Guinea President Replaces Security Minister Following Deadly Protests

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Guinea President Alpha Conde announced on Monday that he was replacing his security minister following deadly protests against suspected efforts by Conde to extend his mandate.

Conde, 81, is due to step down next year when his second and final five-year term expires, but he has refused to rule out running again and asked his government in September to look into drafting a new constitution.

Conde’s opponents fear a new constitution could be used as a reset button on his presidency, allowing Conde to run again like other African leaders who have amended or changed constitutions in recent years to stay in power.

Protests in Conakry, the capital, and the bauxite-mining north against such a move have resulted in at least 13 deaths over the past month.

The presidential statement read on national television on Monday evening did not provide a reason for the sacking of Security Minister Alpha Ibrahima Keira, but a senior government official told Reuters it was related to Keira’s “difficulty managing the socio-political crisis.”

Government spokesman Damantang Albert Camara will replace Keira as security minister. Conde also announced that he was replacing his health and justice ministers.

The government has said it would investigate the deaths during the protests, which opposition leaders and residents said were caused by security forces’ opening fire on demonstrators.

Conde’s first election victory in 2010 raised hopes for democratic progress in Guinea after decades of authoritarian rule. But his critics accuse him of cracking down on dissent and violently repressing protests – charges he denies.

A dozen opposition and civil society leaders were sentenced to prison last month for their role in organising the protests.


Iraq Expresses Regret at Protester Deaths, Defends Handling of Unrest

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Iraqi officials expressed “deep regret” on Monday at the death of protesters during weeks of unrest but defended Baghdad’s handling of the situation.

Nearly 300 people have been killed in Iraq since the protests against political corruption, unemployment and poor public services began on Oct. 1.

At a U.N. review of member states’ human rights records in Geneva, diplomats from several countries accused the Iraqi government of using excessive force.

Justice Minister Farooq Amin Othman acknowledged there had been “individual violations” by members of the law enforcement agencies but said they were being investigated.

“…We would like to express our deep regret for the number of people killed,” he told international diplomats gathered at what the U.N calls the Universal Periodic Review.

“Our constitution guarantees peaceful assembly and the objective of our authorities is to protect the protesters,” he said.

Other Iraqi officials said plans were under way to free detained protesters and for electoral reform, both of which were among a package of reforms urged by the United Nations.

‘Unlawful, Indiscriminate and Excessive’ Force

But diplomats from several countries including the United States issued stinging criticisms.

“We recommend that Iraq immediately cease using excessive force against peaceful demonstrators, particularly the unlawful use of tear gas canisters and live ammunition, and hold accountable, in a transparent manner, those responsible for this violence,” Daniel Kronenfeld, Human Rights Counselor at the U.S. Mission in Geneva.

The Netherlands called the use of force “unlawful, indiscriminate and excessive”. Germany expressed deep concern and urged immediate steps to prevent further loss of life.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq released a set of recommendations on Sunday, including the release of peaceful protesters and investigations into deaths.

Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Hussain Mahmood Alkhateeb, said the plan envisaged by Baghdad to address unrest was already being implemented and went “wider” than the U.N. proposals.

“No demonstrator will stay in prison unless there is a criminal investigation against them,” he told Reuters.

Asked whether Iraq would consider trying Islamic State fighters on their own soil, as France and the United States has urged, he said: “Iraq believes that countries should take their nationals and this is a policy we are committed to.”


Ukraine, Rebels say Pullback in the East Completed

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The Ukrainian military and Russia-backed separatist rebels have completed a pullback of troops and weapons from an area in eastern Ukraine embroiled in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people, officials said Monday.

The disengagement near Petrivske that began Saturday followed a recent similar withdrawal in another section of the frontline, where separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting since 2014. Ukraine’s military said Ukrainian forces completed the pullback in Petrivske at midday Monday.

The disengagement of forces in eastern Ukraine was seen as a key step to pave the way for a summit of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany on ending the conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed plans for holding the summit with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a phone call Monday, according to the Kremlin.

Putin’s foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said the summit could be held before the year’s end but wouldn’t comment on a possible date.

“The summit should produce new positive results,” Ushakov said at a briefing. “It’s necessary to take the first steps toward the implementation of the agreement reached in Minsk.”

Germany and France sponsored a 2015 agreement signed in the Belarusian capital Minsk that envisaged broad autonomy for the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine and an amnesty for the rebels — provisions that were never implemented because they were resented by many in Ukraine.


‘Leave Now’: Australians Urged to Evacuate as ‘Catastrophic’ Fires Loom

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Authorities declared a state of emergency across a broad swath of Australia’s east coast on Monday, urging residents in high risk areas to evacuate ahead of looming “catastrophic” fire conditions.

Bushfires burning across New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland states have already killed three people and destroyed more than 150 homes. Officials expect adverse heat and wind conditions to peak at unprecedented levels on Tuesday.

Bushfires are a common and deadly threat in Australia’s hot, dry summers but the current severe outbreak, well before the summer peak, has caught many by surprise.

“Everybody has to be on alert no matter where you are and everybody has to be assume the worst and we cannot allow complacency to creep in,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

The country’s most populous city has been designated at “catastrophic fire danger” for Tuesday, when temperatures as high as 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) are forecast to combine with powerful winds for potentially deadly conditions. It is the first time Sydney has been rated at that level since new fire danger ratings were introduced in 2009.

Home to more than 5 million people, Sydney is ringed by large areas of bushland, much of which remains tinder dry following little rain across the country’s east coast in recent months.

“Tomorrow is about protecting life, protecting property and ensuring everybody is safe as possible,” Berejiklian said.

Lawmakers said the statewide state of emergency – giving firefighters broad powers to control government resources, force evacuations, close roads and shut down utilities – would remain in place for seven days.

On Monday afternoon, the fire service authorized use of the Standard Emergency Warning Signal, an alarm and verbal warning that will be played on radio and television stations every hour.

NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons urged people to evacuate before conditions worsened, warning that new fires can begin up to 20km (12 miles) ahead of established fires.

“Relocate while things are calm without the pressure or anxiety of fires bearing down the back door,” he said.

Authorities stressed that even fireproofed homes will not be able to withstand catastrophic conditions, which Fitzsimmons described as “when lives are lost, it’s where people die.”

More than 100 schools will be closed on Tuesday. On Monday afternoon, rescue services were moving large animals from high risk areas, while health officials warned that air quality across NSW will worsen as winds blow smoke from the current mid-north coast bushfires south.

The fires have already had a devastating impact on Australia’s wildlife, with about 350 koalas feared dead in a major habitat.

Climate change debate

Australia’s worst bushfires on record destroyed thousands of homes in Victoria in February 2009, killing 173 people and injuring 414 on a day the media dubbed “Black Saturday.”

The current fires, however, come weeks ahead of the southern hemisphere summer, sharpening attention on the policies of Australia’s conservative government to address climate change.

Environmental activists and opposition lawmakers have used the fires to call on Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a supporter of the coal industry, to strengthen the country’s emissions targets.

Morrison declined to answer questions about whether the fires were linked to climate change when he visited fire-hit areas in the north of NSW over the weekend.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack on Monday accused climate activists of politicizing a tragedy at the expense of people in the danger zones.

“What we are doing is taking real and meaningful action to reduce global emissions without shutting down all our industries,” McCormack told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

“They don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time, when they’re trying to save their homes.”

UN Urges Electoral Reforms, Release of Protesters in Iraq

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The United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq warned Sunday of the need for timely, tangible results in the government’s response to protests that began in early October, and offered a roadmap to address some of the demonstrators’ demands.

The U.N. office issued a statement saying that within a week the government should release all protesters who have been detained since October 1 and accelerate efforts to identify and prosecute those responsible for using excessive force against protesters.

It said there should be public calls for those in the region and elsewhere in the world with influence in Iraq to respect the country’s sovereignty and not interfere with its internal affairs.

UNAMI also called for the finalization of a framework for electoral reform and for anti-corruption action by the country’s political leadership within the next two weeks.  It further said that within three months, a constitutional review committee should continue its work on potential amendments.

The United States supported the U.N.’s proposals.

A White House statement late Sunday cited serious concerns about attacks against protesters and internet blackouts.

“Despite being targeted with lethal violence and denied access to the Internet, the Iraqi people have made their voices heard, calling for elections and election reforms,” said the White House press secretary.

Iraq’s Human Rights Commission says at least 319 people have been killed since the protests began.

Demonstrators have complained about corruption, lack of basic services and job opportunities, as well electricity outages.  Iraqi leaders have proposed some reforms but those have largely been rejected by the protesters who say they want Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and others to resign.

Abdul-Mahdi met Sunday with President Barham Salih and Parliament Speaker Mohammed Halbousi.

A statement from the prime minister’s office said the officials reaffirmed the need to avoid violence against peaceful demonstrations and to have strict accountability for excessive violence by members of the security forces.  It also said they discussed the need for electoral reforms that reduce the chances of party monopolies and give greater opportunities for young people to join parliament and its decision-making.

Hong Kong Police Shoot Protester as Flashmob Rallies Target Rush Hour

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A Hong Kong police officer shot at masked protesters on Monday morning, hitting at least one in the torso, as anger sparked by the recent death of a student spilled into the rush hour commute.

The shooting, which was broadcast live on Facebook, is the latest escalation in more than five months of seething pro-democracy protests that have engulfed the international financial hub and battered its reputation.

Footage showed a police officer drawing his sidearm in the district of Sai Wan Ho as he tried to detain a masked person at a junction that had been blocked by protesters.

Another unarmed masked individual then approached the officer and was shot in the chest area, quickly falling to the ground, clutching their left side.

Seconds later, two more live rounds were fired as the officer scuffled with another masked protester who fell to the ground. Both were detained by officers.

Hong Kong police said live rounds were fired and that one person was struck.

A pool of blood could be seen near the first individual whose body initially appeared limp, although the person was later filmed conscious and even trying to make a run for it.

The second man was conscious, shouting his name to reporters as he was handcuffed.

Hospital authorities said three people were admitted from the incident, one with a gunshot wound.

Commuter chaos

Hong Kong has been upended by 24 consecutive weeks of huge and increasingly violent rallies, but Beijing has refused to give in to a movement calling for greater democratic rights and police accountability.

Tensions have soared in recent days following the death on Friday of a 22-year-old student who succumbed to injuries sustained from a fall in the vicinity of a police clearance operation the weekend before.

The city has seen four days of violent protests since Alex Chow’s death as well as tens of thousands attending peaceful mass vigils.

Using online messaging forums, activists had called for a general strike on Monday morning.

Flashmob protests sprung up in multiple districts during the commuter period, with small groups of masked protesters targeting subway stations and building barricades on road junctions.

Even before the shooting in Sai Wan Ho, tear gas had been fired in at least two other locations.

One video circulated by protesters on messaging channels from Kwai Fong district showed a police officer trying to drive his motorbike multiple times into protesters who had gathered on a road.

Unpopular police force

Monday’s shooting is the third time protesters have been shot with live rounds by police. The two previous instances last month came as protesters attacked police officers and the victims, both teenagers, survived their wounds.

With no political solution on the table, officers have been left to battle violent protesters and are now loathed by large chunks of the deeply polarized population.

Immediately after Monday’s shooting, crowds of locals gathered to hurl insults at officers who responded with pepper spray and made multiple arrests.

Police have defended their tactics as a proportionate response to protesters who have embraced throwing bricks and petrol bombs as well as vandalizing pro-China businesses and beating opponents.

But an independent inquiry into the police has become a core demand of the protest movement, with public anger fueled by weekly videos of controversial police tactics and aggressive interactions with locals.

In one incident which sparked uproar, a police officer on Friday evening shouting at protesters that he and his colleagues were “opening a bottle of champagne” after the death of the student.

The force said the officer was later reprimanded for his language.

Both Beijing and Hong Kong’s unelected leader Carrie Lam have rejected an independent inquiry, saying the city’s current police watchdog is up to the task.

But last week, in an embarrassing setback, an international panel of experts appointed by authorities to advise the watchdog said it did not currently have the capability or resources to carry out such a huge probe.

The watchdog is due to release a report in early 2020 and in a statement on Monday said the panel’s views should not have been published on Twitter by one of its members.

Pope: He Intends to Go to South Sudan, Urges Dialogue

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Pope Francis says he intends to go to South Sudan, where efforts are underway to salvage a peace deal.

In public remarks Sunday, Francis also urged the African nation’s leaders to find “consensus” for the good of the country. South Sudan President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar last week agreed to postpone forming a coalition government for 100 days to resolve security and governance issues.

Francis didn’t detail his travel plans, only saying “I must visit” South Sudan “this year.” The pope travels to Asia later this month. In past years, he has spoken of a hoped-for pilgrimage to South Sudan.

Francis referred to a visit by the two leaders at the Vatican this year, when he got down on his knees to entreat them to preserve peace.  

UN: Civilian Deaths Surge in Escalating Syrian Conflicts

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U.N. monitors report scores of civilians are being killed and wounded, and thousands are fleeing their homes as violence and human rights abuse escalate in northern and northeastern Syria.   

In just the last five days, at least 92 civilians have been killed in these two separate battles.  The U.N. human rights office reports most of the deaths have occurred in Syria’s northeastern Kurdish-controlled area, which is under assault by the Turkish military.  

It says 49 people have been victims of airstrikes, ground-based strikes and summary executions.  These have been carried out by opposing Turkish-affiliated armed groups and Kurdish armed groups.  It says another 31 civilians have been killed by roadside bombs in populated areas, most likely planted by groups opposing the Turkish military offensive.

Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the indiscriminate use of such weapons is a violation of international humanitarian law.

“Another issue of concern in this part of the country in the northeast, relates to people recently displaced during the military offensive who have subsequently been subjected to arbitrary detention, in addition to enforced disappearances, after returning to their homes,” he said. 

Syrian army soldiers wounded in fighting with Turkish and Turkish-backed forces are evacuated to a hospital from a frontline near the town of Tal Tamr, Syria, Nov. 9, 2019.

Colville said violations are taking place both in areas controlled by Turkish forces and Kurdish armed groups.  Turning to the northwestern part of Syria, he says there’s been a recent upsurge in airstrikes and ground-based strikes in Idlib governorate.  

He said hospitals and health facilities, once again, have come under attack.  This past week, he said Syrian government and allied Russian forces have damaged four medical facilities.  He told VOA it is not clear whether all of the attacks were deliberate.  

“But the large-scale of these attacks, 61 separate facilities, considerably more actual strikes hitting those facilities, given some have been hit three, four times … strongly suggest that government-affiliated forces conducting these strikes are at least partly, if not wholly, deliberately striking health facilities. And, of course, that would amount to a war crime,” he said. 

Colville said all warring parties must ensure hospital, medical services and staff are respected and protected in all circumstances.   He adds parties to a conflict are obliged under international law to protect civilians.


Romania Votes For President

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Voters are going to the polls Sunday in Romania for the country’s presidential election.

Analysts say incumbent Klaus Iohannis will likely be returned to office in a runoff vote.

Centrist liberal Iohannis, unlike some other Eastern European leaders, has not embraced nationalism.

Polls indicate he will receive 40% of the votes Sunday.

His toughest competition is expected to come from former Prime Minister Viorica Dancilla, leader of the Social Democrats.

If no one receives 50% of Sunday’s ballots, there will be a second round of voting November 24.    


UN: Deadly Iraq Protests Risk Spiraling Out of Control

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A U.N. agency is urging the Iraqi government to address the grievances of its people or risk that the ongoing deadly protests across the country could spiral even further out of control.

Since anti-government protests began Oct. 1, the U.N. Human Rights Office has documented 269 deaths and at least 8,000 injuries, including among members of the Iraqi security forces.  The agency blames the majority of these casualties on the use of live ammunition by security forces and private armed militia groups.

U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville says his agency also is following up on reports of multiple arrests of demonstrators and activists.  He says protesters and volunteers providing assistance during the demonstrations reportedly have been abducted by unknown perpetrators.  

“We are also disturbed by the statement by the High Judicial Council in Iraq that the Federal Anti-terrorism Law would be applicable against those resorting to violence, sabotaging public property and using firearms against security forces.  Our concern is centered on the fact that these are acts of terrorism, which may be punishable by death,” Colville said.

The agency is calling on the government to investigate the whereabouts of the people who have gone missing, to promptly investigate the killings and to prosecute all those responsible for these crimes.

Colville says tensions are running very high. He says the relatives and friends of people who have been killed, abducted and otherwise abused are angry.  Unless their grievances are resolved, he told VOA. He said the protests and violence in the country could spiral out of control.

“The way the security forces are reacting because they are not abiding by the kind of guidelines set down internationally, which are very much designed not only to save life and stop injuries, but exactly this—to stop tension [from] getting extreme because of deaths.  It is a sort of vicious circle of people getting killed and injured.  That’s leading to more anger and more demonstrations, more deaths, more injuries and so on.  And we are in that cycle in Iraq,” Colville said.  

To get out of this deteriorating cycle, Colville said the Iraqi authorities must control the security forces and engage in a meaningful dialogue with the public.  He said the government must listen and take stock of its many grievances and work with civil society to reach a sustainable resolution.