Biden Urges Unity at Prayer Breakfast Under New Management

President Joe Biden delivered a message of unity at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, the first time the annual event has been held since its leadership and structure were overhauled to distance it from a controversial private religious group.

“In our politics and in our lives, we too often see each other as opponents and not competitors. We see each other as enemies, not neighbors,” Biden said. “And as tough as these times have been, if we look closer, we see the strength, the determination that has long defined America.”

The breakfast was held at the Capitol’s visitor center, and the auditorium’s 450 seats were packed with members of Congress, government officials and others.

Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has spoken at the breakfast, which in past years has been attended by thousands. For decades, the event was overseen by the International Foundation, a Christian organization that has drawn increasing scrutiny over the years.

Now the event is run by the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, a new group led by former members of Congress. The International Foundation held its own event at a nearby hotel, where Biden’s speech was being watched remotely.

“Welcome to all 1,300,” Biden said, a reference to the size of the crowd at the other breakfast. It was his only acknowledgement during the public program to changes behind the scenes.

The event is designed to bring people together across partisan lines, and Biden sat next to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. The two are beginning a showdown over whether to raise the country’s debt limit to avoid default.

“We had a good meeting yesterday,” Biden said of McCarthy, saying they would work to “treat each other with respect.”

Also present was Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for Arizona governor who lost her race in November but has refused to acknowledge her defeat. Biden has denounced election denial as a threat to American democracy.

Quoting Scripture, Biden said it was important to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

“That’s the hardest one, I think,” he said. “At least it’s hardest here. It didn’t used to be as hard. I’ve been here a long time. But it seems to be getting harder.”

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Punxsutawney Phil Sees Shadow, Forecasts Six More Weeks of Winter

A legendary U.S. groundhog, from the (east central U.S.) town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, was pulled from his burrow early Thursday, with local officials declaring he saw his shadow, indicating, according to legend, there will be at least six more weeks of winter.

The annual observance of Groundhog Day on February 2 brings thousands of revelers to the town—located about 105 kilometers northeast of Pittsburgh—each year. Local officials, dressed in top hats and long coats, make a show of pulling the famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil from his underground burrow to get his forecast.

The event is held shortly after dawn, around 7:15am, but the festivities begin as early as early as 3:30am with live entertainment and fireworks.

According to the organizer’s website, the tradition of seeking a weather forecast from a groundhog—a large rodent and member of the squirrel family—began in the town in 1886. Its origins go back to both Christian and pagan observances in Europe.

The pagan ritual marked the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. In Christian tradition, the feast day of Candlemas was when the church would distribute candles needed for the rest of winter, and it evolved into a prediction for how much longer winter would last.

Historians say the Germans began the tradition of involving an animal to the prediction process, using a hedgehog, a small, spiny animal common in parts of Europe. Germans immigrating to the eastern United States, where there are no hedgehogs, kept up the tradition by turning to groundhogs.

While the tradition and the celebration that accompanies it has stood the test of time, the groundhog has not had a good track record of accurately predicting winter weather. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), reports Punxsutawney Phil has been right roughly 40% of the time over the last 10 years.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press.

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Ukrainians Say They Fear Russians Might Attack Chernobyl Once Again

Site of the biggest nuclear accident in history, Chernobyl has become over the years one of the biggest tourist attractions in Ukraine. Despite still harboring high radiation levels, Chernobyl was one of Russia’s first military targets in its invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago. The Russians took control of the plant, the villas, and the small town that lent its name to the region for nearly two months. Now Chernobyl is back under Ukrainian control, but fears of another invasion remain.

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US Calls on Russia to Allow Nuclear Inspections

The United States says Russia is violating the New START Treaty, the last remaining nuclear arms treaty between the two countries. In August, Russia suspended inspections of its nuclear facilities as required by the treaty. VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports. Contributed to by Harry Knyagnitsky.

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Family, Community, Leaders Mourn Tyre Nichols

Vice President Kamala Harris paid her respects Wednesday at the funeral of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who died last month after a brutal beating by Memphis police officers. Activists say more needs to be done to strengthen laws to prevent police brutality, which disproportionately affects people of color. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from the White House.

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Philippines Grants US Military Access to More Bases

The United States and the Philippines announced an agreement Thursday that will give the U.S. military access to four new Philippine military sites. 

In a joint statement, the two countries did not give specific locations, saying they were in “strategic areas of the country.” 

The expansion is part of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which includes five existing sites. 

“The addition of these new EDCA locations will allow more rapid support for humanitarian and climate-related disasters in the Philippines, and respond to other shared challenges,” the statement said. 

The new agreement comes as the two longtime allies seek to counter China’s increasing assertiveness toward Taiwan and its actions in the South China Sea. 

Ahead of the announcement, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. that the U.S. goal is to strengthen the relationship with the Philippines “in every way possible,” and to boost the Philippines’ military capabilities. 

Marcos said the future of the Philippines and the Asia-Pacific region “will always have to involve the United States simply because those partnership are so strong.” 

VOA’s National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report. 

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

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North Korea Rejects Talks With US, Citing ‘Hostile Policy’

North Korea this week ruled out the idea of dialogue with the United States, accusing Washington of a “full-scale offensive” that is turning the Korean Peninsula into a “war zone.”

In a statement posted to state media on Thursday local time, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry complained of the “reckless military confrontational maneuvers and hostile acts of the U.S. and its vassal forces.”

“The more dangerous the U.S. threat to the DPRK gets, the stronger backfire the U.S. will face in direct proportion to it,” the statement warned, using an abbreviation for North Korea’s official name.

The statement came a day after the U.S. and South Korea held joint air drills involving U.S. B-1B long-range strategic bombers and stealth fighters in the Yellow Sea off Korea’s west coast.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry said the exercises “show the U.S.’s will and capabilities to provide strong and credible extended deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.”

During a visit to Seoul earlier this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vowed to increase the deployment of U.S. “strategic assets,” which include long-range bombers, nuclear-capable airplanes and aircraft carrier strike groups.

The allies will also soon hold so-called tabletop exercises meant to discuss hypothetical North Korean uses of nuclear weapons, Austin confirmed.

Displays of military might

The U.S. and South Korea say their increased displays of military strength are a response to North Korean provocations, which in many ways have reached new heights.

North Korea launched at least 95 missiles last year, blasting through its previous record. Some of the missiles prompted air raid alerts and shelter warnings in South Korea and Japan.

At a year-end speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to exponentially increase nuclear warhead production.

The moves have rattled South Korea, which does not have its own nuclear weapons but instead relies on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. However, in trying to reassure South Korea, the United States is also angering the North.

In its statement Thursday, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry blasted the Pentagon chief’s visit to Seoul, accusing him of “unhesitatingly talking about the use of nuclear weapons against the DPRK.”

“This is a vivid expression of the U.S. dangerous scenario which will result in turning the Korean Peninsula into a huge war arsenal and a more critical war zone,” the statement said.

‘Not interested’ in dialogue

North Korea has long accused the U.S. of a “hostile policy” and has vowed future U.S. moves will prompt a quick response.

Even as it expands its military activity, the U.S. has repeatedly offered to hold talks with North Korea on denuclearization. It has also offered COVID-19 humanitarian aid.

North Korea has repeatedly rejected the offers, calling them a “shameless” attempt to “gain time.”

“The DPRK is not interested in any contact or dialogue with the U.S. as long as it pursues its hostile policy and confrontational line,” the Foreign Ministry said, accusing Washington of trying to force the unilateral disarmament of North Korea.

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US Launches Initiative to Support African Farmers Amid Food Security Challenges

In partnership with the African Union, the United Nations and others, the U.S. State Department has kicked off an initiative to help African farmers and governments prepare for and adapt to food security challenges caused by climate change.

Dr. Cary Fowler, U.S. special envoy for global food security,  launched the new program Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Crops adapted to climate, pests, diseases and the needs of the marketplace are a prerequisite for food security,” said Fowler. “Poor soils don’t produce rich harvest.”

Fowler, who recently visited Zambia and Malawi, warned there is an urgent need to develop crops that are prepared to withstand the effects of climate change and the agricultural productivity demands of Africa’s growing population.

“At a time when Africa is experiencing weather extremes and population growth is increasing, we see a real opportunity promoting soil health and climate resistant crops in Africa,” said Fowler. “By the end of the century, as you probably already know, Africa will be the world’s most populated continent, yet already there are 300 million people who are food insecure on the continent.”

Historically, most adaptation efforts have focused on a handful of crops such as maize, rice and wheat, said Fowler. That attention, he said, should include lesser known crops that are rich in vitamins and micronutrients.

“Other crops such as grains, such as sorghum, millet and teff, and almost all of the root and tuber crops, and the hundreds of indigenous African fruits and vegetables, have received much attention,” he said. “Not surprisingly, their yields are low and their potential unrealized. For many of these crops there has never been a single scientifically trained plant breeder working on them in all of agriculture history.”

This initiative is being launched in partnership with the African Union and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Ambassador Cindy McCain, U.S. permanent representative to the U.N. agencies in Rome, was at the launch. She said overlapping crises — armed conflict, COVID-19 and climate change — are straining global food systems. And that is affecting everyone, especially the more vulnerable around the globe.

“Throughout my travels as the U.S. ambassador to U.N. agencies in Rome, I’ve seen the effects of conflict, water scarcity and extreme weather conditions from Kenya to Madagascar, from Sri Lanka to Laos and more,” she said. “As global leaders sought climate solutions in COP 27 in Egypt last year and at the Negev forum in UAE last month, it is clear that we must leverage science and technology and innovation in agriculture to feed a growing population, and it demands a united global effort.”

Fowler said in addition to the FAO and AU, entities such as the Rockefeller Foundation, Columbia University and CGIAR, a global partnership that unites international organizations engaged in food security research, also are involved in this effort. He said this is like a potluck dinner where the State Department brings some resources and maybe a main dish, but other partners need to contribute to the effort in order to make it a success. Fowler noted the process outlined is part scientific and part consensus- and commitment-building.

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Ukraine Raids Tycoon’s Home, Tax Office in Wartime Clampdown

Ukrainian authorities raided an influential billionaire’s home on Wednesday in what an ally of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy touted as a sweeping wartime clampdown on corruption that would change the country.

Separate raids were carried out at the Tax Office and on the home of an influential former interior minister, two days before Kyiv hosts a summit with the European Union at which it wants to show it is cracking down after years of chronic corruption.

Ukraine sees Friday’s summit as key to its hopes of one day joining the bloc, a goal that has grown more urgent following Russia’s invasion and has embarked on a political shake-up in which more than a dozen officials quit or were sacked last week.

Security officials searched the home of businessman Ihor Kolomoiskiy, one of Ukraine’s richest men and a one-time Zelenskyy ally, in what several media outlets said was an investigation into possible financial crimes.

Kolomoiskiy could not immediately be reached for comment. He has previously denied any wrongdoing.

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) later said it had uncovered a scheme to embezzle more than $1 billion at oil producer Ukrnafta and oil refining company Ukrtatnafta, companies that Kolomoiskiy used to partly own.

Photographs circulating on social media appeared to show Kolomoiskiy, dressed in a sweatsuit, looking on in the presence of at least one SBU officer inside a large wooden home. Reuters could not immediately verify the authenticity of the images.

In a statement that did not name Kolomoiskiy, the SBU published the same photographs, but with the person’s face blurred out.

David Arakhamia, a senior member of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party, confirmed the search of Kolomoiskiy’s home as well as the separate raids conducted at the Tax Office and at the home of Arsen Avakov, a former interior minister.

Arakhamia said the entire management of the Customs Service was set to be dismissed and that high-ranking defense ministry officials had been served with notices informing them they were suspects in a case. He gave no details.

“The country will change during the war. If someone is not ready for change, then the state itself will come and help them change,” Arakhamia wrote on the Telegram messaging app.


In a statement, the Prosecutor General’s Office later said, “Corruption in a time of war is looting” and that four senior current and former officials had been served “notices of suspicion,” along with the senior management of Ukrtatnafta.

The head of the State Bureau of Investigation said the law enforcement action was “only the beginning.”

Ukraine’s long-running battle against corruption has taken on vital significance, as Russia’s invasion has made Kyiv heavily reliant on Western support and it needs to carry out reforms to join the 27-nation EU.

Domestic politics has largely been frozen as politicians focus on fighting Russia, but Zelenskyy presided over the first major political shakeup of the war last week after an outcry over a corruption scandal involving an army food contract.

Zelenskyy said on Tuesday that more personnel decisions were in the pipeline and promised reforms that would change Ukraine’s “social, legal and political reality.”

He was elected president in 2019 on an anti-corruption ticket and launched a crackdown on wealthy businessmen known as “oligarchs” in late 2021. The oligarchs took control of swathes of industry during the post-Soviet privatizations of the 1990s and continue to wield influence.

The Ukrainska Pravda media outlet said the search on Kolomoiskiy’s property related to an investigation into the alleged embezzlement of oil products and evasion of customs duties.

Separately, Avakov said his home was searched as part of an investigation into a helicopter crash on Jan. 18 that killed 14 people including Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi.

He said investigators were looking into the purchase six years ago of a model of Airbus helicopter that was involved in the crash, but that “nothing relevant to the interest of the investigation was found.”

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Belgian Arms Trader, Defense Minister Tangle Over Tanks for Ukraine

Freddy Versluys does not like to be called an arms dealer. But he does have a big warehouse full of second-hand tanks for sale. 

Standing next to dozens of German-made Leopard 1 tanks and other military vehicles in the chilly warehouse in eastern Belgium, Versluys stressed he is the CEO of two defense companies with a broad range of activities, such as making sensors for spacecraft. 

But buying and selling weapons is part of his business, too. And it’s the tanks that have brought him into the spotlight over the past few days, as he has engaged in a public battle with Belgian Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder over the possibility of sending them to Ukraine. 

While other Western nations have pledged in recent weeks to send main battle tanks to help Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion, Belgium has not joined that group, for one reason above all: It doesn’t have any tanks left. It sold the last of them – a batch of 50 – to Versluys’s company more than five years ago. 

Asked why he bought the tanks, Versluys, a silver-haired man in his mid-60s, said that was his company’s business model – it bought unwanted military equipment in the hope that someone else would want it in future. 

“There are still countries in the world who have these Leopard 1 tanks. So there’s always a possibility either to sell spare parts or to sell additional tanks,” he said. 

“Of course, it’s a gamble,” he added. “Maybe tomorrow we will have to scrap them [or] 10 years later they can still be there.” 

Dedonder has said the government has explored the idea of buying back tanks to send to Ukraine. But she has blasted the prices quoted as unreasonable and extremely high. Tanks sold for 10-15,000 euros each are being offered for sale at 500,000 euros, despite not being operational, she has said. 

The spat highlights a predicament faced by Western governments as they scramble to find more weapons for Ukraine after almost a year of intense warfare; arms they discarded as obsolete are now in high demand, and many are now in the hands of private companies. 

Dedonder hasn’t named Versluys’s company, OIP Land Systems, in her accusations. But Versluys is sure he is her target. Dedonder declined a request for an interview. 

Versluys has taken the unusual step of going public to dispute the minister’s assertions, offering a rare insight into the workings of a business that often prefers to keep a low profile. 

Versluys said his firm bought the 50 tanks for about 2 million euros and only 33 were useable. That would mean a unit price of 40,000 euros for 50 tanks, or some 60,600 euros for 33. 

He said his selling price could range anywhere from several hundred thousand to close to a million euros but that would include work to refit the tanks, which he insisted could be highly expensive. 

Replacing the system that controls the gunfire could cost 350,000 euros per tank, replacing asbestos in the engine could cost 75,000 euros, he said. Each tank had to be assessed individually. 

“We still have to look at what is their actual status and what we have to spend on them to make them suitable,” he said. 

As part of his public offensive, Versluys has given journalists tours of his warehouse on the outskirts of the provincial town of Tournai. It resembles a military hypermarket, filled with lines of Leopard 1 tanks in dusty green and black camouflage and scores of other military vehicles, along with shelves stacked with spare parts and piles of webbing. 

In his sales pitch, Versluys also emphasizes that refitted Leopard 1 tanks could be battlefield-ready in months, much more quickly than new models ordered today, which will take years to produce. 

The Leopard 1 is the predecessor of the Leopard 2 tanks that Germany, Poland, Finland and other countries agreed last month to send to Ukraine. It is lighter than the Leopard 2 and has a different type of main gun. The models in Versluys’s warehouse were last upgraded in the 1990s. 

Yohann Michel, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said Leopard 1 tanks would not be as valuable on the battlefield as their successors. 

But, he said, they could still be of some use in taking on older Russian tanks and in supporting infantry units, particularly if they were refitted to a high standard. 

If Belgium does not buy back the tanks, another country could purchase them for Kyiv. Versluys said he had held discussions with several European governments about that option. 

However, any export of Leopard 1s would require the approval from the Belgian region of Wallonia, where the company is based, and from Berlin, as the tanks were made by German firm KMW. 

Versluys, who worked as an engineer in the Belgian military before going into business, is a smooth salesman.

While he does not like the “arms dealer” label, he said the weapons business is better than its reputation: “Contrary to what people say, it’s quite a civilized market.” 

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Erdogan: Sweden Can’t Join NATO if Quran-Burning Is Allowed

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed Wednesday that Turkey won’t allow Sweden to join the NATO military alliance as long as the Scandinavian country permits protests desecrating Islam’s holy book to take place.

Turkey, which has been holding off approving Sweden and Finland’s membership in the Western military alliance, has been infuriated by a series of demonstrations in Stockholm by activists who have burned the Quran outside the Turkish Embassy and hanged an effigy of Erdogan. It has indefinitely postponed a key meeting in Brussels that would have discussed the two Nordic countries’ entry into NATO.

“Sweden, don’t even bother! As long as you allow my holy book, the Quran, to be burned and torn, and you do so together with your security forces, we will not say ‘yes’ to your entry into NATO,” Erdogan said in a speech to his ruling party’s legislators.

Swedish government officials have distanced themselves from the protests, including by a far-right anti-Islam activist who burned copies of the Quran in Stockholm and Copenhagen, Denmark, while also stressing that the demonstrations are protected by freedom of speech.

On Tuesday, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson denounced the activists who carried out the demonstrations as “useful idiots” for foreign powers who want to inflict harm on the Scandinavian country as it seeks to join NATO.

“We have seen how foreign actors, even state actors, have used these manifestations to inflame the situation in a way that is directly harmful to Swedish security,” Kristersson told reporters in Stockholm, without naming any countries.

Sweden and neighboring Finland abandoned decades of nonalignment and applied to join NATO in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All NATO members except Turkey and Hungary have ratified their accession, but unanimity is required.

Earlier on Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara has fewer problems with Finland becoming NATO member than with its neighbor Sweden. He stressed, however, that it was up to the military alliance to decide whether to accept one country only or the Nordic duo together — something that both countries are committed to.

Should NATO decide to deal with the membership processes of the Nordic neighbors separately, “(Turkey) will then of course reconsider (ratifying) Finland’s membership separately and more favorably, I can say,” Cavusoglu said during a joint news conference with his Estonian colleague in Tallinn. He didn’t give a time frame.

Erdogan also repeated that Turkey’s view on Finland’s membership was “positive.”

“But it is not positive about Sweden, that should be known,” Erdogan said.

Meanwhile, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström told Swedish news agency TT that his country was complying with an agreement reached by Turkey, Sweden and Finland last year, but said that “religion is not part of the agreement.”

“Having said that, I fully understand that people take offense to the burning of holy writings and perceive it as deeply hurtful,” he said.

“What is needed now is for the situation to cool down on all sides,” Billström said, adding that talks with Turkey on the implementation of the agreement were continuing. With the joint memorandum signed last year, Sweden and Finland agreed to address Turkey’s security concerns.

The minister also tied Erdogan’s comments to an upcoming general election in Turkey.

Erdogan, who faces a tough presidential election in May amid an economic downturn and high inflation, is expected use his strong-arming of Sweden to rally nationalist support.

“Right now there is an election campaign going on in Turkey and in election campaigns many things are said,” Billström said.

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US Opens Embassy in Solomon Islands to Counter China

The United States opened an embassy in the Solomon Islands on Thursday in its latest move to counter China’s push into the Pacific.

The embassy is starting small, with a charge d’affaires, a couple of State Department staff and a handful of local employees. The U.S. previously operated an embassy in the Solomon Islands for five years before closing it in 1993 as part of a global reduction in diplomatic posts after the end of the Cold War.

But China’s bold moves in the region have the U.S. seeking to increase its engagement in a number of ways, such as by donating COVID-19 vaccines, bringing back Peace Corps volunteers to several island nations, and investing in forestry and tourism projects.

The opening of the embassy in the Solomon Islands comes as Fiji’s new leader, Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, appears to be reassessing some aspects of his nation’s engagement with China. Rabuka told The Fiji Times last week he planned to end a police training and exchange agreement with China.

The U.S. State Department notified lawmakers early last year that China’s growing influence in the region made reopening the Solomon Islands embassy a priority. Since then, the Solomons has signed a security pact with China, raising fears of a military buildup in the region, and the U.S. has countered by sending several high-level delegations.

The Solomon Islands switched allegiance from the self-ruled island of Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, threatening the close ties with the U.S. that date back to World War II.

“We are seeing this bond weaken as the People’s Republic of China aggressively seeks to engage Solomon Islands’ political and business elites, utilizing a familiar pattern of extravagant promises, prospective costly infrastructure loans, and potentially dangerous debt levels,” the department said in a December notice to Congress that was obtained by The Associated Press.

A senior State Department official who insisted on anonymity to brief the media said the U.S. had been encouraged by the Solomon Islands’ commitment to continue working with traditional security partners such as Australia and the U.S. but remained concerned about the secrecy surrounding the security agreement with China.

He said any type of militarization in the Pacific by China would be a great concern.

The official said the U.S. had yet to have deep conversations with the new Fijian leadership, so it was too early to tell if the move on policing signaled a change in direction for Fiji on China.

The Fijian government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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US Denounces Sudan Release of Killer of US Aid Worker

The United States on Wednesday voiced alarm over Sudan’s release of a man sentenced to death over the killing of an American development worker, denying there was any understanding between the countries.

Islamist gunmen shot dead John Granville, a 33-year-old U.S. Agency for International Development employee, along with his 40-year-old Sudanese driver Abdel Rahman Abbas in a hail of bullets on New Year’s Day 2008.

Sudanese authorities on Monday freed Abdelraouf Abu Zaid, who was convicted over the killing, with his lawyer saying it was a court decision in line with a 2020 compensation package by Sudan to Washington for past terrorism.

“We are deeply troubled by the lack of transparency in the legal process that resulted in the release of the only individual remaining in custody,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

He said it was “inaccurate” that the United States had agreed to the release as part of the 2020 deal, which removed Sudan from a blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism dating from the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir.

As part of the deal brokered by then premier Abdalla Hamdok, impoverished Sudan paid $335 million to American survivors and families of victims killed in past attacks.

Hamdok, a civilian heading a transitional government, was seeking to reintegrate Sudan into the international community but he was ousted the following year by the military, setting back relations with the United States, which froze $700 million in economic support.

Price said the United States was seeking clarity on the release of Abu Zaid and was offering $5 million for information leading to the arrest or conviction of two other people suspected in the 2008 killings.

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Global Corruption Worsens, But Africa Makes Progress

The past year saw little progress in tackling global corruption due to greater violence and insecurity, according to the organization Transparency International. Their annual index measures citizens’ perceptions of the level of corruption. As Henry Ridgwell reports, there are some encouraging signs that corruption is being successfully tackled in Africa. Videographer: Henry Ridgwell

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Tom Brady Retires, Insisting This Time It’s For Good

Tom Brady, who won a record seven Super Bowls for New England and Tampa, has announced his retirement from the U.S. National Football League.

Brady — the most successful quarterback in NFL history, and one of the greatest athletes in team sports — posted the announcement on social media Wednesday morning, a brief video lasting just under one minute.

“Good morning guys. I’ll get to the point right away,” Brady says as the message begins. “I’m retiring. For good.”

He briefly retired after the 2021 season, but wound up coming back for one more year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He retires at age 45, the owner of numerous passing records in an unprecedented 23-year career.

A year ago when he retired, it was in the form of a long Instagram post. But about six weeks later, he decided to come back for one more run. The Buccaneers — with whom he won a Super Bowl two seasons ago — made the playoffs again this season, losing in their playoff opener. And at the time, it begged the question about whether Brady would play again.

Only a couple weeks later, he has given the answer.

“I know the process was a pretty big deal last time, so when I woke up this morning, I figured I’d just press record and let you guys know first,” Brady says in the video. “I won’t be long-winded. You only get one super emotional retirement essay and I used mine up last year.

“I really thank you guys so much, to every single one of you for supporting me. My family, my friends, teammates, my competitors. I could go on forever. There’s too many. Thank you guys for allowing me to live my absolute dream. I wouldn’t change a thing. Love you all.”

Brady is the NFL’s career leader in yards passing (89,214) and touchdowns (649). He’s the only player to win more than five Super Bowls and has been MVP of the game five times.

Brady has won three NFL MVP awards, been a first-team All-Pro three times and selected to the Pro Bowl 15 times.

Brady and supermodel Gisele Bündchen finalized their divorce this past fall, during the Bucs’ season. It ended a 13-year marriage between two superstars who respectively reached the pinnacles of football and fashion.

It was announced last year that when Brady retires from playing, he would join Fox Sports as a television analyst in a 10-year, $375 million deal.

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US Nomination of North Korea Rights Envoy Revives Hope for Divided Families

The nomination of the U.S. special envoy for human rights in North Korea, along with new legislation, has revived hopes for Korean Americans who want to see family in North Korea whom they have not seen since their separation during the Korean War.

President Joe Biden nominated Julie Turner, a long-time State Department official, as the U.S. special envoy for human rights in North Korea on January 23. The position has been vacant for the past six years.

The Divided Families Reunification Act authorizes the special envoy to consult regularly with Korean Americans to make “efforts to reunite” them with their families in North Korea.

The Reunification Act was included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2023, which Biden signed into law on December 23. The envoy is to create “potential opportunities” for reunions including video meetings.

“This bill is our last hope because most of the divided family members are in their late 80s and 90s, and probably this is our last chance for the reunion,” said Chahee Lee Stanfield, executive director of the National Coalition for the Divided Families (DFUSA).

Stanfield, 82, has not seen her father and brother in North Korea for more than 70 years. She began a grassroots effort in America in the mid-1990s to help Korean families living in the U.S. reunite with loved ones in North Korea.

“Every day counts for us, and we are hoping that the special envoy will prioritize our issue and seek the reunion process including the video reunion as soon as possible,” Stanfield said.

No travel after war

The Korean War, which began in June 1950, separated more than 10 million individuals from their families. The fighting ended in July 1953 with the signing of the Armistice Agreement ordering a temporary cease-fire and the division of the peninsula between North and South Korea.

Since their separation, families divided by the 38th parallel have been unable to travel to see each other due to the differences between the democratic Republic of Korea (ROK), as South Korea is known, and socialist North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

From 1985 to 2018, the governments of the North and South authorized 21 family reunion programs. These allowed more than 24,500 divided families in both countries to meet either in person in Seoul, Pyongyang and Mount Kumgang or virtually.

However people like Stanfield, who moved from South Korea to America and became U.S. citizens, were unable to participate in the programs because diplomatic ties between Washington and Pyongyang do not exist.

There are more than 1.7 million people of Korean descent living in the U.S. As many as 10,000 Korean Americans were separated from their families in North Korea during the war, according to Wonseok Song, executive director of Korean American Grassroots Conference (KAGC).

“Unfortunately, there is no reported information of the exact number of divided families residing in the United States,” Song said. “There are no mechanisms in the United States that formally track these families, and no terms that clearly define who may be considered family either.”

California Republican Representative Young Kim, who cosponsored the bipartisan Reunification Act, is pushing for a system of identifying Korean Americans divided from their families in North Korea.

“I want the special envoy … to identify the Korean Americans, some 10,000 of those still living in the United States, to coordinate better with our U.S. State Department and the South Korean government to include them in the next round of family reunification,” said Kim during an interview with the VOA Korean Service this week.

The number is shrinking yearly due to deaths among the aging population who have now waited much of their lives to see their families in North Korea. About 3,000 elderly South Koreans with family ties to North Korea die each year, according to the Reunification Act.

A lifetime of hoping

Even though inter-Korean family reunion programs were temporary and held under strict surveillance by North Korean officials, Korean Americans have long hoped that similar programs would unite them with their families in the North.

Some, like Song Yoonchae, a white-haired 90-year-old in Los Angeles, thought he would return home when he boarded the SS Meredith Victory. He thought he was taking a brief voyage to escape the ravages of the war.

He recalled leaving behind his sister and two brothers to board the U.S. merchant freighter turned rescue vessel docked at the port of Hungnam in North Korea in December 1950.

“My family and I were told we just need to stay on the ship for three days,” said Song, who was 17 years old at the time, in “The Three Days Is a Lifetime,” a documentary produced by the VOA Korean Service. It captures the wrenching stories of Korean Americans yearning to meet their families in the North.


The ship carried tens of thousands of densely packed refugees to Port Jangseungpo on Geoje Island off the southern tip of South Korea. The rescue operation became known as “the Miracle of Christmas” as the ship unloaded the refugees on Christmas Eve.

Displaced by the war, Yoonchae began a new life in the South before moving to the U.S.

“I consider the issue of bringing divided Korean American families together to be a human rights issue,” said Robert King, who served as the U.S. special envoy for North Korea’s human rights under the Obama administration. He was the last person to serve in the position.

“The first step will be to get North Korea to talk with the United States,” King continued.

An opening for dialog

Dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang has remained stalled since October 2019. Even though the Biden administration said efforts were made to engage in talks, North Korea has refused.

Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said, “In the absence of any dialogue with North Korea, with tensions rising on the Korean Peninsula because of Pyongyang’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and with U.S.-DPRK and ROK-DPRK relations in a bad state, it is hard to imagine that there is any real prospect for progress in this important area.”

Revere continued, “Nevertheless, the existence of this legislation keeps open a potential area for U.S.-ROK-DPRK dialogue and cooperation if and when circumstances allow in the future.”

North Korea launched more than 90 ballistic and cruise missiles last year while dismissing any prospects for talks with the U.S.

Wonseok Song of the KAGC said, “While tensions do remain unfavorable between the two countries” of the U.S. and North Korea, “we at KAGC are hopeful” that talks focusing on reunions will open. He added, “The issue is dire to an aging population eager to make peace with their estranged loved ones.”

Joeun Lee contributed to this report.

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Russian Journalist Sentenced for Speaking Out on Ukraine 

A court in Moscow on Wednesday sentenced a Russian journalist in absentia to eight years in prison on charges of disparaging the military, the latest move in the authorities’ relentless crackdown on dissent.

Alexander Nevzorov, a television journalist and former lawmaker, was convicted on charges of spreading false information about the military under a law that was adopted soon after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine. The law effectively exposes anyone critical of the Russian military action in Ukraine to fines and prison sentences of up to 10 years.

Nevzorov was accused of posting “false information” on social media about the Russian shelling of a maternity hospital in the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol. Moscow has fiercely denied its involvement.

Nevzorov, who moved abroad after the start of the Ukrainian conflict, didn’t have an immediate comment on the verdict.

Prominent opposition politician Ilya Yashin was sentenced in December to 8½ years in prison under the same law. Another leading opposition figure, Vladimir Kara-Murza, has been in custody facing the same charges.

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Russia Says Longer-Range Western Weapons Would Escalate Ukraine Conflict

Russia said Wednesday that supplies of long-range weapons to Ukraine would not deter Russian forces, but would increase tensions and escalate the conflict.

The comments from Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov came amid reports the United States is preparing a new round of aid that would include longer-range rockets to help Ukrainian forces fight off a Russian invasion.

Reuters reported that according to two U.S. officials briefed on the matter, a weapon called the Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb with a range of 150 kilometers was part of the package expected to be announced as soon as this week.

Also expected to be included were Javelin anti-tank weapons, counter-drone and counter-artillery systems, armored vehicles, communications equipment, and enough medical equipment to support three field hospitals.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, tweeted Wednesday that each stage of war requires certain weapons. He said there is already a coalition of partners helping Ukraine obtain and train to use tanks, and that there are “talks on longer-range missiles and attack aircraft supply.”

Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleskii Reznikov said Wednesday, a day after meeting with French officials, that he was grateful to France for providing howitzers, air defense missiles and armored vehicles, as well as fuel, equipment and training for Ukrainian soldiers.

Ukraine won a boost last week when the United States and Germany both promised to send tanks to Ukraine, after Germany hesitated for weeks over sending its advanced Leopard 2 tanks.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba estimated Tuesday that a dozen countries have now promised more than 100 tanks, which he described as the “first wave of contributions.”

Ukrainian officials have called on their Western allies to send fighter jets in order to better respond to the Russian attack, but so far, those calls have been met with wariness.

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

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