Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Dead at 91

Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the man long seen as the symbol of stability in the Middle East but who was ousted in a popular uprising, is dead. The former leader was 91 and died Tuesday. VOA’s Elizabeth Arrott looks back at the man called by some a modern pharaoh.


From: MeNeedIt

Actor Jussie Smollett Pleads Not Guilty to Restored Charges

Former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett pleaded not guilty Monday to restored charges that accuse him of staging a racist, homophobic attack against himself last year in Chicago and then falsely reporting to that the phony attack was real.   

A somber looking Smollett, 37, entered a Cook County courthouse wearing sunglasses and sporting a beard, flanked by his legal teams and surrounded by reporters.
His lawyer, Tina Glandian, entered the not guilty pleas on his behalf to six counts of felony disorderly conduct. She also told Judge James B. Linn that she has asked the Illinois Supreme Court to halt the case.    

Smollett pleaded not guilty to 16 counts of the charge in the same courthouse last year, just weeks before the Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office abruptly announced it was dismissing the case, angering police and City Hall.
Special Prosecutor Dan Webb, a former U.S. attorney who was appointed to examine the state’s attorney’s office’s handling of the case, represented the state. Foxx’s office is not involved in the new case against Smollett.
Smollett has repeatedly denied police allegations that he staged the attack to get attention and further his career.
Defendants typically enter not guilty pleas during initial hearings before the trial judge, who sets bond amounts that defendants must post to secure their release. Attorneys often arrange for defendants to post bond at the clerk’s office rather than be taken into custody.
Smollett, who is black and gay, told police that two masked men attacked him as he was walking home in the early hours of Jan. 29, 2019. He said they made racist and homophobic insults, beat him and looped a noose around his neck before fleeing, and that at least one of his attackers was a white man who told him he was in “MAGA country,” a reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Weeks later,  police alleged  that Smollett had paid two black friends to help stage the attack.
Among those in court to observed Monday’s proceedings were the brothers who say they were hired by Smollett to participate in the staged attack, Abimbola “Abel” Osundairo and Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo. If Smollett’s case makes it to trial, they would be the state’s star witnesses.
Smollett has maintained his innocence, telling reporters after the charges were dropped last year that, “I would not be my mother’s son if I was capable of one drop of what I was accused of.”
His attorney, Glandian, questioned the integrity of special prosecutor’s investigation after the new charges were announced this month, pointing out that Webb’s probe relied on the same detectives who were part of the original investigation despite pending civil claims that Smollett is pursuing against the city and police for malicious prosecution.
Foxx’s handling of the case, meanwhile, has become a key issue in her bid for re-election, with her opponents accusing her of having acted haphazardly and indecisively.

From: MeNeedIt

Barbara ‘B.’ Smith, Model Turned Lifestyle Guru, Dead at 70

Barbara “B.” Smith, one of the nation’s top black models who went on to open restaurants, launch a successful home products line and write cookbooks, has died at her Long Island home at age 70 after battling early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Smith’s family announced on social media that she died Saturday evening.

“Heaven is shining even brighter now that it is graced with B.’s dazzling and unforgettable smile,” Smith’s husband Dan Gasby said on Facebook.

Smith’s eponymous Manhattan restaurant opened in 1986 and attracted a following among affluent black New Yorkers, The New York Times recalled. Essence magazine described it as the place “where the who’s who of black Manhattan meet, greet and eat regularly.”

Smith wrote three cookbooks, founded three successful restaurants and launched a nationally syndicated television show and a magazine. Her successful home products line was the first from a black woman to be sold at a nationwide retailer when it debuted in 2001 at Bed Bath & Beyond.

In 1976, she became the second black model to be on the cover of Mademoiselle magazine, after Joli Jones in 1969.

“You epitomized class, true beauty and dignity. Rest well Queen,” actress Viola Davis wrote on Twitter.

Smith was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2013. She and Gasby raised awareness of the disease, and particularly its impacts on the African-American community, following her diagnosis.

Some described Smith as a “black Martha Stewart,” a comparison she said she didn’t mind though she believed the two lifestyle mavens were quite different.

“Martha Stewart has presented herself doing the things domestics and African Americans have done for years,” she said in a 1997 interview with New York magazine. “We were always expected to redo the chairs and use everything in the garden. This is the legacy that I was left. Martha just got there first.”

In the same interview, Gasby said, “Martha is perfection and Barbara is passion.”

Smith began suffering from memory problems years before her diagnosis. She once froze for several seconds while being interviewed on the “Today Show,” prompting a doctor’s visit that led to her diagnosis. A few months later, she was missing in New York City for a day.

In 2018, Gasby revealed that he was in a relationship with another woman while caring for his ailing wife, leading to harsh criticism from some of her fans. He fired back at critics with a Facebook post about the pain of living with Alzheimer’s in the family. “I love my wife but I can’t let her take away my life,” he wrote.

The couple co-authored a book, “Before I Forget: Love, Hope, Help, and Acceptance in Our fight Against Alzheimer’s,” and have partnered with the Brain Health Registry.

Smith, a native of Pennsylvania, began her career as a fashion model in Pittsburgh and went on to serve as a spokeswoman for Verizon, Colgate, Palmolive Oxy and McCormick’s Lawry seasonings. She hosted the nationally syndicated television show “B. Smith with Style” for nearly a decade, which aired on NBC stations.

Smith is survived by Gasby, whom she married in 1992, and her stepdaughter Dana Gasby.

From: MeNeedIt

UN Study: 1 of Every 3 Venezuelans is Facing Hunger

One of every three people in Venezuela is struggling to put enough food on the table to meet minimum nutrition requirements as the nation’s severe economic contraction and political upheaval persists, according to a study published Sunday by the U.N. World Food Program.

A nationwide survey based on data from 8,375 questionnaires reveals a startling picture of the large number of Venezuelans surviving off a diet consisting largely of tubers and beans as hyperinflation renders many salaries worthless.

A total of 9.3 million people – roughly one-third of the population – are moderately or severely food insecure, said the World Food Program’s study, which was conducted at the invitation of the Venezuelan government. Food insecurity is defined as an individual being unable to meet basic dietary needs.

The study describes food insecurity as a nationwide concern, though certain states like Delta Amacuro, Amazonas and Falcon had especially high levels. Even in more prosperous regions, one in five people are estimated to be food insecure.

“The reality of this report shows the gravity of the social, economic and political crisis in our country,” said Miguel Pizarro, a Venezuelan opposition leader.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has been largely reluctant in recent years to invite international organizations to provide assessments of the nation’s humanitarian ordeal, though the World Food Program said it was granted “full independence” and collected data throughout the country “without any impediment or obstruction.”

“WFP looks forward to a continuation of its dialogue with the Venezuelan government and discussions that will focus on the way forward to provide assistance for those who are food insecure,” the agency said in a statement.

There was no immediate response to the findings by Maduro’s government.

The survey found that 74% of families have adopted “food-related coping strategies,” such as reducing the variety and quality of food they eat. Sixty percent of households reported cutting portion sizes in meals, 33% said they had accepted food as payment for work and 20% reported selling family assets to cover basic needs.

The issue appears to be one that is less about the availability of food and more about the difficulty in obtaining it. Seven in 10 reported that food could always be found but said it is difficult to purchase because of high prices. Thirty-seven percent reported they had lost their job or business as a result of Venezuela’s severe economic contraction.

Venezuela has been in the throes of a political and humanitarian crisis that has led over 4.5 million people to flee in recent years. Maduro has managed to keep his grip on power despite a push by opposition leader Juan Guaidó to remove him from office and mounting U.S. sanctions.

Maduro frequently blames the Trump administration for his nation’s woes, and his government has urged the International Criminal Court to open an investigation, alleging that the financial sanctions are causing suffering and even death. The nation’s struggles to feed citizens and provide adequate medical care predate U.S. sanctions on the Venezuelan government.

In addition to food, the survey also looked at interruptions in access to electricity and water, finding that four in 10 households experience daily power cuts. Four in 10 also reported recurrent interruptions in water service, further complicating daily life.

Noting that the survey was done in July through September, Carolina Fernández, a Venezuelan rights advocate who works with vulnerable women, said she believes the situation has deteriorated even more. While it was once possible for many families to survive off remittances sent by relatives abroad, she said, that has become more difficult as much of the economy is dollarized and prices rise.

“Now it’s not enough to have one person living abroad,” she said.

Fernández said food insecurity is likely to have an enduring impact on a generation of young Venezuelans going hungry during formative years.

“We’re talking about children who are going to have long-term problems because they’re not eating adequately,” she said.

Those who are going hungry include people like Yonni Gutiérrez, 56, who was standing outside a restaurant that sells roasted chickens in Caracas on Sunday.

The unemployed man approached the restaurant’s front door whenever a customer left with a bag of food, hoping they might share something. He said he previously had been able to scrape by helping unload trucks at a market, but the business that employed him closed.

“Sometimes, with a little luck, I get something good,” he said of his restaurant stakeout.

From: MeNeedIt

Togo President Gnassingbe Wins re-election in Landslide: Preliminary Results

Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbe has won re-election with 72% of the vote, according to preliminary results from the electoral commission on Monday, extending his 15-year rule and a family dynasty that began when his father took power in a 1967 coup.

Despite widespread disaffection and protests calling for him to step down, a fractured opposition has struggled to launch a converted campaign to unseat Gnassingbe in the small West African country of 8 million people.


From: MeNeedIt

Reliability of Pricey New Voting Machines Questioned

In the rush to replace insecure, unreliable electronic voting machines after Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, state and local officials have scrambled to acquire more trustworthy equipment for this year’s election, when U.S. intelligence agencies fear even worse problems.

But instead of choosing simple, hand-marked paper ballots that are most resistant to tampering because paper cannot be hacked, many are opting for pricier technology that computer security experts consider almost as risky as earlier discredited electronic systems.

Called ballot-marking devices, the machines have touchscreens for registering voter choice. Unlike touchscreen-only machines, they print out paper records that are scanned by optical readers. South Carolina voters will use them in Saturday’s primary.

The most pricey solution available, they are at least twice as expensive as the hand-marked paper ballot option. They have been vigorously promoted by the three voting equipment vendors that control 88 percent of the U.S. market.

Some of the most popular ballot-marking machines, made by industry leaders Election Systems & Software and Dominion Voting Systems, register votes in bar codes that the human eye cannot decipher. That’s a problem, researchers say: Voters could end up with printouts that accurately spell out the names of the candidates they picked, but, because of a hack, the bar codes do not reflect those choices. Because the bar codes are what’s tabulated, voters would never know that their ballots benefited another candidate.

Even on machines that do not use bar codes, voters may not notice if a hack or programming error mangled their choices. A University of Michigan study determined that only 7 percent of participants in a mock election notified poll workers when the names on their printed receipts did not match the candidates they voted for.

ES&S rejects those scenarios. Spokeswoman Katina Granger said the company’s ballot-marking machines’ accuracy and security “have been proven through thousands of hours of testing and tens of thousands of successful elections.” Dominion declined to comment for this story.

Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. voters will be using ballot-marking machines this year, compared with less than 2% in 2018, according to Verified Voting, which tracks voting technology.

Pivotal counties in the crucial states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina have bought ballot-marking machines. So have counties in much of Texas, as well as California’s Los Angeles County and all of Georgia, Delaware and South Carolina. The machines’ certification has often been streamlined in the rush to get machines in place for presidential primaries.

Ballot-marking devices were not conceived as primary vote-casting tools but as accessible options for people with disabilities.

Critics see them as vulnerable to hacking. At last year’s DefCon hacker convention in Las Vegas, it took tinkerers at the ‘Voting Village’ not even eight hours to hack two older ballot-marking devices.

Tampering aside, some of the newer ballot-marking machines have stumbled badly in actual votes. That happened most spectacularly in November when ES&S’s top-of-the-line ExpressVote XL debuted in a Pennsylvania county.

Even without technical troubles, the new machines can lead to longer lines, potentially reducing turnout. Voters need more time to cast ballots and the machine’s high costs have prompted election officials to limit how many they purchase.

“There are a huge number of reasons to reject today’s ballot-marking devices — except for limited use as assistive devices for those unable to mark a paper ballot themselves,” says Doug Jones, a University of Iowa computer scientist who co-authored the voting technology history “Broken Ballots.” ’

But election officials see ballot-marking devices as improvements over paperless touchscreens, which were used by 27 percent of voters in 2018. They like them because the touchscreens are familiar to voters, looking and feeling like what they have been using for nearly two decades, and officials can use one voting method for everyone.

Michael Anderson, elections director for Pennsylvania’s Lebanon County, said “voters want it.” The county offers voters both machine- and hand-marked ballots.

“When we give them a paper ballot, the very first thing they say to us is, ‘We’re going back in time,’” he said.

New York State election commission co-chair Douglas Kellner was an early critic of paperless electronic voting machines. But he is confident in a ballot-marking device, the ImageCast Evolution by Dominion, certified for use in his state. He said safeguards built into the machines and security protocols make a hack of the Image Evolution “extraordinarily unlikely.”

But Jones is among experts who think today’s ballot-marking devices undermine the very idea of retaining a paper record that can be used in audits and recounts. It’s an idea supported by a 2018 National Academies of Sciences report that favors hand-marked paper ballots tallied by optical scanners. Some 70 percent of U.S. voters used them in the past two presidential elections and will do so again in November.

One state, Colorado, is banning bar codes from ballot-marking voting machines beginning in 2021.

Election administrators who reject hand-marked paper ballots as antiquated, inconvenient or unwieldy have few options beyond ballot-marking devices. That’s because the $300 million voting equipment and services industry is so insular and entrenched.

The industry faces virtually no federal regulation even though election technology was designated critical infrastructure in January 2017. Federal certification guidelines for voting machine design are 15 years old and voluntary. The leading vendors have resisted publicly disclosing third-party penetration testing of their systems.

”It’s a self-reinforcing system that keeps it frozen in a place in the past,” said Eddie Perez, a former product development director for Hart InterCivic, the No. 3 voting equipment company, now with the OSET Institute, a nonprofit that promotes reliable voting solutions. “They don’t want to make any changes in the equipment unless they absolutely have to.”

The Republican-controlled Senate has refused to take up bills that would, among other things, require a voter-verifiable paper trail and require bulletproof postelection audits. Republicans say the federal government should not impinge on states’ authority to oversee elections.

Northampton County, on Pennsylvania’s eastern edge, mirrored the state’s choice in 2016 by voting for Donald Trump after twice choosing Barack Obama. Last Election Day, it became ground zero in the debate over ballot-marking devices.

The county’s new ExpressVote XLs failed doubly.

First, a programming misconfiguration prevented votes cast for one of three candidates in a judge’s race from registering in the bar codes used to count the vote. Only absentee ballot votes registered for the candidate, said the county executive, Lamont McClure. The other problem was miscalibrated touchscreens, which can “flip” votes or simply make it difficult to vote for one’s desired candidate due to faulty screen alignment. They were on about one-third of the county’s 320 machines, which cost taxpayers $8,250 each.

One poll judge called the touch screens “garbage.” Some voters, in emails obtained by the AP in a public records request, said their votes were assigned to the wrong candidates. Others worried about long lines in future elections.

Voters require triple the time on average to navigate ES&S ballot-marking machines compared to filling out hand-marked ballots and running them through scanners, according to state certification documents.

ES&S said its employees had flubbed the programming and failed to perform adequate preelection testing of the machines or adequately train election workers, which would have caught the errors.

Election commissioners were livid, but unable to return the machines for a refund because they are appointees.

“I feel like I’ve been played,” commissioner Maudeania Hornik said at a December meeting with ES&S representatives. She later told the AP she had voted for the devices believing they would be more convenient than hand-marked paper ballots, especially for seniors.

“What we worry is, what happens the next time if there’s a programming bug — or a hack or whatever — and it’s done in a way that’s not obvious?” said Daniel Lopresti, a commissioner and Lehigh University computer scientist.

ES&S election equipment has failed elsewhere. Flawed software in ballot-marking devices delayed the vote count by 13 hours in Kansas’ largest county during the August 2018 gubernatorial primary. Another Johnson County, this one in Indiana, scrapped the company’s computerized voter check-in system after Election Day errors that same year caused long lines.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever seen an election computer — a voting computer — whose software was done to a high standard,” said Duncan Buell, a University of South Carolina computer scientist who has found errors in results produced by ES&S electronic voting machines.

Voting integrity activists have sued, seeking to prevent the further use in Pennsylvania of the ExpressVote XL. Grassroots organizations including Common Cause are fighting to prevent their certification in New York State.

ES&S defends the machine. In a Dec. 12 filing in a Pennsylvania lawsuit, company executive Dean Baumer said the ExpressVote XL had never been compromised and said breaches of the machine “are a practical impossibility.”

ES&S lobbied hard in Pennsylvania for the ExpressVote XL, though not always legally.

After ES&S won a $29 million contract in Philadelphia last year in a hasty procurement, that city’s controller did some digging. She determined that ES&S’ vice president of finance had failed to disclose, in a mandatory campaign contribution form, activities of consultants who spent more than $400,000, including making campaign contributions to two commissioners involved in awarding the contract. ES&S agreed to pay a record $2.9 million penalty as a result. It said the executive’s failure to disclose was “inadvertent.”

The Philadelphia episode contradicts claims by ES&S officials, including by CEO Tom Burt in Jan. 8 testimony to a congressional committee, that the company does not make campaign contributions.

Public records show ES&S contributed $25,000 from 2014-2016 to the Republican State Leadership Committee which seeks GOP control of state legislatures.

ES&S has also paid for trips to Las Vegas of an “advisory board” of top elections officials, including from South Carolina, New York City and Dallas County, Texas, according to records shared with the AP from a Freedom of Information request.

Philadelphia paid more than twice as much for its ExpressVote XL machines per voter ($27) as what Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, disbursed ($12) for hand-marked paper ballots and scanners — plus ballot-markers for the disabled — from the same vendor.

Allegheny County’s elections board rejected ballot-marking devices as too risky for all but disabled voters. Its vice chair, state judge Kathryn Hens-Greco, regretted during a September hearing having to award ES&S the county’s business at all given its behavior in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

But no other vendor offered a hand-marked option with enough ballot-configuration flexibility for the county’s 130 municipalities.

While cybersecurity risks can’t be eliminated, Hens-Greco said, the county would at least have “the ability to recover” from any mischief: a paper trail of hand-marked ballots.

From: MeNeedIt

Second Death Reported at New Orleans Mardi Gras

A person was struck by a float and fatally injured Saturday evening during one of the iconic parades of the Mardi Gras season in New Orleans, authorities said. It was the second death in days to mar this year’s Carnival festivities.

A city agency tasked with emergency preparedness tweeted that the death occurred Saturday night as the popular parade of the Krewe of Endymion was rolling. The agency, NOLA Ready, said it had no immediate details about how the death occurred or the identity of the person.

NOLA Ready tweeted that the remainder of Endymion’s parade was being canceled Saturday evening. Reports said 13 floats had already passed the area where the accident occurred and that the remaining floats and marching groups diverted elsewhere. Police said the accident occurred along Canal Street, a major downtown thoroughfare in this Mississippi River port city.

Second death

The fatality comes as New Orleans had already been mourning the death of a 58-year-old woman who witnesses said was run over by a parade float Wednesday night in the runup to Mardi Gras.

That death occurred during the parade of the Mystic Krewe of Nyx, an all-female Carnival group. Witnesses said the woman, later identified by authorities as New Orleans native Geraldine Carmouche, had apparently tried to cross between two parts of a tandem float and tripped over a hitch connecting the sections.

It wasn’t immediately clear if a tandem float was involved in Saturday night’s fatality, but the city agency NOLA Ready tweeted that tandem floats would not be allowed for the remainder of the 2020 season. Tandem floats are multiple floats connected together and pulled by one tractor.

Mardi Gras concludes with the Fat Tuesday celebration that marks the raucous climax of a week or more of parades and parties each year.

2019 attack

The 2020 Carnival season deaths come just a year after a car sped into a bicycle lane near a parade route, hitting nine people and killing two bicyclists not far from where the Krewe of Endymion formation had just passed. A man identified as the driver was subsequently charged with two counts of vehicular homicide.

Before this year, the most recent Carnival float-related fatality happened in 2009, when a 23-year-old rider fell from a float and in front of its wheels in Carencro, about 120 miles (195 kilometers) west of New Orleans.

In 2008, a rider getting off a three-part float after the Krewe of Endymion parade in New Orleans was killed when the float lurched forward and the third section ran over him, police said.

From: MeNeedIt

Spike in Iran Coronavirus Cases Raises Alarm

The head of the World Health Organization says he fears the increase in the number of cases of coronavirus in Iran could be a signal of worse things to come.  Iran has reported 18 cases, including at least five deaths in the past two days.

The number of cases and deaths reported in Iran still pales in comparison to that recorded in China.  

But WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed concern about the number of cases in countries outside of China that have no clear epidemiological link, such as travel to China.

“There is a case which is linked to Iran now in Lebanon.  This is a 45-year old woman.  And, those [cases] are actually very concerning.  Take them as trends. So, what I believe is the window of opportunity [for containment] is still there. But … our window of opportunity is narrowing.”  

Tedros urged countries to act now to contain the coronavirus, before the window of opportunity closes. Currently, some 30 countries report cases of the virus, and at least 18 people outside China have died.  South Korea has the largest cluster of confirmed cases outside China.

Tedros said this is no time for pessimism, but for action.  He said the WHO is coordinating a global response that can defeat this disease.

“The measures China and other countries have taken have given us a fighting chance of containing the spread of the virus… We must not look back and regret that we failed to take advantage of the window of opportunity that we have now,” Tedros said.

The WHO chief spoke in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, attending an emergency meeting on COVID-19.  It is organized by the African Union and the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

The WHO is working to try to prevent COVID-19 from gaining a foothold in the developing world. It is focusing efforts on strengthening fragile health systems on the African continent and other vulnerable regions.

Egypt is the only African country with a confirmed case of coronavirus. The WHO reports suspected cases of COVID-19 in several other African countries have been tested and proved to be negative.


From: MeNeedIt

Mexico Extradites Son of Jalisco Cartel, Braces for Violence

Mexico extradited the son of the leader of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel to face drug charges in the United States, leading to fears his powerful gang may retaliate.

Ruben Oseguera was handed over to U.S. authorities Thursday after he lost a long legal fight against extradition, Mexico’s top security official, Alfonso Durazo, said Friday.

The U.S. Department of Justice said Oseguera will appear in a federal court in Washington Friday to answer a drug-distribution indictment.

Oseguera is known as “El Menchito,” after his father, Nemesio Oseguera, alias “El Mencho.” The younger Oseguera was born in California and holds dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship. He was arrested in 2015 on weapons possession and organized crime charges, and had been fighting extradition.

The Jalisco cartel is currently Mexico’s most violent and fastest-growing gang.

Embassy warning

The move appeared to spark fears of retaliation.

The U.S. Embassy issued a security alert saying “following previous high-profile security operations, criminal groups operating in Jalisco have responded by taking retaliatory actions including an increase in anti-government rhetoric (banners and internet threats) and blockades inside the city and on interstate highways.”

“On some occasions, these criminals have seized private vehicles and set them on fire,” according to the alert.

Durazo said Mexico had tried to extradite Oseguera before but “in fact, the process was a long one because of several legal appeals” filed by his lawyers, the last of which was rejected Wednesday.

Victor Francisco Beltran, Oseguera’s Mexican lawyer, denied he was the son of Nemesio Osegura, suggesting he was instead a nephew.

Beltran said the extradition shouldn’t have happened, because the younger Oseguera still had pending appeals.

Fugitive father

The elder Oseguera remains a fugitive, despite the 2018 arrest of his wife.

The U.S. has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the arrest of the elder Oseguera.

Jalisco New Generation has a reputation for battling with government agents. It brazenly shot down a Mexican military helicopter with a rocket launcher in 2015, prompting Mexican officials to declare an all-out offensive against the criminal group.

From: MeNeedIt

Thousands Fleeing Escalating Violence in Africa’s Sahel Region

The U.N. refugee agency says more than 700,000 people in Africa’s Sahel region have fled attacks by militants and armed groups in the last 12 months, a 10-fold increase compared to January 2019.

Violence and mass displacement have become a way of life for millions of people in four of the Sahel’s most seriously affected countries — Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.  The number of displaced people within the region keeps growing as attacks by Islamist militants and other armed groups increase.

Burkina Faso is the epicenter of the violence.  The U.N. refugee agency says recent attacks by militants on civilians and local authorities in the sprawling country are forcing more than 4,000 people on average to flee their homes every day in search of safety.

UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic says an estimated 150,000 people have fled in the last three weeks.

“People fleeing violence report attacks on their villages by militant groups, killing, raping and pillaging.  Terrified of these attacks, residents have left everything behind to find safety… We and our partners are facing severe challenges in accessing and responding to the needs of the internally displaced people and refugees scattered throughout the Sahel region, as attacks against civilians grow in number and frequency,” Mahecic said.  

The UNHCR says more than 4,400 refugees from Niger have arrived in Mali, fleeing a recent string of attacks.  It says a similar wave of violence has prompted an estimated 11,000 people to flee unsafe border areas.  

The same phenomenon is occurring in Mali and Mauritania. Militant attacks are internally displacing civilians there or forcing them to flee to other countries in a region that essentially knows no borders.  

Mahecic said survivors of attacks throughout the region need safety, shelter, food, water and other essentials, as well as psycho-social support for those who have fled or witnessed atrocities.

He said his agency is planning to ramp up its humanitarian response to deliver on these needs. He added the UNHCR will launch an appeal to international donors for support in the coming weeks.

From: MeNeedIt

Italy Town Shuts Schools, Cafes as 6 Test Positive for Virus

Italian officials ordered schools, public buildings, restaurants and coffee shops closed in a tiny town in northern Italy Friday after six people tested positive for the new virus, including some who had not been to China or the source of the global health emergency.
The new cases represented the first infections in Italy acquired through secondary contagion and tripled the country’s total to nine. The first to fall ill met with someone in early February who had returned from China on Jan. 21 without presenting any symptoms of the new virus, health authorities said.
Authorities think that person passed the virus onto the 38-year-old Italian, who went to a hospital in the town of Codogno with flu-like symptoms on Feb. 18 but was sent home. He returned to the hospital after his conditions worsened and is now in intensive care, Lombardy region public welfare director Giulio Gallera said.
The man’s wife and a friend who did sports with him have also tested positive for the virus. The Italian Health Ministry ordered anyone who came into direct contact with the three to be quarantined for 14 days. About 150 people, including medical personnel, were in isolation undergoing tests.
Another three people in the Lombardy region also tested positive Friday, the health ministry said later.

From: MeNeedIt