Armenia returns four border villages to Azerbaijan 

Yerevan, Armenia — Armenia has returned to Azerbaijan four border villages it seized decades ago, the countries confirmed Friday, a key step toward normalizing ties between the historic rivals.

The move, which has sparked protracted protests in Armenia, is an important move for reaching a comprehensive peace agreement after years of fruitless talks mediated by Russia and Western countries.

The Caucasus countries, both former Soviet republics, fought two wars in the 1990s and in 2020 for control of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan recaptured it last year in a lightning offensive, ending three decades of Armenian-separatist rule over the enclave and prompting more than 100,000 residents to flee into Armenia.

Yerevan’s disastrous defeat provoked a rift with its historic ally Russia, which Armenia accuses of failing to defend it in the face of Azerbaijani threats despite security treaty obligations.

After months of diplomatic tensions, Moscow said Friday that it had recalled its ambassador to Armenia for “consultations.”

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova did not provide a reason for the recall, which is typically seen in diplomatic circles as an extreme step in the face of worsening ties.

Armenia’s security service confirmed Friday that its border guards had taken up new positions in the east of the country, reflecting a recently brokered border demarcation deal that cedes the villages to Azerbaijani control.

Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev announced separately that his country’s border guards had taken control of the four settlements.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan agreed in March to return the four abandoned villages, which were seized in the 1990s, as part of efforts to secure a lasting peace deal.

In a televised statement Friday evening, he said fixing the country’s volatile border with Azerbaijan “is a sole guarantee for the very existence of the Armenian republic within its internationally recognized and legitimate frontier.”

The two countries agreed earlier this month on the new demarcation of 12.7 kilometers of their border, returning the villages of Baghanis Ayrum, Ashaghi Askipara, Kheyrimli and Ghizilhajili to Azerbaijan.

Pashinyan has hailed the agreement as “very important” for Armenia’s sovereignty and said it “brings our security and stability to a new level.”

The territory ceded by Yerevan is of strategic importance for landlocked Armenia because it controls sections of a vital highway to Georgia.

Armenian residents of nearby settlements say the move could cut them off from the rest of the country, and they accuse Pashinyan of unilaterally giving away territory without getting anything in return.

Pashinyan has said Armenia will build new roads in the area over the next few months.

His decision has sparked weeks of anti-government protests in Armenia, with thousands of demonstrators led by the charismatic cleric Bagrat Galstanyan demanding Pashinyan’s resignation.

A new anti-government protest is scheduled for Sunday.

A 5.8-kilometer section of the border near the Armenian village of Kirants will be guarded “according to a transitional scheme until July 24,” Armenia’s national security service said Friday.

The village mayor has said locals will be allowed to use a section of the road that is to be transferred to Azerbaijani control, until new roads are built.

Local media reported that some Kirants residents had dismantled their houses and fled the village, which is located just meters from the redrawn border. 

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5th journalist slain in Pakistan in 2024

ISLAMABAD — A journalist in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province Friday died of a gunshot wound he sustained in an attack earlier this week, bringing the total number of media workers reported killed nationwide in 2024 to five.

Doctors and officials confirmed the death of Nasrullah Gadani, who was undergoing treatment in a hospital in Karachi, the provincial capital, after being shot and injured by unidentified assailants in a remote Sindh district on Tuesday. There were no claims of responsibility for the attack.  

Activists and colleagues said the slain journalist had consistently highlighted the civic issues plaguing impoverished Sindh in his reporting. Gadani also was critical of the powerful feudal lords in the region, which led to his repeated detention by the police, as noted by Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir in this social media post on X, formerly Twitter.

The news of Gadani’s death sparked outrage among journalists and civil society members, leading to a protest demonstration demanding justice for the slain reporter.  

 

“I am deeply in grief and sorrow along with Nasrullah’s family and the media organization he is affiliated with,” Murad Ali Shah, the provincial chief minister, said in a statement. Critics hold Shah’s government for allegedly being behind some of the recent attacks on media workers in Sindh.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a leading independent rights watchdog, said it was “deeply concerned” by the situation facing journalists in the country. It urged the Sindh government to investigate Gadani’s killing and hold the perpetrators to account.

Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, has pressed Pakistan to immediately reveal the whereabouts of Ahmad Farhad Shah, a freelance journalist and poet.  

Several unknown men seized Shah from outside his home at night in the capital, Islamabad, and forced him into a vehicle over a week ago, said a copy of a petition his wife filed with the federal high court shortly after the incident.  

Shah’s wife, Syeda Urooj Zainab, has accused the Pakistani spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, of abducting him for his activism against the country’s powerful military establishment.

“The secretive, late-night seizure of journalist … Shah is further evidence of an intensifying crackdown on media freedom in Pakistan,” the CPJ quoted its program director, Carlos Martinez de la Serna, as saying on Thursday.  

“Authorities must either present Ali Shah in court or immediately release him and ensure that law enforcement agencies do their job of investigating crimes against journalists,” Serna said.

On Friday, the Islamabad High Court judge hearing the case summoned senior officers from the country’s intelligence agencies, including the ISI, to respond to the charges in the next hearing scheduled for May 29.   

“His whereabouts remain unknown. Ahmad has spoken fearlessly about state oppression and enforced disappearance in the past,” Amnesty International wrote Friday on X.

Pakistan’s ISI has long been accused of forced disappearances of journalists and political as well as human rights activists for criticizing the military’s role in national politics. The agency and successive governments have consistently denied the allegations.

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Pakistan to compensate families of slain Chinese workers

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan will pay more than $2 million to the families of Chinese workers killed in a suicide bombing this year.

Five Chinese workers and their Pakistani driver were killed on March 26 when a suicide bomber rammed an explosive-laden vehicle into their convoy in the country’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.  

The Economic Coordination Committee, Pakistan’s top economic body approved a $2.58 million package Thursday as compensation to the families of the foreign victims.

The ECC, presided over by Pakistani Finance Minister Muhammad Aurangzeb, also approved nearly $9,000 in compensation for the family of the slain Pakistani national.

“The ECC considered and approved proposals for Technical Supplementary Grants, including: $2.58 million and Rs. 2.5 million to the Ministry of Water Resources as the compensation packages for Chinese and local casualties at DASU Hydropower Project,” a statement on the finance ministry’s website said.  

The workers were traveling to the Chinese-funded Dasu hydropower project in the remote region of Kohistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa when they came under attack in Bisham, in Shangla district, about four hours north of the capital. Islamabad.

Pakistan identified the attacker as an Afghan national and claimed the attack was planned in Afghanistan. Pakistan: Afghan-based terrorists planned suicide attack on Chinese engineers

Islamabad accuses the Afghan Taliban of allowing anti-Pakistan terrorists to operate on its soil, a charge the rulers in Kabul deny.

China has urged Pakistan to punish those involved in the attack and to ensure better security for its nationals present in the country. Thousands of Chinese are working on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, a multibillion-dollar energy and infrastructure project under Beijing’s global Belt and Road Initiative.

As Pakistan pushes to revive the pace of the megaproject, Islamabad has assured China it has enhanced security protocols for the foreign workers.

In a visit to Dasu, days after the attack, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif vowed “fool-proof” security arrangements in a meeting with Chinese workers at the hydropower project.

“I will not rest until we have put in place the best possible security measures for your security. Not only in Dasu, [but] all over Pakistan,” Sharif said, adding that, this was his promise to the people of China, and to the Chinese leadership including President Xi Jinping.

A special military unit as well as local law enforcement are already responsible for the security of Chinese nationals in Pakistan.

Since the launch of CPEC, foreign workers have come under attack, mostly, by Baloch separatist groups who see the project as part of Pakistani state’s measures to rob the mineral-rich Balochistan province of its precious resources.

No group, however, claimed responsibility for the attack in March that occurred far from Balochistan. The banned Islamist militant outfit Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan – an ideological offshoot of the Afghan Taliban – has a foothold in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

In 2021, an attack on a bus carrying workers to the same hydropower project killed 13 people including at least nine Chinese nationals. Pakistan compensated their families as well.

Two alleged Islamist militants were sentenced to death for that attack.

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New Caledonia airport to stay closed to commercial flights until Tuesday

Noumea, New Caledonia — The international airport in the New Caledonian capital, Noumea, will remain closed to commercial flights until at least 9 a.m. Tuesday (2200 GMT Monday), Charles Roger, director of the body that operates the facility, told AFP.

That would extend the shutdown to nearly two weeks in total, after flights were halted on May 15 in the face of deadly rioting that broke out in the French Pacific territory.

The news on Friday came as French President Emmanuel Macron warned the archipelago must not become “the Wild West” during a television interview with local media.

France has dispatched about 3,000 security personnel to the territory in a bid to restore order after more than a week of rioting that has left at least six people dead.

Macron justified the measure as necessary for a “return to calm,” because “it’s not the Wild West.”

“The republic must regain authority on all points. In France, not everyone defends themselves,” he added, reference to local groups who have organized the defense of their neighborhoods amid the unrest.

“There is a republican order, it is the security forces who ensure it,” he added.

Since Tuesday, New Zealand and Australia have been carrying out special evacuation flights to bring home hundreds of tourists stranded by the unrest, which was sparked by opposition to controversial electoral reforms.

The Australian evacuation flights were set to continue Friday, Foreign Minister Penny Wong said on social media platform X Thursday evening.

Military aircraft from both countries were expected to pass through Noumea on Friday, according to flight tracker site Flightradar24.

Since May 13, hundreds have been injured amid looting, arson and clashes triggered by the French voting reform plan.

New Caledonia has been ruled from Paris since the 1800s, but many Indigenous Kanaks still resent France’s power over their islands and want fuller autonomy or independence.

France had planned to give voting rights to thousands of non-Indigenous long-term residents, something Kanaks say would dilute the influence of their votes.

Separatists have thrown up barricades that have cut off whole neighborhoods, as well as the main route to the international airport.

Macron on Thursday conceded more talks were needed on the voting changes, and pledged they would “not be forced through in the current context.”

“We will allow some weeks to allow a calming of tensions and resumption of dialogue to find a broad accord” among all parties, he added, saying he would review the situation again within a month.

Caledonians would be asked to vote on their future if leaders can reach an over-arching agreement, Macron said. The French parliament’s lower house had approved the voting reform, but final ratification was still needed.

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Myanmar refugees in Thailand start interviews for US resettlement

Bangkok — Interviews have begun with Myanmar refugees living in Thailand who are eligible for a new resettlement program in the United States, the Thai government said.

Thailand said it hopes the first group may get to move by the end of the year.

Some 90,000 refugees live in nine camps on the Thai side of the border to escape fighting between Myanmar’s military and ethnic minority rebel armies vying for autonomy. Some of the refugees were born in the camps, which started to form in the mid-1980s, and many have lived in them for decades.

Persistent fighting in Myanmar, amplified by a military coup in February 2021, has kept most from returning home.

Aiming to give the refugees a safe way out of the camps, Thailand, the United States and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees announced the resettlement plan in May 2023.

One year on, Thailand’s Ministry of Interior says that the Thai government and UNHCR have finished checking the personal information of the refugees to verify their eligibility for the program. More than 80,000 refugees were deemed eligible, and nearly all of them told officials they wanted to resettle.

“After that, the U.S. team went to the first two camps for interviews, which have already been done,” Zcongklod Khawjang, an interior ministry official in charge of overseeing the resettlement program, told VOA this week.

The two camps — Ban Don Yang and Tham Hin — are among the smallest of nine and host about 8,750 refugees combined.

Zcongklod said the U.S. Embassy in Thailand has not told the Thai government when the authorized refugees would be resettled or when interviews in the other seven camps would begin. But he added that Thailand was expecting the “first batch” to move to the U.S. sometime this year.

Hayso Thako, a joint secretary with the Karen Refugee Committee, one of the charities working in the camps, said he received the same message from the UNHCR at a meeting in March.

“They said most probably the first group would be able to leave by the end, almost the end of this year,” he said.

The UNHCR declined to comment on when resettlement might begin and referred the question to the United States. The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok declined to provide a time frame.

“Resettlement operations are ongoing in cooperation with the UNHCR and the Royal Thai Government,” the U.S. Embassy told VOA by email, attributing the comment to “a U.S. official.”

The embassy also would not say how many of the 80,000-plus eligible refugees the U.S. was prepared to take in, either annually or in total. Zcongklod said the embassy has not provided the Thai government with those figures, either.

The Border Consortium, a network of charities that coordinate much of the international aid that reached the camps, said it has not been provided with official figures but said plans for the program appear to have been scaled down over time.

“Figures have changes. At the beginning, it was this number of people who could be resettled … and maybe now it could be a lower number of people who could be resettled,” Leon de Riedmatten, executive director of The Border Consortium, told VOA.

Even so, he said, “It’s important for the residents in the camps themselves that there is still the possibility of resettlement. I think this is the main message, even if it’s not going to be so many people who are going to be resettled to the United States.”

Thailand has denied the refugees a regular path to gaining permanent legal residence and keeps tight control over their movements in and out of the camps.

Myanmar’s 2021 coup brought the country’s brief experiment with democracy to a halt, plunging it into civil war and dashing hopes that the refugees could return safely anytime soon.

Hayso Thako and de Riedmatten said it would help if other countries committed to taking in some of the refugees.

Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told VOA it has encouraged more countries to join the resettlement program.

A previous program ended about five years ago after resettling thousands of refugees in the United States and a few other countries.

Without a clear idea of how many of the refugees the new program can handle, and no end in sight to the civil war raging in Myanmar, charities say the Thai government should also give the refugees the opportunity to settle permanently in Thailand.

“I think it’s key. It’s very, very important, because we cannot expect that all these refugees will be resettled. We cannot expect also that a large part of these refugees will return to Myanmar. So the ones, the majority, who will be left in the camps should have a better future,” de Riedmatten said.

Even after four decades, most of the camps still lack electricity and running water. Most homes are huts of bamboo and eucalyptus poles topped with thatched roofs.

The refugees are mostly barred from studying or working outside of the camps, have few job opportunities inside and receive an average of about $9 in food aid a month.

Some advocates say a growing sense of despair across the camps is causing a rise in domestic abuse, gang violence, drug use and suicide.

“Living in the camps is not easy,” Eh Nay Moo, 30, who fled Myanmar with his parents when he was three years old, told VOA.

“Here, we are just illegal people. … There is no freedom for us. Going here and there outside of the camp, we are not allowed,” he said from Mae La, the largest of the nine camps on the border.

Having spent almost his entire life in the camps, Eh Nay Moo said he cannot imagine returning to Myanmar but sees no real future for himself in the camps.

Eh Nay Moo said he has applied for the new resettlement program and is eagerly awaiting an interview.

“If I get a chance to move to the U.S. … I believe that I will get more opportunity or freedom to do and live my life as a human being,” he said.

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Chinese journalist freed after four years in prison for COVID reporting

Washington — In early 2020, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown in the Chinese city of Wuhan, a handful of citizen journalists emerged as voices from the epicenter.

Among them was Zhang Zhan, then a 36-year-old former lawyer who bravely chronicled the unfolding crisis in the city where the virus first surfaced.

Standing in front of a Wuhan train station in her final YouTube video on May 13, 2020, she voiced concerns about the human rights abuses she witnessed during the lockdown and criticized police involvement in enforcing containment measures.

Following “this last video,” she vanished, according to Jane Wang, a U.K.-based activist who launched the Free Zhang Zhan campaign.

“The date of her arrest should be 14th May, but it could have happened on the evening of the 13th, so we aren’t sure,” Wang told VOA. “The time she spent on the train escorted by police to Shanghai from Wuhan is in between.”

In December 2020, the Chinese government sentenced her to four years in prison for allegedly “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

On Monday, Wang posted a 28-second video to X, formerly known as Twitter, in which Zhang confirmed her release from prison on May 13 and wished well to the people who were concerned about her well-being.

“Hello, everyone, I am Zhang Zhan. At five o’clock in the morning on May 13, the police brought me to my brother’s home in Shanghai. Thank you all for your help and concern for me. Hope everyone is well. I really don’t have anything to say,” Zhang said in the video.

The video came one week after Zhang was expected to be released from Shanghai Women’s Prison on May 13, but she did not publicly surface for several days. On May 17, the U.S. State Department issued a statement expressing concern about her disappearance after her apparent release.

“The United States has repeatedly expressed our serious concerns about the arbitrary nature of her detention and authorities’ mistreatment of her,” the State Department said at that time. “We reiterate our call for the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to respect the human rights of Ms. Zhang, including by immediately ending the restrictive measures that she and all journalists in the PRC face.”

The State Department urged China to ensure the safety and freedom of journalists in the country, emphasizing the importance of enabling them to report freely.

Additionally, the State Department’s recently released human rights report on China pointed out “serious restrictions” on freedom of expression and media, including criminal prosecution of journalists, lawyers, writers, bloggers, dissidents, petitioners, and others.” It also cited the arrest of “countless citizens” for allegedly “spreading fake news.”

Several other citizen journalists faced disappearances like Zhang’s and later were sentenced to prison for documenting the initial stages of the pandemic in China.

Any expression of views differing from the government on pandemic-related matters continues to be a sensitive issue in China, according to Lin Shengliang, founder of the China Human Rights Accountability Database.

“The Chinese authorities often resort to both soft and hard tactics to the parties involved in order to silence them,” Lin told VOA.

According to Li Yong, a Wuhan citizen who shared the U.S. State Department’s statement on Zhang in a WeChat group, the Chinese State Security forces warned him not to share information about Zhang.

“The local community’s state security officer said, ‘These posts are no longer allowed. Be silent. Things involving Zhang Zhan are not allowed [to be shared].’ Anyway, I promised not to post it again,” Li told VOA.

According to Li, he befriended Zhang when she came to Wuhan in 2020.

“I advised her to take a step back [in her criticism of the government]. But she was a person of faith and was more persistent at that time,” Li said.

According to Wang, the U.K.-based activist, Zhang is a “devoted Christian” who openly expressed her faith.

“Her church was shut down [four years ago] and banned from gathering before she went to Wuhan,” Wang said. “It’s a big question mark whether she [currently] is allowed to travel to another city or even attend a church gathering in Shanghai.”

Wang said that Zhang’s situation may change “dramatically” when and if the authorities decide to step up surveillance against her.

“Right now, guards are watching her apartment, and she is being followed everywhere, but she still can leave her flat and has her phone and WeChat account,” Wang said, citing a friend of Zhan’s, whose name she didn’t want to disclose for safety reasons. “The worst is for plainclothes [police] to break in and stay in the home, taking her phone away.”

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Extreme heatwave disrupts education for half of Pakistan’s schoolchildren

Islamabad — Pakistan has temporarily shut down schools in most parts of the country to protect children from heatstroke and dehydration due to an ongoing climate-induced heat wave. 

“At least 26 million children in Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, – or 52 percent of the country’s total number of pupils in pre-primary, primary and secondary education – will be out of school from 25 to 31 May,” Save the Children said Thursday.

The education department in Punjab cited a temperature surge and a prolonged heat wave as reasons for shutting down all public and private schools across the province. However, it said that schools “will be allowed to conduct examinations as scheduled, with necessary precautions to ensure the safety of students.”

On Thursday, doctors in major urban centers reported treating hundreds of patients for heatstroke.

This is not the first time extreme weather has disrupted educational activities in the South Asian nation, which has a population of about 250 million people. 

In 2022, Pakistan’s southern and southwestern regions experienced devastating floods triggered by climate change-induced erratic monsoon rains, which affected 33 million people and halted education activities. 

“Pakistan ranks fifth among the countries most affected by global warming,” Rubina Khursheed Alam, the prime minister’s climate coordinator, told a news conference in the capital, Islamabad, on Thursday. She cited recent unusually heavy rains, floods, and soaring temperatures.

Alam said 26 districts in Punjab, southern Sindh, and southwestern Baluchistan provinces are experiencing an intense heat wave, which will persist for at least a week. 

She advised the public to minimize exposure to direct sunlight during peak heat hours and stay hydrated, warning that the extreme heat and dry conditions could spark bush fires and forest fires in vulnerable districts.

This past April was the wettest in Pakistan since 1961, with more than double the usual monthly rainfall, killing scores of people and destroying property as well as farmland. 

Offiicials say due to climate change, temperatures in some of the affected areas in Pakistan have already reached close to 50 degrees Celsius (over 127 degrees Fahrenheit).

Meteorological Department officials said temperatures in northern and northwestern Pakistani areas would be “4-6 °C higher than normal” for the rest of the week.

Pakistan contributes less than 1% to global carbon emissions but bears the brunt of climate change.

Save the Children said the country “faces rates of warming considerably above the global average with a potential rise of 1.3°C–4.9°C by the 2090s, and the frequency of extreme climate events in Pakistan is projected to increase as well.”

The flooding in 2022 resulted in at least 1,700 deaths, affecting 33 million people and submerging approximately one-third of Pakistan. 

“Let’s stop sleepwalking towards the destruction of our planet by climate change,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said after visiting flood-hit areas in Pakistan. He said Pakistanis were “facing a monsoon on steroids — the relentless impact of epochal levels of rain and flooding.”

The U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, said Thursday temperatures spiked to 43-47 degrees Celsius on Sunday across India’s many northern states, including New Delhi. 

The agency warned in a statement that “the soaring temperatures across South Asia can put millions of children’s health at risk if they are not protected or hydrated.” 

UNICEF noted that 76% of children under 18 in South Asia, about 460 million, were exposed to extremely high temperatures, with 83 or more days in a year exceeding 35 degrees Celsius. It estimated that 28% of children across South Asia were exposed to 4.5 or more heat waves per year, compared to 24% globally.

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Thousands of Pakistani students flee Kyrgyzstan amid attacks on universities, hostels

WASHINGTON — Hoor Mehtab, a Pakistani medical student in Kyrgyzstan, was among the first students to return to Pakistan following Kyrgyzstani mob attacks on foreign students, including Pakistanis and Indians, in various Bishkek universities and hostels May 17.   

Mehteb said she and others were dining in a cafe serving Pakistani food when they received messages from classmates at their hostel that a mob had attacked the hostel and Avicenna International Medical University where they were students.  

Mehteb said the cafe owner offered her and 59 other Pakistani and Indian students refuge in the basement, where they stayed for 14 hours. 

“It was suffocating,” she told VOA. 

Mehtab was among nearly 4,000 Pakistani students who left their studies in Bishkek and returned to Pakistan after the violence, which lasted for several hours over May 17 and 18.  

Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry said in a statement on its website the day after the attack that the violence was triggered by the appearance of a social media video purportedly showing a group of “persons of Asian appearance,” said by eyewitnesses to be Egyptians, harassing foreign students on the night of May 13. The statement said the police charged four foreign students with hooliganism and detained them. Police did not release the students’ identities. 

Kyrgyz Deputy Education Minister Rasul Abazbek, speaking to reporters Monday in Bishkek, called the mass attacks on Pakistani and Indian students “shameful.” 

“We must not lose this reputation to be hub of education,” Abazbek said. 

Parents of students who are still in Bishkek say they are worried about the safety of their sons and daughters.   

“My family is worried. I have to borrow $320 to send it to my daughter and son to buy air tickets so they can come back home,” Sardar Asif Ali, a Pakistani father in Mardan city, in Pakistan’s northwest, told VOA. 

According to official estimates, there are 11,000 Pakistanis in Kyrgyzstan, mostly students.   

Pakistani Foreign Minister Ishaq Dar was in Bishkek this week to ensure the safety of the Pakistani students. At a press briefing Wednesday in Islamabad, Dar said about 4,000 Pakistanis are expected to return from Kyrgyzstan.  

Pakistan has launched special flights to repatriate its citizens. A flight arranged by the Pakistani government arrived at Bacha Khan International Airport in the northwestern city of Peshawar early Wednesday, carrying 200 students from Bishkek. 

Among them was Azra Alam, a Pakistani student in her third year of medical studies in Bishkek. 

“We were stuck in our rooms for six days and scared every minute,” she told VOA. She said she is uncertain about her future studies at Bishkek. 

Medical schools in the former Soviet republics are popular among South Asian students because of lower costs, proximity and lower qualification requirements. Students and parents say the cost for a year of tuition for a medical school in Kyrgyzstan is roughly $3,000. 

This story originated in VOA’s Deewa service with contributions by Urdu Service. Some information for this report came from Reuters. 

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Bangkok hospital: most seriously injured from turbulence-hit flight need spinal operations 

Bangkok — Many of the more seriously injured people who were on the Singapore Airlines flight that hit severe turbulence need operations on their spines, a Bangkok hospital said Thursday.

Twenty people remained in intensive care and a 73-year-old British man died after the Boeing 777, which was flying from London’s Heathrow airport to Singapore, descended following turbulent weather over the Andaman Sea on Tuesday.

A public relations officer for Samitivej Srinakarin Hospital, which has treated more than 100 people hurt from the ordeal, told The Associated Press that other local hospitals have been asked to lend their best specialists to assist in the treatments. He asked not to be named because of hospital policy.

Passengers have described the “sheer terror” of the aircraft shuddering, loose items flying and injured people lying paralyzed on the floor of the plane.

It remains unclear what exactly caused the turbulence that sent the plane, which was carrying 211 passengers and 18 crew members, on a 6,000-foot (around 1,800-meter) descent in about three minutes. The flight from London to Singapore was diverted to Thailand.

In one of the latest accounts of the chaos on board, 43-year-old Malaysian Amelia Lim described finding herself face down on the floor. 

“I was so afraid … I could see so many individuals on the floor, they were all bleeding. There was blood on the floor as well as on the people,” she told the online Malay Mail newspaper.

The woman who had been seated next to her was “motionless in the aisle and unable to move, likely suffering from a hip or spinal injury,” she added.

The ICU patients included six Britons, six Malaysians, three Australians, two Singaporeans and one person each from Hong Kong, New Zealand, and the Philippines, Samitivej Srinakarin Hospital said. It said it had provided medical care to a total of 104 people.

Thai authorities said the British man who died possibly had a heart attack. Passengers have described how the flight crew tried to revive him by performing CPR for about 20 minutes.

Most people associate turbulence with heavy storms, but the most dangerous type is so-called clear air turbulence. Wind shear can occur in wispy cirrus clouds or even in clear air near thunderstorms, as differences in temperature and pressure create powerful currents of fast-moving air.

According to a 2021 report by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, turbulence accounted for 37.6% of all accidents on larger commercial airlines between 2009 and 2018. The Federal Aviation Administration, another U.S. government agency, has said there were 146 serious injuries from turbulence from 2009 to 2021.

Tourism and aviation expert Anita Mendiratta, who is based in London, said the extreme turbulence was “extremely unusual.”

She said passengers should listen to instructions to keep their seatbelts on, ensure that hand baggage is put away safely when not in use, and reduce items stowed in the overhead compartments.

“When there is turbulence, those doors can open and all of the items up top, whether it’s our hand baggage, our jackets, our duty free items, they become movable and they become a risk to us all,” she told The Associated Press.

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China begins military drills around Taiwan as ‘punishment’ for new leader

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — China kicked off a two-day large-scale military exercise in the water and airspace around Taiwan on Thursday, emphasizing that it is “a strong punishment for the separatist acts of ‘Taiwan independence forces’” and “a stern warning” against provocation by external forces.

The Eastern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army will conduct drills in the Taiwan Strait, the north, south, and east of Taiwan as well as in areas near Taiwan’s outlying Kinmen and Matsu islands, according to China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The drills, which involve the army, navy, air force, and rocket force of the Eastern theater command, will concentrate on joint sea-air combat readiness patrol, joint seizure of comprehensive battlefield control, and joint precision strikes on key targets, Eastern Theater Command spokesperson Li Xi said.

Some analysts say the exercise is part of Beijing’s display of anger toward Taiwan’s new president Lai Ching-te, who took office Monday.

The military exercise is “meant to be a warning to both the Lai administration and Washington that it can and will continue to put the squeeze on Taiwan if Lai does not return to a more moderate tone and approach” to cross-strait relations, Amanda Hsiao, a senior China analyst at International Crisis Group, said.

However, despite the attempt to push the new Taiwanese government to soften its position, Hsiao said Beijing’s forceful response may have the opposite effect.

“Given the Lai administration’s deep distrust of Beijing and the domestic pressures they are currently facing, Taipei may hold even firmer to their cross-strait line,” she told VOA in a written response.

In response to the Chinese military’s announcement, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said Beijing’s “irrational provocation” will damage regional peace and stability and that it will take practical actions, including deploying Taiwan’s naval, air, and ground forces, to protect freedom and safeguard Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Some Taiwanese military analysts say the priority for Taiwan is to keep strengthening its defense capabilities and enhance Taiwan’s defense budget.

“The Chinese military exercise is part of Beijing’s long-term pressure campaign against Taiwan, so Taipei needs to ensure it has enough defense capabilities to withstand the growing pressure from Beijing and maintain peace in the region,” Su Tzu-yun, a military expert at the Taipei-based Institute for National Defense and Security Research, told VOA by phone.

A firmer assertion of Taiwan’s sovereignty

China’s large-scale military exercise around Taiwan comes after Beijing criticized Lai for his “downright confession of Taiwan independence” through his inauguration speech Monday.

“The speech fully demonstrated that Lai is ‘a traitor to mainstream public opinion on the island and a disruptor of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,’” said Chen Binhua, the spokesperson of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, which handles cross-strait relations.

He reiterated that “Taiwan independence is a dead end” and that attempts to pursue “Taiwan independence” through support from external forces will only backfire.

“However, in response to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authorities’ collusion with external forces to provoke and seek independence, we must counteract and punish them,” Chen said during a regular press conference on Tuesday, according to Xinhua.

During his inauguration speech on Monday, Lai urged Beijing to cease political and military intimidation against Taiwan and proposed that both sides could start cross-strait exchange through the resumption of tourism on a reciprocal basis or enrollment of degree students in Taiwanese institutions.

However, he also warned the Taiwanese people of China’s ambition to “annex Taiwan” and reiterated that “the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to each other.”

Hsiao, from the International Crisis Group, said what Lai said in the speech suggests a potential deviation from his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen’s more moderate approach to cross-strait relations.

“He didn’t reaffirm the conciliatory gesture that Tsai offered, that cross-strait relations would be conducted in accordance with the Republic of China’s constitution,” she told VOA.

During her inauguration address in 2020, Tsai said Taiwan would handle cross-strait affairs according to the Republic of China’s constitution and the Act Governing Relations between People of Taiwan and “the mainland area,” which she said had been the island’s consistent position to maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. However, Lai didn’t reaffirm the same position in his inauguration speech on Monday.

In her view, while Tsai maintained some ambiguities in her characterization of cross-strait relations, Lai “appears resistant to doing so.” “He wants to state clearly and loudly that China and Taiwan are two separate states [and] his calculation may be that Tsai’s moderate approach didn’t pay off after all,” Hsiao added.

Some experts say since Thursday’s military exercise has been called the “Joint Sword 2024A,” this suggests that China could conduct more military exercises of the similar scale in the near future. “Since Beijing is extremely disappointed and even furious now, more strong responses will follow,” Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of political science at Bucknell University, told VOA in a written response.

During a speech on Thursday in the Australian capital Canberra, Deputy Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Lieutenant General Stephen Sklenka said China’s military exercises around Taiwan are “concerning” but not unexpected. He added that the Chinese military practiced maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait in 2023 that would be key to a potential invasion of the island.

Taiwan military analyst Su said China’s latest military exercise around Taiwan may create backlash for Beijing.

“Thursday’s exercise will only prove that China’s threat to Taiwan is real and it may convince like-minded democracies, especially the United States, to be more engaged in relevant efforts to deter Beijing from continuing such behaviors,” he told VOA.

Going forward, Hsiao said the dynamic between Taiwan and China “looks bleak.”

“[While] limiting the escalation of tensions is possible, it will require Beijing recognize that its pressures are unlikely to be effective and the Lai administration to see value in signaling a more moderate line,” she told VOA.

Additionally, Hsiao said she thinks Washington’s response may also affect cross-strait dynamics since there are no direct channels of communication between Beijing and Taipei.

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India determined to end World Cup title drought

NEW DELHI — In the ever-growing Twenty20 cricket landscape, India boasts the richest and most-watched league in the world. Yet all that investment and attention hasn’t translated into international success for India’s national team.

Rohit Sharma’s India squad travels to the T20 World Cup in the United States and Caribbean in search of a second title to end a long drought.

Undoubtedly, the Indian Premier League is flush with cash and talent, attracting the best cricketers from across the world.

Since the advent of IPL, though, India hasn’t lifted the World Cup trophy. 

After winning the inaugural T20 World Cup in South Africa in 2007, India has only reached one more final — losing to Sri Lanka in 2014.

The title drought crosses formats, too. India last won an International Cricket Council title in 2013 – the Champions Trophy in England. It last lifted the Cricket World Cup in the 50-over format in 2011.

Last year was an exceptional one in that sense – India lost the World Test Championship final to Australia in England and, a few months later, also lost the 50-over World Cup final to Australia, this time on home soil.

That caused major anguish in a cricket-mad country of 1.4 billion, considering India was on a 10-0 winning streak and a hot favorite going into the final.

Seven months later, Sharma and star batter Virat Kohli are leading the campaign in what in all probability will be their last T20 tournament in India’s blue.

Sharma has been a part of every Indian squad at the T20 World Cup. Kohli made his debut in the 2012 edition, making this his sixth attempt at the title.

Kohli has scored 1,141 runs at an average of 81.50 and strike-rate 131.30 in his 27 games at the tournament. Sharma has scored 963 runs in 39 games at a strike rate of 127.88.

Both players missed all of India’s T20 internationals between the 2022 semifinal loss in Australia and January of this year, leading to some speculation they’d miss out on the 2024 World Cup starting June 1.

That was dispelled by both BCCI secretary Jay Shah and chief selector Ajit Agarkar. Now, there will be big focus on their contributions – in terms of runs and strike-rate.

Sharma only managed 417 runs for Mumbai Indians in the club’s unsuccessful 2024 IPL campaign. Kohli, meanwhile, topped the run charts for Royal Challengers Bengaluru with with 741 runs runs in 15 matches, avering 61.75. But his strike-rate earlier in the season was criticized by some TV broadcast analysts.

In a news conference to confirm the India squad, Agarkar brushed off any concerns regarding Kohli’s strike-rate.

“There’s a difference between IPL and international cricket,” Agarkar said. “You need experience as the pressure of a World Cup game is different. You (only) try to take positives from what is happening in the IPL.”

Kohli opens the batting for his IPL franchise but goes in at No. 3 for India in T20s. It has led to a significant debate over his batting position for the World Cup because it holds the key to India’s XI.

Should Kohli continue to bat at No. 3, Yashasvi Jaiswal will open the innings with Sharma. India will then have to play with only four specialist batters including Suryakumar Yadav, the world’s top-ranked T20 batter.

Allrounder Hardik Pandya and first-choice wicketkeeper-batter Rishabh Pant would slot in next, with bowling allrounders to follow.

If Kohli opens with Sharma, it allows for an extra batter in the middle order and likely makes room for Shivam Dube, who has impressed selectors with his power hitting in the IPL and strike rate of 162.29.

Dube can also bowl useful medium pace if needed, and could provide backup to Pandya.

Pace spearhead Jasprit Bumrah will lead a bowling attack that will contain four spinners, including left-arm all-rounders Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel. Wrist spinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzendra Chahal complete the line-up.

“I asked for four spinners,” Sharma explained. “Most of our matches will start at 10-11 a.m. (and) we expect all-rounders to do a job for us. It gives us a variety of combinations to explore depending on the opposition.”

India begins its World Cup campaign against Ireland on June 5, then faces fierce rival Pakistan in New York on June 9 in what could be the highlight of the group stage. India will play the U.S. on June 12 and Canada on June 15.

While it is a seemingly straight-forward road for India in the first round, the tension to end a prolonged title drought will grow once it reaches the West Indies for the Super Eight stage.

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Pakistan hit by second wave of extreme heat this month

ISLAMABAD — With one end of a rope tied to a tree and the other in her hand, Zareena Bibi steps into the canal that cuts through Lahore, Pakistan’s major eastern metropolis. Bibi does not know how to swim, but with the mercury rising, a dip in the muddy water of the tree-lined canal is the only way for her to cool off with her kids.

“It is such a relief. How do I describe? It feels very good,” Bidi told VOA. “We were so hot, children were crying so we came to bathe in the canal,” she said, complaining of a lack of electricity and running water at home.

The Pakistan Meteorological Department, or PMD, has predicted heat wave conditions until May 27 in most of the country, with parts of Punjab and Sindh — the two most populous provinces — slated to experience extreme heat.

“May is usually a hot month. But this time we are expecting temperatures to hit 50 to 51 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in some parts,” Mahr Sahibzad Khan, director general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, told VOA. “The sudden rise in temperatures has forced us to alert everyone.”

The PMD expects daytime temperatures to soar by 6 to 8 degrees Celsius above May’s average. Khan, however, told VOA he did not expect the severe heat to be deadly.

Still, authorities in Punjab closed schools for the week. Earlier, they reduced school timing and delayed board exams.

Provincial disaster management authorities in Punjab and Sindh have ordered hospitals to set up heat wave units to treat people for heat-related illnesses like dehydration and heatstroke.

In 2022 and 2018, unusually high temperatures between March and May killed dozens, mostly in Sindh. In 2015, more than a thousand people in the southern province perished due to heat-related illnesses.

The high temperatures not only affect lives, but livelihoods as well.

Rana Asif, a farmer with land in Okara, a city in Punjab, is watering his rice and corn crops more frequently this week to keep them from drying.

“We are forced to water our crops daily with cool, fresh water from the ground,” Rana, who usually waters his fields every other day, told VOA. “This is driving my cost up.”

Extreme heat in South Asia during the pre-monsoon season is becoming more frequent, according to the World Weather Attribution group of scientists. According to its research, climate change is making heat waves in Asia more frequent and extreme.

The latest spell of high heat, the second this month according to PMD, comes on the heels of the wettest April that Pakistan recorded in six decades. The above-average rainfall killed dozens and destroyed vast areas of farmland.

Khan, too, held climate change responsible for the extreme spikes in temperature.

“High pressure and clear skies intensify the impact of the sun’s rays. … because of climate change, this phenomenon feels more intense,” Khan said.

While Pakistan contributes extremely little to climate change, it is among countries most vulnerable to the impact of changing weather patterns. However, Khan also blamed Pakistan’s urban sprawl for the miserable weather.

“The bigger problem is that cities are expanding horizontally. This is leading to the erosion of green areas. Even grass has a role,” Khan said. “You are losing that [green cover] and cities are expanding. Of course, that is causing problems.”

Despite high heat accelerating glacial melt, Khan said his department is not expecting floods anytime soon.

“We don’t expect flooding as our reservoirs have plenty of room at the moment. Even if more water comes down we have space to store it,” Khan said, cautioning that “if the monsoon component is added to it and temperatures also run high then we can have flooding.”

In 2022, Pakistan suffered catastrophic flooding as unusually heavy rains, blamed largely on climate change, submerged nearly a third of the country and caused $30 billion in damage.

Authorities are urging people to stay indoors and hydrated during the hottest hours of the day this week. But Khursheeda Bibi, who commutes for nearly 1.5 hours every day to her job as a cleaning lady at a private hospital, said she must step out to earn a living for her children.

“It’s so difficult to travel,” Bibi, a widow, told VOA. “But when I think that I have to do it for my children, then the heat doesn’t feel so bad.”

The PMD expects the heat wave to subside by May 28. However, another spell of extreme heat is slated to hit early June.

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China accelerates forced relocation of rural Tibetans to urban areas, report says

Taipei, Taiwan — In a newly released report, Human Rights Watch says China has been accelerating the forced relocation of Tibetan villagers and herders in the name of “poverty alleviation” and environmental protection since 2016.

While Chinese authorities describe the relocations as voluntary, the New York-based international rights organization’s report cites more than 1,000 Chinese state media reports and government publications that it says contradict that assertion.

“The news articles indicate that participation in whole-village relocation programs in Tibet is in effect compulsory,” the report said, adding that many Tibetans asked to relocate express “high levels of reluctance.”

China’s official data suggests that more than 930,000 Tibetans in rural areas have been relocated since 2000, and around 76% of these relocations happened since 2016, the report said.

Of that total, at least 140,000 rural Tibetans were moved as part of what authorities called “whole-village relocation.” In some cases, rural Tibetans are relocated to places hundreds of kilometers from their homes.

And while some Tibetan villagers are reluctant to take part in the government’s relocation program initially, state media reports show how local authorities have used coercive measures, including repeated home visits, threats of punishment or the banning of criticism, to push these Tibetans to comply, the report said.

“In some cases, officials of increasing seniority visit families to gain their ‘consent’ [while] some official reports show [local authorities] telling residents that essential services would be cut to their current homes if they didn’t move,” the report wrote.

Human Rights Watch also found that higher-level authorities would routinely pressure local officials to use coercive measures to achieve the goal of relocating rural Tibetans. The higher-level authorities would “routinely characterize the relocation program as a non-negotiable policy coming straight from the national capital, Beijing, or from Lhasa, the regional capital,” the report said.

Maya Wang, the interim director at Human Rights Watch, told VOA that the forced relocations are part of the Chinese government’s efforts to “assimilate” Tibetans into the majority Han Chinese society.

“The whole project has an impact of transforming Tibetans’ way of life,” Wang said, adding that the relocations “undermine the Tibetan language, culture and religion.”

During a press conference in 2020, China’s State Council Information Office said 266,000 rural Tibetans had been relocated to 965 areas established by the Chinese government as part of its efforts to “alleviate poverty” in Tibet.

Misleading promises

In addition to the “whole-village relocation,” the report said around 567,000 rural Tibetans may have been relocated as part of the government’s “individual household relocation” program since 2016.

While individual household relocation involves less coercive measures, Human Rights Watch found that officials would try to gain Tibetan families’ consent by providing misleading information about the economic benefits of moving to a new place.

“Surveys carried out by official scholars at relocation sites in Tibet concluded that many of those relocated ‘cannot find suitable jobs to support their families’ and ‘satisfaction with relocation is low,’” the report said.

These Tibetans “have to leave their animals and move to an area near a town where they can’t farm,” Robert Barnett, an expert on Tibet at King’s College London, told VOA by phone.

He said in other cases, rural Tibetans are relocated to areas they are not familiar with culturally, and one of the requirements for them to find jobs in urban centers is to acquire Chinese language skills. “There are lots of question marks about whether the Chinese government thought through this strategy,” Barnett said.

To help Tibetans find jobs, Barnett said the Chinese government has tried to set up industries and projects for them to work on. “I’m not sure it’s a very satisfying form of income for the Tibetans, as they’ve spent their entire lives being their own bosses,” he told VOA.

In response to the report, the Chinese embassy in the United States said the assertion that Tibetans have been forcefully relocated is “entirely groundless.”

“No one has been forced to become ‘transferred laborers’ in Xizang [China’s official name for Tibet] and workers of all ethnic groups in Xizang choose their professions according to their own will,” Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in the U.S., told VOA in a written response.

Violation of international law

Despite the Chinese government’s defense of its relocation program in Tibet, Human Rights Watch said the two relocation programs and other government programs that require rural Tibetans to rebuild houses or adopt “a sedentary way of life” if they are nomads have affected most of the 4.55 million Tibetan population in rural areas.

“While such mass relocations of residents have been occurring elsewhere in poor rural areas in China, these drives risk causing a devastating impact on Tibetan communities,” the report wrote.

Maya Wang told VOA that the involuntary nature of these relocations constitutes forced eviction, which is prohibited by international law. “This is a classic Chinese development behavior towards minorities that in many ways violates international human rights law,” she said.

Some Tibetan activists worry that the mass relocation or displacement of Tibetan communities may eventually “eradicate the Tibetan identity.”

“It takes many years for [a community] to flourish in one land, and you can’t easily build that in a place where you are not willing to go,” Tenzin Choekyi, a senior researcher at Tibet Watch, told VOA by phone.

In her view, the implementation of the relocation policies hasn’t taken the Tibetan community’s opinions and thoughts into consideration. “The Tibetan identity is in the hands of the Chinese party-state and is being eradicated under different policy directives,” she said.

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AI, deepfakes, social media influencers – India’s mammoth election sees it all 

New Delhi — From deep fake videos created by artificial intelligence to social media influencers who hold sway with young people, political parties in India are using all the tools of the digital age to expand their outreach to voters as the country holds its mammoth general election.

AI-generated images, audio and videos have helped politicians connect directly with tens of thousands of voters. Stalwart political leaders who have died have been resurrected to cash in on their popularity. Deepfake videos of Bollywood stars criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi have gone viral before being taken down.

“It’s the first time that AI has been disseminated on such a large scale,” said Divyendra Singh Jadoun, who calls himself the Indian Deepfaker and has had a packed schedule in recent months, creating synthetic content for political parties.

In a country where more than 800 million people are on the internet, how will it impact democracy?

“Are these uses significant enough to actually change someone’s vote? That is still an unanswered question,” says Prateek Waghre, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group based in New Delhi. “In the Indian context, you already have political parties relying heavily on pushing certain narratives, misleading messages, etc. Over and above that, how much difference is synthetic content making is a question mark.”

In a country where each parliamentary constituency has about two million voters, Jadoun and his team have created AI avatars that address voters by name to deliver personalized messages to seek their support. Then there are AI-powered chatbots that call constituents in the voices of political leaders.

Plummeting costs have made it possible to do it on a mass scale. “Four years ago, it used to take us several days to create a one-minute AI video. Now anybody, even if they don’t have knowledge of coding, can take one single image of a person and an audio track to create one,” said Jadoun.

During the election campaign in the southern state of Tamil Nadu where voting has now concluded, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, a tall leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam regional party who died in 2018, was seen in videos wearing his trademark dark glasses praising the leadership of his son, M.K. Stalin, the state’s current chief minister. The idea was to enthuse the party cadres.

Disinformation remains the biggest challenge. Days after India’s phased election got underway last month, two videos that went viral showed Bollywood stars Ranveer Singh and Aamir Khan criticizing the government and seeking votes for the opposition Congress Party. Both were deepfakes.

Another video alleging that opposition Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi had resigned from the party took social media by storm last month — his AI-generated cloned voice was used to support the claim.

Jadoun said that among the enquiries he receives but turns down are requests to create deep fake videos of political opponents to tarnish their reputations. “A common way is to swap the face of the opponent leader and paste it on to a controversial comment he never made. The second is to clone his voice and make him say something he has never said to discredit him,” he said.

India’s Election Commission has warned political parties against using AI to spread misinformation, but there is little regulation in place.

“You can only create awareness among people,” said Jadoun. “If a video is escalating their emotions, they should pause before sharing it.”

He says he labels his videos “A.I. generated,” and chatbots announce that they are A.I.-generated voices.

AI is also being put to softer uses. In Tamil Nadu, where Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to establish its footprint in a state far away from the Hindi heartland that the Hindu nationalists dominate, AI generated versions of Modi singing popular Tamil songs helped expand his reach, according to Muralikrishnan Chinnadurai, a fact-checker based in the state.

“These were widely shared. It made people see him as a more approachable, softer leader. While it may not influence older, more politically savvy people, such content has the power to impact young voters,” he said.

AI is not the only new factor in India’s election. In the country with the world’s largest number of people on both YouTube and Instagram, political parties have also mobilized influencers in a campaign to woo voters.

The BJP, a party that was always savvy in its use of social media, is seen as being ahead of others. In March, just about five weeks before the election got underway, Modi handed out awards to 24 prominent social media influencers at the country’s first-ever National Creators Award ceremony to promote “storytellers of a confident, assertive New India.”

Critics saw it as an effort to coopt them in the election campaign and create an incentive for them to endorse the government.

State units of the BJP have been holding influencer meetings to persuade them to spread the message about the work the government has done. In the past year, prominent politicians and ministers have sat down with influencers for interviews.

“It’s a fuzzy and pretty concerning development. The challenge is that these interactions are very different from what you would expect with a journalist,” said Waghre. “It is going to be a very soft conversation where the politician is unlikely to be challenged on claims they make and then that message is being carried to the influencer’s audience exactly as the politician wants it to go.”

He says this tactic is going to be hard to regulate and over time one could result in less reliance on traditional media.

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Pakistan claims killing dozens of Afghan-based ‘terrorists’ in recent operations

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s military said Wednesday that its operations against a recent surge in terrorist attacks from Afghanistan, and cross-border militant infiltration attempts, have resulted in the killings of nearly 30 “terrorists” in the last month.

The announcement came a day after a U.S. research group said in a report that “Afghanistan has become a breeding ground for terrorist activities” since the Taliban regained power in 2021. 

While sharing details of its ongoing counterterrorism actions, the Pakistani military said it was focused on parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan border provinces. It noted that one of the operations a week ago also led to the death of an army major.

“Of late, Pakistan has witnessed a surge in terrorist incidents orchestrated from Afghan soil, wherein terrorists from Afghanistan attempt to infiltrate through the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and target security forces as well as innocent civilians,” the statement said. 

Islamabad renewed its call for Kabul “to ensure effective border management” on the Afghan side, saying the Taliban government “is expected to fulfill its obligations and deny the use of Afghan soil by terrorists for perpetuating acts of terrorism against Pakistan.”

There was no immediate reaction from de facto Afghan authorities to Pakistan’s assertions. The Taliban have rejected previous such allegations, saying they are not allowing anyone to use Afghan territory to threaten neighboring countries or beyond.

Pakistan maintains that fugitive commanders and combatants of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, a designated global terrorist group, are using havens in Afghanistan to launch deadly cross-border attacks against Pakistanis, including security forces. 

The Washington-based Center for a New American Security released its report Tuesday, saying the TTP and other regional militant groups “are active and face few constraints on their activities from the Taliban—with whom they share core ideological beliefs.”

The study warned that terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan “are intensifying and an Afghan-based Islamic State affiliate, the Islamic State-Khorasan, or IS-K, “constitutes the main international concern.”

It also cited a recent United Nations report that highlighted the Taliban’s close ties to al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan, noting that “al-Qaida leaders are now part of the Taliban’s administrative structure and are constructing their own training camps in the country.”

On May 10, the United States hosted a bilateral counterterrorism dialogue with Pakistan, where the two sides agreed to intensify collaboration in the fight against the TTP and IS-K.

A post-meeting joint statement said the two countries “recognize that a partnership to counter” the TTP and IS-K and other regional terrorist groups “will advance security in the region and help “address transnational terrorism threats.” 

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Australian researchers unveil device that harvests water from the air

SYDNEY — A device that absorbs water from air to produce drinkable water was officially launched in Australia Wednesday.

Researchers say the so-called Hydro Harvester, capable of producing up to 1,000 liters of drinkable water a day, could be “lifesaving during drought or emergencies.”

The device absorbs water from the atmosphere. Solar energy or heat that is harnessed from, for example, industrial processes are used to generate hot, humid air. That is then allowed to cool, producing water for drinking or irrigation.

The Australian team said that unlike other commercially available atmospheric water generators, their invention works by heating air instead of cooling it.

Laureate Professor Behdad Moghtaderi, a chemical engineer and director of the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Innovative Energy Technologies, told VOA how the technology operates.  

“Hydro Harvester uses an absorbing material to absorb and dissolve moisture from air. So essentially, we use renewable energy, let’s say, for instance, solar energy or waste heat. We basically produce super saturated, hot, humid air out of the system,” Moghtaderi said. “When you condense water contained in that air you would have the drinking water at your disposal.”

The researchers say the device can produce enough drinking water each day to sustain a small rural town of up to 400 people. It could also help farmers keep livestock alive during droughts.

Moghtaderi says the technology could be used in parts of the world where water is scarce.

Researchers were motivated by the fact that Australia is an arid and dry country.

“More than 2 billion people around the world, they are in a similar situation where they do not have access to, sort of, high-quality water and they deal with water scarcity,” Moghtaderi said

Trials of the technology will be conducted in several remote Australian communities this year.

The World Economic Forum, an international research organization, says “water scarcity continues to be a pervasive global challenge.”

It believes that atmospheric water generation technology is a “promising emergency solution that can immediately generate drinkable water using moisture in the air.”

However, it cautions that generally the technology is not cheap, and estimates that one mid-sized commercial unit can cost between $30,000 and $50,000.

 

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Free expression in crisis for over half the world’s population, report warns

WASHINGTON — More than half of the world’s population lives in a country where free expression is in crisis, according to a new report.

The downturn comes as dozens of countries in 2024 are scheduled to hold elections, and where Article 19, which published the report, has already documented efforts to restrict access to information.

Overall, about 4.2 billion people, or 53% of the global population, live in countries where freedom of expression is in crisis, according to the report. And just over a fifth — 23% — lives in a country that is considered open or less restricted.

“It’s not just bad. It’s literally the worst that you could get in half of the world,” Article 19’s executive director, Quinn McKew, told VOA from London.

The Global Expression Report shows a marked change from the last annual report, when Article 19 found 34% of the global population lived in countries where free expression is in crisis. Over the past decade, the free expression group has documented a worsening situation in 78 countries.

To make its assessment, Article 19 analyzes 25 indicators, including the freedom of media, religion and academia. It then ranks countries and territories under the categories of open, less restricted, restricted, highly restricted and crisis.

Now more than any other time this century, more people are living in places where free expression is in crisis, McKew said.

“That is particularly challenging because we know that freedom of expression is a necessary precursor for actually having true, open democracies,” McKew said.

With elections underway in several countries already this year, Article 19 has observed an increase in internet shutdowns, as well as a rise in state-backed propaganda campaigns intended to influence elections, according to McKew.

The latter “is leading to an overall pollution of the information environment,” McKew said. “Being a savvy information consumer during elections is critically important.”

Assaults on free expression in India are of particular concern, according to McKew.

The country is nearing the end of its six-week-long national election period in which India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking a third term. The staggered election runs until June 1, with votes set to be counted on June 4.

Since Modi became prime minister in 2014, India has declined in 24 out of the 25 factors that Article 19 analyzes in its annual report. This year, India is classed in the report as “Crisis.”

Crackdowns on critical journalists and news outlets in India underscore broader threats to free expression in the country of 1.4 billion people, McKew says.

Her findings are backed by data from other watchdogs.

Since India’s last general election, in 2019, a record number of journalists have been arrested or faced criminal charges, and several critical outlets have been targeted with raids over alleged fraud or tax evasion, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“India talks about itself being the world’s largest democracy,” McKew said. “How much longer will it be a democracy if it keeps undermining the one thing that is necessary to truly be considered a democracy in the world?”

India’s Washington embassy did not immediately reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

Other countries that marked a decline since last year’s report include Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Moldova, Mongolia, Senegal and Togo. On a global scale, free expression is “stagnant,” the report found.

But elections can also bring about positive effects for free expression, as shown by improvements made in Brazil following former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s win over right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.

Since Lula da Silva assumed the Brazilian presidency at the beginning of 2023, Brazil’s free expression score increased 26 points, according to Article 19. Improvements to journalist safety, for instance, helped the country’s free expression categorization move from “restricted” to “open.”

“Brazil’s example gives us hope that change is possible,” Maria Trajan, who works at Article 19 Brazil, said in a statement.

“But it’s also a reminder that rights and freedoms must never be taken for granted — the work to guarantee, strengthen and improve rights must always continue,” she said.

Beyond Brazil, other countries that improved over the last year include Fiji, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

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