4 Killed in Sao Tome’s Failed Coup Bid, State Media Reports

Four people were killed in a failed coup attempt on Sao Tome and Principe, the state news agency STP-Press said Sunday reporting a toll from the armed forces chief of staff.

The military, which Friday thwarted a coup bid in the tiny Portuguese-speaking archipelago off central Africa considered a beacon of democracy, announced “four human lives were lost” after “exchanges of fire” at a military site.

Prime Minister Patrice Trovoada told STP-Press that “four citizens” and 12 soldiers and fighters from South Africa’s officially disbanded Buffalo Battalion were involved in the attempted overnight putsch.

The army said Sunday 12 active-duty soldiers were involved.

They were “neutralized and captured” after trying to storm military sites and three of them died from their wounds despite the army’s efforts to preserve their lives by taking them to the hospital, Trovoada added.

One of the victims was Arlecio Costa, who once served as a mercenary in apartheid South Africa’s Buffalo Battalion, disbanded in 1993. Trovoada accused him of being one of the ringleaders.

The army said Costa — also held in 2009 over accusations of plotting a coup — died following his arrest Friday after he “jumped from a vehicle,” without giving further details.

Trovoada said the former president of the outgoing National Assembly Delfim Neves was also one of several people arrested after the attack on army headquarters, in a Friday video message confirmed by the justice minister.

A judicial source told AFP two inquiries had been launched to investigate the alleged attack on a military barracks in Sao Tome and the “torture” and “murder” of four suspects.

The government on Sunday condemned what it called a “violent attempt to subvert the constitutional order,” saying the deaths and the coup attempt would be investigated.

It added that an international team was coming to the archipelago to support investigators and called on the hospital services to look after the victims’ bodies.

A resident speaking to AFP anonymously by phone said she had heard “automatic and heavy weapons fire, as well as explosions, for two hours inside the army headquarters” in the nation’s capital.

In the video message, authenticated and sent to AFP by the press office of Sao Tome’s prime minister, Trovoada is seen sitting at a desk saying he wants to “reassure” the population and “the international community.” 

Trovoada initially said a soldier had been “taken hostage” and wounded but “would be able to resume his activities in a few days.” 

A former Portuguese colony in the Gulf of Guinea, the nation of some 215,000 people is deeply poor and depends on international aid but is also praised for its political stability and parliamentary democracy.

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Jon Batiste to Sing for Macron at Biden’s First State Dinner

Musician Jon Batiste is on tap to perform at President Joe Biden’s first White House state dinner on Thursday that will highlight long-standing ties between the United States and France and honor President Emmanuel Macron.

“An artist who transcends generations, Jon Batiste’s music inspires and brings people together,” said Vanessa Valdivia, a spokesperson for first lady Jill Biden, whose office is overseeing dinner preparations.

“We’re thrilled to have him perform at the White House for the first state dinner of the Biden-Harris administration,” Valdivia said.

The black-tie dinner for Macron will be part of what is shaping up to be a busy social season at the White House. The Bidens’ granddaughter Naomi Biden was married on the South Lawn earlier this month. And first lady Jill Biden was set on Monday to unveil the White House decorations that will be viewed by thousands of holiday visitors over the next month.

Batiste will be adding White House entertainer to an already long list of roles, including recording artist, bandleader, musical director, film composer, museum creative director and scion of New Orleans musical royalty.

He won five Grammy Awards this year, including for album of the year for “We Are.” During the awards show in April, Batiste ended his dance-filled performance of “Freedom” by jumping up on Billie Eilish’s table.

Batiste, 36, most recently was bandleader and musical director of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” leaving the broadcast after a seven-year run.

Batiste composed music, consulted on and arranged songs for Pixar’s animated film “Soul.” He won a Golden Globe for the music alongside Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails. The trio also earned the Academy Award for best original score. For their work on “Soul,” Batiste, Reznor and Ross won the Grammy for best score soundtrack for visual media.

The Washington Post was first to report that Batiste will perform at the dinner.

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Al-Shabab Militants Storm Mogadishu Hotel

Al-Shabab militants have carried out a complex attack on a hotel located in a secure area not far from the presidential palace in Mogadishu and a prison run by the national intelligence agency, according to witnesses and police. 

“Tonight Khawarij group attacked a hotel in Bondhere district,” said a note sent to the journalists via WhatsApp. “Security forces are conducting an operation to end the Khawarij attack.” 

Khawarij or “deviant sect,” is a term the government uses to refer to al-Shabab.    

A security official who did not want to be named confirmed to VOA Somali that the militants targeted Villa Rossa, a hotel frequented by government officials and politicians. 

The official also confirmed that the attack started with an explosion, followed by armed gunmen storming the hotel. The number of al-Shabab gunmen is not yet known. The first explosion occurred at around 8:05 p.m. local time. 

Witnesses have seen special security forces moving into the area. Police said they rescued many civilians and officials. There was no word on the number of casualties as a result of the ongoing attack.

In a Telegram post, the militant group said its fighters conducted a suicide infantry mission. 

The attack comes as Somali government forces supported by local fighters continue an offensive against the militants in Hirshabelle and Galmudug states. 

Somali Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre last week said security forces have killed more than 600 militants and injured 1,200 others during three months of military operations against the group.  

In a report marking the first 100 days of his Cabinet, he said security forces have also recovered 68 localities from al-Shabab.  

“The government of Dan Qaran (National Interest) has launched a three-front war, militarily, economically and ideology against the Khawarij,” he said.   

The figure given by the government has not been independently verified.

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China, US Can Cooperate on Climate Issues Despite Tensions, Experts Say

Amid a recent flurry of meetings that brought together officials from the United States and China, along with other world leaders, experts say the two countries can work together on climate change despite lingering tensions.

The two largest economies are the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters but also rivals as China seeks to expand its influence around the world. Tensions have also risen amid policies toward Taiwan, which Beijing views as a breakaway province.

Despite the geopolitical tensions, working together to implement the agreements at the recent G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia can be the first step, according to Belinda Schaepe, climate diplomacy researcher in London at E3G, a research group that focuses on cooperation among China, the European Union and U.S.

“The two sides should cooperate to implement the G-20 Bali Energy Transitions Roadmap that was endorsed by both Xi and Biden at the recent leaders’ summit,” Schaepe told VOA in an email this week. “They should also support implementation of the G20 Sustainable Finance roadmap developed by the Sustainable Finance Working Group which China and the US co-chaired.”

She was referring to U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. They met in person for the first time since Biden took office and held more than three hours of talks during the G-20 summit, which brought together leaders from the 20 biggest economies.

Energy roadmap

The G-20 Bali Energy Transitions Roadmap includes boosting stable, transparent and affordable energy markets, as well as accelerating energy transitions by strengthening energy security and scaling up zero and low emission power generation. The G-20 Sustainable Finance Roadmap focuses on ensuring investment goes to achieving sustainable goals. The U.S. said in a statement that this will improve the credibility of financial institutions’ net zero commitments. These commitments are pledges to fight climate change.

The U.S. and China also resumed talks on climate issues at the recently concluded 27th United Nations Climate Conference, known as COP27, hosted by Egypt. China had put the bilateral cooperation on pause in August in protest after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan.

High-level cooperation between these two countries is critical to combat climate change, said Dan Kammen, professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley at a press conference at COP27 on potential U.S.-China cooperation.“If we lose sight that those high-level agreements and partnerships, even if they are trade or rights that need to be resolved through data, verification and trust, that is these watershed moments that really define climate success,” Kammen said. “If that partnership doesn’t extend between the two major powers here, it’s not going to accelerate our global decarbonization.”

Reviving the COP26 agreement 

On a technical level, Schaepe said a climate declaration from the two countries, initiated in Glasgow, Scotland at last year’s climate conference, COP26, can offer some guidelines.

Both sides agreed last year to set up regulatory frameworks and environmental standards on cutting greenhouse gases this decade, as well as policies on decarbonization and deploying green technologies such as carbon capture.

At COP27, Kammen provided a case in point in terms of tech cooperation: His school cooperated with the city of Shenzhen on a project involving electric taxi cabs. It called for researchers to analyze data from about 20,000 electric taxis in the city and predict travel and queuing time at charging stations. With the real time information, he said, drivers could cut down time for each taxi by more than 30 minutes each day and allow the city to contract more green energy business.

Fossil fuel use

Domestic issues like improving Shenzhen’s electric taxi fleet are likely a focus for cooperation, according to Deborah Seligsohn, assistant professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. She focuses on environmental governance in China and U.S.-China relations. 

“A lot of the hard work on both sides is going to be domestic no matter what…the basic work of mitigation is based on a lot of domestic policy. Both countries know they need to be the leading countries for reducing emissions. It’s not a difficult issue to find common ground to discuss,” Seligsohn told VOA News in a video call last week. 

The expert suggested the two cooperate on ensuring a just transition in the fossil fuel industry. 

“Both countries have communities where the fossil fuel production is the major industry. The challenge is not just how you find jobs for the specific people who work in the fossil fuel [industry], but how you maintain the vibrancy of everything else from public schools to the grocery stores,” she explained. 

Currently, China is home to more than 1,000 coal-fired power plants, according to Statista, the largest coal producer in the world, while the U.S. is the globe’s largest oil and gas producer, with more than 94,000 such facilities. 

China’s coal output hit a record high in March, and a few months later, it was also seen to ramp up its coal supply to cope with the worst heatwaves in decades. In October, China again boosted its coal supply for winter heating. Currently, half of the country’s energy has been generated by burning coal, which is used to make electricity.

Carbon emissions in China, however, were projected to drop because of slowed economic growth due to COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. Experts project the slowdown will be short-lived.

Uncertain future

Whether the U.S. and China are motivated enough to reduce the use of fossil fuels remains to be seen, according to Paul Harris, chair professor of global and environmental studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. 

“What’s most likely is that they [the U.S. and China] will, as in the past, cooperate on things that tend to distract from the real problem,” Harris told VOA earlier this week in an email. 

“Here I’m thinking of carbon capture and sequestration, and pie-in-the-sky favorite approach of polluters around the world because it makes us all think that we can keep on burning fossil fuels. We can’t.”

The climate expert said the cooperation will likely be on a bumpy road, as geopolitics likely will get in the way.

“There’s distrust on both sides, and Beijing is in no mood to compromise on its red lines, Taiwan especially,” he added. “The stop to Sino-US climate talks never should have happened. A real question is whether China is now serious about serious cooperation with the United States on climate change. I have very serious doubts.”

 

This story was published with support of Climate Tracker’s COP27 Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship.

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Pakistan Arrests Senator Over Anti-Military Tweets  

Authorities in Pakistan arrested an opposition senator Sunday for launching what they said was a “highly obnoxious campaign of intimidating tweets” against the country’s outgoing military chief and other officers.

Azam Khan Swati, who represents the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in the upper house of parliament, was picked up early morning by operatives of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) from his residence in the capital, Islamabad.

The 75-year-old senator, charged with sedition charges under a controversial cybercrime law, used foul language in his tweets while referring to the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is set to retire Tuesday.

An FIA criminal complaint described Swati’s comments against Bajwa and state institutions at large as a “mischievous act of subversion to create [a] rift between personal of armed forces to harm the state of Pakistan.”

It was the second time in less than two months that the veteran politician, a close aide of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, was taken into custody over the same allegations.

Swati was arrested in October and released on bail days later. But he has since consistently claimed he was tortured and stripped while in custody, accusing a senior general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of doing so at the behest of Bajwa.

The senator has also been urging the country’s Supreme Court to investigate and punish those responsible for the custodial torture.

“I am shocked & appalled at how rapidly we are descending into not just a banana republic but a fascist state,” Khan said on Twitter in his reaction to Swati’s arrest.

“His justifiable anger & frustration at the injustice meted out to him…So he tweets & is arrested again. Everyone must raise their voice against this state fascism,” the former prime minister wrote.

On Saturday, the senator, along with Khan, was among speakers at a massive rally in the neighboring garrison city of Rawalpindi to demand early general elections.

Swati asked Bajwa in his brief televised speech, to tell the nation what assets the military chief has accumulated during his six-year tenure.

Last week, an online Pakistani investigative website, Fact Focus, revealed that the military chief’s immediate and extended family members have accumulated assets worth more than $56 million since he took office in 2016.

The news outlet claimed— citing leaked tax records and wealth statements submitted to the Federal Board of Revenue — that Bajwa’s wife has increased her assets from zero to nearly $10 million during the period in question.

The report prompted Pakistan Finance Minister Ishaq Dar to order an immediate investigation into what he denounced as the “illegal and unwarranted” leak of the confidential tax record of the army chief’s family in violation of tax laws. Dar recently told local media the FBR had traced the identities of the officials behind the leak, but he shared no other details.

For the first time Sunday, the Pakistan military’s media wing refuted the claims of unusual increases in wealth for Bajwa and his family as “misleading” and exaggerated. “It is totally untrue and based on blatant lies and malice,” the Inter-Services Public Relations division said in a statement.

The Fact Focus website remained completely inaccessible in Pakistan for more than 20 hours after it published the investigative report, said Reporters Without Borders, a global watchdog known by its French acronym RSF.

“With this investigation, Fact Focus has put precise and sourced numbers to a reality that many Pakistanis have sensed without knowing it,” claimed an RSF statement. It went on to state “Pakistan’s armed forces rarely tolerate any form of scrutiny by the media.”

The watchdog called on Pakistan’s civilian authorities to ensure respect for its citizens’ right to journalism in the public interest.

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Key US Lawmakers Vow Continuing Ukraine Support 

Newly empowered U.S. Republican lawmakers set to take leadership roles in the House of Representatives in January promised Sunday that Congress would continue to support Ukraine militarily in its nine-month fight against Russia but said there would be more scrutiny of the aid before it is shipped to Kyiv’s forces.

Congressmen Michael McCaul of Texas and Mike Turner of Ohio, likely key officials overseeing new Ukraine aid packages, told ABC’s “This Week” show there would be continued bipartisan Republican and Democratic support for Ukraine as Republicans assume a narrow House majority, even though some opposition from both parties has emerged.

Turner, likely the new chairperson of the House Intelligence Committee, said, “We’re going to make sure they get what they need. We will have bipartisan support.”

McCaul, the likely head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “If we give them what they need, they win.”

But McCaul said there would be a difference in considering Ukraine aid from the outgoing Democratic control of the House when Republicans take over.

“The fact is, we are going to provide more oversight, transparency and accountability,” he said. “We’re not going to write a blank check.”

On the battlefield, Russia struck several areas in eastern and southern Ukraine overnight Saturday, Ukrainian officials said, as utility crews tried to restore power, water and heating following devastating attacks on infrastructure in recent weeks. Some Ukrainians only have a few hours of electricity a day, if any.

But Ukrenergo, the state power grid operator, said Sunday that electricity producers are now supplying about 80% of demand, up slightly from Saturday’s 75% figure.

In its daily report, the British Defense Ministry said both Russia and Ukraine have committed “significant forces” to the area around the Ukrainian towns of Pavlivka and Vuhledar in the south-central Donetsk province.

The agency said in an intelligence update posted on Twitter Sunday that the area “has been the scene of intense combat over the last two weeks, though little territory has changed hands.”

The area will likely remain “heavily contested,” the ministry said, because “Russia assesses the area has potential as a launch point for a future major advance north to capture the remainder of Ukrainian-held Donetsk Oblast.”

However, the ministry said the odds of Russia realizing that goal are slim because “Russia is unlikely to be able to concentrate sufficient quality forces to achieve an operational breakthrough.”

On Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hosted a summit in Kyiv to mark the 90th anniversary of Holodomor, or the Great Famine, and to promote the Grain from Ukraine initiative to send grain to countries most afflicted by famine and drought.

The Holodomor was a manufactured famine engineered by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in the winter of 1932-1933, during which as many as 8 million Ukrainians died.

Zelenskyy used the anniversary to reiterate Ukraine’s commitment to export grain and other foodstuffs to the global market. These are “not just empty words,” he said.

“In general, under the Grain from Ukraine program, by the end of next spring, we plan to send at least 60 vessels from our ports — at least 10 per month — to countries at risk of famine and drought,” he said. “This is Ethiopia, these are Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Congo, Kenya, Nigeria.”

The initiative is in addition to the U.N.-brokered deal that allows shipments of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea. The Kremlin has said those Ukraine exports have not been reaching the most vulnerable countries.

Zelenskyy said Kyiv had raised around $150 million from more than 20 countries and the European Union to export grain to at-risk countries.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Ukraine — despite its own financial straits — has allocated $24 million to purchase corn for countries in need.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributed to this report. Some material for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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Somalia Joint Operation Kills 100 Al-Shabab Militants  

Somalia’s government said Saturday that an operation in the country’s Lower and Middle Shabelle region, conducted by the army, backed by locals, killed more than 100 al-Shabab militants.

Speaking to the media in the capital, Mogadishu, Saturday, Somalia’s deputy information minister, Abdirahman Yusuf Omar Adala, said that the operation targeted more than 200 al-Shabab militants, who were gathering for an attack on the Somali military.

He said the operation was conducted by the country’s national army, backed by locals and international partners, and took place on the outskirts of the village of El-Dhere at the border of the Lower and Middle Shabelle regions, killing more than 100 al-Shabab Islamist fighters, including 10 “ringleaders.”

The government said during the operation the army and locals “liberated” El-Dhere village and seized weaponry from the group.

Adala said the army and locals are now chasing the remnants of the Khawarijs, wanted criminals who were ringleaders planning on hurting the people of Middle Shabelle and Hiran were also there.

He also praised the involvement of international partners, who are assisting Somalia’s military from the air during their recent operations in the Horn of African country.

He called on al-Shabab fighters to surrender to the government and stop following what he called the wrong path.

The operation comes a day after the Somali military said it repulsed an al-Shabab attack on a military base in the village of Qayib in Somalia’s Galmudug state, killing scores of militants.

Al-Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the attack, said it killed 43 soldiers and wounded 51 others.

On Wednesday, the Somali government said it killed 49 al-Shabab Islamists after an operation in the village of Bulo Madino.

Late last week, marking his first 100 days in office, the Somali prime minister said the country’s forces killed more than 600 al-Shabab fighters, wounded 1,200 others and recaptured 68 areas from al-Shabab Islamist militants, who have been fighting the Somali government and AU peacekeeping mission forces since 2007.

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India’s Top Court to Consider Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage

Four years after India’s Supreme Court scrapped a law criminalizing gay sex, it has agreed to hear petitions seeking legal recognition of same-sex marriages, raising hopes of securing another significant right for the country’s LGBTQ community.

One of the two petitioners is a gay couple based in Hyderabad who held a commitment ceremony last December to cement their nearly decade long relationship.

Supriyo Chakraborty and Abhay Dang’s ceremony had all the trappings of a regular, colorful Indian wedding — the couple exchanged vows and rings and participated in a string of traditional rites along with their parents, relatives and friends.

The ceremony was important to them, especially for Chakraborty, for whom getting married had always been one of his childhood dreams.

“It was after the COVID-19 pandemic. We had both tested positive and after we recovered, suddenly we realized, what are we waiting for?” he told VOA.

But in real terms, the “wedding” ceremony did not change their status.

“We still can’t say we are legally married. On any public platform I cannot introduce Abhay as my husband. Marriage is important to an Indian family and I want my mother to be able to say that her son is married to Abhay,” said 32-year-old Chakraborty. “I have to still fill my status on all official forms as single, but I want the same rights and security that flow from legal marriages for straight couples. We don’t have any of that.”

Lack of legal recognition also leads to a host of hurdles for same-sex partners such as the right to make health care decisions for spouses or rights to inheritance. Chakraborty and Dang for example had to take out separate health care policies.

Besides Chakraborty and Dang, a Delhi-based gay couple, who said they have been in a relationship for 17 years, have also petitioned the top court for recognition of gay marriages. A batch of petitions on the same subject that are pending in lower courts will be transferred to the top court.

A bench led by chief justice D.Y. Chandrachud on Friday asked the government to file its response within a month.

Chandrachud, who took over as chief justice in November, is known for a string of progressive judgements on LGBTQ and women’s rights. In 2018, he was part of the five-judge bench that delivered the landmark judgement setting aside the colonial-era law criminalizing gay sex, calling it indefensible.

In August, he said the decision to decriminalize all consensual sex among adults must be accompanied by changes in attitude.

“Equality is not achieved with the decriminalization of homosexuality alone but must extend to all spheres of life including the home, the workplace and public places,” Chandrachud said at an event in New Delhi.

It remains to be seen what stance Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, whose support base includes many Hindus, takes on the sensitive issue of legalizing gay marriages.

Last year, the government told the Delhi High Court, which was hearing a petition on the same subject, that marriage necessarily depends upon “age-old customs, rituals, practices, cultural ethos and societal values,” and that same-sex marriages would “cause complete havoc with the delicate balance of personal laws in the country.”

While some of Hinduism’s most ancient texts talk of same-sex relations as natural, homosexuality has long carried a stigma in India’s traditional society and for years most political parties have failed to make clear commitments on the issue of LGBTQ rights.

There has been a shift in attitudes among the urban middle classes in recent years, though. Some gay celebrities have come out openly about their orientation and Bollywood films based on stories exploring gay issues have been hits.

Chakraborty’s family is an example of the slow but growing societal acceptance.

“I belong to a very traditional family, but my story is not one of struggling to win acceptance,” he said.

“I came out to my mother after my partner Abhay told me I should do so. True, she was not very happy in the beginning, and it took her some time to understand and educate herself. But since then, she has been a pillar of support and I am really so proud of my parents.”

The Supreme Court’s decision to accept the petition seeking legalization of gay marriages marks the first step in a process that could take years, although LGBTQ rights advocates see it as a huge step in their struggle.

However, it is not a goal in itself, Manak Matiyani, a New Delhi resident and LGBTQ rights campaigner, said.

“I think everyone should have the freedom to get married if they want without discrimination. However, marriage should not be the only option to access rights such as inheritance, insurance nominations and bank account holdings. One should have the right to decide on these outside marriage also,” he said.

Most of the countries that recognize same sex marriages are in Europe or America — Taiwan is the only Asian country to do so.

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Cease-Fire Holding in Eastern DR Congo, Residents Say  

The frontlines between government troops and M23 rebels remained calm in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday for a second day running, local residents told AFP, after a cease-fire came into force.

DRC President Felix Tshisekedi attended a regional mini-summit in Luanda on Wednesday, agreeing a deal on the cessation of hostilities in DRC’s war-torn east from Friday evening.

M23 rebels, who have seized swaths of territory in recent weeks, were to withdraw from “occupied zones”, failing which the East African regional force would intervene.

Local people reported no sign of a rebel pullout by midday Sunday.

Clashes had continued right up to the cease-fire deadline north of the provincial capital Goma, but on Sunday both sides were holding their positions, locals told AFP by telephone.

On Saturday, Mai Mai militia and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation Rwanda (FDLR) fought with M23 for control of a zone northeast of the provincial capital Goma where the national army is not present.

As a result, M23 took over the town of Kisharo, 30 kilometers from the Uganda border, residents said.

AFP was unable to independently confirm the accounts from the locals.

The March 23 group had been dormant for years but took up arms again late last year accusing the government of failing to honor a disarmament deal.

M23 has overrun large tracts of mountainous Rutshuru territory north of Goma, a city of one million which they briefly captured 10 years ago.

The DRC accuses Rwanda of supporting the rebels — charges Kigali denies and in turn alleges Kinshasa works with the FDLR, a Hutu faction present in the sprawling country since the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda.

The M23 is among scores of armed groups that have turned eastern DRC into one of Africa’s most violent regions.

Many of the groups are legacies of two wars before the turn of the century that sucked in countries from the region and left millions dead.

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Midterms Free of Feared Chaos as Voting Experts Look to 2024

Before Election Day, anxiety mounted over potential chaos at the polls.

Election officials warned about poll watchers who had been steeped in conspiracy theories falsely claiming that then-President Donald Trump did not actually lose the 2020 election. Democrats and voting rights groups worried about the effects of new election laws, in some Republican-controlled states, that President Joe Biden decried as “Jim Crow 2.0.” Law enforcement agencies were monitoring possible threats at the polls.

Yet Election Day, and the weeks of early voting before it, went fairly smoothly. There were some reports of unruly poll watchers disrupting voting, but they were scattered. Groups of armed vigilantes began watching over a handful of ballot drop boxes in Arizona until a judge ordered them to stay far away to ensure they would not intimidate voters. And while it might take months to figure out their full impact, GOP-backed voting laws enacted after the 2020 election did not appear to cause major disruptions the way they did during the March primary in Texas.

“The entire ecosystem in a lot of ways has become more resilient in the aftermath of 2020,” said Amber McReynolds, a former Denver elections director who advises a number of voting rights organizations. “There’s been a lot of effort on ensuring things went well.”

Even though some voting experts’ worst fears didn’t materialize, some voters still experienced the types of routine foul-ups that happen on a small scale in every election. Many of those fell disproportionately on Black and Hispanic voters.

“Things went better than expected,” said Amir Badat of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “But we have to say that with a caveat: Our expectations are low.”

Badat said his organization recorded long lines at various polling places from South Carolina to Texas.

There were particular problems in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston. Shortages of paper ballots and at least one polling location opening late led to long lines and triggered an investigation of the predominantly Democratic county by the state’s Republican authorities.

The investigation is partly a reflection of how certain voting snafus on Election Day are increasingly falling on Republican voters, who have been discouraged from using mailed ballots or using early in-person voting by Trump and his allies. But it’s a very different problem from what Texas had during its March primary.

Then, a controversial new voting law that increased the requirements on mail ballots led to about 13% of all such ballots being rejected, much higher compared with other elections. It was an ominous sign for a wave of new laws, passed after Trump’s loss to Biden and false claims about mail voting, but there have been no problems of that scale reported for the general election.

Texas changed the design of its mail ballots, which solved many of the problems voters had putting identifying information in the proper place. Other states that added regulations on voting didn’t appear to have widespread problems, though voting rights groups and analysts say it will take weeks of combing through data to find out the laws’ impacts.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law is compiling data to determine whether new voting laws in states such as Georgia contributed to a drop in turnout among Black and Hispanic voters.

Preliminary figures show turnout was lower this year than in the last midterm election four years ago in Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Texas — four states that passed significant voting restrictions since the 2020 election — although there could be a number of reasons why.

“It’s difficult to judge, empirically, the kind of effect these laws have on turnout because so many factors go into turnout,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Los Angeles law school. “You also have plenty of exaggeration on the Democratic side that any kind of change in voting laws are going to cause some major effect on the election, which has been proven not to be the case.”

In Georgia, for example, Republicans made it more complicated to apply for mailed ballots after the 2020 election — among other things, requiring voters to include their driver’s license number or some other form of identification rather than a signature. That may be one reason why early in-person voting soared in popularity in the state this year, and turnout there dipped only slightly from 2018.

Jason Snead, executive director of the conservative Honest Elections Project, which advocates for tighter voting laws, said the fairly robust turnout in the midterm elections shows that fears of the new voting regulations were overblown.

“We are on the back end of an election that was supposed to be the end of democracy, and it very much was not,” Snead said.

Poll watchers were a significant concern of voting rights groups and election officials heading into Election Day. The representatives of the two major political parties are a key part of any secure election process, credentialed observers who can object to perceived violations of rules.

But this year, groups aligned with conspiracy theorists who challenged Biden’s 2020 victory recruited poll watchers heavily, and some states reported that aggressive volunteers caused disruptions during the primary. But there were fewer issues in November.

In North Carolina, where several counties had reported problems with poll watchers in the May primary, the state elections board reported 21 incidents of misbehavior at the polls in the general election, most during the early, in-person voting period and by members of campaigns rather than poll watchers. The observers were responsible for eight of the incidents.

Voting experts were pleasantly surprised there weren’t more problems with poll watchers, marking the second general election in a row when a feared threat of aggressive Republican observers did not materialize.

“This seems to be an increase over 2020. Is it a small increase? Yes,” said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida. “It’s still a dry run for 2024, and we can’t quite let down our guard.”

One of the main organizers of the poll watcher effort was Cleta Mitchell, a veteran Republican election lawyer who joined Trump on a Jan. 2, 2020, call to Georgia’s top election official when the president asked that the state “find” enough votes to declare him the winner. Mitchell then launched an organization to train volunteers who wanted to keep an eye on election officials, which was seen as the driver of the poll watcher surge.

Mitchell said the relatively quiet election is vindication that groups like hers were simply concerned with election integrity rather than causing disruptions.

“Every training conducted by those of us doing such training included instruction about behavior, and that they must be ‘Peaceful, Lawful, Honest,'” Mitchell wrote in the conservative online publication The Federalist. “Yet, without evidence, the closer we got to Election Day, the more hysterical the headlines became, warning of violence at the polls resulting from too many observers watching the process. It didn’t happen.”

Voting rights groups say they’re relieved their fears didn’t materialize, but they say threats to democracy remain on the horizon for 2024 — especially with Trump announcing that he’s running again. Wendy Weiser, a voting and elections expert at the Brennan Center, agreed that things overall went smoother than expected.

“By and large, sabotage didn’t happen,” Weiser said. “I don’t think that means we’re in the clear.”

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VOA Immigration Weekly Recap, Nov. 20–26

Editor’s note: Here is a look at immigration-related news around the U.S. this week. Questions? Tips? Comments? Email the VOA immigration team: ImmigrationUnit@voanews.com.

In Pennsylvania, Afghan Refugees Celebrate First Thanksgiving

Judith Samkoff needed a bigger dinner table for Thanksgiving this year.

The 65-year-old Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, resident helped resettle an Afghan refugee family of eight, and because this is their first holiday in the United States, Samkoff invited them to her father and sister’s home for Thanksgiving.

One of Samkoff’s guests is Hadia, a 24-year-old Afghan refugee whose family fled Afghanistan in November 2021. VOA’s immigration reporter Aline Barros has more.

New Refugees Celebrate First Thanksgiving in US

Refugees from around the world who resettled in the Washington area got together to celebrate their first Thanksgiving in the United States. VOA’s Shahnaz Nafees has the story.

‘Kite Runner’ Actor a Two-Time Refugee

The Afghan actor Ali Danish Bakhtyari, who played the role of an orphan in the 2007 film The Kite Runner, has fled the Taliban rule in his home country twice: first in the late 1990s, and then in 2021, when the United States withdrew its forces from Afghanistan. Keith Kocinski has the story from New York.

Immigration around the world

Rights Group Accuses Turkey of Mass Afghan Deportations

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch accuses Turkish authorities of carrying out mass deportations of Afghan refugees, including those most at risk. For VOA, Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

EU Ministers Endorse New Migrant Plan After France-Italy Spat

European interior ministers welcomed Friday an EU plan to better coordinate the handling of migrant arrivals, after a furious argument over a refugee rescue boat erupted between Italy and France. Reported by Agence France-Presse.

The Inside Story-Cause of Death: Migrant Workers and the 2022 Qatar World Cup

Thousands of migrant workers died in Qatar building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. VOA’s Heather Murdock takes you to Nepal where families are asking “Why is no one taking responsibility?” on The Inside Story: Cause of Death, Migrant Workers & the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

Chinese Refugees in Italy Wary of Beijing Outposts

Chinese refugees in Italy, some of whom are dissidents, are increasingly wary of the presence of what appear to be four outposts of Beijing’s security apparatus operating without official diplomatic trappings, according to experts. Allen Giovanni Ai reports for VOA News.

News Brief

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced it is extending filing fee exemptions and expediting application processing for certain Afghan nationals.

“These actions will help Afghan nationals resettle, and in many cases reunite with family, in the United States by enabling USCIS to process their requests for work authorization, long-term status, status for immediate relatives, and associated services more quickly.”

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The Somali Diaspora and its Journey to Political Victories in the West

From refugees to elected office, 14 Somali Americans have won legislative seats across the U.S. this year. Some also have been elected to city councils, school boards and the boards of parks and recreation in their respective cities. The U.S. midterm elections have proved to be historic for Somalis, with more women elected to public offices than ever before.

VOA Somali Service’s Torch Program explains how Somalis who arrived as migrants and refugees to the West have made their way into politics.

Hashi Shafi, executive director of the Somali Action Alliance, a Minneapolis-based community organization in the northern U.S. state of Minnesota, says the campaign that led Somalis to shine in U.S. politics started right after 9/11 with a community-based voter registration program.

“In the beginning, Somalis were thinking about returning back to Somalia. They had their luggage ready; the artists were singing with songs giving the community a hope of immediate returning, but after 9/11, the community activists realized that such a dream was not realistic, and the Somalis needed to find a way to melt into the pot. Then, we started registering community members to encourage them to vote,” Shafi said. “Somali Americans’ rise in political power has come with its difficulties.”

Tight-knit community

Abdirahman Sharif, the imam and the leader of the Dar-Al-Hijrah Mosque in Minneapolis says another reason Somalis have risen in U.S. politics is because they are a tight-knit community.

“When Somalis came to [the] U.S., they moved to a foreign country where they could not communicate with people. So, for them, being close to people from their country meant having someone to communicate with and that helped them to unite their votes, and resources for political aspirants,” Sharif said.

The state of Minnesota has the largest Somali community in the country, mostly in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. According to U.N. estimates from 2015, there are about 150,000 Somalis, both refugees and nonrefugees, living in the U.S.

The first wave of Somalis came to Minnesota in early 1990s after civil war broke out in their country. Another wave of refugees followed, and the community thrived, thanks to the state’s welcoming social programs. It’s the biggest Somali community in North America, possibly in the world outside of East Africa.

Similarly, job opportunities and a relatively low cost of living have drawn Somali immigrants to Columbus, Ohio. Ohio has the second largest Somali population in the United States, with an estimated 45,000 immigrants.

Communities have grown significantly in both states. Somali-owned restaurants, mosques, clothing stores, coffee shops and other businesses have opened in several neighborhoods in Minneapolis, called Little Mogadishu, named after Somalia’s capital.

Large communities of Somalis are also concentrated in Lewiston and Portland, Maine, as well as Seattle in Washington state, and the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

Analyst Abdi-Qafar Abdi Wardere says such concentrations have helped Somalis to gather their strength as a community.

“Somalis are bound together by intimate social or cultural ties that helped them to live together and concentrate [in] certain states or neighborhoods in the diaspora. About one-third of Minnesota’s Somali residents came directly from refugee camps; others settled first in another state and then relocated to Minnesota. I can say they are somehow a tight-knit community,” Wardere said.

Canada and Europe

It’s not only in the United States but Somali immigrants have also found their place in Canadian and European politics. They have gathered in big numbers in major cities to have an impact and exert influence.

In Toronto, Canada, Somalis have made breakthroughs by winning elections and political offices. Ahmed Hussen, a lawyer and community activist born and raised in Somalia, is among the most influential Somalis in Canada. He was first elected as a member of parliament in 2015 to represent York South – Weston. He has previously served as minister of families, children and social development, and minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship. Now he is Canada’s minister of housing, diversity and inclusion.

Faisal Ahmed Hassan, who is a Somali Canadian politician, was a member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario from 2018 until his defeat in 2022. He thinks for Somalis in the diaspora, there are two reasons they run for political office.

“One reason is that the community wants someone to represent their new homes and second is that Somalis inspire one another to doing something. If one of them does something good, others are encouraged that they can do the same,” Hassan said.

In the Nordic region of Europe, the first Somalis arrived in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Later, as Somalia’s civil war became more intense, new arrivals joined.

In recent years, the first generation of Somali refugees has been making its mark in politics, from the local council level to the national stage.

In Finland, Suldaan Said Ahmed has been the first Somali-born member of the Finnish parliament since 2021 and he is also the country’s special representative on peace mediation in the Horn of Africa, the northeastern region, where Somalia is located.

In Sweden, Leila Ali Elmi, a former Somali refugee, made history in 2018 becoming the first Somali-Swedish Muslim woman elected to the Swedish parliament.

Last year, Marian Abdi Hussein became the first Somali MP in Norway’s history.

Both women also became the first Muslims to wear hijabs in their respect houses of parliament.

In Britain, Magid Magid, a Somali-British activist and politician who served as the mayor of Sheffield from May 2018 to May 2019, became the first Somali elected to the European Parliament.

Mohamed Gure, a former member of the council of the city of Borlänge, Sweden, said there are unique things that keep Somalis together and make them successful in the politics in Europe.

“The fabric of Somalis is unique compared to the other diaspora communities. They share the same ethnicity, color, language, and religion. There are many things that keep them together that divide them back home. So, their togetherness is one reason I can attribute to their successes,” Gure said.

Gure says the fear of migrants and refugees stoked by politicians has been setting a defining narrative for elections in the West.

“One other reason is the fear of a growing number of migrants and refugees in the West. As they are trying to melt into the pot, such fear created by nationalist politicians continues to set a tone for electoral victories that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago,” Gure said.

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4 Burkina Troops, 3 Civilians Killed in Jihadist-hit North

A roadside bomb killed four troops in northern Burkina Faso, an area wracked by jihadi insurgency, the army said on Saturday, while three civilians died in another strike in the same region.

The troops were killed on Friday when an improvised explosive device went off as an army escort drove along the Bourzanga-Kongoussi road, the army said in a statement, adding that one person was also wounded.

The troops were returning after having escorted an aid convoy into the town of Djibo, a security source told Agence France-Presse.

The security source said armed men attacked the northeastern town of Falangoutou on Friday, killing three civilians.

A former lawmaker said jihadi forces returned on Saturday to the town, attacking local self-defense teams who were organizing themselves to protect it.

One of the world’s poorest countries, Burkina has been struggling with a jihadi offensive since 2015.

Thousands of civilians and members of the security forces have died, and an estimated 2 million people have been displaced.

Disgruntled army officers have carried out two coups this year in a show of anger at failures to roll back the insurgency.

The first, in January, saw a military junta led by Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba overthrow elected president Roch Marc Christian Kabore.

The second, in September, saw Captain Ibrahim Traore come to power as he and his supporters ousted Damiba.

Traore has been appointed transitional president with the declared aim of taking back swaths of territory held by the jihadis.

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Tidy Japanese Fans Clean Up at World Cup

The sight of Japanese fans at a World Cup bagging trash after a match — win or lose — always surprises non-Japanese. Japanese players are famous for doing the same in their team dressing room: hanging up towels, cleaning the floor, and even leaving a thank-you note.

The behavior is driving social media posts at the World Cup in Qatar, but it’s nothing unusual for Japanese fans or players. They are simply doing what most people in Japan do — at home, at school, at work, or on streets from Tokyo to Osaka, Shizuoka to Sapporo.

“For Japanese people, this is just the normal thing to do,” Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said. “When you leave, you have to leave a place cleaner than it was before. That’s the education we have been taught. That’s the basic culture we have. For us, it’s nothing special.”

A spokesperson for the Japanese Football Association said it’s supplying 8,000 trash bags to help fans pick up after matches with “thank you” messages on the outside written in Arabic, Japanese, and English.

Barbara Holthus, a sociologist who has spent the last decade in Japan, said cleaning up after oneself is engrained in Japanese culture.

“You’re always supposed to take your trash home in Japan, because there are no trash cans on the street,” said Holthus, the deputy director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies. “You clean your classroom. From a very young age you learn you are responsible for the cleanliness of your own space.”

Many Japanese elementary schools don’t have janitors, so some of the clean-up work is left to the young students. Office workers often dedicate an hour to spruce up their areas.

“It’s partly cultural, but also the education structures have been training you for a long time to do that,” Holthus added.

This is Japan’s seventh straight World Cup, and their cleanliness began making news at their first World Cup in 1998 in France.

Prior to the 2020 Olympics, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike cautioned that visiting fans would have to learn to clean up after themselves. However, the problem never materialized after fans from abroad were banned from attending the Games because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tokyo has few public trash receptacles. This keeps the streets cleaner, saves municipalities the costs of emptying trash cans, and keeps away vermin.

Midori Mayama, a Japanese reporter in Qatar for the World Cup, said that fans collecting rubbish was a non-story back home.

“Nobody in Japan would report on this,” she said, noting the same clean-up happens at Japanese professional baseball games. “All of this is so normal.”

It may be normal to Japanese, but Alberto Zaccheroni, an Italian who coached Japan from 2010 to 2014, said it’s not how most teams act when they travel.

“Everywhere in the world players take their kit off and leave it on the floor in the changing room. Then the cleaning staff come and collect it,” he said. “Not the Japanese players. They put all the shorts on top of the other, all the pairs of socks and all the jerseys.”

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Ousted Pakistan PM Says Party to Quit Provincial Legislatures 

Pakistan’s ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan said Saturday that his party has decided to resign from several regional legislatures in the latest twist in months of political turmoil in the country.

Khan made the unexpected political move while addressing tens of thousands of supporters of his opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

The populist 70-year-old former prime minister has been leading big protest rallies across the country to push his successor, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, into holding snap general elections. Khan was ousted in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in April.

“We wouldn’t be [a] part of this system anymore. We have decided to quit all the assemblies and get out of this corrupt system,” Khan told the cheering crowd gathered just outside the capital, Islamabad.

He said he would soon hold a meeting of senior party leaders to decide on a timetable for all PTI lawmakers to resign en masse from regional legislative assemblies.

No march to Islamabad

Khan had vowed to march on the Pakistani capital with his supporters but announced Saturday he had decided to end that campaign.

“We could have created a situation like Sri Lanka. I have decided against marching on Islamabad because I don’t want destruction and chaos in the country,” he said.

The cricket-star-turned-politician was attending his first public rally since being shot and wounded in the legs in an assassination attempt at an anti-government rally earlier this month in Punjab, the most populous province ruled by a PTI-led coalition.

Khan blames Sharif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and a senior general of the country’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), accusing them of being behind the November 3 shooting that left a PTI worker dead and wounded at least a dozen others.

The government has denied allegations that it had anything to do with the attack.

Leaving legislatures

The PTI controls two of Pakistan’s four provinces, including northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It also governs and commands a majority in the legislative assemblies of what is known as the Gilgit-Baltistan territory and the Pakistan-administered part of Kashmir. Archrival India administers two-thirds of the disputed Himalayan region.

Khan rejects the April no-confidence vote as an unlawful action, blaming Sharif and Pakistan’s outgoing military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa for colluding with the United States to topple his government.

Islamabad and Washington deny the allegations.

Khan’s party resigned from the National Assembly, the lower house of the national parliament, after he lost the vote and Sharif replaced him as the new prime minister.

The Pakistani government has also rejected his demand for early elections, saying the next polls in the country will be held as scheduled in October 2023.

Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari described Khan’s protest rally Saturday as a “face-saving flop show.” He said on Twitter: “Unable to pull revolution crowds, failed at undermining appointments of new chiefs, frustrated, resorts to resignation drama.”

Sharif appointed General Asim Munir as the new army chief. He is to take charge from Bajwa on Tuesday.

The government alleges Khan organized Saturday’s protest to try to block Munir’s appointment.

Military influence

The military wields outsized influence over the national politics, and political parties say the institution’s backing is key for the survival of elected governments in Pakistan.

The military has directly ruled the nuclear-armed country for about half of its history since gaining independence from Britain in 1947. Former prime ministers say the army continues to dictate matters related to foreign and security polices, and orchestrates the toppling of governments if they don’t fall in line.

Pakistan’s political turmoil comes as Sharif’s coalition government grapples with critical economic challenges amid ever soaring inflation, depleting foreign exchange reserves and declining foreign investments.

Officials say the country’s economic troubles were exacerbated by the catastrophic floods this summer that severely undermined growth and caused at least $40 billion in damage and affected 33 million Pakistanis.

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‘Fame’ and ‘Flashdance’ Singer-Actor Irene Cara Dies at 63

Oscar, Golden Globe and two-time Grammy winning singer-actress Irene Cara, who starred and sang the title cut from the 1980 hit movie “Fame” and then belted out the era-defining hit “Flashdance … What a Feeling” from 1983’s “Flashdance,” has died. She was 63.

Her publicist, Judith A. Moose, announced the news on social media, writing that a cause of death was “currently unknown.” Moose also confirmed the death to a reporter for The Associated Press Saturday. Cara died at her home in Florida. The exact day of her death was not disclosed.

“Irene’s family has requested privacy as they process their grief,” Moose wrote. “She was a beautifully gifted soul whose legacy will live forever through her music and films.”

During her career, Cara had three Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, including “Breakdance,” “Out Here On My Own,” “Fame” and “Flashdance … What A Feeling,” which spent six weeks at No. 1. She was behind some of the most joyful, high-energy pop anthems of the early ’80s.

Tributes poured in Saturday on social media, including from Deborah Cox, who called Cara an inspiration, and Holly Robinson Peete, who recalled seeing Cara perform: “The insane combination of talent and beauty was overwhelming to me. This hurts my heart so much.”

Movie fame started with the movie ‘Fame’

Cara first came to prominence among the young actors playing performing arts high schoolers in Alan Parker’s “Fame,” with co-stars Debbie Allen, Paul McCrane and Anne Mear. Cara played Coco Hernandez, a striving dancer who endures all manner of deprivations, including a creepy nude photo shoot.

“How bright our spirits go shooting out into space, depends on how much we contributed to the earthly brilliance of this world. And I mean to be a major contributor!” she says in the movie.

Cara sang on the soaring title song with the chorus — “Remember my name/I’m gonna live forever/I’m gonna learn how to fly/I feel it coming together/People will see me and cry” — which would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award for best original song. She also sang on “Out Here on My Own,” “Hot Lunch Jam” and “I Sing the Body Electric.”

Three years later, she and the songwriting team of “Flashdance” — music by Giorgio Moroder, lyrics by Keith Forsey and Cara — accepted the Oscar for best original song for “Flashdance … What a Feeling.”

The movie starred Jennifer Beals as a steel-town girl who dances in a bar at night and hopes to attend a prestigious dance conservatory. It included the hit song “Maniac,” featuring Beals’ character leaping, spinning, stomping her feet and the slow-burning theme song.

“There aren’t enough words to express my love and my gratitude,” Cara told the Oscar crowd in her thanks. “And last but not least, a very special gentlemen who I guess started it all for me many years ago. To Alan Parker, wherever you may be tonight, I thank him.”

Career started on Broadway

The New York-born Cara began her career on Broadway, with small parts in short-lived shows, although a musical called “The Me Nobody Knows” ran over 300 performances. She toured in the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” as Mary Magdalene in the mid-1990s and a tour of the musical “Flashdance” toured 2012-14 with her songs.

She also created the all-female band Irene Cara Presents Hot Caramel and put out a double CD with the single “How Can I Make You Luv Me.” Her movie credits include “Sparkle” and “D.C. Cab.”

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Congo Schedules Presidential Elections for Dec 2023

Democratic Republic of Congo said it will hold presidential and parliamentary elections on Dec. 20, 2023, kicking off a year of complex preparations in the vast Central African country, large parts of which are overrun by militia violence.

Announcing the date at a ceremony in Kinshasa Saturday, the electoral body, CENI, outlined several challenges, including the logistics of transporting ballot materials thousands of miles, health concerns about Ebola and COVID-19, and unrest that has forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

But the government has pledged to stick to the timetable in the country of 80 million people.

“It is not a question of negotiating with the constitutional deadlines, it is a question of us respecting them and consolidating our democracy,” said government spokesman Patrick Muyaya.

He said that the election will cost about $600 million, more than $450 million of which has already been budgeted.

Election struggles are common in Congo. The last presidential poll, Congo’s first democratic transition, was delayed by two years until it was finally held in December 2018. In that vote, President Felix Tshisekedi took over from his long-standing predecessor Joseph Kabila.

This time, similar challenges remain.

Candidates are expected to be announced in October next year, with a final list due in November. Tshisekedi is expected to run again, and one likely challenger is Martin Fayulu, who claimed victory in the 2018 poll.

Presidents are limited to two terms under Congolese law.

Despite billions of dollars spent on one of the United Nations’ largest peacekeeping forces, more than 120 armed groups continue to operate across the east, including M23 rebels, which Congo has repeatedly accused Rwanda of supporting. Kigali denies the accusations.

The M23 has staged a major offensive this year, seizing territory, and forcing thousands of people from their homes. 

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US Black Friday Online Sales Hit $9 Billion Despite Inflation

U.S. shoppers spent a record $9.12 billion online on Black Friday, a report showed Saturday, as consumers weathered the squeeze from high inflation and grabbed steep discounts on everything from smartphones to toys.

Online spending rose 2.3% on Black Friday, Adobe Inc’s data and insights arm Adobe Analytics said, thanks to consumers holding out for discounts until the traditionally big shopping days, despite deals starting as early as October.

Adobe Analytics, which measures e-commerce by analyzing transactions at websites, has access to data covering purchases at 85% of the top 100 internet retailers in the United States.

It had forecast Black Friday sales to rise a modest 1%.

Adobe expects Cyber Monday to be the season’s biggest online shopping day again, driving $11.2 billion in spending.

Consumers were expected to flock to stores after the pandemic put a dampener on in-store shopping over the past two years, but Black Friday morning saw stores draw less traffic than usual with sporadic rain in some parts of the country.

Americans turned to smartphones to make their holiday purchases, with data from Adobe showing mobile shopping represented 48% of all Black Friday digital sales.

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Somalia Military Operation, Airstrikes Kill At Least 100 al-Shabab Militants

Somalia’s army and allied clan militias have killed at least 100 al-Shabab fighters in an operation in the central Middle Shabelle region, the Information Ministry said Saturday, days after another 49 al-Shabab militants were killed in the southern part of the lower Shabelle region.

“Our national army, our intelligence and the local clan militias, supported by international partners, have conducted an operation in the country’s Middle Shabelle region that killed about 100 al-Shabab militants, including 12 of their commanders,” Somalia Deputy Minister of Information Abdirahman Yusuf Al-Adala told reporters in Mogadishu.

Al-Adala said the operation was aimed to preempt the militants’ final preparations for an attack on government forces in the region.

“We received an intelligence tip regarding their full preparation for attacks against our troops and the operation was taken to prevent and disrupt their plans,” he said.

The commissioner of a nearby Mahas district, Mumin Mohamed Halane, who is in the liberated village, told VOA Somali that the joint operation seized a large number of militants and that they were still making the full assessment.

“I saw the dead bodies of at least 16 militants, whose guns were confiscated and also, saw at least two battle wagons seized from the militants. We are still in the middle of [the] final assessment for the large number of militants killed in [the] airstrikes,” said Halane.

Aerial photographs showing a pile of what seemed to be dead bodies were shared on a Telegram channel linked to the national army Saturday.

VOA could not independently verify the photos and the Somali government’s death toll but residents in the region reported that they heard explosions and airstrikes near El-Dhere Burale, a village in the Middle Shabelle region.

On Wednesday, Somalia military officials said its army, supported by international partners, had conducted an operation in the village of Buulo Madiino, in the country’s Lower Shabelle region, killing 49 al-Shabab militants.

On Friday, al-Shabab militants attacked a military base in the central Galgaduud region, the group and a local government minister said, prompting violent clashes as the army and allied clans sought to repel them.

The early morning attack in the village of Qayib, which included suicide car bombs, killed at least 15 combatants.

Both al-Shabab and government officials in the region have claimed they inflicted heavy losses to the other side.

Al-Shabab has been under pressure since August, when President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud began a concerted offensive against them, supported by the United States and clan militias locally known as Macawisley, or “men with sarongs.”

These latest clashes are happening as the Somali president continues to visit front line towns in the central regions of Hiran, Middle Shabelle and Galgaduud, where he inaugurated a new community funded hospital in Adale Town.

Mohamud, who was reelected president earlier this year, has declared a “total war” against al-Shabab.

The group, meanwhile, has increased attacks since Mohamud was elected.

Its major attacks included a twin car bombing, and a hotel siege in Mogadishu in October, which killed more than 150 people.

The militants also took a rare incursion into neighboring Ethiopia in July, which authorities said left hundreds of militants dead.

Abdiaziz Barrow and Hussein Dhaqane contributed to this report.

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Biden, Family Attend Christmas Tree Lighting on Nantucket

The Biden family’s tradition of eating lunch, shopping and watching a Christmas tree lighting in downtown Nantucket Friday became mostly about keeping the president’s 2-year-old grandson from having a meltdown.

There was President Joe Biden’s daughter, Ashley, dancing and clapping with nephew Beau to “Jingle Bell Rock” to keep him entertained as they waited with the crowd that had gathered for the 48th annual tree lighting ceremony on Main Street.

There was Beau perched on the shoulders of his dad, Hunter Biden.

There was Beau being carried by his father, then not being carried by his father, then appearing to say things that suggested he wanted to get out of the cold and intermittent heavy rain.

Beau’s grandfather walked with him at various points.

Every member of the family seemed to be doing whatever they could to keep blond-haired Beau, who is named after his late uncle, happy for a few hours until the tree was lit.

The Bidens have a more than 40-year tradition of spending Thanksgiving on Nantucket, an island off the coast of Massachusetts.

The day after, they go out to lunch — this year, they dined at the Brotherhood of Thieves restaurant. Afterward, they hit Nantucket Bookworks, a nearby bookstore. The president emerged carrying his purchases in a reusable tote bag. 

They meandered along downtown Nantucket’s cobblestone streets, going into some stores and window shopping at others. The first lady and Ashley had gotten some of their shopping done earlier Friday, so the spree after lunch was mostly for the president.

Biden spent time inside a leather goods store and a pet store, among other businesses. At one point, he looked through the window of a lingerie store but did not go inside.

“We’re thankful for you,” someone yelled to the president.

The tree lighting ceremony went off with a bit of a hitch. The red, green and blue lights on the tree failed to come on following a countdown from 10.

The high school’s acapella chorus came out to sing until the problem was solved and the tree was illuminated, ushering in the Christmas season in Nantucket.

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