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Sweden Set to Join NATO After Hungary Finally Approves Bid

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 26, 2024 - 18:50
London — Sweden is set to officially join NATO after Hungary finally gave its approval Monday, the last member of the Western alliance to ratify the bid. Analysts say the addition of the Nordic nation to NATO as its 32nd member will bring significant military capabilities to the Western alliance. Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said it was a "historic day" for his country. "Sweden is now leaving 200 years of neutrality and nonalignment behind us. It is a big step. We must take that seriously. But it is also a very natural step that we are taking," Kristersson said at a news conference in Stockholm on Monday, following the Hungarian approval. "Membership of NATO means that we now join a large number of democracies that work together for peace and freedom. A new home where neighbors cooperate for safety and a group of countries that, in practice, we have belonged for a very long time," he added. Hungary vote Hungarian lawmakers passed the vote with an overwhelming margin of 188 in favor of Sweden's accession and only six against the motion. Earlier, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had urged MPs to approve the bid. "The Swedish-Hungarian military cooperation and Sweden's accession to NATO will strengthen Hungary's security," Orban said ahead of the vote. Sweden's submitted its application to join NATO along with Finland in May 2022, three months after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Finland's application was ratified relatively quickly, and it joined the alliance in April 2023. However, Sweden's bid was held up by Turkey and Hungary. Ankara claimed that Sweden was harboring Kurdish groups, which it considers terrorists. Turkey eventually approved the NATO bid in January after Sweden introduced new anti-terror laws. Hungary's objections to Sweden's NATO accession were less clear. Orban had voiced anger over Sweden's criticism of a perceived democratic backsliding in his country. A visit by Kristersson to Budapest last Friday – and the purchase by Hungary of four Swedish Gripen fighter jets – appear to have helped overcome the tensions. US ambassador The U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Pressman, who has been critical of Budapest's delaying the ratification, welcomed the vote. "Sweden's accession to NATO will advance the security of the United States, the security of Hungary and the security of the alliance, and this has been a decision that has taken some time and we look forward to it," Pressman told reporters outside the Hungarian parliament. "Sweden has been waiting to join the alliance for now almost two years and a step forward has [been] taken, and this process should conclude rapidly," he added. Swedish forces have been training alongside NATO forces for decades, but formal membership will allow far deeper coordination of deployment and defense planning. Sweden is expected to officially join NATO in the coming days or weeks, breaking its long-held policy of military non-alignment. "The final piece of the puzzle falling into place, making NATO's position in the Nordic-Baltic region whole. Sweden gains security in a crowd and supported by American nuclear deterrence," said Robert Dalsjo, a senior analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, adding that valuable military capabilities will be added to the alliance. "We have a modern air force, with Gripen planes. We have excellent submarines, especially adapted to the conditions in the Baltic Sea. We have a small but high-tech navy and we have, on the ground, we have sub-arctic capabilities," Dalsjo told Reuters. Baltic defense Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are widely seen as among the most vulnerable NATO member states to a potential attack by Russia. Having Finland and Sweden in the alliance creates a powerful deterrence, according to Charly Salonius-Pasternak of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. "Enabling the defense of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia from different angles. It will be possible to do very large, combined, air operations looking at directions from north Finland, and northwest to western Sweden, with both of those countries as NATO members, something that was not possible to plan as little as a year ago," Salonius-Pasternak told VOA. Swedish public opinion swung dramatically in favor of joining NATO after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The latest opinion polls suggest around two-thirds of Swedes approve of its membership. Stockholm residents largely welcomed Hungary's ratification of the bid. "Finally, it's been a long wait until Hungary to get the acceptance in the Parliament and what's behind the scenes for it taking this long. But it's good to finally be here. We have been preparing for a bit of time for this," Jimmy Dahllof, a boat captain from Stockholm, told Agence France-Presse. Finland's experience of joining NATO has lessons for Sweden, said Helsinki-based Salonius-Pasternak. "It's the first steps of an ongoing process – a cultural change at the highest political level, societal level – that we are now responsible for our own defense but together and as part of an alliance, rather than solely 'we alone' thinking. And this I honestly think will be a generational shift," he told VOA. An accession ceremony is expected in the coming days after final formalities of Sweden's membership are completed. Writing on X, formerly Twitter, NATO's secretary-general said Monday that Sweden's accession "will make us all stronger and safer." Russia response Russia did not immediately respond to Hungary's ratification. In the past Moscow has said that NATO membership would make Sweden "a legitimate target for Russian retaliatory measures." Kristersson said Monday that Moscow had itself to blame. "As far as Russia is concerned, the only thing we can safely expect is that they do not like Sweden becoming a NATO member. They didn't like Finland becoming a NATO member either," Kristersson said. "The whole purpose was to emphasize that a country like Ukraine would not be allowed to choose its own path. Instead of accepting that Russia had veto rights over Ukraine's way forward, NATO has now, soon instead gained two new members." He added, "Russia does not like it. What else they do, we cannot know. We are prepared for all sorts of things. What we see all the time are disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks and that sort of thing. I think our whole part of the world is on its toes to face many different things."

Sweden to Join NATO After Hungary Finally Approves Bid 

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 26, 2024 - 18:43
Sweden is expected to officially join NATO in the coming days or weeks, after Hungary finally gave its approval Monday – the last member to do so. As Henry Ridgwell reports, analysts say Sweden brings important capabilities to the Western defense alliance.

Vietnam Has High Hopes for Increasing Food Exports to China 

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 26, 2024 - 18:33
washington — Vietnam expects to increase its agricultural exports to China this year as the two countries have agreed to review regulations opening the market to greater quantities of poultry, fish and fruits.   Pham Thi Huan, the founder of Ba Huan Corp. in Ho Chi Minh City, one of Vietnam’s largest poultry and egg suppliers, said she would welcome greater access to China’s market of 1.4 billion consumers.   “My company has not exported chicken meat or eggs into China mainland. Lifting this ban will open doors to my company and many Vietnamese livestock farmers,” Pham told VOA Vietnamese by phone February 21.   In 2023, livestock products accounted for only 1% of the $12.2 billion in agricultural, forestry and aquatic products exported to China, according to the official news outlet Vietnam Plus. Exports of milk and milk products account for 93% of the total export value of Vietnam's livestock products to China, according to the minister of agriculture and rural development.  Tran Thanh Nam, Vietnam's deputy minister of agriculture and rural development,  announced after his five-day trip to China last month that China had agreed to consider lifting the ban on poultry imports from Vietnam, the official Vietnam News and Vietnam Agriculture reported on January 31.     High demand for meat Nam said that China’s consumer demand for meat products is worth about $400 billion annually, and there is great potential for exporting meat from Vietnam, China’s Xinhua reported.  Nam’s working trip to Beijing and Guangzhou January 14-20 was aimed at boosting the two nations’ cooperation in farm produce import and export activities, he said.   On January 16, Nam had separate meetings with Ma Youxiang, China’s vice minister of agriculture and rural affairs, and Zhao Zenglian, deputy chief of the General Administration of Customs,  to request that China open its market to Vietnamese products.    China’s General Administration of Customs has agreed to a prompt completion of the documentation to sign three protocols, Nam said.   These would cover the export of sustainably caught seafood, the export of farmed crocodiles, and the export of monkeys raised for scientific research from Vietnam to China, according to the website of Vietnam's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.     Also, the two nations reached a consensus on reopening China to Vietnam’s tropical rock lobsters, Nam said, adding that China is considering importing Vietnamese avocados and passion fruit as well.   “Nam’s business trip [to] China will help flourish fruit, vegetable exports to China in 2024,” Dang Phuc Nguyen, general secretary of the Vietnam Fruit and Vegetable Association, who accompanied Nam to China, told VOA Vietnamese by phone on February 21.   Active partners Vietnam has been China's largest trading partner among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations since 2016, with bilateral trade accounting for 25% of China's total trade with the 10-member regional bloc in the first 11 months of 2023, according to China’s General Administration of Customs.    The two neighboring countries have “large space for cooperation in the agricultural sector,” Xinhua reported on December 13.   In the first 11 months of 2023, China imported 44.62 billion yuan or more than $6.2 billion worth of Vietnamese agricultural products, marking a year-on-year increase of 20.3%, according to the Xinhua report.  In 2023, Vietnam’s livestock products constituted only 1% of the total agricultural, forestry and fishery export value to China, amounting to $12.2 billion, according to the International Trade Council.   The ITC said this modest share was primarily attributed to Vietnam's lack of official authorization for meat product exports to China, referring to China’s Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI)-related import bans.     For many years, many of Vietnam's livestock products, including pork, beef, chicken and buffalo meat, have been subject to unofficial quotas at border crossings, also according to the ITC, which has 179 member nations.  These products have encountered assorted border-related obstacles, as well as heightened scrutiny and stricter control standards, according to the ITC.   China is the biggest import market for Vietnam’s fruit, with the import turnover reaching $3.7 billion in 2023, up nearly 250% in value and 65% in market share compared with 2022, Vietnam media reported.  Vietnam has 14 types of fruits and agricultural products officially licensed to enter China - dragon fruit, watermelon, banana, lychee, longan, rambutan, jackfruit, mango, mangosteen, durian and passion fruit, plus black jelly, sweet potato and bird’s nest - according to the official Vietnam Economy website and Voice of Vietnam.   The watermelon agreement was signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Vietnam last December, in addition to five others, which had been included in previous protocols: mangosteen, black jelly, durian, banana and sweet potato.   Dang said that the Chinese market is ripe for Vietnamese fruits and vegetables. He added that Chinese consumers favor Vietnamese durian products. If an agreement allowing export of frozen durian is signed, he estimates that the Chinese market “for fresh and frozen durian will bring in about $3.5 billion” to Vietnam. 

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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 26, 2024 - 18:00
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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 26, 2024 - 17:00
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Ethiopia Arrests French Journalist

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 26, 2024 - 16:45
washington — A French journalist on assignment in Ethiopia is in custody after being arrested in the capital, Addis Ababa. Antoine Galindo, who works for the Paris-based media outlet Africa Intelligence, was arrested at a hotel while interviewing Bate Urgessa, a spokesperson for the opposition Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) party. Police also detained Bate, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists or CPJ. Police accused the reporter of “conspiracy to create chaos,” according to a statement by Galindo’s employer. He was detained Thursday and a court on Saturday ordered that the journalist be held until March 1. Africa Intelligence in a statement said that a lawyer for the publication attended the hearing Saturday. The publication added that it “condemns the unjustified arrest ... and calls for [Galindo’s] immediate release.” Galindo heads the Eastern Africa and Horn section of Africa Intelligence. He traveled to Ethiopia on February 13 to cover the African Union summit and other local reporting assignments, according to his employer. The Ethiopian Embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment. International press freedom groups condemned the arrest and called for Ethiopian authorities to free Galindo. “The baseless and unjustified detention of Antoine Galindo for carrying out his legitimate journalistic duties is outrageous,” said CPJ’s Angela Quintal in a statement. Quintal, who heads CPJ’s Africa program, said that Ethiopia has a “dismal” press freedom record and is detaining at least eight other journalists. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders or RSF said in a statement that Galindo’s arrest comes amid a difficult climate for media in Ethiopia. “The authorities are trying to control the narrative of recent social and political tensions, [and] there is growing hostility towards independent journalism that seeks to cover any national issues,” said Sadibou Marong, who is director of RSF’s sub-Saharan Africa bureau. “The authorities are also targeting foreign media and journalists. Antoine Galindo’s totally arbitrary detention is a terrible example,” Marong added. Human rights activists have criticized Ethiopia's restrictions on media, including coverage of conflicts and security issues. Foreign journalists have been expelled from Ethiopia or denied accreditations to work in recent years. The last case of foreign journalists being detained was in 2011, when two journalists from Sweden were arrested. They were sentenced to 11 years in prison for helping and promoting a rebel group and entering the country illegally before being pardoned and released the following year, Reuters reported. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed freed dozens of jailed members of the media when he came to power in 2018 as part of a raft of political reforms. But critics say his government has cracked down hard on dissent as civil conflicts, including a 2020-2022 war in the northern Tigray region, have broken out. Abiy says he is guaranteeing stability and law and order in the multiethnic nation. Some information in this report came from Reuters.

Zelenskiyy Says 31,000 Troops Killed Since Russia’s Invasion as War Enters Third Year

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 26, 2024 - 16:17
As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine official enters a third year President Volodymr Zalenskyy says 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the start of the war in February 2022. U.S. President Joe Biden is summoning congressional leaders to the White House to talk Ukraine and government funding. After enduring 2 years of war as communities are reduced to rubble and with uncertainty for the future, how are Ukrainians coping? During the two years since Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukrainian Railways became the country's key means of transportation. With over 22,000 kilometers of track, how the state-owned network keeps working despite constant damage from shelling.

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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 26, 2024 - 16:00
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Thousands in Warsaw Mark Anniversary of Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 26, 2024 - 15:09
More than 20,000 people gathered at a rally in Warsaw Saturday to mark the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Despite a difficult situation on the Polish-Ukrainian border, where Polish farmers, complaining about unfair competition, have almost completely blocked the export of some Ukrainian goods, Polish politicians reassured demonstrators that their support of Ukraine is unchanged. Lesia Bakalets has the story from Warsaw. Camera: Daniil Batushchak

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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 26, 2024 - 15:00
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IAEA: Iran's Uranium Stock Enriched to 60% Shrinks

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 26, 2024 - 14:47
vienna — Iran's stock of uranium enriched to near weapons-grade has shrunk, bringing it below the theoretical threshold at which it could produce three atom bombs, but problems with inspectors persist, reports by the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Monday. Although the International Atomic Energy Agency has said Iran's enrichment of uranium to up to 60% continues apace, Iran diluted more than it produced in the past three months, one of the two confidential quarterly reports to member states said. The IAEA reports did not give a reason for the so-called “down-blending” of 31.8 kg of material enriched to up to 60%, after which the stock fell by an estimated 6.8 kg since the last such quarterly reports to 121.5 kg. "At the beginning of the year they decided to do a down-blending. ... A couple of weeks later they did another down-blending, this time with a smaller amount," a senior diplomat said when asked about the reports seen by Reuters, adding that it was not clear why Iran had done it. "Maybe they don't want to increase tensions [with the West]. Maybe they have an agreement with somebody. We don't know." At the end of last year Iran had enough uranium enriched to up to 60% purity — close to the roughly 90% of weapons-grade — to potentially, if enriched further, produce three nuclear bombs, according to the IAEA's theoretical definition. It also has stocks of uranium enriched to lower levels with which it could, if it wanted to, produce enough fuel for more bombs. Iran denies having any such intention. Western powers say there is no civilian justification for such high enrichment. Iran slowed its enrichment of uranium to up to 60% purity last year in what diplomats said was probably the result of secret talks between Washington and Tehran that led to the release of U.S. citizens held in Iran. In November, however, Iran ended that slowdown and returned to its pre-slowdown production rate of around 9 kg a month from the slowdown rate of 3 kg, an IAEA report in December showed. IAEA chief Rafael Grossi told Reuters last week the rate had slowed slightly since the end of last year to around 7 kg a month. The senior diplomat said, however, that Grossi was using an average over months and the current rate was 9 kg a month. The secret talks have ended and there is little hope of reviving them with the Israel-Hamas conflict raging, diplomats have said. There is also little sign the United States and its allies are prepared to take action like pushing for a resolution against Iran at the IAEA's Board of Governors meeting next week. The reports said Iran has failed to provide the necessary cooperation on various pressing issues, such as the so-called de-designation of some inspectors that has drastically reduced the expertise on uranium enrichment the IAEA can deploy in Iran. "The Director General [Grossi] deeply regrets that Iran has yet to reverse its decision to withdraw the designations for these inspectors. This is essential to fully allow the Agency to conduct its verification activities in Iran effectively," one of the reports said.

Experts Doubt ECOWAS Easing Sanctions on Juntas Will Have Impact

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 26, 2024 - 14:27
Abuja, Nigeria — The decision by West African regional bloc ECOWAS to suspend sanctions against Niger and to ease sanctions on Mali and Guinea has been mostly welcomed by regional political analysts. ECOWAS said its decision, announced Saturday, was based on humanitarian grounds and will pave the way for talks with the three countries’ military juntas. But some analysts are skeptical the decision will have much effect. Forty-eight hours after ECOWAS announced its decision, there's excitement over the development in Niger and parts of northern Nigeria affected by the measure. ECOWAS unfroze Niger’s assets in West Africa, suspended border closures and ended the no-fly-zone for commercial flights to and from Niger. Idayat Hassan, a senior associate for the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the decision should make life easier for average people in Niger. "There's actually expected to be like an improvement in the economy of this country. Particularly when it comes to Nigeria and Niger, we expect to see even the flow of food, goods and services. Beyond that citizens will have access to services more than they used to. We expect that the price of food will reduce in this country," said Hassan. The sanctions were the regional bloc's response to the July ouster of Niger’s President Mohammed Bazoum by the military. But the measure, considered the most stringent meted out on any member state, hit Niger hard. The extreme poverty rate in Niger has surpassed 40 percent, according to the World Bank. The regional body said Saturday its decision to suspend sanctions was based on humanitarian considerations and to enable further dialogue with Niger's military junta. ECOWAS has been struggling to stop a wave of military takeovers and political crisis rocking West Africa. Last month Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, all governed by juntas, announced withdrawal from ECOWAS, criticizing the bloc’s sanctions on military governments. Political analyst Ahmed Buhari said it is unlikely that lifting sanctions will change those countries’ position. "I think the real question is does Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali even care about the lifting of the sanctions? The thing is those guys have moved on, those guys have put their acts together, they have a direction. Our approach on foreign affairs relationships with those countries especially as headed by ECOWAS was flawed right from the beginning," he said. In September, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso created a bloc known as the Alliance of Sahel States. Last week, the alliance announced it was creating a confederation and could launch a joint currency soon. Buhari said if that happens, it will have “serious consequences for regional integration and development.”

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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 26, 2024 - 14:00
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Ex-FBI Informant Charged With Lying About Bidens to Remain Jailed While Awaiting Trial

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 26, 2024 - 13:49
Los Angeles — A former FBI informant charged with fabricating a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme involving President Joe Biden's family must remain behind bars while he awaits trial, a judge ruled Monday, reversing an earlier order releasing the man. U.S. District Judge Otis Wright II in Los Angeles ordered Alexander Smirnov's detention after prosecutors raised concerns that the man who claims to have ties to Russian intelligence could flee the country. A different judge had released Smirnov from jail on electronic GPS monitoring after his Feb. 14 arrest, but Wright ordered him to be taken back into custody last week after prosecutors asked to reconsider Smirnov's detention. Wright said in a written order unsealed Friday that Smirnov's lawyers' efforts to free him were "likely to facilitate his absconding from the United States." Smirnov is charged with falsely telling his FBI handler that executives from the Ukrainian energy company Burisma had paid President Biden and Hunter Biden $5 million each around 2015. The claim became central to the Republican impeachment inquiry of President Biden in Congress. In urging the judge to keep him in jail, prosecutors revealed Smirnov has reported to the FBI having extensive contact with officials associated with Russian intelligence, and claimed that such officials were involved in passing a story to him about Hunter Biden. Prosecutors said Smirnov had been planning to travel overseas to multiple countries days after his Feb. 14 arrest where he said he was meeting with foreign intelligence contacts. Smirnov, who holds dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship, is charged by the same Justice Department special counsel who has separately filed gun and tax charges against Hunter Biden. Smirnov has not entered a plea to the charges, but his lawyers have said they look forward to defending him at trial. Defense attorneys have said in pushing for his release that he has no criminal history and has strong ties to the United States, including a longtime significant other who lives in Las Vegas. In his ruling last week releasing Smirnov on GPS monitoring, U.S. Magistrate Judge Daniel Albregts in Las Vegas said he was concerned about his access to what prosecutors estimate is $6 million in funds, but noted that federal guidelines required him to fashion "the least restrictive conditions" ahead of his trial. Smirnov was re-arrested on Thursday morning while meeting with his lawyers at their offices in downtown Las Vegas. In an emergency petition with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Smirnov's lawyers said Wright did not have the authority to order Smirnov to be taken back into custody. The defense also criticized what it described as "biased and prejudicial statements" from Wright insinuating that Smirnov's lawyers were acting improperly by advocating for his release. The appeals court on Sunday evening denied Smirnov's emergency petition, refusing to block Monday's hearing or assign the case to a different judge. Smirnov had been an informant for more than a decade when he made the explosive allegations about the Bidens in June 2020, after "expressing bias" about Joe Biden as a presidential candidate, prosecutors said. Smirnov had only routine business dealings with Burisma starting in 2017, according to court documents. No evidence has emerged that Joe Biden acted corruptly or accepted bribes in his current role or previous office as vice president. While his identity wasn't publicly known before the indictment, Smirnov's claims have played a major part in the Republican effort in Congress to investigate the president and his family, and helped spark what is now a House impeachment inquiry into Biden. Republicans pursuing investigations of the Bidens demanded the FBI release the unredacted form documenting the unverified allegations, though they acknowledged they couldn't confirm if they were true.

Palestinian Prime Minister Resigns

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 26, 2024 - 13:35
Will the resignation of the Palestinian prime minister open the door for reforms? Human Rights Watch says Israel isn’t doing enough to protect civilians. Are peace talks in the works for the Russia Ukraine war? Plus, Hungary votes to allow Sweden in to NATO and more tension in the South China Sea.