery Woodke has been released after more than six years in captivity in West Africa, White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan said Monday.  

Woodke was kidnapped from his home in Abalak, Niger, where he was a humanitarian aid worker, by men who ambushed and killed his guards, forced Woodke into their truck at gunpoint and drove toward the border with Mali. The incident happened Oct. 14, 2016. 

According to Niger’s interior minister, Hamadou Souley, Nigerien authorities secured Woodke’s release from Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, or JNIM, a terrorist group active in West Africa and the Sahel. 

“The U.S. thanks Niger for its help in bringing him home to all who miss & love him,” Sullivan wrote in a tweet Monday, referring to Woodke. “I thank so many across our government who’ve worked tirelessly toward securing his freedom.” 

Woodke’s wife, Els Woodke, told The New York Times that she was notified of his release and told he was in Niger’s capital city of Niamey.  

A U.S. official confirmed that Woodke was in Niamey and said he was being medically evaluated. Another senior administration official briefing reporters said that the U.S. had not paid a ransom or made other concessions.  

Separately, French journalist Olivier Dubois was also released following his kidnapping April 8, 2021 in Mali. Dubois posted a video on Twitter saying he was tired but felt fine. 

Media rights group Reporters Without Borders issued a statement Monday, saying it was “overjoyed and hugely relieved” by Dubois’ release. The group had long campaigned for his release. 

The developments come days after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Niger. 

Some information from this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.  

VOA’s French to Africa service and Annika Hammerschlag contributed to this report. 

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