At Least 10 Burkina Faso Soldiers Killed in Militant Attack

Unidentified militants killed at least 10 soldiers and wounded many others in an attack on a military unit in northern Burkina Faso on Monday, the army said.

Burkina Faso has been overrun by Islamist violence this year that armed forces have been unable to contain. Hundreds of civilians have died and more than 150,000 have fled as the influence of jihadist groups with links to al-Qaida and Islamic State spreads across the Sahel region.

Monday’s attack occurred in the early hours of the morning in Koutougou in Soum province, an army statement said, without providing much further detail.

“In reaction to this barbaric attack, a vast air and land search operation is seeking to neutralise the many assailants,” the statement said.

Once a pocket of calm in the Sahel, Burkina has suffered a spillover of Islamist violence from its neighbors, including the kind of ethnic attacks that have destabilized Mali in recent years.

Deteriorating security prompted the Ougadougou government to declare a state of emergency in several northern provinces bordering Mali in December, including Soum.

Modi Tells Trump Hopeful India, US Will Meet Soon to Discuss Trade

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told U.S. President Donald Trump that he is hopeful that representatives from the two countries will meet again soon to discuss trade issues, the government said in a statement on Monday.

Modi expressed hope that India’s commerce minister and the U.S. trade representative would meet soon to discuss bilateral trade prospects, the government said.

Washington confirmed the leaders had spoken on Monday.

“The two leaders further discussed how they will continue to strengthen United States-India economic ties through increased trade, and they look forward to meeting again soon,” the White House said.

U.S. and Indian trade negotiators ended talks in July without making major progress on a range of disputes over tariffs and other protectionist measures imposed by both sides that are straining bilateral ties, officials have told Reuters.

The two sides had resumed trade talks after Trump and Modi met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in June and agreed to seek to deepen the two countries’ relationship.

Trump also stressed the need to reduce tensions between India and Pakistan, the White House said. India and Pakistan, neighbors and nuclear rivals, are embroiled in fresh tensions over Kashmir and Jammu.

El Salvador Woman Cleared of Murder Over Stillbirth

A rape victim from El Salvador who was charged with murder after giving birth to a stillborn baby was acquitted during a retrial Monday. 

Evelyn Beatriz Hernandez, 21, had been convicted of intentionally inducing an abortion and had served three years of a 30-year prison sentence.

That conviction was overturned in February for lack of evidence, and a new trial was ordered. Prosecutors had asked for a 40-year sentence. 

“Thank God, justice was done,” a tearful Hernandez told a cheering crowd outside the courthouse. “There are many women who are still locked up, and I call for them to be freed soon, too.”

El Salvador is one of three Central American nations with total bans on abortion. Women convicted of having abortions face prison sentences of two to eight years. 
But women who turn up at public hospitals following a miscarriage are sometimes accused of having killed the fetus and charged with aggravated homicide, which carries a sentence of 30 to 40 years. 

During the retrial, prosecutors had argued that Hernandez should have known she was pregnant and sought medical help when she went into labor. 

But defense lawyers said Hernandez was not aware of her pregnancy. The fetus was at 32 weeks in 2016 when Hernandez felt intense abdominal pains and delivered it into an outdoor toilet.

Her mother found her unconscious and covered in blood, and took her to a hospital where doctors called the police after determining she had given birth. 

The fetus was found in the family’s septic tank. 

‘Victory’ for women

“This is a resounding victory for the rights of women in El Salvador. It reaffirms that no woman should be wrongly accused of homicide for the simple fact of suffering an obstetric emergency,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, director for the Americas at Amnesty International.

She called on El Salvador to cease “criminalizing women once and for all by immediately revoking the nation’s draconian anti-abortion laws.”

Hernandez’s case was seen as a test for women’s reproductive rights under new President Nayib Bukele, who has said he believes abortion is acceptable only when the mother’s life is at risk but that he opposes criminalizing women who have miscarriages.

A Digital Setting For A Classical Violin Concert

Imagine listening to a violin concert in one of New York City’s majestic cathedrals or in the National Arboretum, surrounded by blooming magnolias. Now anyone can experience this exquisite scene with the use of VR glasses. A team of researchers from the University of Maryland at College Park came up with new immersive technologies that allow people from all over the world to experience performing arts in a breathtakingly beautiful setting without getting up from their couch. Nastassia Jaumen has the story.

Startup Ideas, Courtesy of Government Labs: One Firm Connects Entrepreneurs With New Technology

Every day, cutting-edge research is being performed in government and university labs across the country. Tech transfer is the process of taking that research out of the lab and transforming it into a business. One company jump-starts the process by introducing entrepreneurs to that research. Tina Trinh explains.

Sudanese Celebrate Signing of Political Agreement After Months of Protests

Sudan’s Transitional Military Council and opposition parties formally signed a political agreement this weekend after months of protests. Though many protesters are wary of the compromises made in the deal, the signing was marked by celebrations across the capital. In Khartoum, Esha Sarai and Naba Mohiedeen have more.

Italy’s Salvini Tells Ship with 107 Migrants to Go to Spain

Seeking to end a humanitarian crisis, Spain says a Spanish rescue boat with 107 migrants in the southern Mediterranean can sail to Spain and disembark its passengers in Algeciras.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Sunday told the Open Arms ship to leave Italian waters and go to Spain. Salvini contends that Open Arms is anchored off the southern island of Lampedusa “just to provoke me and Italy.”

The boat’s crew says conditions on the ship are “miserable” 17 days since it rescued people off Libya. Six EU countries say they’ll take the migrants in, but Salvini hasn’t let the ship dock.

The Open Arms didn’t immediately say if would go to Spain, several days’ sailing away. The group says Salvini is using the 107 migrants for “xenophobic and racist propaganda.”


Rohingya Refugee Children Missing Out on Education and Viable Future

A study by the U.N. Children’s Fund finds more than half a million Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar are not learning the life skills they need to prepare them for the future or to protect them from present-day abuse and exploitation.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children have been languishing in squalid, overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar for two years — ever since a mass exodus of 745,000 refugees fleeing persecution and violence in Myanmar began.  

The U.N. Children’s Fund reports more than a quarter million children up to age 14 are receiving a non-formal education, while more than 25,000 others are receiving none.  

Author of the UNICEF report, Simon Ingram, said adolescents are most disadvantaged.

He said 97 percent of children aged 15 to 18 years are not attending any type of educational facility, putting them at particular risk.

“When you meet teenagers in the camps, they speak readily of the dangers they face, especially at night, when drug dealers operate, and gang fights are reported to be a regular occurrence,” he said.  “Cases of trafficking are also being reported, although they are hard to quantify.  The camps can be especially hazardous for girls and women.”  

UNICEF and partners have provided learning to more than 190,000 Rohingya children in more than 2,000 centers.  These agencies are calling on the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to allow the use of their national educational resources to provide more structured learning for Rohingya children.

FILE – A Rohingya refugee girl sells vegetables in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, Aug. 28, 2018.

Ingram told VOA that UNICEF is appealing to Myanmar authorities to provide education to the children in the refugee camps.  Until now, he said, the children have been taught in the Burmese language by volunteer teachers from the refugee population.

“And, with the best will in the world, that is not the same as having a properly trained teacher, someone who has experience of delivering the Myanmar government’s own curriculum.  So, that is really what we are looking for and those are the conversations that are now ongoing with the government in Myanmar and we hope that we will receive a positive response to that,” said Ingram.

Ingram said it is critical for refugee children to be taught in Burmese as that is the language they will need if and when they return back to Myanmar.  Unfortunately, he notes Rohingya adolescents will continue to live in limbo until it is safe for them to go home.  He acknowledged that going home does not appear to be a realistic possibility for the foreseeable future.


Hong Kong Protesters Continue Weekend Demonstrations

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets Sunday in rain-drenched Hong Kong for another anti-government rally.

This is the eleventh weekend in a row that protesters have turned out to voice their dismay.

The demonstrations began as peaceful protests to stop an extradition bill that would allow criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China’s opaque legal system.  Since then the protests have evolved into a movement for democratic reforms.

The protests are generally peaceful, but activists have sometimes clashed with police.

“We hope that there will not  be any chaotic situations today,” organizer Bonnie Leung told the Associated Press.

The extradition bill has been suspended, but the protests continue as Hong Kong residents worry about the erosion of freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” mandate that has been in place since the territory’s return from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

China’s paramilitary troops have been training in Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, causing concern that China is ready to send in the troops to suppress the protests. 

Hong Kong’s police have insisted they are able to handle the demonstrators.

Demonstrations last weekend at Hong Kong Airport spilled over into the work week, crippling one of the world’s busiest air hubs for several days and sparking clashes between demonstrators and riot police.

UN Condemns Government Crackdown on Peaceful Protests in Zimbabwe

The U.N. human rights office is condemning a crackdown Friday in Zimbabwe by riot police on peaceful protesters in the capital, Harare.  The agency is calling for an investigation into excessive use of force by security forces.

U.N. Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville says there are better ways to deal with the population’s legitimate grievances on the economic situation in the country than by cracking down on peaceful protestors.

“We are deeply concerned by the socio-economic crisis that continues to unfold in Zimbabwe.  While acknowledging efforts made by the government, the international community and the U.N. in Zimbabwe to mitigate the effects of the crisis and reform process, the dire economic situation is now impacting negatively on the realization of economic and social rights of millions of Zimbabweans,” Colville said.

Zimbabwe’s citizens are struggling with hyperinflation, which has sent prices soaring for essential commodities such as fuel, food, transportation and health care.  Compounding the problems is the ongoing impact of cyclone Idai that hit Zimbabwe in March and a severe drought.

The United Nations says one third of Zimbabwe’s population of 16 million people is in need of humanitarian aid.  

The fallout in terms of casualties and possible arrests from Friday’s protests is not yet clear.  But Colville tells VOA his office has received disturbing reports of human rights violations over the past few months.

“There are, as I said, reports coming through right now of very recent abductions, beatings and so on of activists or human rights defenders.  We have not had a chance to verify those and look in detail apart from the two that occurred a few days ago,” Colville said. “So, it is clearly a very tense situation.”

Colville says state authorities have a duty to ensure people’s rights to freedom of expression and to protect the right to peaceful assembly.  

The U.N. human rights office is urging the government to engage in a national dialogue to ensure that civil society in all its guises can carry out its activities without fear of intimidation or reprisals for its work.

Iranian Tanker to Leave Gibraltar Soon Despite US Pressure

The shipping agent for an Iranian supertanker caught in a diplomatic standoff says the vessel is ready to depart Gibraltar on Sunday or Monday, as the U.S. made a last-minute effort to seize it again.

The head of the company sorting paperwork and procuring for the Grace 1 oil tanker in the British overseas territory said the vessel could be sailing away in the next “24 to 48 hours,” once new crews dispatched to the territory take over command of the ship.

“The vessel is ongoing some logistical changes and requirements that have delayed the departure,” Astralship managing director Richard De la Rosa told The Associated Press.

De la Rosa’s comments came a day after the U.S. obtained a warrant to seize the vessel over violations of U.S. sanctions on Iran. It was unclear if that could happen within a 24-hour time frame as Gibraltar officials have said any request to seize the vessel would have to make its way through the territory’s courts.

He said the new crews were Indian and Ukrainian nationals hired by the Indian managers of the ship and that his company had not been informed about the supertanker’s next destination.

The tanker, which carries 2.1 million barrels of Iranian light crude oil, had been detained for over a month in Gibraltar for allegedly attempting to breach European Union sanctions on Syria. The arrest fueled tension between London and Tehran, which seized a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz in apparent retaliation.

Analysts had said the release of the Grace 1 by Gibraltar could see Britain’s Stena Impero go free.

But late on Friday, a day after the tanker was released from detention, the U.S. obtained a warrant to seize the vessel over violations of U.S. sanctions, money laundering and terrorism statutes. Washington is seeking to take control of the oil tanker, all of the petroleum aboard and $995,000, unsealed court documents showed.

The latest turn of events come as tensions continue to rise in the Persian Gulf since President Donald Trump last year unilaterally pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear deal signed by Iran and other world powers. In recent weeks, oil tankers in the region have been the subject of attacks and seizures, dragging among others London and Tehran into a bitter diplomatic row.

The Gibraltar Supreme Court didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on whether the U.S. request had been filed there. Britain’s Foreign Office deferred questions to the government of Gibraltar, but calls and emails to its offices on how authorities planned to respond to Washington’s move went unanswered.

Messages left with the U.S. Embassy in London were not immediately returned.

The chief minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, had warned the U.S. that a new legal case would need to be examined by the territory’s courts following the end of the tanker’s detention this week. Picardo said he had been assured in writing by the Iranian government that the tanker wouldn’t unload its cargo in Syria.

Richard Wilkinson, a lawyer representing three crew members of the Grace 1 oil tanker, including its Indian captain, said he was “not aware of any reason why the ship won’t sail on Sunday, as it is to be planned.”

“As far as Europe is concerned, and it’s common ground, there’s been no criticism or complaints that this vessel is carrying oil from Iran, the only problem from the European point of view was the destination of the vessel and that has been sorted,” Wilkinson said.

He also said that he doubted that the U.S. had any jurisdiction to enforce its own sanctions in Gibraltar, where he saw “little political will” to re-seize the tanker.

The time window for a new seizure was also rapidly closing, as workers were seen by an AP crew hanging on a ladder to repaint the vessel’s bow with the name “Adrian Darya 1” over the place where “Grace 1″ had already been blackened out.

The ship was reportedly no longer sailing under a Panamanian flag, but no signs of a new one could be seen on Saturday.

The shipping agent, De la Rosa, said that “if the Americans came forth with some kind of request or specific order, it would have to be looked into by the judges, but I don’t think that’s materialized.”

Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, said the Iran policies of the U.K. and the U.S. governments overlapped in some aspects but differed on the 2015 nuclear deal, which London wants to maintain despite the Trump administration’s efforts to scrap it.

The British, Vakil said, “think it’s de-escalation that’s going to result in the release of the Stena Impero and preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” as the nuclear deal is officially known.

“The Americans are trying to provoke Iran,” she added. “If they do manage to seize the ship, it’s all about provoking the Islamic Republic. They’re trying to create a new cycle of tensions.”

Churchgoers Armed, Trained in Wake of Mass Shootings

HASLET, TEXAS — Acrid gun smoke clouded the sunny entrance of a Texas church on a recent Sunday.

Seven men wearing heavy vests and carrying pistols loaded with blanks ran toward the sound of the shots, stopping at the end of a long hallway. As one peeked into the foyer, the “bad guy” raised the muzzle of an AR-15, took aim and squeezed the trigger.

The simulated gunfight at the church in Haslet was part of a niche industry that trains civilians to protect their churches using the techniques and equipment of law enforcement. Rather than a bullet, the rifle fired a laser that hit Stephen Hatherley’s vest, triggering an electric shock the 60-year-old Navy veteran later described as a “tingle.”

Shootings this month killed more than 30 people at an El Paso Walmart and Dayton, Ohio, entertainment district. But gunmen have also targeted houses of worships in recent years, including a church in rural Sutherland Springs, Texas, where more than two dozen people were killed in 2017. 

Police officers David Riggall, left, and Nick Guadarrama, center, show students Stephen Hatherley, center rear, and Chris Scott, right rear, how to clear a hallway intersection during a security training session at Fellowship of the Parks campus

Welcome strangers, safely

The anxiety of one mass shooting after another has led some churches to start training and arming their worshippers with guns. Not all security experts support this approach, but it has gained momentum as congregations across the country grapple with how to secure spaces where welcoming strangers is a religious practice.

“Ten years ago, this industry was not a thing,” said David Riggall, a Texas police officer whose company trains churchgoers to volunteer as security guards. “I mean, sanctuary means a safe place.”

In 1993, Doug Walker said security wasn’t at the fore of his mind when, as a recent Baptist seminary graduate, he founded Fellowship of the Parks church in Fort Worth. But six years later, after a gunman killed seven people and took his own life at another church in the Texas city, the pastor said his thinking changed.

Today, the interdenominational church has four campuses and 3,000 worshippers on an average Sunday, Walker said. It has increased security as it has grown, asking off-duty police to carry weapons at church events. And it recently hired Riggall’s company, Sheepdog Defense Group, to train volunteers in first aid, threat assessment, de-escalation techniques, using a gun and tactical skills, such as clearing rooms during an active shooting.

Walker, 51, said there wasn’t a single event that prompted his church to decide its guards needed more training. But Riggall said that after mass shootings congregations reach out.

“Every time the news comes on and there’s another shooting in a school or church or something like that, the phone starts ringing,” Riggall said.

The 46-year-old police officer said that he and a colleague had the idea for the company after the 2012 mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. They started doing firearms trainings with parents and, after Riggall became certified under Texas law to train security guards, transitioned to churches.

Brett Faulkner, left, fires blanks out of an assault rifle as he and Julia Gant, right, participate in a hostage-taking scenario during a security training session at Fellowship of the Parks campus in Haslet, Texas, July 21, 2019.

‘I’m going to kill this woman’

The company incorporates Christian teachings into its courses and more than 90 people at 18 churches have completed the 70 hours of initial training and become state-licensed guards through its program, Riggall said. The so-called sheepdogs are insured and technically employed by the company. But they volunteer doing security at their own churches, which in turn pay Riggall.

On a Sunday in July, Brett Faulkner stood with an AR-15 in hand and his back to the cross in the sanctuary of Fellowship of the Parks campus in Haslet, a community about 15 miles (24 kilometers) north of Fort Worth. He pointed the rifle at a young woman’s back and yelled at the armed men advancing into the room, “I’m going to kill this woman. It’s going to happen right now.”

Faulkner, a 46-year-old information technology worker, has completed a Sheepdog session but came to another church’s to play the bad guy and keep his skills sharp.

“It really just comes down to caring about the people in that building,” Faulkner said of choosing to guard his small Baptist church.

Faulkner said his congregation re-evaluated its security after recent mass shootings and went with Riggall’s company as a cost-effective option. 

“This is a good balance between the cost of paying professionals and relying on untrained volunteers,” he said.

FILE – A woman reacts at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday’s shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 29, 2018.

Finding balance

Security professionals differ on what balance is right.

After 11 worshippers were shot dead during Shabbat morning services at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the city’s Jewish community has added layers of defenses.

Since that October attack, congregations that once felt guns were unnecessary or inappropriate have welcomed armed security, said Brad Orsini, security director for The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. But arming worshippers is not an approach the former FBI agent recommends.

“Carrying a firearm is an awesome responsibility,” said Orsini, who served in the Marine Corps before his nearly three decades with the FBI. “Because you have the ability to have a carry concealed permit does not make you a security expert. Because you have a firearm doesn’t necessarily mean you should be carrying it at the church on the weekend.”

FILE – Emergency personnel respond to a fatal shooting at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Nov. 5, 2017.

Security on a budget

Sheepdog Firearms, a Birmingham, Alabama-area gun range, offers police-style training to people looking to protect their churches. Owner David Youngstrom acknowledged the eight-hour course doesn’t produce experts.

But, he said, many of the roughly 40 Alabama churches that have sent people to take the class are small, rural congregations with limited means. For them, having armed volunteers can feel like the only option, he said.

And the trainings provide churches with evidence of having a security program in place if a tragedy turns into litigation. 

“It gives a good record for something that will hold up in court,” Youngstrom said.

Laws about carrying firearms in houses of worship vary from state to state. But as a general matter of liability, churches training members for security is not much different from a business hiring guards, according to Eugene Volokh, a professor at the UCLA School of Law.

A church could be sued if people were harmed because its security was badly trained, Volokh said, but also if it generally failed to protect people on its grounds. Both can be insured against and either is unlikely, he said.

Police officers David Riggall, kneeling, and Nick Guadarrama, right, instruct students Bryan Hetherington, left rear, and Chris Scott, center rear, during a security training session at Fellowship of the Parks campus in Haslet, Texas, July 21, 2019.

Different churches, different approaches

Brian Higgins, a former police chief for Bergen County, New Jersey, and instructor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he’s seen varied approaches to firearms in his work consulting at houses of worship. Attitudes toward guns differ between urban and rural areas, as do the security needs, he said.

And churches comfortable arming members also draw lines to preserve an environment conducive to worship.

Fellowship of the Parks allows congregants to have concealed weapons in church. But Walker, the pastor, said that other than security, people carrying openly are asked to put their guns away or leave.

“If people open carry who are not uniformed that can be very unsettling,” Walker said. “You may not know if that person is a possible shooter or criminal, so we try to balance it.”