North Korea Resumes Dialogue, Restores Hotline with South

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has exchanged several letters since April with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in, Seoul announced Tuesday, in a possible sign Pyongyang is ready to resume talks with the outside world. 

As part of the exchange, the two men agreed to restore an inter-Korean hotline at the border village of Panmunjom, with a first phone call occurring at 10 a.m. Tuesday local time, South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement. 

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency confirmed the hotline restoration and letter exchange, calling the moves a “big stride in recovering the mutual trust and promoting reconciliation” between the two Koreas.  

“Now, the whole Korean nation desires to see the north-south relations recovered from setback and stagnation as early as possible,” the KCNA report said.  

The dialogue appears to be the most significant North-South interaction in more than two years. 

Moon and Kim met three times in 2018, signing several agreements to improve inter-Korean relations. The talks broke down after the United States and North Korea failed to make progress on nuclear negotiations.

South Korea’s left-leaning administration, which has less than a year left in office, has consistently pushed for a resumption of talks. It said Tuesday it hopes the hotline restoration will be the first step in a wider improvement of ties.  

Moon and Kim “agreed to restore mutual trust and re-progress the relationship as soon as possible between the two Koreas,” the statement from Seoul’s presidential office read.  

Earlier this month, South Korea’s Joongang Ilbo reported the existence of the Moon-Kim letter exchange, saying the two men were discussing a fourth, virtual summit. South Korean officials have not commented on the possibility of another meeting. 

Iran Protests Spread to Tehran, Which Sees Biggest Anti-Government March in 18 Months

A wave of antigovernment protests that began in Iran’s southwest 11 days ago has spread to the capital, Tehran, where demonstrators have marched and chanted slogans against their Islamist rulers for the first time in 18 months.

Video clips of Monday’s demonstration in central Tehran were widely shared on social media and acknowledged by the deputy governor of the Iranian capital region, Hamidreza Goudarzi.

The clips showed at least dozens of Iranians marching on Tehran’s Jomhuri Islami Avenue, or “Islamic Republic Avenue,” chanting slogans against Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamist ruling system over which he presides, and his practice of using the recession-plagued nation’s wealth to pay and arm allied Islamist militias in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Bold chants by protesters

The Tehran protesters’ chants included “Death to the dictator,” “Shame on Khamenei, let go of the country,” “Cannons, tanks, fireworks, mullahs must go,” and “Neither for Gaza nor Lebanon, I sacrifice my life only for Iran.”

Another social media video appeared to show protesters marching and chanting anti-government slogans on the grounds of a hospital in the northern city of Karaj on Monday. VOA could not independently verify the clip because it is barred from reporting inside Iran.

Iranian state media noted the Tehran demonstration but did not reference any of its anti-government chants. They quoted the Tehran official, Goudarzi, as saying the protest was prompted by a power outage at a nearby shopping center.

“Now there is no gathering and the situation is normal,” Goudarzi said, apparently after the march concluded. There were no reports of Iranian security forces taking action to stop it.

Largest display of discontent in months

The streets of the Iranian capital had not seen such a public display of discontent and anti-establishment chants since January 2020, said Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, director of Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights, in a message to VOA Persian.

Tehran last witnessed several days of antigovernment protests in response to Iranian security forces’ January 8, 2020, downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane shortly after it took off from the Iranian capital. The crash killed all 176 people on board, most of them Iranians and Iranian Canadians who were flying to Kyiv en route to Canada.

After three days of blaming the crash on mechanical problems with the plane, Iranian officials admitted that their forces shot down the Ukraine International Airlines jet. They said those forces mistook the plane for an enemy threat hours after launching missiles at an Iraqi base that houses U.S. troops. Iran had attacked the U.S. troops, wounding dozens, in retaliation for a U.S. airstrike that killed top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad five days previously.

Foundation for Defense of Democracies analyst Behnam Ben Taleblu told VOA Persian that Monday’s Tehran protest was the “most significant outpouring” of antigovernment demonstrators in the Iranian capital since early 2020.

Citizens are standing with protesters

“Tehran citizens are standing in unity with protesters who over a week ago bravely took to the streets in southwest Iran’s Khuzestan province over lack of access to water,” Taleblu said. “Shows of unity like these are precisely what the regime fears most, as it relies on divide and conquer to survive.”

Nightly street protests against water shortages began in drought-stricken Khuzestan on July 15 and spread in the following days to several other Iranian provinces, with protesters chanting slogans increasingly critical of the government. Social media videos that VOA also could not verify appeared to show Iranian security forces firing bullets and tear gas to try to clear the streets.

Iranian state media have reported the killings of at least four people in the protests, including a police officer, and blamed the deaths on saboteurs.

London-based rights group Amnesty International said last Friday  that video footage and “consistent accounts” from sources in Iran led it to conclude that security forces had killed at least eight protesters and bystanders, including a teenage boy, in seven different cities. It accused Iran of deploying “unlawful force, including by firing live ammunition and birdshot, to crush mostly peaceful protests.”

Khamenei offers warning

In a statement on his official website last Friday, Khamenei expressed sympathy with the water-deprived residents of Khuzestan but warned them against playing into the hands of Iran’s enemies.

Experts have blamed Iran’s drought not only on significantly lower-than-usual rainfall in recent months but also on years of Iranian government mismanagement of water resources. 

Taleblu said Iran’s street protests have been slowly growing in momentum, scale and scope.

“If past is prologue, Tehran is likely to employ lethal force once again against protesters. This cycle of protest and crackdown cannot be ignored by the Biden administration,” he said.

U.S. continues to track unrest

Asked by VOA Persian whether the Biden administration believes Iran’s response to the protests has been harsh, State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter repeated a comment issued several times since the unrest began, telling a Friday press briefing that the U.S. was following reports of the protests and fatalities and believes Iranians should be free to assemble and express themselves without fear of violence or arbitrary detention by security forces.

“We’re also monitoring reports of government-imposed internet shutdowns in the region,” Porter added. “We urge the Iranian government to allow its citizens to exercise their universal rights of freedom of expression, as well as [to] freely access information online.”

Guita Aryan contributed to this article, which originated in VOA’s Persian Service . Click here for the original Persian version of the story.

Gymnastics Team, Tired of ‘Sexualization,’ Wears Unitards

The team’s outfits looked similar to the others in the room as the arena lights gleamed off crystals crisscrossing their chests and down their crimson and white sleeves. 

But the German gymnastics team’s new Olympic suits didn’t stop at their hips. 

For decades, female gymnasts have worn bikini-cut leotards. In qualifying on Sunday, however, the German team instead wore unitards that stretched to their ankles, intending to push back against sexualization of women in gymnastics. 

The Tokyo Olympics are the first Summer Games since Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics national team doctor, was sent to prison for 176 years for sexually abusing hundreds of gymnasts, including some of the sport’s greatest stars. At his sentencing, athletes — some of them Olympians — described how the sport’s culture allowed for abuse and objectification of young women and girls. 

Male gymnasts wear comparatively body-covering clothes: singlets, with loose shorts for their floor exercise and vault, and long pants on bar and pommel horse routines. 

The German team first wore unitards at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships in April. 

Sarah Voss, a 21-year-old German, said they weren’t sure they would decide to wear them again during Olympic competition until they got together before the meet. 

“We sat together today and said, ‘OK, we want to have a big competition,'” Voss said. “We want to feel amazing, we want to show everyone that we look amazing.” 

Their wardrobe revolution, while widely championed, has not so far started a trend. Leotards that leave the legs bare were worn by every other female gymnast during qualifying at the Tokyo Games. 

At 4-foot-8, American superstar Simone Biles said in June that she prefers leotards because they lengthen the leg and make her appear taller. 

“But I stand with their decision to wear whatever they please and whatever makes them feel comfortable,” Biles said. “So if anyone out there wants to wear a unitard or leotard, it’s totally up to you.” 

Matt Cowan, the chief commercial officer for GK Elite, the U.S.’s premier leotard manufacturer, said most requests for unitards now come from countries the require modesty for cultural and religious reasons. They have otherwise seen no rush toward catsuits. 

“Would we do it? Absolutely. We have the capabilities of designing it and doing it, and we have done it,” Cowan said. “But from a consumer demand perspective, we are not there yet.” 

Gymnastics is often viewed as a sport best performed by very young women and girls. Biles, at 24, often jokes about being old; she recently called herself a grandma on social media. 

But other nations have defied that emphasis on youth, including the Germans: Elisabeth Seitz is 27, Kim Bui is 32, Pauline Schafer is 24, and Voss is 21. Their average age of 26. Voss said that gymnastics customs should leave room for female bodies as they age and change. 

Their outfits comply with the wardrobe rules of the International Gymnastics Federation. But that doesn’t mean female athletes are generally free to cover their bodies as they choose. 

Just days before the Games began, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team refused to play in bikini bottoms during European tournaments, opting instead for skin-tight shorts. For that, they received a fine for violating a wardrobe requirement. 

But at gymnastics qualifying Sunday, the announcer over the loudspeaker called the outfits “very nice indeed.” The German team did not qualify for finals, but the announcer pondered if their team debut on the Olympic stage might increase unitards’ popularity. 

US, 20 Other Countries Condemn Cuban Crackdown on Freedom Protesters

The United States and 20 other countries on Monday condemned Cuba for its crackdown on thousands of freedom protesters and called on Havana to release the demonstrators and restore internet access on the island nation.

“Today, democracies around the world are coming together to support the Cuban people, calling on the Cuban government to respect Cubans’ demands for universal human rights,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

He said the Cuban government, which has arrested hundreds of protesters, “has responded, not by recognizing the voices of its own people, but by further stifling those voices through arbitrary detentions and secret summary trials lacking due process guarantees.”

The joint statement said that the tens of thousands of Cubans who took to the streets on July 11 “exercised universal freedoms of expression and assembly, rights enshrined” in international human rights charters.

“We urge the Cuban government to heed the voices and demands of the Cuban people,” the joint statement said. “The international community will not waver in its support of the Cuban people and all those who stand up for the basic freedoms all people deserve.”

Joining the U.S. in the statement were the governments of Austria, Brazil, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, Guatemala, Greece, Honduras, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, South Korea and Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden last week assailed the Cuban crackdown and sanctioned the Cuban military chief and the country’s internal security division for its arrest and detention of hundreds of protesters. The Cuban government has denounced the protests.

US Stage Late Comeback Over Japan in Tune-up Before Gold Match

The United States beat Japan 2-1 on Monday in an inconsequential game to end round-robin play.

But the U.S. team’s failure to record a hit against a third-string Japanese pitcher until the sixth inning demonstrated the challenge it faces in the gold-medal matchup between the two teams.

U.S. batters did race their way into three hits and a run against Yamamoto Fujita in the sixth, and Kelsey Stewart shot a tie-breaking homer to end the game an inning later.

But, as United States’ 3-1 loss to Japan in the Beijing 2008 finals showed, counting on lucky hits late in the game delivers inconsistent returns. Failing to hit in key moments foiled the United States against Yukiko Ueno of Japan in 2008, the last time softball appeared at the Olympics.

Ueno, 39, will be back in Tuesday’s final, as will U.S. hurlers Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott.

Overall, the United States finished round-robin play on Monday scoring nine runs on 27 hits with Stewart’s blast over right their lone home run. By contrast, Japan had double the runs on 26 hits, including six homers, and stranded fewer runners.

On Monday, both teams used their back-up pitchers and several bench players. The win means the United States will bat after Japan in the final.

The rivals went unbeaten against their other four competitors at Tokyo 2020 to set up the 2008 rematch, when Japan became the only team other than the United States to capture gold. The two rivals also have met for the last seven biennial World Baseball Softball Confederation world championships, with U.S. taking five of them.

Tokyo 2020 organizers returned softball to the Olympics, and both the hosts and their opponent have said in the long lead-up to the postponed competition that they hope an exciting final can boost interest in the sport and make it a recurring fixture.

Later Monday, Mexico beat Australia, 4-1, to face Canada in Tuesday’s bronze medal game.

Clouds hung over the ballpark on Monday, and Tuesday’s forecast calls for rain.

Canada has played in each Olympics, but never placed higher than fourth. Mexico made their Olympics debut this year.

Tunisia’s President Suspends Parliament

Tunisian troops blocked the head of parliament from entering the building early Monday, hours after President Kais Saied announced he had fired Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspended parliament for 30 days. 

Saied said he was acting in response to the country’s economic woes and political deadlock and added that the country’s constitution gave him that authority. 

Rached Ghannouchi, the parliament speaker and head of the Ennahdha party, called the president’s actions a “coup” and said the legislature would continue its work. 

Two other main parties in parliament also called it a coup, which the president rejected. 

Saied’s announcement drew crowds of demonstrators into the streets in the capital, Tunis, and elsewhere to celebrate. 

There were also protesters outside the parliament building and some clashes between the opposing groups. 

Tunisia has struggled economically for years, and along with political disfunction, it has dealt with a spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths. 

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, AFP and Reuters. 

Australian Police Warn of Mass Arrests if Anti-Lockdown Protesters Return to Sydney

Police in Australia have warned that more anti-lockdown protests won’t be tolerated after thousands of people defied COVID-19 public health orders in Sydney Saturday. Health officials fear the illegal demonstration could become a super-spreader event as an outbreak of the delta variant in Sydney gets worse. 

The hunt for the ringleaders of Saturday’s anti-lockdown demonstrations in Sydney is continuing. Dozens have been charged after confrontations with the police and riot officers. 

Some protesters brought their children, and few were wearing masks. Police warn they will arrest people over unlawful activity. Health officials said the protests Saturday in three Australian cities, including Melbourne and Brisbane, would put lives at risk. Authorities have said that up to 3,500 people took part in the rally in Sydney. 

After the protest, New South Wales police commissioner Mick Fuller said any repeat of the unrest would be met with a significant show of force. 

“There is some information on the internet at the moment about a potential protest this Saturday. Can I just put this warning out now to everyone that we will be taking the ground very early. You will be arrested … the premier has spoken about that behavior, and it won’t be tolerated again,” Fuller said. 

About 14 million Australians are under strict lockdown restrictions in three states as cases surge in the country. But the restrictions in South Australia will end on Tuesday, and a decision on Victoria’s lockdown is expected in the next 24-hours. However, there are fears that stay-at-home orders that have been in place for more than a month in Sydney and three surrounding regions will again be extended. 

New South Wales officials announced 145 new coronavirus cases Monday. Australia has recorded 33,000 COVID-19 infections and 918 deaths since the pandemic began. 

Efforts are underway to boost low rates of vaccinations. Only about 16% of Australians are fully inoculated. 

There has been widespread hesitancy in the community about Australia’s main vaccine, AstraZeneca, after it was linked to a very small number of blood clots. However, the company that makes the AstraZeneca vaccine has denied the link, saying there is “no evidence of an increased risk” of blood clots in connection with the vaccine. Supplies of the Pfizer vaccine have also been limited.

Pelosi Names 2nd Republican to US Capitol Riot Probe

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, on Sunday named a second Republican, Congressman Adam Kinzinger, to the select committee to investigate the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by hundreds of supporters of then-President Donald Trump.
Kinzinger, an Illinois lawmaker, joins Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney, both of them vocal critics of Trump, on the panel, which is set to start hearing testimony on Tuesday. The panel is investigating the chaos that occurred as lawmakers were certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in last November’s election to become the country’s 46th president.
Pelosi named Cheney to the panel weeks ago, while Kinzinger’s selection comes after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy last week pulled all five of his Republican appointments to the committee when Pelosi rejected two of them as biased against an independent review of how and why the riot occurred.
“Speaker Pelosi’s rejection of the Republican nominees to serve on the committee and self-appointment of members who share her pre-conceived narrative will not yield a serious investigation,” McCarthy said in a statement Sunday.

About 800 people entered the restricted Capitol building, some rampaging past authorities, smashing windows and doors, and scuffling with police. More than 500 have been charged with an array of offenses, some as minor as trespassing, but others with assaulting police, 140 of whom were injured, and vandalizing the Capitol and congressional offices.
One Trump protester was shot dead by police, three other protesters died of medical emergencies and a police officer who helped defend the Capitol died the next day. Two other police officers committed suicide in the ensuing days.
Kinzinger’s appointment leaves seven Democrats and two Republicans on the panel, unless either Pelosi or McCarthy names more.
In a statement, Pelosi said Kinzinger “brings great patriotism to the committee’s mission: to find the facts and protect our democracy.”

In response, Kinzinger said, “Let me be clear, I’m a Republican dedicated to conservative values, but I swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution — and while this is not the position I expected to be in or sought out, when duty calls, I will always answer.”

Pelosi had rejected the appointment of two vocal critics of the investigation, Congressmen Jim Banks of Indiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio, because both had sought to overturn the presidential election results. Pelosi said she was willing to accept McCarthy’s three other Republican nominees, Congressmen Rodney Davis of Illinois, Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota and Troy Nehls of Texas, but McCarthy withdrew their appointments.
Pelosi said on ABC’s “This Week” show, “I do believe that the work of this committee, in order to retain the confidence of the American people, must act in a way that has no partisanship, is all about patriotism, and I’m very proud of the members of the committee and I’m very certain they will accomplish that goal. We have to again ignore the antics of those who do not want to find the truth.”
Some Republicans have assailed the creation of the panel as a pre-ordained partisan Democratic exercise to find another way to attack Trump for his role in the mayhem at the Capitol. He had urged supporters to “fight like hell” to block certification of Biden’s victory.
Even before Pelosi named Kinzinger, Banks told the “Fox News Sunday” show that the House speaker only wants people “who will stick to her talking points” on the investigative panel.
“That’s why she’s picked the group that she’s already picked, and anyone that she asked to be on this committee from this point moving forward will be stuck to her narrative,” Banks said.


US Loses to France 83-76, 25-Game Olympic Win Streak Ends 

For the first time since 2004, the U.S. men’s basketball team has lost in the Olympics. And the Americans’ quest for a fourth consecutive gold medal is already in serious trouble.

France — the team that knocked the Americans out of contention in the Basketball World Cup two years ago — dealt the U.S. a major blow once again. Evan Fournier’s 3-pointer with just under a minute left put France ahead to stay in what became a 83-76 win over the Americans on Sunday in the opening game for both teams at the Tokyo Olympics.

The U.S. had won 25 consecutive Olympic games, last losing at the Athens Games 17 years ago and settling for a bronze medal there.

Fournier had 28 points for France, while Rudy Gobert scored 14 and Nando de Colo had 13. Jrue Holiday had 18 points for the U.S., Bam Adebayo had 12, Damian Lillard 11 and Kevin Durant had 10 for the Americans — who are just 2-3 in their games this summer, the first four of them exhibitions in Las Vegas that weren’t supposed to mean much.

The Olympics, they were supposed to be different.

They weren’t. Going back to the World Cup in China two years ago, the Americans are 3-5 in their last eight games with NBA players in the lineup.

A 10-point U.S. lead in the third quarter was wasted, and so was a 12-point barrage from Holiday in the opening 4 ½ minutes of the fourth quarter as the Americans went from six points down to start the period to six points up with 5:23 remaining.

The loss doesn’t knock the U.S. out of medal contention, but it essentially eliminates the margin for error. The Americans play Iran on Wednesday and then the Czech Republic on Saturday in its final two Group A games; win both of those, and the U.S. will be in the quarterfinals. Lose another one, and the Americans might not even finish in the top eight of this 12-team tournament.

The lead was 10 for the U.S. early in the third quarter after Durant scored the opening basket of the second half. But the offense went into a complete sputter for much of that period — and that, combined with Durant’s foul trouble, led to big problems.

The Americans scored three points in a seven-minute span of the third, Durant picked up his fourth foul — the FIBA limit is five, remember — with 16:45 left in the game, and that once-comfortable lead was soon gone. De Colo’s 3-pointer with 2:42 remaining in the third put France up 55-54, its first lead since the game’s first four minutes.

De Colo connected again for a 59-56 lead, then Thomas Huertel made another 3 late in the third to put France up 62-56 going to the final quarter.

It was the first time the U.S. and France played since the quarterfinals of the Basketball World Cup two years ago, a game that the Americans lost. France has seven players on its Olympic roster from that team; the U.S. has only two, but the importance wasn’t lost on the other 10 — who’d heard plenty about it.

The U.S. was outrebounded in that game 44-28, gave up 22 points off turnovers and got outscored 22-5 in the final 7 ½ minutes. The final was France 89, U.S. 79, a loss that eliminated the Americans from medal contention and sent them freefalling to a seventh-place finish that was the worst ever by USA Basketball in any tournament with NBA players.

And in a largely empty arena near Tokyo on Sunday night, France did it again — dealing the U.S. an even bigger blow.


France: Frank Ntilikina missed the game, with the French federation saying he continues to deal with “slight muscle discomfort.” France took the game’s first nine free throws. The U.S. didn’t shoot one until JaVale McGee went to the line with 8:27 left in the second quarter. Guerschon Yabusele left the game briefly with 1:30 left in the half after going knee-to-knee with Holiday.

USA: Durant had three fouls in the first half, something that’s happened only 10 times in his last 544 NBA appearances.  

The U.S. used 11 of its players in the first half, with Jerami Grant the only one who didn’t get into the game.

Moving up

Durant moved into outright possession of the No. 4 spot on the U.S. men’s all-time Olympic appearances list. He’s now played in 17 games, behind only Carmelo Anthony (31), LeBron James (24) and David Robinson (24). There are 15 players with 16 Olympic appearances. 

Up next

France: Face the Czech Republic on Wednesday. 

USA: Face Iran on Wednesday. 


Marsupial Resurgence in Outback Australia

Experts have said that rare footage of an endangered marsupial in outback Australia is a sign that native animals are beginning to recover from years of feral cat predation.

Feral cats threaten the survival of over 100 native species in Australia, according to federal environment officials.

The opportunistic predators have caused the extinction of some ground-dwelling birds and small to medium-sized mammals.

Experts have said they have been a “major cause of decline” for many endangered marsupials, including the bilby, bandicoot, bettong and numbat.

In the northern state of Queensland, though, there are signs that some native animals are beginning to recover.

At the Astrebla Downs National Park, 1,500 kilometers northwest of Brisbane, 3,000 feral cats have been removed since 2013.

Licensed hunters have said that thermal imaging technology, rather than powerful spotlights, have helped them control the wild cat population by making it easier to find them hiding in vegetation.

A recent survey in the region revealed a record number of 471 bilbies, one of Australia’s best-known marsupials.

Also, for the first time in a decade, researchers managed to film a threatened desert marsupial in outback Queensland in June.

“It is called a kowari,” said ecologist John Augusteyn, who shot the footage. “They are a little, tiny carnivorous marsupial that lives in outback, or arid, western Queensland and also down in South Australia. They are a very charismatic little guy. Very fast, very inquisitive.”

Ecologists say that decent rainfall has also helped to boost marsupial numbers.

Nearly 3 billion animals in Australia were killed or displaced by the devastating “Black Summer” bushfires in 2019 and 2020, according to scientists.

They have said that the biggest cause of species decline in Australia is habitat loss. 

Afghan Forces Must ‘Slow the Momentum’ of Taliban, US Defense Secretary Says

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Saturday that Afghan leadership is consolidating its forces around key population centers ahead of efforts to retake territory lost to the Taliban while the U.S. was withdrawing most of its troops from the country.

“The first thing to do is to make sure that they can slow the momentum, and then be able to put themselves in the position where they can retake some of the gains that the Taliban, some of the ground that they have lost,” Austin told reporters traveling with him to Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska.

Austin said Afghan military leaders are “committed” and capable of stopping Taliban gains.

“They have the capabilities. They have the capacity to make progress and to really begin to blunt some of the Taliban’s advances, but we’ll see what happens,” he said.

Taliban insurgents say they already control 85% of the country, a contested claim. However, since the official start of the withdrawal on May 1, the Taliban has nearly tripled the number of districts it controls, from about 75 to now more than 220 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal.

“Strategic momentum sort of appears to be sort of with the Taliban,” Gen. Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

The U.S. military has conducted airstrikes to support Afghan forces over the “last several days,” according to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby.

U.S. defense officials say they are still authorized to support the Afghan government with U.S. air strikes against the Taliban through the end of the U.S. troop withdrawal, set for completion on Aug. 31.

After that, though, U.S. strikes in Afghanistan will solely support counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida and Islamic State, according to U.S. Central Command head Gen. Frank McKenzie.




Pro-Iranian Militia Commander Threatens Attacks Against US Forces Unless They Leave Iraq

The commander of Iraq’s self-styled pro-Iranian “resistance” forces has threatened to mount more attacks on U.S. forces inside the country if they don’t withdraw.

The threat by the commander, Khais al Khazali, coincided with a drone attack overnight that targeted U.S. forces in Kurdistan.

A U.S. coalition spokesman in Iraq confirmed in a statement Saturday that there had been a drone attack on U.S. forces at the Qiyyara base and said there had been no casualties.

In addition to promising more attacks on U.S. forces, Khazali said opposition forces would retaliate if the U.S. attacked them.

Arab media reported that Iran’s intelligence chief visited Baghdad several times during the past 10 days. VOA could not independently confirm the report.

Paul Sullivan, a Washington-based Middle East analyst, told VOA that statements like the one by Khazali were mostly declarations of victory, which mirror triumphal calls from the Taliban in Afghanistan amid the U.S. withdrawal there.

“Each extremist group wants to claim a win from the U.S. leaving, and they puff their chests out in a show of ‘masculinity.’ What they don’t mention is how they themselves have added to the suffering of their people. Real leaders take care of their people,” Sullivan said.

US-Iraq ties

On Friday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fouad Hussein and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken detailed the close cooperation between the two countries.

Hussein, visiting Washington, told journalists during a press conference with Blinken that his country needed the U.S.-backed coalition to continue to fight terrorism.

However, Iraqi media reported that the country’s national security adviser, Qassim al Araji, told journalists on the sidelines of the meeting that Baghdad “does not need U.S. forces in the country any longer.”

Blinken told journalists at the meeting with Hussein that the U.S. and Iraq “are of course the closest of partners in the fight against [the Islamic State group] and we can take tremendous pride in what we’ve done together to defeat ISIS and to make sure that it stays defeated … but the partnership between the U.S. and Iraq is much broader and deeper than even the common fight against ISIS.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Khadhimi is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House on Monday to announce a number of agreements between their nations.

Arab media reported that the U.S. is planning to give $155 million in aid to Baghdad and discuss a number of projects involving archaeology, education and the battle against COVID-19.

Iraqi analyst Nejm Khusab told state TV that he anticipated a period of calm after Khadhimi and Biden sign the agreements.

He said the Biden administration differed from its predecessor in that it didn’t want to remain inside Iraqi cities, but just to hold two airbases, Ain al Assad in Anbar province and Qiyyara in Kurdistan. He argued that that indicated a de-escalation was coming soon.

Much of the current political rhetoric in Iraqi politics appears to be aimed at the parliamentary elections in October.

Haiti Update

On the eve of the funeral for slain Haitian president, Jovenel Moïse, host Carol Castiel and assistant producer at the Current Affairs Desk, Sydney Sherry, speak with Haiti expert Georges Fauriol, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and fellow at the Caribbean Policy Consortium, about the chaos following Moïse’s assassination, the breakdown of democratic institutions in Haiti, and the power struggle that ensued over who would become Haiti’s next leader. What does this crisis reveal about the state of affairs in Haiti, and is the international community, Washington in particular, playing a constructive role in Haiti’s political rehabilitation?

Haiti Update

On the eve of the funeral for slain Haitian president, Jovenel Moïse, host Carol Castiel and assistant producer at the Current Affairs Desk, Sydney Sherry, speak with Haiti expert Georges Fauriol, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and fellow at the Caribbean Policy Consortium, about the chaos following Moïse’s assassination, the breakdown of democratic institutions in Haiti, and the power struggle that ensued over who would become Haiti’s next leader. What does this crisis reveal about the state of affairs in Haiti, and is the international community, Washington in particular, playing a constructive role in Haiti’s political rehabilitation?

Myanmar Faces COVID-19 Surge Amid Political Crisis

Myanmar, already on the brink of widespread civil war after February’s coup, is facing another crisis as COVID-19 cases surge.

Cases have spiked, leaving infected patients desperate for medical assistance. Since the pandemic began, Myanmar has suffered over 246,000 COVID-19 cases and over 5,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

In recent weeks, virus cases have risen extensively, infecting thousands and leaving the country’s medical system on the brink of collapse. In southern Yangon, images have circulated online of patients lining up to refill oxygen cylinders.  

A physiotherapist caring for patients in Yangon, told VOA the shortage of medical assistance is forcing patients to stay home and rely on doctors’ online advice.

“All people are desperately looking for oxygen,” she told VOA.

The opposition Civil Disobedience Movement has attracted a number of health care professionals several doctors who joined the CDM movement spoke with VOA in February.

Thousands of protesters have been arrested and killed, including health care workers.  Meanwhile, as the military continues to grapple for control over the country’s health care systems, widespread distrust from the population remains. Those opposing the coup are refusing to seek military-help, leaving some left with a possible life-or-death decision.

Hein Lay, the founder of Modern Youth Charity Organization, aimed at assisting people with health issues and food shortages, told VOA the oxygen shortage is due to the military’s decision to close oxygen factories.   

Patients are dying for no reason due to shortness of oxygen of breath,” he claimed. 

But the organization says it hopes to set up its own factory that can produce oxygen for patients.  

“We believe in we can save many lives and it will help those in need and save lives that should not die. People should cooperate with civil society organizations even if they hate the military council. Only then can this battle be won,” Hein Lay added.

Myanmar’s hospitals have overflowed with patients, and with limited staff are forced to turn patients away, leaving them without health care, with Yangon particularly affected.

Armed forces spokesperson General Zaw Min Tun responded to questions about the closure of oxygen suppliers, insisting the supply of oxygen is for hospitals and not private purchase. He added the military is adding new medical facilities to treat infected patients.

Nyan Win, a former adviser to ousted de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, died Tuesday from COVID-19. Nyan Win was a Myanmar politician that had been jailed in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison following the coup.

The physiotherapist said that that the military coup “ruined” the progress that had been made against COVID-19, and that the current third wave could have been prevented.

“In the second wave [November 2020], the civilian government [the now-removed National League for Democracy party] is leading and care for all patients and patients with COVID 19 confirmed case, everything is running smoothly.”

“Myanmar has already paid for the vaccines. Health workers have also been vaccinated first dose and are waiting for the second dose. If there had been no political change at that time, almost all citizens would have been vaccinated. And the public may not have to face the third wave of COVID 19,” she said.

Myanmar has been using the AstraZeneca vaccine, donated by India, and prior to the coup, had planned to vaccinate all 54 million of its population this year.

As Olympics Open, Tokyo Residents Yearn for Olympic Crowds, Cheering and Celebrations Nixed by Pandemic

No free-spending foreign spectators. Lots of COVID-19 worries. And as the delayed Olympics begin on Friday, some Tokyo residents are finding it hard to find their game spirit.

“There’s no feeling of lively celebration in the city,” Hiroyuki Nakayama, a member of the Tokyo Citizens First Party, told VOA Mandarin before the Games opened.

“All in all, it’s not very satisfying,” said the member of Tokyo’s governing metropolitan assembly. “There’re no tourists, so there’s no real hope of the Games revitalizing the economy. Although many people opposed the event,” once the government gave the go-ahead, “people knew it was useless to object, so now they hope the Olympics can proceed smoothly and end safely.”

Nakayama is not a rare naysayer. According to a poll released July 13 by Ipsos, a global market research firm, 78% of respondents in Japan believe Tokyo should not host the Olympics during the pandemic. Since then, Tokyo added 1,832 confirmed cases of the coronavirus on July 21, and that was after adding nearly a thousand new cases a day for seven consecutive days in the past week. Only 29% of Japan’s residents have been vaccinated.

As of July 21, there were confirmed cases among the athletes including a Czech table tennis player, a U.S. beach volleyball player, a Dutch skateboarder, a Chilean taekwondo team member, an alternate U.S. women’s gymnast and a U.S. women’s tennis player. Although a full vaccination is not required for the athletes, testing is constant and began before they left their home countries, where many tested positive. Some never made it to Japan, which cancelled the Games last year due to the pandemic.

Ryoko Fujita, a member of the Japanese Communist Party and a local Tokyo lawmaker told VOA Mandarin that according to recent expert simulations, “even if the Olympics are not held, the diagnosis rate in Tokyo will exceed 2,000 a day in August.”

On July 16, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the government was taking measures to control the pandemic and ensure the “safety and peace of mind” of the Tokyo Olympics.

“The government insists on hosting the Olympics and continuously promotes the slogan of ‘safe and secure Olympics’ on various platforms but ignores the surge in public gatherings and has no actual countermeasures or actions,” said Fujita, who was a nurse for two decades.

On July 20, Shigeru Omi, an infectious disease expert who heads a subcommittee on the coronavirus in the Tokyo government said on television that by the first week of August, new confirmed cases in Tokyo could reach a new peak of about 3,000 a day, most likely straining medical resources.

Takashi Sato, an office worker, told VOA Mandarin before the Games began, that with Tokyo under its fourth emergency declaration, residents are so numb to the warnings, they “actually do not abide by the regulations.”

Seiichi Murakami, who owns a patisserie in Tokyo, told VOA Mandarin that he at one time thought the Olympic Games would boost business, which has been in a slump. But as the pandemic worsens, and tourists aren’t coming to town for the Games, he’s now wondering if he should close the patisserie.

“Even if the vaccination rate increases substantially, there is still a long way to go before the economy really recovers,” Murakami told VOA Mandarin.

Takayuki Kojima, who runs a Tokyo cram school, told VOA Mandarin that his students aren’t interested in the Games and he rarely hears anyone discuss them. Mostly he’s concerned with surviving financially now that classes are online. “I hope this will be the last emergency declaration. The government must implement the vaccination coverage rate and control the epidemic, otherwise everyone’s lives will reach a critical point.”

Ikue Furukawa lives near the National Stadium, which was the main stadium for the 1964 Olympic Games and was rebuilt for the 2020 Games. She told VOA Mandarin there are so many restrictions she can’t even get near her neighborhood’s fixture.

“Because of the pandemic, … it really doesn’t feel like we’re the host country. This is completely an online competition, so it’s like it’s all happening in a foreign country,” she said. “People just can’t get excited.”

Takako Koyama, a Tokyo housewife, told VOA, “The Japanese are actually more concerned about foreign players coming from afar and not having spectators to cheer for them. But due to the restrictions, foreign players cannot … feel the enthusiasm of the audience. I’m so sorry for the players.”

Kojima agreed, adding “Major leagues in the United States and European football matches can allow spectators. The Olympics should open up some popular events to at least let the Japanese cheer for all the players.”

Koyama pointed out that after repeated emergency declarations, people had been looking forward to the Games before the declaration of yet another pandemic emergency.

“School activities and trips have been cancelled, but the Olympics are still going to be held,” she said. “The Olympic torch relay has been cancelled and there will be no spectators in the competition. What is the meaning of such an Olympics? What kind of message is conveyed to the future? I can’t explain it to the children either.”

Some information in this report came from Reuters.