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Sources: Merkel Seeks to Delay Huawei Position Until After March EU Summit

Chancellor Angela Merkel has asked her conservative lawmakers to wait until after a March EU summit before taking a position on whether China’s Huawei can take part in the rollout of Germany’s 5G network, sources involved in their talks said.

Merkel believes European Union coordination on the issue is important and she has been unable to bridge differences within her CDU/CSU bloc, the sources said.

Merkel’s conservatives are divided on whether to support a proposal by their Social Democrat (SPD) junior coalition partners that, if approved, would effectively shut out the Chinese technology giant from the network.


Putin Sends His Constitutional Proposals to Parliament

Russian President Vladimir Putin has submitted to Parliament a package of constitutional amendments widely seen as an attempt to secure his grip on power well after his current term ends in 2024.

Putin first presented the proposed changes in his state-of-the-nation address Wednesday, arguing they are intended to bolster the role of Parliament and strengthen democracy. Kremlin critics have argued that they are intended to allow his rule for life.

The Kremlin-controlled lower house, the State Duma, confirmed on Monday that it has received a draft bill on constitutional proposals from the Kremlin. The lawmakers will fast-track the document, putting it for discussion at Thursday’s meeting.

Putin, 67, has been in power for more than 20 years, longer than any other Russian or Soviet leader since Josef Stalin, who led from 1924 until his death in 1953. Under the law now in force, Putin must step down as president when his current term ends.

Observers say that the proposed changes could allow Putin to stay in charge by shifting into the position of head of the State Council or moving into the prime minister’s seat after increasing the powers of Parliament and the Cabinet and trimming presidential authority.

Putin’s amendments include a proposal to give the constitution a clear priority over international law – a tweak seen as a reflection of the Kremlin’s irritation over the European Court of Human Rights’ rulings that held Russia responsible for human rights violations.

Another suggested amendment says that top government officials aren’t allowed to have foreign citizenship or residence permits.

Parallel to lawmakers, a working group created by Putin will also consider the proposed changes before they are put to the vote.

Putin said that the constitutional changes need to be approved by the entire nation, but it wasn’t immediately clear how such a vote would be organized.

Along with amending the constitution, Putin last week also fired Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who had the job for eight years, and named tax chief Mikhail Mishustin to succeed him. The Russian leader is yet to appoint the new Cabinet.


Former German Military Translator on Trial as Iran Spy

A German-Afghan man who worked for years as an interpreter and adviser for the German military went on trial Monday on charges of spying for Iranian intelligence.

The 51-year-old man, who has been identified only as Abdul S. in line with German privacy rules, is charged with “a particularly serious case” of treason and with breaching official secrecy laws in 18 cases.

Prosecutors have given few details of the case. Media and the public were excluded from the trial at the Koblenz state court before the indictment was read, the dpa news agency reported.

Presiding judge Thomas Bergmann said the trial would be held behind closed doors “until further notice” because of security concerns. The public was later allowed back into the courtroom, but further exclusions were expected during the course of the trial, which is scheduled to last until at least March 31.

The man’s wife, Asiea S., also a German-Afghan dual citizen, has been charged with being an accessory to treason. Prosecutors have said she supported his passing of secret documents to Iran from the beginning, without detailing the nature of that support.

Defense lawyer Ulrich Sommer said neither has responded to the charges. He said he has found “no direct evidence” to support them.

Chiefs, 49ers Earn Super Bowl Spots

The field for this year’s Super Bowl is set, with the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers earning the right to play for the National Football League championship on Feb. 2 in Miami.

The Chiefs defeated the Tennessee Titans 35-24 on Sunday to claim the American Football Conference crown and the team’s first trip to the Super Bowl since 1970.

Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes (15) celebrates a touchdown pass with Eric Fisher (72) and Mitchell Schwartz (71) during the second half of the NFL AFC Championship football game against the Tennessee Titans, Jan. 19, 2020, in Kansas City.

The 49ers have had more recent success, last appearing in the Super Bowl in 2012.  They beat the Green Bay Packers 37-20 in the National Football Conference championship game Sunday.

Fans can likely expect a high-scoring Super Bowl.  During the regular season, the 49ers ranked second in the NFL in points scored, while the Chiefs were fifth.

San Francisco’s offense is more focused on running to advance the ball down the field. Kansas City prefers to pass the ball, with star quarterback Patrick Mahomes leading its offense.

The Super Bowl is enjoyed not only by football fans, but also many others who may not watch any other football game during the rest of the year. The television broadcast is annually one of the most watched shows in the United States with about 100 million people tuning in.

Interest goes beyond the game itself, with many people eager to enjoy the commercials shown during the broadcast. Companies spend $5 million for a 30-second spot to showcase new and special ad campaigns they create.

Crowded Footbridge Breaks over Indonesian River, Killing 9

A footbridge on Indonesia’s Sumatra island broke while it was packed with people and several fell into the overflowing river below and drowned, officials said Monday.

Nine bodies have been pulled from the water as far as 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from the bridge that broke Sunday afternoon in Kaur district of Bengkulu province.

Rescuers are searching for a 14-year-old boy still missing and feared dead, said Ujang Syafiri, who heads a local disaster mitigation agency.

About 30 people, most of them teenagers, had just returned from a tour at a nearby hydropower plant and stopped on the footbridge to take photos of the extreme flow of the river.

“It was apparently (beyond) its capacity. Some teens even had rocked the bridge while joking,“ Syafiri said.

He said about 20 survivors were rescued and one was hospitalized with serious injuries.

Photos released by the agency showed rescuers using an inflatable boat while they searched for victims near the broken bridge and villagers using bamboo and clothes to carry a body.

Seasonal rains in recent weeks have caused severe flooding and landslides in Indonesia. Many of the nation’s nearly 270 million people live in mountainous areas prone to landslides or plains close to rivers that flood regularly. The archipelago of 17,000 islands also has frequent seismic and volcanic activity.


‘Parasite’ Wins at SAG Awards, So Do Pitt and Aniston

“Parasite” has officially infected Hollywood’s award season. Bong Joon Ho’s Korean class satire became the first foreign language film to take top honors from the Screen Actors Guild on Sunday, setting itself up as a legitimate best picture contender to the front-runner “1917” at next month’s Academy Awards.   

The best ensemble win for “Parasite” came over the starry epics “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and “The Irishman.” It was a surprise but only to a degree. “Parasite,” up for six Oscars including best picture, has emerged as perhaps the stiffest competition for Sam Mendes’ “1917,” which won at the highly predictive Producers Guild Awards on Saturday.  

But “Parasite” was the clear crowd favorite Sunday at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, where even the cast’s appearance introducing the film drew a standing ovation. Yet until the SAG Awards, the many honors for “Parasite” have seldom included awards for its actors, none of whom were nominated for an Oscar.   

“Although the title is ‘Parasite,’ I think the story is about coexistence and how we can all live together,” said Song Kang Ho, one of the film’s stars, through a translator.   

Because actors make up the largest percentage of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, their picks are closely watched as an Academy Awards harbinger.

Jennifer Aniston accepts the award for outstanding performance by a female actor in a drama series for “The Morning Show” at the 26th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium & Expo Hall, Jan. 19, 2020, in Los Angeles.

But the last two years, the SAG ensemble winner has not gone on to win best picture: “Black Panther” last year and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” in 2018. And this year’s front-runner, “1917,” more acclaimed for its technical acumen, wasn’t nominated by the screen actors.   

If “Parasite” can pull off the upset at the Feb. 9 Oscars, it would be the first foreign language film to do so.

Before the win for “Parasite,” the SAG Awards were most notable as a reunion for Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. They each took home awards and celebrated the other’s win.   

Pitt is headed toward his first acting Academy Award for his supporting performance in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” and he added to his front-runner status with a win from the actors’ guild. Along the way, his speeches have been  full of one-liners and he didn’t disappoint Sunday. Pitt, who said he was nursing a flu, looked down at his award and said, “I’ve got to add this to my Tinder profile.”

He added: “Let’s be honest, it was a difficult part. A guy who gets high, takes his shirt off and doesn’t get on with his wife. It was a big stretch.” The audience laughed and clapped, including — as the cameras captured — Aniston, his ex-wife.

Aniston later won an award of her own for best female actor in a drama series for the Apple TV Plus show “The Morning Show.” “What!” she said upon reaching the stage. Aniston finished her speech with a shout-out to her “Murder Mystery:” co-star Adam Sandler, whose performance in “Uncut Gems” has gone mostly unrewarded this season despite considerable acclaim. 

“Your performance is extraordinary and your magic is real. I love you, buddy,” said Aniston.  

Backstage, Pitt watched Aniston’s acceptance speech. After she got off stage, they warmly congratulated each other on their first individual SAG Awards. 

Along with Pitt, all the Oscar favorites kept their momentum, including wins for Renee Zellweger (“Judy”), Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”) and Laura Dern (“Marriage Story”).  

Joaquin Phoenix reacts as he accepts the award for outstanding performance by a male actor in a leading role for “Joker” at the 26th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.

As expected, Phoenix took best performance by a leading male actor. After individually praising each fellow nominee, Phoenix concluded with a nod to his Joker predecessor. “I’m standing here on the shoulders of my favorite actor, Heath Ledger,” said Phoenix.  

Dern also further established herself as the best supporting actress favorite with a win from the actors guild. On her way to the stage, she hugged her father, Bruce Dern, part of the “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” ensemble.   

Phoebe Waller-Bridge continued her awards sweep for “Fleabag,” a winner at the Emmys and the Golden Globes. Waller-Bridge added a SAG win for best female actor in a comedy series and took a moment to reflect on the show’s parade of accolades.  

“This whole thing really has been a dream, and if I wake up tomorrow and discover it was just that, then thank you,” said Waller-Bridge. “It’s been the most beautiful dream.”   

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” also continued its streak, winning best comedy series ensemble for the second straight year, along with a win for Tony Shalhoub. But accepting the ensemble award, the show’s shocked Alex Borstein said she had voted for “Fleabag.”   

“Honestly this makes no sense,’ said Borstein. “‘Fleabag’ is brilliant.’”  

Robert De Niro was given the guild’s lifetime achievement award, an honor presented by Leonardo DiCaprio who, like De Niro, is a frequent leading man for Martin Scorsese. (The two co-star in Scorsese’s upcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon.”) A raucous standing ovation greeted the 76-year-old actor. 

De Niro, a fiery critic of Donald Trump, referenced the president in his remarks. 

“There’s right and there’s wrong. And there’s common sense and there’s abuse of power. As a citizen, I have as much right as anybody — an actor, an athlete, anybody else — to voice my opinion,” said De Niro. “And if I have a bigger voice because of my situation, I’m going to use it whenever I see a blatant abuse of power.”   

“Game of Thrones” closed out its eight-season run with wins for Peter Dinklage for best male actor in a drama series and for best stunt ensemble work. “The Crown” took best ensemble in a drama series. And both “Fosse/Verdon” stars — Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell — won for their performances in the miniseries.

Governor: 2 Police Officers Die After Hawaii Shooting

Hawaii’s governor says two police officers have died after a shooting in Honolulu on Sunday.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports that officers had responded to an assault call when they encountered a male with a firearm, who then opened fire, striking two officers.

“Our entire state mourns the loss of two Honolulu Police officers killed in the line of duty this morning,” Governor David Ige said in a statement.

The neighborhood where the shooting occurred is at the far end of the Waikiki Beach between the Honolulu Zoo and the famed Diamond Head State Monument. The area would be packed with tourists and locals, especially on a weekend.

“It sounded like a lot of shots, or a lot of popping, loud noises going on,” said Honolulu resident Peter Murray. “So hope everybody is all right. Some people got hurt today.”

“We grieve with HPD and other first-responders who put their lives on the line to keep us safe,” said Councilmember Kymberly Marcos Pine.

A home the suspected gunman was believed to be inside caught fire and was quickly engulfed by flames. The fire at the home has since spread to several neighboring homes and a parked police vehicle.

The Honolulu Fire Department was battling the blazes.

No arrests have been made.

Police have closed several streets nearby. The public has been asked to avoid the area.


On the Edge of America, Census Begins in a Tiny Alaska Town

TOKSOOK BAY, ALASKA — There are no restaurants in Toksook Bay, Alaska. No motels or movie theater, either. There also aren’t any factories. Or roads.

But the first Americans to be counted in the 2020 census live in this tiny community of 661 on the edge of the American expanse. Their homes are huddled together in a windswept Bering Sea village, painted vivid lime green, purple or neon blue to help distinguish the signs of life from a frigid white winterscape that makes it hard to tell where the frozen sea ends and the village begins.

Fish drying racks hang outside some front doors, and you’re more likely to find a snowmobile or four-wheeler in the driveway than a truck or SUV.

In this isolated outpost that looks little like other towns in the rest of the United States, the official attempt to count everyone living in the country will begin Tuesday.

The decennial U.S. census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the U.S. purchased the territory from Russia in 1867.

Once the spring thaw hits, the town empties as many residents scatter for traditional hunting and fishing grounds, and the frozen ground that in January makes it easier to get around by March turns to marsh that’s difficult to traverse. The mail service is spotty and the internet connectivity unreliable, which makes door-to-door surveying important.

For those reasons, they have to start early here.

The rest of the country, plus urban areas of Alaska such as Anchorage, will begin the census in mid-March.

Some of the biggest challenges to the count are especially difficult in Toksook Bay, one of a handful of villages on Nelson Island, which is about 500 miles (805 kilometers) west of Anchorage and only accessible by boat or plane.

Some people speak only Alaska Native languages such as Yup’ik, or speak one language but don’t read it.

People ride through town on all-terrain vehicles, Jan. 18, 2020, in Toksook Bay, Alaska.

The U.S. census provides questionnaires in 13 languages, and other guides, glossaries and materials in many more. But none is one of 20 official Alaska Native languages. So local groups are bringing together translators and language experts to translate the census wording and intent so local community leaders could trust, understand and relay the importance of the census.

It wasn’t an easy task. Language can be very specific to a culture.

For example, there’s no equivalent for “apportionment” — the system used to determine representation in Congress — in the language Denaakk’e, also known as Koyukon Athabascan. So translators used terms for divvying up moose meat in a village as an example for finding cultural relevancy, said Veri di Suvero, executive director of the agency partner Alaska Public Interest Research Group

When the official count begins this week, the Census Bureau has hired four people to go door-to-door. At least two of them will be fluent in English and Yup’ik.

Places such as Toksook Bay that run this risk of being under-counted also desperately need the federal funds assigned based on population for health care, education and general infrastructure.

Yet mistrust of the federal government is high. That’s true in many parts of the U.S., but especially in Alaska, where many have strong libertarian views, and even more in a rural community where everyone knows everyone, and someone asking for personal information is seen with suspicion.

“The No. 1 barrier to getting an accurate count throughout Alaska is concern about privacy and confidentiality and an inherent distrust of the federal government,” said Gabriel Layman, chairman of the Alaska Census Working Group. “And that attitude is fairly pervasive in some of our more rural and remote communities.”

A girl waits for her mother, Jan. 19, 2020, in Toksook Bay, Alaska.

The census is entirely confidential, Layman reassures people, and the Census Bureau can’t give information to any law enforcement, immigration official to even to a landlord if you report if you have 14 people living in your rental. Violating that privacy could land a Census worker behind bars with a hefty fine.

When the count begins on Tuesday, a Yup’ik elder who is part of a well-known Eskimo dancing group will be the first one counted.

Lizzie Chimiugak, whose age isn’t known because records weren’t kept but is anywhere from 89 to 93, is “the grandma for the whole community,” said Robert Pitka, the tribal administrator of the Nunakauyak Traditional Council in Toksook Bay.

Steven Dillingham, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau, will be on hand for Tuesday’s start.

Village officials will greet him at the town’s airstrip and bring him to the school, where community members will bring traditional food, which could include seal, walrus, moose or musk ox. They’ll have a ceremony with the dance group that includes Chimiugak, who will come to the school and dance in her wheelchair if the weather allows.

Mary Kailukiak, a town councilwoman, said she’s one of the cooks.

“I’m thinking of maybe cooking up dried fish eggs, herring fish eggs,” she said, pausing to speak to a reporter while ice fishing for tomcod and smolt on the Bering Sea, dressed in a black parka and snow pants and sporting a hat made by her daughter from sealskin and beaver. The eggs will be soaked overnight and served with seal oil.

Then Dillingham will conduct the first official census count, or enumeration as it known, with Chimiugak, out of earshot of others to satisfy federal privacy laws.

Pitka is hoping for nice weather — it’s been as cold as -20 Fahrenheit (-29 Celsius) lately — as the nation’s eyes turn west for the event: “It’s going to be a very special moment.”

Simeon John, who leads a youth suicide prevention group, stood before about 120 people at the end of the Sunday service at St. Peter the Fisherman Catholic Church. In Yup’ik, he told parishioners to expect strangers in town this week and why.

Beyond helping prepare for Tuesday’s kickoff, he also encouraged them to take part in the census when a worker knocks on their door.

“That was one of the reasons why we encourage people to participate in as much as we can because of the benefits that we will be getting,” said John, a community census helper.

Responses in the 2020 census could help residents in the future get improvements to the water facility, airport, port and even roads.

Besides announcements at church services, community leaders will repeat the same message this week to townspeople over marine VHF radio and through more modern means, including texting.

Philippines Looks for Safer Homes for Volcano Residents

Philippine officials said Sunday the government will no longer allow villagers to return to a crater-studded island where an erupting volcano lies, warning that living there would be “like having a gun pointed at you.”

Taal volcano has simmered with smaller ash ejections in recent days after erupting on Jan. 12 with a gigantic plume of steam and ash that drifted northward and reached Manila, the capital, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) away. While the volcano remains dangerous, with large numbers of local villagers encamped in emergency shelters, officials have begun discussing post-eruption recovery.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano said officials in Batangas province, where the volcano is located, have been asked to look for a safer housing area, at least 3 hectares (7 acres) in size, for about 6,000 families that used to live in four villages and worked mostly as tourist guides, farmers and fish pen operators on Volcano Island. The new housing site should be at least 17 kilometers (10 miles) away from the restive volcano to be safe, he said.

The island has long been declared by the government as a national park that’s off-limits to permanent villages. The government’s volcano-monitoring agency has separately declared the island a permanent danger zone, but impoverished villagers have lived and worked there for decades.

“We have to enforce these regulations once and for all because their lives are at stake,” Ano said, adding that closely regulated tourism work could eventually be allowed on the island without letting residents live there permanently.

An aerial view shows the landscape of Buso Buso, Philippines, covered in ash following the eruption Taal volcano, Jan. 19, 2020.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has approved a recommendation for the island to be turned into a “no man’s land,” but he has yet to issue formal guidelines. After an initial visit last week, Duterte plans to return to hard-hit Batangas province on Monday to check conditions of displaced villagers, Ano said.

Although it’s one of the world’s smallest volcanoes, the 311-meter (1,020-foot) -high Taal is the second most-active of 24 restive Philippine volcanoes. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology has placed Taal and outlying cities and towns at alert level 4, the second-highest warning, indicating a more dangerous explosive eruption is possible within hours or days due to fewer but continuous earthquakes and other signs of restiveness.

“They lived on the volcano itself with 47 craters. That’s really dangerous. It’s like having a gun pointed at you,” Renato Solidum, the head of the volcanology institute, told The Associated Press.

Taal left more than 200 people dead in a powerful 1965 eruption, then again exploded in 1977. Officials of the government institute said they began issuing advisories about Taal’s renewed restiveness as early as March last year, helping local officials prepare and evacuate thousands of villagers rapidly from Volcano Island hours before the volcano erupted thunderously.

Lucia Amen, a 45-year-old mother of six, said she started packing up clothes in bags in November after hearing from her children that their teachers were warning that the volcano was acting up again. When the volcano erupted, she said she was ready with her family and rapidly moved out of Laurel town, which lies near Volcano Island.

Amen wept quietly Sunday while attending Mass in an evacuation center in Tagaytay city in Cavite province, saying she was worried about her children as the eruption dragged on.

A senator from Batangas, Ralph Recto, has recommended the creation of a commission to oversee the recovery of the volcano-devastated region. It will be similar to a government body that was established after Mount Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption north of Manila.

A long-dormant volcano, Pinatubo, blew its top in one of the biggest volcanic eruptions of the 20th century, killing hundreds of people and devastating the Philippines’ main rice-producing region.

The disaster-prone Philippines lies along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a string of faults around the ocean basin where many of the world’s earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur.

Despite Cease-Fire, Clashes Continue in Syria’s Idlib

Fierce clashes continued Sunday between Syrian government forces and rebel fighters in the northwestern province of Idlib, despite a cease-fire brokered last week by Russia and Turkey.

The recent surge in violence began after Syrian and Russian warplanes resumed their airstrike campaign in Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The war monitoring group said severe clashes took place Sunday in the southeastern part of Idlib, where rebel fighters and jihadist factions have been trying to regain control of several towns and villages recently recaptured by Syrian government forces and their allies.  

Local news reports said at least 28 Syrian government troops and 19 rebel fighters, including 15 jihadists, were killed in Sunday’s clashes.

Idlib, the last main rebel stronghold in Syria, is home to nearly 3 million people. The Syrian province is largely controlled by the Islamist militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.  

Failed truce

On Jan. 12, Turkey announced a new cease-fire in Idlib after an agreement with Russia. Ankara and Moscow support opposing sides of the Syrian conflict.
Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Turkey and Russia had agreed on a cease-fire and a halt of ground and air operations in the so-called de-escalation zone in Idlib.

The de-escalation zone was announced in September 2018, after Moscow and Ankara reached an agreement that postponed a planned Syrian government offensive on Idlib and other areas near the Turkish border.

FILE – A boy, sitting in a car, cries following airstrikes by government forces, in the town of Ariha, in Idlib province, Syria, Jan. 15, 2020.

As part of that agreement, Turkey was required to remove all extremist groups from the province, some of which are tied to the al-Qaida terrorist group. But Turkey allegedly has failed to implement its part of the deal.

In April 2019, the Syrian military and its allied militias launched a major offensive to recapture Idlib from rebel forces.

The U.N. says that since then it has documented more than 1,500 civilian deaths, nearly half of them are women and children. Local rights groups, however, say the death toll is much higher.  

Jihadi coalition

HTS and several other jihadist groups have joined forces in a coalition to battle Syrian government troops, HTS said in a statement released Friday.

Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory, says the jihadi coalition in Idlib aims to make a last stand against the Syrian government troops and their Russian allies.
“This alliance will continue and will not end anytime soon now that Turkey has told them to confront the regime forces,” Abdulrahman told VOA.

In an interview with CNN Turk Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Syrian “opposition must protect itself from [Syrian] regime attacks,” adding that there have been violations of the Idlib cease-fire that Turkey and Russia agreed on.
In addition to HTS, the so-called coalition includes the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front and several al-Qaida-linked groups such as Ansar al-Tawhid.

“Despite their ideological differences, these groups have always maintained a level of cooperation throughout Syria’s war,” said Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows Islamic militancy in the war-torn country.”

FILE – Men carry the body of a man retrieved from the rubble of a building following an airstrike by government for on a vegetable market in Syria’s last major opposition bastion of Idlib, Jan. 15, 2020

“This time around, however, their alliance is more important than ever before because the ongoing battle in Idlib is a matter of life and death for all these extremist and jihadist groups,” he told VOA.

Displaced people

According to the U.N, about 350,000 civilians, mostly women and children, have fled the Russian-backed Syrian military offensive that began in Idlib in early December.

Amina Ose, a senior official at the Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syria, said at least 300 families from Idlib have sought shelter in areas under the control of U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“We are building a camp near the town of Manbij to host these families. We expect to receive more displaced people from Idlib as the fighting intensifies there,” she told VOA.

Other displaced people reportedly have fled to safer areas under rebel control along the Syria-Turkey border.
US Stance

U.S. officials have repeatedly called on the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies to stop their attacks against civilians in Idlib.

“Russia, Syria and Iran are killing, or on their way to killing, thousands of innocent civilians in Idlib Province…,” President Donald Trump said in tweet last month.

The United States, which has led a coalition to combat the Islamic State (IS) terror group in eastern Syria, does not have any military presence in northwestern Syria, including Idlib, but U.S. forces have occasionally carried out airstrikes targeting al-Qaida and other militant leaders in Idlib.

In October 2019, the U.S. conducted an operation in Idlib that killed IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had been hiding in the northwestern Syrian province since March of the same year after the military defeat of his group in eastern Syria.


Key Players Squabble Over Trump’s Impeachment Trial

Key players in the impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump and his defense argued sharply Sunday whether his efforts to get Ukraine to launch investigations to benefit him politically were impeachable offenses that warranted his removal from office.

Trump’s Senate trial formally opened last week and is set to hear opening arguments on Tuesday. But combatants in the political and legal fight over Trump’s fate waged verbal battles across the airwaves on Sunday morning news talk shows in the U.S. that offered a glimpse of the Senate drama the American public will witness in the days ahead.

Criminal defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz, one of the team of lawyers defending Trump, told CNN’s “State of the Union” show that he will tell the 100 members of the Senate, who are acting as jurors deciding Trump’s fate, that “even if the facts as presented are true, it would not rise to the level of impeachment” to convict Trump and oust him from office.

The lawmakers will be deciding whether Trump committed “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the standard the U.S. Constitution set for removing a president from office. As the trial nears, the Republican-majority Senate remains highly unlikely to convict Trump, a Republican, since a two-thirds vote against Trump would be necessary to oust him from the White House.

FILE – Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and U.S. President Donald Trump face reporters during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 25, 2019.

Trump last July asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to launch an investigation of one of his top 2020 Democratic challengers, former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden’s work for a Ukrainian natural gas company, and a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine sought to undermine Trump’s 2016 campaign.  The phone call between the two leaders happened at the same time Trump was temporarily blocking release of $391 million in military aid Kyiv wanted to help fight pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Dershowitz argued that Trump’s actions did not amount to criminal conduct. He said that “if my argument prevails” and the Senate decides no impeachable offenses occurred, “There’s no need for witnesses” at Trump’s Senate trial and “the Senate should vote to acquit [Trump] or dismiss” the case against him.

FILE – House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 3, 2019.

Congressman Adam Schiff, the leader of seven House of Representative managers prosecuting the case against Trump, told ABC News’ “This Week” show, “The facts aren’t seriously contested, that the president withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to an ally at war with Russia, withheld a White House meeting that the president of Ukraine desperately sought to establish with his country and with his adversary the support of the United States in order to coerce Ukraine to helping him cheat in the next election.”

Schiff added, “They really can’t contest those facts. So the only thing really new about the president’s defense is that they’re now arguing that because they can’t contest the facts that the president cannot be impeached for abusing the power of his office.”

On Saturday, both the House lawmakers pushing for Trump’s conviction, and Trump’s defenders, filed legal arguments in the case.

The House managers said it was clear that the “evidence overwhelmingly establishes” that Trump is guilty of both charges in the two articles of impeachment he is facing.

FILE – President Donald Trump listens to a question during an event on prayer in public schools, in the Oval Office of the White House, Jan. 16, 2020, in Washington.

Meanwhile, Trump’s legal team called the impeachment effort against him “a dangerous attack on the right of the American people to freely choose their president.”

His lawyers called the impeachment effort “a brazen and unlawful attempt to overturn the results of the 2016 election and interfere with the 2020 election, now just months  away.”

But Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee that heard weeks of testimony about Trump and his aides’ attempts to pressure Ukraine for the Biden investigations, said the White House legal stance is “surprising in that It doesn’t really offer much new beyond the failed arguments we heard in the House.”

“So the only thing really new about the president’s defense is that they’re now arguing that because they can’t contest the facts that the president cannot be impeached for abusing the power of his office,” Schiff said. “That’s the argument I suppose you have to make if the facts are so dead set against you. You have to rely on an argument that even if he abused his office in this horrendous way that it’s not impeachable. You had to go so far out of the mainstream to find someone to make that argument you had to leave the realm of constitutional law scholars and go to criminal defense lawyers.”

FILE – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., signs the resolution to transmit the two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump to the Senate for trial on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 15, 2020.

The Senate has yet to decide whether it will hear witnesses in the impeachment trial, with new testimony opposed by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

Democrats want to subpoena former national security adviser John Bolton, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and others to testify about their knowledge of Trump’s Ukraine actions. Trump eventually released the Ukraine military aid in September after a 55-day delay without Zelenskiy launching the Biden investigations, which Republicans say is proof that Trump did not engage in a reciprocal quid pro quo deal — the military aid in exchange for the investigations to help him politically.

“We’ll be fighting for a fair trial,” Schiff said. “That is really the foundation on which this all rests. If the Senate decides, if Senator McConnell prevails and there are no witnesses, it will be the first impeachment trial in history that goes to conclusion without witnesses.”

He said, “We don’t know what witnesses will be allowed or even if we’ll be allowed witnesses. The threshold issue here is, will there be a fair trial? Will the senators allow the House to call witnesses, to introduce documents. That is the foundational issue on which everything else rests. There is one thing the public is overwhelmingly in support of and that is a fair trial.”

One of Trump’s staunchest Senate defenders, Sen. Lindsey Graham, on the “Fox News Sunday” show, called the impeachment effort “a partisan railroad job. It’s the first impeachment in history where there’s no allegation of a crime by the president.”

He said if Democrats demand to hear testimony from Bolton, Mulvaney and others, Trump will seek to invoke executive privilege against their testimony to protect the sanctity of private White House conversations.

“Clearly to me any president would ask for executive privilege regarding these witnesses,” Graham said, adding that if they were that important to the House case against Trump, Democrats should have sought their testimony during the House investigation.

Democrats did seek more testimony from White House aides, but Trump ordered them to not cooperate with the impeachment investigation; several aides complied with Trump’s edict while others did not. Democrats dropped their efforts to compel some testimony out of a fear that it would result in a lengthy legal battle that could have been tied up in U.S. for months.

Trump is spending the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago retreat along the Atlantic Ocean in Florida. Late Saturday, he resumed his almost daily attacks on the Democrats’ impeachment campaign against him, saying on Twitter, “What a disgrace this Impeachment Scam is for our great Country!” 

Trump’s Senate impeachment trial is only the third such event in the nearly 2 1/2 centuries of U.S. history. Two other presidents — Andrew Johnson in the mid-19th century and Bill Clinton two decades ago — were impeached by the House but acquitted in Senate trials and remained in office. A fourth U.S. president, Richard Nixon in the mid-1970s, faced almost certain impeachment in the Watergate political scandal, but resigned before the House acted.

Putin Denies He Wants to Remain in Power Indefinitely

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is denying that he’s planning to retain his grip on power when he relinquishes his country’s presidency in 2024.

The 67-year-old Putin dismissed accusations that sweeping constitutional changes he laid out in a speech Wednesday would allow him to retain his grip on a country he’s ruled for 20 years.

President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with a man after attending a wreath laying commemoration ceremony for the 77th anniversary since the Leningrad siege was lifted during World War II at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, Jan. 14, 2020.

Speaking Saturday while on a visit to his hometown of St. Petersburg, Putin said he understood peoples alarm but that he doesn’t want Russia to return to the Soviet-era practice of rulers dying in office without a succession plan.“

In my view, it would be very worrying to return to the situation of the mid-1980s when heads of state one by one remained in power until the end of their days, [and] left office without having secured necessary conditions for a transition of power,” Putin said.“

So, thank you very much, but I think it’s better not to return to the situation of the mid-1980s,” he added.

But many of his critics are skeptical of his assurances.

They worry Putin’s proposals, the first significant changes to the country’s constitution since it was adopted under Boris Yeltsin in 1993, are designed to ensure he keeps a grip on the levers of power after he leaves the Kremlin.

Putin’s term in office is set to end in 2024, and he cannot run again as the constitution prohibits anyone serving more than two consecutive terms.

FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the State Council in Moscow, Jan. 15, 2020.

The proposed constitutional changes he unveiled Wednesday, at this stage still vague, could allow him to retain power as national leader either as prime minister, a maneuver he’s used before to circumvent term limits, chairman of the country’s parliament or as head of a revamped but still ill-defined state council, his critics say.

Political foes have dubbed the proposed shake-up a “constitutional coup,” which would see the presidency reduced in importance. Some former Kremlin advisers say none of the powerful factions within the Kremlin or the country’s oligarchs want Putin to go, for fear his departure would trigger internecine warfare within the governing class.

In a recent interview with VOA, before Putin’s announcement, one of his former advisers, Gleb Pavlovsky, said that to a certain degree he’s trapped within the system he created. Putin can’t quit for fear that everything will fall apart, Pavlovsky said.

While Putin’s proposal has prompted outrage from rights activists, liberals and his political foes, ordinary Russians, even those critical of Putin, seem resigned, with many saying they’d never expected he’d relinquish power in four years’ time.

“I feel indifferent,” Ekaterina, a 28-year-old financial adviser told VOA. “Most of my friends are just making jokes about it” because they feel impotent, she added.

In 2011-2012 tens of thousands of people took to the streets following Putin’s return to the presidency for his third term, Ekaterina and others of her age group say they doubt large-scale protests to Putin’s plan will happen now. In August a series of protests were mounted against rigged elections to Moscow’s city council, but they have fizzled.

FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin, center right, and Kazakhstan’s former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, center left, attend the Victory Day military parade to mark 74 years since the end of World War II, in Red Square in Moscow, May 9, 2019.

Some opposition politicians say Putin’s proposals would see Russia gravitate to a Central Asian model of governance. They accuse Putin of wanting to prolong his state leadership by following the model of Kazakhstan, where Nursultan Nazarbayev, left the presidency last year but has maintained his iron grip on his Central Asian country as chairman of an all-powerful Security Council.

“It is a complete ideological switch on the part of the ruling class from a Western ideology to something else — an Eastern one or an Ancient Roman one,” said Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank.

The Russian leader’s “reform” proposals include also abolishing the primacy of international law now enshrined in the country’s current constitution. That possible change is alarming Russia’s beleaguered civil society groups, which are already seeing a tightening of restrictions on their work.

“As a member of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia is bound by international standards on human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law — including democratic elections, protections from arbitrary imprisonment, and freedoms of the media, assembly, and association,” wrote opposition politician and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza in the Washington Post Friday.

Those commitments have long been ignored, “but by establishing the primacy of domestic statutes, the Kremlin intends to free itself from its remaining formal commitments under international law, signaling yet another milestone in its growing isolation,” he said.