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Ireland Holds Referendum on Abortion

Voters in Ireland are going to the polls Friday to decide whether to keep or repeal a constitutional amendment banning abortions in most cases.

The existing amendment has been in place since 1983 and originally banned all abortions before a change was made five years ago to allow abortions in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.

If voters decide in Friday’s referendum to further loosen the rules, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s government intends to put forth legislation by the end of the year allowing abortions with no restrictions up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.

Recent opinion polls indicate most people surveyed favor lifting the abortion ban.

Currently thousands of women travel each year from Ireland to Britain in order to have abortions.

The counting of votes gets underway Saturday morning.

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Parties Meet Amid Slim Hopes of Saving Iran Nuclear Deal

Nations that remain in the Iran nuclear deal meet on Friday for the first time since U.S. President Donald Trump left the pact, but diplomats see limited scope to salvage it after Washington vowed to be tougher than ever on Tehran.

British, Chinese, French, German and Russian officials will try to flesh out with Iran’s deputy foreign minister a strategy to save the deal by keeping oil and investment flowing, while circumventing U.S. sanctions that risk hurting the economy.

The 2015 accord rests on lifting sanctions and allowing business with Iran in exchange for Tehran curbing its nuclear program. The deal’s proponents say it is crucial to forestalling a nuclear Iran and preventing wider war in the Middle East.

But U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday threatened the Islamic Republic with “the strongest sanctions in history” if it did not change its behavior in the Middle East.

“Pompeo was like taking a cold shower,” said a European diplomat. “We’ll try to cling to the deal hoping that there is a possibility of a transaction, but we’re under no illusions.”

At the heart of Friday’s talks, chaired by the European Union, Iranian officials will seek guarantees from the Europeans that they can protect trade. They will also want assurances that all parties will continue to buy Iranian oil.

Iran’s supreme leader set out a series of conditions on Wednesday for Iran to stay in the deal.

“This is a very important meeting that will show whether the other parties are serious about the deal or not,” an Iranian official told Reuters. “We will understand whether, as our leader, said, the European can give us reliable guarantees or not.”

Highlighting how difficult it will be, the U.S. Treasury announced Thursday more sanctions on several Iranian and Turkish companies and a number of aircraft in a move targeting four Iranian airlines.

Some Western companies have already quit Iran or said they may have to leave because of U.S. sanctions.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said he expected the other signatories to present “a new package” that would be within the boundaries of the agreement, but did not include “any other issues.”

Trump denounced the accord, completed under his predecessor Barack Obama, because it did not cover Iran’s ballistic missile program, its role in Middle East conflicts or what happens after the deal begins to expire in 2025.

While European nations share those concerns, they have said that as long as Tehran meets its commitments, they would remain in the deal.

The U.N. atomic watchdog policing the pact said on Thursday Iran continued to comply with the terms of the deal, but could be faster and more proactive in allowing snap inspections.

“The European desire to remain in the agreement does not, however, detract from the concerns we have with regard to Iran,” France’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said on Thursday.

“That is why we proposed to establish a comprehensive negotiating framework with Iran. We want Iran to understand the value of a cooperative approach.”

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US Bill Would Force Tech Companies to Disclose Foreign Software Probes

U.S. tech companies would be forced to disclose if they allowed American adversaries, like Russia and China, to examine the inner workings of software sold to the U.S. military under proposed legislation, Senate staff told Reuters on Thursday.

The bill, approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, comes after a year-long Reuters investigation found software makers allowed a Russian defense agency to hunt for vulnerabilities in software that was already deeply embedded in some of the most sensitive parts of the U.S. government, including the Pentagon, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and intelligence agencies.

Security experts say allowing Russian authorities to conduct the reviews of internal software instructions — known as source code — could help Russia find vulnerabilities and more easily attack key systems that protect the United States. 

The new source code disclosure rules were included in Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act, the Pentagon’s spending bill, according to staffers of Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen.

​Details of bill, which passed the committee 25-2, are not yet public. And the legislation still needs to be voted on by the full Senate and reconciled with a House version of the legislation before it can be signed into law by President Donald Trump.

If passed into law, the legislation would require companies that do business with the U.S. military to disclose any source code review of the software done by adversaries, staffers for Shaheen told Reuters. If the Pentagon deems a source code review a risk, military officials and the software company would need to agree on how to contain the threat. It could, for example, involve limiting the software’s use to non-classified settings.

The details of the foreign source code reviews, and any steps the company agreed to take to reduce the risks, would be stored in a database accessible to military officials, Shaheen’s staffers said. For most products, the military notification will only apply to countries determined to be cybersecurity threats, such as Russia and China.

Shaheen has been a key voice on cybersecurity in Congress. The New Hampshire senator last year led successful efforts in Congress to ban all government use of software provided by Moscow-based antivirus firm Kaspersky Lab, amid allegations the company is linked to Russian intelligence. Kaspersky denies such links.

In order to sell in the Russian market, tech companies including Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co, SAP and McAfee have allowed a Russian defense agency to scour software source code for vulnerabilities, Reuters found. In many cases, Reuters found that the software companies had not previously informed U.S. agencies that Russian authorities had been allowed to conduct the source code reviews. In most cases, the U.S. military does not require comparable source code reviews before it buys software, procurement experts have told Reuters. 

The companies have said the source code reviews were conducted by the Russians in company-controlled facilities, where the reviewer could not copy or alter the software. McAfee announced last year that it no longer allows government source code reviews. Hewlett Packard Enterprise has said none of its current software offerings have gone through the process.

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UN Atomic Agency: Iran Complying With 2015 Nuclear Pact

The International Atomic Energy Agency said Thursday Iran is complying with restrictions on its nuclear program in accord with the 2015 international agreement. The inspectors’ assessment is the first since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the pact.

The United Nations atomic watchdog said Tehran is staying within limits on the level to which it can enrich uranium, the size of its stock of enriched uranium and other strictures. But it chided Iran for limiting “complementary access” inspections.

The U.N. assessment came as the U.S. imposed new sanctions on Iran in an effort to force the Islamic Republic back to the bargaining table to negotiate new terms of the nuclear agreement, curb its ballistic missile tests, end its military advances in the Middle East.

The U.S. says in coming months, it will reimpose sanctions it and other countries dropped when Tehran agreed to restrain its nuclear program — measures that hobbled the Iranian economy. But the five other signatories to the Iran nuclear accord — Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia — all have said they continue to support the deal.

Thursday’s sanctions targeted nine individuals and companies for providing support to Iranian airlines that previously had been blacklisted.

The U.S. Treasury Department said Tehran-based Mahan Air was cited for playing a “critical role in exporting the Iranian regime’s malign influence,” saying it has “routinely” flown fighters and supplies to Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In a statement, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, “Countries and companies around the world should take note of the risks associated with granting landing rights and providing aviation services to the airlines used by Iran to export terrorism throughout the region.”

“The deceptive practices these airlines employ to illegally obtain services and U.S. goods is yet another example of the duplicitous ways in which the Iranian regime has operated,” Mnuchin said.

The U.S. sanctions also targeted three other Iranian carriers, Caspian Air, Meraj Air, and Pouya Air, as well as Turkish nationals and entities for assisting the Iranian airlines.

The sanctions are aimed at preventing Iran from buying U.S.-export controlled components to sustain their air fleets.

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Investigators: Missile That Downed Flight MH17 Belonged to Russian Brigade

International investigators looking into the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 have identified the Russian military brigade they believe owned the missile that was used to bring down the airliner. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

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Spain Raids Catalan Public Offices Amid Probe Into Aid Money

Authorities in Spain say police are raiding several public and private offices across Catalonia in an operation against the alleged misappropriation of public development aid money.

Investigating magistrate Joaquin Aguirre in Barcelona ordered Thursday’s raid as part of a probe into at least 2 million euros (US$2.3 million) in development grants from the local government that were allegedly misused in an unspecified manner.

 

It said the investigation, which is also looking into possible abuse of power and fraud charges, has been going on for more than a year and remains sealed.

 

Private news agency Europa Press reported that 22 people had been arrested. Spanish police confirmed the raids but said the number of people arrested couldn’t be confirmed until the operation is closed.

 

 

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French, Rwandan Leaders Pledge Cooperation on African Security 

French and Rwandan leaders vowed to work together on key African security issues Wednesday, as they sought to move forward after bitter differences over Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

Standing alongside his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame, French President Emmanuel Macron said the two leaders had agreed to work “pragmatically” on issues of mutual concern, especially on African hot spots like the Sahel, Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.

Referring to years of tension over the Rwandan genocide, Macron said it was not a question of underestimating the past, but rather assuming it and trying to overcome it.

He spoke at a joint news conference following talks between the two presidents, who also met with tech executives.The two leaders will attend a Paris tech forum Thursday that showcases African startups, among other talent.

French contribution hailed

Kagame, who was re-elected to a third term last year and is the current African Union president, said France has made a positive contribution in Africa.

“Your views have coincided with my views and the views of many in Africa that there is more need to work together in true partnership, as well as trying to encourage and empower Africans to play a very significant role in their affairs,” Kagame said to Macron.

Rwanda released a report last year accusing France of complicity in the genocide that killed 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus. France has previously admitted making mistakes but never apologized for its role.

Macron said he would not appoint a French ambassador to Rwanda for now, calling it too early. But he said France was working to declassify key archives of the genocide, and that French and Rwandan researchers would work together in documenting a collective memory of the killings.

Macron also threw his support behind the candidacy of Rwanda’s foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, as the next head of the Paris-based International Francophonie Organization. While Kagame speaks English, Macron says about half of Rwandan citizens can speak French.

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US Health Chief Pledges More Action If Ebola Spreads

President Donald Trump’s top health official said Wednesday that the U.S. and global partners will “take the steps necessary” to try to contain a new Ebola outbreak, asserting that the fight against infectious diseases is one of the administration’s top priorities for the World Health Organization, the U.N. agency taking the lead. 

Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar stopped short of predicting whether the outbreak in Congo that’s believed to have killed at least 27 people will be contained, but he praised WHO’s early response and vowed: “If it spreads, we will take further actions.”

Azar’s comments on Ebola came in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, which also touched on universal health care, U.S. prescription-drug prices, and the recent revelations of a $1.2 million payout by Swiss drugs giant Novartis last year to Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. 

Novartis, one of the world’s largest pharma companies, said Cohen was hired to advise on how the Trump administration might approach health care policy. Experts have pointed out that Novartis needs FDA approval for the sale of its drugs and that company officials have spoken approvingly of rolling back the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, a Trump campaign promise largely unfulfilled.

“I don’t and won’t comment on the particulars of any individual situation,” said Azar, a former executive with drugmaker Eli Lilly. 

“The president has talked about how extensively ‘pharma’ generally spends money on lobbying. And we have said: You really don’t need to spend that money on lobbying because the president and the secretary have been very transparent about where we are going with drug prices: We’re going to lower drug prices in the United States,” he said.

The response to the Ebola outbreak by WHO and its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has emerged as a major concern as ministers like Azar and his counterparts from other nations gather this week for the World Health Assembly in Geneva. The conclave lays out the agenda of the U.N. agency, which reaps hundreds of millions in U.S. funding each year.  

“I think it best not to make predictions when dealing with infectious disease,” Azar said cautiously, when asked if the outbreak will be contained. “We will take the steps necessary, we will act aggressively, forcefully, in partnership across the world community to do everything to contain it.” 

“I think that what we’re seeing is that we’re taking it very seriously from Day One,” he said. 

A day earlier, Azar told the Assembly the U.S. was committing an additional $7 million for the Ebola response, raising its total to $8 million. The WHO has launched a “strategic response plan” for itself and partner organizations that seeks nearly $26 million to battle the outbreak, a figure that’s expected to rise.

“We’re also grateful for other countries that have stepped up to the plate. And we hope others will do the same,” Azar added. 

Azar said the “first and foremost mission” that the U.S. and the world community look to the WHO for is its “central role around infectious disease and emergency preparedness and response.”

Azar also underscored a Trump administration grievance: that other developed countries are “free riding off U.S. investment and innovation” in medicines and health care. The White House says countries that regulate the price of drugs contribute to higher costs in the U.S. and keep their own costs artificially low.

Azar said he delivered that message to his peers in Geneva.

“It has been a thoughtful response,” he said, when asked about their reaction. “It has not been reflexive, it has been a sense of, ‘We’re in this together. We do need to work to support innovation.’”

But he said he was leaving the details to others.

“I’m not here to do trade negotiations. I have delivered the message and said our trade negotiators are coming: Be ready!” he said with a laugh. “I have said we have our own job: The president is going to bring down American drug costs. But they’ll have their job.”

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A Love Story: Africa and Its British Prince 

Britain’s newly-married Prince Harry has had a long love affair with the African continent. He spent his post-graduation year in Lesotho, launched a children’s charity there and fell in love with his bride-to-be in Botswana. Africa is also the couple’s rumored honeymoon destination. Royal watchers are betting he and Meghan Markle will celebrate their recent marriage in the southern African nation of Namibia, known for its sand dunes and pristine beaches.

That love for Africa shone through, observers said, at the wedding. Ululating guests gave the celebration an African flavor, while impassioned musical performances and a stirring homily from a prominent African-American theologian spoke to the difficult, painful — and jubilant — history of people of African descent around the world.

As the couple — now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex — said their vows in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, millions of royal watchers across Africa watched raptly. They included Lesotho’s former foreign minister, while that nation’s crown prince had the unique distinction of being the only non-English royal invited to the wedding.

Former foreign minister Mamphono Khaketla said she was “glued” to her TV for the wedding. She met the prince four years ago when he visited Lesotho.

“He’s a very charming young boy,” she told VOA, with a laugh, adding, “He was at that point. He’s not very tied up, you know. Very humble and down to Earth, he was.”

‘I choose them both’

The Duchess of Sussex has shown her own fondness for Africa, remarking during a 2016 trip to Rwanda that, “My life shifts from refugee camps to red carpets. I choose them both because these worlds can, in fact, coexist.”

Khaketla said she hopes the couple will continue their charitable activities. In Lesotho, that work has made a big difference, she said.

“It has actually helped us put Lesotho on the map, on the world’s map,” she said. “Sometimes, governments, we try, but if you have somebody of that stature coming to your country and doing what he has done — it has helped to destigmatize HIV and AIDS, and you can see that some of the children he started working with are young adults.”

‘I thought it was great’

It’s not only their charity that has captivated viewers in Africa. Lungile Zakwe is executive director of IkamvaYouth, a nongovernmental organization that works with young and disadvantaged South Africans. She describes herself as a “proud African feminist.”

She has become a regular guest on South African radio shows because of something a little more personal. Her Prince Charming — whom she prefers to call her “life partner” — is white.

Until 1985, it was illegal for mixed race couples to marry in South Africa. Zakwe said she applauds the royal family for normalizing interracial relationships. Markle is the daughter of an African American mother and white father.

“People just try to understand, ‘How can two people from such different worlds come together and accept each other?’ And usually what comes up — and I’m sure it comes up for Meghan herself — is, How can you be pro-black and yet spend your life with somebody from another racial group?’ And for me, I find that it always makes me uncomfortable. I find it problematic, because of course you can be pro-black and still be in love with somebody from another racial group,” Zakwe said.

Hairstylist Lisa-May Hagemann said she felt the ceremony was the most inclusive royal wedding she has ever seen. The duchess honored several African nations in the Commonwealth, including South Africa, by having their flowers embroidered on her 5-meter veil.

“I loved the whole African theme that went with it — maybe not so much the pastor — I think he went a little bit overboard,” she said, referring to the lively, nearly 15-minute homily delivered by Bishop Michael Curry, presiding head of the U.S. Episcopal Church. “But definitely the choir that sang. I think it just brought a little bit of diversity to it. I didn’t think the queen was very happy with it, but yes, I thought it was great.”

‘It’s about damn time’

Zakwe, who is unmarried, said she was thrilled at the optics of the wedding.  

“I think as black people, people of color, this is our time,” she said. “And it’s always been our time. And it’s beautiful that there were ululations, there was a black priest, there were black people in the audience. That’s great, that’s fantastic, and it’s about damn time. But as I say, this has been happening to other normal people on the ground who fall in love, and it’s interesting this time around because this particular wedding, for obvious reasons, has more of a spotlight shone on it.”

Zakwe said something else clearly shone through the talented choir, the pomp, the diamonds and the guest list. What shone through, she said, was a powerful force — one that transcends race, language and borders: love.

 

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US Extends Deadline for Sanctions on Russian Van-Maker GAZ

The United States on Tuesday gave American customers of Russia’s biggest van manufacturer GAZ more time to comply with sanctions, further backing away from its initially uncompromising stance on GAZ’s owner, Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska.

The United States slapped sanctions on Deripaska and his companies — including GAZ — and some other Russian tycoons in April, in response to Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections and what Washington called other “malign activities.”

Sources familiar with the matter told Reuters previously that sanctions on GAZ could affect its contracts with German carmakers Volkswagen and Daimler, as well as with U.S. firm Cummins Inc.

The U.S. Treasury Department on Tuesday gave Americans until Oct. 23 instead of June 5 to wind down operations and contracts with GAZ and said it would consider lifting the sanctions if Deripaska ceded control of the company.

GAZ declined to comment. The company competes with firms including a joint venture between Ford Motor Co and its Russian partner Sollers.

The same extension was previously given and the same mechanism for potential lifting of sanctions was described by the United States for Deripaska’s main asset, the world’s second-biggest aluminum producer Rusal.

The move was preceded by a lobbying campaign from Europe as the sanctions against Rusal caused a turmoil in the aluminum market.

Deripaska has already said he agreed in principal to reduce his influence in another company which controls Rusal.