Brazil’s Bolsonaro Suggests NGOs Setting Amazon Fires, Gives No Proof

Brazil’s official monitoring agency is reporting a sharp increase in wildfires this year, and President Jair Bolsonaro suggested Wednesday, without citing evidence, that non-governmental organizations could be setting them to make him look bad.

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, a federal agency monitoring deforestation and wildfires, said the country has seen a record number of wildfires this year, counting 74,155 as of Tuesday, an 84 percent increase compared to the same period last year. Bolsonaro took office on Jan. 1.

“Maybe — I am not affirming it — these (ONG people) are carrying out some criminal actions to draw attention against me, against the government of Brazil,” Bolsonaro said in a video posted on his Facebook account. “This is the war we are facing.”

When asked by reporters if he had evidence, the president did not provide any.

The states that have been most affected by fires this year are Mato Grosso, Para and Amazonas — all in the Amazon region — accounting for 41.7 percent of all fires. 

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro gestures after his speech to the participants of the Brazilian Steel Congress, in Brasilia, Brazil, Aug. 21, 2019.

“It is very difficult to have natural fires in the Amazon; it happens but the majority come from the hand of humans,” said Paulo Moutinho, co-founder of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute.

Moutinho, who has been working in the Amazon forests for nearly 30 years, said fires are mostly used to clean up vast areas of land for farming or logging.

The fires can easily get out of control, especially now during the Amazon’s dry season, and spread to densely forested protected areas. 
This year, the Amazon has not suffered from serious dryness, Moutinho said. “We’re lucky. If we had had droughts like in the past four years, this would be even worse.”

Pro-development policies 

Bolsonaro, who once threatened to leave the Paris climate accord, has repeatedly attacked environmental nonprofits, seen as obstacles in his quest to develop the country’s full economic potential, including in protected areas.

Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles are both close to the powerful rural caucus in Congress and have been urging more development and economic opportunities in the Amazon region, which they consider overly protected by current legislation.

Some NGOs, environmentalists and academics have been blaming the administration’s pro-development policies for a sharp increase in Amazon deforestation shown in the latest data from the space research institute.

The government is also facing international pressure to protect the vast rainforest from illegal logging or mining activities. The Amazon is often referred to as the lungs of our planet because it is a major absorber of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Citing Brazil’s apparent lack of commitment to fighting deforestation, Germany and Norway have decided to withhold more than $60 million in funds earmarked for sustainability projects in Brazil’s forests.

FILE – Brazil’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles speaks during a news conference at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Aug. 1, 2019.

French and German leaders have also threatened not to ratify a trade deal between the European Union and Mercosur countries to pressure Brazil into complying with its environmental pledges within the Paris Climate Agreement.

But experts say Brazilians and particularly farmers could be the first victims of excessive deforestation, as it could affect the regional climate, bringing higher temperatures and less rain.

Climate change workshop

Meanwhile, Environment Minister Salles was booed Wednesday as he took the stage at a five-day U.N. workshop on climate change in the northern state of Bahia — an event he had tried to cancel earlier this year.

Some in the audience shouted while waving signs reading, “Stop Ecocide” or “The Amazon is burning.”

Salles spoke briefly, saying climate change needs to be addressed.

“People are asking for more and more actions. … There is an acknowledgment that we are in a situation of crisis and emergency,” said Manuel Pulgar Vidal, former environment minister of Peru, who attended the event. 
Vidal, who now works for the nonprofit WWF, said the criticism directed at Salles could eventually prod the administration into taking action on climate change. “There is no room for negationism,” Vidal said. 

4 Students Shot at Block Party near Clark Atlanta University

Four college students were wounded when a gunman opened fire into a crowd of 200 people outside a library near Clark Atlanta University and then escaped in the chaos, authorities said.

All four injured women were in stable condition after the gunfire, which happened shortly after 10:30 p.m. Tuesday. None of their injuries were life-threatening, Atlanta police said.

The shooter had not yet been apprehended Wednesday morning.

The four students were shot outside a library that serves Clark Atlanta and other nearby historically black colleges.

The block party, held the night before the first day of classes, was celebrating the end of orientation for new students.

“Parents should send their kids away and think they’re OK,” Clark Atlanta junior Brooklyn Scott told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Scott said the shooting underscores the need for more campus police officers and security measures.

“Anyone can get on this campus,” sophomore Jasmine Phelps told the newspaper.

On Wednesday, there was a heavy security presence on campus and in front of the library. A couple of Atlanta police officers stood on a corner across the street.

Investigators on Wednesday were checking surveillance cameras in the area, Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos told The Associated Press. Police wouldn’t say what the cameras might have captured.

The gunshots began after an argument broke out between two parties and someone opened fire, investigators said. Video aired by WXIA-TV shows dozens of students running frantically after the gunshots were heard.

“It appears there were two separate groups that were targeting each other, and these people were just caught in the crossfire,” Atlanta police Capt. William Ricker told reporters.

Two of the victims are 17-year-old and 18-year-old students at Spelman College, a nearby all-women’s school. Investigators believe the other two women are 18-year-old and 19-year-old Clark Atlanta students, police said.

Clark Atlanta’s Office of Religious Life announced a prayer vigil for Wednesday evening. “Evil will not have its way on our campus,” it said on social media.

Some students Wednesday discussed the shooting among themselves as they walked past the library. Security guards did not permit interviews with the students in front of the library, which is private property.

“We are asking our faculty to be aware and prepared to support those students experiencing the effects of this incident, Lucille Mauge, Clark Atlanta’s interim president, said in a message to students.

Atlanta police routinely work with Clark Atlanta’s police department, as they do with campus police at other schools in the city such as Georgia State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“We’re always very much aware when school is open at the campuses inside the city of Atlanta and we do make a concerted effort to work closely with the campus police, and make sure we properly patrol our areas,” Campos said.


2 US Service Members Killed in Afghanistan

Two U.S. service members were “killed in action” Wednesday in Afghanistan, the U.S. military said, as talks between the U.S. and the Taliban were set to resume in Qatar. 
U.S. officials confirmed this was an active combat situation but would not say which enemy the U.S. troops were fighting. An official with the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan told VOA an investigation was continuing. 
The identities of the two service members were not released, pending notification of their next of kin. 
The Trump administration and the Taliban have been negotiating to find a way out of the United States’ longest war. 
U.S. President Donald Trump shared details of the meetings with reporters on Sunday as he headed back to the White House from New Jersey, suggesting a U.S. troop drawdown plan was still in the works. 
“We’re having very good discussions [with the Taliban]. We will see what happens. We’ve really got it down to probably 13,000 people [troops], and we’ll be bringing it down a little bit more and then we will decide whether or not we will be staying longer or not,” he said. 
The U.S. plans to leave behind a “very significant intelligence” force, Trump stressed, for operations against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida, maintaining that Afghanistan remained “a breeding ground” for terrorists. 

Child Migrants To Be Held In Detention Longer under New Trump Administration Rule

The Trump administration on Wednesday unveiled new rules that would allow officials to detain migrant families indefinitely while judges consider whether to grant them asylum in the United States.

The new rules, which are certain to draw a legal challenge, would replace a 1997 legal agreement that limits the amount of time U.S. immigration authorities can detain migrant children.

The agreement is generally interpreted as meaning families must be released within 20 days.

Administration officials blame the so-called Flores Settlement Agreement for a spike in immigration, saying it encourages migrants to bring children with them so they can be released into the United States while their court cases are pending.

Department of Homeland Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the new rule would have a deterrent effect by showing prospective immigrants that they will not necessarily get released into the country if they show up at the border with children.

Families typically have to wait several months for their cases to work their way through immigration court, DHS officials said, and the new rule would allow DHS to keep those families at detention facilities.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has repeatedly said that detention is not suitable for children, who may suffer numerous negative physical and emotional symptoms. Officials said the families would receive mental health treatment and other services.

Trump has made a crackdown on immigration, legal and illegal, central to his presidency. The administration unveiled a sweeping rule last week that would deny visas and permanent residency to poor migrants, a move that experts say could cut legal immigration in half.

Immigration officials have struggled to handle a surge of families and children fleeing violence and poverty in Central America that have at times overwhelmed border officials.

DHS officials say they have apprehended 390,000 family units since last October.

The administration sought to deter migrants last year through a “zero tolerance” policy that separated thousands of children from their parents but abandoned the effort in the face of widespread public outrage.

Over the last four years, only 18% of immigrants who have been released into the United States complied with a court order to leave the country, while 97% of those in detention were removed, according to DHS figures.

The new rule is due to take effect in 60 days, but that deadline is likely to slip as it is certain to face numerous legal challenges.

US Drone Shot Down Over Yemen

A U.S. MQ-9 drone was shot down over Yemen by Houthi rebels late Tuesday, a U.S. official told VOA.

“It’s the Houthis, but its enabled by Iran,” the official said, speaking to VOA on the condition of anonymity.

The drone was hit by a surface-to-air missile in the country’s southeast, according to reports.

The latest downing comes amid increased tensions between the United States and Iran. It also comes as Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, commander of U.S Central Command, which overseas U.S. military operations in the Middle East, is in the region to build a coalition to secure maritime routes from Tehran.

Bahrain, Australia, the United States and Britain have joined together in the “International Maritime Security Construct” to secure the region’s vital shipping lanes after Iran seized a British-flagged and Swedish-owned oil tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Gulf.

Stena Impero remains in Iranian detention.

The U.S. has also blamed Iran for attacking tankers in the Gulf of Oman in June and placing mines on four tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in May, accusations Iran has denied.

Tuesday’s downing is not the first time Houthi rebels have shot down a U.S. drone in Yemen. A U.S.-operated MQ-9 drone was shot down by the Iranian-backed rebels in June, according to officials.

The MQ-9 Reaper is a remotely piloted, long-endurance aircraft used to strike dynamic targets. It can also be used to collect intelligence.

The U.S. military flies drones over Yemen to target al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State militants.

There were 36 U.S. military airstrikes in Yemen in 2018.

In January, a U.S. airstrike in Yemen’s Marib governorate targeted Jamal al-Badawi, one of the alleged masterminds of the USS Cole bombing, which killed 17 sailors in 2000.



Tourism Suffers in Kashmir After Region’s Autonomy Revoked by India

India has slightly eased its communications blockade in Kashmir but conditions in the contested region are still not normal some two weeks after the Indian government announced it was revoking Kashmir’s autonomy.  While some landlines have been reconnected, mobile and Internet access are reportedly still cut-off, a situation that has hurt local businesses, including the tourism industry.  VOA’s Arash Arabasadi has more.

Pompeo: Iran’s Interference Has ‘Devastating Humanitarian Consequences’

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has named Iran as the biggest threat to the security and stability of the Middle East. In a speech to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday addressing complex challenges facing the Middle East, Pompeo called for “fresh thinking” to solve “old problems.” Some participants blamed regional and international powers, including the United States, for adding to the tensions in the region with their selfish unilateral moves. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

Russian Parliament Accuses US of Political Interference

Russian politicians are accusing the United States of trying to interfere in Moscow’s upcoming elections by helping to organize mass rallies, a charge the U.S. denies. Parliament members meeting this week have formed a committee to investigate to investigate foreign meddling, as Yulia Savchenko reports from Moscow.