19 Killed in Mine Blasts as Hopes for Peace Gather Momentum in Afghan

Nineteen Afghan civilians were killed in multiple roadside mine blasts in Kabul and Kandahar Sunday.  Two of the blasts occurred in Arghistan district of Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan.  In the first incident, a Toyota pickup carrying civilians hit a roadside mine near Shana Nari village killing nine and wounding two more Sunday afternoon, according to a spokesman for Kandahar provincial police, Jamal Barakzai. The second incident occurred near Tajaw village when a van hit a mine, killing eight Sunday night.  Meanwhile in Kabul, two civilians including a woman were killed while security personnel were trying to depose of a roadside landmine.      The civilian casualties happened on a day when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced he would release the remaining 400 Taliban prisoners—removing the last remaining hurdle to the start of direct negotiations with the militant group. Reducing civilian casualties and working toward a ceasefire is expected to be the highest priority of the Afghan team—an amalgamation of government representatives, other political factions, and civil society activists—when it meets the Taliban in Doha in the coming days. The two sides are supposed to negotiate a political settlement that ends four decades of conflict in Afghanistan.Afghan municipality workers clean a road in front of the damaged buildings, a day after an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, May 9, 2019.“In the next few days, we expect the completion of prisoner releases, then travel of the Islamic Republic team to Doha, and from there the immediate start of intra-Afghan negotiations,” Tweeted Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, early Monday morning.    Khalilzad, who headed the U.S. negotiations with the Taliban, had been proposing to start the intra-Afghan negotiations urgently. However, parts of the U.S. deal with the Taliban—particularly the promise to release up to 5000 Taliban prisoners as a pre-requisite to start direct negotiations with the Afghan government—irked Ghani, who felt this took leverage away from him.  Ghani’s government had since been dragging its feet on the prisoner release issue, trying to link it to the announcement of a ceasefire by the Taliban. Not only was this demand repeatedly rejected by the group, according to the Ghani administration, it ratcheted up its attacks against the Afghan security forces. In a video address to a regional conference last month, Ghani said Taliban had killed or wounded more than 10,000 members of Afghan security forces in the months since the U.S.-Taliban deal in February.    The mood of the general public in Afghanistan seemed to be overwhelmingly upbeat about the start of talks. Although, there was some criticism in social media posts, particularly from human rights and women’s rights groups, over releasing the 400 hardcore Taliban. There was some concern that the team finalized to represent the Afghan government and other Afghan factions was not representative.  “The Kabul team is not qualified I feel. They are children of political big wigs. It seems like the same old sharing of the pie. Public opinion is not wholly reflected,” said Mushtaq Rahim, a Kabul based independent political analyst. He added however that at the time all everyone wanted was for intra-Afghan negotiations to start.    

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Global Markets Begin Trading Week on Upswing  

Global markets are mostly higher Monday after U.S. President Donald Trump signed a series of executive orders aimed at extending coronavirus relief payments for many Americans. In Asia, Sydney’s S&P/ASX index gained 1.6%.  Shanghai’s Composite index finished 0.7% higher. Seoul’s KOSPI index earned 1.4%, and the TSEC index in Taipei rose 0.5%.   In late afternoon trading, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index was off 0.6%, while the Sensex in Mumbai was up 0.7%.   The Nikkei in Tokyo was closed for a public holiday. European markets are off to a good start, with the FTSE index in London up 0.8%, the CAC-40 in Paris is 0.6% higher, and the DAX index in Frankfurt gaining 0.2%  In commodities trading, gold continues its record-setting pace, selling at $2,022.80 per ounce, up 0.6%.  U.S. crude oil is trading at $41.82 per barrel, up 1.4%, and Brent crude oil is up one percent, trading at $44.88 per barrel. The Dow Jones and S&P 500 are trending positively in futures trading, while the Nasdaq has dipped slightly into negative territory. 

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US Health Secretary Hails Taiwan’s Response to COVID-19

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar praised Taiwan’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic as an example of the island’s “transparent, democratic nature.” Azar made the remarks Monday during a joint appearance in Taipei with President Tsai Ing-wen. His arrival Sunday at Taipei’s Songshan Airport marked the highest-level visit by an American official since Washington formally switched diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. His trip is the latest move by President Donald Trump’s administration to build stronger ties with the self-ruled island. “It is a true honor to be here to convey a message of strong support and friendship from President Trump to Taiwan,” Azar told President Tsai. Trump signed a law in 2018, the Taiwan Travel Act, that calls for high-level visits between the U.S. and Taiwan.  Taiwan has had surprising success in limiting the coronavirus outbreak to just 477 confirmed cases and seven deaths.Soldier wears a mask against COVID-19 outside military airbase in Taipei, Taiwan, Aug. 10, 2020.China has issued strong objections to Azar’s visit to Taiwan, as it considers the island a breakaway province and has vowed to annex it by any means necessary, including a military invasion. Beijing has acted aggressively in cutting Taipei off from the international community, including objecting to its participation in the World Health Assembly.   Tsai, who has strongly advocated for Taiwan’s recognition as a sovereign nation,  denounced China’s moves to bar it from the WHO in her remarks Monday.  “Political considerations should never take precedence over the rights to health,” she said. China and Taiwan split after the 1949 civil war when Chaing Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces were driven off the mainland by Mao Zedong’s Communist forces and settled on the island. Azar’s trip has sparked another flashpoint between Beijing and Washington, with tensions already inflamed over trade, technology, China’s tightening grip on Hong Kong, and the administration’s accusations over the coronavirus outbreak, which was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. China lodged a formal complaint with the United States last week after Azar announced his trip to Taiwan, and urged Washington to end all forms of official contact with the island.  

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Chatbots and Telemedicine Join Vietnam’s COVID-19 Fight

An idea is percolating in Vietnam as it fights COVID-19: “send in the robots.”  The pandemic has brought artificial intelligence (AI) more of a spotlight as nations around the world look for uses, from combing data for clues to predict an outbreak, to robot waiters that reduce human contact. In Vietnam, which has reported remarkably low infection and death figures, the possible uses are still being tested. They include chatbots to dispense information, face recognition technology, predictive mapping, and software to combat rumors about the disease.  For instance, FPT Corp., the nation’s biggest telecommunications and software company, introduced a web application that uses automation to assess COVID-19 risk. How it works: Vietnamese go to the Corona Check website and enter data on where they have been recently. The app then cross references that with data on the location, timing, and quantity of cases nationwide to calculate the odds someone has come into contact with the coronavirus.  “Our AI system is continuously updating data to improve itself,” Tran Hoang Giang, the FPT Software vice president, said. “Currently it could predict the probability of coronavirus infection with 90% accuracy. But it’ll get even better as more people submit self-assessments on the web.” The process is helped in part by the fact that Vietnam, which has had 841 COVID-19 cases this year, publishes uniquely detailed, anonymized data on patients’ movements so that others can check if they went somewhere at the same time as an infected person. For instance, one record showed the times that a patient had gone to a mall, a cafe, and a market. Warning system The work on machine learning sends a good message, according to FPT chairman Truong Gia Binh.   “Not only tech enthusiasts in developed countries but also young, talented Vietnamese have the opportunity to exchange knowledge and research about AI,” he said. Vietnam has also joined in on a popular AI strategy globally to map out many data points that might predict where the next cluster of COVID-19 cases will occur. The data points can number in the dozens and may not seem directly related, such as weather, density in a shopping center, or popular Google searches. However, taken together, the right data can correlate with disease outbreaks and serve as a warning system that detects risks before humans do.  In addition to models that assess the threat of a disease, Vietnam has a COVID-19 map that is paired with news articles, which are updated through automation software to dispel misinformation. The Southeast Asian nation has taken a hard line against pandemic rumors, which could prove deadly and in other nations have encouraged unscientific home remedies. Telemedicine  Beyond machine learning, COVID-19 is also spurring more interest in another emerging technology called telemedicine. For instance, the company Doctor Anywhere now has physicians assessing Vietnamese patients for signs of the disease via video consultations, which are also conducted in Thailand and Singapore.  All of this is part of Industry 4.0, a term for the latest advancements that are supposed to help economies move to the next stage of development. Vietnam expects these advances to help it recover from the pandemic, too. “AI is considered a core technology for Industry 4.0 that has implications for post COVID-19 healing,” Chu Ngoc Anh, the Minister of Science and Technology in Vietnam, said. His government is working with Australia, which said last week it donated 650,000 Australian dollars “to find new ways to use AI as Vietnam recovers from COVID-19.” The money will fund things like a contest in which programmers submit competing ideas to put machine learning to use. “In the face of the global pandemic, it [innovation] has become more important than ever,” Robyn Mudie, the Australian Ambassador to Vietnam, said.  She added: “This AI initiative is a great example of how new technology can be adapted quickly to respond to Vietnam’s emerging needs.” 

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6 French Aid Workers Among 8 Killed by Gunmen in Niger

Six French aid workers with the nongovernmental organization ACTED and their local guide and driver were killed Sunday by gunmen riding motorcycles in an area of southwestern Niger that is home to the last West African giraffes, officials said.The six worked for the international aid group, Niger’s Defense Minister Issoufou Katambé told Reuters. Officials had earlier described them as tourists.”Among the eight people killed in Niger, several are ACTED employees,” said Joseph Breham, an NGO lawyer.No one immediately claimed responsibility for the assault.  French President Emmanuel Macron denounced “the deadly attack which cowardly hit a group of humanitarian workers” in Niger and said in a statement Sunday the attack will be investigated.Macron, who spoke Sunday with his Nigerien counterpart Mahamadou Issoufou, added that “their determination to continue the common fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel” remained intact.The president “expresses his condolences and the support of the French nation to the families and relatives of the victims,” the statement said.It is believed to be the first such attack on Western tourists in the area, a popular attraction in the former French colony thanks to its unique population of West African or Niger giraffes.A source close to Niger’s environmental services said the assault took place around 11:30 a.m. (1030 GMT) 6 kilometers (4 miles) east of the town of Koure, which is an hour’s drive from the capital, Niamey.”Most of the victims were shot. … We found a magazine emptied of its cartridges at the scene,” the source told AFP.”We do not know the identity of the attackers, but they came on motorcycles through the bush and waited for the arrival of the tourists.”The source also described the scene of the attack, where bodies were laid side-by-side next to a torched off-road vehicle, which had bullet holes in its rear window.Around 20 years ago, a small herd of West African giraffes, a subspecies distinguished by its lighter color, found a haven from poachers and predators in the Koure area.Today they number in their hundreds and are a key tourist attraction, enjoying the protection of local people and conservation groups.  However the Tillaberi region is in a hugely unstable location, near the borders of Mali and Burkina Faso.  The region has become a hideout for Sahel jihadist groups such as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).The use of motorcycles has been totally banned since January in an attempt to curb the movements of such jihadists. 

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Hong Kong Media Tycoon Jimmy Lai Arrested Under National Security Law – Top Aide

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai has been arrested, accused of suspected collusion with foreign forces under the new national security law, his top aide said on Twitter, in what is the highest-profile arrest yet under the legislation. Lai has been one of the most prominent democracy activists in the Chinese-ruled city and an ardent critic of Beijing, which imposed the sweeping new law on Hong Kong on June 30, drawing condemnation from Western countries. The new security law punishes anything China considers subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison. Critics say it crushes freedoms in the semiautonomous city, while supporters say it will bring stability after prolonged pro-democracy protests last year. “Jimmy Lai is being arrested for collusion with foreign powers at this time,” Mark Simon, a senior executive at Lai’s media company Next Digital, which publishes local tabloid Apple Daily, said early on Monday. Police did not immediately comment. Apple Daily reported that Lai was taken away from his home in Ho Man Tin early Monday. The paper says one of Lai’s sons, Ian, was also arrested at his home. About 10 other people were expected to be arrested Monday, local newspaper South China Morning Post reported, without naming its sources. Lai was also arrested this year on illegal assembly charges, along with other leading activists, relating to protests last year. In an interview with Reuters in May, Lai pledged to stay in Hong Kong and continue to fight for democracy even though he expected to be one of the targets of the new legislation. Before Monday, 15 people had been arrested under the law, including four ages 16-21 late last month over posts on social media. The new legislation has sent a chill through Hong Kong, affecting many aspects of life. Activists have disbanded their organizations, while some have fled the city altogether. Slogans have been declared illegal, certain songs and activities such as forming human chains have been banned in schools, and books have been taken off shelves in public libraries. The United States on Friday imposed sanctions on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the territory’s current and former police chiefs and eight other top officials for what Washington says is their role in curtailing political freedoms in the territory. Beijing’s top representative office in Hong Kong described the sanctions as “clowning actions.” Beijing and the Hong Kong government have said the law will not affect rights and freedoms, and that it is needed to plug security loopholes. They said it will only target a small minority of “troublemakers.”  

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Malawi President Working to Trim Executive Powers

Malawi’s new president Lazarus Chakwera says he is working on proposing legislation aimed at trimming his presidential powers in an effort to empower the citizens. In his national address Saturday, Chakwera said having a president who makes too many decisions has created problems in Malawi and this has led to government mismanagement in the past.
 
Trimming presidential powers was among the campaign promises Chakwera made during political rallies that helped him defeat former President Peter Mutharika in the June 23 presidential election re-run.    
 
In his address, Chakwera said the president has too much appointing authority and responsibilities that he says bring him into conflict.
 
 “Having a presidency that makes too many decisions has created problems for our country for a long time. Chief among them is that it has stifled a culture of responsibility and innovation among public institutions and private citizens,” he said.
 
Chakwera compared the running of the government to how parents run family affairs.
 
“Even as parents in our homes, we know that rigidly concentrating too much decision-making power in the parents hinders a child’s ability to develop critical life skills. This is a mistake we must stop making at a national level,” he said.
 
Chakwera faulted the present arrangement which puts the president as an appointing authority for top positions in the judiciary, legislature, executive, boards of statutory corporations, foreign embassies, and traditional leadership.
 
“This is unwise. No person is good or humble enough to be entrusted with that much appointing power, for it is not possible for a president to be the appointing authority of that many offices without at some point coming face to face with a conflict of interest,” he said.
 
Social commentator Humphrey Mvula supports the move, saying excess presidential powers have long made the presidents in Malawi not accountable to anyone.
    
“They have done what they so wished. They employed cronies, relatives, home-mates, tribesmen and all manner of individuals because there is no vetting process. They have decided to vary rules and regulations at whim,” Myula said.
   
Critics argue reducing powers would render the president useless, if he just becomes a mere rubber stamp at the expense of pleasing citizens.
 
However, Edge Kanyongolo a, legal expert at the University of Malawi, disagrees. He said trimming presidential powers is the only thing Malawi can do to consolidate its democracy.   
    
“People who are talking about ‘maybe a president could become a rubberstamp,’ I suspect they may be people who may be more inclined towards an authoritarian president who exercises [a] heavy hand, and I think that is inconsistent with democracy. So I think that it is not true to say that limiting the powers of [the] president renders the presidency powerless,” Kanyongolo said.
 
Meanwhile, Chakwera has asked Malawians to demand from their members of Parliament to vote for the changes once the proposed legislation is presented in the legislature.
 

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White House, Democrats at Odds Over Trump’s Coronavirus Aid Orders

As the United States surpassed five million confirmed cases of the coronavirus, talks on Capitol Hill for a new coronavirus relief bill remain at an impasse, leading President Donald Trump to sign several executive orders to benefit Americans. VOA’s Esha Sarai has more.

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White House, Democrats Spar Over Trump Coronavirus Aid Orders 

The White House and top Democratic lawmakers sparred Sunday over President Donald Trump’s executive orders to extend expired benefits to tens of millions of American workers left unemployed by the coronavirus pandemic and defer payroll taxes for many workers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, called Trump’s action “meager, weak and unconstitutional” in an interview on the “Fox News Sunday” show. She said it “will take a while to put money into the pockets of Americans” and again called for the White House to “meet us halfway” on new spending to assist the more than 30 million workers who remain unemployed and state and municipal governments that need more aid. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, left, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, right, walk out of a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, Aug. 7, 2020.Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Trump’s orders on Saturday were “not his first choice,” but blamed Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer for the collapse of two weeks of talks on a coronavirus aid package. “I’ve told them anytime they have a proposal, I’m willing to talk,” Mnuchin said. He said the White House is willing to provide more aid for state and local governments “but not a trillion dollars” that Democrats are seeking. Schumer, on ABC’s “This Week” show, described Trump’s directives as “faulty,” “unworkable,” “weak” and “far too narrow” a solution to assist the flagging U.S. economy and the economic needs of millions of out-of-work Americans.  U.S. President Donald Trump shows signed executive orders for economic relief during a news conference amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, Aug. 8, 2020.”The event at the country club is just what Trump does — a big show, but it doesn’t do anything,” Schumer said. “If the American people look at these executive orders, they’ll see that they don’t come close to doing the job.” In the fruitless negotiations, Democrats sought to extend the $600-a-week federal government boost to less generous state unemployment benefits through the end of 2020 after they expired at the end of July. Trump cut the figure to $400 and said states should pay $100 of that amount. “States don’t have the money to do that,” Pelosi said. Mnuchin countered that the states do have such funds “from money we already gave the states” from previous coronavirus aid legislation that has yet to be spent.   Trump and White House officials expect his orders will be contested in court suits since under U.S. law, Congress must approve spending legislation. It cannot be done by presidential fiat, although Mnuchin said Trump’s actions were cleared by his legal advisers. Asked whether he considers the Trump orders legal, Schumer replied, “Well, you know, I’ll leave that up to the attorneys. It doesn’t do the job … it’s not going to go into effect in most places for weeks or months because it’s so put together in a crazy way.” FILE – Motorists take part in a caravan protest in front of Senator John Kennedy’s office at the Hale Boggs Federal Building asking for the extension of the $600 in unemployment benefits in New Orleans, La., July 22, 2020.He said the $600-a-week unemployment payments would have continued to “flow smoothly” had the president acted to continue them. Many Republican lawmakers have protested that the amount was too big, in many cases more than workers were being paid before they were laid off. Pelosi told CNN, “We’re at a stalemate because Republicans have never understood the gravity… of the pandemic.”  The spread of the pandemic remains unchecked in the U.S. with the country’s number of confirmed cases topping 5 million on Sunday and the death toll more than 162,000. Both figures are the biggest national totals across the globe. Trump signed his orders at a golf resort he owns in New Jersey and justified cutting the unemployment aid from $600 a week to $400.  “This is the money [unemployed workers] need, this is the money they want, this gives them an incentive to go back to work,” Trump said. But he left it up to the states to decide how much to actually send unemployed workers, so the benefits could be smaller still. U.S. President Donald Trump signs executive measures for economic relief during a news conference amid the spread of the coronavirus disease, at his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., Aug. 8, 2020.In one of the other orders, Trump suspended 7.65% payroll taxes for workers who make less than $100,000 a year through the end of 2020. Unemployed workers, who do not pay the tax because they aren’t collecting a paycheck, won’t benefit. The taxes are used to fund pensions and health care for older Americans. The money would need to be paid back eventually unless Congress acts to write off the deferred taxes.  “This fake tax cut would also be a big shock to workers who thought they were getting a tax cut when it was only a delay,” said one Trump critic, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. “These workers would be hit with much bigger payments down the road.” Trump also said he was extending protections for tenants threatened with eviction and further delaying student loan payments and zero percent interest on federally financed loans. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Trump’s opponent in the Nov. 3 national election, called the orders a “series of half-baked measures” and accused Trump of putting Social Security pensions “at grave risk” by delaying the collection of payroll taxes that pay for the program. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Saturday, “Struggling Americans need action now. Since Democrats have sabotaged backroom talks with absurd demands that would not help working people, I support President Trump exploring his options to get unemployment benefits and other relief to the people who need them the most.”   

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