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At G20 Meeting, Western Ministers Criticize Russia Over Ukraine

RIO DE JANEIRO — Western foreign ministers from the G20 group of nations meeting in Brazil on Wednesday attacked Russia for its invasion of Ukraine as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov listened, diplomats said.

“Russia must be made to pay for its aggression,” British Foreign Minister David Cameron told the closed session, according to his office.

The top diplomats from the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, France and Norway made similar remarks on the first day of a two-day meeting.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide told reporters that Lavrov calmly replied to Cameron’s remarks with “a set of alternative facts” about events in Ukraine.

Lavrov did not speak to reporters. Russia’s justification of its “special military operation” in Ukraine, which began two years ago, initially was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. More recently, Moscow has emphasized that it needs to defend against Western aggression.

The meeting was set to prepare the agenda for a G20 summit in November. At a summit in September, G20 leaders adopted a declaration that avoided condemning Russia for the war in Ukraine but called on all states not to use force to grab territory.

Cameron also noted the death of dissident Alexey Navalny in a Russian prison last week.

Eide said the G20 session in Rio focused mainly on conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine. “We have to support Ukraine until it emerges as a free and independent sovereign country without another army on its soil,” the Norwegian minister said he told the meeting.

Eide said the ministers who spoke at the meeting agreed with the need for a two-state solution in the Middle East but there was no consensus on how to achieve it.

Brazil, this year’s president of the G20, opened the foreign ministers’ meeting by blaming the United Nations and other multinational bodies for failing to stop conflicts that are killing innocent people.

Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira called for “profound reform” of global governance as Brazil’s top priority this year.

“Multilateral institutions are not adequately equipped to deal with current challenges, as demonstrated by the Security Council’s unacceptable paralysis in relation to ongoing conflicts,” Vieira said at the meeting.

“This state of inaction results in the loss of innocent lives,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva in Brasilia on his way to the Rio meeting and expressed U.S. support for Brazil’s agenda to make global governance more effective.

The top U.S. diplomat discussed Israel’s war in Gaza with Lula amid a diplomatic spat after the Brazilian leader likened Israel’s war to the Nazi genocide during World War Two, a U.S. spokesperson told reporters.

Lula’s accusations last week of atrocities by Israel in Gaza triggered a diplomatic crisis with an Israeli reprimand and Brazil recalling its ambassador.

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Russia Attacks Multiple Ukrainian Sites With Drones Ahead of Invasion Anniversary

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Russia Takes Center Stage in US Political Battle

The death of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has put Russia in the center of American political discourse and has increased pressure on congressional Republicans to support Ukraine. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden and his main challenger, former President Donald Trump, take opposing views heading into the November U.S. election. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Washington.

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Russia Takes Center Stage in US Political Battle

washington — Russia has taken center stage in American political discourse after the death of a prominent opposition figure there, putting congressional Republicans under increased pressure to support Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden has highlighted in his recent statements one of the differences between him and his challenger, former U.S. President Donald Trump.

At a recent rally, Trump said that if he were president and a NATO member fell short of its financial commitments to the security bloc, he would not protect that ally. “In fact, I would encourage them” — meaning Russia — “to do whatever the hell they want,” Trump said.

“Every president since Truman has been a rock-solid supporter of NATO, except for Donald Trump,” a stentorian male voice intones in an ad released this week by the Biden campaign. “Trump wants to walk away from NATO. He’s even given Putin and Russia the green light to attack America’s allies. … No president has ever said anything like it. It’s shameful. It’s weak. It’s dangerous. It’s un-American.”

The divide was further compounded by the death last week of opposition leader Alexey Navalny in a Russian prison.

Biden has been quick to lay blame and threaten stiff sanctions over the 47-year-old’s death in an Arctic penal colony, which Russian officials say was caused by “sudden death syndrome.”

“The fact of the matter is, Putin is responsible,” Biden said. “Whether he ordered it, he’s responsible for the circumstances they put that man in. And it’s a reflection of who he is. It just cannot be tolerated. I said there will be a price to pay.”

The Kremlin said Biden’s allegation is “unfounded” and “insolent,” but authorities have denied Navalny’s mother access to his body.

A different line

Trump and his Republican Party have taken a different line, with Trump saying he would not support NATO as strongly as Biden has. And, in a recent event with Fox News, he cast himself as a victim of political persecution, like Navalny.

“It’s a horrible thing, but it’s happening in our country, too,” Trump said Tuesday night. “We are turning into a communist country in many ways. And if you look at it, I’m the leading candidate. I get … I never heard of being indicted before. … I got indicted four times, I have eight or nine trials, all because of the fact that — and you know this — all because of the fact that I’m in politics.”

Trump was vague on how he’d end the war, instead saying that if he were president, Putin would never have invaded Ukraine.

Republicans have grown more vocal in questioning why they should fund the conflict. Russian forces recently captured a key Ukrainian city, Avdiivka, which the White House points to as proof that Ukrainian forces need urgent help.

In urging members of Congress to pass a $60 billion aid package for Ukraine, national security adviser Jake Sullivan argued it is “in our cold-blooded, national security interest to help Ukraine stand up to Putin’s vicious and brutal invasion.”

“We know from history that when dictators aren’t stopped, they keep going,” Sullivan told reporters this week in a briefing. “The cost for America rises, and the consequences get more and more severe for our NATO allies and elsewhere in the world.”

Some Republicans are confident that they will pass the stalled $95 billion aid package, most of which is for Ukraine.

“I think the slow response from Europe and the United States, of course, that hurts Ukraine,” Republican Representative Brian Fitzpatrick said on a recent visit to Ukraine. “And that’s why we can’t let this happen, why we’re going to get something done.”

War’s symbolism grows

Meanwhile, as Ukraine nears the second anniversary of the invasion and U.S. aid hangs in the balance, the war has taken on greater symbolic meaning.

“This has become about America,” journalist and author Peter Pomerantsev told VOA’s Russian Service via Skype. He is also a senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. “Will America continue to play the role of a power that keeps its promises, that respects its alliances and that is capable of projecting strength?

“Or is America over as a serious power? That’s the question now,” he said. “It’s no longer about Russia or Ukraine. Now all eyes of the world are on America, and the way America decides will have epic consequences.”

VOA’s Rafael R. Saakyan contributed to this report from Washington.

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Head of Boeing’s 737 MAX Program Leaves After Midair Incident

WASHINGTON — Boeing said on Wednesday it was replacing the head of its troubled 737 MAX program effective immediately, the first major executive departure since the January 5 midair panel blowout of a new Alaska Airlines MAX 9. 

Ed Clark, who had been with the plane-maker for nearly 18 years, departed as Boeing has been dealing with its latest crisis and has vowed to ramp up quality efforts. 

Regulators have curbed the plane-maker’s production, and lawmakers and customers have been scrutinizing production and safety measures.  

Boeing has scrambled to explain and strengthen safety procedures after a door panel detached during flight on a new Alaska Airlines 737 MAX 9, forcing pilots to make an emergency landing while passengers were exposed to a gaping hole 16,000 feet above the ground.  

Clark’s departure came after Boeing’s board met this week and approved the changes, according to sources familiar with the matter. He oversaw the company’s production facility in Renton, Washington, where the plane involved in the accident was completed. 

Clark was previously chief mechanic and engineer for the 737 before being named head of the program in 2021. He was the fifth person in four years to run the 737 program. 

Katie Ringgold is replacing him as vice president and general manager of the 737 program, according to a memo seen by Reuters sent to staff by Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Stan Deal, who said the plane-maker was working to ensure “that every airplane we deliver meets or exceeds all quality and safety requirements. Our customers demand, and deserve, nothing less.” 

The latest mishap occurred as Boeing was still working to rebuild its reputation following the 20-month grounding of the 737 MAX following two fatal crashes that killed a total of 346 people. That grounding was lifted in November 2020.  

Airline industry executives have expressed frustration with Boeing’s quality control. The only other major manufacturer of commercial aircraft is France’s Airbus. 

The memo was first reported by the Seattle Times. 

The FAA grounded the MAX 9 for several weeks in January and has capped Boeing’s production of the MAX while it audits the plane-maker’s manufacturing process, which has suffered a string of quality issues in recent years. 

The door panel that flew off the MAX 9 appeared to be missing four key bolts, according to a preliminary report from the U.S. National Safety Transportation Board in early February. The panel is a plug-in placed on some 737 MAX 9s instead of an additional emergency exit.  

According to the report, the door plug in question was removed to repair rivet damage, but the NTSB has not found evidence the bolts were reinstalled. 

The disclosure has prompted anger among Boeing’s airline customers. Some, including Alaska Airlines, announced they would conduct enhanced quality oversight of planes before they leave the Boeing factory. 

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Czech Republic Extradites Suspect in Iran-Backed Murder Plot to US

PRAGUE — The Czech Republic on Wednesday extradited a man facing charges in the United States for plotting the murder of a prominent critic of Iran’s government, the Czech Justice Ministry said. 

The ministry said Polad Omarov was handed to representatives of U.S. authorities at the Prague Vaclav Havel Airport on Wednesday morning after the suspect had exhausted all options of appeal. 

Omarov was arrested in the Czech Republic in January 2023. The ministry said the justice minister had ruled in July last year in favor of extradition, but the action was delayed by the suspect’s complaint with the constitutional court, which was rejected. 

Omarov, along with Rafat Amirov and Khalid Mehdiyev, were charged with murder-for-hire and money laundering for their roles in the thwarted Tehran-backed assassination attempt of a critic of Iran’s government who is a U.S. citizen and lives in Brooklyn, New York. 

The U.S. did not name the alleged victim when it detailed charges in January 2023, but Mehdiyev was arrested in 2022 in New York for having a rifle outside the Brooklyn home of journalist Masih Alinejad. A longtime critic of Iran’s head-covering laws has promoted videos of women violating those laws to her millions of social media followers. 

U.S. prosecutors in 2021 also charged four Iranians alleged to be intelligence operatives for Tehran with plotting to kidnap a New York-based journalist and activist. While the target of that plot was not named, Reuters confirmed it was Alinejad. 

U.S. prosecutors have said Omarov was a resident of the Czech Republic and Slovenia. The Czech Justice Ministry said on Wednesday he was a citizen of Georgia.  

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Medics Set Up Blood Transfusion Station Near Donbas Front Line

When Ukrainian soldiers are wounded during combat, they are taken to what is called a stabilization point, where combat medics take care of them. Now, thanks to overseas donors, medics at one of the stabilization points in Ukraine’s Donbas region can perform blood transfusions. Anna Kosstutschenko has the story. VOA footage by Pavel Suhodolskiy.

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EU Agrees on New Sanctions Against Russia

BRUSSELS — European Union countries on Wednesday agreed on a new package of sanctions against Russia to target individuals and businesses suspected of assisting Moscow in its war against Ukraine, including Chinese companies. 

The decision coincides with the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, which began on Feb. 24, 2022, and comes days after the death of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. 

Belgium, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation bloc, said the “package is one of the broadest approved by the EU.” 

According to several diplomats, EU ambassadors from all member countries agreed to impose sanctions on about 200 companies and individuals. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to disclose details about the sanctions, which have yet to be formally adopted. 

They said several Chinese companies, which are believed to have provided help to Russia, have been sanctioned. Details of the entities targeted will be revealed when the sanctions are published in the EU’s legal journal. 

The EU has imposed several rounds of sanctions on Russia since President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine. The measures have targeted the energy sector, banks, the world’s biggest diamond mining company, businesses and markets, and made Russian officials subject to asset freezes and travel bans. 

The new sanctions will further enhance trade restrictions against entities linked to the Russian military-industrial complex, diplomats said. Additional bans on exports to Russia of highly technical components for drone production were adopted. 

“I welcome the agreement on our 13th sanctions package against Russia,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “We must keep degrading Putin’s war machine. With 2,000 listings in total, we keep the pressure high on the Kremlin. We are also further cutting Russia’s access to drones.”

Belgium said the package will undergo a written procedure and be formally approved on Saturday, which marks the second anniversary of the war. 

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Millions of Displaced Ukrainian Refugees Face Uncertain Future

GENEVA — A recent study by the U.N. refugee agency warns that millions of Ukrainian refugees and internally displaced people face an uncertain future as Ukraine enters its third year of war with Russia and its battle for survival risks becoming a protracted crisis. 

“After two years of full-scale war in Ukraine, amidst massive destruction and ongoing shelling and missile attacks across the country, the future for millions who have been displaced remains shrouded in uncertainty,” Philippe Leclerc, the UNHCR regional director for Europe, said on Tuesday.

Speaking in Athens, Greece, Leclerc told journalists in Geneva that preliminary findings from the study indicate that the majority of those surveyed expressed a desire to return home one day. He noted, however, that “the proportion has declined, with more expressing uncertainty due to the ongoing war.”  

The UNHCR study is based on interviews conducted in January and February with some 9,900 Ukrainian refugees, internally displaced and returnee households inside and outside the country.  

Leclerc said, “Those displaced who were surveyed cited the prevailing insecurity in Ukraine as the main factor inhibiting their return, while other concerns included a lack of economic opportunities and housing.”

This Saturday marks the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a stark reminder of the cost of the war, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says at least 10,000 civilians have been killed and more than 18,000 injured; nearly 6.5 million Ukrainians have sought refuge globally, while some 3.7 million people remain forcibly displaced inside the country.  

“As war rages on, humanitarian conditions remain dire inside Ukraine, where some 40% of the population — 14.6 million people — are in need of humanitarian and protection support,” said Leclerc, noting that this week also marks 10 years “since the war in eastern Ukraine began.”  

Although the war shows no sign of abating, Leclerc said 59% of Ukrainian refugees surveyed said they feared they would be compelled to return home “if they continue to face challenges in host countries, mainly related to work opportunities and legal status.”  

Separately, he said the study shows that despite the fighting, many refugees choose to return home because of the challenges they face abroad. That is due to family separation and the sorrow they feel about the many male family members remaining in Ukraine.  

“The report reveals that family reunification was a main driver for refugees who have returned home permanently,” he said.  

Dusan Vujasanin heads the International Committee of the Red Cross Central Tracing Agency Bureau for the war between Russia and Ukraine. He said his job is to learn the fate and whereabouts of people who have disappeared in this conflict.  

He explained that one of the main tasks of the ICRC’s tracing bureau in this, as in other international conflicts, is “to centralize all information about prisoners of war, about civilian internees, and all the other affected persons alive and also dead.”  

As of now, he said, “There are still 23,000 persons that are reported to the ICRC as missing, and that number keeps growing.”  

Vujasanin said that Russia and Ukraine have abided by the obligation specified under the Geneva Conventions to put in place national information bureaus.  

Noting that both countries had put the system in place two years ago, he said the system is not perfect, but functions. “We receive on a regular basis the list from the two parties to the conflict.”  

At the same time, Vujasanin said, people searching for their family members contact the ICRC daily. “We have been contacted in these two years over 100,000 times by different families, and in that period, we have opened up over 31,000 requests to search for missing persons.”  

To date, he said the ICRC has been able to clarify the fate of 8,000 of the 31,000 missing persons and inform the families of their fate and whereabouts.  

“Even talking now about it gives me goose bumps because I can assure you that we have families, mothers who are receiving news of the fate of their children after two, three, eight months, learning that they are alive.”  

He said, however, the job is not finished because 23,000 families still do not have news about what has happened to their loved ones.  

“The impact that this has on families, on this ambiguous loss of not knowing what happened to family members, weighs extremely heavily on these families,” he said.  

“And we also know from past experiences, from past conflicts, that this is an engagement that will take ICRC years of comforting the families and of continuing that search,” he said.

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French WWII Resistance Hero Inducted into Panthéon

PARIS — While France hosts grandiose ceremonies commemorating D-Day, Missak Manouchian and his Resistance fighters’ heroic role in World War II are often overlooked.

French President Emmanuel Macron is seeking to change that by inducting Manouchian into the Panthéon national monument on Wednesday. 

A poet who took refuge in France after surviving the Armenian genocide, Manouchian was executed in 1944 for leading the resistance to Nazi occupation. Macron is to lead a Paris ceremony in homage to Manouchian at the Panthéon, the resting place of France’s most revered figures, in the presence of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

The tribute will also include members of his Resistance group.

“With them, it’s all foreign Resistance fighters who enter into the Panthéon,” said historian Denis Peschanski, who led efforts to honor Manouchian’s memory.

The move comes as France gets ready to celebrate the 80th anniversary of D-Day this year in the presence of heads of states and World War II veterans.

Manouchian’s coffin, covered with the French flag, will be carried in the street in front of the Panthéon by soldiers of the Foreign Legion.

On Tuesday, a homage was held at Mont Valérien, where Manouchian and his group members were shot by the Nazis. The site has become a memorial to French WWII fighters. The Holocaust Memorial in Paris was also holding an exhibit in his honor.

“Missak Manouchian chose France twice, first as a young Armenian who loved Baudelaire and Victor Hugo, and then through the blood he shed for our country,” the French presidency said in a statement last year announcing the Panthéon homage.

Born in 1906 in the then-Ottoman empire, Manouchian lost both his parents during the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 2015-2016.

He was sent to an orphanage in Lebanon, then a French protectorate, where he discovered French language and culture.

He came to France in 1924. Living in Paris, he wrote poetry and took literature and philosophy classes at the Sorbonne University — while working in factories and doing other odd jobs.

He joined the communist party in the early 1930s within the MOI (Immigrant Workforce Movement) group and became editor-in-chief of a newspaper for the Armenian community. 

During World War II, he joined the French Resistance as a political activist with the then-underground MOI group.

In 1943, he became a military chief in the armed organization of the communist party, the FTP-MOI group of about 60 Resistance fighters that gathered many foreigners from Armenia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Italy and Spain, including many Jewish people.

Manouchian is the first foreign and first communist Resistance fighter to be inducted into the Panthéon, Peschanski noted.

His group led dozens of anti-Nazi attacks and sabotage operations in and around Paris between August and November 1943, including the assassination of a top German colonel. 

Tracked down by the French police of the Vichy regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany, Manouchian was arrested on Nov. 16, 1943, along with most of the group’s members. He was sentenced to death in February 1944.

Nazi propaganda officers ordered a poster to be made with the photos and names of 10 Resistance fighters, including Manouchian, displayed in Paris and other French cities. 

The so-called Red Poster sought to discredit them as Jews, foreigners and criminals, and Manouchian was “obviously the first target,” Peschanski said. Yet the campaign didn’t convince the French population, he said: The poster, while “aiming at presenting them as assassins, made them heroes.”

In his last letter to his wife, Mélinée, Manouchian wrote: “At the moment of death, I proclaim that I have no hatred for the German people … The German people, and all other people will leave in peace and brotherhood after the war.”

French poet Louis Aragon wrote a poem in 1955 inspired by the letter that singer Léo Ferré set to music under the title “L’Affiche Rouge” (“The Red Poster”), keeping the memory alive and making the song a French standard.

Mélinée, also a member of the Resistance who survived the war, will be buried alongside her husband at the Panthéon. A commemorative plaque will pay tribute to the other members of the Manouchian group.

Recent research about Manouchian also brought to light the fact that dozens of the 185 foreigners shot to death by the Nazis at Mont Valérien had not been officially declared “Morts pour la France” (“Dead for France”) — “mostly because they were foreigners,” Peschanski noted. The French presidency said the issue was addressed last year to give them the honor.

The Panthéon is the resting place of 83 people — 76 men and seven women — including Manouchian and his wife.

Most recently, Josephine Baker — the U.S.-born entertainer, anti-Nazi spy and civil rights activist became the first Black woman to receive France’s highest honor, in 2021.

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Ukraine Destroys 13 Russian Drones

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Isolated in Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Hopes for Trump’s Return

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is the European Union’s longest-serving head of state – and his critics say he has tightened his grip on power by eroding democracy. He has long been a thorn in the side of European and NATO unity, threatening to block support for Ukraine and EU sanctions on Russia. But as Henry Ridgwell reports from Budapest, Orban believes that he will soon have new allies in the West. Camera: Ancsin Gábor

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Commercial Spaceship Set for Lunar Touchdown, in Test for US Industry

WASHINGTON — A company from Texas is poised to attempt a feat that until now has only been accomplished by a handful of national space agencies but could soon become commonplace for the private sector: landing on the moon.

If all goes to plan, Houston-based Intuitive Machines will guide its spaceship named Odysseus to a gentle touchdown near the lunar south pole on Thursday at 2249 GMT, then run experiments for NASA that will help pave the way for the return of astronauts later this decade.

A previous effort by another U.S. company last month ended in failure, raising the stakes to demonstrate private industry has what it takes to put an American lander on Earth’s cosmic companion for the first time since the Apollo era.

“Accepting risk was a challenge posed by the United States to the commercial business sector,” Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus said ahead of launch. “Our collective aim is to return to the moon for the first time in 52 years.”

The company plans to run a live stream on its website, with flight controllers expected to confirm landing around 15 seconds after the milestone is achieved, because of the time it takes for radio signals to return.

As it approaches the surface, Odysseus will shoot out an external “EagleCam” that captures images of the lander in the final seconds of its descent.

About the size of a big golf cart, Odysseus is hexagon-shaped and stands on six legs.

It launched on Feb. 15 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and boasts a new type of supercooled liquid oxygen, liquid methane propulsion system that allowed it to race through space in quick time, snapping pictures of our planet along the way.

Its destination, Malapert A, is an impact crater 300 kilometers (180 miles) from the lunar south pole.

NASA hopes to eventually build a long-term presence and harvest ice there for both drinking water and rocket fuel under Artemis, its flagship Moon-to-Mars program.

The U.S. space agency paid Intuitive Machines $118 million to ship science hardware to better understand and mitigate environmental risks for astronauts, the first of whom are scheduled to land no sooner than 2026.

Instruments include cameras to investigate how the lunar surface changes as a result of the engine plume from a spaceship, and a device to analyze clouds of charged dust particles that hang over the surface at twilight as a result of solar radiation.

The rest of the cargo was paid for by Intuitive Machines’ private clients and includes 125 stainless steel mini moons by the artist Jeff Koons.

After touchdown, the experiments are expected to run for roughly seven days before lunar night sets in on the south pole, with the lack of solar power rendering Odysseus inoperable.

Dubbed IM-1, the mission is the second under a NASA initiative called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), which it created to delegate cargo services to the private sector to achieve savings and stimulate a wider lunar economy.

Four more CLPS launches are expected this year, which would make 2024 among the busiest ever for moon landings.

The first, by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, launched in January, but its Peregrine spacecraft sprung a fuel leak and it was eventually brought back to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Spaceships landing on the moon have to navigate treacherous boulders and craters and, absent an atmosphere to support parachutes, must rely on thrusters to control their descent. Roughly half of the more than 50 attempts have failed.

The Soviet Union was the first country to achieve a survivable landing on a celestial body when its Luna 9 spaceship touched down and transmitted pictures back from the moon in February 1966.

Next came the United States, which is still the only country to also put people on the surface.

In America’s long absence, China has landed three times since 2013. India reached the moon in 2023, and Japan was the latest, last month.

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Artificial Intelligence Is Being Used to Help Save Lives

Health care professionals are increasingly using artificial intelligence to better diagnose and treat serious medical conditions. However, with the use of artificial intelligence in medicine growing, there are concerns among medical ethicists about how emerging technologies should be deployed

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Ex-FBI Informant Charged With Lying About Bidens Had Russian Intelligence Contacts, Prosecutors Say

Las Vegas — A former FBI informant charged with making up a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme involving President Joe Biden, his son Hunter and a Ukrainian energy company had contacts with officials affiliated with Russian intelligence, prosecutors said in a court paper Tuesday.

Prosecutors revealed the alleged contact as they urged a judge to keep Alexander Smirnov behind bars while he awaits trial. He’s charged with falsely reporting to the FBI in June 2020 that executives associated with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma paid Hunter and Joe Biden $5 million each in 2015 or 2016. The claim has been central to the Republican impeachment inquiry in Congress.

Smirnov is due in court later Tuesday in Las Vegas. He has been in custody at a facility in rural Pahrump, about an hour drive west of Las Vegas, since his arrest last week at the airport while returning from overseas.

Defense attorneys David Chesnoff and Richard Schonfeld said in a statement ahead of the hearing that they were asking for Smirnov’s release while he awaits trial “so he can effectively fight the power of the government.”

Prosecutors said that during an interview before his arrest last week, Smirnov admitted that “officials associated with Russian intelligence were involved in passing a story” about Hunter Biden. They said Smirnov’s contacts with Russian officials were recent and extensive, and said Smirnov had planned to meet with one official during an upcoming overseas trip.

They said Smirnov has had numerous contacts with a person he described as the “son of a former high-ranking government official” and “someone with ties to a particular Russian intelligence service.” They said there is a serious risk that Smirnov could flee overseas to avoid facing trial.

The White House didn’t immediately comment on the claims in Tuesday’s court filing.

Prosecutors say Smirnov, who holds dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship, falsely reported to the FBI in June 2020 that executives associated with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma paid Hunter and Joe Biden $5 million each in 2015 or 2016.

Smirnov in fact had only routine business dealings with the company starting in 2017 and made the bribery allegations after he “expressed bias” against Joe Biden while he was a presidential candidate, prosecutors said in court documents. He is charged with making a false statement and creating a false and fictitious record. The charges were filed in Los Angeles, where he lived for 16 years before relocating to Las Vegas two years ago.

Smirnov’s claims have been central to the Republican effort in Congress to investigate the president and his family, and helped spark what is now a House impeachment inquiry into Biden. Democrats called for an end to the probe after the indictment came down last week, while Republicans distanced the inquiry from Smirnov’s claims and said they would continue to “follow the facts.”

Hunter Biden is expected to give a deposition next week.

The Burisma allegations became a flashpoint in Congress as Republicans pursuing investigations of President Biden and his family demanded the FBI release the unredacted form documenting the allegations. They acknowledged they couldn’t confirm if the allegations were true.

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Kenyan Companies Embrace AI for Marketing Efficiency, Cost Savings

Kenyan companies, facing economic challenges, are turning to artificial intelligence to reduce production and advertising expenses. That’s causing anxiety among artists and ad agencies, who fear reduced income and job losses if AI can replace the work they’ve always done. Mohammed Yusuf reports from Nairobi.

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Russia Labels RFE/RL ‘Undesirable Organization’

WASHINGTON — The Russian government on Tuesday labeled VOA’s sister outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as an “undesirable organization” in a move that underscores the Kremlin’s harsh repression of media.

The new designation opens RFE/RL staffers, donors and sources to criminal charges, the Prague-based outlet reported.

The outlet was added to a registry of “undesirable organizations” maintained by Russia’s Ministry of Justice, becoming the 142nd organization to be labeled that way.

RFE/RL President Stephen Capus said the designation “is just the latest example of how the Russian government views truthful reporting as an existential threat.”

“Millions of Russians have relied on us for decades — including record-breaking audiences over the past few days since the death of Aleksei Navalny — and this attempt to stifle us will only make RFE/RL work harder to bring free and independent journalism to the Russian people,” Capus said in a statement.

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

Russia’s “undesirable organization” law was adopted in 2015. Dozens of media organizations have been labeled as “undesirable” since 2021, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Among them are Meduza, Novaya Gazeta Europe and Bellingcat.

Moscow has targeted RFE/RL for years.

In 2017, Russian authorities labeled the outlet a so-called “foreign agent.” Since then, RFE/RL has refused to pay multiple fines totaling more than $14 million for not complying with the law.

The foreign agent law came into effect in 2012, and since then it has been used to target groups and individuals critical of the Kremlin. Russia has declared VOA a “foreign agent” as well.

More than 30 RFE/RL employees have also been listed as “foreign agents.”

RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva has been jailed in Russia since October 2023 on charges of failing to register as a so-called “foreign agent.”

A dual U.S.-Russian national, Kurmasheva traveled to Russia in May 2023 for a family emergency. When she tried to leave the country in June, her passports were confiscated. She was detained while waiting for them to be returned.

In addition to the foreign agent charge, Kurmasheva is also facing accusations of spreading false information about the Russian army. If convicted, she faces a combined sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

Kurmasheva and her employer reject the charges against her.

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Assange Lawyers Make Last Bid to Prevent Extradition

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Global Operation Smashes ‘Most Harmful Cyber Crime Group’

LONDON — An international operation led by UK and U.S. law enforcement has severely disrupted “the world’s most harmful cybercrime group”, the Russian-linked ransomware specialist LockBit, officials announced Tuesday. 


LockBit and its affiliates have targeted governments, major companies, schools and hospitals, causing billions of dollars of damage and extracting tens of millions in ransoms from victims. 


Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA), working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Europol and agencies from nine other countries in Operation Cronos, said it had infiltrated LockBit’s network and taken control of its services. 


“We have hacked the hackers, we have taken control of their infrastructure, seized their source code, and obtained keys that will help victims decrypt their systems,” NCA director general Graeme Biggar told reporters in London. 


LockBit’s website — selling services that allow people to organize cyber attacks and hold data until a ransom is paid appears — was taken over on Monday evening. 


A message appeared on the site stating that it was “now under control of law enforcement”. 


“As of today LockBit is effectively redundant, LockBit has been locked out,” Biggar said. 


The U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) said the agencies had seized control of “numerous public-facing websites used by LockBit to connect to the organization’s infrastructure” and taken control of servers used by LockBit administrators. 


The NCA added that it had obtained more than 1,000 decryption keys and will be contacting UK-based victims in the coming days and weeks to offer support and help them recover encrypted data. 


Biggar said the network had been behind 25 percent of all cyber attacks in the past year. 


LockBit has targeted over 2,000 victims and received more than $120 million in ransom payments since it formed four years ago, according to the DOJ. 


Those targeted have included Britain’s Royal Mail, US aircraft manufacturer Boeing, and a Canadian children’s hospital. 


In January 2023, US law enforcers shut down the Hive ransomware operation which extorted some $100 million from more than 1,500 victims worldwide. 


Since then, LockBit has been seen as the biggest current threat. 



Hive and LockBit are part of what cybersecurity experts call a “ransomware as a service” style, or RaaS — a business that leases its software and methods to others to use in extorting money. 


Ariel Ropek, director of cyber threat intelligence at cybersecurity firm Avertium, told AFP last year that this structure makes it possible for criminals with minimal computer fluency to get into ransomware by paying others for their expertise. 


On the so-called dark web, providers of ransomware services pitch their products openly. 


At one end are the initial access brokers, who specialise in breaking into corporate or institutional computer systems. 


They then sell that access to the hacker, or ransomware operator. 


But the operator depends on RaaS developers like Hive or LockBit, which have the programming skills to create the malware needed to carry out the operation. 


Typically, their programs — once inserted by the ransomware operator into a target’s IT systems — are manipulated to freeze, via encryption, the target’s files and data. 


RaaS developers offer a full service to the operators, for a large share of the ransom paid out, said Ropek. 


When the ransomware is planted and activated, the target receives a message telling them how much to pay to get their data unencrypted. 


That ransom can run from thousands to millions of dollars. 


On Tuesday, the U.S. unsealed an indictment against two Russian nationals, bringing to five the number of Russians it has charged in connection with LockBit. 


In a separate notice, the U.S. Treasury Department said it is imposing sanctions on the pair, affiliates of LockBit, who “actively engaged” in ransomware attacks. 


Biggar said a “large concentration” of the cyber criminals are in Russia and are Russian-speaking, but law enforcement agencies have not seen any direct support for LockBit from the Russian state. 


“There is clearly some tolerance of cyber criminality within Russia,” he added. 

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Here’s Why Farmers Are Protesting in Europe

PARIS — Farmers are protesting across the European Union, saying they are facing rising costs and taxes, red tape, excessive environmental rules and competition from cheap food imports.

Demonstrations have been taking place for weeks in countries that include France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Italy and Greece.

While many issues are country-specific, others are Europewide. Here is a detailed look at the problems that have prompted the protest movement across the bloc and in individual nations.


Demonstrations in eastern Europe have focused on what farmers say is unfair competition from large amounts of imports from Ukraine, for which the EU has waived quotas and duties since Russia’s invasion.

Polish farmers have been blocking traffic at the border with Ukraine, which Kyiv says is affecting its defense capability and helping Russia’s aims.

Meanwhile, Czech farmers have driven their tractors into downtown Prague, disrupting traffic outside the farm ministry.

The farmers resent the imports because they say they put pressure on European prices while not meeting environmental standards imposed on EU farmers.

Renewed negotiations to conclude a trade deal between the EU and South American bloc Mercosur have also fanned discontent about unfair competition in sugar, grain and meat.

Rules and bureaucracy

Farmers take issue with excessive regulation, mainly at EU level. Center stage are new EU subsidy rules, such as a requirement to leave 4% of farmland fallow, which means not using it for a period of time.

They also denounce bureaucracy, which French farmers say their government compounds by overcomplicating implementation.

In Spain, farmers have complained of “suffocating bureaucracy” drawn up in Brussels that erodes the profitability of crops.

In Greece, farmers demand higher subsidies and faster compensation for crop damage and livestock lost in 2023 floods.

Rising diesel fuel costs

In Germany and France, the EU’s biggest agricultural producers, farmers have railed against plans to end subsidies or tax breaks on agricultural diesel. Greek farmers want a tax on diesel to be reduced.

In Romania, protests in mid-January were mainly against the high cost of diesel.


In France, many producers say a government drive to bring down food inflation has left them unable to cover high costs for energy, fertilizer and transport.

What are governments doing?

The European Commission late last month proposed to limit agricultural imports from Ukraine by introducing an “emergency brake” for the most sensitive products — poultry, eggs and sugar — but producers say the volume would still be too high.

The commission has also exempted EU farmers for 2024 from the requirement to keep some of their land fallow while still receiving EU farm support payments, but they would need to instead grow crops without applying pesticides.

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced measures that include controls to ensure imported foods do not have traces of pesticides banned in France or the EU and talks to get farmers higher prices and loosen bureaucracy and regulation.

Paris and Berlin have both relented to the pressure and rowed back on plans to end subsidies or tax breaks on agricultural diesel. In Romania, the government has acted to increase diesel subsidies, address insurance rates and expedite subsidy payments.

In Portugal, the caretaker government has announced an emergency aid package worth 500 million euros ($541 million), including 200 million euros ($217 million) to mitigate the impact of a long-running drought.

Why farmers are protesting, by country:


EU red tape
Diesel prices
Need more support to shore up incomes
Access to irrigation
Criticism over animal welfare and use of pesticides


Cheap imports from Ukraine
EU regulation


Cheap imports
EU farm policy


"Suffocating bureaucracy" drawn up in Brussels that they say erodes the profitability of crops
Trade deals that they say open the door to cheap imports


Insufficient state aid, subsidy cuts
Red tape


Cost of diesel
Insurance rates
EU environmental regulations
Cheap imports from Ukraine


EU requirement to leave 4% of land fallow
Cheap imports
Subsidies favoring larger farms


Demands for higher subsidies and faster compensation for crop damage and livestock lost in 2023 floods
Diesel tax and surging electricity bills
Falling state and EU subsidies 

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EU Welcomes New Polish Government’s Plan to ‘Restore Rule of Law’

Warsaw — The European Union on Tuesday welcomed Poland’s plan to “restore the rule of law” and dismantle policies by the former nationalist government which led to the freezing of billions of euros in EU funds due to concerns over judicial independence.

Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, which ruled for eight years, carried out a deep overhaul of the judiciary which the EU said damaged democratic checks and balances and brought courts under political influence.

As a result, the European Commission held back billions of euros in funds earmarked for Poland.

EU commissioners said the plan by the new pro-EU government, in power since last December, and which involves several bills rolling back PiS reforms, was well received.

“This was very impressive for the Commission to listen to so many positive comments around the table… the reactions are very positive,” European Union Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders told reporters.

The deputy head of the European Commission, Vera Jourova, called the action plan “realistic”.

Poland’s new prime minister, Donald Tusk, has vowed to restore judicial independence and get the funds released. But he faces resistance from PiS supporters and allies, who include President Andrzej Duda and some high-profile judges.

“I think that the very positive reaction from the member states is also associated with a certain level of trust that we will do it in a way that is predictable and consistent with the rule of law,” Polish Justice Minister Adam Bodnar said after presenting the plan in Brussels.

Bodnar said earlier the plan includes changes to the National Council of the Judiciary (NCJ), which appoints judges, and the Constitutional Tribunal which critics say has been politicized under PiS.

In a sign that the government is committed to implementing the changes soon, Tusk’s cabinet approved on Tuesday a bill on the NCJ proposed by Bodnar, which will now go to parliament.

The bill assumes members of the Council would be chosen by judges, not politicians as they were under changes introduced under PiS. The European Court of Human Rights and Court of Justice of the EU had pointed to irregularities in the procedure.

“On the day of announcing the results of the new election to the NCJ, those judges in the Council who were elected in an unconstitutional manner by the (parliament), on the basis of provisions adopted in December 2017, will cease to function in the Council,” the government said.

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Hungary to Vote on Approving Sweden’s NATO Bid

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Russia Could Face New Sanctions After Navalny Death

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Putin Gave Kim Jong Un a Car Because of Their Special Ties, North Korea Says

SEOUL, South Korea — Russian President Vladimir Putin has gifted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a Russian-made car for his personal use in a demonstration of their special relationship, North Korea’s state media reported Tuesday.

The report didn’t say what kind of vehicle it was or how it was shipped. But observers said it could violate a U.N. resolution that bans supplying luxury items to North Korea in an attempt to pressure the country to abandon its nuclear weapons.

Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, and another North Korean official accepted the gift Sunday and she conveyed her brother’s thanks to Putin, the Korean Central News Agency said. Kim Yo Jong said the gift showed the special personal relationship between the leaders, the report said.

North Korea and Russia have boosted their cooperation significantly since Kim traveled to Russia last September for a summit with Putin. During Kim’s visit to Russia’s main spaceport, Putin showed the North Korean leader his personal Anrus Senat limousine and Kim sat in its backseat.

According to Russia’s state-run Tass news agency, Aurus was the first Russian luxury car brand and it’s been used in the motorcades of top officials including Putin since he first used an Anrus limousine during his inauguration ceremony in 2018.

Kim, 40, is known to possess many foreign-made luxury cars believed to have been smuggled into his country in breach of the U.N. resolution.

During his Russia visit, he traveled between meeting sites in a Maybach limousine that was brought with him on one of his special train carriages.

During an earlier Russia trip in 2019, Kim had two limos waiting for him at Vladivostok station – a Mercedes Maybach S600 Pullman Guard and a Mercedes Maybach S62. He also reportedly used the S600 Pullman Guard for his two summits with then-President Donald Trump in Singapore in 2018 and Vietnam in 2019.

In 2018, Kim used a black Mercedes limousine to return home after a meeting with South Korea’s then-President Moon Jae-in at a shared Korean border village.

Kim’s possession of such expensive foreign limousines shows the porousness of international sanctions on the North. Russia voted for the ban on supplying luxury good to North Korea, even though as a permanent Security Council member, it could have vetoed the resolution.

The expanding ties between North Korea and Russia come as they are locked in separate confrontations with the United States and its allies – North Korea for its advancing nuclear program and Russia for its protracted war with Ukraine.

The U.S., South Korea and their partners accuse North Korea of sending conventional arms to Russia for its war in Ukraine, in return for high-tech Russian weapons technologies and other support.

After its foreign minister returned home following a Russian visit in January, the North’s state media reported Putin expressed his willingness to visit the North at an early date.

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