Uruguay Issues Travel Warning for US After Weekend Mass Shootings

Uruguay on Monday issued a warning to its citizens traveling to the United States after two mass shootings over the weekend that killed 31 people in Texas and Ohio.

In a press release, the Foreign Ministry advised avoiding cities such as Detroit, Baltimore and Albuquerque, which it said are among the 20 most dangerous in the world, citing an index by CEOWORLD magazine.

Travelers are urged to take precautions “in the face of growing indiscriminate violence, mostly for hate crimes, including racism and discrimination, which cost the lives of more than 250 people in the first seven months of this year,” it said in the release also posted on President Tabare Vazquez’s website.

The U.S. State Department had issued its own travel advisory for Uruguay on Aug. 2 due to an increase in violent crime, including homicides, armed robberies and carjacking.

On Saturday, several Mexican citizens were among the 21 people killed at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas authorities said. Hours later, another gunman killed nine people in downtown Dayton, Ohio.

Amnesty: Freed Mauritanian Blogger Arrives in Europe

VOA’s Esha Sarai contributed to this report from Mauritania. 

A Mauritanian blogger, jailed for nearly six years in Mauritania, has said he only “saw the sun six times” during his incarceration. 

Citizen journalist Mohamed Ould Cheikh Mkhaitir has arrived in Europe after being freed last week, Amnesty International said in a release Monday. 

“Mkhaitir’s long-awaited release is a welcome development. He spent more than five years behind bars, mostly in solitary confinement. Mkhaitir should never have been arrested in the first place. He will now be able to resume his education and enjoy his human rights,” Amnesty’s Kine Fatim Diop said. 

Mkhaitir was arrested in 2013 and sentenced to death for what the state called blasphemy after he wrote a blog post condemning the use of religion to justify racial discrimination. 

In 2017, a Mauritanian court commuted Mkhaitir’s sentence to two years, which he had already served, legally liberating him. However, he remained detained in an undisclosed location.

Numerous human rights organizations had called on Mauritania President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who stepped down last week, to release Mkhaitir. Arnaud Froger, head of the Africa desk at Reporters Without Borders, called the case indicative of declining press freedom in the Sahara desert country.

FILE – Mauritania’s then-President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz speaks at the United Nations headquarters, Sept. 26, 2015.

Mkhaitir’s first trial sparked protests by Islamists in the capital calling for his death. The post for which he was arrested criticized the use of religion to defend a rigid caste system in Mauritania.

Mkhaitir is of the Haratin ethnicity, sometimes referred to as black Maurs. The Haratin face systematic discrimination as severe as modern slavery, a problem the Mauritanian government asserts no longer exists.

Amnesty on Monday called on Mauritania’s new president, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, to ensure what happened to Mkhaitir “will never happen to anyone else in the country.”

“His government should immediately initiate a process to get laws criminalizing apostasy repealed. No one should be arbitrarily detained and charged, let alone sentenced to death simply for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression,” Amnesty’s Diop said. 

US, Taliban Say They’re Nearing Deal to End Afghanistan War

The United States and Taliban teams in Doha negotiating an initial deal to end the war in Afghanistan seem to have agreed on the main agenda items and are now finalizing the details of implementing them.

“We have made excellent progress,” tweeted Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. He added that his team was now discussing with the Taliban the “technical details as well as steps and mechanisms required for a successful implementation.” 

FILE – Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha, speaks to the media in Moscow, Russia, May 28, 2019.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen agreed that they had made headway but was vague on details.

“We affirm that there is progress in talks, but discussions continue to finalize everything,” he told VOA. 

Khalilzad left Doha for New Delhi Monday night for what he said was a pre-scheduled meeting in support of the Afghan peace process. But part of his team stayed behind to continue the discussions with the Taliban.

The two sides started their eighth round of negotiations Saturday on a hopeful note, both indicating they were close to the finish line. They continue to sound hopeful, but also emphasize that the few remaining steps are critical and require serious deliberations.

“Agreement on these details is essential,” Khalilzad said on Twitter.

FILE – U.S. troops wait for their helicopter flight at an Afghan National Army (ANA) base in Logar province, Afghanistan, Aug. 7, 2018.

The four-part agenda included an agreement on the U.S. withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan in return for the Taliban ensuring Afghanistan does not become a haven of terrorist groups; negotiations with other Afghans, including the government in Kabul on the future form of governance; and the announcement of a comprehensive, nationwide cease-fire.

How these items are timed and linked to each other is likely the focus of negotiation. Some of the remaining differences are evident from the tweets from the two sides.

Khalilzad insisted the U.S. troop withdrawal will be “conditions-based,” whereas the Taliban negotiation team spokesman Shaheen said it will be “based on a timetable.”  

If they reach an agreement, it could end the longest U.S. military engagement in America history.

A breakthrough in what U.S. generals called a “stalemate” occurred last year when American officials fulfilled a long-standing Taliban demand to talk to them directly, without the Kabul government, which they call a “puppet” regime.

President Donald Trump appointed Khalilzad last September to help fulfill one of his campaign promises — bring home the U.S. troops. Since then, the Afghan-born American diplomat has been almost constantly on the road, trying to develop an international, regional and national consensus on the way forward.

He has also been negotiating, along with his team, with a Taliban political team in Doha.

Last July saw another breakthrough in the process when the Taliban, who had insisted on excluding the Afghan government, agreed to meet members of the Kabul administration, albeit in their personal capacity, as part of a larger Afghan delegation. 

The war in Afghanistan started in 2001, after a U.S.-led coalition attacked the country and ousted the Taliban from power for their support of al-Qaida. The militants regrouped in neighboring Pakistan and waged a bloody insurgency, slowly gaining ground on their technically superior adversaries. Today, the Taliban control more Afghan territory than they did at any time since their ouster. 

Kashmiri Leaders Under House Arrest as Tensions Rise in Region

Three top politicians in Indian Kashmir have been placed under house arrest and strict security measures have been ordered in the region where tensions have sparked after the government ordered visitors to evacuate and deployed more troops. 

In a late night order Sunday, restrictions were placed on public movements in Kashmir, internet services suspended and educational institutions shut. The order said that indefinite security restrictions will be applicable in the main district of Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar.

The latest measures come as thousands of pilgrims and tourists have been leaving Kashmir since Friday when authorities said that militants backed by Pakistan were planning an attack on an annual Hindu pilgrimage. In an unprecedented step, the pilgrimage was halted. 

Just days ago, about 10,000 additional paramilitary troops were deployed in major towns across the region. 

The series of measures in Kashmir have sparked speculation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government plans to revoke special privileges in the region, including one that prevents people from outside the state from buying property there.

The politicians under house arrest, who head regional political parties, have warned the government that any attempt to revoke these privileges could spark a backlash in India’s only Muslim majority region. 

Hours before they were placed under house arrest, they held a meeting and in a statement vowed to fight to safeguard the special status and what they called the “identity” of Kashmir.  

Mehbooba Mufti, who heads the regional People’s Democratic Party, said on Twitter it was “ironic that elected representatives like us who fought for peace are under house arrest. The world watches as people & their voices are being muzzled.”

How ironic that elected representatives like us who fought for peace are under house arrest. The world watches as people & their voices are being muzzled in J&K. The same Kashmir that chose a secular democratic India is facing oppression of unimaginable magnitude. Wake up India

— Mehbooba Mufti (@MehboobaMufti) August 4, 2019

Another leader, from the National Conference Party, Omar Abdullah, urged people to stay calm. “I’ve no idea what is in store for our state but it doesn’t look good. I know many of you will be upset by what unfolds. Please don’t take the law into your own hands, please stay calm,” Omar Abdullah tweeted.

As panic has spread in the restive region, residents have been stocking up on food and gasoline. 

The region has witnessed an armed rebellion since 1989 by militants fighting for either independence or Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan.

The turmoil in Indian Kashmir coincides with heightened tensions along the line of control that divides the Himalayan region between India and Pakistan, with reports of cross border firing between their armies.

Pope Prays for Victims of 3 US Mass Shootings in a Week

Pope Francis is offering prayers for the dead and the injured in three U.S. mass shootings this week.

Francis told a crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the weekly Angelus blessing Sunday that “I am spiritually close to the victims of the episodes of violence that have bloodied Texas, California and Ohio, in the United States, striking defenseless people.”

He appealed to the faithful “to join my prayer for the people who lost their lives, the injured and their family members.”

Nine people in Ohio have been killed in the second mass shooting in the United States in less than 24 hours, following the shooting deaths of 20 people Saturday at a Texas shopping area. Just days before, on July 28, a gunman killed three people at a food festival in California.


Was Polish Scandal a Russian Test for US Election Tampering?

High-ranking Polish politicians used a side door to get to the VIP section of Sowa & Przyjaciele, a posh Warsaw restaurant. Sealed off from other patrons, government ministers and lawmakers felt free to speak their minds while enjoying continental cuisine and wine at taxpayers’ expense.

But the privacy was an illusion, the special dining room a trap.

For about a year, waiters secretly recorded public officials at Sowa & Przyjaciele and another restaurant, Amber Room. When a newsmagazine published transcripts from some of the recordings, it spawned a scandal dubbed “Waitergate” that helped topple a pro-European Union government.

Russian involvement

Suspicions that Russia and the nationalist political party that won Poland’s 2015 election were behind the illegal eavesdropping persisted even after a Polish multimillionaire was convicted as the mastermind. With the country’s next election coming up this fall, a Polish journalist and the jailed tycoon have provided fresh fuel for claims that Waitergate was a prelude to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Grzegorz Rzeczkowski, a respected investigative reporter for the Polityka newsmagazine, argues in a new book that Russian intelligence services carried out the restaurant buggings on behalf of the Kremlin. He also presents evidence to allege that Polish intelligence figures conspired to use the recordings to bring the right-wing Law and Justice party, or PIS, to power.

In his book, titled “In a Foreign Alphabet: How People of the Kremlin and PIS Played with the Eavesdropping,” Rzeczkowski maintains that, just as with the U.S. election meddling that special counsel Robert Mueller called “sweeping and systematic,” Russia’s goal with Waitergate was to weaken the West.

“It was to open the road to power for the anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-democratic opposition of the time,” Rzeczkowski told a Polish parliamentary panel last month. “Russia had a full, spectacular success.”

Grzegorz Rzeczkowski, an investigative reporter for the weekly Polish newsmagazine Polityka, poses with a book he has written about an eavesdropping affair that helped toppled a government, in Warsaw, Poland, June 28, 2019.

The panel stemmed from an opposition lawmaker’s push to pressure the government to shed light on the alleged Russian connection. A newspaper subsequently reported that Poland’s counterintelligence service is investigating whether a foreign spy agency played a role.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has dismissed claims of Kremlin involvement.

“Poland’s political establishment and media community have been working for years to put out a multitude of hoaxes about `Russian machinations,”‘ the ministry said. “We see no need to comment on such absurd allegations.”

A wariness that Russia is trying to destabilize democracy in central Europe has permeated politics in Poland and neighboring nations since they ended communism after decades under Moscow’s control. Many have since joined NATO and the EU while more have applied.

When the eavesdropping scandal broke five years ago, then-Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk immediately pointed to Russia. His remark would give Rzeczkowski his book title: “I do not know in which alphabet this scenario was written, but I know exactly who could be the beneficiary.”

Tusk became president of the European Council several months after the scandal unfolded, a job that involves overseeing the common agenda of the EU’s national leaders. He recently said he was more convinced now of “the Russian track in this whole affair.”

The coal tycoon’s arrest in Spain and recent extradition to Poland has added to the intrigue. Polish prosecutors accused Marek Falenta, 43, of recording the politicians to punish the government for trying to block imports of Russian coal. He fled before starting a 2-and-a-half-year prison sentence.

FILE – Polish prosecutors accused, May 17, 2016, businessman Marek Falenta of wiretapping of politicians and business people in Warsaw restaurants in 2013 and 2014 to punish the government for trying to block imports of Russian coal.

After his capture, Falenta threatened to expose Law and Justice members for allegedly recruiting him in the recording plot if he didn’t receive a presidential pardon, according to letters leaked to Polish newspapers. He told the president, prime minister and the powerful ruling party leader he expected better treatment in return for helping them.

Government officials have called the letters an act of desperation from an untrustworthy source. They refused to respond to requests by The Associated Press for comment on the allegations of Russian responsibility for Waitergate.

Dozens of politicians had hundreds of hours of conversations illegally recorded at the two restaurants between June 2013 and June 2014. Poland’s government, led at the time by Tusk’s centrist Civic Platform party, had declared a fight against Russian coal imports and was a strong advocate for the Western course that activists were agitating for in Ukraine.

The leaked recordings proved deeply embarrassing for Tusk’s government and strained ties with the U.S. They included the foreign minister complaining that Poland’s alliance with the United States “wasn’t worth anything” and put Poland, metaphorically speaking, in the position of performing oral sex.

The minister, Radek Sikorski, resigned along with three others four months before the 2015 election.

Sikorski noted Sunday that, back in 2014, there were no U.S. troops yet in Poland as there are now and said “I doubted the efficacy of the alliance.” But he says the transcript was manipulated by the magazine Wprost to suggest he called the alliance “bullshit” – when he only used that word to describe limited U.S. participation in a single NATO exercise.

Waitergate – a warning

Now a European Parliament member, Sikorski criticizes American officials for not taking Waitergate as a warning.

“We were a laboratory for what happened in the United States, and the U.S. was too arrogant to take heed,” said Sikorski, who says Russian hacking group Fancy Bear sent him one of the emails that would compromise Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. “We saw it coming. It was successfully tested in Poland.”

Under the conservative Law and Justice government that came to power in 2015, Russian coal imports have doubled. Signs of democratic backsliding, such as government encroaching on the independence of Poland’s judicial system, have caused tensions with the EU. Warsaw has almost ceased to be an advocate for Ukraine.

Central to Rzeczkowski’s theory is the former manager of Sowa & Przyjaciele, who waited on officials in the VIP room. Referred to only as Lukasz N. because of Poland’s privacy law, he previously managed another Warsaw restaurant, Lemongrass, across the street from the U.S. Embassy.

Lemongrass was established by the director of the Polish branch of Russian energy giant Lukoil with money from Russian organized crime, according to Rzeczkowski. He says counterintelligence sources told him the restaurant was a front to spy on Americans and when the cover story was blown, two Russians bought the place.

Two other businessmen with Kremlin connections opened Sowa & Przyjaciele in 2012 in cooperation with star chef Robert Sowa, the journalist says. The manager, Lukasz N., sent Polish politicians text messages inviting them to sample Sowa’s modern European dishes.

FILE – A man walks in front of the now-closed restaurant Sowa & Przyjaciele, June 20, 2014 , where top Polish politicians and business people were secretly and illegally recorded over hundreds of hours in 2013 and 2014, in Warsaw, Poland.

Rzeczkowski says other alleged links between Sowa & Przyjaciele and Russians in organized crime suggest that Falenta, the convicted Polish tycoon, did not organize Waitergate but had a supporting role.

Polish media reported last year that Falenta had a multi-million dollar debt to a Russian coal company, KTK. A leading Polish police investigator on the recordings case got a top security job at KTK – after a police investigation early on in the probe found no evidence of Russian involvement.

Tomasz Piatek, another journalist who investigates links between Polish political figures and Russia, says Rzeczkowski’s evidence is overwhelming, but he thinks fear and denial keep the truth about Waitergate from getting the attention it deserves.

“It’s a reason for pride for Poles to say we freed ourselves from Russian domination,” Piatek said. “To admit that Russians are still here and that we are still controlled by them is hard.”


Kashmir Tensions Intensify Amid India-Pakistan Skirmishes

Tensions have soared along the volatile, highly militarized frontier between India and Pakistan in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, as India deployed more troops and ordered thousands of visitors out of the region.
Indian firing Sunday along the Line of Control that separates Kashmir between the rivals wounded a woman as the ongoing skirmishes spread fear in border villages, Pakistani police said. The frontier residents on the Pakistani side are either moving out to safer places or have begun construction of new bunkers, with some strengthening existing shelters near their homes.
Pakistan and India, who both claim Kashmir in its entirety, routinely blame each other for initiating border skirmishes, but the latest ones come amid the Indian government’s evacuation order of tourists and Hindu pilgrims and a troop buildup in its part of the region.
The measures have sparked fears in Kashmir that New Delhi is planning to scrap an Indian constitutional provision that forbids Indians from outside the region from buying land in the Muslim-majority territory. In recent days, Hindu-majority India has deployed at least 10,000 troops in Kashmir, with media reports of a further 25,000 ordered to one of the world’s most militarized regions.
In Pakistan’s portion of Kashmir, Mohammad Fareed, a retired government employee in Tufrabad village near the Line of Control, said he had spent over $3,000 to construct a concrete bunker for his family of 10. “It looks like the situation is getting bad,” he said, adding that the recent shelling and the dropping of cluster bombs had created massive fear.
“People are using their savings to build bunkers. After all, if you live you will do other things,” said Fareed.
Mohammad Altaf, a trader dealing in construction material, confirmed that people were buying concrete blocks and crushed stone to construct bunkers in and around their homes.
But Mohammad Nasim opted to shift his family from Chakoti village to a safer place. “God knows what will happen the next day so it’s not wise to make a bunker. Instead I am moving away from the border area,” he said.
Raja Farooq Haider, the prime minister of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, announced Friday the sanctioning of about $19 million for community bunkers for residents living along the border.
Kashmir has grabbed the spotlight in recent days, months after a deadly militant attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy sparked cross-border air attacks and brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war. The recent escalation has come amid offers by President Donald Trump to mediate to resolve the Kashmir issue. While Pakistan welcomed the offer, India rejected it, saying the dispute was between the two countries.
Amid the evacuation order, hundreds of Indian and foreign visitors, including some Hindu pilgrims, continued congregating outside the main terminal at the airport in Srinagar, the region’s main city, seeking seats on flights out.
The Indian air force flew 326 tourists out of Srinagar, the Press Trust of India news agency reported. Out of 11,301 tourists, only 1,652 remained on Saturday, PTI said.
Tourists and pilgrims also took buses out of the region, with authorities busing out hundreds of Indian students from Srinagar colleges.
The order on Friday cited the “prevailing security situation” and the “latest intelligence inputs of terror threats with specific targeting” of the annual Hindu pilgrimage as reasons for the advisory. Several governments issued similar travel advisories.
Kashmiri politicians and ordinary residents fear the government measures are a prelude to doing away with Kashmir’s special status and intensifying an ongoing crackdown against anti-India dissenters. Kashmir, a region known for lush green valleys, lakes, meadows and dense forested mountains, has become notorious for security lockdowns and crackdowns.
In its election manifesto earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party promised to do away with special rights for Kashmiris under India’s constitution.
Rumors continued swirling in the region on Sunday, ranging from the disarming of Kashmiri police forces, to the Indian military taking over local police installations, to a sweeping military crackdown being planned ahead of India’s independence day on Aug. 15.
“India is getting cornered at the geostrategic level as America seeks Pakistani help for withdrawing from Afghanistan,” said Fayaz Ahmed, a political science teacher in Srinagar. “In turn, India is mounting pressure on Pakistan by building up tensions in Kashmir though militaristic approaches inside Kashmir as well as along the frontier.”
Meanwhile, Pakistan late Saturday accused India of using banned cluster munitions to target the civilian population, killing two people. The Indian army rejected the claim, saying Indian soldiers killed at least five attackers while foiling an attempt by gunmen from Pakistan’s side of Kashmir to target an Indian post.
Rebels in Indian-controlled Kashmir have been fighting Indian control since 1989. Most Kashmiris support the rebels’ demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control. About 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian crackdown.

       Mughal reported from Muzaffarabad, Pakistan. Associated Press writer Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.

       AP-WF-08-04-19 1058GMT


Police: Active-Shooter Situation Underway in El Paso, Texas

Police in El Paso, Texas, said Saturday that they were responding to an active- shooter situation at a shopping mall. 
There was no immediate word on whether there had been injuries or fatalities in the reported shooting at a Walmart store in Cielo Vista Mall. 

Police said multiple shooters were being reported and the area around the mall had been blocked off as authorities searched for suspects. 
Stores in the area were locked down.  
El Paso is a city in the far western part of southern state of Texas.