French protesters stand up to far right ahead of country’s snap elections

PARIS — Antiracism groups will join French unions and a brand-new left-wing coalition in protests in Paris and across France on Saturday against the surging nationalist far right as frenzied campaigning is underway ahead of snap parliamentary elections.

In Paris, those who fear that the elections will produce France’s first far-right government since World War II, will gather at Place de la Republique before marching through eastern Paris.

Crowds have been gathering daily ever since Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration National Rally made historic gains in the European Parliament elections on Sunday, crushing President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-business moderates and prompting him to dissolve the National Assembly.

New elections for the lower house of parliament were set in two rounds, for June 30 and July 7. Macron remains president until 2027 and in charge of foreign policy and defense, but his presidency would be weakened if the National Rally wins and takes power of the government and domestic policy.

“We need a democratic and social upsurge — if not the extreme right will take power,” French unions said in a statement Friday. “Our Republic and our democracy are in danger.”

They noted that in Europe and across the world, extreme-right leaders have passed laws detrimental to women, the LGBTQ+ community, and people of color.

To prevent the National Rally party from winning the upcoming elections, left-wing parties finally agreed Friday to set aside differences over the wars in Gaza and Ukraine and form a coalition. They urged French citizens to defeat the far right.

French opinion polls suggest the National Rally — whose founder has been repeatedly convicted of racism and antisemitism — is expected to be ahead in the first round of the parliamentary elections. The party came out on top in the European elections, garnering more than 30% of the vote cast in France, almost twice as many votes as Macron’s party Renaissance.

Macron’s term is still on for three more years, and he would retain control over foreign affairs and defense regardless of the result of the French parliamentary elections.

But his presidency would be weakened if the National Rally wins, which could put its 28-year-old party leader Jordan Bardella on track to become the next prime minister, with authority over domestic and economic affairs.

1 year later, migrants who survived wreck off Greece seek justice

ATHENS, Greece — Desperate hands clutched at Ali Elwan’s arms, legs and neck, and screams misted his ears, as he spat out saltwater and fought for three hours to keep afloat in the night, dozens of miles from land. 

Although a poor swimmer, he lived — one of just 104 survivors from the wreck of a dilapidated old metal fishing boat smuggling up to 750 migrants from North Africa to Europe. 

“I was so, so lucky,” the 30-year-old Egyptian told The Associated Press in Athens, Greece, where he works odd jobs while he waits to hear the outcome of his asylum application. “I have two babies. Maybe I stay(ed) in this life for them.” 

Thousands have died in Mediterranean Sea shipwrecks in recent years as migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa seek a better life in the affluent European Union. 

But the sinking of the Adriana a year ago Friday in international waters 75 kilometers (45 miles) off Pylos in southern Greece was one of the worst. Only 82 bodies were recovered, so that hundreds of families still lack even the grim certitude that their relatives are dead. 

Travelers seek ‘best life’

Elwan, a cook whose wife and children are in Cairo, said he still gets phone calls from Egypt from mothers, brothers and wives of the missing. 

“We (left) home to get best life for family and until now (their families) know nothing about them,” he said. 

And after a year there are only hazy answers as to why so many lives were lost, what caused the shipwreck, and who can be held answerable. 

Migrant charities and human rights groups have strongly criticized Greece’s handling of the sinking and its aftermath. 

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said Thursday “a credible process for accountability” was needed. 

“It is unconscionable that one year since this horrific tragedy, the investigation into the potential liability of (Greece’s) Coast Guard has barely progressed,” HRW official Judith Sunderland said in the groups’ joint statement. 

The Greek coast guard, migration ministry and other officials did not respond to AP requests for comment ahead of the anniversary. 

Authorities had a coast guard boat on the scene and merchant ships in the vicinity during the trawler’s last hours. They blame smugglers who crammed hundreds of people into an unseaworthy vessel — most in an airless hold designed to store a catch of fish — for a nightmare voyage from Libya to Italy. 

They also say the Adriana capsized when its passengers — some of whom wanted to press on for Italy after five dreadful days at sea, others to seek safety in Greece — suddenly surged to one side, causing it to lurch and turn turtle. And they insist that offers to take the migrants off the ship were rebuffed by people set on reaching Italy. 

Elwan — who says he was on deck with a clear view of what happened — and other survivors say the lurching followed a botched coast guard attempt to tow the trawler. He claimed the coast guard hurriedly cut the towline when it became evident the Adriana would sink and drag their boat down with it. 

“If you find the ship (at the bottom of the sea), you will find this rope” still attached to it, he said. 

But the logistics make such a feat nigh-on impossible, Greek authorities say, as the ship rests some 5 kilometers (more than 3 miles) down, at one of the Mediterranean’s deepest points. 

The coast guard has denied any towing attempt, and allegations that its vessel tried to shift the trawler into neighboring Italy’s area of responsibility. 

A naval court began investigating last June, but has released no information on its progress or findings. 

Court drops charges

Separately, in November Greece’s state ombudsman started an independent probe into authorities’ handling of the tragedy, bemoaning the coast guard’s “express denial” to initiate a disciplinary investigation. 

Last month, a Greek court dropped charges against nine Egyptians accused of crewing the Adriana and causing the shipwreck. Without examining evidence for or against them, it determined that Greece lacked jurisdiction as the wreck occurred in international waters. 

Effie Doussi, one of the Egyptians’ defense lawyers, argued that the ruling was “politically convenient” for Greek authorities. 

“It saved the Greek state from being exposed over how the coast guard acted, given their responsibility for rescue,” she said. 

Doussi said a full hearing would have included testimony from survivors and other witnesses, and let defense lawyers seek additional evidence from the coast guard, such as potential mobile phone data. 

Zeeshan Sarwar, a 28-year-old Pakistani survivor, said he’s still waiting for justice, “but apparently there is nothing.” 

“I may be looking fine right now, but I am broken from the inside. We are not getting justice,” he told the AP. “We are not receiving any information about the people of coast guard … that the court has found them guilty or not.” 

Elwan, the Egyptian, said he can still only sleep for three or four hours a night. 

“I remember every second that happened to me,” he said. “I can’t forget anything because (I) lost friends in this ship.” 

A journey of life and death

The journey that preceded the wreck also was horrendous. 

Survivors said Pakistanis were confined in the hold and beaten by the crew if they tried to stir. But Arabic-speaking Egyptians and Syrians enjoyed the relative luxury of the deck. For many, that spelled the difference between life and death when the ship capsized. 

“Our condition was very bad on the first day because it was the first time in our life that we were traveling on the sea,” Sarwar said. 

“If a person … tried to vomit, then they used to say that you have to do it right here on your lap, you can’t get (outside),” he said. “On the fifth day, people were fainting because of hunger and thirst. One man died.” 

Elwan said he left for Europe secretly, telling his wife he would be away for months, working at an Egyptian Red Sea resort. 

He’s upset that he’s still to be granted asylum, unlike many Syrian survivors who, he said, have moved on to western Europe. 

“Only people from Egypt can’t get papers,” he said. “I’ve been working for 10 months to send money for my family … If someone says come and move rubbish, I will go and move this rubbish, no problem for me.” 

If he gets residence papers, Elwan wants to work in Greece and bring his family over. 

Otherwise, “I will go to Italy, maybe Germany. I don’t know.” 

G7 leaders discuss economic threats from Chinese, AI ethics

On Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden wrapped up meetings in Italy with leaders of the Group of Seven democracies. The leaders focused on threats they say China poses to the global economy and artificial intelligence ethics championed by Pope Francis. Patsy Widakuswara reports from Brindisi, Italy.

Pope meets 100 comedians at Vatican: ‘You also make God smile’

VATICAN CITY — Before flying to Italy’s southern Puglia region to meet world leaders at the Group of Seven summit, Pope Francis hosted a very different audience at the Vatican on Friday celebrating the importance of humor.

The pontiff welcomed more than 100 comedians from 15 nations, including U.S. celebrities Whoopi Goldberg, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert and Conan O’Brien.

“In the midst of so much gloomy news, immersed as we are in many social and even personal emergencies, you have the power to spread peace and smiles,” Francis told the comedians.

“You unite people, because laughter is contagious,” he continued, asking jokingly, “Please pray for me: for, not against!”

Francis pointed out that in the creation, “Divine wisdom practiced your art for the benefit of none other than God himself, the first spectator in history,” with God delighting in the works that he had made.

“Remember this,” he added. “When you manage to bring intelligent smiles to the lips of even a single spectator, you also make God smile.”

Francis also said it was OK to “laugh at God” in the same way “we play and joke with the people we love.”

After delivering his speech, Francis greeted all the comedians individually, sharing laughs and jokes with some of them.

“It was great, it was very fast and really loving, and made me happy,” Goldberg said afterward.

O’Brien noted that the pope “spoke in Italian, so I’m not quite sure what was said.”

“To be in that room and to be with all my fellow comedians, some of whom I’ve been good friends with for many years, in that environment, was quite strange,” the TV host added. “All of us were thinking, how did this happen? Why are we here, and when are they going to throw us out?”

Colbert admitted his Italian “is really bad, I would like to speak it better.” But he managed to remind the pope that he had done the audiobook for his memoir.

“It was wonderful, he’ll never forget me,” he joked.

Report reveals high number of child worker deaths in Turkey

Istanbul / Washington — A recent report on the state of child labor in Turkey said at least 695 child workers died in the country in the past 11 years.  

The report was published Tuesday by Health and Safety Labor Watch (ISIG), a civil society group in Turkey. The group compiled its dataset through open-source information and the families of the children who died while working. According to ISIG, at least 24 child workers died in the first five months of 2024.  

VOA sent a request for a comment to Turkey’s Ministry of Labor and Social Security, but it has not received a response yet.  

As of 2023, there were more than 22 million children in Turkey, which has a population of over 86 million, according to the state-run Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK).

Education in Turkey is compulsory until the end of the 12th grade and public education is free of charge. However, the high school completion rate was 80.3 percent in 2023, a relative increase compared with 2022’s figure of 65.1 percent. 

Vocational training 

Some experts think the state-run Vocational Education Centers (MESEM) are behind the increasing completion number, which they do not view as improving the education rate.  

“Turkey has given up fighting against child labor for a long time. There are many practices that legitimize child labor, and MESEM comes first among these practices,” Ezgi Koman, a child development expert at Turkey’s nongovernmental FISA Child Rights Center, told VOA. 

Turkey’s Ministry of National Education (MEB) introduced MESEMs to the education system in 2016. The apprenticeship program enables students to learn the skills of an entry-level job and choose to be professionalized in one of at least 193 sectors provided by MESEM’s curriculum.   

MEB’s website says the program’s goal is “to meet our country’s need for people with occupation.” 

The students enrolled in MESEMs go to school once a week for theoretical training and work at a job assigned by the MESEM for four days. The program takes four years to finish and counts as the student’s last four years of compulsory education.  

MESEM’s enrollment requirements include completing the eighth grade, being over 14 years of age, signing a contract with a workplace related to the profession the child wants to pursue, and being in good health.  

The students must be insured for job-related accidents and injuries. They are paid at least 30 percent of the minimum wage in the first three years and at least 50 percent of the minimum wage in the fourth year. The minimum wage in Turkey in 2024 is around US$520 a month.  

“Our research shows that children who want to receive vocational training do not enroll in MESEM. Children who are already working are enrolled there. So, now, through MESEM, some of the children working unregistered are being registered in the labor force. MESEM is presenting them as receiving education,” Koman said. 

“However, there is no education. There are children left at the mercy of the bosses and labor exploitation,” she added. 

VOA Turkish requested a comment from Turkey’s Ministry of National Education, which oversees MESEM, but has not received a response. 

Yusuf Tekin, Turkey’s minister of national education, responded to a parliamentary inquiry about the injuries and deaths of students enrolled in MESEMs in March 2024. 

In the inquiry, Turan Taskin Ozer, an Istanbul deputy of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), asked about the number of injuries and deaths that occurred in MESEM programs since 2016. 

“The sectors of workplaces where accidents and deaths occur are predominantly construction, metal, woodworking, engine and machinery,” Tekin responded in a written statement. 

“A total of 336 students, 316 males and 20 females, had an accident,” Tekin added without disclosing the number of deaths.   

The ISIG report shows that in the 2023-24 academic year, at least seven children died while working in jobs that were part of their MESEM training.  

Refugee children 

The ISIG report also indicates that since 2013, at least 80 migrant children have died while working – 71 from Syria, six from Afghanistan and one each from Iraq, Iran, and Turkmenistan.  

According to the U.N. refugee agency’s annual Global Trends report, released in June, Turkey hosts 3.3 million refugee populations, including 3.2 million Syrians.

Refugee children in Turkey have the right to education. Still, some experts point out that refugee children face peer bullying and xenophobia at school, which leads them to end their education and start work informally.  

Turkey-based humanitarian organization Support to Life focuses on child workers in seasonal agricultural jobs, including migrant children. 

“The living conditions of Turkish, Kurdish or migrant seasonal agricultural workers are far from humane living standards,” Leyla Ozer, Support to Life’s project manager, told VOA. 

“Access to clean drinking water, electricity and toilets is limited. Families mostly live in tent areas they set up themselves. Conditions on agricultural fields are extremely challenging for children. Pesticides are a big threat, and labor is also added to this. Preventing child labor is vitally urgent,” Ozer added.  

US warns of ‘pernicious’ Russian efforts ahead of Moldovan elections

washington — Russia’s efforts to subvert the coming presidential elections in Moldova go beyond sowing disinformation, according to U.S. officials, who charge that the Kremlin is actively supporting political candidates and political parties willing to espouse pro-Russia policies. 

The warning, from a senior State Department official, comes a day after the U.S., Canada and Britain issued a statement publicly accusing Moscow of “currently supporting candidates for Moldova’s presidency.” 

But in a virtual briefing with reporters on Friday, U.S. Special Envoy Jamie Rubin said Moscow’s designs on Moldova go even deeper. 

“To be as frank as I can, we’re talking about funding parties, we’re talking about funding outside groups,” Rubin said, in response to a question from VOA. “They have devoted, we believe, a particularly egregious, pernicious plan to act against Moldova.” 

Rubin, who also serves as coordinator of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, is not the first to accuse Moscow of cultivating ties with political parties outside of Russia to push a Russian agenda. 

As far back as 2018, Estonian intelligence officials warned of Russian efforts across Europe to cultivate ties with fringe political parties, providing advice, funding or outside business opportunities to help raise their fortunes. 

In some cases, Russian-backed politicians rose from obscurity to prominence, winning seats in their country’s parliaments. 

“They have made some bad investments, but they have also made some very good investments,” the then-chief of Estonia’s foreign intelligence service said of Russia’s efforts at the time.

VOA requested comment from the Russia Embassy in Washington about the U.S. allegations Moscow is meddling in the Moldovan election, set for October. Russian officials have yet to respond. 

But Moldovan Prime Minister Dorin Recean this week said he was grateful to the U.S., Canada and Britain for speaking out. 

“Grateful for the strong support of the US, the UK & Canada as we defend Moldova’s democracy,” Recean said Thursday in a post on the X social media platform. 

“Kremlin’s attempts to undermine our sovereignty & incite unrest will not succeed,” he said in the post. “Our institutions stand strong, ensuring peace, security & the right of our people to choose their future.” 

Other officials also have complained about Russia influence operations aimed at destabilizing Moldovan society. 

“They [the Russians] make this hybrid war more intense, with more disinformation, with more cyberattacks,” Moldovan Internal Affairs Minister Adrian Efros told VOA last year. “They try to make the tension between different regions of Moldova, to make this tension internally.” 

Thursday’s statement from the U.S., Canada and Britain accused Russia of carrying out a yearslong plot in Moldova to influence the outcome of the October election in favor of pro-Russian candidates, “using disinformation and propaganda online, on the air, and on the streets to further their objectives.” 

On Friday, the Global Engagement Center’s Rubin cautioned that the latest intelligence points to Russia going even further if pro-Russian candidates fail to win at the ballot box. 

“We’re talking about rent-a-crowds,” he said. “We’re talking about individuals who will be gathered by the Russians in the hopes of a mass protest that will be generated by Russia.” 

“We believe they’re applying a matter of high priority to interfere in the Moldovan election and, if necessary, to try to overthrow a democratically elected government,” Rubin warned. 

VOA Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report. 

Pope Francis becomes first pontiff to address a G7 summit

BARI, Italy — Pope Francis challenged leaders of the world’s wealthy democracies Friday to keep human dignity foremost in developing and using artificial intelligence, warning that such powerful technology risks turning human relations themselves into mere algorithms. 

Francis brought his moral authority to bear on the Group of Seven, invited by host Italy to address a special session at their annual summit on the perils and promises of AI. In doing so, he became the first pope to attend the G7, offering an ethical take on an issue that is increasingly on the agenda of international summits, government policy and corporate boards alike. 

Francis said politicians must take the lead in making sure AI remains human-centric, so that decisions about when to use weapons or even less-lethal tools always remain made by humans and not machines. 

“We would condemn humanity to a future without hope if we took away people’s ability to make decisions about themselves and their lives, by dooming them to depend on the choices of machines,” he said. “We need to ensure and safeguard a space for proper human control over the choices made by artificial intelligence programs: Human dignity itself depends on it.” 

Francis is joining a chorus of countries and global bodies pushing for stronger guardrails on AI following the boom in generative artificial intelligence kickstarted by OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot. 

The Argentine pope used his annual peace message this year to call for an international treaty to ensure AI is developed and used ethically. He argues that a technology lacking human values of compassion, mercy, morality and forgiveness is too perilous to develop unchecked. 

He didn’t repeat that call explicitly in his speech Friday, but he made clear the onus is on politicians to lead on the issue. And he called on them to ultimately ban the use of lethal autonomous weapons, colloquially known as “killer robots.” 

“No machine should ever choose to take the life of a human being,” he said. 

Directing himself to the leaders around the table, he concluded: “It is up to everyone to make good use of [AI] but the onus is on politics to create the conditions for such good use to be possible and fruitful.” 

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni invited Francis and announced his participation, knowing the potential impact of his star power and moral authority on the G7. Those seated at the table seemed duly awed, and the boisterous buzz in the room went absolutely quiet when Francis arrived. 

“The pope is, well, a very special kind of a celebrity,” said John Kirton, a political scientist at the University of Toronto who directs the G7 Research Group think tank. 

Kirton recalled the last summit that had this kind of star power, that then translated into action, was the 2005 meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland. There, world leaders decided to wipe out the $40 billion of the debts owed by 18 of the world’s poorest countries to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. 

That summit was preceded by a Live 8 concert in London that featured Sting, The Who and a reformed Pink Floyd and drew over a million people in a show of solidarity against hunger and poverty in Africa. 

“Gleneagles actually hit a home run and for some it’s one of the most successful summits,” Kirton said. 

No such popular pressure is being applied to G7 leaders in the Italian region of Puglia, but Francis knew he could wield his own moral authority to renew his demands for safeguards for AI and highlight the threats to peace and society it poses if human ethics are left to the side. 

“To speak of technology is to speak of what it means to be human and thus of our singular status as beings who possess both freedom and responsibility,” he said. “This means speaking about ethics.” 

Generative AI technology has dazzled the world with its capabilities to produce humanlike responses, but it’s also sparked fears about AI safety and led to a jumble of global efforts to rein it in. 

Some worry about catastrophic but far off risks to humanity because of its potential for creating new bioweapons and supercharging disinformation. Others fret about its effect on everyday life, through algorithmic bias that results in discrimination or AI systems that eliminate jobs. 

In his peace message, Francis echoed those concerns and raised others. He said AI must keep foremost concerns about guaranteeing fundamental human rights, promoting peace and guarding against disinformation, discrimination and distortion. 

On the regulation front, Francis will in some ways be preaching to the converted as the G7 members have been at the forefront of the debate on AI oversight. 

Japan, which held the G7’s rotating presidency last year, launched its Hiroshima AI process to draw up international guiding principles and a code of conduct for AI developers. Adding to those efforts, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida last month unveiled a framework for global regulation of generative AI, which are systems that can quickly churn out new text, images, video, audio in response to prompts and commands. 

The European Union was one of the first movers with its wide-ranging AI Act that’s set to take effect over the next two years and could act as a global model. The act targets any AI product or service offered in the bloc’s 27 nations, with restrictions based on the level of risk they pose. 

In the United States, President Joe Biden issued an executive order on AI safeguards and called for legislation to strengthen it, while some states like California and Colorado have been trying to pass their own AI bills, with mixed results. 

Antitrust enforcers on both sides of the Atlantic have been scrutinizing big AI companies including Microsoft, Amazon and OpenAI over whether their dominant positions stifle competition. 

Britain kickstarted a global dialogue on reining in AI’s most extreme dangers with a summit last fall. At a follow-up meeting in Seoul, companies pledged to develop the technology safely. France is set to host another meeting in the series early next year. The United Nations has also weighed in with its first resolution on AI. 

On the sidelines of his AI speech, Francis has a full day of bilateral meetings. He had meetings with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as well as invited leaders from Algeria, Brazil, India, Kenya, Turkey. He will also meet with G7 members, including Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron.

NATO chief wants more Ukraine weapons flexibility

U.S. and NATO leaders in Brussels are at odds over the extent to which Ukrainians can use Western-provided weapons to hit military targets inside Russian territory. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb has more.

Russia, Ukraine exchange drone, missile attacks

Kyiv, Ukraine — Kyiv and Moscow staged dozens of drone and missile attacks overnight, officials said Friday, leaving several wounded in Ukraine and damaging a fuel reservoir site in a Russian border region.

The two sides have stepped up cross-border aerial assaults in recent weeks, with Kyiv targeting Russian energy facilities and Moscow launching retaliatory barrages.

Russia said it had downed 87 Ukrainian drones, of which 70 had targeted the southern Rostov region that houses the headquarters of its military operation against Kyiv.

The defense ministry said 70 drones were downed over Rostov, six each over Kursk and Voronezh, and two each over Volgograd and the Belgorod region bordering Ukraine.

The attacks sparked power cuts in several areas of the Rostov region, its governor Vasily Golubev said on social media.

In Voronezh, which borders Ukraine, a fuel reservoir was slightly damaged by falling debris, its regional governor Aleksander Gusev said.

Kyiv meanwhile said Ukrainian air defense systems had downed 24 out of 31 Russian drones and missiles fired overnight.

Six people were wounded in an attack on the front-line town of Selydove in the war-battered Donetsk region, its governor said.

Three people were wounded in a drone attack in the eastern Sumy region and several homes were damaged in the neighboring Kharkiv region.

Putin to visit North Korea, closer defense ties in sight

Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to visit North Korea – the latest sign of deepening ties between Moscow and Pyongyang. The visit could involve more than just handshakes, as VOA’s Bill Gallo reports from Seoul, South Korea

At G7 Italy, Biden galvanizes support for Ukraine

US President Joe Biden and leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy democracies are meeting in Italy, underscoring support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion and the need for a cease-fire in Gaza. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara is traveling with the president and brings this report from Borgo Egnazia, the G7 summit venue.

Georgia’s NGOs refuse to comply with ‘Russian’ foreign agent law

Opponents of the so-called “foreign agent” law that came into effect in Georgia this month say they will not comply with the law’s requirements. The opponents say the measure – which requires organizations that get 20% or more of their funding from abroad to register as foreign agents – reflects similar laws in Russia and is aimed at silencing critics ahead of elections later this year. As Henry Ridgwell reports from Tbilisi, organizations that refuse to comply could face heavy financial penalties.

Russian Israeli journalist barred from entering Serbia

washington — A Russian Israeli freelance journalist who has been labeled a “foreign agent” by Moscow said Wednesday that he was banned from entering Serbia because of alleged security risks.

In a Zoom interview with VOA, Roman Perl said he landed at the airport in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, for a personal visit Saturday. He was kept waiting for about eight hours before being handed an order blocking his entry.

“They gave me a paper stating that there are security risks if I were to be on Serbian soil,” Perl said.

The Russian government designated Perl a “foreign agent” in 2021, a legal term the Kremlin has used since 2012 to enforce its harsh crackdown on news outlets and civil society groups. The law prompted Perl to depart Russia for Israel.

Press freedom experts expressed concern about the incident.

“It’s very worrying because it may confirm that the Serbian authorities are working with the Russian ones,” Jeanne Cavelier, the head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders, told VOA from Paris. “To go to Serbia could be a great danger for journalists.”

Perl, who has previously produced documentaries for Current Time TV, said he was traveling to Belgrade to visit a friend.

Perl said it was “possible that Russian authorities can, in certain cases, persuade the Serbs to do something the Russian side deems necessary.” But, he added, Serbia may have blocked him over his brief detention in Belgrade in 2023.

While filming a documentary about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at that time, one of his interviewees unfurled the Ukrainian flag near the Russian Embassy, he said.

“Then the members of the gendarmerie approached us and told us that the embassy had called them to remove us from the area,” he said.

Perl was then held in police custody for a few hours before being released without charge.

Serbia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Information and Telecommunications and Border Police did not reply to emails from VOA’s Serbian Service requesting comment. Serbia’s Washington embassy also did not immediately reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

Although Serbia has a vibrant media landscape, reporters often face political pressure, and impunity for crimes against journalists tends to be the norm, according to press freedom groups.

The threat of impunity in Serbia was highlighted earlier this year. In February, four people who were previously charged with the 1999 murder of prominent Serbian journalist Slavko Curuvija were acquitted in an appeals trial.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Serbia 98th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom.

Turkey courts China, stoking Uyghur dissident fears

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan’s visit to China marks the latest effort by Ankara to establish itself at the center of a strategic trade route between Europe and China. But analysts say Beijing’s suspicions over Ankara’s support of Chinese Uyghur dissidents remain an obstacle. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

Houthi attacks take steady toll on international shipping

Washington — Unrelenting attacks on international shipping by Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen are taking a toll on commerce and aid efforts despite attempts by the United States and its partner to dampen the effects.

A just-released report by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) finds Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden have affected at least 29 companies across more than 65 countries, driving up costs in multiple ways. 

“As of mid-February, insurance premiums for Red Sea transits have risen to 0.7-1.0% of a ship’s total value, compared to less than 0.1% prior to December 2023,” according to the DIA report.

The report also noted companies that continue to transit the region face increased costs for additional “war risk” insurance and bonuses for crew members.

As a result, the DIA assessment found container shipping through the Red Sea, which normally accounts for up to 15% of international maritime trade, fell by 90% from December 2023 through mid-February of 2024.

Shipping companies seeking to avoid the Red Sea are also seeing increased costs, with trips around Africa adding about $1 million to the price of the journey.

There is also a cost to aid efforts.

“As of February, humanitarian relief for Sudan and Yemen is being delayed by weeks and costing aid organizations more because of longer routes around Africa,” the report said.

In all, the DIA counted at least 43 Houthi attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden between November 19 [2023] and March 23.

The Houthis have said their campaign in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden is in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza amid the war between Israel and Hamas.

And the attacks show little sign of slowing down.

According to U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations across the Middle East, Houthis militants in Yemen have launched at least 10 missiles, two aerial drones and one surface drone against targets in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden since Sunday [June 9].

On Wednesday, a Houthi-launched naval drone hit the M/V Tutor, a Liberian-flagged, Greek-owned ship that had recently been docked in Russia, CENTCOM said. The attack caused severe flooding and damage to the engine room.

This past December, the U.S. and eight other countries launched Operation Prosperity Guardian to help protect ships in the region from Houthi attacks.

In February, the European Union launched its own mission, ASPIDES, to help further protect maritime traffic. 

The U.S. and its allies have also conducted a series of strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen to deter further attacks on shipping, most recently late last month.

 

Biden, G7 leaders focus on Ukraine, Gaza, global infrastructure, Africa

BORGO EGNAZIA, ITALY — U.S. President Joe Biden is in Apuglia, Italy, meeting with leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy democracies Thursday, aiming to address global economic security amid wars in Europe and the Middle East and U.S. rivalry with China.

The G7 leaders arrived at the luxury resort of Borgo Egnazia, the summit venue, welcomed by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Meloni’s hard-right party took nearly 29% of the vote in last weekend’s European Parliament election, making her the only leader of a major Western European country to emerge from the ballots stronger.

Meanwhile Biden is dealing with a contentious reelection campaign against Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump, and a personal ordeal. On Tuesday, a day before departing for the summit, his son, Hunter, was found guilty on federal charges for possessing a gun while being addicted to drugs.

Still, Biden came to the summit hoping to convince the group to provide a $50 billion loan to Ukraine using interest from Russian frozen assets, and deal with Chinese overcapacity in strategic green technologies, including electric vehicles. 

The European Union signaled their support by announcing duties on Chinese EVs a day ahead of the summit, a move that echoed the Biden administration’s steep tariff hike on Chinese EVs and other key sectors in May.

Biden is also lending his support to key themes in Meloni’s presidency – investing in Africa, international development, and climate change. Those topics were covered in the opening session of the G7 on Thursday, followed by discussions on the Gaza and Ukraine wars. 

Gaza cease-fire

With cease-fire negotiations at a critical juncture, Biden could face tough questions from leaders on whether he is doing enough to pressure Israel to pause its military campaign, reduce civilian casualties and provide more aid for Palestinians.

Leaders are “focused on one thing overall; getting a cease-fire in place and getting the hostages home as part of that,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told VOA as he spoke to reporters on board Air Force One en route to Italy. Biden has “their full backing,” Sullivan added.

Leaders will also discuss increasing tension along the Israeli border with Lebanon, Sullivan told reporters Thursday morning. 

“They’ll compare notes on the continuing threat posed by Iran both with respect to its support for proxy forces and with respect to the Iranian nuclear program,” he added.

While the group has thrown its weight behind the cease-fire, G7 members are split on other Gaza-related issues, including the International Criminal Court’s decision last month to seek arrest warrants for the leaders of Hamas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The United States denounced the court’s decision, and Britain called it “unhelpful.” France said it supports the court’s “fight against impunity,” while Berlin said it would arrest Netanyahu on German soil should a warrant is released.

Sullivan dismissed a United Nations inquiry result released Wednesday that alleges both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes and grave violations of international law.

“We’ve made our position clear,” he told VOA, referring to a review published in April by the State Department concluding that Israel’s campaign did not violate international humanitarian law.

Russian assets

Biden is pushing G7 leaders to provide Kyiv with a loan of up to $50 billion that will be paid back to Western allies using interest income from the $280 billion Russian assets frozen in Western financial institutions, estimated at $3 billion a year, for 10 years or more.

The goal is a leaders declaration at the end of the summit, a “framework that is not generic, that is quite specific in terms of what it would entail,” Sullivan told VOA Wednesday. Core operational details would still need to be worked out, he added. 

In April, Biden signed legislation to seize the roughly $5 billion in Russian assets that had been immobilized in U.S. financial institutions. The bulk of the money, though, $190 billion, is in Belgium, and much of the rest is in France and Germany.

“There’s a tension here between a Biden administration ambition on an issue in which they do not have the final say, hitting against very staunch European fiscal conservatism and simply the mechanics of, how do you get something done in Europe in the week of European [parliamentary] elections,” Kristine Berzina, managing director of Geostrategy North at the German Marshall Fund think tank, told VOA.

Attending the summit for the second consecutive year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is advocating for the deal to pass. He and Biden will sign a separate bilateral security agreement outlining U.S. support for Ukraine and speak in a joint press conference Thursday evening.

From Italy, Zelenskyy heads to Switzerland for a Ukraine peace conference over the weekend.

Africa, climate change and development

Meloni, a far-right politician who once called for a naval blockade to prevent African migrants from crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, now wants to achieve the goal by bolstering international investments to the continent.

Most of the nearly 261,000 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean Sea from northern Africa in 2023 entered Europe through Italy, according to the United Nations.

She has aligned her G7 presidency with this agenda, and the group is set to release a statement on providing debt relief for low- and middle-income countries, dealing with irregular migration and calling for more investments in Africa.

The G7 statement will reflect the Nairobi/Washington vision that Biden signed with Kenyan President William Ruto, Sullivan said.

Meloni invited several African leaders as observers to the G7 meeting, including Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Tunisia’s Kais Saied, Kenyan President William Ruto and Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, the president of Mauritania. The invitation follows the first Italy-Africa summit in Rome in January, where Meloni launched her investment initiative called the Mattei Plan for Africa.

The Mattei Plan has been integrated into the G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, which aims to mobilize $600 billion private infrastructure funding by 2027 as an alternative to Chin’s Belt and Road initiative.

On climate change, the G7 has an uphill climb. None of the group’s members are on track to meet their existing emission reduction targets for 2030 to align with the Paris Agreement goal, according to data compiled by Climate Analytics.

Conflict, persecution, climate crisis drive surge in global forced displacement

Geneva — The United Nations refugee agency says forced displacement around the globe surged to historic new heights last year, driven by conflict, persecution, human rights violations, climate crises and other disturbing events.

In its 2024 Global Trends Report, UNHCR says 117.3 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide by the end of 2023. Some 68 million were uprooted from their homes by conflict and remain displaced within their own countries. Another 31 million were refugees, while tens of millions more were asylum seekers, returnees or stateless people.

The report, released Thursday, finds that the number of forcibly displaced has continued to rise this year and that the current figure now stands at 120 million.

“Regrettably, this is the 12th consecutive year in which this figure goes up,” U.N. refugee chief Filippo Grandi told journalists in Geneva Monday in advance of the report’s publication. “Conflict remains a very, very big driver of displacement.”

Grandi added that UNHCR “declared 43 emergencies in 29 countries” in 2023. “This figure, until two, three years ago, used to be on average eight, maximum 10 times a year.”

Grandi deplored changes in the conduct of wars, noting that warring parties almost everywhere nowadays “disregard the laws of war, of international humanitarian law and often with the specific purpose of terrorizing people, of instilling fear in people.”

“This, of course is a powerful contributor to more displacement than even in the past,” he said.

The report cites the conflict in Sudan as a key factor driving the current surge in forcible displacement.  By the end of 2023, a total of 10.8 million Sudanese were displaced from their homes — triple the number before the war began in April of that year.  Most of the uprooted Sudanese — 9.1 million — are internally displaced, while another 1.7 million are refugees.

Describing himself as “very keen” to speak out about Sudan, Grandi called it “a very forgotten crisis although it is one of the most catastrophic ones — not just in terms of displacement, but in terms of hunger, lack of access, violation of human rights, and so forth.”

Other crises that have created a spike in new forced displacements are the conflicts in Gaza, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. UNRWA, the UN relief and works agency for Palestine refugees, estimates up to 1.7 million people — over 75% of the population — “have been displaced within the Gaza Strip, with some having been forced to flee multiple times.”

The report says more than 1.3 million people were displaced within Myanmar in 2023 “by escalating violence following the military takeover in February 2021” and that a resurgence of fighting in the eastern part of DRC uprooted 3.8 million people who “were newly internally displaced” during the year.

The U.N. report also touches on what the report calls endless conflicts that continue to displace people in countries that include Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

Of the complex mix of diverse factors uprooting populations globally, Grandi described climate change as a particularly virulent driver of conflict and displacement, with one sometimes triggering the other.

“It can be a driver of conflict and hence of displacement, especially when the very scarce resources of very poor communities become even scarcer because of climate change,” he said. “That drives conflict. We have seen it in so many parts of Africa, in the Sahel, for example. In the Horn of Africa, but also elsewhere.”

The report debunks a common misperception that many refugees go to rich countries.

“The vast majority of refugees are hosted in countries neighboring their own, with 75 percent residing in low-and middle-income countries that together produce less than 20 percent of the world’s income,” say the report, which also notes that although children account for 30% of the world’s population, they account for 40% of all forcibly displaced people.

Syria remains the world’s largest displacement crisis, UNHCR reports, “with 13.8 million forcibly displaced in and outside the country.”

The United States is identified as the world’s largest recipient of new asylum claims with 1.2 million applications tallied in 2023, followed by Germany, Egypt, Spain, and Canada.

Authors of the report acknowledge that solutions for forced displacement are very rare.  They note that only around five million internally displaced people and one million refugees returned home in 2023.

Despite this grim assessment, High Commissioner Grandi said that solutions do exist, citing the example of Kenya which has enacted the so-called Shirika plan, to resolve its nagging refugee problem.

“The President has decided, and the country’s institutions have approved, that for the 600,000 refugees in Kenya, mostly Somalis and South Sudanese, measures will be progressively taken to include them in the communities in which they live.

“I consider that a positive trend,” he said. “And Kenya being an important country in East Africa, I hope that this will have a positive impact also on other countries.”

Biden arrives at G7 in Italy with sanctions for Russia, support for Ukraine, but no deal on Gaza

Brindisi, Italy — U.S. President Joe Biden arrived in Brindisi, Italy, late Wednesday ahead of his meeting with leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized democracies.

He came armed with fresh sanctions for Russia, a new bilateral security agreement for Ukraine, but no breakthrough on Gaza cease-fire negotiations that now sit at a critical juncture.

The United States is working with mediators Egypt and Qatar after reviewing Hamas’ response to the proposal, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Italy early Wednesday.

“Many of the proposed changes are minor and not unanticipated,” he said. “Others differ quite substantively from what was outlined in the U.N. Security Council resolution.”

As Biden was in flight to Italy, the U.S. Treasury Department announced fresh sanctions that target foreign individuals and companies aiding Moscow’s military industrial base. They include companies based in China, that are selling semiconductors to Russia.

It includes an expansion of secondary sanctions that allow the United States to blacklist any bank around the world that does business with Russian financial institutions already facing sanctions. The goal is to prevent smaller banks in China and other countries from funding the Russian war effort.

The sanctions also target networks Russia uses to obtain critical materials for building aerial drones, anti-drone equipment, industrial machinery and for the country’s chemical and biological weapons program, the Treasury Department said.

“We are increasing the risk for financial institutions dealing with Russia’s war economy and eliminating paths for evasion, and diminishing Russia’s ability to benefit from access to foreign technology, equipment, software, and IT services,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement.

The Moscow Exchange, Russia’s top financial marketplace, announced it was halting trading of dollars and euros after being listed in the new sanctions.

Biden is also set to sign on Thursday a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine during his meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The agreement is intended to show U.S. resolve to strengthen Ukraine’s defense and deterrence capabilities without committing American troops on the Ukrainian battlefield. The agreement would include Ukrainian commitment to reform and on end-use monitoring of U.S.-provided weapons.

It will be Biden’s second meeting with Zelenskyy in the span of days; the two met in Paris on the sidelines of the 80-year commemoration of D-Day last week.

Russian frozen assets

Zelenskyy will be urging G7 leaders to get behind Biden’s plan to provide Kyiv with a loan of up to $50 billion for Ukraine’s war efforts against Russia, amid Moscow’s strategic advances in the battlefield. The U.S. proposal would pay back Western allies using interest income from the $280 billion in Russian assets frozen in Western financial institutions, estimated at $3 billion a year, for 10 years or more.

The goal is a Leaders’ Declaration at the end of the summit, a “framework that is not generic, that is quite specific in terms of what it would entail,” Sullivan told VOA as he spoke to reporters in flight. However, “core operational details” would still need to be worked out. It’s unclear whether the loan will be provided by the G7 or only some of its members.

In April, Biden signed legislation to seize the roughly $5 billion in Russian assets that had been immobilized in U.S. financial institutions. But the bulk of the money, $190 billion, is in Belgium and much of the rest, is in France and Germany.

A big source of concern for Europeans is who will be responsible to cover losses should interest rates fall below expectations or if the sanctions that immobilize the funds are not renewed. Russia considers the immobilizing of its assets following its invasion on Ukraine as theft and has threatened retaliation.

Although Ukraine is not a G7 member, this is the second consecutive year Zelenskyy is attending the summit. From Italy, he heads to Switzerland for a Ukraine peace conference over the weekend.

EU puts tariffs on Chinese EVs

Biden imposed a drastic tariff hike in May to confront what he calls Chinese overcapacity in strategic green technologies and has been urging the G7 to do the same.

On Wednesday, the European Union responded to the call by announcing it would slap Chinese electric vehicles (EVs) with higher tariffs, up to 38.1%, saying the imports benefit “heavily from unfair subsidies” and pose a “threat of economic injury” to producers in Europe.

U.S. tariffs on Chinese EVs were quadrupled to a 100% rate, while solar cell and semiconductor import tariffs were doubled to 50%. The rates on certain steel and aluminum imports were tripled to 25%. The additional duties covered $18 billion in Chinese products.

Europe is taking action to address Chinese overcapacity just as the United States has done, Sullivan said. A “common framework” on how to deal with various economic security issues posed by China will likely be included in the G7 final communique, he added.

The punitive moves could prompt retaliation from Beijing, which accuses the West of hyping overcapacity claims to blunt China’s competitive edge.

Biden arrived on the global forum after a family drama. On Tuesday, a day before departing for the summit, his son Hunter Biden was found guilty on federal charges of possessing of a gun while being addicted to drugs.

Biden has said he would not use presidential powers to pardon his son. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to respond to further questions, including the possibility of commuting Hunter Biden’s sentence when it is given by the judge.

What would Trump’s and Biden’s second-term policy on Ukraine look like?

Iran releases French citizen, says France’s Macron

BARI, Italy — French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Wednesday the release of Louis Arnaud, a French citizen who had been held in Iran since 2022 and who had been sentenced to five years in prison in November.

“Louis Arnaud is free. He will be in France tomorrow after a long incarceration in Iran,” Macron said on X, thanking Oman in particular for its role in obtaining his release. 

The release is rare positive news about France and Iran. 

Bilateral relations have deteriorated in recent months, with Tehran holding four French citizens — including Arnaud — in what Paris has said are arbitrary arrests equivalent to state hostage taking. 

France is also increasingly concerned by Iran’s regional activities and the advance of its nuclear program. 

Arnaud, who had been held since September 2022 after traveling in the country, was sentenced to five years in prison in November on security charges. He was held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. 

“This evening, I also think of Cecile, Jacques and Olivier,” the remaining French citizens held in Iran,” said Macron. “I am calling on Iran to liberate them without delay.” 

In recent years, Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards have arrested dozens of dual nationals and foreigners, mostly on charges related to espionage and security. 

Rights groups have accused Iran of trying to extract concessions from other countries through such arrests. Iran, which does not recognize dual nationality, denies taking prisoners to gain diplomatic leverage.