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Hundreds rally in Niger's capital to push for US military departure

Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 17:43
NIAMEY — Hundreds took to the streets of Niger's capital Saturday to demand the departure of U.S. troops, after the ruling junta further shifted its strategy by ending a military accord with the United States and welcoming Russian military instructors. Marching arm in arm through central Niamey, the crowd waved Nigerien flags in a demonstration that recalled anti-French protests that spurred the withdrawal of France's forces from Niger last year after the army seized power in a coup. One hand-written sign in English read "USA rush out of Niger," in a show of support for the junta and its decision in mid-March to revoke an accord that had allowed around 1,000 U.S. military personnel to operate on its territory out of two bases. "We're here to say no to the American base, we don't want Americans on our soil," said protester Maria Saley on the sidelines of the march. Until the coup, Niger had remained a key security partner of France and the United States, which used it as a base as part of international efforts to curb a decade-old Islamist insurgency in West Africa's Sahel region. But the new authorities in Niger have joined juntas in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso in ending military deals with one-time Western allies, quitting the regional political and economic bloc ECOWAS and fostering closer ties with Russia. The arrival on Wednesday of Russian military instructors and equipment was further evidence of the junta's openness to closer cooperation with Moscow, which is seeking to boost its influence in Africa. A few Russian flags were visible at the protest, but some citizens told Reuters Friday they did not want the welcomed Russian defense assistance to lead to a permanent presence in Niger. "We must not subsequently see the implementation of Russian foreign military bases," said Abdoulaye Seydou, the coordinator of the M62 coalition of civil society groups that led anti-French protests last year. His concerns were echoed by student Souleymane Ousmane: "This is how the French and the Americans and all the other countries settled in Niger — from military cooperation, they ended up occupying large parts of our country." It is unclear, however, if or when the U.S. troops will leave. In March, the top U.S. general appeared to suggest there was at least some support from within Niger's junta for a continued U.S. military presence despite its announced revocation of the accord. One of the U.S. programs in Niger is a drone base known as Air Base 201, which cost more than $100 million. Violence in the central Sahel hit a high in 2023, with conflict fatalities in the region rising by 38% compared with the previous year, according to U.S.-based crisis-monitoring group ACLED, citing reports of over 8,000 people killed in Burkina Faso alone last year.

Suspected Islamist rebels kill at least 10 in Democratic Republic of Congo

Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 17:28
BENI, Democratic Republic of Congo — Suspected Islamist rebels killed at least 10 civilians in an attack Friday near the city of Beni in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, local authorities and a United Nations source said.  The assailants fired guns at people working in fields in Mulekera commune outside Beni, Mulekera Mayor Ngongo Mayanga said Saturday.  Seven bodies have been collected so far, including those of three women, with five more victims reported elsewhere, he said.  "Certainly, there are other bodies that we will find as the search continues," he said by phone, blaming the Allied Democratic Forces rebel group.  The ADF originates from neighboring Uganda. Now based in eastern Congo, it has pledged allegiance to Islamic State and mounts frequent attacks, further destabilizing a region where many militant groups are active.  A witness to the latest attack said he was working in a field when he heard bullets shortly after parting from his daughter-in-law.  "My daughter-in-law went in the opposite direction, but unfortunately that's when she was killed," he said, describing how he fled into the forest and spent the night there out of fear of the attackers.  Decades of conflict between the army and numerous rebel groups have destabilized eastern Congo and fueled a long-running humanitarian crisis. 

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Iran launches aerial attack on Israel, escalating conflict; US reiterates 'ironclad' support of Israel

Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 16:54
washington — Iran has launched an aerial attack on Israel from Iranian territory, marking a major escalation in a long running conflict between the two rival regional powers.   Iranian state TV network IRINN reported at about midnight on Sunday that the Islamic republic's forces had launched dozens of attack drones from Iranian territory toward Israel. It said the attack was in retaliation for what Iranian officials say was an Israeli strike that killed several senior Iranian military commanders in Damascus on April 1.   The Israeli military, which has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the April 1 strike, issued a statement saying its air and naval forces were monitoring the Iranian drone attack.   Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised message that Israel will defend itself "against any threat and will do so level-headedly and with determination."   The Biden administration said the United States will "stand with the people of Israel and support their defense against these threats from Iran."  White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson issued a statement saying: "This attack is likely to unfold over a number of hours. President Biden has been clear: our support for Israel's security is ironclad."   Netanyahu acknowledged that support in his own statement, saying: "We appreciate the U.S. standing alongside Israel, as well as the support of Britain, France and many other countries."   

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Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 16:00
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Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 15:00
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Diplomat tapped as Latvia's new FM as incumbent quits amid scandal

Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 14:57
HELSINKI — The head of Latvia's government tapped an experienced diplomat to become the Baltic nation's new foreign minister after the incumbent stepped down earlier this week amid a criminal probe over alleged misuse of government funds.  The ruling center-right New Unity party decided to back the nomination of Baiba Braze, 57, who is currently the ambassador for special tasks at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after Prime Minister Evika Silina's endorsement, Latvian news agency LETA reported Saturday.  Latvian Television LTV said Braze's candidacy will be officially announced Monday and lawmakers at the Saiema, Latvia's 100-seat Parliament, are set to vote on a motion of confidence in her on Thursday.  Among other posts, Braze has previously served as Latvia's ambassador to Britain and to The Netherlands and held the post of NATO's deputy secretary general for public diplomacy in 2020-2023.  Krisjanis Karins, Latvia's former top diplomat and an ex-prime minister, announced his intention to resign this month on March 28. His decision came in the wake of a criminal probe over the use of expensive private charter flights by Karins′ office during his time as prime minister between 2019-2023.  There are no indications that Karins himself faces charges as part of the probe into the scandal that erupted last year and caused public outrage among Latvians. Silina took Latvia's top government job in September when Karins became foreign minister of the nation of 1.9 million, a European Union and NATO member state. 

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Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 14:00
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Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 13:00
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Vatican complains after French court rules in favor of dismissed nun

Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 12:05
ROME — The Holy See has formally protested to France after a French court ruled that a former high-ranking Vatican official was liable for what the court determined to be the wrongful dismissal of a nun from a religious order. According to French media, the Lorient tribunal on April 3 ruled in favor of the nun, Sabine de la Valette, known at the time as Mother Marie Ferreol. She was forced to resign from her religious order, the Dominicans of the Holy Spirit, after a Vatican investigation. In a statement Saturday, the Vatican said that it had received no notification of any such verdict, but that the ruling nevertheless represented a “grave violation” of the right to religious freedom. The Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis had tasked Cardinal Marc Ouellet, at the time the head of the Vatican’s bishops’ office, with conducting an investigation that ended with the Holy See taking a series of canonical measures against Valette, including her expulsion after 34 years as a nun in the order. The statement also cited potential diplomatic issues, given Ouellet’s immunity as a cardinal and official of a foreign government. The Holy See is recognized internationally as a sovereign state. According to French Catholic daily La Croix, the Lorient court found the nun's expulsion was without merit and ordered Ouellet, the religious order and other defendants to pay over 200,000 euros ($213,000) in material and moral damages, as well as fines. The defendants are appealing, La Croix said. The Vatican frequently conducts such internal investigations into religious orders or dioceses, which can be sparked by complaints of financial mismanagement, sexual or other types of abuses, or governance problems. It considers the measures it takes to be exclusively internal to the life of the Catholic Church. As a result, the Lorient court decision represented an unusual intrusion of secular justice in internal church matters, prompting the diplomatic complaint from the Holy See. The French justice system seems increasingly willing to take on even high-ranking church officials in court, much more so than in Italy, and especially concerning allegations related to clergy sexual misconduct and cover-up. In 2020, for example, a French appeals court threw out a lower court ruling that had convicted Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of covering up the sexual abuse of minors in his flock. That same year, a Paris court convicted a retired Vatican ambassador to France of sexually assaulting five men in 2018 and 2019 and handed him a suspended eight-month prison sentence. The Vatican had lifted the immunity of the ambassador, Monsignor Luigi Ventura, which allowed the trial to go ahead.

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Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 12:00
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Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 11:00
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China’s Zhao, North Korea’s Kim hold highest-level talks in years

Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 10:51
BEIJING — A top-ranking Chinese official reaffirmed ties with North Korea during a meeting Saturday with the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, in Pyongyang, China's state media reported, in the highest-level talks between the allies in years. The visit by Zhao Leji, who ranks third in the ruling Communist Party hierarchy and heads the ceremonial parliament, came as North Korea has test fired missiles to intimidate South Korea and its ally, the United States. The Xinhua News Agency reported that Zhao told Kim at a meeting concluding his three-day visit that China, the North’s most important source of economic aid and diplomatic support, looked forward to further developing ties. He made no mention of the political situation on the peninsula or the region. Since the establishment of diplomatic ties 75 years ago, China and North Korea have been “good neighbors and struggled together to attain a common destiny and level of development,” Xinhua quoted Zhao as saying. China fought on behalf of the reclusive communist state against the U.S. and others during the 1950-53 Korean War and in recent years has helped prop up its weak economy, allegedly in violation of United Nations sanctions in response to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program that Beijing had endorsed. Zhao met his North Korean counterpart, Choe Ryong Hae, on Thursday and discussed how to promote exchanges and cooperation in all areas, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported. North Korea closed its borders during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic amid reports of a major outbreak and food shortages. Zhao’s visit to North Korea marked the first bilateral exchange involving a Chinese Politburo Standing Committee member since the pandemic started. Prior to the outbreak, Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping held two summits in 2019. North Korea and China are expected to hold several exchanges this year to mark the anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties. North Korea has sought to boost its cooperation with Beijing and Russia in the face of a standoff with the U.S. and South Korea over its missile launches and nuclear program. Kim traveled to Russia in September for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The U.S., South Korea and others accuse North Korea of supplying conventional weapons for Russia’s war in Ukraine in return for advanced weapons technologies and other support. China has refused to criticize the Russian invasion and accused the U.S. and NATO of provoking Moscow but says it will not provide Moscow with direct military support.

Australia mulls recognition of a Palestinian state

Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 10:31
SYDNEY — Australia could consider a highly conditional recognition of a Palestinian state, Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong said this week, igniting a furious political debate. The potential shift in Australian policy comes as other countries look for a two-state solution to end the war in Gaza. Wong said that the international community was discussing an independent Palestinian state “as a way of building momentum toward a two-state solution." Australia expects a cease-fire in the war in Gaza, the return of Israeli hostages held by Hamas and the exclusion of Hamas from any future Palestinian government as preconditions for recognition, she said. Wong, speaking at the Australian National University on Tuesday, said a two-state solution would promote peace. “Recognizing a Palestinian state, one that can only exist side-by-side with a secure Israel, does not just offer the Palestinian people an opportunity to realize their aspirations, it also strengthens the forces for peace, and it undermines extremism,” she said. “So, I say to you, a two-state solution is the only hope of breaking the endless cycle of violence.” Australia’s conservative opposition has accused Wong of inflicting “irreparable damage” to Australia's relationship with Israel by raising the possibility of recognizing Palestinian statehood. Simon Birmingham, the shadow foreign affairs minister, told local media the plan was misguided. “What Penny Wong seems to be suggesting is some type of fast-tracked or preemptive recognition of Palestinian statehood, and that is completely the wrong approach to be taking at present,” he said. The two-state solution has long been at the heart of efforts to resolve the decades-old conflict in the Middle East, but the process has stalled for years. Britain has said it could recognize a Palestinian state before any deal over the issue is reached with Israel without waiting for the outcome of what could be years of negotiations. Nasser Mashni of the Australia-Palestine Advocacy Network told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that Australia should also endorse the plan. “It is time for us to just unilaterally do it and join 139 other like-minded countries and bestow and agree that Palestinians deserve self-determination,” he said. A major obstacle to a Palestinian state is deciding on its borders and its governance.  Both sides claim Jerusalem as their capital. Also, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has strongly rejected the idea of an independent Palestinian state.

1 Dead, 10 injured in cable car accident in southern Turkey

Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 10:14
ISTANBUL — One person died and 10 others injured Friday in the southern Turkish province of Antalya after a cable car cabin collided with a broken pole, the interior ministry said Saturday.  Twenty-four cabins were stranded in the air at 5:23 p.m. Friday. Sixteen hours later, more than 60 people were still stranded in the remaining nine cabins in the air, the ministry said; 112 people had been rescued.  None of the people waiting to be rescued had critical injuries or were in poor health, Disaster and Emergency Management Authority Chairman Okay Memis told reporters at the scene, adding that they aimed to complete rescue work before sunset.  In a statement on social media platform X, the interior ministry said seven helicopters and more than 500 rescue workers were carrying out rescue efforts.  A video released by the interior ministry showed rescue personnel tied to safety ropes climbing into cabins.  According to the information on its website, the cable car has 36 cabins with a capacity of six people each. It takes an average of nine minutes to go uphill to the Tunektepe facility, which has panoramic views of the city of Antalya.

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Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 10:00
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Iran's Revolutionary Guard seizes cargo ship near Strait of Hormuz

Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 09:49
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Commandos from Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard rappelled from a helicopter onto an Israeli-affiliated container ship near the Strait of Hormuz and seized the vessel Saturday, the latest in a series of attacks between the two countries. The Middle East had braced for potential Iranian retaliation over a suspected Israeli strike earlier this month on an Iranian consular building in Syria that killed 12 people, including a senior Guard general who once commanded its expeditionary Quds Force there. The Israeli war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip meanwhile is now six months old and is inflaming decades-old tensions across the whole region. With Iranian-backed forces such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Yemen's Houthi rebels also involved in the fighting, any new attack in the Mideast threatens to escalate that conflict into a wider regional war. Iran's state-run IRNA said a special forces unit of the Guard's navy carried out the attack on the vessel, the Portuguese-flagged MSC Aries, a cargo ship associated with London-based Zodiac Maritime. Zodiac Maritime is part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. Zodiac declined to comment and referred questions to MSC. Geneva-based MSC later acknowledged the seizure and said 25 crew had been aboard the vessel. IRNA said the Guard would take the vessel into Iranian territorial waters. Earlier, a Middle East defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, shared a video of the attack with The Associated Press. In it, the Iranian commandos are seen rappelling down onto a stack of containers sitting on the deck of the vessel. A crew member on the ship can be heard saying: “Don’t come out.” He then tells his colleagues to go to the ship’s bridge as more commandos come down on the deck. One commando can be seen kneeling above the others to provide them with potential cover fire. The video corresponded with known details of the MSC Aries. The helicopter used also appeared to be a Soviet-era Mil Mi-17, which the Guard and the Houthis have used in the past to conduct commando raids on ships. The British military's United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations described the vessel as being “seized by regional authorities” in the Gulf of Oman off the Emirati port city of Fujairah, without elaborating. The MSC Aries had been last located off Dubai heading toward the Strait of Hormuz on Friday. The ship had turned off its tracking data, which has been common for Israeli-affiliated ships moving through the region. Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called on nations to list the Guard as a terrorist organization. Iran “is a criminal regime that supports Hamas’ crimes and is now conducting a pirate operation in violation of international law,” Katz said. Iran since 2019 has engaged in a series of ship seizures, and attacks on vessels have been attributed to it amid ongoing tensions with the West over its rapidly advancing nuclear program. Since November, Iran had dialed back its ship attacks as the Houthis targeted ships in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Houthi attacks have slowed in recent weeks as the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan ended, and the rebels have faced months of U.S.-led airstrikes targeting them. In previous seizures, Iran has offered initial explanations about their operations to make it seem as if the attacks had nothing to do with the wider geopolitical tensions — although later acknowledging as much. In Saturday's attack, however, Iran offered no explanation for the seizure other than to say the MSC Aries had links to Israel. For days, Iranian officials up to and including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have been threatening to “slap” Israel for the Syria strike. Western governments have issued warnings to their citizens in the region to be prepared for attacks. However, Iran in the past largely has avoided directly attacking Israel, despite it carrying out the targeted killing of nuclear scientists and multiple sabotage campaigns against Iran's atomic sites. Iran has however targeted Israeli or Jewish-linked sites through proxy forces over the decades. Earlier this week, Guard General Ali Reza Tangsiri, who oversees its naval forces, criticized the presence of Israelis in the region and in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE reached a diplomatic recognition deal with Israel in 2020, something that long has enraged Tehran. “We know that bringing Zionists in this point is not merely for economic work," Tangsiri reportedly said. "Now, they are carrying out security and military jobs, indeed. This is a threat, and this should not happen.” The U.S., Israel's main backer, has stood by the country despite growing concerns over Israel's war on Gaza killing more than 33,600 Palestinians and wounding over 76,200 more, according to Gaza Health Ministry numbers. Israel's war began after Hamas' October 7 terror attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people and saw some 250 others taken hostage. On Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden warned Iran not to attack Israel and said he felt an Iranian attack on Israel likely would happen "sooner than later.” “We will help defend Israel, and Iran will not succeed,” Biden said. The Gulf of Oman is near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all globally traded oil passes. Fujairah, on the United Arab Emirates’ eastern coast, is a main port in the region for ships to take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or trade out crew. Since 2019, the waters off Fujairah have seen a series of explosions and hijackings. The U.S. Navy blamed Iran for limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers. The UAE, meanwhile, has sought to mend ties with Iran and issued a statement condemning the suspected Israeli attack in Syria.

Police arrest international gang in $686 million medicinal cannabis scam

Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 09:25
MADRID — Police led by Spain on Thursday arrested members of a gang that allegedly defrauded $686 million from victims in 35 countries in a scam centered around cannabis plants for medicinal use.  The gang mounted a marketing system and attended international cannabis fairs to persuade victims to invest in the system, the Spanish National Police said in a statement.  It led the operation with the help of Europol and police forces in five other countries.  Nine suspects, who have not been named, were detained on April 11 on suspicion of fraud in Spain, Britain, Germany, Latvia, Poland, Italy and the Dominican Republic.  "The business model offered by this organization consisted of using the capital transferred from investors to develop partnerships to finance the cultivation of cannabis plants," said Silvia Garrido, a Spanish police spokeswoman.  "With this system, they promised victims profits of between 70% and 168% per year, depending on the species of cannabis in which they invested."  The British National Crime Agency, which took part in the operation, said 180,000 people invested funds in “JuicyFields” which it called "a notorious and elaborate Ponzi fraud scheme."  The NCA also said that a 42-year-old man appeared in a London court on April 11 for the start of extradition proceedings. Luxury cars, hotel parties and music videos were used in an advertising campaign to promote the scheme, police said, and victims were taken to legal cannabis plantations that were involved in the scam.  Police carried out raids in 2022 but did not say if any suspects have been charged with any offenses. 

Sudan faces catastrophic crisis as world looks away, aid agencies say

Voice of America’s immigration news - April 13, 2024 - 09:00
GENEVA — United Nations and international agencies warn that the lives of millions of people in Sudan are at risk as the world looks away from the enormous humanitarian needs facing the war-torn country.  Sudan has endured a year of war, which humanitarian agencies agree is causing one of the world’s worst human-made disasters. The World Health Organization said, “The war has had a staggering human cost,” with more than 15,000 deaths and an estimated 33,000 people injured.  “The number of casualties reported is likely an underestimate,” WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told journalists in Geneva Friday.  “We also expect there will be more deaths across the entire population due to displacement, disease outbreaks and the inability to access care for other health issues, maternal and newborn health needs, and lack of access to food and water,” Lindmeier said.  According to a new report by the International Organization for Migration, 20,000 people, half of them children, are forced to flee their homes in Sudan each day.  Since war erupted a year ago on April 15, the IOM said, more than 8.6 million people have been displaced — about 6.6 million inside Sudan and 1.8 million as refugees in neighboring countries.  Amy Pope, the IOM director-general, said, “Sudan is on a tragically fast track to becoming one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises in decades, and the conflict that has engulfed the country is creating pressure throughout the region.”  The World Health Organization also warned that Sudan could soon become one of the world’s worst hunger crises because nearly 18 million people are suffering from acute hunger and 5 million more are on the brink of famine.  And yet, WHO spokesperson Lindmeier said, “This is only the tip of the iceberg” of an increasingly desperate situation.  “Time is running out. Without a stop to the fighting and unhindered access for the delivery of humanitarian aid, Sudan’s crisis will dramatically worsen in the months to come and could impact the whole region,” he said  “Access for humanitarian actors is particularly constrained. Half of the states are not accessible from within Sudan. Darfur and Kordofan are inaccessible and cut off from humanitarian aid.”  Sudan’s national army and the rival Rapid Support Forces militia began fighting on April 15, 2023, each seeking to control the government. The two sides have made it difficult for aid groups and relief supplies to reach civilians.  “The situation in Sudan was already very fragile before the war, and it has now become catastrophic,” said Ozan Agbas, Medecins Sans Frontieres Emergency Operations Manager for Sudan.  In a statement issued Friday, he said “In many of the areas where MSF has started emergency activities we have not seen the return of the international humanitarian organizations that initially evacuated in April.”  MSF, which is also known as Doctors Without Borders, has accused the world of “turning a blind eye as the warring parties intentionally block humanitarian access and the delivery of aid,” thereby putting millions of people at risk.  In the runup to the first anniversary of the conflict in Sudan, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is urging the warring parties to support a cease-fire and engage in dialogue “for the sake of humanity, for the people and children who are suffering.”  Speaking in Mombasa, Kenya, IFRC Head of Delegation Farid Abdulkadir described the enormous toll the war has taken on the lives and livelihoods of the Sudanese people.  He said that the conflict has shattered the basic fabric of everyday life across Sudan and that the country’s health system has collapsed and is unable to care for the population.  “Vital infrastructure is destroyed; professionals across all sectors have lost everything. While over 700,000 children are at risk of being malnourished, the humanitarian consequence of the conflict is dire,” he said.  “But worst of all is the people’s engagement in livelihood and food production, which has both an impact now and an impact in the future,”  A report issued by the U.N. Development Program on Friday assesses the social and economic impacts of the armed conflict on rural communities.  The UNDP study surveyed more than 4,500 rural households across Sudan, concluding that the country faces an accelerating food security crisis.  It says food production and supply chains “have been disrupted by the ongoing war” and warns “that a famine in Sudan is expected in 2024,” particularly in the states of Khartoum and Al-Jazirah and in the Darfur and Kordofan regions. 

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