Colombia Asks Cuba to Arrest ELN Leaders

Following a deadly suicide truck bombing on a police academy near Bogota, the president of Colombia has called on Cuba to arrest 10 commanders of the Colombian ELN rebel group who are in Havana.

Ivan Duque said late Friday he is asking Cuba to “capture the terrorists who are inside its territory and hand them over to Colombian police.” He said no ideology could justify the cruelty of Thursday’s attack.

“It’s clear to all of Colombia that the ELN has no true desire for peace,” Duque said Friday in a televised address.

​Cuba responds

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, said in a statement, that Cuba “will act with strict respect for the Protocols of Dialogue and Peace signed by the Government and the ELN, including the Protocol In Case of a Rupture in Negotiations.”

The ELN commanders have been in Cuba following stalled peace talks there with Colombia.

Colombian authorities say Jose Aldemar Rojas, a one-armed ELN explosives expert, carried out the attack that killed 21 people and wounded dozens more. Officials say Rojas died in the attack.

“This was an operation that has been planned for the past 10 months,” said Defense Minister Guillermo Botero.

Largest rebel group

The ELN has not claimed responsibility for the attack.

The rebel group, however, has increased attacks on police since peace talks in Cuba stalled when the rebels refused to heed the government’s demand to free all hostages.

ELN is now the country’s largest armed rebel group since FARC disbanded and turned into a political party as part of a peace deal with the government.

Despite a long history of guerrilla violence in Colombia, major terrorist bombings in the country have been rare.

James Webb Telescope Prepping for Launch

Humanity’s efforts to move into and peer into space seem to be experiencing something of a renaissance in the past few weeks. NASA’s pictures of Ultima Thule continue to astound, as do Chinese pictures from their probe on the far side of the moon. Coming soon, the James Webb Telescope will allow NASA to look even farther into the great beyond. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

Mexico Pipeline Blast Death Toll Climbs to 66

The death toll from Friday’s fuel pipeline explosion in central Mexico has climbed to 66, the governor of the country’s Hidalgo state said.

Governor Omar Fayad also said Saturday at a news conference in Mexico City that at least 76 others were injured.

Authorities initially said 20 people had been killed and at least 60 others were badly burned.

A leak and the resulting blast were caused by fuel thieves illegally tapping into the pipeline in Hidalgo state, officials said.

Video footage showed the fuel gushing into the air and people collecting the oil in buckets, garbage cans and other containers before the explosion.  

“I urge the entire population not to be complicit in fuel theft,” said Hidalgo Governor Fayad. “Apart from being illegal, it puts your life and those of your families at risk.”

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has launched a crackdown on oil theft, called on “the entire government” to assist the people at the site of the fuel explosion.

The government says fuel theft costs the country about $3 billion a year.

Greeks Plan Massive Rally to Protest Deal With Macedonia

Demonstrators in Greece are planning a massive rally Sunday to protest a deal that would normalize Greek relations with Macedonia.

Greeks have been divided over the deal, in which Macedonia will change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia and Greece will drop its objections to the Balkan country’s joining NATO and the European Union.

The U.S. State Department said in a tweet Friday that Sunday’s demonstration in Athens is expected to draw 150,000 or more participants.

Greek identity

Greek protesters say Macedonia’s new name represents an attempt to appropriate Greek identity and cultural heritage. Macedonia is the name of Greece’s northern province made famous by Alexander the Great’s conquests.

Opposition to the deal is particularly strong in the Greek province of Macedonia, where many people have put up posters urging local lawmakers to vote against the agreement.

A nationwide poll in Greece this week found that 70 percent of respondents oppose the deal.

The agreement has caused Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to lose his four-year coalition in parliament after his nationalist allies defected to protest the deal. Following the upheaval, Tsipras narrowly won a confidence vote in parliament Wednesday.

Tsipras has called for a televised debate on the planned name deal with Macedonia before parliament votes on the agreement.

The Greek prime minister and his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, brokered the compromise in June to end a 27-year name dispute between the two neighbors.

​Macedonia approves

Last week, Macedonia’s parliament approved a constitutional revision to change the country’s name. The agreement has also caused protests in Macedonia, with critics there saying the government gave up too much in the deal.

Tsipras has argued the Macedonia deal will bolster stability in Europe’s Balkan region. European Union countries have also strongly backed the deal.

Miami Airport Haitian Restaurant Looks Out for TSA Agents 

When Wilkinson Sejour, owner of Chef Creole, the only Haitian restaurant at the Miami International airport, noticed TSA (Transportation Security Administration) agents were no longer coming in to buy meals, he found it odd and wondered what was going on.

Sejour learned they were federal workers affected by the U.S. government’s partial shutdown. The federal security screeners are among hundreds of thousands of federal employees working without pay until President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats resolve a political dispute over construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

So Sejour devised a plan to show his appreciation.

“We’ve been at the airport for four months now, and they support us every day,” he told VOA Creole. “I thought if they were there since the beginning and helped me make money, now that they’re having problems, I have to thank them for their support and try to help them.”

The Chef Creole restaurant owner decided to offer free meals for a week — lunch and dinner — for TSA agents, customs inspectors and other federal employees working at the airport. They lined up to partake in the offerings, or sent a colleague to get meals for agents who were too busy to walk over to the restaurant.

“Food is important, more important than money — when you have food you’re OK,” Sejour noted.

So far, Chef Creole has distributed 1,400 free meals.  Sejour said he doesn’t have a lot of resources. He said he worried about how he was going to afford to give out free food. But he had faith. 

“The first day we gave out free meals, people saw and they offered to help, too. They said, ‘Chef, here are five cases of chicken, 50 pounds of shrimp, two cases of ribs — you don’t have to publicize it’ — that’s how it’s done. You have to have faith,” Sejour told VOA Creole.

What has been the reaction among the lucky recipients? Gratitude. 

“God bless you brother, no other restaurant in airport is doing what u are doing, all the money we spend in those restaurants and not one has offered to help tsa during a time like this, much respect to you brother we appreciate you, God bless,” @im_so_handsome commented on Chef Creole’s Instagram page. 

“We are humbled by your generosity. You deserve every blessing you receive and then some,” commented @stevieb305. 

The gratitude was echoed by members of the Haitian community who reacted to a post about Chef Creole’s efforts on VOA Kreyol’s Instagram page. 

“Good job. Kindness going around,” @farahfaroul commented. 

“Keep up the good work you’re doing, you’ll be rewarded, God is with you,” @maranata_christ_revien commented in Creole.

On Thursday, Haitian recording label Abstract Records gave Sejour a check for $500 to help pay for his efforts. 

“That will help me buy more supplies, because I promised I would feed them for a week,” Sejour said. 

Asked what motivates him, Sejour said he was inspired by the spirit of Haiti’s independence. 

“Remember, we are Haitians — and when we were the first to win our independence, all of South America came to us for help, so it’s in our blood to help our neighbors — not just our brothers and sisters.” 

Sejour added that he finds pleasure in feeding people. 

“What makes me happy is when you look in the person’s eyes — it’s just a plate of food — but it makes them happy,” he said.

Click here for related VOA Creole video.

Nicaragua Paper Runs Blank Front Page in Protest of Ortega Government

Nicaragua’s oldest and most-widely read newspaper published its Friday edition with a blank front page in protest against what it says is the government’s withholding of ink, paper and other materials needed for its printing press since September.

In a Friday editorial, the La Prensa newspaper asked: “Have you imagined living without information?,” and complained that the government of leftist President Daniel Ortega had impounded its supply of printing materials for 20 weeks.

“We don’t know how much longer we can keep printing the newspaper. Maybe two more months, maybe until tomorrow,” Jaime Chamorro, director of La Prensa, told Reuters by phone.

Human rights organizations and independent media say the Ortega government is attacking freedom of expression.

Arrests of reporters ordered by judge

The government recently shut down a broadcaster and held two reporters on terrorism and hate-incitement charges, while a judge ordered the arrest of three more.

The newspaper said customs agents at the behest of the government have been withholding imports of paper and ink in retaliation for critical coverage of simmering political tensions in the Central American country.

Since April 2018, Nicaragua has been experiencing one of its worst crises since a civil war in the 1980s.

Protests raged for months before a government clampdown reined them in, but more than 300 people were killed during that time and over 500 incarcerated, according to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, one of the groups the government has blacklisted.

News outlets closed

Rights groups say four radio stations and one TV station have closed, while dozens of journalists have been beaten and threatened.

Nicaragua’s customs authority was not available for comment on the accusations made by La Prensa. The government did not respond to a request for comment.

The Ortega administration maintains there is freedom of expression in the country and has accused the opposition of seeking to mount a coup to oust him.

Russians Plunge Into Icy Waters to Mark Feast of Epiphany

Across Russia, the devout and the daring are observing the Orthodox Christian feast day of Epiphany by immersing themselves in frigid water through holes cut through the ice of lakes and rivers.

Epiphany celebrates the revelation of Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God through his baptism in the River Jordan.

Russian believers imitate the baptism by entering the water and ducking themselves three times either on the evening before Epiphany or on that Jan. 19 feast day. Many make the sign of the cross, some others hold their noses.

Some of the people who do it scurry out quickly and wrap themselves in large towels. But many seem unfazed by it all and extol the practice as strengthening both the soul and the body.

The ritual is watched by priests who have blessed the water. Emergency workers are also on hand in case anyone succumbs to the heart-racing shock of the icy immersion.

There’s usually a contingent of warmly dressed onlookers, too, maybe wondering if they’ll have the boldness to try it next year.

Some Orthodox pilgrims get to dunk themselves in the actual River Jordan, which is a whole lot warmer.

Report: Facebook’s Privacy Lapses May Result in Record Fine

Facebook may be facing the biggest fine ever imposed by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for privacy violations involving the personal information of its 2.2 billion users.

The FTC is considering hitting Facebook with a penalty that would top its previous record fine of $22.5 million, which it dealt to Google in 2012 for bypassing the privacy controls in Apple’s Safari browser, according to The Washington Post. The story published Friday cited three unidentified people familiar with the discussions.

In an automated response, the FTC said it was unable to comment, citing its closure due to the U.S. government shutdown. Facebook declined to comment.

The potential fine stems from an FTC investigation opened after revelations that data mining firm Cambridge Analytica had vacuumed up details about as many as 87 million Facebook users without their permission.

The FTC has been exploring whether that massive breakdown violated a settlement that Facebook reached in 2011 after government regulators had concluded the Menlo Park, California, company had repeatedly broken its privacy promises .

The FTC decree, which runs through 2031, requires Facebook to get its users’ consent to share their personal information in ways that aren’t allowed by their privacy settings.

Since the Cambridge Analytica erupted 10 months ago, Facebook has vowed to do a better job corralling its users’ data. Nevertheless, its controls have remained leaky. Just last month, the company acknowledged a software flaw had exposed the photos of about 7 million users to a wider audience than they had intended.

The FTC’s five commissioners have discussed fining Facebook but haven’t settled on the amount yet, according to the Post.

Facebook’s privacy problems are also under investigation in other countries and the target of a lawsuit filed last month by Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine.

Technology Near for Real-Time TV Political Fact Checks

A Duke University team expects to have a product available for election year that will allow television networks to offer real-time fact checks onscreen when a politician makes a questionable claim during a speech or debate.

The mystery is whether any network will choose to use it.

The response to President Donald Trump’s Jan. 8 speech on border security illustrated how fact-checking is likely to be an issue over the next two years. Networks briefly considered not airing Trump live and several analysts contested some of his statements afterward, but nobody questioned him while he was speaking.

Duke already offers an app, developed by professor and Politifact founder Bill Adair, that directs users to online fact checks during political events. A similar product has been tested for television, but is still not complete.

The TV product would call on a database of research from Politifact, Factcheck.org and The Washington Post to point out false or misleading statements onscreen. For instance, Trump’s statement that 90 percent of the heroin that kills 300 Americans each week comes through the southern border would likely trigger an onscreen explanation that much of the drugs were smuggled through legal points of entry and wouldn’t be affected by a wall.

The Duke Tech & Check Cooperative conducted a focus group test in October, showing viewers portions of State of the Union speeches by Trump and predecessor Barack Obama with fact checks inserted. It was a big hit, Adair said.

“People really want onscreen fact checks,” he said. “There is a strong market for this and I think the TV networks will realize there’s a brand advantage to it.”

Networks mum

If that’s the case, the networks aren’t letting on. None of the broadcast or cable news divisions would discuss Duke’s product when contacted by The Associated Press, or their own philosophies on fact checking.

Network executives are likely to tread very carefully, both because of technical concerns about how it would work, the risk of getting something wrong or the suspicion that some viewers might consider the messages a political attack.

“It’s an incredibly difficult challenge,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, longtime NBC News executive who recently became dean of Hofstra University’s communications school.

Adair said the system will be automated. Mindful that many politicians repeat similar claims, the database will be triggered when code phrases that have been fact-checked before come up. An onscreen note would either explain that a claim is false or misleading and direct viewers to a website where they can find more information, or provide a succinct explanation of why it is being challenged. He envisions an average of one fact check popping up every two minutes. A network using the service would likely air the speech or debate on a delayed basis of about a minute.

Lukasiewicz said network executives would likely be wary of letting an outside vendor decide what goes on their screen. Adair said anyone who uses the system would be given veto power over what information is being displayed.

CNN and MSNBC have been most aggressive in using onscreen notes, called chyrons, to counter misleading statements by Trump, although neither did during the border speech. Among the post-speech analyses, Shepard Smith’s rapid-fire reality check on Fox broadcast during the three-minute pause before Democrats spoke was particularly effective. But critics like the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America said anyone who turned the coverage off when Trump stopped speaking was exposed to no questioning of his words.

Complicated, cumbersome

“There is a responsibility to not just be a blind portal and just let things go unchallenged,” said David Bohrman, a former CNN Washington bureau chief who consulted on MSNBC’s 2016 election coverage. “The goal is a good one. The execution is a challenge.”

A technical junkie, Bohrman said he explored different approaches for real-time TV fact-checking while at CNN, but they ultimately proved too complicated and cumbersome.

For networks, an incorrect onscreen fact-check would be a public relations disaster. Politicians also make many statements that a critic might question but isn’t necessarily factually incorrect. For example, Trump’s contention that there is a “crisis” at the southern border: Is that a fact or matter of interpretation?

Rest assured, people will be watching. Very carefully.

Even Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the conservative Media Research Center, concedes that “we all understand that President Trump has a casual approach to factivity.”

But conservatives are deeply suspicious that Trump’s words are being watched more carefully than those of Democrats. They will notice and take offense if Trump is corrected on the air much more than his rivals, he said, no matter if Trump actually makes more false or misleading statements.

“People aren’t going to trust you,” he said, “because they know what the objective is. The objective is to ruin the president.”

Adair stressed that his product is nonpartisan. He believes television networks will catch on at some point because they will realize that their viewers want quick fact-checking.

“Anyone who criticizes will get criticized for criticizing,” Bohrman said. “But the reality is we may be able to help the viewers.”

US Senator Meets Turkish Leader to Defuse Tensions

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with visiting U.S Senator Lindsey Graham in Ankara Friday, in the latest effort to defuse bilateral tensions over Syria.

Turkish forces remain massed on the northeast Syrian border, poised to launch an offensive against the YPG Kurdish militia, a critical American ally in the war against Islamic State. Ankara deems the YPG terrorists linked to an insurgency inside Turkey.

Differences over Syria saw Erdogan shun U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton earlier this month when he visited Ankara. Graham met not only with Erdogan but withTurkey’s defense and foreign ministers and intelligence chief.

“At our meeting, w/ U.S. Senator @LindseyGrahamSC discussed recent developments in #Syria and #Turkey -#US bilateral relations,” tweeted Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Ahead of his visit, Graham appeared to reach out to Ankara by addressing key Turkish concerns.

“I have long contended that there are elements among the Syrian Kurds that represent a legitimate national security threat to Turkey. Turkey’s concern regarding YPG elements must be addressed in a real way to ensure that Turkey’s borders are secure and are protected from any threats,” wrote Graham.

The meeting marks the senator’s second with Erdogan in six months. Graham is a member of three powerful Senate committees: Foreign Relations, Budget, and Appropriations. Analysts suggest the senator’s relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump explains Ankara’s warm reception.

“He is very close to Donald Trump, he is a man of confidence to Trump,” said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. “He is more politician than John Bolton who is considered more a diplomat. So Graham’s visit is a higher level of meeting in Ankara’s eyes, so it’s welcomed in Ankara. I am sure Trump has sent him.” Bagci added.

Analysts point out Erdogan sees Trump as his only trusted interlocutor, blaming U.S. officials for the current bilateral tensions. Erdogan welcomed Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria; however, the Turkish president condemned what he said were attempts by senior U.S. officials to delay the withdrawal and link it to conditions including guaranteeing YPG security.

Graham has criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, claiming it was premature in the war against Islamic State. The senator’s talks in Ankara reportedly focused on America’s Syria withdrawal and Ankara’s threatened military operation in Syria.

“We won’t stop until we drain the terrorist swamp next door (referring to Syria). We won’t rest until justice is served,” presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun wrote on Twitter Friday. “Terrorists have killed more than 2,000 innocent people in Turkey since 2015. Many of those attacks were planned in northern Syria. The Turkish people suffered more than their fair share,” Altun added.

Analysts suggest Ankara is not looking for a confrontation with Graham. “I expect Turkey will offer some concessions to the United States,” said Bagci, “because even though Turkey has the military capability to intervene in Syria and control the area, without American green light, it would be very difficult for Turkey.”

Ankara is seeking common ground with Trump’s proposal to create a buffer zone in Syria between the Kurdish militia and the Turkish border.

Erdogan welcomed the proposal but maintains that Turkish forces will create the 30-kilometer deep zone into Syria. The YPG leadership is strongly opposed, warning it would resist.

“If Turkish forces created the 30-kilometer buffer zone, the YPG forces would have nowhere to go; there is only desert beyond,” said Aydin Selcen, a former senior Turkish diplomat. “The alternative is for them to disarm.”

Turkish pro-government media are filled with reports of American conspiracies. “Their steps with respect to forming a 32-kilometer safe zone on our Syria border is a new distraction trick,” wrote columnist Tamer Korkmaz in Turkey’s Yeni Safak newspaper, Friday. “They want to delay Turkey’s possible military operation, and if possible, prevent it. Would they accept the kind of buffer zone Turkey wants?” he continued.

Since Trump has proposed the Syrian buffer zone, no details have been provided by Washington on how it will be created or enforced. Graham reportedly discussed the zone during his talks in Ankara.

Analysts warn Ankara could also face pushback from Arab countries in the region if it acted unilaterally.

“Turkey ultimately will not be allowed to control this area,” said Bagci. “Some Arab countries will consider this an occupation of Arab lands. So that Turkey would be viewed as an aggressive revisionist state, from a historical perspective, as this is all formally land belonging to the Ottoman empire. Turkey has to convince the world that Turkey is protecting the Kurds from the Syrian Assad regime, rather than just fighting terrorism,” he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia too has voiced concern about a Turkish incursion, saying Syria has to approve of it. Erdogan is due to visit Moscow next week to meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. “Turkey has a weak hand, with Russia, America and Damascus opposed to any Syrian military operation,” said Bagci.